After NaNo

I’m sorry to say I didn’t get a chance to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. My daughter did give it a try and I’m proud that she managed to make good progress on a project she’s working on. For those who don’t know about the National Novel Writing Month, every November writers are challenged to write 50,000 words in a month. Because I’m in the midst of commissioning two instruments at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I didn’t think I could commit to that amount of writing during November this year. However, I have participated twice before and both of my NaNoWriMo novels ultimately became published works.

While 50,000 words is a good amount of a novel, it’s shorter than what most genre publishers are looking for. Some publishers are happy to see young adult books around this length, but even they tend to want at least slightly longer. Also, the organizers of NaNoWriMo encourage authors not to spend time revising their works during the month. The goal is just to get 50,000 new words down on the page. So, how do you go from 50,000 unedited words to a novel you’re willing to submit to a publisher?

I first learned about NaNoWriMo from Jackie Druga, who owned LBF Books, which had just purchased my novels Vampires of the Scarlet Order, The Pirates of Sufiro, and Children of the Old Stars. She challenged me to try my hand at writing a novel in a month. I decided it was time to actually write a novel I’d started twice before, but gave up on called The Solar Sea. The reason I’d given up on this novel twice before is that I didn’t know quite what it wanted to be. Was it an adventure novel? Was there more of a suspense element? Should it be for adults? The 50,000 word length and being a parent of two young daughters inspired me to approach this new start as a young adult novel. I’d thought about it so much over the previous fifteen years, I had really clear pictures of the characters, so writing it was easy. When I got to the end of the month, I had a more-or-less complete novel. It needed spelling and grammar cleaned up. It needed details fleshed out. I ran it by three or four beta readers. I even read it aloud to my daughters and was pleased to see how much the story held them, but even at a young age, they pointed out places where they wanted more. By the time all was said and done, I had a 65,000 word novel and LBF said they were willing to publish it. If you want to see the result, you can learn more about the current edition at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Because things had gone so well, Jackie encouraged me to participate in NaNoWriMo again the next year. This time, my project was much less defined. I knew I wanted to write a prequel to my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order and I had a rough idea of what the story would be. I set out on the journey to create the book that would ultimately become Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. I did finish 50,000 words, but I was left with the feeling that I had far from a complete novel. I liked the opening, but felt like the book was beginning to meander toward the end. I also didn’t feel like it had a good focus. In this case, I set the novel aside until I had some idea of what to do with it.

I believe about two years passed. I made a few half-hearted attempts at editing, but was never quite sure what the book was missing. By that time, LBF Books had been purchased by Lachesis Publishing and LeeAnn Lessard approached me with the idea of writing five vampire novellas with erotic overtones. It occurred to me that my NaNoWriMo attempt to could be adapted into three of those. As I thought about what the other two novellas could be, I found a new opening that gave the whole project focus and an overarching theme. With that in mind, I was able to find an ending that became the final novella. Ultimately, those five novellas were published under one cover and called Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Each of the novellas is a part of the story set in a different time period. As the story evolves, the vampires of the story become romantically involved. In this case, it helped to give myself some distance from the original creation and to get some input that gave me a slightly different approach. By the time I fleshed out the middle and added a new beginning and end, I had a 94,000-word novel. If you’d like to learn more about this novel, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

To all of you who made good progress on a project this year during NaNoWriMo, I salute you! I wish you the best as you polish your work and help it find its final form.

Music Through the Ages

Even if I hadn’t been working this year, I’m not the kind of person to stand in line for Black Friday deals. That said, I did take advantage of one Black Friday special this year and I’m glad I did. It was the download of Abney Park’s New Nostalgics and in retrospect, I would have been pleased with this album if I’d paid full price for it. This album is comprised entirely of songs from the early 20th century covered in modern style by the band Abney Park. There are songs about airships, burlesque halls, and how people who built the modern world often aren’t the ones who see its benefits. What makes the download really special is a 20-minute “documentary” by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Robert Brown, where he plays snippets of the old recordings of the songs and then follows that with how he updated them for a modern audience. You can pick up the album in the music downloads section at http://abneypark.com/market/

Music has always been an important part of my writing. Often, when I write, I like to have instrumental music on in the background that captures the mood of what I’m trying to create. In fact, one of the things I like about Abney Park is that they provide instrumental-only versions of many of their albums and I use those a lot when I’m writing steampunk or retrofuturistic fiction. I also like to collect soundtracks of favorite films or TV shows. Listening to those can be a great way for me to get into the proper mindset for a given scene, whether it be romance, action, or suspense.

While I prefer to listen to instrumental music while I’m in the process of writing, I love listening to songs from a period of time I’m going to write about as part of my research for historical fiction. It provides a valuable window into the things that brought joy and sadness to previous generations. You can often catch slang terms people might have used. If you catch an odd turn of phrase in an old song, it’s often worth looking it up to see if it had a broader meaning. Maybe it’s something you can use in your story. In setting a scene, I often like to describe the kinds of music people are listening to. Even if I don’t mention a particular song, I like to mention the kinds of instruments people heard.

That covers the past, but what about the future? While part of me loves it when a science fiction character espouses their love of David Bowie or Dolly Parton, part of me groans. While I hope these artists will still be known two or three centuries down the road, I’m pretty sure they won’t be mainstream. People in the future will be writing and singing their own songs. They’ll write about their own heroes, like Jayne in Firefly’s “The Hero of Canton” or the ballads sung about Edmund Swan in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There will be new musical forms and maybe even alien instruments. As a writer, you don’t necessarily have to write these songs, but you can add some color by mentioning them and talking about how they make the characters in your story feel.

With that, it’s time for me to go listen to some good music and find some inspiration. If you would like to see how I write about futuristic music, you can read The Pirates of Sufiro by subscribing to my Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Fantastic Settings

Today, I’d like to welcome author Deby Fredericks to my blog. I’ve had the honor of editing her novels The Grimhold Wolf and Seven Exalted Orders. I enjoy her writing and she has a new book out called Dancer in the Grove of Ghosts. In today’s post, she discusses the importance of setting in science fiction and fantasy.


One thing that sets fantasy and science fiction apart from other literature is the incredible worlds we set forth in our pages. While stories in other genres will take place in the real world or something close to it, fantasy really takes you away. Whether to dream lands and magic kingdoms, or to domains of our nightmares, we show our readers sights they’ve never seen before.

In creating my high fantasy novella series, Minstrels of Skaythe, I’ve been showing a landscape that is fairly natural, yet nevertheless woven through with magic. Enigmatic, silvery roads criss-cross the dusty plains, leading nowhere. Pockets of gloom linger where nothing should cast a shadow.

During the first novella, The Tower in the Mist, the characters explored the Hornwood, an ancient woodland shrouded in mystery. For the latest novella, they only pass through the Hornwood to reach another legendary site.

One hundred years ago, the evil Dar-Gothull laid a curse on Seofan Holl in the form of a drakanox. This beast was so poisonous that its breath made stone crumble, metal rust, and it killed every living thing, from the magnificent oleya trees down to the fleas in the pelts of dogs. No life has recovered there in all the time since.

My heroine, Tisha, is an extraordinarily gifted healer. She is driven to discover whether the curse is like an illness that she can heal. Here is what she finds in Seofan Holl:

Gray — that was her first and most striking impression. The land formed a shallow bowl, rather oval and slightly curved to the north. This was filled with pale gray, lacy clouds that Tisha quickly recognized weren’t clouds at all. They were the leafless twigs and branches of a vast orchard. Tree trunks stood in orderly rows, spaced just so, a formation stretching as far as she could see.

Beneath those ghostly groves, the soil was pale and dry, covered with ashy dust. Even the least breath of wind raised a thin haze to muffle the sky. Rickety fences stitched between sections of orchard. On the wall above, moss had been growing on every stone. Here was none at all.

I hope you’ll journey along with Tisha to the desolate Seofan Holl, and see if she can restore life to the grove of ghosts.


Dancer in the Grove of Ghosts

“He’s dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Mortally wounded, Cylass is abandoned on the battlefield by comrades who would just as soon have him out of the way. But as he waits for death, a strange savior appears. The dancer, Tisha, heals him with her forbidden magic, but also draws the wrath of his cruel former lord.

Soon guardsman and renegade mage are on the run. Will Cylass help Tisha, as she helped him? Or will he do the smart thing, and turn her over to the vicious Count Ar-Dayne?


Amazon e-book:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07ZXLHC62

Other e-book formats:
https://draft2digital.com/book/496360

Author website:
http://www.debyfredericks.com

Author newsletter:
http://eepurl.com/geV_nX

Textual Origami

Back in 1993, when I was first writing my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, I created a very broad synopsis of each of the novel’s four parts. I wrote one page in a notebook describing what I expected to happen in that part of the book. Then, as I had time, I wrote the scenes that, I hoped, would bring the story to life. When I’m working on a novel, I often have a flash of a moment in a story. Back then, I was good about writing those moments down right when they happened. I would then call it a completed scene, then start thinking about the next “moment.”

Reading the novel now, over 25 years later, I realize many of those moments read more like scene fragments rather than complete scenes in their own right. The scene fragment might describe something significant that happens to a character, but it’s over and done with so fast that we don’t really feel like we spent time with the character or got to know how that fragment fit in the story’s bigger context. So, one of the things I’m doing in the novel’s 25th anniversary edition is identifying fragments that can be folded together into longer scenes, so the reader spends more time with each character getting to know them and understand their motivations a little more before moving on to another scene. I’ve begun to think of the process as textual origami.

As an example, I had a scene fragment where a colonel is watching a holographic display of a space ship. His adjutant arrives and they have a brief conversation. I then move onto another scene fragment with other characters. In the next scene fragment with the colonel, he’s still watching the hologram. Another ship arrives. Then we move onto the next fragment. It occurred to me, there’s no reason at all that the two fragments of the colonel and the hologram couldn’t be combined into one scene. The colonel and his adjutant could be talking when the second ship arrives, adding another layer to the scene.

Over the years, as I grew as a writer, I tended to get better about creating longer scenes all on my own. However, I still occasionally wrote and inserted a scene fragment here or there. I didn’t really think about my tendency to create scene fragments until I wrote my novel Owl Riders just a couple of years ago. The novel’s editor was the first editor to encourage me to combine some of these fragments into longer scenes. Once it was pointed out, it was easier to see my scene fragments in other novels.

Admittedly, not every scene fragment needs to be folded into long, extended scenes. Sometimes a fragment can help to highlight a moment or emphasize a very particular incident. With that in mind, I think the scene fragment is a very powerful tool, but its one that should be wielded carefully.

If you want to see more in-depth posts detailing my process of rewriting The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary edition, I encourage you to support my Patreon campaign at http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. Also, I should point out that supporting my Patreon campaign is also a way to help support this blog. I took the leap earlier this year to buy paid WordPress hosting for this blog to give readers an ad-free experience. A portion of the money I get at my Patreon site helps to cover the hosting fees.

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.