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Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2012 at 9:00 am

I’ve been dedicating a lot of thought lately to why I can’t write YA Lit.

Because I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve tried coming up with YA books I could write and they’re either formulaic or boring. I hate being formulaic and boring, but I know when I am being it, so I toss them out. And then I end up with nothing. And I don’t know why, since for a long time I’ve been proud of being able to write inside a genre without having a whole lot of practice at it.

I’m also good at breaking down the essentials to create a framework on which to hang a story; I’ve done that frequently with various historical play structures, like medieval mystery plays and ancient Greek satyr plays. I can identify tropes, work them around, and come up with something that manages to fit the formula without being formulaic. It’s a point of pride.

But I can’t write YA Lit.

For those of you who are wondering, by the way, this is the epitome of why intelligent people in fiction are so often written as short-tempered assholes: when a very smart person comes up against something they can’t immediately conquer, they get all kinds of frustrated. I’m not saying I’m a Sherlock Holmes level genius or anything, but a lot of stuff comes pretty easily to me, so I don’t cope well when it doesn’t. (On the other hand, I don’t verbally abuse relative strangers or close friends, so well done me.)

I want to suspect that I’d be better at it if I’d spent a more normal childhood, but I was a relative outsider and most really good YA novels, not to mention most iconic films of my generation’s teenage years, are about outsiders. So you’d think my experiences there would be pretty helpful, but they’re not, because writing about being an outsider always sounds like self-pity. I didn’t hate high school or anything, I just wouldn’t much care to go back.

I wonder if it’s that I didn’t read much YA lit when I was YA myself, but it’s not like I haven’t read a lot of it in general over the years. I skipped mostly straight from child lit to adult novels, with a brief stopover for Christopher Pike inbetween, but I’ve read His Dark Materials and Harry Potter, the Narnia books and the Dragonsinger trilogy, The Secret Garden and The Catcher In The Rye, at various points in my youth. I used to read one-off YA novels like The Gate In The Wall as comfort reading when I was in college.

I theorize it’s that I’m still struggling with building good characters, because when I read YA that’s generally what attracts me, the compelling nature of the people involved. The plots are frequently quite similar to each other, but the characters can make or break the story for me. This is really possibly part of it, but I think I could write good YA characters; at least I could write better ones than I sometimes see in YA novels. So that can’t be all of it.

In the end it seems to come down to the fact that I never really much liked kids of that age even when I was that age; most of the time I was either bored with them or scared of them, and not much inbetween. It’s difficult to pretend I know how to write what they want to hear. All the formulas and well-written characters in the world can’t make up for an actual empathetic connection.

Maybe it’s just not time yet. I’m on that leery cusp between still being a young person other people find hilarious and being the other people that find young people hilarious. The relationship between youth and adulthood is a weird and tenuous one, and doesn’t always contain easy transitions.

Maybe I have to be older before I can understand kids.

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The Originality of The Narcissist

In Uncategorized on January 20, 2012 at 9:00 am

I know I’m lucky to work in an office full of smart, engaged people, and I know not every office is like mine, but the longer I work in an office, any office, the more I am bored and a bit put off by films and books about how boring and messed-up office work is. (The Office is one of the exceptions to this rule, but I have difficulty watching it because I think Jim’s a bully and he sets my teeth on edge.)

The thing is, again, I know mine is maybe unusual, but everyone here is so interesting, and everyone has a story. Right now, alone, one of my coworkers is getting divorced, one is out of town at a LARP convention, one is moving in with her boyfriend, and one is the most experimental baker I’ve ever met. Her caramels are…interesting. Then there’s me, secretly lusting after a former coworker on another floor. And of course my Awkward Coworker, who doesn’t even need any other person to make him interesting. One of my coworkers’ wives had a baby this week, about six weeks premature, and he showed up yesterday with photos and a bleary look and a totally new mindset about life. It’s pretty impressive. Cute kid, doing fine, and they very much appreciated the fruit bouquet we sent them.

Most of the time we work, but there are also moments, usually spontaneous, where we sort of gather up and talk. I’ve been more and more interested in watching the others talk, watching how they construct stories about their lives; one of them is a stand-up comedian as a hobby, so he uses a lot of set phrases and expressions designed to amuse. Most of us are researchers, so we tend to cite whatever newspaper or magazine or website we’re talking about. Occasionally we have to break while someone googles to see if something is really true.

We don’t really talk to our coworkers about who we are, in the sense that we don’t just spontaneously share facts about ourselves (someone asked me today if I was a vegetarian, and I laughed). But we do construct our personalities through the stories we share with each other. I think this is maybe a common social thing, and I’m just so normally-unsocial that I don’t realise it, but I really like it.

I’ve always been taught that there’s a correlation between the person I am and the stories I tell; in high school I had an English teacher who worked the correlation backwards, teaching us that as long as we spoke with our own voice, and gave our own unique view of the world, we were being original storytellers. That’s an incomplete idea, because it roots storytelling in narcissism, but as a starting point it’s not actually a bad place to be.

There’s a theory that artists — writers, painters, composers, even performers — create in order to draw the eye away from themselves. Even actors are showing you a performance rather than a person. I think it’s a solid theory; it’s certainly why I create. But to go back to my high school English teacher, you can’t separate your voice from any authentic work, and whether it’s easy or hard, a part of you is always tucked into the work for the reader to see. Sometimes, especially with the young or inexperienced, their desires are writ large; their stories are fantasies about what they want to be, what they want to happen to them. Other times, even the writer doesn’t see themselves in the work until someone astute points it out to them.

But we do communicate ourselves through our stories. And when you have an intimate acquaintance of the structure and purpose of stories, that’s pretty fascinating.

I do a lot of listening.

Making The Cuts

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

One of the good things about last week, despite it being an insane week on multiple levels, is that I still managed to get in some writing. The goal for the week was to work on Dead Isle at least three days out of five, and I think I managed all five.

The Dead Isle is currently in rewrites; it’s one of the earlier novels I wrote, the second or third I put online (even before Nameless, I think, though Nameless was written either before Dead Isle or somewhere during its process) and it was really just a way to get some writing done and have fun with some worldbuilding. It arose out of a single scene and a desire to dig more deeply into Steampunk, a genre/aesthetic that has always appealed to me. It is also, unfortunately, about five hundred pages long, which is about two hundred pages longer than I want to read, let alone publish. It definitely needs the rewrite.

At the moment I’ve been focusing on making cuts and working with how those cuts affect later events, because while there’s a lot of dead wood in Dead Isle, most of it is difficult to extract from the bits that aren’t dead wood. Initially I thought the rewrite would involve cutting a lot of the worldbuilding stuff — random fairy tales and quotes from fictional philosophers — but in the end those are sort of vital to the way the story plays out, so they might get polished but they mostly stay in.

But I know the cuts that I am making are right, because they’re all about the same thing: one of our heroes meets up with a Famous Person From History. So far I’ve cut PJ Kennedy (ancestor of the Kennedy clan), Sarah Bernhardt, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. (Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne had to stay in, but they make more sense than previous.) I get why I put all this in, because one of the joys of writing period lit for me, even in a fantasy alternate universe like The Dead Isle, is introducing historical fact and historical personages.

And that’s fine…in the first draft.

The first draft of a story is a good place to put one’s indulgences, to pet the ego and play around with where you’re going and what you’re doing. The problem, a lot of the time, is that we often think our self-indulgent bits are the best bits, so cutting them out in the next draft is a real wrench. Sometimes they are really good, too, but they don’t always belong in the story even if they are. There’s a moment in The Dead Isle where Sarah Bernhardt reminisces to Clare about Ellis spending his youth in France hanging around with dancing-girls and degenerates, and it’s a great moment in terms of uncovering Ellis’s character. But Sarah is otherwise superfluous to the story, and really we don’t actually need to know that Ellis used to chase cabaret stars. So she has to go.

Most people don’t respond well to too many restrictions placed on them during the initial creative process. That’s why we have drafts, so we can clean up the messes we made while we were figuring out how to make the good bits. A part of learning to be productively creative is learning how to be okay with the mess, especially later when you have to mop it up. Learning not to be too embarrassed by the naked ego that’s just sitting out there for everyone to look at. Learning to cut something because it’s not good for the story, even if you love it.

I didn’t always believe that writing involved talent; I used to think it just involved a shit-ton of practice. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore, but even so, talent is only a small component of the experience of good writing. Much more important is discipline: the discipline to practice, to accept criticism, to know when you’ve done something good, and to know when what you love and what is good are two different things. They aren’t, always. But more often, they are.

There are parts of The Dead Isle that are both vital to the book and satisfying to me; otherwise I wouldn’t have written it. Trimming out the narcissistic, self-indulgent parts will only increase the value of what remains, and I accept that. Learning to differentiate is hard, and actually making the cuts is harder, especially since you won’t feel the satisfaction of the outcome until afterwards, but it’s necessary if this book is going to be the best it can be.

And at least with The Dead Isle, unlike with Nameless, I don’t look at work I did on it and want to strangle my four-years-ago self.

I Have A Cunning Plan

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2012 at 9:39 am

I’m not usually one for a lot of New Year’s resolutions. This year I mostly wanted to go into the new year with nothing huge hanging over my head — no major duties left undone, as it were. My one resolution, which I talked about over on my personal journal, was to play more video games. (So far I’m doing quite well. Tetris has come a long way since the first time I played it on an original classic NES.)

I wasn’t really thinking about a plan for writing, even, at least not until I ran into an article a week or two ago at The 99 Percent. The 99 Percent — unaffiliated with the Occupy movement — is a website for creative professionals, primarily, and though it contains a lot of rather bland corporate-inspirational writing, it does occasionally hit the nail on the head.

Okay, sometimes you have to dig a little for the nail.

The article itself is called Productivity Tie Breaker. It’s about how to balance out the need to focus for significant periods of time on one project with the need to answer emails and phone calls and handle day-to-day business. There’s a lot of “visualise yourself successful” in the article, but some of it pinged me as genuinely helpful, so I turned it into a sort of workbook for writing in the new year.

Before the start of the year:
Look ahead and decide what are the big projects you want to achieve next year. Write the projects down – including deadlines – and put a reminder in your calendar so that you hold yourself accountable.
At the start of every week:
Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve that week. Work out how many days/hours you’ll need to block off for sustained work. Now think ahead to anticipate important deadlines and demands from others […] to avoid letting people down on critical projects.
At start of every day:
Look ahead and decide what you want to achieve today. How many hours do you need to block off for focused work?
At each step, you should also consider an alternative universe, where you let other people’s demands dictate to you – hour by hour, day by day, year by year.

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My favourite part is that last bit. I’m going to have so much fun this year imagining alternate-universe me.

I decided I had three major writing goals for the year: rewrite / approve / publish The Dead Isle, choose two stories from my ideas file to “treat” for future work so that I can start on one of them when I’m done with Dead Isle, and make a new list of things to write about here so that I can keep this blog up.

I’ve been working since then to try and choose the two stories I want to work on once Dead Isle is done. One of them will be Valet of Anize, which needs to be ripped apart and done over, and not only because I’ve written myself into a corner. The other one will be drawn from my ideas file, which contains both vague “This would be cool to write someday” concepts and more immediate “Wow, I really want to write this” ideas.

I chose the seven or eight ideas that I liked best and wrote them down on the backs of business cards, because sometimes you do just have to hold things in your hands. Since then I’ve been shuffling them around, sorting them by different categories — stories I like best, stories my readers will probably like best, stories that need the most plot work, stories that need the most research. It’s amazing the number of ways one can catergorise a project like that. And, slowly, I’ve been discarding the ones I’ve decided not to work on just yet.

I’m down to three candidates now. Technically my “deadline” for choosing is the end of February, but I certainly hope it won’t take me that long. One would require a lot of research, but could be the best of the three stories; one is set in parts of Chicago that I know very well, but needs a lot of plot work. The last one would be the most complex to write and in some ways the most satisfying — but it’s at a level of complexity where I wouldn’t be able to post it for Extribulum purposes. At least, not easily. I can’t imagine how I would turn it into an e-book. The quality of the challenge for all three is remarkably difficult, but I guess that’s a good thing.

Who knows if I’ll keep to the schedule I set in my little made-up worksheet. Some writers work great with schedules; I work great with structure, but rarely schedules. Most of the books I’ve written have been things that simply caught fire and demanded I write more. Fortunately I can come back to this at the end of the year and compare notes. $Deity bless the internet.