Writing Process

Writing Process — “Zelzer Stiff”

I want to talk about how I wrote “Zelzer Stiff.”

The reason? It’s an odd, little piece that is both a successful execution of my idea and far better than I intended.

As a science-fiction writer, this is a rare event. Often we shoot for the stars and bounce off the moon. But my hope is that by logging the process, I will gain some insight, and fellow writers something useful.

Brainthumping

Idea, first. As a writer, I operate under the Laws of Association. This principle works like the conceit of a poem (where two unlike things are compared in metaphor, becoming the piece’s central image), constantly linking the unfamiliar into surprising meditations of meaning.

My role is to extend comparisons, contrasts, and contiguities to their logically absurd conclusions.

How does this look in practice? I knew I wanted to write about guns, about the limit of a gun, about the promotion of the Second Amendment, about the moral circle of who ‘should’ own a gun and who is disqualified. In my mindful maelstrom, I connected this to robots, to android rights, to the possible inability for machine intelligence to prioritize, empathize, and detect subtlety like a human being,  My love of the western pulled in the image of a robot sauntering into a bar, packing a revolver.

All of these thoughts became notes on a page, including other images, impressions, strains, threads, solutions. Conflicts emerged. I wanted the robot to misuse their trust; to misread the situation and end lives unjustly. Yet, what better logical and absurd conclusion to a robot-rights story than an android committing a massacre but justifying the action with a data-dump?

Outline Time

I love it when ideas appear like pokémon in tall grass, but we don’t always have time to roam. Instead, I carefully and intentionally construct my narrative outline. The idea is to make each step a logical continuation of the last one, and to slip in natural character development. Readers might not intuit the architecture, but they’ll want something anthropocentric (i.e. gossip about the human condition—good, bad, or weird) and easy aesthetic (something simple to read).

With “Zelzer Stiff,” this started as a basic summary. Something like this:

Second Amendment has given robot’s rights. Robot with a gun walks into a bar. Confronted by a bigot. Kills the bigot, bartender, and anyone else who flinches (“offensive actions”). Robot uploads cam-feed and data to the police, gets a drink.

Now I needed to decide my medium. I knew what I wanted to write, but how should I write it? Prose? Poetry? A newspaper article? A story some couple thousand words? Flash?

I chose the drabble-esque, worried too much development might reduce shock. Pithy over the prolonged.

Daft Draft

I wrote the piece, following the preconceived plot with the poetry of words. My focus was on specific details. Done poorly, abstraction kills good literature. I wanted my reader ferociously engaged in the intensity of my images. There was a bit of internal debate about exposition. I decided to insert the historical account (“…the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment”) between a reference to processing speeds (foreshadowing?) and conflict (a robot with a gun).

The rest was matter of opinion. My original names were conventional. Place-holders. I decided to replace them with bizarre concoctions like “Kghoshi” alongside quips like “You packing, tin can?” (When, as a writer, do you ever get the opportunity to use the overused in an interesting way?). My best lines were developed in the vivid haze of brain thumping. The rest, intentionally, unintentionally, while drafting.

Tittles (I mean Titles)

Serious thought should go into a title, or you will be tempted to keep your initial project title. Suddenly, the weird and wonderful is stunted under “The Dragon” or “The Hunt.”

Personally, I have titles I am happy with (Black Bear on White Paper) and titles I’m unhappy with (The Spheres) and titles that were pragmatic but not poetic (Flexible Groups). My story House Divided continues to frustrate me because it’s (a) the perfect moniker for a piece about a suburban home split between two dimensions, and (b) its too Abraham Lincoln-esque.

For this piece, I chose random over revealing.

Finally, the result:

“Zelzer Stiff” by Desmond White

The android was making them all uncomfortable with its Zelzer Stiff eyeing them from its hip. It’d only been forty point three seconds since the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment and this son of a manufacturing plant had just walked into the Rig & Rattle with a laspistol holstered, twinkling. Kghoshi—a real bastard on a good day—splashed his drink on silver chestmetal and said, “You packing, tin can?” The bartender—a saint on a bad day—put an arm on the droid: “C’mon, now, let’s not do this.” The move was registered as an offensive action and the android shot the bartender between his eyebrows. Kghoshi’s finger moved a centimeter toward his gun when a second shot put a red dot on his forehead. The men in the bar leaped to their feet. Offensive actions. The men in the bar toppled over chairs and tables. By the time the android reached the counter, empty now of breathing souls, a feed of reaction times, facial registers, psycho-prints—all pointing to self-defense—had been submitted to the authorities.

As you can see, there are many arbitrary decisions. The decision to keep everything in one paragraph. The decision to use a whimsical name for the gun that also sounds like a cocktail. The em dash couplet describing Kghoshi and the bartender. The repetition of “offensive actions.” Flourishes as fickle as free verse.

I would argue aesthetic can be like that, can seek music without meaning, as long as the foundation is laid rationally.

Was I successful? I think so. Others do too. Some, not. The final step:

Move on, my dude

Don’t dwell. Write your piece. Get it to where you’re 85% happy with it. Then write something new. Experiment. Exercise. You will fail. You’ll succeed. Tuck away the failures, submit successes, and keep lying, dreaming, writing.

Life, Writing Process

Denver Pop Culture Con 2019 — “Death in Fiction”

denver comic con
Photo by Josh Starbeck

This summer, I went to Denver Pop Culture Con, once Denver Comic Con until San Diego made them change the name. The convention had the usual—the cosplay, the contests, the artist alleys and merchant mesas, and many, many literary panels.

Being a dabbler of morbid subjects, I went to a panel, entitled “Death Becomes Her: Representing Death in Fiction,” which sought to explore our literary fascination with death.

The panelists were Brenna Yovanoff, Sherry Ficklin, Cat Winters, and Paul Kreuger, and the moderator was Amalie Howard. I found each of the authors had something to say of importance, and I will collect their best statements below:

Brenna Yovanoff

  • Literary deaths can be a safe space for readers who need to cope with their emotions. Books allow you to process at the spend you want to process. You have control. You can always put a book down and think a while.”
  • “Zombies compel and repel us. It’s the uncanniness. A thing that is supposed to be empty and still getting up and moving around.”

Sherry Ficklin

  • “Often YAF characters are experiencing things for the first time. First love, first death. It’s a fun playground because everyone reacts differently, everyone copes differently. It’s kind of like coping mechanism origin stories.”
  • The death of an inanimate thing can impact us as much as the loss of a life. The loss of a job, the destruction of an ideal. In fantasy, this can change from ‘my roommate moved to a different city’ to ‘my roommate turned into a cat.’ It’s still the loss of a friendship.”
  • “Death is not judgment. Time is the enemy, wearing down heroes and villains alike.”

Cat Winters

  • “Death in fiction can give us hope that there’s life beyond. Even the restless spirit appeals to us. Says—This might not be it. Death is not a stopping point. However, even if death is not finite, we still will not have what we have now. Death increases our appreciation of life.”
  • “Edgar Allan Poe was able to write about being alone, about not knowing how to handle the death of loved ones, the weirdness in our souls. He got away with horror and murder and madness under the stamp of literature.”
  • There is often hope in horror. Sometimes the story ends with the character destroyed, sure, but usually we get to see our protagonist once the horror has passed. We see what the character looks like on the other side of darkness. A stranger, broken, but on the path of healing.”

Paul Kreuger

  • “I often think of the post-apocalyptic story. The death of normality, of stability. And compare that to my experience as a millennial. The death of that promise I’ve had my whole life that if I get good grades and graduate from a good college, I will have a happy, cushiony job waiting for me. A house, a car.”
  • Fiction sometimes romanticizes death, but there’s a wide gulf between 13 Reasons Why and the economy of hot or not. I like hot monsters. I’d be okay with the grim reaper having ripped abs. If death were sexier I’d welcome it. But often, when suicide is glamorized, the author is usually the least affected by death, and the least responsible for the effect of their books. I question purpose. Unless its a martyrdom for loved ones, self-destruction is not congruent with hope.”
  • “Zombies can be whatever we want. They’re a blank slate. Romero had zombies represent the glut of U.S. capitalism. In Kim Eun-hee’s Kingdom, zombies literally eat the rich. They’re the external manifestation of the rot in South Korea coming from greedy rulers.”
Life, Scifi, Writing Process

Failed — Mudball (The Animated Series)

Phil Kiner and I took one last crack at the concepts we created in GLADiators and Mudball. This time, I had a completely new setting and conflict for our ball-kicking, mud-rolling, tomboy protagonist:

Lord of the Flies… in space!

Essentially, the premise was this:

A cargo ship carrying children (refugees from a planetary invasion) crashes on an unknown desert planet. The ship’s automated servants (called meks) activate Emergency Protocols, which includes creating machine-emitting air-bubbles on the surface, but otherwise the ship does very little in terms of leadership or guidance. It’s up to the rally of children to stay alive, create a functional society, and plan for rescue.

Maebee (now Mae Bee) effectively stayed the same:

But she was joined by new allies.

Zettle would be an excitable girl with a ferocious curiosity for new things. She’d constantly hurtle herself into danger (or over cliffs), pursuing impulses and inquiries with physical abandon.

We wanted her to represent the poor working-class, so she wore colorful, discarded clothing with no particular order or schema. She had style—it was just not like anyone else’s.

Zettle was also blind—her family unable to afford, in this age of hyper-tech and planetary exploration, to buy her mechanical replacements. Naturally, this made her cliff-hurtling curiosity more dramatic (or hilarious) depending on the circumstance.

This is my depiction of her:

Maeb’s other companion would be a blond, sensitive, super-genius named Nord, who would function as the anxious, cautious, “I don’t know about this you guys” comic relief.

(You could apply psychoanalyze this. Zettle as the id, Nord as the superego, and Maebs as the pragmatic “can-do” ego in-between.)

I wrote a script and Phil put together an animated storyboard for Nickelodeon, hoping they might pick up the series.

Nickelodeon said no, and we put Mudball away, moving on to other projects. But I have already begun to transform this concept into a far more serious novel, returning to the savage intensity that Golding intended. As this draft comes along, I will put out updates about concepts and characters.

For now, I hope you enjoyed my trilogy of posts about a failed webcomic and cartoon. Feel free to contact me with your failures, and we’ll revel in our misfires together.

Life, Scifi, Writing Process

Failed — A Webcomic called Mudball

As a summer cleanse, I’m detailing some of my failed projects over the years. (Believe me, there are a lot of them.) One of these failures was GLADiatorsa webcomic about goofballs locked in deadly combat. This week, I will focus on a spin-off.

Having dropped Gladiators, Phil and I decided to create a shorter, more focused fairy tale that took cues from sci-fi and Peter Pan. We cut the Cloudiseum, dropped Roland and Coolio and our wacky cast of sword-whackers and whack-jobs, and tossed out the Battle Royale for something simpler but no less sinister.

Instead, the focus would be the conflict between two planets, and really, two ideologies.

We called the series Mudball.

In this cosmos, there was a planet called The City made up of freeways and skyscrapers. Only grown-ups lived in The City, where suits and ties were mandatory, and everyone possessed a white-collar, corporate job. The form of government was Bureaucratic Monarchy. Due to a string of filing mishaps, there was no king, just a council paralyzed by paperwork and parliamentary procedures no one could recall.

The City had a counter-planet (really a moon) called Mudball, a marsh world full of children. This is where the adults of The City grew up (literally from pea pods). On Mudball, the children grew wild and free, playing imaginative games and exploring. All of this was secretly (and actively) monitored by machines disguised as animals and plants.

Every winter, harvesting machines picked the oldest kids to become adults. The children were brought to The City, given suits, given jobs, and spent the rest of their lives in the unhappy humdrum of cubicles and cafeterias.

In-story, Maebee, our protagonist, has just turned 12 (the proper age for collection) but doesn’t want to leave her friends or freedom.

Maebee decides to trek across Mudball in search of some place to hide. This is her ‘Call to Adventure’—to seek an alternative to adulthood.

Her adventures lead to an adult living in the swamp, a stubbled, dirty-suit-wearing man named Patricks, who has never grown up, but lives a slouchy, unhappy life in a stolen reaper. Think Peter B. Parker from Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.

The story would continue to The City, where Maebs joins a resistance group called The Jobless (blame this on the writer’s anti-establishment attitude), and seeks independence for Mudball.

The webcomic would have explored the conflict between our biological compulsion to grow up versus the unnatural but hegemonic cultural expectations of what that actually means.

However, like GLADiators, the project didn’t make it past a few pages, partially due to the influence of a mutual friend who advocated against our project without really understanding it, calling our scripts amateur and pointless.

Later I would discover that he was trying to convince Phil to work on his project—a Dune-like comic where one’s reputation is both a physical and psychic currency. Phil would go on to assist this friend for a while, but quit when the man turned out to be a frustrating micro-manager.

It didn’t help that I was seriously depressed at the time, living in a small town without nearby friends, working as a tutor and substitute while pursuing my teaching certification. Even my girlfriend (now wife) was three hours away. I put up little resistance when the project ended, taking my friend’s criticisms for truth. It wouldn’t be until 2016, two years later, that I would shake off self-pity, smack my inner demons, and begin writing again.

Today, I keep a wary vigilance of friends with ill intentions, although I’ve forgiven this particular intruder for his self-concern. There is a lust for celebrity that consumes people and hurts their ability to rationalize or promote the dignity of others. I understand that, and try not to fall prey to it myself.

And when it comes to Mudball, I hope to revisit this project someday as a short story or novel.

I guess what I’ve learned is this. Don’t fall with your failure. Just steal from the ruins.

All of this post’s art (except for my crayon drawing of Patricks) was created by Phil Kiner.

Life, Scifi, Writing Process

Failed — GLADiators Webcomic

Long before PUBG, Fortnite, H1Z1, Apex Legends, and the resurgence of standalone survival games, Phil Kiner and I were planning a webcomic called GLADiators.

Inspired by Harvey Birdman, the series would be a cartoon pastiche, using intensely different art styles in juxtaposition. Inspired by Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, the series would depict involuntary warfare between strangers on a coliseum-like island.

Our premise was this:

An extra-dimensional race called the Administrators has picked champions from every dimension in the Multiverse and placed them on a floating island called the Cloudiseum.

Only one champion would be allowed to leave—the final survivor of a long, bloody war of all against all.

Our protagonist would be a rough-and-tumble girl named Maebee (pronounced “Maybe”) from a kids-only dimension (think Neverland).

Maebee would be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn incarnate—reckless, deceptive, fun, not taking things seriously until forced by circumstance or conscience. She would also be an anomaly—the only child, and therefore (seemingly) easy-pickings.

One of her companions was Roland, a talking frog with a rapier, a courtly mustacheteer with pomp, decorum, and bravado.

We envisioned Roland as a cross between C-3PO (in his anxious concern for Maebs) and Inigo Montoya. Roland, a toad of honor, could not bring himself to kill a child, even in raw combat, and even saw her as his ward to protect.

Her other ally would be Coolio, a refrigerator with ice magic.

Coolio hailed from a dimension of talking appliances, a world where Game of Thrones meets Ikea, what you might call swords-and-smoke-detectors.

Coolio made his peace with fate, choosing to live harmoniously in the Cloudiseum instead of as a brutal pawn. He’d only kill reluctantly and in self-defense. In other words, Coolio was a chill dude.

We also created a ridiculous cast of GLADiators, including a Mormon with Eagle Powers, a sleazy Jiminy Cricket running a criminal empire, a hare who rides a tortoise and wields a carrot spear, a prison wasp with black and white stripes, the Segturion (a Roman Centurion on a segway), an expy of He-Man in a wheelchair, and Mecha Kurt Cobain. There was a guy in a speedo who kept rubbing his nips. A Veigar-sized Boba Fett. And the Butt Punisher, a Frank Castle type who forcibly spanks the Mafia.

The series would have followed Maebee, Roland, and Coolio as they survived harrowing attacks, became minor celebrities in the Multiverse, and led the resistance against the very regime trying to pit them against each other.

As a writer, I had a lot of fun developing the Behind-the-Scenes, a sequence of utility corridors and panopticons where the Admins control the island. And crafting the ending, where Maebee, secretly afraid of becoming a boring adult, grows into a clever, exciting, and wonderful woman (who wears a suit and tie and carries an enormous axe).

But the series was not meant to be.

Phil was pursuing a career in graphic design; he became bogged down in projects. I was pursuing my own profession in education—a turbulent project in itself, and very time-consuming.

We decided to abandon what was appearing to be a long, long enterprise, but we still retain those happy memories of collaboration and creativity.

All of this post’s art was created by Phil Kiner.

Writing Process

Betaread, Proofread, Critique

The purpose of this article is to share some of my experience reading unpublished manuscripts and to provide some order to the process.

First, the terms:

A beta reader is a nonprofessional who reads the first or second draft of an unpublished manuscript.

An alpha reader does the same with an unfinished manuscript.

A proofreader is a professional who corrects syntax, spelling, and grammar.

A critique partner is a professional who assesses a manuscript’s substance and style.

Miche Gray-Newton. Writing in Theory. Saatchi.

For the past seven years, I’ve been reading and critiquing my friends’ unpublished, often unedited manuscripts. It’s grueling work—perusing a text for enjoyment and the author’s edification. But I do it because, well, I care about my friends. I want them to do well.

Continue reading

Life, Writing Process

Brandon Sanderson — Writing Things

I went to see Brandon Sanderson at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

You know, the guy who finished the Wheel of Time series and wrote Mistborn and forty-four other novels. He’s sort of the James Patterson of fantasy literature except Brandon actually writes his books and has a powerful, simple prose (as opposed to just simple). Maybe Stephen King would be a better comparison?

Brandon focused his lecture on failure and the difficulty of transferring nebulous ideas into physical writing. Although he was here to sell Skyward, the nucleus of the night was how his failed attempt at a novel in 2002 became Way of Kings.

A few of his best bits (paraphrased o’ course):

  • “You create beautiful stories in your head. Then sit down and what comes out is awful and dreary and miserable and flawed. You don’t know what to do, and feel dumb because you’ve been learning how to write since Kindergarten. You worry that you’re screwing up something wonderful.”
  • “I’m here to tell you there’s creation in destruction. And good stories from patience.”
  • “Sometimes you need to write the imperfect story. Reach into the stars and reveal their ugly flaws. You won’t get the story you’re searching for. But someday later, you’ll reach back, and give your brain something to fix.”
  • “The more you write, the more you identify plot archetypes, and separate archetypes from trappings. I’m not dismissing other writers, just different directions. Only when I’m stumped do I go to others. Otherwise, I use my instincts and systems. Going from premise to outline to drafting. Keeping that careful balance between determination and discovery.”

 

Life, Writing Process

Markus Zusak — Writing Things

I went to see Markus Zusak (of Book Thief fame) read from his latest novel, Bridge of Clay.

Zusak wore a cream sweater and thin black pants—a mix of charm and casual. He had a surprising Australian monotone with which he delivered an arras of anecdotes and advice. From a story about his life (basically, Zusak manipulated his brother to crack an egg on his forehead), he drew five key points:

  1. “Stories from your life are the easiest place to start.”
  2. “There were two levels to my story. On the top—the switching of the egg. Underneath was the backstory. About hating my brother. About my Dad’s gruff exterior. Know what happened to the characters before they show up.”
  3. “I include small details like sitting on paint cans and the crack of the egg not because I can picture it, but because as a writer I can do simple things well, so people will believe.”
  4. “The best moment was supposed to be my brother smacking himself with an egg. But the best reaction was when my Dad said, ‘Brilliant.’ The unexpected is what helps story.
  5. “I’ve told this story a thousand times. It’s been work-shopped.”

After reading a portion of his new novel, Zusak went to interview questions. I’ve collected the best of his answers:

  • “It’s often the little things in books that are true.”
  • “Writing is a mountain with a sandpit at the top and if you can get there you can play.”
  • “Coffee is good.”
  • “Don’t network or latch onto other writers or form a club. The key attribute to writing is you need to be sitting alone. A lot.”
  • “It’s not about being better or worse than others. Write books only you can write.”
  • “More often than not the author did intend the meaning. I put it there for a reason. But also the more depth you put in, the more there is to find. The connections and relations.”

And my favorite bit:

  • “Absolutely no one encouraged me to be a writer. My teachers didn’t think I could write. Parents didn’t know. I just knew what I wanted, that I was most alive when I was reading or writing. I never won a contest, never published. I bet everything on my book, and endured eight years of rejections. You don’t have to be encouraged. No one has to believe in you. You can do it, you just have to really, really want it.”

Life, Writing Process

Kathleen Glasgow, Library Luminary

Kathleen Glasgow (of Girl in Pieces fame) swung by my school to speak about the dark places she’s been and the dark things she’s written.

Glasgow wore a black coat, a shirt reminiscent of prison bars, thick glasses, the kind writers wear. I felt bad for her. The air was insufferable. This time of year, Colorado has a pattern of snow days, but today the sun was out, the streets glaring, and the school hadn’t lowered the thermostat.

When she started, I thought she was about to ask if anyone had read Girl in Pieces. Instead, Glasgow asked, “Have you ever lost someone?”

So many students put up their hands.

“Do you know someone who self harms?”

More hands.

From there, her lecture sought to answer the question: What do you do with pain? With darkness? With feelings that hurt?

As you may not know, I’m a high school teacher, so I had to smile at my colleagues’ faces when Glasgow spoke about low grades, perpetual truancy, her expulsion and GED, drugs, alcohol, an early career at Wienerschnitzel and Jack-in-the-Box. And when she muttered “shit” into the microphone. Not exactly the narrative we impress on students.

Now, while she may not be a model of academia, to the nation of women falling and failing and hiding scars under long sleeves, Kathleen Glasgow is an avatar of hope—a sign that art and literature and the wondrous act of creation can salvage scraps, can save the soul.

But the answer wasn’t only art. It was the act of honesty. Of unwinding and expressing the truth without romance. “I write books for people who think help me help me help me,” Glasgow told us. “But say I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“People tell you—you’ll get over it, you’ll heal. Not true. You go on with the weight of that trauma for the rest of your life. You learn to be with it.”

“If I’m not going to be open about it, who’s going to be open about it?”

Her final piece of advice to the assembled classes, freshmen to senior, was this:

“Do not self-censor. Always believe in the story burning inside you. Write it. Rewrite it. Read as much as you can. Reading assists your sense for story, teaches structure. And never, never be afraid of the things you want to say.”