The Novel Continues 

I’m still working on the novel, and things are moving along at a steady clip. I’m just shy of 16,000 words now and have a bit of material to get through before heading into the conclusion. Still, right now it’s looking more like it will be a novella than a full-length novel. The smallest size I’ve found for a full-length modern genre novel is around 70,000. My first draft probably won’t break the 50,000 word goal I took from NaNoWriMo. There are a number of scenes I need to fill in for the second draft, but I don’t anticipate that bringing it anywhere near 70,000.

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Outlining My Thoughts on Writing Outlines

I never wrote outlines before I started making comics. My memory was sharp back before I began to be treated for anxiety, and I could organize things well enough in my head. If I wanted to make certain to remember something I’d just jot a note, which I would inevitably find years later when I’d no longer recall the context. It was an inefficient system but one that was low-cost in terms of time and effort.

When, fresh out of college, I got serious about the craft of writing comics I developed a system of writing one sentence to describe the action of every page. The theory was that this would ensure that each page would thereby feel like a contained unit. Further, pacing could be controlled by simply devoting more or fewer sentences to each plot point.

In practice I ignored the fact that the collection of sentences failed to present a coherent story, but it did actually produce cohesive individual pages. Before I could get much further in the development of a solid way to outline comics, financial issues combined with social anxiety and depression to drive me out of the writing business altogether.

But I never lost my affection for comics, and as companies began releasing collections of pre-code horror and crime comics I gleefully bought all of them I could find. Fortunately, the days of financial stress had passed by that point. I got on medication and began working on behavioral modification to learn to combat periods of hopelessness and lethargy. And I started this blog as a way to start writing again.

Now I feel that it’s all coming together again. I’ve published a comic with my previous collaborator Rafer Roberts, and he’s had me script two more short pieces for inclusion in other works. I have a semi-regular gig writing an advice column for mad scientists. I’ve had a story published in an e-book, and another is coming out in an anthology this year. And my outline process has evolved.

For the shorter scripts it’s pretty much the same, except that the page descriptions have become brief paragraphs. This allows the outline to serve double duty as a synopsis to send for buy-in and approval. For full scripts and prose stories, I’m essentially writing a story. There’s not a great deal of detail or characterization in it, and the language is nothing that’s trying to be compelling, but the story-form outline gets the main thoughts on “paper”, as it were. It’s a sort of idea test.

The genesis of this approach is a peculiar thing I noticed in a lot of the old anthology comics. Among the short comics would be one or two very prose pieces. Any reader of reprinted EC comics has probably seen these, but the practice was widespread throughout the industry.

Bear in mind that I have done no actual research into why they did this.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I decided that it was an artifact of the scripting process. The editors would write short stories and hand them out to artists. The captions and dialog would largely come from the prose script, but the artist would determine layout and panel breakdowns. Any extra scripts would be used as page filler.

Who knows, really? I mean except for the few pros still with us from those days or anybody who’s actually bothered to do any research on the subject whatsoever.

At any rate, that’s my new approach. It allows me to get ideas written down without worrying about pesky details like final dialog, pacing, or characterization. It’s working well for the idea I’m writing up for a weekly web comic, and it even helped me to bull my way through the first draft of the story coming out this summer.

I should probably start applying that approach to the story I’m working on now…

I Think My Next Character Should Also Be a Person of Some Sort

One thing that’s getting me through a really trying time at work is the story that I’m currently writing. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and couldn’t wait for the next issue of Amazing Spider-Man (Sandman and Hydro-Man had just gotten mixed up, and the combined Mud-Thing was rising behind Spidey!) I decided to dedicate myself this year to producing stories and scripts for actual release.

The one I’m currently working on is loosely inspired by the haunted Massachusetts of H.P. Lovecraft, and I’m really enjoying the process of getting it into shape for submission.

A pleasant harbor in a nice area. How frightening!

A pleasant harbor in a nice area. How frightening!

After the first draft, I remembered my resolve to stop using the default protagonist of Western fiction: a straight, white, man. Switching the gender, I started in on the second draft in earnest. That’s when the unexpected happened. Simply from changing one aspect of the generic main character, my narrator developed a personality.

Suddenly I was thinking about her as a person, instead of a passive experiencer of plot. Who was she? Why was she at Magnolia Harbor? Did she miss her family? How would she spend her time at the beach? The story became much stronger as its narrator became somebody.

All because I actually thought about the story as being about a person. Imagine that!

image cropped from iOS Maps display

Mad Scientist Journal: Winter 2014

One of the projects I completed recently was an installment of my mad science advice column “You Oort to Know!” (ostensibly by Dr. Arthur “Oort” Cloud) for publication in the Winter 2014 issue of “Mad Scientist Journal”. The issue is now out and available for purchase as an e-book from Smashwords and Amazon, with availability coming soon from other vendors.

In addition to my invaluable advice, the issue contains 3 months worth of peer-scoffed articles about mad science from http://madscientistjournal.org, original fiction geared to mad scientists, and other mad tidbits.

Go on. We all go a little mad sometimes!

Stress Break

Over the past month I’ve tried repeatedly to write an essay about the stress I’m under at work. I’ve abandoned multiple attempts on the topic, as each one eventually devolved into whining. I don’t want to write that, and I’m betting that you wouldn’t care to read it.

Also I’m a bit paranoid, so I kept getting nervous that my boss would stumble across my complaints and decide to stop defending me to upper management. So it’s really not about what I think you might want so much as what my animal brain fears. Sorry.

Anyway, here’s what I’m going to do instead. I’m going to write a little bit about some good things that have helped keep me going through this.

First, of course, is the support and understanding of my wife. Whether I need an emergency lunch delivery, some quality down time with a terrible movie, or to spend a little money on shopping therapy, she’s done her best to keep me propped up. We both know that it’s not going to get better any time this year, and it’s vital to my well-being that I know she’s got my back.

On a less pleasant note, it’s also helping that Wyeth has stopped pooping on the bathroom floor every day. Most days still, but it’s an improvement.

I recently turned out a 2-page script on short notice, for a secret comic project being put out by a secret publisher. I’m still amazed at my fortune in being secretly included, and I can’t wait to be able to be less secretive about the whole thing.

Less hush-hush, I’ve been working on a submission for a Lovecraft anthology. I mentioned here quite a while ago that I’d been finding it difficult to ape Lovecraft’s narrative style. Well, that story continued to languish until I supported the Kickstarter for this anthology. When I discovered that there would be open submissions for it, I dusted off the idea and tried it with a different approach. It still wasn’t working. Something about writing a character driven past the edge of sanity was not sitting well with me. I reluctantly decided not to submit a story.

Two days later the open call for submissions was officially announced, and I noticed that there were only two restrictions: stories had to be set in Lovecraft’s New England, and they had to be written in the 1st person. I slept on it, and the next morning I had the germ of an idea. The first draft’s been flowing pretty well, and I’m pretty confidant about making the deadline.

Sleep helps too. Lovely sleep. I feel like I’ll never get enough of it this year.

Clean Slates are Pretty, But I Need to Set Down These Full Plates

The first blog post of the year is like a yard of fresh snow. It’s filled with wonderful possibilities, but you know you’re just going to wreck it like you always do.

I suppose I could have put that more optimistically…

I’m not feeling optimistic. I’m feeling defeated. Work is not going well, it’s been a non-specific mammal’s age since I worked on the story I meant to submit last year, and Wyeth keeps dropping stink logs on the bathroom floor.

On the positive side of things, I have been writing.

There’s a comic I want to write, but I haven’t figured out exactly how I want to handle it. It’s been rattling around in my brain for a while, and I’d grown frustrated with the lack of progress. Finally I decided to just start writing.

Every day this year so far I’ve worked on it — a little dialog, some interior thought, some light descriptions. I may not use any of it, but it’s helping me to gel my thoughts about characters and plot. Most importantly, it’s putting tracks on the snow. And once the pristine vista is wrecked, I might as well get to work.

Climbing Past Sisyphus

It’s been a long summer. Extra hours at work… Well, that’s it, really. I haven’t had much time for anything else.

That’s not exactly true. I just haven’t done much else, even when I had the time.

At first I wondered if I was falling into another down phase. After all, one of the symptoms is a lack of enthusiasm for doing anything much. Also, I’ve been more irritable — another typical indication of a downward trend.

The weird thing is that I’ve been largely functional. I wash dishes, run laundry through their machines, keep up with taking care of the cats: all sorts of activity. But then I just sit, not doing much else.

I’m not sure what to make of it. It could be just a minor low, enough to keep me from writing but leave me otherwise okay. Or it may just indicate that I’ve made more chores so routine that they’re unaffected by my normal lack of motivation. Also possible is that this is situational, brought on by overwork, and not subject to my usual patterns of behavior.

What’s indisputable is that it’s been months since I’ve produced anything but these blog entries, and that’s been touch-and-go.

I don’t mean to complain, and I hope it doesn’t seem that I am. My intent is simply to reflect on my recent lethargy as I begin the climb back to productivity. I have a lot to do: finish an advice column, write a short story, finish one comic script and write two more — and those are just the tasks I feel obligated to do! I won’t have a lot of time for retrospection once I get going, so I’m doing it now.

And what I’ve decided is that I need to make writing an automatic task, like feeding the cats. Or writing a post for this blog (nearly) every week!

Coding Fiction

It’s not entirely analogous, but there are ways in which programming is like writing fiction. Maybe it’s because I do both, and my lessons from one activity inform how I perform the other. Nonetheless, even if the connections are forced by my perspective, they are able to be connected. So here’s where I see them being similar, or at least having common usable approaches.

It’s easier if you have a plan. It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed, and it doesn’t have to be set in stone, but whether writing a program or a story it helps to have an idea of what the end result should be. I know that some folks like to just start writing and see where it takes them, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is the way you should do it, right? Me, I find it a lot easier to put words down if I know what tone I’m going for and have some loose structure in mind.

You’d think that knowing what you’re trying to accomplish would be a given for programming. After all, there’s a requirements document and everything! Well, for most of my career I’ve been on agile projects, and very few of them had a requirements doc. Far too many, in fact, had us start writing code before we even knew what the project was about. There was one project at HoneyPot where we spent $1 million on development before the client had agreed on requirements. That went over poorly.

Entire sections may need to be rewritten. This is a hard lesson for writers, but it’s widely understood. What seemed like a great passage when written might need to go because of pacing considerations. Or a part of the plot wasn’t working, and you needed to rework the scene to support a revision. It’s all part of the process.

For many programmers with whom I’ve worked, touching code a second time amounts to failure. The ingrained model is “One and Done” — a sort of measure twice and cut once approach to coding. This of course assumes you have full and correct requirements, which you won’t. Ever. It’s simply unrealistic to believe that new requirements won’t lead to a rewrite of part of the code base. Nonetheless, I’ve seen a developer literally on the edge of tears because yesterday’s code didn’t support today’s business needs.

It’ll never be perfect. I spent 10 years rewriting the first three chapters of a novel. Those three chapters were pretty great! In that time Stephen King pumped out enough books to fill a shelf. Big, thick, hippo-choking books. Done is better than — well, not done. There’s a point called “good enough”, and it’s probably lower than you think. Just read a best-seller; you don’t even need complete sentences anymore.

I mentioned that programmers don’t like to revisit code. One tactic they use to avoid it is to make their code as perfect as they can imagine, able to take on everything they can think of. But you can’t think of everything, and there’s a point beyond which you’re spending time solving a minor problem when major work needs doing. Do a good job, but let it go.

Lastly, and most importantly, whatever gets the job done is right!

Representing Women in Genre Fiction

I’m in the process of reading a science fiction yarn from 19621. Like many mid-century works, the sexual politics of the story can most charitably be described as “dated”. Although the only female astronaut, Gail Loring, is a biologist who has passed all of the requirements for the trip to Mars, she becomes nothing but a prize to be won by the men.

What are her thoughts on the role the book locks her into? She picks the narrator and tells him:

“In those bygone days I thought a trip to Mars was a career. I’m a woman, Bill Drake. That’s my real career.”

My purpose isn’t to single out the author or even this book. Anyone who’s seen or read older sci-fi is all too familiar with this outcome. The genre allowed women to hold doctorates in one hand, so long as they served coffee with the other.

At this, it was a significant step up from the heroic fiction women popular in magazines, comics, and serials from the previous generation. Women were either wild creatures to be tamed or feisty yet frequently in peril. Even iconic characters like Dejah Thoris or Wilma Deering, celebrated for being women of skill and bravery, spent a great deal of time waiting for their men to save them.

As with so many social issues, the representation of women in genre fiction has been improving slowly. A sub-industry of comics and TV shows played with the contradiction between conventional femininity and heroism (perhaps the most famous of which here in the US were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”). These were followed by movies about women in fetish leather who were little more than comely killing machines. (I’m looking at you, “Underworld”.)

Let’s not speak of the women in comics. Most heroines seem to outfit themselves at Lover’s Lane. To be fair, there have very recently been improvements in some of the titles at Marvel and DC, and I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Bandette. A creator owned title from Monkeybrain, its good-natured action and humor made it my favorite new comic this year.

Still, there’s a long way to go.

I bring this up because I consider myself a feminist (other things, too, but that’s enough for now). I thought it was enough for me, as a creator, to make my female characters with an effort to avoid sexist clichés. I wrote the Billy and Gravely comics with a deliberate undermining of the roles of women in B movies of the 1950s and ’60s. My story “The Heart of the Warrior” was explicitly about the aspects of rape culture that permeated so much early adventure fiction.

It’s not enough.

See, all my main characters have been men. All but one: Betty Marie, from “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — and I turned that into the first part of the Billy and Gravely series. I looked at all my planned projects, and they were all about men, too. I thought about changing them, but that felt wrong. You can’t just swap out characters; the whole story changes. Gender is only a part of the character, but every part is important. It seemed to me that it would be short-changing a new character by shoe-horning her into another project.

So I came up with a whole new story, for a female character I want to write about. I’d gladly read about her if someone else wrote her, which is my first criterion for any character. Who do I want to read about?

I want to read about a strong woman who has a personality — and eerie but thrilling adventures! She’ll also serve coffee, but only to her friends, only in her apartment and only if there’s some already made.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. The Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham. Monarch Books.