Creating the outline

Bio Dixies For the past two weeks I’ve been struggling to come up with an idea for my NaNoWriMo project. While I feel like I am not doing well with outlines I am not a pure discovery writer either. I need to have some idea and some world building to get started with any story.

Child of Ceres was based on an idea that was years in the making and even after that I polished it for at least two months prior to writing even the first page. For SleepZone I spent one afternoon brainstorming weird ideas one of which was “there is a serial cat murderer on your street”. After the brainstorming session it took me at least another week or two, to get started writing. For my unnamed fantasy story I had about a month from “I have a genre but no idea” to the deadline, and I made it from idea to “finished” story in about 3 weeks. That left me with slightly less than 4 weeks for my NaNoWriMo preparations and I started out with no idea at all. I checked out my notes of old ideas and I found that I didn’t like any of them. For most of those ideas I have spent considerable time in the past to try and get them ready to be turned into a story and failed.

So while I was finishing the revisions of the unnamed fantasy story, I started thinking about the next project. Somehow it slipped into my mind that it would be a SciFi story. Then my subconscious weeded out all the SciFi subgenres that do not apply to me: hard sf – never, I couldn’t do the research; military sf – no for the same reason as hard sf, plus I am just not into that; space opera – I like to read about spaceships but I don’t like to fly them; dystopia – lately that one screams young adult at me and I don’t feel like writing YA, at least not right now; so my subconscious went for the grown-up version of a dystopia, also known as cyberpunk. A genre more or less founded with one of my all-time favorite books: Neuromancer and it combines the two things that fascinate me the most about SciFi anyway: future technologies and future social development and how they impact each other.

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Pre-NaNoWriMo Writing Update

I finished Sleep Zone about a month ago. It’s now ~15k words long and would be counted as a “novelette”. If you are interested in reading it, let me know in the comments and I’ll provide you with a link. I haven’t published it yet on the blog. Not sure when I will do that.

In the meantime I have also finished a short story in a fantasy setting – I submitted this to an “open submission” about a week ago. I’ll know more by the end of the month. However, I have heard that on such occasion hundreds of stories are submitted, in this case for 2 + 5-7 slots. So chances are my story won’t make it.

Right now I am preparing for NaNoWriMo (or: National Novel Write Month). The goal of this is to write 50k words in the month of November along with thousands of other writers. I got started quite late on my pre-writing. All I know right now is that it will be in the science fiction genre, set in the not-so-distant future with both dystopian and cyberpunk elements. It will probably not qualify as young adult, even though dystopias lately seem to be all young adult (Divergent, Mazerunner, Hunger Games – if you check those that were made into movies).

I have a couple of characters that are already begging me to let them talk. Since I am more on the discovery end of the “discovery-vs-outliner” scale, I won’t be able to build a complete outline ahead of time. But I do need to have a general sense of direction and a solid setting. I am struggling with the latter. Some ideas are already fixed in my mind but I still lack a certain central element also known as “plot device” or if I don’t have a good idea a “Mac Guffin“.

Oh and since they are now out of stealth mode: come join Write On (I should have invites or you can request one at their site) and read my stories there 😉 I will probably post raw updates of my NaNoWriMo progress there as it is being written or I may not.

Working on a new story: SleepZone

What have I been doing lately?

I just finished the first draft of a completely new story two days ago. It was supposed to become a short story and some people will still count it as that with about 13k-14k words (different algorithms get to different results). It is called “Sleep Zone” and it’s a “25-minutes-into-the-future” Science Fiction setting. The world is a much safer and better place due to a wonderful new technology called SleepZone, which law enforcement have been using to simplify their work. Ocean, a young journalism student, is looking for the police officers responsible for her brother’s death. Through a lucky – or unlucky – incident she meets someone with connections to help her. I am currently working in removing the worst blunders, plot-holes and grammar errors from this story. In a couple of weeks it will be ready for critique by a couple of first readers.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time listening to Writing Excuses. I do this when I go running. Suddenly going for a run is much more appealing and less boring! I am nearly done with Season 2. And today my signed copy of Shadows Beneath, the anthology to the podcast arrived. Yay! Finally a package from the US that made it through without incident. It’s a beautiful book, but I’ve already been into the digital version that’s included with the book. It contains four short stories one by each of the podcasters and it also includes the initial brainstorming sessions, the first drafts, the work-shopping sessions and a merge of first and final draft to show differences. I’ve already learned a lot from simply reading the first of the brainstorming sessions. Of course I read all the stories first, couldn’t resist.

And I am already thinking about my next story. I may start out with an ending this time. Usually I develop a story from a setting, in which I place characters from which I try to derive a plot. I have a hard time creating great conflicts that lead to good endings. So I may start with an ending. Today’s Writing Excuses episode gave me a good idea with their writing prompt of the day. And I can’t tell you, because the end should be a little bit of a surprise, if you know ahead of time … 😉 I also plan to force myself down to 5-7k words for real this time.

Here’s a teaser from “Sleep Zone”
Continue reading “Working on a new story: SleepZone”

Child of Ceres – A Novella

Child of Ceres
Child of Ceres – A Godchildren Novella by Sonja Pieper
It is done. I have finished my last editing pass of the novella I started writing in August 2013: Child of Ceres. Final word count: 31570. It was supposed to become a short story to find out, if writing in English was my thing. It got just a little bit longer.

The novella is set in a fantastic world, where humanity lives scattered among the safe havens of the arks and is ruled by the descendants of the Gods. The arks are surrounded by the Wastes and humanity is under constant pressure from the Wastes’ monstrous inhabitants. The protagonist is Calyndra, a young priestess, descendant of the goddess Ceres, who has a secret, she struggles to keep: despite what she – and her mother – have been telling everyone, she does not have control over her powers like a true Godchild. What are the consequences of keeping this secret? What is the cost for those close to her? Far from home, as a political hostage at the dogal court of Eluvrien, Calyndra is all but alone among the scheming courtiers.
Continue reading “Child of Ceres – A Novella”

Weekly Words to Read

Here’s an article on what often happens to strong female characters when they have finally made it into the movie/book.

A round-up of English words you are likely to misuse – consider the nauseous enormity …

I found The Last Billboard – once a month someone can post a message that will be displayed on this non-digital billboard. How cool is that.

Finally part 8 of the Outlander series Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is here and Diana Gabaldon posted a link to the Outlander family tree, for those with ebook editions (like myself) that can’t view it properly. Thank you!

A funny weather story found via npr books – my very favorite tumblr on books.

And I am still looking forward to July 1st when the sequel to Blood Song will finally be published. There is a sample for The Tower Lord on the author’s website.

Tonight and now

I am writing in the past tense. I keep running into the same issue. Do I write “Tonight my mind was distracted, …” or do I write “That night, my mind was distracted, …” or simply “My mind was distracted, …”

The same goes for “Now, however, I was really scared.” I could just as well write “At that moment, however, I was really scared.” There are a dozen other options.

At first I feel like using “Tonight” or “Now” or “Here” is ok. But when reading the same paragraph later, I think: well my story is being told so much later, it is not the same night, so it should not say “tonight” and also the story surely is not told in the same location so it should not be “here”.

I wonder if this is due to writing in first person perspective.

Project status: Today I plan to skip the 10k mark. At this precise moment, I have just passed the 9k words. I am working on the fourth scene. The most difficult scene so far was the third, because I am not an expert on medicine … and I think I have to “up” my estimate at how long this novel is going to be. If 10k words is the first half of the first chapter of the first act … 90k is a very low estimate for the whole project.

I am also still working on the long-term motivation of one of my major villainous characters. It may not become relevant for several chapters, but I would like to have a clearer view of this character’s stance.

Well there are at least a thousand more words to write today and my pace is picking up. Yesterday, I wrote 2000 words easily. The first day I barely managed 500.

Starting the Novel

This Monday I started writing on the big project. Codename: Transmitten. This time writing is very different: first I already know that this will be much longer than Child of Ceres (current estimate is around 90-100k words for the first draft). And, additionally, I have a more or less complete outline planned out. Of course things will change during the course of the writing, but that is to be expected. Also I hope that I learned a few things – comma rules for one – from the previous project.

In fact, I am already finding it much easier to write than last time. I have – in three days – completed a first draft of the first two scenes (~4k words or 6-7 PDF pages) and both of those feel much smoother and better thought-out already. There is a lot to correct language-wise. But I am more confident that the actual plotting is more solid this time with all the planning that went in.

However, I had to change the second scene quite a bit from my previous plan, because I had changed the ending of Child of Ceres to lead to a major new conflict that I had not yet included in my outline.

I am still happily using Scrivener; there’s a new version that allows custom meta data properties, more export formats, document references, custom icons and a bunch of other niceties. I was mostly waiting for the custom properties to be able to add timeline properties to each scene. The very detailed timeline I made for the first “act” came in very handy already. Maybe my plot is too complicated 🙂

Something new I started yesterday: a list of words I capitalize. One of my early readers criticized my use of capitalization and she was quite right: not only did I capitalize too many words, I was not consistent as well.

Last but not least: I have an idea for the cover for Child of Ceres and once I made that or found someone to help me making it, I think I will release the novella into the wild.

The Prequel Problem

When I decided to finally start writing for real instead of just talking about it, I wanted to start with a small challenge and decided to write a short story. For some reason I had real trouble working out something I wanted to write about and so decided to write something based in the same world as the larger project I was planning.

Since I knew there was going to be a longer story set in that world, I went along my timeline and picked an event somewhat before the main story. So basically I wrote a prequel to the main story first.  Often prequels are written after the fact. Mine was written before the main story. I still managed to write it like the main story had already been written and now my short story, that became a novella, contains too many characters and too little character development for my protagonist.

The first happened because there was already such a large pool of interesting characters available to pick from. The second because I could not very well make changes in the character that are supposed to happen in the main story. And after looking over the story I find, that I can’t fix it – especially not the first part. Not without such a major overhaul of the story, that I could just as well start over.

These two issues will be less pronounced if the main story is already written when I release the prequel. So now I am facing the decision – well not right now but hopefully in the near future – what to do with “Child of Ceres”? Do I write this off as beginner’s mistakes and release it into the wild without immediate follow-up or do I wait …

Currently, when I have time to work on my writing, I am creating the outline of the novel. I am already into the final act. I need to create outlines for a few more chapters and then I’ll be able to start writing. But I am guessing that won’t happen before late April – due to circumstances. Yesterday I wrote a teaser. With “Child of Ceres” there was this moment when I was asked what my story was about and I had no answer. To avoid a similarly embarrassing experience, I wrote down my answer for this one and maybe I’ll publish it here once I’ve had a chance to look it over and run it by my primary test subject.

Inspiring Books

Writer’s first rule: read a lot. And so I have always done – on average 1 book a week in the last few years. I usually devour the books I read quickly.

These days I read mostly genre fiction in my favorite genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy. When I look for more books to read I sometimes consult lists other people made of the best books in the genre, like this one:  the 100 best books of scifi and fantasy. Or I check out lists on good reads that contain some of my favorite books or I look what my friends or favorite writers are reading right now. Sometimes I even consider the recommendations my favorite ebook seller is giving me – but usually I am way past those.

When the humblebundle had a bunch of ebooks on sale I grabbed them as fast as I could even if there were only a couple of the books I was interested in. (I just noticed that was not their first book bundle, meh. How could I have missed this.). In that bundle was Spin. Spin won the “Best Novel” Hugo Award in 2006. Usually I would have passed it over in favor of something more epic or more obviously my taste. But since I had it, I started reading and enjoyed the book immensely.

So I thought: hey I should read more of the books that won those awards there must be some real gems among the hugos and nebulas (I just noticed that based on my favorite books, maybe I should also include the Locus awards in my reading lists).

I went through the award winners and looked for interesting books. I noticed two writers I read when I was younger: Jack Vance and Robert Silverberg. So I bought The Last Castle and A Time of Changes.

Both of them only got a 3/5 rating from me. I had no expectation of either story except to read a story people thought worthy of an award. I got that, but I did not get the enjoyment I usually get from reading.

The Last Castle was a bit weird but at least it managed to grab my attention around 50% and I managed to finish it within a week. However, it’s only a novella, something I should have finished in an evening. I found it was a well-written and nicely executed idea, a metaphor. It just did not speak to me. So I found it hard to read.

Then I started the Silverberg. I thought the concept of a society in complete self-denial – so much so that using the word “I” is considered an obscenity – was interesting. Alas it was not interesting enough for me apparently. Again: the book is well-written and the concept perfectly executed. The idea is good. But it took me several weeks to finish reading the book and I was glad once it was over.

Objectively these are both good books and I am sure they deserve the awards they got. Subjectively I had no fun reading them. I forced myself to consume them like I would eat what’s on my plate because I am hungry and do not want to throw out whatever it is even though the taste is bland and uninspiring.

To stay with the food analogy: for me both the stories lacked the salt to make them interesting and worthwhile. Both of them have seen quite a few years so maybe it is their age. The genres do evolve and some books hold up better under the weight of the years than others. Or maybe my tastes are just different.

In between those two I dragged myself through the 6th or 7th installment of a paranormal series (from the 90s!) I’ve been reading and funny enough that book also was quite boring and seemed to drag on forever and I think I am quitting the series (there are 22 books in it!).

So after finishing these three I thought I would go for something quick and easy from my list. Something more modern. So two days ago I got myself Redshirts. I finished yesterday. Redshirts also got awards and recommendations by friends, writers and goodreads. It was a fun read that was over way too fast. It also has an interesting and well-executed concept that had me laughing all the time. For some reason I cannot fathom I could connect to the Andrew Dahl better than to Kinnall Darival  in A Time of Changes. Why? No idea. They aren’t that different in many of their written aspects.

While reading the good-but-not-so-fun books, I did not feel like writing at all. But after finishing Redshirts and getting started on Quantum Thief (looks promising if weird so far) I feel like working on my own stories again.

Some stories just don’t work for me. With genre fiction often it is stuff that is older than 15 or 20 years. Genre fiction doesn’t always hold up well under the weight of years. And both the sci-fi and the fantasy genre have evolved a lot since they first became popular. An award alone a good read does not make.

On Writing

I have always wanted to write. My blog is proof of that. But in the last few years, I’ve not written many articles. Maybe, because I felt it was not interesting to anybody, or maybe because I thought it might be too interesting to the wrong people. So rather more than less I quit posting here; I can’t even promise that I’ll continue after writing this one article. But I might. Because I have a new topic. I am going meta. I want to write about writing, because supposedly it does a writer good to write about her writing.

How did I get to wanting to write in the first place? I have always read a lot. I had a library card when I was young and never left the library with less than the 10 books I was allowed to check out at once. Today I have an ebook reader and a goodreads account. My yearly challenge is to read 1 book every week, 52 a year. And the more I read the more I also want to create stories.

For the past 16 years – give or take a few – I kept telling myself that some of the best authors did not start writing until they were much older than 20. I think of Max Frisch when I say that. But one day, everyone has to start. So a few years ago, I started looking for ideas again. Within a short time, I had created two different settings. Then, however, I got bogged down deciding what to do about them. I was still procrastinating about this and other choices when – about 2 years ago – a former colleague of mine started writing a novel and he wrote about writing it. He self-published Cubuyata about a month ago. But long before he was finished, I had decided I would not wait longer.

The final problem was the choice of language. English is not my first language; while I feel I am quite proficient in it, I am not and will never be a native speaker. Only yesterday I had to read up on punctuation rules and was quite surprised by more than half of the comma rules. I have trouble with the placement of adverbs in the sentence structure; and sometimes I simply misuse or abuse a word. But I could not write in German for some reason. I tried. I never got beyond a paragraph. When I think of writing something – especially fiction – my thoughts are in English unless I concentrate very hard on German. Finally a friend, whose native language is spoken by only half a million people, suggested, I stop worrying and write in English.

And that’s what I started doing last July. As a kind of birthday present I gave myself the time to start writing fiction. To keep it simple and answer a few key questions (Does the setting work? Is my English sufficient? Can I write more than a blog article? Can I create and finish a story ark?), I decided to start with a short story set in one of the worlds I had already prepared.

The beginning of the story was hard. But after the first few paragraphs, suddenly, the story took on a life of its own. Characters did things I never expected them to do, and the story took twists and turns, I had not planned. I planned too little, I realize that now. It was not long and I hit the 5.000 word mark that I had set myself as goal. The story was not finished yet. Words kept coming, more scenes were needed and the story grew to 10.000 words. It stopped being a short story around 15.000 words. I was not happy with my ending. The ending I had planned did not seem to be working as an ending. So another chapter was added. Around 18.000 I started calling the project a novella. I finished the first draft with around 20.000 words. After editing and revising, the story is now about 25.000 words long. That is about 45 pdf pages.

Around the second week of December my first draft was finished and I gave it to my two first readers. One was chosen because she is an avid reader of many of the same books that inspired my writing and, also very important, a native speaker. The other kindly offered to do me the favor of reviewing my story, because I reviewed his novel in the summer.

So far I have told next to nobody about this project. But I spent a lot of my free time on it. It’s kind of hard not to be able to talk about the thing that takes up so much of my thoughts and time. Especially, because I fully intend to continue doing this thing.