Monday, October 31, 2011

Once Upon a NaNoWriMo

Once upon a timeNaNoWriMo

It’s that special time of year when we ask ourselves, “WTF?”

It’s that time when we commit to writing 50,000 words of utter crap in a mere 30 days.

It’s when we kiss our families goodbye on Halloween and hope to see them again sometime after Thanksgiving, when we crawl like literary bears into our NaNoWriMo caves with only pen and paper for sustenance (or a laptop).

But it’s also the time when we enter that “special” world.

Like Fight Club, there’s that “look” people have when enduring NaNoWriMo. The bags under the eyes. The cramped wrists. We nod secretly in the halls of our workplaces or cafes, saying things like “Wrote 1300 last night”, “I hate my heroine, I think I’m gonna kill her off”, “Just hit the major Act II turning point dude”, or “got meth? Just kidding. But not really.”

For when we enter NaNoWriMo, we enter a hallowed arena upon which few dare to tread. A challenging obstacle course full of traps and pitfalls such as go-nowhere plots, impossible-to-escape jails, characters who disappear without warning, and of course the most dreaded monster of all: the “I forgot to backup my work and lost everything.”

But once we surmount these setbacks and push through to the final 50K finish line, we can look back upon ourselves with pride, and for some of us, for the first time in our lives, we can call ourselves, “Novelists.”


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go

Disney Bldg 007Are you ready for some news?

This is probably the hardest post I’ve ever had to write, but as of Monday, I’ve gone back to “work.” Like Jack Sparrow, I’ve searched the oceans for treasure and found a job. Yes, most people would be super-excited about started a new job. I mean I am, but at the same time, I’m really disappointed that my writing career is screeching to halt. (BTW I’ve sprinkled clues at to my new employer throughout this post).

This doesn’t mean my dream of being a published writer is over. I have not LOST.

This is my plan.

Write on the bus. Read on the bus. Give up a couple iPhone games I love. Give up at least 1 of the 3 writing groups I’m in. Give up watching a bunch of TV shows I like. Give up going to the gym (kinda was forced to give this up anyways due to ankle issues).

What I’m not giving up:

  • My dream of being a published writer with multiple published novels.
  • The wonderful world of NaNoWriMo (won twice while working full-time)
  • Steam Palace. I will publish this one way or another.

Give up yet on my new employer? Well it’s a small world after all, so keep your mouse ears on.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Manuscript Surgery

hand surgeryAt the PNWA Conference last month, most of the agents and editors I spoke to about Steam Palace suggested that I not submit my ms until it was closer to 100,000 words. I was at 142K. That would mean a 30% reduction in wordcount. How do I cut a third of the story?

Well, I could have just cut Act 3. It was around 40K. But it would leave too much hanging, too much unresolved. Not great for a first novel.

I could cut characters, arcs, sub-plots, anything and everything. So I took a hacksaw to the story. I wound up cutting 19 scenes out of at total of 101. It was hard. My recent visits to the dentist have been easier (although he’s threatening to remove teeth which would trump this in suckiness).

Some of my favorite scenes are now in the dustbin. Sophia and Thomas’ first kiss? Gone. Sophia’s mystical dream? Vanished. Sophia’s duel with the pirate-like Captain Dawson? Trashed. Sob.

Here’s the thing to consider when cutting scenes. How much does it affect the rest of the story? With many of these scenes that I cut, I found that they either duplicated other scenes, or could be summarized in a line or two in a later chapter to explain the gap. In the case of the first kiss, removing that scene simplified the story and allowed me to take out later scenes that followed up on it. Furthermore, it’s not the kiss between Sophia and Thomas that propels the story, it’s the kiss between Sophia and…well you’ll just have to read it.

The next step in the process was reading every scene and trimming, especially lead-ins and conclusions. I have a tendency to summarize at the end of scenes, so I cut this out. I also have a tendency to over-explain, so I found duplicate sentiments and emotions. Why do I have to do all the work in explaining everything? Let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. So I found a lot of stuff to cut that way.

After this, I’m at 112K. Pretty good, considering where I started. 30K words gone. The story moves much faster now, without so much development and side-routes. We get right to the meat of the issue. And it keeps moving.

So how will I get rid of the last 12K? Well, I don’t know if I can really cut much more. It’s pretty bare bones right now. I do have about 3K of epilogue which I could drop in a pinch and save for Book 2, but I think it’s mostly there to sell Book 2, so it’s more strategic than tactical.

What I’m using is Ken Rand’s 10% Solution. (112K-10% (11K)=101K). It’s a method of scanning your story for junk words and long phrases that can be made more concise. Here are some examples:

  • The door of the car-> The car door (remove “of the”)
  • A burst of fire->A fire burst (remove “of” in “blah of blah” expressions)
  • She wanted to but she didn’t->She wanted to. She didn’t. (remove “but”, “then”, “so”, “as”, “and”, etc. that join sentences)
  • Remove adverbs (“-ly” words)
  • Remove said, told, cried, etc. dialog tags when the speaker is clear.

There’s a bunch more, so I highly recommend grabbing a copy. Another huge area I’m looking at is adding contractions. My characters don’t use them. If it means not cutting more scenes, I may add a few select contractions to the mix so they have a few “it’s” (or tis), “I’m”, “’s” (She’s gone vs she is gone) but leave in stuff like “I shall” to give it flavor. There are literally thousands of contractible phrases in my ms waiting to be reduced.

Unfortunately this process is tedious and mechanical. Given that it takes maybe 10 seconds to find and fix each cut word, I’m looking at 33 hours of work to remove 12K words at a minimum.

And I may not have the time. Stay tuned for a special announcement in the next few days.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It’s NaNoWriMo Season!

nano kittehYup, it’s already that time of year, for those of us infected with write-a-novel-in-a-month fever. September 1 is the date when I officially log on to and start planning my next big novel.

Right now I’m in the midst of final edits for my 2009 NaNo novel Steam Palace. I may pick up my 2010 NaNo novel Dead Air and edit that soon.

So what’s the big deal about NaNoWriMo? For me it’s something about the pressure of writing ~1700 words a day no matter what. It gives my writing a sense of urgency, and it also limits my ability to go off on tangents in the story. 1 week for Act 1, 2 for Act 2, and 1 last week for Act 3. No 50,000 words of backstory. Keep to the script as it were.

Now why start planning my novel on September 1? Why not just sit down on November 1 and start writing?
3 main reasons:

  1. Characters. Start inventing characters. Now. You don’t have to stick with them. You don’t have to use them. Think about reasons why the reader should care about these characters. Figure out strengths and weaknesses, needs and blind spots. What’s the most important thing in the world to them? What would they rather die than see happen?
  2. Setting. Where and when does this take place? What are the special rules of this world? Where are all the special places? If it’s the real world, visit that location. If it’s historical, start your research now. If it’s 2nd World, start drawing maps!
  3. Backstory. What’s already happened? How did everyone get where they are now? Heck, create resumes for your characters. What are the defining moments of their lives? What are they proud of? Their regrets? Who are their heroes? Who did they vote for?

The next step is to figure out a general plot. What happens. What must happen. For me I thing of the beginning and ending. What’s the premise?

For last year’s NaNo Dead Air, my premise was something like this:
“Invalid woman solves crimes without ever leaving her bed.”

For Steam Palace it was:
“Girl has to choose between love and power/fame/fortune.”

For Teen Alien (not written for NaNo BUT written in 30 days):
“Girl with extraordinary abilities discovers she’s an alien and must choose between her friends and the aliens who come to claim her.”
—although it was actually simpler than that:
”What if there was a planet populated only by women?”

What-if’s are a great way to imagine story ideas:
What if there’s this secret parallel land of wizards/elves/zombies/Republicans right in our back yard? What if you could secretly inhabit a dog/fly/cat/convict’s body and control them? What if there was a plot to assassinate the pope/president/Queen of England/your boss/Seinfeld and you were the only one who could stop/do it?

Don’t want ‘til the end of October to start imagining this stuff. Imagination starts now!

So what am I going to do for NaNo? I have no clue. I have a couple original story concepts (well, one of which is essentially Tarzan fanfic if you can believe it), a couple of sequel concepts to stuff I’ve already written. Right now I’m leaning towards a sequel to my Mystery novel from last NaNo. I really like the characters and the conflicts that are inherent in their lives.

One way to choose is to consider your options and ask which one you are most passionate about. Don’t think about which one will sell, which one will be “easier”. Find a story you care about so much that you are willing to abandon everything else for one month to write this story. A story you cannot wait to write. Then spend all the time you can between now and November doing character charts, plot outlines, world building, and whatever you can do to prepare yourself.

Or just wing it. Just be prepared to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard/quill to parchment) on November 1, 2011.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

“What are you passionate about?”

passion festI’ve received that question a few times lately in regards to some non-writing matters. But it got me thinking…what about writing am I passionate about?

I started thinking about things like Show vs Tell, character arcs, Hero’s Journey, scene structure, and the appropriate use of commas. Plot vs story, conflict on every page, tension, stakes, making every word matter.

Then it struck me. All those concepts are really ancillary to the real thing I’m passionate about.

I’m passionate about PASSION.

Not necessarily that romantic passion—though I have that too—but I’m passionate about writing characters who are passionate, who care, who fight and struggle whether for a good or evil cause.

I’m passionate about creating surprises, to challenge my characters past the breaking point, to have them fight to the last breath. To create wild twists and turns that drive the story to the conclusion.

I’m passionate about good writing, that creates worlds you can see, touch, and taste. Characters that you feel that you know, that care about the things you would if you were them.

So my stories are really stories about the nature of passion, and what passion can do to you. In Steam Palace, my main character Sophia even has a name for it—Mad Passion. She thinks it’s some kind of ethereal magic that causes her to make difficult decisions and face the truth of her situation. She thinks it’s a defect or some kind of special gift, but the reality is that she’s just passionate. Like everyone. And by driving her to the truth of matters, she can throw off societies’ norms and expectations and do what she needs to do.


How do you use passion in your writing?

Hmm…that image I found gives me an idea for a blogfest……

Monday, August 8, 2011

PNWA Writer’s Conference Report



Drinks at the bar. (after pitching)

That pretty much sums up my PNWA Conference experience.

I was far more nervous pitching agents than having a job interview. And I couldn’t sleep, worrying about it. Yes, I’d love a job, but I’d die for a publishing contract. So I had 3-5 minutes to pitch some I’ve spent 2+ years on. No pressure.

I just spent the last four days working on and delivering my novel pitch (which I really didn’t change since WDC in January) and learning more about writing.But there’s one thing I learned more than any other lesson.

Write small.

I knew going in that my manuscript for Steam Palace was too long. I was terrified that they would hear that and not want to even hear my pitch. When they did ask the length, I said, “140K but I’m working on it,” with a smile. They replied, “well, I’d like to see it……after you cut it down to 100K.”


That’s a 30% reduction. I spent a lot of the conference asking authors or presenters about strategies on how to do this. I’ve come up with 4 main approaches:

  1. Trim scenes. Start them later. End them earlier. Combine two scenes into one.
  2. Cut subplots. Do we really need to know Aunt Beatrice had a crush on a guy 20 years ago and rekindles that relationship?
  3. Cut characters. Thomas was supposed to be Sophia’s love interest. But her real “love” interest is Viola. (buddy/family love) So why have two love stories?
  4. Line Editing. I figured I can reduce the ms by about 5% by removing extraneous then’s, but’s, adverbs, of’s, etc. This would be a final step once I get down to ~105K.

I think if I cut my ms 30%, I’ll actually improve it 100%. Less is more. I’ll concentrate on what’s important, leave out what’s not so important.

But once this editing is done and I send it out, it’s done. No more Steam Palace. Ever. Unless, of course, I get a publishing contract. Then it’s all Steam Palace, all the time.

Now to get out that axe and start hacking!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

First Page Contest

This is my submission to Victoria Marini’s First Page Contest hosted by Shelly Waters!
Email: andrew.rosenberg at writerunner dot com
Title: Teen Alien
Genre: YA SF
Word Count: 55,000

Will return all critiques! (Make sure you leave a link in your comment)

Revised Submission (Thanks for the input!)

They say before you draw your last breath, your life hits replay.

They never said it could happen after.

Grett Hawk’s eyes stared up at the pale blue sky. Her heart and lungs lay still. A sharp rock spur impaled her belly, her jaw hung to one side, and her knees and elbows bent at impossible angles.

Two mule boys argued above her body, screaming in girlish voices. One grabbed her broken hand and yanked. Her shoulder separated in a sick, painless snap. The other seized her shattered wrist, grinding the cracked bones. They hauled her out of the ravine, over the jagged, blood-smeared rocks that had blendered her body.

Grett could neither move, blink, nor speak, only stare at the solar trees that crowned the ridge top. On Gwanda, trees were dead things, floral simulations. Grett was as dead as those machines, but by some miracle, thoughts still coursed through her head.

Is this what death is like? Grett wondered. She felt night-sky calm, disinterested in the assault that had just claimed her life.

Uninvited holovid-like images impinged her mind, of whips lashing the mules boys while a white-haired girl laughed at their torment. What do they know of suffering? she had thought. Grett’s mother and sister were dead, killed in action by the enemy. Someone had to pay. Someone had to suffer as much as Grett. Why not the dirty mules? They had overturned her mother's shrine with their frivolous play.

If her guts could clench they would.

Original Submission:
They say before you draw your last breath, your life hits replay.

They never said it could happen after.

Grett Hawk’s eyes stared up at the pale blue sky. Her heart and lungs lay still. Ribs jabbed through her side, dislocated jawbones and broken teeth dripped blood down her throat, and guts oozed out of the gash in her belly.

Two mule boys argued above her body, screaming in their girlish voices. One grabbed her broken hand and yanked, separating her shoulder in a sick snap. The other seized her shattered wrist, grinding the cracked bones. They hauled her out of the ravine, over the jagged, blood-smeared rocks that had blendered her body.

Grett could neither move, blink, nor speak, only stare at the solar trees that crowned the ridge top. Like all plants on Gwanda, trees were dead things, machines designed to simulate real trees. Unlike her, they did not have thoughts still running through their heads.

Is this what death is like? Grett wondered. She felt night-sky calm, disinterested in the assault that had just claimed her life.

A vision intruded into her mind’s eye, an image of whips lashing the mule boys until their backs bled. She had laughed at their cries. What did they know of suffering? Her mother and sister were dead, killed in action by the enemy. Someone had to pay. Someone had to hurt as much as Grett. Why not the dirty mules?

Unease electrified as her life replayed across her mind’s canvas.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting to Know Your MC Blogfest: Grett Hawk

regretElizabeth Mueller is hosting the “Getting to Know Your MC” Blogfest, inspired by Jeannie Campbell’s 3 questions. Check out all the other entries! The point is to get to know your Main Character at a deeper level.

Today, we’re going to interview my newest MC Grett Hawk from the Alien Teen/Girl World YA SF Series I’m working on (yeah I don’t really have a title yet).


Hi, this Grett. Thank you so much for your interest in my story, by Andrew has asked that we take it down for now since it’s pretty revealing, and he wants to keep you in suspense. I promise there will be more from me at a future date!


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ideas Don’t Sell

philly-pretzels1Thanks to Victoria Mixon’s post for inspiring this.

I’m an idea guy. I’m always thinking about situations, complications, characters, conflicts, twists, what have you. I think I’m original, creative, and I can generate the basis of compelling stories.

But there’s a problem.

It reminds me of something I’ve heard from published writers at conferences. It generally goes something like this:

“A friend of mine heard that I’m published. They said they had a great idea for a story, and if I wrote it for them, they’d split the proceeds with me 50-50.”

I hope you can see the problem with this. And the problem with me.

You see, the greatest ideas in the world don’t make a story. They make a great description of an idea.

Stories are more than great ideas. They require great writing. In fact, without great writing, stories are dull and lifeless, and even the greatest idea in the world cannot save it. The writing is what makes the idea come alive to the reader. It’s describing a pretzel as flour, water, yeast, and salt, twisted and baked for 20 mins vs describing a pretzel as warm, chewy nirvana that Hindu street vendors sell during blisteringly cold Decembers in Philadelphia.

The interesting thing is that query letters are really all about the idea, the concept. I wonder if people get caught up in this. Then the writing disappoints, and the partial is rejected.

Seems like I’ve been a ton of time working on the ideas, figuring out all the plot details, worrying about story structure, but used barely any effort working on my writing. Not just sentences, but more about how I approach a scene, what’s said, what’s felt, what’s not just happening in the physical plane, but what’s happening on the emotional level, and not just for the POV character.

The truth of the matter is that great ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can think of some characters and some complications, some trick that ties it all together, some great piece of technology or magic. But what sells is writing. Vivid scenes. Relatable characters you care about. Something that captures the reader from the first word and refuses to let them go. (Let’s not go overboard here…the ideas behind the story have to be original and captivating, otherwise your characters have nothing interesting to do). I think that great writing sells a lot more books than great ideas.

So to summarize, ideas don’t sell the writing, the writing sells the ideas.

Or, in other words, the more I learn about writing, the more I learn that I don’t know shit about writing.

PS. I find it interesting that I don’t have a blog category called “Writing Technique.” Hmm…

Friday, May 27, 2011

Plotting Vs. Pantsing

pauly-want-a-pantsingOkay. For my last few NaNoWriMo novels (Steam Palace, Dead Air) and my screenplay, I’ve been a plotter. Meaning, I’ve plotted out most of the major scenes and turning points of the story. Plotting is a process by which you can create a roadmap for your story so you don’t spend time exploring dead ends or trying to ram a character into a situation that “needs” to happen. I’m a firm believer in plotting as a way to do a lot of the structural work of the story before you sit down and write it. It’s particularly effective for Nano or Script Frenzy since whatever work you do beforehand is that much less you need to do as you’re writing.

So I have a confession to make. For Girl World, I… pantsed it! *cringe* Don’t hit me!

Okay, in fairness, it’s not like I sat down on Day One and wrote a novel from scratch. I’ve had the concept in my head since December. I’ve written a few thousand words of backstory, written from the 1st person POV of the main character. In fact, I didn’t start out to write a novel at all.

That’s the thing. It just happened. I would write a scene, figuring I could stop, but suddenly the next scene would come to me just like that. It’s like a mythical Muse sat on my shoulder directing my thoughts, telling me the story in my head. I knew in the back of my mind that there would be an Ordeal. I knew there would be a Climactic scene at the end. I had about four ideas of where the story would go, but it went in its own direction.

And frankly, I think it’s the best story (first-draft) I’ve written, way better than last year’s NaNoWriMo (Dead Air).

I think part of it is becoming crucially aware of elements of story-telling such as Story Structure, Conflict, and Characterization. My characters have deep, desperate needs, fears, and desires. They are faced with impossible choices. And it doesn’t hurt that this is essentially a superhero story. Grett discovers she has secret powers…powers that can hurt the ones she loves if used improperly. So there’s the eternal temptation to use your superpowers to your advantage.Which is why my main character must have a firm moral grounding. It’s a classic YA theme.

So now what? How do I feel about the whole plotting vs. pantsing debate? Pretty mixed. I think it helped that I planned this story to be short. There’s only one POV. There are very few subthreads. Maybe this is the way to go in the future. We’ll see. There have been some stories that I’ve pantsed (The Immortals) that stalled because I didn’t know where the story should go. 

I guess the lesson here is just do what feels right.

Monday, May 23, 2011

So I Wrote Another Novel…In a Week…

alien hairThe hell with NaNoWriMo. Who needs 30 days when it only takes 10 or so?

Yes, I’ve spent the last few days furiously writing a new story. Yeah, I was kind of planning to write this particular story for NaNo, but I’m taking a writing class and I thought it would be fun to bring in some new material instead of rehashing Steam Palace all the time. So I wrote a chapter a couple weeks ago. Then I had another opportunity to share and I started writing another chapter, and the concept hooked me so much that I literally could not stop writing it.

Some of you might remember this post about my “Girl World” concept:
Every New Beginning

Go ahead, re-read it. I’ll wait. Done? That’s the story I wrote. One female main character. Three female main supporting characters. About 10 more named female characters. One boy. One evil man. And a head of alien hair. 45K words (yeah, a little short for NaNo, but tons of space for revisions!)

Here’s the three-sentence “teaser” I came up for it:

When human/alien hybrid Grett Hawk has a bad hair day, her hair tries to strangle her and murder her classmates. It’s already infected her best friend with alien DNA behind her back. Grett must learn to master her alien side before it wrecks her family and invites a destructive alien invasion force into their city.

Yeah, I know. Where’s the “Girl World” part of it?

Let’s try a longer version.

After a devastating fire destroys her school, Grett Hawk, an ordinary warrior girl, must transfer to a exclusive academy full of stuck-up city princesses and scientific wizardesses. She’s intimidated until she discovers a secret—she can control the color, length, and texture of her own hair…and her hair responds to her thoughts. Her new wizardess friend Brin uncovers the truth: Grett is far from ordinary. She is an alien/human hybrid living in a city of humans, with the ability to alter any part of her body at will. But sometimes, her alien side takes over and acts without Grett’s conscious knowledge, such as injecting Brin with alien DNA…or trying to slice Brin’s head off when she gets too close to learning Grett’s true nature. Together, they seek to find out who Grett is and why she has been sent here, and why there is a boy in town with the same abilities as Grett, a boy whose kisses ignite the fire in Grett’s semi-alien heart.

GIRL WORLD is a 45,000 word YA Science Fiction novel set in a far futuristic world where males are nearly extinct.

Okay, I don’t love that. Well, I still have a few revisions to go before I need to worry about a query letter. BTW that picture is how I imagine Brin and Grett…at least before Grett’s hair goes crazy.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I Won Script Frenzy 2011!

imageThe final tally: 107 pages, with a day to spare. I probably wrote on ~20 of those days, since I went to a convention among other things.

Not sure how I feel right now. Definitely glad to have a First Draft. Now I have a real clear roadmap as to what I want this story to be. I don’t have a specific revision plan for it yet, but here are some general steps:

  • Let it rest for a few weeks at least.
  • Formulate a plan for revision.
  • Identify all areas requiring further research.
  • Send it to a couple alpha readers (mostly family) for revision ideas.
  • Research screenplay format so I can present the best screenplay I can (I kinda winged it).
  • Try to acquire more family stories to add more authenticity to it. Sometimes it’s the small details that matter.

Next week I’ll post some analysis of how I felt about screenplay story structure and how well I thought it worked. But for now I just want to sit back and enjoy my accomplishment. Smile

Monday, April 18, 2011

Halfway to a Script

frogsSo far, who knows? Hard to believe all the things in my script already: Gambling schemes, train wrecks, spies, hostile insurgents, vicious soldiers, and religious overtones. And I’m only halfway. And since this is the 18th day of Script Frenzy…I’m actually behind.

One thing I’m struggling with is scenes. My whole script is supposed to have ~40 scenes. I think I have ~50 so far. Part of this is how I define scene vs shot. It’s one of those screenwriting things I’ll have to learn. I think the trick is to make each scene do more and have fewer of them. Each scene should be ~3 pages. Revision’s going to be a bitch.

Speaking of religion, I watched a show yesterday that tried to come up with rational, scientific explanations for the Ten Plagues and some aspects of the story of Moses. They provided explanations that derived from a sudden climate change that year, since most of the effects were biological (swarms, disease). Then at the end of a show, a rabbi came on and said (paraphrasing), “does it really matter that any of these things actually happened? The story is what’s important, and the lessons demonstrated therein. Scientific inquiry is all well and good, but it’s not what the story is about. It’s not going to teach you anything.” (For the record I disagree with that assessment because I think any line of legitimate scientific inquiry has merit…in this case it could be a lesson in the dangers of climate change.)

This is what I’m doing with my own story. Does it really matter that I create an accurate accounting of my cousin’s journey? Should I just stick to the facts? Or is the important thing the story, the reasons for the journey and why the outcome is important? If we can look at the Bible as metaphorical rather than literal, then why not any history? A history book tells us the X, Y, and Z’s of who did what to whom. A story tells us why all these things happened and how they impacted the people who lived through those times. (Personally I think the Bible is more a series of stories based on certain events and folklore, but not an actual accounting of real events).

The “story” of my cousin isn’t a list of events and travails. It’s the tale of a man trying to come to grips with his own sense of self, of remaining steadfast to a single goal, to persevere when it looks like all hope is lost (starting in approximately 20 pages from now). So I’m going to create events and characters that clearly demonstrate this commitment.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pitch Contest

I’m posting the obligatory link to YAtopia’s Pitch Contest with Natalie Fischer.

It’s open ‘til April 21 or first 150 entries.

Good luck!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lessons from Screenwriting: Act I

Screenwriting-101Well, it’s been an interesting 8 days so far. I’m a little bit behind, but I’m not concerned. It’s taking a while to really get this screenwriting thing going. It’s such a different medium than literature. Everything is so condensed, so every line is critical. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Screenwriting, like pimpin’, ain’t easy. There’s no convenient inner dialog, there’s almost no description, yet it requires the same emotional content as any writing. I’ve realized there’s something I call “embodied debate” where a character’s inner conflict must somehow be demonstrated with external action or dialog. It must be given voice. I have to create situations that demonstrate the internal struggle and the stakes, even if those situations never happened.
  2. Show, don’t tell x 1000. I suppose a narrator could blab, or like Star Wars, a long bunch of words could introduce the scene: In 1911, a young man sets foot on America, and over the next 9 years, blah blah blah. Then in 1920, he receives a letter. Open scene.
    Meh. But, for instance, how do I reveal the content of the letter without just throwing it up on the screen? In a novel I could just include it. Here ya go. (Not to mention the fact that the letter was written in Yiddish).
  3. Backstory? We don’t need no stinkin’ Backstory! Sure, I can throw dates up on the screen, do the whole “10 Years Ago in the Old Country” bit. Maybe I will upon revision. But I’m throwing it in like a drive-by shooting. Here a sentence, there an argument over the past. But it’s impossible to include an explanation of who the characters are, what their relationships are, what they do for a living, etc. It just needs to come out in the dialog.
  4. Nothing goes to plan. I spent a month thinking about all the scenes I could write. I looked at screenwriting books that screamed that I needed 40 scenes divided into fifteen major “beats”. Whatevs. Did I ever mention that I’m a natural pantser? Within the first couple days I threw out all the cards. Why? Because the story was boring, just a dude filling out paperwork and dealing with red tape. There was no emotional content, just a sense of vague frustration. This is a guy who has to go up against hostile forces and bad weather, not to mention backstabbing traitorous “friends.” Red tape bedamned! This is not a police procedural, it’s a gutsy drama. It’s not important how he gets the passport, what’s important is that he’s woefully unprepared for the  journey. So show that.
  5. Unlosing my religion. I’m not a religious person. The last time I went to a service outside a wedding or funeral was a 9/11 memorial service. I barely give a thought to the holidays. I don’t feel that my MC is particularly religious. But while doing the research for this story, I revisited Judaism, subjects and events that I hadn’t thought about since before my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13. Many of the major events of the story coincide with major Jewish holidays. While perhaps a coincidence, I can’t ignore this low-hanging fruit. So my MC may have a crisis of faith along with everything else that’s going on. It feels cheesy, but I can’t help but think that he’s going to experience an affirmation of his faith.

So what happened is that a couple days ago I was stuck; the story was going nowhere. I made a decision to just throw out about 8 pages and rewrite—something you’re technically not supposed to do during Script Frenzy. Whatevs. If the story isn’t working, do what you need to do to get it on track.

Another thing I did was to make a decision about the style of the story. I know this isn’t “my” story. It’s the story of a cousin (2x removed) of mine. But the thing is, I have my own style. I write how I write. I’ve written SF, Steampunk, Mystery, Spy Thrillers, etc., but they all have a similar feel. I realized that I have to write how I write. I have to write stories in the way that I enjoy, that motivate me. I needed to make this my story. My style, my pace, my types of conflicts. Once I made that decision, the pages suddenly started to flow. Characters crept out of the woodwork into importance. It may not be true to the “story”, but it’s true to me.

So on to Act II. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Script Frenzy!

ScriptFrenzy_468x60Yes, like Yahoo! the name includes a bang (!).

Script Frenzy! is a month-long excursion into the art of writing a screenplay. It’s sponsored by the same folks who bring us NaNoWriMo, but the goal is to write 100 pages of script in 30 days. Easy? Hard? Who knows, I’ve never written a script.

For me, script writing has some key differences from novel writing. The first is length and scope. A script’s story is more compact. Much of the “story” is told through the camera. The length is equivalent to a 20,000 word story. Second, the POV is obviously 3rd cinematic, told only through dialog and action, therefore a character’s thoughts and motivations must be shown. Third, unlike telling a reader about concepts and themes, you’re giving a director and actors specific directions. And lastly, since the actual number of words in a script is so small, every single word must count. Every scene must have a purpose, every character must contribute and be essential.

So wish me luck as I work towards that elusive 100 pages!
Click on the image above to “friend” me if you’re doing Script Frenzy too!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Interjections! Excitement! Emotion!

interjectionsInterjections (Aw!) show excitement (Darn!) or emotion (Hurray!).
They're generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point,
Or by a comma when the feeling's not as strong.
  –Schoolhouse Rock

Well, it’s time for a little bit of honesty here. After all the excitement! of getting requests for Steam Palace from agents, the response so far has been less than enthusiastic. Damn!

A couple of the rejections have been nice without any kind of feedback except the “it’s not quite right for me” to the depressing “needs editing, show don’t tell” kind. I’m still waiting to hear back from a few more agents, but I’m getting the sense that it’s not quite “there” yet. Flibbertigibbet!

I had another epiphany last week during during a local talk by Bill Kenower, editor of Author Magazine. He was talking about the “Rules of Writing” (BTW one of his  is, “there are no rules”), and he presented this one:

  • Feel First, Write Second

Which is to say, “write the emotional change(journey) of the character, not the physical change of the scene.” I went, “huh?”  I’d never thought of it that way. I’m a procedural, “this happens then that then he says this etc.” Like a programmer: x=x+1;

Here’s what he said (paraphrasing): “What does it feel like for your POV character to do all these things in a scene? Don’t just report on the rain, let the reader know what the rain feels like.”

I don’t know what happened, but I had a “light bulb” moment. Yes! I’ve been aware of “show don’t tell” for a long time, and really struggled with it (as do many writers) because my mind pictures the activity of the scene as if I’m a faraway observer. I’ve thought about putting a “camera” over a character’s shoulder, in their eyes, above the room, but I now see that maybe all those directions are wrong. Consarnit!

Maybe what I need to do is turn the damn! camera around and point it at my POV character’s heart. And keep it pointed there. Because what happens outside of their heart doesn’t matter. Maybe this is a key piece of “show, don’t tell” (or deep POV).

So I went through a scene and added all kinds of emotive language. The scene now just feels different. It doesn’t read like my writing, and I feel like I’m being hammered with my character’s emotions. The thing I’m worried about is that all this new emotive language is just telling on a new level—telling the reader the emotions. Curses!

So the jury’s still out. I don’t think that this is my only issue with Steam Palace but at least it’s something I can work on.(Reducing word count, scene transitions, suspension of disbelief are some other issues, For the Love of All that is Holy!).

Interjections show excitement or emotion,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah... YEA!

Darn! That's the end!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Writing a Script

Film-Script-WritingSo in preparation for writing a script for my History Story, I’ve been been practicing by trying to script out scenes from Steam Palace. Below is my attempt at the first scene. You can read the original scene here. Here are my observations about the process so far.

  1. It took me 4 pages to script out 5 written pages. Since my ms. is 386 pages, that translates to a ~300 page script, the equivalent of a 5-hour movie (miniseries?).
  2. My novel has 97 scenes. A movie script is ~40. I’d have to cut over half my scenes…which may also help figuring out how to reduce my novel down to 100K words. Still, it’s a lot of story to leave out.
  3. I’ve been reading some scripts for major motion pictures. These are available online through sites like,, I’ve found that scripts aren’t the dry, emotionless set of directions I thought they were. Here’s an example from Jurassic Park:
    1. Lodged in the cracked earth are the partially-exposed fossilized remains
      of A VELOCIRAPTER, a carnivorous dinosaur. WIDEN OUT to a SWEEPING
      PANORAMA of a dinosaur dig, a major excavation filled with workers
      shoveling earth and stone, making measurements, taking photographs,
      scribbling notes, and conferring with each other.

      The center of all this activity is one man. In a roped-off area that
      circumscribes the exposed bones of the raptor, is DR. ALAN GRANT, head
      paleontologist. Good-looking, late 30's, with a think beard.

      Grant lies on his belly, completely absorbed in a small piece of bone.
      A GROUP OF TWELVE STUDENTS, notebooks in hand, await his next sentence.

  4. I felt I needed to add something to the scene. In my original scene, I don’t include Dunstan, the evil Duke. But from studying movies for the last few weeks, I realize that it’s critical that the “enemy” be introduced as early as possible. The audience needs to be able to identify the conflict and stakes right away. I also thought it might be a good way to show the audience the significance of Thomas’ act in saving the Queen.

  5. It was actually pretty fun picturing the scene as a movie scene. I think it also helps by showing me what’s truly important in a scene. I don’t plan to script the entire novel, but just to use some scenes as practice.

So here is the script I came up with. Sorry for the horrible formatting.
               EXT. HIGH ABOVE GROUND- DAY

               AIRMAN peers through a scope from the bow of a gondola. A
               white dirigible balloon suspends the gondola. He takes notes.


               WE ZOOM THROUGH SCOPE to focus on second airship just above
               the horizon.

               The second airship dissolves in a burst of flames and drops
               to the forest below. A boom sounds many seconds later.


               RETURN BACK TO AIRMAN's face. He is horrified

               AIRMAN pulls levers and we hear a loud mechanical hum.

                                                                CUT TO:


               FOREST CLEARING


               PAN OVER burning wreckage and mangled bodies.

               We hear a hum then an airship descends. AIRMAN jumps out and
               examines bodies, all dead. Many are burned or dismembered. He
               finds two bodies with throats cut, obviously not from crash.
               He pulls out his weapon and assumes a defensive posture. He
               examines grass with bloodstains and trots off.

                                                                CUT TO:


               DEEP FOREST

               AIRMAN finds an 8-legged crawling war-machine with mounted
               cannon pointing toward smoking wreckage. Machine carries Nazi
               like markings.

               In the distance we hear tortured screams.

               AIRMAN turns and advances toward a black hole in ground.

                                   MALE VOICE (O.S., EUROPEAN ACCENT)
                         You will provide us the location of
                         the Sea Key. We know the Southland
                         hides it.

                                   FEMALE VOICE (O.S., SOUTHERN ACCENT)
                         There ain't no such thing. It's a

                                                          FOLLOW AIRMAN


               INT. DARK CAVE

               Visible are: QUEEN MAGNOLIA, a black woman impaled by a
               infernal torture device with spikes and with her clothing in
               bloody remnants; REICHLAND CAPTAIN wearing Nazi-like uniform
               operates device; and REICHLAND DOCTOR tends two wounded men
               on the floor. Flickering torches provide light. AIRMAN hides
               and watches.

               Quietly AIRMAN checks his weapon. He winces at the screams of
               the woman. His breath quickens, his hand tightens. His head
               nods as if rehearsing his moves.

               AIRMAN jumps into room, fires at: CAPTAIN,  DOCTOR, then two
               wounded men. CAPTAIN and DOCTOR slide to floor. QUEEN
               MAGNOLIA gasps in pain, unable to speak. AIRMAN holsters
               weapon and examines the torture device. He pulls a lever to
               release her and QUEEN MAGNOLIA stumbles forward. He catches
               her in his arms. They embrace as she sobs.

                         Please, Your Majesty, I must wrap
                         your wounds.

               QUEEN MAGNOLIA nods and releases him. AIRMAN finds a medical
               bag and pulls out supplies. QUEEN MAGNOLIA stumbles into a
               chair, fighting for calm. He wraps her bleeding torso with
               infinite care and respect. He stops when her reaches her
               breasts, but she cringes and nods. He finishes.

                                   AIRMAN (CONT'D)
                         I must protect your modesty.

               He pulls off his jacket and helps her into it.

                                   QUEEN MAGNOLIA
                         Thank you kindly.

                         My Queen, pardon my insolence, but
                         I must inform you--I intend to hold
                         you prisoner in the name of my lord
                         Duke Killingworth.

               Her face turns to rage.

                                   QUEEN MAGNOLIA
                         You rescued me only to go capture
                         me yourself? What kinda soldier are
                         you? Where's your loyalty?

                         My deepest apologies. The Duke
                         would have my head if I lost this

               She spits blood on the ground.

                                   QUEEN MAGNOLIA
                         And what would your King do to you
                         when he discovers this here

               AIRMAN blinks.



               WOUNDED ENEMY on the ground shakily lifts up a revolver and
               shoots. Blood explodes from AIRMAN's knee. He falls. QUEEN
               MAGNOLIA pulls gun from AIRMAN's holster and dispatches
               WOUNDED ENEMY. She turns the gun back to AIRMAN.

                                   QUEEN MAGNOLIA (CONT'D)
                         Oh lord, oh lord.

               AIRMAN holds out hand to her in self-defense. He gasps in

                         Please. Take my flyer. Can you

               QUEEN MAGNOLIA nods.

                                   AIRMAN (CONT'D)
                         It is back where you crashed. Fly
                         west to the river and then south to
                         New York. Hurry, the Duke is en
                         route. I swear if you do this, you
                         can evade him and return to the

               QUEEN MAGNOLIA hesitates, then stumbles from the cave. AIRMAN
               wraps his knee. Something glistens in the corner. He slides
               over and grasps it. It is a blue pendant in the shape of a
               swan. He stashes it in his clothes and then appears to sleep.

                                                         FADE TO BLACK.


               EXT. OUTSIDE OF CAVE

               Two men in the same uniform as the AIRMAN hold him on his

               AIRMAN is in obvious pain and cannot put weight on his
               injured left leg. A man in a regal uniform approaches him-
               the Duke (DUNSTAN).  DUNSTAN slaps AIRMAN in the face. A
               trickle of blood seeps from the AIRMAN's mouth.

                         How could you? How could you allow
                         the Demon Queen to escape? The very
                         witch who seduced our King? Did she
                         use her witchcraft upon you?

               AIRMAN's shakes head and cringes, fearing another blow.

                                   DUNSTAN (CONT'D)
                         Captain Thomas Putnam, you are a
                         disgrace to your uniform. You are
                         hereby stripped of your commission
                         and discharged from the Aivy. That
                         Demon Queen has obviously corrupted
                         you and you are of no further use
                         to me.

               The men throw THOMAS to the ground. THOMAS holds his knee.
               The men walk off.

                         She is no demon! She is a flesh and
                         blood woman! We cannot continue
                         this persecution!

                         We will continue it until that
                         Demon lies dead at my feet and I
                         take my rightful place on the
                         throne of New Britannia.

                                                           DISSOLVE TO:



Monday, March 14, 2011

Okay, Well, Here It Is

opening dayWelcome to the new and improved “The WriteRunner”!

I’m calling this a “soft opening” as I still don’t have all the content moved over and categorized. I’m going to have some kind of “grand opening” at some point with a contest or blogfest (but don’t hold your breath).

But from now on, all new writing-related content will be posted here (and a helpful link to new posts will be posted on the old site).

Here is the main foci of this site:

  • Writing advice based on my own experiences ranging from story construction to publication.
  • Updates to what I’m currently working on and descriptions of previous projects.
  • Writing excerpts including some full short stories.
  • Guest bloggers.

So thank you for your interest, and I hope that you find this site useful, informative, and entertaining. Please feel free to add any suggestions or requests you have for the site.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movie Sign!

Just want to start out by saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan today as they deal with the earthquake and tsunami that hit them. Japanese popular culture seems riveted with the concept of disaster but no one actually wants it to happen. Please consider a donation to the Red Cross.

Movie Sign!

gamera11I’ve been going ahead with the idea of writing a movie script for the History Story I’m working on. I have a couple reasons for this:

  1. I feel that this is really a visual story with movement and action. It’s something that falls well into the movie format.
  2. Writing a novel may take more time than I’m willing to spend on the project.
  3. A lot of people have commented that my style is a bit “cinematic” so why not put it to the test? Probably not the greatest reason but it’s given my something to think about.
  4. The potential upside is greater.

One of the things I’ve done is read the scripting book “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. One of the exercises he suggests (among others) is to plot movies on a sheet of paper (a “beat sheet”) which contains all the major plot points. So for the last few mornings, I’ve sat with a form and watched Netflix movies and paused the movie every couple of minutes to make notes (which drives wife crazy). And amazingly enough, movies actually do follow the “beat” that Snyder has laid out. Almost down to the minute.

Note that many movies have a “beat” every ten minutes…when the reel changes (you can see a dot in the upper right corner of the film when this happens…but only in theaters). So the first reel is “setup”(Ordinary World), 2nd reel is “inciting incident,” and third is “break into Act II” (Crossing the First Threshold). There are 12 beats in all. Note that when the reel changes, the scene generally changes as well. Also note that the beats don’t correspond to the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey.

So far I’ve screened Defiance, Gamer, and Vertical Limit. I’m trying to stick to adventure-type movies as sort of a blueprint for my own movies. So far I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m going to develop a beat sheet for novels as well, and fill them out when I read them. Have any suggestions? (that I can see on Netflix steaming)

The next step will be more complicated. I may take a couple movies and do a scene-by-scene breakdown and build a movie chart that maps the movie by emotion and conflict. It will be tough but I think I can learn this. I’ll have to say that I’m probably never going to view movies the same again.

pirates knocked up shrek

Monday, February 21, 2011

Punctuation Schmunctuation

imageOkay, maybe I’m starting to reach for blog topics. It’s hard coming up with two of these every week. I’ve written something like 350 of these over the last few years, so after a while it’s hard to not keep running over the same old ground. But I think I’ve hit on one of those hidden gems that begs for a write-up: punctuation. Probably because it’s the most boring aspect of writing, yet it’s the one thing that seems to invoke the most passion.
This weekend, I almost got into a (another) punctuation argument with my critique group. About what? Single or double- space between sentences. A simple Google search reveals the answer: One space. Period. One space. Next sentence. However, about half the documents I review have two. I simply meant to remind them of the convention, because Word 2010 puts little green marks whenever I have a double-space. (Yes, I know I can turn it off but why?)
You would have thought I asked them to wear uniforms and salute. Use acid-free paper and dolphin-safe toner. Change the gender of their characters and call them Charley. I almost got my head chewed off. I just wanted to mention it and move on. “Uh, could you just use one space—” “NO! HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT! NEVER! NEVER NEVER NEVER! We’ll settle this in the parking lot!”

Yowza. Like, who cares? I just want my green marks to go away. I’ve had other people yell at me, “IT’S DOT-SPACE-DOT-SPACE-DOT, NOT …! DON’T USE CURLY ‘ USE ' ! USE -- NOT —!”

Sheesh! Does anyone know what editors truly want in electronic submissions? This kind of reminds me of the old days of programming, before there were any standards and when you wrote code in the simplest of text editors. The huge religious argument consisted of “tabs vs spaces vs 2 vs 4 space etc.” When to indent, how to format comments, even down to something called “Hungarian” which is precise rules to name code variables. I’ve endured argument over argument over the name of variables that are used maybe a couple of times. Nowadays, all those arguments are moot, because “smart editors” use company-wide templates and force your code to comply to a certain format. These are called “code beautifiers.” Nowadays, if you want to know what a variable does, hover your mouse over it. Who cares what it’s called?

Does something like this exist for manuscripts, that fixes all the crap authors put in there? Or does any of it really matter? Should we just be cool with writers using spaces to indent paragraphs, using l instead of 1, (that’s little L if you didn’t notice) and hitting line breaks at the end of each line? When are we going to enter the 2lst century?

Guess I should be glad that I’m actually getting electronic copies instead of typed or—gasp—handwritten entries. (Well, I still get handwritten feedback, but there’s only one space after those sentences).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don’t Be A Watson

watsonI’m going to talk about how the example of IBM’s Watson is a good object lesson on what not to do in your writing. Bear with me for a minute.

I was very impressed at how IBM’s creation Watson fared at Jeopardy. As a former computer scientist at places such as Google and Microsoft, I was actually more fascinated by Watson’s failures than its successes. Frankly, I was surprised that Watson didn’t answer every question correctly and faster than the humans. Watson missed obvious questions. To me, it seemed that the machine was great at trivia, the “fill in the blank” kind of questions. Things that any Google search can answer. But it failed at more complex problems, questions that involved things like metaphor and analogy, standard fare on SAT tests. It all led me to one conclusion:
We are still nowhere near achieving “artificial intelligence.”

Watson is just a machine, without emotion, drive, or ambition. I thought of a few questions I could easily ask it that it could never solve. “Who is standing to your left?” “How’s the lighting in here?” “Who does Ken Jennings remind you of?” “Fire! Please proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly manner.”

Yes, computer scientists have created something I call “programmed intelligence.” Intelligence in very specific domains, but as soon as you step outside the domain, the intelligence fails. Because “intelligence” isn’t just about recollection, computation, or pattern analysis. It’s much more about metaphor, symbolism, and relationships.
Think about a book for a moment. A book is really just a machine. It’s a Kindle with only one book available. The words are just dots of ink on the page that create letters. The letters form words, the words form sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Computers can be made to understand how to display and edit those letters and words, even spot incorrect ones. But a computer can never read a book and understand what’s in it. It can look up every word and phrase, but never truly comprehend the meaning, the story. And even a book can never judge your emotion reaction to the story and respond accordingly. There’s as much intelligence in Watson as in any book on your bookshelf.

There were other subtle things that Watson failed to do on Jeopardy. He couldn’t learn from his mistakes (yes, computers can be programmed to learn, but that’s the equivalent of fixing a typo). It seemed that the other contestants learned and began to challenge the machine on the third day. More importantly, Watson has no idea why he made mistakes to begin with. Watson has no insight, no self-awareness. Imagine if Alex Trebeck had said “incorrect” to Watson on even correct, obvious answers:
“Answer is: The color of the White House. Watson.”
“What is white?”
“Incorrect. Ken?”
“What is white?”
Watson would just hum along, completely oblivious. If Trebeck pulled that on Ken Jennings, he would storm off the stage or go after Trebeck’s throat.
So until we create a computer with emotion and true reasoning, we’ll never have intelligence, only super-fast trivia answerers.

So you’re wondering, “what does this have to do with my writing?”

The questions you should be asking yourself is, “How are my characters like Watson?” Do your characters react to their environment? Do they have their own agendas? Are they there just to provide other characters with information? Or are they living, reasoning creatures?

Another way to look at it is to ask, “What was at stake for Watson?” Yes, hundreds of computer scientists spent years on this project, but did Watson care? If there was indeed a fire alarm during taping, would Watson react? Do you think Watson really cared about how much money it earned? But every single character in your work cares about every interaction. There are stakes involved. They want something, and your other characters are either assistants or obstacles to those goals. Otherwise they are no better than the old books on your shelves.

So when you write your stories, keep one thing in mind: Don’t be a Watson.
NOTE: The writing content of this blog is moving soon! Check out the preview at The WriteRunner.