extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘advice’

What I Learned From Survey Questions

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

There has been a tension for me, the last few months, between my work for my career and my writing. While it is nice to have climbed out of debt and to make a good wage — not just decent, but good — the increased pay and status from relatively recent promotions translates directly to decreased time and mental capacity for creativity.

Writing is precious and compulsive to me, so I’ve had to look at my life and try to decide what to sacrifice or at least wrap-up in order to have the resources, physical and mental, to continue writing. I sat down and basically mapped out my life on paper and it left me wondering how people have things like spouses and children.

The balancing game is hard. I could read less, but reading is an essential part of writing, an important tool. I could watch fewer television shows, but given I watch them in the evenings, when I’m already tired, would that help? Should I socialize less and be more lonely — more unhappy — just in order to write? That seems unwise. Do I drop side projects even though they sometimes lead to inspiration?

Do I sleep less? Could I sleep less?

The ultimate result of my examination of my life is that I haven’t removed anything yet. Instead I’ve developed a question based on survey questions that want you to make a subjective value judgement. When I’m doing something, I ask myself: Is what I am doing right now more-helpful or more-harmful to my overall existence? And if it is more-harmful, how do I stop, alter, or enhance it? Can I do something helpful during this harmful activity?

To answer these questions, I had to work out what I wanted from my overall existence, which was actually easier than it probably should have been. It’s very much in the vein of the hierarchy of needs:

1. Security: home, food, money to supply both, which means keeping and doing my job.

2. Creativity: being able to engage in my art, which is both pleasurable to me and contributory to my community.

3.  Joy: being able to do pleasurable things, regardless of their productivity or lack thereof.

Let’s not talk about how Joy comes in number three. Being fair to me, Maslow thinks it’s low priority too, compared to food and shelter.

I wrote this initially in a notebook during a training session last week, which illustrates the occasional difficulty of identifying an action as helpful or harmful. Attending the training demonstrates to my work community that I am engaged and enthusiastic. Which I am! I genuinely like my job. But the actual training is not really informative, and is taking an entire day to convey what information it does have to offer, which is harmful. Or at least, inefficient. I counteracted the harmful by writing this essay, at least for now.

The system is new, so I don’t know how well it will work — but I suppose it makes me happier to have it, which is ultimately helpful.

Lessons With Packing Tape

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’m writing this on a flight from California to Chicago, returning from wrapping up the last of my grandmother’s estate, a process which began seventeen years ago. Gran always was a nonconformist.

My grandmother had a fascinating life, but the portion of her existence which she imparted most strongly to me was her art. She was a painter and a lover of all the fine arts, and she gave me culture, from sketching with her in her dining room to playing trains on the floor of her painting studio (which doubled as the garage). She died when I was seventeen, but her paintings and many other belongings of hers have only just surfaced, so we had to collect them up and figure out what to do. Over the course of last weekend I documented, wrapped, packaged, and helped arrange safe transport for a hundred and two of her paintings, everything from eight-inch-square seascapes to three-foot-tall frontier towns.

She painted two for a local bank and then changed her mind and kept them; she painted three abstracts and then duct-taped them together, and when we found them I was the only one of the family members present who could point out the angels she’d subtly painted into them, much to my mother’s delight. Gran painted faceless women in white and boats that somehow look married to each other. She was stubborn and independent, and while she did sell pieces and paint pieces as gifts, her art was mainly for herself. Sometimes I think she painted a crap painting just because she didn’t want to mess around with perfection.

When I visited her, I didn’t really appreciate that she wasn’t teaching me sketching and painting as much as she was not to take any bullshit from anyone when it came to art — hers, mine, or others’. Her art isn’t always the most original or the most talented, but it is invariably honest. I know this, because I’ve seen paintings from the time when she was unhappy and suffering depression — when she was trying to be someone she wasn’t, for the sake of others — and they’re no good. They have no light, no subtlety, no depth. When she stopped taking shit from the rest of the world, she got a lot better.

It is incredibly hard to be honest to one’s art, especially when one is just starting to work. People want you to be something, and they want your art to be something, and very rarely will they agree with each other or with you about what that something is. It is necessary to take criticism and to accept it when it’s truthful, but before one can judge the quality of criticism, one has to know one’s work. Confidence in the honesty of the work, whether it’s any good or not, is vital. I don’t think I ever realized until this past weekend that she fed this to me along with cheese sandwiches and cups of apple juice.

It’s been a struggle, the past year and a half, to try and write — exhaustion, new jobs, illness, and perhaps some plain old burnout have made it difficult to hold coherent thought for the length of time it takes to write a novella, let alone a novel. I’m not sure if I’ve been honest to the work; I’m not sure if I haven’t been trying too hard to fuck around with perfection. And it’s not like spending two days lifting, wrapping, photographing, packing, and securing canvases has caused some kind of spiritual epiphany; mostly it made me tired. But it did give me perspective.

I sometimes wonder what Gran would think of me. I think mainly we’d be butting heads about the fact that I haven’t given her any great-grandchildren yet. I think she would be proud of some of my novels, at least, if she knew about them. And the rest she would at least be proud I’d completed, even if she might think they were a little ‘blue’.

Either way, I owe her a lot, for teaching me about honesty — and for the half a dozen paintings by her that were my commission for the work this weekend.

Papa, Where Do Bad Books Come From?

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

In my last article about the power and ego of newspaper critics, I talked a little bit about a brutal review of a “bad” book. I don’t actually know the book is bad; I haven’t read it. But I have read bad books in my day.

I wanted to do a piece on bad books and how they get published — but I don’t work in the publishing industry, and I actually have a very superficial understanding of how publishers select books for publication or the pipeline process those books undergo.

When you research a question like this (and by “research” I mean “google”) there is one predominating answer: that “bad” is subjective, and that whether or not they’re good isn’t as relevant as whether or not they sell. You see this over and over, but it’s not just something of an insult to agents, editors, and readers, as bookendslitagency points out here.

This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. It implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books.

It’s also essentially irrelevant to the discussion I want to have here, which isn’t about books I don’t like or one-off stinkers from acclaimed authors. It’s about objectively badly-written books. Say, first novels you can’t believe an agent bought, or the dreariest nonfiction books in existence — books that have material problems that could have and should have been fixed.

I’ll be honest: lacking any other experience, I had a theory that blackmail was somehow involved, or possibly sexual favors. I mean, I come from the theatre; we all know what the casting couch is. And while writers are not by and large the Beautiful People, we are frequently painfully earnest, which has a sort of charm, I suppose.

I’m sure there is some of that, though probably not as much as I’m envisioning. What it seems to come down to are two options — one a little more likely than the other.

One of the theories is the “pitch” theory, which I picked up from Bret Hartinger’s ruminations on the subject. He suggests that most books and movies are based on a “pitch”, and the ability to sell the pitch is perhaps often greater than the individual’s ability to execute it. While the concept of a pitch is pretty visible even to people outside the film industry, I know that for first-time writers, generally you can’t get away with it in publishing. If a publisher knows that you as an author are capable of following through on an idea, that’s one thing, but if you tell a publisher “I’ve had this great idea for a novel — but I’ve never been professionally published” you become the sad butt of a running industry joke. This might be slightly less common in nonfiction, but I know that when I was submitting manuscripts to editors and agents (oh, the bright-eyed days of my youth) they wanted an outline and/or ten sample pages with the guarantee that if they wanted they could see the entire finished text. So while this theory may be accurate, it also tends towards the “already published author” side of things, where we’re not going.

The second and more likely option, with which I’ve actually had some experience, is the “Boss Book” theory. KJ Charles talks about it here.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats] Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

I have an editor friend who occasionally emails me bemoaning the prose they have to read and attempt to make respectable. They sometimes get pushback from their authors, too — authors take note, “My friends think it’s fine!” is not a valid defense of your manuscript. When I asked why this book ever made it this far, my editor friend said, “Her [relative] was the acquisitions manager.”

But that’s not where the story ends, because as it turns out, the market actually supports all these terrible books. Charles goes on to say:

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

When you pick up a dreadful book by someone who’s not famous enough to get away with it, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you are collateral damage of a Boss Book.

On the bright side, some author had fun getting published, made a little money, and still contributed to the success of another book. Even if that other book was also awful — at least it was a wanted awful book.

Ode To Notepad (or, A Story Of Versioning)

In Uncategorized on April 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while back I took a class in project management software, which sounds very boring. Software in general is kind of boring to me, though the class was decent. What I really found interesting was the crash course in actual project management that inevitably came along with it, which was a mixture of revelation and “do people really need to be told that?

It was especially relevant that we received a lecture on “versioning” about halfway through the morning. The lecturer recommended that every time you make significant edits to the software file, you should save a new version of the file. This does get a little ridiculous eventually, but it’s a sound technique and I realized I’ve never really talked about “versioning” stories and novels.

For short stories, mainly fanfic, I have a process that adjusts every few years depending on resources, but which has essentially stayed structurally stable since since the days of Windows 3.0 and the usenet. It’s the way I grew up writing because back then there were certain constraints surrounding internet posts, and only one program, one beautiful, tiny, universal program, could handle those constraints:

NOTEPAD.

Thank Christ Microsoft hasn’t phased Notepad out because I’m not sure what I’d do. Back in the day, I programmed HTML in Notepad, but I also wrote fiction in Notepad because the usenet, where fanfic was mainly posted, couldn’t handle HTML. You indicated /italics/ and *bold* with symbols, and forget centering text or embedding images. You sometimes had a 72-character limit per line, and Notepad’s fixed-width font made that easy to determine.

So I got used to working with a very simple, very universal form of text. Especially since, at the time, Microsoft Word ate pretty significant processing power and tended to make itself lag, let alone any other program.

Once I’ve finished the initial notepad draft, the story goes to edits: usually into a googledocs file for my betas to discuss. Once that’s done, short stories get posted as permanently “published” works and rarely get edited unless there’s something offensive or drastically unclear or embarrassingly bad. (It happens.)

My novels undergo a more extensive process, which includes a lot of versions. This used to be just how I worked; now I do it intentionally, because versioning is awesome.

Since I write in a notepad file to start with and then usually post to LiveJournal for public reading (the Extribulum process), the formatting tags like italics and centered text are all in HTML. This is useful, since once I put it into a Word document for further editing I can select an entire novel at once, format it as twelve-point Garamond (my preferred typesetting font) and not have to worry I’ll lose italic formatting. Formatting tags are usually the last thing to go when I’m typesetting; after all, they’re very useful for locating where italic formatting is supposed to be.

The thing about editing, for most writers, is that it’s really, really hard to delete prose you like, even when you know you have to. It’s also hard to delete prose if you don’t like it but can’t remember if it might be relevant later in the story. The process I use helps me retain old copies; I can copy a novel from notepad to Googledocs, then tuck the original txt file away as version one. Googledocs is version two, and then Word is version 3 through version Whatever The Final Draft Ends Up Being. Between edits and typesetting, I’m usually publishing out to my readers something between version ten and version thirty.

Versioning helps because with all these old copies, neatly stored in small txt files or on GDrive, I can delete what I need to delete in the knowledge that my brilliance, however unnecessary, is still there somewhere. If I ever need it, it’s there, but it’s small and unobtrusive in the meantime.

This may seem obvious to some, but it took me a while to develop it. So now I pass it on to you.

As I copy this essay from my “WordPress essays” file into my WordPress Posting Page.

Origami And The Narrative

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

Two years ago, I spent a year studying origami, off and on — more on than off, which I’m proud of, but not in any kind of professional sense.

I got pretty good, though it was mainly “good for an amateur”. There is a certain jump that origami enthusiasts are eventually faced with, moving from “need instructions” to “just show me the creases”. Some people make the jump; I didn’t. What MIT can do with origami is frankly amazing. Don’t talk to me about the cheaters who use fan folds, though.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that writing was actually really good practice for origami, and vice versa. They’re very different disciplines; origami is mathematical, geometric, and spatial, while writing fiction is…generally not. And while I am pretty good at writing fiction, I am inherently awful at anything to do with mathematics.

But the discipline itself, the way one thinks about the art — for me, those are very similar.

When I started writing, I had no formal training; I still have very little. So I didn’t know about arc and development and building the narrative, I didn’t know about the structures of stories or how to plot one out. I didn’t know where a story was going until it got there. Likewise, I am very bad at pre-reading visual instructions for the creation or construction of a physical thing. I’m better than my mother and her mother, who wouldn’t read the instructions at all; I follow the steps and usually come up with, say, a bed frame that looks like its Ikea picture, or an origami duck. But I won’t bother to read all the instructions before I begin because, frankly, I won’t understand them anyway.

I mean, do you read every step in the process of folding a paper crane before folding one? I could, but it wouldn’t help.

Origami was a lot like my early writing. At first I didn’t bother looking ahead because it wouldn’t change anything, and I wouldn’t understand. I just did the step the instructions told me to do, or I wrote a scene I wanted to write. But once you get to be pretty decent at origami, which requires a lot of yelling and frustration first, you realize that sometimes, if you don’t understand the step you’re on (and some of those folds get pretty tricky), you can look ahead a few steps and you actually will understand what you’re doing better. Mainly because you’ll see the fold you’re working on from other angles, but sometimes because you’ll see the reasoning behind folding that corner this way instead of that way. I am convinced there is a step in every single origami pattern that may as well be called “Do some magic here”, but at least now I can often reverse-engineer which magic I’m supposed to be doing.

I still, often, start a story with either no inkling of how it will end or only a vague idea of how to get from where I am to the ending. I’m okay with that; it works for me, and I fix the middle-part goof ups in rewrites. But I have learned that looking ahead just a little can be a big benefit — just to see where the step you’re on now is about to take you.

Mind you, much as with origami, there’s still a lot of yelling sometimes involved.

The Fun Stuff: Being A Better Writer, Part Three

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today concludes a series of articles on becoming a better writer of original fiction, which came out of a post I did on the topic in 2011. Today is all about inspiration, which for me is the most fun part of writing.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Most writers disdain the question “Where do you get your ideas?” and have come up with a number of cutting and condescending replies. That is because writers are

  1. insecure,
  2. often unconscious of their own processes, and
  3. very frequently douchebags.

Like many artists, the vast majority of writers are terrified of the threat that one day they won’t have any more ideas, or their writing will be no good, or nobody will like what they do. Especially for professional writers, whose livelihood and identity are wrapped up in Being A Writer, this is a dreadful thought. Neil Gaiman neatly inverted this in Calliope, when he told the story of a man cursed by a muse to have so many ideas he can never write any of them down fully.

So writers don’t poke at their craft. They frequently don’t investigate where ideas come from or their process of writing, because they’re scared if they do the magic will go away. And those that do have an inkling of how Writing Happens are often scared that if they tell you how things work, you’re going to steal the magic. Or at any rate be better at it than they are, which is practically the same thing.

I am deeply insecure on any number of fronts, but fortunately not in this. I don’t think the magic is going to go away, and I’m not afraid of the day it might. A great deal of that is probably due to exposure as a teen to Alex Haley’s remarkable essay The Shadowland Of Dreams, which talks about the difference between vocation and identity. Even so, his essay about not defining yourself as “a writer” still encourages creatives to depend only upon their creativity, which can make a person defensive.

Writing is only a part of my identity. I have a day job. I also like art, and theatre, and cooking, and when people ask me what I “do”, I don’t say “writer”. Maybe that makes me less of a writer than I could be, but I don’t think so; in many ways, writing on my own time and self-publishing the results frees me to explore channels that contracted writers can’t. I get to rummage in all the scary places most writers won’t go.

So here is the secret of the magic: IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE, and you can have them all the time if you want.

The vast majority of our communication at any given time is composed of stories. You get dozens of them in the newspaper every day. You hear them as you pass people on the street. You can see them just looking at some people. I know someone whose mother likes watching commercials because “they’re like short little stories!” We talk in stories all the time. We live out stories every day. The trick is to know how to turn an experience into an idea — to think, if this were a story, what would happen? What is that person’s story? What can I take from this? And that’s just a matter of habit.

Two examples:

  • While I was writing this, a reader commented to ask me what the hell one does with turkey tails, because they just received four of them and don’t know how to cook them. I don’t know either, but what a marvelously absurd predicament to be in. Adventures in Turkey Tails. That’s a humorous blog entry at least. And the research! You google turkey tails, you’re going to get stories. And really delicious-sounding soul-food recipes, it turns out.
  • The other day we were discussing a news story about a stolen religious relic in California, and that got me onto Napoleon’s infamous severed penis, and someone else linked me from there to the holy prepuce. Do you know how many stories about damaged or venerated dicks I now have bouncing around in my head? At least three, and that’s not even counting the student I once had who broke his dick. How would one unite the stories of Napoleon and Rasputin’s penes with the Holy Prepuce? Well, what if you were an expert in historical genitalia, and one was stolen, and you had to find out who did it? That’s a novel. (One which incidentally I might write, so nobody nick the idea, ok?)

The best way to “get ideas” is to read, to go out and look at stuff, to research things that are interesting to you, to have fantasies of any kind you like, and all the while to be thinking, how is this a story? What makes it interesting? How does this speak to the way I feel, or the way I think? Would it do the same for others? Is this funny or tragic or both? Why?

Ideas are all around you all the time, and there’s no real magic to having them. Just observation and habit. It’s not easy at first, but it gets easier.

And that is the secret of Where Ideas Come From. I feel so much better for having gotten this off my chest, you have no idea.

In Conclusion

Conclusions are suppose to summarise and restate one’s thesis, so let’s see. These are the things I believe make people become better writers:

Be committed and patient. Understand that work is sometimes necessary. Study your chosen masters. Think critically, and understand criticism. Learn the tools of your craft and fit them to your needs. Don’t fear the end of creativity. Train yourself to see the stories all around you.

And don’t worry too much about conclusions.

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.

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.

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.

A Fine Tuned Sense Of The Ridiculous

In Uncategorized on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

I was on the phone with my mum the other day, discussing the impending upheaval in my life — not only a potential new job but a definite move of house, whether it comes with the new job or not — and I realised that despite the very serious nature of the choices I’m facing this year, we were both laughing an awful lot. It made me think about why I spend so much of my time amused at basically everything that happens to me. One of the things I often hear from people, both in brickspace and online, is that I’m capable of making ordinary things funny. It’s something I prize, because I’m not what you would call a funny person, but I can see things as funny. And I think that’s a huge key to my writing, as well, which I didn’t work out until, well, just now.

I don’t know when my sense of absurdity developed or how, not like I know other things. I know when I found my work ethic (college — late but at least lasting) and I know where my aesthetic sense comes from, because my family gave me that, between my gran the painter and my parents who took me to tons of museums and performances when I was young. I don’t know how I learned to find the ridiculous in the ordinary.

I wasn’t a class clown as a child, and the way in which I express my view of the ridiculous isn’t necessarily spontaneous. It comes through in my writing because I sit and think about how to frame things. Some of it is turns of phrase picked up from here and there, but that’s just dressing to the essential viewpoint I have on the world. I didn’t necessarily believe my high school English teacher who said good writing comes from honestly expressing the way we see the world, but I do now, because I’ve done it.

The next story I’m hoping to work on, called Tunnel, primarily concerns the way in which families interact, and in real terms concerns the structure of Chicago, the way it’s built on Other Parts Of Chicago, and the way we have this massive underground network of passages that nearly nobody knows about. Really, the latter part came first; I wanted to write a story about the underground, and the sibling issues came out of that (and, admittedly, out of my own issues with my brother). But there’s an aspect of the story which keeps trying to take over, and it’s the ridiculous aspect: I call it Bob And The Dragon.

Because see, in this world, there’s a dragon living under Chicago. The dragon is a fun fantasy element; the ridiculous part is that very few people ever encounter the dragon, and the only one who seems to care about him is a guy named Bob. Bob is incredibly ordinary, he’s just a dude in a suit and he doesn’t have much life drama or any ambitious aspirations, but in his spare time he is a dragon tamer. Bob is the one who rescues people from the dragon and buys it expensive sushi and hugs it when it eats people he doesn’t like. Bob is ridiculous. Even the other characters think so.

And I don’t know where that ten-degrees-off-normal viewpoint, which allowed me to produce Bob in the first place, comes from. Possibly from the fact that I wasn’t an especially funny child; I spent some of my childhood and most of my teen years angry, because I was smart and could see that I was surrounded on all sides by bullshit. I can remember my mother telling me it’s not bullshit, it’s just hoops to jump through, and not thinking that was particularly better, but it’s true: much of life, much of the time, is a series of hoops. Some are fun; some are just tedious, and would be unnecessary if more people either saw them at all or called them out when they did. Dress codes, for example, are 1% necessity and 99% ludicrous. I like wearing suits and I still think it’s stupid to make me wear something less comfortable and less efficient to move in for the sake of appearing “more professional”.

When you see how much bullshit you spend your life putting up with, and the rituals you have to undergo — for me, at the moment, all my annoyance at the interview process is coming to the fore — you can either laugh or get angry. I’m too damn lazy to spend my entire life angry, so I suppose, at some point, I chose to laugh. Very likely the novels of Terry Pratchett had a huge influence on this decision as well, since he’s especially good at laughing at bullshit. However it happened, it is the base I stand on to write my stories.

Writers build worlds — it’s a necessary part of what we do. Even if your world is a realistic one, even if it’s nonfiction, you have to re-construct reality within your work. If your world’s not realistic, or if it’s only loosely based in reality, you have to do more. Personal viewpoint influences how that world is built to a massive degree. You don’t have to see a laughable world; you can be angry at what you see and want to change it, or you can see the world in shades of fantasy, or any other viewpoint you happen to have. But having a firm and critically thoughtful view of the world, knowing what you see and what you think of what you see, is absolutely necessary. Until you have that, writing for other people is a struggle that will fight you. Writing, and fiction in particular, demands every part of you, and it’s difficult to give it so much if you don’t know what you’re handing over.

In my case, what I tend to give my writing is laughter; either with the world or at it. Both are effective in their own way.