Friday, October 28, 2016

November Approaches: Five Tips For the Forums

This July was the first year I "won" National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the same site hosts two write-a-thons on the off-season; one in April, and one in July. I started with zero words and ended up with 50k+ words.

Now November approaches, and the main month-long write-a-thon begins. 

My feelings about NaNo are a little mixed. It's not for everyone, and there are some pitfalls to be aware of. However, it can get you started on establishing consistent writing habits and generally getting your own head unstuck from your posterior when it comes to actually putting words down on the page. 

The most helpful thing to me were the forums. Here are some tips on how to use them to your advantage.

The Forums Are Your Friend

If you, like me, aren't super great at structuring your time, then the Word Wars, Prompts, and Sprints Forum will be your best friend during NaNo. From "word war" challenges with other writers to Harry Potter-themed "word crawls" to Game of Thrones bingo, these user-created exercises help take your writing time from nebulous unmotivated word-barfing to "I almost have bingo; I just need to stab the main character in the back!"

They're fun. When you're feeling overwhelmed by all the words you have to churn out before December 1st, fun is good.

The Forums Are Your Enemy

The forums can be a huge help or a massive time-suck. If you spend more time jumping around commenting on other people's plot problems or character questions than you do writing your own, that's a sign that you need to limit the time you spend there. Make a system if you have to: "earn" forum time by writing words, where 100 words = five minutes of dicking around on the forums. 

If you, again like me, have a problem with time management, it's a good rule to just never click anyone's link to TV Tropes. Seriously. Just don't do it.

Don't Be a Selfish Pain in the Wherever

Reciprocity is important. If you request help on a forum problem or participate in a worldbuilding thread like Respond, Answer, Ask, it's good manners to leave a response somewhere else, too. Don't be rude. Don't be super harsh. If you find a writing buddy and they ask you to be a harsh critic in your private messaging critiques, that's one thing. But many people use NaNo to gain confidence or overcome a writing block to churn out a first draft. 

That's important. Don't hurt that. 

Also, while I may not always have the highest opinion of the moderators, you can avoid a lot of headaches and eye-rolling by at least bothering to read the rules. Know which forums are all-ages and which are not. Know which forum best matches your topic or question thread. 

Know Your Genre, but Don't Worry About it Too Much

I always see posts along the lines of, "What genre is this?" "Should I make this more fantasy, or more science fiction?" "How should I pitch this to an agent?" "I want to write a vampire story, but I think they're so overdone. How do I turn this into more of a paranormal crime novel?" "If I put too much sex into my romance novel, does that make it erotica?"

The truth is, it's pretty hard to tell the genre of a book you haven't even written yet. 

So write all the sex you want into your first draft of that romance novel, and then decide whether it's erom or erotica later. You can always edit the sex out. You can always turn your vampire detective into a normal woman later if the paranormal element isn't working. But so many people seem to be trying to edit a story they haven't even started. 

Genre is weird and fuzzy and frankly something that agents and publishers are better suited to dealing with. You may have a general idea of the genre you're writing in, but I personally wouldn't sweat the details too much -- not at the NaNo stage.

The Problem With Problematics

In a similar vein, you get a lot of people asking whether x, y, or z is a good representation of a certain type of character. Writing different-gendered characters, gay characters, characters of color, disability, and various types of diversity can be difficult for people without lived experience of those things. If you want to incorporate a character from an underrepresented group in your NaNo novel, wonderful. If questions about possible problematic narratives in a story you haven't even written yet are making you freeze up, not so wonderful. 

I am of the opinion that the first draft isn't necessarily the first place to worry about those things. Consult the forums, write up a list of questions, and then write the thing. Re-read your 50k later with those questions in mind. Don't let fear of doing it wrong stop you. It's a first draft. You are going to get shit wrong. 

I've also noticed that some people flock to the "writing diversity" threads on the NaNo forums looking not for feedback, but a pat on the back for being so open-minded. They tend to get super pissed if someone points out a problem with their story. So. Don't do that. And if you don't agree with someone's advice, thank them for their input and then move on. 

This is a delicate topic. But in a world where authors like JK Rowling can go through the entire writing and publishing process without anyone saying, "Hey, isn't this kind of ignorant?" the fact that you are even thinking and worrying about these problems at this stage is a good thing. 

So keep that worry...in your back pocket for the editing stage. On the forums, you can make connections with people who are willing to read over your synopsis or draft looking for red flags in your representation of a Chinese-American lesbian vampire detective. 

But you have to write it first. That's the whole point of NaNoWriMo, after all.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Editing the Horror Story

Remember that story I blogged about a while back? The one I wrote with the goal of creating a gender-neutral/gender-undisclosed protagonist

Well, I submitted it to a literary magazine online, and it was accepted for their next anthology. 

The litmag is called Smoking Pen Press. For inclusion in their next anthology, I will receive a bit of money and a copy of the published book. I'll blog again when it goes live, I suppose. 

I've won contests and had submissions accepted before, but I'm writing about this one now because I've never done any of that with short stories. I don't consider myself very good at short stories. For the story I submitted, titled "River Road," I just had a whim to sit down and write a short story -- even gave myself a wordcount of 2,000-ish -- with the conceit of seeing if I could be deliberately vague about the protagonist's gender. When it turned out better than expected, I figured, what the hell? and submitted it. 

The acceptance came in the middle of a string of bad days. It was a welcome reminder that sometimes I write things that, for whatever reason, other people like. I'm not sure I consider it much of an accomplishment, considering how much the rest of my life resembles this box in terms of how well I'm keeping it together. And/or of how much you'd trust that box to behave like a functional adult. 

Image result for cardboard box held together

I've had a decent amount of success with poetry submissions and contests. If I cared enough and/or had enough money to burn on submission fees, I could probably do a lot better. (That would also require me to re-read my poems without wanting to die in a fire. Poetry is a bit...personal.)

But perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised that someone liked one of my short stories. Horror, after all, is the one short story genre I always seem to have liked and been OK at. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the power my short horror stories seemed to have over the imaginations of my friends. I have Poe and Lovecraft and Stephen King and a few other horror greats' collections. I like reading horror shorts more than most other genres. Horror presents a diverse array of tales but also provides a pretty solid framework which an incompetent plotter like me can work with more easily. 

Whether I'd class this one as pure horror, I don't know. It has a murder! A killer! Even a ghost. It feels more "ghost story" than horror, but again, you know, with the murdering. Even though the supernatural elements are minimal, it wouldn't feel out of place in a horror collection. 

In any case, I just completed the first round of revision requests from Smoking Pen Press, and I hope to finish the process soon. My attitude towards submitting was, "Meh," but the revising process had me in heaps and piles of nerves. I needn't have been so concerned. 

Anyway, that's my brag for the month out of the way. I wrote a thing. People liked the thing. Now the people who liked the thing are going to publish the thing. Woo-hoo. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: Ghosts of War by Bennet R. Coles

I received Ghosts of War to read and review. It's the sequel to Virtues of War, my review of which was one of the casualties of the examiner.com site change. (Still mad.)

Since this book deals with issues of mental illness, namely PTSD and depression, I'm including it in my Diverse Reads review series.

Recap:

In Virtues of War, we're introduced to the Terran space military force and the crew of the Rapier, a small fast-attack craft. The team has interpersonal drama as they struggle to do their part in an inter-space conflict between Terran (Earth) forces and the Centauri colonies, who want independence. There's a war, shit goes down, everything sucks, and then they "win." Or at least, until the next book. 


Image result for ghosts of war coles
Can I just say, I love these covers. Totally badass.

Ghosts of War: Summary

After the Terran-Centauri conflict, the different crew members of Rapier have various levels of success adjusting to their new normal. The team is split up: Thomas returns to his socialite wife and a career track that will hopefully fulfill his ambitions; Jack endures facial reconstruction and physical therapy before being reassigned; Breeze happily throws them all under the bus for her career in intelligence; and Katja struggles with PTSD as she adjusts to life in peacetime. 

However, the threat isn't over. A Centauri assassin bent on revenge has his own plans for Earth -- and the crew of Rapier once more finds themselves entangled in interstellar conflict. 

Review: 4 stars

I think I'll give this one four stars. I actually liked it much better than the first book. 

Katja is the central character of Ghosts of War, and plays a more prominent role than she did in the first book. I struggled to like her in book one because the first thing we see her do is round up a bunch of civilians and shoot them in the head when they refuse to answer her questions. Virtues of War paints her as an insecure overachiever with daddy issues who often resorts to extreme measures (read: war crimes) in an attempt to live up to expectations. 

In Ghosts of War, she's less naive, less needy and approval-seeking, and more mature. She's also been pretty brutalized, mentally and physically, by her time in combat. She displays common PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, hypervigilance, and aggression. The description of her struggles isn't sentimental, which was a relief compared to other portrayals of PTSD I've read. 

Jack remains my favorite character -- but the presence of Thomas in this novel just made me want to gnash my teeth. He's still an asshole, still shallow, and still a character I can't muster the slightest bit of a fuck to give about. In the first book, he cheats on his wife with Katja -- a young, impressionable officer under his command -- and then throws her over for Breeze. He's such a slimeball that when Breeze blackmails him by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault, you almost want to cheer for her rather than feel sorry for him. (Almost. Breeze is a horrible person.) 

In Ghosts of War, he leads Katja on (while still married) and then goes and fucks her sister. This sends Katja further into a downward spiral. Practically all the interpersonal drama and misery that isn't caused by the war is caused by Thomas. Ghosts of War tries to make him into this sympathetic guy, but I wasn't buying it. 

As far as the action goes, it's heavy on intrigue, spy stuff, and secret plots. I found this more enjoyable than the first book, which included a lot of mind-numbing, tedious descriptions of How The Sci-Fi Stuff Works. I appreciated the attempt to make this hard sf, but I was bored. The science fiction aspects of Ghosts of War are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, rather than being shoved at the reader in the form of an infodump. 

Conclusion

If you like military scifi, this is the series for you. If you want to read more Canadian authors, this is the series for you. If you want a series with interesting female characters out the wazoo, this is the series for you. If you're looking for a decent portrayal of veteran PTSD, this is also the series for you. Worth mentioning that the author is a veteran himself. 

This series is also good about addressing moral complexities in its characters and the society it presents. In another series, the Terrans would be portrayed as the villains. Katja, for instance, is seen by the other side as the Angel of Death for her role in the war. The assassin is sympathetic. The idea that there's not necessarily a good or an evil side -- that what side you were born on matters more -- is a troubling concept that Ghosts of War isn't afraid to address.