The Writer’s Morgue, or, “Thou Shalt Throw Nothing Away”

Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that for every idea that carries itself to fruition, there are dozens if not hundreds of half-formed, uncompleted manuscripts sitting in cabinets, in drawers, and on hard drives. I know that for me, the ratio is probably close to 100 unfinished manuscripts for every one that works out. But here’s the thing; I keep them. No matter how hopeless they seem, no matter how horrid the idea is, no matter how little progress I make on it before giving up and moving on, I keep it.

Why, you ask? It’s simple. It might come in handy some day. In SMILING JACK, there’s a fun little scene between TJ, the main character, and a librarian that started its life out as part of a completely different story. It felt wrong in that story, and it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but the character in that story (named Brad) was actually TJ.

That’s not to say I simply cut and paste the scene; only the barest resemblance exists between that scene and the one that ended up in SMILING JACK. But the essence is there. I’d written the perfect scene for SMILING JACK; I’d just written it six years before I started the rest of the novel.

My second novel, SISTERS, actually started its life several years ago; it sat untouched in my files for years before I came back to it, and found the voice for Marla I was looking for. Apparently it just needed to cook for awhile before it was ready to serve.

When I’m ready to start a new project, one of my first stops is the file of incompletes on my computer, which I’ve nicknamed “the morgue”. I’ll open a few files, read the first few pages, and see if it sparks my interest. Often, even if I don’t find one ready to run with, it’ll germinate the seed of something else I didn’t even know I had planted. At the very least, it gives me a chance to see where I was when I wrote them, which always seems to help me find out just where the heck I am now.

But, and this is a very important “but,” I will NEVER ignore a new idea for something from the morgue. I’ll always run with the new stuff first, even if it turns out to be a stinker.

Recently I completed the first draft of a novel, and then immediately proceeded to bang out a 27,000 word novella that seems more like to grow into another novel after it sits in the cooler and marinates for a bit. (Sorry about all the cooking metaphors; I was a chef for a long time.) Today I sat down for my daily session (I write every day, no exceptions, minimum 3000 words a day unless I’m outlining and making notes, character sketches, etc.) and was feeling a little lost. I wanted to do something different than the last two pieces.

Since nothing was jumping up and down and yelling for my attention, I took a stroll through the morgue and found a beauty of a partial I’d completely forgotten about. I spent my writing time today going over the partial, finding myself lost in the story of a young girl with a talent she never knew she had, and her mother wished she didn’t. It’s sitting at about 38,000 words and change right now, and I think it has the legs to go to 80,000 with a little work. What’s more, I’m excited to get into it, and wondering what made me consign it to the morgue in the first place.

Do you have a morgue?  It could be a drawer in your desk, a folder on your computer, or a box on the top shelf of your closet.  But if you’re serious about writing, you need to start keeping EVERYTHING.  The stuff that works, and even more importantly, the stuff that doesn’t.

Never throw away any of your writing. Even if it won’t ever be finished. Even if you hate it. Even if it sucks so badly it hurts, don’t throw it out. It might just need to cook a little while longer.

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Y’all gotta check this out!

This is AWESOME!  I did an interview with Bill Thompson from thebookcast.com.  And let me say it was a pure blast to do!  You can check out Bill’s awesome write up here, and listen to the audio of the interview.

We’re talking mainly about my book SMILING JACK, which you can order in either paperback or for your Kindle here.

Bill is an amazing guy, and if you’re not following his blog then you’re missing out!

On Main Characters and the Mary Sue

So the other day I was reading a review for a series of novels someone recommended to me, and I came across a term I hadn’t heard before. I forget the actual quote, but the gist of it was that the main character was nothing more than a Mary Sue character. I had no idea what that meant, so naturally I asked my best friend Google.

What exactly makes a Mary Sue character is apparently a heated debate on the internet (which should be your first clue that the whole thing is absolutely pointless) but most agree that the Mary Sue character is an idealized version of the writer. Apparently this qualifies as a “bad thing” in literary circles. But why?

Despite what publicists, agents, and even some writers want you to believe, writers are by and large a very boring subset of the population. By far the most interesting things that happen to us, happen in our minds. True; some writers have incredibly interesting backgrounds. But if you could peek inside a day in their life, chances are you’d find them doing the same things you do–walking the dog, loading the dishwasher, trying to get rid of the damned crabgrass, and sitting at the computer. The only real difference is that instead of virtual farming or LOLcats, we’re writing.

So it’s not at all surprising that a writer places an idealized version of his or her self into a story. And frankly, I think we’d all be bored to tears if they didn’t. In order for the reader to care about the story, they must care about the characters. In order to make the reader care, the author must care. The best way to do this is to ensure that these characters have real emotions; otherwise they’re just cardboard cutouts being moved around a set piece which, no matter how brilliantly decorated and described, is still just another set. No one gave two craps about the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, remember. It was the characters that made the play.

Still a bad thing, you say? Well let’s take a look at a few of these “bad” characters.

  • Abraham Van Helsing
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • James Bond
  • Natty Bumppo

And probably at least 80% of all the main characters ever written. Still seem like a bad idea?

That’s not to say it hasn’t been done horribly; one need not look far beyond the “Men’s Adventure” shelf at your local bookstore to find a deluge of wish-fulfillment (and often, really bad writing.)

But if it’s done well, such as in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, it can blow you away. You actually care about the character, because the author cares. And that makes the story work, provided there’s an actual story to be told. That, you’ll find, is the common ingredient in all the above examples; there is an actual story to be told, a problem to be solved, and not just one adventure after another for the sake of fantasy fulfillment.

So, as long as you’ve got a story to tell, keep on throwing yourself into your work, sometimes literally,  You might run into me the next time you open one of my books.

Hope to see you there.

Spend less time getting ready to write, and more time WRITING!

If you’re anything like me, every minute of writing time is valuable, and time spent getting everything ready to go feels  wasted.  I thought I’d share some of the little things I do to get to writing faster.

Want to automate your writing process?  Have a lot of files you open and use regularly?  Just want to free up some of your valuable writing time?  Use a batch file to get all your ducks in a row with one double-click.

Put simply, a batch file is a list of commands in a text file that’s been made executable. They are most often used to automate daily tasks, in this particular case, opening a set of files.

(Note: these directions are for Windows. I don’t know nearly enough about Macs to tell you how to do much beyond turn the thing on :D)

Start by opening a plain text editor. Notepad is the most common if you use Windows, but there are several other feature-packed free text editors for Windows. I use Notepad++. DO NOT use a word processor like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer; they add formatting which is incompatible in a batch file.

In your text editor, start by typing the line (without quotes)

“@echo off”

“Echo” is a command that displays text in the command prompt window, and will just clutter things up.  This line turns echo off.

Before we go any further, you need to decide what files you want to open. For me, I have my MS, my notes, my outline, and my character profiles. Although the path names will be different (we’ll get to that in a moment) here’s what the commands look like:

start C:\Users\Michael\Documents\fake_project\fake_document.doc

If you use something other than Word, your file extension will be different. Look at the file’s properties to determine the right extension

Since I have four files to open, I’ll add three more commands:

start C:\Users\Michael\Documents\fake_project\fake_document2.doc
start C:\Users\Michael\Documents\fake_project\fake_document3.doc
start C:\Users\Michael\Documents\fake_project\fake_document4.doc

There are several ways to determine your file’s proper path name, which is really nothing more than a list of directions the batch file will use to find the file you want open. If you don’t tell it where to look, it can’t help you! The easiest way to find the right path is:

Navigate to the folder where your file is stored. Don’t use a shortcut; it’s not the same. 

Right-click on the file, and then left-click on Properties. A box like this one will pop up:

properties window

properties window

The area I’ve highlighted is what you’re looking for. Highlight it with your mouse, right-click and select “Copy” or just hold down CTRL and press C.

Go back to your text editor. On the line after @echo off, type in “start” (without quotes), space bar, and then right-click and select “Paste” or hold CTRL and press V. This gives the command the path name, but we still have to tell it which file it’s looking for.

A word about file names: Batch files originated with the old DOS systems, and still behave that way. DOS doesn’t like spaces in file names. If your file name has spaces in it, which Windows has no problem with, you can make batch files find them by renaming the file, replacing the spaces with an underscore ( _ ) such as “file_name” instead of “file name”.

At the end of the line with your path, add another slash “\” usually located right above the ENTER key. Now type in your file name, remembering to type it exactly. DOS doesn’t know what a typo is, and it won’t search. Don’t forget the extension (.doc or .docx if you use Word, .odt if you use OpenOffice.)

Do this for all the files you want to open, putting each command on a separate line. Your final file will look something like this:

@echo off
start fake file path\file_name
start fake file path\file_name
start fake file path\file_name

The same method will work to open multiple programs at once.  For instance, I use notepad and my browser when doing research, so I have another batch file named RESEARCH.bat that opens them for me:

@echo off
start notepad.exe
start chrome.exe “www.google.com”

This opens my browser window, and a new notepad file all at the same time.

Now it’s time to save it. I save mine to my desktop, where I can access it as soon as I sit down. Click FILE, select SAVE AS, select where you’d like to save it (desktop for me, where ever you’d like is fine) and give it a name you’ll recognize. Mine is named CURRENT_PROJECT.bat. Just below the bar for the file name is the file type. Click the drop-down arrow and select ALL FILES. Be sure you include the extension .bat at the end of the file name.

save as dialogue box

save as.  Note the .bat extension and the “save as type” All files selection.

And that’s it! Now you have an executable file that will open all the files you need in one shot. By having all the files you need open on their own, you save time, which translates to more time writing and less time getting ready to write.

Is this the best way to speed things up?  Probably not.  Are there other ways?  Absolutely.  This is what works for me, and I thought I’d share.  I hope it helps.

Making Writing a Habit

(Note:  This post is intended to be my version of the FINAL ANSWER; whenever I’m asked this question repeatedly by the same people, I can just point them here.  Also, please understand that while this is what do, it may not work for you.  If not [or you’re just convinced I’m talking out my ass again] feel free to find what works for you.)

Recently I’ve had a few people ask me how I manage to complete a novel, and how I write so quickly. These questions imply I actually know what the heck I’m doing here, but I’ll try to answer anyway.

As others who are much more prolific and talented have said, the key to success is making writing a habit. Well, what the heck does that mean, and how do I do that, you ask?

Unfortunately, the answer is the one most people looking for an excuse to fail don’t want to hear. It means doing it every day. Dorothy Parker said it best:

“Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

You sit yourself down at the typewriter/word processor/computer/notebook/block of stone with a chisel/whatever method you choose, and you put words on the paper. Sometimes you don’t feel well. Sometimes you’d rather go out. Sometimes you can’t keep your head in the game. But you put the words on paper, because that’s the only way it gets done.

That’s how I get done; how I work quickly is even simpler.

I know what I’m going to write when I sit down. I make detailed outlines. I make notes for important scenes. I keep detailed character notes and make profiles for major characters. I’ve even been known to sketch the layout for crucial scenes.  I have a plan, and while plans can always change, they help you know what’s coming next. Less time wondering where you are means more time moving forward.

“That’s great,” I can hear you say. “But what about X, Y, or Z problem I have?” I can’t tell you what to do. I’m not a personal coach, and no one is going to chastise you for not making your word count. That’s YOUR job. And there’s nothing that says any given project that isn’t already sold has to be done on a timeline. If you’re the writer who gets 200 words a session done, fine. If you get 2000 words done, even better. I have a personal word count minimum of 3000, which I usually blow past without noticing. One writer I know (who will, by his request remain nameless) averages a whopping 9000 words a day. Keep in mind he also says that on a good day, at least 2500 of them are actually good enough to survive the first draft cut. But he puts the words on the paper.

That bears repeating; he puts the words on the paper.

“Okay, smartass. Now how can I go about that? What’s the secret?”

There is no secret. But there are some things you can do to help keep it going once you start.

  • Set a goal, and meet it. Word count goals help keep you on track, and in the story. I have a personal minimum daily word count which I only fail to meet for unavoidable circumstances. And yes, they accumulate; if I miss half my goal one day, my next day’s goal is 1.5 times my normal word count.
  • Track your progress. You should keep track of your word count. Use a notebook or your favorite computer program such as a spreadsheet, word processor file, or simple text editor and note the date, title, the location where you were writing, time started, time finished, and total word count for the session. I use a spreadsheet where I track all the above, plus total time and average words/hour. You’ll notice trends; time of day, location, etc., that lead to the most productive sessions.
  • To help  keep track of word count, use what may be the handiest tool on a word processor; the “find” feature.  Simply insert a non-word string of characters (like *** or &&&) where you stop for the night. Come the next session, once you’re ready to pack it in, simply search for that character string, and then highlight everything past that. (You can click and drag to highlight with the mouse, but I’m a nerd who loves keyboard shortcuts. I use CTRL+SHIFT+END, which takes me to the end of the document and highlights at the same time.)  Then simply use the word count tool, which tells you the count of the highlighted session and the whole document.

There’s really no secret; no magic formula. Just make sure that the seat of your choice gets a liberal application of ass daily, and put the words on paper. Don’t worry if they’re good or not; just get them down.  (For more on the shitty first draft and why it doesn’t matter, see my earlier post here.)

Just put the words on the paper, and before you know it, you’ve finished the first draft.

What comes next is a whole different topic 🙂  Worry about that when you get there.