Trekking Through the First Draft

Or, How Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

In 2004, fresh out of college, I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. It was a 2,183-mile hike from Georgia to Maine, and it took from March 8th to August 12th. It is, to date, one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. When I tell people about it, they usually don’t comprehend the logistics at first. “Five months of hiking?” they’ll sometimes ask. “How did you stock up on food? Did you ever take a shower? Wash your clothes?”

And the answer is, yes, I did all three relatively easily… just less often than at home. Because the fact is, I didn’t go on a five month hike. Instead, I went on a long string of three-to-four day hikes, strung out in series over five months. Every few days, I’d hitchhike or walk to the nearest town, and buy food, take a break, eat at a restaurant– and almost always take a shower, wash my clothes, and spend the night somewhere marginally more comfortable than my tent. Then I’d hit the trail again, refreshed, rested, and restocked.

Explaining that probably makes it sound less impressive. But still, string 40 or so of those shorter hikes together, and suddenly you can say “I went on a 2,000-mile hike!” And that’s pretty cool to say, no matter how you slice the details.

Writing a novel has a lot in common with that sort of hike. It’s a long and arduous journey, usually over the course of months, and it takes a hell of a lot of willpower to finish the thing. In both cases, a lot of people say, “Someday, I want to do this” and then never get around to actually doing it, just because the size of the task is so intimidating.

Most of the advice you hear for novel writing is along the lines of Just barrel through the first draft. Keep writing. If you make mistakes, you can always fix them afterward. Various motivational tools, like National Novel Writing Month, are geared around this idea: shut off your internal editor, and sprint your way through the words. Just get that first draft out on paper.

Twice now, I’ve written novels by following that school of thought. In both cases, I haven’t been particularly pleased with the result.

But wait! I hear you say. It’s a first draft! It’s not supposed to be good! You’re supposed to take it and then write a better second draft!

Well, yes, but, in both cases I feel like the first draft sort of fell off the rails, and I find myself questioning whether it’s worth it to revise them, or set them aside and try to improve my craft by writing something new. And while I still plan to revise those novels into something better, in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a better way of writing a first draft? If I had hiked the Appalachian Trail the way I wrote those first novels, then I would have just charged into the woods and kept running until I keeled over from exhaustion. It’s certainly a strategy, I’m just not sure it’s the best strategy.

When I went to the Rainforest Writers’ Village this year, I had hoped to come up with a few short stories, but instead I came up with an idea for another novel. And I thought, Hmmm… this is the perfect opportunity to try out a different way of writing.

This time, I’m not barreling through the first draft. Instead, I’m looking at the novel the same way I looked at the Appalachian Trail: don’t worry about getting to the very end. Just complete one piece at a time. In the case of the novel, each piece is a chapter. I’m working on one chapter at a time, working on getting it into good shape, then moving on to the next, almost as though each chapter is its own short story, complete with a little mini-arc (which, really, is how a chapter should be anyway).

But wait! I hear. How do you prevent yourself from getting bogged down by the editing? What’s to keep you from spending months nitpicking and perfecting every chapter?

The answer is simple: Writers’ Group. My writers’ group meets every other week, and one of the rules I’m following is that I have to submit a new chapter for every meeting. This will, hopefully, help me keep the pace up.

So this is my Appalachian-Trail-inspired style of novel writing. Slow and steady. One chapter at a time. There will still, of course, be editing to do at the end of it, but I’m hoping the first draft this method produces will be a lot more satisfying, and that maybe I’ll be inspired, rather than intimidated, when it comes to writing a second draft.

I actually think my chapter-by-chapter method would work for both outliners and discovery writers. To go back to the Appalachian Trail analogy, there are two ways to resupply over the course of the five-month hike: one, you can buy food at stores in towns as you go, or two, you can actually plan ahead of time what you’ll need, and mail boxes of supplies to post offices along the way. The first method is nicely analogous to discovery writing, and the second method to outlining. It boils down to a simple question: How much do you plan ahead?

If you’re an outliner, then when you’re ready to start a new chapter, you pull the next piece from your outline and keep going. If you’re a discovery writing, you keep brainstorming your way down the trail. I always resupplied by buying food along the way, making up my menu as I went– I suspect this is why I’m also more of a discovery writer. I have a difficult time keeping to outlines; I’d rather make things up as I go. And while it’s nice to have a final destination (i.e. an ending) in mind, you have to have fun in the journey, too.

Of course, all this works for me, but I don’t necessarily expect it to work for anybody else. And to be honest, I don’t know even know for sure that it works for me yet– I’ve only written a few chapters, but I’m on schedule, and it’s feeling good so far. I’ll let you know how things go.

Norwescon: Best Con, or Best Con Ever?

From a personal perspective, this year’s Norwescon was probably the most complete and rewarding convention I’ve ever been to. Over the course of four days, I switched between the roles of writer, cosplayer, and photographer. I hung out with old friends, met new ones, mingled with professional authors, and hung out far too late at room parties. If there is a “platonic ideal” of conventions, this year’s Norwescon came as close as I’ve ever seen.

The few days leading up to Norwescon were a little stressful, as my hotel room got cancelled without notice (my roommate’s fault, not the hotel’s) and I had to scramble a bit. Luckily I found a room with my old roommate from last year, and after some last-minute rushing to get cosplay stuff together, I arrived on Thursday only a little later than planned. And Thursday night kicked off quite well, with Fairwood Press hosting a small press publishing party in the Presidential Suite.

Friday was my day for going nuts with cosplay, so I painted myself solid black and went as a drow, i.e. dark elf. (As seen below with fellow Wordslinger Andrew Rosenberg.) I had wanted to wear this costume at Dragon*Con last year, but the TSA tried to steal my airbrush.

Speaking of which, airbrushes are kind of a pain to lug to cons. If you forget a part (which I did), you’re screwed, unless you can jury-rig it (which I did). The airbrush makeup is comfortable, doesn’t rub off much, and goes on fast, but next time I may try sponge makeup.

I haven’t done much cosplaying until now, but this was the most complete costume I’ve ever done, as well as my favorite. I even picked up a hat and a cane in the dealers’ room to go along with it.

I’m not sure exactly what appeals to me about cosplay. Partly I think it’s the just fun to spend a little while as someone, or something, else. It’s also a bit of a personal challenge– I usually like to blend in with the crowd, but when you’re cosplaying, you’re inherently calling attention to yourself. Admittedly, cosplaying at a convention is not exactly out of the norm, but this costume would blend in more at, say, Dragon*Con, than Norwescon, where most costumes tend to lean toward goth or steampunk.

So it was fun, and I plan to do it again. At the risk of losing several Man Points, I’ll admit that I like putting outfits, makeup effects, and characters together. Maybe I’ll even use one as the inspiration for a story– which I estimate would earn about 200 Nerd Points, redeemable for luggage or a Doctor Who prize pack.

Saturday was Serious Writer Day for me, although I did keep the hat and the cane, because they were awesome. I had my lunch with my writing group, the Cloud City Wordslingers, and that afternoon I had a short story critiqued at the Fairwood Writers Workshop. This was a round-robin session where several pro authors, including one of my personal writing heroes, Jay Lake, gave me feedback on a short story. It was a really useful and fun exercise– this is the second writing workshop I’ve done at a con, and I plan to keep doing them.

As it turns out, two of the pros really liked my story and the third tore it apart. But that’s how these things go– taste and advice are often subjective, even among writers who know what they’re doing.

The other cool part about the Writers Workshop was the Saturday afternoon social, in which we got to mingle and chat with the other workshop participants. It was great for meeting folks, making friends, and comparing notes.

Also, on Saturday, they announced the nominees for this year’s Hugo and Campbell Awards– congratulations to everyone on the list! Later that night, at the DAW Books Party, I was able to congratulate several of the nominees in person, including Stina Leicht (Campbell Award) and Mary Robinette Kowal (Best Novella; Best Related Work).

As the DAW Party wound down, a few of us made our way back over to the far wing of the hotel, where several room parties were in full swing, many complete with open bars and dance floors. I still had half a bottle of Scotch left over from the Rainforest Writers Village, and with the help of a few friends, we drank the rest of it, and danced, chatted, and generally had an awesome time until the wee hours of the morning.

For thirty years, I have avoided having a hangover. Partly by not going to a lot of parties, but partly also by being smart and drinking lots of water on the few-and-far-between occasions when I have gotten plastered. Not so this time. I woke up on Sunday morning feeling pretty horrific. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed and stumbled my way to a string of Sunday morning panels and readings, the highlight of which (and the last thing on my agenda) was a reading by local author Amy Thomson. (Amy Thomson is the author of “The Color of Distance,” which is possibly my favorite science fiction novel ever– and that’s saying a lot.) She read from a story called Buddha Nature, which will be appearing in Analog in a few months. Keep an eye out for it.

So all in all, a completely awesome con. I’ll close it off with a quick list of positives and negatives (or to use Norwescon terminology, roses and onions):

Rose: Photography. This year I knew about the Masquerade Photo Area, and took advantage of it. I spent about three hours on Saturday evening taking pictures of cosplayers. Fun times. To anyone I offended while muttering obscenities at my camera for recharging the flash too slowly, I apologize. Full set of Norwescon pics here.

Onion: Name Badges. The names on the con badges were too small to read from further than about two feet away, which meant you pretty much had to lean forward and squint to read anybody’s. Kind of defeats the purpose (namely, so you don’t have to admit that you’ve forgotten someone’s name thirty seconds after they introduce themselves).

Rose: Dealer’s Room. Norwescon has my favorite dealer’s room of any con, including Dragon*Con. Maybe it’s because I can buy cosplaying stuff for males beyond just steampunk garb. Or maybe it’s the general diversity of the dealers, or how friendly and willing to chat they are. But I like the dealer’s room.

Onion: Panels. This is a personal one for me: I didn’t attend many panels. Partly because Norwescon was more of a social con for me this year (which was awesome), but I was also a little reluctant to hit up the writing panels. I’ve mentioned this before, but once you go to enough cons, the panels start getting repetitive. You reach a point where you know it all (in theory, if not practice).

Maybe soon I’ll make a few more sales and can sit on the other side of the table. Or maybe I should branch out on the panels– Norwescon has some fantastic science panels, touching on everything from space to biology to nanotech, which I think could serve as fertile grounds for story ideas. I just didn’t get a chance. Ah, well. There’s always next year.

Rose: Meeting So Many Awesome People. Again, kind of a personal one. But until now, I haven’t had much luck meeting new people at cons– partly due to my own shyness, partly because geeks tend to be clique-ish by nature. This year was different: Emily, Steve, Josh, y’all are awesome. As are the folks I met (or re-met) at the Writers’ Workshop: Mae, Tinnara, Jeff, Rebecca, and I know I’m leaving some folks out– my apologies. Thanks, everyone, for an amazing con.

Onion: SakuraCon. It’s an old gripe, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it. It’s a ten-minute walk from my apartment, and I’d love to check it out one year. But as long as it and Norwescon are the same weekend, Norwescon will win every time.

Rose: Room Parties with Open Bars. Enough said. And thanks, party-hosting-folks, for helping make Norwescon what it is.

Rose: Room Parties with Burlesque Dances. Oh, did that break my alternating rose/onion pattern? Whoops.

Onion: Room Parties with Jabba the Hutt. He kicked us out. Come on, the door was open. How were we supposed to know it was private?

At least we didn’t get fed to the rancor.

Rose: Single Malt Scotch. That is some pretty awesome stuff.

Onion: Single Malt Scotch. But holy shit, it will f**k you up in the morning.

“Flush Fiction” Now Available

I just found out that Flush Fiction is on sale starting today. The latest addition to the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series of books, it’s an anthology of short stories designed to be read in one “sitting,” as it were: each story is less than 1,000 words. And I have a story in it called The Taste of Failure. It’s silly science fiction, which is about as different from my last story, The Talisman of Hatra, as you can possibly get. But hey, diversity’s a good thing, right?

Flush Fiction is for sale at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Powell’s, and hopefully your local indie bookstores as well.

Basking in the Crowd at Emerald City Comicon

Saturday was an excellent day. After spending the morning at Writers Group, and getting feedback on Chapter 1 of a new novel, I headed over to the Washington State Convention Center to spend the afternoon at Emerald City Comicon.

This was the second year in a row I spent a day at ECCC, and I have to say, this year was way more fun than last year. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t fighting a cold this year. Or perhaps it’s that this year was way more chaotic and crowded.

That’s right, you heard me. I like chaos at cons. I like crowds. The energy is fantastic, and I have never once had a problem with stereotypical smelly B.O. Let’s face it, folks, we’re well beyond the days of the basement-dwelling nerd. Geeks have self-respect these days.

In all seriousness, though, this year did feel much different. Just for comparison, here’s a shot of the main exhibition hall on Saturday afternoon at last year’s con. Busy, but not really crowded:

Here’s a shot of the exhibition hall on Saturday afternoon this year:

I rest my case. Not only were there more people, there seemed to be a lot more energy in the crowd. (Although again, that may be because I was healthy this year.) I got the same vibe from ECCC this year that I get from Dragon*Con: mad delightful chaos, with plenty of energy, enthusiasm, and of course, lots of kickass costumes everywhere you look.

ECCC also had a fantastic guest list this year: George Takei, Wil Wheaton, Summer Glau, Adam Baldwin, and Edward James Olmos, to name a few. The lines to get into the guest panels were incredibly long (I saw on Twitter that people waited for an hour and still didn’t get into the George Takei panel), but luckily for me, I wasn’t that interested in the special guest panels. Instead, I walked around, took pictures, toured the exhibition hall, and attended a Star Trek vs. Star Wars Dance-Off put on by members of the fantastic Portico Dance Company (see right).

In other words, I soaked up the atmosphere and just had fun. I’d love to see a George Takei or a Wil Wheaton panel sometime, but I’m not going wait in line for hours to do it, especially when I’m only there for one afternoon.

There are two types of conventions I go to: media cons, and literary cons. Media cons, like ECCC, I attend for the crowds and the costumes and the energy. Literary cons I attend to meet authors, sit on panels, and learn stuff that I didn’t know before. Admittedly, most cons have a little bit of both (and Dragon*Con is as close to a fusion of the two as I’ve found), but ECCC was a pure media con. Fun, crowds, costumes, merchandise, spiffy art.

Next week is Norwescon, and that’ll be more the literary side of things: hang out with writers (including, hopefully, many of the awesome folks I met at the Rainforest Writers Village), attend panels, do the writer’s workshop. I’m really looking forward to it, but mostly for different reasons.

What literary cons and media cons have in common, though, is getting to hang out with passionate, creative people. At literary cons, it’s the writers I get that vibe from. At media cons, it’s the cosplayers. There were some amazing costumes, most of which took a lot of work and dedication to put together. Cosplaying well takes skill (and sometimes guts), and like writing, it’s essentially a creative art– a completely different one, perhaps, but still, it’s a manifestation of that same fusion of creativity, passion and energy that I sense in writers, and indeed, in all pursuers of the geeky creative arts.

Speaking of creative arts, there was some damn fine art of the drawn and painted variety there too, of course. I went to the ECCC Art Auction in the evening, and bought a cool piece by Lar DeSouza. (All the proceeds went to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, so I blew my budget for a good cause.) My favorite find of the day, though, was a print from DPI Studios. Jaysin is a nice guy and a fantastic artist, and I bought a limited edition print of the picture that is currently featured on DPI Studios’ homepage. I snagged the last one, too, which makes it all the sweeter.

There was creativity of another kind as well, in the form of a preview for BrickCon, a Lego exhibition that will be at the Seattle Center in October. There was a lego Batcave, a lego Stargate, a bunch of lego Star Wars vehicles (including a very nice Lego Super Star Destroyer), and perhaps my favorite, a Lego Space Needle.

Next year I think I’m gonna have to carve out time in my schedule to go for all three days of ECCC. Maybe get a VIP pass, too. I mean, it’s only a ten-minute walk from my apartment. Since I have free lodging, I don’t have to feel guilty about shelling out the extra cash, right? As well as the extra cash for cool art? Right? (The correct answer is: no, I should not.)

Full slideshow of pics from the con is here.