The Story Pipeline

The Story PipelineAs a writer, I spent a large part of 2014 establishing a pipeline of stories, with the expectation that those stories would begin exiting the pipeline in publishable form in 2015. As of the end of 2014, I had six stories and and a non-fiction work in various stages of production. I’ve added two new projects to the pipeline this month (because I have to keep both of my writing groups busy).

I thought it would be interesting to share what’s in the pipeline, along with the current status and expected word-count/page-count for each project.

First, though, let me explain the process I’ve established for creating my stories (other writers may do this differently). Each project goes through the following steps:

  • Concept: Working out the details of the story.
    Activities: Brainstorming, discussions, research, basic world building and outlining.

  • First Draft: The raw act of getting the story written.
    Activities: Writing and receiving chapter critiques by writing group.

  • Second Draft: Tuning the story based on chapter critiques and a self-evaluation.
    Activities: Editing, writing and analysis.

  • Beta: A group of beta reviewers read the story and critique whether it’s working.
    Activities: Emails and discussions.

  • Final: Story issues and editorial changes from the Beta Review are addressed.
    Activities: Editing, writing and analysis.

  • Complete: The story is ready to exit the pipeline and face the cruel, harsh world.
    Activities: Line-editing, proofing, ebook generation and print template generation.

Without further ado, here’s what’s currently in the pipeline:

# Project Status Type WC Pages
1. Bitter Days
Pageeda is a young, homeless orphan girl in the gritty fantasy city of Mozanya. When she loses the older sister who raised her to some ruthless kidnappers, she’ll do anything to get her sister back — even become a hero.

    — A Story of the Thousand Kingdoms
    — Episode 1 (of 5) of Pageeda & Scuffee

Final Fantasy 19K 63
2. The Rooftop Game
Even though Lydio Malik is the Royal Bodyguard for the infant Princess Analisa of Salasia, he’s ridiculed by his fellow bodyguards for his foreign heritage and his almost obsessive attention to detail. But when disaster looms, the kingdom’s enemies will discover that when he says, “Over my dead body!” — he means it.

    — A Story of the Thousand Kingdoms
    — The Royal Bodyguard #1

2nd Draft Fantasy 12K 40
3. The Good Book
Malcolm Jameson is planning to throw himself off a bridge when a passing bicyclist stops and hands him a magic book. Unsurprisingly, the book has a considerably different plan for Malcolm. And a bad attitude.
1st DraftSecond Draft (4/11/15) Magic Realism 14K 47
4. The Threefold Revenge
Piker’s a City Guardsman in the fantastical city of Monzanya with a bad attitude and a deep-seated prejudice against Neferian refugees. Pageeda’s a homeless Neferian refugee who doesn’t take abuse from anyone. They’re like oil and water, except oil burns.

    — A Story of the Thousand Kingdoms
    — Episode 2 (of 5) of Pageeda & Scuffee

lst Draft / Concept Fantasy 24K 80
5. The Silent Knight
Ser Kedric Hawkthorn thought it was strange when the Boy-King sent him on a diplomatic mission to a rebellious province — he’s mute because of an old injury. But when his liege betrays him, hey, sometimes it’s good to be in a rebellious province, right?

    — A Story of the Thousand Kingdoms
    — Episode 1 of The Silent Knight series

1st Draft
On Hiatus
Fantasy 20K 67
6. Big Sky Country
When Brant Halvar saw the skyboarders racing through the clouds at his first Festival, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. Now he’s trekking north to make his dreams come true — but he’s got no idea of the obstacles he’ll be facing.

    — A Story of the Thousand Kingdoms

Concept Fantasy 100K 333
7. World Building: Creating Realistic Worlds for Stories and Games
If you need more than a “Class M” planet, then this is the book for you: a How-To resource for creating rich, consistent, imaginative and believable worlds.
1st Daft
On Hiatus
Non-Fiction 50K 167
8. The Deep Dive
There’s a civil war brewing between the Belters and the Inner Worlds. When a fugitive Belter activist is pinpointed by his enemies, it’s hunter vs. hunted through the treacherous clouds of Jupiter.
ConceptFirst Draft (3/29/15) SF 10K 33
9. Discovery
When the crew of the exploration ship Exultation begin exploring Spark, one of the many moons of a super-Jovian gas giant, they’re fascinated by the electrically-based life forms and ecology of this bizarre world. What they discover next is unprecedented…in so many ways.
Concept SF 20K 67

The top of the pipeline is pretty well set. Bitter Days will be the first story completed. However, it’s Episode 1 of a 5-episode serial. The serial is complex enough that I really can’t release any of the episodes until the whole thing is complete, which means that it most certainly will not be the first story that I self-publish.

The Rooftop Game will be the next one completed. It is a stand-alone story, although I do expect to do more stories about the Royal Bodyguard in the future. It will be publishable…but I’m rather hoping to aim that one at a multi-author fantasy anthology (possibly one that I edit myself).

The Good Book will roll out after that. It’s stand-alone, so it will probably be the first one that I publish. Interestingly, though, it’s best classified as “magic realism” or “slipstream” so it’s not necessarily the best advertisement for the sort of stories that I usually write.

After that, the pipeline gets a bit more jumbled, and the order in which the stories get completed is likely to change.

The Threefold Revenge is high on the priority list since it’s Episode 2 of the serial. It’s complex, and it’s going to take a while to get through First Draft. I’m in the process of wrestling this one to the ground.

The Silent Knight and Big Sky Country are both large in scope. My initial attempt at The Silent Knight petered out, but I still believe in the story. So both of these are going to spend some time in the Concept stage.

World-Building is an interesting project. I like writing it. I don’t expect to make much money on it. Once completed, though, it becomes an excellent credential for getting speaking engagements. I’m playing around with the idea of finding a co-author to work on this with me.

That leaves the two new SF projects, The Deep Dive and Discovery. The first is an action adventure story set during the lead-up to a war between the Inner Worlds and the Belters. The story is outlined and relatively straightforward. Discovery is based on the public domain world and flora/fauna created during the “Contact” series of sessions at the 2012 World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago. I’ve been doing a lot of fantasy lately, and these two stories will give me a chance to exercise some different writing muscles. They’re also stand-alones, so they’re likely to percolate through the pipeline a little faster.

Also, for those who noticed, all of the fantasy stories are set in the same milieu, The Thousand Kingdoms. So, Bitter Days, The Rooftop Game, The Threefold Revenge, The Silent Knight and Big Sky Country are all loosely related. That’s going to eventually be a big factor in marketing them all.

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Emporium of the Fantastic

I’d like to introduce a new column that will be appearing monthly on my blog called the Emporium of the Fantastic. It’s basically my answer to, well, Oprah’s Book Club, but for people interested in science fiction and fantasy.

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just a monthly column of book reviews. Yes, sort of, but not exactly. You see, each month, I’m going to recommend:

  • One Contemporary Tome: A modern book that I feel exhibits the kind of quality that raises it above its competitors.

  • One Classic Tome: A novel older than twenty years that still has much to recommend itself to the modern reader. Often an acknowledged classic or a sterling example of a particular sub-genre of the field.

  • One Clever Scroll: A piece of short fiction (a short story, novelette, novella or even a graphic novel) from any time period that’s well worth the attention of readers.

So, why would I want to start such an endeavor? Well, really, it was the intersection of two separate occurrences that pointed out to me the need for such a column.

The first was a chance encounter in a bookstore. I was browsing the science fiction paperbacks, when I had to do the familiar shuffle to go around a dark-haired man, perhaps in his late twenties, who was browsing slower than me. Well, we got talking and I ended up giving him a few recommendations. Then he asked me, “So, who are your favorites authors?”

“Well,” I said. “I really have three favorites. Poul Anderson, C. J. Cherryh and H. Beam Piper.”

“Oh,” said the man in a slightly disappointed tone. “I’ve never heard of any of them.”

I was appalled, because these are classic authors. Poul Anderson is possibly the recipient of more Hugo and Nebula awards than just about any other author in the SF field. Ever. But he never quite made the jump to genuine bestseller status and recognition outside the field like some his relative contemporaries (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke). C.J Cherryh writes hard science fiction and fantasy, has published over a 100 books and has also won numerous awards. H. Beam Piper wrote some of the SF field’s best adventures back in the 60’s, before his untimely death in the prime of his career. Stuff that might qualify as YA, except that YA didn’t exist back then.

Some have likened the realm of speculative fiction to an extended conversation between authors and fans all over the world. Well, to my mind, these writers represented pieces of “conversation” that were so brilliant they ought not be forgotten by modern readers.

The second occurrence was my joining a writer’s group to help me work on my own craft as a writer. It’s been a wonderful experience and one that has helped me dramatically improve my skills. But one of the things that has really struck me about the group is the number of writers who want to write YA or SF or Steampunk who haven’t actually read much within the field.

I think this lack of knowledge about the field works to the detriment of my fellow writers.

Hence, the Emporium of the Fantastic. My humble effort to keep alive some of those older “conversations” and, at the same time, perhaps to help my fellow writers, and anybody else who’s interesting in good speculative fiction, to understand and appreciate the true depth of this wonderful field.

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Story Diagramming Example

I recently put up a 51-page novelette called “Bitter Days” for a Beta Review. I was quite surprised when one of my reviewers returned to me not just with his comments and his answers to my Beta Questionnaire, but also with an Excel spreadsheet in which he diagrammed my story. The end result of his analysis was absolutely fascinating, which is why I’ve decided to share it with everyone.

The reviewer’s name is John Dwight, a fellow member of the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. He said he diagrammed the story because he really liked it and he “wanted to see what made a good story work.”

The Process

So, how did John go about diagramming my story?

First, he read the story and listed what he thought was the primary action of each page. Figure 1 shows the raw data for Chapter 1, with his actions displayed in the “Action” column.

Figure 1: The Raw Data

Page Action Conflict Humanity Mystery Urgency
1. A quote introduces the Festival of Lights. 0 0 1 0
2. Pageeda pulls Illyria through the Festival. 0 2 1 1
3. The city is kinder to peasants during the Festival. 0 1 0 0
4. The Church of Turkos is a powerful force in the city. 1 1 1 1
5. A large, cat-like creature (Scuffee) enjoys is prey. 1 2 1 1
6. Melis, Jamsin and Felichuk are introduced. 0 1 0 0
7. Illyria has a ribbon; Jamsin whittles. 0 1 0 0
8. Pageeda has a way with animals; the two girls return home. 0 1 1 0
9. Pageeda and Illyria are attacked in an alley. 1 1 1 2
10. Pageeda escapes; Illyria doesn’t. 1 2 1 1

Second, John ranked each page from 0 to 3 according to four criteria, with 3 being the best rating. All of his ratings for Chapter 1 are shown in Figure 1 above. His criteria were:

  • Conflict: A confrontation between two characters who want different things.

  • Humanity: The reader feels the pangs of human emotions.

  • Mystery: The reader anticipates the nature of future events.

  • Urgency: The reader anticipates the timing of future events.

Third, John used Excel’s built-in charting feature to build a chart for each category. Now, this part gets complex. The value charted was a weighted average of each page score for a particular category.

So, what the heck is a weighted average? OK, this is a story. No page exists in complete isolation from other pages in the story. If there’s a moment of Conflict on page 9, then that conflict was presumably set up in the pages leading up to that confrontation, and the characters are probably dealing with the aftermath in the subsequent pages. A weighted average reflects this connectivity.

Excel constructed the average for Page 9 as the sum below divided by 51 (1 + 2 + 3 + 5 + 8 + 13 + 8 + 5 + 3 + 2 + 1):

(1 X the score for page 4) +
(2 x the score for page 5) +
(3 x the score for page 6) +
(5 x the score for page 7) +
(8 x the score for page 8) +
(13 x the score for page 9) +
(8 X the score for page 10) +
(5 x the score for page 11) +
(3 x the score for page 12) +
(2 x the score for page 13) +
(1 x the score for page 14)

Now, there are some limitations to the results. Where you don’t have the full spread, the results are a little wonky. Hence, the charts start on page 6. Likewise, even though the chart goes all the way out to the last page, the drop-off at the end is somewhat suspect as well. Bottom Line: the charts give an interesting and reasonably accurate view of the story from about page 6 to page 46.

One more thing. The ratings are, of necessity, subjective. They reflect how John felt about the story, i.e. – and he did the charts because he enjoyed it. If somebody else read the story and rated it, their view of the story could be much different. We all bring our own views and reactions to every story we read.

Here’s the chart for Conflict:

Conflict Chart

I think this shows a fairly healthy story. There are peaks where the conflict is intense, and those peaks get higher as the story progresses. The final peak has three “sub-peaks.” The first sub-peak is the highest, which is then followed by two lower sub-peaks. Knowing what I do about the comments from my Beta Review, I believe that this reflects the fact that the ending needs just a little more work. But mostly, I think this is a healthy Conflict graph.

Humanity Chart

With the Humanity chart, John was trying to capturing the emotional impact of the story. Overall, the graph looks reasonably solid. And the peaks are a little off-center from the Conflict peaks, which again seems healthy for a story.

The emotional resonance seems to drop off a little at the end. This, again, is likely indicative of a slightly weak ending. Additionally, the main character takes a fairly brutal and callous action at the end of the story; this probably needs to be ameliorated a little.

Mystery Chart

There’s a crime and a mystery at the heart of the story. The Mystery looks just about perfect for a mystery story. Even better, not all aspects of the mystery have been resolved by the end of the story. This is a great lead-in for the next episode.

Urgency Chart

The main character’s sister is kidnapped in the story. There is a sort of ticking clock in that it gets harder to find a victim the longer they’ve been gone. This Urgency chart attempts to illustrate the level of urgency that the reader felt at each part of the story. Overall, urgency is rising. There are some lulls, but the peaks keep getting higher.

To me, this seems mostly healthy. Again, having seen the results of the overall Beta Review, the urgency could probably be tweaked a little. Still…I think we’re in a good place.

All Categories Chart

Finally, the combined chart shows all of the categories in one view. To me, it looks like a healthy story that’s cooking pretty well on all burners. It’s got rising conflict, rising urgency, rising mystery and steadily increasing emotional resonance. Yes, the story still needs a bit of tweaking based on the Beta Review, but I think these charts illustrate that the basic structure of the story is working as intended. That’s gratifying.

Story diagramming probably isn’t useful for all situations. Frankly, it’s a little bit labor-intensive. But there’s something really interesting in seeing the structure of your story laid bare like this, like seeing an X-ray of your story’s skeleton. It’s even cooler when what you see seems to indicate that your story is legitimately working.

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Preparing for the 2015 AMC Marathon

The Oscar AwardI don’t know if some of you reading this blog are movie buffs the way I am, but the Oscar nominations for the 87th Academy Awards come out on Wednesday, Jan 14th. What that means is that AMC starts planning their annual AMC Oscar Best Picture Marathon.

Now, there’s only three AMC theaters in the area that do this…but they’ll run a special 2-day marathon (on consecutive Saturdays) where you get to see ALL of the Best Picture nominees for one low price (well, actually, one price for each Saturday). For example, last year I got see four nominees on one weekend, and the remaining five the next weekend. If interested, let me know…’cause I’m doing it again this year with a few of my friends. And tickets go FAST…

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2014 in Review

2014 in ReviewAs a fledgeling writer, I think it’s useful to consider 2014, the year just past, with respect to how I’ve progressed as a writer. In a way, this is a follow-up to my 2013 in Review blog entry that I did last year.

By the end of 2012, I had decided to make a serious run at becoming a professional writer, inspired to a large degree by Hugh Howey, an indie-published superstar (and all-round nice guy). Starting in early 2013, I began actively pursuing my dream. By late 2013, it became clear that I needed to focus more heavily on fiction rather than other forms of writing output. And in 2014, I tried to really buckle down, focus on the craft of fiction writing and try to produce something truly publishable.

This is 2014 in review. How did I do?

Accomplishments

I tried a lot of things in the writing realm in 2014. Most of them worked really well.

  1. Scrivener: I started using Scrivener in November 2013. Throughout 2014, Scrivener functioned as my go-to tool for writing. It has become so integral to my writing process that it’s almost inconceivable to me that anyone would want to write without it.

    For those who are not familiar with it, Scrivener is a word-processing application targeted for authors. I love this tool, especially since it parallels the tools that I’ve always used to produce software. As a web developer, I use an IDE (Integrated Development Environment). An IDE is a tool that displays information about your source code in different ways in separate on-screen panels, and provides you with all sorts of features to manipulate your code. Scrivener is basically an IDE for writers.

  2. Writing Groups: In April 2014, I decided to investigate local writing groups. What I was really looking for was: a) a support system of people who understood what I was going through with my writing, and b) no-holds-barred critiques of my fiction by fellow writers. In Toastmasters, critical evaluations had been vital to my development as a public speaker, and I wanted to put a similar evaluation system in place for my writing.

    I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. The Loudoun County Writers Group exposed me to a group of writers who were working just as hard as me to lift themselves up into the realm of literary professionalism. Even better, shortly after I joined, one of the participants started an offshoot, the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. I participated in both groups throughout the year.

  3. Writing: The focus in 2014 was fiction writing. I also produced blog entries for my creative web site, davidkeener.org. Blog entries for my technical web site, KeenerTech, mostly fell by the wayside. Even Toastmasters, while I still participated and did speeches during the year, took a backseat to writing (which delayed my achievement of the Distinguished Toastmaster designation).

    I worked on six novelettes/novellas over the year. The first fell apart and had to be temporarily abandoned, but the others have worked out well. By the end of the year, they were all in various stages of the writing process. One abandoned but due to be picked up again in 2015 (The Silent Knight), one in progress (The Threefold Revenge), one in beta heading for final revisions (Bitter Days), and two that will be completed first drafts by mid-January (The Good Book and The Rooftop Game). Plus another story, Big Sky Country, in the formative stages.

  4. Rhythm: The only way to write a significant amount of content is to establish a rhythm that allows you to write at least a little bit almost every day. Despite some time impediments (related to my IT career) in the middle of the year, I was able to establish a reasonably solid writing rhythm. Certainly enough to establish me as one of the most prolific writers in both of my writing groups.

    By the end of the year, I was reasonably successful at producing a chapter (in a different story) for each group every week. Equivalent to a writing rate of about 4K words per week. It remains a challenge for 2015 to see if I can maintain this rate of production.

  5. Networking: I joined the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA) at the very beginning of the year, and have never regretted it. I’ve met a bunch of people who are as passionate about speculative fiction as I am. Now, when I go to most SF conventions, I’m lucky enough to know some of the people there. It also led to meeting various professional writers and securing some speaking opportunities (more on this in a moment). Members have also made me aware of various contests and anthology opportunities, as well as even volunteering to be a beta reader. More than anything, though, I’ve had fun.

  6. Convention Speaking: My WSFA membership led to some interesting opportunities, such as being a panelist at Capclave 2014, where I also conducted a well-received two-hour workshop, Public Speaking for Writers. Many thanks to Cathy Green, the Capclave 2014 Programming Chair, for sending this opportunity my way and giving me an excellent speaking credential.

  7. Mastermind Group: In September 2013, I formed the Rising Tide Mastermind Group with some ambitious friends from Toastmasters. The purpose of the group was to pool our talents and experience to help all of the group’s members achieve success in their endeavors, which ranged from being a speculative fiction writer to becoming a motivational speaker. The group went on summer hiatus and hasn’t been back.

    It turns out that I’m so driven that I don’t need a mastermind group to help me keep my commitments. Others in the group didn’t really respond well to the pressure of trying to achieve monthly goals. A couple members of the group simply didn’t have a long-rage ambition that justified the kind of organized effort that such a group promotes.

    Still, we had a lot of fun, and did manage to cross-pollinate ideas across our respective specialties. It seems likely that the group will return in 2015, but perhaps in a different form — an organized night of talks at a local restaurant, perhaps.

Overall, from the writing perspective, I was pleased with 2014. While I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t self-publish any of my significant works in 2014, I’d much rather publish professional work when it’s ready than just push something out for the sake of getting it out there.

Measurable Results

I tracked my writing output, expenses, and writing income all year (this last isn’t particularly hard to track when it’s basically zero). Expenses included web site hosting, conventions, books, domain name renewals and training (in the form of Toastmasters and workshops). Toastmasters might seem like an oddity for a writer, since it’s a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public speaking and leadership skills. But professional writers speak on panels, moderate panels, participate in interviews, make pitches to publishers, do keynote speeches, and do readings in front of an audience.

I produced 52 blog entries, 18 speeches (10 of them original, i.e. – not derived from other projects of mine), zero videos and 2 presentations (including one two-hour workshop). I worked on six stories, which are all in various stages of progress.

Let’s compare this to 2013. At 52 blog entries, I’m down from the 70 that I produced in 2013. This is expected, though, because I focused much more heavily on fiction writing this year. In 2013, blogging amounted to 32,047 words, but this dropped to 21,952 in 2014. Fewer blog entries and slightly shorter ones, on average. However, blogging was almost completely concentrated on my creative web site, davidkeener.org. This reflects my increased focus on fiction writing.

I did 18 speaking engagements this year, but only 10 were original (by which I mean that they weren’t repeats of a speech I’d already done, or solely re-purposed content from one of my other projects). In 2013, I had 18 original speeches, so once again, I’ve reduced the amount of non-story work on my plate.

I produced no videos in 2014, compared to three in the previous year. This is a weakness I’ll need to correct in the next year. Videos provide an excellent opportunity to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Since I’ve got the tools and expertise, it behooves me to do more in this arena. Once again, though, this was something of a casualty on the altar of fiction writing.

I created only two presentations in 2014, compared to 3 in 2013. However, they were much more strategic, since both were aimed at writers. The presentations were The Pitfalls of Medieval Fiction Writing and Public Speaking for Writers. This last was the highly successful two-hour workshop that I conducted at Capclave 2014.

OK, if everything else was down because of my focus on writing, what did my fiction output look like?

In 2013, I produced only 12,583 words of fiction. This increased to 49,233 in 2014, plus another 12,980 in the non-fiction realm (not blogging). This represents almost four times as much fiction, plus non-fiction on top of it. Total output was 97,898 words (compared to 2013’s 68,630), but 50% was fiction (as opposed to 18% in 2013). Non-fiction was 13%. So, fiction and non-fiction combined were 63%, which comprised all of the content targeted for eventual publication in various forms. Blogging was down to 22%, with the remaining percentage represented by presentations and speeches.

2014’s output was up 43% from 2013. Overall, I think my numbers are where they need to be. Blogging is a necessity as far as I’m concerned, a vital part of my online platform. While blogging may amount to 22% of my output, it actually occupies a great deal less time than fiction writing since blog entries are 1) shorter than stories, and 2) written once and then published (rather than going through the cycles of revision that my stories go through). So the effort involved in writing in 2014 was considerably greater than is suggested by the percentage increase. My daily average in 2014 was 268 words.

With more than half of my output in fiction, and slightly less than two thirds in publishable content (fiction and non-fiction combined), I’m reasonably happy with these percentages.

Conclusions

My course corrections in late 2013 to focus more on fiction have paid off in 2014. The writing groups have also been highly beneficial, as well. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get anything indie published in 2014, but I’d rather wait until the content is ready and can be marketed properly. I’m also pleased that I have a solid pipeline of content going now, and can expect stories to exit that pipeline in a regular fashion throughout 2015.

The total amount for fiction needs to go up, though. Producing 4k words per week of fiction would amount to 208K of fiction in a single year. That’s more like the rate that I need to achieve in order to make writing potentially viable from a monetary perspective. That would be two significantly-sized novels per year, or one novel and a bunch of novelettes.

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