Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Default World-Building

June 21, 2017

My brother, Graydon, attended college in Tucson, Arizona.  My dad went to visit him one time, and was fascinated by how lizards were everywhere, much as squirrels were in D.C.  Dad did a great “lizard on a wall” imitation, popping his eyes and rhythmically puffing out his cheeks.  This would make my brother (who had become jaded regarding lizards, orange trees, cacti, and the other exotic elements of his environment) cringe and roll his eyes.

Treasured Visitors

My brother was still living “out west” when I finished graduate school and moved to Lynchburg, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  One time, when he was visiting me, our route took us over one of the myriad creeks that sliced through the town’s seven major and many minor hills.

“What’s that called?” Gray asked.

“I don’t think it has a name,” I said, “except that it’s part of the Blackwater Creek system.”

“Where I live,” he said, “that would have a name.  At every bridge, there would be a large sign announcing the name.  And, much of the year, the creek or river or whatever they called it probably wouldn’t have any water in it.”

It’s all in what you’re used to, right?

I was thinking about that this past week as June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did its usual thing.  Temperatures shot up over 100 degrees every day.  A couple of times we were treated to a 50-degree temperature shift: 50 to 100 on day; 55 to 106 another.  (Yes, I know the latter is actually a 51-degree shift.)  Albuquerque is a mile high, which means we tend toward lower nighttime temperatures.  You bake during the day and pull up the blankets at night.

This morning, as I was walking into my office, I heard quail peeping out front.  A male and female Gambel quail were chatting as they foraged around the seed block we have in the shade of our ash tree.  A lizard raced across the driveway, off to hunt bugs in the sage.

A typical June…

Other things I’ve grown accustomed to in my twenty-some years living in New Mexico: June is not the gentle lead-in into summer.  June is the brutally hot, horribly dry month.  June is the month during which plants are trying to leaf out and flower before they cook.  June isn’t as windy as March or April, but it can be windy: a hot, desiccating wind that sucks the moisture out of anything, including humans.

June.  This is reality.

Except I’ve noticed that most Fantasy (and some SF) world-building defaults to a typical East Coast to Midwest seasonal pattern.  Spring is pale green unfolding to the music of gentle rains.  Summer temperatures gradually grow warmer, building to the “dog days” of August.  Both seasons are wet, humid, clinging.

Where I live, June is almost always the hottest month.  The plants that survive welcome the monsoon rains that – if we’re lucky – start in mid-July and taper off in August, returning in mid-September.  The indigenous peoples learned to plant in zones that would accommodate these cycles.  They crafted pots that were meant to preserve the moisture in the seeds they saved to plant the next year.

June is our Fire Season, when wildfires take out hundreds, often thousands, of acres.  That’s part of “normal,” too.

Normal includes lizards, quail, long-eared jack rabbits, coyotes, hawks, and vultures.  And, of course, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and black widow spiders.  Native plants have a lot of stickers.  Or they poison the ground around them so that nothing else can steal their water.  Or both.

Here’s the problem with world-building based on my normal, rather than the normal that “everyone” knows.  You need to explain it.  The other is the default template, reinforced by hundreds, if not thousands of stories that use the same template.  The climate had better be crucial to the story (think Dune) or you’re just slowing down the story.

A pity, I think…

The Revenge of Mega Radish!

June 14, 2017

Yep.  That’s a radish.  And the thing Jim put in the photo for scale is about the size of a standard baseball – that is, about nine inches in circumference.  It doesn’t look real, does it?   We should have used a ruler.

Mega Radish!

That’s not the only radish that size we’ve gotten, although it is the most pleasingly symmetrical.  For those of you who take interest in such things, no, these weren’t seeds intended to grow giant radishes.  They were standard Easter Egg radishes.

So, what else (besides giant radishes) is going on here?

There’s the mystery of the missing cucumber and chard seedlings.  (Solution: probably snails.)

Or maybe not…   We haven’t seen any snails lately.  I wonder why?

Join me now and we shall delve more deeply into the mystery.

Darkness has fallen.  One by one, the lights in the surrounding houses go out.  In the tiny ornamental pond, toads gather among the stems of the blue pickerel weed and aquatic plantain, soaking up moisture before going on the prowl.  They are the great night hunters of this urban garden, confident in their supremacy.

But, as the toads are about to heave themselves from their refreshing bath, a peculiar vibration ripples through the sandy soil.  The toads sink below the water so only their tiny eyes protrude above the surface.  Doubtless this saves them.  For, at that moment, from the garden bed west of the pond it comes, moving with astonishing lightness on tiny rootlets, leafy greenery towering above, sensing the least motion in its surroundings: Mega-Radish has arisen…

Forth it stalks, seeking what?  The toads do not know.  They only bubble sighs of relief as the gargantuan vegetable passes by the pond, and vanishes from sight.  But the hawk moths, large as hummingbirds, deep drinkers of the nectar of the sacred datura, are awake, dreaming on the wing, believing at first that what they see is a result of imbibing too much potent pollen.

Moving on many minute rippling rootlets Mega Radish races around the shed, down the path, to a small plot where infant seedlings of Swiss Chard and Armenian cucumbers tremble, rooted in fear, unable to move as the slime trailing terrors, the horrid garden snails, emerge from their daytime sanctuary within the tangle of Virginia Creeper, prepared to engulf the tender leaves of the infant plants.

Night after night this horrid slaughter has been repeated.  Night after night the seedlings have been helpless, but tonight the cry for help has been heard.  Mega Radish, hero of the garden, has ripped itself from its vegetative torpor and come to save the day.

Red and round, it launches!  It rolls!  Beneath its incarnadined rind it smashes the snails.  They are demolished so completely that their shells become naught but flakes of calcium to feed the soil, their slimy bodies return moisture to the ground.  The seedling cucumbers and chard wave their thanks.  The arugula – too spicy for the snails, but nonetheless terrified – joins the chorus.

Mega Radish takes a bow and then, on twinkling rootlets, vanishes into the darkness…

Well, maybe not.  But it’s a fun idea.

Have a lovely day.  May Mega Radish watch over you!

TT: A Question of Identity

June 8, 2017

JANE: Last time you said you had an obvious question for me.

ALAN: Yes – I have three, actually.

JANE: Three?  I begin to feel as if we’re entering a fairytale – or at least a Monty Python sketch.

A Character in Amber

Prithee, sir knight, what is your first question?

ALAN:  The first concerns Roger Zelazny. I hope I’m not betraying a confidence, but you told me once that Roger had put himself into one of the Amber books. Can you tell me about that?

JANE: Oh…  Roger’s cameo is hardly a secret.  It happens in The Hand of Oberon, the fourth Amber novel.  In it, Corwin, one of the Nine Princes of Amber whose tale is told in these novels, ventures into the dungeons and has a short chat with one of the guards.

Is this ringing a bell for you?

ALAN: No, not at all. It’s many years since I last read the book and my memories of it are very hazy.

JANE: The scene is short, so let me quote it in full:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean, cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.

“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”

“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”

“You enjoy this duty?”

He nodded.

“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

“Fitting, fitting,” I said. “I’ll be needing a lantern.”

He took one from the rack, brought it to flame from his candle.

“Will it have a happy ending?” I inquired.

He shrugged.

“I’ll be happy.”

“I mean, does good triumph and hero bed heroine? Or do you kill everybody off?”

“That’s hardly fair,” he said.

“Never mind. Maybe I’ll read it one day.”

“Maybe,” he said.

 ALAN: Oh, that’s nice. As you know, I’ve met Roger and I had several conversations with him. The dialogue in that piece is pure Roger. I can so easily imagine him saying those things. He captured his own wry, sardonic humour perfectly.

Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Jackson always have a cameo in their own films. How good to see a writer following that tradition in prose.

JANE: Yes.  But it really doesn’t capture Roger…  He wasn’t only wry and sardonic.  He could also be ridiculously silly.  When we lived together, he used to sing nonsense songs to the cats.  He could be sweetly sentimental.  When our guinea pig had babies, he was the one who wanted to keep all of them.  (We did.)

You don’t need to take my word for these aspects of his personality.  The forthcoming anthology Shadows and Reflections includes a final, non-fiction piece by his daughter, Shannon, who was a high school student when she lost her dad.  It’s very moving and, of the many tributes to Roger that I’ve read, it comes closest to capturing the man I knew and loved.

ALAN: I’ll definitely have to buy that when it comes out. I only saw Roger’s public face, of course, but I can easily imagine him being all those things.

JANE: What gets me is how many people want Roger not to be Roger but to be one of his characters.  The most common are Sam (from Lord of Light) or Corwin (from the Amber novels); a runner-up seems to be Conrad from This Immortal.  These people support the contention that these characters “were” him by showing similarities in skills or life experiences, creating the false syllogism that “if this is true, then so must the rest be.”

It’s a long-standing issue, going back to some of the earliest literary criticism written about Roger’s works (interestingly enough, his childhood friend, and literary biographer Carl Yoke is the least likely to make the equation), but one that persists to the diminishment of the multi-dimensional human he was.  I’ll stop there lest I begin to rant…

ALAN: That’s actually a very good rant. It generally makes no sense to go that far. You might just as well say that David Copperfield (the hero of the novel, not the stage magician) is Charles Dickens – after all, they are both novelists!

Have any other writers of your acquaintance put themselves into their books?

JANE: Well, yes and no.  I can’t think of examples off the cuff, but I certainly know writers who perpetually return to the same themes because they are working out their personal issues.  I don’t want to go further than that.

ALAN: Perhaps that’s wise.

I know you quite well, and I’ve read most of your published fiction, but there is nobody in any of your novels that I could point to and say “That’s Jane.” How much of that is deliberate?

JANE: Probably quite a lot.  I was very influenced as a Lit student by how some of my professors seemed to want to dwell less on the literary work of an author and more on his or her life.  Yeats’s obsession with Maud Gonne.  T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown.  D.H. Lawrence’s various entanglements.  On and on…  Sure, some of that was in the work, but there was always more, a whole lot more, but much of that was treated as if it had only been created as a disguise for the author “really” writing autobiography.

At the same time, I read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and was very hit by his discussion of how the artist transmutes life experiences into art.   It’s in the second section, if you want to read all of it, but the final sentence captures some of his argument.

“…but the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”

ALAN: I think natural human curiosity makes a reader want to know more about a writer that they admire, if only to try and understand what makes the writer approach their art in the way that they do.

I think I told you that I used to live in Eastwood, the Nottinghamshire village where Lawrence was brought up. There were still people in the village who remembered him and I’m sure that if he’d ever come back to the village they’d have hanged, drawn and quartered him. Even forty years after Lawrence’s death, there was still a lot of residual anger about the way he’d portrayed them. I’m sure that says something about the literary choices he made, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what.

Cases as blatant as Kingsley Amis, who we discussed last time, are actually quite rare. But nevertheless there’s a very famous SF writer who some people think put a lot of himself into his books. Shall we talk about him next time?

JANE: Absolutely!

Pretty Nonsense

May 31, 2017

Recently, I mentioned to a friend that, as an interruption in a busy weekend that was too full of Things To Do and too little with fun, Jim and I had dropped into an antiques and collectibles mall.  My friend asked, “Out of curiosity, what interests you most?  Furniture?  Jewelry….?”

Junk?

My answer probably didn’t surprise her.  “Neither.  Weird stuff.  Oddities.  Sometimes flat-out junk.  Occasionally, I’ll buy one of those jars full of odds and ends of costume jewelry or buttons.  My short story ‘The Button Witch’ came directly from making such a purchase.”

It did, too

Often I don’t buy anything at all.  I just wander around, soaking in all the things that people have decided are important enough to keep, that other people have decided are important enough to buy.  I’m not looking for inspiration as such but, without such fueling stops, after a while the only things I would end up writing about would be cats, gardens, and guinea pigs.

Sometimes, though, we do buy something.  Old books, especially ones long out of print, are favorites.  No surprise there.

Last year Jim bought me a magnificent Chinese brocade shawl lined in velvet.  When I protested I had nowhere to wear such an elaborate thing, he said, “You can wear it to the Bubonicon Afternoon Tea.”  So I did.

Another time I bought a battered wooden lap desk.   I took it home, sanded it (with a little help from Jim) and then sealed it with “pecan” Minwax.  It still looks a bit battered, but shiny.  I’m considering covering the lid with a collage of cancelled postage stamps, and then using it to keep my stationery.  However, I need a lot more stamps before I can do that…

Such trips, where what we’ll see is completely unpredictable, are like mini-holiday for the brain.  I’m curious.  What do you do when you’re feeling a need for stimulation?

Open Letter to Annaka

May 24, 2017

Dear Annaka,

Last week on Twitter, I asked you about your writing.  You told me you write YA.  That you like to write about girls/women, friendships, and adventures, large and small.  You also admitted to feeling you have a problem with becoming verbose – specifically that you found yourself getting caught up in character exploration side plots that, once written, you ended up really liking.  Therefore, you didn’t want to discard them.  Instead, you wove them back into the plot.

Some of My Gardens

Finally, you wondered how I managed to keep the “richness” of my characters in my own stories without dragging down the plot.

First, thanks for the compliment…  Second… I’ll admit, there’s no real formula.  I thought that here, freed from the telegraphic communication constraints of Twitter, I might offer a few thoughts.

Since your bio note indicates that you’ve attended Viable Paradise workshop, which is taught by some very skillful editors and writers, I’m going to skip the basics and get to the philosophical.

I think the sort of story you like to write – in which friendships are as important as adventures, and that those adventures can be both large and small – probably lends itself to getting lost in character side plots.  Have you read the National Book award-winning “Penderwick” books by Jean Birdsall?  They’re very much that sort of book.   I love them…

However, readers of SF/F usually expect their adventures to be on a grander scale.  They often expect the characters they read about to be somehow super-powered, whether by means of magic or science.  A wandering side plot about very human issues – no matter how much characterization it offers – is not what they want.  They want – as one (adult by the way) reader admitted to me – to read about people who don’t get messed up by life events the way they themselves do.

So the first question to ask yourself is “Am I writing the right form of fiction?”  Would you be happier writing stories in which character exploration and development is the point, not something that has to compete with defeating dystopian governments or saving the space station or whatever?

The genre you’re writing shapes everything else.  Pretty much the first question any SF/F writer gets asked is “Why do you write ‘that stuff’?”  There are lots of answers – the ability to use the future or an alternate world to explore a social or moral or ethical question.  Because it’s what you like to read.  Because it’s a hot market.

For me, it’s because it’s how my brain works.  Except for occasional short pieces, stories without the speculative fiction element don’t hold my attention.  That, in turn, shapes how I characterize.  I slip inside the person and, while I’m writing in their point of view, I am that person.  Because people rarely go off into side plots that aren’t tied to the issue at hand, my characterization stays tight and yet gets expanded.  If someone remembers an event from the past in any sort of detail, it’s going to be tied to the events of the present moment.

I know a lot of things about my characters that don’t make it onto the page.  This material may never make it onto any page except as notes to myself.  However, I think it’s there in the story nonetheless, keeping my characters three-dimensional, making them react consistently to situations, keeping them from being pawns slid around according to the needs of the plot.

Here’s another question…  Are you sure novels are what you want to write?  Oddly enough, you sound very much like a short story writer (all those side plots) who is forcing herself to write a novel.  Side plots are very different from sub-plots.  Sub-plots exist in tandem with the on-going action.  A good example of this is Elise’s crush on Jet in the early Firekeeper books.  By itself, it would be a pretty slim romance story.  Tied into the novel, however, it helps flesh out the consequences of the competition for King Tedric’s throne, one of which is a girl’s broken heart and her realization that romantic daydreams shouldn’t be used to make major real life choices.

Back in the day, it was more common for writers to explore various aspects of a character or setting in short story format.  These days, too many relatively untried writers push themselves into writing novels.  Maybe you want to write short stories instead – stories about the same people and places, sure.  That’s completely acceptable.

Charles de Lint’s “Newford” stories had all the more punch because he was able to tell so many tales about an interconnected group of friends in a shorter form.  (His Dreams Underfoot is a short story collection that manages to read like a novel.)  David Drake’s Old Nathan is three stories that build on each other, but each stands on its own.  Many an early SF/F novel was actually cobbled together from strong short stories.

Maybe you should consider whether your side plots are really independent short stories.  Don’t weave them in or feel forced to condense them.  Pull them out and find out what the novel really is about.  If it crumples without the side plots, you’ve learned something interesting.

You described yourself as “pantser” as opposed to a plotter.  As I explored in another of these Wanderings, another term for “pantser” is “gardener” – this balanced against “architect,” as a term for those who like to build their stories out in advance.  But I know you’re also a “real” gardener. You know that (no matter what people who don’t garden think) gardens don’t “just grow.”  They need planning, pruning, watering, thinning, fertilizing.

A verbose novel is like an overgrown garden, not really a healthy place.  Consider the shape of your garden.  (Genre.)  The type of your garden.  (Short story.  Novel.)  Then tend appropriately.  You may find your imagination taking a new and wonderful shapes!

Happy Writing!

Jane

Into the Zone

May 10, 2017

Last week, a reader named Shona sent me the following question.

Ogapoge in the Cuteness Zone

“I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.  I do take pleasure in writing.  However, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Thank you!”

Although I gave Ms. Shona a short answer at the time, I kept thinking about what she’d asked and decided to pursue the matter further.  After all, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t find himself or herself struggling to get into the zone at one time or another.

My short reply ran as follows:  “Sometimes I play a game of solitaire. Sometimes I go back and read the paragraphs leading up to where I plan to start. No one trick!

“Please remember. If you end up starting, then those ten to fifteen minutes aren’t wasted. They’re only wasted if you don’t start writing.”

There are as many rituals writers use to get themselves into the writing zone as there are writers.  Some are purely practical.  Some are almost mystical.  Some writers use one sort, some the other, some blend both types.  I’ll say right off, I fall into the “both” category.

One of the best of the practical “get into the zone” rituals is to go back and re-read what you wrote during your previous session.  This not only reminds you where you were when you stopped, it gives you an opportunity to polish and refine.

Wait!  I hear you say.  What if I haven’t written anything?  What if I’m trying to get started on something new?

Well, I’m going to assume you had an idea for a story or you wouldn’t be writing it.  Since you can’t review, why not try one of a variety of brainstorm exercises?  Freewriting is pretty much what it sounds like.  I prefer to do it on a sheet of paper with a pen, but you can also do it on a computer.  Without any attempt at providing a good opening or clever characterization, take that idea and just start writing.  Feel free to talk to yourself as you do so.

Idea.  Princess knows her sister’s latest suitor has been turned into a frog by an evil sorcerer.  She must save him, which will involve kissing him, because that’s how enchanted frogs are traditionally turned back.  Why her and not her sister?  After all, sister would be a princess, too.  Maybe sister is a coward?  Maybe princess one is better with magic?  Yes.  I like that.  Okay.  Princess one is better with magic.  Her sister is pretty much a waste of air, but she’s the heir apparent, so princess one feels she must help her.   (The previous paragraph owes a cheerful debt to Frogkisser, a novel by Garth Nix.)

A variation on freewriting which doesn’t even require you to write in sentences or sentence fragments is to write down scattered words.  Princess.  Enchanted Frog.   Find and kiss.  Boring.  Been done.  Variation?  De-enchant through magic.  No love.  Duty.

The same tricks can work when you get stuck in the middle of a project, maybe because you can’t find the right name or word or whatever.  Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and just get the ideas down.  Take a break and do the research or world-building you were putting off while the idea was “hot” and you were writing as fast as you could to get the basic bones in place.

All of these are practical suggestions, but since writing is a creative process, many writers need to put themselves into a “creative” zone – a mental space a little bit different from the world of daily concerns, like getting dinner on the table, or cleaning up after the cat, or whatever.

Music is one way to do this.  Some writers – Carrie Vaughn and Charles de Lint both spring immediately to mind – even construct “playlists” for a given book or story.  Playing these in the background puts them into the world of the book.  I don’t do anything as systematic as constructing a playlist, nor do I always listen to music but, sometimes, when I’m feeling slow music is a good way to perk myself up.  If I’m distracted by some concern, music can occupy the part of my brain that otherwise would be fussing, freeing me up to write.

Other times a simple game like solitaire can provide just a few minutes in which to hypnotize yourself out of the daily world, into the world of your story.

What doesn’t help a writer get into the zone is checking e-mail, chatting on social media, or doing other things that pull you out of your creative zone and into the outside world.  Take care that research (which I mentioned above as a possible way to stimulate) doesn’t become an outside activity, rather than one that carries you deeper into the zone.  I’ve heard many writers admit that a quick on-line search for one simple fact led to a wasted hour or more as they followed link to link to link, further and further away from what they actually needed.

I know at least two writers who have a “writing only” computer, unconnected to the net, because they know they need to be saved from temptation.  World-building can be similarly dangerous, especially if you are the type to get drawn into minutia.  I tend to save massive world-building sessions for when I’m feeling stale and overly focused on plot.  This different sort of writing encourages me to remember that a story is more than the plot elements of “this happened and then this and then this…”

So, practical or mystical or a bit of both?  Whatever you choose, remember this: If what you do to get yourself into the zone concludes with actual words being written – whether in the text of your story or something that will contribute to the story – then you haven’t wasted your time.

It’s only when the fine tuning, or the research, or the world-building, or the games of solitaire or choosing the right album, or whatever become what you do instead of writing that your time has been “wasted.”

I know we have a large number of writers who read these Wanderings.  I’m curious.  What do you do to get yourselves into the zone?

FF: Drenched in an Idea Storm

April 28, 2017

Still writing and brainstorming rather than curling up with a good book.   Instead, I’m doing things like sitting on the ground, weeding, while my thoughts are in another world.  I haven’t even been listening to audiobooks as much as usual.

Kwahe’e Rocks!

When I have the foundations in place, reading will actually be productive because it will let my subconscious have space to work on the next part, but right now the subconscious is tumbling out all the things that have been swirling around.

Reminder!  I’ll be at Page One Books on Saturday, April 29th, between 3:00-4:30 taking part in a celebration of Independent Bookstores.  See my website (like below) for details.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

A Wizard Abroad by Diane Duane.  Audio.  Book Four in the series.  She does a good job with doing novels that stand alone within a larger tapestry.

In Progress:

Whatever After by E.M. Tippets.  ARC.  About half-way through.  Quite fun.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek and the Dominos by Jim Reid.  As regular readers of this Fragment know, periodically, I read rock bios.  This is a bio of an album, with fascinating material on the various people who helped create it.

Also:

Back issues of Archeology and Smithsonian, because…

Event and Eventful

April 26, 2017

This coming Saturday (April 29th), I’ll be over at Page One Books here in Albuquerque between 3:00 pm and 4:30 to help out as they join in the Independent Bookstore Day celebration.

Me at a past Page One event

Why are we celebrating independent bookstores?  Well, the folks at Page One explained this so well, that I’m just going to quote them.

“Independent bookstores are not just stores, they’re community centers and local anchors run by passionate readers. They are entire universes of ideas that contain the possibility of real serendipity. They are lively performance spaces and quiet places where aimless perusal is a day well spent.

“In a world of tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads, bookstores are not a dying anachronism.  They are living, breathing organisms that continue to grow and expand. In fact, there are more of them this year than there were last year. And they are at your service.”

This coming Saturday (April 29th), I’ll be over at Page One Books here in Albuquerque between there, ready to try and show you where to find just the book you’re hoping to find.  If I can’t, I’ll hand you over to one of Page One’s staff members.

Even if you aren’t looking for a specific book, I hope you’ll drop by and chat.  This is one of those rare events where I can just relax and visit – no panels, no scheduled events.   I hope you’ll come by…  Interested in a complete list of participating authors?  Look here.

Otherwise, this last week was marvelously busy.  I think we’ve finalized the cover art for the official When the Gods Are Silent e-book.  It’s pretty dramatic, in keeping with the trend I started with the cover art for the e-book of Smoke and Mirrors.

What?  You didn’t know that Smoke and Mirrors is now available as an e-book?  Yep!  It is.  Even if you already have a copy, this one includes an original afterpiece.   You can read more about the new e-book here.

I’m also immersed in writing a new novel.  The idea came to me a few weeks ago, hybridized with one I’ve been considering for the last several months, and has now taken over my creative brain.  I’m enjoying myself a great deal.

What next?  I’m really not certain.  There are a lot of variables in flux right now, so I’m focusing my sights on the immediate future, rather than investing too much energy in worrying about even a month from now.

Now, off to write.  My characters are about to…  Well, I’ll just need to start writing and find out!

Opening a Vein?

April 19, 2017

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”  So said Ernest Hemmingway.

Where I Write

Actually, there’s some doubt that Hemingway actually said this.  Variations on this statement have been attributed to a wide variety of people for a far longer time than you might imagine.  These include sports writer Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, poet Reverend Sydney Smith, philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and writer Paul Gallico (to provide a not at all conclusive list).

If you’re interested in variations on the quotation and where it might have originated, you might like to look here.

What I want to talk about is not the source or who said it first.  I’m more interested in the concept.  Do you need to be seated in front of a typewriter – or at least have some writing implement (computer, tablet, pen and paper) at hand?  Do you need to bleed to write?  If you do need to bleed, how much blood do you need to shed?

As with most statements like this, I both agree and disagree – but more importantly, I think that many people misunderstand what Hemmingway and the others who have made variations on this statement mean.

Let’s start with the simple part.  Do you need to be parked in front of your writing device of choice to write?  Yes and no.  I’ve done a tremendous amount of writing far away from any writing device.  Maybe “writing” is stretching the point.  “Composing” might be more appropriate – and that gets to the heart of what’s meant by “bleeding.”

The Hemmingway quote above apparently appeared first in a book published in 1973.  (Hemmingway died in 1961.)  It – and many unattributed variations of the same – link the physical act of writing (on typewriter, computer, or whatever) and the “bleeding” of composition so tightly that I believe the meaning of “bleeding” has become distorted.

An earlier version of the same quotation – quite possibly material Hemingway may have unwittingly paraphrased – came from then-famous writer Paul Gallico.  In his 1946 book Confessions of a Story Writer, Gallico wrote:

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”

Note that although Gallico mentions “the page” and “good white paper,” his emphasis is not on the physical act of writing but on the emotional investment.  The really important statement is the first part of the second sentence.  This is so important that I’m going to repeat it:

If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells…”

Here it’s made clear that by “bleeding” these writers didn’t mean putting oneself through some sort of endurance trial.  They’re not talking about staying locked in place until you write your quota or do your homework or whatever metaphor you prefer.  Yet lately, on panels, on social media, I keep encountering the idea that what defines “real” writers is that they produce quantities of words on a page (or a computer file or whatever).  The question as to whether these words mean anything, whether they have any heart, gets lost in an emphasis on production.

I have several works in progress right now.  One of these is beginning to look as if it may be a new novel.  I’m in the exploratory stages now and so I’m not putting as many words down on the page as might be expected.  Instead, I’m busy bleeding…

This weekend I landscaped a portion of my yard.  (Go look at the photo.  Doesn’t it look pretty?)  While I was weeding, raking, prying up the roots of bunch grass with the tip of a shovel, I was also composing.  I was thinking about the six characters around whom the story appears to be taking shape.  Each of them have different goals.  Many of them have secrets.

But I’ve been thinking about little things, too.  The things that make me believe in the characters.  What will the chain smoker do when her cigarettes run out?  What will the knitter bring with her?  How do the three characters who didn’t plan on this turn in their lives feel about it?  How do those who did plan deal with disappointment?

When I think about these things, I’m not chalking up any word count or page count, but I am bleeding.  I’m also getting excited, looking forward to the time when I’ll get back to the keyboard and see how the words fit around the idea.

Meantime, I can enjoy the landscaping, rather than having frustrated myself by trying to come up with words for no other reason than I’m “supposed” to do so to be a “real” writer.

Where to Start?

March 15, 2017

On the heels of last week’s Wednesday Wanderings, I came down with a terrific cold.

Several Steps

This cold really was “terrific,” in all senses of the word.  It came on so suddenly that, in the archaic sense of the word, it elicited a degree of terror.  It was – to borrow just a few synonyms from the more formal definition – prodigious, formidable, and intense.  And, finally, in the most informal sense of the word, the cold was terrific – that is “extremely good” – in that it ebbed almost as quickly as it had initially occurred, making possible my keeping my Sunday engagements, both of which I would have been sorry to cancel.

As I write this, the infirmity lingers, although to a much lesser degree, making me grow tired rather faster than I would like, muddling my thought processes, and, in general, impeding creativity – including coming up with a way to start a story I’m determined to work on this week.

On Monday, I was sitting staring at my computer screen, wishing that I could focus.  In the end, realizing that I was wasting my time, I decided to go and take care of some routine chores.  As is my custom whenever possible, I turned on an audiobook – in this case a novel I have not read for many years: Wilkie Collin’s seminal detective novel, The Moonstone.

Imagine my astonishment, even my amusement, when, within a very few sentences, Gabriel Betteredge, who narrates that section, began to talk about the difficulty of knowing exactly where to begin a tale.  In Gabriel’s case, he goes back to his own youth, when he first took employment with the family of the woman who – these many decades later – he continues to serve, now in the capacity of steward and butler.

Although Gabriel apologizes repeatedly for including so much about himself – rather than focusing more tightly on the events surrounding the disappearance of the titular moonstone (a yellow diamond, by the by, for those of you who haven’t read the novel, not the blue-white semi-precious stone with which most of us are familiar) – his ramblings do an excellent job of sketching several of the primary characters, the setting, and the household dynamic.  As these prove key to understanding the mystery that will unfold, perhaps Gabriel isn’t wasting either his or the reader’s time as much as he thinks.

However, although Gabriel’s ramblings lay the foundation for the story that will follow, Collins did not depend upon them to supply the novel’s narrative hook.  That is given in a short earlier section – one which sets up the history of the diamond and how the cursed gem came into this quiet corner of England.

Side note: As I mentioned last Friday, Josh Gentry’s SnackReads/SnackWrites site has just reprinted my piece on narrative hooks, so I won’t bother to go into my feelings about that particular literary device except to say that I firmly approve of it.

So, what should I do?  Perhaps I should go and verbally sketch some of the characters who are flitting so vividly through my imagination, including the scene that I envisioned?  Perhaps I should write a little history of the immediate setting?  Perhaps I should write a list of some of the events I think may happen?  Perhaps I should consolidate some of the research I have been doing these several months?

Perhaps I should follow Gabriel Betteredge’s example and go consult a copy of Robinson Crusoe.  Well…  Maybe not that.  Defoe’s novel may provide unfailing guidance for Gabriel, but I’m not sure it would prove anything but an appealing distraction for me.

But certainly I could try any of the other ideas.  None of the material may make its way into the final work, but certainly it would be better than staring in frustration into the white light of my computer screen.

Do you have any particular way you get started on a new project?  I don’t mean only writing – I mean anything that involves taking the first step on the path that will lead from inspiration to reality.