Archive for May, 2009

Starting from Scratch: Actual Writing

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Once I have a full chapter-by-chapter outline in place, it’s time to start writing–but that doesn’t mean the writing is going to be automatically awesome. I don’t recommend that everyone rewrite their first chapter a zillion times until it’s perfect, but I do recommend a lot of free-writing at the beginning of a new book, and in my case this was multiple attempts at the first chapter. Each book, and each viewpoint character, has its own particular voice and style, and it’s important for me to find this voice as early as I can.

When I wrote I Am Not a Serial Killer, I did a bunch of free-writes to try to pin down John’s character. Most of these were just John talking about stuff: I gave him a topic and let him go. This doesn’t work for every book or character, but for a very strong, very peculiar character like John it worked really well. His character had to drive the book, more so than the plot or the villain or anything else, so I needed to get it right. None of that early writing would have worked in the book, but it let me know who he was and how he talked and how he thought; once I had that firm in my mind, it was easy to say, “okay, the plot starts here, and John is doing this,” and then just let it go from there.

The specifics of that first chapter–that our introduction to the story is neither plot nor dialogue, but a detailed description of an embalming–was also very carefully chosen, after a couple of first chapter attempts that didn’t really “feel” right. The first chapter is a promise to the reader, and the rest of the book is the fulfillment of that promise, so I built my first chapter around the specific promises I intended to fulfill: the main character is very smart, very scary, and kind of inhuman; the book is going to include a lot of creepy details and dead bodies; even the climax is foretold by the first chapter, though I won’t say why for those readers who haven’t read it yet. Perhaps the biggest promise of that chapter is that the book will focus on the character first, and the plot second; the murders that drive the plot are mentioned only in passing while John does something else.

For Strawberry Fields, finding the character’s voice was very important for a different reason. It’s a much more plot-oriented book, and while the character at its heart doesn’t need to be as layered, he still needs to be interesting and competent; his actions and reactions need to drive the story. In my first two attempts this didn’t come across well because I was making him too weak–he’s delusional, after all, and depressed, and it was very hard for him to seem strong when I was trying so hard to make him seem crazy. I pulled back on that and punched up his competence and kept starting over from scratch, showing different scenes in different ways until I found a way that worked. What I’ve settled on is a sort of “secret agent” mentality, where the main character talks and acts like a hero in a spy movie because that’s how he sees his life–he’s surrounded by all of this weird, dangerous stuff, but rather than just letting it happen to him he takes an active hand in trying to fight back and escape. The balance between competence and insanity is a very difficult one to walk, but it’s proving to be very interesting.

CONduit Report

Monday, May 25th, 2009

CONduit was a blast this year, and now that I’ve slept it off I can write something cogent about it. Here are some highlights:

1) My reading was pretty well-attended. Instead of reading a chunk of Mr. Monster (since most of the people there had already finished the book), I read a short story I wrote for my German publisher. The story’s called “Gloria,” and it’s technically a Christmas story. The audience spent their time cringing and laughing nervously, and when I finished somebody said, “wow, you’re a lot creepier than I thought.” Yay! I also read a chunk of Mr. Monster, but it didn’t have any real info in it, so it was mostly just a tease.

2) They had three local podcasts scheduled to do interviews, but only one of them showed up: Dungeon Crawlers Radio. Thankfully, the Dungone Crawlers were professional enough that they totally made up for everyone else. They were also very cool guys, and we had a great time, and my interview stretched to something like 20 minutes. I’ll make sure to link it here when the interview goes live.

3) Our Writing Excuses panel was huge–they had to bring in extra chairs, it was so big. I’m sure this was greatly helped by the fact that my two co-hosts are the guest of honor and the Mistborn/Wheel of Time guy. We recruited the Dungeon Crawlers to help out with the recording, and we recorded two episodes: the first one with lovely guest star Aprilynne Pike, currently sitting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The second was a Q&A with the fun theme of “Stump Howard,” starring our perennial guest star Eric James Stone, who’s been on the show often enough to count as a fourth musketeer. I thought it turned out to be one of our best episodes.

4) I had a long conversation with Ming the Merciless about Hatch Green Chilies. Only at CONduit.

5) My signing was pretty surreal: I was crammed into a narrow hallway with Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Lee Modesitt, and Elisabeth Waters. It was completely bizarre, and completely awesome, to be among that group as a peer, and even more awesome when I realized that I was keeping pace with some of them (though honestly, that was mostly because the other authors attracted the crowd and I was just lucky enough to be sitting there with a stack of books and a pen). Eventually Brandon realized that even though he was signing more books, I was selling more books, at which point he proceeded to stab me in the neck with my own promotional button.

6) I saw most of my regular posters there, and it was great to see them all again. I even finally convinced Donna to buy a copy of the book, though it remains to be seen if she’ll actually read it. I promise it’s not as scary as you think. (Yes it is, just don’t tell her that.) They invited me out for dinner both nights, and I regretfully had to decline–my poor wife was home alone with all four kids, the youngest of whom was sick. Next time, I promise.

7) My one and only panel was called “The Science of Evil,” which turned out to be so interesting as a theoretical topic that it was very hard to keep us focused on it as a writing topic. I did have an opportunity to talk about my favorite infanticide story, by the hilarious Jeff Strand, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.

Here it is!

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Piper shipped their fall catalog yesterday, featuring a great spread on what is sure to be their best selling book of the year. I’m pleased to introduce my German cover:wells_serienkiller

pipercatalog

Advance German Copy

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I just received an advance copy of the German book, and I assure you that it looks AWESOME. I can’t post the images online until Piper (the German publisher) goes live with their catalog, but I’ll bring the book to CONduit this weekend so everyone can see take a peek. In the meantime, I’m sure Steve can entertain you by bragging about how he’s already seen it.

Starting from Scratch: Outlining

Monday, May 18th, 2009

After weeks (or months) of planning and thinking and researching, my head is full of exciting but largely formless thoughts about what the book could include and where it could go. This is the point where I sit down and start outlining, a process that begins with a brainstorm.

The thoughts, like I said, are unformed, so the first step is to give them form. For me, that means writing them down–I think with my fingers, not my brain, so nothing is really “real” or even all that intelligible until I write it down. I start with three or so blank documents–Characters, Events, and Cool Stuff, for example–and then I start plucking ideas out of my head and turning them into something usable. Using Strawberry Fields as an example, I knew I needed a schizophrenic main character, so I wrote that down in the “Characters” document and then started describing him–how old is he, what kind of hallucinations does he experience, what does he want, and so on. While I’m thinking about it, I flip over to the “Cool Stuff” document and write more about his hallucinations, fleshing them out a bit. This suggests an interesting twist that could work well when his delusion conflicts with the real world, so I write about it in the “Events” document. This process goes on and on, which me codifying all of these pre-planned thoughts into a bunch of cool, cohesive elements that start combining to make a cool story.

The thing is, these elements aren’t really a story yet–they’re the building blocks of a story that hasn’t been built yet. Phase two of the outlining process is to open a fourth document and start putting them in order. In the case of Strawberry Fields, this required a lot of careful balancing to make sure that the paranoid delusions and the paranoid realities meshed in surprising yet inevitable ways; I want to pull the rug out from under the main character (and the reader) a number of times, but I want each new twist to advance the plot at the same time it’s resetting it. Halfway through this outlining process I realized that I was building a conspiracy thriller, and that realization helped suggest a lot of structural elements that would help make the story work more effectively (it also suggested a few genre norms that I could bend or break to help the story stay surprising). I took a short break to research conspiracy plots, altered my story a bit, and eventually completed a full chapter by chapter outline.

I started official writing on Strawberry Fields, using this completed outline, last week. The next installment in this little blog series will talk about how I use an outline to write, how I deviate from it, and how the story continues to grow as I write it.

Starting from Scratch: Planning and Research

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

I decided that instead of just telling you I’m starting a new book, and leaving it at that, I should use this as an opportunity to walk you through my writing process. The first step is “thinking about it for a long time;” I find that I can’t just sit down and write something cold, I have to start with an interesting idea and mull it over for weeks (if not months) to identify some key points:

1. What about this idea really excites me?
2. What stories can I tell with this idea?
3. What characters or scenes or twists will help this idea shine?

The good news is, I can do all of this thinking while I’m working on other projects, so in this case I was able to develop a lot of Strawberry Fields while doing rewrites for Blacker Darkness, edits for Mr. Monster, and so on. One of the great benefits of letting an idea gestate for so long is that, because it’s always in the back of my mind, dozens of other, unrelated ideas that I come across will attach themselves to it and suggest cool new ideas and directions I’d never have thought of otherwise.

Meanwhile, during moments when I’m not rewriting and editing other books, I hit the library and the Internet and do a lot of research. For Strawberry Fields I was especially worried about the portrayal of schizophrenia: I want it to be dramatic, but still realistic. Mental illness is so wildly misunderstood in our society, and is usually portrayed as either a horrifying stigma or a free-spirited escape from reality. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and so I spent a month or two (admittedly not much time) reading every book I could find on the schizophrenia–not just the symptoms, but the specific methods of therapy, and what it’s like to live with it. I don’t know how much of that will make it into the book, because in the end I’m still writing a thriller, but having all of that knowledge will help fill out the edges and make the book more real.

I’ve been researching many other topics, as well, but telling you what they are will give away too many secrets.

The next article will be about outlining; you’ll get that either tomorrow or Monday, depending on how embedded I am in the book. I’ve started actual writing now, and it’s so good to be writing again.

CONduit

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

CONduit is Salt Lake City’s local writer-fan-con, and it’s a lot of fun, and Utah’s got enough writers that they can really put together a great schedule of panels and workshops. This year my involvement is relatively light; I’ll be there all day Friday and Saturday, but my official stuff is all Saturday afternoon:

1:00 — Writing Excuses Live. We love to record our podcast at cons, because the audience participation really livens it up. This year we’ll have a guest podcast with Aprilynne Pike, possibly some Q&A, and maybe even (if you’re lucky) some monkey noises.

2:00 — The Super Signing. Dave Wolverton, L.E. Modesitt, and Brandon Sanderson, with little old me tagging along for the ride. I sold out my entire stock at the last con signing I did, and many of you were left without books, so this time I’m loaded for bear. Come for the big authors, and I’ll be happy to sign your book while you wait in their lines.

3:00 — My Reading. My reading at LTUE was overflowing, and it went really well, so I have high hopes that this one will be even awesomer. Unfortunately, the reading is cross-scheduled with a “we love Stephenie Meyer” panel and a Howard Tayler book launch. But there’s nobody of consequence on the Meyer panel, and only weirdos read webcomics anyway, so I think I’m good. Maybe I’ll do something crazy, like read a chunk of Mr. Monster.

4:00 — The Science of Evil: Why villains are the way they are. This is my only real panel of the con, but it’s going to be a fun one, especially with fellow Tor debutante John Brown on the panel with me. John is from Laketown, in northern Utah, where I would spend many a long summer on my grandma’s old farm, so I’d love him even if he weren’t totally awesome. Plus, I get to talk about villains, and since even my heroes are arguably still villains, it’s a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.

Starting Something New

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Being a full-time author, in addition to being awesome, is really time-consuming. Far more than expected. I posted a little teaser here a while ago about how I was working on something new, and then almost immediately I was hit in the face by a rewrite of a previous book and a big edit of Mr. Monster. Now it’s all out of the way, and my conferences are done for a few weeks, and I finally have time to get started on that book. For lack of a better title I’m going to refer to it as Strawberry Fields, but please keep in mind that this is purely a placeholder title that I have no intention of using; even if I convince myself that it’s a good final title, permissions rights to a Beatles song are wildly, hilariously expensive.

It seems strange to talk about a new project when there are still two more John Cleaver books and potentially another standalone that you haven’t even seen yet, but such is the nature of the publishing industry: it works very far ahead, and moves very slowly. I don’t intend to talk too much about it, because I want to keep it a surprise and I still have plenty of juicy stuff to talk about with the other books, but it’s what’s on my mind so that’s what you’re going to get.

So anyway: Strawberry Fields. Despite what the title suggests, it’s about neither strawberries nor fields; it’s about mental illness and the nature of reality. The concept for the book is kind of a riff on the schizophrenia story–the kind of story like A Beautiful Mind, where a guy falls into a conspiracy plot and then it turns out it’s all in head and half the people he knows are actually hallucinations. My idea is to do the exact opposite: a recovering schizophrenia patient, while struggling to deal with his disease and put his hallucinations behind him, discovers that some of the monsters he sees are real. I don’t dare say any more, but I will give you a quote from the song that inspired the working title:

Always—
No, sometimes—
Think it’s me.

But you know I know when it’s a dream.

I think I know,
I mean, a…
Yes.
But it’s all wrong.

That is,
I think I disagree.

—John Lennon, Strawberry Fields Forever

Ten Years

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Today is my tenth anniversary, and let me tell you, it is awesome. My wife, Dawn, is the most wonderful person in the world, and we couldn’t be happier. I’m incredibly grateful for everything she does and says and puts up with, and I assure you that there would be no book without her support.

This morning our two oldest kids (ages 6 and almost-8) made us breakfast in bed, by which I mean they poured us some cereal and brought it in with handmade cards. The awesome part is that they poured the cereal and the milk before making the cards, so by the time they came into our room we were essentially eating bowls of peat moss, but since it was Quaker Oat Squares peat moss (the best cereal in the world) I still loved it. I have awesome kids, and an awesome wife, and an awesome job, and I guess that means something terrible is about to happen. But I’m going to ignore that for a while and enjoy this day while it lasts.

Huzzah!

The Consistency of Soft Dough

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Today I rode my bike to the office, as step one in my long-term plan to save money and not die of a heart attack. It turns out, and this may come as a shock to those of you as sedentary as I am, that physical exertion is pretty hard. Especially when you have the physical fitness of pudding.