Archive for January, 2017

Home Alone

A friend passed me this article about work-at-home employees, and how they work just as hard (if not harder) than in-office personnel. As writers are often work-at-home, this struck a chord, because a lot of writers are not work-at-home, they are work-at-Starbucks, or the library. Some even rent offices(!).

The article found that if you work for someone else, it can be more productive to be away from the office part of the time. It relieves you of many of the distractions inherent in a shared work environment. But we writers, we (usually) work for ourselves. And I have heard from many of my colleagues that they have to squeeze in writing between child care, dog-walking, laundry, shoveling snow, or a thousand other concerns that, apparently, do not apply if you work at home for someone else. Why this is so, is beyond me.

Disregarding such things, though (I, for one, have none of those distractions and have mercilessly eliminated others–but I still have TV), writing at home is oftimes less productive than one would want. Would writers, conversely, work better in an office environment?

I shudder at the mere suggestion. I have found, on occasion, that working from the local coffee establishment is surprisingly easy–probably because so many others are doing the same thing–but I prefer to work at home. (The coffee’s cheaper and there’s no lock on the bathroom.)  And yet, the idea of treating your home-writing as a business project is not only desirable, it is essential if you want any sort of success. And by “success,” I mean finishing what you start.

Regardless of whether you want to sell, you need to treat writing as a job: Work regularly, work diligently, complete tasks. Even though we are our own bosses in terms of hours and choice of projects, our readers will give us our employee evaluations, and we have little to no control over our compensation. We’re really more independent contractors than anything. But we know that, more than anything, we have freedom.

Which is why, when we shiver in our unheated garrets, creating worlds that moments ago existed only in our fevered brains, we think of those numberless drones in those featureless cubicles, and we think:

“I wonder if the company supplies coffee in their break rooms?”



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Well, plainly no. 1 is that they both depend on a flashy come-on.

No. 2: The first time you succeed may not be your all-time best, but it will be the one you remember.

No. 3: Maintaining a series will make you very popular–word will get around.

No. 4: Size appears impressive, but it isn’t everything.

No. 5: Some are slow and careful, some are quick and rough. Each approach has its fans.

No. 6: Some take a few hundred pages to reach a climax, some reach it in a few hundred words. Again, each approach has its fans.

No. 7: If you can do it in the movies, you’ve got it made.

No. 8: Your first time may take decades, but the longer you do it, the more frequently you succeed.

No. 9: You can’t break the rules until you understand them.

No. 10: When you get really good, people will beg for more.

And for a bonus, one reason writing isn’t like sex: If your spouse banishes you to the couch, you can still write.


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One of the cardinal rules of writing speculative fiction (and there are few cardinal rules in a field where the goal is to gain enough credibility to break the rules) is that you can take one fact and change it to make your story. That’s why they call it speculative fiction. But you only get one. There are certain accepted tropes, made-up facts that have been used so often they are exempt from this rule, such as faster-than-light travel or aliens, but as to a central conceit, you are only allowed one. If you take more license than that, you risk losing your audience.

There is another cardinal rule, a cousin to the first: Don’t use an unreliable narrator. The reader only knows what you tell him, and if you tell him something that isn’t true because later you want to pull out a plot twist, the reader will immediately lose all faith in you. Characters can lie to each other, and the reader may be intended to believe those lies, but the narrator cannot lie to the reader directly.

It has been suggested that we are coming into an era of “alternative facts,” where demonstrable truths may be twisted simply by insisting that they are not, in fact, true–in favor of the speaker’s preferred narrative. This is a bad idea.

First, it violates the “unreliable narrator” rule. Everybody gets one chance to tell the truth. Blow that chance, and a second opportunity may never come. Sure, you can tell the truth from now on, but who’s going to believe you? It doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolboy, a writer, or the President, once you lie, you’re branded a liar.

Second, of course, is the “one time only” rule. If you’re going to make an outlandish claim, make it your best and most important, because you only get one shot. Even if you’re not branded a liar (perhaps because the claim you make is not demonstrably false), your credibility will always be suspect from then on.

We may call it “fiction,” but facts are not malleable. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. But you have to be careful when you’re doing it; if they don’t go along with your “alternative facts,” you’ve lost half your audience before you’ve even begun.


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It’s over. I just delivered a bouncing baby book named The Cosmic City. It weighs in at 88,129 words, not such a large baby by today’s standards, but significantly more than I expected. It was supposed to be eight or nine months in the womb, but took almost 54 weeks.

This is my eighth novel (if I’m not missing one, I’m tired). It marks the end of my first trilogy, which stretches almost 290,000 words including The Invisible City and The Secret City. (If it were a fantasy trilogy, this would be known as the end of Book One.) I’ve never written so many words about the same character before.

I’ve learned some lessons. One was that when you write 290,000 words, you come up with a lot of major characters along the way. In my case, it was about a dozen. Those characters like to have their moments when the series is coming to an end. And that’s tough. Not everybody got his moment, although everybody got some moment. And the main folks got their time in the spotlight. Part of the reason it took longer than I wanted was because I didn’t know much much spotlight there was, or how many plot threads to tie off (one of which I didn’t realize was there until last week. Don’t ask how that happens. It’s a writer thing.)

As much as writers are lousy judges of their own work, I am very pleased with how this came out, particularly the final battle between the two main antagonists. After three books, it had to be special, and I think I nailed it.

Now to take some time off to let the pie cool, then back for edits. But for tonight, sleep.

Good night.



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One of the very worst inventions in the history of literature was not open-ended reversion clauses, not the 15% agent, not even Amazon.com–it was the video game. A pernicious, insidious stealer of time, the video game has done more to damage the production of worthwhile literature than The New York Times best-seller lists.

This is not news, of course. I gave up games years ago for this very reason. Recently, however, I inherited a couple of laptop PCs. Thinking that having a Windows machine available would be handy under certain circumstances (#Macforlife), I opened them both to see which I should keep and what needed to be erased on the one I gave away. And then I met my DOOM.

See, I used to play DOOM, back in the 90s, and I still had a DOOM II CD. “I wonder,” I wondered innocently, “if one of these machines would play that CD?”

“Noooo!” Future Me screamed, but who listens? It turns out one of them did indeed play the disc, and I was returned to the low-res world of Hell. Not the Hell on Earth of the game, mind you, but the Hell of Lost Productivity and the Hell of Ow-My-Shoulders-and-Wrists!

Turns out the game wouldn’t save, so when I found myself dying repeatedly a few levels in, I gave up. Good thing, too, or I’d be in the orthopedic ward in short order. (#MovingtowardEnlightenmentsucks.) I’d also still be working on The Cosmic City in July.

So I shut all that down. I am done with video games. Too much time-suck, too much pain. Maybe when VR becomes more affordable, and they invent Virtual Writer, a game where you create an author avatar who writes all your books for you…

Oh, yes, that would I go for. Fire up the GoFundMe page, boys, I’m on the ground floor!

(And if anybody wants that DOOM II CD, it’s for sale. Cheap.)


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I’ve previously mentioned that when I get near the end of a book, my output increases dramatically. So it is with The Cosmic City. I’ve had no problem the last few days exceeding my daily quota, and a couple of times I’ve doubled it–or more. Tonight I passed it, as usual, setting down the first 850 words in a blaze of speed (about 30 minutes). Given that start, 1500 words should have been no problem, maybe more.

I tapped out at around 1350.

Now, this is normally an excellent night’s work for me, and I’m not ashamed of it. But I could have done better. And while I like to blame the waning cold bug that’s been swatting me about for days, or the sirens that whine at all hours unexpectedly, or the neighbors’ barking dogs, if I look myself straight in the mirror (don’t–can you really be sure who’s staring back?), I have to admit it’s just that I’m scared.

Not scared of finishing the book…scared I won’t do a good job. I’ve been building this thing up in my head for months now, and the Good Part is finally here: the hero is marshaling his forces for the ultimate battle, but–his forces? How did I collect so many characters, and what am I going to do with them all?*

I am, of course, a staunch advocate of the Bird by Bird method of first draft writing: They’re crap. They are, more specifically, disposable crap, not intended for the eyes of any other human being. In the lingo of my day job, they are a writer’s work product. And work product is an absolute privilege.

So why am I afraid? Why can’t I plunge on? Why do I stop myself and say, “Good enough for tonight,” when I know I could do better? It’s not like I can’t edit and rewrite and rewrite and edit for the rest of my life; it’s no one’s business but my own. I’m not under contract to anyone.

Except that I am. To myself, if no one else, and to others, if they read the book. I owe it to all of us to deliver the best, most slam-bang ending I can type out, and like every other writer, I’m afraid I’m not up to the task. So I sneak up on it. I may not get there as quickly as with a wild screaming charge, but I’ll get there. And probably with a wild screaming 3000-word charge at the end.

Because I want to see how this turns out as much as anybody.

*And since this is the end of the trilogy, I really need to wrap up all the character arcs in a burst of glory.


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Every once in a while, there’s nothing that will fill the void in your soul besides a good mystery yarn. It doesn’t have to be something they put on Masterpiece Theatre with family secrets going back a generation leading to murder, nor does it have to be a Raymond Chandler triple-cross love triangle. Sometimes, the mystery is real. And the real ones are the best, because you can’t always wrap them up in 80,000 words. Sometimes they go on for years. Some of the best mysteries go on for centuries.

Take my favorite: the Loch Ness Monster. Now I know that the odds of a plesiosaur living in a Scottish lake are minuscule, at best. But that has not kept me from scanning those placid waters like a hawk every time I’ve been there, nor did it make me any less nervous when I took a ride across that dark pond on a foggy day. Scientists and curious amateurs keep bringing more and more sophisticated technology to the problem, but with luck they’ll never prove definitively that the old girl doesn’t exist. And they shouldn’t! (If nothing else, it would hurt the Scottish tourism industry.)

But now it appears that another mystery, of nearly equal vintage, has been solved: the Shakespeare Identity Question. The head archivist at the Folger Library, Dr. Heather Wolfe, claims to have “the smoking gun” that will put the controversy to rest. To this, I have two responses: (1) it won’t, and (2) finally!

Normally, as with Nessie, or Bigfoot, or the Kardashians, we will never be able to get to the truth of the matter, and we’re happier for it. Some things are better left unexplained. But this one, this one I’ve always thought was rather dopey. The best evidence I’ve ever heard for someone else having written Shakespeare was that Shakespeare didn’t write it. Not really a winning argument.* So if this is done at last, so be it. There are many more and better mysteries to be solved.

Like, what is it with those Kar–no, like I said, some things are better left unexplained. And unasked.

*Besides, I explained it right here.

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