Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Horror! The Horror!

I’m not sure about Joseph Conrad—history does not tell—but I’m prepared to bet that a majority of writers out there whimper at the prospect of revising their work, especially if the revision involves structural rewriting. The thought of having to do something akin to removing, remodeling, and replacing several floors of a high-rise without the whole building collapsing is daunting, to say the least. To extend the analogy, what about all the plumbing, electrics and ductwork that run through the floors you’re refitting? How will changes on those floors affect the rest of the building? It’s enough to make you crazy.

As I work through my own current novel rewrite, I’m learning—not without struggle—to enjoy the process rather more. See, much as I hate this and wish the damn book had come out perfect the first time so I could send it out to earn its keep and make a start on the next, I know that it’s going to be a far better book after the revision: more to the point, it’s going to be a saleable book after the revision, which, in ninety-nine percent of cases, our earlier drafts aren’t. And when you consider that the first draft probably took you several hundred hours, what’s the big deal? It’s unlikely the rewrite will take even half of that.

So why are rewrites scary? Well, for one there’s the, ‘I’m done with this!’ factor above—which, after spending several months in labour with your novel, is not unreasonable. And the work of revising your ms. seems so much less glorious and magical than birthing the thing in the first place (note we’re talking about revision, aka rewriting, here, not simple, putzy editing). Why? Because there’s a good deal more analytical than creative process needed in the rewrite.

That’s how it should be. You’ve taken a good, hard look at the raw love-child you’ve delivered your muse of, and maybe had some writer friends offer their two cents on, and discovered that there’s room for improvement. Your antagonist is thin as cardboard, and why on Earth would the empowered female protagonist risk her neck for a guy who’s an insufferable misogynist? You could drive a truck through some of the plot holes—nobody can swim three miles in 45-degree water towing a mini-submarine by a rope between their teeth. And the cultural mores of Mongolian yak herders are not going to be those of twenty-somethings from the San Fernando Valley. What were you thinking??

Well, okay. Once you’ve got over the sting of critique and finished beating yourself up, it’s time to square your shoulders and get on with the rewrite.  Here’s what works for me.

When the story’s cooled, and I’ve reread it and fully digested the notes from my trusted critiquers, I first of all try to pinpoint exactly what the story is about—in other words, idea or theme. The answer should be very clear, and admit of brief, unambiguous definitions, like, ‘Crime doesn’t Pay’; ‘Freedom comes at a price’; or, ‘There’s no place like home’. Knowing what the story’s about when you begin your revision will allow you to prune and cut out stray tendrils and offshoots and make your whole story point in the same direction.

Next, I go through the ms. and do a scene-by-scene, ‘after the fact,’ outline of what I have. Armed with this three- or four-page structural overview, it’s much easier to follow the plot thread and spot breaks, missing connections, loose ends, and all the rest. I note down where I need to move, add, or delete scenes, introduce or alter plot events, etc.

If you believe, as I do, that the writing process is entirely dependent on a collaboration between the conscious and unconscious mind, then the whole success of the writing process is founded on communication. What’s your creative subconscious trying to say in this story? And when you took dictation and wrote that first draft, how much did you get right? You’re working—or should probably be—fast in a first draft. You’re going to make mistakes. Get over it.

Looking back over my current novel draft, as well as some earlier stories, it seems to me that, at some level, the whole story is there, but in the process of transcribing that raw unconscious material, I’ve put things in the wrong place or left something out: I’ve misheard.

I repeat: at some level, the whole story is there.

Thus, in the process of revising my current novel, I realized that I had two characters exactly reversed in their major traits—no wonder they weren’t working! As soon as I switched them around, everything they did suddenly made sense.

Similarly with plot: although some of the first-draft plot events weren’t working, when I looked carefully at my setup and all the strands available to me to pull on, I saw that all the elements were in place for the fix—like a jigsaw, it was all there, I’d just been trying to pick up the wrong pieces in the first place. Once I realized that, the fix was easy.

Many rewriting issues, from plot to dialogue, can be solved by looking hard at your characters and making sure they’re fully alive, real people with their own hopes and fears and agendas. If a character isn’t working, or isn’t behaving credibly, look hard at their goals and motivations, work on their bio and backstory—in short, breathe life into them.

Of course, there are going to be side-effects and repercussions to any changes you make, and you’re going to have to track those diligently and make adjustments as required throughout the story. And some of the solutions will take time: my advice is, don’t force the pieces. But do talk to your characters. All the time.

As for the more minor mechanics of revision, I’d suggest that you keep a copy of every major draft and dump your deletions and cuts (at least those you’re fond of) into an ‘out-takes’ file. But don’t be afraid to make cuts, even whole chapters, and especially those scenes or lines of dialogue or description which—although they no longer work—you think you can’t bear to get rid of. Kill your darlings! You have an inexhaustible supply of imagination, and will find lines every bit as good or better to replace them with.

In summary, revision may not be always easy or fun, but it’s vital work that will make the difference between a great book and a dull or so-so one.

Which would you rather have?

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Two news items on the excellent website io9 got me thinking about memes and the failure of the artistic imagination. The first of these concerned itself with aliens, the second with zombies. Only one really pissed me off. Here’s why.

Annoying as it may be, the remarkable popularity of the zombie in popular culture is at least defensible in that the condition of the mythic undead seems to correlate pretty closely with a real-world phenomenon, namely, rabies. As the article points out, many of the symptoms, particularly the ‘silent, semi-lucid, unending aggression’ of the rabies victim, are precisely those that typify the movie zombie. Well, fair enough. I still have sub-zero interest in reading or seeing movies about them, but I buy zombies as somewhat believable, a pop-culture meme with some basis in fact.

The other news item was about a 14-minute short made for literally a zero budget. ‘This no-budget short film captures the creepiness of an alien encounter on a shoestring’, trumpets the io9 headline. Since I generally like io9, I decided to go with it and commit 14 minutes of my time to see why this ‘science fiction film’ (io9’s words, not mine) was in the running for a grant from Ridley Scott’s production company.

I should have known better.

This short, about a young woman whom nobody will believe trying to resist yet another alien visitation, is the worst kind of meme. Oh, the cinematography and production is fine, until the alien comes along. At which point we’re treated to bright white lights, electrical and electronic  malfunctions, things rattling and shaking, and a three-fingered alien hand coming around the victim’s bedroom door: in short, the generic alien encounter meme that has been around for something like three decades, at least since the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The pop culture meme of the skinny alien, with its childlike, elongated head, slitty eyes, three-fingered hands, blinding light, undampened electrical fields, and fond use of rectal probes, is out of control. But unlike zombies, we have no data point whatever on which to base the alien meme: it’s made up, people! And it wasn’t a very good effort in the first place! The chance of aliens looking like this is no greater than aliens that look like octopi, or ambulatory potatoes, or nothing we can even begin to comprehend.

To my way of thinking, this is the worst kind of laziness. When there is the opportunity to do something entirely fresh and original, why does every filmmaker do exactly the same thing as has been done before? If the answer is, because that’s what audiences expect, all I can do is bury my head in my hands and say they deserve to be fleeced at every opportunity. You can tie a pink ribbon around a turd and put it in a Tiffany box, but it’s still a turd. And yet, we continue to reward these pathetic, uninspired imitators.

Once in a very, very long while, a filmmaker comes along who gets it. Unfortunately, we have to go back even further than Close Encounters for that one, to the 1972 film (based on a 1961 novel), Solaris. Surreal? Hard to understand? That’s exactly the point, though, isn’t it—a real alien encounter is going to be confusing and incomprehensible.

And startlingly, memorably, original.

So the fact that millions (probably hundreds of millions) of people are already convinced that the generic movie alien is representative of the real thing (as though we had even the shadow of a clue) is something I find both maddening and depressing. Haven’t we been here with angels and fairies?

When an artistic form runs out of, or refuses to embrace, fresh ideas, it’s usually considered dead. I think we can safely declare the science fiction film—at least where aliens are concerned—to have entirely flatlined.

Zombie article link

Alien short film link

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Do Or Do Not II: More on Process

I write in the early morning.

I write this way only because it suits me. Since I work from home, and get up at 5:40 to make coffee for my wife who suffers the harsh business of commuting to work every day, I can get a good couple of hours of writing done riding a strong caffeine buzz and, more importantly, before my head gets filled with rubbish words from the world around me. (And our air is thick with rubbish words; they come at us from everywhere, from the roil and rattle of the news and the lies of politicians to the poison of advertisers and people’s depressed or outraged Facebook postings. But I digress…)

I write in the early morning because it works for me. But I don’t have children, or have to beat the rush on a long commute. If I had a commute, a train one, I might choose to write then. A train, like a coffee shop, can be a productive place to work, its bustle and familiarity providing just that kind of white noise that some people need to focus inward.

Enabling and training this ability to focus inward is one of the most important things a writer can do, and there’s no right way other than the way that works for you. In fact, a good deal of any writer’s work—and this is the hardest part for those around us to deal with—involves staring into space and letting the mind roam, sometimes for long periods. Some writers take this to extremes. Douglas Adams’s process was apparently to build the entire book in his head. He would procrastinate as long as humanly possible (“I love deadlines. I love that whooshing sound they make as they fly by”), spending long periods in the bathtub, until finally, when circumstances forced him to it, he’d sit down and bang out a draft in a matter in of days; Alfred Bester’s process was somewhat similar, composing in his head till there was nothing left to do but “grab my hat and run for the typewriter”.

Well, these guys were geniuses. I can’t hold a whole book in my head, and likely you can’t either. So we must work in more pedestrian ways, thinking and taking notes, outlining, and then steady, daily accretion as we build our first draft.

What I’ve come to, and which seems to be working well for me with my current novel, is this.

At the beginning, it’s only in my head. A situation arises, a character comes knocking, and I’m intrigued. I test the idea to make sure that it’s more than just an idea, that there’s a story there. It took me a long time and a good many stalled stories to realize that an idea and a story are two very different things. A tornado that rips a house off its foundations and dumps it and its young female occupant down in another land is an idea (or a situation); the girl’s struggle to return home, and the challenges she must overcome in order to so, are the story. You can test the idea by asking yourself whose story this is, what their goal is, (and why), and what’s standing in their way.

If there’s a story, and chemistry between characters and author, I begin taking notes in longhand (longhand feels so much more forgiving and playful), mostly on my characters. Then I look for the ending, and maybe a few waypoints, just to have a rough outline or framework.

After a few days or weeks of note taking, I can start writing. I go for a thousand words a day, and can usually hit that in couple of hours. This is a pretty leisurely pace, but the upside is that my first draft comes out fairly clean. I used to be even slower, polishing my prose obsessively as I went. This was great in terms of syntax, but deadly to the dynamic; I’m coming to believe that when you write very slowly your narrative loses energy and drive. But like most things in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. A very few great writers revise little or not at all; the amazing part of that—to me—is that they get the structure right the first time round. We ordinary mortals should be so lucky.

Still, even a thousand words a day will result in a standard length novel in three months or so. The important thing is regularity. Again, it’s easy for me, working alone at home in a serene atmosphere; those with children or incredibly busy lives face challenges I can barely imagine, and must steal time where they can. But I strongly believe that habit and discipline are the two things that give a writer, especially a beginning one, the best shot at successful producing good work. It doesn’t matter if you write in the morning or at night, in your lunch break or on the train; it doesn’t matter if you write your draft in a mad, unpunctuated stream of consciousness or in measured, grammatically and syntactically perfect paragraphs; but it is, I believe, important to write daily, and have a target which you hit or exceed as often as you can. By doing this you’ll not only train yourself but also—hopefully—train those around you by establishing a regular writing time and place. It may be hard, and sometimes everything will conspire against you. But if you want to be a writer, you’ll make the hard choices and not only carve out the time but also ensure, by whatever means necessary, that your writing time and space is respected and remains free of interruptions.

I strongly recommend working on a computer that’s not connected to the internet. When you find yourself slowing down, or think something needs researching, it’s far too easy to go online and start checking email or reading Wikipedia. I have a very old laptop that’s not wireless-enabled, and I work on that, at the dining table rather than my office where the desktop and internet are. Another strategy would be to just turn off your modem when you’re writing, or grab software like Freedom (www.macfreedom.com) that allows you to disable your Internet for a preset period of time. And turn off your cellphone while you’re at it, too.

Interruptions are deadly to the writer. If you’re going to write, you must take steps to ensure that others don’t interrupt you and (hardest of all) that you don’t interrupt yourself. We like to think we’re indispensable, and that we have at all costs to stay connected and be available, but the truth is that the world will quickly learn to get on without you. Stories and books don’t write themselves, you have to get your butt on that chair and keep it there.

You could also resort to a typewriter or longhand for that first draft, especially if you tend to edit obsessively as you write. I’ve got a lot better in that area. Now if I can’t think of a word or I need to research something, I just type XXX to flag that item for the revision stage. If I’m stuck for description, I just XXX and then go into the dialogue. If I’m having trouble with the dialogue, I’ll type something like, ‘XXX (explains why he murdered his editor and dumped the body in the East River)’.

I’d also strongly recommend keeping your first draft strictly private. Some writers are okay with critique-in-progress, but for me it’s the kiss of death. The story is fragile in draft stage, an infant in swaddling clothes and colicky, and likely to sicken and die if prematurely exposed to the cold outdoors. Like the One Ring, keep it safe and keep it secret.

It takes willpower to write. You have to give things up (TV should be first); you have to prioritise. For many, making a regular time each day may be impossible. If you can’t manage the same time each day, you might make up a little ritual to get you into a writing frame of mind, something as simple as making yourself a cup of tea or reciting a little mantra. The important thing is regularity.

Because once you do that, after even a week or two of writing daily, or Monday through Friday, or every second day, and regularly hitting your wordcount, something magical starts to happen: you find yourself coming to the task with the story and words bubbling in your mind and eager to get onto the page. I often wake up a half-hour or an hour before the alarm with the day’s writing forming and playing in my head, or a solution to the story problem that plagued me yesterday. This, my friends, is the Muse, and as Stephen King assures us, she (he, in King’s case), brings along pure magic. Your job is to be there and be available, and to get the words down until the story’s finished.

 

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On Finding Diamonds

When an editor or agent says that one of their greatest joys is finding a story in the slushpile that stops their pencil tapping or makes them miss their train home, it’s easy for the struggling, oft-rejected writer to doubt their sincerity. After all, these people are so hardened to sending out rejection slips and dashing a young writer’s hopes that it’s hard to imagine them being joyful about anything.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the three years and almost 500 novellas I looked over in the process of combining the three Panverse anthologies, I discovered there were few things as exciting as finding a story that sucked me in and held me. This was especially true when the writer was an unknown: the opportunity of introducing a strong new talent to readers is both a huge joy and a great responsibility. As a writer myself, I know only too well what hopes and aspirations go into every submission.

One of the very first stories I received for Panverse One was from a young woman in Perth, Western Australia. Titled Blue Night, Silver Dawn, Joanna Fay’s  36k-word novella was a dark fantasy; the writing was fluid and lyrical, the character work powerful, the world dizzying. And despite having some issues, this story, saturated with love and hate, blood and betrayal, hope and despair, horror and beauty, gripped me and wouldn’t let go. I knew it wasn’t quite a Panverse story, but it was so powerful, so rich in both passion and terror, that I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage this young talent and help her find her way into print. I sent her a critique.

To her credit, Joanna did more than take my critique, she ran a marathon with it. Over the next couple of years, I was privileged to read more of her work and watch, amazed, as the story grew and blossomed. Blue Night, Silver Dawn became Daughter of Hope, the first novel in what has turned into the Siaris quartet, and has just been released by fast-growing small press, Musa Publishing.

Here’s a short interview with Joanna:

All this, and a gorgeous cover, too!

DC: When you first sent me Blue Night, Silver Dawn, had you written/envisaged the quartet yet or was it really just a novella?

JF: Behind Blue Night, Silver Dawn I already had a large, cumbersome mass of writing that I had envisaged as a single novel. At a critiquing retreat with my writing group, WA Egoboo, in late 2009, the unanimous verdict was that the ‘single novel’ was definitely a trilogy. Blue Night, Silver Dawn had started out as a short story about a character who I knew as a survivor in the world of Siaris, in a time-frame about fifty years before the opening of the trilogy. Once I asked this character, Revetia, what her childhood was like, she was so eager to talk that the story turned into a 40,000 word novella in the space of a few weeks.

When the call came out for novellas for your first Panverse anthology, I had no idea that what I would get back was a kind ‘no’—with great encouragement, a laundry list of issues to address, and the suggestion that with a secondary subplot the novella could go up to novel length!

The story gained another whole angle and much more complexity as more members of Revetia’s extended family got involved than I had ever dreamed of. I started consciously linking it at that point to the later novels, The Siaris Quartet took shape, and the novella turned into Daughter of Hope. Not exactly a ‘plan’, but it has probably worked because I knew the world very well.

DC: Siaris is a world of breathtaking complexity, complete with its own creation story and a history stretching over great swaths of time. When did you start building this world?

JF: Siaris first started appearing in my dreams (that I can remember) at eight years old. I started drawing its people and landscapes from around twelve, and the first stories were written during my teens. By my late twenties, I had amassed some three thousand pages of ‘dramatized history’, most of which got thrown out in a moment of ‘clearing the decks’. Six years ago, I came across the last few hundred pages in an old packing box and wondered whether this world and its characters might appeal to anyone besides me. It’s quite a strange, vulnerable feeling putting out there what was essentially a personal world, and also a total delight, as readers and fellow writers have responded to it with enthusiasm (and criticism, but that has its place too).

The last three years have been a period of intensive focus, learning the craft of writing to an audience without losing the integral aesthetic of Siaris or the authenticity of the stories and characters. I am now halfway through a first draft of the final book in the quartet, and have also written (and had published) several short stories set in a future time-frame…that have sprouted visions of sequel novels. So I may not be leaving this world anytime soon.

DC: Beyond Daughter of Hope, has Musa contracted the whole quartet? At what intervals (time between release)?

JF: I have just signed a contract for the second novel in the quartet, Traitor’s Game. It is scheduled for release on February 8, 2013, through their speculative fiction imprint, Urania. I’ll be very happy if the novels continue to be published at seven-eight month intervals.

Friends, I really can’t recommend this writer highly enough. Joanna has won a number of prestigious awards for her poetry and received an honourable mention from Ellen Datlow for her 2011 story, Black Heart. If you enjoy Dark Fantasy in any form, read Joanna Fay.

Joanna’s website is here, and Daughter of hope is available in eBook at $4.99 from Musa Publishing (summary and excerpt here), Amazon, and Barnes & Noble

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Do or Do Not

Writing—there is no way to disguise the fact, so it must be said, and the same is true of any creative pursuit—is hard. But not for the reasons most of us think.

At its core, the writing experience is a fundamental struggle with self. At its worst, it can be as grueling as being in therapy. But although the forms this struggle assumes are legion, I think we can identify three main categories.

For many, probably most of us, the primary challenge comes in the guise of time: work, distractions, responsibilities, the demands of others, all these conspire to leave us without a moment from the bleary-eyed instant we wake till the time we collapse at night. For others, the chief enemy is fear: these are the perfectionists, the people who aim high and can’t bear to fall short, ever. Another huge group struggles with process: these are the people who (think they) can only write in a particular place, on a certain type of paper or keyboard, or on days with an ‘s’ in their name. And finally, there are those who suffer what is generally termed ‘writer’s block’.

Fortunately, the same, simple advice applies in every case: Get Over It.

The reader recoils in hurt at this harsh, unfeeling advice, at not being understood, at—

I’m serious. Moreover, I’ve been there, and watched many, many others struggle; and I’m convinced that in writing, as in any creative endeavour, there is no try. There’s only doing or not doing. And beneath that, there’s only will.

Let’s pick it apart.

Time issues? Stop watching TV; unplug your internet; say ‘no’ more often (you can be nice about it); set the alarm an hour earlier. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope and our own great fantasist, Gene Wolfe, both wrote unfailingly for a couple of hours every single morning before leaving for their day job, and each produced a huge body of work in the process.

Fear? (I especially get this one, as I’m a perfectionist, just like you.) So many of us come to writing, more than any other pursuit, assuming we can just do it, straight off the bat, though we’d never think of approaching the violin, or a foreign language, or brain surgery with that same expectation. But just as with every other skill, there’s a learning process, and—with the exception of the one-in-a-million prodigy—it involves making mistakes and overcoming obstacles.  The late, great, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story a week, without fail, for years to learn his craft.

Process? Crutches and superstition. These are harmless enough if you actually work with them and produce, but if they stop you from writing, they gotta go—period.

Which leaves us with writer’s block.

This one is tricky, as it seems to take so very many forms… but I’d bet a good deal that for many of us it’s a result, possibly well-disguised, of one or several of the instances above. Still, it’s undeniable that many highly-motivated and disciplined professional writers do hit a wall that can stop them writing for weeks, months, or even years at a time. In these cases, another strategy may be required.

I believe, as C.J. Cherryh has written, that writer’s block often occurs because of a breakdown in communications: your characters have stopped talking to you. In this case the fix must be to dig deeper into them by whatever means necessary. Examine them, cajole them, chat with them, interrogate them, torture them, all the while listening openly and intently—in short, do what you must until they start talking to you again.

In other cases, barring catastrophic life upheavals such as divorce or death, which may justifiably require recovery (though for many writers, writing is itself a tool for recovery), the cause may be simple burnout.

In my former life as a professional colorist and decorative painter, I once worked a full year for a very demanding (and intelligent, and gracious) woman who’d built a 16,000 square-foot home on the California coast. And unlike just about all of my peers, I hand-mixed my own pigments and media for even the largest jobs, rather than relying on store-bought or premixed paints and glazes: before each job, I’d do two or at the most three samples or iterations to ‘dial in’ the colours for the client’s approval; often, I got it in one.

Now, most people with decent colour vision—and mine is excellent—can distinguish around 20,000 different tones (which is one reason that even in a paint manufacturer’s deck of 1,800 colours you often can’t find the one you want). This particular client, though, could see, I’d swear, two steps between every tone I could make out. Day after day, week after week (and I was billing by the hour), I stood at my mixing table, blending pigments and solvents and vehicles, putting up fresh combinations of barely differing base and glaze colours, all the while keeping careful notes; my client would examine each, explain what was working and what wasn’t, which direction to try… and I’d go back to work. And because colours need to be dry to get to a true ‘read,’ we could only do one or two samples a day, depending on the weather and the quality of the daylight.

After some three weeks of this, I hit a wall. I was mixed out, there was no colour left in me. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t! I talked to my client. She sympathised, understood, told me to take a few days off. I did. After a day or two of whimpering, I felt better, squared my shoulders, and went back. I nailed the sample in two more days.

And so it must be with writing. I believe that if you really, truly, want to write, you will, and no power on Earth can stop you—except yourself. To write (or paint, or play the tuba, or learn Latin), you must (i) make the time, stealing it from wherever necessary without shame or remorse: those who love you will learn to deal with it, the rest can go to hell; (ii) accept that you’re going to make mistakes, and always will: but you’ll learn from these, and eventually become good enough that nobody but you notices them; (iii) either settle on the process that works for you, or—like Forrest Gump running till his crutches fall to pieces—discover that you can, at need, actually write anywhere, anytime, on anything; and (iv) rediscover your characters, rest and/or recover until you’re over whatever is causing your block.

Last of all, as Stephen King tells us in his excellent little book, On Writing, it may help to remember that writing is, beneath all the hopes and fears, glitter and magic, just a job like any other. It’s work, and no more mysterious. But for many of us, it’s the most rewarding work we’ll ever do.

So after all that motivational hooey (yeah, I know, I said a few posts ago that I didn’t believe in all that, but, hey, sometimes it helps), the post after next will be about process, and a few things that work for me, and for some other writers I know.

Now…

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