The Next Project

I have put Progeny aside and let it stew. Some folks are checking it out for me and while I’m waiting for some feedback, I’m starting the next book. It’s based on a screenplay that I wrote 15 years ago. I’ve always thought it would be a better book or comic book series than a movie, but I found screenwriting a more comfortable format. I think the bare structure of a screenplay is just how I’ve trained myself to think all these years. Part of that is because I’ve come at writing as a filmmaker, but also because I get impatient when writing. I want to say the guy is in the room and here’s what he said so I can get on to the next plot point instead of providing heavy description of the guy and the room. But that’s movies. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m leaving out 990 of them. So with this next project, I’m going to relax and write as much as possible to reset the habit in my brain.

Here’s something I realized as I’ve been reading: when I read a book I like, I read slowly and when I read something I don’t like, I skim. I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and loved it. It has a few mini tells in the middle that give away the ending (granted, I’m cursed with figuring out the endings of jokes, stories, and movies before most), but it was really well put together and fun to read even when I knew how it was going to end. I read it in two days, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I caught every word and read my favorite parts twice. Before and since, I read some self-published sci fi that wasn’t strong. The pieces were highly reviewed on Amazon and I thought even if the writing isn’t great, the storytelling or ideas might be interesting. I got impatient with them almost immediately. The description was either pointless, predictable, or both. The stories had unnecessary characters or the main character knew too much without being privy to the information. Worst of all, the ideas were gimmicky and everything hinged on a wafer thin concept.

When I first saw The Matrix, I was floored by how many great ideas were packed into the story. I thought even one small element – like deja vu indicates lag in the matrix – could be its own story. You could harvest dozens of movies, books, comics, or games using that one movie as a source. These three or four self-pubbed ebooks I read prove that you couldn’t and shouldn’t. A small idea with no depth isn’t enough to sustain a novel. As a result, I flew through the pages hoping to find some kernel of awesome to make reading these books worth the effort. And didn’t find any.

So herein lies the rub. I believe Progeny reads the way it does because I was impatient with it. The story didn’t have the substance and depth I wanted as a reader. Since I was reading as I was writing, I literally skimmed the writing. I knew the idea was thin and the best part would be the ending so I cranked past all the development and skipped the meat that can make a simple story great. In other posts, I blamed it on my experience as a screenwriter, but now I realize it’s because the quality of writing and the strength of the idea didn’t satisfy my experience as a reader.

This next project will take much longer. I’m determined to write and enjoy the process of reading as I’m putting the words down. I know you’re supposed to always work to get to the end of the story, but I’ll take the slow road this time.

Forking Ideas!

I’m over the one year mark on my first book. In that time, I’ve changed jobs, remodeled my house, traveled, taught classes, played Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, cleaned up surveillance videos for a private eye, shot a movie, edited part of that movie, and read a lot of books. Even so, I had plenty of time to work on Progeny. I can’t use time as an excuse for not being finished, even though it’s a handy one that I can reach from the couch. On average, it has taken me 3 hours to write a 2,000 to 2,500 word chapter. 16 chapters, 48 hours, right? Even if we double it and round it up to 100 hours, then calculate for 3 hours per writing period, then add a few for contingency and doubt, all I needed was 50 writing periods over the past year. I’m talking just for a first draft, not a polished version, but still, that’s barely once a week. Three hours once a week? Feels like I did a lot more writing than that. Why isn’t the book done?

This book is my first attempt at a long-form prose narrative. I can’t really call it a “novel” because it’s going to come up just over 30,000 words. I’ve seen charts where people call a novella anything between 20,000 to 50,000 so let’s call it that. The internet has also informed me that novella length is ideal for electronic publishing. A positive! And positives are important when venturing into a new personal frontier. When I start anything new (a script, de-hoarding project, etc), I want a lot of yes men around. People who are there at the launch of the ship. Thing is, support is easy to come by in the early going.

“Can’t wait to read your novel!”
“Novella.”
“What’s a novella?”
“Not as long as a novel. Ideal for electronic publishing.”
“Oh… Yay!”

But now it’s a year later, and people have stopped asking about the book. Actually, they stopped asking six months ago. Scratch support as a motivation to get the book done. But I can’t blame that, either. I’ve always preferred to work under the RADAR, then re-emerge with a first draft. Sometimes I reveal the completed draft to people who didn’t know I was writing it instead of the people who were asking about it way back when. It’s like refreshing the promise. If I give it to someone who asked about it last year, they’re not as pumped as those who never knew you were trying for it. But that hasn’t really affected me one way or another. Let’s do the numbers: chapters written in first six months = 4, chapters written since people stopped asking about the book = 10. So I don’t need external motivation, why isn’t the book done?

I’ll tell you why. All these forking ideas. Yes, I’m being funny. And yes, I’ve thought of all the other ways of using “forking” to hilarious effect. I will giggle each time I use it in a sentence, but the truth is, as I sit down to write Progeny, I get distracted by all the other stuff I want to write. A full year ago, I wrote this entry about managing ideas. I was really good about sticking to my “Not Main Idea Day” for a really long time. But in the past few months, I have not only had trouble with distractions from other ideas, but these ideas are splintering into more ideas. I feel like every time an idea forks, I end up with two or three different ideas that might even work together. Complicated! The whole concept behind Progeny is that it was simple, self-contained, and digestible for both reader and writer.

It’s gotta be anxiety. I’m anxious about finishing this book. I’m anxious about what to do next. I’m anxious about how much energy my new Dean of Education job is burning. All that anxiety is bad for focus. The only thing that has helped so far is reading. Reading helps me focus and reminds me of the satisfaction of completing something.

I read the first three Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books in the past month. Really good. Even if you don’t like fantasy (which is light in these books), they are great reading. The style is casual and immersive. Since then, I’ve tried to get into other books, but it’s obvious when the author is trying too hard. The description will be clunky and forced, the dialog is that times ten, and the plot is either overly elaborate or non-existent. Why can’t all books have the sustained tension and satisfaction of Game of Thrones? GRR Martin’s background in TV is evident. He can interweave multiple story lines and keep you reading. But that was with the first three books. It is said that he was stressed out writing the fourth book and it shows. Even though I’ve just started it, the style is different. The confidence and constantly-moving story is gone. In short, GRRM was anxious and his mind wandered. In the first four chapters, it’s apparent that he wasn’t focused on his story.

Am I comparing my skill to GRRM? No. But it does feel like a distant camaraderie has formed with someone who struggles the way I do. Read Feast of Crows and see if you agree. Then keep that in mind if you ever get the chance to read Progeny.

New Fire

My new favorite things are the pilot for Terra Nova and the website Brain Pickings. Before you stop reading, hear me out.

First, Brain Pickings. It’s a blog of interesting things this person finds around the internet. Always intellectual. Always interesting. Never pop-culture-y or affected. Love it. It makes me think about all the cool stuff that’s out there that I’ve never heard of and reminds me that I’ll never know everything. Which is a good feeling for someone who likes to learn new stuff. Definitely add it to your Twitter and/or RSS feed. And if you have a few bucks, donate.

Now for Terra Nova. I thought the pilot was pretty cheeseball. Then I thought, “Oh, they’re going for a mid-level, family audience.” So then I thought maybe the cheeseball was purposeful and appropriate. Nothing too challenging, nothing too dark. Like ST:NG or a watered-down Jurassic Park. But ultimately, it didn’t move me like early episodes of Walking Dead, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, or any other kick ass show that surprises you with how kick ass it actually is. So why am I listing it as a favorite thing this week? Because I got a hold of the pilot script. And guess what? It’s not strong. But even better than that, I can see how greatly improved the pilot is over the script. Whomever re-wrote the pilot for production really made some great adjustments. Particularly in the opening “teaser” ten minutes. They took out tons of VO, dialog, and standing around. They made everything into action and not discussion. The same story elements were there, just converted into actor movement and visual context. Watching the show while following along with the script was like a shot in the arm for me.

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been working on some Earth-based sci fi stuff for a production company with no guarantees of anything, only the request to read my stuff. I have the story broken down into “chapters” which will easily become “episodes” but I was worried that if I blasted out a pilot script, I would need a great cliffhanger to keep the show going. Reading the Terra Nova script pretty much cleared my mind of any concerns. A) Because the producers reading it will change everything around once they’ve read it. And B) because the script feels like it was written pretty quickly. These writers had a great idea and blasted something out that would be readable and have the key plot points in obvious time markers for commercial breaks and the finale. So yeah, it went through a bunch of re-writes. Why wouldn’t it?! I don’t know why I thought I would have to deliver genius in the first draft. Maybe it’s a procrastination/avoidance technique that I’m using subconsciously. Either way, I’m back on pen and paper and moving forward.

UPDATE: A while back, I read a book by Ania Ahlborn called SEED. It’s a self-published novel about a deal with the devil. It was a fun, fast read (worth way more than the .99 I paid for it on Kindle), but I thought, “How is this thing selling so crazy well?” Then I found out from her blog the book got picked up by Amazon’s print publishing division AND she’s talking to Paramount about movie rights. Whoa. Then I saw this post, and I tied it back to my Terra Nova experience. If you check it out, she has very graciously posted an image of the revisions in Word from the Amazon people. There’s a LOT. Just like Terra Nova, people saw the great idea and picked it up even if they wanted to make a bunch of changes or clarifications. The lesson? Forge ahead! Be the bull in the china shop and smash your way through to completion. If the idea is there, people will get it. Maybe it will end up a cheeseball TV show, but I bet you that’s something compared to the nothing you get when you don’t finish anything.