Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Part Where I Hate The Damn Book

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:00 am

Writers — okay, some writers, and on judgey days I think mostly bad writers — like to wax poetic about how crazy they (we) are. There are a lot of ways to do it, because there are almost limitless ways to be crazy, or pretend to be crazy, when you’ve set yourself up as someone with the power to create entire worlds. Worse, writers tend to think they have the right to create entire worlds, because they have the capability.

Not that we don’t, but you can see how that kind of unconscious arrogance can open the door to a whole flood of self-assumed crazy.

Writers talk about being driven crazy by ideas, by creative compulsions, by writer’s block, by the creative process. Not to stomp on anyone else’s process (he says, stomping on it) but I tend to think about ninety percent of it is self-indulgent bullshit. I’ve never had any patience for people who claim their creativity controls them rather than vice versa. I have every sympathy with people who struggle to create, but if I see one more film about someone who’s spent the last two years suffering from writer’s block, I will throw something heavy at the screen.

I didn’t write for the first thirteen years of my life. I loved reading, but I wasn’t interested in that form of creativity. I actively avoided it — you would not believe the sulks I threw — and when I was in my twenties I chalked that up to well-meaning teachers trying to force creativity rather than just letting kids be creative. With more perspective, knowing that I’ve always been a shy person, I think I found the written word too revelatory. I wasn’t okay with sharing that much of myself. In some ways I’m still not; I’m embarrassed to write compelling scenes and strong emotions because they risk showing too much and it’s too easy for other people to use them to get to me, if they know how to go about it right.

The better you are at writing, the easier it is to hide all the weird emotional crap that everyone has but nobody wants to admit to. In inexperienced writers it’s easy to tell the part of the story that really gets them off, but the definition of a skilled writer is someone whose writing isn’t obvious. The thing is, that weird emotional crap is still there, and the writer knows it’s there. A fetish doesn’t have to be sexual; it can be narrative, and revealing that a certain situation or scene strokes your ego or satisfies your lizard hindbrain can be much more embarrassing than the stigma attached to having a kinky thing for exhibitionism or feet or whatever. People are much less squeamish about using emotional desires to manipulate or harm than they are about sexual ones.  Some people don’t care if their freaky is public and visible, and that’s a very well-adjusted way to be because freaky is a dumb social construct meant to keep people in line, but I will be honest: I am not that well-adjusted. My kinks, literary, sexual, or otherwise, are private, and I like them that way. There are absolutely deep, messed-up reasons that I’ve spent a lot of time studying masks.

Every time I work on a book, sometime during the edits I start to just hate the hell out of it. There are plenty of reasons; boredom with prose I’ve read too many times, weariness of beating the same dead literary horse I’ve already spent months on, eagerness to be on to something new. I could talk a lot (and have) about the discipline a writer needs in order to serve the story, and the discipline to grit your teeth and push through the edits is a part of that, but I think the biggest reason I spend a phase hating my book is that I think everyone can see everything that’s wrong with it and thus everything that’s wrong with me.

Which is nonsense, and eventually I snap out of it. Most people who read my prose don’t notice the flaws I notice and wouldn’t give a sweet goddamn if they did, because they’re not actually out to get me. They might find flaws in the book, but they’re highly unlikely to be the same ones I see.

The first novel I went through this with, Nameless, I was genuinely worried I’d never like the book again. I did like it by the time I was done, and a few months ago I read it and was surprised by how much I still like it. Since that first time, I’ve been okay with hating the book. I know soon enough I’ll be done with that and I’ll have something really good on the other side. And frankly, I’d rather hate the book than hate myself. Seems more productive in the long run.

I don’t write to bare my soul — I think most good writers don’t, for the same reason they don’t talk about how crazy they are: they’re not interested in being obvious — but it tends to happen anyway. When it does, I’m grateful for the years I spent not-writing, because those years made me reasonably sensible, and that gets me through the messed-up parts of the process, so I can get back to the fun parts.

The Amateur Snoop

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

I’m in ur books, readin’ ur proz.

I read an article recently about romance novels (The Last Great Bastion Of Underground Writing) and their position not just as feminist documents but also as symbols of the gender divide. I didn’t agree with everything the writer said (she seems a little shy on the subject of enjoying erotica and accepting kink) but she made the point that e-readers are a real gift to people who like to read romance novels but are ashamed of the stigma attached. She linked to an article in the Guardian (Romantic Fiction’s Passion For Ebooks) which also explored the e-reader romance:

The rising tide of e-reading devices – and their subsequent drop in price – has been a blessing to many, but perhaps none more so than fans of romance. No longer are they forced to conceal the covers of their latest purchases (The Sultan’s Choice, say, or The Temp and the Tycoon) from fellow commuters. Instead, they can follow their heroine’s romantic adventures with impunity, safely protected by the anonymity of their e-readers.

“One of the many reasons why we believe romance readers have taken so quickly to ebooks is that there is an inherent snobbery towards romance as a genre in the UK,” says [Ebury editorial director Gillian] Green. “It’s sad that this is the case but dedicated e-readers and tablets allow readers to read whatever they like in public without giving anything away about what they are reading.”

I don’t read romance novels for preference, but I’m not going to say I’ve never read any; sometimes they’ve been sent to me for review, and when I worked in a bookstore in high school most of the second-hand books being brought in for resale were romance novels. Reading the backs of the books was a good way to make shelving them much more interesting, and a couple sucked me in. A well-written romance novel is nothing to be ashamed of.

(AND YET. Did I read them in public? Oh hell no.)

At any rate, I know the above quote to be true because I am a snoop. Not amongst friends; there’s a bond of trust there that I wouldn’t violate — though let’s be fair, it’s not like I’m not still curious, I’m just exercising self-control. But among strangers I snoop all the time, because I suffer from the delusion that somehow I don’t do anything the way “real, normal people” do things. I know it’s a delusion — the idea of ‘normal’ is a shaky one if it exists at all — but I can’t stop feeling that if I watch other people being normal for long enough, I will figure out how to be normal myself.

One of the things I do a lot of is read other peoples’ ebooks on the train. It’s easiest to do when it’s crowded, but I’ve mastered the technique of appearing to read my own book while actually reading the ebook of the person next to me. Being fair, I used to do this when the person next to me was reading a paper book, too, it’s not like I’m targeting ebook readers. It’s just that I appear to be one of about five people left in this city who reads paper books on trains. And even I don’t always do that anymore; my netbook has a tablet feature, which is how I read the article about romance novels to begin with.

And I’m here to tell you, having read hundreds of three-to-four page excerpts from other peoples’ books, they fall broadly into a few categories: romance novels, spy thrillers, what appears to be literary fiction (it’s harder to tell with litfic) and truly awful inspirational nonfiction*.

Apparently the key to ebook success is to write something that satisfies the Id in a deep, penetrating way (oh yes I went there) and to be unashamed because everyone’s ripping the metaphorical covers off it anyway.

Seriously, I’m tempted to write a romance novel. They’re taking off in a big way.

* I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s path to inner peace, but I am going to anyway, because holy crap. I want to tell some of these people to read a romance novel instead. They’d get more useful content. And if they’re lucky, a little porn!

The Subtle Art Of Rocktumbling

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2012 at 9:00 am

I’ve read a lot over the years about how writers work, everything from how they sit down and get out their daily wordcount to how they find inspiration or handle the ghastly business of actually getting published. As with any subset of artists, lots of writers have different, personalized ways of doing things.

Geoff Dyer, a British novelist and essayist, has said: Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

That’s not quite what I do, but I do usually have a number of projects going at any one time. When I decide I don’t want to work on one for a while, I can work on another.

I don’t often get blocked; usually it’s just that I don’t want to write this scene or that scene that I know I have to write in order to move a story forward. Especially when I’m editing, as I’m doing right now for Dead Isle, I feel like I should be done with writing new scenes. The thing is written! And now I have to write more? What gives?

It also helps to have a diversity of work that I can pick from, because most of the long stuff I’ve written has come out of short work: suddenly an idea will catch fire and for a few months I’ll live and breathe that single project. Every novel I’ve written has happened that way: Nameless took four months, Charitable Getting took one, and the original novella-length version of Trace took I think about two weeks.

So I usually have at least a couple of long works, a couple of short works, and a couple of ideas going at any time. I think it’s especially important to try and have ideas that haven’t come to fruition bouncing around in one’s head. This should probably best be termed “background processing”, but I call it “rocktumbling” — just keeping a concept in my mind until it starts to take form, turning it over and around until I can figure out where to get my hooks in. I think this is one of the most important skills a writer can develop, the ability to be patient with something that needs more time before it’s ready.

Sometimes it takes years. I used to want to write action stories about spies and thieves, about pursuits and how two intelligent people would play that game with each other, but I could never figure out quite how the nuts and bolts would work. One of the reasons I’m so very proud of certain fanfiction I’ve written is that I did it — it took ten years to learn how to write a story where the pursuit was the focal point, but eventually I made it happen. And now that’s a skill I can call my own.

At the moment I have a novel in edits, and that’s really my primary project, but I also have about half a dozen fanfics in various stages of completion, two novels waiting in the wings for me to play with, one really good idea I’ve been rocktumbling for a few weeks, and a couple of interesting but still not fully-grown ideas that I’ve been rocktumbling for months or years.

They’ll get there eventually, but it’s okay that they’re not there yet. I’ve got plenty to attend to while my subconscious plays around with those.

Postmodern Mythology Kicks Ass

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

A while ago I saw a lecture for the University of Chicago’s Humanities Day called “Preserving the Spell: Fairy Tales and the Future of Storytelling”. I have to admit I wasn’t all that impressed with the speaker’s thesis or presentation, but I tend to have unattainably high standards for scholarly work that deals with storytelling.

One thing that did strike me, however, was a question he asked: “How can you connect reality and mythology?” That question is at the core of the work I do with magical realism, because that’s essentially what magical realism is: the use of unreal symbolism to express real conditions.

When I talk about magical realism to people, I tend to get a lot of recommendations for urban fantasy books. They’re not quite the same thing, though the line is blurry and occasionally depends on some rather snobbish anti-genre assumptions about fantasy, which I’d like to avoid. Let’s see how that goes.

Urban fantasy places fantastical elements, figures from myth, and magical concepts within a modern setting, usually urban or suburban. The degree to which this happens can vary, from full-on alternate worlds where magic is a part of city life to books like DeLint’s The Blue Girl, where mythological fantasy elements creep into the ordinary lives of teenagers.

Magical Realism is more about using unreal elements as symbols. That’s not to say urban fantasy can’t, but it usually doesn’t. In The Blue Girl, for example, one of the characters is the ghost of a high school student, and he causes a lot of the trauma and conflict that exist in the story. In magical realism, he might not be an active, driving character; he would stand for some larger issue in the protagonist’s life, or some larger cultural issue with which the protagonist has to interact. The idea of “ghost” isn’t as important as the idea of “haunting”.

This is difficult stuff to vocalize, and certainly I imagine people will want to make the case that he does represent a larger issue, but the point is that it’s not his central purpose in the story.

The way unreal elements function in magical reality tends to be self-contained. Rules are specific, and may not reflect rules we are accustomed to in fairy tales or in mythology. These elements don’t necessarily belong to more universal systems; they exist within the story because that specific story requires them. In urban fantasy, people who encounter magic or the unreal in urban fantasy are often driven — as part of the plot — to find an explanation for it or a system to which it belongs. A lot of times, the magic in magical realism is confined to a specific community or geographic area, and it’s implicit that the community either protects this magic without seeking full understanding or interacts with it without acknowledging it. In this sense, writers of magical realism go back to the most basic function of storytelling.

Myths are not simply stories we tell each other. Many of the myths that develop at the inception of a culture are designed to help us understand the world and to codify social laws within our community. They have an implicit connection to reality because they concern our perception of it.

Magical realism uses this technique as well; the localized, communal mythology that exists in works of magical realism is designed to show the reader an interpretation of reality that appeals to emotions and instincts. The magic generally isn’t explicitly explained within the story, because the precise, direct function isn’t as important as the reaction it causes in the reader. On some level it’s an intentional gut-punch, and those work better with less exposition.

It’s difficult for me to get a full spectrum and history of magical realism in terms of connections and influences, but I think it’s also relevant to point out that it doesn’t seem to have its roots in the English-speaking world, and further than that it usually doesn’t concern dominant culture. Much of the magical realism that’s been written comes out of Latin America, and particularly concerns the lives of the poor and marginalized. Part of the impact of the unreal is that it provides a source of power to the powerless — as in The War Of The Saints by Jorge Amado, wherein a folk statue of a Catholic saint comes to life and begins influencing the lives of the heavily Catholic community around her. I unconsciously did this in my own novel Trace, where the majority of the magical and unreal concerns the inmates of a penitentiary, a tightly closed community of people who have very little influence over their day to day existence.

It seems a little bit as though I lack a thesis in this discussion, but it’s important to understand the laws and tropes of the genre in which one writes. In one sense, it means you can adhere to the genre and use it as a guideline; in another, of course, you can’t subvert a genre without knowing how it functions.

I like to work in both fantasy and magical realism because they’re a particular playground for the imagination, a place where you can get outside of the normal world and explore possibilities, nurturing a sense of wonder. But magical realism in particular appeals to me because those places outside of the normal world don’t require an explanation: they force both the writer and the reader to simply accept the strange and wonderful, and I find that very freeing.

Cover Me, I’m Going In

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I think it’s a rule all selfpub websites have to do at least one article on cover design.

I had someone get in touch with me a while back about my opinion on the success odds of a website that provided design assistance for selfpub covers. I had to be honest that I didn’t think it was very high. Most selfpub authors essentially fall into two camps — people who can’t design a cover at all, and people who are competent enough with Photoshop or some other graphics program to do it themselves. There’s a small middle area of people who think they’re better than they are, and those people do tend to produce hilariously ugly covers, but they’re few and far between.

The folks who can’t do it at all usually use the built-in cover designer at their selfpub website, and honestly you can produce some pretty slick-looking stuff there. A cover-design service is a useful thing and something a lot of self-publishers need, but the niche is already essentially filled by the self-pub websites. Especially since most selfpub sites offer pro design services as well, and that’s where the sites make their bread-and-butter: professional design, proofing, and marketing services authors can buy as an optional package to help make their book more salable.

I’m not going to get into the aesthetics of cover design, because frankly it’s not my specialty and when I manage to make a slick-looking cover it’s more happenstance than it is talent. But I did want to provide some resources for people who are considering making their own cover.

I work exclusively with lulu.com as a self-publisher, but I believe their setup is pretty much universal: you can use their cover designer, upload your own image to the cover designer, or do a “one piece” cover — in other words, if you ripped the entire front-back-and-spine cover off a book and flattened it out, that’s what the one-piece would look like. They have templates and careful measurements they can give you to help with your one-piece cover, but a lot of the time for images, fonts, and ideas, you’re on your own.

Fortunately, there are several good places to get those, if you know where to look. It can be difficult to find stuff online that’s not mildly-illegal or downright-stolen, but they are out there, and the professionals know about them, so why shouldn’t we?

Two locations for genuinely free (as opposed to bootleg) fonts are dafont.com and fontsquirrel.com. Don’t anger the hipsters by using Papyrus!

A great place to go for images — though sometimes they’re too low-res to use — is university library image collections. Usually the images are either out of copyright or owned by the library, and lots of places have disclaimers saying they’re free for use as long as the original source is credited (ie, “Cover image courtesy of the University Library” with a link attached, in your front-matter copyright page). When browsing archives you should always check for “copyright info” or “terms of use” on the front page, but at least they’re large, diverse resources. One of my favorites for just plain cool stuff is The Fantastic In Art And Fiction at Cornell. There’s a good one at Duke dedicated to old-timey ads. The New York Public Library even has one.

The more you learn what a useful free stock image gallery looks like, the easier it is to separate out galleries that are trying to rip you off. And by far the best free stock image gallery I’ve ever come across is remarkably public: Flickr’s Creative Commons. Anything marked “Attribution” on Flickr’s Creative Commons is free for you to use, as long as you credit the individual who posted the image. It’s fun to browse, relatively easy to search, and lots of the images are posted with deliberately high resolution, so that they’re easy to use for book covers, which demand a fairly high-res image to produce professional-level quality.

At any rate, there’s a start; I could list off half a dozen other stock-image websites, but I’ve never found them especially useful, so why pass them on? The best thing you can do when looking for images is to chase the idea of the site — the image gallery owned by a not-for-profit or the artist licensing their work out to other creatives in return for credit.

It’s important, if you believe strongly in not being plagiarised, that you not rip someone else off for the very first visual your book presents!

Beats Sound Dumber Than They Are

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2012 at 9:00 am

I never trained as a writer, in the sense of taking classes or going to workshops. This explains a lot about my commas.

I don’t know if people who actually train formally as writers learn about beats. They must learn a lot about structure, so I imagine they do; possibly they call them something else. The reason I learned about beats has more to do with my theatre training as a director and dramaturg. Intro to Directing was a lot about diagramming beats, though I’m not sure how much attention I paid at the time because I was busy designing sets in my head. Something must have stuck, anyway, because beats, despite sounding kind of silly, are pretty awesome.

A beat, in a play, is a moment of specific emotion or a segment of a scene concerning a specific theme; you pull apart a script based on its beats, and that’s a very basic way of charting the emotional flow of the play. It’s not a generic technique; a lot of directors don’t like to break down an emotional function with something so coldly analytical, and many others are so experienced they see the flow naturally. But beats are a good crutch for a beginning director, and especially in writing they’ve served me well.

I’m still pulling apart The Dead Isle and reassembling it, and for the most part it’s been instinctive — I’m more experienced than I was two years ago, so it’s like grading an essay by a very smart student. The problem is that a lot of the Australian content of the book is intertwined with itself; I’m pretty proud of how related everything is, because complexity like that takes skill and work, but it can also be a detriment when you need to lose something. The Australian portion of Dead Isle is literally half the book, and probably about twice as long as it needs to be. There are a lot of dead threads that start something but end up going nowhere, and in this case removing one of those threads — a specific character — means erasing an entire expository scene which both explains the political situation and motivates emotional reactions in the characters, which in turn drives a change of setting. So ditching him is kind of a big deal, and the ramifications of removing him involves drastically restructuring about thirty pages.

It’s a little overwhelming, trying to untangle what I tangled up two years ago, and finally I broke down and made a list of a) information to be conveyed and b) later actions that require present motivation. Even that only helped so much, and the end result is that I couldn’t just whip through the next to chapters. I had to take them apart into beats — a fight beat, an expository beat, a beat that needs to be removed for totally different reasons. In all, it broke down to about fifteen beats in thirty pages, which is pretty average, and now I get to figure out how to fit them back together, one at a time.

I really enjoy talking about this stuff, the nitty-gritty of how I actually go about writing, because it’s what I longed for as a young writer and rarely got. I didn’t know how professional writers achieved what they did. There’s plenty of writing out there about how to metaphorically wrestle with literature, but not a whole lot of nuts and bolts talk about how to rework a scene or invent a character or make a setting seem real. I don’t think it’s deliberate — I just think writers evolve these things for themselves so naturally that they don’t consciously look at how they build (or rebuild) a story. Half the time I don’t either, until I look at what I’m writing and go “HUH. BLOG POST!”