The Bottom Drawer and the Back Burner

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Authors frequently refer to things in “the bottom drawer.” It may actually be a box in the closet or a CDR in the back of the box, but it is where we keep our projects that are dead in the water. Maybe we got partway through and something horrifically just like it showed up on the book racks: these evil accidents of fashion happen. Maybe the idea didn’t work out, and we decided not to throw good time after bad, so we walked away from it. Maybe it went around to every possible publisher and just didn’t sell. The problem may not have been in the book, but in publishing fashion. Sometimes we are writing the books of ten years ago, and sometimes the market isn’t ready for what we’re writing and sometimes it’s just the wrong spot in a cycle.

The bottom drawer is a place of cobwebs and dust. The “back burner,” on the other hand, is a place to keep things warm and bubbling. It’s often where we keep ideas that haven’t quite jelled yet, possibly for decades. We may have gotten interested again in the idea from reading our own idea books, and this may be the project to work on after the current one. In the meantime, we collect some research now and then or draw some maps or do some conlang work for an invented world. We may have written nothing on it, or it may be a partial needing more thinking-out.

As a writer, your ideas and words are what you have to sell. It makes good sense both economically and emotionally to leave only incurable juvenalia in your bottom drawer.

Look at it with an eye to revision or recycling. Writing out your thoughts makes it clear to you, not only for today, but for months from now when it’s not so fresh in your mind. Start a page with the present title or some other description at the top. Free-write about what you like, what works (they may not be the same), and what’s wrong.

One of the things wrong may be that you outgrew the story, or you or the world just aren’t in the place anymore where this story was coming from. Those can be kind of incurable.

Otherwise, see if you can figure where high-level revision may bring this story alive again.

If not, consider parting it out rather than wasting it entirely. At the top of the free-writing, make a list of good bits, whether descriptive narrative or world-buiilding, or characterization. If the plot were good, you pretty much would have a live story just needing some fixing up. The usual deal-breaker is that you really can’t make this story work, so you might as well scavenge the good writing out of it. Then copy the lists from all bottom-drawer projects to a single Recycle file. When you’re stuck for how to describe something, check to see if you haven’t already done it a while back.

As well, keep a database or table or list of your back-burner projects, at least the ones you’re conscious of. You want to be able to access them more clearly, when you’re looking for something to do.

The database is the high-tech version of the old “commonplace book” where writers would note interesting ideas, paste in articles and pictures, and so on. Then you had to do an index for each volume. Too much work!

The database only has to be a date field (for when you got it), a Kind text field (place, event, person, plot, setting, motif, althist, mystery solution  — as many as you like and whatever you like), and several Note text fields to hold a lot of information. If it’s really big, copy the article into a folder called Commonplace Book and note its file name with a brief summary in the database. You can also do this for pictures you collect as JPGs or keep in a notebook. Commonplace Book is a good folder to keep the database itself in.

Other good things to keep in Commonplace Book folder: your in-house library database (ask if you want a good layout for the fields for books for a writer’s reference); the Table of Contents lists of CDRs and databases for your hugeous ebook collection (1500 items and plenty to go); a database of interesting websites, because the lists on your browser can’t be sorted, like a database, by several criteria. In the latter database, include the date you found them. When you go back, they might be gone, but you can use the Wayback Machine at archive.org to try to reach a copy.

When you’re at loose ends, sort the database to put plot or character ideas at the top, and start reading through them. Things may start to stick together. Look through your reference databases to see if you have anything relevant there, already.

When something does gel, make it its own folder with a working title. Put the pictures (sub-folder, Art), maps and charts (sub-folder, Maps), a bibliography of books, articles, and websites, and copies of the PDFs or HTMLs in sub-folder Reference, and so on, to pull it together. If you tend to historical fiction, you could have a lot of ebooks here.

Put the ideas from the database into a word-processor file with the book’s title. Start adding the connecting ideas.

You can take it from there, off the back burner and onto the front.

Transcription Errors – Why You Want to Do Your Own Writing Rather than Recycling Someone Else’s

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Readers don’t come to us for a collage of what we’ve read elsewhere. It bores them.

Recycled writing includes cliches and stereotypes, including cliched and stereotyped plots. You also need to avoid something between: behaviors or appearances whose description has been exaggerated until it has lost contact with reality. Like photocopying a photocopy, each recycle makes it worse.

Take “turning green” to describe someone nauseated, ready to vomit. Some writers will describe people turning “pea green” with illness.

Have you ever seen anyone turn shamrock color? Of course not! They can’t. Can not.

Probably some nineteenth century writer described chlorosis, chronic anemia, where the skin is so pale that it’s faintly greenish contrasted with healthy skin. Someone recycled this as so pale with temporary illness as to be vaguely greenish. Next copy, the green became notable, and associated with nausea. Finally we end up with people who turn grass-color before running away to vomit.

At no time since the original has anyone checked in with reality, including the editors letting this stuff go by in pot-boiler fiction. This is third-rate writing, except maybe in humor. We assume anyone taking the trouble to stop here wants to be the best writer possible.

Don’t recycle what you’ve read.

Don’t borrow cliche phrases and stereotypical characters, any of that sort of thing. Start with reality, and find your own way to say it. Make the writing your own.

Always use your own physical experience as a touchstone for writing. This means you need to pay attention intently to the world around you.

At some time you or someone you know has been dog-sick. Was there actually any way to tell in advance? Did your internal warning match symptoms from med texts (cribbed by other writers trying to avoid pea-green) or did you fail to salivate, close your eyes, and the rest of that supposed reality? (Questioning authorities is a whole other blog.) Maybe the only authentic warning to an onlooker is an expression of surprise or distress and that hand movement to cover the mouth.

This means a writer needs to pay attention to life and experiences, small as well as showy. Writing gives us the greatest gift this way: our lives, vivid, juicy, and constantly valuable, truly lived rather than sleepwalking through them.

That doesn’t mean you have to commit crimes to write about them: you just have to learn to extrapolate. Y’know — imagine. But do your own imagining. Don’t re-use someone else’s.

Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?

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It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …
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Character Pitfalls of Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction always serves the didactic purposes of the present.

Parallel periods comment on today in the sneaky revealing light of yesterday:

Mexican-American War = Iraq-American War

or Classical parallels used earlier:

Imperial Rome = British Empire; Persian Empire = France
Periclean Athens = Britain or France; Sparta = Prussia
Periclean Athens = France; Persian Empire = British Empire (French writers, of course).

Writers explain or glorify the present, or amend past indignities, via histfi. Sir Walter Scott single-handedly rehabilitated and glamorized the Scottish, despised by the earlier Georgian English as uncouth demi-barbarians.

Think of racist images recently over-painted by more realistic or positive characters, whether protagonists or secondaries. This can go too far, into anachronism, as when the Noble Savage is revised into a culture missing notable unpleasant aspects it actually had in order to make it fit what today considers ideal or acceptable.
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Time Travel Stories

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Time Travel can be a mechanism or a Template.

The sterling examples are the earliest uses of the mechanism, before the template was thought of. The British Barbarians uses a tourist/researcher from the future as a way to demonstrate how barbaric the preening, self-congratulatory Late Victorian English could look to a culture really advanced — in short, to remind them they still had a long way to go before they could consider the problems of the world and society solved. The Time Machine is on the Long Sleeper Template to visit a dystopia. The only reason to have a machine with a reverse gear is so the Traveller could return to his own time and tell his story to a friend in the frame, before disappearing again, never to be seen. Otherwise, the character “wakes up” (stops the machine) in a future age, has adventures, and the story could end right there. Wells tacks on some pointless vignette visits of the dying Earth after humanity has vanished.

The Time Travel Template, on the other hand, is wrapped up with the nature of time, fate, destiny, luck, free will, and alternate history. The time-traveller must use time travel to try to solve plot problems, which requires that the travel be controllable to some tiny extent. It’s up to the author to decide what they want or need: the “many worlds” of quantum theory or a monolineal timeline, rigid fate or conservation of history, or the easy fracturing into time branches that lets you kill your grandfather and still exist because you came from some other time branch where he didn’t die.

A story where the character simply stumbles through a hole in time at convenient (to the plot) moments is not on the Time Travel Template, but only using time travel as a mechanism.

Mechanism or template, the means of time travel are, by most realistic extrapolations of physics, all fantasy. You can mutter about Einstein and quantum-foam holding open wormholes, but those exorcisms won’t change that it’s highly unlikely to ever happen. So you can make it work almost any way you like to limit your traveller’s jumping around. Possible useful snags:

  • It has to recharge between uses, so when you land some place, you’re there for minutes, hours, or days.
  • It has finite energy, so you have to stop every so many centuries even in a high-speed run, and recharge. Picking rest points is an art.
  • You have to keep a log, because you can’t be in the same time twice. After a while, whole decades and eras are “used up” for you. If you try to go there, you wind up at the nearest “empty” point forward or back. Multiply this by the number of travellers in a group.
  • You can be in the same time twice, but if you run into yourself, the universe implodes, so stay out of that town.
  • It’s a big honking device like a small submarine so you have to find somewhere to leave it, and walk away from it to do your visiting. It has to have great burglar-proofing. You may have trouble getting back to it.
  • It’s tiny so you can carry it on your person, but that means it can be stolen, especially if it looks like a ring or other jewelry.
  • It’s embedded in your tour guide, who was just carried off by the bandits.

So you can always make the time travel part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

Revision 06.1.3 Continuity, or Plot Hole Repair

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Just like hitting a pothole, hitting a plot hole will jar your reader out of their tranced absorbtion in your story.

Plot holes are continuity errors. In movies and TV, there’s usually at least one person assigned the job of watching continuity, so that the lead character doesn’t wind up with a coat on in one shot, no coat in the next as the dialog continues uninterrrupted, and then the coat reappears, all without leaving the room or taking it off and putting it on.

I once read one of the most dreadfully bad novels of all time, from an international humongous publisher, where the door that the heroine pushes inward to enter the deserted building in Chapter One, in Chapter Three traps her by being a door that only pushes outward, that is now boarded across. (It also had female fingerprints and a WW2 USAF uniform. No, not US Army Air Force: US Air Force.) This is what we can call a detail continuity, where you just make the door swing outward in Chapter One: really tiny revision, actually. Same with an assortment of draftos like inconsistent names and hair colours from things not being entirely changed between drafts.

The real plot holes you have to watch for are when you —
1.    never explain why something convenient but unusual was there, not even with a guess by the characters (Son of Deus Ex Machina);
2.    characters jump to a conclusion they have no reason to make (character acting on author knowledge);
3.    characters fail to think like any normal human being (Stupid on Cue, Incurious on Cue, &c);
4.    have unexplained changes of behaviors or relationships (character acting on author motivation; that is, “I need you to do this to make my plot work”);
5.    have no consequences for actions that ought to have them (author fiat);

and all such WTH?! moments.

The cures are often that you need to explain things, or else you need to come up with some rational-seeming motivation from inside the character, or basically you need to remove the events that cause the hole. This often requires re-plotting on very basic levels, so you need to address this very early in revision. Otherwise, polishing paragraphs is a waste of time when whole chapters will need to be excised.

My Keys students know I could quote chapter and verse from several badly flawed stories I use as horrible examples and practice crits. The worst problem with plot holes is that the author is often perfectly blind to their existence. One reason to join sub-and-crit workshops is that they get you used to critiquing other peoples’ work so you develop an eye for these. It helps you spot them in your own work. Otherwise, you get to flinch when everyone who crits yours points out that you never provided a way for the protagonist to get back home in chapter whatever. But, hey, what are friends for?

Village of the Dumbed

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As part of teaching the Keys, I have six stories for practice critiquing, each badly flawed in different ways. In some cases, it was a hard decision which I was going to use as a horrible example for dialogue or characterization or plotting, because some are horrible in several ways. Mind you, they were all once published by big houses, and some authors would be considered giants in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Everyone slips sometimes. I think that is an invaluable lesson in itself.

What I notice particularly now is the very common use of Villagers, non-human or semi-human creatures that greatly resemble us, can speak more or less like us, but that have the intelligence of a domestic turkey.

Of course, they are what they are for plot convenience.

That’s so wrong.

Characters of all levels, from protagonists to spear-carriers, need to act naturalisticly, like reasonable people would. Even like stupid people, at the very least.

Yes, the world is full of people who forget to put their brains in gear. I’ll never forget sending back a steak for being too well-done, and the chef sent back the same steak, cooked even more.

However, the constant stereotype of Villagers seems to me a sign of an unconscious, and all the more pervasive, prejudice in the college/academic/intellectual world of science fiction and fantasy, against rural people, farmers especially, as if they were no brighter than their cattle. As an attitude in a field dominated by urban white-collar technicians (engineers, scientists, &c) and “art school geeks,” this is understandable, if not condonable.

You should notice the lack of this in rural-raised writers, like Orson Scott Card, or S. A. Bolich from the horse-raising families out in Spokane, Washington, In her work, it’s as likely to be the citified intellectuals (like the preacher in In the Shadow of Heaven) who wind up the villains.

Certainly, Ursula K. Leguin has noted a distinct lack of blue-collar protagonists in science fiction, and that includes farmers.
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