Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Plotting your story

"How much plotting should I do for my novel?" you hear aspiring writers ask fairly continuously on the web and in coffee shop-cum-bookstores during readings.  It's one of those questions that has an answer which depends on the writer, of course, but there are some things I've learned about my own writing process that might be of help to others who work similarly.

Plot, for me, is a blunt instrument that I try to avoid even thinking about except during the writing process itself. I stump along, letting my characters talk and do, and find the plot sorts itself out on its own. I tend to start with the kernel of an idea, but it tends to be vague. "There's a blackmail event and the characters have to get out of it" is about all I used on a recent project. By the time I was 12,000 words in the plot had developed into something that had several good threads and the characters were doing my work for me - they were in trouble and had to get out of it. Easy peasy.

That's not a testament to my plotting skills, I think it has more to do with having characters that are, in the writer's mind, real people. If they are, they'll do what makes sense for them, whether it's logical or not, and the story will progress smoothly.

Not having a detailed plot also allows you to write quickly, which is very important for me. When I write slowly I overanalyze, become stiff and find myself descending into a haze of fact-checking that impedes the ability to tell a story, and telling a story is your job as a writer. Not being stylish, or poetic, or grammatically creative or anything. You're here to tell a story. For me, going seat-of-the-pants lets me tell the story without hamstringing its pace and "feel".

Besides, when you finish you'll edit, plug plot holes, alter scenes and make any fumbles fantastic. That's what edits are for.

          So crack open the laptop, choose a simple idea, build some real, memorable characters and see what they do. It can work very well.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Behind the Ruins review

A nice review for my novel Behind the Ruins from Jeremy Menefee which you can read right here.

Tokyo Pizza cover idea

Just a rough for my NaNoWriWee novella. Thoughts?

Version 2 below, and I like it a lot more:

Sunday, 27 January 2013

#NaNoWriWee done. Much sleep is lost, much is learned.

   Please forgive the typos and bad grammar, just coming off The Kernel Magazine/HarperCollinsUK's NaNoWriWee, in which crazy people like me tried to write an entire novel in 30 hours over the weekend.
   Given the time differences between GMT and Canadian PST, the weekend is over and the story - 22,000+ words titled Tokyo Pizza - is in. Once judging and awards are done and I have a week to edit I'll post a teaser. For now, suffice it to say I wrote a lot in a very short period, and wound up with a story and characters I actually like a lot. It's maybe too profane and too odd for most readers, but it has a few bits of real gold in it.
   What I learned is more important than what I did, and I'll try to share some bleary insights.

YOU CAN WRITE A LOT - Yes, all caps, because it's the big one. I just did 22,000 words, doing a light self-edit during composition in two days, across probably 24 or 26 hours. That pace equals a novel in a week. Sitting down and staying at your keyboard generates lots of words.

Plotting is overrated - I knew it aleady, but this proved it. I started off with five fictional characters based loosely on an autobiographical group, fearful that with no plot at all I needed a hook to hang my writing on. By the end of the first chapter I discarded all connection to real events and, 22,000 words later, had watched my characters - who were no longer anyone I knew - build their own plot, complete with twists I didn't expect, and threads that all tied up neatly in the end.

Write what you know - I've lived and worked in Japan, so writing a novella set there saved me days of research and I didn't sound like a complete idiot. I hope. people will complain "but all I did was flip pancakes in Belgium" or whatever. Doesn't matter. I took a 5-month exchange program in Tokyo twenty years ago and turned it into a weird Ginsbergian crime thriller. And it was easy. Someday I'll do something with my other years of Japan experience.

Kill fear - I don't write satirical retro-hipster thrillers with lots of drugs and sex, but I just did, and I did it by discarding fear. Someone (lots of someones) will probably be horrified by sections of Tokyo Pizza, but I don't care. It was fun, honest and educational to write. A lot of friends I've had over the years do act/talk like my characters. Sorry, but the world is a spectrum and so are readers. You can't please all the people all the time, so screw them and do the work. Lincoln said that, I think.

  All right, wobbly sleepy and signing out for the day. Peace, all.

    Edit: After getting some sleep, I'm stunned to report that what I wrote is really quite good, and it will - if not picked up by HarperCollins UK - wind up published (after a mass of editing) on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. It may even breed a subsequent novel or two. It's contemporary satirical fiction/adventure and it's just plain fun in a hallucinogenic way.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Behind the Ruins interview with ... me

  Many thank to Jae Blakney for interviewing me about Behind the Ruins - a different sort of post-apocalyptic tale. You can go read it right here:  While you're there, poke around lots - Jae has a ton of excellent content and a mass of her short works up, free!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Behind the Ruins gets a new cover

Ah - okay, I like this one better. The first was artsier, but this is clean. Thoughts?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Nerds vs Geeks

   I've decided my wife is a geek. I am a nerd. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but they are different skillsets that may or may not compliment each other, depending on the problem at hand.

Nerds (as one, I feel confident in the following):

Hoarde useless knowledge: For example, I know how to make flint tools and have done so. I know how to field-strip most guns, and own none. I can identify and match most aquatic insect hatches while fly fishing and carry a kit to tie at the waterside. I have memorized all dialogue to all Monty Python movies. I know how many inches of sand it takes to filter organic contaminants from water. I have read all of HP Lovecraft despite the prose and can remember all the Mythos entities. I can bake, but never use recipes. I can identify almost any syndicated TV quote - ditto movies. I have the fashion sense of a small armadillo.

Geeks (Guessing here, based on observation):

Scatter potentially useful knowledge: My wife can explain how to use Red Hat and I never know what she's saying. She can use every keyboard shortcut there is and laughs when you don't know them. She wonders why everyone doesn't have a database and tries to explaain why Excel doesn't count. She veers off in Future Shop muttering "Oooo, shiny" and then tells me why the thing she's looking at is good, then spots something better. She isn't sure what Gilligan's Island was about, other than there was a boat. Discussions of bands she's never heard of bore her. If something either fails to blow up or cry quickly in a movie, she wanders off.

   We nerds seem to cling to the anal-retentive edges of Aspergerville, while the geeks scurry around the suburbs of A.D.D. town. They spend their time discussing tech and wondering what is taking those nerds so long with that flint spearpoint that you can't upgrade the firmware on, anyway.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Ah, the joys of character design

    Why is it that a villain is always more easily crafted than a convincing nice protagonist? I find my own protagonists are generally unlikable, if interesting and potentially admirable in some ways. They're rarely nice; they border on the villainous.

    Grey, the main character in my novel Behind the Ruins is an example. Admittedly I spent the entire writing of the book striving for realism in characters, action and setting, so discovering the kind of man that could survive the apocalyptic destruction of the modern technical world isn't outwardly warm and fuzzy shouldn't be a huge surprise. He's a killer, tormented by the memories he carries but still willing to kill again if he deems it necessary – or even convenient. He's loath to lead, emotionally cowardly and ruthless, but he's still more interesting to me than your average white-hat good guy. Snape always interested me more than Harry Potter did. Voldemort even more, to use a best-selling example. To be a bit more literary, Ahab is the fascinating character in Moby Dick, not good-natured Ishmael or the ebullient Stubbs; so what draws me to antiheroes?

    I think it has to do with a writer's or reader's personality. I'm an analytic, and I like my stuff real, A to B to C. I believe there is no such thing as an absolutely good or absolutely evil person, and thus fictional characters have to be an amalgam of conflicting urges and traits. I'm sure at least once in a while Saint Francis cussed out a novice, and even Hitler painted roses.

    See, this is what writing a thriller with a serial killer/blackmailed cop set of main characters will do to you – now I'm trying to make the bad guy likable, and the good guy slightly repulsive.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Let it snow - somewhere else

   Well, it's writing weather. The Okanagan is now cut off in all directions with avalanche warnings, tangles of twisted metal and snowdrifts.

   Global warming can hurry right up.

Free book promotion service

Check this out - looks quite useful - Ask David's free book promotion database and service:

Edit: so you can see, here's what my novel's page looks like. Nice stuff. Has options for reviews and commentary.

Friday, 4 January 2013

FREE is a good price.

   Just to get the word out, I'm offering free copies of Behind the Ruins through Smashwords until Jan 11.
   Coupon code:VQ22F
   If you liked The Road, the Reacher novels or similar, you'll like Behind the Ruins. Probably. Well, there's no accounting for taste.
   Do please rate it on goodreads, and if you absolutely love it and want to feed my kids, grab a copy at Amazon and leave a review.


Thursday, 3 January 2013

6 Sentences is Robert McEvily's clever idea. Writers can post a story of six sentences and can vote on other shorts. It's a good exercise in writing and is a ton of fun as a break from the editing grind. Stop by, vote for your favorites and post your own 6s story.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Working on Calvin

      Just started the new book, banged out 3000 words of first-draft nasty. I'll post a hunk here just so you can see how bad a first draft really is:

Provisional title Calvin

by Michael Lane, draft one

Copyright 2013 Michael Lane

All rights reserved


Chapter 1

Calvin Joseph Grunvald thought most serial killers had cats. Those like him, anyway.

He supposed the brutal ones, the bloodied souls who enjoyed torturing animals, did not - but he suspected the planners and controllers, the ones who enjoyed the hunt over the kill, did. Cats are plotters, relaxed and always alert. With the right stimulus their eyes shift from sleepy to glistening black, imagining blood and violence and the ceremony of the hunt.

Cats also have their territories, and travel makes them uncomfortable.

"You all right, Cat?" Calvin asked as he scratched the fat orange tabby under his chin, but Cat refused to purr, clinging to his arm with paws filled with needles and staring out the window at the Canadian darkness.

"It's new, I know," Calvin said, stroking the soft, rusty fur. "But it's where we live now, buddy. You'll get to like it. We both will."

He hoped that was true. The company had moved him almost two months ago, and Cat was still spending most of his time beneath the bed in a small ball, his ears back. The house was different than what he was used to; older, with old ghosts of smells the tabby didn’t know and wasn’t happy about.

It was a rambling two-story home the realtor had described as being built in stages through the fifties and sixties. It had that bits-and-pieces feel, with floors in different wings being offset a few inches, forcing the inclusion of toe-snagging half-steps and subtly angled connecting halls. The interior was paneled rather than finished with drywall, and floors were of varnished cedar plank. Calvin had added a half-dozen rugs to the living room and the master bedroom to add an illusion of softness, but it was still a hard house, and chilly. Ductwork brought warm air at a trickle from the old wood furnace in the basement, but it was never comfortable without a sweater, he had discovered. There were beige steel electric heaters mounted at floor level in most rooms, but Calvin disliked the dry air and had kept them shut off. Once winter set in for real in January or February he might have to reassess their usefulness.

While the house was old, and surrounded by trees older yet, the security system he had added was not. When the laptop on his desk beeped he sat Cat down and took a seat in the maple desk chair, waggling the mouse to waken the screen.

A faint green eye icon was blinking on the taskbar, and Calvin clicked it, expanding a window that showed a ghostly green-lit image of the gate on the road at the end of his drive. A dark SUV was parked, nose to the gate, and as Calvin watched a figure emerged from the driver’s side. Leaving the door open, the visitor, muffled in a down parka with the hood up, walked to the gate and flicked on a flashlight. After a moment he swung the iron grills open and returned to the vehicle. He drove onto Calvin’s property, leaving the gate open behind him.

Shrugging on his own wool peacoat and a dark stocking cap, Calvin left the house by the kitchen door, overlooking the tilted back yard and, distantly, the lights of Kelowna across the lake. The moon and scattered patches of snow gave him enough light to see by, and he moved around the house, staying within the edge of the woods, moving from tree to tree as the growl of the intruder’s engine grew.

Modern engines were quiet, he reflected as he took up a position behind a thick-trunked pine that gave him a good view of his own front door. The sounds of the gravel and ice under the SUV’s wheels were louder than the baritone mumble of its exhaust in the chill night air.

The vehicle stopped as the motion sensors triggered the blue-white flare of the yard lights. It was a dark green Ford Explorer with tinted windows. The vehicle sat for a minute or more before the engine died and the lights turned off. Calvin stood and watched, pulling on a pair of lambskin gloves that had been tucked into his coat pocket.

The driver got out and moved to the garage, the lights blooming as he did so. Calvin studied him; dark nylon-shelled parks, jeans, a pair of brown snow boots, black gloves. Whoever it was, he was big, over six feet, and moved with assurance, unconcerned with the rasp of grave under his feet. He peered through one of the porthole-style windows in the garage door, flashing his light within, then turned back and walked to the front door. He raised his left hand to the doorbell, while his right reached under the hem of his jacket and withdrew a black automatic. He let the gun hang at his side while he waited. After a few seconds he pressed the bell a second time.

Calvin could just hear the soft burr of the doorbell. The only other sound was the distant intermittent whine of tires on the road a quarter-mile away.

The man waited for another minute, then descended the three steps from the porch, turnd to his left and began making his way around the house. As soon as he had made the first corner, Calvin strode across the driveway before the security lights could shut off and tried the rear door of the vehicle. It was unlocked, and he climbed into the rear seat, slouching down. There were two suitcases in the rear cargo area and a plastic bag in the back seat. The bag held a half-empty bottle of orange juice and two empty packages of beef jerky.

After another minute, the lights went off again. Calvin lay in the dark, turning an old ivory-handled pocketknife over in his gloved hands. A distant dog barked, one discrete woof, but nothing else broke the quiet until the lights again sprang to life and booted feet crunched across the gravel.

Calvin thumbed the knife open, feeling the blade click into place.

The footsteps were within eight or ten yards when they stopped. Calvin waited, breathing slow, stifling a yawn with the back of his left hand.

"Calvin," a rough voice said in a conversational tone. "If you’re in the car, I’m just here to talk."

Time passed.

"I’ll put the gun on the windshield and step away," the voice added after the pause. The footsteps resumed, and Calvin heard the click as something hard was placed against the windshield. The footsteps moved away in the direction of the house.

Calvin waited for the lights to shut off. In the darkness the tilted widows would shield any movement inside the Explore. When the shadows returned he raised his head just far enough to confirm the L-shape of the pistol as it rested atop the driver’s side wiper. He reached above his head, clicking the dome-light switch to "off" and opened the door opposite the house. The bulk of the SUV shielded the motion, and the security lights stayed off. In the dim yellow glow of the door’s fanlight, Calvin could just see the man in the parka where he sat on the lowest step of the stairs.

"Howard," Calvin said. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Not really. I had to come."

"Why is that?"

"I need to talk to you. You know why."

"No, I honestly don’t. But I suppose we can talk."

Calvin sidestepped and picked up the heavy black Glock handgun as the lights bloomed yet again. He slipped it into an overcoat pocket, eyes on the seated man, whose hands rested on his knees. Calvin approached and stood looking down at him, his head cocked to one side.

"Could you put that knife away," Howard said. Calvin glanced at the thin silver gleam in his gloved hand and then folded it away.

"Tea?" Calvin asked.

"I guess. Can I have my Glock back, now?"

"You still carry that .38 I assume?"

Howard shrugged.

"I’ll leave it on the mailbox, here. You can pick it up on your way out."

"All right."

Cat was hiding somewhere. Calvin followed Howard into the living room.

"Take a seat. Do you really want tea, or were you being polite?"

"I don’t need tea," Howard admitted, unzipping the parka and tossing it onto the grey leather couch. He sat down beside it, careful to keep his hands visible. Calvin took a seat opposite in a matching recliner.

Separated by the low glass coffee table, the two studied each other.

Calvin was slighter and shorter, thin and athletic, with a face a shade too long and narrow to be handsome. His eyes were an unremarkable brown, as was his short hair. His clothing was neat and well chosen, with a wool sweater over a white dress shirt, dark wool slacks and black dress shoes with crepe rubber soles. Howard was bigger, with broad shoulders and a thickening midsection. His face was clawed by frown-lines and stubbled with several days of beard, his hair salt-and-pepper. Under the parka he wore a blue suit jacket, very rumpled, and a light blue shirt open at the collar.

"We agreed to avoid each other," Calvin said, crossing his ankles.

"We did. But I was worried. The news here, you have to understand why I thought you might be, well, losing it." The bigger man frowned and scratched at his left shoulder with blunt fingers. Calvin thought he kept his backup gun on the left in a shoulder holster, and waited until the hand returned to Howard’s lap and laced fingers with its mate.

"I don’t watch the news, Howard. Be specific."

"The trucker. I thought that was you."

"What trucker do you mean?"

Howard blinked and the V of wrinkles between his eyes knotted.

"You seriously don’t know?"

Calvin grinned. "I’ve made a point never to lie to you, Howard. You know that."

"You’re getting better. That smile looked almost real," Howard snapped. He drummed his fingers on his thigh, studying the other man. "You didn’t cut up a trucker a few weeks ago, and pose him alongside the highway?"

Calvin blinked. "No. Why would you think I did it?"

"Well, Kelowna’s not very big, and I’m unfortunate enough to know the address of at least one batshit crazy murderer living here. And the scene was odd."

"Odd how?" Calvin asked, leaning forward.

The RCMP officer who’d caught the call was a young man named Gregory Phillips and he was sitting in his cruiser when the EMTs arrived. The cruiser was slanted across both lanes of the eastbound side of the Connector, the four-lane highway that arced across the mountains between the Okanagan valley and the Vancouver area, 300 miles away.

Traffic had piled up for a mile or more, and drivers would start walking forward to ask questions, only to be waved back by the officer. Phillips sat in his open car door with his boots planted on the pavement, facing the traffic jam. When the ambulance pulled up, jouncing as it crawled down the shoulder to the cruiser, he stood and waved them through. A half-mile further on another cruiser and two unmarked cars were pulled to the edge of the road. The ambulance driver swerved back onto the pavement, the boxy vehicle swaying, and gunned the engine as he hurried toward the scene.

"Waste of diesel," Phillips muttered, his face pale.

Inspector Harrison was standing with his arms crossed over his bulletproof vest, chewing on a blue Bic pen, staring at the tableaux beside the highway, when the EMTs arrived. They umped from the vehicle with their crash bags in hand, but he waved them over.

"I don’t want anyone down there," he said as they came up. "Just look from here and confirm he’s dead."

The pair, a man and woman in their late twenties, took a long look down into the grassy dell beside the highway.

"You’re kidding, right?" The woman said after a few seconds.

"Nope, just keeping the ducks in a row," Harrison said. "So is he dead?"

"Yes, Inspector," the EMT replied. "He’s dead."

"Okay, that’s all I needed, thanks." Harrison dismissed the pair and made his way down the embankment along the fluttering yellow ribbon his investigator had set up.

The body, which would later be identified as Able Julian, a long haul trucker and father of three, occupied an area roughly ten yards on a side. His head formed the centerpiece, mounted on the cut off stump of a sapling, the eyes staring up at the road in gazed surprise. The head had been severed close under the jaw, and the liver-colored tongue dangled below. From the head, in an ornate spiral, the rest of Mr. Julian had been carefully laid out. The four arms of the pattern were made up of sections of muscle and skin, individual fingers, pale loops of gut, even the long bones of his arms and legs, the white parentheses of his ribs, had been excised and set carefully in place. Snow would be coming any day, but the ground here was still covered in matted dry grass and weeds.

"Whaddaya think?" Harrison called. Doctor Kreiss didn’t raise his head from his examination of the victim’s left feet, which marked the termination of one of the spiral arms. The other foot marked the opposite one, and the fingerless hands the other two.

"I think you have a problem when the press gets this one," Kreiss said. Both Harrison and Kreiss were stolidly middle-aged, slightly overweight, with the closed faces of officers of the law everywhere. "This is something different. It’s like some crappy movie. Who kills someone and makes a pinwheel out of them?"

Harrison wrinkled his nose. The cool air was a help, but the sour smell of the corpse and its gut contents was already unpleasant. He rooted around in his pockets and cursed when he discovered he had forgotten his jar of mentholated ointment.

"Maybe it’s a big swastika?"

A tooth-rattling whapping noise boomed overhead as a helicopter barely above treetop height shuddered across the sky. Harrison could see the photographer hanging precariously from the chopper’s open door, clutching a camera with a lens the size of a stovepipe.

"Aw, shit," he said. "Someone get HQ to hurry and get the tents out here, we need to get this covered."

"Smile," Kreiss said, examining the cut end of a severed thumb. "You’re going to be all over the web in fifteen minutes."

Calvin sat at his computer, clicking through the pictures posted on a dozen Web sites, while Howard sat at the kitchen table, peeling an apple. He paused and expanded an image of the site, the shot taken from the helicopter before the RCMP had control of the scene.

The swirl made of Mr. Julian was precise, which appealed to Calvin’s sense of order, but he shook his head.

"It wasn’t me, Howard," he said, closing the notebook. "What’s more it seems wrong somehow."

"How would you be the judge of what’s right, Calvin? You dismembered a gradeschool teacher. You’re insane."

"I don’t mean morally. Something about the precision combined with the amount of bloody, brutal work involved seems strange. It takes a lot of work to cut a body into just a few sections. This would have taken a day or more of hard labor."

Howard sat the apple down, staring at it.

"But what do you care, Howard? Why bother, even if you thought it was me? You can’t kill me, or turn me in, and I can’t kill you, so why do you care?"

"I don’t. You’re a sick animal, and if I had enough guts I’d just kill you now, then eat a bullet myself." Howard’s tone was flat and hopeless. Calvin turned his chair to face him and leaned back.

"Oh, please, spare me the self-pity. You’d have done that years ago if you meant it. Back when you were drinkng heavily and breaking up with your wife. How is the drinking going now, if you don’t mind me asking? I’d heard you were in AA."

"Fuck you."

Calvin smiled his practiced, empty smile.

"Now, Howie, you came to my home. Why is that?"

Howard covered his face with his palms, smelling the applejuice on his skin, then dragged his hands down, distorting his features.

"Because I was afraid you’d lost more of your mind. That you were accelerating, entering a new phase, and you were going to get caught and then so was I. Is that what you want to hear?"

"It’s the truth. I think that in our situation the truth is best, don’t you?"

"Maybe. What do I know. I’m being blackmailed by a goddamn psychotic serial killer, and every day I read the papers and wonder if you’ve killed someone else, because if you do it’s my fault."

"Howard, Howard. There’s no use in beating yourself up with it. You do your work and I do mine, and we agreed not to interfere."

"You’re a murderer."

"Boring and predictable, Howard. So are you. How may have you killed, over the years with the FBI?"

"It’s not the same."

"No, it’s not. Two of yours are worse than anything I ever did, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation."

"It was an accident, you bastard." Howard’s face went pale, his cheeks blotched with hectic red. "And it only happened because you forced it."

"We’re covering old ground," Calvin said, rising and stretching. "Let’s not. Let’s get some coffee in you, then send you off to the nearest Motel for the night, and you can talk to me tomorrow. You don’t listen when you’re angry, and I hate to waste my time."

"God damn me. Will this ever be over?"

"Not while we live, no, Howard. Black or white? Sugar?"

"Save it. I’ll come back tomorrow morning. I need to think."

"No earlier than nine, please. And next time shut the gate."

The Explorer spit gravel as Howard drove it too fast down the winding drive. He raised his middle finger to the gates as he passed, leaving them open, and jerked the wheel as the SUV’s tires lurched onto the blacktop, chirping at the sudden friction, slewing the vehicle into a near-slide.

This was not the way he wanted to spend his vacation days.