Why are you the Person to Tell This Story?

Why are you the Person to Tell This Story?

I found that question in a query form for an agent that I reached out to. For those of you who don’t know querying is like your book applying for a job, save with more rejection. Agents want various degrees of things to query them. The most essential being a query letter…that and a completed, edited, beta-read, edited several more times, novel. But the query letter is the most important because most aren’t going to make it to your novel.

Why are you the person to tell this story?

I stared at that question for a very long time, but not because it was difficult. I knew the answer right away, it escaped me like a gasp, like a laugh, like a god damn growl. “Because it’s mine.”

As writers we all bump into stories that aren’t ours and sometimes tell them anyway. Maybe it’s something that happened to a friend, or anecdote we heard at a party, a footnote in a history book that we found intriguing, or an article we read online that begged to grow a plot and expand off the page, something that needs research and care and that question ‘Why are you the person to tell this story?’ But a novel? But my novel?

The pitch for my novel, The Beast of Domarr Fell, is Beowulf meets Yojimbo. I’m not the person to tell this story because I can read Old English or have a deep understanding of the works of Akira Kurosawa, I can’t and I don’t. The pitch is the pitch, the novel is the characters, and they are made of me.

Fianna’Dale bard to the High King of the Vottr, is filled with my confidence and shaped by my humor, formed from what I think is clever and what I think is brave. Isha, young seer, daughter of warriors and thralls, lost to angst and power and struggle of identity, is shaped by teenage years and battles with insecurities and the constant search for self. Dayur, the Red Druid, reluctant monster hunter, tired old man forged of guilt and fear with a paunch, baldhead and red beard is so very obviously made of me.

Dayur is bond to a familiar, called Whisper. She is a half-formed ghost covered in a cloak made of moth wings and is always hungry. She screams and throws tantrums and rages within him and her needs determine much of Dayur’s life. Dayur and Whisper were bond when Dayur was twelve and forever he has questioned if there is something wrong within him. The other druid children received familiars in the shape of birds and foxes, while he received a banshee that can’t touch or move or live without him.

Much of my childhood felt fragile, made up of responsibility and failure and the constant sense that I had done something wrong, that sense grew and transformed into a fear that I, in fact, was something wrong. And from there, were struggles with phantoms that raged and hated me and called me the worse possible things and yet also needed so much of my attention. 

My life is not dramatic. I didn’t team up with my anxiety and depression to slay monsters. I didn’t confront or resolve my phantoms the way Dayur does. My pain was not epic like his. It was born of small days and likewise quiet and small defeats that I eventually overcame. And I have had love and support and second chances that Dayur never got.

He is also quite different from me and not just because he’s a Viking warrior with a battle axe. He’s kinder than me with near infinite patience. He’s quiet and solitary and I’m not. I talk way too much, especially when I get nervous like Fianna. Dayur has trouble talking to people at all. He is of my image, made from parts I wish I had and parts I’m glad I don’t have, but all of them are of me.

Even the characters that feel farthest from me have my philosophy, have my understanding of the world or are shaped in opposition to it, or come from questions of it. At the very least they are born of a world that works by my logic and are funny or stupid or cruel by what I deem to be so.

Now, because it’s my novel, it’s imperfect. Hell, it might even be bad. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. It’s probably too long. I keep wading in and trimming it, but I never can seem to get it down as much as I would like. The plot might be too cliched, it’s certainly not revolutionary, but I’m proud of it. I’m proud of my characters, mined from me, shaped by my words but living their own lives. Me and not me, but certainly all mine. Just as ‘The Beast of Domarr Fell’ is mine.

So why am I the person to tell this story? Because I’m the only one that possibly could.

Writing in Pandemic

Writing in Pandemic

I love to write. Nothing in this world makes me feel as instantaneously contented and accomplished as sitting down and working on a novel. Since 2011, I’ve always had a book I’m working on. I could have a bad day, hate my job, feel all alone, get terrible news and I would sit down and write. And after I wrote, I would always feel better, always. You would think then that during 2020, I would have written a lot.   

But I didn’t.

I look back and search for reasons: I chose the wrong projects, I made the mistake of hoping too much after a couple literary agents asked for a previous manuscript, I was too depressed after I lost my job. All of it feels true and yet none of it is satisfying.

2020 was a bad year for everyone. The pandemic still rages across the US and I’m very much in the same spot right now as I was a year ago (don’t worry, I got a new job). It’s hard to try and wring a lesson out of the year. When we frame the stories of our lives, they take the structure of cause and effect, they become struggles, battles fought and lost.

2020 doesn’t feel like a dragon I slayed, nor one that consumed me. It’s more like a dragon that I lived beside which occasionally snapped at me or blew smoke in my face. It changed the environment around me, made everything seems suspect and different. It was existential, proof that the rules of our time are so very arbitrary. It turned the future murky, robbing us of the gift of expectation as well as the necessity of other people.

My writing slowed in 2020, but it didn’t disappear. I found that the normal cycle of my ‘productivity’ where, I’m usually good for two weeks—to a month and then collapsed into a couple of days of funk, got supercharged. I’d write for a week and then spend all weekend playing video games or lying on the couch eating chips (poppcorners are my favorite). It got so bad at times that it felt like every other day I was hitting a ‘funk’.

I never found a solution to the ‘funk’ problem or 2020, but I kept going. I have a project now that feels light in tone and yet substantive enough to pursue and after a couple of rocky first draft chapters it’s starting to enter a good flow. I don’t know how long that flow will last.

It’s hard to hold on to much of anything during pandemic, everything fuses together. There is no slaying the dragon, no triumph that gives us closure, just a hundred thousand little struggles that stretch, and stretch and stretch. I don’t know when things will be back to ‘normal’ and normal itself will change from this. But I do know that for right now, today, that after I finish writing this, I will feel contented and accomplished and I’m going to hold on to that feeling for as long as it lasts.   

The Importance of Journaling

The Importance of Journaling

Over the weekend I hung out with a friend who wants to write a play. She asked for writing suggestions. I told her to start a journal.

Journaling is the most important thing that any writer or anyone who wants to start writing can do. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was twelve, but I didn’t consider myself a writer until after college when I started a journal. Thanks that journal I write every day. I’ve improved in all elements of my writing and have six hundred-page novels to share.

For most people journal writing conjures up images of mole skin notebooks with dear diary written in looping cursive, but that’s not exactly, what I mean. When I say journal, I mean a space, be it a word processor or notebook, where you sit down for at least twenty minutes and write. It doesn’t matter what you write in that space, it just matters that you do it and do it every day.

Writing, like exercising or learning a musical instrument, is hard. It requires practice and that’s what the journal is, your practice. You have to force yourself to do it, especially when you’re first starting. After a long day of work, you’re not going to want to do anything, even write, same is true if you get up at five am and try to squeeze in a writing secession before work. You have to make it a habit.

I write at least a paragraph in my journal every day before I start a writing secession. It’s how I limber up my creative muscles. My journal is freeing, I write whatever I want. I don’t care about quality or the mistakes I make. I write as fast as the thoughts come to me and I write down all my thoughts, no matter how bad, or lazy or mean they are. Most of my thoughts are just boring. 90% of my journals start with the phrase, ‘I’m tired and I don’t want to write.’

When I journal I don’t tend to write fiction. Instead, it’s more like a compressed dairy. I’ll write a summary of my day or talk about something that’s bothering me. I use the journal to plan a lot: review goals and progress. I will talk about writing ideas I have as well as what I liked or didn’t like about the book I’m reading or game I’m playing. It’s a lot like a less polished, more personal version of this blog.

My journal is also home to some of my best writing, entries that I love stumbling over again and remind me that I can actually do this thing! But it’s also home to my absolute worse writing, a reminder that I need to stay sharp and edit. Because I have horrible penmanship and spelling, I keep my journal in google docs which makes revisiting old entries easy. I can trace my progression as a writer, as well as other goals, see where I’ve succeeded or fallen behind.

There are also wellness benefits to keeping a journal, so many in fact that even if I didn’t want to be a novelist I would still journal. It let’s me slow down and organize my thoughts. I can dissect what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. It also helps me vent. I can write my roommate a nasty letter without ruining our friendship or formulate what I’m going to say at my next work review. I always feel better after I journal, even if I write nonsense or something I wouldn’t say out loud.

Journaling alone won’t write your novel or script, but it gives you tools you need to accomplish those dream projects. It teaches you about your own writing, about setting habits and enhances your critical thinking. It also does the important work of letting you know yourself better. Journaling doesn’t just improve your writing, it improves you too.

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

After years of toiling on two drafts of Ghets, my latest novel, I proudly declared on Facebook that I was looking for beta-readers. Friends and family immediately requested copies, showering me with support. I felt loved and ready to share…but then had to stall. There was just one little problem with the latest draft of Ghets, about half the things in it were missing names.

I love worldbuilding: creating towns and creatures, different legends and cultures, but I absolutely hate naming them. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s more that I want to get the name absolutely right and nothing will gum up your writing flow quicker than trying to come up with a name on the fly.

My practice for name generation is to brute force it. Open a fresh word doc and start writing down ever name, sound and spelling that comes to mind. I start with existing names and words to build my new name out of, like Elisette, Odvid and the Uldritch Pit Lords. Maelator, my chief antagonist, I got from chopping a bunch of different words up and mashing them together. I was going for a name that sounded like the big bad from a Saturday morning cartoon and I think I nailed it.

Once I created one new name, it led to others. It make sense that people from the same group would sound have similar sounding names. The chief god of my orcs is named ‘Kor’ so there’s a lot of ‘kors’ and ‘or’s in their naming scheme (maybe too many) there’s the fortress of Korragorra, and Kaikor Reez and her brother Kalighor.

My biggest stumbling block to name creation turned out to be Google. I would come up with the perfect name only to google it and find out it was already the name of a small village in India or the last name of some guy in Uruguay or was in use on the World of Warcraft forums (or all three).

It got to the point where I would spend my writing time for that day playing with different names or tweaking the spelling to create something un-google-able. Finally, I had enough. When I came to a person, place or thing that needed a proper name I just wrote ‘BLANK’ in all caps. It was a revolution.

I was back to writing, back to creating. My writing flow was coursing again uninterrupted. The Angular fish people of the Dark Sea were the BLANK, as were the lizard-like citizens of the Underraod who they fought and raided with the help of the BLANK pit lords. Markus’s magic sword BLANK clashed against Maelator’s magic sword the Jaws of BLANK. And then there was the time BLANK grabbed BLANK’s BLANK and bashed BLANK into the walls of BLANK cathedral.

After I finished Draft II I reread the novel and realized that it was unreadable to anyone, but myself. By some miracle I had remembered what all the BLANKs referred too, but it was a mess. I spent several days creating random fantasy names and waded back into the novel replacing BLANKS with names from my list or giving them more generic ones. I’m still at it even now. I have a hundred pages still to go, hunting down the BLANKs.

But I don’t regret the decision to BLANK myself. When creating drafts, especially rough ones, nothing is more important than just writing. What I do regret is not going with a name more often, no matter how bad or just using one that’s already taken. Everything is already a name, it’s not like Jose Duomarco from Uruguay is every going to read my novel and realize that I used his last name for a port city.

Readers will forgive a good character with a bad name. Besides, it’s only draft II, names can change! And speaking off, anyone have ideas on how to make really good fantasy names? I still have more BLANKS to fill.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!