Joel Kelly's Blog

Joel Kelly's updates about his latest writing, his process, and his life as a Halifax-based author and marketer.

My writing process

As I work on my new book, "Scolding the Winds," I've been putting a lot more thought into my process. Here are my thoughts:

I try not to be too precious about my writing process. If you give yourself too many necessary routines, or put too much emphasis on your "muse," you won't be able to write when you really need to. So much of "writer's block" is really the inability to power through when you're not feeling inspired. But inspiration isn't necessary, only will and time are.

Of course, that perfect sentence, that great idea that turns the story around, those are things that you often can't plan for. But so much of your story won't be made up of those moments. So there's no use waiting around for inspiration to strike — if you have a path forward, keep going.

But, of course, that requires that you actually do have a plan. If you don't plan, then you'll always be waiting around for your brain to figure out where the story should go next. That's why I plan things out ahead of time.

I keep a notebook with me at all times, so I can write ideas, bits of dialogue, observations, etc.

I keep lots of notes, and plan out scenes ahead of time, in my trusty Field Notes.

As I've written about before, I'm a big fan of Dan Harmon's Story Circles. I use those to give myself a basic guide for the story as a whole, and individual scenes.

Here's what the story circles help me figure out:

  1. Where my characters are right now (emotionally, physically, mentally)
  2. What they want
  3. What it takes to get what they want
  4. What price they pay for it
  5. How that changes them
  6. How they'll now react to new situations, based on this change

So, the story needs to have this arc, or else it's not really a story. But individual scenes should have an arc, too, so the reader feels like they're along for a ride, not putting in work.

I write in the evenings, since I have a full-time job. I pick the time of night, not based on "inspiration," but energy. So sometimes I'll feel energized and write as soon as I get home, or sometimes I'll get to writing after dinner. And then on weekends I'll spend as much time as possible writing.

I try to write in 1,000 word chunks. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it gives me a goal. And I completely agree with Hemingway on this one:

"You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again." - Link

You want to stop when you know what happens next, so that when you finally get time to write again, you don't waste the whole evening trying to figure out where to start. You should already know where to start, and your subconscious should already be putting together some ideas for the rest of the scene.

Finally, I write my actual documents in Google Drive, since I use a Chromebook at home, and I want to be able to access my stories wherever I am.

Do you have any questions? Any advice of your own? Leave them in the comments!

Nightmares as writing fuel

I get a lot of nightmares. Sometimes, night terrors — waking up screaming, moaning something incomprehensible, sweating and thrashing. Fun stuff to wake up beside, my fiancée informs me.

I don't like having nightmares. But I find them useful. They're unpleasant, but I can turn them into something interesting, something that can help my writing and help my stories. "The Obstacle is the Way," and all that.

Last night's nightmare involved a gas leak in my hotel room, which I became convinced was not something physical — making me sick and clouding my thoughts — but a demon attempting to possess and control me. In that moment I knew that God was real, and that there was still a chance for me to gain salvation, because if a demon was attacking me, it meant I was a threat.

After sorting that out (I switched rooms), I went into the elevator, which began to plummet. The other people in the elevator were panicking, but we knew there was nothing we could do. By the time we hit the ground, we were at peace. We had become a family, tied together by our deaths, somewhere halfway down. We managed to survive, but none of us would be the same, after that. 

Are those dreams worth including in a short story? No, not as they are. But perhaps there are pieces worth hanging onto. Perhaps the meaning my subconscious mind found, in the strangest events, could be used as metaphors, or could be used to uncover some of the pieces of my characters that would be impossible to simply spell out. Show, don't tell, etc.

For instance, in my latest short story, I'm including this part of a nightmare I once had: 

The wind had pushed the barbeque a foot or so from the wet, slatted patio wall. The rain had filled the heavy glass ashtray until it had spilled over the side. It had dripped the grayish water down onto the rusting metal bistro table.

Down onto the pine two-by-four floor.

Down onto the neighbors’ patio.

Down onto the ground and grass.

Water had come in through the slightly open window in the living room. The wind had blown it against the screen until it made its way down onto the windowsill.

Down against the wall.

Down onto the old wooden chest on the floor, painted green a year ago. It had been a child’s coffin, once. But never used. The coffin was a gift from a family friend who was a woodworker. The order for the coffin had been canceled.

Riley slept on the couch in the living room with the coffin. Her feet were tucked under the corner of a heavy wool blanket, but the rest of the blanket draped off of the brown leather couch into a pile on the dusty hardwood floor.

She enjoyed the sound of the rain against the window, against the roof and walls. It helped her sleep, and reminded her of camping with her mother and father when she was eight or nine. They camped every year on Prince Edward Island, in an old canvas tent that would leak if you touched the sides.

So she slept deeply, now, as the water seeped in, more and more.

And it rained in her dream. She was walking toward her office, early in the morning. Too early, too dark. Her auburn hair was getting much too wet. But there was nothing to do about it. She had forgotten her umbrella. Forgotten her coat. But her feet were warm, and dry.

The coffee shop she usually stopped into wasn’t there anymore, in her dream. It had never been very good. They served coffee out of those giant thermoses, some off-brand generic roast, poured half-heartedly into a white styrofoam cup. But it was on the way.

Now, though, it was replaced with something else she couldn’t see, and didn’t want to. A part of her, something deep, and hurting.

She tried to walk away, but every step brought her closer. She tried to run, but her feet wouldn’t hold the ground. She bent over, tried to pry at the sidewalk with her fingers, to propel her forward but she only went back. Back and back. Toward something like a shard she couldn’t see but feel.

She felt something pierce her back, carve slowly through her skin. She felt it slide through muscle, wedging in between her vertebrae, and sending pain to every corner of her body. The shiv moved so slowly and so deep she could almost hear it.

She listened to herself die.

And then she fell. Down to the ground. Down past the sidewalk and through it. Down into the earth.

Down and down.

She fell until her she was traveling upward again through the earth. Toward the sky, toward heaven.

Up and up.

And then she woke.

So is that exactly the same nightmare I'd had? No, but the important pieces are there. The inability to run, the impotence of her escape. The inevitability of death, and a painful one. The worries she wrestles with every day, manifested in a dream about nothing. But at the same time everything: life, death, God, heaven, hell.

My point is really this: everything you experience can help your writing. Even if it's painful, even if you'd rather not think about it. It's going to happen to you anyway, so you might as well get some use out of it.

Love you,
Joel

My upcoming story

Before I wrote "No Greater Love Than This", I had been working on another short story.

I used the work in progress as my writing sample when I submitted my proposal to Fierce Ink Press.

I didn't realize at the time that I was telling my own story. That Riley, my main character, is my Nick Adams, or even Kilgore Trout. She's my alter ego, in some ways, or an avatar that had allowed me to express emotions I'd experienced, if not actual events.

But then I wrote "No Greater Love Than This", using real events, and my own real name, so what to do with Riley now?

Something new, I guess. Something outside my own experiences, my own emotions. Something fresh.

So that's my next project. A shorty story I hope to complete within the next few months. I'll be looking for publishers, so let me know if this sounds compelling to you and if you might be able to help out.

Below you'll find the first pages of this new story. Let me know what you think!

If you haven't purchased "No Greater Love Than This" yet, you can do so here:


The storm's wind had pushed the barbeque a foot or so from the wet, slatted patio wall. The rain had filled the heavy glass ashtray until it had spilled over the side. It had dripped the grayish water down onto the rusting metal bistro table.

Down onto the pine two-by-four floor.

Down onto the neighbors’ patio.

Down onto the ground and grass.

Water had come in through the slightly open window in the living room. The wind had blown it against the screen until it made its way down onto the windowsill.

Down against the wall.

Down onto the old wooden chest on the floor, painted green a year ago. It had been a child’s coffin, once. But never used. The coffin was a gift from a family friend who was a woodworker. The order for the coffin had been canceled.

Riley slept on the couch in the living room with the coffin. Her feet were tucked under the corner of a heavy wool blanket, but the rest of the blanket draped off of the brown leather couch into a pile on the dusty hardwood floor.

She enjoyed the sound of the rain against the window, against the roof and walls. It helped her sleep, and reminded her of camping with her mother and father when she was eight or nine. They camped every year on Prince Edward Island, in an old canvas tent that would leak if you touched the sides.

So she slept deeply, now, as the water seeped in, more and more.

And it rained in her dream. She was walking toward her office, early in the morning. Too early, too dark. Her auburn hair was getting much too wet. But there was nothing to do about it. She had forgotten her umbrella. Forgotten her coat. But her feet were warm, and dry.

The coffee shop she usually stopped into wasn’t there anymore, in her dream. It had never been very good. They served coffee out of those giant thermoses, some off-brand generic roast, poured half-heartedly into a white styrofoam cup. But it was on the way.

Now, though, it was replaced with something else she couldn’t see, and didn’t want to. A part of her, something deep, and hurting.

She tried to walk away, but every step brought her closer. She tried to run, but her feet wouldn’t hold the ground. She bent over, tried to pry at the sidewalk with her fingers, to propel her forward but she only went back. Back and back. Toward something like a shard she couldn’t see but feel.

She felt something pierce her back, carve slowly through her skin. She felt it slide through muscle, wedging in between her vertebrae, and sending pain to every corner of her body. The shiv moved so slowly and so deep she could almost hear it.

She listened to herself die.

And then she fell. Down to the ground. Down past the sidewalk and through it. Down into the earth.

Down and down.

She fell until her she was traveling upward again through the earth. Toward the sky, toward heaven.

Up and up.

And then she woke.

The boards in the couch were uneven, and the padding had given in long ago. She felt the pressure from its structure against her back, felt the pain of seizing muscles through her body.

She kicked the blanket off of her feet and sat up slowly. She tried not to move her back too much. She tried not to open her eyes wider than needed. She tried not to hear the rain coming in through the window. She tried to wish it away.

She stood slowly, looked at the window, looked at the wall, looked at the coffin. The lights were on, had been on all night.

She closed the window and wiped some of the water away with her hand, down onto the floor. If she’d been wearing socks, she would have tried to wipe up the water with her feet. But now she looked down on chipped pink toenail polish, standing in a puddle.

She left small, delicate footprints behind her on her way to the kitchen and the paper towel. Her father would have been so upset if he’d seen it. He hated footprints — no bare feet allowed on the hardwood — he hated fingerprints around the light switches, smudges on the mirrors, water left in the sink.

Everything had to be perfect. Cleanliness is next to… well, you know.

But now Riley could do what she wanted. She could leave footprints, she could wipe messes up with her socks, she could have sex and drink and smoke and live her life and hate it on her own terms.

 


My debt to William Gibson, and his hologram rose

My favorite short story is William Gibson’s Fragments of a Hologram Rose. It was his first major published short story.

Every sentence in it is laced with a precise despair. It is a sci-fi story, and, like all good sci-fi, it’s more about the present*, and us, than it is about the future, and them.

The structure of my story, "No Greater Love Than This," is unusual. One storyline goes from past to present, told in a typical first-person, "I did this, I did that," form. The other storyline goes from the present to the past, told in a second-person, “You do this, you do that,” form.

And the two storylines alternate back and forth, using vignettes. It’s a little jarring, but I felt it necessary to tell the story. I needed to break things up, to make it a little unreal, so I could tell a real and painful story with detachment.

The structure of Fragments was my inspiration for this style, though I ended up going in a fairly different direction. But I’m still indebted to William Gibson and his story for helping me tell my story.

Here’s an excerpt to get you interested in Fragments. Purchase the short story collection Burning Chrome (which includes the first instance of the word “cyberspace” ever) to read the rest.

*Yes, I'm citing my own article to back up my point.

------

That summer Parker had trouble sleeping.

There were power droughts; sudden failures of the delta-inducer brought painfully abrupt returns to consciousness.

To avoid these, he used patch cords, miniature alligator clips, and black tape to wire the inducer to a battery-operated ASP deck. Power loss in the inducer would trigger the deck's playback circuit. He bought an ASP cassette that began with the subject asleep on a quiet beach. It had been recorded by a young blonde yogi with 20-20 vision and an abnormally acute color sense.

The boy had been flown to Barbados for the sold purpose of taking a nap and his morning's exercise on a brilliant stretch of private beach. The microfiche laminate in the cassette's transparent case explained that the yogi could will himself through alpha to delta without an inducer.

Parker, who hadn't been able to sleep without an inducer for two years, wondered if this was possible.

He had been able to sit through the whole thing only once, though by now he knew every sensation of the first five subjective minutes. He thought the most interesting part of the sequence was a slight editing slip at the start of the elaborate breathing routine: a swift glance down the white beach that picked out the figure of a guard patrolling a chain link fence, a black machine pistol slung over his arm.

While Parker slept, power drained from the city's grids.

The transition from delta to delta-ASP was a dark implosion into other flesh. Familiarity cushioned the shock. He felt the cool sand under his shoulders. The cuffs of his tattered jeans flapped against his bare ankles in the morning breeze. Soon the boy would wake fully and begin his Ardha-Matsyendra-something; with other hands Parker groped in darkness for the ASP deck.

Three in the morning.

Making yourself a cup of coffee in the dark, using a flashlight when you pour the boiling water.

Morning's recorded dream, fading: through other eyes, dark plume of a Cuban freighter - fading with the horizon it navigates across the mind's gray screen.

Three in the morning.

Let yesterday arrange itself around you in flat schematic images. What you said - what she said - watching her pack - dialing the cab. However you shuffle them they form the same printed circuit: you, standing in the rain, screaming at the cabby.

The rain was sour and acid, nearly the color of piss. The cabby called you an asshole; you still had to pay twice the fare. She had three pieces of luggage. In his respirator and goggles, the man looked like an ant. He pedaled away in the rain. She didn't look back.

The last you saw of her was a giant ant, giving you the finger.

------

Buy my story here.

Buy "Burning Chrome" here.



Hearing it out loud

Last night I recorded the audio version of "No Greater Love Than This". 

Well, I recorded it twice, actually. I did it wrong the first time, and had to redo it all immediately after.

It's interesting hearing myself read it. I'd read it aloud before, of course, as I think that's vital to the writing process.

But hearing my own voice played back, and the way that I apparently think phrases should be emphasized, or not, was insightful.

I tried not to force anything, I tried to just let it happen, and let the emotion — or sometimes lack thereof — express itself.

I wish I'd recorded myself reading it earlier. I'm not sure I would have changed anything, but I would have had a clearer picture of the various tones and emotions throughout it.

Oh well, now I know for next time.

Where to start?

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When I started writing "No Greater Love Than This", I--

Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

How did I start? Well, I knew that my short story would be about my upbringing, about religion and about the loss of my family because of it.

But that first blank page and blinking cursor...

That's why I started with the Story Circles, but even that's a little further down the path. The very first step, and the most vital, was determining how the story would end. What the last line or lines would look and feel like, if not precisely read.

What was the point of it all? Most of my writing isn't like that. Most of my writing has its meaning determined afterward, after it's written and staring back at me and trying to say something. Most of it is all revisionist symbolism.

But this piece had to be for something, it had to teach something, if only to me.

It had to be about love.

My parents spoke of unconditional love; the love they had for me, like the love God had for them. They probably still believe they love me.

But my story had to be about what real love means to me. It had to teach me — I had to teach myself through it — what it means to experience anything like true love for another person. Anything like what Jesus meant when he said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

I hope that's what you get out of my story.

I hope that's what I got out of writing it.

Writing can make you look/feel like an insane person

To give myself a place from which to start "No Greater Love Than ThisI used Dan Harmon's "Story Circle" process.

It's an effective and super simple way of blocking out the basics of a narrative.

The problem is with a story like mine, which has more than a dozen individual sections. Each one tells its own minor story, and so you quickly start to feel and look quite insane:

Sticky chart paper thingies are super helpful too!

Sticky chart paper thingies are super helpful too!

In the end, I didn't end up using much of the structure I'd developed here, but it was still useful. It gave me a place to start, a place to identify moments of real significance versus ones that would just be easy or fun to write.

I recommend trying out the story circle concept if you ever get stuck on a piece, or just need a place to kick things off.

Love you,
Joel