Planning a Novel: The Spark of an Idea

While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.

She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.

I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.

She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”

She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborn trilogy. Sounds good to me.

“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”

I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”

We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.

It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?

Find someone to bounce ideas off of

As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.

It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.

Start broad, then go more and more narrow

You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.

Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.

Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.

Ideas change

What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.

Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.

Realize that this is just the first step

The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.

That’s all I have for today. Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes. If you’re looking for more on this subject, checkout my blog post called Find Inspiration, Generate Ideas, and the Myth of the Perfect Concept.

Become a Beta Reader

Calling All Beta Readers – Read Grim Curio Before Anyone Else

Hello dear readers, it’s that time again. Beta readers, assemble! Who among you will rise to the challenge and beta read Grim Curio before it’s submitted to contests, agents, and publishers? To become a beta reader, follow the link below and fill out the short form.

Become a Beta Reader [link]

Become a Beta Reader

The beta reading period is quickly approaching, with a targeted date of Tuesday Jan 2nd for the first three chapters to be handed out. If you want to be a part of the process, sign up now! Beta readers will receive a free copy of Grim Curio upon release, and I’m going to try to come up with another way to thank you, maybe a t-shirt or something — I’m open to ideas.

About Grim Curio

The story of how the world ends begins on a near barren planet within the last and only city on earth, along a narrow empty street, dusk sunlight casting the toxic air in rainbow streaks of red, purple and green. This story begins and ends with James.

James is rogue veil researcher. He seeks evidence that will prove parallel realities exist, hoping to save humanity from the caustic, dying waste the earth has become. In order to make this discovery, he will cross paths with violent teenage nihilists, scientists attempting to cut a hole in the fabric of reality, a researcher hell bent on following the rules, a politician struggling to maintain order and stability, and many more strange and dangerous people.

When the fate of Refuge is at stake, can these disparate people with conflicting goals band together to survive or will their discord be their downfall?

What does a Beta Reader do?

A beta reader is one of the greatest people living on the face of the earth. They receive chapters from the Grim Curio manuscript, read it, answer questions and leave feedback, then return their notes to me. We’ll talk about the novel, about your opinions, and laugh at my stupid grammar mistakes. In the end, you’ll get a signed copy and another gift yet to be determined.

Do I have to read all of Grim Curio?

Nope. If life gets in the way, or if you just don’t want to keep on beta reading, you can drop out at any time. Beta reading is purely optional, but in order to receive any of the beta reader gifts, you must read and offer feedback for at least 85% of Grim Curio.

What if I’ve never edited anything before?

That’s fine! All you need to be is a passionate reader. If you live for science fiction and fantasy novels, then you’re the perfect candidate to become a beta reader.

How much feedback should beta readers give?

As much or as little as you’re willing to share. If you want to write a full-page critiquing each chapter, that’s great. If you only want to share a few sentences on how you feel about the material, that’s great too.

 

What is the process, in detail?

The process is pretty straight forward.

  • Receive 3 chapters starting with chapter 1
  • Read through, comment, and answer a few specific questions within a timely manner (3-5 days)
  • Return chapters and notes back
  • Receive next 3 chapters, etc.
  • Enjoy an occasional Skype call where I thank you profusely and we chat about the novel

Can I invite my friends to be beta readers too?

Please do. The more the merrier.

Cause That’s Just The Way it Goes

It’s quarter past eleven at night — quarter til midnight at the time of publishing — and I’m still writing. About to head to bed when I realized I haven’t posted in a while. Got to throw you guys something before you forget about Grim Curio. I feel so great about this novel, better than I’ve felt for anything I’ve ever written. I feel it, this one is going to make a splash.

Anyway, here’s a few snippets from the novel. I hope you enjoy them.

1.

In the dark of this hole, their faces are cloaked in hoods, disrupted but shadow, lenses, cloth. Only a green glint in their goggles, the reflection of the abused computer monitor, betrays their eyes. Even so, James reads their emotion in the constance of their stair, the stiffness in their shoulders, the way they contemplate the first words that might tidy this strange situation. He bristles when he see’s the sidearms strapped to their thighs, see’s the military precision in the packing gear.

‘There’s got to be an easier way to make a buck.’ The phrase springs to his mind, and he almost smiles. It’s not the buck’s he’s after. Anxiety runs down his back in a skittering of pinpricks, and suddenly the world is hyperreal. It’s moments like these — when the only thing between him and consequence is his tenacity — when he finally feels in control of his destiny. No system brought him here, no misguided ideology. He walked upstream, against the current like a boss, and now he’s ready to see how close he come’s to oblivion.

Then he’ll pull himself back out again. Cause that’s just how it goes.

2.

Note: Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a piece of writing within the world of Grim Curio. These are emails, journal entries, propaganda, and in the following’s case, a poem.

Girlies an’ Boy’os, do not break a rule,
Sit straight, listen, when ya go to school,
Them cleary* bastards won’t stand none’ya fight,
Mark ya in they ledger, ya stupid little fool.

Girlies an’ Boy’os, do not break a rule,
Just ya wait’n listen, soon come the ghoul,
Them cleary bastards’ll get’ya come the night,
Dis’pear ya to nothin, ya stupid little fool.

Mind all ya manners
‘Member who they was
When top ‘comes bottom and bottom the top
Show ‘em then what we lil’ shit’s think of ‘em,
Cut ‘em, gut ‘em, hang them from the rafters
That is all.

– Untitled Poem from The Outlaw’s Book of Rhymes

*cleary is a derogatory term for people who live in the undercity. After hundreds of years below ground, their skin has gone opaque. The undercity residents tend to be the elites, politicians, artisans, scientists, teachers, students, and stability officers.

3.

Note: Last bit. This is just a snippet of a conversation that is currently in chapter 6 between James and the student Gretchen. James is from the surface, Gretchen from the undercity. I’m trying to make their cultures very different and their confines tight. Ok, here it is:

Gretchen frowns thoughtfully. “There’s an empty hut up the hill, I’ll ask an elder if we can use it. If he says no, though, there’s nothing we can do. Fringes Protocol states we follow tribal rules.”

“Fine. Do what you can. Introduce me as a spiritual healer. Stress that I use natural methods to expel spirits and demons, lift curses, that sort of thing.”

“You mean lie?”

“I mean embellish. Just a bit.”

“But protocol—“

“I’m above protocol and I herby grant you permission to rise above the protocol with me and get shit done. Temporary leniency granted, congratulations. When you talk to whoever… who will you be talking to?”

Suddenly preoccupied, she says quietly, “Probably Elder Nevin.”

“Tell Elder Nevin that I’m not with associated with you. Call me weird or something, point to my skin, the way I talk and move, make sure he can see as clear as day that I’m an outsider here. That’s the only way I can build my own reputation at this point. Also, mention how strange it is that I don’t use tech.”

Gretchen studies the ground, contemplates the lies she’s been ordered to pass along.

“You alright?” asks James evenly.

She nods.

“I know they’ve taught you’ to follow protocols your entire life, and what I’m asking you to do feels wrong, but you asked for me and now you’ve got me. Do you want to help this village? Their children?”

She nods.

“Then what we’ve got to do is create a scenario with the greatest chance of success, and this is what I’ve got. If you’ve got a better idea, name it. How ‘bout you, at the computer. Any killer ideas?”

Ryan shakes his head.

Back to Gretchen, he says, “This is what I do every single day. Stick with me, and we’ll have you breaking protocol left and right, and trust me it’ll be the best you’ve ever felt. But if you don’t feel comfortable, I’ll manage.”

 

That’s all for now. Hope to be sharing more soon 🙂

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

The Three Greatest Influences on Grim Curio

This week I reached a major writing milestone in Grim Curio. I wrote my 50,000th word. This is a big step in the process and to celebrate I’m going to share some of the works that have influenced me over the past few months.

What follows are GC’s three greatest influences, which is by no means a complete list. Each of these books feature specific elements in the area’s of tone, character arcs, and genre elements that I’ve taken, made my own, and tried to emulate. Let’s get started.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - Book CoverEvery Cormac McCarthy novel has blown me away. The guy is a master of prose, at genre subversion, and at non-conventional storytelling techniques. He has a voice all his own and manages to write genre fiction with deeply embedded literary flair.

Of his works, you might expect The Road to be the greatest source of inspiration. It shares the Post Apocalyptic genre with Grim Curio, and it’s probably his most well-known book at this point. And while The Road is certainly a book that makes me aspire to being a better writer, there are only really superficial similarities between that book and mine.

No, the McCarthy book that had the greatest impact on GC is easily No Country for Old Men. From the tightly paced narrative and the interesting moral dilemmas to absolutely stunning prose and fantastic character arcs, there’s so much to draw on.

Is No Country for Old Men an action novel? You could argue that it’s an action subversion, taking the guise of an action narrative while flipping all the tropes on their heads. Or perhaps it’d be better classified as post-action, especially in the way the book ends. Whatever it is, it’s a damn fine novel, and one that inspires me continually as I write.

Check out the three biggest influences on Grim Curio by @SCBarrus #novels #thriller #fantasy #scienceficiton Click To Tweet

The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson - Book Cover

Switching genres, the next major influence is the Mistborn trilogy which consists of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages. These books feature an epic fantasy plot with a unique magic system and massive twists all along the way. But it’s not really these elements that inspire any element of Grim Curio.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every aspect above, but what really caught my eye was the near perfect character arcs. While reading I kept picking up on these often subtle character changes. Almost none of the major characters are static, they all end up as drastically different people than they started as, but the progression feels so subtle and natural.

Taken by the character progression, I ended up watching a series of novel-writing lectures from Brandon Sanderson on YouTube hoping that his secret would be revealed. Turns out it totally was, and it changed the way I write.

He has a unique approach to novel planning which I’ll dive deep into in a future post. It involves listing out all the major moments in a characters arc, then figuring out how that a character will earn that plot point. Each of these will turn into a scene. The end result, when done well, is subtle character growth leading to major changes over time.

While Grim Curio isn’t going to be anywhere near as long as Mistborn, I hope it still carries elements of this kind of character progression with all the major characters.

Mushishi

Long time followers may have guessed Mushishi would appear on this list. Mushishi is a quiet, contemplative and amazing piece of entertainment. Some may criticize it for being slow, but to them I say “no one asked you!”

Mushishi follows Ginko, a sort of traveling medicine man in feudal Japan. He wanders the rural villages to cure the ailments brought on by Mushi, creatures that exists in a different plane, yet affect our world in sometimes subtle and sometimes drastic ways.

While this one isn’t at all an edge of the seat thriller, it does instill the viewer with a sense of awe rarely felt while watching TV or movies. While technically Grim Curio will likely be categorized as Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction, it’s really Fantasy masquerading as Sci-Fi. The fantasy elements are all written through a Sci-Fi lens, but really it’s closer to Mushishi than any sort of hard science fiction.

GC attempts to take these small moments of wonder, and then build and build upon them until the scale is massive and the stakes are higher than ever. But it also seeks to capture periodic quiet moments of contemplation.

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Mushi-Shi - Scene from the Anime

Conclusion

There you have it, the three biggest influences on Grim Curio. If you’re interested in learning more about inspiration, be sure to check out this post where I explore how to live a lifestyle that encourages constant inspiration and idea generation. Or if you’d rather get more peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, check out Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio.

Find Inspiration, Generate Ideas, & the Myth of the Perfect Concept

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. Even a short one will consume hundreds, if not thousands of hours of your life. So it’s no surprise that so many people look for effective novel-writing strategies. What follows is the first post in my series on novel-writing. Through this series we’ll explore my current novel-writing process from conception to wherever the future takes us.


Writers write because they are inspired, don’t they? In film, writers struggle for that perfect idea, for that flash of inspiration. They struggle over a blank page, cursed with genius yet a lack of inspiration for they’re next novel. If we take movies at their word, no writer would ever write until they discovered the perfect, world shattering idea.

Lucky for us, writing doesn’t actually work that way. Good ideas are important, but they aren’t the crux that every novel depends on. Moreover, while inspiration may simply strike some people, most of us have to fashion habits that will coax ideas out of the back of our minds on a regular basis.

Inspiration is important but it's not the crux every novel must depend on. Click To Tweet

So how important is the inspiration behind your next (or first) novel? How do you create habits that ensure ideas come freely and with relative ease? Read on to dispel some common myths, learn a bit about the nature of inspiration, and build the habits that nurture ideas, generating them on a near daily basis.

The Prefect Concept

Do I need the perfect idea before I start writing?

You’re about to devote months, perhaps years to writing your masterpiece but it all starts with an idea. One bud of a thought can fuel countless hours of your life as you tackle the thankless task of sitting in a room, alone, writing. So you should wait to begin until you have the best idea ever, right?

No. In my experience, aspiring writers place too much importance on the idea behind their story. They seem to believe that if they think and think and think, they’ll come up with the perfect concept, and a book will eventually form. They will often say, “I’ve been working on a story for years.” But when it comes down to it, no words have been written.

What’s the issue with placing too much emphasis on the idea?

Some people will build their ideas for years. They may even change from one concept to another, developing ideas so thoroughly that they may as well have written their novel to completion. People I know and love have developed tons of ideas but have nothing to show for it. What they don’t realize is that an idea is only a fraction of the work involved when writing.

In reality there’s no need to labor over an idea until it’s perfect. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Everyone has them. Even a really solid idea is worthless without the right amount of ass in chair time.

Even a solid novel idea is worthless without the right amount of ass in chair time. Click To Tweet

A Case Study featuring Tim

Let’s consider Tim. Tim spent years developing his idea, and it’s damn near perfect. If you could see the visions inside his head, you’d be brought to tears for it brilliance. When Tim finally sat down to write, an awful thing happened. The words didn’t sound right. They felt amateurish and sloppy.

The trouble is, Tim knows what good writing is. He’s read it over and over again. But Tim never practiced the actual craft of writing. He’s read great novels, read amazing books on story structure and character arcs. He knows when writing is good or bad, but he hasn’t spent enough time practicing the craft, so his perfect idea in theory is now a mess in execution.

Had Tim settled on a half-formed idea, wrote it out, and admitted it was bad, he would have had hundreds of hours of experience writing. Maybe his first effort will never get published, but by the time he gets to his second or third novel, his writing will be leaps and bounds better, the ideas will come easier, and his ability to communicate through text will mature.

In other words, don’t put too much emphasis on the idea of your book, especially your first book. Find something that interests you and start writing. The more you do this, the easier the entire process will become.

Follow your interests & write even w/o inspiration. Do this & the process will get easier. Click To Tweet

Fostering Habits to Encourage Constant Inspiration

This is my first attempt at illustrating my blog. It’s a new thing I’m trying out. I’m not great at it, but it’s something I enjoy and will try to continue for future posts.

Now that I’ve spent roughly 1000 words downplaying the spark that incites your novel, I’m going to admit that ideas are kind of important after all. Before you sit down to a blank screen and flashing cursor, you’ll want to start somewhere. So where does the inspiration come from?

Idea’s can come from anywhere, you just need to condition yourself to generate them. I’m a firm believer that anyone can be a good writer, talent be damned. Sure, in every walk of life there are some people who are inherently talented, but there are far more people who simply worked really hard to get what they want. Everything about the writing process will come easier if you put the hours in. That includes finding inspiration.

The three B’s

I once had a professor tell me that inspiration comes from the three B’s: bathroom, bedroom, and bus. What he meant was, there are certain points of the day where you’re doing nothing, and it’s these moments where you’ll find yourself inspired. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s likely while you’re commuting, falling asleep, or doing your bathroom business.

But if you’re a writer, you probably need more than that. You’ll want to create habits that insure you have constant moments to think, explore ideas, and hopefully be inspired.

Make time for contemplation

All of my best ideas come in times of quiet contemplation, which for most people doesn’t just happen. You need to create the times to think, which can unfortunately be quickly overrun by the busy world, much like a gym membership. This in turn forces you to be ever vigilant in protecting you thinking time, deliberately setting aside regular time for it.

Most people only reserve this kind of thinking time for the three B’s — and bathroom has now become the place of the smartphone so maybe the B’s are down to two. To be in a state of constant inspiration, or to at least aspire to that state, you need to consciously develop a habit of turning off distractions (including other people) and just think.

Thinking time is too easily is pushed aside by the busy world, like a half used gym membership. Click To Tweet

How I search for inspiration

For me, habits are easiest to maintain when they easily fit into my schedule. Let’s be honest here, creating new habits is hard, especially with my busy schedule filled with family, work, writing, reading, Muay Thai, video games, Harmonquest, Rick and Morty, and anime. You likely have things you’re passionate about too, so tailor your novel meditation schedule to work best with everything else you’ve got going on.

Tailor your novel meditation schedule to work best with everything else in your life. #writing Click To Tweet

Here’s when I do it:

Driving – At least a few days per week I spend my 40 minute commute to work listening to this playlist and just thinking. No audiobooks, no podcasts, no damn commercials. Just me and my thoughts for 40 minutes straight. It’s amazing how much will come out of these driving sessions once you make a habit of it.

If you have the privilege of a long commute, this is a viable option for you. It’s time you wont get back anyway, might as well invest is as a thinker rather than a passive talk radio listener. But if you don’t commute, find time where you’re doing constant, mindless things, and inject your mind into the equation. Walking, running, shopping, and for some people maybe while working.

Bed – About twice per week I’ll go to bed an hour early. I know that I can rarely actually fall asleep before 10:30pm, so I go to bed with the goal of mulling over current project. Since I’m already in the middle of writing Grim Curio (sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss it’s release) I’ll spend that time thinking on character motivations and arcs, plot points, and themes.

When one of the ideas feel particularly good, I’ll find a way of putting it to paper. Later I’ll work it into my book summary so when I get to the applicable point in the novel, I’ll remember exactly what I was thinking.

I feel like this is an easy option for most people. Do what you have to so you’re in a thinking mindset, lay down, close your eyes, and just think.

Writing – To be honest, a lot of great ideas and sparks of inspiration come in the moment during the writing process. Sometimes it relates to the current scene, but just as often what I’m writing will spark an idea for a future scene. These ideas can disappear quickly, so make a note of it right away.

These ideas tend to be on the details and continuity level for me, so their different from what I think of in the previous strategies. Because of this, I would not rely on this time to be your only time to think on your book. At the same time, don’t underestimate the value of simply writing, even if you have no direction at all. Ideas will come to you as you work through all the threads in your mind. So, even when nothing else is working, sit down and write.

With their powers combined

Don’t rely on just one of these times to contemplate your novel. Try a combination or come up with a few of your own. Best results come when taken together.

The personal risks of living in constant pursuit of inspiration

I’m not normal. You probably figured this out already. I’m pretty aloof, I forget a lot of important things, and I have a hard time maintaining relationships with many people outside my family — even inside my family if I’m being honest. For a normal person, this might sound lonely, but for me, it’s what I crave.

This personality flaw, as some might call it, is likely a result of my own pursuit crafting the perfect piece of fiction. I spend so much time thinking about my writing — and other creative projects — that when it comes time for the real world, often I’m a step behind.

For me, that’s ok. I enjoy being alone and spending time simply thinking on things. This is where my inspiration comes from. So be warned, transitioning into a life in constant pursuit of inspiration may come at a cost. Or you might already be an outcast, nerd, or other form of standoffish enthusiast. My people!

Don’t put too much pressure on your ideas

The idea generating phase never ends, so try not to stress about it. The more you allow yourself to think on things, the easier it becomes. Remember, it takes years to become good at anything. Don’t expect the first manuscript you write to be your masterpiece. You could be one of the lucky one’s who writes a classic on their first go, and to you I say fuck off.

It takes most people years to become great at manipulating a thousand ideas into a novel, so just make time for thinking and writing and let everything else go. There’s too much stress in the world already. Don’t make the creative process into a stressful one. Enjoy the struggle, take pride in your mistakes, at least you’re creating something out of nothing! Later on, those early mistakes will be obvious and you’ll find all new weaknesses to strengthen. So it goes.

Young writers, enjoy the struggle, take pride in your mistakes, at least you're creating something! #writing Click To Tweet

When your expectations are too high, nothing feels good enough. Accept that not all of your ideas will be perfect. Some may feel average at best but will create a compelling story in execution. Others may feel great and in execution you’ll realize that they weren’t all you thought they were. It’s all ok. Pivot. Come up with new ideas. Think and think on it, massage it, and eventually something good will come.

Recognize that the initial idea will likely get left in the dust

The spice must flow

When I wrote Discovering Aberration, my initial idea was inspired by a dream of a mysterious island with some hidden technology submerged under a lake protected by a dragon. The island and the ancient technology made it to the final draft. All the rest got written out. In the end I wrote a story involving gang wars, evil archeologists, a lost civilization, and characters driven to madness. Idea’s change, and that’s ok. Let them take on their own life, coax them along, adjusting when you need to.

Conclusion

Ideas and inspiration don’t strike anyone not actively looking for it. The right mindset, discipline, and practice will cause ideas to flow. If you aspire to being a great writer, then the best advice I can give you is to write and never stop. I hope you found this first post in my novel-writing series useful. If you did, I would very much appreciate it if you would be kind enough to share. I’ll see you next time.

Creativity Juice: A Writers Playlist – 19 Hours of Great Writing Music

I’ve been building a killer writing playlist on Spotify for a year. I somehow created a 19 hour behemoth of music I can reliably count on whenever I need to get into the writing mood. Shuffle play, and instantly I get pulled into a more contemplative piece of mind.

It’s a mix of chill out, down tempo electronic, psychedelic post-rock, and movie and video game soundtracks. Almost all of the songs have a steady but relaxing beet and trance inducing rhythms. Few have any singing, and those that do feature the kind of vocals that blend with the music rather than drive it.

Below is the playlist. I called it Creativity Juice – A Writers Playlist. Look down further for a sample of some of the artists included. And if that doesn’t float your boat, scroll way down past that where I share some of my playlist creation wizardry tips. So good.

Listen to The Playlist

The artists include:

Want to give this playlist a test drive? Check out some of the artists.

Bonobo

Emancipator

Little People

Massive Attack

Efterklang

The Album Leaf

Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Interstellar

The Fountain

The Witcher

Bastion

Pyre

And Many, Many More.

What if you hate my taste in writing music?

Make it yourself! Below are some thing’s I’ve learned building a the perfect writing playlist for me. Feel free to give it a shot and before you know it, you’re going to be rocking your own masterpiece.

Add Songs Liberally

I like to add liberally. I start by picking an artist I like, listen to an album or two and add a song to the playlist every time I’m compelled to. Usually my criteria is to answer “will I ever like to hear this again while writing?” with maybe or greater. This builds your playlist quick, especially in the beginning.

Remove Songs Liberally

Once you’re listening to your playlist, you’ll quickly find that some of the songs that you thought would work just don’t strike the tone you want. Cut it as soon as you notice. Nothing is worse than listening to a playlist and skipping every other track. If you ever feel like skipping, just remove it instead. If you want, you can add it to another track later.

Utilize Recommended Artists

Once you’ve had your fill of any one artist, jump on a few of the related artists. I’ll generally give an artist I’ve never heard before a three song test. If I only skip one out of three songs in a row (adding songs I liked along the way), I’ll pick an album and listen to it from the beginning, otherwise I go back and pick again. Don’t just listen to their most popular tracks. Instead, pick an album and start from the beginning, adding songs you like as you go.

Listen While Your Not Writing

When you’re writing, the last thing you want to do is stop writing to manage a playlist. If a song comes on that you want to skip, if you’re like me you’ll just suffer through it unless it’s really grating. Instead, listen to your writing playlist when you’re not writing and remove the songs that aren’t working.

That’s all I’ve got. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a method that works for me. So what do you think of the playlist? If you listen to it during a drafting session, let me know how it went in the comments. If you’ve created your own writing playlist, feel free to share a link.

Eyes on the Future – Two Years of Writing & Publishing Goals

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

You can’t get far in life without a plan. Well, maybe you can, but I’ve never had much luck without it. When I try to pants my life, things tend to get missed along the way. Over the past five years, I’ve become more of a planner, plotting out points I want to hit in order to reach my goals.

After a few months of thought, I’ve created a series of goals for both the writing and publishing side of things and now I want to share these plans with you. The idea is: 1) as a reader of mine, you can have a clear view of what to look forward to in the future (yay!), 2) if you’re an emerging writer, you might be able to draw a bit of inspiration from my goals and learn from my mistakes to inform your own career.

Writing Goals

The following all center around projects I plan to begin and finish within the next two years. Let’s dive in.

1. Output – Write a book per year

First a soft goal. Many writers I follow have mentioned this magic number for building a career out of publishing, both trad and indie (read traditional publishing and self publishing). Most recently, Brandon Sanderson mentioned this goal in his Fantasy/Sci-fi college course which I highly recommend both for readers and writers.

This is a goal I think I can hit, as my writing output has increased dramatically since the first stage of my writing career. This might not be readily apparent to you, my reader, but give it a year and you’ll start to see the fruits of my labors as the books start hitting shelves with a regular cadence.

2. Complete Grim Curio by November

I plan on finishing a complete draft of Grim Curio soon. I wrote 35,000 words in 4 months, and that included a massive rewrite that halted progress for a full month and a half. Given my current output, I think November is a tight but realistic goal to hit, and I’ll keep you posted on this as we get closer.

Once the draft is done, I’ll do a full revision to make sure it’s as good as it can be on my own, and then I’ll send it out to beta readers (which will hopefully include you 😍). While Grim Curio is being shredded to pieces by you lot, I’ll start looking for the right literary agent while drafting my next project. Which leads us too…

3. Write The Gin Thief: Episode 2 by February 2018

The Gin Thief was the follow up to Discovering Aberration an episodic series of novellas I pitched via Kickstarter a couple years ago. It got funded to the tune of $500. Shortly after I published the first episode. A few weeks later stuff happened in my life, and as a result I stopped writing for two years.

The Gin Thief was the main casualty of this upheaval… apart from losing my entire marketing funnel and all the good will I’d built up with my reader base. Sorry about that. I’m working hard on fixing it as best I can.

For a long time, The Gin Thief has had this emotional brick attached to it that really weighed down my efforts to pick it up again, but I’ve finally worked past that. Now I’m ready to jump back in. I’ll write Episode 2 by end of February, and hopefully publish before summer of the same year.

From there, I plan on immediately finishing the series and publishing episodes regularly.

4. Write Discovering Aberration 2 by mid 2019

This goal is a year or two in the future, and things might change by then. Maybe Grim Curio takes off, and I have a larger Science Fiction fan base than a Steampunk one. In that case I’ll likely jump on another sci-fi work before revisiting DA2. So, while this goal may pivot at some point, the current plan is to follow up TGT with DA2.

After this, we’ll have to see. I have another story I’ve been thinking about writing which I think is technically categorized as Dream Punk (so many punk genres), but 2019 is a ways off, so other ideas might surface.

Publishing Career Goals

This section is for all the things I need to do that relate to my writing career, but aren’t directly writing novels. Mostly it involves communicating with my readers, and building an active reader base to launch future books to. In the end, you guys are what make what I enjoy doing possible.

1. Write a formal letter of apology to The Gin Thief kick started backers

Wow, it’s hard to publicly mess up and recover. Nobody has been after me about TGT stalling, no one is breaking down the door or anything, but I still feel terrible about the debacle. When I set out to launch TGT kickstarter campaign, I didn’t foresee the upheaval my life was about to go through, nor did I imagine that anything would stop me from writing.

Anyway, I’ve put this off long enough. It’s time to repair the damage. My next step before I do anything else is to write a letter of apology, update my backers on my plan, and then deliver. TGT will be completed, and I think I’ll be able to write a better series now than I could have before. Fingers crossed my backers take it well.

2. Rebuild my marketing funnel before Summer 2017

I used to be really good about building my mailing list which in turn did a great job of spreading the word of new releases and book promotional events. I had specific methods for readers to sign up for my mailing list from by website, blog, social networks, live events and book back matter. This was my funnel, and in the past couple years it’s fallen apart.

So it’s time to rebuild. In the coming months I’m going to:

  • Rebuild the website so its more than just a blog. On it I’ll include easy to discover links to my mailing list and a page dedicated to my books. It’ll look great, and be focused.
  • Update the back matter in all of my currently published ebooks.
  • Refocus my social media efforts to connect with readers and direct them to my site or mailing list.

Basically I’m going to take my online presences and revamp it one thing at a time.

2. Get back into the convention game

Back when I was at my most active, I would rent booths at three or four conventions a year, meet people, sell books, and build my mailing list. It was awesome, and I’d gotten pretty good at it. My goal is to get back into conventions in the Pacific NW (USA and maybe Canada) Summer of 2017.

Summer 2017 will be when I really start focusing on spreading the word, and a lot of that work will be around conventions. I need to have The Gin Thief: Episode 2 published before I do another convention for a few reasons:

  1. I won’t do another convention with just one novel to sell. I’ve done plenty of those, and they went fine, but for my next conventions I want at least three novels, plus some swag.
  2. I don’t feel right about pushing TGTuntil TGT2 is finally released. It’s been too long between episodes, and I don’t want people to feel swindled.
  3. Finally, more books to sell just equals better convention for lots of reasons. If someone doesn’t like the sound of one book, I can pitch the other. Also, there’s the chance that someone buy’s all three. When they do that, it’s easier to break even on the costs of renting a booth, getting a hotel, and traveling. Breaking even (and spreading the word) is my goal, making a profit is just icing.

3. Explore Traditional Publishing

I’ve done the indie thing a few times now, and I’m pleased with what I’ve done. I still plan to continue indie publishing TGT and possibly DA2. But I also want to see what the grass is like on the other side of the fence. That’s why I’m not planning on publishing Grim Curio myself.

There’s a few reasons for this. The idea of being a hybrid suites me. I’ll enjoy having other people take on some of the work, and I’d like to see my books have the opportunity to be more widely distributed. I also think that once this happens, my indie books and my traditional ones will build on each other, possibly cross pollinating two different groups of readers. Lots of eggs in lots of baskets feels like the way to go for me.

Conclusion

So that’s my plan in a nutshell. Stick with me through this crazy publishing journey and you’ll see all these things come to fruition. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, but that’s ok. In the end, I’ll have more books published, more readers reading them, and more fun as I streamline my approach. I hope you stick around for the long term. If you see me falter, feel free to point it out either here on my blog, or on any of my social networks.

Until next time, keep on keeping on.

Building the Plot & Structure of Grim Curio

It’s been radio silence on my end for the past few weeks, which isn’t cool at all. So today I’m jumping back into the game, filling you in on what’s been going on in my world, and update you the production of Grim Curio.

Mo’ House, Mo’ Problems

Last month I bought my first house. Woohoo! It’s a bit of a fixer upper, and I’ve been doing a fair share of the work myself as well as juggling contractors, suppliers, and getting the whole furniture situation worked out.

This effectively destroyed all of my blogging and social media time which is why there’s been little coming from me lately. Worry not. My actual writing progress has been as good as ever despite the work. Setting aside two hours a day four or five days a week has become an ingrained habit. Social media and blogging, isn’t on that level yet. Maybe one day.

Grim Curio Progress

You may remember the major rewrite I undertook about two months ago. It was an attempt to better establish the setting, as well as shift from first to third person perspective and from past tense to present tense. That work has finally been 100% completed!

On top of that, there used to be quite a bit of stuff I’d written that I realized would never make it to the final version, but I held on to it for a long while. All the dead text has been stripped away. I ended up cutting around 15,000 words and adding around 20,000.

The result is a tighter, more immediate story that can effortlessly shift perspectives and weave an intricate plot. There multiple perspectives and several storylines that affect each other, subtly at first then more pronounced as the story progresses, and these changes made that structure much more natural feeling.

Plotting

When I first started writing Grim Curio I had beginning, middle, and ending scenes in mind, but nothing outlined. I simply started writing by aiming the plot in the direction of the middle scene, building future scenes in my mind as I went. Some writers call this method “pantsing it” or “discovery writing”, and it’s the way I wrote Discovering Aberration.

This worked fine for Grim Curio so far, in fact I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. But sometimes it’s nice to have a better idea of a slightly more granular view of where things are going.

Recently I read about one of Brandon Sanderson’s plotting techniques (then quickly began watching his writing course on YouTube). Basically he writes a list of his most important scenes, then adds bullet points as to how the characters will “earn” each of those scenes. The bullets points are then turned into their own scenes, and boom, he has a plot.

I’ve never been a fan of traditional storyboarding, but this method sounded great to me, so I gave it a shot. The result is the fully plotted story structure of Grim Curio. I have to say that I really like this method so far, we’ll see if that holds true as I continue to try it out.

Structure

Now that this plotting exercise is complete, I have somewhere between 40-50% of the story written. What’s done is the first act (which is generally the longest act in most stories). Act 1 is mostly a self contained story with a side plot which will build into the meat of act 2.

Act 2 introduces new characters (Tannea and Simon, two scientists experimenting with parallel universes) and a new conflict which will permeate the rest of the novel. James will be drawn into this conflict in a much different way than he was drawn into the conflict of act 1.

However, Nat (antagonist who’s had the second most screen time of all the minor characters) will be incorporated into this conflict as well, but her screen time will be shared by the newly introduced characters as well as the rest of the Sisterhood.

Act 3 will be a doozy. By act 3 I think we’ll have the final set of secondary characters established (namely the government officials who’s actions drive much of the conflict of the final act). The conflict will build on what came before in act 2, but the stakes will be much higher than at any other point in the story (as might be expected from the climax). I even have an idea of what the last few sentences of the novel might be.

Stay tuned for more.

Hopefully that gives you a peek into my progress without giving too much away. But there’s more I’ve been preparing aside from Grim Curio. Recently I’ve been thinking about my publishing career as a whole and what I can do to right the wrongs I’ve done in the past (ie. not finishing The Gin Thief). There’s a lot I have on my mind, and a lot of planning that needs to happen, all of which I’ll address in the near future. Till then, you all keep reading!

Themes of Grim Curio – Nihilism, The Absurd, and The Sacred is Dead

Themes are the underlying identity of a piece of fiction. In fairy tales, the prevailing theme is usually summed up in the final paragraph of the story. But in most fiction the theme is more of an underlying current, directing the reader to focus their attention of certain details.

Ambitious works may use their themes to try and persuade the reader to accept new ideas while others may seek to hide their themes in subtext.

I never set out to write with a message in mind. I have a story to tell, and a way I want to tell it, and themes arise naturally through the process. When these themes show their ugly head, I’m often caught off guard by where my themes land. But once I discover a theme, then I’ll hone it without judgement.

Discovering the Themes

There are a few themes surfacing in Grim Curio, and today I’m going to talk about one. Namely nihilism, the absurd, and the sacred is dead. Believe me, the prevalence of these themes kind of took me by surprise, as these are not topics I tend to dwell on, nor are the necessarily deep held beliefs of mine.

You might suspect that I’ve read lots of Friedrich Nietzsche (the dude who claimed God was dead), but in reality I haven’t. I’m aware of his philosophies enough to hold a conversation about them, but that’s it. Honestly, I don’t care about philosophy enough to study any viewpoint, I tend to fall in the ‘it’s a waist of time’ camp. BUT, when I write philosophy has a way of sneaking in, and all of a sudden I’m a part of the conversation. I’m going to touch on a couple of those themes. Let’s get started.

Nihilism, The Absurd, The Sacred is Dead

In a recently written scene, James (the protagonist) sneaks into a villagers house. A professor who’s been studying these villagers for years tells him not to enter the rear rooms, they are sacred to the villagers. To this James remarks, “All that’s sacred died centuries ago. All this (referring to the rooms and the hedonistic village ceremonies) is simply absurd.”

Grim Curio takes place during humanities last days on earth, and what remains is a constant struggle to maintain order despite the meaninglessness of simply surviving. There are varying degrees of this nihilism, from James’ simple uncaring to Nat’s (antagonist) outright disregard for human life.

Since The Calamity, a series of cataclysmic events (water, fire, radiation), religion as we know it has died. What remains are the beliefs in order, in a return to nature, in the progression of science, and in giving in to the end of the world and just dying already.

In order to maintain stability and allow the human race to survive a little longer, those who cling to the new warped version of nature live in ‘the fringes’, the edge of livable space, and their bodies have evolved to deal with their new environment. And those who strive for scientific progress believe that technology will eventually save humanity, despite the fact that it was technology that led to humanities destruction in the first place.

So what we’re left with is the absurd world of Grim Curio where everyone is right, everyone is wrong, and no one can see the other side’s point of view. Hey, kind of sounds like the 21st century to me. And then there are the hardline opposites, the nihilists, who delight in the end of the world and the eventual removal of humanity from the earth.

Conclusion

So that’s it for today. There are of course other themes that are showing themselves: man vs. nature, order vs. chaos, but they aren’t nearly as interesting to talk about as the ones above. If you enjoy these peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, I would love to see you share them. This blog is only a few months old, and readership is growing slowly but steadily. If we could give it a shot in the arm, that would be super duper. But if you hate these posts (and why are you still reading? weirdo) then don’t share, and go sit on a tack or something.

Grim Curio Writing Goals – A Deep Dive into the Ideas Behind The Process

When writing any work, it’s a good idea to establish goals. Some authors may focus their efforts on exploring the entire life of a character in a compelling way (Patrick Rothfuss and Name of the Wind). Another may focus on terse, expressive sentences and a relationship between father and son (Cormac McCarthy and The Road). Another may focus on exploring an interesting city and all the varied inhabitants therein (John Berendt and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Of course I can only guess if those goals were established by their authors. I haven’t talked to them about this or anything, but Pat, if you want some free coffee or beer, hit me up and I will gladly buy 😉. Either way, it’s a safe bet that these authors followed guidelines set up by themselves at some point during the creative process.

3 Novels Inspiring Grim Curio by S.C. Barrus

What are my goals while writing Grim Curio?

I’ve been considering my goals for Grim Curio for quite some time, and I have a pretty solid idea of what I want out of the book, at least in this stage of the process. Things may change, and that’s ok, but for now these are the driving So let’s dive in.

Minimalist style

A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match.

Discovering Aberration by S.C. BarrusMy writing style morphs a bit from work to work. While writing Discovering Aberration my goal was to write as though I were a steampunk Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson love-child. I wonder what those two would think of that sentence. I believe form should match content. A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match. This doesn’t mean writing as many three word sentences as possible, but I do like the occasional one or two word fragments for emphasis. The trick is not overdoing it.

The final thing I enjoy about minimalism is the rhythm. By the time I get to a third or forth rewrite, the rhythm and flow gets really established. It’s fun to establish a series of short and medium length sentences, then subvert that with a long, flowing thing that builds the scenes and expands the action. Then short again.

Relatable Antagonists

Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things.

One thing I loved about the novel The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson was the eventual relatability of the villain. There’s something special about a story where even the bad dudes give you the feels. I want that in Grim Curio, but in my own way. There are a few antagonists in Grim Curio, but one of the major ones, who is introduced in the second chapter, is Nat. She is a sixteen year old girl who’s still figuring out the world she lives in. Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things. It starts small, smashing windows, but what happens when she’s adopted by an extremist group?

If I do my job right, you’ll love her and hate her. You’ll want to give her a hug, or wish someone would shoot her. The same goes for my other, secondary antagonists, but in different ways. Each should be understandable, relatable, even when they’re doing something terrible.

Perdido Street Station by China MievilleStrange but familiar

All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science.

I’m a huge fan of weird fiction, like Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I love the effect of making the strange feel familiar. Now I’m not attempting to dive as deep into the strange rabbit hole as Mieville. Rather I’m drawing heavy inspiration from how fantasy is portrayed in the anime (and manga I suppose, though I’ve not read it) MushiShi.

So how is fantasy incorporated into MushiShi? Very naturally. All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science. The Mushi themselves feel like an extension of our own reality, like slightly more fantastic bacteria, strange sentient swamps, or parasites that grant supernatural hearing that drives people to madness.

If you’ve read any of my snippets, you’ve probably seen similar things. Namely the disease in Clayton that afflicts children, causing them to scream in the sunlight, slowly eating away at their consciousness. I want these fantasy elements to feel like an extension of reality, strange but familiar.

Great things from small beginnings

James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

There is a type of story where the protagonist begins with a relatively small task, and from that is sucked into an epic adventure. One example of this is the movie China Town (and many other film noir or hardboiled novels). In China Town the detective begins with a relatively small case that expands as he uncovers… why don’t you just watch the film, it gets intense.

In these stories, an often reluctant hero must escape his/her comfort zone and rise up to the challenge, otherwise the results could be disastrous. Grim Curio will take on a version of this. What begins for our protagonist, James, as a small case in an inconsequential village will escalate into a story of survival for the last city on earth and the entire human race. James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?

Conclusion

So those are my goals for Grim Curio as I see them now. They may expand or morph over time. Writing is an iterative process, and what seems to work in concept doesn’t always pan out in execution. So I suppose a last goal is more of a process one: to have the ability to roll with the creative punches, to abandon any goal that isn’t working for the story’s benefit.

That’s it for now. What do you think of these goals? Let me know in the comments, and we can continue the discussion there.