Category Archives: Kevin Cioffi

As the Years Go By

I recently had the pleasure of finishing my reading of Brandon Sanderson’s latest Mistborn novel: The Alloy of Law. It was fantastic, full of his snappiest dialogue to date, hilarious self referential jokes and a plot that moved forward with the stunning pace of a bullet train. Taking place some hundreds of years after the conclusion of the original Mistborn trilogy, the world and setting had completely changed, and yet it was at once instantly familiar.

In fact, while the main and supporting characters were thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly hilarious with all of their requisite Sanderson corniness and wit, I found myself mostly intrigued with the setting itself. I was stunned to realize: the setting of this book was just as much a character to me as Wax and Wayne and the rest of the cast. What made that so?

I think, for me, it was the progress, the change and development to the setting since last time I had visited Scadrial in the original Mistborn trilogy. Without throwing out too many spoilers, within the three hundred or so years between books technology had begun to modernize. Trains now race through the city and branch out through the unsettled “Roughs”, criminal and lawman alike have dropped their blades and taken up potent firearms, main characters from the original story have faded into myth, legend and theology. As I said, I found a new sense of conflict and development in the actual world building behind the story. It had become a living, breathing character.

I tried to pin down how, exactly, Mr. Sanderson was able to achieve this, and I think it boils down to the most obvious aspect: the passage of time. In a lot of fantasy stories and series, it is sometimes surprising how little time actually passes. For example, in The Wheel of Time, after twelve exhaustive books, I’m pretty sure only 2-3 years have passed. Sure, the setting might be growing and changing based on the actions of the characters, but profound change in technology, government and lifestyle usually takes decades, even centuries.

That is why after three hundred years or so “off screen” I was fascinated by my second trip to Mistborn‘s Scadrial, and I’m really interested in finding more stories or series in which time and generations can pass, and the setting is able to develop as a prominent character. Another one I can think of off the top of my head is Kevin J. Anderson’s Terra Incognita series. The stories move at a blistering pace and sometimes years pass a decade at a time. The landscape and inhabiting cultures are scoured by war and the vast scope of the story really gives room for the world itself to develop.

An Idea is Never Truly ‘Finished’

I am guessing this has happened to many of you:

I began work on a novel about two years ago. The process began with the spark of an idea, nurturing it through plenty of world-building into the semblance of a flame. After a couple months of kicking this idea around in my head, November was coming around, and with it NaNoWriMo. I decided to go to town on this new idea, working with some pretty robust world building and a very loose outline, and managed to hit the 50,000 words, but was only about halfway through the story as I envisioned it in my head.

After November, work on the novel inevitably slowed, and that passionate month of writing began to resemble the opening act of a romantic relationship; I was enamored with the idea in November, it was lovely and infallible. Afterwards, glaring imperfections began to surface and the idea wasn’t so flawless anymore. It needed work. I put it on the back burner to simmer. There were aspects I needed to reconsider.

I worked on it off and on the following year, considering new ideas and beginning new projects all the while, but I always seemed to come back to the original; indeed, I never stopped developing the world, or my ideas on how the outline should play out.

I will tell you a bit about it so I can make a point later. I will try to be pretty general rather than get locked down in specific details. The setting was a jungle type environment, something I had never seen before as the prime location in a fantasy story, and one that I was really excited to work with. Within the jungle lived a single tribe with a terrifying history. Some time ago, perhaps hundreds of years, the world was locked in eternal war, human blood spilled constantly and endlessly. The earth was forced to drink this blood, and with enough of it, a terrible evil quickened beneath the crust, giving rise to a malicious jungle. Most of the population was wiped out as the vegetation sprung up overnight, choking with vines, stabbing with roots, cutting with razor sharp leaves, what have you; quickened through decades of violence, this villainous jungle craved human blood to fuel its growth.

Humans fled as the jungle took root, and the few survivors were able to convene and establish a horribly burned and scarred track of land where nothing whatsoever would grow. And so they were safe from the onslaught of the jungle, and in time, were able to form a community and begin to slowly grow the human population.

Those are about all the details necessary. The point is, I worked with this idea for some time, beginning work on the actual novel with interruptions here and there for more world building about what the society was like, how their struggle for survival would play out.

But I began to feel limited. I was working with a relatively small population, in a relatively cramped and concentrated pocket of the world. The society itself was nowhere near as complex or established enough for me to tie it allegorically to problems in modern society, which I very badly wanted to do. What was once a spark, then a fire, eventually dulled and burned out; development ceased and I was unable to overcome these glaring problems with the established world-building.

Recently, a few weeks ago, that unmistakable spark hit me again, and I began to solve my problems. I had new, vaster ideas; ideas that took all the work I had done into its fold and established something larger. Suddenly, the old idea was but a facet of the new. The world, and the story, grew in scope and complexity and have become much more relatable, much easier to work with.

I have heard it say that many works of art – poems, paintings, songs, and novels – are never truly finished. The artist eventually has to pick a point and sort of walk away, presenting it to the world in its current state. This makes more sense to me now than it ever has before. How many of you have experienced the same: an idea that never stops growing, that always becomes richer and more refined. An idea that will grow over several days, then months, and eventually years.

It is clear to me that an idea for a world and a story is never “finished’ and ready to write. It is true, at some point we will be forced to take what we have and run with it or else it will never see life, but I am sure many of us could sit and incubate a single idea for the entirety of our lives – I can only wonder how imaginative and complex these could grow.

As for me, I am more excited than ever for November to roll around, to give my newly reborn idea another shot at NaNoWriMo and see if it is finally ready to take its first steps into life.

To Better Ourselves?

I have been watching a fair amount of Star Trek lately – okay, a lot. The Next Generation specifically, but each of the different series revolves around a basic premise: Mankind has advanced technologically to the point where concerns about materials and resources are mostly extinct. Replicators exist that can construct matter in a manner that can basically spit out anything the user could desire. Crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise use them mostly for food and drink, but their functionality doesn’t stop there. Presumably they can be used to construct anything physical, be they toys, games, pictures or literature (though antiquated at this future point in time).

This technology is not limited to the space-faring crew of the Enterprise, either. The devices are supposedly in use on Earth and on pretty much every colony or space station the Federation lays claim to. According to the Captain of the Enterprise, Jean Luc Picard, without concern for limited resources, humanity now works “to better” themselves.

My question is this: forget about the specific setting of the various Star Trek series for now, and consider your own present time and position. If you were left without want for material or resources, would your current artistic goals, activities and aspirations remain the same? Would they differ at all?

Most writers are certainly not in it for the money, and if they are, they may be a little misguided. It is my experience that for the most part, the effort put in usually greatly outweighs the physical or material gain. I don’t think this is an alien concept to any writer. I’ve been looking for a full-time application for my love of writing and editing, but, in the meantime I write Freelance. The money is often measly. I recently signed up for work on a site that started paying about $1.50 for 200-300 word articles, or, about half of this post. For 200-300 words, if I am writing for a client and not just myself, I would estimate about a half hour to an hour’s work, assuming some sort of research or preparation was going to be involved. Let’s say it takes one half hour from accepting the assignment to completely finishing and submitting an edited piece. That is still about $3.00 an hour. Not exactly rock star money.

On the other end of the spectrum, writers can stand to make quite a bit of money. One need only look no further than the likes of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. There is no point trying to break down exactly how much those two make, it would only make the rest of us feel bad.

My point is, whether we are making $3.00 an hour, or substantially more, many of us probably began pursuing publication with the dream of making a career of it. Take it back to my original question: without material concern, would we still continue to write? Would we write simply for the art of it, as a means to better ourselves and society?

Personally, I cannot see myself writing as much as I currently do. I am sure I would probably still be drawn to it, but would I really be motivated to hone my craft to a razor’s edge, “just because”? I think that without the challenge to see exactly how far I can take it, or the starry-eyed visions of a day when I’ve hurtled every obstacle to cross some oft dreamed of finish line, writing would lose some of its meaning to me.

Are any of you like me? In a Trek-like future, would you be the terry-cloth robed hedonist devouring barbeque rib after barbeque rib, or would your ideals win out? Would you be able to overlook the lack of a materialistic challenge and continue producing your art for its own sake, and with as much vigor?

So You Want to Start a Writer’s Group

The notion of the lonely writer, shrouded in solitary genius, is a myth easily debunked by nearly any writer making money today. In reality, a writer treasures the feedback provided by editors and test audiences, and of course, the all important writer’s group.

While an editor can help professionally, writer’s groups are a great way to get feedback on a work in progress from similarly talented individuals, and naturally, a great place to meet friends with similar interests. Trading favors, reviewing others’ work in exchange for some reviews of your own, is a great symbiotic relationship many writers could not live without. The challenge, however, is finding a group that really works for you, and it is possible to make many missteps along the way.

Finding that perfect group is worth the challenge, but where to begin? The first step is to find some candidates. Fellow group members can be recruited from real life acquaintances, but if you do not know enough interested writers, you could always go online. Sites like Craigslist can be used to find and setup a meeting between interested people in your area, or, if you are not successful there, you could also consider expanding your search and hosting a virtual writer’s group where writing and feedback are exchanged completely online.

Once the candidates are selected, the next important thing to consider is scheduling. Each member of the group will invariably have their own conflicts that will have to be scheduled around, be they work or family commitments. A day and time should be selected that works best for everyone in the group. The next question is a matter of frequency: how often should you meet? It is easy to start off overly ambitious, wanting to meet each week or even several times a week, but this could be a mistake. Meet too often, and you risk burning out and making the group more of a burden on everyone than it needs to be, but this all depends on the determination of all the group members. The rule of thumb here is that everyone needs enough time to read their assignments, be they sample chapters, shorter or longer excerpts, and develop commentary and feedback. I would not recommend meeting more than once a week, and feel that meeting every other week has worked well for several of my writers’ groups in the past. How long will each meeting last? Keeping the group small, especially in the beginning, can help keep the meetings manageable. Remember: you need enough time to address each person’s work, plus a little time to catch up and socialize as your group grows close.

Finding fellow members and a consistent schedule that works for everyone is the hard part. What’s left is to iron out some of the nuances. Where will your group meet? Is someone willing to host the group in their home each time? Perhaps a rotating set of homes? If that is not especially convenient, you could always meet in a coffee shop, or a library if they have a conference type room available for use. Will snacks or drinks be served? Be careful on this point. I belonged to a writer’s group that was essentially BYOB; everyone would bring a bottle of wine, a six pack, what have you, to enjoy during the discussions. It really did sound like a good idea to us at the time, but it made us the complete opposite of productive. By the end of the hours long meeting, we were all pretty tipsy and sloppy with our critiques. Drink with extreme caution!

While it can be a lot of work to find interested members and a consistent schedule that works for everyone, once the group is up and running each member will have an irreplaceable addition to their repertoire: a source of free editing and feedback, and maybe even a new friend of two.