Keeping Score: January 15, 2021

What a week, eh?

Trump’s been impeached for a second time (finally). The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol are being rounded up (thank goodness). And tech platforms are waking up to their complicity in the planning of the attack, and as a result, dropping right wing extremists so fast it reveals how much they were dragging their feet about it before.

Not that my family back home believes any of that, of course. I mean that quite literally: they don’t think Trump has been impeached, they think “antifa” (insert eyeroll here) caused the riot, they think the First Amendment requires their favorite BBS to let them post anything they want.

It’s…amazing, to me, to see the people that wrap themselves in the flag and “Blue Lives Matter” defend folks that invaded the Capitol with the intent of halting a Constitutional process (and perhaps grabbing a hostage or two) and beat the cops that tried to stop them.

What happened to the party of law and order? The party of civics, of wear-your-tie-to-school and don’t-you-know-how-the-government-works, hippie? Was it always a smokescreen?

So…yeah, I’ve been a little distracted. Writing-wise.

But I’m still hitting my 250-words-a-day target! Not always when I’m supposed to (in the morning), and not always in a single session (10 minutes at lunch, 20 minutes after work, 15 minutes before bed…), but I am getting them done, every day.

Not much more than the minimum, I’m afraid. Which is why the novel’s only at 22,894 words. But it’s progress, all the same.

Taking weekends off is still helping. Relives the pressure for a bit. Lets me do some of the research I need to do to properly write the section I’m on, which can soak up a lot of time (can you believe it’s hard to find an English-language book on 17th-century Central Asian history and culture?). Also gives me a chance to reflect on where things stand so far, and where I’d like to novel to go next.

What about you? How is your writing going, two weeks into the new year?

Keeping Score: January 8, 2021

Oof, 2021 started out well, didn’t it?

I mean even with the spike in Covid-19 patients, and the continued lies spread by the President and his allies about the election, I had a feeling on New Year’s Day that we’d escaped the awfulness of 2020. That we’d turned a corner, the case numbers would be coming down soon, President Biden would be in office in just a few weeks, and we could start the work of rebuilding everything the Republican Party has destroyed over the last four years.

Even the Georgia elections (!) gave me hope. My fellow citizens in GA turned out in such numbers that they put the two Dems over the top, putting an end to the use of the Senate as just a roadblock to legislation. Exciting times!

And then came the coup.

I know, I know. Attempted coup. Or riot. Maybe insurrection, if you’re a journalist and you’re feeling spicy.

And suddenly all of the mental habits I’d tried to shed from 2020 were back. Reflexively checking the news every five minutes. Doomscrolling on Twitter. Cognitive dissonance from looking out my window, seeing a bright January day in SoCal, and then hearing reports of shots fired in the Capitol building.

Texting friends living in DC, to see if they’re okay during the madness.

I called my brand-new freshman-clean House Rep yesterday, not just to urge her to impeach Trump, but also to check in and see if they were safe.

What a country.

Difficult to think in such times. Difficult to write.

But so far, I’ve managed to do it. Each day, closed out Twitter, stared at the screen, reading over the previous days’ work until I sink back into the story.

And it is sinking. It is an escape, for me. A needed one, in this case.

So I’ve pushed the novel up to 21,348 words. I’m almost done with the scenes I’ve been working on, patch-work-style. I move up and down the page, writing sections as they come to me, completely out of order. I leave visual gaps in-between them, extra newlines, to show that these are fragments. Then go back in and fill the gaps later, stitching together all the pieces until they read like a continuous whole.

It’s not how I’ve written other novels. Not even how I usually write stories, either. But it’s the only thing that’s working for me, right now. So I’m using it.

Hope wherever you are, that you’re safe, that you can still put yourself in the headspace to write, even if it’s just a few words.

Hang in there.

Keeping Score: January 1, 2021

We made it to a new year!

In the past, I’ve taken that for granted. One year rolled into the next, I got older, and the world kept turning.

Not this year. This year, reaching January feels like an escape, like ducking under a closing door just before it seals itself shut.

So a sincere Happy New Year to us all!

Novel’s at 19,864 words. I’m still butt in chair every morning, forcing myself to stay there until I hit my word count goal. Some mornings it’s easier, some it’s harder, but…I’m always making progress.

I’m actually starting to run out of runway on the research I’ve already done about the setting. Which means I’m having to make more things up out of thin air, and thus getting more things wrong. I’ve already had to revise a few scenes based on new reading I’ve done. That’ll happen more and more, I expect, until I can catch up.

I know that ultimately, I’ll need to do some heavy editing of this draft, once it’s complete. Not just to fix some inconsistencies, but also to ensure the things that are consistent are historically accurate. Or at least, as accurate as a non-specialist like me can get them in a fictional tale.

But since I know I’ll need to do it, it doesn’t scare me to get things wrong now. What’s important now, I think, is to get the emotional beats of the story right. If I can nail down the characters, and how they react to the things that happen to them, I can fix the details later. Even if those details mean I need changes to the events of the plot, that’s fine. So long as the emotional arc of things is right.

That’s my theory, at least.

I want to thank those of those you who’ve been reading me regularly through this hell year. You give me hope that someday, these novels I grind away at will see the light of publication.

And for my fellow writers, I offer a hope and a blessing: May your writing be a joy and comfort to you. May your inner editor take a vacation when you’re drafting. And may all your tales be true.

Onward to 2021!

Keeping Score: December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays!

I’m finally back in my office. All the house work we’ve had done for the last three months — while we lived, worked, ate, and slept sealed-off in the guest room — is over. Taking down the barrier between the guest room and the rest of the house was like opening a huge present; we were grinning like kids the whole time.

And the work all looks fantastic, and a little unreal. Like we’ve stumbled into someone else’s house. But no, it’s ours! And we can once again use it all.

So I’m back to watching the sun come up over the mountains just east of the city, hammering out words before the work of the day begins.

Speaking of which, the novel’s up to 18,000 words. So I’m putting out about 2,000 words a week, which is not bad, but does mean this draft won’t be done until looks away, does mental math sometime in June (?!).

Which is…fine, I suppose. That’s still a novel draft in less than a year. But if I only work on one project at a time, that means it’ll be six months before I get back to editing my last novel. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from my beta readers, and I’d like to incorporate it all before sending it out to agents.

Maybe I can keep working on the new draft during the week, and edit the other novel on the weekends? That’s technically not taking the weekend off, but it is taking a break from the current draft. And editing’s the kind of work that’s hard for me to track, in the sense of how many words I’ve covered. These editing passes I’ll need to jump around in the narrative, adding a bit of dialog here, changing a description there. It’s not linear work.

What about you? Do you work only one project at a time, even if that delays things? Or do you find a way to juggle multiple pieces at once?

Anyway, as we wind down 2020, I hope you and yours are coming through the pandemic safe. I hope the vaccine gets rolled out to where-ever you are soon, and that enough folks get it for the danger to pass.

Good riddance to 2020. I’ll see you all in 2021!

Keeping Score: December 18, 2020

Novel’s at around 16,400 words. I haven’t done today’s writing session, though, so I should finish out the week closer to 17K.

The deal is working, so far. Holding myself hostage, unable to go for my morning job or take a shower or have breakfast or anything until my writing’s done for the day, has been rather effective.

And I’m looking forward to the weekend again, when I can daydream and doodle and research and not have to worry about hitting a word count. That recharge time is proving important, for my mental health and for my writing.

Funny, I think I started this year by throwing away word count goals and the idea of penalizing myself for not meeting them. Here I am at the end of the year, once again setting daily word count goals and forcing myself to meet them. It seems not only do different techniques work for different people, different things can work for the same person at different times.

What about you? What previous writing habit have you brought back this year, if any? Or maybe there’s an old trick you’ve dropped?

Keeping Score: December 11, 2020

Novel crossed 15,000 words today!

My pace has slowed since NaNoWriMo, but I’m still managing about 2,000 words a week, which is pretty good for me. Puts me on track to finish this draft sometime early next year.

I’ve changed up my writing routine a bit, both to give myself more time to write, and to have a chance to recharge.

So I’ve made a deal with myself: I have to write in the morning, first thing, as soon as I get up. No news, no twitter, no email. Just writing, until the day’s words (at least 250) are done. I can take however long I want to set those 250 words down, but I can’t do anything else until I do.

Most days, I end up going beyond those 250. Once the pump is primed, the words keep flowing.

In exchange for this early-morning discipline, I only have to write on week days. Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are days off, now, just like they would be (I hope) if I were a full-time writer. If I did write full-time, I’d still need vacations. Still need days off. But I’d have no one to tell me when to take them, and I’d probably feel guilty if I did.

So I’ve made this deal. Treat writing like job, get it done first thing in the morning, and in return, I can take the weekends off.

Sunday was the first day I’ve deliberately taken off (from writing) in…months. I still did some research for the current book, digging up images and articles on Swedish manors built or renovated in the 18th century. I sketched some notes for future scenes. But I didn’t write anything, didn’t have to produce any words.

It was…incredibly relaxing. It was glorious.

And I came into Monday’s writing session recharged. Ready and eager to go.

This is the first full week I’ve been working under this self-made bargain. I’m looking forward to the weekend, having met my word count goal every day this week, first thing upon waking.

What about you? Do you ever take days off from writing? Do you feel guilty when you do, and if so, how do you handle it?

Keeping Score: December 4, 2020

So I didn’t win NaNoWriMo this year. It wasn’t even close.

But I’m not quitting on the novel. I’ve come too far not to see it through.

And NaNoWriMo has got me flexing my writing muscles again. After today’s writing session, I’ll have churned out almost 2,000 words in a single week. That’s not novel in a month pace, sure, but it’s a novel-in-a-few-months-pace, which is better than I’ve been able to achieve since the pandemic began.

Even so, I still feel pressed for writing time. I want to brainstorm for a bit, every day, before working on a scene. Or after finishing a scene, reflect on what might be missing from it, what I’ll need to add the next day. And that’s hard to do, when I’ve only got thirty minutes or so free to spend on the novel.

It’s good that I’ve got some vacation coming up at the end of the month, then. That’ll certainly give me more time in which to work.

But I want — I need — to carve out more time during a regular work day. Which might mean dropping some of my other hobbies (I’ve been brushing up my French, and learning Swedish) in order to make that time. Or maybe I’ll get up even earlier, so I can make that time at the start of the day.

Not sure what’s best. Gotta figure something out, though.

What about you? What do you do, when you feel like you’re not getting enough writing time?

Keeping Score: November 20, 2020

Slow but steady.

I’m at a little more than 7,000 words on the new novel so far this month. Behind where I need to be to finish NaNoWriMo, but further than I was a few weeks ago. That’s got to count for something, right?

Writing during the week has been difficult. Work has been…stressful, and I’ve needed to come in early and stay late, just to keep up. That’s obviously cut into my writing time, but it’s also drained my batteries before I even have a chance to sit down at the keyboard for the day’s words.

As a result, while on the weekend I built up to around a thousand words a day, during the week I’ve fallen back to a few hundred. Sometimes. If I’m lucky.

There’s light at the end of this tunnel, though. I’ve got a week of vacation coming up. A full week, when I can write at least half the day, before house and family obligations pull me away.

It might not be enough time, even then, for me to catch up to where I need to be to reach 50K by November 30th.

But I’m going to try for it, nevertheless.

Hope your own writing is going well, and if you’re trying NaNoWriMo, that you’re slaying each day’s word count, day by day.

Onward!

Keeping Score: November 6, 2020

I thought writing during a pandemic was hard.

Turns out, writing during a tight election where one of the candidates has spent the last several months shouting “Fraud!” at the top of his lungs whenever someone mentions mail-in voting (while casting his own votes via mail) is even harder.

So I did start working on a new novel this week, for NaNoWriMo. And I have worked on it each day.

But I’ve made very little progress. Only 1,424 words to date.

I’m trying not to stress about it. I have enough to worry about already, from work happening on the house to day-job deadlines looming next week to the pandemic getting worse in my city to trying to help my wife convince her mother that no, in fact, Biden will not come personally to her house to confiscate the guns she doesn’t have and disband the police department.

It’s a lot.

But I want to tell this story. I’ve been thinking over these characters for a few months now, and I want to see where they go. I want to show you their world.

I just have to build it first.

What about you? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, how is it going?

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