I was thinking how fascinated I was by the two-dimensional interfaces we use to create representations of three-dimensional objects. Which led me to wonder if you could use a one-dimensional interface to create a representation of a two-dimensional object.

My first reaction to that question was in the negative, but the more I thought about I realized that was wrong. Let’s think about our 2D interface, it could be as simple as a sketch on paper or a 3D software program like Maya. When we’re creating our 3D object, we can never see the opposite side. We have to rotate it around if we want to plot points for that side of the object. Well, the same thing holds for our 1D interface. Granted, we’ll be viewing our 2D objects along the side, but we can rotate them around in our single dimension to each side, and plot our points as we arrive at the pertinent side.

I’ve never heard of a 1D tool used to create 2D objects, but then I realized why. While we can see 2D objects, we don’t live in a 2D world. If you did – imagine yourself as a single point on a 2D plane – you would never visualize a square as we do in the 3D world, because that’s a 3D interpretation of a 2D object. From a 2D perspective, you would see only lines and points surrounding you. So, for a 2D creature, a 1D tool would be quite useful.

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As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

Writing After a HiatusUpon the times that I’ve returned to writing from a longer hiatus, I’ve exhibited the following, possibly unhealthy, pattern.

  1. Get story spark from divine events.* Hastily jot down notes on character and plot. Start writing.
  2. After two to four weeks, encounter the inevitable snarl. The writing is bogged down, going nowhere fast. Spend a session or two alternating between unsnarling, writing new scenes, destroying old ones, and beating head on desk.
  3. Step back and realize I failed while crafting original story outline, failed to think through motivations , sub-plots and things of this rudimentary ilk.
  4. Get disgusted with story. Start a new story, learning from my mistakes.
  5. Get it right. Pen masterpiece?

As experienced writers understand, momentum plays an enormous role in bringing about good writing. It keeps you on the edge of your game, thinking through all the elements of story a good writer needs to be thinking about. Remembering what you did in the last book, or last week, comparing it to what you just read, and so on. You’re in the zone of your craft, as it were.

If I take a break, then several of those perceptions and skills, some of the subtle, tend to shake loose and become misplaced. If I take a break, I need a practice round, something expendable. Or at least it becomes expendable in the process. I’ve never planned this, but looking back, I’ve recreated this pattern several times. You would think I would see it coming. No matter, it’s still something I have to do. The price I pay for taking a break. I should know better.

*And by divine, I mean mundane.

Writers have their rituals, don’t they? They have to have their cup of tea, or their blue Bic, or their yellow notepad, or their time of day, or they must be facing West.

I have fewer rituals than I once did. Now that I’m a parent, they’ve dwindled to simple ones like don’t-talk-to-me and can-we-not-scream-right-now. I also prefer to have a window or a big space in front of me (because I read something about it in a feng shui book once and it’s worked for me since).

I believe the writer’s rituals are important though, for two basic reasons.

First, we’re creating the circumstances for success by enforcing a kind of discipline, albeit one that is hiding behind superstition. Because ritual puts us into a routine, which in turn triggers our mind to say, “Okay, we’re in writer mode now, so the rest of you distracting thoughts clear out.” Like any habit, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

But second, this ritual is a kind of magic. Writing is an activity unlike virtually any other. To function in society, we have to wire our brains to speak to us in certain ways. There are certain logic connections we have to make, so that when we interact with others, everybody is on the same page. For example, if you tell me you’re ready to get out of here, I can infer you mean out of our immediate vicinity. I’m making a logical deduction based on context and past experience that you don’t mean the country or the planet. But, in writing, that kind of logic often hinders us whether we realize it or not. Our minds make enormous leaps between unlike objects to create things that are new and fresh and interesting. To harness that power we need a bit of magic. We need to believe in a little super power to craft strange new worlds. And if ritual can bring the lightning down, then by all means, wear the fuzzy Snoopy slippers that you keep tucked in a wooden box in the closet for just such an earth-rattling occasion.

When your internal monologue stops talking, you may feel free to show your novel to a friend, or a fiction-writing group, or a workshop. But not before. That internal monologue is a sign that your subconscious is still working out the story. If you show someone else  your work-in-progress while your inner story machine is still cranking, you’re dooming your work. Because, as insightful and as clever as your friend may be, they cannot share your vision. It’s your vision — born of subconscious needs that you most likely don’t understand, or at the most have a small inkling of. That’s what makes it your story. And when your friend finds a problem, and she will, she’s going to help you solve it with her vision. And now you’re off on a tangent that you can never cleanse. Someone else’s vision has now wormed it’s way into your story. It’s tainted. Out of whack. Doomed.

Curse or blessing, my internal monologue never stops anymore. It always has more to say, more, more….

So, I’d been jotting down notes on the new steampunk novel for some time now: world notes, character notes, plot notes, etc. All in one long, jumbled document. The process was feeling rather grand. But there came a point when I begin to wonder among the growing complexities, how was this all fitting together? At this point, I had about 15,000 words, all notes, completely disorganized.

I decided that I needed a tangible way of dealing with organizing the mess. I remember reaching this point with the last novel. Then, I reacted by sticking post-it notes all over the closet door. This time though, I printed out all of my notes and cut them up, sorted them all out on the dining room table, adding notes as they occurred to me and taping the whole thing together in a long strip. It was something of a painstaking process, but gloriously rewarding. I’m starting to find that, when searching for the right story flow, there’s a lot to be said for a) working with your hands and b) working it out on a big surface (instead of that tiny computer screen we stare out for too many hours a day).

What I would like to have honestly is a wall-sized touch computer screen that I can grab little notes and slide them around, make connections, write new notes, etc. (Guess what, when I’m the next Kurt Vonnegut, that’s exactly what I’ll have.)

Okay, I am now sending query letters out to agents for my steampunk novel. I have sent a grand total of two queries and received two rejections back. Which translates into me being completely unsatisfied with my query letter. I’ve shared the letter with a couple of other writers and considered their thoughtful feedback. But I’m still left wondering how to perfect the letter.

I’ve decided to try and do some free-form writing, essentially writing several versions quickly to see if I can’t better pinpoint those ideas and phrases that are going to help me sell this thing. I would much rather be working on the new novel. Story I understand. I don’t know what to call this. A sales-craft of sorts, but not one I’m all to thrilled about. Still, I am the essence of determination. At least, that’s what the voices in my head say.

I’m reading through Robert McKee’s book on film writing, Story, which came recommended to me through a gaming podcast (that was discussing writing RPG modules of all things). I’m enjoying it so far, finding that most of it resonates with my own ideas of story, while also picking up some gems of insight.

McKee said something about the differences between the optimistic Hollywood approach to story versus the pessimistic European “art film” approach:

Americans are escapees from prisons of stagnant culture and rigid class who crave change. We change and change again, trying to find what, if anything, works. After weaving the trillion-dollar safety net of the Great Society, we’re now shredding it.

This statement seemed to mirror some of my own attitudes, particularly in my youth, when I was constantly challenging everything, often before I even really understood it. I would change a writing convention just because, at a subconscious level, I believed change was somehow in and of itself good. And honestly, although this may have been a personal rite of passage that I had to go through, I feel this wasted a lot of my time.

That’s not to say that I believe in adhering to traditional standards, because “they work damn’t!” It’s just to say, I wish I had understood some things about the way art works better with a thoughtful consistency and structure (whatever that arbitrary consistency is).

It’s not that change is bad. It can be wonderful. But it just seems like the wrong focus, that pulls energy away from where your artistic sweat and blood should be going. A good artist doesn’t lose sleep over whether his message is the arbiter of change. He worries about whether it’s the right message. Or least, an interesting one.

What is it with this maxim in creative writing to only use the word “said” for describing the action of dialogue? I hear this time and time again, and I’m just not buying it. Are words like” shouted” and “whispered” so distracting? But I wouldn’t stop there. I enjoy creative options like “spat” and” sobbed,” as well. The argument, I guess, is that readers are so easily distracted by interesting language that the moment they read that someone “chided” another, they’re immediately disconnected from the story. Really? Doesn’t descriptive language help to connect us more to a scene? Sure, you can go overboard with descriptive language and overwhelm the reader, but that’s really not what we’re talking about here. It’s a single verb. I feel like this is a case of either a) the ol’ bandwagon, or b) underestimating readers.

Caveat: I was an English teacher briefly and may well be one in the future.

I just finished with all editing notes. It took me about six months. Wow. (Many, many notes were added during the process.) The final phase is the language edit. I will soon go through and ensure all the language is polished and interesting. I have a really good feeling about the book right now. I could probably start shopping it around, but I want to make double sure everything is perfect.

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