Common orbits and alien werewolves

I haven’t read too many books this year. I usually try to go for somewhere between 20 and 50, depending on how busy I am otherwise. This year, I’ve made it through 13 (and several of those were really short non-fiction).

Nonetheless, there have been some quality books. This last one I just finished over the weekend, for instance: Becky Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit.” Apparently it’s a sequel, though I didn’t realize that until I was about 1/3 of the way through and there were some mentions of pre-existing characters; it stands alone just fine. It’s going to be hard for me to forget.

The story centers around an AI character named Sidra and her human guardian Pepper. (At this point, I figure I’m pretty hooked.) The basic premise is that Sidra used to be a ship’s computer, and now she’s in a body-shaped kit and she has to figure out how to be people. Sounds ripe for thoughtful tragedy, doesn’t it?

It’s not. I mean, it is. There’s definitely tragedy in this book. But without giving anything away, I’ll tell you that Chambers lets her characters have happy endings. There’s a big, roaring, sweeping wave of hope that carries you through the last few pages.

It was unexpected and refreshing. I’d had no sense of the ending before I started, and as I got into the darkness in the middle of the book, I worried I’d be in for a bawl-fest at the end. (I was, but for a very different reason than I’d assumed.) But Chambers deftly took the reins and steered the story-cart away from tragedy in a way I didn’t know I needed so badly. (Highly recommend this book, if you hadn’t gathered that from my praise.)

Meanwhile, I’m still writing “Portent” — my alien werewolves had more story to tell than my successful slaying of NaNoWriMo’s word count (50,013 was my official winning count!), so I’m letting them carry me on to the end. I’d been debating the merits of a happy, hopeful ending to this book — despite all of the loss the characters will inevitably suffer — but after reading “Common Orbit,” I’m convicted. I’m going to give them a lifeline. I’m going to give the casual readers who pick up this book on a whim an unexpected little taste of hope.

Thank you to the writers who are out there telling hopeful stories. I cling to what you make. I strive to emulate it.

How bots make good storytellers

I love bots. My career is about natural language and language generation, and bots (will) sit right in that realm, when they’re done well. And it turns out that having a bot as a co-author creates a unique marketing opportunity.

I know a lot about designing bot-like things, but not so much about building them. So when I decided this summer I wanted to experiment with a storytelling bot for the Damn Shames characters, I went looking for a simpler option than coding my own. I found cheapbotsdonequick.com, set up a fresh Twitter account, and granted all the necessary permissions.

Then I had a delightful exercise before me that was half solving a logic puzzle, half dissecting the elements of a story. I had to come up with the moving parts, such as the character names I wanted to use or the actions the characters would be taking, and figure out how to nest them to form proper sentences (such as associating male characters with male pronouns).

After that, I had to write a bunch of sentences like this:

#ShamesName# is happy to see #AllCharactersName#.
#ShamesName# is yelling at the oorhunds.
#ShamesName# is eating space oranges in an attempt to ward off space scurvy.

And so on.

Each of those sentences (and the [now] hundreds of others I’ve written) has some random chance of being chosen and sent out as a Tweet on @ShamesBot every six hours. The Cheap Bots Done Quick service does some helpful stuff to ensure the bot is only generating 140 or fewer characters, so what I end up with is four published micro-stories a day.

Crazy, right?

There are definitely limitations to this very simple approach. (I’m not even using the advanced coding options CBDQ offers.) Sometimes, characters will interact with themselves in odd ways — “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab” — but that’s sort of what makes the bot an intriguing storyteller.

Because when I read “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab,” I don’t actually think, “Oh, the bot just put that in there twice.” I think, “Rahab would be as mean to herself as she is to everyone else. That explains why she’s so angry all the time… poor thing.” And suddenly I’ve invented this entire context for what is really a random generator’s weird glitch.

Humans look for the narrative; it helps us organize life’s chaos into something resembling coherence. When the bot produces chaos, the brain fills in the blanks. (Especially if you’ve already read the story the Tweets are about.)

And that’s the genius of a bot as a storyteller. You fill in the blanks for yourself. Bots are powerful narrative tool because their limitations leave so much room for the imagination to play — and when the imagination plays, it often claims what it plays with as its own. (Readers and writers of fan-fiction understand this concept well.)

You can build loyalty with this kind of cooperative storytelling. You can get someone to ask questions, or chime in with their own contributions. And it’s a really fun way to make your stories work for themselves.

NaNoWriMo 2017; or, I’m writing about werewolves now

A sharp chill is in the air. Writing season is officially upon me.

My friends and family know that November is NaNoWriMo month. According to my stats, I’ve participated 12 years now — TWELVE! — including a 10-year participation streak; and I’ve “won,” or written 50k words in November, three times. (I seem to recall four, but I might have stopped tracking on the website after a while when I was writing Daugment in 2014.)

So, yeah. It’s a tradition.

In 2014, I was working hard to establish myself in my then-new corporate job, so I told myself that if I was going to participate in NaNo, it had to be fun. It had to be all sorts of goofy and careless and unfettered, and only what I actually felt like writing.

The first draft of Daugment was an utter mess. But I loved it, because I could see the story it eventually came to be… and because it was really fun to write.

This year, I’m leaning into the success I had writing that book — with a wee bit more structure. I’ve taken some time the last month to get to know the story world and my characters Charra, Belario, and Minnor. I’ve let myself explore all sorts of random ideas, from scenes to plot points to recurring imagery, some of which I’ll keep and some of which will never make it in, thank goodness.

During the next two weeks, I’ll paw at my notes for this book (tentatively titled “Portent”) until it becomes something resembling a very rough outline. Then, as I do, I’ll go into a state of pseudo-hibernation for all but five or six days in November, and crank out 50,000 words of turd to polish. Or I won’t. I’m gonna try.

Oh, right. The werewolves.

Here’s my synopsis from the NaNo site:

Where did werewolves come from? Or, more simply: Wherewolves? Outer space, of course.

She’s the eldest child, a free-spirited dreamer. He’s the handsome son of a politician, the heir to a tiny far-flung empire-in-hiding. And he’s a wall guard — actually, he’s a member of a secret warrior society.

Maybe between the three of them, they can save Atlantis.

Yup. Alien-werewolves. You knew it wasn’t going to be that simple with me, didn’t you?

It’s MY platform.

One of my very enterprising peer-friends, Nikki, told me about a year ago that I needed to start getting my brand in order. My…brand? was my clueless response.

She meant the brand of my online presence, the composite virtual face I was presenting to the world. At the time, I had little more than a LinkedIn page and a personal Twitter account used for silly interactions with my colleagues.

Nikki’s advice was sound. I’ve been trying to be a self-published author who wants to make a living off her words. A blog is a terrible thing to waste.

It’s been slow going, this “building a platform” thing. I started cross-posting to my Twitter and Facebook page, tried to keep up a more regular rhythm of public writing, and even finally put together a Medium page last month. All these little bits of digital progress…and I still don’t feel like I have a coherent whole yet.

Today I sat down to think about that.

I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve refined my brand messages a few times, picked at my bios, and read numerous times through each blog post I do finally publish (though I still miss things). I’ve started, and then deleted, a lot of posts that I deemed incapable of carrying The Brand forward. I’ve evaluated the drafts of various lengths sitting in my digital folders with the critical twin lenses of Audience & Salability.

In fact, I’ve worked really hard to second-guess myself.

Wait, didn’t I just realize something just like this in another recent post? Funny. Almost like there’s a common thread here.

OK, so the problem has clarified: I’m not giving myself enough credit or taking myself seriously enough. What’s my solution?

For one thing, every time I feel the urge to write, and then stifle it with self-criticism, I’m going to tell myself: It’s MY platform.

Nikki was right. I do need a brand. My brand. My weird, off-beat brand of silly, lyrical storytelling — which is the same, if more thoroughly edited, in my novels. This is MY blog. Who cares if “the Medium audience” will read it? I want MY audience to read it.

Because here’s the thing. Writers write. Writing isn’t always fun. If I’m going to make writing a life-long, every-day kind of habit, not to mention summon the motivation I need to go through the editing and publishing processes on my own… Well, I’d sure as hell better write what I want to write.

And sometimes, all I want to write are sappy space pirate drabbles. Yes, sometimes, I do want to write serious essays about things in the world that make me think. Then there are times I’m struck with a spark and just want to re-capture the magic of a remembered moment.

This is where the brand part, the platform part comes in. If I want to establish who I am, what I’m about, and what kinds of writing my audience can expect from me, I have to put what I write out into the world. A lot of it. Quantity will beget quality, and hopefully, when there’s enough, a clear and simple identity will emerge.

And if what I write is space pirate drabbles, serious essays, and magical moments, well… that’s what I’ll be putting out into the world.

Rolling the story dice

I’m really grateful for the online community I built as a kid interested in the Redwall series. I might talk about it more at length another day, but for now, know that I grew up alongside a diverse group of creative people of all ages, many of whose art I still follow today. Carolyn Paplham is one of those people – she makes delightfully whimsical, imaginative art that could have come straight from my childhood stories.

She’s been posting some Inktober drawings lately, and in one of her pictures, I noticed she was using what looked like my creative kryptonite: physical random generators. So I asked about them. Turns out, they were Rory’s Story Cubes.

Needless to say, I acquired all three sets immediately. (If you only get one for yourself or an artistfriend, I recommend the original set.)

I’ve been tossing two or three cubes together at random intervals and jotting down the ideas that flow forth. I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (more on that in the days ahead!), so I’m spending time on my characters, plot points, and world details – meaning that more often than not, my Story Cube free-associations have given me fodder for November.

For example, one toss of the dice presented a thought bubble + a person in the act of being startled. I took it as an opportunity to jot down each of my main characters’ biggest fear, embarrassment, and hatred.

(I plan to use the outcomes of this exercise against my trio at every opportunity.)

Another toss got me thinking about a key moment early on in the story where the characters encounter something under light-hearted circumstances that, towards the end, becomes crucial to survival. I always want scenes in my books to serve at least two purposes, so when the dice showed a bowl of rice and a smiley face, I decided to make the light-hearted circumstances be visiting a miquil restaurant (for world-building purposes).

If I was reviewing Rory’s Story Cubes, I’d give them a 5/5. I’m all about embracing the little tics of imagination that lead to real inspiration, and the Cubes help me right along. Write along? Whatever. Yes.

The Almost-Authors: Jill Corddry

Almost-authors are people with projects the world hasn’t seen yet. They might be a few drafts or just a few cover letters away from being a published author…for the first or the tenth time. They haven’t made it to the finish line yet on this one – but I’m going to find out how they plan to get there.

Jill Corddry is a sunshine-loving Midwestern girl whose passion has always been for telling stories. These days, that’s mostly urban fantasy and darkly humorous short stories. She’s also a dear friend of mine and my writing partner of six years. We’ve created short story challenges for one another, co-written about half of a novel, and squealed over the other’s successes.

August Writes a Book: Why hello, writing partner-in-crime! I’m so happy you agreed to do this. Tell me all about what makes you an almost-author — what you’re working on that hasn’t been published yet.

Jill Corddry: I’m lucky enough to have had eight short stories published, mostly in 2013-14, but I’m in the process of querying and pitching my first novel. And by first novel, I mean the first one that’s fit to show anyone other than me, myself, and I! I’m “almost” because I’m so close I can taste it. My critique partners and beta readers have been so positive and encouraging that it gets me through all the rejection (past and pending).

August: So you’re pursuing traditional publishing for this book?

Jill: At this point, [yes], whether that’s with a large, medium, or an indie publisher, but I am open to the idea of self-publishing in the future, or for other projects.

August: So what’s the biggest obstacle between where you are now and seeing your book on shelves?

Jill: The slush pile. There are so many people who want to be an author, and they are in such a hurry they submit well before their manuscript is ready. I’m definitely guilty of this! I look back in horror at the early drafts I sent to agents.

I’ve learned over the years to take my time, write the story I want, get it to a freelance editor (and I cannot stress that enough: HIRE AN EDITOR!!!), and then off to a handful of trusted readers before I send it to any agents or publishers.

Also, myself. Not knowing when to stop working and start trying to get it out in the world. I joke that it’ll be done when it’s pried from my cold, dead fingers, but there’s some truth to it…I could tinker with one book for the rest of my life and never be fully satisfied with it. There will always be something to change, to add, to replace, to take out. Always.

That’s why writers need a team around them, to help them know when it’s time to stop and move on. That’s where I find a professional editor especially helpful.

August: What’s been most challenging in this whole process, and how did you move past it?

Jill: Working on a project for so long that [I] lose steam and interest in it. It’s very easy to get burned out on your WIP (work-in-progress). If I had to hazard a conservative estimate, I’d say I’ve read the story I’m currently querying over 100 times in the past seven years. I have had months where I hated every last word in in.

And that’s when it’s time to take a break. Maybe work on something else, especially if it’s a really different project. Or don’t. It’s okay not to write every day. Give your brain a vacation. Read, both in your genre and outside of it.

And sometimes I’m simply bogged down on a specific scene or chapter. Now, I’m a “pantser” (meaning I don’t write an outline first, I write by the seat of my pants). But I also don’t write the story in chronological order. So if a scene just isn’t coming to me, I move on to a section of the book that feels right. Or I might go back a few chapters and re-read it, looking for insight, places to add foreshadowing, that kind of thing.

I also find getting away from the laptop helps. I take a walk, have lunch with a friend, work in the garden, and all those words sort of come together subconsciously.

Give yourself permission to cut yourself some slack!

August: What are some of the small and annoying roadblocks in the course of this process, especially the ones that make you chuckle in hindsight?

Jill: How naive I was when I first got started. Like, I had no idea how long a book should be. At least not how the page count in a paperback measured up to a word count in my manuscript. Turns out the average 350 page novel is NOT 330,000 words. No, it’s more like 100,000. Yup. The first book I wrote was actually a trilogy, I just didn’t know it.

And that info is out there; all I had to do was google it. **sigh** But in many ways I’m glad I didn’t know. I’m still proud that I wrote a novel, even if it needs a lot of work and has been locked away in a cone of shame.

The internet is also a huge procrastination temptation, and it’s so easy for a five-minute break to become a 30-minute black hole. I’ve (partially) solved this by having one window with all my social media and a second with the tabs I’m using for research. Then I keep the first one minimized so I don’t see all the alerts popping up.

Find Jill on Twitter and Facebook.

Are you an almost-author? Would you like to talk to AWAB about your roadblocks and your master plan? Check out this post to get in touch!

Bonneville

I saw a video of a doggo on the internet today. Since there’s never been a doggo video on the internet before, I’ll wait here while you watch it.

Anyway, I was struck by a very visceral memory of being exactly where those dogs are, on the Bonneville salt flats (where they test land speed records and film car commercials).

I remembered the washed-out, dried-up grey earth that crumbled into footprints and smeared into dust. A harsh sea tang to the dry desert air and salt-crusted tires to match. My father, taking Dutch angle photographs of the family’s hair whipped wild by the wind.

We camped there for one night, alone on the flats. I was probably 13. I woke up to relieve myself and slipped out under a clear sky blooming with stars. The half-moon made it feel like half-day, like God had left the light on in Heaven’s hallway.

As I walked as far from the tent as I dared, I could tell things were watching me, sand spirits and desert beings, beady-eyed lizards and bugs.

The silvery soil sported a jagged network of lines across the entire flat, like flattened lightning. The cracks were deep enough to slide my fingers in as I tried to anchor myself to the world, lest I float away with the ghosts.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Irresistible

I’m sitting down with a “Now Write!” exercise book for speculative fiction (thank you, Half Price Books!) in front of me, and I’m having a little writercrisis.

See, I love brainstorming. And taking notes. And organizing those notes. And then brainstorming based on the incidental connections firing in my imagination.

But I guess I don’t really let myself call that “writing.”

As I was doing one of these exercises, I got that grippy hoarding feeling at the top of my stomach. (what? you don’t get that when you suddenly have an overflowing of ideas and want NO ONE ELSE TO KNOW ABOUT THEM until you have a chance to make them AMAZING for YOURSELF?! …oh. just me then.)

I started to think about all of the notes I wanted to write about these goofy composite ideas (The Lion King, but with aliens! and so on). And I realized I was about to chastise myself for wasting my time on more notes when what I really could be doing is writing another novel and…

SHUT UP, ME.

No. Seriously. Hold up. What about this, me? Try this on for size:

What if by brainstorming whichever random idea I want to brainstorm about, I develop a bunch of ideas to the point that I just. can’t. NOT. write. the stories?

Revolutionary, I know. Radical. Game-changing, even.

…but seriously, what if.

The best kind of theft

Until recently, I would start the process of creating a character by addressing a need: a genre need (like “strong heroine,” “handsome lover,” “funny sidekick”), a plot need (such as “someone to give my hero advice”), or a world need (as in “this stable needs a groom”). Then I would sketch out the vaguest outline of a character, and fill in the details as they became relevant.

As you might imagine, one-dimensional characters were a hallmark of my early stories.

KC the kitty cat’s entire thing was being stubborn and hating his name. Willow the otter could be (and often was) summed up in two words: steady leader. Ata, griffon-riding warrior that she was, only ever expressed herself by swearing in gibberish (Wu zxy Sohn!).

Much to my chagrin, I’ve never been one of those writers to whom full-fledged characters present themselves, ready to be written. (I envy my dear friend Jill for having this particular writertrait.) Instead, I have to hunt them down and make them reveal themselves.

Because I wasn’t very good at hunting them down, every line my characters used to utter sounded wooden and hammy. It isn’t uncommon to find lines like this scattered throughout my largest complete manuscript: “Then if it be the will of those whose bodies are not whole…I will allow it.” Blegh. Nope.

While I was writing Daugment, trying to capture Pitney’s reaction to a well-intended but ill-timed gesture, a realization sort of struck me. (Sort of, because every good writing book I ever read probably mentioned it somewhere, and it took one weird moment of clarity for everything I’d ever read and heard to fall into place.)

I just had to borrow the heck out of the people I knew in real life.

It only took a minute or two longer to identify someone in real life who shared traits with Pitney, ask myself what they would do under the circumstances, and waltz past my writer’s block.

Now, I start with someone I know. I still consider the genre, plot, and world needs I’m addressing when sketching out my characters, but I immediately choose a real person who at least shares some core traits. Even if I know I want the final product to stray far from the source, or be a composite of multiple people, I ground my inspiration in reality.

So what kind of things do I steal from my friends, family, coworkers, and mortal enemies?

Their mannerisms. So much about how a person uses their physical presence tells you about their personality and motivations. The way they walk, the way they sit. Their ticks and tells. How they shrink into themselves or expand outward when surrounded by an audience. The specific ways they gesture when they speak; their personal sign language. A list of all of the little aspects of body language and paralinguistics might go on forever, and each one you add to your character is a tiny brushstroke of relatability.

Their physical traits. You can directly rip off entire descriptions of people you know, but risk of “resemblance to real people” aside, I think the best characters are composites. They’re the kind of people who make your reader say, I know someone just like this! But I do advise snagging especially striking physical details from your dear friends and frenemies, and mixing them with less notable details from others for a realistic blend.

Their speaking styles. My dad has a peculiar way of butchering common phrases (“You couldn’t hit a brick!” is a family favorite); I’d recognize it anywhere. Take these tendencies to mis-speak, repeat certain words, lay the catch phrases on thick, drop into phony accents, and invent colorful swears… and watch your dialog perk up and come to life.

Their reactions. People don’t all grieve the same way. They don’t all process anger in the same way. They react to times of self-doubt, hunger of the soul, or intense joy differently from one another. In the interest of “show don’t tell,” watching how those around you uniquely express their strongest emotions will give you more to say than, “He grieved deeply,” or, “She was gripped by a deep joy.”

Their secrets. Some secrets would be dark to anyone, but the little secrets one person is desperate to keep are simply the daily routine for someone else. (For instance: a “secret” of my own I’ve often given my characters is a fear of water + darkness. Not such a juicy secret for a writer, but could be a great secret for a world-class diving instructor…) Collecting these from people you know gives you a good variety of shameful and silly. Caution: you must be very gentle when stealing someone’s secrets, lest you pin them on their keeper in the public square. If you’re going to use someone’s secret that you know about, make everything else about the character you give it to different from the real secret-bearer.

Their personal histories. What was her first job? Where did he have his first kiss? Who gave them the advice that catapulted their career? Where someone comes from, their formative experiences and the places they come from… these things can really inform how someone presents, thinks, speaks, and acts in the present.

Their family relationships. Depending on the family, it represents a juicy source of conflict or a solid grounding force in someone’s life; comedy gold, or a ball-and-chain tragedy. Choose a genuine family dynamic you know and can observe, and draw from their interactions to inform your character’s relationships with their own family members. Figure out who advises whom and whose praise is impossible to win. Jot down the kinds of conversations held over an ordinary dinner or a holiday dinner.

Their Meyers-Briggs profiles. This last one is a tried-and-true technique I use to quickly draw the “boundaries” around a new character. Once I’ve picked someone I know who shares some traits on the above lists with my character, I then take a free Meyers-Briggs personality test as if I were the other person. I answer the questions the way I imagine they would answer them. Then, using the results, I browse the myriad web resources on Meyers-Briggs personality types, which give me a sense of the strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, and conflict management techniques I should give my character.

Cheatsheets

Not so long ago, we Damn Shames took on an interesting project that lasted about a year. We love writing about digital spaceships, and so when a client wanted us to make some buyer’s guide-style content for their website using Star Citizen game assets and our imaginations, we went for it.

First, we created something we thought the client might like and sent it off for feedback. Then we incorporated the feedback and got the first final product approved for text and images. At that point, knowing that I would be one of two writers on the project, I set out to make a template we could both follow.

I took that first product, knowing what the client liked about it and what we should emphasize going forward, and sketched out a basic template: introduction, elevator pitch, physical description, full sales pitch, anecdotes, and conclusion. I knew that structure had produced a successful outcome, and it was broad enough to be applied across a spectrum of spaceship styles.

From there on out, the other writer and I leaned heavily on that template. We used it to sketch out what we needed to deliver every two weeks. Every guide we produced felt tailored to that specific ship – but overall they felt like they all belonged to the same series. And we always knew what was left in the project.

Much like the five-paragraph essay format, a “cheatsheet” like this gives you a comfortable structure to fall back on when you just can’t pull something truly creative out of your ass. It’s okay if you don’t always feel original. Life – and writing in particular, I think – falls into a set of familiar tropes for a reason: people like when something feels right. You don’t have to be lazy – just learn when to rely on a formula that works.

Paid writers get repetitive projects. It’s not a sin to make yourself a cheatsheet. I look at it this way: any time I can free up in my paid writing process, I can spend on my creative writing. (Does that always happen? Nah.)

Here’s how I suggest going about making your own repetitive project cheatsheet:

  • Make at least one that you’re happy with (or that your client is happy with). Set it aside for a few days.
  • Go back through the piece and mark out its basic structure. What elements hold it together and make it work? Look for repeatable patterns and distinguishable segments.
  • Write up the template. Make sure you have examples or explanations where necessary, especially if others will be using the same cheatsheet.
  • Copy it each time you want to start a new project so you don’t have to begin with a blank page!

Books and bytes