Cursing the Heavens: The Trials and Tribulations of a Big Idea

So, you know what’s awesome?

The book I’ve been writing, the secretively-titled “Book of M” is basically getting published.

You know what’s not awesome?

The person who wrote the aforementioned book getting published wasn’t me.

Okay, in all seriousness, no, “Book of M” is not getting published.  But it just so happens that the debut novel of author Meagan Spooner, called Skylark, has a premise that is startlingly similar to the premise of my own W-I-P, “Book of M”.

We’re talking, if you read the description of the book in the “Big Idea” post I just linked to, you would find a roughly 75% overlap in the world-building and ideas behind the two stories.

There are differences, of course.  The two protagonists have very little overlap.  There are several important aspects of my worldbuilding that don’t show up in the short description.  And the magic system described in Skylark has very little in common with the magic system I’ve described in my world.  And since my magical apocalypse is pretty closely tied in to the nature of the magic in my world, that means some important background details will be different.  And Skylark appears to be a Middle Grade or Young Adult targeted novel, whereas I’ve conceived of my book as being targeted as an adult novel (albeit that distinction doesn’t mean much in the post-Harry Potter, post-Hunger Games world).

It was ironic, to me, that earlier last week author David B. Coe was talking about the fears we have about our ideas on the Magical Words blog.  I responded in a comment about my two greatest fears related to my own ideas, one of which is this exactly: that however great the idea I have for my book is, someone else is writing it right now, and is better positioned to take advantage of the good idea.  Of course, David’s advice was that sure the ideas may be similar, but don’t worry about it, because your own take on it will be thoroughly and unmistakably yours.

Except, yeah, it’s easy to say that. It’s tough to embrace that notion when someone else’s book has so many similarities to the one you’re working on now.  So many that it’s positively uncanny.

So, I’m pretty anxious about it all right now.  Given the high degree of similarity between the ideas behind these two books, what are the chances any editor will ever express any interest in a book that would, at first blush, look derivative.  Would my book be more interesting to editors and readers if this other book does well, or will my book seem even more derivative.  And what do I do now?  Do I keep on writing, or, well, just give up?  It’s likely I’ll want to read Skylark at some point, but should I avoid it until I’ve finished writing my book, out of fear that reading it will taint my own creative process, or read it sooner rather than later in order to make sure I avoid being too similar?

What would you do, in this situation?

First Hint of a Novel

I was a bit excited about this, so I wanted to share it with you all.

I’d been struggling for some time with the notion that maybe I”m not quite ready to write that novel I’ve been working on since forever.  Anyway, I’m focusing on short stories for now, because that’s all I can fit in the little slices of time I currently have.  But what I really want to write is  novels.

And when it comes to writing novels, there’s that epic novel I’ve been working on since forever, as previously alluded to.

But I love the idea of that novel too much to leave it in the hands of the unskilled self that I am now.  I want that novel to be something great.  But I cannot write great fiction, as yet.  I need to know first that I can even write very good fiction.  But I can write something else.

So, at some point in the recent past (and I may have mentioned here) I decided to shift gears.  I decided that when I get into writing a novel, I will not start by writing this epic behemoth of a thing.  I will write something else instead.  After all, I had three or four different ideas for very different, other novels to write.  So I thought about the ideas, and I felt out which one I felt I could actually start to develop.  And one of them I kept coming back to as the idea that just felt right.

I’ll admit, though, I was afraid.  What if I could only do that one novel idea, the one I’d been working on since forever already?  What if I didn’t have what it takes to even attempt to write something else?  What if I couldn’t think of enough good ideas – to flesh out characters and world and plot – to make this other idea work?

I don’t know why I worried so much.  All I had to do was think about it for a while.  And I did.  And as I did, ideas started popping up in my head.  Oh, well, this is what happens in the first chapter.  But then this happens in the second.  This is the inciting incident, the thing that gets the main character started on her journey.

I only have the barest of details yet figured out.  Some of the first bases of the world-building that I sketched out a few years ago when the idea first came to me.  The first sketches of a few characters.  And now the first sketches of how the story opens.  I’m still working on the plot – as in, what is the overarching plot, and what does the main character want, and what is the course of the overall journey?  But I was delighted to find myself adding a couple new handwritten entries in my little notebook (I call it my Book of Ideas), and that these new entries, their not just for the same old book I’ve been working on since forever.  They’re for a new book idea.

The former book, I’ll still be working on it.  I can’t abandon it.  I’ll still write ideas for it down.  I’ll build up my little project file on my computer with notes and articles and ideas and worldbuilding and characters. But my overall focus, slowly, is going to shift in this new direction.

Happy writing.

Breaking In (Part 2): Writing Novels

On Saturday I talked a bit about what it takes to break into the Short Story market.  But, though I like writing short stories, and hope to get published in that market, what I like even more than writing short stories is writing novel-length works.  I mean, let’s face it: I’m a wordy writer.  I like depth, multiple plot threads, many characters, and a diversity of themes.  I like thinking up all the stuff that eventually will become part of a novel.  I like writing it all down.

There’s just one teensy weensy problem: I don’t know the first thing, really, about what it takes to get published in the novel market.

Oh sure, I’ve read articles on the subject.  I’ve read how-tos.  And those are fine and good, for what they are.  But then there’s advice like this.  The gist of that link: by the time an established writer is, well, established – enough that he or she is in a position to offer advice on how to break in – the market and industry will have changed.  That being the case, you’ll find some of that advice will still be true, and some will most likely be dated and inaccurate, and some will be so specific to a certain author’s personal experience as to be virtually invalid for anyone else.  Standing in the position of someone who has yet to break in, then, there is almost no way to tell the difference.

Still, the path to wisdom begins first by admitting your ignorance.  In that spirit I have read as much as I can to learn as much as I can.  And here, over the next few days, I will share the lessons I have learned on the subject of breaking in to the novel-publishing world.

Lesson One:  Write, write well, and write a lot.  One “theory” holds that a writer needs to write a million words of awful tripe before they will have developed enough as a writer to get published.  At an average of 100,000 words for a decent-sized book, that’s 10 books.  One author I’ve recently been following revealed that he’d written some ten or twelve books before one of his earlier books was picked up by a major publisher. 

Several writers I’ve read about talk about the time of their “apprenticeship” – a time when they wrote prolifically, and practiced a lot, producing work of dubious quality.  Many can even pinpoint the time when their apprenticeship began (with it ending when the author actually gets published).  This leads me to wonder about my own career.  When did I start on my “million words”?  I never had an “aha!” moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer: I’ve known since early childhood that this is what I want to do with my life (and only turned from that path, directly, because of the general advice from one writer that amounted to “don’t quit your day job, kid”).  Did my “million words” start when I was 9 or 10, around the time I first started working on the original draft of that long-unfinished novel of mine?  Did it start in Middle School?  High School?

Honestly, although in theory I’m working on the same book as when I was ten, the story, characters and plot are so different as to be a completely different book, and different world.  So let’s set that aside for a bit.  Now, throughout High School I wrote a lot.  I started working on a collaborative story with an old Middle School buddy in pen-pal fashion – a juvenile sci fi epic in which two boys from Earth are caught up in intergalactic intrigue when they are contacted by two aliens who happen to look exactly like the human boys.  I’d write one chapter, mail it to him, he’d review it, make any corrections he deemed necessary and write the next.  I’d review his and the process would begin anew.  I probably wrote around 10 or 15 thousand words on that story.  I also wrote an alien-invasion novela that borrowed a lot from H. G. WellsWar of the Worlds, television’s “The X-Files” and the biblical Book of Revelation.  That story (and the follow-up that I never finished) totaled somewhere between 20 thousand and 40 thousand.  Throughout High School I also wrote around a half-dozen short stories (and one stage play based on one of those stories) each running between 2,000 and 10,000 words.  That brings my total to around 50 to 80 thousand words.  And then there’s my baby (no, not the human baby that will soon be brought into world – he won’t be using words yet for several years – I mean that novel I keep blathering about).  By the time I quit work on the last “draft” of my novel, I’d written around 140,000 words (and considered the book to be between two-thirds and three-quarters done).  Add to that a few more short stories (each around six to ten thousand words), and I can safely say I’ve written a little over 200,000 words so far in my “apprenticeship”.  But this means I have a long way to go before hammering out my “million words”.  That doesn’t mean I can’t try to get published before I’m done.

But if my first “few” books are likely to be complete garbage, I’ll admit it makes me hesitate to start work again on my life-long novel project.  Why write one more word on it if that word will be crap?  I love this project too much to spend more time writing crap for it!

That angst lasts for about five minutes before I decide “Who Cares?”  I love this project too much not to keep writing it.  But I am thoughtful enough about my “career” as a writer to consider what else is there?  In the time since I first read about how much work it takes to get published, I’ve come up with a couple more ideas for fantasy epics (albeit works of shorter length and less ambition) and I have one space opera concept that I’ve been mulling over since my freshman year of College.  I’m not sure at what point I’m going to turn my attention to these other three ideas and start work on them, or when I might come up with still other ideas for novel-length works.  I wonder sometimes if I should put work on my true novel love on indefinite hiatus and turn my attention more directly to these to finish honing my craft, cleaning them up and getting them ready to try to launch my career, or if I should stick to my guns and keep working on that behemoth of a project.  Until I get out of Grad School and settle into a normal working schedule, it’s not a question I intend to answer, because I don’t have time for either.

In the mean time, I intend to write – as often and as much as I can. 

Stay tuned for Lesson 2 tomorrow.  Happy Writing.

Back to Part 1: Short Stories & Periodicals

Continue to Part 3 (and Lesson 2): Writing Community

The Story Unfolds

On Saturday I began telling the 20-year story of my novel.  But so far, I’ve only told a part of the story.  Granted, though, it’s the part with the most drama: the moment of inspiration and the beginning of my life-long love of fantasy fiction and of writing.  But I hope it doesn’t remain the most dramatic part of the story forever.  However, I’m not at that part of the story yet…

Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” were definitely the inspiration for my initial effort.  I borrowed a few ideas and motifs, modified character names to fit to my own characters, and sought to replicate the flavor of his work.  I even intended, from the very beginning, to follow the multiple-volume structure with a second and third in the series.  The plot and story, however, were of my own invention – subject to the constraint that my imagination was primed to retell the same sort of generic fantasy story I was coming to know and love.

When I began the story, I was in the middle of Elementary School, still in Germany.  I hand wrote everything on lined notebook paper – kept in a binder – and drew pictures of the scenes I attempted to describe on the back.  Since these earliest years drawing and writing have always been linked for me.  Art was simply another means to express the same story.  It took me several years to write, and I only ever made it about two-thirds of the way through, to a chapter numbered in the 20’s or 30’s.  Somewhere, I still have that old, very first draft of my book.  It’s a strange artifact.  The first few chapters are clearly the work of a very young child, but the chapters successively increase in length and sophistication, and the style evolves and improves.  And the accompanying pictures grow fewer and farther between.

It was sometime in Middle School, with varying degrees of support and encouragement from my English Teachers, that I began the first of many rewrites.  At this point, I already recognized that my early attempt was infantile in execution.  My ideas were more mature and more nuanced.  During these years, I first began to use a computer instead of writing by hand.  But over time, I’ve lost the original files they were stored in (on programs that have obsolesced many times over in the years since).  It is here that I learned the true value of a hard copy: work printed on paper never goes obsolete and, if protected, will never be corrupted.

It was in these years that I also first learned the sting of competition mixed with a sense of inadequacy.  Upon learning that I was writing a novel, one classmate heartily bragged that he’d already written a novel.  But to show he wasn’t too far above it all, he even deigned to “help” me start writing mine.  At the time, I couldn’t type, so I accepted his help.  I never made it very far into that draft of the story – no more than a few chapters.  But I must admit, I questioned myself.  Was I really that far behind the curve that this classmate, whom I wasn’t particularly fond of, had already written a novel and I was just now starting a stuttering second draft?  In the end, I was undeterred, and over time I continued to work and write.

Still, throughout this period, I continued to read fantasy and science fiction novels, and my sources for inspiration increased.  From Tolkien to Robert Jordan, I read as much as I could – though I admit that I’m not as well read as other fans might be (I apparently read at a fairly leisurely pace).    I mention Tolkien and Jordan by name because, in large measure, they have had the biggest impact on my development as a writer alongside Alexander.  I was impressed by their style and scope, and their approach to their work.

Some time in High School I finally learned to type.  And the regular essay-writing and story-writing assignments in English class gave me plenty of writing practice.  By the end of my senior year, I was ready to flex my new writerly muscles – I started a new draft, fresh and clean, with a new title both for the book and for the series.  And I worked at a steady pace, turning out a new chapter roughly every other month (which, in hindsight, isn’t too terribly fast a pace of work, but I hadn’t yet developed a solid work ethic).  By my second year of college, however, my pace was beginning to slow.  and, I’d begun to notice a trend again: my higher-numbered chapters were once again of a higher quality and sophistication than my earlier chapters.  Still, I reasoned, they were pretty good.  About as good as some novels I’d seen published (though clearly not as good, yet, as the best).  But I put those first few chapters up on-line, hoping to get useful feedback, and continued to write.  I only ever got a handful of comments on that draft.  And my pace slowed even more.

And then something terrible happened…

I liken this part to the sagging middle of a novel – the dull part, I’m afraid.  On Wednesday I’ll finish this tale, as the danger and intrigue ramp up, and everything I’d worked for comes crashing down.  Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about last Thursday’s Decision Modeling class.

Happy writing.

From the Trenches

I’ve talked about how I might find time for writing by putting that time upfront, or finding moments in those five-minute-breaks between things that have to get done.  But with the semester getting under way, I’m finding things aren’t always so easy.

Although, I knew that already.  There’s a reason why I hadn’t been writing anything over the previous year or more since I started work on my MBA.  Frankly, the course work is demanding – especially when around ten hours of the day are absorbed, off the top, by my full-time job.

Other than this blog, I haven’t written much of anything for the past week.  I have found, however, that my notebook has started to come in handy, again.  I’m glad I still have that tool up my sleeve.  I’ve used it a couple times in the past few weeks.  As long as I have it around, I find ideas start simmering in the back of my mind.  For me, though, 90% of those ideas revolve around that long-gestating novel – even though I tell myself I need to think about other things, other potential novel ideas, if I want to be successful (I don’t want to count on the Harry Potter model: write a single series of novels, get incredibly lucky in your timing after a period of financial destitution, then grow fabulously wealthy and not have to write anything else ever again).  I do have other ideas for novels, but most of my ideas seem to impact that other novel.  I guess it’s because it’s the one work that I find most closely mirrors my own heart and soul – it’s tied to my own personal narrative in a way.

In the meantime, I’ve had increasing trouble figuring out what to write about here.  With progress on my short story temporarily stalled, I’m not running across new (and hopefully interesting to read about) lessons to learn from that process.

But I will have class.  And I wonder if I’ll have to write about class, just to have a couple topics to muse on here.  The classes this semester: Decision Modeling for one and Project Management for the other.  Decision Modeling is with our very popular and highly awarded professor.  And, so far, it’s been very interesting.  It has a lot of potential applicability to my current job.  Project Management will hopefully be a good exploration of another possible career-field, post-MBA.

So, I’ll report more on those classes each week, and what I’ve learned there.  In the coming weeks, I’ll also tell a little more about the story behind that novel of mine (not the plot of the novel, but the story of how it came to be).  I’ll talk about my novel-writing-reboot process, and I’ll compare-and-contrast novel writing with short-story writing.  Stay tuned, and happy writing.

What a Difference Five Minutes Makes

I promised to speak a little more about the use of the notebook for a writer pressed for time.  You are likely well-versed, already, in the general functionality of a notebook as a repository of… well… notes, of course. 

Previously I kept notebooks as a place to write all my ideas down so that I could keep a record of them, and review them later.  While in my head, the ideas were still malleable and amorphous.  Once written down, they seemed more real, more concrete.  Once in written form, I felt my mind freed to build on previous ideas and link the ideas together.  I also felt safe letting my mind wander freely to the next idea, secure in knowing that my last good idea was already written down, and easily retrieved if my brain forgot it.

Of course, scanning through a tome of handwritten notes isn’t, in this day-and-age, the most efficient way of retrieving previously recorded information.  So, after working a great deal on my second full notebook of ideas, I started looking at options for digitizing the information for faster searches and retrievals.  My initial foray into digital storage and retrieval was somewhat awkward.  I began by writing up each entry as a separate Word file, storing all the words files together in a single folder.  After I had typed up a dozen-or-so entries, I realized how cumbersome it still would be to search for information – it was really no better than manually flipping pages.  For a while I abandoned the idea.  But I returned to it one day after browsing Wikipedia.  I thought how great it was that you could write a wikipedia article and include links to articles that did not exist yet, and someone else could come along, click your link, and be taken to a page allowing them to start creating the new article.  Wouldn’t it be great if I had an app that did the same thing, but was just for me?  A little surfing and searching and, Lo and behold, I discovered the existence of numerous Personal Wiki platforms.

I started by using a decent (and free) little app called wikidpad.  With a simple interface and markup language, you could write up little articles on your personal database and easily insert links to titles of other pages.  If a page with that title existed, a live link would go straight into your document.  If that page didn’t exist, then the link would take you to a blank page so you could start creating the new document.

Later (after the previously mentioned car-break-in), I switched to an app called Connected Text.  While not free, Connected Text could do everything I wanted to do in wikidpad, and had a few additional features that (at least at the time) wikidpad lacked a full implementation of, including the ability to tag documents with categories (and have the corresponding category pages automagically created) and a very nifty visual navigation tool allowing you to surf effortlessly through webs of documents – and all for a relatively nominal fee that didn’t hurt my wallet.  I still use Connected Text today – yes, I type up everything I hand-write in my notebooks into Connected Text for future retrieval and elaboration – and recommend it heartily to other writers, but if your budget is too tight, wikidpad is still an excellent alternative. 

For the tech-savvy (and well-compensated), a portable digital device (a smartphone, pda, or netbook) might be a more elegant solution – giving you both the portable nature of a dead-tree notebook and the copy-and-paste, search-and-retrieve super-powers of an electronic format all at once.  For the rest of us, it’s hard to beat the cost-efficiency of paper and pencil (and I’m assuming you have a laptop or desktop computer elsewhere that you don’t want to carry around with you everywhere).

So, how do you use a notebook to improve your writing productivity, you ask?  Wasn’t that the question I was going to address all along, you imply sarcastically?  But of course, my friend.  The advantage of a small, easily portable notebook is just that: you can take it everywhere with you.  Even in a fast-paced, activity-filled life, there are those short moments, those lulls, between one event and the next.  And, if you’re like me, during this whole time, in the back of your mind, there are things bouncing around in your head just screaming to be written down.  If you have a notebook handy, during those lulls you have your chance.

A notebook is not for pretty prose or polished drafts.  It is for ideas, short scenes, dashes of dialog, snatches of character studies, and quick vignettes – anything that can be jotted down on paper in fifteen, ten, or even five minutes or less.  The intent is that some of these ideas, scenes, and bits and pieces of story will later be elaborated upon when you have time to more fully devote to creative writing.  Perhaps you don’t yet know when that time will be, but when it comes you will have preserved that initial flash of inspiration.

If you are like me, you may find that you have a large collection of ideas that together clearly revolve around a single story, and the ideas begin to form a web, which provides the initial form and structure of your story.  With the pieces in place, the next challenge is finding a large enough consecutive block of time to transform the loosely structured notes into the finely crafted prose & poetry you know you’re capable of.  Or at least, that’s my next big challenge.