All posts by Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Thinking is writing

I think it was Michaelbrent Collings who once said that he doesn’t get writers block because so many things count as writing, such as going to see a movie or taking a walk in the park. Anything that “primes the pump”, so to speak, is writing.

I think there’s something to that. Most of the time we writers feel guilty if we’re not writing. But, truth be told, some of my best ideas or breakthroughs come when I’m somewhere else: in the shower, driving to work, walking the dog. Anytime I have time to just think can be productive time if I think about what I’m writing. And sometimes letting my mind wander is even better.

Recently I was thinking about the main characters is my current project, trying to decide the best way for them to meet. My mind began wandering, and suddenly I was envisioning a scene in which one character walks in on another character during a touching and revealing moment. I suddenly had new insight on one of my characters–and it may not even make it into the novel! I still have no idea where that idea came from. It was completely unrelated to any previous thoughts I’ve had about my characters, and yet it felt so right that I knew it was a piece of the puzzle.

It can be a good idea to step away from the keyboard from time to time and just think. Generate new ideas, no matter how crazy. Spend time interacting with the world. Think about how your characters would interact in normal, everyday situations, like ordering at McDonalds or picking up their dry-cleaning. Let your mind wander.

Our brains are marvelous and unpredictable, able to make intuitive and creative leaps beyond anything even the most powerful computers can achieve. It would take WETA’s entire rendering farm days to weeks to fully render the imagery our brains generate just imagining a half-hour dream about going back to high school wearing our pajamas.

If we’re lucky those epiphanies come while we’re at the keyboard. But as often as not the most startling ideas come out of nowhere when our brains are engaged on something entirely unrelated. We need to leave ourselves time to think in order to tap that creative power.

So get out there and put your mental Author’s Think Tank to work!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Warning! Danger ahead!

I just finished reading Dan Wells’ new novel, “Extreme Makeover”, which I knew going in was an apocalyptic thriller. But even had I not known, I would have almost immediately. Each chapter heading includes a countdown of how many days to the end of the world, starting at 276 days and working its way downward.

I can think of several reasons for this approach.

First, he may have wanted to make it very clear to anyone who might not have figured it out from the cover (which is pink) that this is apocalyptic fiction. His original title, which was eventually trimmed down, was “Extreme Makeover: Apocalypse Edition”. Certainly that would have made it more clear what type of story this would be, but the chapter headers do that job as well.

Second, it teases the reader. The novel starts with a scientist in a cosmetics company revealing a new skin care product. Not very scary stuff. Some readers may even be turned off. But by introducing that teaser countdown the reader knows this skin care story is about to get serious, so stick around.

Third, the countdown is a common thriller element to build suspense. Ticking time bombs, ultimatums from powerful people, deadlines; all these add suspense when we know that the characters only have a limited time to do whatever it is they need to do. It’s potentially even more suspenseful when the reader knows the countdown is ticking but the characters do not. Hence we can spend most of the novel figuratively tearing our hair out because the characters don’t seem to realize they’re doomed!

Fourth, possibly, is the reader’s desire to call his bluff. Is he really serious? 198 Days to the end of the world? Or will the characters find a way to stop it before it’s too late. I mean, he wouldn’t really give it all away like that, right? I suspect most readers know deep down it’s for real, but there’s a part of them that will wonder if somehow the inevitable can’t be avoided.

True, countdowns are a trope, even a cliché. But they are also very effective and hard not to incorporate in some manner. Whether they are explicit, in the form of an actual time bomb under the table, or implicit, such as surviving until the sun comes up, knowing that there is a time limit that either helps or hurts the characters will ratchet up the tension.

It doesn’t even have to be the main element of the story. In Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” focuses primarily on main character Jack Ryan and the politics in which he finds himself embroiled, but all throughout the novel we are given glimpses of a terrorist group creating a nuclear bomb to use against the United States. That sub-plot, we know, is literally a ticking time bomb that could become the main plot at any time. It helps add a feeling of impending danger to keep the reader engaged, even when the main plotline may be less suspenseful.

Adding a sense of impending danger is an important element of storytelling. Like any tool, learning to use it well  can yield big pay-offs for the writer and the reader. Used poorly, it can feel every bit like the clichéd trope it is. But when used well, you’ll grab your reader’s attention and hold it until they finally reach the end at 3 am, even though they have to get up for work in just a few hours.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

You think too much!

There’s a great quote from Montgomery Scott in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”:

The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.

It’s occurred to me lately that quote describes could explain what’s happened to my writing. Could it be there comes a point where thinking too much about your writing just gets in the way, makes writing harder than it should be, and kills the joy?

I recall hearing a few times about Tiger Woods taking time off from tournaments to “rebuild his swing”. There have been several celebrities who have retired, only to return a few years later. I’ve heard people declare that they intend to keep working at their job until it’s no longer fun.

So how do we strike a balance between enjoying our writing and continuing to improve? I’ve never been one to believe that the mere repetition of a task in itself will help you improve beyond a certain point. At some point we need to incorporate new information, new methods, new ways of thinking if we ‘re going to get any farther. Can we do that without losing the fun?

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, writing has become hard for me lately. While it may not explain all of it, I believe my own drive to improve may explain at least some of it. I think I may have gone too far, to the point that I was afraid to write something down unless I was sure it was better. I told myself I had to write these stories, even though they weren’t fun to write. I’m a professional, after all. I’m disciplined. I can make myself write.

Well, maybe not.

I recently picked up my last “trunk novel” to see if there was something I could do to improve it. As I read I was surprised at just how much I was enjoying it! My last impressions of that manuscript were that the plot was weak and the characters were bland. And that may still be true, but it wasn’t as true as I remembered, if that makes sense. There were differences between characters, and while the plot could perhaps be improved, it wasn’t bad. There’s a lot more to be pleased with, even with its problems, than I thought.

Most of all, I had fun reading it. And I remembered having fun writing it. Something changed between that project and the two other projects I struggled with all last year. I think I overthought the plumbing. Perhaps it’s time to go back and rework my swing.

I’m not saying we should only write when it’s fun, but if we’re not getting at least some satisfaction and enjoyment from what we do…why are we doing it?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Keep swimming

I don’t usually take advice from a fish, but Dory’s “Keep swimming” is easy to remember–and easier to do than much of the advice I hear.

In many ways that has become the mantra of my writing this year. As most of you probably know, I’m not yet a published author–at least not to the level I’d like to be. I have to wonder sometimes why I’m even posting here at the Think Tank, because I can’t speak with the authority of an established writer.

In fact, if 2016 is any indication, I’m not writer. I’m a starter-who-can’t-finish-er. I’ve started two novels this year–twice. None of the four attempts have gone beyond 30,000 words. This year has been a step backward for me. I used to be able to finish a novel a year at the very least. My personal hero, Michael J. Sullivan, has written six novels in the past two and a half years.

But I have to slap myself whenever I compare myself like that. He’s a full-time, professional writer. I am a full-time, professional application developer. I write on my lunch break. He gets more writing time in one day than I do in an entire week.

I have to remind myself that I’ve written five novels, and most of those came hour by hour, plugging away during my lunch break while trying to eat my lunch and fielding questions from co-workers who don’t respect the sanctity of lunch hour. And if the “write a million words” maxim is true, I’m going to have to spend a lot more time cranking out novels during my lunch time before I start to get it right.

So yeah, just keep swimming. There’s no doubt this was a bad year. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe. Did I improve in other ways in spite of my lousy completion-rate? Maybe. Am I going to give up?

No.

I realize that much. I’ve asked myself if I want to quite several times this year. And I can’t. I just don’t know how to. Even when I tell myself I’m not going to write any more for a while I still have story ideas mugging me, trying to get out. I don’t think I know how to not write. Even in the twenty years that followed my official decision I was not going to be a writer I couldn’t not write.

I may never get published, but I will continue to write. And hopefully I will continue to improve. Hopefully I’ll even learn some things along the way that help others in the same boat as myself. Hopefully that’s what I bring to the Think Tank: camaraderie and encouragement for we dogged, determined slaves of the written word. I’m still here. I’m still writing and posting. And how are you doing? How did you do with your writing goals this year?

2017 will be upon us soon. It’s time to turn the page on 2016; for better or for worse, it’s ending. It’s time to move forward. A brand new empty page of possibilities.

Ready? Set? Let’s go!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Pick-up Lines

We often hear about how every story needs a killer first line that hooks the reader and drags them into the story. But how often do we really stop and think about the opening lines we read? If you’re like me, you probably barely even notice them, and don’t remember them when you’re done with the next line, let alone the story.

So how do we learn to write great first lines? Well, one way is to find some examples to study. I recently had just such an opportunity when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story collection, “Word Puppets”. Two of the stories have won Hugo awards, and one was nominated.

So let’s look at her first lines:

Light dappled through the trees in the family courtyard, painting shadows on the paving stones. (The Bound Man)

Dear Grandma, Your letters beat me to Husa and I’ve told the computer to dole them out at the intervals that you sent them. (Chrysalis)

As the warrior guided his horse back home, she pondered what the future might hold. (Rampion)

Kahe peeked over the edge of the earthen trench as his tribe’s retreating warriors broke from the bamboo grove onto the lava field. (At the Edge of Dying)

The clockwork chickadee was not as pretty as the nightingale. (The Clockwork Chickadee)

Saskia leaned into the darkness above the stage, only vaguely aware of the wooden rail against her hips as she re-tied the left headstring on her marionette. (Body Language)

The sun peeking through the grapevines felt hotter on Bharat Mundari’s neck than twenty-four degrees. (Waiting for Rain)

Mary Elois Jackson stood inside the plain steel box of the time machine. (First Flight)

Sliding his hands over the clay, Sly relished the moisture oozing around his fingers. (Evil Robot Monkey)

The afternoon sun angled across the scarred wood counter despite the bamboo shade Elise had lowered. (The Consciousness Problem)

His keys dropped, rattling on the parquet floor. (For Solo Cello, op. 12)

With one hand, Rava adjusted the VR interface glasses where they bit into the bridge of her nose, while she kept her other hand buried in Cordelia’s innards. (For Want of a Nail)

I was born Rosa Carlotta Silvana Grisanti, but in the mid-eighties, I legally changed my name to Eve. (The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland)

Melia adjusted Dora’s salt-suit, feeling as if it were futile because the two-year old would have the sweatband off her head the instant Melia’s back was turned. (Salt of the Earth)

Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. (American Changeling)

Viola leaned across the white tablecloth of Luigi’s Interstellar Cafe and Pub. (The White Phoenix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas)

Doubled over with another hacking cough, Fidel Dobes turned away from his 1402 punchcard reader. (We Interrupt This Broadcast)

Watching his mother kneel awkwardly in her rented space suit, Aaron worried his lower lip inside his own helmet. (Rockets Red)

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. (The Lady Astronaut of Mars)

Is anyone else thinking the same thing I am after reading all of these: wow, these are…underwhelming? I’ve read every one of these stories–and liked them a lot–and yet very few of these seem all that spectacular.

A large portion of them simply describe an image: the sun through the leaves or blind-slats. A person in a pose or engaged in a minor movement. Only two begin with more than casual energy; the keys dropping to the floor and the character coughing violently.

Not one begins in anything typically considered in medias res. There are no explosions or gunfire, no fistfights, no crashes–nothing jarring at all, for the most part.

And yet nearly all of them begin in the middle of something. Most of them present an image that sets the stage, dangling a little tidbit sufficiently unusual or out of place to make the reader read the next line to see if it sheds light on the “out of place” detail:

The sun angles across the counter in spite of someone having lowered the blind. Why?

Why does this person have her hand buried in someone’s innards, and why are VR goggles involed?

Why are we talking about a clockwork chickadee (let’s face it, those two words alone are all the hook the story needs)?

Why is the writer stealing the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz”?

Why did the guy drop his keys?

All of these first lines, whether unremarkable or not, are designed to make the reader want to read the second line, which is usually designed to raise more questions than it answers.

Studying these first lines is a relief, in a way. This is an award-winning writer, and yet her hooks are not overtly phenomenal. They’re not what I would normally think of when someone tells me my first lines really need to grab the reader. We don’t need to spend a lot of time crafting the perfect opening line that would make Hemingway or Bradbury weep at the sheer beauty.

But we do need to pluck the reader’s mental guitar strings. We need to make them ask questions. We need to present them a vivid image to grab onto and explore further. We need to make them wonder what is going on–without scaring them off with sheer unfamiliarity (An opening line like, “Flarren zigged the gormlesh with the capachegger” probably isn’t going to invite the reader to continue–it’s just too much unusual in one go).

I think, though, that too often we get he feeling that our readers need to be dragged into our stories against their wills, and I don’t think that’s the case. If they’re picking up a story they’re wanting it to be good. They’re wanting it to get their attention. It won’t need the absolute perfect lure to do so, just an opening line that gives them a little spark of imagery and mystery enough to move on to the next line and the next.

It’s not easy to provide that, but it’s probably not as hard as we’re made to think.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Variations on a theme

By now many of you have seen the Marble Machine, a contraption built by a Swedish musician to play a complex tune with the turn of a crank. If not, take a listen/look here:

 

Less known is that the group Wintergatan, of whom the musician/inventor is the leader, has also created a live cover of the same song. The machine itself isn’t durable or reliable enough to be included in their concerts, but the song itself is famous, and many fans come to concerts just for the one song. Here’s their live version at a music festival:

But wait, they’re not done yet! Evidently a lot of fans have requested the sheet music for the tune so they can play it themselves. Happy to please, the group has provided the sheet music, a tutorial, and a live performance of the piano version of this same tune:

When I saw they were producing a third version of the song I admit I didn’t expect much. I mean really, who needs three versions of the same song? And yet the change of instrumentation, a change of tempo, and a little variation of the theme and it’s practically a new song with a much different mood.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Popular wisdom holds that there aren’t really any new stories any more, just retellings of the same original stories. We’ve certainly seen it in the recent trend of resetting fairy tales in modern or other settings. We’ve seen it in the Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven (Yul Brenner) / Magnificent Seven (Denzel Washington) variations on the same story. We’ve seen it in The Hidden Fortress / Star Wars IV / Eragon / Star Wars VII sequence of variations.

So if it’s true that there are no new stories, what is a writer to do? Well, keep the bones of the story and “re-orchestrate” the rest. Just like the second version of Marble Machine took the various instruments within the machine and “re-cast” them to live musicians, sometimes with several musicians covering a single part from the original, a writer can take the more flexible components of the story and rework them or hand them over to new characters.

Or, like in the third variation, we can keep much of the story intact, right down to one person doing it all, but change the mood entirely.

When Wintergatan set out to create their live version they undoubtedly took the original piece apart, piece by piece, and examined what they could differently with that piece. Some of it was obvious: take the bass line and give it to a real bass player, and then let him expand on what was written in the rather limited original. Some of it was less obvious: the machine sounds are part of the actual music, so what do we do with them? They imitated some of them (the “cranking” sound given to the snare drum), while discarding others (no one was dropping marbles on the stage). In other cases they used several musicians to cover a single instrument, such as the two vibraphone players and keyboardist to make the “xylophone” sound.

Similarly, when creating the piano version, they looked at the entire piece and looked for what they could do without. Clearly any other instruments were out, and they made no attempt at all to imitate any of the machine sounds. Instead they pared the song down to its basics, and then tweaked it to play better to the unique capabilities and timbre of the piano. They didn’t try to fight the fact that the same chords on the piano sound more soulful; the embraced it and adjusted the tempo to match.

So whether we’re deliberately setting out to rework a known story or simply trying to avoid being insufficiently original, we can apply the same approach: break it down to its essentials. What can we do with it that’s not been done before? How can we adapt core elements of the story to our own unique interests and strengths? How can we turn a common component completely on its head? How can we surprise the reader?

But last of all, don’t let any story become “automatic”. Just as the Marble Machine still required some musical interaction from the operator, we should never let our stories become entirely mechanical. If we find ourselves getting into that trap it’s time to put on the brakes and demonstrate our artistry, even within the confines of the framework we’ve given ourselves.

For writing, like music, is an art. We are artists. Just like my college music history professor could play the same Beethoven Sonata as Arthur Rubenstein and have them sound uniquely different, we each bring our own artistic distinctness to our writing. That is what makes art Art, and not just the mechanical reproduction of sounds, words, pigments, movements, or whatever it may be.

The Marble Machine is, in itself, a work of art. And yet there is a reason why many composers still use real orchestras instead of the increasingly authentic-sounding synthesizer/sampler keyboards of today. Variation is still the essence of art.

 

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Looking backward

When the time comes for young Anakin Skywalker to leave Tatooine to become a Jedi his mother tells him to go, and not look back. In the Bible when Lot and his family flee Sodom they are told to not look back. Every day we’re told to not dwell on the past.

Sometimes that’s good advice. But sometimes it’s good to look back, get some perspective, and see how far you’ve come. Dust off those old “trunk novels”. Re-read those old short stories. Pull out the partial manuscripts of projects begun but never finished.

Take a good look at where you were as a writer back then compared to today. See some progress? What have you learned since then? What bad habits have you overcome? What weaknesses have you shored up and turned into strengths?

What sort of stories did you like to tell back then compared to now? What kinds of characters did you find most appealing? How have your tastes changed?

One of the best results of a stroll down memory lane is the chance to see what actual progress you’ve made. People usually improve gradually–so gradually, in fact, that often it seems like we’re not actually improving. One of the best ways to notice that change and put it all in perspective is to compare your current writing to your old writing.

Need some encouragement and motivation? Take a look at your old writing. Chances are you’ve made progress. Cut yourself some slack. Most writers, like their projects, are a work in progress. Take a moment to look back and see how far you’ve come.

To borrow from the old cigarette ads, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Feedback for the win

My daughter is an artist. She recently discovered a video channel where two professional artists invite budding artists to send in submissions that they then critique in a video, often demonstrating what they’re talking about by touching up the artists painting as they talk. I’ve watched some of these with her, and they’re fascinating. I’m not an artist, and I still learned a lot about what makes compelling art.

We speculated about how cool it would be if someone would do the same for writing, though we admitted the differences in the art forms would make it difficult. These artists can critique a piece of art in a fraction of the time it would take to even read someone’s short story submission, let alone critique it. Any writer who attempted something similar would likely end up without enough time to work on their own writing.

But that’s why finding readers for your work is gold; be they alpha, beta, or “response” readers. Feedback of any kind is gold to a writer.

One of my co-workers knows I write during my lunch break. I recently mentioned that I was writing a short story for a submission, and after I told him a little about it he asked to read it when I was done. I sent him a copy and left it at that.

Yesterday he told me he finished it. He gave me a few compliments on it that as a self-deprecating writer I found easy to take with a grain of salt (I don’t know yet how “good” a reader this person is), but he did give me one piece of feedback that was difficult to take at anything but face value: he told me he wanted more, that I needed to expand on my story.

Made. My. Day.

Even if we don’t have the time for or can’t find a writing group, getting feedback of any kind can be helpful. It’s easy to get into the trap as a writer of thinking  we’ve got to get our work perfect before we let anyone else see it. I’m guilty of it. But thanks to my co-worker and my daughter I’m seeing the error of my ways.

While we don’t necessarily need to be pushing our work on everyone we meet, some occasional feedback can be helpful, if for no other reason than reminding ourselves that our own opinion of our work is biased and therefore suspect. We need a different perspective from time to time.

In my case this feedback came at a time when I’ve been questioning whether I even want to keep writing. Now I have to control my urge to drop my current project and go write some more of that story to satisfy my co-worker. A little confidence boost goes a long way.

Don’t be afraid to get your work in front of people. It’s hard to grow as a writer in a vacuum. Feedback, even on the most basic levels, can offer us new perspectives on our work we would not otherwise gain.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Playing the long game

Keep writing. Lots of things. Different things. Always have something new ready to market.

That’s the advice I garnered from a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a published writer. He wrapped up a series with one publisher this year, and has just sold another to a different publisher. He’s also starting to shop around a third project.

It all sounds so glamorous, at least until you consider the business side of things. That’s a long run with little income. Even with what writers do get paid, that money is usually paid out over years. For example, when a writer sells a novel they’re usually offered an advance. But that advance is only partly paid out before the writer begins serious work on the manuscript. Another fraction of the advance is paid out when the manuscript is delivered, and the remainder is often paid when the book is released to the public.

There may be two years or more between the sale of the novel and the final publication and release. Even large advances get spread pretty thin over that long a time. Successful novels may go months beyond that before they begin earning royalties–if ever.

If the goal is to be a professional writer then chances are a writer can’t work only one project at a time. They need, like any entrepreneur, more product to sell. They need to have multiple projects in the queue. Focusing on one book at a time, while perhaps easier to concentrate, is going to make it difficult to survive.

Instead the most successful writers are usually the most prolific, turning in a manuscript and immediately begin work on the next project, pausing only to deal with edits from their editor as needed. They want to get the next project out there as soon as they can to keep that income stream flowing steadily. They can’t afford to sit around and wait for the money to come in from just one project. Being a starving artist, however romantic, stinks.

In short, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A writer who wants to “go pro” needs to be working as many project as they can handle. They need to make sure there is little actual down-time, because down-time means no money coming in. And while writing shouldn’t have to be about the money, thinking about the money is how writers survive to publish their next work.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Organizing your MICE

Hopefully by now you’ve heard of Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient. If not, here’s a good summary, but it essentially spells out the four factors that determine what kind of story you’re trying to tell. These factors are Milieu (focus on an interesting setting), Idea (focus on key information), Character (exploring the focus character), and Event (the story centers on a key event). The number of these factors that can be used in a story is largely determined by the size of the story you intend to write. A short story, for example, really only has room to explore one or two factors, while novels should be able to work in three or all four.

It occurred to me recently that these can also be useful tools for developing your story. For example, I usually start my stories with an event or character in mind, and then structure at least a thin outline around those key points. Sometimes I start with a setting.  But often I’ll end up doing most of my planning in one of these factors and neglect some of the others. That usually doesn’t end well.

But lately I’ve been preparing for a new project. It’s actually a second attempt at this particular project; the first one seriously neglected the MICE Quotient, and died an early death. When I came back to it this time, however, I accidentally stumbled across a different approach.

All I knew to begin with was that I wanted this story to be a YA paranormal-ish modern fantasy. I had my setting: Modern earth. I had my character: a teenage girl. And I knew something about the plot: she goes up against a secret society. But that’s all. It’s pretty sketchy stuff.

Often the characters are among the last things I figure out, but this time it was different. I decided I really need to know who my protagonist was, and her relationship to this world. I started with her and began working outward, but instead of moving straight to the plot like I often do, I decided I needed more characters.

I began creating characters focusing on the relationships and conflicts between them. It was a blast! Each new character uncovered some new piece of information about the world, and how all the characters look at that world. I’ve already got a lot of built-in conflict to explore. But no plot.

Rather than pausing at that point to develop the plot I decide to continue with my focus on characters. My plot, whatever it might be, needed a villain, so I started creating one. Since I knew this person was to be the antagonist I immediately started looking for points of conflict: what does this person want that puts them in opposition to my protagonist and the other characters that populate her world?

In answering those questions I suddenly realized I had my plot. And what’s more, in holding that up against my setting I realized that there were built in plot-twists that could potentially change up the relationships between characters should I pursue that plot.

It was an unexpected revelation: work out the characters and the novel writes itself.

I suspect this works with any of the four MICE factors. No matter how you prefer to start planning a new project, if you’re having trouble the usual way, try starting with a different one of the four. There’s a good chance that by the time you have two or three of the four factors fleshed out the rest of it will naturally follow.

In my case it was helpful to just create the world and characters without having to worry about the plot right away. As a result I believe the story will feel more natural and the conflicts will feel less forced. I’ve had successful stories before where I had several events in mind, but had to work out the setting and characters to match up.

But if nothing else, applying the MICE Quotient to pre-writing provides a good measuring stick to gauge how close to being ready to story is. Once you’ve fleshed out all four factors, even if not to equal degrees, you should be ready to start writing.

I’ve also seen how difficult it is to write a good story if you haven’t adequately addressed at least some of these factors. In developing the MICE Quotient, Card has provided a powerful framework for helping writers focus on what drives their story. Why not try starting from that framework in your pre-writing?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…