I haven’t spent much time updating the blog. Been very, very busy. Lots going on at the day job, the Army job, and the night-time writer job. Good things happening all around. So much so that I’m being forced to pick and choose how I spend my hours, because there really isn’t enough time in the day to get all of the important, worthwhile stuff done, and have minutes left to burn on blogging. Still, I wanted to do a general update, if only because I’ve got a lot on my mind concerning what’s been happening lately.
Last week I was down at the bottom of Utah learning from one of the great teachers in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Dave Wolverton. Dave has his fingerprints all over the careers of several dozen professional writers, including Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer. Dave’s genius lies in the fact that he has an uncanny grasp of story — the psychology and emotional underpinnings of what makes a blockbuster stand apart from average or even good novels. He’s also the guy who, as judge for Writers of the Future, sent me priceless personal feedback on my very first Finalist in the Contest. That story, “Outbound,” eventually went on to sell to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, as well as Esli magazine (Russia) and is still paying dividends — some of which I’ll be able to discuss in a couple of months once the news is officially public.
Basically, Dave knows what the hell he’s talking about.
So when I appealed to him — in some degree of frustration — about my repeated failures with novel-length projects, Dave said, “Come on down, I’ve got just the workshop for you.” And I was not disappointed.
But first, a bit of background…
As a discovery writer who writes all of his short fiction in the make-it-up-as-you-go mode, outlining for stories has always felt like an artificial and inhibiting process. Part of the magic of writing — for me — has always been that even I don’t know what happens next. I may have a general idea of where I’m headed, but for the most part I’m uncovering fresh soil as I move along. And the outlining process — the few times I’d tried it — destroyed my enthusiasm. Such that when I got done outlining a book project, I no longer felt the rush of excitement to write the book. Because I already knew in my mind what happens and how it all works out. And what’s the fun in that?
But discovery writing at lengths beyond 20,000 words is its own form of hell. I have four different current projects I’ve tried to tackle in the last 18 months and all of them have been enormously frustrating — because stories that long involve so many characters and so many different plot threads, it feels almost impossible to keep track of them. Much less keep them all moving forward with the necessary degree of action and emotional oomph that’ll keep readers interested. I was facing the very real possibility of losing these projects the way I’ve lost too many books in the past, and I’m rather sick and tired of spending months getting a book completed, only to be unhappy with finished product.
Dave Wolverton’s outlining workshop was revelatory. Suddenly I am seeing how to have my cake and eat it too. I can keep the magic of the discovery phase and the tightness and coherency necessary for the structure phase. And I can do it with an eye towards deeper emotional resonance with a broader audience. Something I am afraid I may have been unconsciously shying away from in past novels, if only because I’d gotten stuck on the idea that being very, very different was the key to standing out. When in fact, as Dave pointed out, difference is just the superficial first step. Like frosting on a cake. In order for readers to arrive at the final page of a novel and feel like it was a worthwhile journey, there have to be certain promises made and fulfilled along the way. There are very good reasons why mega-books like Stephanie Meyer’s novels sell in the numbers that they do. And it’s got nothing to do with the prettiness or delicacy or art of the prose. It’s all about story. Story is king. Beautiful language all by itself is meaningless without story. Story is the difference between “small” books that sell a few hundred or thousand copies, and “big” novels that sell millions. Marketing cannot sustain a poorly-storied novel, while an excellently-storied novel can become a blockbuster even with very little push from the publisher.
So, I am diving back into my projects with renewed enthusiasm — and the realization that I’ve got a lot of renovation to do. Like an episode of This Old House. I know what the projects look like — on the outside. But I’m going to have to do some ripping up and tearing out on the inside, with an eye towards reinforcing certain characters, certain plot lines, and certain themes. And if I do it in the top-level outline form — where discovery writing can remain free — it’s far, far easier than trying to do it in re-writing, where whole chapters have to be scrapped, and it can often be maddening trying to re-link chunks of a book back together using entirely new chapters or passages. Which may or may not be coherent with the whole, and which may or may not completely change the tone and pacing of the project. Which is what I’d often wound up doing in the past, and eventually gave up on when it became apparent that the book had become a mess.
So huge thanks to Dave Wolverton for opening my eyes to a new level of long-length storytelling. For those of you who have done Dave’s classes — click here to see all of Dave Wolverton’s workshops — I am sure you know what I mean. Anyone else who’s still interested? I’d say Dave’s workshop was as valuable for me as anything I’ve ever done, including the Lincoln City workshops with Kris Rusch and Dean Smith. It was time and money well spent, and I look forward in a few years to pointing to my books and saying, “Dave Wolverton taught me how to do this!”