Screenwriting advice (for novelists?)

In which I alienate still more people who liked Arrival

fadeinThe main thing I’ve been doing other than working toward the climax in the rewrite of Firesage is studying screenwriting. Since The Queen’s Night is on submission and people seem to like the characters (despite my efforts to make them horrible people bent on nothing but pleasure, power, and geometry) I have thought it would make a good movie. A lot of readers and writers think about their favorite books in a sort of filmic way, and when readers get their favorite books adapted, it’s a sort of validation. A lot of the heroic and dramatic can be succinctly expressed in film, and so a lot of us get our sense of the dramatic from the movie screen, and seeing our favorite story on that screen gives it a larger existence. So naturally I thought of adapting the movie myself, and learning about screenwriting in the process.

For a couple reasons, I don’t think I will even try. Continue reading “Screenwriting advice (for novelists?)”

Long Novels, Short Stories, and The Seat of My Pants

In which I alienate all of you who’ve published short stories

On Wednesday I finished the 1100-page It by Stephen King, the longest thing I’ve read since Cliver Barker’s Imajica almost two years ago.  I read it in about five weeks with a one-week break during my trip to Paris when I started Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy.  It was interesting to read mainly because it was at the top of my list of books by King that I’ve wanted to read for a long time.  I saw the ABC mini-series when I was a kid, taped it and watched it over and over, and always wanted to read the book.  Twenty seven years later (no joke) I found a paperback of it for $1 at Boskone, and as is always the case with King, I couldn’t put it down.

Of all the excellent aspects of this book, one thing in particular stood out to me as a writer: every side-note, every piece of background, every seemingly insignificant fact, has a central character.  There are passages throughout this book, told in an omniscient voice, as one would tell a ghost story around a campfire, where characters pop into existence only for telling the reader more about the history of Derry, or for the purpose of advancing the story, and nevertheless we learn a lot about that person even though he only lives for a few seconds.  Which characters are central is very clear, never in doubt, but these characters who are not even side characters all have their own lives and histories and connections to different parts of the story.  They are not functionaries, they are not useless page filler, and they are not the two-dimensional oddities of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Writers are told repeatedly to give side characters backstory, or their own story, but King does this well even with characters who are part of the much larger story.  Over a few pages he gives the life story of the lesser villain Patrick Hockstetter, with a great depth on his personal psychology and how it led him to murder.  But another way King gives great characterization to small characters in It is just through a little bit of background, maybe just one to three sentences right in the middle of some action:

A woman in Haven Village named Rebecca Paulson found a fifty-dollar bill fluttering from her back-door welcome mat, two twenties in her bird-house, and a hundred plastered against an oak tree in her back yard.  She and her husband used the money to make an extra two payments on their Bombardier Skidoo.

This is in the middle of an action sequence where an entire town is falling apart (literally).  He gives the character a name, says what happens, and relates a tiny bit of something interesting, something from the characters’ normal lives.  Quite often, as you can expect with King, it’s not something as everyday as an extra payment on the snowmobile.

Now, note that this is rather different from what Robert Jordan does.  The normal mode in the Wheel of Time is to introduce a character by having them interact dramatically with the POV character and then later give that character’s POV when it becomes important.  Right now I’m thinking of Cenn Buie, although honestly I can’t remember when his POV comes up.  I also don’t remember King doing this in The Gunslinger, so it is probably a matter of omniscient versus a tighter third person voice.

In other book news I finally got to meet Laurie Forest and bought her book The Black Witch.  I am really looking forward to reading it.

Short Stories

This past week was an interesting one for my short stories.  When in Paris I wrote a “weird western,” or “sixguns-and-sorcery” story called “Talons of the Sun.”  The female protagonist, who is a damn good shot with a rifle, has a sickness that her fiance thinks can be cured by delivering an artifact called The Talons of the Sun to a powerful sorcerer.  He’s wrong.  I rewrote it and sent it to Lightspeed, which rejected it 36 hours, then on to Clarkesworld, who rejected it in about nine hours.  I then sent it to Fantasy and Science Fiction and got it rejected in a whopping six days.  This is not distressing, mind you, it was actually fun.  This story has been rejected three times already, when most stories take months to get that many rejections.

Thursday I had two stories rejected before lunchtime.  I was a little confused about what to do about one of them: the rejection came from a horror podcast and was personalized, saying that although their editorial team liked the story, it just wasn’t actually horror or “weird fiction.”  That’s fine, I told them, I didn’t think it was either.  This is “Stages of Man,” a fairly literary story that happens to incorporate a ghost.  I thought it had a shot at being classified as horror, but when I think about it, I don’t really know what genre to put it in.  I tried again sending it to a literary magazine, and we’ll see how that turns out.  The other was “Killing Montherek” which is another hard-to-classify story, and I’ve already sent that to a fantasy genre magazine.

Every time I get a short story rejected I ask myself the same set of nagging questions:

  1. Why am I bothering? It’s certainly not about the money, but it’s not just about distributing my story, either.
  2. Why don’t I just put it on Amazon or on my blog and let people read it?
  3. Why doesn’t someone want this if it’s better than a lot of published stories I’ve read?

We tend to think of publication as a matter of an objective standard of quality, that if a story is good, it will get published, or that it’s the literary quality of a story that gets it published.  I know writers who say there’s no such thing as bad writing, but they all agree that their writing used to suck, so there is an objective standard in fiction writing: you have to have a certain amount of clarity and originality, even if you don’t have well-constructed paragraphs.  Even if your style isn’t that great, you have to have great content, i.e. a good story and you have to know how to tell it.

And yet, I see stories published in literary magazines and in the sci-fi and fantasy periodicals that are really just not that good.  Nothing happens in them, there are stylistic problems, clichés, terrible dialogue or know-it-all characters, even spelling mistakes.  Sometimes they just don’t work, or clearly attempt but fail to achieve a certain level of profundity.  This keeps me going: I know that even if my story isn’t about a trendy topic, or if it’s more literary or slower than some others, that it’s still good and can still get published by someone who appreciates it.  Maggie Clark gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had, which is just to submit as much as you can and learn what you can from the submissions process.  You might not always get personalized feedback, but you will get rejections and be able to guess what it was about that particular story that got it rejected from a particular publication.  So despite my questions, I will just keep submitting.

And Finally, My Pants

Auston Habershaw has a great post on his blog about pantsing versus plotting.  “Pantsing” is just sitting down to write and writing whatever comes to you as you sit at the keyboard.  The other extreme is plotting or outlining.  Auston explains that for all its reputation of staunching creativity, plotting actually helps, and there’s a reason to be suspicious of pantsing.

Pantsing is seductive.  When I first set out to write fiction, I benefited a lot from the advice of Stephen King: just sit down and write.  For months I’d been writing out plans for three novels and had actually written half of one without much realizing it.  My progress was slow, however, and after I read King’s advice to just sit down and write, I managed to start a new novel and finish it within four months.  I had a 450 page draft, already longer than recommended for a debut and I was impressed with “sit your ass in the chair” advice.  I started another novel right away.

Despite this seeming success, I started thinking about my second novel Firesage in a different way.  I started to mess with the plot in ways that made sense, and I actually thought about what should happen before I sat down, even two or three moves ahead.  I stuck to two narrow points of view, and I really worked on having a plot.  The result was a  book with a much better plot, ready to make into a series.  I knew it would need a rewrite but that’s just the standard procedure: to make everything work you have to go backward and forward a few times to make sure everything links up.

Then I went back to my first novel, which became The Queen’s Night, and realized that its plot was terrible except at the very end.  After three more rewrites I realized, with the help of a friend and reader, that it didn’t have a beginning!  At some point in the course of all these rewrites I got very into scene construction and devised a plan for ensuring every scene was a properly constructed scene (it has a beginning, a middle and an end or a twist).  Then I realized which scenes to have was important–all scenes logically lead to the next–and I stopped being a pantser.  I started writing my short stories by planning out the characters very clearly, choosing which scenes I actually needed, and only writing when I understood the character’s motivation very clearly.

Suddenly my writing got a hell of a lot better.  I have used the same process for rewriting Firesage, although many of the scenes don’t need such careful planning because they’re already written with clear rising action.  The argument against plotting is always that it will kill the magic, but as Auston brings up, this is a little childish.  You still discover things along the way: you can always change your outline if you find something that works better (which you no doubt will, as from a first outline you can’t predict all problems), and you will always discover symbolism and stylistic tricks to make the story clearer, but you won’t get stuck with a story that doesn’t work.

When you outline, you can start with a logline (“An armadillo with a dream and a suitcase sets out to find fame as a blackmailer, only to be thwarted by Accountant Coyote”) and develop your story in rough form.  You can even pitch it to your friends and family and see if it makes sense.  This is something that I did repeatedly while rewriting The Queen’s Night and it really helped ensure that I had a working story (which is the whole point!).  You can write a pitch, a synopsis, and then a detailed synopsis, and then get into the actual scenes.  I find this fun because it’s a lot easier to make sure everything fits together when it’s viewed this way, in a way that can be told in five minutes without all the details.  Then you can move on to “show, don’t tell.”

Pantsing, on the other hand, is seductive.  “Ooh, I don’t have to think about anything?  I can just write?”  Especially for me, someone who can write write write and it doesn’t matter what it’s about and I can come up with really long nonsensical sentences like this one and I don’t really care there’s never a stop in the stream of words in my mind it just goes on and on and on, pantsing is really seductive (and there’s no such thing as writer’s block).  You’re telling me to interrupt that to make sure I actually have a story?  As Auston notes, pantsing actually helps you procrastinate, because you don’t have to write scenes that are properly constructed, you don’t have to think about the depth of your characters, you don’t have to make anything happen in the story: you just write!  What I discovered after pantsing 1.5 novels was that I didn’t know how to construct a story.  I had a vague sense that there were rules, but rules are for squares, so I was going to just write!

The caveat is that I haven’t had the experience of outlining a novel from scratch, and given that the next novel I start will likely be a sequel, I don’t know when that will happen.  I am going to try to outline Watermark, the follow-up to Firesage, but I will have a cast of characters, maps and everything else already, so that’s not quite the same thing.  We’ll see how it goes.

Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

In which I alienate the people most likely to buy my book.

Atwood at the 2015 Texas Book Festival; photo by Larry D. Moore

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books, so I was pretty excited when I heard Hulu was adapting it into a series. Of course, I also had my trepidation. I don’t care much whether an adaptation fails or succeeds, but my expectations for adaptations these days are pretty low. Nevertheless it’s nice to see such an excellent book advertised and interpreted.  I watched the first episode last night and found myself thinking I would rather be re-reading the book.  If you were confused or disappointed by the episodes you’ve seen, read the book.

Continue reading “Content and Style: The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu”

The Nifty, Geeky Story

In which I alienate the entire sci-fi short story readership, fellowship, and mothership.

Arrival_Movie_PosterI just got back from Paris. Yes, I’m fancy. It was great, thanks for asking. I wrote a short story while I was there (which, given what I’m about to tell you, probably will never get published). On the way back I got to watch two recent sci-fi movies and I found them interesting to compare, particularly given my previous arrogance about “entertainment” (he said disdainfully), I was surprised which one I enjoyed more. Continue reading “The Nifty, Geeky Story”

Crunchy Complexity

WoT01_TheEyeOfTheWorldIn which I alienate Robert Jordan fans and Harry Potter fans in one swell foop.

The other night in our writing group at the Fairlee Public Library I read a passage from my novel-in-progress Firesage. I spent a little time building up the world for my fellows, then read the passage. I explained that the sorcerers who are the main characters live in an academy, and a little bit about the scheming that is tearing it apart. I almost forgot to mention that the main character is pregnant. That wasn’t so important for the passage I read, but it’s most of the basis of the conflict in the novel. I didn’t stop and fill in the background as I went along, because the passage was a flashback to a time before the novel begins, when the main character was “discovered” in a different setting than the one I had just explained. Continue reading “Crunchy Complexity”

Worldbuilder’s Disease: Writer’s Block with a Twist

In which I alienate my writer friends…

roadblockYou’d think in a trade built on putting words together, most of the practitioners would be people who can put words together on the spur of the moment, always have something to say, and can work under any circumstances. Actually no. Most writers I know have a horrible time doing that. They get distracted, they have no idea what to say, or they just don’t enjoy it at all. My wife, for example, writes beautiful prose, and has a great facility with metaphors and similes, but when she sits down to write (if she does), very little comes out. This is a fairly common experience. It’s not just that writing is not her main thing. She has a very stressful job, and listens to people all day, and doesn’t have a lot of time to just walk the dog and think about stuff to write. Even when she has time to write, she has a lot of trouble. I have a hard time relating. If I have time to write, I will write. Continue reading “Worldbuilder’s Disease: Writer’s Block with a Twist”

Let’s Get Serious!

In which I alienate Phish fans

What is it that makes readers connect? Sincerity and honesty. The kind of sincerity I’m talking about might be called being “serious” but as Alan Watts pointed out, the word “serious” has a sort of dry unfunniness about it, and that isn’t what I’m getting at. Fantasy literature in particular has this problem, much less than it used to, that it’s hard to take seriously a book about wizards and dragons. Ursula LeGuin seems to have eventually convinced everyone to take such books seriously, but not without plenty of books getting written to convince people otherwise. Wizards and dragons sound like childish topics, until you read Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, or dare I say Robert Jordan?

Continue reading “Let’s Get Serious!”

Wonder Woman, Symbolism, and Propaganda

Wonder_WomanThis week I read a little more of a book called Do the Gods Wear Capes? by Ben Saunders, an English professor at University of Oregon. Saunders’ basic premise is that comic books, far from being mere entertainment, or perhaps because they are entertainment are a good way of exploring moral and ethical questions. Comic books embody a certain religious ideal that in older times would have been occupied by campfire stories or even religious stories. Sometimes parables, sometimes just stories for fun, but they always include godlike characters. The difference between what is and what we desire is the driving force, according to Saunders, of all storytelling, philosophy, and religion. Superheroes, with their rather blind ethical sense (in the era that he profiles) have a lot in common with gods, more than in just the powers available to them.

Continue reading “Wonder Woman, Symbolism, and Propaganda”

Miranda, Caliban, and Jacqueline Carey

People all have their own reasons for loving or hating Jacqueline Carey’s books, but they all agree she is a great writer.

It’s no secret that Jacqueline Carey is one of my favorite writers, and if you’ve read any of her work it should be clear why. The skill with which she crafts her work is evident from the very first word, and even when she’s writing stuff that I can’t stand to read (like her Agents of Hel series), I still acknowledge she’s doing it better than almost anyone else. She’s most well-known for her Kushiel books, set in Europe with an alternate history where Christianity never really took off, but an early offshoot of it took off like crazy. Continue reading “Miranda, Caliban, and Jacqueline Carey”

Moana’s Journey

The psychology and symbolism underlying Moana are present in all great stories, and Disney knows how to tell them

Erin Tettensor, who also goes by the pseudonym Erin Lindsey, brought a blog about Buffy the Vampire Slayer to my attention, so earlier I was going to write about the face I make when people say “you write about women” or “you write about strong female characters” but I am pretty bored with that topic.

Instead, let me tell you about Moana. I just watched it for the first time and I regret not trying to see it in the theater. This is yet another movie that hits all the bases: it’s the first film telling of this legend as far as I know, it has great animation, great music, and above all a great story. Just like Frozen the tension is drawn out, the characters are engaging and the hero’s journey is rewarding. The Hero’s Journey has gotten something of a bad reputation because it has been abused, but at the heart of it, if you read Joseph Campbell’s book and really grasp the meaning of it, you see how it underlies all great stories and unifies human experience in the progression of our dreams. Continue reading “Moana’s Journey”