He lives! (kind of) and some notes about MR

I’m not dead, I just haven’t gotten around to posting in a while. My endurance is better than my stamina, I promise.

That being said, I didn’t want to make a series of posts that said little more than “here’s a post,” or some permutation of “I bought pants!” so consider yourselves spared from a certain amount of unimportant minutia. Now for some semi-important non-minutia :

Everyone’s asking if we’ve heard back on the novel yet. The best answer I can give is that it’s not really good form to discuss details in public before anything’s been finalized. Being somewhat of a walking train wreck who randomly fucks things up, this is one thing I’d rather do right by not saying anything, and if that means shutting up (for once), that’s what I’m doing.

Also, the publishing business doesn’t move quickly (unless you’re into self-publishing, but that’s not the route we’ve chosen, and is a discussion for another time), so we don’t expect any real responses this year. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m just gonna not post until then (yes it does, don’t lie). I’ve got a lot to talk about, just not a lot of gumption to share it with the general public, or the time. So to keep this from being a “filler” post, I’ll talk a bit about Magical Realism.

Indeed, it’s a blurry line between fantasy, folklore, and magical realism, and everyone seems to have their own opinions of where the line actually is. My friend and crit buddy Sam once described Magical Realism by saying it’s like fantasy without all the world-building and explained magic systems. In that regard it’s a lot like a folk story, where things happen and people just sort of accept that’s how it is in that reality. Annie the Badass said it’s a story where everything is normal except one thing that’s totally fantastic, and whether anyone bats an eye at that thing is irrelevant. I tend to ride more with Sam’s idea – that it’s more like a dream, where nothing’s really explained, it just happens.

If you’ve read some of my work, you know I have a sort of fascination with sleep and dreaming, which manifests in my world as my Magical Realism stories, and why they don’t always make a lot of rational sense. The Imagination Bomb is ultimately about a guy *becoming* another dimension. Good Guys Wear Black is about other types of time and a person turning into the thing they always were.

Before I get to rambly, I’ll cut to the point – most of what I write is magical realism because it A) leaves it to the reader to determine the details about the magic system and world B) when the emphasis isn’t on the nifty world or magic, the focus tends to become either the characters or the arc, and C) I get a lot of inspiration from my really really weird dreams.

So next time I’ll let you guys in on what I’m currently writing, and maybe some plans for the future.

Also, I bought pants.

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Return of the Betas

Haven’t updated in a while, been taking a break while the betas were slogging through our work. Now, however, everything is back and Laurie is going through the beta crits and making the changes she sees fit. I drafted a super-short transitional scene last night, but mostly I’ve been working on other stuff, reading, and generally on vacation from the novel.

You might be wondering, “where is she in all this? Why don’t we ever hear from her?” Well, as I said a couple posts ago, she’s the editor and adviser – it’s her job to handle the edits, organize everything, and call me out / explain when I break with the culture. Right now it’s her show. Sure, she mails me when she has a question (“what’s your vision of Zaihai Quan?” and then a short discussion ensues), but for the most part she’s driving the bus at this point.

Why you never hear from her probably has to do with the fact that she’s not big on social media yet, and she’s often heavy into school and edits. If / when she gets a writing blog going, I’ll let her address this (or not).

I’m sure everyone is dying to hear how the beta went. Without revealing too much, I’ll say it went extremely well. I’m hoping to hit “send” next week, which is later than I’d wanted, but it’s gonna be DONE.

Ship’s about to leave shore. The last passengers are boarding now…

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Swimmin’ with the bettas.

The other night at Write Club, I was editing the manuscript alongside Laurie when she asked what I was doing.

Me : Editing. Duh.
Her : Well stop, I don’t want to have to go back and re-edit things you’ve changed.

This was my first sign that we were mere hours from being done. The previous week, I’d put the finishing touches on all my rewrites that were in the works, so without anything else to do, I went into editing mode.

Then Stinky tells me to stop, because she has a point – whatever I “fix” she’s gonna have to go over again and it’ll never end. So I stepped away and let it go. Instead of hammering away at the damn thing in every spare minute I had, it was rather nice to sit and read for a while. I managed to finish Dan Hammond’s “Delbert Judd,” which is a work of complete genius if you’re looking for a good read. Took the time to arrange a few beta readers, which was yet another sign that we were almost there.

Sunday night Stinky and I went over the few remaining points… and I twiddled my thumbs while gnashing my teeth in anticipation. Monday night we argued over one last finishing touch, and then at about 2:23 AM Tuesday morning, she uploaded the finished document.

So it’s on to the betas to rip through 88k and find the broken bits. I think last night at crit group and the ensuing Afterparty, there was a great weight missing from our shoulders, or at least mine.

So booya. Done. At least for now. We’ll know more in a couple weeks, and I’ll likely say more then.

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How does collaboration work?

I get a lot of questions about how one collaborates with another to author a book. Let me preface with this : I can’t expect it works this way with everyone all the time, but I’ll elaborate a little on how we did it. This kind of thing HAS indeed happened before – Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Stephen King & Peter Straub, etc. I can’t imagine the creative process is the same for any two individuals, much less for any collaboration of two individuals.

My strength tends to be sprinting forward, leaving details out, and not having the entire arc pre-written. For this, I figured if I’m gonna collaborate with someone, I should at least make it look like I have a plan (fooled you!), so I wrote the plot and the major characters in about 3 hours. World-building isn’t as big of a deal in wuxia because 1) most wuxia tends to take place in China (traditionally ancient China), and 2) the “magic” system sort of comes pre-boxed in a lot of ways, but we get to determine the details. I’ll make a post on that another time.

The first point in that statement (taking place in ancient China) is where Laurie comes in. I know a bit about Chinese culture and super-ancient China, but Laurie is the real scholar. She’s fluent in Mandarin, spent about 10 years in eastern Asia, and has studied the history and culture of pre-revolution China. I may have come up with the characters, but she gave them real Chinese names. Places where I put “they go to a city / mountain / etc.” she found real locations (some she’d actually been to) which were culturally & thematically significant. Most importantly, when I’d make a character do or say something that wasn’t culturally acceptable, she’d point it out. Sure, it was a pain in the ass, but we both wanted it to be as authentic as possible.

When drafting time came, I did about 3/4 of the first draft. Like I said, I sprint. I blast forward and leave out the details (or get them wrong). The first draft came out around 85k and took roughly 7 months, and it was terrible. Well, not terrible, but it needed work, which is where Laurie shines. She’d catch my errors, ask questions, and re-wrote whole sections after I’d told her my vision of how the scene was supposed to have come out. All those details I left out on accident, she caught and put in and made them as authentic as possible. Weather at different times of the year (and in different regions), the smells of the bustling metropolis of Guangzhou, foods and their relevance to festivals, religious figures, clothing, facial features, meanings of colors, on and on. It’s a different world with a super rich history and heritage, and she brought 10 years of experience to the table.

It doesn’t end there. We’ve sat down to re-hash pivotal scenes that didn’t work, hoping two brains work better than one. Line by line we re-built those scenes (some of them twice over). We meet at least once a week to check progress, discuss our vision of certain sections, and when nothing needs our combined attention, we spend that time editing.

Did we fight? Hell yes we fought – we’re both humans (well, I am quite obviously SUPERhuman) with lives outside of writing, and sometimes those lives have bled over into the project (I would argue that art which doesn’t reflect upon its creator is empty). Like any friendship, it’s about figuring out the friendship is worth either putting up with or dealing with whatever the other person is wrestling with.

I think folks tend to think plotting / drafting is the hardest part, and editing is easy, and that I’ve done the lion’s share of the work, so I’ve sort of decided I’ll fist fight anyone who accuses Laurie of not pulling her weight (hint : I’m not a violent guy and you’ll probably win). It’s a story that developed organically, like any good story should, and just because one person vomits a bunch of words onto a page it doesn’t mean it works, is good, or is authentic. In the past I’ve said, “Would you and your life story be the same if you’d grown-up without your best friend / sibling(s) / parent(s)? Maybe, but probably not.”

Posted in China, collaboration, Fiction, martial arts, Writing, wuxia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obligatory Post-Con post

I forgot to make a pre-DFWCon post, which probably would’ve been something to the effect of “convention time! yay!” Riveting stuff, I know. So instead, a more informative recap.

Friday Stinky & I drove out and THROUGH SOME MIRACLE avoided getting hopelessly lost. As in every “wrong” turn I made ended-up being right. Cue foreshadowing music.

We arrived & attended a pre-conference workshop with Donald Maass, who’s one of the biggest agents in the bidness, but they told us not to pitch to him because he’s not taking queries (important info for later). He workshopped us with a Socratic approach to plotting and characters, and it didn’t take long for Stinky’s eyes to pop out of her head. Granted, the dude’s pretty awesome and taught a tight class, and though we’ve already done a lot of what he said, he articulated things in such a way that we went “wait, we can do MORE of this now that we have concepts to wrap our brains around.” So to make a long story short, he gave us more work. : \  Don’t you hate when the teacher does that? Don’t you also hate it when you do the work and make an A in the class? Ugh, I know I do – I HATE MAKING GOOD GRADES! Ok not really.

Afterward we had dinner with some spectacular writers, Stinky gave me her daily (sometimes hourly) threats of violence, and we went to the pre-conference mixer. There, I won a set of “girly” bath soaps as a door prize. They offered to let me trade-out for something less girly, but GUYS NEED TO TAKE BATHS TOO, so I kept them and made them a conversation piece for the rest of the night. Met some pretty interesting people there too, which is important because when you’re walking around the con, it’s good to have other folks to tap and ask “what are you doin’ next?” Also it’s good to have people to sit with at lunch and other random times. And hell, most of us are these introverted hermit writers with tons and tons of quirks, why WOULDN’T you want to meet them?

Stinky cut out early, so I went up to her room and we talked story. After Maass’s class, we had some ideas we both needed to flesh-out and approve with one another, and as is our standard for collaboration, we did. Side note : at one point I propped the door open anticipating that Annie Neugebauer would emerge from the elevator, WHICH SHE DID (moral of the story : trust your instincts). Annie is EL SUPREMO PRESIDENTE-O of our crit group, an incredible writer, and all around impossibly cool person. If you don’t know her or haven’t ever read her blog, CLICK ON HER NAME ABOVE RIGHT NOW. Seriously. She also bakes cookies. COOKIES. YES, YOU HEARD ME RIGHT, I SAID “COOKIES“!!!!

After cookies and story talk, I returned to my room and passed out for hours and hours, which is pretty rare for me. Everyone else I know apparently had trouble sleeping (well, maybe not Russ). The next day I met my conference peeps and attended classes. I don’t want to gloss-over the classes, but I’ll say they were pretty solid this year, partly because Donald Maass taught a lot, and partly because Tex Thompson taught a couple of my favorites. For those of you who don’t know Tex, GO CHECK HER OUT TOO. She’s like an explosion of 52 enthusiastic kittens all trying to go in the same direction, but instead latching onto everything at once. Yes, that’s exactly what she’s like.

For lunch I made it a point to stray from my crowd and sit with folks I don’t know (mostly), then Stinky and I had our first scheduled pitch at 2:48. As previously agreed, I did most of the talking, and the agent asked for the full manuscript. We left the pitch room flying high, especially Stinky, who hadn’t grasped the fact that we’d created something that awesome and different until that moment. Ha.

Later we hit dinner with THE ZA, El Supremo Presidente-O, Christine, and Kelsey, and we met a very “special” waiter. Most of us show up just in time for the start of the query gong show, which requires a little bit of explanation. Earlier that day, people turned in queries for the gong show, which George “THE VOICE” Goldthwaite reads with his super movie / radio announcer voice. A panel of agents listens, and at the point where they’d stop reading, they hit their gong. After 3 gongs, they stop and discuss what went wrong with the query. Most queries don’t make it past a paragraph or two, if that.

A side note about our particular query : Stinky wrote most of it. I gave her maybe one line, and we both did battle with a different line but ultimately couldn’t make that sentence work, so we just left it in like the lazy bums we are. She sent it to me, and I was supposed to edit it before printing it out. I hate queries with a passion, so I looked at it and went “I don’t like anything about this query, but I also don’t want to waste time on it,” so I printed it out. Friday I handed it to her to look over, and I didn’t realize she kept it. Saturday there was some panicking and shuffling when I went to turn it in, but in the end, we got it where it needed to be… obviously.

Our query came up in the gong show. Honestly from here on, it’s mostly a blur, but here’s what I remember : George started reading and I knew we were gonna get gonged because I hated that query letter. He kept reading, on and on, no gongs. I had no idea what was happening. Russ and the people around me started going apeshit because they’ve been reading this story in crit group, and the new friends who’d never heard of it picked up on our reactions and started freaking out too. At the start of our second paragraph, George hit the line Stinky and I had done battle with, and we got our first gong… but it went on.

And the third paragraph started. George’s voice cut through the silence, and in the jumble of emotion exploding through me I couldn’t remember how long the damn query was. How much further did he have to read? Finish, damnit! We got our second gong at the very end of that third paragraph, and a huge commotion erupted. People thought it was done, that we’d made it through to the end without 3 gongs. Agents started talking, and above the din I heard Donald Maass say, “Whoever wrote this, query me.”

I will remind you that earlier, we were told he wasn’t taking queries. Stinky compared this to Simon Pegg (whoops, that should be “Cowell” – thanks for the correction, Stinky!) giving the thumbs up, except that in this situation, I felt like him showing interest made the other agents sit up and take notice too, sort of in an, “if he sees something here, I need to take a look too.” Other agents piped-up, but the host and George were like, “Hey there’s another paragraph.”

So everyone shut up and let him read, and we made it through. 2 gongs in our obvious let-down places, but the real victory came when agents who had gonged basically said they’d still be interested. In fact we ended up getting requests for the full manuscript from all but 1 of the agents on the panel. Actually I take that back – the real victory was when Donald Maass, the guy everyone was told wasn’t taking queries, got on the microphone and said to query him. In front of hundreds of people.

We’ve written something different, and I expected we’d get a good response, but this? Nope. Never.

Russ, one of my closest crit buddies, bought Stinky a drink, as did El Supremo Presidente-O (she probably needed it). I ran around getting cards & socializing. Maass requested the first 50 pages (later he upped that), and after they kicked us out of the convention center my crit group had its own shortened Afterparty (our version is one word and capitalized. Deal with it), during which I tried to help THE ZA prepare for his pitch. “Flying high” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Wasn’t a lot of sleep to be had that night. I’m unsure when unconsciousness actually hit me, but I couldn’t have gotten more than a couple of hours. At breakfast Stinky made her requisite daily death threat to me (whew, got that out of the way early!), then we hit our 9 AM pitch. The agent, who was on the gong show panel the previous night, noted, “I realize I have some competition for this,” and requested the full manuscript, bringing our total to 5 and a partial at the time.

Stinky & I walked a little taller that day. Well, I did. She didn’t sleep much either, but I’m used to dealing with that. Everywhere we went, people were congratulating us. At one point I grabbed Stinky and sort of threw her at Maass. We talked for all of about a minute and when I repeated his orders to send the first 50 pages, he said, “Oh why don’t you just go ahead and send me the whole thing?” Sold.

Last night I logged into twitter and found a bunch of new followers, some of which I remembered meeting, some I didn’t (sorry! I met a lot of people!). This morning, in my cold, cluttered kitchen, I shoveled cereal into my mouth and thought about how that query changed everything.

And damnit, while I still don’t like the language of it, I love what it did for us.

Posted in accidental awesome, China, conferences, Fiction, networking, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Blog Tour de Ben

My good friend and crit group companion Russ Linton hit me up for this “blog tour” dealie, which is sort of the blog version of a chain letter, but it’s also a chance for bloggers to interact with one another. The idea is that he tags two people to answer the same questions, and we in turn tag others, etc. Since I only halfass blog and don’t pay a lot of attention to the blogging world, I don’t really know anyone to tag, but I can still answer the questions.

Q : What am I working on at the moment?

A : Making a blog post. Next question!

But really, my long-progress work is Rise of the Righteous Mantis, a YA wuxia (that’s basically “fantasy”). It occupies most of my time, but in addition to that I still write a poem a day, and I’d really like to get back to editing my adult magical realism novel, Dreaming Vicariously.

Q : How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A : Well, Righteous Mantis is a blend of eastern and western storytelling. We (my writing partner and I) have had to break with certain conventions on both sides, and I think that alone makes it pretty different. For example, there isn’t a lot of wuxia with a female main character (for thousands of years, women have been second-class citizens in China), and we wanted to hit on some feminist issues that cross cultures. She’s the fighter, her male love interest is a doctor, so we’ve turned the traditional “male fighter, female healer” trope on its head too. Aside from that, there isn’t a lot of wuxia being written specifically for English-speaking / reading audiences – most of it comes from Chinese translations, though I hear there are a couple of wuxia authors who write in English. Honestly it only falls within the YA category because YA has become so broad that it basically lays claim to anything where the main character falls within its age range. If I had my way I’d just say we’re writing “westernized wuxia” or “fantasy.”

Q : Why do I write what I do?

A : That’s sort of a vague question. Laurie, my writing partner for Righteous Mantis, invited me to collaborate with her on a wuxia short story, which then became a novel. Ever since seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I’ve always wanted to write a wuxia, so I accepted. A few hours in I came up with most of the plot points and characters, so I guess it opened some sort of creative well, and I can’t bring myself to turn away from that sort of thing.

In a broader sense, I think I’m happiest when I’m writing or plotting. I once wrote a novel in 16 days and it was the most empowering, positive, fascinating experience in my life. It was terrible (well, sort of), but it happened.

As for the daily poetry I write, some of it is little more than the harshest self-criticism I can throw at myself crammed into a vaguely poetic form. I think the real reason I set out to write it is the theory that out of 365 poems a year, at least one has to not totally suck, but 4 years later, I’ve found that’s not necessarily the case.

Q : How does my writing process work?

A : It’s different for different things. I’m a big fan of the “just go and work out details later” method, and it shows sometimes. In my book (literally), the first draft / plotting is done on intuition, then the second draft is where you put your head in and connect it with logic. There have been many days when I’d show up at whatever writing venue I’d chosen and have zero idea of what to write that day, but 2000 words and a few hours later, I’d have a pretty decent section. Editing isn’t just about fixing typos and tightening the language – it’s a lot more about knowing the arc of your story, building bridges for the reader, and putting in the detail you missed on the first go.

Through all of this I’m generally taking it into my weekly crit group, who then tells me what’s crap and what’s not, and usually how to fix it.

Let me add that collaboration hasn’t really changed this. For the most part, I’ve written the first draft and Laurie has been running along behind me doing her thing. There are times when I have to stop and explain my vision on something, and since she knows wuxia and Chinese history and culture better than I do, she’ll give me a context and I’ll have to change what I was doing, but the shape of the story as a whole hasn’t gone through substantive changes.

Alrighty, as I said up front, I don’t know a lot of bloggers outside of my crit group, but if you’d like me to list you as a tag, let me know.  Also, go check out Russ’s blog and work. He’s a lot better about keeping his blog updated, and he’s nearing the release date for his superhero novel, “Crimson Son.”

Posted in Art, Fiction, networking, Writing, wuxia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I lied, you’re not actually that awesome, part 4 – Peer Critique

I fell off my high pedestal of making a post a week until I finished this series. Gah. Just imagine I’m flogging myself as I type this.

Anyhow, so a few weeks ago I started this endeavor with a sort of response to an article (or if you’re a pirate, an arrrrrrticle) about why you shouldn’t do NaNoWriMo. If you’re too lazy to go read the original post or the article, the short version is that people slam-out a novel in November and turn around the next day and send it off for publishing or throw it up on Amazon as an e-book. The article criticizes folks for creating their first draft during NaNoWriMo and then treating that as a publishable story.

Sure, maybe you’re so awesome that you create first drafts on your first try, but most people aren’t. People often like to think that they’re the exception to the rule, and maybe they are (if you were that awesome though, you’re probably a best-selling author and wouldn’t be reading my blog), but I’m not actually aware of any author who’s ever done that, especially after writing a novel in a month. The truth is that everyone does at least a little editing, and I’d say editing is most useful with the help of a good critique from your peers.

It’s tough to get perspective on something you wrote – you probably like what you wrote, so you might accidentally overlook some weak points like plot holes, missing information, out of character moments, etc. It’s similar to the more glaring errors our writer’s eye tends to glide right over – typos, misspellings, grammar problems, etc. – it’s easy for a writer to miss the big stuff for the same reasons (the “well it makes sense to ME” reason). Crit partners can offer the perspective you’re missing, and great crit partners can give you tips and ideas you were too close to the story to see. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a group with a writer who walked out with a whole new batch of ideas.

The real power of critique comes when several folks point out things you’re consistently doing wrong, or poorly. Making a habit to correct those things is how one gets better. I have a couple folks in my crit group who do a lot of telling when they should be showing, and while they still do some of it, everyone’s noticed an improvement in that and other aspects of their writing ability since they started showing up. Maybe they could’ve gotten better on their own, but how long would that have taken, and would they even have noticed what not to do?

Critique doesn’t necessarily need to come from other people who are involved in your genre or even practice your chosen craft. I’ve heard it said that beta readers shouldn’t be people you interact with regularly so that they don’t “know” you or your style. If you’re creating something for the general populace, find people who represent that and listen to what they have to say about your work.

It’s plain foolish to think everyone will automagically love and understand everything you create. No artist has ever done that, but good critique can help you get closer, usually a LOT closer.

In short, you’re not awesome, but you can become awesome by 1) doing a lot of whatever your craft is, 2) exposing yourself to a lot of quality work in and around your craft, and 3) listening to what’s wrong with your work and fixing it.

Posted in accidental awesome, How to not suck, NaNoWriMo, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment