Cooking and writing

I’m extremely lucky to be married to a former chef who catered for sitting presidents. Yes, I certainly get all of the consumption benefits of having a chef under my roof — but more importantly, I get a world-class firsthand education in how to food.

I haven’t just learned “how to make a dish that tastes good.” That’s actually pretty simple: Follow a good recipe. What I’ve really learned is how food behaves. What the system of food is like. The science of food, the art and craft of choosing proportions for desired results. I’ve always known what good food tastes like, but now I know why.

This systematic knowledge took me from following recipes step by careful step in 2013 to freestyling it with substitutions and eliminations as the whim seizes me today. It’s also allowed me to develop a distinct style — I’ve come to love certain combinations of ingredients, and increased my ability to experiment within those flavor profiles.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation in my writing, too, though inversely. I used to freestyle too much; I’d sit down with a first line or a vague notion and punch out a few pages of something unstructured and full of interesting frayed ends.

Ultimately, those weren’t stories that held up under much scrutiny. I’d bore of them and wonder why I couldn’t finish anything.

In the last few years, in addition to the “writing about writing” books I’ve always read, I started scrutinizing good stories in all forms of media, and studying writers’ systems of crafting plots and characters. This has given me the vocabulary for my instinctual sense of how to story.

Now I can flip through a draft I wrote a few months before and not only spot the holes, but name them, and understand how to find fixes for them. I’m no master of fiction, but I’m a much more confident writer than I used to be.

The ingredients, the proportions of a good story — these are things I know when I meet because I’ve been a voracious reader for so long. But now I understand them and have the toolbox at my disposal to fix them in my own works.

Such is the magic of learning how to cook.

The Parentheses Process

I love details. They’re sort of the hallmark of my style, especially in my short stories — I choose very specific but arbitrary details, putting down broad strokes about a world I hardly know yet. I’ll describe how the clay coins of the realm feel in one’s hand, for example. Or the name and earthy smell of the new-fangled liquor everyone in the land is addicted to.

But sometimes, instead of getting caught up in exactly what I should call the god-leader figurehead role of a nomadic ice planet society, I need to crank out the skeleton of a scene. I can’t always afford to stop and get lost in random generator land. So instead of agonizing over a detail and allowing it to slow my roll, I use what my producer/hub calls “the Parentheses Process.”

In reality, I don’t use parentheses, I use curly braces. {These ones.} They make it easy for me to use Ctrl+F (the Find function) and track down all the places I left blanks without running into false positives, since I sometimes actually use parentheses. But whatever. Parentheses Process is catchy-ish.

I used the heck out of this method while I was working on my novel Daugment. I didn’t know much about Daugment when I started the book, other than the main character being a human-turned-dog, so I ended up leaving a lot of world-building details unspecified as I went along. Or, I would specify them, later remember that I’d made a decision but not what that decision had been, and then just put the general idea in brackets so I could come back to it later and cross-reference to my heart’s content, once I was wearing my editor’s hat.

The Parentheses Process is especially useful for NaNoWriMo and other speed-writing scenarios. If you’re trying to crank out an essay, wrap up your manuscript in a couple of weeks, or complete the first draft of a novel in a single month, stepping away from the details is a must. Plus, this method strengthens your stories and your world-building skills by letting the details percolate in your mind as your world and plot unfold in a more structured way.

Yes, even “pantsers” who don’t outline will benefit from leaving some things until the end. The brain naturally tends to make loose ends click into a neat package, if you let it sit idle on the problem long enough. Thanks to the fact that brains like patterns, yours will passively work to sort things out and make connections where you may not have seen them at first brush.

The basic premise of the Parentheses Process is, if you can’t come up with it nearly immediately, put it in brackets and move on.

Your goal should always be to get through the first draft as fast as you can. Even if the first draft is really a “zero draft,” just a few sentences that sketches out what you’re going for, you benefit from having something to work with rather than nothing at all.

It’s how you eliminate the fear of the blank page. Know that this is something I spent fifteen years of denying, despite reading all of those trusty books about writing, wherein every author ever coaxed me to get the first draft down quickly…

But I digress. Here are some examples of the Parentheses Process in action.

“{Something inspirational and foreshadowy!}” Leyla cried, one edge of her blade gleaming in the low-slung sun.

Dialogue isn’t easy. If you can’t hear it in your head yet, you may just not know your character well enough. That’s totally reasonable! Put it in brackets and move on.

He picked up the gleaming {swordthingname}.

Well, crap, you know you named that sword-thing in an earlier paragraph, but it’s at least four pages back, and you’re kind of on a roll… Put it in brackets and move on.

Their eyes met over the candle. Hers gleamed, and his answered with a mischievous twinkle.

{Cute thing that becomes an inside joke}

They were full of wine and sleepy, and even the promise of more kisses couldn’t keep them awake. They fell asleep with their arms around one another, their clothes disheveled in an innocent, sleepy way.

Sometimes you have a general idea of what needs to happen in order to make a plot point down the road feasible… But you don’t have any experience with that kind of scene and you’d like to read or watch a bit of research material. Put it in brackets and move on.

Fair game in the Parentheses Process:

  • World-building details you already selected*
  • Lines of dialogue
  • Names you haven’t chosen yet
  • Physical characteristics
  • Emotional content
  • Portions of scenes
  • Entire chapters
  • Literally anything

*Pay special attention to those details you feel the need to look up over and over — such as names of places, people and things; character continuity details; and timelines. If you need to reference stuff regularly, you may want to develop a system for yourself so you can easily reference it again.

If you’re anything like me as a writer, you want to make sure you get worldbuilding details absolutely straight. Especially if you know you wrote something down already, whether it was in your meticulous notes or your messy draft, you shouldn’t stop your writing flow to hunt it down! Getting out your first draft should always be more important than the details. That’s what editors are for. You should know this. Consider this a gentle love-whap. First drafts first.

The Parentheses Process is all about ensuring you stay in your flow when you find it. The most important rule is: Give yourself just enough to know what you meant later, and move on quickly to maintain your momentum.

(Another rule: Be consistent. If you use {curly braces,} stick with ’em. If you use [square brackets,] stick with those. Otherwise you’ll find your Ctrl+F process is much harder than it needs to be.)

The Parentheses Process eliminates a huge excuse that many writers rely on to keep from actually producing — research. Yes, research is absolutely key to a successful project. Yes, you can and should have research phases in your writing process…just not in the middle of your writing time. Random generators and web searches are just an excuse not to write, most of the time.

The biggest secret to my success is that I know now, the writing portion of the process should be satisfying. I try to exploit this fact by using the Parentheses Process to jump to the stuff I’m interested in writing right now.

If there’s something you’re excited to write about or want to get out of your head, jump to it. Jot down any notes or thoughts you don’t want to forget in brackets {like these}. Then get to where you want to be!

That’s it. That’s the whole Parentheses Process. It’s how you get through drafts, and fast. It’s how you plow through all those little distractions that add up to writer’s block. It’s how you identify details about your characters and world that are important to write down somewhere else for future reference. (Planning on turning your stand-alone novel into a series? Better hope you’ve kept track of the stuff that’ll matter for the next book and beyond!)

The Parentheses Process is not the same as “not knowing what happens” — i.e. not plotting your story or series. This method shouldn’t be used in place of outlines. At the very least, even if you’re a true “pantser,” you should have some vague notion of what your character’s motivation and goals are.

However, used in tandem with an outline, loose or otherwise, the Parentheses Process lets your brain work its magic. It will find patterns if you tell it, “Look, brain, I know what needs to happen, just not how it happens.” It’s likely that your story world already has a way for that plot point to not only be feasible, but probable. You may just not have unearthed it yet.

Put it in brackets and move on.

View from the office

Moving sucks. Especially when you get caught in an inch of snow for three hours, five minutes away from each of your two homes (former apartment, future home).

But, this place was totally worth it.

This is the view from my desk, or something like it, when we eventually get the combination library-office set up. (!!!!!)

No complaints here.

The whole studio team is here, too, all under one roof. The Shames have, as they say, arrived. Now to get the whiteboards up…

Why Daugment is free for libraries

Thanks to Smashwords’ super cool distribution plans to Axis360, OverDrive, and now bibliotecha (as well as their Library Direct program), my novel Daugment is available for free to libraries. I could charge for it, but…first of all, that seems horribly mean, and second of all, I have three good reasons for making it free.

The altruistic reason: Libraries and librarians are awesome.

Several of my good friends are librarians, and of course, avid readers themselves. They help people every day find information on how to improve their lives and their knowledge bases. Pretty dang cool. Plus, I spent I can’t tell you how many hours in libraries as a kid, gleaning information on forbidden topics from books I didn’t dare take home. I feel like I’m paying it forward.

The sneaky reason: I commission weird covers. People will take chances on weird books…when they’re free.

Almost every bizarre book I’ve ended up adoring, I read first from the library. Once I was old enough to earn a little money from babysitting, I began to invest in my own book collection and I’ve never stopped – but I rarely buy something I don’t already know I love.

People make snap judgments about covers all the time. Here’s a question anyone in a bookstore or browsing an online catalog will ask themselves: “Is this cover worth $5? $2? $0.99?” Usually, the answer is an easy, “No.” But if the question is instead, “Is this cover worth 10 minutes of my idle curiosity?” the answer is more often, “Why the heck not!”

If my book’s at a library, it’s already free for the customer. Making it free for the libraries gets it into a lot more libraries.

The marketing reason: To find my future readers.

Every single piece of advice on ebook marketing I’ve read advises giving away a book, or a story at the very least, to get readers’ email addresses and attention. While I plan to run promotions as well, Making Daugment free for libraries allows me to give away books passively and reach readers I would never have otherwise found.

Even if I run really savvy social media campaigns, I can’t easily target niche readers. These are people whose tastes might not usually overlap with the keywords I use to promote my book, but who visit small-town libraries. Smaller libraries may have more modest budgets, meaning the librarians may turn to the free section of the ebook catalog in order to give their patrons more for the money they have.

If you’re a librarian, and can’t seem to find Daugment through the ebook channels you use, please contact me so I can get you as many copies as you’d like!

My debut novel: Daugment

Daugment cover

Did you obsess over Brian Jacques’ Redwall series and Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars tie-in novels? Do the names Clare Bell, Deborah Chester, and James Gurney ring a bell? Are there tattered Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis books on your shelves? Then I proudly present…your next read.

Daugment is the (I’m so sorry) tail of Pitney Scolan, Pit for short, a brilliant military mind on the brink of retirement to his own private planet, where no one will bother his intensely introverted self. Unfortunately for Pit, his arch-nemesis General Tristan has assassinations on the brain – and Pit is forced to become a dog, party up with some well-meaning scoundrels, and face a galactic conspiracy to force him to make friends.

Yes, my debut novel is as ridiculous as it sounds.

It took 22 years of perseverance, but I’ve done it. I decided at five years old that I would become a novelist, and since then I’ve gone through six or seven unpublished manuscripts and at least 100 short stories. Now I’ve published this delightfully ridiculous soup of talking dogs, sci-fi tropes, and friendship themes that I accidentally pun-titled Daugment. (Accidentally because it was meant to just be a code name. Let this be a lesson to myself.)

If you love animal stories, soft science fiction, and adventure stories without a strong romance subplot, Daugment is tailor-made for you. You can buy it on Smashwords for all e-readers, and it’s also available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Amazon, iBooks, Inktera, as well as other distributors, and — if you ask, because it’s free for librarians to order! — your local library.

The adventures of the Damn Shames

I’m one of those creepy writertypes who doesn’t really disguise the fact that she rips her characters straight from the pages of her friends’ proverbial books. Luckily for me, I’ve got pretty cool friends who then help me develop some of those characters until they’re just plain awesome to write about. That’s how the Damn Shames came about – I started with the idea of writing about my friends as a bunch of space pirates, and they graciously gave me a bunch of ideas for how to go about doing that. (It’s also the brand we use for our studio collective.)

We’ve chosen to set the Shames in the Star Citizen universe for the time being, because it’s an inviting one for us as content creators. We’re allowed to use a lot of material freely to tell our own stories; it’s a little like being invited to make fan videos and write fan-fiction for the Star Wars universe, thirty years ago. The game thrives when its community is engaged and making content, so we’re indulging. Our space pirates will have plenty to do when Star Citizen launches — but for now, you can read all about their adventures at PiratesIn.Space.

I’m writing an ongoing serial novel called “A Mutiny of Pirates,” which I’m posting chapter by chapter so readers can follow along. The story is very loosely based on “Treasure Island,” but mostly based on the true-to-life misadventures my squad would have if we somehow became spacefaring chaotic neutrals, all at the same time. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Star Citizen universe, I try to provide enough context that you won’t be lost (my mother-in-law reads it, and she doesn’t play Star Citizen).

PiratesIn.Space is the easiest way to keep up with my writing in between my novels — speaking of which, stay tuned, because “Daugment” launches today!

The Scribblers’ Club

As part of my creative philosophy, I try to participate every year in at least one big generative project, at the end of which I have something to shop around or develop. (I’m also a masochistic writer.) A lot of years, that project is NaNoWriMo. In 2012 and 2013, my good friend Jill Corddry and I teamed up to crank out short stories on a regular basis (almost weekly, in 2012, and monthly in 2013).

We took a couple of years off – she had twins and I got a heck of a job (same thing, right?!) – but our hiatus is over, and this year, we lassoed two of our other friends and dragged them with us. We call the project The Scribblers’ Club, and we’ve each promised to write one short story per month for the next twelve months, with a few appearances scattered throughout by guest writers. We’ve already done it at least once each, which is miraculous in and of itself. Eleven more stories to go (for me). No big deal. (If you like sad paranormal stories, my first one is called “Wanting”.)

The Scribblers exist because of our motto: “Trick thyself into creativity.” We made deadlines that feel a little bit like those school assignments we used to have. We found people to send us clever notes and evil writer quotes. We found that those same people hold us to our promises through guilt and sickly-sweet encouragement. We force ourselves into artificial boxes to see how our creativity shoves its way out of them. Most of all, we keep in mind that quantity produces quality.

More than any other tactic, this cooperative-but-not-collaborative approach to writing groups has really worked for me. I do love actually collaborating on writing, but even in a hyper-connected age, it can be hard when writers with very different ways of writing books try to write a book together. Having others set standards of success in the same little arena we’ve drawn out together is encouraging, inspiring, and makes me feel bad if I don’t turn in my story on time.

So. Back to tricking myself I go!

15 ways to use random generators

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I love random generators. I have since I was nine or ten and writing my first code – for a random generator. I made it make funny sentences. It was stupid and useless and amazing.

Since then, I’ve used them as an integral part of my writing process. Writer’s block has no place in a world with random generators. You might use dice, a coin, or Seventh Sanctum’s academic magical realm generator – it’s all the same to me. Use the power of random to break past your writing blocks in one of these fifteen ways. (And check out each link – I’ve found more than 15 great generators for your bookmarking enjoyment.)

1. Take the next step.

Getting stuck happens at all stages of a project: before you’ve written a word, after you’ve jotted down notes, or when you hit 70% completion. There are lots of ways to blast past it, but here’s a simple one: use a random word generator like watchout4snakes to let someone else (or something, rather) write the next word for you. It might make no sense in context, but at least it won’t be your fault. Rinse and repeat until you’re back in the groove.

2. Think outside the box.

Another way to combat stuck-ness is to go spinning off in a wildly different direction. A generator of words big and small can give you a truly random element that your brain can nomnomnom to crap out fresh material, when forced to fit this into your existing piece.

Bonus challenge: Don’t change anything about the generator’s output. Try to get it in there untouched. Not sure how you’re going to talk about coding or suppered in your essay about your child’s first steps? Too bad.

3. Ask, “What if?”

Random generators can help you ask interesting “what-if” questions. Say you’re stuck trying to figure out what your protagonist is going to do next after waking up. Using a random word generator, you might ask yourself, “What if he realized he was in a digital world?” then “What if he was in a digital media that he recognized, like his favorite TV show?” then “What if his reality started to overlap with his favorite TV show?!” As you can see, you probably wouldn’t have gone off in an alternate reality direction with this story, but it’s one path past your writer’s block.

If you haven’t started your project yet, what-if questions can help you hunt down a concept worth writing about. Seventh Sanctum offers a what-if generator that proposes questions about well-known historical and literary figures, for one angle on this tactic.

4. Present an alternative.

Maybe you’ve got to solve a character’s very specific problem, like how to get her birth certificate out of her evil brother’s safe, because your original idea (breaking in with lockpicking skills) just doesn’t feel right. This is where “what-ifs” aren’t enough and you need to turn to the “what-if-instead” question.

Go back to that random word generator and use its output to propose what-if-instead questions: “What if instead, she used gasoline to start a fire that made him panic and unlock the safe?” or “What if instead of stealing her own identity back, she stole his identity and got out of the country on credit?” Let the words swirl around and knock up against your problem until you find a solution.

5. Jump away.

There’s that weird phenomenon where staring at a star makes it seem dimmer than looking at it sideways; the same can often be said of breaking past a block on a project. Come at your writer’s block sideways by working on a different project entirely. A random generator can get you thinking about something else far removed from what you’re stuck on.

I’ve found one of the best ways to get out of a serious project’s funk is to write something totally goofy. Here’s one very silly – yet intriguing – story generator from StoryWonk to get you started. I can’t wait to pick up a copy of your novel about a good-natured Elvis impersonator with an ancient amulet.

6. Introduce someone new.

A story isn’t really a story until there’s conflict, and your story could need more friction – in the form of a brand new character (also known as a victim the author hasn’t met yet). Take the fake character generator for a spin. It uses details like zodiac signs, personal web addresses, and vehicle type to flesh out a virtually-constructed stranger, who you can drop right into your tale with a motivation.

In fact, here comes Sebhat Petros, that dang structural metal fitter who works at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Pittsburgh and wants nothing more than to reunite with a mysterious sales executive. Boom. Conflict.

7. Change a name.

You always kind of know when a character isn’t quite right. There’s something about them that doesn’t ring true – maybe it’s their name. Using your instincts, and a few choice keywords or cultural selections on a random generator like Behind the Name’s, select a brand new moniker for the offending character.

Don’t like the sound of “Sammy” for your battle-hardened lieutenant with the dark past? Benjamin Caetano sounds like he’s a little softer on the inside than he’d like you to know. Or possibly Sammy is short for Samuli, which he’d die if his squadron found out. As they grow into the sound or the meaning of it, you could find yourself seeing throughlines in your character’s story that you’d totally missed before.

8. Provide a fresh perspective.

So you’ve got your narrator, and they’re reliable (or not), and you’ll probably keep writing this piece from their perspective. But what if you…didn’t? Use a random character generator, like any on Seventh Sanctum’s generous list, to spit out a being or two you whose outlook on life might throw a new light on your tale. A funny assassin, maybe, or a half-nymph necromancer.

Even if you don’t end up using it in the final work, looking at your story or setting through the eyes of a different kind of character can really change what kind of story you end up telling (see this essay on the movie Zootopia for a compelling example).

9. Spark your imagination.

Writers of speculative fiction don’t really need excuses to worldbuild, but a random planet generator can bring fresh territory into play (literally) for a story gone stale. Instead of taking place on Earth, set your story on Ellerkin Major, home of the Ellurians, nomadic reptiles with pale skin and four eyes. Imagine the kinds of spaceships they’d need…

Or introduce a new villain straight out of Chaotic Shiny’s monster generator. Your protagonist will have a hell of a time fighting off a human-sized, ethereal, rodent-like beast named Brad. Keep what you want, discard what you don’t, and keep on writin’.

10. Give it a title.

Not sure where to start? Throw a randomly generated title at the top of a blank page. You can probably imagine where The Crow and the Mirror or The Supreme Toad might lead you.

That’s the easy version of this tactic, though; the super exciting advanced version challenges you to rename something you’ve already started, or giving a random name to something you’d planned on carefully entitling. Try this book title generator, which takes a genre and generates some vague titles that sound just cliché enough to exist already – like Heirs of Sorrow or Signs in the Catacombs.

11. Provide visual stimuli.

I use Flickr for my story research, usually by typing “portraits” and browsing faces until I find one that fits my character, but it’s also got a great random feature: the “Explore interesting photos of the last seven days” page. Click “RELOAD!” until you’ve found a picture that compels you to write its story, or add its setting or contents to your existing project, and you’re off and away.

12. Pick a topic.

Sure, sure, write what you know – the adage isn’t wrong. But I take real joy in getting to research the heck out of a subject when I’m planning to write what I don’t know (because I’m a details nerd). When you’re hoping to think outside the box to find a topic, but obviously don’t know what you don’t know, Wikipedia’s random article function can kick-start your brainstorming.

How about the tale of the first supernatural student at ISF Waterloo? Or an investigative essay about the fate of Pewabic Pottery‘s most famous works? You get the picture.

13. Introduce a new conflict.

This is also known as the “suddenly” tactic. Using random generators like the attitude generator, conflict generator, or the sticky situation generator, introduce a new problematic element into your project.

Let’s say your detective protagonist and her sidekick are on a cruise ship and need to kill some time before, well, the villain kills the victim. Instead of just having them wander around, make it so that suddenly, woman vs. nature flares up in the guise of a terrible storm, and the sidekick’s nautical training from her grandfather kicks in. Or suddenly, your heroine meets a charming man who will swindle her, perhaps out of a secret she can’t afford to tell. Or, suddenly, your sidekick becomes doubtful towards the heroine, due to her friends, and is stubborn about it, and you’ve got inter-character conflict to spice things up until the body is found and they have to set aside their differences to solve the crime.

14. Feed someone else an idea.

Writers usually know other writers, and most writers are always sniffing around for new ideas. If one of your writerly acquaintances is in need of a conceptual seed (ew?),  give Seventh Sanctum’s random generator random generator a whirl. Your friend will think you’re a creative genius! (Meanwhile, you’re hoarding the best the generators have to offer, and giving them the so-so ideas. I mean, who cares about Omni Team Diamond Five anyway?)

15. Choose one or the other.

So you’ve exhausted all other options, and you’re still stuck. Narrow your next move down to two choices, then flip a coin (real or Random.org) to choose one. No take-backsies! You have to go with it. That’s the point of setting the challenge.

I hope I’ve made it clear how much random generators can add to your writing process, and that I haven’t overwhelmed you with so many ideas that you don’t know which one to pick. (My answer to you, if that’s where you’re at? Put your ideas in the list randomizer and OBEY THE RANDOM.)

May all your moments of writer’s block become moments of weird and wacky inspiration instead!

(Always) under construction.

You’ve come looking for August! You’ve come to the right place.

One minute I was just some punk kid running a writing-themed e-zine in 2002, and suddenly I’m in need of a “personal website” because people want to, like, “link” to me. What is this, 2003?!

Anyway. You’re probably here because you know me, in which case you might want to check out my projects. If you came here trying to figure out who I am, I’ve conveniently provided you a bio. (Complete truth not guaranteed.) There are some vaguely organized thoughts on my blog, and I’ve written a bit about working with me, in case that’s what you’re looking for.

Talk soon, I hope.

Books and bytes