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Books And Fanfic: Being A Better Writer, Part Two

In Uncategorized on January 31, 2014 at 10:00 am

This is part two in a three-part series on “How To Become A Better Writer”, or at least “Sam’s Opinions On How To Become A Better Writer”. The difference is small but important.

As I said in the last post, creativity is different for everyone; this isn’t a generic guide to writing, but rather a list of opinions I have and truths I’ve found for me. For you, they may be different. So, today let’s talk about what to do when you aren’t writing.

Critical Reading

One of the primary things I think people forget to do when they’re working to be a writer is to read, and more importantly, read critically.

When I was studying theatre, most students only worked on shows, never attended them, and that was a problem in theatre schools across the country. I read an article about how graduate schools were beginning to ask not just “what have you done” but “what have you seen”, so I started going to shows I hadn’t worked on whenever I could, financing my train fare and ticket cost by writing reviews for the school paper. And I became a much better artist and thinker because of it.

I have always been a voracious reader. I learned to read young and my parents, while not great readers themselves, always made sure I had enough books and all the encouragement they could give. By the time I started writing at fourteen, I had read a lot of really great books — classics, popular literature, genre novels. I’d been reading above my grade level my whole life, and as a freshman I was working my way through the books the seniors in my high school were reading that year. I’d never studied grammar formally, but I’d had paragons of English grammar and storytelling in front of my eyes my whole life.

AND I SUCKED OUT LOUD.

My story structure, my grammar, and my prose were dreadful, and that’s not false modesty. I can say that, because I was fourteen and a dumbass, and I own my dumbassery since it led me to my current state of lesser dumbassery in my thirties.

How could I not comprehend the basic grammar of dialogue? I’d have three people speaking in one paragraph. I had been reading books for twelve and a half years. How is it that I didn’t look at every book I owned and go “Welp, one person talks per paragraph, okay.”

I wasn’t reading critically.

There’s nothing wrong with reading for pleasure, and I do it a lot. But reading for pleasure had not actually helped me become a good writer. Reading critically doesn’t just involve forming reactions to the prose, but studying how it’s put together, how information is conveyed, when information is conveyed. My problems with grammar could have been fixed if I’d ever had a class in it, but shouldn’t have existed anyway, given how much I read. If I couldn’t absorb grammar from books, what else wasn’t I absorbing? And it’s not like this is uncommon — terrible grammar abounds in fanfic, and indicates a lack of bigger things. Critical reading may be a given for some of us, but not nearly for the majority.

That’s not an inherent character flaw or something to be ashamed of. It’s something to fix, by thinking about what you read and studying how it functions. It takes practice to internalise it all, but if you love reading anyway that shouldn’t be much of a chore. And this can extend, of course, to other media — being able to dismantle a TV show or film to figure out why and how it works is a natural outgrowth of critical reading.

Emulation

Okay, so I lied a little; this is about a form of writing, but not the writing that directly leads to publishing original work. It does lead their indirectly, however, and it’s not a new concept. Plenty of people say that you should learn to write by imitating your favourite writers.

Why hello there, fandom.

Emulation does work. It gives you a greater understanding of a writer’s style and the way they assemble their work. It allows you to see, in some writers, how they express their ideologies through their work. It encourages you to reinterpret their characters in your own words. I think a lot of people forget to talk, however, about the next step after emulation: independence. In order to write original fiction, you can’t lean too heavily on another canon. It rarely works. Don’t get me wrong; I know that taking the step away from fanfic and into original fic is a difficult one. It’s not about abandoning fanfic — I still write it, and there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t — but in terms of training to be a writer, there is work involved in transitioning.

Fanfic depends on common touchstones derived from canon. There are givens that almost everyone reading the story already knows — basic personalities and appearances associated with names, and usually a few things about the setting and way the universe functions. So if you have only written fanfic, there are skills that have likely been underdeveloped: character-building, world-building, certain forms of exposition. These are things that fanfic writers coming to original fiction may need to work on.

A lot of it may simply be a matter of practice; if you’ve been working within fanfic to develop your craft, you should have developed good instincts about how to keep going on your own, too. I’ve found writing Alternate Universe stories to be worthwhile in that respect, because it’s at least a start towards developing those skills: building new worlds, dealing with characters who are similar and yet different at the same time. And for the rest, there are books one can read:

Tools

So…there are things that writers should know, basic stuff about grammar and structure and composition and character, and I’m absolutely shit at outlining what it all is. But I do know books!

Undoubtedly some people are going to tell me I am SO WRONG about this, but the best book I have found for providing the fundamental tools of fiction writing is On Writing by Stephen King. By the time I read it I didn’t actually need to be told a lot of what he was saying, but I did agree with a lot of it and he put it better than I would have. The book is split in half — the first half is basically an autobiography, while the second half is concerned with composition. If you don’t like Stephen King, that’s fine, just read the second half and ignore the personal bits (the way in which he became a professional writer is essentially obsolete anyway). It will introduce new writers to some very important concepts, and might freshen things up for experienced ones. Most of what I would say about actual story development would just be a retread of On Writing.

A good book for reading about the creative process is John Steinbeck’s Journal Of A Novel, which is the journal he kept while writing East of Eden (I admit bias: I personally love Steinbeck’s writing and East of Eden in particular). It’s a fascinating poke around the mind of a veteran writer composing a story not just to be his magnum opus but also as a gift to his son, conveying all the lessons and feelings he wanted to share with a child he felt was drifting from his paternal reach. Again, if you don’t like Steinbeck, just ignore the more personal bits; he might have been an occasional misogynist and kind of a prick sometimes but he was undeniably a good writer and someone who’d been doing it for decades by the time he started the Journal.

These are fiction books I really like and think, structurally, are worth a look: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, which is a perfect story with stunning, beautiful prose; The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, particularly the masterful corruption of Felton; and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which has one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator ever and is good for studying shifting point of view. These impacted me. They may not do much for you, but if you can find or think of books that impact you, they’re worthy of study to find out why.

One final personal tool, for what it’s worth: when I was in college I deeply and thoroughly loathed Death of a Salesman. I’m very fond of Arthur Miller’s work in general, it was just…THAT PLAY. I probably can’t even tell you why at this point. But I was struck very much by a passage I read about a critic who had seen a translation of Death of a Salesman performed in Japan, and he’d been impressed to see so many people weeping at the end of it. The play is heavily rooted in American culture, but it touches on themes that are common across many cultures: loss, pride, ambition, obscurity, the plight of the misfit. The idea of writing specific stories that still address the universal has always stuck with me. I don’t always do it, I don’t always even try, but just keeping the concept in the back of my head has made me more capable of achieving it when I do.

Feedback

Fandom is a fantastic way to learn to write, not just because of the benefits of emulation but because we have a culture of reciprocity. You post a story, people tell you what they think. This is a good way to get feedback because while you can bother your friends and family to read your stuff, it’s easier (and in some ways, more polite) to put it out there and let people take it or leave it. I like blogging for the same reason — I can air my opinions or tell my stories and only the people who actually want to hear them have to read them.

There are some problems with using fandom to get feedback on your writing, of course. When I started writing and posting in fandom, lo these many years ago, there was a more open exchange in terms of critical feedback, where readers would provide suggestions and corrections. I had a lot of great mentors who helped me stop being such a dumbass because they felt permitted to criticise. Fandom feeling has shifted to a more positivity-oriented system where critical feedback is often discouraged in favour of supportive-praise-or-silence. I don’t want to argue with advocates of this, because I understand their position, and I don’t want to lament the old days, because there was a lot about usenet fandom that I wouldn’t take back if you paid me. But I do yearn for a community where crit is more acceptable, where it is encouraged. It’s one reason I always encourage critical commentary on my work, because I want to set an example.

In the end, I can’t really tell you how to get more feedback. I’m not sure myself. I know there are certain things that help encourage people to comment, like engaging with civility and being open to commentary, commenting on others’ fic, developing circles of friends who are willing to share their work and read yours. The way I came back into fandom and started making friends again was to post a fic in an active community, and then contact the first few people who commented intelligently to ask if they’d beta my next fic. That seems to work well.

But overall, this process of developing a readership is one of the great mysteries of fandom. It’s like going viral; nobody has successfully worked out the formula yet. Though it does appear to frequently involve cats.

What I can tell you is how to deal with the feedback you do get. There are two things a writer has to do in order to interact with criticism: learn to accept it when it’s genuinely helpful, and learn to tell genuinely helpful from genuine bullshit. This is haaaaard. It’s so hard. Possibly The Hardest. The best advice I can give for both is to trust your instincts and be honest. If you find yourself getting defensive, take a long hard look at why. Sometimes it’s justified! Often it’s not. Most of the process is learning what to accept and accepting it in the spirit of improving the work.

One of the hardest pieces of criticism I ever got was someone saying “He can’t kill his darlings” about me on an anonymous messageboard. I still get defensive about it, and I still don’t believe “kill your darlings” is always the answer, or even most-of-the-time the answer. But I also stopped and thought, well, yes, okay, sometimes that is true. It’s something I work on (not, I admit, with any great success yet).

These are the tools I’ve used; I hope they’ve been helpful, or at least not pointed you in the wrong direction. And now that we’re done with writing and learning, we get on to the fun stuff: the third and final part in the series, where we talk about Where To Get Your Ideas.

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Discipline, Patience, No Bullshit: Being A Better Writer, Part One

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

I got a question via email once, asking whether I’d ever posted anything on how to become a better writer, especially with the long-term goal of being published or self-publishing. I had a lot of thoughts about it, which ended up in an essay of about four thousand words. This essay was posted to my livejournal in 2011, but never made it to the Extribulum blog, so I thought I’d rework it as a series here.

I’ve generally shied away from writing about “how to write” or how to be a “better writer”, in part because I don’t really see myself as any kind of authority. Sometimes I think, well, I do write a lot, and I’ve sold books, so maybe. But then I look at actual writers who have contracts and such, and I think, putting yourself up a little high there, aren’t you, Sam? Plus there’s always the little voice that goes Shit, really? How do I fix that? when someone calls me an unflattering name.

The other reason I haven’t written much about it is that the process is different and personal for everyone. Communicating creativity is difficult, and offering you a structure that is useful to me is at least halfway to being pointless because it might be useless for you. You cannot take a whole system from one person as gospel. At least, not unless you’re extraordinarily lucky.

It’s also difficult because these are my opinions, and when you have a large readership and you post an opinion, at least a few people are likely to disagree. So when I post something like this, I am in essence stepping up to argue with the entire internet, which is exhausting and scary.

So this is not my descent from the mount to hand you commandments. I’m going to talk like I know what I’m talking about, and you can pick and choose what (if anything) you find useful. It’s just like college!

The general advice that people will give you about writing breaks down into basically two parts:

  1. Write a lot
  2. Get all the feedback you possibly can from everyone you can pin down

I’d like to argue with those and augment them a little and make some additional suggestions, so let’s see if I can do it coherently. This isn’t a deconstruction of those ideas, just an occasional acknowledgement that they exist.

Today we’ll be talking about writing — not just writing a lot, but how to get into writing, and how to survive there.

Commitment

Writing a lot is good. It’s practice, of course, and it also teaches you commitment. When you know you have to write something you really don’t want to, in order to get to the bits you do want to write, commitment is what allows you to whip yourself through it. But that’s really the bulk of what repetitive or continuous writing teaches you. You will not learn to be a good writer by writing all day long. There’s just plain more to it. But it has its benefits.

I’ve long thought that National Novel Writing Month isn’t about writing a book, but about committing to getting a book’s worth of writing done — and even then, it’s not about the writing. It’s about learning how you work and what you need to do in order to finish something. It makes a difficult thing into a comfortable habit. I can’t really do NaNo anymore because I know my systems and they don’t respond well to enforced word counts and timelines; I’m capable of writing a novel in a month but it has to be the right month, and the right novel, and the two rarely collide, almost never in November when any sensible person is spending their time having snowball fights.

Still, not to be down on NaNo; writing for the sake of writing does help. You learn not to get tied up in details you can fix later, and you learn not to worry too much about research until the thing is done. Stephen King, in On Writing, devotes a lot of time to what you shouldn’t get bogged down in. He uses as an example his process for writing From A Buick 8, a story about a group of Pennsylvania State Troopers:

It was a grand idea and has developed into a strong novel […] of course there were a few minor problems — the fact that I knew absolutely zilch about the Pennsylvania State Police, for one thing — but I didn’t let any of that bother me. I simply made up all the stuff I didn’t know.

He goes back later and does the research, but the point of writing a lot or writing fast or under pressure is to get the frame built. A lot of people are down on NaNo because they assume writers think at the end of it they’ll have a publishable book, but both the haters and the attitude they hate (frequently mistaking the attitude for the entire system) are wrong about the ultimate goal: to prove to yourself that you can get some god damned words on the god damned page.

Patience

Commitment is what gets books written. Patience is what gets a good book written.

A common problem I see, especially in beginning fanfic writers, and a problem I had myself as a young fanfic writer, is that they have one scene, one concept, that they desperately want to convey. Or they have a story they breathlessly want to tell. Look at any cross-section of fanfiction.net and you can find this: a sloppily written story with one gorgeous scene, one brilliant concept, or one driving idea.

There’s an urgency about storytelling that makes you want to be the first to get there, or makes you want to skip the boring stuff to get to the meat. But patience is what enables a writer to build a story, to write it with care, or to revise it until it doesn’t suck. The urgency can drive you on and make you write, but tempering it with patience allows you to write it better.

I once sat down and began to play with the concept of a story I’d come up with about superheroes. I got about two thousand words written, but those two thousand words were pure exposition. When (if) I write it as a book, those two thousand words will probably be the first ten to twenty thousand words of the story, written properly. It’s the difference between saying “Lisa had green hair this week, because she liked to change her hair colour a lot” and an entire scene where some friend teases Lisa about how often she changes her hair colour, while she gets bashful or defensive or evangelical about it.

It takes time. Sometimes you have to jump ahead to write the scene you want, then go back and work up the rest of the story.

It’s absolutely one of the most annoying things ever that the story isn’t just REALLY GOOD RIGHT NOW. That’s why I sometimes post “stories I’ll never write”, because really I don’t want to write the whole thing, I just want to get a scene or a concept out there. I make sure what I post is still good, still conveys meaning, but I know that the decision is between spending a week writing five interesting scenes or three months writing five interesting fanfics.

Cultivating patience is, for me, a requisite of good writing.

“But I’m not a patient person!”

This is one of those things that’s up there with “but the muse told me to do it” on my short list of Dumbest Excuses Writers Try To Pass. I have had fights about that second one which have got me banned from certain portions of fandom, but I still believe creativity is a matter of personal responsibility. You control what you write and to a larger-than-expected extent you control how good it is. You’re responsible for it, and you don’t get to blame a) a failing which can be corrected, such as patience, or b) an imaginary friend. (Can you tell the muse thing pushes my buttons.)

This isn’t an essay about how to have fun writing. That comes naturally if you like doing it, and you don’t need me to tell you how to have fun. If you just want to write to get the idea out there, or because it’s fun, that’s okay. Frustrating to me, but I’m not the reason you’re writing: you are. If you like what you’ve done and you had a good time doing it, godspeed. If you’re happy with the result, that’s fantastic. People should be happy as often as humanly possible. But you can’t necessarily expect praise for it, and you have to be willing to walk on by whistling “haters gonna hate” if someone doesn’t like it. (Technically you have to be ready to do that anyway; no writer is universally beloved. It’s just easier to do if you know you did your best.)

There is, I think, a fairly common transitional phase where writers want to be better but aren’t willing, or don’t know how, to put in the work — to write with discipline and patience, to revise before posting, to listen to betas. It’s difficult and troubling, and it’s where a lot of excuses get made. “Oh, I just had to write it” is fine, but you can’t tag “why don’t I get comments on it” onto that if you know you didn’t do your best work, or haven’t put in the effort to learn how to make it better.

Writing that enchants, captivates, and entertains takes work. Nobody does it effortlessly. The work can still be fun, but won’t always be. I find it worth it, because the end result gratifies me.

So those are my opening words on writing — commitment and patience are the keywords of the day. But there are other tools which don’t involve directly writing original work, and those are something I’ll be discussing in part two of the series, so stay tuned.

Research Part Two: Too Deep

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, last time we talked about not doing enough research. Most writers know they need to do their research, though; workshops teach it and everyone preaches it, and it’s easy to be humiliated by someone more knowledgeable if you don’t do it. So that seems to me to be a less prevalent problem in published work than the other side of the coin: too much research.

I thought about dedicating a post to how one should research, inbetween “too little” and “too much”, but research is such a subject-specific issue, and honestly it’s not that hard to learn how to look up what you need to know, especially with google’s search engine getting more frighteningly intelligent every day. So I thought it was more important to focus first on why you should research, and now on how you should deal with what you find.

An old classic from XKCD

It’s easy to go down the rabbit-hole when you’re researching, especially on the internet. It’s called “wikiwandering” — looking up one thing you need to know, and ending up reading about ten thousand things you didn’t need to know but suddenly desperately want to know. It happens on Wikipedia, but most infamously on the TV Tropes website, and other sites like Cracked.

As an aside, I did some looking-into the phenomenon of wikiwandering and found that there’s been essentially no scholarly work done on the psychology of it. I would venture to say that whatever the evolutionary trigger behind it, it’s worse on TV Tropes because usually on Wikipedia you at least have an inkling of the meaning of the link you’re following; on TV Tropes, because of the funny titles, you have much less clue about what the link will lead to, which inversely affects your curiosity.

Back to the subject at hand. There’s nothing particularly harmful about wikiwandering, at least in moderation. Some people call it a time-waster, but if the knowledge is valuable or even just entertaining, there’s not much wasteful about it; nothing more wasteful than reading a book on any given topic, or going to an educational museum. Even if you just meant to look something up and get right back to writing but got lost, the writing will still be there in an hour or two.

Occasionally, that sheer wall of knowledge can be paralyzing: information overload, the so-called bane of our time. There’s been a lot written about that online, about how our brains can’t handle the level of data we can now pull off the internet or the frequency with which a high level of data assaults us on a daily basis. (While I do agree that an overload can be harmful, the onus is not on the internet to filter your information for you. The responsibility lies with the individual, to put filters in place and to know when they’re reaching a critical point. It can be a process, but I think for a researcher it’s an important one.)

Being unable to write because of information paralysis is certainly an issue; there’s no real cure for that except to clear your head, ditch the research, write what you want, and fix it later. Especially since nothing ruins a good book, fiction or nonfiction, like information overload transmitted from the writer to the reader.

I was trying, a couple of years ago, to read the biography of a famous con man. It was a hefty book, which I’d hoped meant there would be a lot of meat about his life, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The writer had clearly intended to write a biography, but what they had accomplished was a wide picture of life in the subject’s era. A little too wide, in fact; when the con man went to prison, a full history of the prison was provided; when he was put on a “prison ship”, a history of the ships was given as well. Not a paragraph, not a page, but page after page of information that was accurate but not relevant — at least not to the stated purpose of the book.

And if it’s possible to provide too much information even in nonfiction, it’s downright easy to provide it in fiction; you control what people say, so you have endless opportunities to make them deliver lectures on things the writer desperately wants to share but the reader probably doesn’t care that much about.

For a writer, research is a process of learning, in order to be able to place a framework on the page. The peril falls where the framework begins to devour the subject matter — where including a fact is more important than building a narrative. That’s a much harder filter to install, to be honest — the filter that says “okay, stop providing information now, it’s getting in front of the story”. There’s an urge to share knowledge that I think is natural and human, and the more interested in it we are, the more we want to share it with someone else. But that is — if you absolutely must share the information — what an appendix is for.  I would rather read a well written, poorly-researched novel than a poorly-researched but excruciatingly accurate one.

Put that brilliance in the back matter. Better yet, tuck it away in your brain and feel smug that your knowledge contributed materially to your novel, whether or not anyone else ever knows or notices.

Research Part One: Too Shallow

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Well, I did say last time that the research aspect of writing deserves its own essay…and I ended up writing two.

Research is a necessary part of the writer’s toolbox, and most people are aware of this. Even if you’re writing “what you know”, like an autobiography, you will sometimes need to look up dates and names. Unless you have some kind of superhuman memory, in which case it’s not nice to brag, keep that to yourself. Writing fiction, where even “what you know” can be tweaked and changed, contains its own problems.

There are two aspects of research that can ruin a good story: “not enough” and “too much”. They’re very different issues, each with hidden perils as well as more obvious ones. Today is all about Not Enough; next time we’ll be discussing Too Much.

It’s reasonably obvious that you have to do research, even when writing fiction. Not necessarily sit-down-and-read-at-the-library research; maybe you just need to stop for a minute and Google what the weather’s like in Tokyo in the winter. But nobody really talks about the reasoning behind research; it’s the assumed good thing.

Why should you need to do research, after all, if you’re making the whole story up as you go along? Is it necessary to be slavishly faithful to the real world when you are writing fiction that merely uses it as a framework? Is it necessary to know facts when writing fantasy? It is naturally easier to get by without research when you’re making up the world as well as everything in it, but as humans we still want constants: we want physics to work the way it always has, we want people to react in ways that are comprehensible if not predictable.

Research does more than provide facts. Research creates the ground on which you build. Because we all have certain things we just grow up learning — like language, the layout of the areas in which we live, the ways our families cooked food — we don’t really think about those things as being “research” so much as “knowledge”, but the distinction is minimal. And extending knowledge is necessary even when it may not seem like it.

One of my favorite examples is the proliferation of fanfics in the Avengers fandom set in “Stark Tower”, a New York high-rise building, right after the film came out. Most of them were light on details, which is good when you’re light on research, but once in a while you’d have someone say that they could see the entire city from…the 29th floor penthouse. Which, if you’ve never lived in a major urban center, or been to the 29th floor of somewhere, doesn’t seem irrational. However, if you’ve ever worked in or visited a high rise building, you know that the penthouse is more likely on the 99th floor than the 29th — and you definitely can’t see an entire city from only twenty floors up.

Unless it’s a very small city, I suppose.

This kind of misinformation — assumptions based in neither knowledge or in research but just in “eyballing it” — can throw people out of a story. I admittedly have a limited tolerance for people who complain they’re thrown out of stories; sometimes it’s legit, sometimes it’s just nitpickery to make themselves feel bigger. The same holds true for scientific or historical nitpicking of films. Sometimes it’s educational! Most of the time it’s just masturbation.

A lack of knowledge does genuinely affect the prose, though. It leads to a shallowness, because so many things have to be either skimmed over or left out. If you have no depth of knowledge, it can often show through in what you choose not to say because you don’t know how to say it. It can also mean missed opportunities to add layers to a story because the information that would have supported those layers is lacking.

Most people know you need to do your research, but for beginning writers it can be a quagmire of where to start and more importantly where to end — which is what I’ll be discussing next time, in part two, where I defend wikiwandering and will probably link you to TV Tropes.

If It Be Not Now…

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked, back when I was soliciting for essay topics, was this:

Something I like to ask all writers is how do they get ready to write. Do you do a lot of research first? Create an outline, if so, how detailed? Do you use index cards? A white board? Or, do you get an idea and run with it, flying by the seat of your pants? How much of your process is done with actual paper and pencil and how much on the computer?

(Thank you Evaine at livejournal for the question!)

It made me think of a Hamlet quote taken badly out of context:

If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. — Hamlet V.ii

Hamlet’s basically raving there, but as ever, he knows a hawk from a handsaw, and there’s a grain of truth in it. Readiness usually is the best skill to cultivate, and the most difficult.

None of my novels or even my long fanfics have been what you might call prepared for in advance. They just sort of took me, sometimes at very inconvenient moments, like Christmas, or grad school. (There is no good time at grad school to do anything other than grad school, but tell that to Sweet Home. As for Christmas, I refer you to Charitable Getting, which was written in a single December.)

I am, generally, a fan of the author being in control. I’ve inadvertently caused drama and offended people by stating and defending the idea that the writer controls what is written. There are writers who like to claim that their muses control them, which would be harmless if “I was just following my muses, idek” wasn’t often used as an excuse for poor work. I’ve found that it pays to be wary around people who claim no control in the artistic process; generally they also take no responsibility for its results.

That said, the decision over when and where a story hits, a story that really grasps me and makes me want to write it every hour of the day, that’s sometimes out of my hands. I wish it were otherwise, and I make sure that I never use it as an excuse for a poor finished product; I can write a story without that moment of brightness, and often do. I court the moment, which is why I have so many ideas but so few books, because not every idea will catch fire. But my best work has always followed a thunderclap, and I’ve learned to obey it.

The problem of course is that if you do get struck with the story and you’re suddenly in the middle of it, you may not have had time to plot more than a few pages in advance or work out what the climax is or why this character is even here, character what are you. And then you’re back to the worrying land of “it’s not my fault this is a winged, fanged mess”.

So what I learned — and I learned this in fandom, before I was writing original fiction, so one more point to fandom for being awesome and tolerant — is to be Ready. When it hits, to be self-aware to know that you’re in for a long haul on this one, and to start working out in your head what the end game is. (As well as how you’re going to keep clean dishes and edible food in the house for the next month or so. I am heavily dependent upon paper plates at times.)

It doesn’t work for everyone; some people can lay out a plot on a chart and follow it, and honestly, I envy them. I am a little compulsive, so I get wrapped up in the details of the chart and in rearranging all the little bits of it, and tend to give up the story in favor of the clean, simple Ikea quality of the outline. I’m pretty sure the amount of research that The Dead Isle required, and the way I organised that research, is what killed it the first time I tried to write it.

So the readiness I have learned is a coping mechanism, a way to write fast when inspiration hits but keep discipline despite not always 100% knowing where I’m going. A willingness to excise what no longer works, to change the history of the story, to give up on a character who has wandered off and quietly remove them. Plotting out ahead of the story still works, it’s just something I have to do in the document, writing little scenes that will eventually join up with the main body of the work or even just sentences like “Climax goes here; car chase with giraffes”.

(I should write a story that culminates in a car chase with giraffes. I’m not sure if it’s a chase with giraffes in the cars, or driving the cars, or it’s actually a giraffe chase scripted like a car chase, or if they’re just peripheral, watching it all happen, but it’s an intriguing thought to be going on with, no?)

So most of what I do to prepare, and most of what I do while writing, happens in my head. Most of just about everything I do happens in my head, so at least I’m well-practiced. Next to nothing happens with pen and paper; I can’t write as fast as I can think, but I can type nearly as fast, so writing in longhand is a last resort if I’m not near a computer. (I used to do a lot of it in math class in high school.)

As for research, well, knowing how to research is important, but most of mine gets done as I go along. It’s easy to fall down the research rabbit hole — but I think that particular aspect of writing perhaps deserves its own essay.

So yeah, for me, the only thing I really do to prepare for writing a novel is to poise myself in readiness for when it mows me down like a giraffe in a mini cooper.

The Problem Of Choice

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

A few months ago, The Atlantic published an article called The Evolutionary Case For Great Fiction. It was pretty packed with information, and the thesis was intriguing: Jennifer Vanderbes, the author, posited that storytelling is an evolutionary trait which, back in the day, increased the chances for survival (and thus procreation) in the early human tribes who practiced it.

Here’s the idea: stories are “low risk surrogate experiences” — they allow us to understand the consequences of certain actions, for good or ill, without actually taking those actions. Not only does this give us options in perilous situations, allowing us to choose optimally for survival, but it provides us with theoretical skill sets. The example Vanderbes uses is a successful hunter, “Ernest”, who tells in detail the story of his hunt, allowing other members of the tribe to absorb the theory of his technique and the environment in which he succeeded.

And there’s math, of a sort, speculative math anyway, to back it up: while the benefits of the storytelling hunter are obvious, even if they weren’t, they could still be helpful. Vanderbes points out that “a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative […] can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.” Four thousand generations seems like a lot, but in terms of evolution it’s next to nothing. New evolutionary theory says there were probably a lot of different genetic variations on humanity coexisting in our early evolution; in four thousand generations, the Storytellers could have taken over, and given our current state of being, probably did. Superiority of tools, climate, food sources, and physical condition (due to variations and mutations) all played a part, but so in theory did stories, which is rather lovely on its own.

But Vanderbes also slips something in there without really discussing it, a subtle but clearly intentional addition: Michiko the critic.

Ernest isn’t just telling the story because he wants to. He’s telling it because he’s being judged by Michiko, a “moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories”. Michiko’s approval or disapproval is what sets Ernest and his tribe apart from a second tribe, where John the hunter is also telling a story of his hunt. John’s story isn’t very good, but it’s not just that he’s bad at storytelling. He has no impetus to do well, because John’s tribe has no Michiko. Their stories all pretty much suck and nobody cares, and thus they don’t actually pass on the information which increases those necessary procreational odds by 1%.

Michiko makes this an article not so much about storytelling as about the importance of quality of a story, and also about the choice of story we have in the modern world. We don’t just get stories around a campfire, even mediated ones — we’re bombarded by stories all day long, from novels to news to television, films and podcasts and fanfic. So the question becomes, evolutionarily speaking, which stories give us a top survival advantage?

Which is a little silly, actually, because of course we don’t at this point need stories to survive, not in the way our distant ancestors did. In a spiritual sense, perhaps, but not in a literal “I didn’t see that water buffalo coming” sense. But we still have to decide what stories we allow into our lives, and critics are a part of that decision-making process.

Critics of everything — film and novels, pop culture, art — help us to sort out the “prime” stories. So do editors — as guardians of what makes it to print.

In theory.

In reality, critics dictate according to their own tastes and editors choose based on their own biases. Most English-language newspaper and magazine critics are white men. Editors assume books about girls won’t sell — because girls will read books about girls or boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. (Supposedly.) Rumor has it that cartoons can get cancelled if more girls watch them than boys, because girls “don’t buy toys”. (I don’t know where they’re getting that statistic but most of the girls I knew as kids had action figures and dolls, branded t-shirts and shoes, stickers of She-Ra and Spider-man.)

Which is why critics in the more generic sense are important, but official gatekeepers are problematic. Because anyone willing to make a statement and defend it can be a critic, but a gatekeeper is someone with the fiscal power to control what you experience. Like Walmart. Like all the white dudes in the review industry in the UK.

I have long been a proponent of self-publishing, and of course the big problem with self-publishing is that there’s no way to ensure, if you shop around on lulu.com for example, that you’re going to get a quality work — a work with quality characters and an interesting plot, with good research…with good spelling, let alone proper typesetting. There are blogs out there devoted to reading self-published works, but a lot of them are for-fee and it’s a difficult sea to navigate. For self-pub, word of mouth is the most powerful advertising, because self-pub is already locked out of the dominant culture’s professional reviews.

Michiko is important because she isn’t the head of the tribe, she doesn’t occupy any visible position of power. She’s just the one who’s willing to say what is good and what is not good.

We could use more critics like Michiko.

Ideas Man

In Uncategorized on January 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Ages ago, I solicited topics to write about at Extribulum from my readers on Livejournal and Dreamwidth. One reader, Paxpinnae on DW, asked about getting from a concept to a plot:

I’ve run into a streak of novels lately that had really excellent concepts and so-so plots, and I’d appreciate someone else’s thoughts on how that happens and where it can go horribly wrong.

The short answer is that when you’re writing a novel it can go horribly wrong at any given moment. Writing a novel is often a series of minute decisions each of which could destroy you. That’s half the fun, sometimes.

In a less flippant sense…

The idea that concept and plot are separate is actually not one that many people are familiar with, outside of book critics and writers, and even most writers I think don’t often differentiate, which could be the reason for a lot of the bad-plot-good-premise work that one encounters in any given bookstore.

I have had a million ideas for books that are based not upon a plot but upon a situation, or a concept. I’ll read a newspaper article and decide it would be fun to write a story about someone who is in the predicament of someone in the news article. But that’s not a plot; that’s just a situation. And most of these ideas I eventually discard because there’s no story there, there’s just a cool gimmick.

Stories can be made from cool gimmicks, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that they don’t make a story. So I think a good test is to ask yourself, “What is the climax of this?”

(Mind you, not all forms of literature have a climax, but since those forms tend to be of the “do not attempt without experience” kind, I’m skimming over them here.)

I Love Lucy was, in its day, the funniest thing on television, and it was filmed in front of a live studio audience. The story goes that the laughter they recorded off the audience was of such great quality that it was used for decades, meaning that when you hear laughter after a punchline, you are hearing dead people laugh. The truth of this is a little indeterminate, but it’s a good example. Say you want to write a story involving this concept.

What’s the climax? What happens at the height of drama in your story about dead people laughing at living peoples’ comedy?

Harlan Ellison actually wrote this, ingeniously enough — it involves someone discovering a dead loved one’s laugh on a laugh track — so it can be done. But until I heard about his story I’d been gnawing the problem over, working on an idea about the guy who puts the laugh track in the tape, and getting nowhere. (This is why Harlan Ellison is famous and I languish in obscurity.) But the point was I never wrote the story because I didn’t have a climax. I didn’t have to plot out everything to the climax, but I had to at least have enough to start me on the road there. That’s okay — not writing a bad story freed me up to write better stories.

Technically you don’t have to have a climax. That’s what second drafts are for. But it helps a great deal to write an actual story, and not an idea-disguised-as-story, if you do.

Almost all writing is really just conscientiousness disguised as words — careful, self-aware choosing of what you write and how to write it. It requires a lot of honesty and frequently self-criticism, but it makes for better books. It can be an inhibiting force in the sense that caution and artistic expression rarely go hand-in-hand without a great deal of thumb-fighting, but a little restraint goes a long way in shaping a higher level of quality work.

Ray Bradbury Was A Dick

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

Welcome to 2014! Here is my attempt to start posting here regularly again, now that I’m not riddled with disease and trying to find a new job anymore. I actually wrote this a while ago, but never posted it because of cowardice, so I thought I’d kick the new year off with it. Here is my essay on why Ray Bradbury was a dick.

My Adorably Nerdy Coworker and I had a conversation a while ago that went like this:

Sam: Did you hear that Ray Bradbury died?
Coworker: This is embarrassing: I didn’t know he was still alive.
Sam: Equally embarrassing: I don’t think I’ve read anything by him other than Fahrenheit 451. I’m not sure I could even name anything else he wrote. What else did he write?
Coworker: Wow, are you asking the wrong person about that era of science fiction.

But it got me to thinking that someone should really do “All of Ray Bradbury’s Books In Summary” because hell if I know what he wrote and some of it might look interesting enough to get from the library. And also it would be funny because one of the few passages from Fahrenheit 451 that I’ve actually retained after fifteen years had a few things to say about summaries:

Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me? Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.

More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course.

This quote scared the hell out of me as a teenager, because I knew what Reader’s Digest was getting up to with their condensed great books. But in order to find that quote, I had to go googling for the ebook, which led me to an article that reminded me why I think Ray Bradbury was a dick.

Because, see, the reason I didn’t read more Ray Bradbury as a young man is that I read his foreword to some book or other when I was seventeen and thought to myself, this guy is a dick. I don’t need to read his bullshit. (Also, I may have liked the idea of Fahrenheit 451 but when I was whipped through it in high school I found the prose nigh-unreadable.)

When he died, I didn’t want to come right out and say Ray Bradbury was a dick because

a) he’d just died and
b) I couldn’t remember why I thought he was a dick.

I’m pretty sure it had something to do with some misogyny on his part, though that was par for the course with the old farts of the Golden Age. I get that it’s a shady thing to speak ill of the dead, if not through superstition or out of respect then because they can’t fight back and it’s hardly fair. But the end of a life of someone so influential to society is a time to study their impact and consider their contributions. Besides, Ray Bradbury is required high school reading; he had his go. So I’m going to get comfortable in my opinions:

Ray Bradbury wrote a seminal piece of English literature that stands with works like 1984 and Brave New World as a staggering social cautionary tale. Also, it’s almost unreadable as a prose piece, and its author was a dick.

This is what he said in the above-linked article:

“I was approached three times during the last year by internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I said to Yahoo: ‘Prick up your ears and go to hell.'”

He also complained about the spread of modern technology.

“We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now,” he said.

Mind you, I think Yahoo should go to hell too, but only because they’re Yahoo, not because they want to make ebooks. Also, as an aside, “We’ve got too many internets” needs to be a meme like yesterday.

But to get to the point, I can only assume he didn’t understand how e-readers work. They are the very definition of “mass dissemination of literature”, and he said they “smell like burned fuel”.

In Fahrenheit 451, so the internet tells me, Bradbury is not talking about the dangers of censorship as much as he is about the dangers of technology-based media like television and film; these are the supposedly simple, thoughtless pleasures that people give up intellectual challenge in order to enjoy. He clearly dislikes technology in general (viz the admittedly terrifying robot firehouse dog in the book). So I get that: books are virtuous and gadgets are evil, and let’s just not discuss Gutenberg’s little gadget and what it did for books.

That’s not 100% fair. In some sense I agree with him; I do not think American Idol has much material contribution to make to our culture.

But this technology that he thought in 1953 would damn our souls has turned out to be a mode of salvation. That makes me sound like a bad guy from the book, but I’m dead serious. Do you know how hard it is to kill an idea once it reaches the internet? You would need to kill the entire internet and even if you did that, some person somewhere has saved it to their hard drive in a file marked “LOL”.

You can smuggle a thousand books anywhere in the world on a piece of plastic and metal the size of your palm. You can print yourself a book from these files in the course of an hour or two. Digital books seem to encourage people to read, though I don’t have the precise numbers for that in front of me. Certainly I see more ereaders on the train today than I saw books on the train five years ago. And Ray Bradbury only allowed Fahrenheit 451 to be turned into an unkillable unburnable digital book because he couldn’t renew his publishing contract without it.

I was thinking all this as I skimmed the ebook, looking for the lines I quoted above, when I found that passage and realized I didn’t remember it the way it was written. What you read above is the version that I recalled, composed of bits and pieces scattered across a couple of pages. And here’s some bits and pieces also scattered across those same few pages that I’d forgotten about, if I ever understood them to begin with:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did.

Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute.

You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag.

Ray Bradbury wasn’t the first white guy to say that the shaming of prejudice is the agency of censorship, or to misinterpret the goals of those striving for equality as an attempt at universal homogeneity. He definitely wasn’t the last, ’cause I’m pretty sure I saw someone say it yesterday on the internet. This particular concept isn’t even the main theme of the book. But it is there, in a fairly important moment. In high school I was assigned to read this book that seemed to say we must fight society to preserve intellectual freedom but actually said that if you were unhappy with the way dominant culture told you to be, you were the problem. You were the reason standards were “lowered” and books were burned.

Yes, Ray Bradbury did good things. He supported libraries and required, as part of his ebook contract, that Fahrenheit 451 must be downloadable by any library patron for free. He wrote a defining dystopic novel that has influenced generations of readers to revile censorship, resist simplicity, and protect the written word. (Or should I say the printed word?)

He was probably a super-nice guy in person and his books have challenged and entertained millions.

But his definition of censorship was grossly inaccurate, his dislike of technology was deeply irrational, and there comes a point where you can’t just say he was a product of his age and let him get away with it.

What a dick.