Another year, another book to burn.

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Last year, I burned one of my own unpublished books to close out the year. It was meant as a way to put the book behind me and move forward. A way to force myself not mope or wallow in self-pity at an accomplishment that revealed itself to be a failure. This year, I’ve decided to do the same, and for much the same reasons. What I didn’t expect was that it was a bit more painful the second time around. No, I didn’t burn myself, and it’s not that it’s exactly hard to burn a bit of paper, after all, it’s just wood-pulp and people have been burning shit like that for a million years or something. Hell, people are so good at burning stuff, we do it accidentally all the time. In any case, as difficult as it was to close out this year’s writing efforts, I expect closing out 2018 will be worse yet, but I’ve got an entire year to fret over it.

The good news for 2017 was that I managed to finish full drafts of two books and write about half of a third. It’s a pretty good showing, considering my first book took over ten years to finish. What I learned with my first book and second books, however, was that once done you have two options, revise/edit/publish or don’t. And to call them options is a little more than generous. In general, most of us get stuck in the revise/edit stage and never make it beyond. A writer could revise a book for their entire whole life and never get it to the point where a publisher will never take it and self-publishing just seems silly. Hell, a ton of authors do just that – churn away to no end. And this is why I’ve started to burn them.

This fall, at the writer’s conference, an author was asked for some general advice for writers, without a breath of hesitation she said, in a South African drawl, “Write the damn book.”  (Yes, it’s a direct quote, she even put that shit on SWAG pens.) Then she elaborated, saying something to the effect that if you’ve been working on a book for longer than a year, put it in a box and shove it under your bed or just burn the damn thing. This is hard advice to swallow when you look at people like JK Rowling who reportedly took 6 years to write Harry Potter, and don’t even get me started on the long awaited books from Rothfuss and Martin, but those folks are a sort of magic writing unicorn the rest of us aren’t. The rest of us have to keep moving and improving and trying new things, if we don’t then we remain stuck in a rut retreading the same old ground for years, burning countless hours of creativity and time on a project that is clearly struggling.

Even though I hadn’t yet heard this advice, that was what I was thinking when I burned Wine Bottles last year. It was very much on my mind this year, as I burned Deep Space Helpdesk … And yes, that was the one I got very positive feedback from an agent on. However, I’ve spent the past month and a half revising the first quarter of the book and I’m still not satisfied. Honestly, I think I’ve lost the thread of the story. The soul went out of it some time ago. I could have burned Dark Queen of Darkness too, it was the other book I finished this year and after the trashing I got from an agent, I probably should have done. Fear not, Hexe will get her chance on the flames next year, no doubt, and if I work very hard I might get to burn two next year.

If you’ve even read this far, you may be thinking: “Dave, you’re giving up, don’t give up, I thought you were more stubborn than that?”

It does feel like giving up. We make these things and want them to go on, be re-told and enjoyed. And I’d be lying if I said that this whole thing didn’t make me upset. The reality is that it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Either the concept works and you go with it or it doesn’t and you move on.

In this case, all I can say is that I’m not giving up as much as I’m moving on. There are other stories that will not be written or seen if I continue spending my few precious writing hours banging away on a book that simply fails to pull together a coherent theme and compelling plot. Perhaps, someday, I’ll return to the concept and give it another go, time will have passed and maybe I can re-imagine the concept into something that does work, but I know that the time is not now.

So, going into 2018, without Deep Space Helpdesk around my neck, I’ve got just the one book to revise and that leaves me mental and creative freedom to move forward with new projects. Maybe I’ll even get that break out novel, whatever it is, finished this year. Who knows? But I’m going to find out.

Happy new year, and happy writing, friends.

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Thinking about the information dump (#3)

This is the last of my thoughts on the information dump, at least for a while. There is a third kind of info dump that you can land yourself in, again not bad or wrong, but it can be difficult to manage properly. This example tends to be strongly associated with fantasy, and has prevented me from being able to really get into a number of different books. Some of which came to me highly recommended and are, in fact, quite good. As a reader though, I just couldn’t get past the issue.

What I’m talking about I’ll call the ‘family’ info dump. There’s more to it than that, but that seems to be a common way you see the problem. What I’m talking about is in the beginning of a story, right off the bat, the author introduces half a dozen characters and tries to explain how their all related or not. There’s one example spinning through my head, but I can’t seem to dig up the reference, so instead I pulled a book off the shelf. Lo-and-behold, it’s got an example of what I’m talking about. Once again, I want to point out that having an information dump isn’t a deal killer, it can be done well, but it can also be done horribly. The sample I pulled is from a book called The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. I never made it past the first chapter. As a reader, I actually need to be hooked by a main character in addition to the conflict, it’s just a quirk of mine, so books that start out with an ensemble generally don’t hold my interest long enough to get past the first chapter or two. That said, I have it on good authority this is an excellent book. My example starts on page 9 of the paperback copy I have, here is a quote:

“Dave Martyniuk stood like a tall tree in the midst of the crowd that was swirling like leaves through the lobby. He was looking for his brother, and he was increasingly uncomfortable. It didn’t make him feel any better when he saw the stylish figure of Kevin Laine coming through the door with Paul Schafer and two women. Dave was in the process of turning away- he didn’t feel like being patronized just then- when he realized that Laine had seen him.
“Martyniuk! What are you doing here?”
“Hello Laine. My brother’s on the panel.”
“Vince Martyniuk. Of course,” Kevin said. “He’s a bright man.”
“One in every family,” Dave cracked, somewhat sourly. He saw Paul Schaefer give a crooked grin.
Kevin Laine laughed. “At least one. But I’m being rude. You know Paul. This is Jennifer Lowell, and Kim Ford, my favorite doctor.”

The first thing I want to say about this is that it’s well written, packed with examples of good approaches to stuff, and if you must do an info-dump like this, it’s a good example of how to do it pretty well. That said, Guy Gavriel Kay is an excellent writer, and for folks like me, who are still trying to become excellent writers, introducing six characters in the span of less than 150 words is probably not going to go well. In the interest of full disclosure, I did have a difficult time with this.
First off, we’re introduced to Dave Martyniuk, which is a difficult name to pronounce in my head. I am stumbling on it right now. This made it hard for me to follow to begin with. Then we’re immediately introduced to Kevin Laine, interchangeably called Kevin, Kevin Laine, and Laine. That may be a neat trick in helping the reader to remember Kevin Laine, but it’s a lot of information when taken in context. So, I’ve been introduced to six characters and I’ve already forgotten three of them. When I get on to the next few pages, I’m not going to remember which one of the women are doctors, and whether or not it was Laine or Paul who had the crooked smile. So, if I’m not going to remember it all, then why give it all at once?
For me, personally, I approach my stories in such a way as to avoid the hell out of stuff like this. Maybe someday when my writing is a tight as this author’s, I might try to pull off an ensemble from the beginning of chapter one. For now, I pretend the reader is like Beorn in the Hobbit. I try to introduce no more than 1 or 2 characters at a time. In a single scene, this might get me up to six, but it’s spread across a chapter to give the reader time to digest the introduction. Ironically, in the Hobbit, Tolkien introduces thirteen characters all at once. Same end result though, you never get to know most of those Dwarves.

More hobbit movie

Last weekend I was talking to a friend about what he thought of the most recent hobbit movie. Without going into too much detail the short story is that he hated it. He thought the fight scenes were far too long and took up too much of the movie, he also felt that there was little connection to the characters. I’ve got to admit, I fully disagree with the perspective, but it’s totally valid. So, from the stand-point of story telling, I thought about it. Why should he come away with an opinion so totally opposite of mine? I think it boils down to expectations. I went in half-expecting the movie to suck, but hoping like hell to be entertained – I wanted my fifty-bucks worth of entertainment. I felt like it was delivered. My friend however, and this is a bit of speculation, was expecting to be absolutely blown away. Impressed by the movie in a way the book had.

With that in mind, I can see how folks, especially critics, felt let-down. A lot of people were going in expecting to see the movie with the same eyes they saw the Lord of The Rings. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, it rarely does with books turned into movies. What this highlights to me is the importance of properly setting expectations in your story. Over-promise, and don’t deliver, it doesn’t matter how well done the story is, people will say it sucks. Set expectations properly, and you’re likely to succeed in entertaining your reader without making them feeling like they’ve been the subject of a bait-and-switch scheme. I think my point here is to consider how much any given plot element or character or conflict is built up before you get to the end.