Is it okay to podcast old work?

So the plan, such as it was, was to podcast the original version of Between Heaven and Hell as three 20-week seasons while I write the new and Unification Chronicles series (of which the first three books comprise the same events as Between Heaven and Hell). I figured this would help get my name out there and start building a fan base so that when/if I started podcasting the new books, there would already be a sizable audience. Even if I decided to go the traditional route and query the (nigh unsaleable) seven book series to agents/editors, a podcast audience would show that there was at least a market for this story.

Then today I was listening to one of the panels from DragonCon ’09 (via the Dead Robots Society, my new favorite podcast I don’t host) and Mike Stackpole had a suggestion that stopped me in my tracks. He said that you should definitely not podcast old work you just have lying around, that it’s vital if you’re building a fan base that you show them what you’re capable of as a writer today, not years ago.

Between Heaven and Hell was originally written in 1996, and in just rereading the first chapter, I can tell how much I’ve changed as a writer in the last 13 years. When I wrote that book, I’d only actually written five real short stories before that, and only one of those based on my own characters and not fanfic. I’d had decades of storytelling experience through oral storytelling and later running role playing games, but my actual writing experience was thin. And frankly, you can tell. I know so much more about the craft now than I knew then, have learned so much about writing in the screenplay and two novels I’ve written since, along with what I learned from writing that first novel that you can only learn by writing a first novel, that it really does read like it’s from a different author than the stuff I write today. In a very real sense, it is.

Which means that Stackpole has a point. It might not be a good idea to podcast a 13-year-old book as a way of getting people familiar with me and my style. And yet, it would be good practice in podcasting fiction, and I know people enjoy the story, however awkwardly I told it. And it would seem that one of the unique things people like about podcast fiction is being able to see a work develop over time as new versions of the same story come out (see Sigler, Scott and Hutchins, J.C.). Pros and cons to both sides.

Pros to podcasting Between Heaven and Hell while I write Unification Chronicles

  1. Establishes a following who want to read more of my work
  2. Gives me experience in podcasting fiction
  3. Gives people a “before” to which to compare the “after” I’m writing now
  4. Refreshes my memory to the major plot points and character moments for writing the new books

Cons to podcasting Between Heaven and Hell while I write Unification Chronicles

  1. Not a true representation of my current capabilities as a writer; people might not come back to see the new stuff
  2. Will take a lot of time and effort I may not have while trying to write 2,000 words a day
  3. Could blind me to new possibilities with the reworked plot and characters; might slavishly stick to the original plot too closely

I honestly can’t decide at this point. While I mull this over, let me know what you think.

KILROY 2.0 IS EVERYWHERE

If you’re reading my stuff, you’re probably no stranger to SF podcasting. But one of the giants of the podcasting field and a man after my own cliffhangery heart is having a big day today. J.C. Hutchins is celebrating the print release of his novel 7th Son: Descent today. If you like modern day technothrillers, as I do, you’ll love this book. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves a brilliant psycho killer, human cloning and government conspiracies.

But here’s the thing. The publisher hasn’t picked up the second and third books of the trilogy, so 7th Son: Descent needs to launch in a big way. You can show your support by picking it up at your local bookstore, or snag it on Amazon. Either way, get it while it’s hot!

Making writing a priority

NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, and I’m champing at the bit to get started. But while NaNoWriMo is a challenge, I’m taking it a little bit farther than that. 50,000 words in 30 days is great, but in the spirit of kicking it up a notch, I’m going to do 500,000 words in 300 days. NaNoWriMo times ten.

Here’s the plan. For NaNoWriMo, I’m starting with Revelation, the first book in the Between Heaven and Hell Trilogy. This book introduces Daniel Cho and drops him into a web of intrigue, deception and ancient secret societies that make the Illuminati and Masons look like the 4-H Club. I plan to write this novel through to the end, rather than stopping when I hit 50k or the end of November. At a pace of 2,000 words a day, I expect the first draft to take me about 6 weeks, finishing about a week or two before Christmas. And the day after I finish it, I’m starting on Crusade, then Jihad to round out the story of Daniel Cho. Then we jump forward a century or two to the Unification Chronicles Trilogy: Mistaken Identity, the story of our disastrous first contact with an alien species, The Nemesis War, the galaxy-wide struggle we get pulled into, and then a break to write Sins of the Mothers, a spin-off novel of one human leading the oppressed half of the alien race we fought in Mistaken Identity in revolution after the Nemesis War is over, before finally wrapping up the seven volume saga (what am I, Tolkien?) with Unification. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll finish Unification just before DragonCon 2010 on Labor Day Weekend, and I will make my trip to DragonCon a celebration worthy of someone who just finished writing seven novels in less than a year.

And because I can, while this manic manuscript marathon of mayhem is going on I’m also going to record and release four podcast novels (Do Over and the three books of the original Between Heaven and Hell), file bankruptcy, settle into a new job, move into a new apartment and try to lose 50 pounds. My only regret is that I can’t get married, have a kid and get divorced in the same time span just to round out the list of Most Stressful Things A Human Can Go Through. Maybe I’ll get hit by lightning instead.

Why am I doing this to myself? Good question. Clearly, because I’m stark raving mad. Or maybe I’ve just decided that with my high school graduation twenty years ago this past summer that in two decades of coasting by on as little effort possible, I’m tired of half-assing my life. I’ve never really pushed myself to my limits, even in Basic Training. As far back as I can remember, I’ve done as little as I could to get by. Clint Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and I don’t know mine. I’ve never really come close. I feel like my whole life I’ve been driving a vintage Porsche 911 (my writing ability) around the block to the grocery store and back. I want to know what I can really do once I get out on to the highway and really open this baby up.

Twenty years ago, I was living with my parents, working a McJob, and dreaming of being a famous writer. And now, twenty years later, I’m living with my parents, working in IT tech support and still dreaming of being a famous writer. I’ve achieved more than I had any right to expect, don’t get me wrong. I’m deeply thankful for every one of my fans, and in a lot of ways, I’m returning to Daniel Cho and the world he created for you. But I’m also doing it because while I’ve kinda sorta set out what I intended to do, I haven’t done it really. What I really want is to be a speaker at DragonCon, for people to fill a room to hear me talk about writing. I want, when I’m old, for people to look back on the giants of speculative fiction and name out Heinlein, Asimov, Kirvin.

Can I get there? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s the point. I still don’t really know, because I still haven’t really been tested. I’ve taken the quick and easy path (the Dark Side, if you recall) ever since elementary school.

That ends right now.

Starting November 1st, I’m going to get up every morning at 6 am sharp, regardless of how late I dragged myself to bed the night before. I’m going to wake myself up with a shower and think about the novel I’m working on. Then I’m going to sit my ass at my desk and write until 8 am. I’m going to do this every day, seven days a week, no days off and no vacations. If the muse is with me, I’ll get my 2,000 words for that day in that 90 minute session. If I don’t, I’ll write on my lunch hour or after work, but I’m not allowed to go to bed until I have my 2,000 words. Following the advice of Anne Lamott, Stephen King and Mur Lafferty, I do not care how good the words are. If I’m “blocked” and the muse just isn’t showing up, then I’ll get 2,000 words of gibberish or something later in the book or anything I can think of. The words don’t have to be usable, they just have to be there. I think most of them will be good. But I’m not going to sweat those that aren’t. That’s what rewriting is for, after DragonCon.

And that, dear readers, is the difference. That even though I’m going to have all this other stuff going on in my life, even though I have so many non-writing things to accomplish, writing is going to by my number one priority, coming before all else. Writing is the most important thing in my life. It has to be, or the next twenty years will be just like the last twenty, and I won’t have that.

Everyone I’ve told about this plan thinks I’m nuts. I don’t think that’s true. Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, James Rollins does about 1,500. The quota itself isn’t all that much more than the 1,667 words a day every NaNoWriMo participant shoots for. It’s only when I phrase it as “writing seven novels in a row” that it sounds crazy. But if I pull it off, if I succeed, I will have finally Accomplished Something that no one can take away from me. Is it the end of the road? Hell no. As mentioned above, there’s rewrites, finding a publisher, agent, promotion, etc. and that’s if I go the traditional publishing route. I could also go self-promotion podcast/CreateSpace/Amazon route, self publishing in tradition of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. (Walden was originally a podcast. Look it up.) But those are worries for another time. First, I have to write. I have to get these stories out of my soul, so I can make room for new ones.

And I’m taking you, dear readers, along for the ride.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-10-25

More on opening lines

So we know that your opening line, or at least your opening paragraph, will define the tone and style of your story. We know that the opening line needs to be snappy and powerful to win over casual browsers at a book store. But what does that all actually mean?

Let’s look at how to craft an opening line and see both what works and what doesn’t. To begin, we’ll look at the opening line from my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell.

It was a bright and sunny day in Washington DC, and Daniel Cho found himself at the scene of an accident.

What’s wrong with this? So many things. (In my defense, it was 13 years ago, I was young and I needed the money.) First off, it’s a weather report.

Do not start the story with weather. It’s a rookie mistake, and it makes you look like a rube. Any mention at all of the weather in the opening line pegs you as just one notch beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.” or “The night was humid.” Setting is important, sure, and there are lots of ways to establish that in a paragraph or two, but it’s pretty low priority for your opening line. Opening lines need to do four things:

  1. Establish character.
  2. Establish conflict, or if you prefer, dramatic tension (no, you don’t have to start with a fight scene just because people say conflict).
  3. Set the narrative tone or voice for the story.
  4. Broadly establish the setting or genre of the story.

Technically, the line above meets all four of those criteria, but it does so in a very clumsy way, throwing the setting in your face and pushing the conflict back to almost an afterthought. What kind of accident? Did somebody spill peanuts in aisle nine, or did a jetliner crash into the Capitol dome (remember folks, Tom Clancy did it long before al Qaida took a crack at it)? The stuff that should be direct is vague and the stuff that should be vague is direct. Definite room for improvement.

Here’s the first line from a rewrite I attempted in 2007.

Daniel had just stepped out of the 7-Eleven when he heard the crash, his pistachio ice cream already melting in the heat.

Better, but not perfect. We’ve got an extra detail, the ice cream melting in the heat, that tells us something about where Daniel is without mentioning the weather directly. But we still have an indirect tense (“had just” are unnecessary words and warning signs about your writing) that removes Daniel and his perceptions from the action. The tone is thus still tentative. We also don’t know much about the crash, although that is more specific than “accident.” We’re still not sure how much we should care.

Daniel Cho stepped out of the 7-Eleven and heard the unmistakable collision of steel on steel.

This is simple, direct and yet manages to tell us several useful things. We know our character’s name, where he is (broadly, we know he’s in a modern urban setting where one might find a 7-Eleven; this isn’t medieval fantasy or outer space) and that to him, the sound of steel colliding with steel is unmistakable, giving us a hint at his background or profession (as it turns out, and as we’ll see in the next few paragraphs, Daniel is a paramedic in Washington DC). This line is the shortest of the three, and yet it’s the most powerful. It’s powerful in large part because it’s simple, because it doesn’t beat around the bush and gets right to the action. We know there’s violence afoot, and we know that Daniel is going to react to it. We’re hooked and ready to see what happens next.

Opening lines and tone

Consider two opening lines, both conveying the same idea.

As plans go, it was right up there with the Maginot Line.

and

The plan sucked.

Which one is better?

The first line is funnier and more stylish. It also has a way of grabbing attention. On the other hand, it relies on a certain familiarity with European history. If you don’t know what the Maginot Line was, and why it was so spectacularly ineffective, the joke falls flat.

The second version, in a tone I like to refer to as “The Hemingway,” is direct, downbeat and to the point. It also has a stark simplicity and frankness that capture the futility of the plan.

The answer as to which is better depends on the tone for your entire story. Is it biting and sarcastic (option 1) or dark and hard-boiled (option 2)? Or something else entirely, meaning both of these lines would be ill-suited to the task?

I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, since that’s again something I can tinker with for Sins of the Mothers before actually starting NaNoWriMo in November. In many ways, your opening line defines the tone of the novel for your reader and sets up expectations for the narrative. In a lot of ways, both of the options above wouldn’t actually work for me, as I’ve settled on writing this book in third person and both of those sound like first person narrative lines to me.

My default style for third person viewpoint is a tone I think of as “The Asimov,” a completely invisible narrator that remains neutral and just tells the story without editorializing or embellishment. I tend to avoid more visible narrators because unless they’re done really, really well–talking Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash here, where the entertainment of the narration compensated for the holes in the plot–I find them to be more distracting than useful. Remember that story is king, and punchy narration or even Aaron Sorkin-class dialogue won’t turn a bad story into a good one. Narration can distract from minor plot issues, but if the story doesn’t work then bantering with the reader isn’t going to help. Personally, I’d rather fix any structure problems and then get out of the way, letting the story tell itself.

Which, of course, brings me back to the opening line. How important is it, really? There are tales floating around on the interwebs telling authors that your first line will make or break the novel, that all agents or editors combing through the slush pile are going to care about is the opening line, or the first paragraph at most. If you don’t hook them immediately, you’re doomed.

I’m not so sure I believe this. I think opening lines are important, but they’re only vital for true slush, unrequested submission of your whole manuscript. With no supporting material, the first line better be good or no one is going to read any farther.

But that’s not the way publishing works anymore. In most cases, the agent or editor isn’t even going to see the first page of your manuscript until after you’ve sent them a well-crafted query letter and they’ve been intrigued enough to ask for sample chapters (or the completed manuscript). So in this case, they already know they’re interested based on the query, and aren’t going to change their mind just because the first line didn’t reach out and grab them by the throat. If 21st century writers put as much effort into their query letter as they do into their first paragraph, they’d probably get much better results.

So that’s publishing. What about readers? Don’t you have to grab the reader once the book is on the shelf?

Again, I’m not so sure. Personally, and I know I’m atypical here, I don’t buy books from shelves anymore. I buy ebooks exclusively, mostly from eReader.com, though I’ve shopped ShortCovers and the Amazon Kindle store, since I can read both of those on my iPhone as well. In all cases, the first line is a minor factor in the buying decision process if it’s even available for consideration at all. In a lot of cases, I don’t get to see the first line of the book until after I purchase it, and by that point I’m invested and determined to read as far into the book as I can so that I get my money’s worth. (I actually am as cheap as they guy in the McDonald’s commerical with the jackhammer.) So again, in ebooks you’re much better off polishing your promotional material, the summary posted on the web site with your book, than in making sure the first line grabs the reader.

But while ebooks are the next hot thing–finally, only a dozen years after I got into them–I know a lot of people still don’t read electronically. So for the folks that still do haunt the brick and mortar bookstores, surely opening lines are still vital for them, right?

Maybe. At least in that venue, you know that the potential buyer can access the opening line of your book. There’s a chance they’ll see it. But a lot of people don’t. A lot of readers literally judge a book by its cover: its back cover. The blurb on the back cover of a paperback, or the jacket flap of a hardcover, tells most readers everything they need to know about whether or not to make a purchase. If that sells them, they’ve already made their decision by the time they see the first line.

So does that mean first lines aren’t important at all? Of course not. Like I said, it sets the tone and narrative expectation for the reader. And no matter what, you want to start strong. But the opening line isn’t the most important part of your narrative–that would be the ending–and it isn’t vital to getting your book noticed. Make it good enough, match the tone to the rest of the story, and focus on getting the story right. The rest will take care of itself.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-10-18