Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto - Entry 3 - My Writing Process: Prewriting

When I decided to start writing seriously,  I emailed a lot of writers asking them about their process to find out what worked and didn't work for them.  At the time I thought I was trying to learn as much about the craft as possible, but author-extraordinare Doug Clegg saw it differently.  In an email back to me he explained how he writes, then said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "What it really sounds like though is that you're looking for a magic pill that will help you write better.  It doesn't exist.  The trick is to find out what works for you, and do that.  Only working and writing will help you discover your own process."

And he was right.  I was looking for a magic pill, some glowing tablet that real writers are given in a secret ceremony that when ingested made writing easier.  But it doesn't exist.  (Or if it does, and I'm lying about its existence, I'm sure as hell not telling you about it, peon.  Plus, they'd kill me if I told, duh.)  The more I thought about it, the more I realized Clegg was right--the way to figuring out your writing process is to discover it yourself.  There are a lot of strategies and tips out there (thankfully), but you have to find what works for you, or more accurately, find strategies that interest you--lately, Steve Pressfield's Clothesline Method and Randy Ingerman's Snowflake Method have been helpful-- then modify them to fit your writing needs.

So what is my writing process like?  It's messy.  It's time consuming.  And it's ever-changing.  Mostly though, it's a lot of prewriting.  And by a lot of prewriting, I mean A LOT of prewriting.  

Just a minute ago I went poking around my WATER TOWER 5 folder and counted over 200 files.   60% of those are chapter files--each being a different draft of a chapter as I went through seven revisions. Another 5% of those files are the query letter drafts I wrote during my agent search.  And the other 35%?  Those 70 files--please don't check my math here--are all notes and outline files.

And here's a screenshot of the file for the novel I'm working on now.

(I deleted the file called "People I Want to Frame for Murder" because I worried it might be used against me in court someday.  
Now, no one knows it ever existed.  [Author wipes brow].)

So you don't have to count, that's 17 files, none of which are actual chapters.  Hidden in those three folders is another 15 files.  (For you non-math-heads, that's 32 files.)  The oldest of the files dates back to November 22nd of last year because as every respectable book on writing tell you, it's best to start a new novel on the date a president was assassinated.

What's in those files, and the 70 or so WT5 files, is notes.  Lots and lots of notes.  In the beginning I open a Word document and start what I call riffing.  I type an idea and then follow the thread down, building off of it, seeing where it leads, asking a lot of questions and sometimes answering them, hoping to come across something that interests me.  This can go on for a long time, lots of questioning and requestioning, finding lots of dead ends and dumb, discardable ideas.  But eventually, if I stick with it long enough, I end up with something that I can work with.  How long do I do this?  Until I have a viable idea I'm interested in writing.  Once I have that, I do a lot more riffing.  In fact, some of those files run 10K words long.

Here's a screenshot of one of the first plot riffs I wrote for LUCKY TOWN, my trunk novel.  Looking at this now, I'm shocked by how none of this ended up in the final draft twelve drafts later.  In fact, this whole storyline was abandoned and simplified into the YA novel it ended up as.  I'm not even sure what most of this riff means now, but it helped me get to my finishing point.

I do remember the novel was initially called Lockbox, but I have zero idea what FI stands for, and it's all over this page.
That's funny to me for some reason.
I do this sort of riffing for a long time, opening new files when I get a character idea and storing them away, or a new file when I have a scene idea, twist idea, etc.  Eventually, and this takes me a while, I'll have a semi-coherent plot worked out and characters, and can do an outline.  After that, I can start writing, but even then, the story changes.  I wish I was one of those writers who had the idea clearly in his or her head at the start and that's what it ends up as, but I'm not.  Or maybe those people don't exist.  If they do though, I hate them.

I do know there are some writers just sit down and start drafting without an outline.  They follow the Stephen King "writers are archeologists" belief, discovering the story and plot as they write.  But that doesn't work for me.  I get stuck and mostly want to give up.  I also don't like to backtrack.  I want to see the first draft through until the end, see what I have, then revise...or in my case usually, overhaul.  It takes a lot of time, is probably not very efficient, but it works for me.  And that's what matters.

So when will I get to actually start drafting my next novel?  Soon, I hope.  I won't push it though.  I have a good grasp on my characters, the overall mystery and solution, and a bunch of scenes, but I'm struggling to get the outline finished.  I think mystery novels call for detailed outlines--the hiding of clues, red herrings, etc.--calls for advanced planning.  The good news is I like this stage.  It's the creative part of the process for me.  The actual drafting though?  Ugh.  But I'll save that griping for my next Piecemeal Manifesto entry.

So my question to you:  If you're a writer, what prewriting process, if any, have you found that works for you?

TL; DR: The best writing process is the one that works best for you.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: Breaking Sky by Cori McCarthy

Cori McCarthy could kick your ass.

I'm not saying she will, but she probably could if she wanted to.  Because there's an anger in McCarthy's new novel BREAKING SKY that's hard to fake.  The novel's protagonist, Chase "Nyx" Harcourt, is a teen fighter pilot during the Second Cold War in the year 2048.  Nyx punches boys, disobeys military orders, and flies so recklessly and dangerously that you just know McCarthy has done the same in her lifetime.  Or has wanted to.  Either way, isn't that what you want from a novel--to find it so authentic that you feel you know the author somehow once it's finished?  That's the way it was for me and BREAKING SKY.

(Very cool cover!)

The novel's set-up is as follows: In the near future, China has pretty much taken over the world with superior military power, specifically killer drones that keep the United States isolated from the rest of the world.  In response, the US military has created Streakers, experimental jets that it hopes will be able to destroy the drones and even out the balance of power.  The problem?  The Streakers fly so fast and are so difficult to maneuver that only teenagers have the physical make-up to fly them.  Enter Nyx, a headstrong pilot who secretly is the daughter of one of the most hated military leaders in world history.  (Note:  I suck at summaries.)  Basically for you pop culture junkies, it's a combination of Top Gun, Ender's Game, and Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck, who Nyx has a lot in common with in the best ways possible.

What made the book so enjoyable for me was Nyx.  Any reader will tell you that it's always about the main character, and in Nyx, McCarthy has a strong female protagonist who is confident and assertive and aggressive.  I like that a lot.  YA's greatest contribution to literature has been the strong female role model.  Most readers of YA are teenage girls, and I like that they have characters like Katniss, Hazel, and now Nyx to look up to.  This isn't to say Nyx is perfect--she's quick to anger and probably a bit too quick to make-out with boys before dismissing them, which one could argue isn't a fault at all--but don't we want our heroes flawed and real?

BREAKING SKY's flying sequences are fantastically written--exciting, focused, and suspenseful.  I sure as hell know I couldn't have written them.  The writing throughout is clear and interesting, as well.  McCarthy's nailed dialogue, which if I'm being honest, is my favorite part of any novel.  Confrontational moments, which the book is full of, are tense, angry, and ring true.

Recently, BREAKING SKY was acquired by Sony for possible movied-dom.  It's easy to see why-- lots of exciting flying sequences, rebellious teenagers, and's pretty much a no-brainer.  McCarthy said in a recent interview she's not working on a sequel, but I doubt that lasts for long.  This book is going to be huge, as well it should be.  If it's not, I'm pretty sure McCarthy is going to start kicking some ass.  If so, god help us.

(Oh, and in full disclosure:  Cori McCarthy and I attended the same college, Ohio University.  And we have the same publisher.  And she lives one state away.  Why is this relevant?  Because I'm hoping people tie her awesomeness to me somehow.  One can hope.)

Monday, March 9, 2015

My Visit to My Publisher

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Sourcebooks, who will be publishing THE WATER TOWER 5.  I arranged the trip because, let's face it, this could be the only book I ever sell, so I want to experience as much of the process as I can.

Here's a brief history:  Sourcebooks was founded in 1987 by Dominique Raccah, who, from everything I've read about her, is just amazing.  (Seriously, look her up.  Look at everything she's accomplished.)  The company is located in Naperville, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and is not only known for their excellent publications, but their innovation.  In 1997, they put out We Interrupt This Broadcast, which included a cd, one of the first, if not the first, publishers to do this.  (I bought a copy of this book when it came out.)  They also created the Put Me in the Story series and app, which allows parents to order books where the kids are the stars in series like Sesame Street, Marvel, and Disney.  So yeah, the company is just really impressive.

Thus ends today's lesson.

After school a couple of Tuesdays ago, I drove the six hours to Naperville, getting into my hotel room around 11.  The next afternoon, I met up with my editor, Aubrey Poole, and three other Sourcebook-ers: editorial assistant Kate Prosswimmer, marketing coordinator Alex Yeadon, and public relations butt kicker Katy Lynch.  (I would post a picture here of all of us at lunch, but I forgot to have our waiter take one.  Duh.)

After lunch, where we I interrogated these women about their jobs, we drove to the Sourcebooks office.  My host and tour guide for the day was Aubrey, who, like I said earlier, is my book editor.  She's awesome--smart, funny, and supportive.  Here's a picture.

(True story, my wife helped me choose my outfit.  I'm basically a 10-year-old boy when it comes to dressing myself.)

At Sourcebooks, was is the first thing that greets me?

(This is how they used to teach cattle proper posture in the Old West.)

How cool is that?  It was also a great indicator of what was to come because the entire Sourcebooks office is full of life and energy.  (Okay, yeah, the bull is an inanimate object, thereby not really an object of "life and energy", but you get the point.)  Over the next hour and a half everyone I met was incredibly friendly, gracious, and excited about my being one of their authors.  I met editors, artists, publicists, and promotional wizards.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was just fantastic, patiently answering all of my wide-eyed questions when I know they had 30 to 40 books they needed to be working on.  Here's one of those fantastic people, Alex Yeadon, marketing coordinator.

(Thinking, "Who is this creepy bald guy taking my picture?")

The only bummers of the day were not getting a chance to meet Dominique Raccah and Jean Johnson, both of whom were out sick.  But, it just gives me a reason to schedule another visit.

After a trip to the storeroom, where Aubrey loaded me up with a bunch of books to take home to my kids and students--thanks for that!--I was asked to sign the author wall.  This, of course, was a really cool honor and I stressed about what to write and just how terrible my handwriting was, but I came up with something.

(I may not have the best message on the wall, but it's certainly the highest.)

Here's what I wrote:

(Yes, I have the handwriting of a nervous child.)

It was a wonderful trip and experience that made me want to: A. Quit my teaching job and go to work for Sourcebooks, B. Go write, and C. Work my butt off to help give The Water Tower 5 as much a chance to succeed as possible.  I'm beyond thrilled to be a Sourcebooks author.  I can't wait to get further into the process.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Brother Eric

Last Monday, February 23rd, my oldest brother Eric passed away at 53 after a 9 (!) year battle with pancreatic cancer.  Below is the eulogy I gave at his memorial service on Saturday.  I'm posting it here because most of you never had the chance to meet Eric, and that's a shame.  Maybe by reading this you can have some idea of just how awesome he was.


My brother Eric was ten years and ten days older than me, so by the time I had a functioning memory, he was pretty old.  My earliest memory of Eric goes like this:

When I was seven, we lived in Annandale, Virginia.  There was a park at the end of my street, and one day I was playing there in the creek by myself.

(I think this set-up--a boy of seven allowed to play at a public park by himself--really calls into question my Mom and Dad’s parenting skills.)

I was making mudballs in the creek when a couple of older kids came along and ask me to make a mudball for them.  

“Extra gooey,” the kid said.

Feeling cool that the older kids were talking to me, I complied, making an extra gooey mudball, finely crafted by my gullible seven-year-old hands.

Proudly, I presented the mudball to them with both hands in front of myself, and said, “Like this?”

And that’s when one of the kids slapped my hands upwards, sending the mudball--extra gooey--right into my face.  The guys burst into hysterics.  I started bawling and ran home.

Eric was there with a friend and  said, “What happened?”

Somehow I managed to tell him of my violent assault--heh--and he told me, “Go upstairs and take a bath,” then to his friend, “Let’s go.”

Later, Eric told me that he and his friend went down and beat those guys up.  And I felt much, much better.

Now, did Eric really go beat those guys up?  At the time I certainly thought he did.  Now, I’m not so sure.  But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  What matters is that that was my big brother doing what I think a big brother should do--protecting his little brother.

And really, in my mind, that’s what Eric always was: the quintessential Hollywood, big brother.  Here’s just a small sample of the things he did for me, his little brother:

*He let me sit in his room and listen to his albums when he wasn't home.  Eric’s basically the reason my brain is basically a jukebox of every Billy Joel, Queen, Elton John, Cheap Trick, and ELO song.

*He introduced me to The Twilight Zone, Monty Python, Mad Magazine, and Stephen King.  (I’ve always said I read as much as I do because Eric read a lot.)

*He constantly took me to movies when I’d ask.  We go in his orange Ford Pinto, which we all know is a fiery death trap of a car, but my parents let him have one, which isn’t surprising considering they let me play in parks alone at seven.

*Took me to arcades

*He played countless games of backgammon, chess, and Uno with me.  Unfortunately, being a good big brother never extended to him letting me win.

*In 1985 he took me to my first concert - Weird Al Yankovic.

*He invited me visit him in North Carolina when he moved there after college.

He did all of this and more, and always without complaining or grumbling.

If you need more evidence of what type of person he was, look no further than that fact that he moved less than half a mile from my parents.  On purpose.  Talk about taking one for the team.

Eric was always walking the dog up to our parents' house and helping them out with chores they couldn't do.  In fact, he was the only one of us who could put their sliding screen door back on it’s rails I. have no idea who’s going to do that now.

And for the brothers, including myself, we all sort of knew Eric was in charge.  His opinion mattered most - well, maybe not mattered most like he was right, but that he held the most sway because, well, he was Eric.  I’m guessing we all wanted Eric’s approval.  I know I did.

His wife, Kathy, and daughters, Rachel and Kelly, were Eric’s life.  He was incredibly proud of each of them.  I never heard him say a bad word about any of them.  But if you know his daughters and how awesome they are, you know that probably wasn’t hard for him.  Eric gets some of the credit for that.  Most of it though goes to Kathy who is incredibly patient and kind.  He just loved her immensely.  Kathy’s so great that she could’ve picked anyone she wanted to marry.  But she picked Eric, and that says something about him.

But I’m not romanticizing Eric here.  He definitely wasn’t perfect.  Among his flaws:

* He was a terrible golfer.  In fact, it was in golfing with him that we learned about Eric Math.  Eric could tee off into the woods, take a drop, put it in the lake, be on the green four shots later, three putt, and take a 5 on the hole.  Eric Math.

* Bandanas.  Eric wore them constantly.  And we’d always see him and roll our eyes saying, “Eric’s wearing a bandana  again.”

* I know for certain I never saw him wash a dish after a family meal.  I’d be scrubbing away after Thanksgiving or Christmas, and Eric would walk by and drop his plate in the sink and go watch TV.  This happened every year.  I guess being the oldest brother comes with that privilege.

* He may some highly dubious Fantasy Football draft picks.

* And that mustache he seemed to sport for about fifteen years was definitely a questionable choice.  Unless you’re a 70’s porn star, which he wasn’t.  And least I don't think he was.

But really, if that’s your list of faults at the end of your life, you’ve pretty much done things right.

What’s been nice about planning for this, is remembering all of the little things, like:

* Eric once saved Jay’s life weightlifting.

* He was struck by lightning.

* He almost drowned as a child.

* He could do a spot-on Bob Dylan impersonation.

* He hated Ray Liotta

* He could blow spit bubbles off his tongue

* He was the best man at my wedding, and vice versa.

* He worked at an ice skating rink, pizza parlor, a moving company

* He loved Virginia Tech football and the Washington Redskins

* He broke his jaw while in college “jogging”.  I putting “jogging” in quotes because that story was always really suspect.

* He played on the 1978 Annandale Atoms, a football team that finished the season ranked #1 in the nation.

* He received a commendation from the state of Virginia for a fish he caught the only time he ever went fishing.

I could go on and on.  So could anyone close to him.

I’ll end with this story:

If you haven’t noticed, Eric and I have the same hair cut.  Years ago, he stopped going to the barber shop and bought an electric head shaver.  He suggested I do the same, and eventually I did.  I was home alone the first time I tried to use it, and it only took me two minutes to screw up my hair to a laughable amount.  I knew if I just kept trying to fix my mistakes by myself, I was going to continue the butchering, so I did the only thing I could think of--I called Eric.

He was sick at this point, probably in his second year of his cancer fight, and had his good days and bad days.  From how he sounded when I called, it was probably closer to a bad day.

I said, “You’re home?  Can I come over?  And then after we agree to never discuss why I was there.”

He said, “Okay.”

When I got there, he looked at me, told me to get into the bathroom, and then shaved my head, fixing my mistakes, proving, once again, even when he was sick, he was what he always would be--an older brother looking out for his little brother.

In the nine years he was sick, Eric never gave up, never complained, and never stopped being a good role model for everyone.  What better guide to life can someone give you?

So, farewell, Eric.  We’ll miss you, brother.  You were one of the great ones, and you’re gone far too soon.

(Eric on the right, me on the left.  We're either doing scissors in Rock, Paper, Scissors or dumb, suburban white guy gang symbols.  You pick.  That may be the only time I've ever worn a bandana, and ever will.)