Writing Links

Tools of the craft, tricks of the trade, helpful reminders for you all*:

*Most of these are not restricted to any one genre or type of fiction.

Writing Links, Three Bags Full By: Alyx Dellamonica

Contains a number of useful links to other writers blogs. I commend it to your attention. I also recommend following Alyx’s blog as she tends to post a lot of good writing advice on a regular basis.

Writing Fight Scenes By: Will Hindmarch

Brings up a few interesting points about pacing and sentence structure that I hadn’t thought about. The article also contains links to further reading on fight scenes.

How to Write A Novel in Two Months By: Jeff Vandermeer

Interesting read, though I’m nowhere near being able to finish a novel in two months.

Nascence By: Tobias Buckell

I highly, highly recommend that you check this out. Buckell (one of my favourite authors) has put together an anthology of seventeen stories that he wrote before being published. This book is a gold mine; the stories alone coupled with Tobias’ explanations have taught me a lot about my own failed short stories.

Writerisms and Other Sins By: C.J. Cherryh

A list of helpful tips on sentence structure and grammar to help newbie writers avoid writing badly.

The Importance of Deadlines

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

– Lao-Tzu

So last week I finished and submitted my short story “Arboromancy” to the Writers of the Future contest. Not all that impressive or glamorous, I know, but the important thing (in my mind) was that I finished the story. And submitted it.

Still, you say, what’s the point? I think that submitting the story allowed me to prove a few points to myself.

“Arboromancy” is a story that I’ve written at least six times in different incarnations. Each time I wrote it there was something wrong with the plotting or the narrative or the idea. The latest effort was one with which I was mostly happy. In the end, I can’t keep revising the same stories over and over and over ad infinitum. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that its deceptively easy to continually fine tune a story, to agonize over descriptions, adverbs, and other minutiae. But, that’s not how you get better. Following the advice of Tobias Buckell and others, the best way to improve at writing is to finish stories, then move on to the next one.

I decided to submit to Writers of the Future so that I would have a hard deadline to meet each quarter. At a minimum, I can finish four short stories this way while I work on my novel.  I’m not saying that this method will work for everyone, as there is always the exception that breaks the rule. But, as a few professional writers have pointed out, each story you complete teaches you incrementally more about different aspects of fiction, while allowing you to experiment with different narrative methods.

If I had held on to the story, revising and endlessly polishing it, I would have never gotten an accurate measure of my writing skill. Now, granted, the story I submitted was a little rough around the edges and could have done with more revision. But submitting it, puts it out there with everyone else’s material. If it doesn’t win, well, what have I really lost?

Writing to a deadline wasn’t all that different from all the writing I did in school. For “Arboromancy” it meant that instead of coming home from work and following my usual routine (eat, walk dogs, waste time on internet, write a few hundred words), I compressed all of my non-writing activity into a shorter time frame and dedicated a bigger chunk of my time to writing. When the writing was good I did nearly 1,500 words a night. Doing this allowed me to finish the story in ten days. Add revision time to that, and I probably spent the better part of three weeks to finish that story. If I can do it once, I can certainly replicate my efforts on my next few writing projects. Because that’s what deadlines do best. They beat procrastination. Based on a few back of the envelope calculations:

– If I finish on average, between 8,000 and 12,000 words a month, I can write around 96,000 – 144,000 words in a year. That’s most of a novel or a half dozen short stories.  Even allowing for 10-20% editing cuts for concision, meeting my monthly goal and my quarterly submission quota will mean that I finish my projects, if nothing else.

It comes back to being professional. Wanting to write is well intentioned, but to get further than that, you have to meet your goals.

Research Help for My Novel in Progress

Hi all. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’m writing a novel this year. Its a first attempt for me and I had no idea what to expect when I started planning it. One of those unexpected surprises was the amount of research I have to do. In a post, I covered the following topics I was researching:

Research Topics:

My actual research list is quite extensive, but here’s a small sample of some of the topics I’m currently researching:

– Architectural design of different types of buildings. [edit: looking specifically at palaces, schools, manors, and ornamental structures]

– True accounts of grave robberies and famous heists.

– Engineering systems of the 18th and 19th century.

-Djinns (mostly folkloric and historical records)

– Tombs/Strongrooms/and Bank Vaults

The novel is a steampunk heist story set in a world influenced by Eastern cultural flavours and traditions.  There are a lot of books written on heists, but I haven’t had too much success (besides the Internet) finding books on the other topics. If anyone has a good book recommendation or three, please drop your suggestion in the comments. Alternatively, if you have a book recommendation that doesn’t entirely fit the research topics, but feel that it might be an inspiring diversion–please feel free to let me know in the comments.

Thanks

-A.

A Recipe for Elephant Soup

“For the first step you have to hunt and kill an elephant… Its all pretty easy after that…”

-Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics

I caught those words on an episode of the Search Engine podcast, in the context of Ryan explaining how to successfully create a web comic. Now, the more I think of it, this is exactly what writing is about: you spend 99% of your time learning how to hunt the elephant, and maybe after years and years of struggle you actually catch one. *

*Note: I only use the elephant for illustrative value, its probably wiser (and easier) to write a novel.

Writing a Novel Part II: Details

In Part I of this post I announced that I’m writing a novel. In this part, I’ll discuss some of the particular points about the novel itself, including: what its about (or how much I feel comfortable saying), the topics I’m researching to write it, and the tools I’ll be using to write/plan the novel.

What Its About:

I’m hesitant to reveal too much of the novel before I actually start writing it, being one of the writers who’s superstitious about talking the story away before getting it down on paper, but here’s a little summary:

Its a coming of age story set in an 18-19th century steampunk world, at the height of an industrial revolution. The culture, the people, and the magic system are all heavily influenced by near and far Eastern traditions (think elements of India and 1001 Arabian Nights)

For those less familiar with the above terms, I’ll re-frame it in terms of mashing up movies:

Its like The Count of Monte Cristo + James Bond+1001 Arabian Nights + heist story

And that’s about all I’ll say concerning the story till I write the novel.

Research Topics:

My actual research list is quite extensive, but here’s a small sample of some of the topics I’m currently researching:

– Architectural design of different types of buildings.

– True accounts of grave robberies and famous heists.

– Engineering systems of the 18th and 19th century.

-Djinns (mostly folkloric and historical records)

– Tombs/Strongrooms/and Bank Vaults

My Writerly Tools:

Scrivener: Scrivener is absolutely the bees knees for a large number of working novelists. I’ve been using the beta version in Windows, and its been hella useful in organizing my thoughts/planning scenes/holding all my research notes. A very big thanks to Tobias Buckell for recommending Scrivener on his blog.

Gedit: A minimalist text editor. It does what its supposed to, and doesn’t get in the way with formatting options. I’ve been using Gedit since Cory Doctorow endorsed the benefits of a text editor over a word processor

Delicious: I use Delicious on a daily basis to bookmark research links from all over. I’ve accumulated quite a bit of research through Delicious and I plan to keep using it as I write this novel.

Writing A Novel Part I: My New Year’s Resolution

As the title indicates, I’m going to write a novel this year. To be fair, I decided to write this novel sometime in early December of 2010. A lot of the planning and deliberation happened over that month, before I decided I was fully committed.  There were a lot of factors influencing this decision, but I’ll highlight the most relevant reasons here:

For the past few years I’ve been writing short stories; all of which consistently sucked. It could be my inability to write a decent story in under 10,000 words or it could be the fact that I’m not cut out for writing short stories. It took me a while to realize that the short story, when compared to the novel form, requires an entirely different set of writing muscles. Brevity is key. The story arcs I built in my short stories could easily be spun out into a novel length.

Not too long ago a critiquer at one of my online writing groups mentioned this in his critique of one of my short stories:

There is a LOT going on in this story.Three time periods,
an invasion, an infectious outbreak…drug addicts, a wedding and a love triangle, two ambushes, a king’s death and funeral procession…something to do with magic trees, banishment, and betrayal. Add to that 18 named characters… That’s more than one new character every 500 words.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn. I’m hoping to grow as a writer by writing this novel. For instance, I can finish a short story in under a month if I work fast. I’m projecting that this novel will keep me busy till the end of 2011 (research, writing, revision, and multiple drafts are all included in this estimate.) It’ll be the longest work I’ll write to date, provided I can keep up the momentum through the year. I remember reading once that the novel that’s hardest to write is the one you’re writing right now. The first one: doubly so. I’m literally in uncharted territory here, books on plot and writing notwithstanding.

For everyone who wants to check up on how I’m doing or to follow me on this journey, I’ll post regular updates to this blog. I’ll set up a word count by week and maybe talk about some lessons I’ve learned from novel writing. I don’t expect to make a dent in the word count over the next month or so, as I’ve compiled an extensive list of research material to get familiar with some of the ideas I’m developing for the novel. (See Part II for more info. on that!)

And that’s about it. I look forward to the entire journey, and all of its uncertainties, that await.

Night-Watch: A Trunk Story

‘Night-watch’ is a story that I wrote three years ago. I didn’t think it was all that great when I wrote it, but it seems decent enough now, (actually there are numerous things that are wrong with it, nonetheless…) so I thought I would share it with you all.

The dead Earth is orbiting a red Sun in a future that’s fast growing obsolete. The last humans are in orbit around Jupiter; the others long ago set sail for the infinite beyond. And us? We are the inheritors of the Earth: the mythical dead planet. We’re dead too–we do not live or love or hate. No. In this dying hour, we keep our lonely vigil, and look to the stars. Many of us have travelled across seas that have long since emptied, have collected a posthumous library of the artefacts of man. A museum will be built. And if they return–our forefathers? our gods?–we will lead them to this graveyard of history and they will see what the last stewards of the Earth have crafted. An empire of bones and dust.

I am Not a Serial Killer Book Review

I Am Not A Serial Killer is perfectly titled for its subject matter. Fifteen year old John Wayne Cleaver has sociopathic tendencies, which he works very hard to control through various rules designed to make him act normal. Of course it doesn’t help matters that his family runs the local morgue and he’s surrounded by cadavers. Neither does his fascination with serial killers, a topic on which he’s well versed.  When a suspected serial killer leaves a trail of bodies in John’s home town, John is determined to stop him, even if it means breaking all of his own rules. From here, the book becomes a villain against villain cat-and-mouse chase.  Cleaver narrates the entire book in the first person and the criminology/serial killer trivia he mentions in the book is occasionally interesting in its own morbid way.

The book’s biggest strength is how Wells successfully humanizes Cleaver’s character. At times you forget that Cleaver has a very real darker side, but the scenes with his therapist and his narrative voice informs all of the demons he copes with on a daily basis and how hard he struggles to retain them. As a result, he never really comes off as a one-sided or flat character.  When he does something heroic or cowardly, for example, it is entirely believable and I think the narrative benefited enormously from the first person perspective.

Best Scene in the Book: Spoiler Alert: The scene at the lake where John first encounters the serial killer was utterly inspired and riveting. Wells does an awesome job setting up the reader’s expectations and completely demolishes them. Writing a scene that isn’t telegraphed or foreshadowed at all is a tough narrative trick (esp. with a cynical reader who can spot such things) but I thought Wells did a good job in it.  It is my favourite scene and I pretty much read the book in one sitting after that. End Spoiler If you’re into horror, I’d recommend this book, but also if most horror isn’t in your regular reading diet, this book is a pretty good introduction.

p.s.

Dan Wells co-hosts the awesome Writing Excuses Podcast. Highly recommended for aspiring writers.

Made By Hand: Book Review

I read Seth Godin’s review of Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World a few months ago and immediately put Mark’s book on hold at the library. Now, a few months later my hold was processed and I finally got Mark’s book. Here are some of my thoughts:

Made by Hand is an essay on DIY culture, a maker manifesto written by BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder, a fellow maker (editor-in-chief of Make Magazine) who decided to try out some of his own DIY projects in a decision to live a fulfilling life by being more connected to the world around him. There are two preview chapters and other freebies at the Made by Hand webpage that I encourage you to check out.

Mark’s honesty about the DIY experience, including all the bruises and failures, was what made this such an entertaining read. We follow Mark’s journey from the time he decided to get into DIY projects through his various pursuits: cigar box guitars, espresso machine hacking, urban free-range chicken keeping, and kombucha tea to name a few.  The experiences at times were hilarious, heartbreaking, and educational. I’ve been following some of these projects through the occasional posts on BoingBoing, and reading about Mark’s experience has inspired me to try my hand at a few of my own. (For a recent example, check out my iteration of Mark’s homebrew ginger beer recipe).  Most of Mark’s projects look hard, but they look like too much fun that it would be a shame not to try them out.

There was one passage in the book that resonated with me, and its not a part of the book review proper but I felt it appropriate to share:

A cartoonist isn’t like a writer. Writing requires a special kind of focus. Your mind must be utterly devoted to the task at hand. When I’m breaking down a strip or hammering out dialogue, I’m using that writer’s focus. But drawing and inking are different. They use different parts of the brain. I often find that when I’m drawing, only half my mind is on the work — watching proportions, balancing compositions, eliminating unnecessary details.

The other half is free to wander. Usually, it’s off in a reverie, visiting the past, picking over old hurts, or recalling that sense of being somewhere specific — at a lake during childhood, or in a nightclub years ago. These reveries are extremely important to the work, and they often find their way into whatever strip I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I wander off so far I surprise myself and laugh out loud. Once or twice, I’ve become so sad that I actually broke down and cried right there at the drawing table. So I tell those young artists that if they want to be cartoonists, the most important relationship they are going to have in their lives is with themselves.

Seth, The Quiet Art of Cartooning, The Walrus

Frauenfelder: I wonder if one of the main reasons people garden, or knit, or retire to their garages and basements to tinker, is because they enjoy this unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick, too.

Mark wrote this in reference to a passage where he was describing the meditative nature of rebuilding a chicken coop. The act of rebuilding and allowing his thoughts to wander enabled him to remember events and memories from his childhood. This excerpt resonated with me because I’ve had similar experiences while painting or cooking or working on a repetitive task. Last year, I tore out, sanded, painted and mounted a new shelf rack into my closet. The process took two weeks to complete but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. Friends and family didn’t understand when I tried to explain the peace and meditative nature of the work to them, but it was gratifying to hear that Mark had had a similar experience.

One topic in the book really stuck with me long after I’d finished reading it. Primarily, it was one of the central themes discussed in the book and alluded to in the book’s title. Western culture has gotten used to the idea of disposable material goods. From cellphones and any other number of gadgets to pretty much anything that breaks down, our dominant solution has been to dispose of it and buy another. Mark doesn’t have a solution to change this cultural mindset, although he does recommend fixing your old tools and objects instead of ditching them and buying replacements.  He also got me thinking about my relationship to the tools and gadgets that I own and how I interact with them in every day life. I try not to think about new gadgets in terms of their “marketed desirability”, and approach them instead as tools to serve a specific purpose.

You may not have DIY tendencies, but I still highly recommend Made By Hand as an entertaining and educational story.

Inspired by Mark’s own list, I’ve compiled my own list of DIY projects since reading Made By Hand. I’ve already done some of these, and others I’m hoping to do over the next year.

– Make sushi

– Learn bookbinding (I’m taking a course this November.)

– Start a garden in my backyard

– hack my desk (as in rebuild it, my desk’s on the verge of falling apart.)

– Learn rudimentary woodworking skills