What I’m Writing: Novels, Stories and Chapter Books

I thought it might be fun to update readers on what I’ve been working on. You’re probably already aware that I launched the second book in the Spit Mechs series this month (Spit Mechs 2). In December, I hope to launch the first in another chapter book series Squint & Rocket. If I get a reasonable response to these two books, I will most likely continue these two series in 2018.

But I also write adult fiction. Up to this point that has been almost exclusively fantasy and science-fiction, which of course, includes steampunk (greatest sub-genre ever?) I published a short story last year in the British sci-fi journal Singularity. (And have sent out dozens of other stories to other journals.) I have two separate steampunk novels that I have been sending out to prospective agents. Recently, I’ve developed the outlines for two separate novels. One is set in modern day southwest Texas and follows a young woman who, while navigating a sexist culture and a strained relationship with her father, makes a fantastic discovery that transports the story into something bordering fantasy. The second outline is for a full-out sci-fi novel that touches on themes of racism, conspiracy and competitive sports. Not yet satisfied with either, lately I have been pushing around an idea I have for a modern-day literary story with possible hints of magical realism that would focus on somewhat philosophical dialogue.

And I write the occasional poem too. Since there’s not a real monetary market for these, I’ve toyed with the idea of publishing those online (for free).

And that’s it, for now. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare

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As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

Query Letter Tango

Okay, I am now sending query letters out to agents for my steampunk novel. I have sent a grand total of two queries and received two rejections back. Which translates into me being completely unsatisfied with my query letter. I’ve shared the letter with a couple of other writers and considered their thoughtful feedback. But I’m still left wondering how to perfect the letter.

I’ve decided to try and do some free-form writing, essentially writing several versions quickly to see if I can’t better pinpoint those ideas and phrases that are going to help me sell this thing. I would much rather be working on the new novel. Story I understand. I don’t know what to call this. A sales-craft of sorts, but not one I’m all to thrilled about. Still, I am the essence of determination. At least, that’s what the voices in my head say.

The Long Rewrite

Now that the first draft is complete, it’s time to go back through and do all sorts of rewriting and editing. I have a decent list of story subjects to be added and enhanced, characters to be deepened, technology to be researched. I am far from through.

I’ll give you an example. One of my rewrite items is to enhance a particular characteristic of one of my characters – essentially to make him a little less likable, a little more odious, if you will. Well, this particular character is a major one, and so it has taken quite a while to go through and ferret out these opportunities. After spending several hours, I’m still not complete with this one task. It’s enough to make the whole rewriting process a little overwhelming.

And as I continue to read outside of my novel, I continue to get inspiration from other areas, and think of still more items to add to the rewrite list. I’ve always said that art is about layers, and now I’m applying it on a broad scale.

Sure the whole book right now seems at the end of a far tunnel. But I’m still having a thrill creating it.

Your Environment: The Other Character

Today’s blog post was inspired by this excerpt from the comic, Breaking into Comics The Marvel Way. The passage from which it is taken focused on advising new comic book artists:

Include more backgrounds to give us a better sense of place. Think of your background as another character in the story and use it to help enhance the storytelling and the world your characters are inhabiting.

While the writer, C.B. Cebulski, was talking about comic art, his advice could just as easily apply to fiction writing. It’s so easy to forget the importance of the background. When developing a story, we’re often trained, formally or informally, to think about sentient characters and their development.

But the background, and here I mean the environment or the setting, is critical to your story in that it provides that layer of texture that grounds the more ethereal qualities of dialogue and action. Not only that, but it’s also a key element in differentiating your story from all other stories. And by thinking of your environment as a character, you can really flesh out its nuances and peculiarities.

I suggest writing up a character persona on your environment. And finally, think about how that persona interacts with the other characters in your story. What do each do for the other?

Gotcha: The Twist

I’ve been mapping out my outline to Books 2 and 3 of the novel and having great fun doing it. After I got all the basic plot points down that I felt needed covering, I went back through and looked at:

  • Motivations
  • Plot Twists
  • Flow and Dramatic Sequence

Let me elaborate on these three points (which just so happen to be very much interrelated). After I’ve laid out the basic plot, I like to go back through with each major character to ensure that something is driving them through the story. I don’t want them to just be “along for the ride.” Then, I look for strong “gotcha” moments. In a sense, many of these moments were built in from the beginning; they’re almost the reason for the story. But in many cases, I can find additional moments that, ideally, even surprise me as I write them (and give me that “yes!” feeling). In some cases, these new plot twists derive directly from my work on character motivations. And finally, I go back through looking at the flow of the story and it’s dramatic tension (as a result of sequence). I need to not only ensure that I reveal the right information and resolve the proper issues in the order best for the story, but I need to make sure that the story flows properly from group to group, character to character, giving appropriate time to each.

And now, on to the prose!

Layers of Transformation and Depth – Repeat – Repeat – Repeat

I’ve wrapped up the first draft of book one (about 130 pages), and I’ve got this nagging feeling that there will be no end to revisions. I’m moving on now to book two, but I know, in the back of my mind, that I need to return to this first book with:

  • more details in various places (specifically, technology and the speech style of certain characters)
  • setting up certain scenes in more dynamic, engaging ways
  • opportunities for tension-tightening in certain areas

It sounds simple, but I keep finding more revisions to add to the list. Not to mention, I’ve already been through a few rounds.

This reinforces my belief, of course, that most great art is brought about through the use of layers. When I refer to layers in fiction, I mean to say this going over the text repeatedly to add and transform, and essentially to add depth. There is a direct comparison, I believe with painting.