Category Archives: Coal Belly

Coal Belly Draft Zero

So, Coal Belly is Done… Sorta

Last weekend, after a year and eight months, I finally hit print on the final chapter of my latest novel, Coal Belly. The first of what I hope to be a trilogy. Right now, it weighs in at 190k words, and I expect it to grow.

Long time readers know this isn’t the first time I’ve written Coal Belly. The original manuscript emerged in 2010/11—a few years after I moved to Seattle and around the time I started working at Google. In fact, this blog began right after I finished the manuscript as an attempt to document my journey. That first version was around 130k words, and in the end, nothing came of it. It languished on shelves and hard drives for years. Always nagging at me as I worked on and published other projects. I knew there a was a better story there, I just hadn’t found it yet. It wasn’t until early 2016 that I felt I was ready to give it another go.

Coal Belly, Draft Zero, along side pre-manuscript ritual islay scotch and a cigar.
Behold! Coal Belly, Draft Zero sitting alongside my post-manuscript ritual: Islay scotch (in this case Laphroaig 10 yr., often Lagavulin 16 yr.) and a Cuban cigar.

It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a book. Some elements have remained the same, steamboats still feature prominently in a world covered with rivers, and its weird-west aesthetic persists. But the themes between books are very different. Characters have become something greater, plotlines are better defined and much more complex, and the stakes are personal. Looking back it’s obvious now, and I’m glad I put it aside. That first version was akin to raw ore, and this new manuscript is the refined mineral. It’s a better book in every way.

“That first version was akin to raw ore, and this new manuscript is the refined mineral.”

As always, I took some time over the weekend and commemorated the occasion. I spent most of this last week reflecting on the work, and I’m excited. Coal Belly draft zero is done. The editing lies before me. I go on vacation next week, but soon it’ll be time to delve back into the work while my steam is up.

More on Coal Belly later.


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Mark Twain at his writing desk

Shut up and write!

I over plan. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I like to plan—and there is nothing wrong with that—but sometimes I take it to an extreme. When I wrote my first manuscript, Coal Belly, I learned a valuable lesson about my tendency to over plan.

It started with a map. After I had finished it apparently I needed to draw out the deck plans for the riverboat central to the plot. When that was finished, I had to draw a new, highly detailed map of the capital city where a section of the story took place. That obviously wasn’t detailed enough, so I needed to divide it up and name all the neighborhoods. Then I needed to draw out the various symbols of the various factions within that capital city. Next, I needed to… no…no, no, no, no, no.

NO.

I didn’t need to do half that. Eventually, I realized I was spending so much time creating busy work for myself that I was getting nothing done. I was working on collateral and not on the actual story itself. That’s a problem. Research is fine when it’s crucial, but there comes a time when it begins to get in the way. Learning to recognize when I was doing something necessary, and when I was just spinning my wheels was essential for me to get things done. I had to quit working on all the tangential stuff and focus on the work itself. The actual work. I needed to just shut up and write.

I have to remind myself about this daily. I need to separate the busy work from real work. There’s always a blog post to write, a character to outline, an article to read, a comment to compose, a map to draw, a playlist to assemble, a twitter conversation to follow, etc. The list is endless, and it can get in the way and keep you from finishing. (Rule #2) It’s different for each of us, but somewhere inside, we all know if what we are doing is needed to completing our project or if it’s just a distraction.

Whenever you catch yourself doing something that isn’t what you want to be working on, do a double check. Decide if it’s really worth your time or if you should just sit down, shut up, and write.

My Process Part 1: The Planning

chalkboard

So a few folks have asked about my process, and I figured – why not write a series of blog posts on the subject? Now I realize I’m not the first person to do this, and there are plenty of books on the subject of how to write. I am sure all of them have great advice. I’m not going to give advice. I just want to share how I personally work. Before I get started one thing I really want to stress: no one’s process will be perfect for someone else. Everyone writes differently. Just because it works for Stephen King doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you. That’s okay. You won’t find your stride except through trial and error. Glean what sounds interesting and ignore what doesn’t. Try lots of different approaches and find your own rhythm. Above all, keep writing.

In this first post I am going to talk about my first step: The Planning.

1. Architect

If you have listened to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures he classifies writers into one of two groups: Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners work best without a lot of structure, they have ideas which grow and develop as they write. Gardeners don’t like to be tied down. If they are forced to plan, they often get bored as all the mystery and excitement in storytelling is lost to them. I am jealous of those people. I can’t do that. I tried. I am awful at it. My first few failed attempts at writing were born of me trying to write without an outline. Big mistake. Me without a plan is like a ship without a rudder: I go all over the place, I write sloppy, I confuse myself. My attempts at being a Gardener are the reason that I have a great many unfinished manuscripts sitting on various harddrives scattered around my office. I like big complex plots with lots of moving parts and I found out it’s difficult (read: impossible) for me to see all the details of the plot in action when I don’t have a pretty solid outline to follow. When I finished my first outline for “Coal Belly” it was like a light went off in my head. It worked. Things clicked and I was able to get my project finished—it actually came together and made sense. I didn’t get lost in the weeds. It’s important to realize this about me because everything in my process is built off my planning. Without a solid plan I am worthless as a writer.

2. My Outline

I want to be really open here, so I am going to show you what a part of my outline looks like. It’ll be raw and rough and full of errors, but that doesn’t matter. Usually only I see it. (Except today.)

My outline is pretty basic: it’s a list of items I want to include in various chapters. I’ll call out particular details I want to focus on and sometimes I make notes of elements I want to remain mysterious. I might even throw in a rough bit of dialog that I think would work. Sometimes I describe to myself what I want the tone of my particular chapter to feel like or what music I hear playing. The more complex the plot, the more notes I might have. The length and depths of my notes vary depending on the project and the chapters.

One thing I want to stress is that my outline is fluid. It’s a living document. It changes and gets updated as I write. It’s not sacred. When I make adjustments to plot in my prose I go back and make quick adjustments in the outline. Nothing crazy, just small notes—that way it doesn’t consume time I could be spending on writing.

I recently released the prologue for “The Stars Were Right” to the public, you can read it here (and I’d recommend it before continuing on – spoilers follow). The outline entry for the Prologue looks exactly like this:

Prologue
⁃ We witness the murder of an eyeglass dealer.
⁃ this chapter is told from thaddeus russel’s perspective. (third)
– Talk about Bell’s visit
– start showing the city
– keep the killer mysteruous
⁃ Mention Hagen Dubois’ new shop “up the street.”

That’s it (errors included!) It’s pretty straightforward, and I let the rest come to me naturally. Those points are the details I wanted to hit in the prologue when I actually sat down to write. (I’ll dive into this further in Part Two, “The Writing” and go into details about how I keep track of the little things that show up as I work.)

I will spend a great deal of time upfront making sure the plots work well together and the story has a good pace to it. It cuts down on my writing later on. A solid outline is why I was able to finish “Old Broken Road” in 4 months. I knew where it was going and I was able to write to that. On my current project—Deep, which is going to be pretty complex—my outline is about 3/4th done and is over 5k words. My outline is my treasure map. It leads me to the finished story.

3. Character Planning (or Lack Thereof)

This is where I am going to deviate a bit from my Architect analogy. It’s true I do plan a lot when it comes to plot but I tend to leave my character planning in a more malleable place. I have ideas, often times a name, but frequently I find those ideas are easier for me to work out in the prose rather than to set up ahead of time.

When I first envisioned Waldo Bell, the main character in “The Stars Were Right” I knew only a few things about him. He was a blue-collar everyman who worked as a caravan master, and he was a foodie. A lot of his personality, his quirks, and his faults didn’t show up until I started writing. When I did try to lock myself down, I found that I had to go back and change the notes around my planned-Waldo to fit the actual-Waldo.

Same goes for the shopkeep who is mentioned in the Prologue. I knew he was an anur—a race of amphibian/human hybrids—and that was about it! I didn’t know about his family, or the history of the shop, or his fondness for browline glasses. All of that came as I wrote.

Yep, sometimes this causes problems. Characters can deviate from what I had plotted out in my outline. That is fine: remember what I said about my outline being a living document. If a character moves in a completely different direction than I planned, I adjust the outline and keep moving.

4. Maps and Visual Inspiration

I love maps. I love them a lot. I even wrote a whole blog post about them. Maps help me visualize the city, nation, or land I am moving my characters through at any given point in the story. Often times I work on these during my outline. That way I don’t spend too much time revising borders, city names, etc. Sometimes I find it easy to draw them up to help set a scene. Even when I am not writing I often sketch maps. I have a whole sketchbook full of rough maps dedicated to imaginary places I might someday visit, from the fantastic to the mundane.

I’m a user experience designer by day and a pretty visual person. Along with my own maps I keep a collection of inspiring imagery that I find fuels my creativity around a particular story. Anything I stumble across in my browsing that sparks something in my imagination used to go in a folder on my harddrive. Now they get added to a secret Pinterest board, until I am ready to show ’em off. When I sit down to write I’ll often skim my collections as they help me get into the right mood to write.

See my Pinterest collections:

A Final Note:

There is such a thing as over planning. I have learned this. I would use my planning as a distraction from what I should be doing: writing. Instead of working on prose I was sketching a logo I was describing, or instead of streamlining a chapter I was checking the spelling on my outline. The whole focus on planning is to assist the writer in the work, not to overwhelm the writer. If planning starts to get in the way I stop. Then I get back to my writing.

Wrapping up:

So that’s my planning process. It’s pretty straightforward. I build my stories like an architect, have a fluid outline that I work off, I let my characters be themselves, and often keep stacks of random images and maps around to keep track of my world. Next up I’ll go into the actual writing, and explain how I actually get that outline into a format that people would enjoy reading as opposed to a grocery list of plot points.

Have any questions on how I go about my planning? Feel free to leave a comment below! I promise to do my best to respond to any question asked.

The Stars Were Right Query

The Stars Were Right

I had a few requests for me to post my query for The Stars Were Right like I did with Coal Belly when I posted my two projects. So here it is, it’s still a work in progress – I find I’m always tweaking this thing. Feel free to offer feedback, leave a comment, whatever, if my skin isn’t thick enough to handle it, it needs to get thicker.

Dear AGENT NAME,

Caravan Master Waldo Bell didn’t expect to return home a criminal. He just wanted a relaxing month off between jobs so he could explore the city of Lovat, enjoy a soft bed, and acquire a few decent meals. Instead, he was arrested — accused of hacking off body parts and killing old friends.

Escaping custody and on the run, Wal becomes a citywide fugitive fighting to clear his name. As the body count rises, a shadowy assassin emerges as the true killer, and the trail begins to grow more and more bizarre.

Enlisting the help of some unexpected allies, Wal begins his own investigation into the very heart of Lovat itself, leading him to a cult of religious zealots and a plot led by an ancient demi-god.

THE STARS WERE RIGHT (87,842 words) is The Fugitive meets Lovecraft, combining mystery and monsters, chases and cults, and an ancient evil in a world that is similar but not quite like our own.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Regards,
K. M. Alexander

So yeah. There it is in all it’s querying glory.

Running the Numbers #4

Running The Numbers

It’s that time again! I figured since this is a regular occurrence it deserved a super cheesy lead image. So let’s all give a big warm welcome to our stock photo Running The Numbers™ collage!

I’m going to start breaking my numbers post out by project – just for organization. Newest on the list: my latest manuscript Bell Caravan’s Book 2: Old Broken Road (yay!) Also a new interesting number in Coal Belly, publisher inquires, so far since listing my manuscripts on Publisher’s Marketplace ($20 bucks a month, totally worth it as an indie author.) I have had two indie publisher inquires. Ultimately I didn’t feel like either publisher were the right fit for the manuscript but it was still nice have someone seek my work out. Okay, enough jibber jabber, to the numbers:

Old Broken Road:

  • Word Count: 10,111 (Goal is 90-110k)

The Stars Were Right:

  • [Final] Word Count: 87,937

Coal Belly:

  • [Final] Word Count: 132,570
  • Publisher Inquiries: 2
  • Total Agents Queried: 85
  • Unanswered Queries: 46
  • Query Rejections: 33
  • Partials Requested: 5
  • Outstanding Partials: 1
  • Partials Rejected: 4
  • Fulls Requested: 0
  • Fulls Rejected: 0

It’s weird to think when I started these posts I only had one manuscript I was shopping, now I’m up to two with a third on the way. More updates next time.

The Purge

Launching Writing Career

The new year for me is a good time to reflect on the previous year and refocus, start on the right foot as it were. 2012 was great, I hit a few milestones, I began shopping Coal Belly and I finished The Stars Were Right. Not bad, but it’s time to take this a step further. I have decided that 2013 is going to be a very productive year for me and I have narrowed my focus down to two specific goals:

  1. Really focus on getting published (trying both traditional and self routes.)
  2. Try to finish not one but two manuscripts.

That’s a lot in a year, but I think I can do it. However there’s one distraction that constantly crops up, hence, the purge.

Yesterday I woke up and began to tackle my single greatest time-sink that would prevent me from achieving these two goals – video games. I love ’em, I have a whole blog about ’em (which will probably be going away soon.)

The thing is as much as I enjoy gaming I love writing more. Outside of my day job my time is limited. If I want to make a serious go at writing that’s where I need to put 100% my free time. It’s far to easy to put aside working on my next tale and spend hours upon hours playing games. I caught myself doing it a lot in past weeks and it’s time to stop. If I am going to achieve my goals then I need to redouble my efforts take steps to not distract myself. So sorry video games, you gotta go.

So… as I write this, I’m watching Steam slowly remove a bunch of games from my hard drive and I canceled a few preorders that were sitting out there like time-sink landmines waiting to come along and steal a weekend or two of productivity.

Sort of related: here’s a video Ze Frank posted when he restarted A Show it’s something I find incredible encouraging and anytime I begin a new manuscript or start down a new path I re-watch it. Keep in mind it’s NSFW (language.) Maybe you’ll find it encouraging as well:

How about you? Are you setting goals for yourself? You doing anything to help you achieve those goals? What’s 2013 hold for you?