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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Zero to Go: My Sort-of Outlines

When I used to write as a teenager, I would start a story and muddle my way through without any idea of where I was going. I thought that my muse and the creative process would pull me along, that if the story was going to be good, it needed to be natural. To my teenage thinking, outlines were evil things that killed creativity.

And no, I never finished any of my teenage novels. Short stories yes, but never a novel.

In 2006, when I came back to novel-writing, I had spent three years as a professional organizer. Outlines, therefore, had become the only way to go. In fact I wrote three novels using detailed scene-by scene outlines. Yes, they changed as the story moved along, but at each change I would alter the outline so that throughout the first draft process I always had a completed outline.

Each of the three novels needed to be rewritten, mainly because I got bored part way through the novels. I already knew the whole story. Why bother writing it out? In the end, none of them came out as the story I had originally planned. They especially lacked energy and excitement.

For my fourth novel I decided to try the middle road. I knew where I wanted the main character to end up and I knew the outcome (more or less). I also knew the general theme of the story and who my characters were. From there I got writing and let the story guide me, outlining only one chapter ahead of myself.

Bingo! This time the writing was fun, smooth and fast. I never got bored and yet the story never petered out the way it would as a teen. Plus I gave myself the added challenge of not being able to go back and change anything in early chapters. If something didn’t seem to fit, I had to come up with a way to make it work. This made the writing more challenging but it forced me to be creative and not go for the simple or obvious choice in each moment.

I applied this process to the rewrite of my second novel and this time it came out exactly as the book I originally envisioned. The third novel has become a series and each book of the series is getting the same treatment. I know where I want to go and I know my characters; the rest is up to the writing in the moment. I’m loving the process.

However, I’m open to modifying the process in the future, because I’m not entirely sure how it will work for an idea that’s totally fresh. The fourth novel uses Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass World and characters as a base and the other novels are rewrites (meaning I already know the stories). I’m curious to see how my semi-outlines will cope with an idea that has no such existing base to start from.

Will the writing still flow and will the first draft tell the story I want to tell? Or will I still be faced with reworking the novel once I have the exploratory draft (as one writer colleague calls it) done?

How about you? What’s your experience with outlines? What works best for you?

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, General Babblery

 

Yes, There’s a Pixie in the House: A Short Story Excerpt

The following excerpt is from the story A Home Invasion, available in the anthology Aurora Rising (for purchase in print from Amazon). The book comes with a $2 discount if you use this code: 9RWWE4QP.

*****

Unlike most magic wardrobes, mine just led down to the kitchen, which was great for midnight snacking but not so good when you’re barricaded in your bedroom hiding from a houseful of pixies looking for someone to help.

At least the kids were at their father’s and I only had to worry about my stupid sister Marilyn. The pixie home invasion was all her fault, what with her insisting on putting a saucer of milk outside the door before going to bed.

“Don’t do that,” I told her. “This isn’t the suburbs where a bit of milk draws happy little house hobs who keep the squirrels from eating your tulip bulbs and rainspouts that never clog. We have pixies here and their idea of help usually kills people.”

“Oh c’mon, Jane! The neighborhood’s not that bad,” she said. “It’s not like you live in crack-dealer and prostitute-land. Have you ever tried it?”

“No because I don’t want the entire house and family to vanish overnight. Which happened three houses down, by the way. Don’t do it,” I told her.

I should have checked, but I thought I had scared her enough. But no. My stubborn sister decided she knew better, as always, and so I was facing a pixie invasion at one o’clock in the morning.

As if on cue, my cell phone rang with her ringtone. I pounced on it, hoping to catch it before the pixies heard the noise.

“What?!” I whispered, putting every ounce of anger I had into that single word.

As usual, Marilyn ignored my anger.

“What’s happening? Is someone trying to rob us?” she asked.

“The help YOU invited has arrived and we are likely going to die or worse before morning.”

“Don’t be-” she interrupted herself with a squeal. I heard scrabbling and a door slam. “What was that– that thing?”

“A pixie. Where are you?”

“I’ve locked myself in the bathroom.”

“Good. There’s an old iron paperweight on the shelf above the toilet. Put it in front of the door. They won’t be able to get in.” Following community warnings, I kept something of pure iron in each room, just in case. Fairies, pixies, hobs or whatever fey creatures might be lurking about didn’t like iron. “And stay in the bathroom until I come get you, or until the police arrive and find you. Whatever you do, don’t come out.”

Marilyn murmured her assent.

“Now I’m hanging up,” I said. “I have to call the police.”

I disconnected without waiting for her reply. As tempted as I was to just let the creatures have her, I didn’t want to leave her kids motherless. And besides, whatever “help” the reasons-for-my-neighborhood’s-low-housing-prices gave would affect me too.

I punched 911 and got the standard response: “Someone is on their way.”

I made the call only to register the invasion. I should have done it earlier, but it wasn’t like they were going come rushing to my aid. Everyone knew that the police never arrived until the pixies had left and they could just clean up whatever mess was left. I didn’t blame them. Why risk their own men and women because of someone else’s stupidity? Unfortunately I had no such choice.

I sat on the bed, staring at the iron doorstop blocking the pixies’ entrance. Something downstairs crashed, likely the china cabinet. I cringed at the thought of all my good dishes in a broken pile.

I stared at the door. The iron doorstop would only deter the nightmare-Tinkerbells for so long. They could ignore it if they really wanted to. After all, it’s kind of hard to live in the city without touching any iron.

Another crash made me wonder what they were doing to my living room set. With the kids finally all in their teens, I’d upgraded to a leather couch and I’d gotten myself a one-of-a-kind coffee table from a glass designer down by the old harbor.

The image of the coffee table reminded me of a magazine article I had been reading just before the milk argument with Marilyn. It was about surviving a pixie invasion. Oh god, did I remember enough of it to give it a try?

There was only one way to find out. I stood and walked over to the door, picking up the iron doorstop. It probably wouldn’t help me much but its weight felt good in my hand. I took a deep breath and flung open the door, pulling up the steps in my mind and doing just as the magazine had suggested.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, Online Fiction

 

X Marks the (Blank) Spot

We’ve decided to take an extra day of vacation, which means I have nothing prepared for today, nor any time to write up a proper post.

So, go take a look at the other A to Z Challenge posts and I’ll see you tomorrow and Saturday to finish up the month.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, General Babblery

 

What Are You Reading?

I’ve been on holiday the past week and haven’t connected to much of anything. Plus I’ve had a queue of books in my Kindle, so I’m out of touch of what’s new and interesting (or not so new but still interesting).

So today’s post is a short one. What are you reading? What would you recommend?

Add your suggestions to the comments and I’ll check them out. I’ll also tweet every suggestion and try to get conversations started about the books, so if you are a tweeter, please leave your Twitter account in the comments as well.

I especially want to hear about indie-published fantasy (young adult or not) as I haven’t had much luck finding indie-published books that hold me through to the end of the story.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge

 

Venomous Workplace: The Opening of Kitchen Ambitions

The following is an excerpt from the short story Kitchen Ambitions, which is set in the same world as my current project, Decay’s Trap. If you like what you see, you can get yourself a copy of it for 99 cents from Amazon, Smashwords, or XinXii.

And if you don’t have an e-reader, don’t worry about it, Amazon has an app for the iPhone,or PC, Smashwords offers a variety of formats to downloand and to read the XinXii epub version, Adobe offers a computer-based e-reader as well. And all these readers are free!

*****

As Evelyn walked to her corner of the vast underground kitchens of the Citadel she did her best to ignore the taunts of “How noble she looks!” and “One of the Family for sure!” following her. But then someone with a highly polished boning knife in his hand stepped in front of her.

“Look who it is, the Salad Girl.”

Anton. He had never been able to resist a moment of harrassing her, especially after that mistake of a night she’d made in a moment of weakness back when they were both apprentices.

She looked him directly in the eye. He had grown up and out in the time she had been away. It was almost too bad they hated each other.

“Still polishing other people’s knives are you?” She angled her head to give the impression she was looking down on him like she always had.

While he stared at her with eyes full of arrogance, the knife flew out of his hands and neatly boned a whole chicken in seconds. The contempt in his expression made his face curl up like the discarded skin of the boneless chicken on the butcher block beside him.

“Head Poultry Chef now, Evelyn,” he announced, like cooking mere poultry was anything to be proud of. He held up his hand and the knife jumped from the butcher block into his grasp.

Without moving a muscle Evelyn cleared all evidence of chicken, depositing in the scraps bin as was proper procedure.

“The girl can do magic after all,” someone behind Anton said. “And here we thought she was a member of the Family come down to show us how to live the genteel life.”

“If you don’t let me pass, I will take that knife and skin you as fast as you skinned that chicken.”

Anton said nothing but someone else yelled, “She’s been working salads so long she’s forgotten that magic doesn’t work on living things.”

Evelyn resisted the urge to laugh. She was a Master in the Art of Saladry and knew more about magic by not using it than any person in the kitchen who used it on a daily basis!

She didn’t answer and Anton finally stepped aside, his eyes averted down at his feet.

“Idiot,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.

After that everyone else let her finish the walk to the back of the kitchens where the salads were prepared.

There was no natural lighting in her corner, but the abundant witchlamps hanging from the ceiling provided more than enough light to work. The space was a full mini-kitchen with its own bakery, butchery and ovens, as she’d expected. The Family she served might be a bunch of insane assassins, but they did at least understand the Art of Saladry.

She felt her molars unclenching. She wouldn’t allow herself to get fired on her first day as Head Salad Chef for rising to a few taunts. Who cared what a bunch of ignorant cooks thought of her?

It’s all about the salads and the experience, she reminded herself. Ignore them.

Six months here or at most a year then a triumphant return to the coast, where the sun actually shone for more than ten minutes a day. And where other cooks respected the purity of Saladry. Only the fact that the magic-disdaining Family had one of the few fully stocked mundane kitchens in the five surrounding countries had been enough incentive to draw Evelyn back to the home she had abandoned the first chance she had gotten.

The last chef had obviously not cared about purity, however. Evelyn could see signs of magic use as she approached her station. Several of her underlings were removing dirt from the lettuce with their minds instead of with water and the bowl of croutons freshly delivered from the other side of the kitchen had obviously been baked in the kitchen’s main ovens.

She approached the person nearest her, a woman deeply focused on taking the rind off of a watermelon in slow curved slices.

“Watermelon’s out of season,” Evelyn said by way of greeting.

The woman flinched but the knife didn’t make a wrong move. She finished the slice then lay the knife down.

“It comes from the Greenhouse, Chef.”

The Greenhouse. Evelyn’s favorite place in the Citadel, in all of Turliena actually. When she’d first been apprenticed to saladry, the Chief Salad Chef had been very strict about the Greenhouse. And from her most recent visit to the Greenhouse she had discovered a team of gardeners headed by a man as passionate about Saladry as she was. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about fresh produce.

“Is that so?” she said leaning forward to examine the watermelon closely.

“I grew it myself,” the underling said. “From seeds of a melon from Lories.”

Evelyn smiled. Lories was the city in Niperta where the Art of Saladry had been born. This melon would be pure.

“Your name?”

“Anastasia.”

“Well Anastasia, congratulations. You’re my new second in command.” She turned to the rest of her crew. “This woman is serious about Saladry. If you want to cook with magic, you are more than welcome to move to another area of the kitchen.” No one left. Good.

After talking briefly with all her staff, Evelyn left and let the morning shift leave as well. Anastasia stayed to show the newest chef how to knead dough properly with his fingers. He looked a bit dismayed and Evelyn bit down on a laugh. No point in antagonizing him.

Anton wasn’t at his station on her way out and so Evelyn managed to make a quiet exit.

 
 

Unique Setting: Dreampunk by Erin M. Hartshorn

Steampunk on Mars. How cool is that? In her novella, Dreampunk, Hartshorn mashes the two genres together creating a wonderfully new world for the reader to explore. And on top of that we get a great action-packed story that pulls us along until the end. I highly recommend it!

Why the exclamation point? Because this is an indie-published novella. Several times this month I’ve mentioned how I’ve been generally disappointed with indie fiction. In many cases, the writing just isn’t up to scratch, but Hartshorn provides us with a well written story that shows us that traditional publishing isn’t the arbiter of good writing.

As well as being an SF/mystery/thriller, there’s a touch of romance, with the two protagonists playing cat and mouse with each other right up to the end. On top of the richly developed new world, with so many plot elements in the novella, the story could have become overwrought and cluttered, but Hartshorn layers the elements carefully so that they mesh together seamlessly.

One of the reasons the story works so well is Hartshorn’s attention to detail. Apart from her writing skills, she obviously has a science background. The science doesn’t exist just to look cool or give us a random setting. It’s part and parcel of the main character’s life. In fact without it there’s no character, or story and that, to me, is what makes great science fiction. Hartshorn also applies the same attention to detail to the non-science parts creating an equal interest in the thriller and romance layers of the story.

Seriously, who knew you could pack so much into a novella and pull it off well? Although this is one of Hartshorn’s first indie-published efforts, I expect to see a lot more of her in the future, both in the indie and traditional publishing worlds.

So, if you’re a fan of science fiction, steampunk, spy thrillers or romance, Hartshorn’s Dreampunk will satisfy your itch for something unique.

You can pick up a copy of it from Smashwords or download it for your Kindle on Amazon.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, Book Reviews

 

Telling Myself A Story

If you want to sell books at some point, it’s important to think about your future readers. However, I never start from that point. Later once I’ve started writing I consider who exactly I want reading the story (and therefore do not get too racy in my young adult stories, nor talk too much about the lives of older people, for example), but I can’t get so structured so early.

When I come up with an idea, before I create outlines or put anything down into the computer, the seed of the idea germinates and sprouts in my mind as snippets of story. They flesh themselves out in cinematic images. Finally an ending appears and I’m ready to get started.

All of this takes time and free-thinking. Fortunately, I walk a lot. I usually walk 45 minutes to work. I run about one hour a week or go for long hikes on weekends. I also wake up early most mornings and while playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, my subconscious is piecing together the story for me.

This process continues through the first draft and the editing process. Ideas come and go, they repeat over and over refining themselves until they come out just right and I can create a scene, a chapter or a whole book around them.

I pondered for a while the best way explain this process to you, but in the end, I can’t say any more. It’s a relaxed intuitive process. As a former professional organizer I love having processes and systems that work time and again, but in this my muse demands unstructured chaos. Before the writing happens, the muse dips again and again into the river of ideas and pulls out things to take a look at and decide if we want them or whether they get tossed back in to the water for another time, perhaps once the idea has had a chance to grow a little bigger.

I know another writer who writes the story’s synopsis before beginning. She feels that if she can encapsulate the whole story in a few pages, then she understands it enough to turn it into a whole novel or complete short story. While I understand her way of working, I’ve tried it and it forces my muse to shut up and refuse to speak to me. How dare I try to control her like that?!

So, I go for a walk and let her dip and dive soaking herself in story, free to pick and choose what she thinks is best, without any structure to hold her back.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2011 in AtoZ Challenge, General Babblery