Category Archives: Writing about writing

Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” If you haven’t read it, I suggest you get the audio version, because he took the time to narrate it himself. Stephen King’s narration of his own words makes them even more powerful. I don’t often wish I could thank an author for giving me the gift of his work, but this is one of those times. It made me type the following letter, which I might or might not print out and ship off. I’m still undecided.

Stephen King
Bangor, ME 04401

Dear Mr. King:

I’m writing to thank you. I hesitated at first, thinking about how much correspondence you must receive and how sometimes it must become tiresome. Then I pictured myself in the future I covet, as a writer who has done something to touch a fellow writer, reading the letter of gratitude. I couldn’t deny you the pleasure. Or perhaps I’m feeling charitable because I watched the Orioles beat the Red Sox last night.

I’m glad you pulled “On Writing” out of the trunk, but not as glad as I am you took the time to narrate it yourself. I’ve developed the habit of listening to writers talk to me about craft as I drive, but I couldn’t banish your book to my car. I had to keep listening to your words. I walked around with earphones on until you finished talking.

Every once in a while, I would chuckle, and my wife would wonder if I was losing my mind.

“What the heck are you laughing at?”
“Stephen King cracked me up talking about a copy error.”
“You’re such a nerd.”
“Yeah. Isn’t it great?”

“On Writing” is more than a mere memoir or manual. Through your words, you gave me, and the rest of the writing world, a call to action: Life is short—write your ass off. It seems trite when I distill it to a bumper sticker catchphrase, but the way you did it moved me and woke me up to that truth. I’m not the same me as I was before I listened to you speaking those words, and I’m grateful.

I’ve only recently begun assembling my personal collection of rejection letters after completing a novel manuscript somewhere near my own minimum standards. Your words will keep me going for as long as it takes. Thank you.

Sincerely,
C.S. Trimmier

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Post-NaNo

Success!

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I achieved my writing goal for the month of November. That kept me away from here for a while, and I didn’t pick it back up right away with witty blurbs about the hellish holiday season I endured or other musings. Sorry about that, folks, but I’m back and wilder than ever.

I’m really liking the bones of the novel I banged out for NaNoWriMo. What was most interesting to me about the exercise is that I found myself relying much more heavily on dialogue than narrative in cranking out the pages during the marathon speed writing event. I enjoyed that, but as a result I’ve got something more like a screenplay than a novel. So, I think my revisions will be more about filling in the blanks than cutting the purple out of my prose. We shall see. I have yet to send the NaNoWriMo manuscript into the cold abattoir of my editing self, but it is making noise in the corral.

Instead, I have been polishing up a synopsis for my finished manuscript FREE AMERICA and working on sending out some query letters to agents. At the same time, I am considering self-publication for FREE AMERICA. Things are so different in the self-publishing world since I began my fiction writing journey in earnest a decade ago. It seems to make a certain amount of business sense for me to pursue self-publication until I’ve got a bigger body of work to go around hawking. By that time, I might be making enough money that I would rather hire an intellectual property attorney than an agent. Who knows.

So, all you indie authors out there, do you have recommendations for good freelance editors, book cover designers and other resources? Please let me know. I’m going to be digging in to that stuff over the next few weeks.

The Perfect Beginning

Writing, already a somewhat esoteric activity, is something that becomes more surreal when performed in a room filled with chandeliers made from plastic dolls, metallic pedal-cars suspended from the ceiling, and a flock of writers kicking off NaNoWriMo. The first thing I did when entering the room full of people I didn’t know was to put my laptop bag on a table, launching packets of artificial sweetener into a shotgun pattern on the floor. I looked up at the ceiling, and a humping pair of golden spray-painted mannequins looked back at me.

The one on the bottom looked a little surprised, but whether it was by me or the one behind him, I wasn’t sure. A paper moon was hanging from the center of the ceiling, with another golden mannequin holding up the bottom of its crescent form. It shone on a pink Eiffel Tower filled with plastic baby doll heads. Another mannequin, in modesty, had adorned itself head-to-toe in a silver wrapping of Mardi Gras beads. Where else would I want to be on Halloween, waiting for midnight to strike, starting the clock on my countdown to crank out at least 50,000 words in 30 days?

Nowhere.

So, here I sit, in a two-toned, metal-flake vinyl covered chair, watching the clock and wondering how this will all go down.

It is an interesting collection of folk, the Baltimore NaNoWriMo crew that decided to make the trek to The Paper Moon Diner, ranging in age from college-ish to balding and middle-ageish. I’m on the older side of the spectrum, and I’m OK with that. I’m wondering how much the room has written, how many years they’ve been doing the NaNoWriMo, and how many completed manuscripts they have among them, and how many of those that have been published. I’m willing to bet the answer would surprise me, but not sure of whether it would be by its glut or scarcity.

This is how my first NaNoWriMo begins, in awkwardness and solitude within a room full of writers, talking amongst themselves while I tap the keys on my laptop.

Every once in a while, I stop, look up, and take in the surrealism of it all. With its Halloween-costumed fiction writers and encrustation of Freudian freak-show décor, this room contains more of it than the Dali Museum.

This is my perfect beginning. Now to figure out how to start the manuscript…

Only a few more minutes until midnight.

Beta Love, My Beta Love

I have some great beta readers, but one is just fantastic. I’m not going to use his name here at this time since I didn’t ask first. Recently, he read through my manuscript FREE AMERICA at a quick pace and delivered actionable feedback. Actually, he read through the beginning not once, but twice, and I revised the beginning based upon his commentary while giving the ending a major overhaul. He has been clear and unambiguous about what bothered him about the writing. He has also been very positive about its quality.

Good, right?

Being a writer means being inherently self-critical. He, and more or less everyone else who I have shared the book with along the way, had positive things to say about it. Am I a masochist because I long for a dressing down that lays bare exactly how and why my writing sucks? Because I feel that way, just a little. I want it to be crystalized in my mind exactly where my writing is weakest so I can go about destroying those bad habits.

I suppose I did get that sort of thing back when I first started writing novel length fiction. I joined a DC area critique group and went regularly for a while until commuting from Baltimore to DC to do the nasty with my writing got more of a chore than I could stomach. Along the way, I did get some critical smacks of reality that helped me focus on becoming a better writer. Sure, some of them were full of crap. That doesn’t bother me. Being a writer means you need to be able to take criticism and accept that not all of it is necessarily valid. Even the criticism I ultimately ignored helped me become a stronger writer, because I took it at face value, considered other factors and then made the conscious decision to persist in spite of a critical voice pushing me back. I also enjoyed watching the dynamics of a critique group play out. That was probably the most interesting part of the exercise. I think it might be time for me to join another group.

If you know of a group I should consider, please drop me a line. Thanks!

If November is for Novel Writing, then October is for Outlining

After typing my two favorite words into my manuscript FREE AMERICA and setting aside its sequel, I’m getting pumped up to crank out the first draft of a new, completely unrelated manuscript for NaNoWriMo. I’ve been playing around with story ideas and coming up with characters for a few months, and it is time to start getting them into some sort of intelligible conglomeration that will help me bang out the prose.

I mean no offense to the “pantsers” of the world. I am a write-by-the-seat-of-the-pants guy much of the time, especially when I am searching for story. I started out FREE AMERICA knowing nothing about my story except where it began and what the world was like. The rest of the time was spent exploring the world, finding the characters’ voices and discovering where the story went. I enjoyed all of that time (well, most of that time), but it certainly was a giant hunk of time spanning years of my life.

It took me so long to write FREE AMERICA because it was my first novel, and, of course, my first draft ended up with most if not all of the problems that first novels tend to develop. Being too much of a perfectionist for my own good, I decided to find and fix the problems rather than say “oh well” and discard it as my crappy first novel attempt. Do I think I identified and eradicated every single one of them? I’m not delusional. I know I will benefit from working with a professional editor. Who wouldn’t?

Completing the first draft, getting feedback from readers, then working through all of the cutting and revising and rewriting afterward was the deepest learning experience I have ever gone through. This wasn’t just a practical exercise rather than a theoretical one, it was a spiritual journey that forced me to face my fears and develop personal character. Now that I’ve got about as much character as I or anybody else can stomach, I would like to experiment with seeing how expeditious I can be with drafting a complete manuscript from beginning to end.

I’m thinking of this as one big exercise, one that might transform my process. I don’t picture myself creating an ultra-detailed outline. I picture myself doing the sort of planning I do before I travel to a new place for the first time. I want to figure out in general where I will be going and how I will be getting there as well as a little bit about some of the things I might experience while I am there. I see myself finding the major landmarks of the story, exploring the neighborhood a little, and gaining a better understanding of what makes my characters tick and how they would  probably react to the environment and situations I contemplate putting them in. Afterward, I will release the characters into the wild and see what happens, hoping to be a little surprised at what ends up happening.

I will probably wind up doing what I eventually did with FREE AMERICA: create/modify an outline to track what I have written to ensure it all works together. My writing and outlining worked in tandem, each informing the other, until I ended up with my completed manuscript. Much of my “outlining” in the final stages consisted of quick scribbles into the hardcover pocket notebook I carry at all times in order to capture inspiration and honey-do lists.

These are the things I have found most useful in my preparation for this process:

Many moons ago, I signed up for the newsletter at StoryFix.com,  read the books Story Physics and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and listened to at least one Writer’s Digest Tutorial by Larry Brooks. All that material has firmed up my understanding of how and why to structure a story. I think I may bit a bit more of a free-spirited writer than Larry Brooks, but I respect his ideas and methods.

I also liked this Writer’s Digest Tutorial from  K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel: Create a Roadmap to Storytelling Success. What I liked most about this tutorial is the pure practicality of it. This is a tutorial that is geared toward getting things done. It is all about seeing the big picture so you can go forth and paint it with your words.

The thing that got my creative juices flowing the most was a book I read by James Scott Bell: Write Your Novel From the Middle. The general idea of this book is that (A) every story has a moment, pretty darn close to the exact middle of the page count, where the main character realizes all is lost, sees who he is, understands what he has become, and/or grasps what he wants to be; and (B) if you can do a good job of nailing down this moment, then you can leverage both the first and last halves of the manuscript from it.

So, I hereby declare my intention to figure out during the month of October what my story is and where it is going so that I can get the words down onto the page during NaNoWriMo in November.

I wish the best of luck to everyone else out there who might also be so inclined.

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Adios, MS Word.

If you have noticed that I haven’t posted anything here for a while, then drop me a line. It would be nice to know somebody is paying attention…

Why did I vanish from blogland? Work, and not just the J-O-B type. I’ve been doing actual A-I-C writer work too. I tried using Scrivener to work on some ideas, and I fell in love.

I fell in love so much that I chopped up my first novel manuscript and put it into Scrivener and started re-working it. I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner. I will never write a novel using MS Word again.

Why did I fall in love with Scrivener? Two main reasons: convenience and structure.

I confess: I do too much research. Research churns my idea fermenter. Sometimes I can’t find that thing I read about a few years ago that related to whatever random project I happen to be thinking about. Scrivener gives me a nice dumpster to toss my research in, dangling it nearby the actual writing so that I might be tempted to dive back in upon occasion. For weeks I obsessed about filling up the research section of multiple projects with documents and web pages and whatever else I felt like shoving in there.

Having the manuscript sliced up into parts and chapters and scenes, each with a handy spot for summary, makes my brain smile, especially when I start thinking about re-arranging things.

This tool is so good at keeping me focused on the project as a whole that, right now, as I type these words, I am filled with the urge to get back at it. It just seems to bring everything together in a big picture sort of way that helps my brain process and create. This may sound a bit strange, I know, but it is the truth. Word never did that for me. Word can’t do that for me.

It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows while getting started. I did get all sorts of formatting crap gone wrong when I imported from Word. I got over it. Totally worth it. Oh, yeah, there was something of a TREMENDOUS learning curve figuring out how to use the software, but when I took the time (as recommended) to work through the tutorial, everything was smooth, smooth, smooth.

So, off I go, back to it.

Bottom line: If you write novels and haven’t tried Scrivener, you owe it to yourself to do the free download, work through the tutorial, and play with a new project idea. Who knows? You might fall in love too.

(and, no, I am not getting paid for this.)

Go Fund Yourself

I subscribe to an ezine put out by Randy Ingermanson – “the Snowflake Guy”

The latest turned me on to this crowdfunding thingy: the-ultimate-crowdfunding-course-for-authors

Yeah, they are crowdfunding a course about crowdfunding. Shake off your hall of mirrors flashback and carry on.

I come at it from this place in my head: Instead of writing fiction, I am doing query letters, chapter outlines, and synopses. Finding an agent, selling the manuscript, the publishing process, and getting marketing support is a PITA. Because I’ve got a business background, I’ve been hesitant to self-publish without professional help. If more authors start themselves up and build a following, then the industry has more opportunities to offer bigger advances and better support to those that want to cross over. Everybody wins!

Crowdfunding publishing setup costs and maybe getting a little crowdfunded advance? Now that is a disruptive self-publishing revolution, I tell ya’. This could be interesting, especially when one considers the economics of it all.

I checked out a couple of great posts explaining the here-and-now cash value of what a book earns over time in words that a dumbass writer like me can understand.

One is from Courtney Milan: know-what-your-rights-are-worth

One is from Jeff Posey: What’s Your Novel Worth? NPV and Cash Flow

Assuming one is stubborn as hell (check that one off for me), not shy about marketing oneself (check two), and willing to invest come cash to ensure one’s writing and published product is not a steaming pile of used spaghetti (see crowdfunding scheme above), one might earn a cargo hold more cash by going indy.

Those who know me personally will recognize my having said some of the above before, but the idea of crowdfunding a manuscript publication effort never occurred to me. I must admit that one particular friend of mine might have mentioned it before, but my skull was too dense for it to inoculate my thought process.

Wow. This could be it. This could be the real indy writer revolution. My opinion is that, rather than being the death knell for “traditional publishing,” it is something that will enable worthy authors to get well-deserved attention and for the industry to better focus its resources. After all, nothing alerts publishers to the potential value of a writer better than the author’s past and present earnings.

Go short yourself

While I am searching for the story and characters in my next novel, I decided to do something new: short stories.

3000 words? Sheesh. I could write a 3000 word story with my smartphone. Easy as pie.

I should mention that I can’t bake worth a crap.

What I figured would be a day or so of thinking and writing turned into about a month worth of self-education and intense scrutiny. Shoving an entire character/story arc into 3000 words is not light work. This is especially true when my Inner Critic keeps trashing everything that gets typed up.

I should have taken the sage advice I read somewhere which was to just pound out an entire draft before making a single revision. Just hammer out the hamburger and get the story on the page. Spit it the #@*% out. Then go back and turn that 6593 word steaming pile of feces into a nice, tight <3500 word story.

I once shocked myself while changing out an electrical receptacle just to see what it felt like. That might explain a lot of things about me, but it also demonstrates that I’m the kind of guy that will take a bite of something my buddy tells me tastes horrible. Sea urchin, for example. True story. An even more telling thing about me is that I later discovered ultra-fresh sea urchin can be kinda tasty, meaning I was stupid enough to try that stuff more than once. I also learned that, when travelling to exotic locales, if you are enjoying what you are eating you might not want to ask what it is.

Of course I didn’t take the advice.

Next time, I’m barfing out a whole story before I even think about revision. Really. Promise.

(fingers crossed)

Reading to Write

While I’ve been going through the exercise of making a chapter outline and synopsis of my first novel manuscript, I’ve also returned to what was probably my first love: reading fiction.

It isn’t as if I haven’t been reading fiction at all; it is more like I haven’t been particularly selective about the fiction I have been reading. I have gotten my fiction fix from audiobooks a lot of the time, which for some reason I don’t actually count as “reading” even though the researchers seem to count it as such. I’ve been consuming tons of non-fiction over the past decade or two, especially about the commercial and craft aspects of writing. Unfortunately I sacrificed a lot of the time I once spent reading fiction in order to fit that in. So much of the writing about writing suggests that writers should read, read, read, not just write. It makes perfect sense.

Know your genre… so they say.

I write dystopian thrillers in a near-future world beset by environmental degradation and political oppression.  So, as you might guess, I’ve always been a fan of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and those sorts of classics. I decided to go find some new stuff along those lines. I picked up the Divergent series by Veronica Roth and tore into it. I finished the first two and am well into the third. I saw that they released a movie version of the first one, which always hits me with mixed emotions. I watched the trailer and recognized everything in it as from the book, so maybe it won’t be all that bad.

So, in reading Veronica Roth, I’ve recognized little subtle bits in her writing that bug me about my own writing, a tiny bit of stiffness (which is not an intentional pun, but ends up being one if you have read the books) where dialogue or narrative could be a bit more natural or true-to-voice. Every time I go through my manuscript, I find a little spot that could be better done. I suppose it is impossible to catch everything. Knowing that she has achieved such commercial success perhaps without catching every tiny little spot that she might have improved gives me hope.

Also, as a writer, from time to time I can see her struggling with the limitations of the first person point of view. I started writing my manuscript in first person to begin with and I got talked out of it. I’m glad that I did. Now that I’m writing in third person, I find first person so limiting. In her third book of the series, Allegiant, she continues writing in the first person, but begins switching the point of view character. This makes for difficult reading sometimes. She does clearly label each chapter with the POV character’s name, but I can’t help getting confused about who “I” is from time to time. This is especially true when it is getting late and I am in bed. I have to go looking back just to make sure I know who “I” is. It is a little distracting, and confirmation to me that I made the right choice for the POV in my manuscript, especially since I have always intended for it to be the first of a series. I would be willing to bet coffee and a bagel that Veronica Roth started writing in first person and later wished that she hadn’t because she got stuck with it after the publication of Divergent, thus the POV-hopping in Allegiant.

No changing horses in mid-stream for me.

Thanks for showing me that, Veronica Roth, and for bringing me into that world. You did a kick-ass job with the books. I’ve enjoyed them. I hope you are satisfied with the film version.

And so I read on…

The Arc, the Plot, and Everything

Between fits of hair-pulling, I have been reading quite a bit about the things one must do to get one’s novel manuscript ultimately into the hands of a willing publisher. I’ve been whittling down a snappy query letter. I’ve been distilling a synopsis. Now I’m making an outline.

“Why didn’t you make an outline to begin with?” My psychic powers can detect the question already.  I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer, but I’m not a fastidious outliner either.

Sure, before I got fully underway, I set down what the main turning points of the plot would be. You know, the tried and true formula for manuscript success: The hero is born, the hero’s life goes to shit, the hero tries to clean up the mess or kill the shit-maker, shit gets worse, the hero gets in super-deep shit, the hero throws the shit-maker into the shit, and everybody lives happily ever after (or not).

Here’s the thing: what I thought the story was before I began is not exactly what the story turned out to be. My characters insisted on a different story. I listened.

Now I need to go back and outline the story the characters demanded. I’ve broken down my chapters into sub-parts, and I am writing a line for everything important that happens in each of them. This means that I am combing through the manuscript once again.

This is a good thing, I suppose. I have found one or two typos and a few instances of language that could be clarified or simplified. One more notch clicks on the gears tightening up the manuscript.

I wonder how many times I will have read through this manuscript before this project is finished. I have read it so many times that it tends to wash over me. I suppose that is why I am finding things I overlooked before now that I am going through the manuscript with the job of making an outline. It is forcing me to concentrate on something practical, shifting my perception just enough to get another angle on things.

After I am finished with the outline, I wonder if I will want to do some story tweaking…

I suppose I will need to wait to see how this novel ends up writing itself.