Lessons from the middle

My word count was a pathetic 485 yesterday (plus 1,300+ words on the blog, but we’ve established that doesn’t count towards my daily 2k goal, as it DOESN’T GET THE GORRAM BOOKS WRITTEN). The brainstorming I did on the blog helped a little, in that now I have a better idea of where the story is going, and I see plenty of opportunities to flesh out the outline even more (For instance, what’s Susan doing for the entire second act, just tagging along? What are the consequences for Jack when he keeps failing to capture Daniel?).

And yet, 485 words. I got about halfway into the fight scene and chickened out.

Part of it was that I wasn’t happy with the action. But I have to remind myself that this is a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Hell, it doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be written. I could have Daniel and Batarel square dancing at this point for all it matters. I just get through it and get on to the next scene, then the one after that. So that’s something I have to drill into my head today, literally if necessary. I have a hand drill right here.

But the other aspect to my hesitancy yesterday is a bigger problem, and something that’s going to be a lot harder to get past. I’ve historically had a scarcity approach to my writing, “saving” stuff to write later rather than writing it today. This is subtly different from run of the mill procrastination. It really feels like I’m “protecting” the material by not writing it now. This “save the best for last” or “leave some for later” mentality is a core aspect of my personality, affecting the way I write to the way I eat. But it’s not helping me as a writer. I need to figure out how to free myself to write, now, as much as I can. I don’t need to stretch this seven book series out over my whole life. I need to trust that when I get to the end of this story, more stories will appear, even if I don’t see them now because all this other stuff is in the way.

So, in short:

  • Don’t worry about getting it right. Get it written.
  • Don’t worry about gaps in the outline. That leaves the flexibility you’re going to need when your characters do something unexpected.
  • Don’t save for tomorrow what you could write today. Let tomorrow attend to itself.

Blocked by fear of writer’s block?

This is weird. I’m not actually blocked. I know exactly what comes next in my story, and it should actually be a fun scene to write. I like writing action scenes, and this is the first time we really see what a demon can do in a fight. Basically, he’s going to wipe the floor with Daniel. And what’s better than beating the crap out of your main character, really?

Only here’s the thing. I’m terrified of what comes after the scenes I’m writing now. Here’s the outline I have so far. It should look at least vaguely familiar to folks who read Between Heaven and Hell.

  • ACT 1
  • Daniel helps at a wreck, freaks out when he sees a man with a fatal injury walk away and gets himself arrested
  • Police interrogate Daniel, find out why he indentified himself as a doctor; Daniel escapes en route to psychiatric eval; cops “make the call” as Daniel “fits the profile”
  • We meet Susan, a right wing Christian blogger
  • Daniel investigates the strange life of Hendriks, the dead man
  • Susan looks for Daniel
  • We meet Jeff Frankel, a crazy old Viet Nam vet
  • Baterel meets with senior demon, told to kill Cho, but make him disappear so the police think he’s still out there
  • Daniel goes to the library to search the Google, finds Susan’s article, and contacts her.
  • Jack gets a lead on Daniel
  • Susan meets Daniel
  • Jeff arrives in DC
  • Susan decides to help Daniel
  • Jack finds Daniel; Daniel and Susan go on the run
  • Daniel meets Jeff at the Arlington Days Inn
  • Batarel attacks; Jeff rescues Daniel and Susan from Batarel
  • Batarel kills the motel manager in frustration
  • Jeff establishes that “angels and demons as flesh and blood immortals in the granddaddy of all secret societies” is an existing meme, attributes what they saw to that
  • Jack investigates the motel manager’s death and the carnage from the fight
  • ACT 2
  • Daniel and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it
  • ACT3
  • Jack changes sides
  • Our heroes meet Uriel
  • Demons kill Daniel’s family
  • Susan gets a copy of the database
  • Jack takes Daniel, Susan and Jeff to Iraq
  • Jeff meets with Mullah Hassan Mohammad, the keeper of the lost gospel
  • Mohammad shows Daniel the lost gospel and the angelic helmet, an ancient Sumerian artifact that seems to contain microcircuitry
  • Demons attack the mosque (to prevent the gospel from getting out?)
  • Our heroes escape from Iraq
  • Susan publishes her proof
  • The media runs with it, and public opinion wakes up to the immortal threat
  • Jack recruits Daniel into a force to combat the demons

Acts 1 & 3 are strong and make sense. I’ve always been good at beginnings and endings. But the middle, that’s a problem. Act 2 should be the meat of the book, all the complications and redirection that makes a novel so rich and enjoyable. It should also, in general, be roughly half the page count, 50% compared to 25% each for Acts 1 and 3. So the fact that my Act 2 basically consists of “HERE BE MONSTYRS” is… alarming? terrifying? scaring me out of my gorram mind?

I know, in broad strokes, and we’re taking rollers here, what has to happen in Act 2. Batarel, my angry, implacable, immortal demon, keeps trying to kill Daniel and failing, while Daniel tries to both capture Batarel and avoid being captured by Jack, who is now an FBI agent in this version of the story. So the first half or so of Act 2 should be a merry chase, with both Batarel and Jack chasing Daniel, Jeff and Susan. One of the biggest hit movies of my formative years was “Cannonball Run,” so I should have an intuitive sense for chase stories. It could be all I’m missing is to visualize Daniel as Dom DeLuise. (this is probably a bad idea)

At roughly the halfway point, Daniel has to turn the tables on the demon and become the chaser, or at least start fighting back. At some point in there Jack has to see Batarel for what he is, and realize there’s a lot more going on here than just a terrorist fugitive on the run. And then after Daniel figures out how to kill a demon, Jack has to arrive at that final battle between Daniel and Batarel and join Daniel’s side. I’m not sure how Daniel’s going to figure out how to kill a demon, which was explained by the lost gospel in the original book, given that the Archangel Uriel doesn’t show up and give them the database and the location of the gospel now until after they prove themselves worthy by killing Batarel, but I’m willing to accept that the story will me that. There was absolutely nothing in my original outline for Homeworld, my Mars novel, that suggested the characters fly to Kazakhstan and buy an old Soviet nuclear sub reactor on the black market, but when the story called for one and they couldn’t get one from NASA, well, a character’s gotta do what a character’s gotta do. So I can take a leap of faith on that. My characters have proven time and again that they’re smarter than me, so I can trust that.

But I still have to have some idea of where they’re going. Let’s see, based on my ramblings above, I have:

  • ACT 1
  • Daniel helps at a wreck, freaks out when he sees a man with a fatal injury walk away and gets himself arrested
  • Police interrogate Daniel, find out why he indentified himself as a doctor; Daniel escapes en route to psychiatric eval; cops “make the call” as Daniel “fits the profile”
  • We meet Susan, a right wing Christian blogger
  • Daniel investigates the strange life of Hendriks, the dead man
  • Susan looks for Daniel
  • We meet Jeff Frankel, a crazy old Viet Nam vet
  • Baterel meets with senior demon, told to kill Cho, but make him disappear so the police think he’s still out there
  • Daniel goes to the library to search the Google, finds Susan’s article, and contacts her.
  • Jack gets a lead on Daniel
  • Susan meets Daniel
  • Jeff arrives in DC
  • Susan decides to help Daniel
  • Jack finds Daniel; Daniel and Susan go on the run
  • Daniel meets Jeff at the Arlington Days Inn
  • Batarel attacks; Jeff rescues Daniel and Susan from Batarel
  • Batarel kills the motel manager in frustration
  • Jeff establishes that “angels and demons as flesh and blood immortals in the granddaddy of all secret societies” is an existing meme, attributes what they saw to that
  • Jack investigates the motel manager’s death and the carnage from the fight
  • ACT 2
  • Daniel and Co. go on the run
  • Jack chases Daniel
  • Batarel chases Daniel
  • Daniel eludes Jack
  • Daniel goes on the offensive
  • Jack sees evidence that Batarel isn’t human
  • Daniel discovers how Batarel could be killed
  • Jack finds Daniel just as Daniel attacks Batarel
  • Daniel and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it
  • ACT3
  • Jack changes sides
  • Our heroes meet Uriel
  • Demons kill Daniel’s family
  • Susan gets a copy of the database
  • Jack takes Daniel, Susan and Jeff to Iraq
  • Jeff meets with Mullah Hassan Mohammad, the keeper of the lost gospel
  • Mohammad shows Daniel the lost gospel and the angelic helmet, an ancient Sumerian artifact that seems to contain microcircuitry
  • Demons attack the mosque (to prevent the gospel from getting out?)
  • Our heroes escape from Iraq
  • Susan publishes her proof
  • The media runs with it, and public opinion wakes up to the immortal threat
  • Jack leaves the FBI to join a UN anti-demon task force
  • Jack recruits Daniel

Act 2 is still thin, and I’m obviously missing some scenes, but at least’s it’s coherent, and it follows causality. I can see how the characters get from A to Z, rather than A to G, then a whole bunch of hieroglyphics, then Q to Z. It’s not perfect, but it might be enough to overcome my screamin’ willies (Nelson being the most disturbing) and get me back to writing.

Lessons from week one

Cracked 15,000 yesterday, which is an acceptable pace. I full thousand less than the 2k per day I set out for, but no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And so, I thought I’d share the observations I’ve already figured out, now that I’ve had a week of writing like a professional writer.

1. I am not a morning person.

This may not actually help you in your writing all that much, but it bears stating anyway. My plan going into this was to wake up at 6am every day and pound out 2000 words before breakfast. Then I could go about my day, and if opportunities arose to get some extra word count, well, so much the better.

Well, as it turns out, I haven’t done this once. The alarm goes off at 6am every morning, but not once have I sat down and wrote before leaving the house. Sometimes I’ll leave the house and write somewhere else before work while I eat breakfast. Sometimes, too often really, I’ll still be at word zero for the day by the time I settle into my cubicle. And on those days, I’ve had to grind the words out other ways. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, I’ve written very little while actually on the job. I’ve found that I can squeeze in 500-700 words at Chipotle on my lunch break, and I’ve found lots of places to write after work. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve even found that writing can be energizing after work, no matter how tired I might be going into it.

I’m going to give morning writing one more shot before adjusting my schedule to get up later and stay up later, writing at night.

2. You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.

I assumed going into this that I knew my characters pretty well. I should, given that they’re based on characters I’ve known for 15 years. But as I get into this book, I’m learning that this Jeff Frankel is a very different person than the original, that this Susan Richardson is more interesting and more driven than her counterpart in Between Heaven and Hell, that this Jack Harris, introduced just 12,000 words into Revelation rather than the beginning of Crusade, is a more thoughtful and resourceful guy than I expected, and that yes, even Daniel Cho, the man who changes the world forever, who sets in motion a series of events that changes the Milky Way galaxy forever, is not quite who I thought he was. This Daniel is more somber, more tortured by the failures of his past, and yet stronger and more directed than the original.

In every case, I have stronger, more interesting characters. Characters who have already surprised me as a writer and set the plot moving in a slightly different direction. Which brings me to…

3. The map is not the territory.

I’ve talked before about how I don’t write detailed outlines anymore. And yet, the bare bones bulleted list I started this project with has already changed a lot. I’ve deleted scenes that are no longer necessary. I’ve added new scenes dictated by the actions of the characters. And I’ve also been forced to rip a major set piece out of the middle of the book when I realized that it was what was making me afraid to get past the next few chapters.

In the original book, Daniel and company find out about a big meeting of all the demons and arrange to be there and film it. It was a major turning point and thus was part of the outline for this version. I moved the meeting to Denver instead of D.C., but kept the idea. I wasn’t sure how our characters, hunted by both the demons and the FBI, would make it to Denver, but I was confident the story would tell me. Early on in the week, I felt vindicated by the fact that the characters were telling me things about the story I didn’t know going in.

But one of the things I learned was that the demons are organized like terrorist cells, with a very decentralized and “need to know” structure. In fact, in the book, modern day terrorists got that idea from demons in the first place. (why do you think we keep reporting that we killed the same number 2 al Qaeda guy over and over? because he’s immortal) So it followed from that that they would never have a big demon pow wow. But if they don’t have the meeting, then Daniel can’t go, and if he doesn’t go HOLYCRAPIAMLOSINGMYBOOK

Then I took a step back and thought about it. I went back to the end of the book. What has to happen at the end? Susan goes public with her data proving that immortals exist, that we know them as angels and demons and they’ve been messing with us since before recorded history. Jack leaves the FBI and heads up a new UN organization to root out and destroy the demons, and he recruits Daniel to the cause. This all has to happen to set up the second book, Crusade.

But how I get there is entirely fluid. I don’t have to keep anything from Between Heaven and Hell that no longer makes sense. So in order to have that ending, what do the characters need?

They need videographic proof of an immortal shrugging off and healing a mortal wound, something they can post on YouTube (and yes, Google, blogs and Twitter have already been featured in the book). Susan needs a database of all the known demons, their current identities and all the aliases they’ve used through the centuries. And they need the Lost Gospel, an ancient scroll detailing in ancient Hebrew the war between the angels and demons, including the fall of Lucifer, in much more detail than we’ve ever seen before, including details on how an immortal can be killed permanently.

As I looked over that list, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to stick to the original path, and a new way to get there started forming in my head. I had always thought the database came from the demons themselves, because it did in the original. But now I realized that not only would the demons probably not have such a record at all, but that the angels, with their almost OCD devotion to order, almost certainly would. So the database and the location of the Lost Gospel (currently forgotten under a mosque in Iraq) would probably come from the angels, probably from Uriel, the archangel who has been watching them. And when would he give them this information? After they prove on their own that they’re worthy of it by killing Batarel, the demon that’s stalking Daniel.

And poof! Just like that, the book popped back into place, the outline rewrote itself and just about everything about my act 2 got stronger. And, most importantly, I’m not subconsciously dreading going past the next few chapters, into the void in my original outline that just read “here be monsters”. Now I know that Daniel, Susan and Jeff have to run from both Batarel and Jack until they can turn the tables on Batarel and destroy him, an effort Jack finds himself helping with. After that, Uriel can swoop in (as angels are wont to do) and send them off in a new direction. I can see, in vague, looming shapes, all the way to the end of the book now, and it looks solid. It looks good.

Of course, I realize that any and all of this is subject to change if the characters, yet again, find a better way to get there. But I’m starting off week 2 much more confident in the book as a whole than I was before, and that’s a good feeling.

Writing for energy

Writing used to be work. When I was younger, when I let myself set low expectations, writing was work. I remember when I first started working on Mistaken Identity, back somewhere around 1999-2000, I set a word count goal of 250 words a day. I figured that was an average print page, and if I did that every day for a year, I’d have a book. Some mornings, getting that 250 words was grueling. It was pure torture. I usually felt a little better after doing it, but I never built up any momentum and was happy when I met the goal and could stop.

Nonfiction was draining back then, too. I remember my first Writing On Your Palm article to crest 3,000 words written in one day, a Monday, when I had to have something to post. My brain felt like scrambled eggs when I was done, and I couldn’t imagine how professional writers took that punishment day after day.

I no longer feel that way.

I understand I have a pretty small sample size to go on, but if this week is any indication, my problem wasn’t writing too much, it was stopping too soon. The first couple hundred words or so still come sluggishly at times, but now that I’ve set my sights considerably higher for the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge, something weird has happened.

The more I write, the better I feel.

I totally didn’t see this coming. But this week I’ve been pumping out around 3,000 words a day, every day, and I feel terrific. I’m in better mood, I laugh more, hell even food tastes better. And then I realized something. First, let me set the stage. Tuesday night, I didn’t get a chance to write much at the office. I snuck in a 841 word blog post, but my fiction writing had been limited exclusively to meal breaks, around 800 words at both breakfast and lunch. I was at 2,426 words for the day total, well over my 2,000 word a day minimum, but only 1,585 of that was fiction. And I knew that didn’t count. Blog and Twitter writing is gravy. It doesn’t apply to MGUWC. I needed 415 words of fiction before I could call it a day.

Before, this would have filled me with dread. I was tired when I walked out of the office. Before, going home and vegging on the couch watching NCIS or Stargate would have been overwhelmingly preferable to more writing. But despite being tired, going home was no longer my number one option.

I was shocked to discover that the idea of swinging by one of the three Chipotle’s on my way home, preferably the one with free wifi from the restaurant next door, and writing some more didn’t seem like a draining prospect at all. In fact, it filled me with enthusiasm to write some more, because on some level I realized that writing would make me feel better.

And let me tell you, it worked! I sat down at Chipotle, tuned Pandora on my iPhone to my Writing Music station, a mix of movie scores, strings and electronica, and set about my task. This was the opening of Chapter 3, where we first meet the new Susan Richardson. And I had absolutely no idea what would actually happen in that chapter. I knew Susan was a right wing blogger, and that was it. And yet, not only did I get my fiction word count—and write part of this post—I also realized as I followed Susan around that her meeting Daniel wouldn’t be the chance encounter it was in the original, as it still was in my outline. No, she would be under pressure from her editor (the blog she writes for is, in my mind, kind of a mirror of Talking Points Memo or Daily Kos, and Susan herself is starting to look and sound a lot like a Bizarro world Ana Marie Cox) and working on an article based on an overheard conversation from Chapter 3, she’d be looking for Daniel, trying to get an interview with the terrorist fugitive North Korean operative everyone is talking about. The book as a whole got stronger, character motivations got stronger, and I got a much better look at a pivotal character I didn’t know yet. And at a time I once would have avoided writing at all.

I should have done this years, decades ago. And the really scary part?

I’m just getting started.

Having too much fun with a rough draft

I’m probably going to do major revisions on this in rewrites, but I enjoyed the heck out of writing this scene. Susan, a blogger, is trolling Georgetown watering holes looking for something juicy as her deadline looms.

She was just coming out of the Ladies Room when she heard, “He just ran out of the police station? A terrorist?”

Terrorist. There had to be a story there. Susan pretended to read the notices posted on the bulletin board, looking fiercely interested in loser bands playing college frat houses.

“You know you can’t say a word about this, right?”

“Dude, who are you talking to.”

“I know, I’m just saying.”

“It’s in the vault.”

“Your vault sucks.”

“Get on with it.”

“Okay, so, and you didn’t hear this from me—“

“Dude.”

“There was a crash today on M.”

“I know, the traffic totally bjorked my lunch date.”

“You want me to tell this story or not?”

“By all means, sir.”

“One of the bodies disappeared.”

“What, like it went poof?”

“No, it’s just missing. One of the drivers.”

“And he was the terrorist?”

“No, man, let me finish. So this guy, a Korean off-duty paramedic stops to help rescue people.”

“Bunch of savages in this town.”

“Dude, that doesn’t even make sense.”

“I was quoting ‘Clerks’.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense.”

“I was being ironic.”

“Yeah, good job there, Alanis. Anyway—“

“You fellas doing okay?” The waitress had just walked up. Susan pretended to scribble down some show dates for bands she’d never heard of.

“Another round, please.”

“You bet!”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the two young men in the booth next to the bulletin board check out the waitress’s ass as she walked away to get their orders. Pigs. Then they started talking again.

“So anyway, this paramedic stops to help—“

“Bunch of savages in this town.”

“It wasn’t funny the first time, Randall.”

“Well, excuse me.”

“Anyway, the body of one of the drivers goes missing, and this paramedic goes nuts. He goes chasing it down a back alley.”

“He was chasing a dead body?”

“No one saw it but him, but he said he was.”

“Dude, you never chase a zombie. That’s like basic knowledge.”

“I am going to pour this beer on your head.”

“Keep going, I’m listening.”

Susan’s hand was cramping up from all the frantic scribbling, and she was starting to wonder if these two frat monkeys would ever get to the damn point.

“So this guy starts rambling about the dead body walking away, the cop takes him in for questioning.”

“For, like, a zombie line up.”

“I’m done taking to you.”

“Okay, I’ll be good. Keep going.”

“The cops get the guy downtown and start questioning him and the guy goes all ninja on them.”

“Korean paramedic ninja.”

“Dude.”

“I’m just saying, they’re overachievers.”

“Who?”

“Orientals.”

“Dude, you can’t say Orientals anymore. That’s offensive.”

“To the paramedic ninjas? I’ll take my chances.”

“How have you not been fired?”

“I have pictures of my boss in assless pants. True story.”

“I’ve met your boss, man. He can’t look good in those.”

“Which is why he won’t fire me. Can’t let those wind up online.”

“Your life is a source of unending confusion to me.”

“So the paramedic ninja. What makes them think he’s a terrorist? Sounds pretty cool to me.”

“Well, that’s the part I’m not supposed to talk about. The guy is North Korean—“

“Do you think they’re all issued track suits and those cool sunglasses?”

“And supposedly he’s an M.D.”

“He’s a doctor? Well then he’s definitely guilty.”

“If he’s trained as a doctor, why would he be working as a paramedic?”

“To meet chicks?”

Susan snapped the lead off her pencil. Get to the point!

“And there’s more. He’s a loner—“

“So are you. Doesn’t count if it’s not on purpose.”

“And he just moved here from San Francisco.”

“So a gay loner paramedic Korean ninja.”

Susan couldn’t take any more. “What the hell happened to him?” she shouted, at just the moment that the jukebox was pausing between songs. The entire bar stopped to stare.

The frat monkey who had been telling the story, his spotless black suit a sharp contrast to his friend’s kitschy ironic t-shirt and jeans, turned to look at Susan. “I’m sorry, what?”

Susan rushed to pull a chair from a nearby table up to their booth. The rest of the bar went about their business. “My name is Susan.”

The frat monkey reached out to shake her hand. “Dante. He’s Randall.”

Like I care, Susan thought. “I couldn’t help but overhear part of your conversation, and I was curious. Who said this guy was a terrorist?”

Dante’s face went pallid, then blank. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Please,” Susan said. “It’s completely off the record. I just need to know.”

“Show us your tits,” Randall said. Susan glared at him.

“I’m sorry,” Dante said. “Both for my friend and for the fact that I really can’t talk about this. It’s a national security matter.”

“That I’m sure your boss wouldn’t want to know you were discussing in public bar,” Susan said.

“Miss, you don’t even know who I work for.”

“The FBI,” Randall said.

Dante spun on his friend. “Why would you tell her that?”

“Hey, man, you’re the one who just confirmed it. She might have thought I was deliberately lying to throw her off the path. And besides, she’s hot.”

“I swear,” Susan said. “It’s totally off the record. Just background.”

Dante threw a twenty on the table. “Miss, I’ve already said more than I should have.” He shot a stern look at Randall. “Too many bad influences in my life as it is.”

He got up and edged out of the booth. Susan stood and followed him out the door.

“Please, I know you’re not supposed to say anything. But if there’s a terrorist loose in Washington D.C., the people—“

Dante stopped short of the curb and Susan almost knocked him into traffic. “Are you nuts, lady? Keep it down!”

“The people have a right to know,” Susan said, much quieter but still loud enough to be heard over the happy hour traffic on M street.

“The people know what we let them know,” Dante said, waving furiously at a cab. “And right now we don’t know that there’s anything to be concerned about.”

“That’s not what you told your friend in there,” Susan said.

“That was just two buddies talking. Officially, there’s no threat. We don’t even know if Cho—“

“That’s his name? Cho?”

A cab pulled up and Dante flung the door open. “Lady, you never met me. I have nothing else to say.” Then to the driver, “Hoover Building, please.”

Sigler and rewrites

I was listening to last week’s Dead Robots Society, an interview with Scott Sigler. For the three of you who don’t know who Sigler is, he was one of the founders of podcast fiction. Sigler has parlayed giving his stuff away for free into a small press contract, a 5-book deal with Crown (owned by Random House) and starting his own publishing company. An unknown when he started releasing Earthcore in 2004, he now makes a living from his fiction.

Sigler always wants to give his readers the best possible product, and as such, he tends to rewrite with every new release of his books. The small press version of Earthcore was different than the podcast version, and the version he’s writing for Crown will be different still. By the time he gets to write it, eight years will have passed since the original podcast. He’s going to have to update everything to incorporate new developments in mining technology and new discoveries in biology. His editor at Crown has a stable of scientific advisors to help Sigler make the new version as accurate as possible.

And therein lies the problem. At conventions and signings, Sigler is asked more than for anything else when the sequel to Earthcore is coming out. After all, it’s been four years since the podcast, how long are people expected to wait? But as Sigler pointed out on DRS, he can’t write the sequel, Mount Fitzroy, until he rewrites Earthcore for Crown and knows, based on the new requirements for the story, which characters live and die.

What does all this have to do with little old me? Glad you asked.

When I made the only-one-week-to-go-before-the-madness decision to push Sins of the Mothers off until next summer and do Revelation for NaNoWriMo, I got a fair amount of grousing. Some of the folks in my writer’s group were looking forward to something new, rather than a reboot of a 13 year old story. But you see, my hands were tied the same way Sigler’s are. (At least metaphorically. I don’t want to know how Sigler’s hands are tied literally.)

Even though to the best of my knowledge, Sins of the Mothers would only contain a few of the characters from the other Unification Chronicles books, I don’t know that for sure. Going into it last month, I didn’t really know much about the Nemesis War itself (book 5 of the series). I didn’t really know what the other two major races, the Dalindo and Vertrusk, were like, and how they might have influenced the male Sendeni soldiers. I didn’t know how Sophie encountered the Nemesis, which awakened the telepathy in her. Other than Chalyl, I didn’t even know what other Sendeni officers would appear in the book. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to the same conclusion Sigler did about the sequel to Earthcore. I have to write the books in a series in chronological order, because otherwise I won’t know how they fit together.

I can see how right I was already, only three days into NaNoWriMo. While Revelation starts off at roughly the same place as Between Heaven and Hell did with Daniel Cho helping out at the scene of a car crash, only shifted to 2010,  just over 6,000 words in it’s already veered dramatically away from the plot of the original, with Daniel escaping from a police station and marked as a fugative, possibly a terrorist wanted under the PATRIOT act. The new Susan Richardson is a conservative Christian blogger rather than a plucky reporter, the new Jeff Frankel is a Viet Nam vet instead of Korea and a whole lot kookier and Jack Harris plays a key role that didn’t even exist in the original as the FBI agent tracking Daniel. While 80,000-100,000 words from now I’ll still end up at the same place as the end of the 33,000 word novella, with the angels and demons revealed to the world as scientific fact, I have a very different way to get there, and that course will define the events that follow. I can already see the ripples propogating down the timeline (Daniel will work for Jack in Crusade, rather than the other way around, and Jihad will be very different), meaning that Mistaken Identity will have a very different history to build on than it did when I first wrote it in 2002. That will lead to different assumptions about the Nemesis War, which again, brings us to what, by the time I get to writing it in June, will likely be a very different take on Sins of the Mothers than what I originally had in mind. A richer, more vibrant and fully realized take, and I’d be a schmuck not to take advantage of that.

Which means, unfortunately for my writer’s group, that they’re going to see the reboot of Between Heaven and Hell before they get the new space opera stuff. But somehow, once they see how different what I’m doing now really is, I don’t think they’re going to mind.

Experience

I shared an article earlier today on Twitter and Google Reader about the old adage that you have to write a million words of junk to get it out of your system before you can start writing good stuff. I’ve heard this before, and while I agree that it’s true in broad strokes, I think it’s missing a crucial observation. In today’s multimedia world, those words don’t all have to be prose.

Sure, some things about the craft of writing you’ll only learn by writing in your chosen or at least primary medium. But a lot of things about writing fiction–character, dialogue, plot–the fundamentals, in other words, are the same no matter what medium you choose. A story, fundamentally, is a story.

I was thinking about this while driving home in a snowstorm last week, because somehow thinking to myself about writing was deemed less distracting than listening to a podcast about writing. And it occurred to me that when I originally wrote Between Heaven and Hell, thirteen years ago, I hadn’t actually written very much prose fiction up to that point. In fact, I’d written absurdly little for someone intending to write a novel for publication.

In high school, I’d written a Batman fanfic short story and co-wrote a Thor fanfic novella. I also plotted out the early, early ancestors to the story that has become Ghost Ronin and that yes, I’m still working on a quarter century later. Call that maybe 25,000 words total.

In the Air Force, I wrote an X-Files fanfic short story about Sasquatch (I’ll leave you to find that on the interwebs), piddled around with Ghost Ronin some more and on a bet wrote a short story set in the Unification Chronicles universe in one weekend. (The bet was with my roommate, who noticed that I never seemed to finish a story and bet me I couldn’t do it while he could. His story ended up being two pages of kitchy banter that didn’t go anywhere.) Figure maybe another 50,000 words tops, though there was already an encouraging sign, if I’d understood what it was at the time. I only submitted the short story, “The Drop,” to one place, F&SF. Looking back on it there was no chance they’d accept it, being one of the largest SF magazines in the mid 90s and given how hopelessly cliched and derivative the story was. And yet, while I did get a form letter rejection–and in my inexperience took that as an insult–they did handwrite on it that I should take note of their new editorial address, which they had helpfully circled. Now I’d realize that was a hint that while they hadn’t had much interest in that particular story, there was something in my writing that they wanted to see more of. It took me a long time to figure that out.

But that’s it. When I started writing my first novel, with every intention of getting it published, I’d had less than a full novel’s worth of practice, and far, far less than a million words. What made me think I could pull it off? In a very real way, I didn’t pull it off. Between Heaven and Hell was not published in print, and got picked up by Peanut Press mostly because I happened to be nosing around when they were looking for original content. A few months later, after they signed deals with some of the major publishers to release ebook editions, and they wouldn’t have needed me. And in a real way, my writing did need a lot more seasoning. It wasn’t until after Between Heaven and Hell (80,000 words), Do Over! (17,000 words), my screenplay “In Shining Armor” (20,000 words in another iteration of what is now Ghost Ronin), Homeworld (60,000 words, my 2006 NaNoWriMo project) and the unpublished first book of the Nemesis War, Mistaken Identity (80,000 words) that my writing really started to achieve what I now consider professional levels. But add all that together and I’m still only at 332,000 words, only a third of the way to a million.

But the catch is that while I have a third of a million words of experience in prose fiction, I’ve been storytelling for a LOT longer than that. I started early, telling stories orally in elementary school, usually ad lib fairy tales complete with morals. In sixth grade, I was introduced to the old school Red Box D&D Basic Set, and it wasn’t long before I became a DM and started running games of my own. I think a lot of my storytelling fundamentals come from designing and running role playing campaigns in D&D, then the TMNT/Robotech/Rifts family of Palladium games, then the Heroes system I still play today. If you think about it, a lot of the skills overlap. I had to create settings, create characters for the players to interact with, design plots for them to follow and yet be flexible enough to create something new on the fly if the characters did something unexpected, which they usually did. I was 11 when I was introduced to role playing games, and still play them (though now I rarely GM, as I have my own stories to tell) 27 years later. Add that to being a voracious reader and oh, yeah, that third of a million words I’ve actually written to learn the specifics of writing prose, plus the countless words of nonfiction I’ve written over the years on this blog and others, and I probably have equivilent experience to someone who has just cranked out a million words of fiction in isolation.

Only I think I had a lot more fun.