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How I Write: The Story Bible

November 21st, 2010 6 comments

When all the research and brainstorming is done, the first thing I do when I sit myself down at the keyboard to embark on my next novel is to come up with a story bible for the book. This is something that people often create for films and TV shows or even shared-world novels or anthologies. It’s a document in which you set down the details of the world so that you can refer to it when you need to.

My story bibles are fairly short. I write up an entry for each major character that’s maybe a half-page long, often less. Then I break down the plot into a chapter-by-chapter outline with a paragraph of text describing what should happen in each chapter.

I started out writing tie-in novels, and when you pitch one of these to a publisher, the editor often requires a document something like this so that he or she has some kind of idea about what you’re planning to write. After all, there are lots of reasons why an editor might reject a novel, and it’s better to kill off a bad idea when all you’ve developed for it is an outline rather than having written an entire book. Still, I’ve used roughly the same procedure for my original novels too.

[By the way, my first original novel — Amortals — just debuted in the UK and Australia on November 4, and it's available worldwide as an ebook too. If you want print copy in the US, that's due out December 28. Please don't be shy. Check it out.]

Having a story bible before you start the actual writing means that you know something about the characters already, what’s going to happen to them, and how they’re going to react. This helps eliminate writer’s block. You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to write about next — and whether it’s all going to manage to gel into a decent story in the end. You already know.

However, I never feel bound to adhere to the story bible. Writing is an act of discovery in which you peel back the layers of the story as you write it down. Sometimes a better idea comes along while I’m writing the book, and I don’t let the outline hold me back from pursuing it.

Instead, I trust my instincts and follow the new path for a chapter or two. When the edge of the rush from that discovery starts to blunt, I stop and re-outline the rest of the book from the point that I’ve reached. I often wind up using large chunks of the previous outline, but this sometimes requires some inspired juggling on my part to make it all happen.

This happens to me every time, and I’ve come to expect it. I don’t fear it. I enjoy it. Better ideas mean a better book, right? Even if I’ve had to re-outline a book three or four times from a series of sequential new starting points. In the end, it’s well worth it.

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Plans Change

May 20th, 2010 Comments off

I had all sorts of plans for this summer. At the start of the year, I thought I’d have three novels out in the US within the space of two months, and that meant it was time to ramp up the promotion machine like never before. It’s not often I have that many books to talk about at once, and I was excited about it.

However, the publisher of two of those books, Angry Robot, recently moved from HarperCollins to Osprey Publishing. As I wrote on my blog, I think that this is a good change for Angry Robot and, by extension, its authors, including me. But it also means — understandably — that Angry Robot’s release schedule is going to have a short hiccup during the transition.

Now, instead of my three books blasting out all at once, they’re going to come out months apart. The first book — Ghosts of Ascalon, which is based on the upcoming Guild Wars 2 MMO, and which I co-wrote with Jeff Grubb — will come out this summer, so I won’t be left empty-handed at the big conventions. The others — Amortals and Vegas Knights, my first two originals out of the fifteen I’ll have had published when they release — won’t release until later this year or early the next.

This means that my plans for the summer must change. This isn’t such a bad thing though. Instead of making a huge splash with three books this summer, I can make a large splash with one and then follow it up later with two other large splashes. Think of it as three rifle shots rather than a single shotgun blast.

Making the most of this should be simple though. It makes it easier to position myself as a long-term novelist, to show that I’m a dedicated swimmer in this pool and not just shouting “Cannonball!” before making a single massive splash. I can build on my efforts and add to them rather than massing for triple release.

Also, now I don’t have to ask people to buy three books all at once. Instead, we can start readers off with one and give them a chance to ease their way into the others.

The extra time also means I’ll have another chance to revisit Vegas Knights with the cold, dispassionate eye it deserves. I wrote it in a rabid rush this spring, and it deserves a bit of time to cool off after being baked.

These are all good things.

It might sound like I’m rationalizing my way into liking the new situation, and maybe I am. After all, as the author, I don’t have a lot of say about when and how my books come out. That’s the call of each book’s publisher, which is fair since they’re putting up all the money to get the books produced, printed, and placed on shelves. I can’t alter the situation. I can only adapt to it and make the best of whatever spot I find myself in — maybe even make it better.

This summer’s plans would have been a blast. I’m still going to have some amazing fun, but now I get to watch that spill over into 2011 too. I hope you get the chance to join me.

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Quiet, Too Quiet

April 20th, 2010 Comments off

I’ll fess up. I haven’t been around here much lately. I could parade a litany of excuses out and make them pirouette about in pretty patterns for you, but let’s just skip all that and go straight to brutal honesty.

I’ve been too damned busy. I know. It’s only one little bit of writing once a month. Surely that’s the kind of commitment that any writer could keep. True, but maybe it’s not always one a writer should keep.

Poke around the site here, and you’ll see that I’m not alone. Skimming back through the past month, only seventeen of our thirty listed authors here managed to chip in a column between today and the last time I blew this. Do we all suck? Have we given up on writing? Are we huddled in corners, sucking on shotguns and praying for our muses to return?

Nah. It’s nothing so dramatic. I wouldn’t presume to speak for any of the other slackers, but I’ve been writing — a lot. In the past year, I revised The Marvel Encyclopedia for DK Publishing, wrote a tie-in novel for Guild Wars 2 called Ghosts of Ascalon, and cracked out my first original (non-tie-in) novels for Angry Robot (Amortals and Vegas Knights). Toss in some miscellaneous writing for tabletop games, video games, and columns for The Escapist, and it’s been crazy busy.

Worse yet, I fell behind my deadlines. That’s never a pleasant situation to be in, but the internet has exacerbated that problem. I’m not talking about how easy it is to get drawn into the shiny distractions the web brings to your desktop. I mean that it’s hard to justify writing something for free and posting it on the internet when you’re struggling to catch up with your paying work. The fact that your patient editors can see what you’re doing makes it nearly impossible.

In good conscience, I can’t spend much time on a post for Storytellers Unplugged or even on my own website when I’m worried that one of my editors might rightfully resent it. Once someone’s given you a deadline extension, it’s poor form to spend that borrowed time on something other than for what it’s been budgeted.

Fortunately, I’ve caught up this month, just in time to be able to chip in for my monthly portion of Storytellers Unplugged. I’m blowing off sleep to bring this too you right now, but that’s worth it. It’s my time to spend, and I’m free to spend it with you.

Let’s hope that continues. I’ll be working as hard as ever to make it so.

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Whistle While You Work

June 20th, 2009 5 comments

I’m still finishing up the novel I mentioned last month—almost there!—so I’m going to keep this short and sweet.

I love to listen to music. Back when I was a kid, I’d pull out my parents LP albums and 45s (that’s a single-song vinyl record, kid, not a pistol) and listen to them over and over again. I’d learn the lyrics, sing along, and then sing them to myself when I wasn’t anywhere near a record player or radio. (This was back before MP3s and things that play them.)

Today, I still love listening to music, and fortunately I work at a computer that gives me access to countless tunes of all stripes. The trouble is that when I’m working I don’t want to listen to most of them. Writing uses the verbal centers of your brain, the ones they always check to see if they’re shutting off accidentally when they do brain surgery, which is why they keep you awake through it and treat you as if you’re drilling words for the national spelling bee.

Songs with lyrics, of course, also worm their way into that part of the brain—unless I’m familiar enough with them to ignore them and treat them like background chatter. Unfortunately, I need every bit of that center that I can draw on when I’m writing a novel. There’s just not enough of it to spare, and if my brain starts latching on to lyrics and singing along—even just in my head—it’s not letting me use what I need to write. In other words, there’s only so much mindwidth getting pumped out of my verbal centers, and I need to give my writing full access to it.

Because of this, I like listening to wordless music when I write: soundtracks, techno, trance, house, things with a beat but nothing to say—at least literally. In fact, I’ll often pick up or adopt a certain album for a new book and then listen to it over and over while I write. When I’m done with the book, I’m often done (at least for a while) with that piece of music too.

The music also helps drown out the other strange noises in my house—I have lots of kids—and lets me focus on the writing instead. Things like screams still manage to poke through, which is likely good for my family’s long-term survival though.

When I’m not writing, though, I really go for great music with solid lyrics that mean something to me. For instance, the ringtone on my cell phone is the opening bars to “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. As the song says, “If you ever get annoyed, look at me. I’m self-employed. I love to work at nothing all day.”

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Hit Your Deadlines

May 20th, 2009 1 comment

I am behind on a deadline for my next novel, the first of three I’m writing this year, on top of a couple nonfiction books, a screenplay, and other things I have little doubt will come my way. One of the main rules of writing is to finish what you start, preferably on time.

So, I’m going to go do that and strive to be a better example of how it should be done. Then I’ll come back here and blather on at greater length, hopefully about how I pulled this off. Till then, keep writing!

I know I will. I’m contractually obligated to—and grateful to be so.

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Chronicling Mutants

April 21st, 2009 1 comment

Today, likely as you read this, I’m heading to LA for the US premiere of the Mutant Chronicles film, of which I wrote the novelization. I’ve been involved with the world of the Mutant Chronicles since the early ’90s, during which period I wrote or edited nearly every RPG, CCG, or miniatures game book associated with it.

Even back then, the people who owned the games—Target Games in Sweden—were planning on a film. I helped polish the original treatment for the film and even supplied a second treatment of my own for the pitch package that eventually brought Ed Pressman on board as the film’s producer. Before that, Ed’s family at Pressman Toys also produced the original Mutant Chronicles game: Siege of the Citadel. Small world.

Now, about a decade and a half later, the film is finally going to have its theatrical release in the US this week.

With most novelizations, as a writer, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever you can find in the script. The studio executives want to make sure you’re giving the readers the story they’ve developed—no more and no less.

If you look at a novel made into a film, though, you can see how much has to be taken out of the novel to cram it into the standard two hours or less that most Hollywood films run. It stands to reason that transforming the film into a novel would require creating a lot of extra material that just wouldn’t go into a film, but that’s a rare thing to see happen.

Fortunately, given my long history with the world, the people at Paradox Entertainment who hired me asked me to do just that. With their encouragement, I wrote a double-deluxe writer’s cut of the novel that the film could have been adapted from. It features many chapters of all-new backstory, character development, treachery, and big explosions that the novel demanded over and above what the film could provide. And I had a blast doing it.

To make sure that the novelization and the film synced up tightly, the people at Paradox flew me out to LA last year to watch a nearly final cut of the film in a private screening room in West Hollywood. While potential distributors took in the film, I devoured it twice, furiously typing notes on my laptop, hoping to be able to capture everything I could to make the book as faithful to the film as I could.

Now, with the book out since last fall, and the film finally in theaters, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen—again.

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Pretty Gigs All in a Row

February 21st, 2009 1 comment

Back in September, I wrote about “The Season of the Pitch.” In that, I mentioned that one of challenges with freelance writing is that right after you sign contracts for one gig you often wind up getting contacted about a better, shinier assignment. After you’ve spent so much time beating the bushes to flush out these choice pieces of work, it’s hard to turn them down. After all, if you didn’t want to do them, you wouldn’t have pitched for them in the first place, right?

Let me state, though, that this is an excellent problem to have. It’s hard to complain about having too many cool things to work on, especially when others may be struggling to find anything to work on at all.

So don’t. Sit your butt in the chair and get the work done instead. You can sleep when you’re dead—or at least when you’re done. Sooner or later, the season of the pitch will come around again, and you’ll wonder where all those people who piled work on you last year have gone.

Of course, that’s easier to say than do. Life tends to crop up and suck up time too. For instance, I just spent a few hours in the local ER with my son Ken, who sliced open his hand on a fireplace door, a wound that required nine stitches to repair. He should be fine, although he’ll have a nice scar to show off later.

The point is that you can’t plan for things like that. They happen, you deal with them, and you get back to work as soon as you can. Good editors will understand if such things make you a little late.

However, if you dodge emails and phone calls for weeks while you juggle projects and scramble to catch up, those good editors will turn on you—the way they should. There’s little worse to an editor than to wonder if she needs to recommission something that might show up completed the next day.

So, if you get behind, be sure to be up front about it as soon as you can. Apologize, offer solutions, and keep moving.

It’s better yet, though, if you can figure out a way to hit those deadlines, no matter how fast they keep coming at you. Doing this requires discipline, self-knowledge, a calendar, and a calculator.

Your self-knowledge tells you how much work you can get done in a given stretch of time. Keep a record of how many words you write each day, both under the worst and the best of circumstances. You’ll need this information later.

Use your calculator to figure out how many days each project in your pipeline should take. If you can write 5,000 words per day on a good day, and you’re tackling a 100,000-word book, then that should take you about 20 days to complete. Of course, that assumes you can string together 20 good days in a row. Some will be better than that, and others will be worse, but this should give you at least a rough idea of how much time you need.

Then take up that calendar and plot out those days you need. Don’t forget about weekends and holidays. You can sacrifice those breaks when you find yourself in a crunch, but try not to do that to yourself too often. That way lies burnout, which is the last thing you need when you’re hoping to beat your deadlines.

Once you’ve done all that, focus on your discipline to make sure you stick to your plan. A plan’s no good if you ignore it, no matter whether your excuses are excellent or not. Keep at it, and soon you’ll find yourself on the other side of the crunch—and with a stack of shiny new credits (and corresponding payments) to wait on.

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Finding the Narrative

January 21st, 2009 2 comments

As I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, the reporters and pundits strove to overlay a narrative on nearly every detail, from the gift that Michelle Obama brought Laura Bush to the look in George W. Bush’s eyes as Barack took the oath of office. That’s their job. They’re there to provide us with a context for what we see on TV.

Just like in fiction, the best narratives in life have a sense of both the improbable and the inevitable about them. President Obama’s personal history resonates with the strength of the American dream. A boy born to a Kenyan immigrant and a native Kansan, then raised by a single mother and his grandparents, grows up to become the first African-American President of the United States.

When Obama was a child, I’m sure this seemed like such an impossible dream that his parents couldn’t possibly have imagined it for him. Looking back from today, though, his ascent has a well-defined arc as clear as a meteor burning through the summer skies.

Good fiction works like that too. You start with a simple premise, and you follow the hero on a journey through a staggering series of events until coming to a triumphant close. Sure, not every story works this way, but the most satisfying ones tend to.

As the pundits (and Obama’s team) create this narrative, they pick out and highlight the relevant details, the ones that wind up having some bearing on the story line they’ve chosen. Details like who was his first girlfriend or what he had for breakfast on his first day at Harvard get passed over. They might be interesting in themselves, but they don’t mean anything to the story at hand.

As human beings, we crave that sense of order in the universe, the feeling that events mean something, especially when lined up next to each other. We want to believe that purpose drives our lives, not random chance, so we naturally winnow out those relevant details and leave the chaff behind.

Fiction has to follow that same urge. Nothing in a well-told tale is random, even if it might feel that way at any particular moment. In fiction, the author plays the role of the intelligent designer, placing every piece, forming every character, and setting events in motion.

This is why truth can—and often is—stranger than fiction. Reality is random, no matter how we may try to frame it.

Dick Cheney hurt his back just before the inauguration. This put him in a black overcoat and a wheelchair for the ceremony. All he needed was a white cat on his lap to transform him fully into Ersnt Stavro Blofeld.

Later in the day, Senators Ted Kennedy (last of his generation of Kennedy politicians) and Robert Byrd (former KKK leader who endorsed Obama in the primaries) both became ill at the post-inauguration lunch.

If you placed these events in a bit of serious fiction, you might set your readers’ eyes rolling. They’re just a little too pat to ring true—even if they are. To make such things work, a writer needs to set them up before knocking them down. Kicking something that’s already down is the act of a bully, not an author.

And nobody likes a bully.

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Noncompulsive Writing

December 21st, 2008 9 comments

I don’t write because I have to. I do it because I forced myself to.

I know some writers say, “A writer writes,” or “write every day,” or “I can’t not write.” None of those apply to me. I can go without writing for days—weeks even, especially if there’s a long vacation stretching out before me. That might not sound like much, but I make my living as a full-time writer. If I don’t write (or design games or toys, which I also lump into my makeshift career), I don’t eat.

More to the point, my family of seven doesn’t eat. I usually find that notion serves up plenty of motivation to write. I don’t need a neurosis to pull me to the keyboard. I don’t pursue some grand notion of art. I’m not here to change the world—just to feed my family and to have a great time while I do it.

Of course, if I can change the world along the way, I’m all for it. I don’t spend much time hoping that will happen. Few pieces of writing have actually changed the world, and I’m not quite arrogant enough to think any of mine will. I’d settle for rattling a few cages that need it every now and then. In the meantime, I’m happy if I can just get my readers to keep turning my pages.

When I was in college, I set myself up with a dual degree program, approved by the deans of two colleges at the University of Michigan. Had I stuck to the plan, I’d have had a BS in Electrical Engineering/Computer Science and a BA in Creative Writing in five years.

Read more…

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Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

August 21st, 2008 8 comments

I’ve been on the road almost the entire time since my last post here on Storytellers Unplugged. I started out with a quick couple of days in San Diego at Comic-Con International, the biggest pop culture convention in the world. On that Friday (July 25), I rode up to LA for a business meeting. I flew back from there and got home around midnight.

The next morning, my wife and I packed the kids into the minivan and set off for the Northwoods for her high school reunion in Ironwood, Michigan. After that, we stayed at her family cabin near Watersmeet, Michigan, (home of the Nimrods!) for the next week and a half. From there, we drove to Madeline Island and spent five days with my mother, brother, and sisters and their families in a huge house overlooking Lake Superior.

With all that family fun behind us, we hustled back home on August 12. On August 13, I got up and drove to Indianapolis to be a guest of honor at Gen Con, this hemisphere’s largest gaming convention.

That meant I wasn’t at my desk for three and a half weeks. Toss in the prep for the trip and the recovery (I still haven’t gotten my voice back from Gen Con), and we’re looking at a full month of vacation.

Or so it would seem.

The fact is I brought my laptop with me, and I worked just about every day. Normally I’d get up and type for a bit, then have some lunch and horse around with the family in the afternoon and evening. Then, after everyone else was in bed, I’d start typing again.

This is the curse of the freelance life, the one no one tells you about when you get started. Being able to set your own hours sounds like you’re going to have plenty of time to mess around, play games, watch TV, and goof off between those frantic moments of getting work done. The reality is that once you punch in you never punch out. (Cue “Hotel California.”)

I’d intended to take some honest time off. To leave the laptop locked up in the car. Maybe to whittle away at some personal projects rather than to keep carving away at my regular work.

Then, a couple weeks before the start of the trip, a number of opportunities—great ones, the kinds of offers you can’t bring yourself to refuse—dropped in my lap. And they all had to be taken care of ASAP. Of course.

So I didn’t manage to free myself from my silicon shackles.

The trick with setting your work schedule is that the coolest, best-paying projects always seem to come in last, after you’ve already allotted every sane bit of time you have. Rather than turn down the great jobs so you can peck away in resentment at the ones you already have, you start looking at those nights and weekends. And those vacations.

In Watersmeet, out at the cabin, we don’t have running water or a phone. Our side of the lake just had electricity run out to it a few years back. Cell phone coverage is spotty. We usually have to stand by a particular tree near the beach to hold an unburbled conversation.

But the cabin next to ours has a satellite dish. With internet service. And Wi-Fi.

I was doomed.

Still, it was the kind of doom I dream about. My office became the stump of an old pine tree only spitting distance from the beach (and near enough to the neighbors to borrow their Wi-Fi). Many times, I’d sit there long enough for a family of ducks to gather in the waters around me and bathe, unaware of how close I was. More than once, I looked up to see a bald eagle swooping overhead.

One day, I finished work after midnight, and I needed to e-mail it out. I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors by stumbling along the beach in the middle of the night, so I edged my way as far as I could into the fringe of the woods separating their cabin from ours. No matter how close I moved, though, I still couldn’t get enough of a signal to get my files e-mailed out.

Then I grasped my MacBook in two hands and held it over my head. The screen shined like a lighthouse in the night, a rectangular beacon for the invisible, wireless threads of the internet I hoped to gather to it.

A moment later, I heard the zooming noise that told me my efforts had paid off. My message had been sent. My editor would be pleased. And I could stop brushing the bugs off the glowing screen.

I love my job.

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