Word Log – 4th January 2014

Bit of a productive day today: 374 on a short story project (The Afterlife of Objects) and 354 on the novel project.

Progress on the second half of the novel has been glacial compared to the first half, which is partially due to me not knowing the important parts of the middle in advance. So I’m basically discovery writing my way towards the end that I’ve planned and plotted.

I’ve found that I write more when I’m working simultaneously on a short story and the novel, but its frustratingly difficult to change gears from novel writing to short story writing. It feels like my brain is mired in long-form storytelling from committing to the novel project, which means that when I return to the short story I struggle with the different structures and constraints presented by that form.

It’s all good though, the difficulty means that I’m at the very least using and expanding my creative muscles.

The Problem of Originality

I was poking around the site of novelist Jonathan Carroll, and discovered the following enlightening passage from a commencement speech given to the 2012 AIS graduating class of Vienna:

I’ll tell you one other thing I have learned over the years: No matter what your interests are, find your heroes. Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision. Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen. In the end, try to become the kind of hero you were once looking for.

– Jonathan Carroll, AIS Commencement Address 2012

A little while later, on an unrelated note, I was googling some of the writer Kelly Link’s short stories, and read the following essay, posted to Charlie Finlay’s LJ from Link’s essay on the OWW site. Have a read:

BEYOND COMPETENT AND ACCOMPLISHED: A CALL TO ACTION FOR WORKSHOPPERS

In the past few months, it seems to me that there is a great deal of competent work being posted to the Online Writing Workshop. This month there was a handful of stories that could have been Editor’s Choices, and all of them are probably good enough, with minor revisions, to sell to some of the second- or third-tier markets. Some of you will sell – or already have sold – your work to _Asimov’s_ or _F&SF_. This is one of the largest workshops that I’ve ever been a part of, and it works. I read the comments on stories, and, like any workshop, there is good advice and bad advice and just plain weird advice being given. Part of becoming a better writer is not only learning what to take away from good advice, but what to take away (or figure out) about bad advice or off-the-wall advice. The only kind of critique that I worry about, in the long run, is the tendency of a workshop to sand off all the interesting edges from a writer. Workshops frequently reward writers of competent prose who can tell stories that are smaller in scope and easy to understand. A group of writers will find it easier to agree about certain kinds of stories – the kind that ought to sell to magazines, because we’ve all read exactly that kind of story in magazines – than about more ambitious stories. The more ambitious or individual a story is, the argument goes, the fewer readers that story will find. So play it safe: tone down the interesting stuff.

The problem with this kind of advice is that there are a lot of writers out there who can pull off an accomplished and enjoyable story. (Like I said, I could have selected a whole handful of pretty good stories this month.) So even though some of you are writing stories that are good enough to be published, you’re competing for magazine space with writers who already have readers, and relationships with editors. Your competent stories may not actually be good enough to sell to the magazines that you would most like to be in. So what do you do? You can make a career (and a name for yourself) out of selling work to second- and third-tier magazines. But again, there are a lot of pretty good writers out there. Even at a zine like _Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, we have a backlog of two issues’ worth of short stories. We have more good work than we can publish. So what can you do?

What I would like to see workshop members doing, now, is beginning to submit more ambitious work. The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks. Some of you are in critique circles that have been going for quite some time. You know each other well enough to have built trust. And it takes trust to show a workshop the kind of ambitious work I’d like to see. Take chances. Write stories whose characters and the endings surprise even you. After you’ve written them, go back over them and make them even more surprising. And don’t think by “ambitious” I mean that the prose style has to be eccentric(although it certainly can be). And read widely – not just the new stuff, and each other’s work, but older work, too. I’ve been reading through the collection PLATINUM POHL, and there are fantastic and alarming and wonderful short stories in there. Are there some inside you?

–Kelly Link

I opened this blog post with those two passages, because they highlight the problem a lot of aspiring writers (including me) face in originality.

I’d argue that the skill required in writing original stories is more than the sum of its parts.

What I mean to say is that one cannot expect to combine beautifully speculative ideas with well developed characterization and poetic sentences to create an original story. These are necessary ingredients for any good story, and as Kelly points out in the essay, can result in technically competent stories.  But, what is the difference between a technically competent story and a story that shimmers among the cobwebs of your memory? The story that you read and reread a week or ten years later when you are seeking inspiration? The stories that you unconsciously mimic when developing your own voice?

For me, these are the stories that illuminate the world in a way that I’m not expected to seeing it, that surprise me at the different meanings revealed in each subsequent rereading, and who I can’t help but mimic in my own writing.

Reading the above two essays at this time have been particularly pertinent because I’m constantly trying to break out of this unconscious and repetitive mimicry of ideas that I’ve read in the fiction of my influences.  Occasionally, I can point to a short story or novel passage and say: that is definitely my voice. Despite this, I’ve come up against a wall because I feel that my ideas are original, but at times too literal.

The best stories, the rereadable ones, have many layers, and the full impact of the story isn’t realized in the first reading. I realize that may be a poor analogy, and too abstract perhaps for what is better termed as a “sense-of-wonder” imparted from  superlative storytelling. Some examples of the stories about which I’ve felt this way:

Scout’s Honour By: Terry Bisson

The House Beyond Your Sky By: Benjamin Rosenbaum

The Cartographer Wasps and The Anarchist Bees By: E. Lily Yu

There are cool ideas at the centre of these stories, and they are peopled by well rounded characters, but that is not all. There’s an indefinable spark surrounding the whole story that brings me back to reading these over the years. And that spark is what I believe is needed for writing truly original fiction. How one develops this spark is entirely another matter. There is no formula for imbuing fiction with this element of otherworldliness. If there is, I would say the majority of it would come from practising the craft on a regular basis, learning from your mistakes, and not being afraid to write something original.

(As a side note, for a very insightful look at how to learn from practising your craft, I highly recommend Theodora Goss’ blog post on Deliberate Practice.)

Let’s be clear: I am not devaluing or promoting anyone’s work based on the metric of originality. I’d guess that most of us come into our preferred genre of by the established authors of the field: whether they be Tolkien, Jordan, Eddings, Gaiman, Bujold or Rowling. In time, we may outgrow these influences and start to tell our own stories.  But more often than not, the new storytellers bring forward a large part of their influences in their own stories. To requote Jonathan Caroll from above:

Learn from them, then take everything you need from them and move on. Soon it will be your turn—with what you’ve gathered and learned try to make something entirely new; something so different and great that it could only have come from you and your vision.

I feel that we ought to take more chances and be less afraid to tell our stories. The beauty of the world of literature lies in the diversity of viewpoints that exist today, not in the innumerable variations of stale themes.  Themes that were once fresh in the storyteller whose hands brought the shadows on the wall to life.

At this level of the writing process, commercial saleability or marketability shouldn’t enter into the equation. As authors all we can control is the quality of our work, pretty much everything else is out of our control. Readers may respond with a strong  like or dislike of the work and there are too many factors at play to ensure the commercial success of a story before it is released into the world. Writer Kameron Hurley wrote a response to Kelly’s original essay, and I will repost a part of it here:

The one thing you’ve got on everybody else in the writing world isn’t talent, and likely isn’t persistence, either. There’s always somebody more talented and more persistent than you.

What you’ve got is you. Nobody else has that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kameron’s statement.  Most importantly, originality should never be forced–a tradition of literary one-upmanship will never produce good literature.  It may be a case I will have to write a hundred stories before I write something truly original, and that’s a chance I’m willing to take. In the long run, it’ll be worth the effort.

A Review of Scrivener

I wrote the following review for a local writer’s group, but I will share the recommendation with the web at large, because I know quite a few writers of my acquaintance who would love to use Scrivener.

Scrivener is the best writing program I have used, bar none. It’s a practical all-in-one drafting program that alternately allows you to either use just the word processing functions or go so far as to organize your entire novel (including research notes/pictures/videos) in one place, print your entire novel manuscript in standard format (that’s .RTF or .DOC if you prefer), automatically backup your novel at scheduled intervals to either a local folder or network drive, and take snapshots so you can edit without committing changes to the manuscript until you are comfortable that its fully right.

Those are the main features, but there are some additional bells and whistles that come with the software. For example, for those who struggle to come up with names for your characters, Scrivener has a name generator that can generate names from various ethnicities and nationalities. It also has a neat word count that will let you track word counts and set goals by scene and also set a word count for the overall manuscript so you can visually track how far you have to complete the novel.

Scrivener also has a really generous household license, which will allow you to install it on multiple computers (for all your family members) and it can also be installed on a USB stick so you can use it on the go.

Also, if you are scared off by the many features offered by Scrivener, I should note that all of these features are in the background and come up to be used only when you need them. You can use Scrivener without ever taking a look outside of the word processor/organization functions (but I suspect most people will eventually use those other features as well.)

If you are unsure about buying Scrivener ($45 for Mac and $40 for Windows versions) they have a demo version free for download at their site. The demo expires after 30 uses (that’s right uses not days) so you can take as long as you would like to test it out before purchasing it.

There are a few great demo videos on the Scrivener site that will show you how Scrivener works. Since the Mac version has been around for a few more years, there are some additional features in the Mac version that don’t appear in the Windows version.

For the Linux users (Ubuntu/Debian/Fedora/et al.) there is a free version of Scrivener available for download. I use the Linux version half the time while linked to a Dropbox account, and I can say that it hasn’t crashed on me yet. I’ve opened the Scrivener file in my Windows O/S after working on it in Ubuntu and everything just works. I should caution you that the Linux build is not supported by the Scrivener folks and should be used at your own discretion.

I hope you will give it a try–I know that because of Scrivener, I’ve had a much easier time writing my first novel. I hope you’ll have a similar success too. Happy writing.

Full Disclosure: I use Scrivener, but I’m posting this testimonial based on my own use. I’m not affiliated with Literature and Latte (the company that makes this product) in any way.

I Don’t Want to Kill You: Book Review

Dan Wells is a magician. Well, ok not really.  He’s a writer, and over the course of three books he takes an unsympathetic/unlikeable character and makes you root for him.  Its one of the hardest tricks in the fiction suite to do right–Severus Snape was an example of this done right– but seeing how effortlessly Dan pulls it off it may as well be magic.

The series, collectively titled the ‘John Cleaver’ books, follows the series’ narrator: a teenage sociopath who exhibits all the classic symptoms of a serial killer (pyromania, lack of empathy, and animal cruelty among others).  John’s family owns the local morgue where John occasionally works, which set the basis for scenarios that exacerbate John’s serial killer tendencies.  John is always in conflict with this inner nature, going so far as to establish rules to act ‘normal.’  In all three books he’s pushed to the breaking point, forced to abandon these rules to take on killers plaguing his home town.

The morgue becomes a major setting in the three novels, as John examines cadavers like a sociopathic modern day  Sherlock Holmes to determine each killer’s modus operandi and emotional weaknesses. Indeed, John cites the famous detective’s saying: “ when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” in the book.

All the morgue scenes, including descriptions of the embalming process, are very realistic (or seem very realistic), which begs the question how Dan conducted the research for those scenes. But I digress. The serial killer facts and lore that John cites in his narrative grounds these books in reality, and helps to humanize the villains to the point that the reader can understand their motivations.  These monsters are not caricatures or cardboard cut-outs. They are in a word: human.

The first book, I am Not a Serial Killer, which I reviewed here earlier, reads like a crime novel with horror elements, or a horror novel with crime elements depending on which way you look at it. I understand that some readers were put off by the horror in the first novel, but looking at the story arc over the trilogy, it was an essential element.  Without giving too much away, John faces a supernatural adversary who engages John in a downright macabre cat and mouse chase.

Mr. Monster, the second book in the series, follows a format similar to Book 1 with respect to the horror tropes, but I Don’t Want to Kill You stands out as the best in the series, and as my personal favorite. It has (no pun intended) killer pacing; it doesn’t feel like a single scene is wasted or unnecessary, and despite a few questionable character motivations towards the end of the book, the main characters were well rounded. And where the first two books tended to emphasize the horror, book three’s focus was romance.  But I hesitate to call it a horror/romance novel because those two elements are so disjointed and might give you an entirely wrong idea about the book.  Instead let’s put it this way: it’s a horror novel where the romantic relationships are a significant part of the story.  Despite the romance, there’s not exactly a happy ending, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it on those grounds alone.

After following this story through three novels to the last word of the last sentence my first thought was: “It can’t end now. There has to be more.” It’s perhaps the greatest testament to Dan’s skill as a writer is that he managed to turn a teenage sociopath into a likeable character. And there’s good news: although the third book ties up the story started in I am Not a Serial Killer, the ending hints at more stories. I’ll be first one to say it.  More please.

-A.

To Get Better, First Write Badly: A Brief Retrospective of My Last Eight Years

I sat down today and looked at my writing projects from the time I started to write seriously (Grade 10) till present day (a period of about eight years.) I’d like to share some of the things I discovered about my writing progress with you all.

– I finished eighteen short stories in those eight years. I’m being charitable to myself when I say I finished these stories. In reality they’re mostly first draft efforts, with the odd story that I took the time to revise into a second draft. Its fairly clear from my progression that I’ve gotten a much stronger handle on plot, character, and setting. I was surprised at how much ambition I showed in those early stories, though I lacked the foresight and skills to revise my work.

– I mostly wrote those stories for myself. I was trying to figure out who I was a writer; imitating various authors, trying different narrative styles, and playing with language. These days I’m more focused in my goals. I’ve been setting deadlines for myself, and started submitting my short stories to markets. Compared to my previous efforts, these stories are getting finished faster and I’m learning more from each one.

– I’ve racked up close to 600 pages in free form journal writing. Writing a journal didn’t directly help my fiction writing but it did get me used to the act of writing on a daily basis. In retrospect, it was an invaluable habit for me to develop.

– A lot of my fiction writing was tied up in collaborative storytelling on online forums. An forum story role play (RP for short), for those not familiar with the concept, is basically a shared world story created and written about by a small group of writers in a fairly standard phpBB forum.  I must’ve written reams of fiction in those days, although most of it is now erased from the Internet.  Looking back on it now, forum storytelling was my first real exposure to longer form story with multiple characters and subplots.

Reflecting on progress is helpful, I think, because in the day to day process of writing we don’t perceive those imperceptible leaps in skill where the broken elements fix themselves and the story stands on its own.

In the end, I wrote a lot of fiction in those eight years, most of it bad. But from each story I finished I learned incrementally more about all the elements of story. In the long run, the last eight years have just been a drop in the bucket. Some of my favorite writers like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss needed twelve unpublished novels and ten years of focused work respectively to get published. Its at once humbling and exhilarating to see how far I’ve come on this journey and how far the road ahead is.

My Favorite Authors and Literary Influences (Pt. 1)

Here is a list in no particular order of some authors that I’ve read, and books that have really influenced me as a writer. I had a hard time coming up with this list in the first place, but at the end of the day, if my house was burning down and I could only save a few books these ones would be pretty high up on that list.

Since the list of authors grew beyond the scope of a single blog post, I’ve divided up the entire thing into two pieces. Today, I’ll share my influences from the early days, and tomorrow I will share more recent influences.

From the Early Days:

Daniel Pinkwater, Brian Jacques, and Roald Dahl

I can’t think of much to say about these three fellows, but they still stand out in my mind as being the most memorable writers of my early childhood. I assume that readers of my generation probably encountered most of the same books I did at Grade 3 and Grade 6. I mean, we all read Animorphs and Goosebumps. But, all the telling details that inform my writing in unseen ways definitely took root when I read the Pinkwater, Dahl, and Jacques triad. In no particular order, these are the books that I’d recommend today.

By Pinkwater:

Lizard Music

Roald Dahl

The Witches

Danny, the Champion of the World

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory

Jacques:

All of the Redwall books, but these are my favorites.

William Sleator

I read Interstellar Pig and The Boxes at a time when my primary fantasy consumption was with authors like David EddingsRobert Jordan, and Terry Brooks. (circa Grade 8,  I’d guess.) These books were weird, dark, off-center, and scratched my itch for new fictional milieus that I wasn’t getting from the epic fantasy genre. Don’t get me wrong, I still do read the occasional fantasy novel, but more than anything I’d read in my childhood, these books pointed to my eventual adult writing influences.

Garth Nix

I’m sure everyone remembers one book very vividly from their childhood, one that inspired a eureka moment when they discovered that they were fantasy fans for life. Most people might point to Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time. And sure, I read Jordan, Tolkien, Brooks, and Eddings. But Sabriel was the gateway drug, the one book that hooked me, made me a fan for life. To this day, some of the most vivid scenes that form the fictional tapestry of my childhood stories come from Sabriel. Besides, the story features a badass necromancer heroine who fights dead spirits with swords and seven magical bells. What’s not to like?

How about you all? Which book first got you interested in sf & f? Or reading for that matter?

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.