I have gone into back to basics mode: what does it mean to tell a story? I have been reading a lot of short stories since giving up on A Game of Thrones for what must be the eightieth time. Not just fantasy or science fiction, but authors of all nationalities, genres, and styles. I have been reading Chekhov, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, and others who I used to read before I got the idea that I had to give myself assignments and read stuff that was current. I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things: Continue reading “Back to Basics: compelling short stories and character motivations”
I saw The Last Jedi yesterday, and here are my thoughts:
- Plenty of interesting stuff, lots of surprising moments
- I still prefer the swashbuckling pulpy adventure of the first movie to the overstated drama of the newer films
- As much as it was a good movie, I would still rather see a totally new story.
I have three young boys who love Star Wars (thanks to me), and I am getting a little tired of it. “Star Wars” movie is now a phrase that gets used all the time, and it emphasizes the feeling I had while watching The Last Jedi that these films are more like TV shows in the way they tell a never-ending story. Each time the characters face basically the same obstacles and spend their time solving a fairly explicit puzzle. This was understated in the first trilogy, but now it’s almost like watching Law and Order.
Beyond the TV-show-ish nature of how it feels like it will never end, I felt the same as I did about Wonder Woman: cool movie, but not that new or interesting. I don’t think the never-endingness is a bad thing in itself, but I think it stretches the story-telling, and it definitely feels like something other than a movie.
Over the past few weeks I’ve recanted almost completely my thoughts on structuring a novel, and tried to “just write” as much as possible. It’s not so much the “just write” as “tell a story.” I started writing because I was thinking of stories, and telling stories to my kids, and I have always been a storyteller, but in my frenzy to perfect my novel-writing process, I completely forgot that.
I realized that I have a pretty good instinct for what constitutes a good story, that I know how to just tell people a story with a beginning, middle, and end that is comprehensible, way before I read Aristotle’s Poetics. All that structuring and breaking up the scenes and ensuring a rising action is better left for revisions (and even when I “just write” I come up with a story structure that is mostly fine).
The overall point is that taking positions and thinking I have it figured out is a mistake in itself. I’m not going to go on a rant about the merits of pantsing now because that would be a mistake too. Both overt structuring and “just writing” have their place. It is definitely better to have something to revise than to have nothing at all. With an eye for structure, and for when the reader might need a surprise, it is just fine to “just write.” Spending time explicitly structuring and planning gives the writer a better idea of how to do this, so everything has its value.
I went to a writing workshop yesterday of mostly narrative nonfiction and historical fiction writers and it is a very interesting experience. I know that I write adventure stories, and I like doing that, but one of my goals as a writer is to write a story that doesn’t require everything to blow up at the end. Seeing what other people in other genres write about is really helpful in that respect. A pretty funny moment came when I said my goal for my current book was to write 100,000 words or less, and they all said “Whoa, that’s a really long novel.” I am about three-quarters of the way through the first draft of The Last Omen, still hoping to finish it in a few weeks. Thank you to all of you who’ve said “I would totally read the **** out of your new work-in-progress.” It’s very encouraging.
I can’t put my finger on why, but I hate it when bloggers apologize for not posting regularly. Is everyone hanging on their every word? Did they sign a contract saying “I will post no fewer than twice a week and no more than eight times a day?” I’m not doing this because I owe any words to anyone. I just make a lot of words. It’s nice there’s a platform where I can put them out where Google can find them for people, but I’m not writing because I owe it to anyone but myself. Yeah, so screw you people.
Anyway, sorry for not posting for a while.
I haven’t because I’ve been working on a new book, The Last Omen, loosely based on Greek Tragedy and (of course) Shakespeare. Alyatha is the reluctant queen of Marathea, prophesied wife of the newly-prophesied king. Marathea is sandwiched between the empire of Habia Korenz, and the anarchic non-state of Nemerev, where warlords and pirates threaten the network of roads and shipping lanes around Marathea. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if her husband were up to his job: the Habiari are threatening to invade to quell the violence in Nemerev, and someone keeps paying a vile priestess to perform human sacrifices in order to change the course of fate, the most sacred thing in Marathean culture. The priestess happens to be her husband’s former lover, but when push comes to shove, Alyatha has to join forces with this witch to save the kingdom. Fantasy hijinx ensue.
I wrote about 14,000 words of this before November started, but I decided to do NaNoWriMo since I was already working on a new manuscript. Though I always scoffed at it before (“I make my own damn goals, I don’t need a friggin’ website for that!”), it’s actually a lot of fun to track my progress and share it with people. I’ve written about 37,000 words so far, and my goal for this book is between 90,000 and 100,000. Because…
I had to fire my literary agent. I won’t give too many details, but the important part is he wasn’t doing enough to support me as a writer. He did nothing in the way of editing, and never initiated communication (i.e. he never asked me what I was working on next). He didn’t tell me what was going on with my submissions, even when I pressed him for info. When I brought him new material, he rejected it outright instead of helping me make it marketable. I rationalized it at the time, but have since found out different agents would have worked completely differently. He never suggested career development like writer’s conferences or classes, and he didn’t do much to make my book marketable. I have other avenues, so this is nowhere near giving up. Don’t send me sad emojis.
I am keeping some short stories in circulation, including “The Harp” and “Killing Montherek, and a new one called “Her Name is Memory.” The last one was definitely a challenge, as I tried to write from the perspective of a narrator with a damaged memory. It was rejected without placing in Writers of the Future, where I also submitted “The Harp.” I probably won’t write any more short stories until I finish The Last Omen, but as I have found saying “I probably won’t write any more short stories until…” is a good way to find yourself writing short stories.
It’s snowing in Vermont. Pumpkin season. Yes. Sentence fragments can tell you a lot. So can complete sentences.
In which I alienate people with different work habits.
I’ve finished revising a novel, so it’s time to discuss the psychology of writing! I have written a couple times about writer’s block, that worldbuilder’s disease can distract you from thinking about more productive things, like character motivation. I still haven’t had the experience of “the words don’t come” and I just don’t get these statements like “all professional writers hate writing” or this ridiculous tweet:
Sorry if I’m being too simplistic, but I just don’t understand how you would write if this is your modus operandi. I replied that instead you could just pick a time and start writing (an opinion held by Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, and Philip Glass, among others). Writing, for me, is just something that I do, like breathing. I can’t not do it. I’m not trying to make anyone jealous, that’s just how I’ve functioned since I was a kid. I never thought it made me a “writer” until I was in my thirties. I just never noticed it until someone pointed it out, that normal people don’t do that.
Anyway, the strange thing that happened to me this week still wasn’t “the words won’t come” but trying to hold myself back from writing. I finished the polishing edits on my novel Firesage Saturday morning by writing a new prologue. I ditched the one with the two demons talking to each other about the fate of the world and replaced it with the last bit of my main character’s old life, the one she ditches in favor of becoming an officially sanctioned sorceress. I breathed a big sigh, and then by that afternoon I was seized with panic.
“What do I do?” I kept asking myself. I’ve got a great book to read, luckily, but the underlying urge was “I need to write something.” I vowed not to touch Firesage until the beta readers got back to me (and one already did, which was totally unexpected), and I didn’t think it was a great idea to start outlining the sequel until my agent has seen it. I tried working on a screenplay based on “Stages of Man,” but then I realized that I didn’t have the character’s motivations mapped out very carefully. I started telling myself that I’m not a screenwriter and I shouldn’t try it, I should focus on novels anyway. I’m good at that and I can get better at it by doing it more.
And every day I wake up and I feel like I should be writing something. This could just be inertia, and it could be displaced energy. I don’t get the focus out of my day-job that a lot of people do, since it’s basically managing chaos (i.e. parenting). If it were inertia, then I wouldn’t have had this same feeling all the time when I was younger and hadn’t figured out how to write a novel. It wouldn’t have kept me up at night scribbling in notebooks. It wouldn’t be that the way I “blew off steam” after a long day was writing an essay when I got home at midnight. The only thing that I’ve found can effectively channel this energy is building something, working outside, or drawing, but I still feel like I should rather be doing something that I know I’m really good at.
I want to get into outlining the next book, and I am just going to stop denying myself that. In fact, writing this blog post was pretty difficult because I want to be doing that instead. There’s nothing else on my mind.
I should be able to get used to something like that, like how Southerners should be expecting the heat, or how people really shouldn’t fear death: you know it’s coming, so it’s no big deal, but no, every time I run into her, it leaves me feeling cold and sick and exhausted for days… . She never seems to understand how painful it is to see her. If she could avoid it, I wish she would. As it is, it’s almost like she’s still alive.
In which I alienate fans of lawyer books…
First the news: I am about a quarter of the way through editing Firesage. I don’t have much inclination to do anything else because editing is so rewarding. I thought about doing a blog post on my editing procedure, but actually editing is so much more fun, I thought I would share some thoughts on the age of protagonists. I got two more short stories rejected this week, and will post them here soon. If you haven’t read “Talons of the Sun” or “The Lapis Dragon-Tamer” yet, head over to my short fiction page, and stay tuned for more.
The subject came up on Facebook about why so many stories are about people of a particular age, and I have some quick thoughts on this.
I’m not reaching my target audience submitting my short stories, so now you can read them for free.
After last week’s post on short stories, I gave my short stories some serious thought while I mowed the lawn. I realized that although I could improve my short stories over the next few years to the point where they would get accepted into the elite publications in the field, over the same period of time I could reach my actual readers much faster by giving these stories away. The best thing I can do to get my stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Apex, or Fantasy and Science Fiction is to have a best-selling novel that will create name recognition and drive traffic to those publications. However, in that time I will have missed the opportunity to share stories that I really enjoy and I think you will as well. Continue reading “Reaching my target audience: a new approach”
In which I reveal all my flaws as a writer.
I read a very informative and helpful article on short story writing by David Farland this week. As everyone should, I have submitted a few stories to Writers of the Future, and one got an honorable mention last year. I write very few stories that are appropriate for the contest, as they demand a PG-13 rating, but I have submitted plenty of stories to the usual publications, and haven’t gotten much more than a few personal rejections (this is a good sign, but it’s not publication). Fortunately Farland’s blog post included usable information that writers can use to improve their stories, maybe even sell one. Continue reading “Short stories: what the hell?”
In which I alienate still more people who liked Arrival
The 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?)”
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. Continue reading “Long Novels, Short Stories, and The Seat of My Pants”