Expect the Unexpected

Last week at work, I was scheduled for a professional training class. SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture, if anyone is interested). It wasn’t all that difficult, but it was mentally exhausting to be in a room for five straight days, eight hours per day, in lecture. I gave that up in 1991 when I left grad school to start my first job.

Luckily, the end of the week had a bonus. Two of my Viable Paradise friends — Alison and Debra — were in town for the Romance Writers of America‘s 33rd annual conference, held here in Atlanta last weekend. The three of us plus our other classmate, Scott, who lives here in the Atlanta area, agreed to meet for dinner and catching up.

Another bonus was that Alison brought along her conference roommate Diana, another VP alum from 2006 (VPX). It was great seeing them again and meeting Diana. And dinner was awesome. (If you get the chance to try the lamb lollipops at Sear, do so.)

But the big fun of the evening was being with other writers and discussing our writing. Yes, I do that weekly, but the added bonus here was that Debra, Alison, and Diana were at RWA to pitch their ideas to publishers/agents (and each of them got multiple requests for either full or partial submissions, so yay!). So the inevitable, “So, what are you writing? Pitch it to me,” question came up. :)

Now, I have never done a pitch. Not seriously. But these are my tribe, so I said, “OK, my one-sentence version is this: It’s like Fringe with magic.” That’s not quite right, but it’s what I have. I tried to do an “It’s <this thing> meets <this other thing>” one, but I can’t ever find two things to put there. X-Files is too . . . something. And The Dresden Files is, as well. I thought of Criminal Minds meets . . . something with magic that isn’t The Dresden Files. But my mind refuses to fill in that second blank. (Everyone agrees, by the way, that comparing anything to The Dresden Files is a bad idea. I can’t really explain it, but . . . it’s like, it would be the kiss of death to compare your YA story to Harry Potter because it’s too big. Too popular. Claiming a similarity would be tantamount to saying ‘I think I’m as good as { Jim Butcher | J. K. Rowling }.’)

Anyway, they encouraged me to do the longer one, so I said something like this:

It’s an urban fantasy series that takes place in and around modern-day Atlanta, only magic works. There are no sexy vampires or sexy werewolves, and nothing ever sparkles. Magic is ‘out’ but not accepted. Nick Damon and Javier Ellis are FBI agents with magical powers who work with the local cops to solve cases involving magic.”

In the first book, Death Scene, bodies are discovered, each brutally murdered, and each scene is frozen in time at the moment of the victim’s death. Nick and Javier, along with Atlanta detectives Charlotte “Chuck” Norris and Derek Meads, are put on the case and have to move fast as more bodies are discovered.

They liked that (I know it still needs work), and asked for some clarifying information, then offered some suggestions. When they summarized Scott’s back to him, he liked it so much, he made them text it to his phone so he’d remember it. :)

We sat in the restaurant and talked for a while, then moved to the bar for a while, then found comfortable chairs in an out-of-the-way, quiet niche and talked some more until very late. Then we all had to leave because of that whole ‘becoming a pumpkin’ thing. (Read: We’re no longer spring chickens and staying up until all hours means Bad Things™ the next day.)

And it was somewhere during the ‘talked for a long time’ part that the serendipity happened. Someone asked what else I was writing, and I said, “It’s fairy tale noir. A detective solves the case of where Cinderella’s husband is going at night when he leaves the castle.” They chuckled, and we went on.

But apparently, something clicked in the back of my head. On the drive home (about 30 to 40 minutes from downtown to my suburb), the new story — discarding most of what I thought was the good stuff from my existing story — popped into my head, and I quickly grabbed my digital voice recorder and made sure I wouldn’t forget it.

The story clocked in at a hefty 11,300 words to begin with. With help from a couple of my friends and the judicious use of figurative shearing scissors, I got it down to about 8400 words, but it was still too big. I needed a way to cut it. But I couldn’t figure out what to lose and what to keep. I liked every scene. As it turns out, I will toss almost all of it except the beginning and the final scene, and rewrite all the sticky middle part. I think. I haven’t actually written it, yet, but it’s in the queue.

So, thank you, Alison, Scott, Debra, and Diana, for helping me fix a problem, even if you didn’t know you were doing it. :)


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 114 prompt: Serendipity


Wrong Way, Go Back

Photo credit: wallyir from morguefile.com

I’m what they call a “discovery writer.” Or, more colloquially, a “pantser.” As in, I write by the seat of my pants. No outline. No clear end in sight, sometimes. Just a cool idea that popped into my head and a vague notion of “thattaway” when it comes to where the story is going. That’s how a lot of my stories start.

That’s also — uncoincidentally — why so many of my stories either don’t end or don’t end satisfactorily. Because I get to some point in the writing when I realize that either I have no earthly clue where the ending is or that I missed the exit some while back, and I’m going to need to turn around, backtrack, and take a different route.

While driving, that’s easy enough. You get off at exit 250 and go back to exit 248. You lost a couple of miles, a few tablespoons of gasoline, and maybe a few minutes. The air turns a little blue from the curses. Possibly, your GPS announces “Recalculating” in that mechanical ‘I’m judging you even though I have no inflection in my robot voice’ tone that adds, “idiot” or “loser” to the end of every statement. Recalculating, loser.

In writing, though, you lose words. Maybe good words. But they’re just not the right words for this story at this time. A writer and podcaster I follow religiously (Mur Lafferty) has said that she has lost thousands of words — as in twenty or thirty thousand words — because of one of these “wrong exit” mistakes.

They can be costly. But I think maybe the work is the better for it.

Mike Stackpole in his wonderful “21 Days to a Novel” workshop has said that if you reach a point in your writing when you’re blocked and you don’t know what comes next, go back about 300 words (a page or so) and look. There’s probably a decision your character made that’s out of character. Because it needed to happen for the plot. Easy enough to rewrite 300 words. And since the new words will begin with the character actually in character, they’ll be better words, and you can continue writing. And I have had this happen, and it’s usually true.

But what if you realize 50,000 or 60,000 words in that your entire design of the setting or the way magic works or something else fundamental to the work as a whole . . . is just wrong? Is anything salvageable? Is there any reason to continue writing, or should you just jettison everything and either move on to another project or start over from scratch?

I’ve done both of those, as well. And as much as losing 300 or 10,000 words might hurt, realizing that most of a novel is just spew . . . is rather frustrating.1

This is where I’ve been at recently. I’ve explained this before, but briefly: I had an idea for what I thought was a short story, then became a novella, then a novel, and finally a series of urban fantasy novels. I called book one Perdition’s Flames. I wrote roughly 40,000 words of it. In the midst of that, NaNoWriMo came around and since I by then had an idea for book two, I wrote 50,000 words of Death Scene. I had vague notions that book three would be called Eye of the Beholder, but . . . something was off. The story wouldn’t coalesce. The arc wasn’t right. The biggest climax and revelation was in book one, not book three.

Then, it occurred to me that the reason I couldn’t come up with anything for book three was that book one had the end of the arc. So Perdition’s Flames had to be book three. That moved Death Scene to book one, and Eye of the Beholder to book two. That fixed a lot. I mean a lot. I now had a very cool scene for the introduction into my series and a satisfying arc that crossed all three books, with new ideas for books four and five based on the end of book three. Even better, I knew what book two was about, now, because it could revolve around something I set up in book one, and introduce a character that will be important in book three! I was very excited.

For NaNoWriMo 2012, I wrote a 50,000-word+ book called Magic for Normals, a ‘for-dummies’ style book that was basically just a place for me to write down all my ideas about how magic works in my world, and do it in a fun format where I could just expound at length and be as pedantic as I wanted.

And then, on the heels of this, I set out to restart the series, this time beginning with Death Scene. A book I had already written more than 50,000 words of. But now, as the first book, all the characters had to be introduced and their relationships established. Again. And the world had to be introduced. Again. And certain plot points for books two and three had to be set up in advance. And secondary conflicts had to be added. Each character needed a motivation. A background. An arc. My villain character actually had to have a reason he was doing what he was doing, other than just being evil.

And every time I’d write a few thousand words, I’d think of something else I needed to add. “Oh, it’s not Bob that’s the villain. It’s really Fred! And this is why: . . .” Or, “Wait. Nick isn’t Jacob’s younger brother, he’s the older brother, because it makes [plot point 1] and [plot point 2] actually make sense. And gives Bob Fred a motivation!”

So, I’m blocked for several reasons:

  • Idea paralysis – Since I’ve moved the books around, so many new ideas are occurring to me that I can barely write a couple of hundred words before a new idea sparks. It’s a good thing, I think, but it means never being sure whether what I’m writing is on exit 248 or 250.
  • Already written syndrome – A huge part of my brain is saying, “You already wrote this. You told this story. Stop trying to retell it. Move on.” Silly brain. (This is also why I have a hard time with outlining and writing synopses.)
  • Wrong Way, Turn Back – Another part of my brain insists that all those ideas I’m getting are wrong because I get new ideas that invalidate the old ones . . . Does anyone other than me get the impression that I’m my own worst enemy? :) Either that or I need a week in a very large room with whiteboards on all four walls and no Internet.2

So, that’s where I’m at right now, if anyone’s wondering. I’m working on other writing in order to keep the writing gears lubricated. I have a “short” story (Haha! It’s at 12,000 words and shows no sign of ending soon.) to submit for my writing group by midnight tonight. I’m a blogging fool, lately. And every time my mind isn’t otherwise occupied, I’m planning plot for books one, two, three, or four. Yes, four. <shakes head in disgust> In the shower, driving, eating lunch at work, just as I’m about to drop off into sleep. I have five days of boring training classes at work next week. I have a feeling my notes are going to look . . . a bit schizophrenic. :)


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 113 prompt: Photo Prompt (see associated photo at top of post)

  1. An example of litotes.
  2. No, not padded walls. I see what you did, there. Very funny. Ha ha. No, really.

After the Crash, by Stuart Jaffe

After the Crash, by Stuart Jaffe

If I were ten years old and in the fifth grade, I would no doubt stand in front of the class, stiff and nervous, as I recited my paper. “What I did on my summer vacation, by Gary Henderson, age 10.” And then I would launch into an over-vivid description (lot of juicy adverbs and adjectives) of my family’s epic road trip from rural Alabama to the bustling metropolis of Cucamonga, California, where my uncle and aunt lived. How our dog vomited every time we went under an overpass or she saw a headlight. How we stopped at every possible roadside attraction along the entire 4300-mile-long round trip.

But I’m not ten, I’m 38-teen. And although that would no doubt make a very good story (minus all the adverbs and adjectives and dog vomit), this post is about what I did on my recent summer vacation. I drove myself. I did not stop at every cheesy roadside attraction on the way. And there was no dog vomit.

For which, I can assure you, I am eternally grateful. I mean, have you ever ridden in the back of a car with a dog who threw up every time she saw an overhead pass or a headlight for 4300 miles? Have you? Have you? It. Is. Not. Pretty. I’m pretty sure I still have PTSD. If I had a therapist, his or her bill would be —

But I digress.

Some time back in the spring, some writer friends and I decided we would go to LibertyCon in beautiful, downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. At, in fact, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Last year was the con’s 25th anniversary, and they had quite a line-up of big names in the science fiction community there to commemorate the occasion. This year, it was much more modest. A couple of known names and a bunch of people I didn’t know from Adam’s housecat (as the saying goes)1.

Check-in was uneventful, but I was somewhat surprised by the . . . lack of . . . size. I guess what I mean to say is this: I’m used to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, where there are 50,000 or so people crammed into five hotels for four days of fannish geekdom on 31+ programming tracks. Or TAM in Las Vegas, where there are typically 1200 to 1500 skeptics crammed into a large convention center for four days of fannish geekdom (just of very different things, and with gambling, James Randi, and Penn & Teller).

LibertyCon is about 500 people. Five programming tracks (five rooms). And my own, personal observation is that most of the con-goers were . . . of a certain age. Now, don’t get me wrong: we older geeks like our all-night, wild parties, too. We just need Maalox, more sleep, and a little help getting out of bed the next afternoon.

To digress for a moment more, check-in may have been uneventful, but I had to go into the hotel and ask because I had no clue where I was supposed to be. So I asked the nice lady at the desk, “I’m here for LibertyCon, and I have no idea where I’m supposed to go. Can you point me in the right direction?”

She says, “Which specific panel are you here for, sir?”

Nonplussed, I said, “Huh?” (I’m a master of repartee.)

“There are a lot of events at the same time. If you’ll tell me which specific one you’re looking for . . .”

She handed me a schedule for the con, where each of the scheduled panels was listed by day, time, and location. I pointed randomly at one of them that started at 3:00pm, which was about four minutes hence. She then pointed me toward a low building nestled between the parking deck where I had parked, and something else.

I walked over . . . and discovered that the entire con was that tiny annex. All the rooms on the schedule? Yeah, they were adjacent. All five of them. Registration was in the hallway that all the rooms opened off of.

I’m going to pause, here, for a moment, just to let that fully sink in. And contemplate the question asked by the lady at the desk.

[Jeopardy theme plays]

[The Syncopated Clock by Percy Faith plays]

So, long story short, I met up with my friends who were already there, we went to a couple of panels, and then we were hungry, so we went for food. And then we went back for a few more panels, and then we were tired, so we drove to the place we were staying. Which was an apartment in a town about 30 miles west of Chattanooga called South Pittsburg, which is in the Central Time Zone. Chattanooga is in the Eastern Time Zone. It’s a very scenic drive, and one I recommend to anyone who wants to enjoy the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. We had dinner and then talked until way too late, then slept.

Next day, we did it all over again, attending panels and at one point taking some time out to critique one of my friends’ novel, which we had all read a draft of.

We all decided that after this one panel that evening, we would leave for dinner. The panel was on YA writing, and one of the authors on that panel, Stuart Jaffe. was having a lively conversation with one of my friends, and we found out it was Stuart’s birthday. We asked him to join us for dinner and continue the conversation. We walked down to the same restaurant we’d had lunch at the day before, and discovered that the woman who had just entered before us — and for whom we held the door! — had a party of 20, and that killed that plan. We tried one other place . . . and then realized it was Saturday night in downtown Chattanooga. So . . . we decided to have dinner and play Cards Against Humanity back in South Pittsburg.

As I said, about a half-hour away.

Stuart was game and got in the car with seven strangers. (Well, technically two strangers; we had three cars. But the point stands.)

We had a nice Italian dinner at Stevarino’s Italian Eatery, then played Cards Against Humanity until 2 AM, at which point we were out of cards, so Stuart was taken back to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and we got a good night’s sleep. And if, by some weird chance, one of Stuart’s upcoming novels features an author being kidnapped by seven strangers at a con . . . well, we won’t be overly surprised. :)

The next day, we only went to the con to get some of Stuart’s books, signed — with bawdy Cards Against Humanity references! — and then all separately made our way back south to Atlanta.

It was an enjoyable trip, even if the con was a lot smaller than I expected. We made a new friend, got some books to read, and had a lot of fun. All pluses.

I’m also now listening to Stuart’s podcast The Eclectic Review, which is fun, and will be reading his books as soon as I’m done reading some of the ones I’m currently reading.

. . . and that’s how I spent my summer vacation. [Bows theatrically, accompanied by light, sporadic applause; sits back at desk to listen to the next classmate.]


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 112 prompt: Vacation.

  1. On the Internet, no one knows you’re Adam’s housecat. Unless you don’t have a navel. Or something.


Write What You Know?

The Henderson Clan

My father, David (far right), and his siblings (and parents).

One thing “new”1 writers often hear is “write what you know.” It’s told to us as a hard-and-fast Rule of Writing™ that Must Not Be Broken™. Or something.

“Class, write one thousand words by Friday.”

“But, Mrs. Teacher, what do we write?” ask the worried students.

“Just write about what you know, dear,” she says, a knowing smile on her face.

Well, sure. That’s easy. I could write about being an only child growing up in a small town in rural Alabama, going to a private school, getting together with my friends and riding bicycles all over town after school and during the summer. I could expound at great length upon being an only grandchild (on one side) or what it’s like to spend all day at the municipal swimming pool in chlorinated water, getting a sunburn, and then doing it all again for 90 straight days during the summer. I could wax poetic over what Halloween was like in the 1970s in small-town Alabama. I could go on for hours about computers and the Internet and all the books I read or the podcasts I listen to. Get me started on the wonders of the universe and science and learning for the sake of learning and you’ll have to physically restrain me to get me to stop.

But . . . I write science fiction, fantasy, horror, and urban fantasy. You know, faster than light travel, teleportation, magic, vampires, werewolves, Things That Go Bump in the Night™, aliens, zombies, alien zombies, alien werewolf vampire zombies going faster than light using magic to escape from killer robots from the future . . . like that.

I don’t know any of that. And that’s where that “rule” breaks down. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great rule. For beginners. Because if you know something, you’re passionate about it. I think experienced writers and teachers tell learners that so they’ll want to write about something and therefore spend the writing time it takes to get the million words of crap out so the good words can start spilling forth.2

But at some point, you have to start writing about what you don’t know. Can’t know. One of the first stories I ever completed was about a pregnant woman who started losing time every day. Do I know what it’s like to be a woman? Or pregnant? Or married? No, no, and no.

But here’s the thing. As you mature as a writer, you develop the ability to extrapolate.

I am an only child. I was supposed to be the first of three. But I was born and was apparently (according to my mother) such a horrible child (colic) that they decided one was plenty. I try *twitch* not to let that *twitch* bother me. I think I’m doing *twitch* quite well, actually. So does my therapist.3

My mother, Carlene, and her brother.

My mother, Carlene, and her brother.

But I can imagine what it’s like to have a sibling. My father had three brothers and four sisters, and I’ve heard many, many tales of what life was like for them growing up with so many people around. My mother has a younger brother, and I’ve also heard tales of their mutual childhood.

Aside from that, I have friends I consider members of my family. I have a housemate. I have twenty first cousins on my father’s side. I used to babysit for my mother’s friend, who had a boy and girl six and seven years younger than me, respectively. So I can extrapolate from all that what it might be like to have a little brother or sister, older sibling, or twin. Do I get it perfect? Probably not. But there are as many different types of families as there are people, so I figure if I get it wrong, people will assume that’s just how it is in that family and move on. :)

Now, here’s the funny part. As I was writing this post over the course of a few hours on Sunday night, I had a sudden realization. In my current work in progress, which I’m calling Death Scene, I have a main character Nick Damon, who had a brother Jacob, but Jacob died while they were still young. Another character Javier Ellis, is an only child. As is Charlotte (Chuck) Norris. And Manuel Gutierrez. And Lena Saunders. And Monique Johnson. And Terence Yamato. And Derek Meads. And . . .

I have managed to write what I know without realizing I was doing it. Literally all my characters are only children, essentially. How did I let that happen?

Time to rethink a few things. :)


Group Blogging Exchange 2

Today’s post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)’s Week 109 prompt: Sibling(s).

  1. I’ve been writing one way or another since I was 11. So I’m hardly ‘new,’ but since I’m also not a professional writer until I sell my writing (which, granted, would be much more likely to happen if I submitted frequently), I use ‘new’ here in that sense.
  2. There is a well-known(?) rule of thumb that says a writer must write a million words of crap and get them out of her system before she gets to the good words. It’s an arbitrary number, sure, and if all you do is glurge words day after day with no attempt at improvement, you’re never going to get to the “good” ones.
  3. I actually don’t have a therapist, but the joke was too good to let pass . . . ;)


What If . . .

O by dzucconi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  dzucconi 

I own a book called What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. One of the very first exercises in that book is to write at least one first sentence every day. With no requirement that it go further than just that: a first sentence to a story.

I’m not sure I even finished the book. I started doing that simple exercise, and it led me to several short stories (including the first one I ever finished back in 1992) and to my current novel series in progress. I did it for years, penning as few as one and as many as twenty or thirty first sentences every single day. Some of them were ridiculous; some were sublime. Some were speculative; some were mundane. Some were funny; some tragic. But the thing they all had in common was that they got my mental juices flowing. I’d think of a first sentence, and with it would come a sense of character, place, time, mood, theme, scene . . . pretty much everything but a plot.

It’s also how I discovered that I tend to randomly use the name Victor a lot. Usually in a negative manner. But I digress.

I no longer do this exercise, although I think perhaps I should start doing it again. Just to get my author juices flowing again. You see, I’m kind of blocked, right now. I have a ton of ideas, but when it comes time to put them down on paper/electrons . . . I instantly hate every syllable.

He was a dark and stormy knight.

“Feh! That sucks.”

As London burned, Victor looked down upon it with

“No! That’s even worse!”

Blood, red and sticky and still warm, dripped from my fingers into the still-open mouth of the corpse at my feet.

“No, no, no, no, NO!” <insert anachronistic image of ripping paper from a typewriter, complete with appropriate sound effects, wadding up the page, and throwing it at a trashcan overflowing with other crumpled sheets of paper, all with one sentence typed across the top>

I’m supposed to be working on my goal of writing short stories and sending them off to publishers. And I would be if I could stand a single syllable of anything I’ve written. I reached a point at which I simply could no longer look at my existing stories (editing stories I’ve already written is not my favorite thing about writing). My brain demanded that I work on what it really wanted to work on: my novel.

“Fine,” I told it. “You want it, you got it. Novel it is.”

There was a faint, gurgling squee from inside my skull. I would have been worried except that I’m used to things like that.

I churned out about 3000 words. A bit under two chapters of Death Scene, book 1 of the MCU Case Files, an urban fantasy series set in modern-day Atlanta, but with magic.

And I edited it and got it almost like I wanted it. And I triumphantly submitted it to my writing group. But with reservations. I wanted to change . . . something. But I couldn’t figure out what. Something was just not right. But what? Maybe they could help.

What I heard back definitely told me what it was. I think ‘uninteresting’ would be the polite term to use. I think the exact phrase one person used was ‘sterile and boring.’ Others used words like ‘slow,’ ‘no action,’ ‘stereotypical,’ ‘teaser-y/prologue-y,’ ‘not enough drama,’ and ‘no conflict.’

To be fair, they also said it was not info-dumpy (but was bordering on it), flowed well, drew them in, and was well-written, but as an opening chapter, it wasn’t enough. They wanted more from an introduction to a new world in which magic, the FBI, the police, and a body frozen in time during the act of being burned at the stake are all introduced.

And as each person said nearly the same thing, I nodded, because it confirmed what I’d been afraid of. And hey, it’s a chapter one. I should just move on and write chapter two, armed with the knowledge of the consensus opinion.

But that’s not what I did. What I did was start playing “What if?”

What if I increase the amount of magic the magical characters use? I mean, it’s frickin’ Urban Fantasy, right? Let’s get some magic in there from the get-go.

What if I start the chapter later? Closer to the action of examining the crime scene? Or, possibly better yet, what if I drop back a bit and start with the hapless individual who discovers the body looking for a place to get high and frisky with his girlfriend?

What if there’s conflict between the FBI and the Atlanta PD? Not stereotypical “turf wars,” but something different.

What if . . . ?

What if . . . ?

So, um . . . how do I turn it off? I’d like to write chapter 2, now, but instead I’m redesigning how vampires work and planning how I can introduce the bad guy from book 3. Yes, book 3. And ideas for the plot of book 2 are cropping up, as well.

So I guess ‘What If?’ can be a writer’s best friend or his worst enemy. At the same time. Which is a bit disconcerting.

Ooh! What if dragons . . .

Disclaimer: I am the exact opposite of upset with my writers group who gave me these critiques. I am, in fact, delighted. They were, as always, honest, thorough, and got right at the core of what was wrong with the chapter. To get angry at that would be hypocritical, since that’s the entire point of a critique group. I quoted some of their comments not because I was upset at them or was dwelling on them, but because they were particularly apt. I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.

I just wanted to say that because some of them will probably see this post, and I wanted to nip any angst on their parts in the bud. :)

This post was inspired by the GBE2 Blog On Week 108 prompt, “What If?”

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