Writing About Stereotypical Video Game Characters

The Trenches

I based my first and still unpublished novel on my six years as a video game tester for 30+ games and a lead tester responsible for ten games. Drawing upon all the stories and incidents from working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I wrote a ghost story involving a group of thirty-something video game testers who been in the business for too long. At 700 pages and 125,000 words, I had no clue on how to edit it and stopped working on it.

And then The Trenches came out in 2010.

This web comic came from the creators of Penny Arcade and PvP, the two most popular web comics about video games in general. I read the first few strips and stopped reading. They were going to cover the same territory that I did when I wrote my novel. Although I still had thoughts about revising my novel from time to time, I didn’t want my efforts being influenced by this web comic.

With my first novel tucked away in a storage box in back of the closet, my short stories started appearing in a dozen anthologies and I started publishing my own ebooks over the last few years.

While browsing Kiwiblitz a few weeks ago, I followed the link back to The Trenches and read the entire archive from beginning to end. As I expected back then, the web comic did cover the same territory as my first novel: a clueless manager, the female tester overweight and Jewish, and the main video game is a space western.

Did the creators of The Trenches break into my apartment and stole of a copy of my manuscript? Not at all. The video game industry is one big incestuous family, where stereotypical characters are as common as fleas on a hound dog.

The usage of stereotypical characters allows the writer to introduce a character that the reader immediately recognizes and add something different to make that character unique to the story. The lead tester in The Trenches, for example, wears a kilt, implying that he is of Scottish-descent and has the brass balls to wear it at work. The homicidal ghost in my novel isn’t the scary little girl cliché that populates most horror-survival video games but is a friendly looking troll-like creature with very sharp teeth.

Does reading The Trenches changes anything about the stereotypical characters in my novel?

On the surface, it changes nothing. You can’t have a video game company without a clueless manager—or management—to make the lives of the testers unbearable. I’m keeping the lead female tester as is since her weight and Jewish identity are themes for several critical scenes. I might jettison the Western theme for the main video game to avoid overlapping The Trenches too much. If anything, my stereotypical characters need more uniqueness to stand out against the competition.

Abandoning The First Novel To Write A Newer Novel?

Several years ago I set out to write my first novel within a year, following a broad outline and writing several pages a day. A year and one week later, I had finished writing the rough draft in 2008. Alas, a rough draft it remains to this day. My first novel about video game testers and a weird-but-pissed-off ghost became a sprawling mess. Several attempts to revise the rough draft convinced me that I needed to split it in half in 2009 and turn into a trilogy in 2010. The plan for this year was to start revising the first book in the trilogy as a stand-alone novel on July 1st, kick it out the door to find an agent, firm up the outlines for the next two volumes, and move on to the next novel.

As July 1st quickly approaches, I’m no longer enthusiastic about revising my first novel. It’s becoming a labor of love with no guarantee of success. Big projects that fall under the labor of love category are best put on the back burners and revisited when I’m a more experienced novelist. A first novel that happens to be the first book of a trilogy was also a hard sell in the traditional publishing world. Although I have some success in publishing my short stories in print and reselling them as reprint short story ebooks, I’m not yet ready to embrace the uncertain future of being an indie ebook author. What I needed was a shorter, less sprawling novel that I could write this summer and kick out the door in January 2012.

Yesterday morning I woke up with a vivid dream about finding food inside carved out pumpkins left on the doorstep of a hut on a tropical island, a big storm fast approaching, an old man talking gibberish, and a creature howling for blood from deep inside the jungle. The dream didn’t dissipate like most dreams do when I woke up. Most of the details were still vivid. I sat down at the kitchen table to write a one-page summary, divided the summary into six parts, and added a half-dozen questions to flesh out the story further. When I got finished, I knew I had the basis for a 6,000-word short story—or a 60,000-word novel that could sell.

Stephen King had written several non-horror novels that didn’t sell when a friend challenged him to write a short story from the female perspective. He started writing a high school shower scene with a teenaged girl freaking out from having her period and the other girls making fun of her, got stuck on the details and threw it out when he realized that it wouldn’t fit the 3,000-word limit for the short story markets. His wife, Tabitha, fished the pages out of the wastebasket, liked what she read, and told him to finish the story. He turned the story idea into a novel and submitted it to an editor who had previously shown interest in his work. This became his first published novel, “Carrie,” that started his career as a novelist.

Could I transform this one-page summary into a novel that could start my career as a novelist?

The first step is to creating a fully realized outline within a month. Having written the sprawling rough drafts of a first novel and 1/3 of a second novel, I don’t want to create something new that will be impossible to revise. I need to keep a tighter focus on writing the story this time around. I also need to do some research since I know nothing about the people, culture or mythologies of tropical islands. Since my writing niche is Silicon Valley fiction, I need to incorporate that into the story. I was recently reminded by my non-writing tech job that software engineers often take their laptop on vacation to remote into the server at work, and one disgruntled wife tossed her husband’s laptop into the Sea of Cortez while on a Mexican cruise. An engineer going through Internet withdrawal is a horror story all by itself.

The second step is to write a minimum of 500 words per day for the next four months. This goal is on the low side of what I can write daily. Since I’m still working two non-writing tech jobs (swing shift during the week and early mornings on the weekends), writing 500 words isn’t a problem. Having written numerous flash stories of 500 words each, the hard part isn’t writing the 500 words but revising the 500 words into something meaningful. Unlike my sprawling rough drafts of previous novels, I’ll be going back to revise a previously written section where necessary to improve the story.

The third step is to finish writing the rough draft. I did that for the first novel after a year and one week, but didn’t for the second novel after three months. With a tighter focus than my last two novels, I need to get this one done.

For better or for worse, I’m looking forward to writing my new novel this summer.

Keeping A Secret Writing Identity In Silicon Valley

When I became serious about writing five years ago, I did Google search on my name before I started submitting my short stories. Lo and behold, there was another “writer” with my name, who hasn’t published much of anything from what I can tell. I decided to combine the initials of my first and middle names to come up with C.D. Reimer to avoid being confused with the competition. Six months ago I decided to separate my professional technical life from my personal writing life.

I removed my middle initial from my resume and all the job search websites to become another somebody in Silicon Valley, and my full name from all my websites. C.D. Reimer became the “brand name” for my Internet existence. By day I’m the sophisticated Bruce Wayne who works as an anonymous technician for some Silicon Valley company. At night I’m the Batman who is breaking knuckles to get another short story out of the typewriter. (Sorry, Superman, but Clark Kent can suck it.) As any cape crusader knows, you need to keep your secret identity a secret from the outside world.

Why keep your writing identity a secret in Silicon Valley?

Most Silicon Valley companies, either officially or unofficially, discouraged moonlighting by their employees. A manager’s worst fear is a group of employees working together in a garage on the weekends to come up with the newest technological wonder, take one-third of the employees with them in a mass exodus to form a new company, and make a few billion dollars after Microsoft/Google/Facebook buys them out. Everyone and their grandmother were doing this before the dot com bust. Now people are being more discreet about moonlighting in fear of losing their regular paying job when the unemployment rate is at 10% and the overall job market is slowly improving.

I find it easier to be an anonymous technician while crawling underneath the desks of Silicon Valley. When people knew I was a writer, I would get all kinds of odd questions and weird looks. Being regarded as the eccentric uncle in a non-reading family was one thing I didn’t want to repeat at work. That was before I started publishing regularly. With my work being more accessible through ebooks, I’m sure the odd questions and weirder looks would have gotten odder and weirder if I wasn’t hiding behind a secret identity.

Now that I’m doing contract work after being unemployed for two years, no one knows I’m a writer when I show up for a new assignment. More specifically, I’m a Silicon Valley fiction writer. There are a bazillion non-fiction books about Silicon Valley, but almost no fiction books about Silicon Valley and certainly no writer making a name writing fiction about Silicon Valley (although the parody memoir, “Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs” by the Fake Steve Jobs, is a close competitor). Besides, this is California. If you’re a writer, everyone assumes you’re writing a Hollywood screenplay that will fetch $50,000 the moment you type THE END on the last page. I got some oddball looks when I told people that I write fiction. Everyone knows that there is no money in fiction if you’re not Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Sarah Palin.

I’m an anthropologist of sorts studying the Silicon Valley culture, which is an ongoing project at San Jose State University that I may pursue a degree in if I ever won the lottery to go back to school, trying to relate a strange world through fiction to ordinary readers. Working anonymously in Silicon Valley is key to being a good observer and finding fresh material for my short stories and novels.

I had just finished a three-day assignment at a college textbook publisher that brought back memories of working at the San Jose City College bookstore warehouse, where I was once familiar with all the imprints that this company had bought up over the last 20 years. A boring job involving too many mouse clicks to convert online courses from the legacy platform to the new platform. The green palm leaves made from lightweight fabric to shade the desks from the overhead lights will make a fantastic detail for a story someday.

But maintaining a secret writing identity and being successful in two lines of work is a difficult task. This week we learned about the secret identity of romance author Judy Mays from a busybody parent looking for trouble and a TV station looking for a sensational news story about a female high school teacher writing racy novels under a pen name on her own time. If being exposed wasn’t bad enough, they also demanding that Mays choose between being a teacher or an author.

As I commented on Jess Haines’ blog, would there be a controversy if a male teacher wrote action/adventure novels about big guns, fast broads and shagging the carpet every other chapter? Probably not. If I was Judy Mays, I would send the Batman to break some knuckles and watch her book sale numbers spike from the controversy.

The Emotional Baggage That A Male Reader Brings To The Novel

Several months ago I started downloading free fiction ebooks from Amazon for the Kindle App on my iPod Touch. I normally don’t read fiction ebooks since I’m a dead tree traditionalist who prefers flipping the pages of paperbacks. Two years of unemployment and three months of being underemployed doesn’t leave much money for buying stacks of paperbacks, even if the local Borders stores are going out of business. Naturally, each of the free ebooks was the first book in a series. If you’re hooked on the series after the first book, you just have to read all the other books.

I read “Bright of The Sky (The Entire & The Rose, Book 1)” by Kay Kenyon, about spaceships fueled by black holes that creates an inter-dimensional rip to a strange world larger than our universe and how one man came back tell to everyone but no one believed him. I read the other books, “A World Too Near” and “City Without End,” the following weekends. I still haven’t the fourth book, “Prince of Storms,” since I’m taking a break from the series. The last two books were each read in a single eight-hour sitting from beginning to end. I like books that don’t demand being read all at once.

Some of the best science fiction in recent years has come from women authors. Having grown up reading science fiction written mostly by men during the 1970s and 1980s, I appreciate the different concerns, ideas and viewpoints that women authors can bring to the genre. But sometimes a woman author can provoke a strong visceral response in a male reader like myself.

The other free ebook that I downloaded was “Hunted By The Others” by Jess Haines, about a human woman private detective hired by the mages to retrieve an artifact being kept by the vampires that can take control of the werewolves. The Others, of course, hate each other, and a pro-human group wants to kill them all off. An interesting premise for a new urban fantasy series.

Unlike the heroines in all the other urban fantasy series, Shiarra Waynest doesn’t start kicking ass once the story gets started. She is a fearful woman who is easily intimidated and disrespected by anyone more powerful than she is; especially the men who like to shove her around. Like fingernails across a chalk board, I cringed throughout the first half of the book. I absolutely hated it. But, being a glutton for punishment, I read the second half and absolutely loved it. Why? The heroine acquired several magical items that boosted her physical abilities and confidence in herself to start pushing back against the guys. Everyone suddenly starts respecting her to avoid getting their asses kicked, and she gets the job done to her satisfaction.

I haven’t had such a strong visceral reaction to a book since I read “Cell” by Stephen King, where my favorite minor character got killed off in a senseless act of violence in a “you know something really bad is coming around the corner” scene. I threw the paperback across the room and let it sit on the floor for a week before I could pick it up again.

But my reaction to “Hunted By The Others” was much different. As a male reader, I brought a lot of baggage when reading this ebook that colored my perception of the characters.

Strong Resistance Threshold

Unlike reading other genres, reading urban fantasy requires a significant amount of emotional investment. The world building is often much more extensive than some epic fantasy or science fiction books. You got to learn a whole new set of rules about how the characters interact with each other and  the urban environment around them. Whatever you think you might know about magical creatures is often tossed out of the window (i.e., vampires may walk in sunlight because they’re not that dead yet or a separate species not related to homo sapiens). Sometimes I have control issues about letting going of the familiar world around me to embrace someone else’s fantasy world.

For the longest times, I was reading only Jim Butcher and Kim Harrison, then Ann Agguire came along, and I recently read Jeannie Holmes. I started branching out into reading more urban fantasy since my first novel is about a video game company haunted by a troll-like ghost, which could be either horror and/or urban fantasy. Horror has its own internal logic—cue “Twilight Zone” music—but urban fantasy is a much different animal. I haven’t read enough urban fantasy to decide if I want to revise the rough draft in that direction.

Kick Ass Women In Film

Starting with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the “Alien” movies, Milla Jovovich as Alice in the “Resident Evil” movies, Uma Thurman as The Bride in “Kill Bill” movies, Michelle Rodriguez in too many movies to name (although I thought she was too feminine in the recent “Battle: Los Angeles” movie), and even 13-year-old Chloe Moretz as the Hit Girl in “Kick Ass,” have all been kick ass women who weren’t afraid of picking up a weapon, shoving the men aside, and getting the job done. I rarely see movies about a weak and fearful woman being pushed around by men. I’m more likely to get ticked off at the husbands in some movies who are being jerks and want a divorce because their wives are trying to accomplish something meaningful (i.e., “Juno” and “Freedom Writers”).

If you read the summaries for most urban fantasy series, the heroine is almost always a kick ass woman. I think that is why I enjoy reading urban fantasy, being a reflection of the movies I have seen since the 1970s. Had I grown up in an earlier era, maybe I would enjoy reading more novels about big men, big guns and big boobs. Although the hero shagging the girl every other chapter would get on my nerves just as much as the obligatory five pages of romance porn found in most urban fantasy novels.

Mother Was A Fearful Woman

My mother had an overwhelmingly negative influence in my life. House and child were her exclusive domain that my father had no say in, and the garage was off-limits to her since that was my father’s exclusive domain. I was never allowed in the garage since I belonged to her. Throw in case of beer every Sunday afternoon after grocery shopping, hell hath no fury than a fearful woman on a drunken rampage. I ducked a lot of beer bottles, dishes and pots while growing up.

My father was a complete stranger to me until I turned 18-years-old, when he announced that I was his and we worked together in construction for two years in San Francisco (50 miles was how far he needed to escape from her). When I left home for college and joined the campus ministry, I still couldn’t escape from my fearful mother. For years I had to call her every night to reassure her that I was all right. I didn’t find freedom until she committed suicide by letting her breast cancer go untreated in 2004, and, through counseling several years later, I decided to become a writer.

An ideal woman for me is someone who has fiery temper and a very short fuse. Why? If she gets pissed off, she will get into my face and tell me why. Nothing makes me madder than a fearful woman telling me that she is afraid to talk to me because she thinks I might get mad at her. If I’m doing something wrong, I want to know about it so I can change. I can’t change myself for the better if no one tells me what is wrong. Maybe because I’m a big guy who comes across as being a natural for raping, pillaging and burning, people assume things that aren’t there. (One unpaid ministry leader strongly suggested that I rape a woman in the church to start my career as a future California serial rapist and make everyone happy by going to prison.) Or maybe because I’m conditioned by books and movies to live in a world filled with strong women that I have unrealistic expectations about real women in general.

A month after I reading that “Hunted By The Others,” I started dissecting why I hated and loved that book in #ufchat on Twitter. Then someone causally mentioned that Jess Haines was lurking in the background—Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!—and a moment later she started replying to my tweets. We had a nice conversations about merits of taking her urban fantasy series in a complete different direction. Last week she sent me signed copies of all her novels in the snail mail: “Hunted By The Others,” “Taken By The Others,” and “Deceived By The Others” (coming out on July 5, 2011). It’ll be interesting to see if I can leave my emotional baggage behind when reading the first book in paperback.

A NaNoWriMo Flash Story Collection

Last year I had planned on participating in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition by completing the remaining 50,000 words for my second novel this month, which 1/3 done at 25,000 words. I also expected revising my first novel would be done by now, but that didn’t happen since editing a novel-length manuscript is really, really hard. Abandoning the revision of my first novel to continue the second novel wouldn’t be right. Besides, I haven’t reviewed what I had previously written and outlined for the second novel. Skipping NaNoWriMo like I had in previous years was the only option I could see as I wasn’t in the mood to start a new novel to gather dust next to my second novel. Two days into the competition I had an idea: why not use NaNoWriMo to create a collection of 100 500-word flash short stories?

Here’s my “Flash In The Pan Short Story Collection” for NaNoWriMo:

This is a fantasy/horror/science fiction/supernatural collection of 100 flash short stories of 500-word each. The collection itself will never be published. Each flash short story will be edited, lengthen or shorten where needed, and submitted for individual publication in 2011.

Why are writing 100 different 500-word flash stories easier than a novel?

I have written 53 short stories of various lengths over the last five years, with 18 short stories published or slated for publication. I think I will always be a short story writer since it’s easier for me to focus on something shorter than longer. I’m also one of those people who would prefer to see a long credit list of short projects than spending years creating a long masterpiece.

Writing four 500-word short stories for 2,000 words per day will be easy to do. Each story idea will exist in my mind only long enough to write in longhand and put aside without interfering with my novel revision. The writing itself doesn’t take the most time; I can pop out a flash story in a half-hour. Editing the flash story to stay under the 500 word count while telling a good story can take up to three hours to complete. I plan to edit and submit all these flash stories for publication throughout 2011. If I get stuck on revising my novel or run out of ideas for short stories, I can pull out a flash story to finish working on.

The trick for writing 100 flash stories in one month is to make sure I don’t run out of unique ideas. One way to avoid that is to have serial characters.

The first four flash stories I wrote featured the cannibalistic restaurateur owner Charles Goodwin of The Giggling Mongoose (“Salt of The Air,” “Swine of The Earth,” “Honey of The Fire” and “Rice of The Water” published in Elements of Horror anthology). I have since written a 5,000-word short story about Mr. Goodwin and an old goat with three young things following him (“Scarlet Hearts” is still floating in the slush pile).

Writing another set of flash stories would be a good way to explore his character further before plunging into another longer piece. I had also written about two computer science students using Jewish mysticism to create a computerized golem for their class project that ended with a blue screen of death (“Golem Got The Blues” published in Daily Flash 2011: 365 Days of Flash Fiction anthology).  If you fail once with Jewish mysticism and computer technology, try again. Or is that, rinse and repeat?

Tonight I’ll do some brainstorming to line up the first set of story ideas and tomorrow I’ll start writing my flash short story collection. Perhaps the creative rush will help me finish revising my novel.

Hitting A Brick Wall In Revising The Novel

October was a lousy month for writing. I blame the flu shot that I got for making me feel lousy and giving me a serious case of the blah’s. I didn’t feel like editing, revising or writing for most of the month. It wasn’t writer’s block. It was more like that I lacked a clear motivation to get anything done. Especially since revising my first novel was like banging my head against a brick wall. Nothing worked. The story was stillborn after the first three chapters. Something was missing but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

After watching “Stephen King’s Rose Red” DVD this past weekend about a haunted mansion, I realized what was missing from my story: a brick wall.

My first novel is about a video game company with a mischievous ghost that develops a homicidal streak. Wherever you have a ghost, you must have a place for the ghost to haunt. I spent a year writing the 700-page rough draft by focusing only on the main characters who reacted to the actions of the ghost, but the ghost and the building were a mere afterthought in the heat of composition.

I spent year trying to figure out how to revise the thing. I came to the conclusion that I had to painstakingly develop the rest of the novel that I had put off for several years. The main characters became sharper and less knowing about their circumstances; minor characters became real and more knowing about their circumstances. The ghost took a more active role than before. I was putting in new material that added to the word count that I desperately wanted to shrink, and rearranging the material to develop a better narrative flow. Then I hit the brick wall and couldn’t proceed further.

The story mythos for the “Red Rose” mansion came from the Winchester Mystery House, a nationally designated “haunted house” in San Jose that I had never visited even though I lived in Silicon Valley all my life. (Another item added to my never-ending to do list.) Sarah Winchester, heiress to the family fortune that came from the Winchester repeating rifle, became convinced by a Boston medium that the spirits of the people killed in the Indian Wars and the Civil War by the rifles that her father-in-law had created were haunting her, and moved out to California in 1884 to start building a massive mansion that never got finished in thirty-eight years to keep the spirits away.

The producers for “Rose Red” wanted to film at the Winchester Mystery House. Unfortunately, located next to the busy I-280 freeway and across the street from the Santana Row shopping center that was under construction at time (where one building would catch on fire by accident to become the largest structure fire in San Jose), and the Winchester House was too small to accommodate a film crew, it wasn’t practical. They ended up filming the exterior shots at the Thornewood Castle, a 400-year-old Elizabethan mansion relocated brick by brick from England to Tacoma, Washington, in 1908, and creating 20,000 square feet of interiors at an abandoned naval base in Seattle, Washington.

The one thing that caught my attention was the level of the detail that went into the Red Rose sets: the brickwork of the exterior shots, the library with the mirrored floor, an arched hallway that appear to extend to infinity, and a 1950’s office built upside down.

Although the ghosts were lurking in every shadow, it was the mansion that stood out the most with its ominous presence. Since this was Stephen King’s take on the “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, the Red Rose mansion was a bad place. But it wasn’t the ghosts that made the building a bad place. The building itself was inherently evil from being built on a desecrated Indian burial ground, becoming a larger-than-life character that influenced the events in the miniseries.

That was the brick wall I kept banging my head against.

The building that my ghost haunted was an old brick warehouse converted to an office building. I was drawing upon the three years that I worked as cook at The Old Spaghetti Factory in downtown San Jose in the mid-1990’s, which occupies a converted warehouse made from brick. But the only reference to the brick building in the entire manuscript was after the good-versus-evil confrontation at the end triggered the collapse of the building into a heap of bricks. I needed to peel back the plaster in the first chapter to reveal the brickwork and introduce the building as a character.

Since description is my greatest weakness as a writer, I spent four hours last night working on this one paragraph :

Amy crossed her legs underneath the table and folded her hands in front of her, looking prim and proper, and expecting someone to come in shortly to interview her. When five minutes went by without the door opening, she turned her attention to the floor-to-ceiling window that cut across the outer corner of the interview room at forty-five degree angle. Red bricks and gray mortar lined the inside of the window frame, with the headers protruding past the drywall on all sides, the shiners lying flat at top and bottom, and the stretchers stacked on the side. Beyond the narrow double-pane window that separated the inside from the outside, the brickwork repeated itself. It was like looking out the arrow slit of an ancient castle.

Although I spent two years working in masonry construction with my father, incorporating the brick terminology into description was a challenge. The most important descriptive detail about the building in this paragraph was comparing it to an ancient castle. Since my fictional video game company has its roots in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, an ancient castle was a suitable place for a ghost to haunt. (As to whether or not that this is a bad place, the ghost hasn’t told me yet.) With the beginning motif of an ancient brick castle in the heart of Silicon Valley done, I can go back to revising my novel now that I’m not banging my head against that particular brick wall.

Letting Short Stories Lie Fallow

This summer I took a break from the boring admin task of keeping 35+ short stories in circulation by letting them lay fallow after coming back with rejection slips. My tracking spreadsheet turned red over the last three months as I revised my first novel. A few recent short stories that garnered positive feedback from editors were kept in circulation. All the rest I didn’t bother with when they came back.

Although it took me a year to write a 120,000-word, 700-page rough draft manuscript of my first novel, it took another year to figure out how to revise it. The next draft after a three-month break had split the book into two volumes and removed all the material that didn’t work or wasn’t developed enough. And then I got stuck. I spent the remainder of the year on a speculative fiction bender that saw many of my recent short stories being accepted for anthologies. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my novel manuscript to revise itself (not surprisingly, it didn’t).

What was the problem? The rough draft was crap. Unlike the rough drafts for many of my short stories, it wasn’t even brilliant crap. Just plain old crap that I couldn’t motivate myself to finish revising. The nagging doubt that haunted me was that the manuscript was too long for a first novel, and, even if it was split into two 80,000-word volumes, was still a hard sell for a first time novelist.

The solution to this problem became clearer over the summer: 1) revising a novel is hard work and not for the faint of heart; and, 2) I’ll need to write a shorter novel to increase my chances of finding an agent and/or publisher.

I spent three weeks summarizing each chapter on a notepad and outlining the first volume in Post-It Notes on a poster board to visualize the overview of the story. This is what I should have done a year ago. I started revising each chapter as many times as needed until it was good enough for me to move on to the next chapter, and update the outline—now spread out on four 30″ x 20″ sheets of mouse-colored paper pinned to a wall—with a breakdown of each chapter. I’m averaging two finished pages a day. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish revising the current draft by the end of the year.

Another reason to let short stories lie fallow is that many literary publications affiliated with universities don’t read the slush piles during the summer. If you sent a bunch of submissions at the end of the school year, don’t expect a response until September or October. Waiting for snail mail responses in the dog days of August is a painful exercise in patience when checking the post office box every week.

If you’re dependent on writing to pay the bills, taking the summer off to focus on a big project wouldn’t be wise. If you’re writing only fiction, you’re not making that much money anyway. (I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there over the last five years.) The long-term payoff for fiction writers is having a successful career as a novelist. As much as I love to write short stories, I had to get serious about revising my novel this summer. If you’re successful enough to make a living from writing, you need a paid vacation anyway.

Now that summer is almost over, it’s time to get those short stories back into circulation. With The Iowa Short Fiction Award accepting submissions until September 30th, I’m reviewing my first collection manuscript as a way to focus my attention on the 32 short stories therein. I should have that done within the next 10 days. I’ll be assembling my second collection from October to December to submit for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series next year, reviewing all 21 speculative short stories that I wrote in the last year. The boring admin task of keeping so many manuscripts in circulation has returned.

Writing From The Back Burner

After much consideration over the past week concerning my second novel work in progress, I’ve decided to wrap up work on the first part (1/3) and clear off the back burner until I start editing for the first draft of my first novel in October. This wasn’t an easy decision.

First, I no longer have the motivation to continue writing the second novel since I have a self-imposed editing deadline for the first novel, and I didn’t want to stop in middle of part two when I could make a clean break after finishing part one.

Second, since the second novel is a diversion between editing rounds of the first novel, I couldn’t give it my fullest attention without impacting the first novel. The second novel requires a complete breakdown analysis of the first part before I can outline and write the next two parts. An extended break should help with that.

Third, the back burner has unfinished short stories and poems that I would like to finish and clear out before I start something new. With the summer break coming to an end at many short story magazine publishers, I’m expecting a flood of returned SASEs bearing rejection slips, some acceptance letters, and no money to pay for anything. I’m always tweaking or rewriting a piece to make it better before sending out again. These admin tasks always take more time if I don’t plan for it.

Maybe I’m too lazy to pound out a 400-page rough draft of a novel in three months, or maybe six months is a suitable amount of time to write a novel. I hope editing my first novel goes faster than that. If everything works out, I’ll be working on the second part of my second novel in January. Or maybe not.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

The Middle Is Where The Story Dies

The 700-page rough draft of my first novel took a year to write. I spent the last two months writing the first 130 pages of a 400-page rough draft for my second novel that I planned to get done next month before I start editing for the next draft of the first novel in October. I’m only one-third done, stuck at the beginning of the middle, and uncertain what to do yet. I’ve been wallowing in a writing funk for the last few weeks that isn’t related to my recent birthday funk. Recalling my experience with the first novel and reexamining the half dozen short stories that I started but abandon after a few pages, the middle is where a story can and often does die.

Writing something new is always exciting. Unless the story is very short (say five pages or less), the excitement wears off in a hurry and writing becomes work. That’s the problem I have: work. While the beginning and sometimes the ending tends to write themselves with little effort on my part, writing the middle is all work trying to bridge the beginning and the ending. Work that I don’t enjoy tends to make me want to do something else that’s more fun and exciting.

The middle of my first novel felt like stringing a rope bridge across a deep chasm without any help. I forced myself to start writing one bloody page after another until what I written became the bridge needed to cross the chasm. The structure was seven parts with seven chapters each that kept me from falling into the abyss.

The middle of my second novel felt more like climbing the high wall of an obstacle course and getting stuck on top with no one to push me over if only to see me land on my face. That’s probably because I’m experimenting more with this novel—shorter chapters, flexible POVs, and naming all the characters—to avoid repeating myself. Writing fast and dirty to get the main story down, but also taking care to avoid the sprawling mess of the first draft and respecting the deadline that I set.

What to do about this horrible middle?

There are several options but none will have the second novel done any sooner before the deadline. I can keep writing until the deadline, ending the story halfway through. I can stop at the one-third mark to clean up what I have written so far and outline the middle. Or stop at the one-third mark and finished the abandon short stories for the next month. All three options appeal to me in one way or another.

Maybe I need to buy a Magic Eight Ball to decide this one.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.