What Does the Cop Say?

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Inside the armored tank, gifted to the Lynnwood PD from the war in Afghanistan.

Inside the armored tank, gifted to the Lynnwood PD from the war in Afghanistan.

A little over thirteen weeks ago, at 7 pm on a Thursday night, I walked into the Lynnwood Courthouse for my first night of Citizen’s Academy. This 13 week course—three hours, once per week—covered a huge range of services and departments in the Lynnwood system, focusing primarily in police work.

I have to admit: that first night was pretty boring. It’s like that first day of a new semester, going over the abnormal psych syllabus, over viewing general material and minutiae. You get these teasers. Anxiety disorders. Schizophrenia. Spring break.

Except our syllabus looked more like: Homicide investigations. Narcotics. Why are there so many registered sex offenders in my neighborhood?

One thing that surprised me was the wide range of motivations in my fellow Academites. The half dozen or so high school kids getting credit for sacrificing a night a week. The old women who seemed to be there in order to tell the police all the things wrong with their neighborhoods. The Russian transplant looking to change his negative views of police officers and the legal system.

Honestly, I thought there’d be more writers. Because it’s an excellent course. Thirteen weeks, absolutely free (they even provide bad coffee and decent snacks), and you get hands on experience in a field that can be used in every. Damned. Genre. You guys, I have so many notes. Tons and tons of notes. All night my fingers would be tapping a lovely thump-thump on my iPad as I struggled to keep up with the fast-paced detectives, or coordinate taking pictures of the suitcase full of munitions.

My favorite presentation was K9 night. After a brief lecture, we gathered up our stuff and made our way outside, where an officer sporting a training arm (basically a bunch of foam around a tube) faced off with the highly trained beast. That dog can grip. It was also patently obvious how well it’s handler controls him. The dog only responds to its owners voice, obeys commands almost before they’re out of the officer’s mouth, and is will not let go unless ordered to. It can also track like a fucking champ.

I can’t recommend this class enough. It’s a yearly thing, and I get the impression it fills up pretty fast. You may not agree with police tactics. You may already be well-versed in the ways a police department works. Maybe you’re not a writer, and you’re reading my blog because your favorite brony slash site crashed. Whatever. This class gave me insight and a lot of tactile experience I can’t pick up from any amount of online research.

Like the depressing pall pervading the halls of the jail.

How very loud and very bright a flash bang can be.

And what it feels like to watch a girl, barely old enough to drink, get put into a cop car in cuffs because she was stupid enough to take up with a junkie.

On that cheery note, I’m signing off.

April Writing Challenge

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20140309-094659.jpgThis is my first post from my iPad app, so please forgive any formatting errors. Errors in content are completely my fault, though.

Next month my boss is going on a ten day trip to Thailand (cue jealous squealing) leaving me with little to do in the way of paid work for well over a week. What’s a writer to do with so much free time? Well, write a book, of course!

I’ve been working on an outline for an NA time travel romance, but I haven’t felt any exact pressure to get it completed. It’s kind of nebulous, which has been nice when dealing with extraneous life bullshit (I’m looking at you, recently cracked radiator) but doesn’t help much in the way of getting the project fleshed out. Deadlines. I love them, and not in the Douglas Adams way.

That gives me about thirty days to get a full outline and some character sheets done. Eminently doable.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year for…five years? More? But I’ve never tried writing something book length in any shorter amount of time than a month. It’ll be an interesting experiment, and I’m curious to see how I fare with the deep immersion this exercise will require. I think showers, and maybe pants, will become a thing of distant memory. And don’t even mention housecleaning, a task I detest in the best of times.

So, that’s the plan. Wish me luck; I think I’m going to need it!

Update and Kittens!

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From Kevin Dooley

I’ve been a very busy writer bee these days. I recently sent of Struck by Chocolate to a critique group, and will be hearing feedback from them in a couple weeks. I sent in a contract to Daily Science Fiction for my story “If You Want the Rainbow”; not sure when that will be out but I’ll post the link here when it happens. I’ve finished two short stories this year–one which sucks and one which [I think] is pretty cool. I’m in the middle of a third, which I’m enjoying immensely. And now I’m outlining a new novel! (Time traveling, hackers, human trafficking and tons of romance.)

From Brian Costelloe

It helps to see all those things laid out, because here it is the end of February and–as always–it doesn’t feel like I’ve been doing much. Which isn’t true at all. I set these really lofty goals for myself, and because the goals are so damn high, I don’t always reach them. Then, on not reaching them, I feel like I should have tried harder. But if I’d tried harder, sacrificed the time I spend doing other, non writing things, I think I’d go a little crazy. So, balance is good. Cause I like not being crazy.

I’m really falling behind in my book reading goals, having only finished 8 books this year. Goodreads says I am one book behind schedule in my 60 book year reading goal. I have to mention the book I’m reading right now, though. First to Burn, by Anna Richland (whom I work with on ECWC, and is part of the GSRWA) is a romantic paranormal suspense. An immortal viking stationed in Afghanistan, an army doctor, and drug smuggling. It’s a fun plot, but even more than that I just love her writing, and the way she uses the setting and these character’s backgrounds to really flesh out the internal monologue. Everything these characters think feels really appropriate and genuine for who they are. I like it so much I’ve inadvertently been reading it really slow, to savor it.

From Mohammed Al-Jawi

On Thursday nights I’ve been attending the Citizen’s Academy, which is a thirteen week course put on by a nearby police department. Once a week, for three hours, I sit in the courtroom and learn about the different facets of the police department. From the traffic division, to a tour of jail cells, to a K9 demonstration. It’s been super informative, and I already have a ton of notes and inspiration. There’s a good chance a PD near you offers a similar program, if that sounds as awesome to you as it did to me.

Along with minor house stuff, some directed journalling and spending more time with the supercool people I’m lucky enough to have in my life, (and working and commuting) my time seems to evaporate quicker than ever. But I take comfort in knowing I have something (albeit mostly Scrivener documents) to show for it.

Productivity App for Geeks and Gamers: HabitRPG

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Not this kind of habit, although I would TOTALLY play that game.

Back in the day (2+ years ago) I was very averse to getting and using a smartphone. I used a BlackBerry for my work, but the UI was so clunky and non-user friendly that I only used the available apps/access to internet when I was in dire straits. I liked my flip phone for it’s streamlined functions, its ease of use, its long battery life. Besides, being connected all the time? Distracting, at best.

Then my boss replaced my BlackBerry with an iPhone, and I was hooked. We’re an Apple household, here, so the ability to have so much information move seamlessly from phone to laptop to desktop and back was a major selling point. Plus, the email actually worked, the internet connected when I needed it to, and the design of the phone was aesthetically appealing. Still, I pushed back against the proliferation of apps that was making everyone crazy. I didn’t need to download a bunch of weird programs. I was happy with email, internet and phone.

Then I got hooked on audiobooks. Then podcasts. Then GoodReads and Kindle and Pandora. Now, I’m at a point where I can see so many awesome things coming out of the app store.

Like HabitRPG for example.

This little app first came to my attention when I saw a fellow writer mention how productive she’d been that day, because she wanted to hatch an egg in the game. I’m pretty geeky, love fantasy, and love productivity hacks, so I checked it out. And it. Is. Awesome.

You get a character. The personalization options are pretty slim, but the artwork is all pretty 8-bit style, so it fits the theme. Like any good RPG, your character has a health bar, an experience bar, and a purse, all of which are effected by the tasks described below.

You have three columns to which you can add Things That Need Doing: Habits, Dailies and To-Dos. Habits are things you need to do every day (floss, eat your vegetables, vacuum the cat). Dailies can be either things you need to do every day, and want to be very mindful of (write a postcard, 500 new words) or things you do on specific days (call Mom on Sundays, try a new recipe on Thursdays). And To-dos are one-ffs (rearrange bedroom, burn the evidence). Every time you complete a task, you get a little XP and some coins. When you neglect your tasks, your health gets dinged. Habits keep you healthy.

Then in your fourth column you get rewards. A few of these are proscribed by the game, like healing potions and swords. But you can also make your own rewards, like an episode of your favorite TV show, or a bowl of ice cream. Each reward costs some of your gold and–theoretically–you won’t indulge in those rewards without earning them in-game by being productive in your real life.

For more advanced users, there are guilds and quests and challenges and parties. I haven’t messed with that part of the site yet. Still getting my bearing with the basics.

For anyone who likes watching those bars move around, anyone that needs an extra kick to get moving, or anyone who needs reminders to do things (I forget to floss all the time) this could be a great tool. Even after just a few days I’ve seen a noticeable uptick in my productivity, and remembering to do those little things that I think are good for me, physically and mentally. The feedback comes in a friendly, nostalgic and familiar way, which just feeds my desire to do more things and get more points.

And also keep my character from dying. That’s be nice.

Do you use HabitRPG? Tell me about your experience. Know a better productivity hack? I’m always open to new ways to try and improve things in my brainspace; let me know!

Revising Struck by Chocolate Part 3: Color-coding for fun and profit

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In case you missed them, check out part one and part two.

When I’m mid-project, Scrivener never closes. It’s always there, lurking in the background, luring me away from Pinterest and Netflix, reminding me how easy it is to go back to my novel or short story with just a swish of the fingers. I make a home in the project, get familiar with the scenes, the (usually mislabeled) chapter folders, the rhyme and reason of the program itself. I’m at the point now where writing in Word feels hella weird.

I’ve had Struck by Chocolate open for months, now. Yesterday, around three, I closed it. Revisions are done and the manuscript is off to readers!

I’m a little bit happy.

On to the spreadsheet! In the last post I showed you how I organize my spreadsheet. Once all the pieces are in place, it’s time to evaluate. Here’s the spreadsheet pre-evaluation, with the red squares indicating serious problems that jumped out at me as I was organizing the scenes:

SBC Reoutline 1

And here is the spreadsheet post-evaluation:

Reoutline 3

Those ugly beige squares? In Excel they’re a nice vibrant green. Not sure what happened there.

So, beige = plot or subplot that is referenced in a given scene. The white spaces are where the plot or subplot is not mentioned. (Dur. I know.) And the yellow bars indicate where the plot or subplot has not been mentioned for what I think is an unreasonable amount of time. Those are the important spots to look at. I don’t want to drop a character or a subplot for too long, because then the reader may either A) get distracted wondering where that character or subplot ran off to, or B) forget that character or subplot existed, so when it comes back into play they have to work harder to figure out what they’re reading. I don’t want make my reader work like that.

With all this in place, I now see major flaws in characterization/motivation/POV/etc. with my red boxes, and gaps in story with my yellow. I started by fixing the red boxes.

For example, the topmost red square relates to a scene in which my MFC is talking to her mom, who mentions a dinner she is hosting that Friday night. That dinner would have happened right in the middle of a very busy time for the MFC, and I didn’t have a good reason for her to tie that time away from her work. I had to add a compelling motivation for that to make more sense to me, so I made it a birthday dinner.

After the red squares are more or less eradicated, it’s time to look at the yellow bars. I don’t need to mention every character and every subplot in every scene. That would be a jumbled mess of awful. I went through, scene by scene, analyzing both what the scene is, and what character or subplot needs mentioning, and decided whether or not I could conceivably drop in a line or two about the missing pieces. That’s all it takes. Just a mention, a reference, to add both verisimilitude to the interactions and internal dialogue, and to remind the reader that yes, my MFC does have a life outside of work, and here’s what it’s doing.

I also used the subplot columns to keep track of character quirks, namely my MFC’s love of puns. If she hadn’t made a pun in a while, I figured out a way to get that back in, mostly to amuse myself so she stays consistent.

So there it is. My revision plan of attack. That still leaves editing–both line and copy–not to mention what I’ll change after my readers tear it apart. But, for now, it’s done.

I hope these posts have been helpful. I know I’ll be referring back to them once I start revisions on…whatever it is I’m revising next.

I’d love to hear what you think about this process, or if you have any questions or suggestions!

Revising Struck by Chocolate Part 2: The Magical Spreadsheet

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In the last post, I broke down all the big reasons holding me back from getting this revision thing underway. While my initial instinct was to go cry in the corner (show of hands for everyone who’s had that urge this week) I instead just went and cried in the corner anyway opened up an Excel spreadsheet and got to work.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at the backseat of my car, but I am a very organized person. I love spreadsheets, lists, task reminders and detailed calendars. So this method of approaching my revision has been working well for me, but may not work for everyone. Like all writing and writing related advice, it’s just one person’s opinion. There’s only one hard and fast rule for this writing gig, and that is: WRITE.

The magical spreadsheet

Screenshot 2014-01-17 07.29.06

I know, I know: super tiny. But this gives you the general idea of what I’m doing.

On the far left, I placed scene settings. The format looks basically like this: Place, Time, Day. For example: Cafe/Midafternoon/Wednesday. This helps me keep track of the timeline, and of character locations. So if Farley, my MFC, is at her apartment, chances are good she won’t randomly run into Alex, my MMC, who is milling around the convention center. Seems basic, maybe, but it helps to have that stuff visually concretized.

The colorful column contains does two things: shows me what chapter and scene I’m working on, and whose viewpoint I’m in. So the text inside looks like this: Ch. 1, Sc. 3. And Farley’s viewpoint is purple, while Alex’s is blue. That way I can do a quick glance and see if one character has too many scenes altogether, or too many in a row. And having the chapter and scene in there helps immensely when toggling between Excel and Scrivener. (This method might not work so well with Word, as Scrivener breaks out each scene into it’s own document, essentially, and navigating between the scenes is very easy.)

Across the top I’ve listed all my plots and subplots. Being a romance, ‘Farley & Alex’ is the first and most important plot to keep track of. Least important, to me, is dealing with Alex’s employer’s past. While it does have some effect on the story, it’s pretty minor, so I put that one all the way at the end, and at least roughly organized the remaining subplots according to importance.

Then came the fun part. I opened up the Scrivener document and began skimming through each scene. When one of the subplots is mentioned or addressed, I made a note of it in the appropriate box. For example, in chapter one, scene two, we find Farley and her friend Steph at a bar, on Tuesday night. I have nothing written in the Alex & Farley box, because they haven’t met yet. One of my subplots is Farley versus her yucky coworker, and during that scene Farley and friend discuss said coworker’s suckitude, so I made a note of what, more specifically, was bitched about.

I found it helpful to make generally specific notes at this point. I say ‘Steph is being pushy’. I know what she’s being pushy about, internally, so I don’t need to write ‘Steph invites a guy to their table and flirts with him on Farley’s behalf and then slips him Farley’s card and also…blahblahblah’. It’s too much, and would clutter up my spreadsheet. I also don’t say ‘Steph meets Farley at the bar and talks’. While technically true, it doesn’t illuminate the tone of their conversation, and by extension the tone of the scene.

By the time you’re done tagging each scene with its components, you’ll have a good, eagle eye view of the story.

This is, by no means, the only way to structure this kind of spreadsheet. If you have lots of characters to keep track of, it could be more beneficial to use characters instead of subplots on one axis. The point is, you want to get your story organized in an easily viewable way, so you can address dropped plots, missing characters, missing scenes, etc. Especially with novel length work, this eagle eye perspective is invaluable.

Next time: Moar colors pleez!

Do you have a favorite revision technique? If so, I’d love to hear all about it!

Revising Struck by Chocolate Part I

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Revisions are, hands down, my least favorite part of the writing process. Reading my unpolished manuscripts, trying to figure out how to fix them without breaking them worse, getting into the nitty gritty of line editing and word choice. It’s enough to make my head spin.

Me, after three hours of revisions

I also know that revisions are crucial. My first drafts are not publication ready. Some short stories may get close, first time around, but novel length works always, always, always need a lot of work before I feel comfortable sending them out into the world. Curious, how I say that like I’ve done it a bunch. Because I haven’t. Since I got serious about writing in 2010 I have written eight (what!?) novel length manuscripts. I’ve revised one. ONE. In four years. Not a great number.

I think my aversion to the revision process is multifaceted.

  • Lack of knowledge: It’s the same hurdle I faced when looking down the barrel of my first novel, but worse. At least then, I was creating new words, something I was relatively familiar with. Revisions call for skills I haven’t developed, simply because I haven’t sat down and developed them. Identifying plot and character problems, figuring out solutions, optimal word choice…the list goes on.
  • Fear of failure: This one is double sided. Initially, this is the fear of reading what I’ve written and hating it. Finding it irredeemable. Unremittingly boring or crass or flawed. That’s scary, looking back at something I’ve poured so much time and effort into. Once I get over that, though, I’m still faced with the fear of either ruining what magic is there by ‘fixing’ the wrong thing, or putting yet more time and energy into the revision process and having the book still be irretrievably broken.
  • Desire to create: I love writing. I love the process of laying down words, discovering new worlds and characters. During the revision process, the amount of time I spend creating is drastically reduced, and I feel it, right in my bones. Writing helps me stay sane and grounded, helps me stay happy. Revisions–because of the reasons listed above paired with the reduction of new words–make me cranky.

The year, one of my goals is to revise four novels, including Struck by Chocolate, which I’ve already done a lot of work on. Which means I need to conquer that list of issues, one at a time.

Lack of knowledge is the most straightforward problem I’m running into. I’ve read countless blogs, delved into a number of books, all in the hopes of getting that magic revision key. But, like writing, there is no magic key. There’s a lot of advice, a lot of pointers, but it comes down to applying the techniques and finding what works for me.

Addressing my desire to create is simple, but not so straightforward. This, I think, will involve working on multiple projects at once. Maybe short stories, maybe another novel. Something that will get me creating while I am also working on revisions.

The fear of failure one is neither simple nor straightforward. My instinct here is to forge ahead, nose to the grindstone, etc. I’m pretty freaking tired of letting my fear stand in the way of what I want, but at the same time I believe I should acknowledge that fear and try to address it. Deal with it instead of just ignoring it, in hopes that next time, and the time after that, the fear will be less. Or, at least, I’ll have the tools to adequately deal with it. But how?

Well, I’ll let you know when I figure it out. If you have any advice on conquering fear (or revisions!) I’d love to hear it.

Next time on EE: Revisions, step one: Spreadsheets and color-coding and second-guessing, oh my!