Friday, November 13, 2015

The Power of Posterboard

Today is the first of a few "craft" related posts I hope to write over the next few weeks. In future posts I hope to cover such topics as outlining and rough drafts. These ideas won't work for everyone, but they might be of some use to someone.

One of the techniques I came up with years ago was to use a piece of poster board when outlining a novel. Any thin and cheap piece of poster board will do (I use ones that are 50 cents or less), and a piece that is 12" x 24" or bigger works best. The purpose of the board is to sort out narrative arcs and find plot holes. I find it to be especially useful for novels where there are multiple points of view and multiple story lines going at once.

For example, here is a poster board graph I came up with for the novel, Theft at the Speed of Light:

The final version of the book ended up being different at various points, but the main story "beats" (significant moments) can be seen here. On the left hand side of the board are the character names and along the bottom axis is a timeline. With other books, I've labeled the bottom axis with chapter numbers.

Each curve represents a character's inner journey. Note that not all the points on a particular character's narrative arc end up in the novel. As an author, I need to know what is going on with each character throughout the book at any given moment, but whether I share that or not with the reader depends on the situation. Also, the shapes of the curves are more indicative of the overall "inner condition" of the character rather than representing rising/falling actions. For example, in the graph above, Charles' condition deteriorates as the novel progresses, while Alex's generally improves.

Using this technique can also help spot holes and other potential problems with the plot. In the case of an upcoming novel, The Hammer of Amalynth, I first wrote an outline for the book and then drafted a poster board graph. I quickly realized that the novel needed more subplots and more characters. Had I decided to plow ahead and write the novel anyway, the first draft would have only been thirteen chapters long and in need of extensive rework to make it bigger. I'd rather spend my time fixing the outline at the outset rather than spending days trying to diagnose and fix the issues later on.

Although this isn't a foolproof method, it does tend to help cut down on errors. I also only create a graph after I've written (and rewritten) the outline of a book. After the graph is created I go back and edit the outline further to fix any obvious issues. Then, and only then, will I start in on the rough draft.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Release: The Chronopticus Chronicles Box Set

The other day I released the Chronopticus Chronicles box set. This includes the short story, The Mines of Mars, Part I, along with Fractal Standard Time, Ionotatron, and Chronopticus Rising. I decided to keep everything in the order that it was written, mainly to keep the "fractal" structure of Fractal Standard Time intact. It was a fun series to write and at some point it would be nice to revisit the world by writing a new series based on some of the characters.

Other versions of this box set will be released shortly for Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

F is For Fermat

Here's a short story from an upcoming collection I mentioned in a previous post. It is titled, "Fermat's Last Theorem of Robotics". The title is a bit of a play on words. The plot asks the question: can humans and robots co-exist indefinitely?

The story comes from a new collection titled "Windows Out", which will be available in a few months. Additionally, the first novel in a new series, Race the Sky, will be made available shortly.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Race the Clock

It feels like an eternity since I started the rough draft of the novel, Race the Sky. Although progress is slow, I think in the end it will work out. The main story line is relatively straightforward, but there is a lot of complexity on a metaphoric level. This novel also lays the groundwork for the next two books in the there is a lot riding on it. The rough draft is nearly finished, however, and I anticipate the other two books will go much faster.

So what, exactly, will the release schedule look like? Race the Sky will drop first, probably in the fall, followed by The Hammer of Amalynth, and then The Fire and the Anvil. All three novels will feature the same core group of characters, and the third book will tie in with the short story Firebugs (found in Corridors) and the standalone short story, Dust in the Whirlwind. Somewhere in the mix I'll drop another science fiction short story collection (untitled right now). Most of the stories for that collection have already been written. I will also release a Chronopticus Chronicles omnibus, which will include the three books in the series (Fractal Standard Time, Ionotatron, and Chronopticus Rising) along with the short story that started it all, The Mines of Mars, Part I.

If I can find enough covers in time, I might...just might...drop all five of these books within the next six months. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Long Range Forecast

It's been quiet around here lately, but there has been a good reason. I've started on the rough draft of the first book of a new trilogy. I've also assembled a basic outline for the other two novels. It will be a unique series that revolves around the weather and two characters who meet in the first book, Race the Sky. The other two books, The Hammer of Amalynth and The Forge of Midnight (this title might change), will follow their ongoing adventures across the Great Plains and the Midwest during several summer storm seasons.

I have no idea how long this first book will take, but this is a novel that I first started back in 1999. It has gone through a couple of iterations, but I think this version will be the best. This time around, I wrote up over one hundred pages of notes, did tons of research, and watched endless hours of storm footage. Mix in some first-hand observations and...

I'll have more details on the first book soon, but for now the best way to describe it is that it is a like a supernatural version of Twister.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Weather Report

When it comes to the weather, sometimes conditions change in a hurry. The same goes for creative writing.

Four months ago, I was planning on finishing one novel this spring: Race the Sky. Then, along came a couple dozen short story ideas that went in a myriad of directions. Some of those short story ideas morphed into novel ideas, and suddenly I found myself looking at yet another trilogy idea where Race the Sky was only the opening act. Sounds great, right?

Over the past few weeks another two dozen short stories sprang to life. And, well, as creative things go, that means there is another book in there. Or two, if I am patient enough. It has no title as of yet, but there are at least 15-20 stories that will make the cut. The rough draft is about halfway done and I will likely be able to make it available in the next two to three months. Then it's back to the novel.

In some space related news, the MESSENGER mission finally ended by crashing into the planet Mercury. Back here on Earth, there was New Shepard's first test flight, which is a rocket built by Blue Origin. I hadn't heard of them until today and was surprised to find out the company is a private aerospace venture founded by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Drawing on Description Lists

Sometimes when writing a book it is easy to get stuck on a particular scene or setting. It may take a while to find the right words to describe the exact mood or feeling of the moment. Or, it may be difficult to visualize the scene before starting to write it. I seem to encounter this problem at various points in almost every manuscript, so over the years I developed a technique to overcome it. I call the technique writing up "description lists".

With any given manuscript, I can usually anticipate these problematic scenes well ahead of time. Often, it may be because I have never visited a particular location before or in some cases (such as Mars), I can't go there at all. With certain settings I can usually find images online or in books that match what I want to convey. With science fiction, though, I often have to describe technology or settings that do not exist in real life. Once in a while I can find a piece of concept art that matches the idea, but other times I have to draw multiple sketches to visualize it properly.

After finding a picture or drawing a sketch, I then write up a long list of words that describe the image. The purpose of the list is to brainstorm a vast range of ideas so that when the time comes to write the scene, the descriptions flow easier.

For example, in Fractal Standard Time, I wanted to use nanobot-generated statues that could morph on command into different shapes. I had this visual in mind of the statues of Easter Island and so I printed out a copy of the one of the images on the Wikipedia page.

Then, I wrote up a list of all the words that described the image. The list went something like this: statue, rock, pumice, tall, sloped nose, oblong ears, stare, basalt, large brow, slender face, etc.

For another novel, I had to describe a painting of a forest in late fall. Since there happened to be a group of trees just outside my window at the time, I wrote down everything related to what I saw. The list included words and phrases such as branches, bark, snow, reaching, dead sticks, squirrel, leaves hanging on, brown, rust, faded leaves, dry leaves, dead leaves, crunch, forest floor, etc. Then I wrote up a list related to the act of painting: brushes, wooden frame, stretched canvas, oils, tempera, water, palette, crunch (the sound a dried brush makes when pushed onto a surface), easel, etc.

Some lists end up being more lively than others and may even lead to metaphorical ideas. The ideal time to use this technique is before you start on the rough draft of the manuscript. That way when you arrive at the points in the story that worry you, you'll have an abundance of raw material to work with in order to shape the scene.