Tag Archives: writing

The Play’s the Thing

Amazing Stories columnist and fellow VPXV alum Chris Gerwel talks this week about The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks.

Chapter breaks are one of the tools writers use to form and direct the reader’s experience, and every break does, as Chris says, “bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.”  That “bridge” is a role often overlooked, as the focus of chapter creation tends to be on its individual arc.  But the ending of a chapter is the writer’s means of influencing how the reader feels beginning the next chapter.  While chapter breaks in general are what controls a story’s flow, it is the chapter’s final paragraph, sentence, and word that control the story’s pull.

It’s easy to think of the chapter’s end as the conclusion of the action.  Truly, that’s the sort of ending that should be used most sparingly.  Instead, chapter endings should happen in the middle of movement, before the final actions, near the moment of revelation.  Those can be expressed with a bang or a whisper, with speed or caution, but not a neat wrap-up of all that has gone before.

Before I thought to be a writer, I worked as an actor and educational outreach performer focused primarily on the works of Shakespeare.  I spent five years performing, assisting, or directing Shakespeare–everything from a few scenes for prison outreach programs to full length productions with regional theater companies.  Before that, I performed in community theater and semi-pro productions for ten years.  What that gave me is a writerly mindset that wants to structure stories as scenes and acts.

I often advise beginning writers to read and watch plays as a means to studying story structure.   Plays are structured in deliberate acts as well as scenes–giving the director/actor/reader concrete cues as to where emotional highs and lows are to be placed, even inserting an intermission when the audience is intended to consider and discuss how what has already happened will control what is yet to come.  Internalizing the successful flow of one scene to the next, feeling the difference between scene and act, improves one’s ability to pull the reader along chapter to chapter.

Watching plays–particularly the same play performed by different companies–gives a range of ideas about transitions between scenes.  Has the director chosen a full and silent blackout, as a writer might choose an abrupt ending for a chapter?  Did another director choose the end the same scene with a slow fade, a lingering gaze between the actors, and few sad notes from a flute?  How did you, the audience member, experience the next scene differently?

Watching movies…  Okay.  If you’d rather.  But there are so many advantages to be gained from live theater, I wouldn’t call it an even trade-off.  I’ll talk about what I see as those advantages in future posts.  Am I biased?  Probably.  I’ll accept that.

Sand of Bone — Chapter Two

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013. 

To start with Chapter 1, click here.

Chapter 2

Fear slammed her from sleep already tormented with dreams of her brother.  Syrina clenched her teeth against another cry, and grabbed at her throat to tear away the sensation of fingers digging beneath her jaw.  Though she drew her knees to her chest, invisible fists hit her gut and left her struggling to breathe.  Another blow fell, then another.  She stifled her cries in the thin straw mattress, beat her fists against it as if she could drive away her non-existent attacker.  Her cry rose into a wail when heat lanced deep into her shoulder, tearing flesh and muscle from bone, stealing breath and sight and sound and thought—

It stopped.

Her body throbbed with the memory.  She let herself sob as the ache settled deep in her bones, then she sat up and hung her head between her knees.

Syrina knew better than to search for blood or bruises to prove the ordeal real.  Twice before she’d awakened to a beating, and each time had nothing to show but the memory.  She’d screamed for help the first time, only to be told that no one had entered her chamber and no marks could be found.  The second time had been worse than the first, but the result had been the same.  The surgeon had gone so far as to suggest—carefully, and in low whispers—that she had perhaps kept herself in solitude too long.

In any other place in SheyKhala, the merest intimation that one of the Velshaan might be unstable would see the offender arrested, flogged, and then caged in a wagon destined to be fed to the sands, or abandoned to Exile Stronghold.  But the surgeon was already in Exile, just like she was.  Only by beating him, starving him, or locking him in the underground cells could she make his life much worse.  So Syrina had given him sharp thanks for his concern and dismissed him.  She didn’t speak of it again.  But this nightmare…  Hallucination… Continue reading Sand of Bone — Chapter Two

Writing Time, Production Time, and Assumptions

A few weeks ago, awesome writer Charlie Stross wrote on why he doesn’t self-publish.  I considered responding, then realized there was no reason.  Too often, commenting on such a post to offer a different perspective or correction to facts is assumed to be an attempt to “convert” the blog host.  Since Stross is happy with his situation, I have no reason to convert him.  (As if my small voice would make a difference anyway. 🙂 )

I considered posting my own response here, then…  Well, happily, I was distracted by writing fiction instead!

But now up on Stross’s blog is a guest post by Linda Nagata–“Why I Do Self-Publish.”  She does a wonderful job of presenting her perspective, and I found myself nodding along in agreement.

Of particular interest, especially when it comes to accurate information for those considering self-publishing, is Nagata’s brief summary of the book-production side of things.  Stross estimated it would take him three months to produce each book.  (Not write, just produce.)  Nagata shares her actual production time–including all formatting–was about seven days.

Nagata’s production time matches my own experience, though I completely understand the assumption of the inexperienced that it must take days and weeks and months to turn story into formatted book.  The process intimidated me in the beginning and, admitting my own limitations and anxieties, decided I’d be better off paying someone to teach me than trying to learn on my own.

After the Think Like A Publisher workshop, I practiced formatting a couple short stories for EPUB and MOBI.  By the time Sword and Chant went up, my files were pretty clean and I knew how to resolve errors.  It took me a day.  That experience also taught me how to better format my work-in-progress documents to make conversion even simpler.  I suspect the formatting for Sand of Bone to take a few hours.  Hours.

And as for the notion that self-publishing creates a massive burden of bookkeeping and management…  No, not really.  A sole proprietorship–whether writer or publisher–has the same reporting requirements.  At its simplest, you record what money is paid to you, and what you pay others.  “Production management” is really just “self-directed activities.”  If you can plan a vacation, you can plan a publication schedule.

So while I completely understand many writers have no desire to do anything but write a story, I don’t like to see other aspiring writers deterred by incorrect assumptions about how much time self-publishing requires one to “take away” from writing time.  Truly, it’s nearly the same as newbie writers assuming there must be a secret handshake that leads to publishing success.

Sand of Bone — Chapter One

Exiles on the run.  Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements.  Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…

Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala.  A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013. 

Chapter 1

Raskah watched from the shadows, one sandaled foot resting on the stone bench, his back braced against the rough mudbrick wall of the barracks.  The fierce afternoon breeze pushed into the shade, through his pale linen robes, to parch his skin.  Here, where the land sloped toward rocky plains, and no protective walls hid the wind-scoured landscape, few niceties blunted the desert’s true severity.  More and more over the last year, as the mood within the palace grew colder, he looked forward to the hours he could spend here in the Blade compound.  He’d never be able to join in their training—nor would he want to—but appreciated watching the Blades sweat and drill and bleed on his behalf.

Continue reading Sand of Bone — Chapter One

StoryBundle Sum-Up

I could hardly be more pleased with my first StoryBundle experience.

We closed out the Indie Fantasy Bundle with about 2350 bundles sold. That means Sword and Chant is in the hands of over two thousand strangers.  For a new writer like me, just starting out with a “platform” the size of soapdish rather than a soapbox, that’s fantastic.  I didn’t make as much per-sale as I would have selling those books independently, but StoryBundle allowed me to tap a new set of readers in a short amount of time.  That was worth it to me.  If readers like the book, they’ll tell others and buy future works.  If readers don’t like it…  Well, it’s better to know now, yes? 🙂

By the numbers: About 84% of those sales were over the bonus mark–an awesome number for a pay-what-you-want strategy.  The income totals indicate plenty of folks paid more than the minumum bonus mark.  The readers chose to donate over $1000 to Mighty Writers and Trees for the Future.

My share of the total income makes me very happy.  It brings me almost one-third of the way to my eighteen-month income goal.  It also brings me to about one-third of my unit-sales goal for the same time period.

The folks behind StoryBundle were great and easy to work with, and I look forward to keeping in touch with the writers who shared the bundle with me.  Payment happens within 30 days of the bundle’s end–faster than any other platform.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

If you missed the bundle, you can still go to StoryBundle for links to all the works included.

UPDATE: A few writers have come this way in search of information on StoryBundle’s payment terms. For the Indie Fantasy Bundle, payment was in my account within a few DAYS of the bundle’s end.

Viable Paradise

For years and years, I set my writing goals–even the act of writing fiction–to the side.  Life events had overwhelmed me.  The mere task of getting by and raising my son consumed everything.  It was… a bad time.

Then came the opportunity to apply to Viable Paradise.  Here’s the description from the website:

“Viable Paradise is a unique one-week residential workshop in writing and selling
commercial science fiction and fantasy. The workshop is intimate, intense, and
features extensive time spent with best-selling and award-winning authors and
professional editors currently working in the field. VP concentrates on the art
of writing fiction people want to read, and this concentration is reflected in
post-workshop professional sales by our alumni.”

You, the writer, spend a week on Martha’s Vineyard, with professional writers and editors who are there to teach you, support you, and encourage you.  This year’s instructors are writers Sherwood Smith, Steven Brust, Steven Gould, Elizabeth Bear, Debra Doyle and James MacDonald, and editors Patrick Nielson Hayden and Teresa Nielson Hayden.

You will be surrounded with fellow writers who want to take their stories from good to amazing, and who want to help you do the same thing.  These writers don’t disappear at the end of the workshop.  We keep in touch, beta read each other’s work, cheer progress and give support when times are tough, and generally enjoy each other’s company.

It is not an understatement to say Viable Paradise changed not only my writing, but the direction of my life.  If you’d like to read my more personal accounts of the experience, you can check out my entries from LiveJournal here and here.  Once you’re at LiveJournal, you can click the “viable paradise” tag on the left and see other entries that touch on the experience as well.

If you have questions, ask them here or there.

If you think you might like it, apply–the sooner the better.

If you know someone who might be interested, give them the link.




Ramblings: What’s Remembered, What’s Forgotten

In working with revisions for Sand of Bone, I’ve been dealing with adjustments to the world’s history, particularly the passage of time between past events and current plot.  When first written, I used the passage of centuries to explain the loss of critical knowledge because my younger self viewed knowledge—especially critical knowledge—as resilient and enduring.  In revisions, the passage of time is less than three generations because I now know knowledge is fragile and our ability to hold it tenuous.

The loss of skills-based knowledge is easy to see. My grandmother, living in the backwoods of Kentucky Appalachia, knew how to preserve food and dress game.  My mother, living in California’s suburbs, had no need to preserve food, raise her own meats, or hunt and dress game.  Thus I lived most of my life without that knowledge.  Most folks today can’t imagine slaughtering, cleaning, and butchering their own chickens.  Most folks can’t successfully quarter a chicken.

Sure, it’s easy to say those skills don’t matter in modern life.  We’ve so specialized labor that we no longer need to know how to raise chickens for food.  Tyson does it for us.  But imagine what those skills would be worth if food-supply specialization became prohibitively expensive for average folks.  Imagine what our grandchildren would think of us, letting knowledge that enhances survival go by the wayside so quickly, so easily.  But we, living in the middle of that loss, really don’t see the problem.

How valuable would it be today to have reports of why past settlements were abandoned?  How the decisions were made and the consequences managed?  What adaptations were attempted, and which ones succeeded or failed?  For a generation facing the outcome of climate change, it would be valuable indeed.  And why wasn’t that critical information passed down to us?  Simple: people were too busy surviving to worry about teaching.  I believe that’s the primary reason such knowledge is lost.

To us, today, it’s more important to navigate social media than preserve vegetables.  That’s not a judgment; it’s a fact.

There was a deeper knowledge that drove past skills acquisition, and that knowledge is being lost as well.  My grandmother didn’t preserve food because she wanted to live a simpler life, or provide her family with healthy alternatives to processed foods, or because it was the Next Cool Thing.  She preserved food because she lived in a time when there were patterns of plenty and scarcity.  If she didn’t gather and preserve what was ripe, when it was ripe, her family wouldn’t have it to eat the next month.  It was simply a known fact that not everything could be had at any future time of want.

But the type of knowledge I’ve been musing about, the knowledge lost in Sand’s backstory, is more historical and fact-based.  Despite our modern means of storing and exchanging information, this knowledge too is fragile, changeable, and ephemeral.  Small groups of people can still successfully hide information and divert attention.  Large groups of people can decide which facts get repeated, and which facts get ignored, by deciding to “Like” and “retweet.”  We can see videos uploaded from folks in the midst of the Syrian uprising, but we don’t know what decisions are being made by those holding power over Syria.  We may never know.  That knowledge will be lost.

I recently read an online discussion about bad clichés in fantasy.  The lost sword/book of spells/heir to all things was singled out as particularly silly.  One commenter asked how you could just misplace something so obviously important.

Well, we did lose Richard III for centuries.  It’s suspected the knowledge of his resting place was forgotten within a mere hundred years or so or his death.

If but half a dozen people know where The Secret Thing is hidden, it takes a couple bullets, a pair of fatal accidents, a bad case of pneumonia and one suicide to ensure The Secret Thing is lost forever.  If Bob is the only one in the family who knows his sister’s kid is actually the result of a one-night-stand with Big Politician, Bob can ensure the knowledge dies with him.  If my character’s grandfather didn’t want his granddaughter to learn the Secret Handshake, the girl isn’t going to learn it.  She may grow up knowing a Secret Handshake once existed, but she won’t know what it is.

Truth is, it’s easy-peasy to lose things and the knowledge of things—particularly important things, because we don’t necessarily use them on a day-to-day basis—and almost as easy to deliberately hide knowledge, at least for a time.

So the relevant backstory for Sand is far more compressed than the previous version.  Everything is more immediate, which makes the interactions and conflicts far more personal as well.  And I find myself thinking about how our own histories will be remembered based upon what knowledge we choose to pass on to our children, about the impact time has on what gets retold or withheld, and about the ways we determine what will be important to the future based upon what we know of the present.

In other news, it snowed last night.  Karate was cancelled.  Since the local schools are all closed today, tonight’s classes are cancelled as well.  Is it nice to have an unexpected day off?  Sure.  Will I be antsy enough to go for a walk in the cold, wet snow this evening?  You betcha.

Sword and Chant on Storybundle!

I am so jazzed to be make this announcement:

Sword and Chant is included in the Storybundle’s new Indie Fantasy Bundle!

“Fantasy has been one of our most requested genres, and we’re thrilled to bring  you these wonderful and exciting titles that represent some of the best epic  adventures that you can find anywhere. Our authors have created expansive and  sophisticated worlds that any reader would love to explore, with magical  apocalypses and vast landscapes of history and legend. And whether you prefer  dragon companions or djinn, supernatural schisms or looming evils, secret  societies of thieves and spies or epic clashes between ancient rivals, this is  the bundle for you.”

So what is Storybundle?  It’s a showcase for independent writers AND it puts the pricing power in the hands of the reader.  You determine what you’d like to pay for the set of six titles.  (If you choose to purchase for $10 or more, you’ll get an additional two titles.)  You determine what percentage of your purchase price will go to the authors.  And you choose whether 10% of your purchase will go to one of the current charities.

All titles are DRM-free, and ready for Nook, Kindle, or Kindle-enabled device, and you have the chance to read an excerpt from each title before deciding on your purchase.  You can even purchase gift cards for others, or choose a specific date for when you’d like the bundle delivered.

So go forth to read, discover, and enjoy!

Don’t Leave the Cool Stuff For the End

I read a trilogy recently that had me so captured, so invested, that there were times I felt I couldn’t read quickly enough to find out what happened next.  I was frantic in a couple key scenes.  I can still hear the voices of the characters, still remember their expressions, still clearly picture the world in which they lived.  I’ve already purchased more books by the author, even though I think the writer made some missteps in the trilogy’s final chapters.

See, I had to force myself to pay attention to what was supposed to the big climactic scene of that trilogy—not because of the frantic can’t-wait-to-find-out feeling, or because it was a bore to read.  No, I felt adrift and disconnected during the climax because the writer had dumped so much “Cool Stuff” in at the end.

Cool Stuff is the unique collection of setting, culture, character and magic that make our fantasy stories fantasy.  Presentation of the Cool Stuff—aka worldbuilding—makes or breaks a novel within the first chapter or two.  Too much Cool Stuff at once, and the reader doesn’t have enough of the familiar to anchor her; she will spend too much time figuring out the world, and not enough time connecting to story and character.  And once the Cool Stuff is established, the reader trusts the writer to maintain it.  It must be as consistent as from which horizon the sun will rise.  Proper use and introduction of Cool Stuff enables the reader to accept the magical and spiritual, and invest the rest of her reading time connecting with characters.

If the Cool Stuff was the most important factor, everyone would buy Guide to the Ring’s Power rather than Lord of the Rings.

So there I was—happily reading along, thrilled with the world, loving the characters, feeling both thrilled and anxious as the trilogy’s characters prepared for the final confrontation.  Then all of a sudden, this non-industrial world gained a cool underwater city with elevators and cool bits of technology disguised as natural vegetation.  And the grand revelation of the Story’s Whole Point was pretty cool, too.

Even though the ideas were awesome, they were revealed at the worst possible time.  I wanted to know what the characters were thinking, feeling, hoping and fearing.  Instead, I got characters extrapolating about how this Cool Stuff must have come to be, what it might mean, and how it might work.  I got descriptions of all these new things punctuated with bits of action–action that was more difficult to envision because nothing about the setting was familiar.

Totally dissatisfying.  The characters—their fears, losses, challenges and victories—all took a backseat to integrating new Cool Stuff into an existing and stable (and fascinating!) world.

On the other hand, I recently beta-read a novel by one of my VPXV classmates.  It was filled with Cool Stuff from page one.  I had the same urgency to read it as I did with the trilogy mentioned above, and I approached the climax with the same anticipation and excitement.  The writer delivered a final confrontation that was engaging and satisfying and filled with Cool Stuff.  But no new or special or astounding Cool Stuff was introduced.  Instead, the characters confronted variations of existing Cool Stuff, and used their Cool Stuff skills in special and astounding ways.  That left me, the reader, free to engage with the character at his most critical moments.

And what do we really read fiction for?  Character.

I think there’s a writerly temptation to “save the best for last,” holding back what we think are the most awesome pieces of our imagination until the Big Special Moment when we will just blow the reader away.  But what really blows the reader’s mind isn’t the Cool Stuff.  It’s how the characters use/confront/transform the Cool Stuff.  Cool Stuff is a tool, and a true craftsman doesn’t admire tools for their tool-ness, but for what the tools can help create.