Author Archives: Kelly Swails

Creating Something Out of Nothing

So I’m in the middle of a staycation from the day job, which means I finally have large chunks of time to devote to writing/editing projects (and, who are we kidding, watching West Wing). I’m working on the next Origins Game Fair Library anthology. The stories are great and so the work is enjoyable. It just sort of struck me today as I finished one of the stories: two months ago, this story didn’t exist. These characters didn’t exist, their situation didn’t exist, I didn’t have any clue about any of them. And now, today, I’ve been moved by fictional characters. I care about them. I care what happens to them. All of the stories I’m reading are set in the future, on asteriods and in space ships and on other planets. Alss of them feel very real to me.

Yes, this is due in large part to the skill of the authors and their deftness with words. For whatever reason, today I’m reminded that writers just make shit up in such a way that readers believe it. It’s … sort of magical, when you think about it.

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Why God Why

Okay, so I’m being a little melodramatic … but only a little.

There’s a reason I typically don’t write in December. The biggest reason is that I generally don’t have any big projects on my plate. My novel-for-the-year is done, I won’t edit the Origins anthology until the New Year, I’ve already turned in the story for an anthology that was due in mid-December, that sort of thing. December is my month to watch movies, send Christmas cards, go to parties, eat too much food, and maybe–just maybe–poke at a short story or a query letter. Maybe.  

This year is different. I have a novel due at the end-ish of February, and I’m a slow writer (it turns out I’m even a slow writer when I have a full outline and I know exactly where I’m going) with a full-time job, so of course I’m working on it over the holidays. Throwing another monkey wrench into things? The husband and I are buying a condo in January and so will be moving. Also, I have a 5-day trip planned for my 40th birthday in February.

I am no where near where I wanted to be by this time. I am no where near close to being even a quarter of the way done with this novel. I am starting to get stressed. Freaked out, even. In the back of my mind I know I’ll get it all done because I have to get it all done, and yes it will be stressful but it will happen and life will go on and the world isn’t going to end.

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Thoughts on Gravity

The movie, not the force.

The husband and I just watched this movie the other day. Aside from grumbling that it would have been really-fucking-cool to see it in IMAX, I did appreciate having some space from all the “science of Gravity” articles. Otherwise I would have been too busy nitpicking the physics to really enjoy the emotional weight of the story.

Like Castaway, this movie largely relies on the talent and gravitas of one actor, in this case Sandra Bullock. Like Tom Hanks, she delivers. In one scene, Bullock’s character is trying to grasp the enormity and hopelessness of her situation and she allows herself to cry. However, she pulls herself together in short order and gets back to doing what needs to be done. (Who hasn’t done that, in one way or another?) In another scene, Bullock grapples with the idea that she might die, and has an epiphany (“we all die, everyone knows that. But I’m going to die today“). I found that scene particularly human.

For me, the movie tapped into the very real fear of dying alone. (Yes, yes, Firefly fan–I know we all die alone). It also taps into the idea that we are small and insignificant and the world will keep spinning beneath us without so much as a shudder when we go. Those are big emotions and concepts to capture, but the storytellers and actors behind Gravity pulled it off.



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In the Word Mines

So I have officially started writing the new book–working title PROHIBITED–and I’m having a lot of fun. My usual process goes something like this:

  • Get idea for character/situation
  • Noodle around with worldbuilding
  • Answer most brainstorming questions with “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out as I get there”
  • Tear my hair out while writing the first draft
  • Figure out what the book is actually about as I finish it
  • Live large during the rewrite

This time it’s gone more like this:

  • Get idea for character/situation/setting
  • Research the hell out of time period
  • Noodle around with worldbuilding
  • Write/submit proprosal
  • Really flesh out the world/setting
  • Delve deep into character motivations
  • Write/submit detailed outline
  • Live large as I write the first draft

At least, so far. Admittedly I’m not far into it, but already I see a difference. I’m not wondering what happens next; I already know. I’m not finding out who my main character is; I’m already quite familiar with her. I find that I’m spending more of the writing time teasing out how to best present the information I already know rather than figuring out what I know. Usually I find first drafts emotionally draining. So far, I’m finding this book to be energizing. Each session I’ve exceeded my word count goal, and when I stop I can’t wait to sit down again. This is probably a combination of all the prep work I did and the setting (which I absolutely adore).  


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Kill Your Darlings

If you’re a writer of any ilk–novice, struggling, accomplished–you’ve heard the advice often enough. John Crowley wrote a history of the concept for this month’s Harper’s.  In it, he talks about the advice most of us are given at one point or another: if you really love a sentence, or a paragraph, or a passage, or hell, even a whole chapter–kill it. Delete it. If you love it so much it doesn’t belong in the story. Crowley makes a plea to spare the darlings–because, really, can our own judgement be that bad?

Well, yes and no.

Admittedly I’ve never subscribed to the idea wholeheartedly. My approach is more along the lines of “you have to be willing to kill your darlings in service to the story.” If a sentence or paragraph or passage,or hell, a whole chapter isn’t working for your story, kill it. Delete it. Start over. Even if it’s brilliant. But if that section of your work absolutely, 100%, serves and enhances the story? Keep it. Better yet, make two fucking backups.

Sometimes I think writers are unwilling to let a really great piece of writing go (even if it’s obvious that it needs to) because we’re afraid that we’ll never write something that good again. We read it over and get chills and think, “holy fuck, I wrote that. I made that shit up, and it’s good.” We can’t believe that we did it and deep down we’re afraid that we’ll never do it again. So we keep it.

But you will. Believe it or not, you’ll write stuff that is even more brilliant.

Don’t kill something that’s working. But also don’t be afraid to kill it if it’s not.

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Rookie Mistakes

Recently I met a screenwriter who has written a few screenplays but hasn’t sold any (yet!). I asked him about his work–like you do–and he obliged. I found a common theme throughout his work–he had great ideas for worlds and plots, but not such great handle on the “suspension of disbelief” concept. When writing speculative fiction, it’s common for beginners to, for example, use dreams as a gateway to the “other” realm where the story actually takes place, or have characters act in unrealistic ways in order to make the plot work.

Rookie mistakes. I’ve made them, you’ve made them, your friend who has just started writing will make them.

The trick, though, is powering through them and moving past them. Listen to advice. Don’t just get critiques; listen to them and learn from them. Write. Learn. Grow. Repeat.

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NaNoWriMo, Take 15

Okay, so I know I’ve talked about my dislike for NaNoWriMo in the past. I like the concept fine. I admire the folks who tackle it each year. I respect anyone who can write 50K in 30 days.

I will most likely start drafting my Prohibition-era novel in November, which is a nice coincidence, don’t you think? I could use this as an excuse to try NaNo! I could write 2/3 of a first draft in a month! I could get up every morning and write 3K before work! Trumpets will sound on the wind, mortals will quiver at my approach, and dogs and cats will get along! It will be glorious!

Oooooor … and this is more likely … I will tell you all again how much draining first drafts are as pass the 50K mark sometime in December.

Whatever. At least I’ll be writing.

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So right now I’m neck-deep in 1920’s Chicago research, and I have to say I really, really like it. This is almost a new concept for me. I don’t usually do much research for my novels and stories (with the exception of my stories for the Crimson Pact series, which follows the demon-fighting antics of sequential generations of women). I’ve never been a big history buff, either. I get confused about dates and motives and what the heck started World War One anyway (yes, I know Ferdinand got assassinated. I can’t tell you why or how or what that actually did to destabilize everything).

Prohibition-era, though … that’s where it’s at.

The era in general and gangsters in particular have always fascinated me. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion that folks who operate outside the law have their own moral code and rules for enforcing that code. And the fashion! I love flapper dresses and mary jane shoes and long necklaces. Doing the research now is giving me all sorts of ideas, and once I sit down to write the outline I’ll probably have to hold myself back from putting it all in one book. That’s what sequels are for, right?

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Shameless Self-Promotion, Post #582

At least it feels that way sometimes. On one hand, I feel pretty fortunate that I have stories to promote. On the other hand, it’s easy to tell myself that no one–even loyal blog readers such as yourselves–really care that I have anything coming out, anyway. On the other other hand, well, I can’t get faithful readers if I don’t tell people my stuff exists. So. Without further ado:

1. Chicks Dig Gaming is a non-fiction book filled with essays written by women about … you guessed it … gaming. Jaleigh has an essay in this, too, so you should buy two copies. Or something. It comes out in November but is available for pre-order now.

2.  The Bard’s Tale is an anthology-slash-cookbook about … you guessed it … bard’s tales. The stories are either told by bards or feature bards as characters. Each story is illustrated and is accompanied by a recipe. I think it’s pretty cool, and I’m excited to be a part of it. The kickstarter runs through October 21st, but don’t wait! Five bucks gets you the ebook.


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Okay, okay, FINE. I’ll tell you the secret.

Sort of.

So I’m working on a new project. While I won’t tell you the particulars, I will tell you it’s speculative fiction set in Prohibition-era Chicago. So you know that that means. Flapper girls and speakeasies and maaaaagic. I am so, so excited to build this world and research the era. I’m reading history books! I’m researching gangsters! I’m watching documentaries! Next I’ll research fashion and language! I will also be keeping my liquor cabinet well-stocked, because you know. One shouldn’t research Prohibition without a drink in one’s hand. By the time it’s all said and done this will be the most research I’ve ever done. Hopefully my liver will still be functional.

Right now I have a solid story concept and a nebulous idea for a plot. Right now it’s also the Best Idea I’ve Ever Had that I Will Naturally Fuck Up Somehow Because I’m a Shitty Writer. So all systems are normal.


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