Now Is the Time of the Editor

Living on Dirt is in front of my editor. Assuming he’s facing his computer.

Of course it was late because of Valerie’s accident. Then, when I got back to writing, it took longer to complete than I’d anticipated because of Valerie’s accident. All the while I was hanging out with her I was thinking about the story, and when I was at the keyboard the fruit of all that thinking came pouring out. What had been intended as a 68,000-word novel is now a 74,600-word manuscript.

What will be cut and to what degree? Not sure, yet. I’ve reread it twice since turning it in and have seen where I want to add a couple of things, but nothing I want to cut.

In the writing of every novels there are periods where the writer hates every word they put on the page and others where the writer is very happy with every word and semicolon. The happy phase is really, really dangerous. That’s when great howling mistakes are made, when meaningless scenes are added, when the dialog becomes over the top clever, and the serpentine convolutions of the subplots require five or even six dimensions. And the writer is blind because….. Well, we’ve all been in love at least once in our lives. Visual acuity and sober judgment are not symptoms.

Now is the time of the editor.

Yes, I do listen to my beta readers. But the editor is my consigliere, my vizier, my chief adviser. It’s his observations I attend most closely. In the end, all the choices are mine—I’m the one solely responsible for the stories I tell and the way that I tell them. But part of being a writer is listening to what someone who knows you and knows your work advises. You can disagree with them — I often do — but their insights often (usually, in fact) make what you write stronger.

Hitting “Pause” and Finding “Resume”

Writers are control freaks. It may not be the sole reason we write, but somewhere in there with the story we have to tell and the need to infuse the world around us with meaning is the hunger for a world over which we have absolute control. I write role playing games but I an terrible at playing role playing games. In RPGs the outcome of every decision or action is determined by a roll of the dice and I am constitutionally incapable of surrendering myself to chance.

Of course writers wouldn’t have to create worlds to rule if they could control the one around them. (Which, for want of a better term, is commonly called “reality” or “real life” – though as I understand it there’s some debate as to the definition of those terms.) Sometimes things happen in this uncontrolled larger world that directly impact the worlds inside every writer’s head.

My wife Valerie is fine – which is to say recovering. I wanted to say that at the outset so you wouldn’t become too alarmed by the next few sentences. About a month ago Valerie slipped and fell. (No, I won’t describe the incident; yes, there is litigation involved.) She broke two bones in her left ankle (the medial malleolus and the lateral malleolus – those two bony bumps on either side) and suffered a subluxation of the ankle joint (her foot went backwards and sideways). She also fractured her left elbow (the olecranon, the pointy end piece). The elbow is mending naturally, but the ankle required surgery – a plate with pins – to rebuild it. She’s facing at least another eight weeks before the boot comes off and several months of physical therapy. Her goal is to be up and mobile for our 35th anniversary cruise next May.

Because our bedroom is upstairs, she has taken up residence in a large recliner in our living room, which doubles as her home office. Valerie works from home as a pharmacovigilance senior safety specialist (which, for reasons that escape me, does NOT make her a pharmacovigilante) with a pharmaceutical testing company. It’s a job that involves coordinating testing sites, following up on incident reports, and many other tasks that require three computer screens, lots of reading, international phone calls, and typing. She quickly became very good at typing with only her right hand. However, she’s essentially immobile – which means she needs very close support from a personal care nurse.

This is where the “writers are control freaks” comes in. Valerie is my wife, has been for over a third of a century, and for the first couple of weeks I would not let anyone else take care of her. I took care of all her needs, slept on the couch, tried never to be more than a minute away, called a sub teach my English classes the first few nights, and set my novel on hold. That’s the “pause” mentioned in the title. Living on Dirt – Dirt and Stars 2, aka sequel to Down to Dirt – was scheduled for release in late November, in time for Christmas sales. Now it’s going to be late December at the earliest though even late January is possible. (Novels make wonderful Valentines Day gifts!)

I’ve been gradually relinquishing control of Valerie care. Our local daughter, who stayed with her when I returned to class, and the daughter of a family friend now spend part of each day and evening with Valerie so I can sleep and prepare lesson plans, and attend to other things that needed doing. Like writing. Of course at one level, like most writers, I’m writing in my head all the time. Before Valerie fell I was in the last weeks of preparing the manuscript of Living on Dirt for my editor. In the four weeks since her accident I have typed maybe two thousand new words, but have been thinking about the novel almost constantly. I have dozens of notes jotted on random surfaces.

Now, as I’m getting back into the process of adding words to the manuscript in their proper order, I’ve discovered that while I do remember where I was going with Living on Dirt, I have enough subplot and plot twist ideas, all at least as good as the original, to turn my 70,000 word novel into a 120,000 word novel without getting to the events in Dirt and Stars 3. That can’t happen – while it might make for one epic novel it throw the whole series out of balance and make what I set out to do impossible. But in these new ideas are elements that will make Living on Dirt stronger than it would have been without the long and thought-filled pause. Right now I’m considering them all and making decisions about what combination of adding and subtracting will work best for the story I need to tell.I’m finding “resume.”

I’m finding “resume.”

Writing multiple narratives in Living on Dirt

I was going to start my Writing blog with some pithy and insightful commentary on the craft. I’ve written a lot about writing over the years. I’ve taught writing. But none of those things are as important as the fact that I do write. So For my very first post, I’m going to give a snapshot of what it is I do when I’m writing.


This is my progress log for Living on Dirt, the second volume in my Dirt and Stars series of YA science fiction novels. The columns are date, day, word goal, words written, % of goal, countdown to deadline, and the scene I wrote. (Blessed as I am with the attention span of a mayfly and the organizational skills of a magpie, I need to do a lot of things to keep myself on track.)

Each novel in the series is written in the form of journal entries written by the characters, so the story is told from multiple viewpoints, and each character adds their own perspective on – and interpretation of – events. All of the journal entries are woven together over the course of the novel, so the story is told in chronological order. However, they’re not written in order. If one character is following a strong story arc I write several of their entries in a row, following the arc, then put each in its proper place in the overall narrative when I’m assembling the novel.

In the first Dirt and Stars novel, Down to Dirt, the narrators were Mara Duval, Beth Duval, and Jael Alden. In Living on Dirt we also have the journals of Lije Bronislav and Fatima Kielani. I’ve been working with Fatima the last few days.* She has more to do in Living on Dirt than what I’ve written, but I’ll be leaving her alone for a bit. Another character is about to get in serious trouble and until that runs its course Mara’s journal entries will have priority.

*(You’ll note I didn’t write the scenes in order, I wrote them when they were ready. A subject for another day.)

What We Tell The Reader

Late in the day as I type this. Sunday, Fathers’ Day here in the USofA, and I wasn’t as focused on producing my monthly column as perhaps I should have been. (Which, in my native southern dialect is rendered: might should’ve been.) Local family members produced my favorite dinner – grilled steak, grilled veggies, potato baked on the grill, crunchy rolls, and un-grilled salad. My son – who these days lives too far away to get down here and celebrated at his home with his wife and daughter – posted a testimonial on Facebook about what my example had taught him about being a husband and father. Mostly it had to do with responsibility.

This got me thinking about responsibility as a writer. Not the responsibility to meet deadlines or produce columns in a timely manner, that’s more a reliability issue. I mean our responsibility to use our craft well. Not just in telling a story, but in the stories we tell. Our words have impact, as anyone who’s been furious at a fictional injustice or mourned the death of a fictional character can tell you. We as writers can have unintended effect on our readers.

I was discussing this online with fellow writer Jason Hansa a few weeks ago. Jason and I have written paired stories before – the same battle told from opposing sides in self-contained, stand-alone narratives for BattleCorps, an online publisher of military sci-fi. (How a radical left-wing tree hugging do-gooder built a name and career in military sci-fi is a topic for another column.)

This time around we are both part of a shared-narrative anthology: a chronological collection of stories following a single BattleMech (think giant, walking tank) from its construction through its career in a dozen militaries and two centuries of war until its eventual destruction. Two dozen combat stories would be a bit monotonous, so the battle stories are leavened with an espionage story (mine), a medic’s story, a mechanic’s story, a murder, a romance, a divorce, and – I think – a conscientious objector. All of us on the project keep in loose contact to ensure continuity and keep the through narrative building from story to story.

Jason and I were chatting on FB, as is our wont, about elements of our respective tales. I was debating how explicit the torture of a civilian should be and he was wondering whether his recipe for an improvised weapon should be accurate.

“After all,” he said, “we don’t want to give our readers any ideas.”

“Right,” I agreed. “We’re not writing erotica.”

Later, while working on the second volume of my Dirt and Stars YA series it occurred to me that giving our readers ideas is a lot of what we do, no matter what the genre.

In my story of how young people deal with exclusion, elitism, racism (from both sides), and trauma I strive to model for readers who have hopefully not yet been damaged irreparably by these forces how to get through one undramatic, heroic, baby step at a time.

In my military sci-fi I tell stories of courage, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice, integrity, and fear in which combat – impending, happening, or in aftermath – provides context; is the medium through which these themes are examined.

Romances – the ones I like – are about identity, integrity, and commitment. (So, like military sci-fi with fewer ray guns.)

Crime – with the exception of cozies and puzzles – is often about victims overcoming trauma, defenders sacrificing for the sake of others, coming to terms with self, or redefining/rebuilding self in the face of change.

This list could go on for quite a while, but you see the point I’m making.

Of course a lot of stories are just stories. Entertainment. Escapes. Respites.

But even the lightest tale carries in its narrative DNA elements that the writer cannot help but pass along to readers. Assumptions about culture, right and wrong, good and evil (which is often completely different), the value of humanity – a hundred elements of ourselves and the people, the culture, and family that shaped us.

It’s no good trying to not pass along our intellectual/spiritual/personal DNA. It’s who we are and the only way to keep ourselves off the page is to never write. But being aware of what we’re doing – of what parts of us we share and how we share them – can give our writing a focus and effectiveness beyond the mechanics and art of our craft.

Kevin’s Picks: Books on Writing

I’m glad this month’s topic was not “the best book on writing” because there is no such beast. No one can ever write about how to write because there’s no one way to write. All a writer can do is share the way they write. (Or “ways” – some of us approach different projects differently.) If naming one best book on writing is impossible, naming one favorite book on writing is next to impossible. No one else is me, therefore no one else is going to write a book about writing that contains everything I like and nothing I don’t. But there are many books that have things I like and have given me tools I use every day.

That use of “tools” is important. I view what I do as a craft, not as an art. Art is interesting, art can add grace notes to one’s life, but craft always has a greater impact. Which is more likely to be an integral part of your life, a Dali painting* or the absolutely perfect armchair for reading? I try to make every story that perfect chair. (*The question presupposes you cannot sell the Dali painting for millions of dollars.)

This blue collar craftsman’s attitude towards storytelling means there is a slew of writing books I decidedly do not like. Books that treat writing as though it were some mystical journey of self discovery, for example. I’ve been a crisis intervention counselor and mental health case manager for years; if your looking for a mystical journey I recommend Jung. (Actually, I don’t. Jung’s certainly mystical, but that’s about it. If you want your journey of self discovery to get anywhere I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy.) Nor do I have much patience with the notion writing is solely about following your heart. Unless you want to end up in a hot, dark, wet place getting shoved by your lungs every time you take a breath. That being said, you can exorcise (and exercise) a lot of demons through writing, but again that has more to do with therapy than writing. [And yes, before someone points it out, the energy of those internal demons can inform your writing; but as narrative impetus, not narrative element.]

Rather than produce a 3,000 word column analyzing what worked and what didn’t work for me from the myriad books on the market, I’m going to list the books I keep. Actually, I keep all my books. These are the books on writing I take down and reread occasionally – none is perfect, there are parts I don’t agree with in all of them, but on the whole worth your attention.

The ones that are in reach of my writing table, in the order my eye falls on them:

Lawrence Block. Telling Lies for Fun and Profit; Writing the Novel (1985 version, I know it’s been rewritten); Spider, Spin Me a Web. (There are more, I recommend everything he’s written on writing.) Gerald Weinberg. The Fieldstone Method. Cheryl Klein. Second Sight. (Writing children & YA fiction by an editor of the American editions of Harry Potter.)

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer (More about understanding storytelling than a nuts & bolts how to.)

Albert Zuckerman. Writing the Blockbuster Novel (The useful parts are reading the various iterations of Ken Follett’s narrative outline of The Man from St. Petersberg as he refines and focuses the story.) David Maas. Writing the Breakout Novel On the fence with this one. The intent is writing a novel that will sell because it stands out from the crowd while fitting into the market. Useful parts are about finding your own, original take on popular story tropes.) Ron Carlson. Ron Carlson Writes a Story All about the process and craft of writing a story. I don’t do everything the way he does, but I like his attitude and reading about how he writes is enlightening. I cannot write or speak about my own journey of becoming a writer without mentioning Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

These two physically beat sense into me (okay, metaphorically physically) and turned me from a dreamer into a working, published writer. Their sites are full of useful information on writing and supporting yourself as a writer. Go spend time studying their sites.

Kristine Kathryn Rush, Dean Wesley Smith

This post originally appeared in Novel Spaces.

A Game Is Not Collaboration (Writing for RPGs)

A few days ago Dayton wrote a column about years of writing in collaboration with some other guy named Kevin. As I commented then, I’ve never successfully collaborated on novel the way Dayton and the younger, better looking, and more talented Kevin do. Though I did come close a few times.

When writing novels in the MechWarrior series I did remain in constant contact with other writers. Each of us kept the others informed about plot elements that may affect their novels and made sure events in ours didn’t screw up events in someone else’s – but none of us was directly involved in anyone else’s work. Writing for the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series was much the same, though communication between writers was not as direct. Both cases were more about situational awareness than actual collaboration. Last year fellow BattleTech writer Jason Hansa and I completed a tandem story project that was almost but not quite a collaboration. Together we worked out the general shape and flow of a series of clashes between opposing forces, then he wrote a story of the conflict from one side without any input from me and I wrote one from the opposite perspective with no input from him. Each story stood on its own – and sold to the publisher as a stand-alone —but the two together formed a deeper and more textured narrative. (Jason and I are in currently in the midst of the “working out the general shape and flow” stage for a similar project.)

I’m excited about the fact a project I really enjoyed working on has just been released. Transcendent’s Edge (TE) is a campaign book for the Valiant Universe Roleplaying Game

(VURPG). [I tried three times to explain the universe of Valiant Entertainment in less than 1000 words and failed. I’ll post a link to their website at the end of this column.] An RPG campaign book of this type relies on artists, game designers/developers, and writers. It’s the role of writers that I want to focus on today. There were six writers on the TE project who between them wrote about 76,000 words (about 17,000 of which were mine). Even though we were all working together, what we were not doing was collaborating.

I know 97.3% of our readers are prose or graphic novelists and writers of short fiction. I also know others – like me – are still figuring out what they’re doing as writers. (2.7% have mistaken us for a DIY remodeling site.) So I thought I’d spend a few hundred words explaining what goes into writing for a game and being part of a writing team.

The first a writer hears of a project like this (officially, not through the rumor net) is a general invitation to pitch from the publisher. These invitations are sent to all writers who have written for or expressed an interest in writing for the publisher and/or game and have signed a non-disclosure agreement. In the case of TE the invitation specified an evil “black site” facility buried deep beneath Alcatraz Island that is consistent with all present-day Valiant Entertainment characters (Which range from a laser-eyed goat to the spirit of the earth to an immortal poet to a sentient suit of armor to… well. The trick is having hard science, psychic powers, living mythology, and ersatz Vodun running side-by-side without contradicting each other.) The Facility had to be deadly, able to change shape, and 99% impregnable. Required were descriptions of the facility from the viewpoint of each Valiant character, a history of the facility, an overview of the “real” world in the Valiant Universe, write ups of the major characters and factions, thumbnails of minor characters, traps and obstacles within the Facility, and event briefs (short, quick-play scenarios that didn’t require a full campaign) for each Valiant storyline. The campaign book would open with a short (3,000-word) story to launch the campaign.

Writers interested have two weeks to pitch – i.e., send the game developer their ideas on how they would handle each part of the project they would like to work on. A few weeks later writers whose pitches resonated get their assignments – which, if the developer liked their thinking but not their specific idea, may have nothing to do with what they pitched. [I, for example, got a faction and character set for whom I’d never written.] I also got the history of the Bay Area and several districts of San Francisco (which, I was surprised to learn, has gone through some subtle changes since I left in 1978), the various real and imaginary branches of the military, and ten of the forty deadly “trap” rooms within the Facility.

(Proud dad moment: The final design of the Facility incorporates almost everything my son Anson suggested.) I also landed the coveted opening fiction gig.

Once the sections have been assigned, the writers have a six weeks (on average) deadline for getting their stories, write-ups, event briefs, scenarios, etc., in to the editor. A few weeks later we get any rewrite notes and a deadline (usually two weeks) for final revisions.

Is writing to the needs and nature of an existing intellectual property, one owned by others, constraining? If you find the rhyme and meter of a sonnet unduly constraining to your poetry, yes. If, on the other hand, you find adapting to and incorporating the structure of the sonnet challenging, no. It’s not for everyone. But if you like the idea that on any given evening thousands of role players are creating their own adventures using characters and settings and challenges you’ve given them, game writing offers satisfactions unlike any other field.


This post first appeared on Novel Spaces.

Living on Dirt

So. I have news.

I waited until after the last second – sixteen hours after the last second, to be precise – to post this column because I was hoping something scheduled to happen sometime this week would happen before I did. It hasn’t. (But when it does, I’ll edit to add a link.)

First, four bits of context. (And no, I’m not burying the lede. When the link is up it’ll be at the top of the column and all this framing information will be a footnote.)

First, as somewhere between 42% and 63% of you know, the many-faceted relationships between differing races and cultures – in general, of course, but more often the interactions between individuals of different races and cultures as each copes with the mysterious “other” – is a subject that fascinates me. I have been half of an interracial partnership for thirty-four years and the father of people proud of their blended heritage for thirty-two to twenty-four years, depending on the individual. (And, for a bit over two years, grandfather of a dynamic young lady whose self image has not yet expanded beyond certainty she’s the center of a loving universe.)

I first met Liane and the other founders of Novel Spaces in a romance writers’ group because my wife wanted (still wants) me to write interracial romances. If nothing else were going on, I’d have written this month’s column about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , which I taught decades ago, and the recent what-in-God’s-name-were-they-thinking travesty of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Second, science fiction is my core genre. I love mystery, historical, fantasy, and enjoy sweet-to-‘R’-romances, westerns, and contemporary, but my reader’s heart imprinted on science fiction before I understood the concept of genres. More specifically, while I love Golden Age raygun-and-tentacle scifi and what are probably more properly called science fantasies (like Star Trek), alternate histories are at the center of my scifi addiction.

What would have happened if: …there had been no pandemic to wipe out 92% of North America’s population two years before the Pilgrims arrived? …Emperor Constantine had never converted to Christianity? …Alexander the Great had lived another thirty years?

Many years ago I posited a world in which FDR decided against federal funding for research into the atom bomb and chose not to run for a third term (both of which almost happened). As an exercise in world building I tracked the consequences of FDR’s third and fourth term decisions, as well as those of his VP and successor Harry Truman, and explored how events would have unfolded differently.

In my alternate world James Byrnes is elected President and the Dixiecrats – the 1940s Democratic progenitors of today’s Republican Tea Party – become the dominant political party.

Without nuclear weapons WWII in the Pacific would have lasted at least a year longer, with much of Japan razed by the Allied invasion. And the economically pragmatic Byrnes, not distracted by the idea of weapons, would have funded nuclear research that led to the cheap, clean nuclear power plants envisioned by writers of the 1940s and the Golden Age mainstay of planetary exploration, “fusion rockets” (the warp drive of their era). Everyday reality would include practically free energy, efficient nationwide mass transit, and colonies on the Moon and Mars by 1980.

But the politically paranoid Dixiecrats and their successors would also have instituted tighter government control over communications, information, and technology as a defense against communism and other anti-American forces. Jim Crow laws would have lasted for decades longer and the Civil Rights Movement would not have made significant progress until the 1990s.

Through all of this I had an amorphous idea for a novel about that delayed struggle for equality that never quite crystallized into a solid plot.

I’m a fan of young adult fiction and a big believer in the power of the genre. (As evidenced by this column from 2012: Juvenile Fiction.) Not only is YA the gateway through which most young people become readers, the clarity with which they (the good ones) address complex personal and social issues make them accessible to adults who are not normally readers (i.e. Harry Potter and Hunger Games). From Ann of Green Gables to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, YA is my go-to genre for relaxation.

A few years ago I was invited to submit a story to a young adult sf anthology on pretty short notice. I floundered for nearly thirty seconds before thinking of my alternative history continually in progress. I wrote a story about a girl born and raised on a space station being required to visit her cousins on ‘dirt’ – which is what the hyper-elitist white folk in the Space Service called Earth (the Earth folk are ‘dirts’). Things are worse, better, and generally completely different from what she’d been raised to expect. The story wasn’t accepted, but the YA approach to my civil rights in the twenty-first century concept felt right.

Over the next year, I developed the narrative outline for a novel about a hyper elitist teen space girl so freaked out by being on dirt she’s afraid to touch anything, her egalitarian dirt cousin, and her dirt cousin’s best friend, a young woman who is gifted, black, and determined to break the Space Service’s color barrier. It took me another year to actually write the novel. (Actually, the writing was impossible until I let go of the idea that everyone’s problems could be solved in one novel and set 2/3 of what I had aside for later volumes.)

Finally, I am not a publisher. I did want to be, did intend to be. I attended every training and webinar on publishing I could find. With the help of a SCORE mentor, I work out a solid business model. I did, in fact, form Kvaad Press in 2011. But, as evidenced by a forty-year career in human services, including education, personal care, and mental health, I do not have the heart of a business person. Nor did I know any business-minded people who were willing and able to invest the knowledge, time, and money to keep Kvaad Press going.

I’ve been writing professionally for a decade and a half. I have novels, anthologies, websites, even a coffee table book to my credit. But all of my work has been in media tie-in. Everything I’ve sold has been linked to a television show, movie, or game – intellectual properties that I do not own. Figuring out what to do with something that was mine, that I wholly owned, was uncharted territory for me.

I knew I didn’t want to go with a major house, where I’d be an anonymous cog, and I knew I had neither the skills nor the temperament to succeed as a total indie, which left…. what?

I began searching for a small press that treated writers like partners, or at least team members. Found a lot of predators but found a remarkable number of good people, too. One such outfit is Evolved Publishing. With whom I’ve signed a three book contract.

The first volume in my Dirt and Stars series will be hitting the streets in July.


This post first appeared on Novel Spaces.