Goals and Statistics

I want to be more productive. Honest. I want to be able to churn out stories and books. I really do.

The problem is that even though I take the writing seriously like a real “job,” it’s not like factory work. You can’t just flip a switch and roar through one project and then start another and on and on… without fallow periods.

Writing is an organic and holistic process. I’m not sure what those words might mean to you readers, but to me they mean that the writing process involves periods of “thinking,” worrying over plot details, hours of research, and plain old fallow periods when a writer’s mind continues to solve writing problems in the background while life is lived in the foreground almost “normally.”

An example: I prefer to write first thing in the mornings. I can usually get in several hours before I have to go function in the “real” world. This morning my writing session was interrupted by two friends and a mimosa brunch at a great local restaurant. I returned home and watched Star Trek: Voyager episodes. Great stuff, even though it doesn’t produce any noticeable word count. But the “time off” is needed for the mind to work on its own without being pushed.

I had a great four day writing sprint on my current novel. I cranked out almost 5,000 words over the four days. At approximately 250 words per printed page in the final 6×9 inch book, that comes to 20 pages. If I want to produce a 90,000 word novel, and if all systems are functioning at optimum levels (Star Trek jargon), it should only take me about 2.4 months to complete a first draft. I did a bit of calculation and here’s a table I worked up:

Avg #
Words Per Day

Final Length

Writing Days

Months

1250

100,000

80

2.6667

1250

90,000

72

2.4

1250

85,000

68

2.2667

1250

80,000

64

2.1333

1250

6,000

4.8

0.16

Wow! If I only had the energy, could live without sleep, had a plot, didn’t have to do any research or go out and work for a living… but I don’t. And now, at 73, my time is short and I want to leave a sizeable pile of paper behind me when I leave this earth. My one major regret is that I didn’t take my fiction writing more seriously earlier in life. It looks like I’m going die an famous unknown author. Ha! Joke’s on me.

 

 

Coleridge Moments

I hate it when I have a Coleridge Moment. Oh, you want to know what I’m alluding to…

Well, Samuel Coleridge is famous for writing the poem Xanadu, but there are only 3 verses. Why? Coleridge was an opium smoker, and he awoke from an opium dream with 12 complete verses ready to go. He sat down to write them but was interrupted by a knock on the door by somebody who had come to hassle him about some money owed. When he finally got the guy to leave, Xanadu had left too. And that’s why we only have 3 verses.

Last night I had a dream. I dreamed an entire short story, very clever stuff too, all based around a single active verb… but for the life of me, I can’t remember the verb or the story. It’s driving me nuts.

When I was a nature photographer, I learned a hard lesson. I was sleeping in my Blazer at the entrance to the National Bison Range in Moese, Montana and was awakened in the night by the howl of coyotes. When I opened the tailgate to have a look around, the Northern Lights were undulating above me in curtains of emerald green. It was exquisite. I remember saying to myself, “Get up and photograph this.” I didn’t. I went back to sleep and have never seen the lights again in my lifetime.

The lesson? “Don’t ignore a one-time event. Capture it while it’s in front of you or lose it forever.”

It’s the same thing with these nighttime story ideas. Don’t just stay in bed enjoying the story; get up and write it down or lose it forever. I know this. You probably know this too. But being a human (!), I lost this great story idea. I can’t recall a bit of it, not even the verb it centered around.

Three Critical Questions

I’ve solved all your writing problems for you… except that it is for plotting, characterization, scene and setting, clue dispersal, description and dialogue issues… There are other problems that occasionally crop up, but let’s ignore them for the nonce.

I’ve distilled it all down to three critical questions for you to ask and answer at the beginning of any fiction writing project. Please read on to achieve enlightenment.

  1. Whose story is it?

Answer: Who is the story about? There can be more than one person, though there is usually a central character.

There may be more than one story line. This may demand more than one central character, don’t you know. (Writing is such a chore sometimes.)

  1. Who’s telling the story?

Answer: Will one narrator tell the entire story or will various characters take up the tale at different points?

  1. What is at stake for whom?

Answer: This may be your motive.

Who stands to win something (wealth, status, power, etc.), and who stands to lose something.
How hard are they willing to fight to achieve their goals?

Ask and answer these three questions and you will have the skeleton of your story in your hand. Having done that, all you have to do is write the blasted thing.

Hitting a Plot Wall

I’ve been ignoring Ben Bones & The Twin Pistols far too long. It’s pure avoidance. I hit a plot wall a full month ago (meaning that I had no plot in mind when I hit it), and I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since. I’ve been wrestling with various ideas, but… well, if you’re a writer, you know how it goes.

I’m going to make an assumption here: that every writer comes to a place in a story where there ain’t no way to go and the characters aren’t telling me what to do with or to them. For me, it’s the middle of the story. It’s a point the characters are all on stage just standing around loitering and doing nothing to move the story forward. They can’t even think of what to do next, let alone actually do something.

It doesn’t matter that I had a great start, that I had a clear ending scene in mind, that I knew my characters and their motivations. Nope. None of that matters a bit. I simply have no idea of what happens next.

A while ago I hit on a scheme to shake some ideas loose. It’s called a “Major Events” sheet and it provides me with a snapshot overview of what’s going on. It has various points for me as the writer to keep in mind. The headings on the sheet, with explanations, are as follows:

  • Whose story is it?
    Answer: Who is the story about? There can be more than one person, though there is usually a central character.
  • Who’s telling the story?
    Answer: Will one narrator tell the entire story or will various characters take up the tale at different points?
  • What is at stake for whom?
    Answer: This may be your motive.
    Who stands to win something (wealth, status, power, etc.), and who stands to lose something.
    How hard are they willing to fight to achieve their goals?
  • Need conflict between…
    Answer: This may be your plot.
    There can be more than one conflict. In fact, there’d better be or you will have a lifeless one-dimensional story.
  • Problems for the writer.
    Answer: What obstacles can be placed in the characters’ paths?
  • Problems for the Characters.
    Who does what to whom? Why?
    Who blocks another character’s ambitions? Why? How?
  • Sequence of Events.
    Answer: This is how the plot plays out.
    What scenes are vital to the story? Why?
    Who is in those scenes?
    When does each scene have to appear (early, mid-stream, late)?

I hope this will be useful to someone out there in “radio land.” Write and tell me if these scribblings helped you out.

A Writer’s Quandary

I’m in a quandary. There are too many begun but unfinished writing projects on my computer. The ideas are there to start a story, or maybe to paint several scenes, but the plot is always elusive to nonexistent.

When starting a story, I probably have a picture of the opening scene, or perhaps I have the ending clear in my mind. Might even have a few interesting characters worked up. The problem is what to do to the characters to whip them from Point A to Point Z, without them knowing they’re being pushed and without the reader thinking the story is contrived and manipulated. Of course it’s manipulated. That’s the writer’s job, isn’t it? Just as an editor’s hand is supposed to be invisible, just so the writer’s controlling the direction of the characters on their various journeys.

For the readers, character actions should flow from the character’s personality and circumstances. If the writer wants the character to go to the right but the character decides to go to the left, let him/her/it go in their “natural” direction. Force the character and the reader will know. This happens, you know. Characters want to make their own decisions, do their own “thang,” get into and out of trouble by their own efforts. The writer? Nah. Shouldn’t be involved, at least obviously.

I remember one story, The Embezzler Didn’t, in which I had all the characters set up, had them all at one another’s throats and all their schemes ready to go… but I had no plot beyond that point. What did I do? You’ll love this. I threw an earthquake at them and destroyed their town. The company that the characters worked in was revitalized by all the work that came in as a result of the quake, and the characters’ nefarious plots all had to be postponed while their fortunes improved.

Basically, I shook myself up as well as the story’s environment. I had to take the story on an entirely new tack. It worked out quite nicely. I think it’s one of my best books.

 

Two Successful Readings

On June 10, 2017 I gave a two-hour talk on mystery writing at the Burke County Library in Morganton, NC. The crowd (sic) was small but intense. There were a few good question during the course of the morning, but not as many as I would have liked.

How would I characterize the group? There were nine attendees, only one of whom was male and he was a writer wannabee’s husband along for the ride. I learned later that he was an avid reader. Of the others, one was a retired professional journalist, three had good ideas for books they wanted to write but hadn’t started working on, and the others… well, let’s just say that they were more educated readers by the end of the gig. In other words, I’d say it was a typical small town group. Book sales were good at the end.

Yesterday (June 17) I did a “reading” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC. You’d think that attendance would be light in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere. The shop did a good job of advertising the event though, and we had a dozen people, some of whom drove over from neighboring counties.

My “readings” are always more than merely standing at a podium and droning on from my books. I’d rather talk about approaches & methods for writers. How I do it is by starting with opening sentences from a book or two. I want to show the folks that the initial trick is to hook the reader. Most of my novels begin with the discovery of a body or watching as a crime unfolds. Other writers have advised to begin your story by dropping a body through the skylight onto the dinner table. (I love that!)

Opening with a crime usually starts discussion in the audience. Good questions begin to flow. I can then get into the meat of a presentation.

Typical questions are:

  • Where do you get ideas? Answer: they’re all around you. Just look.
  • How did you get interested in genealogy? Answer: I was doing family research and decided that a genealogist is really a detective digging up historical facts. Thus, my serial character Ben Bones, Articulator of Family Skeletons, was born.
  • How long should a story be? Answer: I quote the Red King from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
  • What about research? Answer: Ah, this is one of my favorite topics. I tell about catching other writers in factual errors, and I admit to being caught myself by an observant reader. That mistake cost me financially because I had to dump the books I had on hand and buy revised editions. Live and learn.

And that’s how my two recent gigs went. I love standing in front of a group and spouting my “wisdom” (let’s call it my opinions). Contact me any time. I’m willing to travel and am currently trying to spread myself around. Hey, that’s what Grisham did. It worked for him.

The next appearance on my schedule is too far in the future. I’ll be presenting on writing at the Haywood County Library in Waynesville, NC on August 15, 2017. Check their website for details.

Yikes! I seem to have fallen behind…

My apologies, folks. I haven’t been writing on this blog for 2.5 years. All I can say is that I’ve been busy and heavily involved in the Asheville writing scene.

I’ve been busy writing (though not on Cryogens, Ben Bones & The Twin Pistols or Ben Bones & The Uncivil War). Instead, I’ve written Holy Heists, The Embezzler Didn’t and I’ve put a bunch of my short pieces together into an anthology entitled Bloody-Minded Fictions. I edit a monthly newsletter for my local Mensa group (French Broad Mensa), and I’ve been doing writing workshops and readings here and there, and running WNCMysterians.org, my mystery/suspense/thriller writers’ critique group in Asheville, NC.

As you can see, I haven’t been sitting around contemplating the state of the universe and my minimal place in it.

I tell you what… If you’ll check back weekly, I’ll write blog posts weekly. What day? I dunno yet. But I’ll put in in my datebook and I’ll get on it. Hey, it gives me a chance to air my philosophies and misc thoughts. Another platform to parade my B.S. (no, that’s not a college degree). Check back in.