Writing Advice – Craft & Process

Collecting the posts I’ve written about the craft and process of writing

500 words

So it appears that I finished a story draft this week. It’s not a good story, not yet, but it started the week with a 200 word opening and by Wednesday night I declared the draft zero complete around 2,500 words. It will need some rewriting – that’s what this weekend is for – and it’ll need some fleshing out in order to make the story bits actually resemble a story, but it’s a draft and it’s finished and it’s broken a somewhat long drought. Many droughts, actually, in that I have a) finished a story draft, b) that’s shorter than 7,000 words, and c) actually started the next story more-or-less right away.

The pattern I’m aiming for is 500 words a day, every day, and a finished story every two weeks. My instinct is to scoff at that pace, to write it off as easy to accomplish, because my instincts were forged in the days when I taught session classes at university and worked about ten hours a week. It’s easy to be a writer when you’ve got that much free time to waste. These days I find myself looking back and wondering why the fuck I didn’t do more with the opportunity.

Aiming for 500 words a day suits my life right now, even if my daily average tends to hover somewhat higher. Most I can get this done by getting up a half hour earlier, doing a short sprint before heading to work, and catching an early enough train that I can get  another short sprint done before work actually starts. That gets my 500 down early, and anything I do in the evenings is gravy.

So far, it’s working.

Experience says the first week is the easiest, though, and it’s the next two stories that’ll be harder to produce. The whole thing may fall apart in two or three weeks, in which case I start looking for another alternative to work with.

Why Count Words

It’s been about two weeks since the QWC Rabbit Hole, and you’re still reading blog posts that I drafted during the manic two-and-bit days of writing. This, it should be noted, is quite by design – I knew I was heading down to Melbourne, knew that the Continuum weekend wouldn’t give me enough time to write anything for the week that followed, and I knew that one of these days I wanted to get sufficiently ahead of the blog that I could have some posts in reserve.

One of the more interesting conversations I had during the rabbit hole was with a participant who didn’t quite understand why we counted words. She was writing…well, to be honest, I don’t really know, but I’m guessing it was memoir…and the concept of hitting a set number of words every hour/day, even the concept of writing 30,000 words in a weekend, was utterly alien to her. We ended up discussing it during a tea break, after expressing our mutual distrust of the instant coffee on offer.

“Why do it?” she said. “What’s the point? Surely they need to be good words.”

Me, I’m all about the word-count as a metric. It comes with the territory when you’re writing short stories, and there are limits to how many words you can write before things become, well, difficult to sell. Also, short fiction writers tend to get paid by the word, so you can do all sorts of interesting “can I buy food with this story when it sells” mathematics when you’re tracking the number of words.

Further, I like the way in which word-counts render things far less complicated. A novel of a hundred thousand words is far more daunting than the knowledge that I’ve got to write a chapter of five thousand, even if that chapter ends up being a little over or under. Planning for scenes of a thousand words to two-thousand words gives me something to plan for every day.

But the real reason I like word-count as a metric is even simpler than all that: it forces me to keep moving forward.

I’m a rewrite as a I go kind of writer, which has its advantages and drawbacks, and there’s plenty of times when the desire to finish 2,000 words a day is the only thing that keeps me producing the next paragraph rather than editing. It may be an arbitrary measure, but the 2k goal means I have a benchmark for I’ve done a good day’s work and I’m sufficiently ahead that the manuscript can handle a little revision. The desire to hit 2K keeps me from deleting a thousand-word scene just ’cause I think of something better. It forces me to live with the words for a while, to see whether they’re really as bad as I think.

I’ll admit it’s kind of arbitrary. As a metric, wordcount means nothing, which is why I frequently used other metrics as a back-up. You know, in the old days, when I spent more time writing and panicking about writing than I do now.

I understand people who a baffled by word-count, just as I understand that there are people in the world who enjoy football. I don’t share their preferences and I’m utterly baffled by their affection for the game, but I don’t really hold it against them. Nor, to be honest, do I spend that much time pondering what causes them to go out and watch people they don’t know run up and down a field.

Writing is a weird thing. Idiosyncratic, personal, and utterly without rules. There’s no point where you really look at something and say “right, done.” There’s no measure that will tell you you’ve done a good days work, ’cause a good day’s work is so variable that such a measure would be useless.

This used to drive me crazy. Really, really crazy. I used to beat myself up constantly for not getting enough done.

Word-count was the thing that let me know how to stop. It’s the thing that lets me think, yeah, I’ve done good today.

‘Cause the quality of the words may vary, and it may take me longer than I think to get to the end of a story, but in the end it’ll all work out as long as I keep showing up and piling words on top of each other.

Four Words All Creative Practitioners Should Live By


Okay, here’s your warning. I’m going to rant my fucking pants off in this one, ’cause I’m mightly passionate and this post has been sparked by something that really pissed me off. If you’d prefer to skip the rage, feel free. Go read something else. I won’t be offended. Just remember those four words, ’cause everything else is just a cautionary tale explaining why they’re important.

Respect your goddamn audience.

There’s plenty of reasons to follow this advice, but here’s the big one: if you don’t, there’s pretty good odds I’m going to hunt you down and carve out your fucking spleen with an ice-cream scoop. Especially if I’m part of that audience, and you’ve contrived things so I don’t have the option of leaving when it becomes obvious that your fucking lack of respect is wasting my goddamn time.

This one irritates me enough that it probably should have been a conversation with the spokesbear entry, if only so I can present the illusion of having an even keel, but the truth is that this is one of those things really pisses me off. I’m firmly of the belief that anyone who takes their audience for granted should be herded into an open field and hunted for sport, preferably by the audience members who were utterly ripped off by the creator’s complacency. There is no leeway there. There is no reasonable part of me when it comes to this. An audience is a privileged, not a right. Treat them as such.

This is not to say that you need to be brilliant all the time. I recently went to an open mic night that was marked with a steady streak of performers whose approach to the audience seemed to be a hearty fuck you, you’re stuck here and you have to listen to me. People were permitted to tell long, rambling stories without time-limit or, in many cases, a point. At least once I considered throwing a beer bottle at the performer on stage, on the theory that I’d either hit them and they’d shut up, or I’d miss and get ejected from the venue. Either way the night would be over and I’d be fucking free.

Instead I just sat there chanting Skip to the Fucking End when it became obvious that the rambling wasn’t actually leading to a point, it was just rambling. The whole demeanor of their performance said they didn’t give a shit about the people they were performing for, and it wasn’t just a case of nerves. If they’d rehearsed, they hadn’t rehearsed enough to be comfortable with their material. If they’d given their material any thought, they hadn’t really given it enough. Listening to them was excruciating, because the venue was cramped enough that there was no way of getting up and walking out until intermission was called.

It wasn’t all bad. There was one guy who’d rehearsed his piece and actually had some idea of how to work a crowd. His performance was great. Polished, entertaining, short. I’d go seem him read or perform again in a heartbeat. It was the performance of someone comfortable in front of a crowd.

But my favourite was actually the least showy performance of the night. It was the most nervous, verging on hesitant, and it consisted of a woman who stepped up to the microphone and told a story she’d obviously written and memorized. Occasionally she stumbled, occasionally she’d pause and struggle to remember what came next. It wasn’t polished in any way, but it was rehearsed and it was shaped and it was personal and it drove towards a poignant point. In short, they’d taken their brief for the evening and thought about the audience and respected them enough to prepare.

It’s about being good. No-one is good all the time. Everyone starts somewhere.

It’s about respecting your audience enough to show them that you’ve put in effort, even if you’re nervous as hell. It’s about showing up prepared and willing to do your best, not a half-arsed facsimile of your best.

You don’t have to be good at what you do, but you have to show your audience that you’ve respected them enough to deliver something you’ve put effort into. You have to appreciate the fact that they’re giving you their time and their eyeballs and their money. You owe your audience, your audience doesn’t owe you.

And if you forget that, then you’re in trouble, ’cause I’ve only got a vague idea where the spleen is located and I’m perfectly willing to keep digging around with that ice-cream scoop until I find it.

Great Writing Advice Learned from Pro-Wrestling, Part Two

The second thing that can’t be learned about writing by listening to Al Snow rant: People don’t have a physical relationship with pro-wrestling.

This is fricking brilliant, and it’s something every SF writer should memorize immediately.

If you look at most forms of athletic competition there’s usually a correlation between the most popular sports and the sports we play as kids. Every Australian male kicks a football around, for example, and gets forced to play cricket as part of their school curriculum. We’re forced to run, at the very least, at school sports days. Depending on your school, you may be forced to swim.

When we watch people competing at a professional level, we have muscle memory and experience that tells us how hard these things are and allows us to appreciate the achievements of professional athletes. We know just how good they are, because we know our own limits.

Professional wrestling doesn’t have that. How many of us can legitimately claim to have been Irish whipped into the ring ropes, or jumped from the top rope to plant an elbow on a downed opponent. Even the less flashy moves are unknown to us, since most schoolyard fights don’t start with a collar-and-elbow tie-up (it’s interesting to note that in Japan, where Judo is arguably a national sport, pro-wrestling is a lot more realistic and considerably stiffer because people understand the skill required for the various throws in the same way we understand the difficulty of bowling a cricket ball).

So without that physical association, pro-wrestling goes for the emotion. It tells stories from the heart, using familiar emotions to invest people in the characters and make the fans want to see one guy win and one guy lose. I don’t know the physical actions involved, but I understand winning. I understand wanting to get into it with someone I disagree with, or someone who insults me. I understand wanting to be the best, and the desire to get revenge on someone who screwed me or ruined a moment of triumph.

Those emotions give context to the in-ring action, and that context gives it the meaning it lacks because I don’t have the physical relationship.

All of this can be used by spec-fic writers. We frequently display worlds that our readers don’t have any physical relationship with, presenting them with impossible experiences that we need to make comprehensible. And the way we do this is to look for the familiar – little actions, big emotions, a place for the reader to connect – so there’s a sliver of truth amid the fantasy we’re presenting.

I was never good at sports. At all. I dislike watching most sports as a result, ’cause my physical realionship to cricket or football or anything else is largely filled with bad memories and inadequacy.

But story, I totally get story. I get the connection between action and emotion.

And in this respect, Al Snow, professional wrestler, is a source of truly brilliant writing advice.

“There’s so much I could’a done if they’d let me”

Today, because I’m in such a cheerful mood, I’m mainlining Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album. Somewhere in my CD collection I’ve got a copy of his b-sides and rarities triple-disc thingy, which includes a four-part, extended thirty-minute long version of O’Malley’s Bar. That’s going on next, ’cause sometimes, misogyny be damned, you just need a series of songs about killing every mother-fucker in the room in an unrelenting and utterly debauched fashion.

This is my alternative to curling up on the floor of my bedroom and having a temper tantrum, ’cause really the closest I’m getting to articulating my mood these days is the ability to randomly shout “Hate! Hate! Hate!” at the top of my lungs. There are very few things in my life that aren’t filling me with loathing at the moment, from my less-interesting dayjob (which puts Fight Club into all kinds of interesting new perspectives for me) to my more interesting dayjob (which I hate, primarily, because it’s kinda awesome and not my primary dayjob, which just makes the other dayjob even worse) to my neighbor (seriously, *turn down your fucking stereo at 4 AM*) to myself (which, really, is a let me count the ways kind of thing).

None of this is particularly new – anger has probably been my default state since I was thirteen or fourteen – but I usually have a better grip on it than I do right now. I can cobble together a mask that more or less resembles a civilized human being and go out and function in civilized society. Normally I can swallow anger and work at it rationally, figuring out solutions, or I can vent at the things that are making me less than pleased through the medium of fiction. Or I’ll catch up with friends and rant at them until the anger burns itself out and I’ve overused the words fuck, at which point I’m more clear-headed and able to behave myself a little better.

The anger’s rarely directed at specific people, except for myself, since it’s really just a general pissed-offness at the world. I’d actually be more worried if I woke up and I wasn’t pissed off about something, because the world is a terminally unfair place and I continue to exist in it, which means I’m going to keep finding things that make me angry.

For all that it’s got a reputation as a negative emotion, I actually think anger is important.

Anger is, after all, where writing comes from.

It’s possible this isn’t a universal thing for all writers, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. I vaguely remember Ray Bradbury talking about stories coming from a place of anger in his Zen and the Art of Writing collection of essays, and there’s any number of writers with overtly angry or political stances being displayed in their fiction. The artistic myth of the angry young man is almost as predominant as the artist driven crazy by the muse, and of the two I find the angry young man more palatable (at least, once man is switched out for person). At least the AYM/W is in control of his/her artistic practice, rather than sacrificing it to some unnameable entity and refusing to take responsibility for what they do.

Really, that’s all window dressing. The real reason fiction comes from a place of anger is this: all stories are revolutions.

It’s one of those ideas that’s ingrained in the very structure of the story – whether you spend a thousands words, five thousand words, an entire novel, or a three-book trilogy – you are building towards a climax. One of the best descriptions of the climax came from a film lecturerer I worked with a few years back, who described it as point where the most important moral decision of the book is made, the one that changes the character’s world forever. The good are rewarded, the evil are punished. As a writer you establish a new status quo, correcting whatever flaw in the world existed in the opening of the story, and so there’s a series of political decisions being made about what’s incorrect and what isn’t*.

And really, if you’re not angry about something, why bother going to the trouble? Whenever I’m stuck on a story, or I look back on something I’ve written and don’t really feel satsified by it, it’s invariably because the anger isn’t there. Whether it was never ther, or if I simply lost it, is occasionally unclear, but it’s certainly gone in that particular reading.

*Want an example? Lets take, say, Star Wars. For all that the original Star Wars ends with a bang at its climax, the actual destruction of the Death Star actually pales next to the two big decisions made just prior – Luke Skywalker turning off his computer, rejecting the technology (which, in Star Wars, is the tool of the Empire since they’ve got the big death machine) and embracing the spirituality of the Force, and the sudden return of the Millennium Falcon to save the day and align the morally gray Han Solo with the white hats from there forward. Destroying the Death Star is really just the reward for those decisions. Destroying the Death Star is a physical victory, but the emotional victory of these two moments

Cold Cases: Thinking Out Loud

Okay, to start with, Michael Moorcock talks about the genesis of the Dorian Hawkmoon books over at the Tor site. I mean, seriously, why are you still here?

Also, Twelfth Planet Press has released the guidelines for their forthcoming Speakeasy anthology full of urban fantasy stories set in the 1920s.  I totally dig the idea of this anthology, but I’ll admit that all of my initial ideas will be bloody hard to pare down to short story lengths (unless, of course, I finally break down and write the 1920’s zombie story set in Tahiti I’ve been threatening to write for four years now, but Alisa at TPP is quite adamant in her hatred of zombies so it’s probably not the best starting point).

Okay, fair warning, the following entry is rambling and scattered while I think through a specific problem related to the project du jour. If you have no real interest in writers thinking out loud, I suggest going back and following the Moorcock link above. I mean, it’s Michael frickin’ Moocock. The man is awesome.

I still have my right molar, freshly canaled after Wednesday’s trip to the dentist, and for the time-being I am free of the antibiotics and anti-inflammatories that induced last fortnight’s lethargy (although my gum’s still infected, and they may return). The rental inspection is over, I’m slowly coming to terms with my decision to stay in the flat rather than move when my lease is done. I’ve fretted about the various ways I can make enough money to not die over the coming months, although I’ve yet to come up with a solution beyond “write more, apply for more jobs, and pray.” I have considered doing the washing up and decided against it. I’ve read a bunch of things. I’ve talked myself out of three separate projects that have absolutely nothing to do with getting Cold Cases finished, nor getting Black Candy finished after that. I’ve finally sent off submissions to all the places I’ve said I’d send submission too. I’ve re-watched an entire season of the Gilmore Girls while scribbling notes on scrap paper. I have been scolded by the spokesbear. I have argued against his scolding. I have lost the argument.

I think I am, officially, out of distractions.

Which probably explains why the Cold Cases rewrite is officially underway after rebuilding the opening scene yesterday. It only amounts to a thousand words all-up, but my original aim was only three paragraphs and there’s a lot of alternative openings there should I need them in a few scenes time.

I’ve been thinking about openings quite a bit for the last few months. Personally, I blame Samuel Delany’s On Writing, in which there’s a strong argument for openings that follow a location/situation-and-action/affect structure. Fiction isn’t a film, Delany says, and the tendency to open stories with action – say, a character opening a canteen and pouring out the water – lacks impact when it’s unsupported by setting elements that give a context to that action. Setting enhances the data a reader has to work with, making each action more definitive and meaningful, but more and more people start with the action because we’re learning the structure of a story from film and television where the setting details are signified automatically as part of the medium. It’s near impossible *not* to betray setting elements when you point a camera at something, so the focus can go on the action; prose hasn’t got that ability, so the context comes first.

And to be honest, I can’t really argue with that. It’s remarkably solid advice from someone who is far smarter than me when it comes to the field of writing. And that scared the ever-loving crap out of me, because every time I sat down to work on something and I didn’t follow the setting-through-affect structure my subconscious has another tool to batter me with and make me give up. My subconscious is good at picking up on things like that, and if ever that was a writing rule worth learning it’s this: all writing advice becomes counter-productive when it gets in the way of getting stuff done.

Part of the reason this has been bugging me in relation to Cold Cases is the way it reflects Raymond Chandler’s preferred approach to an opening passage. I ransacked the small pile of his work that seems to have taken up occupancy on my bedside table last night and ran through the first paragraph of each, taking them apart in an effort to figure out what it is I liked about them and why they worked. The random sampling I came up with was pretty setting-intensive:

It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aledis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home. (Farewell, My Lovely; Raymond Chandler)

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars (The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler)

The housewas on Dresden Avenue in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena, a big solid cool-looking house with burgundy brick walls, a terra-cotta tile roof, and a white stone trim. The front windows were leading downstairs. Upstairs windows were of the cottage type and had a lot of rococo imitation stonework trimming them. (The High Window; Raymond Chandler)

The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart. (The Lady in the Lake; Raymond Chandler)

Moreover, when you start reading a whole bunch of Raymond Chandler openings in a row you start to notice a series of scene-setting tricks coming out again and again. The locking-in of time, season and weather that occurs in the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep tends to occur within the first four paragraphs of most Raymond Chandler books; ditto the kind of assumed local knowledge that occurs in Farewell, My Lovely. Only once in six openings did Chandler open with a character rather than a location, and even then the location is still mentioned by the end of the first line:

 The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lenox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other. (The Long Good-Bye; Raymond Chandler)

To be fair, there’s a good reason for Chandler to break his pattern in this one. The first chapter of The Long Goodbye is essentially one long set-up for the rest of the book, establishing the friendship between Marlowe and Lennox that’ll provide a stronger context for the action when the mystery kicks off in Chapter Two. I spent a lot of time pondering that yesterday, prior to writing, and I’m pretty sure it contains the kernel of thought I needed to get out of the drafting-paralysis that set in after reading Delany’s book. Because once I slotted context into the tripartite structure he advocates instead of setting, things start to become a little clearer.

The opening paragraphs to the first Aster book, Horn, is almost pure context without any real setting details included. It largely gets away from it by being a riff on the more obvious Chandler-esque traits I noticed back when I first started reading hardboiled fiction:

The phone call came at three am, about a half-hour after the body arrived at the morgue. It didn’t wake me. I don’t sleep well, not anymore. I used to work Homicide back when my life made sense and insomnia’s one of those bad habits I picked up on the job, right up there with the cigarettes and the tendency towards one glass of gin too many. It’s just another little twitch to remind me that my body doesn’t pay attention to the lies I tell myself about the past. (Horn; Me; You can still buy it over here if you’re interested)

I suspect I get away with this kind of white-room set-up of the story because Horn is shamelessly meta-textual in its approach. At it’s core the book assumes a kind of familiarity with hardboiled/noir tropes and the tropes of unicorn fiction, and I didn’t necessarily want people to be starting with a clear image of the setting so much as a clear idea of which genre the story was situation in. It’s an easy narrative trick to pull (easy enough that I probably wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote Horn), and it probably explains why I keep getting into discussions with people about whether Horn is set in an American or an Australian setting*. Without situating the reader within the reading expectations associated with the Hardboiled genre the revelation of what killed Sally Crown at the end of Chapter One doesn’t have the same effect.

Cold Cases is a different book to Horn in a lot of ways, but the biggest is that it doesn’t revolve around the kind of bait-and-switch of genre traits that defined the first book. It’s still merging fantasy and hardboiled, but that merger isn’t the driving force that makes me want to finish the story the way it was in Horn. Which is probably just as well, since I doubt it’d work a second time (primarily because I tried, back when I made my first attempt at the sequel, and it fell flat). This time around the backdrop that’s providing a context to the action is largely Aster’s backstory and that’s a lot harder to set-up.

Yesterday was a day of experimenting with that. Still not sure I got it right, but at the very least I’ve got an idea of how to determine whether it’s doing the wrong thing once the rest of the manuscript forms up. And that’s as far as this train of thought goes before my head starts hurting and the spokesbear cracks the whip once more.

*Australian, for the record, albeit filtered through a noir lens with names changed to protect the city I based it on.

Some Awesomeness, Some Writing Advice, Some Help Needed, and Some Horn Spotting

1) Two Reasons Angela Slatter is awesome

The latest Clarkwesworld magazine has an interview with eight Emerging SF authors, including the insightful and rather startlingly talented Angela Slatter. She says some smart stuff, as do the rest of the interviewees, and it’s well worth a read. If, however, you like you’re writing advice in a more direct and focused form, I really suggest heading over to Angela’s website and read through her advice on editing. Actually, I’d advocate printing out the entire post and keeping it handy next time you’re proofing something. I’ve been lucky enough to have stuff edited/proofed by Angela before and I can say with certainty that she knows of what she speaks here.

2) Interesting Writing Advice from Across the Interwebs

Still on the writing front, I’d also recommend going and taking a listen to Mary Robinette Kowal’s guest-spot on the Writing Excuses podcast. It crams four really useful pieces of advice to fiction writers (based on puppetry, interestingly enough) into the space of fifteen minutes. I transcribed them and put them in the folder where my draft of Black Candy is waiting for me to start rewriting, just as a reminder that I need to think very clearly when I start replacing all my habitual non-verbal tags that get scattered through dialogue.

3) Help Needed/Gen Con Australia

Do you know someone who loves fantasy and SF authors and roleplaying games who doesn’t suffer from stage fright and will be in Brisbane between the 18th and the 20th of September? If so, get them to drop me an e-mail at peter.ball@genconoz.com because I’m in need of some volunteers who’d be willing to MC some panels at this year’s Gen Con Australia. This is your basic call for interested folks – e-mail me for more details.

Yes, I realise this is an odd way to go about it, but I’m short on time and the usual pool of folks I’d ask has gotten shallow in recent years, and I figure most of you who are reading this are SF and Fantasy fans who might know some folks. Given that we’ve had to do this fast and there were set-backs due to the computer-crash*, I’m going to go with odd-but-direct rather than time-consuming-but-standard. 🙂

*after all my gloating about my back-up plans, it was discovered that I’d failed to back-up the outlook files for the account used in this exercise.

4) Horn Spotting

Horn got a nice write-up from Narelle Harris on her blog. As always, there’s the excerpt:

Horn is a novella, a fast read at 80 pages – a short, sharp uppercut of a book. Parts of it are hard and ugly, as they need to be for this kind of story, but it’s also a ripping yarn. It may leave you desperate for whisky and a cigarette, but you’ll finish it knowing you’ve fought the good fight.

As usual, I’ll mention that copies of Horn are still available from Twelth Planet Press (Not *many* copies, sure, which still blows my mind, but there are still some there if you’re so inclined…)

And now I need to go figure out what’s happening with the sequel. And figure out something to cook for write-club tonight. And get some gen-connery organised. ‘Tis a busy day in the office for me, which is as it should be really.

Links and Things

1) Chris Green Distills the Clarion Wisdom

I went to Clarion South with Chris two and a half years ago. He’s a smart man, very interested in things, and on something of a roll of late as far as publications and sales go. Over the last week Chris started distilling some of the major lessons we learned during the workshop into a series of very short, controlled blog posts. Given his terse nature, these are short and easy to digest, and they’re basically the high points of the workshop in collected form (and since he doesn’t believing in tagging posts, I’ll send you straight to the first entry and let you follow along from there).

2) Philip Pullman on How to Write a Book

This amuses me in its accuracy.

3) Reviewage andPimpage

– My comrade-in-writing Ben Francisco – and the first man to tell me “this should be a novella” – engages in some Horn Pimpage on my behalf
– The Fix diggs my story Clockwork, Patchwork, and Ravens which appeared in Apex Magazine back in May
– The Internet Review of Science Fiction describes On the Destruction of Copenhage… as “mundane surrealism.”

4) Rewriting as an Animated Giff

A very short-but-interesting post from Elizabeth Bear on the re-writing process, showing the evolution of a paragraph through multiple layers of revision.

5) My Projects

Man, the last week has been all about the new projects. I started the new novel draft, started revision of another project, started preparing for the next draft of Claw, agreed to do some work for Gen Con Australia, and tentatively agreed to take on another project I cannot yet talk about. I also ticked another entry off the 80-point-plan of awesome, making my year 3.75% awesome. If you see me looking wild-eyed this week, it’s not because I’m stressed – I’m just learning to cope with an opportunity-rich environment again 🙂

6) Oh, hell, let’s cap it off with a youtube clip

Because I’m far to fascinated by this film-clip at the moment.

Some Ideas About Ideas

So I’ve been thinking about where ideas come from lately, because I keep seeing this idea floating around that explaining where they come from is somehow secretive and difficult to do. I didn’t get that, the hesitation thing, because I’d always thought the ideas were kind of simple to explain even if no-one was asking me to do so. Then I got interviewed for the first time and realised how hard it is to come up simple, easy answers off the cuff, and there’s petty good odds that if I had been asked the idea question (which, thankfully, I wasn’t) I would have resorted to some kind of “writers hate that question” rhetoric on the basis that it’d stall for time while I thought up a decent answer.

So, as an in-case-of-emergency measure, I figured I’d work out an answer before I needed it. And my explanation goes a little like this:

Imagine an equilateral triangle. Put “confluence” at one point, “other people’s ideas” at the second point, and “knowing how stories work” at the third. The ideas happen in the middle of the triangle,  because ideas are basically a combination of those three things. Sometimes I’ll lean towards one point more than than the other two, but all three are usually at work in some way.

I think it’s probably the “knowing how stories work” work part that makes the entire idea process so mysterious to non-writers. Ideas are actually pretty cheap and easy. Everyone has them, all the time. Hell, I’ve had three in the last five minutes [i]. You can take pretty much anything and use it as the hook for a story once you know the structure and techniques of telling one, so finding a good story idea is largely a matter of knowing the right processes to develop a small concept (say, I’m going to write a story about a guy with a clockwork arm) into a full-blown narrative.

The trick here is realising that the initial idea is almost never a full story – it’s just a hook to hang other things on while the story develops around it. Once you’ve stepped over that hurdle the ideas themselves are largely secondary. Or perhaps its in realising that stories are really lots of ideas, come up with over time. Either way, I think the whole story thing is important – an average idea can be turned into a competent story, but the absence of storytelling chops will kill even the coolest concept.

“Confluence” is borrowed from a short story by Neil Gaiman in his collection Smoke and Mirrors. Partially I use it because it’s a good explanation, partially because I like the word (and it’ll give me an excuse to use the word conflate later in this post, and conflates just one of those words, you know?). In Gaiman’s story the logic goes something like this: “Confluence. Things come together. The right ingredients and suddenly: Abracadabra.” And sure, it may have been put forward by a fictional writer talking about the creation of the fictional story he’s written inside the story we’re reading, but if you can remember that one aspect of the pyramid then the other two tend to take care of themselves.

Basically we’re talking about two ore more seemingly random elements coming together, fusing in your minds eye and becoming the basis of a story. It doesn’t matter what those things are – experiences you’ve had, stories you’ve been told by friends, short descriptions of a place, stuff you’ve heard on the telly – once you find the right connection between them you’ve got the beginnings of a story. Sometimes this happens by coincidence, sometimes its’ an active process. Either way, it’s not terribly difficult – a lot of beginner writing exercises are based on this principle. Two examples, off the top of my head: pick a character, put them in a setting they obviously don’t belong in and write about how they got there; or pick three different places (say, a cemetery, a shopping mall, and a water-slide park) and figure out a story that uses one each as the setting for the opening scene, middle scene, and final scene.

There’s a great essay on imagination by Sean Williams where he posits that the imagination is like any other muscle, and it works better the more you get used to using it. Thus the easiest way to have ideas is to pay attention when you have them. It’s not like they’re things that happen uniquely to writers an artists – most people spend much of their everyday life making connections between things that are going on around them and other stuff floating through their head, so it’s just a matter of paying attention. It’s all about asking the right questions to get you started. For me, questions are less interesting than that moment of confluence. The way I write is all about finding the right combination of concepts, finding the tension when two things come together in an expected way. I like putting things at right angles and what develops, then asking the questions that’ll flesh it out into a story. The stories that start with big flashes of energy are almost always the result of two things that create a lot of awkward tension (say, unicorns and autopsies) that immediately link to one of my big narrative kinks (aka, the stuff I really exploring as a writer). This isn’t necessarily inspiration energy that comes from the muse – the combination above led to Horn, and they came out of some fairly dogged and conscious pursuit of a concept to pair up with “virgins and unicorns” that’d lead the story away from familiar territory.

As for the importance of other people’s ideas, well, you know how science is basically a process of one person coming up with a new theory based on a variation in someone else’s ideas? Writing works much the same way – people building new work on top of other people’s ideas, finding new twists and permeations that suit their own narrative kinks. Over time the continued repetition of certain ideas gave us the basics of narrative structure, which gradually led to the accretion of genre traits, which lead to movements within genres, and so forth. Things clump together sometimes, and those clumps become the basis of new ideas (after unicorns and autopsies, the real energy in Horn came when I conflated the big clump of tropes known as Noir into the mix. Ask people who were there when I wrote it what I was like, and I’m fairly sure the phrase giggling like a schoolgirl may come up).

Other people’s work is probably the only place that I really see inspiration at work in the writing process, because while I don’t buy into the mythology of the muse I do believe in responding to other people’s awesomeness. If someone does something utterly cool – and I mean utterly, enviously cool – then my natural inclination is to try and achieve something similar. Not necessarily replicate it, because imitation isn’t that much fun, but finding the new angle on the same technique, or idea, or setting. A new twist, a new tension. Interestingly, I also find a lot of inspiration in ideas that haven’t worked out – not just the merely bad stuff, but the stuff that starts with a good concept and fritters it away. These moments tend to come in more of a “oh god, that should’ve been so much cooler” kind of vibe. Because cool is relative (again, see my note on Narrative Kinks above) and the way I’d like to see an idea play out isn’t necessarily universal.

And that’s me and the idea process. I’m not sure how universal this is, but I’d be interested in hearing how it fits into other people’s processes. It certainly works as an explanation for my approach though – pick any story I’ve written and I’m pretty sure I can unpack the origin of it’s various components using these three vectors as a guide (and they probably would have been easier to explain with a specific story in mind, but it would have taken three or four blog-posts instead of one).

[i] if you’re really interested, they’re I should write a series of speculative fiction love stories set in a Laundromat, I should start a website called readings from a couch that features authors giving youtube readings of their work from a big red couch, and a story that starts with wet footsteps across the floor, leading towards the toilet and the family pet drowned within. Pretty ordinary ideas, and unlikely to get used for anything, but I could probably do something with them if I really wanted too. And before you ask, I know exactly where all of them come from.

Because PIL had it right

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am, essentially, a person that wavers between the frivolous and the downright irate (and even the source of my irritation is essentially frivolous, when you get right down to it). I realise this because a week ago I made the decision to stop being lazy, and part of this was making a list of all those things that I keep meaning to blog about without ever getting around too it. It’s a big list, too – over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of ideas pass through that have captured my imagination and had me thinking “hell, yeah, I really should say something about that.” The net result of this is a half-dozen files on my computer which contain the beginning, and even the middle of posts, but never really catch the feeling of being something I’d put up on the interwebs.

So today I’m giving in and being frivolously ranty about two things that have annoyed me of late. I can do angry ranting; John Lydon had it right when he talked about anger and energy. Have at it:


Frothing Rant One: I Am Not a Dear Reader

Over the last couple of days I’ve read a bunch of stuff – essays, blog posts, comments, whatever – that choose to believe that I am a dear reader. I know this, because they address me as such, just as they address every other person that stumbles across their prose. It’s right there in black and white: As you know, Dear Reader, blah blah blah. And godsfuckit, I get angry every time it happens. Most of the time I’ll stop reading right there; I’m not a dear reader. Nor am I a gentle reader, which may seem like the logical alternative to the phrase. What I am, when you get right down to it, is a bloody hostile reader full of piss, rage and vinegar. If, as a writer, you’ve made any kind of assumption that I’m on your side then I’m afraid you’re dreadfully mistaken.

Instead, big ol’ bitter meany that I am, I tend to start at the direct opposite of the spectrum from the kind of folks who use phrases like Dear Reader. I assume hostility and a willingness to put things down, a lack of sympathy on the reader’s part that says “engage me*, you bastard, or I’m walking off and reading one of the hundreds of other books/blogs on my list of things to do before I die.”

I’d like to say this has been startling revelation to me, but it basically confirms something that I’ve suspected for a long while – I’m not on the authors side, and I suspect this is so for the vast majority of readers.  This isn’t to say we don’t want to see the book succeed – heck, why start reading if that’s the case – but I have no problems walking off if it doesn’t do *something* to keep us there after the first few pages.

*engagement being, of course, very different to entertainment.


Frothing Rant Two: Why I Hate Frame Stories  Self-Help Books

I mentioned my growing use (and anxiety about) of frame stories in current drafts last week, which prompted my old compadre villainous_mog to ask the following question on the LJ feed: “If I ask what a framing story is, will it provoke a hate-fueled rant of stabby words?” I tried to answer to question there, but as predicted there was a rant associated (albeit one devoid of hate and stabby words). Fortunately, thanks to the wikipedia entry, there is a short answer to be given on the matter: it’s basically a technique in which the opening of the narrative sets the stage for digressions into sub-narratives contained within the frame; in essence, a means of telling stories within a story. The most immediate fictive example that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman’s story October in the Chair, or collections like 1001 Arabian Nights and Canterbury Tales; cinematic examples would be films like The Princess Bride or Big Fish.

The problem with all those examples is, of course, that they don’t suck*. They’re examples of frame stories done right, or at least frame-stories forgiven for being frame-stories by virtue of historical importance. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of some examples that don’t suck outright, but it’s hard to do – partially, I think, because a smart editor isn’t going to put a crappy frame-story tale out into the world and partly because a frame story that goes wrong is far easier to disregard and ignore than a simple bad story.

Actually, no, I take that back – I can think of two widely-read examples that do suck, although it’s primarily because their use of the framing technique is particularly insidious rather than ineffective. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both come from the field of self-help; the first is Who Moved My Cheese and the second is a book called The One Minute Millionaire. I’ve been subjected to both of these – the former through job-search training many years ago, which may well have marked the official point that I gave up on employment services having anything worthwhile to teach me, and the second through an ex-girlfriend who believed heavily in self-help (not that I don’t, to be honest, but I believe strongly in discriminating and being critical of what you’re taking in).

The reason these two books strike me as insidious reflects the real reason I tend to have problems with frame stories. In Who Moved My Cheese the story primarily revolves one character telling another, whose down on his luck, the story of mice and little human beings trapped in a maze. The story is, of course, a metaphoric parable and it aids the down-on-his-luck story-tellee considerably, revolutionizing his life and sending him out into the world a different man. The reason this is evil is because the narrative is basically manipulative – the frame-story sets you up to believe that the advice you’re getting in the parable is actually useful because there’s someone right there, in the story, being transformed by it.

Bad self-help books love this technique because it’s easy to be drawn in by it, and because you can manipulate the reading and interpretation of your work. Smart readers will call you on your bullshit, obviously (and if you want to see this in action, I direct you to an old post by John Scalzi, who attacks the foibles of the text with considerable more aplomb than I do). My memory of the One Minute Millionaire is considerably less detailed than the first book – primarily because it’s longer, but also because there wasn’t anyone locking me in a room for two hours with the expectation that it’d take that long to finish reading a sixty-page book** – but I took an immediate dislike to the way it used a similar technique to make an argument about getting rich that flew in the face of my even my basic understanding of economic theory and the way the world works.

This does illustrate my basic concern with frame-stories though – it’s a technique that makes it very easy to guide meaning, but also to add the illusion of depth or meaning to a story that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Part of the seductive allure of the frame is that you can make things seem important even when they’re not, or make things work by adding in a particular reaction to something. That’s why I tend to look at it like a warning sign when I find myself writing frames for my stories – like my tendency towards fractured, fragment-driven narratives it’s a familiar technique that I fall back on rather heavily when I’m not sure how to make things work. This doesn’t always mean that I’m going to look askance at every story using said techniques, but I’m going to sit down and ask myself some serious questions about why I’m using it and whether it’s the best way to go.

In sitting down to write this I started wondering what it takes for me to enjoy a frame-story, and basically I think it’s a technique that’s at its best when there is a definite and meaningful tension between the two (or more) stories being told. In the aforementioned Big Fish, for example, the stories are driving the narrative within the larger frame, making overt changes that the primary protagonist wants to resist. It works because there’s a real resistance there – the real story we’re being told is about the relationship between the protagonist and his dead father, which is constantly informed by the tall-tales his father told. Interestingly, I think October in the Chair works because it goes in the opposite direction – the complete absence of a meaningful connection between frame-story and framed-story invites the reader in, basically triggering the sensawanda that drives most Gaiman fans to seek out his work and then enjoy the possible links they come up with (that said: I think it also works because I enjoy the frame story more than the framed one, which I’ve often skipped on re-reading). In a bad frame story the frame is at the service of the inner story, enhancing it; in a good one, the inner stories are there to enhance the outer.

*actually, if I’m honest, I could live without the outer frame story in The Princess Bride movie. And I could live without the framed story in October in the Chair, since the frame is generally the place where the really fantastical stuff happens and the story that’s being told has a strange disconnection from it.
**I was sufficiently bored that I read Who Moved My Cheese a couple of times, hoping like hell that I was missing something that’d make it worth the time. There wasn’t.