Keeping Score: February 28, 2020

Sometimes what feels like a really good week is followed by a bad one.

For example, this week, in which I’ve only written 329 words.

It’s frustrating. Just when I felt like I was getting back in the groove of jogging, writing, and work, two things brought progress to a shuddering halt: I got injured, and I switched from editing back to writing new scenes.

The injury was relatively minor. I had a planter’s wart on the underside of my big toe that my dermatologist finally had enough of and burned off. Worth it, for sure, but that put a crimp in my jogging schedule.

And the new scenes are…maybe a mistake. There’s a sequence towards the end of the book where the POV character travels from one of the station to the other, witnessing the disaster that’s just befallen it.

She’s mostly on her own, in the original sequence, which made it easier to write, but didn’t feel as realistic to me. I mean, the chance she’s going to go from one end to the other without seeing anyone are small.

Plus, I think it drains the whole stretch of a bit of tension. If most of the danger has passed, including the danger of discovery, then what’s going to pull the reader through the passage?

So I’m trying out a version where she does get discovered, and has to talk (or trick) her way out of it.

I think it’ll be better, but it means I’ve got to invent three new characters, their personalities, and enough of their backstories to make them believable. Oh, and also make up what they were doing when they discovered the POV character, and how they go about it.

Not to mention getting the POV character to tell me how she escapes from the mess she’s now in.

I’m telling myself that it’ll all be worth it once I’ve got the new version done…But until then, it’s slow progress each day, as I spend more time outlining now than setting words on the page.

Astroturf Ahoy!

It’s as green as she can get, Captain!

When my wife first suggested we put artificial turf down in the yard, I was skeptical. I remembered it as a plasticky, fake-looking thing that had all the charm and appeal of listening to that teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off call roll for hours.

I’m so glad I was wrong!

What we have instead is a soft, green, grassy place for the pups to romp and play. And for us to sit out and eat, when they allow it 😉

Can’t wait to take it for a spin as a writing spot this afternoon during lunch!

Spotlight on Local Author: Tone Milazzo

Intro

I met Tone Milazzo through the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse group hosted by Jonathan Maberry. I’ve known him for a couple of years now, and I still don’t know how he has time for all of his projects.

When not running the podcast for a local publisher or play-testing his own Fate Core modules, Tone’s preparing for grad school, scripting comics, and writing novels.

His first book, Picking Up the Ghost, came out in 2011 from Chizine. A follow-up, The Faith Machine, will be out in May, from Running Wild Press.

Tone took some time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk with me about his process, writing diverse characters, and how “Done is Beautiful.”

Writing Process

To start, can you talk a bit about your writing process? When you’re designing a novel or a short story, are you a pantser? Are you a plotter?

Definitely a plotter. And the outline for Picking up the Ghost, was something like 12 pages long, which I thought was a full outline. But I definitely, as I got to the middle, I needed to stop and do some more outlining. The story was coming to an end too soon.

When I outlined my second novel, The Faith Machine, it was 77 pages long. That’s a page per scene. Now that’s an outline.

77 pages, wow! What do you actually have in your outline?

It’s a bullet point list: plot points, foreshadowing, and payoffs. Sometimes there’s dialogue snippets in there, if something occurs to me at the time. It’s mostly about where the characters are coming in, what changes, and where the characters are coming out at the end of the scene. Kind of like a method or function in computer programming.

Kurt Vonnegut said every scene should either move the plot forward or move the character forward. So it’ll be either one of those two.

Ideally it’s nice if you can do both in the scene, without jamming too much in there.

When I first started writing, I would put way too much stuff into a scene. Now I’m trying to keep it to one or two changes or insights per scene.

Other things in the outline…Sometimes it’s pop-cultural references, like I’ve put something in the scene that’s supposed to evoke something from another book, classic literature or something like that. In Picking up the Ghost there was a lot of occult symbolism. A lot of tarot card stuff. There are some scenes that are supposed to evoke the Major Arcana.

Do you ever get feedback on the outline?

It’s mostly for me.

Though if there’s an idea that I’m not sure will work, I’ll try to compartmentalize that idea and pitch it to people. Ask them: “Do you think this thing is going to be okay?”

That’s about it. I don’t want anyone to look at my outline or my first draft. It’s too messy.

Nobody?

Yeah, it’s terrible. Especially the first draft for sure. The first draft of Picking up the Ghost, there was a sentence in there, “He stuck a stick in the spot. The stick was stuck.”

Oh God.

Yeah. I think I wrote the first half and got distracted and then wrote the second half, forgetting that I wrote the first half.

When outlining, is there any particular technique you use for building your plots?

So Picking up the Ghost was definitely me trying to invert as much of the hero’s journey as possible.

The typical interpretation of the hero’s journey in fantasy is an orphan with a destiny, who finds a magic sword, and has a magical mentor. It’s basically King Arthur, right? People are cop-opting King Arthur.

So I decided to take that list and make it a manifesto for the book. Instead of an orphan, the protagonist is dealing with family issues. Instead of being some sort of knight, he’s a shaman. And he has mentors, but they’re not trustworthy mentors.

I also wanted to make it American instead of European. So that’s where his ethnicity comes in. Being biracial: African-American and white.

The African-American culture, my attitude is, that’s the most American culture. Even like what most books think of as American, which would be like a rural white culture, that’s traceable in a straight line right back to Europe.

Whereas African-Americans had their culture stripped from them by the slave trade. They had to rebuild themselves from the ground up on this soil.

The Faith Machine isn’t YA. How did you build that one?

So for the second book, I wanted it to be Hollywood friendly. I looked at something called the Save the Cat outline for screenwriting. It’s a 15-point plot, and that’s the spine of that story.

It’s the first time I used that, and I discovered that it’s probably a little short to fill an entire novel. A movie is about a novella in length. Fortunately, because I had an ensemble cast, I had a bunch of b-plots that I could use to fill out the page count.

With all this time spent on the outline, what’s your editing process like?

Go over it again and again until my eyes bleed, and it’s never enough.

For The Faith Machine, because the outline has such a deep understanding of what the story is supposed to be, I didn’t have to do quite the extensive rewriting that I used to, like I did on the Picking up the Ghost.

When I wrote out the first draft of a scene, it was a scene I’d been thinking about for over a year, so I knew how it is going to play out.

And even when it got to editorial, I had two editors, one that I paid for and then one from the publisher. And the one that I paid for, it was mostly grammar and little details.

The one from the publisher, he lived on the East coast, and he had some thoughts about the opening scene. On The Faith Machine there’s two characters who are in charge of the team traveling around the East coast, activating all the agents in person. But the order that they activated in was not a good commute. So stuff moved around just because I didn’t realize that this place and that are more than a day’s drive away. Minor stuff like that.

Picking Up the Ghost

In the acknowledgements of Picking Up the Ghost, you mentioned that it was a five year process to get the book together. Can you talk a bit about that?

I think for that one I found a publisher fairly quickly. I think the process of finding a publisher was under a year. Which was stellar compared to The Faith Machine.

The biggest chunk of time came when I had the book finished, and I workshopped it with three of my friends. None of them liked the second half of the book. So I had to rewrite the entire second half.

I had taken Cinque (the main character – ed.) into what I call the Halfway World. So it still looked like St. Jude (Cinque’s home town – ed.), but there was nobody else there with him.

And what I’d done was, I didn’t realize that they liked the supporting cast so much, and I took all them away.

How long did that take you to rewrite?

That was about probably about another year.

A lot of revising by myself. Some moments where I just wasn’t writing for a few months at a time. Distractions, like World of Warcraft.

Most people’s first book usually takes a few years though, from what I hear. Even Jonathan Maberry says he took three years to write his first book.

Working on the same book for five years, how do you keep yourself going?

It’s the opposite of the sunk cost fallacy.

How’s that?

The sunk cost fallacy is the attitude of, we’ve put this much time and effort and money into a project, so we have to see it through. That’s a fallacy, because maybe this isn’t worth finishing and to throw more money and time and effort into that pit is not worthwhile.

Whereas in a novel, if you’ve written 70,000 words, then you only need 20,000 to finish. If you don’t finish it, then you literally have wasted all that time.

And I think that’s where the sunk cost fallacy is not a fallacy. Because books take so long to write. And nobody’s going to read a book that’s 95% done.

An artist I knew said something they taught in art school is: Done is beautiful.

I take that as a mantra. Think about all your favorite pieces of art, what do they have in common?

They’re all finished.

Exactly.

Why set Picking Up the Ghost in a town along the Mississippi?

So, I knew I wanted the protagonist to be African-American. And then I picked a location. I wanted it to be a living ghost town.

It was going to be Detroit. We all hear these stories about urban decay in Detroit, right? Which would have been a good choice, except a friend of mine turned me on to East St. Louis.

He showed me a book about East St. Louis’s history. And it’s like the Detroit situation, but far, far worse. It was literally a company town and the local government was in service of either the metallurgy companies or the mining companies, I forget which.

And then when the industry was done with it, it abandoned the place. Everybody who had money left. And there were people left who didn’t have money, didn’t have the resources to leave.

Consequently, it was the descendants of the African-American workers who had come to work the low-end jobs in the factories and production that are still there.

So did you actually go to East St. Louis? What sort of research did you do?

When I was in the Marine Corps I got to meet people from that part of the country, so I got some perspective there. I also found a great urban decay exploration website where the guy spent a lot of time in East St Louis.

The main place where all the magic happens, the meat packing plant, it’s based on an Armour Meatpacking Plant on a hill outside of East St Louis. And it’s still there. You can see pictures of it. So I was able to lift all that.

I read a few books about the education system in Middle America, its decline, and stuff like that. They had a lot of stuff about that city.

And that’s also part of the reason I fictionalized it. I called it St. Jude instead of East St. Louis. That gave me a little bit of freedom to make up stuff. Whereas if I use a city from the real world, I’ll never stop doing research on that city.

Why St Jude?

St. Jude is the Patriot Saint of lost causes. Good name for a dying town.

Did you have any concerns, as a person who presents as white, writing not just a protagonist who’s African-American, but a novel where most of your characters are African or African-American?

When I started writing it, it was before this sort of increased awareness of appropriation. So I wasn’t aware it was even a thing. I knew who Vanilla Ice was, but I didn’t connect that to writing fiction.

And as I said before, I wanted to write an American story, and I think of African-Americans as having the most American culture. Then there’s the fact that the town St Jude is based on (East St. Louis – ed) is something like 98% African-American. To put white people in that book would just be weird.

When I write about any kind of marginalized group, I’m not making a statement, other than I’m presenting people with these traits in roles that they’ve normally not had.

For example, in both books (Picking Up the Ghost and The Faith Machine), all my protagonists have mental disorders.

Cinque is schizophrenic, and then all the characters in The Faith Machine, except for Park, have mental disorders too.

So I’m not making a statement about mental disorder at all. I am taking this trait, which is normally relegated to villains or antiheroes or supporting characters, and assigning them to the protagonists. That’s it.

So you, along with a lot of authors, recently went through getting the rights to your book back from ChiZine. Are you going to put Picking Up the Ghost yourself, or focus on The Faith Machine for now?

The eBook is up. I’ve already written a short story that bridges the two novels. I’m going to put that at the end of an ebook edition of Picking up the Ghost, and sell it for a buck.

And then if somebody gets to the end and they like it, there’s a link to where they can buy The Faith Machine.

It’s going to be a loss-leader. I figure that’s the best use I have for it right now.

Did you get anything back from ChiZine, like the final manuscript or –?

No, they hold onto the formatting and stuff like that. And they also hold onto the cover. So I’ve had to make my own cover.

And I have to get my own ISBN number if I want to return to print, even print-on-demand.

When do you think you’ll have that ready?

The Faith Machine comes out in May, so hopefully before that. A friend of mine volunteered to do the cover for it, so whenever he finishes.

For now, you can find Picking Up the Ghost on Kindle

Keeping Score: February 21, 2020

976 words written so far this week.

I’m slowly getting back into my old habits: Walking/jogging in the morning, writing during my lunch break, getting in a language lesson at the end of the day (I’ve decided to take up Swedish. Don’t judge me).

And it shows. It’s getting easier to slip back into the novel every day, easier to make the edits I need.

I’m still daydreaming about a couple of short stories I’ve got floating around in my head, but I’m trying to keep my actual write-and-edit focus on the novel. Because I’d like to be done, or at least done enough that I can send it out to beta readers.

Which will need to include sensitivity readers, I’m realizing. Several of my POV characters are African-American, and I want to be sure I do their perspectives justice.

Depending on their feedback, that could mean I end up doing a lot more rewrites. Or having to scrap the book altogether, if doing right by those characters turns out to be beyond my reach. I hope not, but…I’m not exactly in the best place to judge that.

So I’m going to ask for help. And listen, when that help is given.

Till then, all I can do is write the book as best I can, and hope.

Too Many Books, and Not Enough

To-Read Stack, Dead-Tree Edition

I’m not sure when it started — probably sometime after my fifth move as an adult — but for years now I’ve been in the habit of reading a book and then donating it, rather than keeping it on my shelves.

Lately I’ve read it, then bought an ebook edition if it’s something I might want to read again.

So what’s on the bookshelves pictured above (sitting in their new home in my office) are all the books that I haven’t read yet, but want to. The few exceptions are reference books for work and signed copies.

As you can see, I’ve got some room to grow on the left (fiction), but the right (non-fiction) is full up. So I’ve, ahem, got some work to do over there, to make room.

Keeping Score: February 14, 2020

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I finally, finally, found some time to get some writing done this week. 1,500 words worth.

Very little of that was fiction — I wrote a flash fiction piece that came to me one morning — but still it felt good to get back into the groove of writing and editing.

It helps that my office at the new house is coming together. I’ve got all the boxes of books unpacked, and actually have a path to my desk (though no chair. note to self: find an office chair).

Now all I’ve gotta do is find where all my notes for the novel edits are.

And start exercising again. As soon as I’m not sore from spending every spare minute traipsing up and down stairs with boxes, empty or full.

Keeping Score: February 7, 2020

So the move was…rougher than I expected.

As you can see above, I sliced my head open while unloading stuff into our new garage. It’s better now, but at the time we thought I’d need stitches, because it just wouldn’t stop bleeding.

(And yes, I went to Urgent Care, but they couldn’t see me, because — and I’m not making this up — they were overwhelmed with patients coming in prior to the Super Bowl).

We had help moving, but even so it took us all weekend, plus Monday and Tuesday evening, to get everything out of the old place and into the new one. I swear I had no idea how much stuff was crammed into that townhouse.

And now we’re unpacking. Or, as I’ve come to think of it, the “Where the hell are my socks?” phase. Every day is a new hunt for things I used to be able to pinpoint without thinking about.

Oh, and I didn’t take any time off after the move. Which in hindsight was maybe a mistake? Given how much we’ve had to do every night, after work.

As a result of all that, I’m tired, I’m frazzled, and I only got 250 words written this week.

But there’s a weekend coming up, and while it’ll be full-on unpacking and organizing, all day each day, it’ll bring some sense of order to this place. Reduce my cognitive load enough to where I can get back to (writing) work.

I hope.

More on the iPad Pro

In fact, the iPad Pro hardware, engineering, and silicon teams are probably the most impressive units at Apple of recent years. The problem is, almost none of the usability or productivity issues with iPads are hardware issues.

Found Craig Mod’s essay about the iPad Pro from two years ago. It’s an excellent essay, and perfectly relevant today.

It reminded me why I bought an iPad Pro to begin with: The sheer possibilities inherent in such an ultra-portable, powerful device.

But he also hits on everything that makes the iPad so frustrating to actually use. The way it wants to keep everything sequestered and hidden, when to really get some work done on it I need to have access to everything, instantly, and sometimes all at once.

I can get that on a Mac. I can’t on an iPad.

Which is why I disagree with him that the iPad is good for writing. So much of my writing time is actually spent editing, not drafting, and editing is exactly the kind of thing — lots of context switching, needing to see multiple views of the same document at once — iPad’s are terrible at.

I sincerely hope that renaming the operating system “iPadOS” means Apple will start fixing some of these glaring problems with the iPad’s software. It’s just so tragic that the hardware is being held back from its full potential by the OS.

iPad Pro: 10 Years Later, and One Year In

Looking Back

The iPad’s 10 years old this month, and so there’s a lot of retrospectives going around.

Most of them express a disappointment with it, a sense that an opportunity has been missed.

And they’re right. From UI design flaws to bad pricing, the story of the iPad is one of exciting possibilities constantly frustrated.

For my part, I’ve owned three different iPads over the past few years. I’ve ended up returning or selling them all, and going back to the Mac.

My current iPad Pro is the one I’ve had the longest. It’s made it a full year as my primary computing device, for writing, reading, and gaming.

But here I am, back typing on my 2014 Mac Mini instead of writing this on the iPad.

So what’s making me switch back?

It’s All About the Text

For a machine that should be awesome to use as a writer — it’s super-portable, it’s always connected to the internet via cell service, it lets me actually touch the words on the screen — the iPad is very, very frustrating in practice.

Most of that is due to the sheer incompetence of the UI when it comes to manipulating text.

Want to move a paragraph around? Good luck:

  • You’ll need to tap the screen once, to activate “entering text” mode on whatever application you’re in.
  • Then you’ll need to double-tap, to indicate you want to select some text.
  • Then you’ll need to move two tiny targets around to select the text you want. Tap anywhere else than exactly on those targets, and you’ll leave select-text mode entirely, and have to start over.
  • If you should accidentally need to select text that’s slightly off-screen, more fool you: once your dragging finger hits the screen edge, it’ll start scrolling like crazy, selecting all the text you find. And getting back to the start means lifting your finger off the select area and scrolling, which will kick you out of select-text mode. You’ve got to start over now.
  • Even if all your desired text is on one screen, those tiny endpoints you’re moving can start to stutter and skip around at the end of a paragraph or section of text. You know, exactly where you’d probably want to place them.
  • If you should somehow succeed in getting just the text you want selected, you need to move it. Press on the text, but not too firmly, to watch it lift off the screen. Then drag it to where you need it. Try not to need to drag it off the edge of the screen, or you’ll get the same coked-out scrolling from before. And don’t bother looking for a prompt or anything to indicate where this text is going to end up. Apple expects you to use the Force, young padawan.

That’s right. A process that is click-drag-Cmd-c-Cmd-v on a Mac is a multi-step game of Operation that you’ll always lose on an iPad.

So I’ve gotten in the habit of writing first drafts on the iPad, and editing them on the Mac.

But that assumes iCloud is working.

iCloud: Still Crazy After All These Years

Most of the writing apps on the iPad have switched to using iCloud to sync preferences, folder structure, tags, and the documents themselves.

Makes sense, right? Use the syncing service underlying the OS.

Except it doesn’t always work.

I’ve had docs vanish. I’ve popped into my iPhone to type a few notes in an existing doc, then waited days for those same notes to show up in the document on my iPad.

iOS 13 made all this worse, by crippling background refresh. So instead of being able to look down and see how many Todos I have left to do, or Slack messages waiting for me, I have to open all these applications, one by one, to get them to refresh. It’s like the smartphone dark ages.

Since my calendars, email, etc aren’t getting refreshed correctly, my writing doesn’t either. I tell you, nothing makes me want to throw my iPad across the room more than knowing a freaking block of text is there in a doc because I can see it on my iPhone but it hasn’t shown up in the iPad yet. Because not only do I not have those words there to work with, but if I make the assumption that I can continue editing the thing before sync completes, I’m going to lose the other words entirely.

But there’s Dropbox, you say. Yes, Dropbox works. But Dropbox is slow, the interface is clunky, and their stance on privacy is…not great.

You Still Can’t Code On It

I’m a multi-class programmer/writer. I write words and code. I need a machine that does both.

The iPad has been deliberately crippled, though, so no matter how fast they make the chip inside, it’ll never be able to do the most basic task of computing: Allow the user to customize it.

You can’t write iOS software on an iPad. You can’t write a little python script and watch it execute. You can’t learn a new programming language on an iPad by writing code and seeing what it does to the machine.

You can’t even get a proper terminal on it.

You’re locked out of it, forever.

And that’s the ultimate tragedy of the iPad. Not that the UI was broken, or the original Apple pricing for its software was wrong.

It’s that its users aren’t allowed to take it to its full potential.

Because that’s what it needs. Users have to be able to fix the things that are broken, in whatever creative way they see fit, for a piece of technology to become revolutionary.

And they have to be able to do it right there, on the device, without having to invest thousands of dollars in a different machine that can run the bloated thing XCode has become.

It’s that barrier, that huge NO painted across the operating system, that ultimately frustrates me about the iPad. Because it doesn’t have to be there. It was designed and built deliberately, to keep us out.