It’s been nearly a month since I started this blog chronicling the production of my novel Grim Curio. I haven’t spent much of that time talking about myself, and that’s been deliberate. But today I want to do something different and share the writing journey I’ve gone through over the last fifteen years.
I began writing in high school, took every creative writing elective I could. It was there I wrote my first novel, My Field of Everlasting Smiles. It was an angsty coming of age story that’s now collecting dust in storage.
I was 18 and queried agents for a month or two, but didn’t get far. Then I gave up. If you’re a young writer with a novel and a desire to get published, don’t give up. Send out query letters for years if you have to, or work your ass off on the independent publishing route (but do it right). Just don’t give up.
I went The University of Washington and a degree in Creative Writing. While there I wrote my second novel, Everything Else by the Wayside. It followed a few listless travelers who played the blues, and I thought it was philosophical as hell.
I spent months querying agents and received good feedback, but nothing happened. It’s not hard to see why. It was a difficult to summarize, meandering literary tale featuring an unlikable character. Not a book that screams best seller.
Sometimes I think about Everything Else by the Wayside and wonder what could have been. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it.
After graduation I got a job as an internet marketer. I was paid to write blog posts about flooring and modular homes, gardening and a swath of ecommerce copy. I hated it.
Meanwhile, I stole every second I could to write the novel I knew would get me out of that shitty profession (sorry if you’re an internet marketer, but it’s a shitty profession).
I wrote Discovering Aberration and immediately thought, “Screw the publishing industry, I’m going to do it myself.” Away & Away publishing was born. I hired editors and cover designer, printed hundreds of copies which I sold by hand at conventions, and quickly sold around 10,000 ebooks with a few smart promotions. Pretty cool.
Then I was fired from my shitty job. I couldn’t get a job for nearly a year. I tried to write, I really tried. I wrote and published the first episode of a serial novel called The Gin Thief, but my depression got so deep I couldn’t finish it. Even now when I think back on The Gin Thief all I can see is that dark time when I lost my job, my apartment, and my will to write.
Eventually I went back to school and became a web developer. Now I work for a company called Concur building expense reporting software, and to be honest I’ve never had a better job. Oh, and I’m writing again.
That’s it, that’s my story so far. I don’t know if there is a moral to it, but I’m here and I’m brimming with ideas. What will happen with Grim Curio? Will I handle publishing duties myself or go the agent route? I don’t know yet, but I’m considering all my options. In the meantime, I’m glad you’re here and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapter in this journey unfolds.
The weekend’s almost over, but I’ve got a lot of work done. I’ve been focusing on the style of Grim Curio. Check out the first couple paragraphs, all newly rewritten:
The wailing of worn iron hinges ripped me awake. The sound grated. It squealed with an irregular rhythm, accompanied by constant popped corn sounds of spores, carried in the air, beating against the thick, wobbling sign out my window. The sign read:
Detective of Anomalies, Curiosities, & the Supernatural.
It was a lie. I was no more a detective than a believer in ghosts. Trial and error led to those words, eventually the right combination lured in leads. Some believed spirits wallowed in nooks of sheet metal, abandoned factories, ventilation ducts sucking air to lower zones, they believed they were cursed by clay baubles mixed with toxic spores, or that the very electricity running sporadically through Refuge — lifeblood of the world they called it — lay in wait, ready to fry blasphemers in their rusted hovels. But no. Loose wires in metal houses have no conscious. But sometimes, rarely, I discovered the answers I was looking for: evidence of the nature of the universe itself.
Writing is a process. Prose don’t appear on paper perfectly executed. First drafts are a spew of consciousness, a firehose of concepts splattered haphazardly with the wrong words in the wrong order, the wrong setting with the wrong details, the wrong character featuring the wrong motivation. But you have to start somewhere.
First I mash my mind onto the keyboard, sleep it off, then begin the process of refining everything. Rearrange sentences. Alert the senses. Mold your characters into believable people. But for now, let’s focus on that last point – characters.
Clive and Nemesis
These are two very different characters featured in Grim Curio. You can read a scene featuring both of them now in The Working Copy. Among their differences, Clive is a bit character, created out of necessity to carry a few scenes forward, Nemesis is a major character, antagonist, created to foil some of the plans of James and co. Beyond this, their very conception is different, Nemesis being a premeditated character and Clive being a necessitated one. So let’s look at the differences.
Conception of a Character
Above: Harry Lockhart from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
When bringing a character to life, I’ve found I tend to follow one of two paths into inception. There’s the Premeditated Character and the Necessitated character. Premeditated refers to the days I’ve spent constructing a character and theorizing her place in the story. Necessitated refers to the moment I reach a point where I realize I need someone new to carry the current scene(s) forward.
Premeditated Thought Process
I need an antagonist and I want it to be a person that’s unlikable yet somehow relatable. How do I do that? Make her a girl. Make her young, like sixteen or something. Thrust her in an scenario where the only way out is by ‘going to the dark side’. Have her emerge confused, conflicted, wracked with insecurities but steadfast in her convictions. Etc. This could lead to an interesting villain.
Premeditated is the most obvious method, I stroll through the day, mull on a character and think how this person exists in the world I’m creating. Like Whinnie the Pooh, I think think think think think. I sit to write, fingers frozen over the keyboard while I consider from which angle to attack this person first.
Necessitated Thought Process
James needs to go to Clayton, how does he get there? Does he walk? No, too dangerous. What then? He hires somebody to drive him to Clayton in an ATV. Ok, so what is a person who does this like? For that matter, how many people like him exist in this universe? Not many, maybe 5, they’ll be called runners, and this guy, let’s call him Clive, is the only one James trusts. But why does he trust him? Because of his reputation as the only runner you can really trust. This guy must be expensive, how does James hire him? On and on, deeper and deeper, etc.
You can see how answering question after question a character might emerge, pieced together until he’s fully formed. These tend to be bit characters, but they often morph into major ones without me premeditating it.
Above: Alfred Borden from The Prestige.
Premeditated characters are a pain to get started. They feel fully realized in your head, but they’re not. They’re an amalgamation. Inspiration comes from my influences, my experiences, bits from people I know, bits from things I’ve seen people do, and most of all just my own sick mind. That’s not a person, that’s a blob and a blob must be sculpted.
You take this mass and begin to massage it as you write the first scene where they appear. For me, this scene is almost always emotional, tense, proving who the character is in a dire circumstance. That’s just me though, the action nerd wanting to see what my puppets will do when facing the gun.
As it turns out, these scenes are rarely the right way to introduce a character to a reader. They are good for me because now I get to learn more about who this person is. But for a reader coming across this sort of scene as way of introduction, everything feels disjointed and unearned.
Necessitated characters come about in a much less deliberate way. Often they are a means to an end. James needs to do something and needs someone to interact with to get the job done. Enter minor character.
But each character needs to feel fully formed, no matter how or why they’re conceived. In action, I tend to set the scene, flesh it out, write the major points I want to hit, then go back and add. It’s exactly the opposite of the premeditated character. Instead of a blob that I need to refine and temper, it’s a brick I need to add to and build up until a fully formed house emerges, or at least one that looks fully formed.
I have more to say on this topic, but I think this will do it for now. Come back soon when I follow up with some critiques I received for the writing of Nemesis and the changes that led me to make. I hope you find it informative and interesting. Until then, have a great weekend.
It’s been a while since I posted a critique ready excerpt of Grim Curio, not for lack of writing though. I’ve actually hit a flow that’s been pretty great, removing around 2,000 words and adding about 4,000 in the last two weeks. Progress.
In this excerpt we meet a new POV (Point of View) character, a young girl who’s about to join a small extremist group called The Cleansing Sisterhood. I’m really happy with how this chapter has turned out.
Enough talking, follow one of these links to checkout the latest:
Part of Grim Curio’s subtext involves a variety of groups that live in or around Oasis – the last city on earth. I’m considering new names for the city, maybe Final Refuge or something. In recent excerpts we were introduced to the Naturalists and the Students (they were called Scientists in the drafts, but I’m trying out new names.
Well, I’ve got a third one now. The Nihilists.
Nihilists are a loose knit group who live primarily in east Oasis. When the first and second Calamities wiped most of humanity off the earth, some people survived. The Nihilists think this is a mistake. They believe the earth wishes to be purified, and they seek the finish the job.
Nihilists mug, burn, murder, and otherwise ruin the lives of anyone they can. Many are petty criminals who ‘believe’ in the Nihilist teachings, but who don’t participate fully. Others are nothing short of terrorists. The most hardcore of the Nihilists commit a pledge that if they are the last humans alive, they will kill themselves to cleanse the final life off the planet.
As I write my novel Grim Curio, I’ve been sharing excerpts on /r/DestructiveReaders and my development diary to get feedback. At first I did this just to get an idea of what people thought of my work in progress. Then a pattern emerged, and through it I found myself becoming a better writer.
I’m calling this pattern the Critique Feedback Loop. It’s nothing revolutionary, I’m sure, but it’s been incredibly useful for me, so I thought I’d take a little time to share this pattern with you.
Phases of the Feedback Look
Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
Make changes based on feedback.
Repeat 3 and 4 until changes are no longer significant.
Like I said, nothing revolutionary here, but it’s been immensely helpful. Not only does it make my drafts higher quality, it informs my green field writing, giving me areas of weakness to focus on improving as I write new content.
Why it works
Every round of criticism has been focused on one of my weaknesses. First was character, then setting, now structure. It’s amazing to see my previous weaknesses no longer getting mentioned as new ones emerge.
If you want to see proof that your writing is getting better, there’s no better way than submitting the same piece over and over after each rewrite. But this only works if your writing community is: 1) blunt, 2) informative, and 3) has a culture of 1:1 critique ratios.
Let’s break down what a constructive community looks like.
How constructive /r/DestructiveReaders can be
/r/DestructiveReaders is the best feedback loop I’ve ever found. Better than in-person writers workshops. Better than any other message board or online community I’ve been a part of. But why is that?
1. The attitude
When you submit your work to /r/DestructiveReaders, you are fully aware that people are there to give you unfiltered feedback without much regard for your feelings. They’re not being dicks, but they will tear your writing apart if they don’t like it. They’ll mention line by line what bothers them, what you can improve, and what you’re missing all together.
Nothing makes you a better writer than having your flaws bluntly pointed out to you. Often this will come with a suggestions for improvements, and it’s up to you to filter through the suggestions and choose what to work on. Of course if someone is pointing out a weakness, it’s also up to you to consciously improve it.
2. The 1:1 ratio, aka don’t be a leech
If you submit a piece to critique without first critiquing someone else’s work of equal or greater word count, you’ll be labeled a leech. Don’t be a leech.
But you know what? That’s how it should be. First it keeps the critiques coming, keeps the tone civil (even when the critique is brutal), and it teaches you as a writer the clear line of what you like and don’t like in a piece.
As I read others works, I have to think hard about why I don’t like the sentence structure, or why a pieces character development doesn’t work, etc. When I then turn to write my own work, the critiques I wrote for other writers is fresh in my head, actively forcing me to cut out the passive voice, build the setting, and make the characters feel real.
3. Line edits
There are two phases to most /r/DestructiveReaders critiques: 1) line edit, 2) critique essay. Both are very useful but cover very different things.
We use Google Docs to share our work, and line edits come through the built in commenting feature. Line edits tend to focus on style, grammar, dialog, confusing passages, etc. This will lead to a lot of quick fixes to your text, but I don’t think that’s where the real value comes from.
The real value comes when you sit to write the next day. You know for a fact what you’re struggling with now. Your weakness might surprise you.
4. The Critique
First let me say that I have not received a bad critique. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received fairly brutal ones, but they have always led to significant improvement in my work. The amount of work /r/DestructiveReaders users put into their feedback is staggering.
Most critiques begin with a short paragraph on what the reader liked and didn’t like. That’s followed by an in depth, point by point essay that often exceeds the length of two pages or more.
Everyone critiques slightly differently, but there is a trend to focus on title, style, plot, character, pacing, etc. individually. This format in particular is so helpful, because it helps you as a writer see the boundaries between these skills, and inform you of what techniques you’re using incorrectly and how they affect the reader.
The feedback loop
Sure, you can submit a piece, make changes and move on. If you’re goal is to get the most words critiqued over the shortest period of time, then this makes sense. But if your goal it to improve your writing, then submitting the same piece after making significant changes will be much more informative.
The reason for this is simple. Most pieces have one pronounced weakness, and several less obvious ones. The first round will likely focus on that weakness, which allows you to go back and improve it. But if you don’t re-submit your work after the changes are made, you’ll miss out on discovering the next pronounced weakness that’s been lurking just a layer deep.
Submit a piece to get critiqued, wait at least three days for the critiques to come in, make significant adjustments, then submit again. Once your critiques only point out minor mistakes, then move on to your next segment to get critiqued.
This is a slow and deliberate process, so you can’t let it hold back you’re overall progress. Keep on writing green field words, reading your critiques, and adjusting your writing process accordingly. In this way your entire work benefits without your progress coming to a halt.
What if I want to submit, but I’m too nervous.
That’s normal. I’m terrified every time I share a piece of writing. Terrified but excited. I know my writing isn’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who don’t like my genre or my style, but that’s fine.
You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. Instead focus on writing what you like to write, and then take the criticism with gusto. Even someone who hates your piece will give you valuable advice. And if it’s brutal, if people just rip your work apart, be thankful and start making changes.
On the flip side, if you’re lucky, people will actually enjoy your work. You may gain a small group of authors who regularly read your writing because they genuinely enjoy helping you.
So, yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s natural to be scared or nervous. Power though, it’ll be worth it.
I hope you found this blog post useful. If you’re new to this development diary and want to follow along my entire writing process as I write Grim Curio, consider following me here or on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, I’d like to hear what you think of this. Have you ever submitted your work for critique? How was the experience?
I’ve been talking about my novel in progress for a couple of weeks now, and there are some topics that I’ve brought up that need some fleshing out. Grim Curio is a kind of Fantasy/Post Apocalyptic hybrid, so there’s a fair amount of world building in the subtext.
Today I want to talk about one probably the most prominent piece of subtext, The Layered Universe Theory. The Layered Universe is James Bartlebee’s working theory seeking to explain the many phenomena he’s witness through the years.
The Many Layers
The theory states that our reality is actually one of many. These realities exist on a plane stacked on top of each other. The idea of a stack is very important, realities piled up like a deck of cards. In fact, these realities are so tightly stacked that they almost inhabit the same space: often things from one reality can influence the other.
Between each layer of reality is a thin substance known as a veil. This matter acts like lubricant between realities, allowing them to coexist without too much friction. Certain actions can put stress on the veil, for example attempting to punch a hole through the universe. As the veil hardens, veil sign is produced.
Veil sign can be many things, but in all cases it is an observable manifestation of stress on the veil. Often this will appear as a burnt smell or an optical illusion that distorts reality.
If the veil is stressed enough, the result is veil residue. This is the flaking of the veil where literal flakes of reality will appear in our world as the veil attempts to repair itself.
A base layer is any layer of reality that exists “below” our own. As you travel down the layers, life becomes more primitive. If we were to visit the layer directly beneath our own, the most complex organism would be like the simplest in our reality.
They’re behavior, however, might be incredibly beguiling to us. Some organisms might be driven by an urge to no longer exist, others might invade empty spaces and attempt to build a consciousness into them. There are some, though, the may present a truly great threat to our world with their insatiable drive to multiply.
Go past the first base layer to the next and what you find will be truly mysterious and unfathomable. The laws of the universe shift as you go down, with forces that behave one way in our layer of reality (like gravity, dark energy, dark matter, etc.) behaving in quiet different, unpredictable ways in another.
As you might guess, if you were to somehow go up a layer in this stack of universes, organisms get drastically more complex. Consciousness behaves radically different, and a creatures ability to manipulate things like matter, time or space would be considered god-like to us.
James even extends the Layered Universe Theory to include the possibility that gods as we know them live in this layer. Any god who may have affected our world could simply be a being from a higher plane who’s pressed up against the veil and greatly affected our world.
Move up more than one layer, and the complexity will become so great that your mind could not comprehend it.
There are some concessions in the Layered Reality Theory. For example, James has only collected evidence of two layers apart from our own. Those may be the only layers in existence, but it’s impossible to say unless we were to visit a layer up or down and seek evidence for the next layer there.
Also, layers beyond our neighbors, if they exist at all, may not continue to follow the pattern of Baser things going down, and greater things going up. No way to know without going there.
One thing to remember, this is just a theory proposed by James and it is not widely accepted in the world of Grim Curio. In fact, many groups (such as the Naturalists and the Nihilists) are hostile to this idea because they see it as a threat to their own beliefs. Many scientists scoff at the idea, reasoning that if such layers existed they would have been fully discovered by now.
So that’s the Layered Universe Theory in a nutshell. I love it because it opens up a universe of possibilities for Grim Curio. What’s going to happen when Simon pierces the veil? You’re just going to have to wait and see.
You won’t see me,” he said. “But I can see you.” My eyes struggled against the darkness, straining to see the man behind the voice. I saw nothing. “We took your weapon,” the man said. I felt my pocket for the snapper coil. Nothing. Fear gripped me.
In part 1 we were introduced to James, a detective specializing in anomalies and living in a dystopian world. James seeks out Veil Sign, a phenomena that’s the result of ‘creatures’ from other realities brushing up against, or invading, our own.
When we meet him in part 2, he’s investigating a disease that is turning a villages young into brain dead husks. He has just made a breakthrough when he see’s veil sign in a little girls room. Creatures from another plane are swarming her, drinking her thoughts.
There’s one more short section before the end of Chapter 1. It looks like it’s shaping up to be another 2,000 words or so. That would make Chapter 1 a total of 8,000 words.
What does that mean? I don’t know, you tell me. It’s certainly a damn long chapter, much longer than I anticipated it to be. But I don’t see a reason to break it up because it’s scenes are already broken up pretty well.
Here’s one thing I could do: I could turn Chapter 1 into Part 1 and separate the scenes into chapters. I’m not sure what I think of this idea yet. Probably too short for a Part.
As for the overall structure of Grim Curio: if this story ends up having five acts, then I think the first four chapters would make up act 1. Act 1 will involve the introduction of characters, plot and setting (surprise!).
Act 2 will involve the mystery of the creatures that posses Simon, and will likely set up the tear in the veil. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach that yet, but I think it’ll be cool.
Act 3-5 is where things get hazy. I haven’t really thought this far ahead in any real depth yet. I’ve done that on purpose though, because I want to make sure the plot is reactive. But I do have some scenes in my head.
I have this idea of these ants that live in a fungus forest. They are about 2 feet tall and three or four feet long. They are hosts to mind fungus growing out of their heads. That’s all I know about that, but we’ll get it in there eventually!
Let me know what you think in the comments. Did you know that there is an actual fungus that does that to actual ants? Google that shit.