Tag Archives: writing

Myselves in the Bottom Drawer

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“Be what you are. This is the first step toward becoming better than you are.” -Julius Charles Hare

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” -Henri Bergson

I would think it a great shame, and a waste of life, to mostly be who I was at, say, twenty. Some of the seeds of who I am were there, largely unknown to anyone but me. Other parts of now-me came out of experience or friends or the changes in the world that I accept or reject.

This, perhaps, is a problem with revising one’s older works. I’m not that person any more, including for the changes in me that writing that novel wrought. It’s almost an advantage, like editing someone else’s work, except all the issues are so personal and all the images were long ago burned into my brain. The story seems old because I’ve known it so long.

So that’s why I keep writing new novels. It’s not to pay the rent. It’s to capture the now-me the way those novels preserved in amber bits of former-me. Some things will remain the same, reappearing book after book. Others come out of so specific a time that after a few rounds of glacial editors, they’re no longer marketable. (There’s a reason I never write contemporaries any more.)

This isn’t the issue I hit before on having “outgrown” a story. That was a matter of your plotting and story-telling skill, maybe your handling of tension and pacing, maybe a learned aversion to cliche. Here, I’m trying to talk about changes in self, not skill. Maybe you’ve become more or less spiritual, and it shows in everything from your plots to the advice given by mentor characters. Maybe you’ve swerved toward Hemingway in style leanness and writing some required scenes for your old heroic fantasy done in the style of Eddison is like trying to write a pastiche.

That’s probably just the way to think of it. Unless you are willing to take it down to bedrock and rewrite it in you new persona — redescribe everything in the herofy and grey out characters, or reboot the characters and maybe themes of the other — your only way to get older books out of the bottom drawer is to pastiche your old self. Depending on what the differences are, it may be a fun little trip down the Memory Lane of yourself. Otherwise, think of it as editing work for the estate of a dear old friend.

Unnecessary is Deadweight

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All overly detailed scenes, that don’t contribute to either hindering or furthering the protagonist’s quest, are unnecessary padding. All they do is clog the pace.

Unnecessary sex scenes. If the sex is not dramatic, that is, the details of the sex itself create or resolve complications, you don’t need it. If the aftermath of sex is where the drama happens, you don’t need the prior detail. Don’t try to convince modern readers that people having hot monkey sex are actually carrying on a thoughtful dramatic conversation during it: who has the brains to? You have to stop the sex cold for complicated talk. The author who tosses in sex “to keep the reader from getting bored” has not fixed but highlighted their problem: the pacing or tension has died. If it’s boring for the characters to discuss some subject with their clothes on, it’s boring plus silly for them to discuss it while their groping is graphically described. (Mind you, I can write erotica, but something besides sex is going on in each of those scenes, which makes plotting through them really difficult work. Good sex scenes aren’t easy.) Read the rest of this entry

Slanguage: A Look Backwards Guides the Path Forward.

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Writers mainly use a Standard English that we can assume everyone literately educated learns, when it isn’t still their native tongue. Richelieu’s French Academy guards their tradition. In English, it’s quite enough to say that if Jane Austen didn’t use it, it’s suspect.

Use Standard rather than hip, now, TV slanguage because by the time it’s in print, it’s looking so five minutes ago. (Professional publication usually takes two years from deadline to book, not to menton all the time you’ll take to sell it). By the time return dates fill the inside pages of library copies, it looks definitely dated and, if you’re not careful, starting to become incomprehensible. Too soon the last check-out date is years ago.

One of the perils of writing mainstream YA fiction is you want kids to sound normal and today, which means in ten years the new YAs need a translation. On the other hand, good YA specfi, like Heinlein and Norton, avoided actual slanguage of their time for Standard with invented slang. Many YA publishers’ guidelines say “No science fiction or fantasy”: libraries don’t buy it because the old stuff is as popular as ever. But they always need new contemporary YA because kids can’t understand any longer a story where the protagonist doesn’t have a cellphone that takes pictures for evidence, or where they talk like 1995 did.

Adults are more forgiving of detail, but the story that’s now a period piece of dress and technology becomes foggy if you also used the slanguage and cliches of your time or, worse, your youth. Take Necromancer by Gordon Dickson. Someone says of the focus character, “He always could put the Indian sign on me.” Indian from India or redskins? Control or confusion or paralysis or adoration? Most of you have as little idea what that means as I do. This is played as a key character point, from one of the few to have known the person from youth, but it’s now totally lost to readers because the author used a (Western? rural?) slang phrase from his youth and put it in the future world.

Think how funny and opaque hippy slang stories can be, if you’re under forty. That’s any work stuffed with fashionable phraseology and cliches forty years later. If you want your grandchildren to collect royalty checks based on your work, think twice about not bothering to master Standard English, etc. It can be the difference between a short burst of sales and appreciation followed by limbo, and a long haul of royalties and reputation.

We All Have Heroes, and Models

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Who were the writers you imitated (or imitate!) in your pastiche phase?

Much as I loved and read Andre Norton, I never seemed to do anything her style. I had a definite Lester Dent phase, resulting in my first finished novella, then went into a Weird Tales swords and sorcery phase, with REH plots and CAS language (oh, my poor teacher), then moved more into the style of Fritz Leiber.

After that, I actually started finding my own style. I think the continued factors of “my style” are characters one recent critter described as talking as wittily as he wished real people did (based largely on myself and my friends: we really did and do try to be amusing) and a reality-based mixture of the wonderful and the gritty.

An analogy for that looks in the window at me: a beautiful crescent moon in a dawn-painted frame of clouds, above ranks of dusty rain-streaked storage containers with peeling warehouses in the middle distance and container cranes beyond, all laced with power wires.

Everything else, whether my language is plain or fancy (level of language), whether it’s all dialogue or all action, the genre — that varies. Bits of CAS’s vocabulary creep in, but my critters will tell me where they go “huh?”

What’s your style? What do you wish it were? What do you need to change to get there?

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.

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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.

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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