The value of every word

I tried so hard
And got so far
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter
I had to fall
To lose it all
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter
—Linkin Park

The 2000s were a horrible decade for me, personally, professionally and creatively. I lost several jobs, lost my place to live twice and after finishing Between Heaven and Hell in 1997, "Do Over!" in 1998 and the "In shining Armor" screenplay in 1999, I didn’t finish another work of fiction until the very last month of the decade, December of 2009 with the first draft of Revelation.

And yet, I grew more as a writer in the 2000s than any other time in my life.

My single biggest lesson of the decade in terms of writing is that all writing counts. All of it, anything you can do helps you grow and develop. While I didn’t finish much in the 2000s, I wrote 80,000 words of the sequel to BHH, a story that will now be modified as book four of the Unification Chronicles. I wrote 60,000 words on Homeworld, my Mars novel. But the real kicker is that I wrote half a million words of nonfiction between my various blogs and freelance work for other sites. and coming back to fiction after my "lost decade," it’s amazing how much better my prose is because of writing all that nonfiction.

Words are words, people. Everything you write makes you better. Every word. And this lesson is what makes it possible for me to give away a seven book series in Unification Chronicles. because even if these books don’t get published in the traditional sense—and keep in mind I very much intend to get my later work published traditionally—they still make me better as a writer just by writing them.

Not a single word you write is ever wasted, published or not. It all helps you learn the craft. it all teaches you. It all increases your mastery of language. So write as much as you can, as often as you can. Don’t worry about marketability, don’t worry about selling, just write. It’s all worth it, especially if you’re lost.

Focusing on what’s important

It would seem I’m destined to do this writing thing in bursts over time. I don’t know how much I’ll be posting here and on the Unification Chronicles blog in the near future, nor how much fiction I’ll actually get written. But unfortunately, I have other priorities that usurp writing.

Last week, my mom had her thyroid taken out because the doctors couldn’t tell whether or not it was cancerous by biopsies alone and figured it was safer to remove it. We now know that it was cancer, and that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes nearby. We don’t know if the lymphoma has progressed any farther, which of the 35 kinds of lymphoma it is, or which of the four stages it progressed to. They’re still testing to determine those things. My mom could be cancer-free because they already removed all the cancerous tissue, or it could be much, much worse.

So for a while, my top priority is to be there for my family, to support them and help out as much as I can. I’ll try to find time for writing, will have to find at least some time to prevent going crazy. But my grand scheme to write seven books in ten months has been thoroughly derailed by real life.

The plan

A big part of this blog, and Writing On Your Palm before it, has always been to document my journey as a writer and serve as either a cautionary example or inspiration to others. It occurred to me recently that I have a unique opportunity to do so much more.

When I was writing my first novel, one of my idols was Joe Straczynski, the creator and writer of nearly every episode of Babylon 5. I read every word Joe published on the internet during the production of the show, and I learned a lot about both writing in general and how television is made. But there was always more I wanted to know. I wanted to see the scripts. I wanted to sit in on the breakout meetings. I wanted to see the background of the story the way Joe saw it. I never got those things, because Joe is sane and had a business to run.

But now, I have the opportunity to provide just what I wanted. I can do something no one else has been nuts enough to do. Here’s the plan.

Step 1: Write and edit Unification Chronicles simultaneously

Regular readers know I’ve committed to writing all seven books of the Unification Chronicles series in ten months, to be finished by Labor Day weekend, 2010. But now that I’ve figured out how to write 2,000 words a day and still have time for my normal life, I’ve decided to aim still higher. I’m also going to edit the books in nearly the same span of time. Basically, while I’m writing 2,000 words a day of Book 2, I’ll be editing 5-10 pages of Book 1. This is possible because the 2k-per-day rough draft I’ve been turning out is surprisingly readable, not at all the unreadable crap I was expecting. Turns out you can write well and write fast at the same time (Mike Cane, I’m looking at you).

Step 2: Blog everything

Yes, everything. I’d like to announce The Unification Chronicles Blog, where I’ll be publishing every single thing I use in writing these books, documenting every step in the process. There you will find notes, research, plot outlines, even drafts posted as I write them, and before I revise them. I want aspiring writers to see the whole package. To be able to compare outlines to drafts to the finished product, and see how it all changes. I’ve set up a wiki for most of the structured information that doesn’t work as well on a blog.

Step 3: Sell the finished product cheap or free

Once I’m done with each book, each chapter will be available as a free PDF file or a free podcast (narrated by yours truly, and a straight read, none of this voice cast business). Each book will also be available on, and as a 99 cent ebook. At the end of the series I’ll also make a 7-book omnibus edition available for $5.

For those that want something to put on a shelf—or don’t take my advice about how to read ebooks comfortably—I’ll also be publishing each book via either Lulu or CreateSpace—haven’t decided which yet—for just a little bit more than it costs to print. I’m not trying to get rich here. But I want to make sure that anyone who wants a printed copy can get one. I likely won’t be doing a printed omnibus edition, however, as it would simply be too expensive.

Step 4: Embrace the Chaos

One of the reasons I’m doing this is to establish a certain setting I plan to come back to again and again throughout my career. This is the Chaos. After the events in Book 5, I basically have kicked over all the anthills and set the galaxy on fire. Everyone is at war with everyone else, humanity is in pretty dire straits, and everything has gone to hell. Book 6 actually takes place during the Chaos, but it’s far from the only thing going on. It will take years, maybe decades of this to get to Book 7, Unification, where the heroes that survived Book 5 get back together and unify the galaxy. In those years are an infinity of tales.

But I’m not going to be the only one writing Tales of the Chaos. At least I hope not. I’m going to open up that setting under Creative Commons so that anyone can write stories set there. There will be a few limitations, like not using actual characters from my books, so the new stories don’t end up contradicting Unification—and even that will be negotiable, I expect to approve a few canonical stories I don’t write—but overall, it’s an open sandbox. Most of the stories will even be hosted on the Unification Chronicles site.

Step 5: The Audition

Once I’m done with Unification Chronicles—aside from Tales of the Chaos—I’ll keep writing, of course. Homeworld (my NaNoWriMo 2006 project) and Titanus (which I developed for Script Frenzy 2009 but decided I’d rather write as a novel) still need to be finished. As does Ghost Ronin, the first in a new adventure series. These, and the works that follow them, will in all likelihood be written with the door closed. I will seek an agent and get these and future works published traditionally. But here, the work I’ve done for Unification Chronicles will give me an advantage. Agents and editors considering my work will be able to see that I can write to a specific length, finish what I start, and tell a good story. They’ll have half a million words of my fiction as a work sample, and they’ll be able to see exactly how I research and write a book. And hopefully, they’ll see you, dear readers, and see that I can build a fan base and get people excited about my work. That’s why I’m giving Unification Chronicles away for free—or as cheap as I’m allowed to make it. Because if I pull it off, and do everything right, then I get to…

Step 6: Quit my day job and write full time

I want to make my living as a novelist. I want my only requirement in life to be continuing to tell the stories that make my life worth living. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at, and with your help, I think I have a way to make this happen. I expect this to take time, but hopefully I’ll be a full time working novelist by the time I’m 45 (I’m 38 now).

Let’s get started.

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.


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.

Chasing my tale

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that I’m going to stop talking about Evernote so gorram much. Not that I don’t still think it’s made of AWESOME, but I have a lot more interesting topics to cover.

The bad news is that I have a lot of more interesting topics to cover. My relative silence recently is nearing an end.

So, in the interest of “What personal life? I have no boundaries, I’m a blogger!” here’s what’s on my plate.

I’ve gotten hooked on the best-damn-writing-podcast-I-should-have-founded-but-didn’t, The Dead Robots Society. This is a group of folks who talk the talk about writing on a regular basis. They’re serious about writing but not serious about themselves, which means they avoid the pretentious puffery so common in writing discussions. It’s a fun, insightful podcast even if you write something other than SF.

(I even dig the name, so similar to the writing critique group I’ve led here in Denver for ten years now, the Dead Asimovs Society.)

And since the Robots and their guests do a lot of podcast fiction, they’ve inspired me to give it a shot. I will be podcasting “Do Over!” first, since it’s only 17,000 words, and then if that works out without starting any major wars with third world nations, I’ll be podcasting my first novel, Between Heaven and Hell. BHH will be produced semi-weekly, with new episodes every Monday and Thursday. This will give me three 10-week seasons, one for each section of the book. I am NOT updating the book into the present day. The events in the novel take place from 1997-2000. This means they were before Google. Before 9/11. Before YouTube. Before smartphones and before Twitter. It would be a very different book if it were set today, less than 15 years later, and I don’t have time to write such a book unless, of course, a paying publisher really wanted me to.

A few notes about the podcast. While I admire the work of podcast novel pioneers like Scott Sigler, JC Hutchins, Phillipa Ballantine and Mur Lafferty, I’m not going to do what they do. A lot of podcast novels border on full-on audio dramatizations, with sound effects, voice actors for each part and well… production values. That’s not my style. I’m a total audiobook junkie and was hooked on that style of audio fiction before the term podcast was even coined, much less applied to fiction. So what you’ll get from me will be more of the Nathan Lowell-style straight reading of the text, just me, a microphone and whatever ambient noise makes it into my car (which is the quietest place I have access to in order to record). If I get really fancy, I might splice in intro and outro music. Maybe.

But that’s not all I’m doing. I’m also going to try to finish the first draft of Ghost Ronin by Halloween. This is an less an updated and expanded novel version of the “In Shining Armor” screenplay on my blog as a new novel loosely based on that screenplay. Lots of new stuff, new characters, new motivations, new ending. I hope I can pull it off because I’m doing some interesting stuff with it. I’m about 20k words in, and hope to get to 75-80k by Halloween.

Why finish by Halloween? Because the day after Halloween is the first day of NaNoWriMo! This year for NaNo I have a pretty interesting project. It’s a story set in the Unification Chronicles universe, long after the events in Between Heaven and Hell. The novel will be about a lone human trying to survive stranded on an alien homeworld in the middle of a civil war between the male and female aliens. In addition to being a cool story in its own right, it’s a trial run to see how the setting works. I have lots of ideas for this setting down the line, a galaxy united by war against a common enemy and then torn apart once that enemy was defeated. The story of that war, the Nemesis War, is a trilogy I had abandoned, but am now using as backstory for this much richer canvas. I actually stopped writing the first book in that trilogy 80k words in, just a few scenes from finishing it, and learned much about the aliens—the Sendeni—we’ll see in this Sins of the Mothers.

(yes, I’m bloody well aware of the pattern you see here, and I’m working on it)

And finally, when I’m done with NaNoWriMo, completely finishing the first draft no matter how many words over 50k or days into December it takes, I’m going to finish the first draft of my NaNo ‘06 project: Homeworld, my Mars book. Every SF writer, it would seem, eventually has to tackle Mars, and this is my take on the subject. The elevator pitch for it is “Bill Gates goes to Mars,” but there’s a lot more to it and I’ve had a blast getting as far as I’ve gotten, maybe halfway into the third act.

Lastly, I’m going to try to take this blog back to the old days of Writing On Your Palm, and by that I mean a new article posted every Monday. Topics will be the usual suspects: mobile technology, writing, publishing and other items of interest to the gadget-obsessed writer.

This should leave me with three novels in first draft form, and halfway through a podcast novel around New Years. Big plans for 2010 include lots and lots of rewriting and getting my own apartment. Also, naps. I’ll talk about the process of all of it here, in the hope that I might at the very least serve as a cautionary tale for some of you.

So that’s me. What are YOU writing?