Words about words

[Warning: This post is long.  But buried somewhere in here is a link to an actual story I wrote.  I won’t tell you where.  Cue evil laughter!]

I finished rereading the Culture series on my Kindle while I was in Louisiana.  Before I started something new–the Wheel of Time books, which I’ve never read and apparently contain approximately three point seven billion words, because I hate myself–I took a bit of a detour and reread a few of my own stories.

I do this fairly regularly, actually.  Most of my books are relatively short, right at 50,000 words due to the requirements of NaNoWriMo, so they’re a quick reread for me.  And while I’ve never done any serious editing on any of them, I still catch typos and malapropisms and fix those as I go.  (Yes, of course they’re all in revision control systems meant for software, because I am a geek through and through.  Subversion, Bazaar, and finally Git, if you must know, charting my own usage over the last decade and a half.)

Because people have asked me over the years, I thought it’d be worth cataloging all of the major writing I’ve ever done.  If nothing else, it makes this an easy blog post to point back to in the future.  Note that a non-trivial amount of my stuff is “personal”, by which I mean it was written for me and me alone.  The longer works will still be listed here, but don’t bug me about the details.  Demon exorcism is never pretty work.

(Most works have given word counts.  For reference, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is about 46,000 words long, The Catcher in the Rye is 74,000ish, and The Hobbit is around 95,000.  Mumble mumble War & Peace mumble lots more.)


Cycle’s End (ca. 1991; ~20pp.; science fiction/fantasy): I started to consider “that writing thing” when I was eleven, and this was the result, the first twenty or so pages of a singularly awful novel written in a WordStar clone (StarWriter, I think? [Days-later edit: After doing some research, I’m pretty sure it was just a pirated version of WordStar.]) on an IBM XT clone my father bought on the cheap back in ’89 or ’90.  Given the time period, perhaps heinous is a better descriptor.  On the other hand: eh, I was eleven.  Somehow my oldest sister kept a copy of this around for over 15 years and returned it to me, missing the first couple of pages; I “lovingly” transcribed it.  It’s even on the Web, although I won’t be pointing you to it.  It’s bad.  Real bad.  Then again, eleven.

A thirteen-year fallow period ensues, during which maybe I wasn’t really into “that writing thing,” other than a couple of terrible short stories in high school.  I did write a metric crap-ton of semi-professional videogame reviews in this period, but they’re all awful, and non-fiction besides.

Lying in Arcadia (NaNoWriMo 2004; 105,036 words; science fiction): When I decided to really start writing again, hoo boy, did I do it in earnest.  I pooped out a 100,000+ novel in 28 days.  It’s awful; the beginning uses a bunch of dumb words I made up to try to make myself seem smart, and the plot barely holds together, but it’s got a beginning, middle, and end, which is more than I can say for most of my later writing.  Sigh.  Exactly one clever thing came out of this novel, a solution to a near-the-end predicament that I had set up without realizing it 100 pages back.  It’s the sort of thing I figured clever writers went back and inserted into their novels to make them look smart–hiding Chekov’s gun back in the third chapter–but it just happened naturally.  It was a bit of a sea change in my mind as to how much conscious control I really have in this whole writing business.

Sinner Soldier Seeker Saint (NaNoWriMo 2005; 70,046 words; weird fantasy but actually science fiction): Lying was basically completely unplanned.  For S4, I actually did quite a bit of thinking about the setting, the characters, and the plot before November.  The result… was terrible.  The characters are wooden, the writing stilted–6,600 of the words are a glossary of the made-up words scattered throughout the novel like rat turds–and the story unengaging.  I started hating it at about the 40,000 word mark, really loathing it around 55,000 or so, and finished it off as best I could without really resolving anything.  A hot mess that turned me off of preplanning for NaNo for years.

The Escapist (NaNoWriMo 2005; 51,819 words; science fiction): That’s not a typo.  I was super unsatisfied with S4 and my family all disappeared on Thanksgiving evening, my mother and sisters to go shopping at an outlet mall a few states away and my father to a long hunting trip, so I decided I’d write a second novel for NaNoWriMo.  This is a personal one, so no real details, but it’s important for two reasons: it’s followed by Second Law, below, and it’s the single fastest novel I’ve ever written.  I finished that Sunday afternoon, having written over 50,000 words in around 67 hours.  Yes, they included meals and sleep.  No, I am not a robot.  Yes, it’s a much better novel than S4 despite having been vomited onto the page with great force.

The Trees Near Podkamennaya (NaNoWriMo 2006; 43,372 words or 50,047 words, depending; “literary” modern-day “romance”): Having proven that I could write two novels in a month back in 2005, the next year was a time for stuntin’.  I had written what amounted to science fiction my entire life, so I thought: what would be the most different thing possible?  I know!  Semi-literary first-person modern-day romance!

Somehow, it’s… actually okay.  Not great, not awful, but okay.  It’s too short; I finished the story at 43K, so ended up going back and adding framing chapters around the real tale to have it crack the magical 50K for NaNo, but were I to ever publish the novel (I won’t) I’d toss those chapters entirely.  The title is about 75% too clever for itself, which… is in grand lit-fic tradition, I suppose.  But it was nowhere near the disaster I expected it to be, although I hated it at the time.

The Worldbreaker (NaNoWriMo 2006; 53,380 words; gonzo science fantasy): Yeah, another year where I wrote two novels.  Don’t worry, I got over that.  The setting for this came out of a “game” I “invented” which was a bit popular in the NaNoWriMo IRC channel for a bit, a sort of “yes, and” improv jam thing but for setting design.  I decided to actually write a story set in the world of the very first game session.  It’s pretty nuts, and the story ends at what is clearly the Act I break in a three-act play, but it has some clever bits.  I think it’s fundamentally unsalvageable, though, not least because the rights to the novel would be a damn mess thanks to the collaborative nature of having come up with the setting.  Thanks, copyright law!

And the Heavens on Fire (NaNoWriMo 2007; 54,556 words; science fiction): A return to form for 2007.  The novel is basically my own take on the idea of the Great Filter. It’s actually not a bad first act-and-a-half, but it’s got some fundamental structural problems that came from it needing more pre-plotting than I was willing to give my NaNovels at the time.  It’s at third place (of three) in my list of “novels I might actually be willing to rework into something that isn’t total garbage for publication,” henceforth the List.  It’s the first novel of mine that I reread back at my Mom’s house.

Second Law (NaNoWriMo 2008; 50,728 words; hard science fiction): My take on Greg Egan’s brand of hard sf.  This was the second novel I reread back at Mom’s, and I have to say that it’s a little too Egan-y, bordering on “creepy fanfic” territory rather than really staking its own claim.  It’s also missing acts three and four and half of the fifth and final act, which is a problem.  That said, the core of the novel is actually solid, the characters are interesting, and I actually quite like some of the little details scattered throughout.  It’s also a (distant) sequel to The Escapist, which I’d totally elide in a rewrite, since that novel is never, ever going to get published.  It’s in second place on the List.

Invisibles (NaNoWriMo 2009, plus a lot more in 2010; 99,076 words; science fiction): A personal novel.  Trash, but wordy trash…

…because in 2010 I embarked on a crazy journey to write a million words before the end of the year.  I very much didn’t succeed, managing 308,801 by December 31st.  That’s still a hell of a lot of words, but it’s also quite short of the goal.  That said, quite a bit came out of that year.  There were a bunch of random vignettes and short stories, my completion of Invisibles, stuff for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (yes, I was stretching for things that counted as words), and…

The Organization stories (~15,000 words; modern-day science fiction/horror): I wrote several stories in the same milieu, heavily inspired by the SCP Foundation.  One was about vampires, one about mummies, and one a weird take on Chernobyl.  Like Second Law, they’re probably too close to the original inspiration in their current form, but the mummy story in particular is actually pretty good.

Runaway (15,179 words; science fiction/mystery): This will forever be “the one that got away.”  It’s the first third of a gritty near-future mystery story with aliens where I had the key hook in my head, forgot to write it down, and put the story aside for too long.  I can’t for the life of me remember whodunit, although I do remember how, and am still pretty pleased with that.  I’d like to take another stab at the story, or a different one in the same setting, at some point, as the world I painted in it is still one of my favorites, something very different than anything else I’ve written.  As is, it’ll never be finished.  Sigh.

The Treehouse (32,957 words; historical literary fiction): A personal novel, notable only because it’s a relatively long work I finished outside of the confines of NaNoWriMo.  The only such work, unfortunately.

The Fable of the Little Robot (1,909 words; children’s science fiction): I’ll let this one speak for itself.

The Golden Band (NaNoWriMo 2010; 51,026 words; science fiction): A direct sequel to Invisibles, and equally personal.

I wrote a short story or two in December, but that was the end of 1M10.

Rewind (NaNoWriMo 2011; 36,719 words or some barely-over-50,000 word count; science fiction): Number one on the List, and my return to pre-planning for NaNo six years after S4 soured me on the idea.  I started with a single mental image: a young person standing on a street corner, taking a long drag on a cigarette, and then rewinding time so that they don’t actually get the lung damage.  I spent a lot of time pre-November on the metaphysics of time travel, and I think it shows in the novel.  There’s a lot more going on in the story, but given that it’s the book I actually plan on rewriting for publication in the near future, I don’t want to get into too many details.  Like Trees before it, I finished the story without hitting 50,000, so there’s a lot of filler text that I don’t consider actually part of the story.  Unlike Trees, I actually could add a bunch of stuff to the story before publication to make it the length of a real novel.  We’ll see.

I failed NaNo in 2012, mostly because I was so stressed out about my impending departure from Louisiana and move to North Carolina that I couldn’t concentrate on writing.  I cheated and “won” by transcribing dialog from TV shows I was watching with my Mom until I hit 50K, then revoked my win a day later.  I’m not proud of that.

Darkly (NaNoWriMo 2013; 50,151 words; science fiction), Ridden (NaNoWriMo 2014; 40,757 words plus guff to hit 50K; science fiction): A pair of personal novels.  Neat settings, both, but terrible stories.  Technically Ridden is in the same setting as Invisibles and The Golden Band, but that matters to precisely one person in the universe.

Love in the Time of Data (NaNoWriMo 2015; 50,644 words; modern literary fiction/trainwreck): One thing I’ve elided from this already way-too-long chronology is the littered “4K corpses” of NaNoWriMo.  I often start a given November with a bright idea, write one to five chapters, then absolutely hate it and throw it away.  Many of the personal novels come from those years, when it’s easier to switch over to something just for me than come up with another idea or fight through the misery of that first failed one.  Love in the Time of Data is the result of not letting myself drop yet another 4K corpse in 2015.  It’s a fictionalized account of working in the tech industry, littered with asides that are fictionalized accounts of events in the main character’s life, and you’re reading “fictionalized account” as “thinly veiled version of myself” then give yourself nothing because it’s the obvious conclusion.  It’s awful to the max, but damn it, it’s one less 4K corpse on the NaNoWriMo road.  Never again, though, after this one.  Never again.

Super (NaNoWriMo 2016; 50,355 words; superhero fantasy/romance/humor): I actually really like this one, even though it’s incomplete and needs some heavy reworking.  The core concept is “B-lister superhero has to pick up the slack when all the heavies are out of town”, which has been done before, but I’ve reread Super a couple of times and actually laughed out loud at some of the bits, something no other novel I’ve written can manage.  It has a fundamental publication problem, though, in that the main character’s superpower runs on something that is Not Family Friendly.  If I ever wanted to go the self-publishing route, Super would move up to number one on the List, but as-is it would require a whole lot of rewriting to make it salable.  That puts it at fourth place on the real List, but unfortunately that list only has room for three novels.  Sad trombone.

Tutelage (NaNoWriMo 2017; 50,267 words; science fiction): A personal novel, written after yet another 4K corpse that was going to be my take on a particular story related in the last episode of the TV series The Departed.  Unreadable garbage, both the corpse and the novel.

Phew.  That’s, by an order of magnitude, the longest blog entry I’ve written here so far, but it’s a pretty thorough examination of most of the fiction I’ve produced over my life.  I haven’t asked for reader feedback in ages, and I doubt anyone will actually read this entry all the way through, but if you do: which of the works described here intrigues you the most?  Why?

7 thoughts on “Words about words”

  1. The Fable of the Little Robot is so cute.

    Sinner Soldier Seeker Saint – this is such a killer title, maybe reuse it someday?

    Rewind: i love the core idea and would really like to read it, when you do that rewrite!

    and I would unashamedly read the hell out of Super, regardless of which of my guesses about his superpower is correct.

    1. The Fable of the Little Robot is so cute.

      Thanks. It’s proven to be a bit of a Rorschach test; people get the lesson out of it that they want. Which is probably too morally ambiguous for a real children’s book. But I like it.

      Sinner Soldier Seeker Saint – this is such a killer title, maybe reuse it someday?

      It is, unquestionably, the best part of that novel.

      Rewind: i love the core idea and would really like to read it, when you do that rewrite!

      Hopefully that’s going to happen, sooner rather than later.

      and I would unashamedly read the hell out of Super, regardless of which of my guesses about his superpower is correct.

      Unfortunately Super is unfinished; it’s one of the novels that comes to a screeching halt right after 50,000 words even though the story’s not done, because NaNo. It actually does that close to the start of the third and final act, which is even more frustrating on a reread. But finishing it feels wasteful… sigh.

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