On Character Development

polar bear cafe wolf tiger
Source: Polar Bear Café

Creating the backgrounds for characters can be both fun and excruciating when you’re starting out a new project.  You can come up with interesting, unique people to write about, give them all sorts of back stories — their background, their culture, their quirks, their powers and their weaknesses — but at the same time, they don’t exist in a vacuum.  You need to also remember that they’re also there to interact with your other characters and the story itself.  Otherwise they’re just placeholders, or worse, redshirts — the throwaway characters put there for the sole purpose of getting rid of them later on.

I’ve been dealing with this quite a bit for the last few weeks, with both the Apartment Complex story and In My Blue World.  A lot of the central characters are springing forth rather easily, and that’s because I already have fully-planned purposes for them.  A few of the other characters, on the other hand, are still a bit vague and need more research and planning.  I only have vague purposes for them.  By vague, I mean that they support some of the main characters, but other than that, they’re kind of inconsequential.

Granted, both projects are still in their rough draft iterations and haven’t gotten the MS Word transcription/revision yet.  I’m not giving up on them just yet.  They’ll shine on their own eventually, once I flesh out the story and get a clearer picture of who they are and why they’re there.  I just have to be a bit patient about it sometimes!

So how do I know if I can trust this character to blossom during a later draft?  Or will they end up being a redshirt that I’ll have to edit out later?  Good question.  Often times I don’t. The point here is to let them give the old college try.  I put there for a reason, so I just need to figure them out.  I’ll give them just that little bit more TLC when I’m revising; I’ll think a bit more about their relationship to the story and the others within it.

Eventually, they’ll become part of the main entourage instead of a throwaway.

Time is Against Me Now

This always happens, damn it.  I give myself a reasonable, decent timeframe to finish the line edit for The Persistence of Memories, and something comes along and says “OH HEY You need to get this done first, there’s a couple of errands you also need to do outside the house, and oh, by the way, Day Jobbery has been busier than usual, so chances of you sneaking any writing in during the day is slim to nil.  Oh, and remember those blogs that you ignored all weekend because you were too busy shopping and doing housework, and watching the new X-Files episodes?”

Grumble grumble whine whine.

But you know, I’m not going to let it get to me.  This has happened enough times that the most I can do is work around it.  I’ve read too many blog writers and webcomic artists that have this same issue, and that’s all you can do:  soldier on the best way you can.  I say this, as it seems my original schedule has gone a bit wonky.  I’m pushing the release of The Persistence of Memories out a few more weeks, mainly because after this line edit is done, I’m going to need to give it another surgery.  It’s great as it is, but it’s still far too long at nearly 169k words.  That’s actually about 15k more than A Division of Souls.  The response to that book, by the way, has been quite positive, except for the words no writer really wants to hear: it’s too long.  And Book 3 is even longer than Book 2, which is not a good sign at all.

But!  But!  It’s a piece of art!  You’re supposed to savor the pace both when it’s fast and slow!  Why does no one understand my genius?

Heh.  Yeah, right.  More like, “….Oh.  Yeah.  Huh.  You’re right, that bit’s pretty sluggish.  I should definitely speed it up.”

The thing with self-publishing is that you’re going to see it, warts and all.  The original 150k version of ADoS is still out there as an e-book and a trade until I get around to re-editing that.  On the one hand, as a writer, I feel like a failure because I put the book out there well before it was completely ready, and now No One Will Ever Trust Me as an Author Ever Again.

On the other hand, I can just get back on the horse, fix what needs fixing, present it again, and move on.

Whatever works, kids.


Granted, I’m also giving myself quite a lot to do in the next six months.  Editing and revising books 2 and 3 in the trilogy, as well as writing Walk in Silence.  My original plan for WiS was to have it released in April, but due to the trilogy editing and re-editing, work has been embarrassingly slow on it (about 2 handwritten pages a day, which really isn’t much).  I’m thinking that one will end up being released during the fall semester.  I’m okay with that…as long as it’s done by some point this year.

And then, maybe, finally, I’ll be able to work on new stuff.  Maybe.

On Writing: Rejection Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

For those of you that have been following along for the last few years (or decade or so) with my grand scheme of getting the Bridgetown Trilogy published, today was an interesting day.

Angry Robot Books has had some kind of “Open Door” special event over the past few years in which they would accept unsolicited submissions* until a set date. As it so happened, I had just finished up a major revision of A Division of Souls, and thought this would be a perfect opportunity. I speedily worked through the rest of the revision and sent it in with about two weeks left to go before the December 31 deadline. You may have heard they had a bit of a business shake-up a few months ago**, which caused a significant delay in the reading and accepting process. I’m fine with that, especially as they took the time to follow up with an email informing us they would still read all the submissions.

This morning, I received an email stating that they have decided to pass on the novel.

Now, I’m well aware that this would most likely be the case, for a few reasons: a) they had over a thousand entries this time out (MUCH higher than previous Open Doors), b) digging through a high number of entries to find that one shining piece of gold is normal in the publishing biz, and c) I’ll readily admit that it could still use work. More on that in a few. The long and short of it is, this is not my first rejection, and will most likely not be my last. This is just part of the game.

Am I bummed? Of course, but not overly so. You might say I’m actually a bit relieved, as this gives me the freedom to tidy it up a bit more and shop it elsewhere now.*** Given that I’ve been working on this project off and on for way too long (twenty, seventeen, fourteen, or seven years, depending on the version you ask about and whether or not you count interim years of stasis), I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how I would want to see this book out in the wild. Between those years in the early 00’s where I sent it out to various agents and publishers, and now, where self-publishing has become a viable, more professional and accessible option, my options have actually expanded.

I’m actually kind of happy that Angry Robot took the time not only to read the first four chapters of A Division of Souls, but upon rejection went so far to state that they felt “the dialogue could use work, as it reads as too artificial, not natural enough” as part of the reason.

Honestly? That’s the best thing a publisher has ever said to me in all my years of being a writer.

In all the rejection letters I’ve ever received from both publishers and agents, I’ve only received the variation of the “not for us” form letter. Which is all well and good–I’m okay with those too, because I’m pretty sure they at least took a cursory look at it. But this is the first time I’ve actually received something that says “hey, it’s not for us…but here’s what you might want to fix/focus on in the future.”

To me, that means two things: they took my submission seriously, and that they took the time to let me know what didn’t work, even if it was one out of many possible issues that could be wrong with it. And that makes all the difference.

So what are my future plans for the Bridgetown Trilogy? Am I going to make good with the fake cover I made on the previous post and go self-pub? Am I going to be the stubborn bastard that I am, revise AGAIN and find a new home for it? It’s up in the air, really. I’m keeping my options open. Yet another recent reread has shown that some of the dialogue and prose is indeed a bit stiff, and oddly about halfway through, the default reaction for many characters seem to be that of sighing in frustration. Eesh!

One thing’s for sure, I’m not going to ragequit this writing life. I love it too damn much to give up now.

Learn from mistakes. Listen and process the critiques. And make the best damn piece of art you can.

* – For those unaware, ‘unsolicited submissions’ means that the publisher would accept manuscripts cold, rather than through agents or an agreed-upon offer. I highly suggest studying up on the submission guidelines of various publishers and agents to understand what’s needed–some want specific things and/or in specific formats, others will take printed copies, etc. Following their guidelines makes them happy and makes you look like a pro.

** – Short version: They closed down their YA and Mystery imprints earlier this year, and changed ownership last month. Not holding this against them, and I hope for the best, as they have quite a number of great titles out there that are definitely worth checking out.

*** – I would love to go into detail here about multiple submissions, but I’ll save it for a future entry. Suffice it to say, I purposely waited on this one to force myself to start working on other projects on the interim, which has worked out well so far.

On Writing, Revision, and Recording Music

[Note: I posted this at my LJ back in September 2013, and thought it would be worth reposting here.  Enjoy!]

A short time ago I tweeted something that came to me about the writing and revising processes, and partly how I was finally able to understand what I needed to improve my writing, and also made me understand just how to write and record a song correctly. This came to me while I was doing my Blogging the Beatles posts a few weekends ago, and I’d like to expand on it a bit here.

In short, it occurred to me that revision, for the most part, is very much like how many rock bands record their music. The listener–and with books, the reader–are only given the finished piece: the end result of a long process of composing, noodling, demoing, recording, overdubbing, and final mixing. What the public often does not hear/see is all that work as it unfolds. You don’t hear/see the alternate words, the alternate melodies/plots, the mistakes and the other bits and bobs. And if all this is done correctly, you hardly notice all the tiny flourishes as separate entities of the whole, because you’re not supposed to; they’re supposed to be part of the entire, much larger experience.

For the longest time–probably up until the last two years or so–my writing process has been extremely slipshod and make-it-up-as-I-go-along, and giving myself subconscious reminders for things that would need revising later. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to remember the story arcs and the random plot twists that I would need to expand on later on in the story, and I’ve made copious notes on the esoterica of my created world. I may have crowed about outlines in the past, but I’ve used them, or at least planned out the plot a few chapters ahead of where I was at that time. Still, after all these years, I’ve come to the realization that while this process may work, it’s time consuming and unorganized.

In the last few years, I’ve been working primarily on the revision of the Bridgetown Trilogy, rarely writing anything completely new. That’s not to say I’m not writing anything at all; there are several passages in this revision project that are either total rewrites of older scenes, or are brand new scenes that replace old ones that don’t work. I’ve been writing a few other things here and there, outtakes for Walk in Silence, posts for Blogging the Beatles, and making notes for both new and old ideas. It may look like I’m getting nothing done, but trust me–I’m doing all the background work right now.

Again–it’s like recording a song.

Over the course of the Blogging the Beatles posts, I’ve done a lot of reading of Mark Lewisohn’s book The Beatles Recording Sessions, which goes into fascinating detail as to when, how, and where their songs were recorded. I’ve read this book countless times in the past, but in the context of my blog series I’ve begun appreciating the crafting of the music, listening to the songs and trying to understand exactly what they did to make it sound that way. In the end it’s also made me think more about my own creative processes, both in writing and music.

The beginning always starts with an idea. It might be something obtuse: John Lennon came up with the vocal melody for “I Am the Walrus” from the up-down tones of police sirens as they passed by his home. It might be something coming from out of nowhere: Paul McCartney was convinced he’d copped the melody to “Yesterday” from somewhere, but it was his own creation. It might be inspired by life: George Harrison wrote “Savoy Truffle” about Eric Clapton’s addiction to sweets. The point being: this is where the idea takes hold. I’ve mentioned in the past that my trilogy came from watching the Gall Force animes.

The next step is the rough draft, the demo. Here’s where a band gets together at someone’s house and hashes out a few ideas that have been brewing over the last few weeks. The Beatles did this in early 1968 when they came back from India, gathering at George’s house for a few days and hammering out a few rough drafts of songs that would eventually show up on The Beatles (aka The White Album), as well as Abbey Road. In writing, this is where you’re writing longhand, maybe doing a bit of outlining and/or plotting, drawing maps, putting up that wall of Post-Its. In essence: here’s where you sit down and riff it, build on that one idea (or multiple ideas) and see what unfolds.

Next is the first draft, Take 1. It’s going to be rough, there are going to be dozens of mistakes and wrong notes and flubbed lyrics. If the demo contains enough ideas that you can continue fleshing out, this is where you start adding a few things here and there, perhaps fleshing out a melody or two that you found captivating. You may even find that a bit that worked in the demo sounds horribly out of place here, and you drop that. Now, unless you’ve been practicing and rehearsing that one demo for quite a long time, you have to remember that this first take is going to sound like crap, no matter what you may think. Rarely does one get a complete finished song at this point. In writing? Same exact points. You’ve got the idea, now it’s time to start molding and shaping it into something better.

Next is the following drafts, the continuous takes. However long it takes to get that one passage right, to fix that lyric or bum note that’s been bugging you all this time. You may even resort to outside influence–your bandmates/your writing group–and ask them to take a listen/read and see if they find something you’ve overlooked. This is the longest and the most frustrating part, because you’re focusing mostly on building the song/plot. You may even drop it for a time and work on something else so you can return to it later, listen/read it with a clear mind.

Eventually, you’ll hit that last draft, that last take of the song. There will be a point, if you’re paying attention, where everything will just click. The song might not be the most perfect one in existence, but it’s exactly how you want it to sound. You’ve fixed those bum notes, you’ve cleaned up the lyrics. You’re at a point where you’re happy with it, maybe even a bit proud of it. In writing, this is where you’ve pretty much tied up all the loose ends of the plots, fixed the grammar and spelling mistakes, gotten it to the point where it looks clean.

This, of course, is not the final result. Not yet. And this is where, for years, I’d stop. I thought I’d be done with the book and send it out to agents and publishers, thinking I had a good shot at getting accepted. This is where I’d also get rejected, of course. There are many and countless reasons for that, which I won’t go into at this time. The point is, it’s not quite finished yet.

This is where the overdubs, the final mixing, and the running order come in. There’s that one point in the middle-eight that sounds just a bit too sparse, so you decide to throw a bit of horns or a solo in there. The vocals are weak here, so you overdub yourself to punch up the strength of the sound. This song sounds quite out of place as the third track on the album, but would sound so much better as the second-to-last track. Translated: this is the final read-through, the point where you pick up the novel as a whole, read it as you would a potential reader instead of its author. This is where you pay attention to how you react to the story. This is where you notice that one character needs more description or action. Where you notice that this subplot leads nowhere. Where you feel that Chapter 5 would make so much more sense chronologically as Chapter 8 instead. Where you threw a deus ex machina or something in there out of laziness, or as an “I’ll fix it later” and promptly forgot about it.

THIS is the final draft: this is where you make the song sound seamless, like you and the band recorded it in one go, without a single blemish. This is where your audience will not see the work you put into it, but only the end result.

Once you hit that point, then it’s time to send it out to the agent and/or publisher.

On Writing: Letting Ideas Percolate

I’ll be truthful–the Mendaihu Universe has been percolating in my brain for at least twenty years this past winter.

Twenty years. Isn’t that a bit long for me to be sitting on these novels? Shouldn’t they have all been written, published and made into movies by now? Shouldn’t I already be working on the next trilogy in the universe? Well, in a perfect world–yes, of course! And with that, I’d have some nice cash in the bank as well. This, however, is not that perfect world. There are reasons it’s taken me so long to get those beginning scraps of ideas into the shape they’re in now. For one, back in winter 1993-94, I only had the gung-ho to write them but the barest of plots. For another, I had to do more homework in the genre, learn what makes a good SF/F novel that people would enjoy.

But a very large portion of it was the fact that I had to learn how to write in the first place.

I’d been toying with writing science fiction during most of fall 1993, just after I’d graduated college. There were a few pieces of inspiration: Akira, the Gall Force OVAs, other SF/F-themed anime, Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. And there was my music collection as well, to inspire me and keep me company.

The first few ideas popped up most likely that December–I’d finally given up on trying to resurrect one of my earlier novel ideas, and scrapped nearly everything except a single idea: an underground gang who broke the all the rules, but for the right reasons. From there I played around with a few tropes: a multi-planetary setting (created while doing laundry one afternoon on Charles Street), a giant sprawling city (part of my lifelong compulsive habit of map drawing), cyberterrorism (Hi, CompuServe and AOL! Glad to have you around!), politics (Clinton had just entered office) and so on. I hadn’t quite latched onto cyberpunk yet, though I had read a bit of Gibson by then, and within a few years we’d get a short but interesting wave of internet-themed movies (The Net, Hackers, Strange Days, and Johnny Mnemonic for example) that would add fuel to this idea. I was pretty much open to anything at that point.

A number of months later I was writing the first attempt, True Faith. [To spare you the story some of you already know, here’s the short version: TF was an extension of the “Vigil” underground gang idea with all the other inspirations I noted above, plus a twist: I added a bit of spiritual enlightenment, inspired by my then-recent foray into Wicca. It was co-written with my then-girlfriend Diana; it was mostly my idea and my writing, but she came up with a few of the character backgrounds, plot twists and wrote a few passages as well.] This version lasted from summer 1994 to probably late 1996 and was never completed, for various reasons. One of the most important being I just was not happy with the prose.

What was wrong with it, anyway? Well, for one, I think I was focused too much on inner dialogue.  The characters did a lot of thinking and contemplating and not much doing anything afterwards. For another, I’d written a lot of scenes starting something but never quite completing them. And worse, I had a habit of writing what I call “stage directions”: the character did this, he went over there, he got up and tapped a code, he did that, he went there. The end result was that I’d come up with a lot of interesting ideas and scenes, but the execution lacked any kind of oomph.

Come 1997, I chose to start again, almost completely from scratch. This was The Phoenix Effect; it retained the spiritual bent, the underground gang and the cyberpunk ideas, but the focus was now on two new characters, investigators hired to figure out why certain AI units were now becoming more human. That last idea was inspired by my 1996-8 foray into New Age spirituality, infusing the idea that the soul came from elsewhere other than Earth. This novel did get finished, and I even attempted to submit it to a few places, but I was still unhappy with it.

I toned down the stage directions, I followed through on the action, and I had the characters doing things instead of just thinking about them. What was wrong this time?

Two further problems: quantity and delivery. The description of scenes and characters was slim to nil, as I’d focused too much on getting the story out on paper. Who were these people in my novel, anyway? Why were they there? Where were they? In my head, to be honest. I had them up here in my cranium–I knew exactly what they looked like, where they were, what they sounded like…but I’d put none of that on paper. I realized part of this was due to having written this longhand–I was focusing on keeping the story moving that pausing for a few seconds to describe something felt like I’d tripped up. I’d expand on these things a little when I transferred it computer, but there was still a lot missing.

Cue the third attempt, right around 2000-1, with A Division of Souls. This would be the first novel I’d write completely on the PC. Fully-expanded, complete scenes? Check. Expanded description of characters and scenery? Check. Expansion of the characters’ backstories? BIG check. Expansion of plot? BIG check. Scenes and plot points were completely rewritten and others totally new. I even plotted ahead a few chapters before writing them, something I rarely did before then. The outcome worked so well that I ended up with not one but three novels, which I wrote well into 2004. I was quite proud of this trilogy. And yet…

What was the problem this time? Well, aside from burning out in late 2004 and never finishing Book 3, I still didn’t quite get what I was doing wrong. I had a great story idea, an extended universe to play in, well-crafted characters, and description galore. So why was I still not quite there yet?

Again: the writing. It took me a long time to figure this part out, and only recently, in the last year or so, did I finally get it. You could see the choppy edits, the “screw it, I’ll fix it later” passages, the subplots that went nowhere. In other words, I had an extremely rough draft, and I’d said “good enough”, and that was the killer. I had the finished product, but I just hadn’t bothered to polish it at all. You see, I wasn’t quite there yet. I still had that final hurdle.

This meant some major review and revision. And I mean major review. So how did I go about it this time? Well, this time out I took all three books (I’d finally finished Book 3 in January of 2010) and put them on my Nook, and proceeded to read them. And read them. And read them. AND READ THEM.

I immersed myself in these three books to the point that I had the entire trilogy arc in my head. Over the course of six months or so, I must have read all three books from start to finish through at least three or four cycles, and each time I made a mental note of what needed fixing, from big things like story arcs to miniscule things like dialogue tags. And starting in 2012, I started the biggest revision I’d ever gone through in my life. I painstakingly went through each chapter and worked the hell out of each one. Some chapters were relatively quick to work through, but those first six or seven chapters in Book 1 were almost completely rewritten from scratch–a lot of those passages hadn’t been properly revised since their 2001 inception.

As of today, I’m on Chapter 10 of Book 3. It’s been one hell of a long trip, but it’s been worth it. I learned a hell of a lot in these past few months, possibly more than I’ve ever done in the last ten years combined, about what makes a decent manuscript and what doesn’t. And most important, I finally learned how to write.


Now, should this have taken twenty years?  Who knows. I’ve got other interests aside from writing science fiction, and I’ve had day jobs that took precedence. I’ve had personal events intervene. And yes, just like any other writer, I get distracted easily. Am I fine that it’s taken two decades to get where I am, and I still haven’t gotten these things published? Yes, I am. I’d rather have a complete and professional product out there that I’m proud of, rather than release a half-assed, phoned-in book that I wouldn’t be able to resell, at least not to any publisher. I’ve learned other things on the way too, come up with new ideas for the Mendaihu Universe. I’m not about to write this world off just yet, not when I have more to say about it. As soon as I’m done with this major revision of the first trilogy, I’m going to start working on the next one.

So yes, sometimes it’s a good idea to let ideas percolate. Sometimes the end result is worth the wait.