mrissa: (and another thing!)

I have seen several people on Twitter trying to keep tabs on everything President Trump has done in a given week. This really, really highlights the problem with trying to chase trends and write to be topical: by the time your sharp, satirical story is available to the public–even if you self-publish on the spot with minimal revisions, the more so if you revise and find a traditional publisher–there will be three, four, ten fresher outrages. What was the scandal or gaffe in the Trump presidential campaign a year ago? Too late now, onward.


Which is not to say that there’s no room for political comment, but the more specific it is, the worse it will age. There are times when things start to look specific in context–I trunked a partial story that depended on the villainy of deporting ethnic and religious minorities. I still feel that that’s pretty villainous, but the rest of the shape of this story was not meant to comment on the current regime, and there’s no way it won’t look like it was trying under the current circumstances. And with a story I did sell, the editor and I worked on it to make sure that incidental things I came up with in January 2016 did not look like heavy-handed references to the current day. Instead they are light-handed references to the current day! Much better. Seriously. Much.


I guess what I’m saying is: big ideas weather better than small details. Principles weather better than current events in-jokes. “I am really mad at this current problem” is not the same thing as “I will cash in on this current craze”…except they lead to a lot of the same pitfalls, so tread warily.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

Earlier this month I was the author guest for Literacy Night at a local grade school. My presentation (repeated three times–though never the same) was half an hour to kindergarteners through fourth graders and the adults they had in tow, about how to take an idea to the point of being an actual story.


It was great. The kids were great. At one point we ended up with a dragon riding a roller coaster with a robot yeti and fleeing a wendigo–and that was all one kid. The parents were also great, with one dad postulating a unipotamus (a hippopotamus with a unicorn head), both envying and envied by a dragon, each learning to be themselves.


The thing I focused on was learning to ask questions, learning to ask the right questions, which is to say, the kind of questions that result in a story. “Where do you get your ideas?” is the cliched question, the question that interviewers seem to simultaneously want to ask and want to avoid asking. But I think that behind the cliche there can be a genuine desire to know about a skillset the interviewer does not have, and that’s even more the case the younger the person asking the question. Sometimes what they’re really asking is: how do you do this thing, in specific, concrete terms so that I can do this thing too. Or at least so that I can see whether I can.


I think that one of the major aspects of keeping childhood creativity–or even a fraction of it–into adulthood is learning to direct your questions rather than stifling them. Learning which questions are the ones that suit you, that take you where you want to go. Learning when to break out of that pattern and try some new questions. So I tried to give these kids a sense of what kind of questions you can ask yourself about a story you want to tell.


If they keep up with questions, if they practice asking questions, most of them will discover that the questions that interest them most are not a fiction writer’s questions. They will look at the same birds on a half-frozen pond as a storyteller, and they will find that they have questions about how to make water look wet and ice look slick on paper, how those particular birds behave in summertime, what things we don’t already know about helping someone see at a distance. That’s okay. It’s actually great. But I think it’s fair to start giving kids some ideas of what kind of questions you can ask, how this actually works, where those questions lead you.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (think so do ya?)

I was on a worldbuilding panel at ConFusion that was labeled Worldbuilding 495, intended to be graduate level in contrast with another panel that was labeled 101. I’m not sure we got it that far, but we certainly took it beyond default questions. And then I went to another panel where an audience member’s commentary made me shoot steam out my ears (seriously, ask 4/6 of the panelists–maybe the other two too, but four of them commented on my face after), and so here we are with a handful of post-panel thoughts.


I think the thing I didn’t get to after my own panel was about sidelong politics and parallel social structures. We have those! We have them everywhere. If you ask who is president of the US, who is prime minister of Canada, etc.–even who is in Congress, who is on the Supreme Court–that doesn’t give you influential members of the communities that might interest you. Who’s the president of a charity, who are the major donors. Who are the people who make sure there are chairs set up for that charity’s talk. Who’s the lecturer at the university people want to hear; who’s the journalist who calls them. All of these groups have their own internal and overlapping politics. If you read about monarchs and heads of state, you’ll get one picture–and maybe that’s the picture you want to draw. But if you read about things that are less centrally about governance, a different picture emerges–sometimes overlapping, sometimes not.


Sometimes even basic social structures don’t overlap much with the official government. The work of James C. Scott has been really influential in my thinking about this. He writes about hill people as a particular category of peripheral social groups to empire, and how and when they succeed at keeping themselves out of the imperial eye. And we have a bit of that in our legends with Robin Hood, but I think there’s a lot more potential here.


I left the other panel with a strong sense of classism in worldbuilding, and I’ve just run into it in the book I’m reading too. I think it’s worth asking ourselves, especially in urban fantasy and near-future SF, how much the shorthand we’re using for “these are bad people” overlaps with “these are poor people, these are the lower classes.” I think it’s worth making some effort not to do that. And if it’s farther-future SF, it’s worth considering whether what you’re saying is “some groups of people are just squalid and awful no matter what you try to do for them because they inherently aren’t like us.” And don’t do that either.


The commenter at the panel used “eating potato chips and watching TV” as his flag for the mentally inferior lower classes. There were potato chips in the consuite and lots of panels on TV shows…but we all know he didn’t mean our snack foods and filmed entertainment, he meant their snack foods and filmed entertainment. You know. Them. And if we lived in a post-scarcity society, he went on, they would likely outbreed us, and what would happen to our utopia then?


Because, y’know, education is not a scarce resource now, nor are time and energy, so any way that they are is because of how they are. Previous situations where people’s standard of living was improved and their family patterns changed are not relevant for reasons. But it’s not racial! It’s just…about groups of people…who have inherent group traits that make it just and right that they’re poor and we aren’t. And all the nerds who have families who don’t understand them don’t count as counterarguments to the idea of being swallowed up by a growing inherent inferior class, apparently, because reasons. Because it’s so much more satisfying to create an us vs. them. Because you can say beer and cable TV, as the book I’m reading now does, safe in the knowledge that it’s not our beer (which is the good beer) and our cable TV (which is the quality shows). And if one of our people happens to like entertainment with a broad base of appeal, clearly we’re liking it differently and it doesn’t count like when one of them likes it.


“The Marching Morons” needs to go. March on. March away. Just stop doing your worldbuilding in ways that postulate that people are entirely awful by demographic group. We can all do better. And we should.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (helpful nudge)

I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.


And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.


What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.


Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.


Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.


Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.


Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.


Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.


Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.


Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.


I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (helpful nudge)

My friend Fran Wilde said this week, “Do not hesitate to speak up for the reality you wish to live in. Don’t live in silence or fear. Those are really crappy universes.”


They are.


Having an optimistic imagination as a professional skill is hard work right now. It’s never actually trivial, but when the people around you are all muttering, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and you know exactly what they mean, it’s hard to turn from that to creating entire worlds from scratch with hope as a major component.


Hard, but important.


Hard, but necessary.


But hard. Did I mention hard?


I’m working on three things at the moment, two of which have other people involved in one role or another, so that’s taking up a lot of my time and energy. And rightly so. But every day this week I have made sure to write some number of words on the third project, which is an optimistic science fiction novel.


That’s not to say that it’s teddy bear picnic science fiction. Lots of dreadful things happen. Some of the characters are–brace yourselves–not all that cuddly. But many of them–most of them–are making at least some effort to solve problems and treat each other decently. Even if they don’t always agree on what’s a problem and what’s a solution. Even if they don’t always agree on what decent treatment would entail. It is science fiction about people who are trying. It is science fiction for adults. About people who are trying.


Did I mention that this is hard work? because it is. And combining the difficulty of it with the other projects I have going on means that I’m not writing reams at a time on this thing. A couple hundred words a day is all I’m getting for now. But I can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the other projects. I’m getting them toward a point where I can pass them back to the other professionals involved, and my main project focus can be optimistic science fiction novel for awhile.


And you know what? I think it’s good for me. I think that making this effort, doing this hard work–putting in the energy to imagine doing some good, putting in the energy to imagine doing better–is a bit like working out. You get better at it. You find more capacity in yourself the more you do of it. And you find more challenges, places where your previous skillset would have been insufficient, but now you can manage, you can just barely manage.


I know that some people find that writing about terrible universes is their way of trying to avoid living in one. And that’s fair. Saying, “OH GOD NOT LIKE THIS” is valid both as art form and as approach to improving the world, to the extent that the two are separable. It’s just that it’s not the only valid approach. And honestly right now I think it’s the easy way out, and if we’re going to have some balance, some of us are going to have to take the hard way. Some of us are going to have to imagine realities we would rather live in, and then speak up for them.


A little bit a day will do.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

Suspense

Nov. 22nd, 2016 08:41 pm
mrissa: (thinking)

I watch a lot of cop shows to get through my workouts. The pacing is right, and the fact that there’s almost always a resolution of at least an intermediate problem within a few episodes is very satisfying when I’m not thoroughly in love with the story line. (I need more workout fodder than I can find “thoroughly in love with the story line.”) But oh my golly, do they have a common misconception about how narrative tension and suspense work.


People who tell stories get told to make it personal, and to up the stakes. And apparently for a lot of writers that means “threaten the death of your protagonist, possibly along with as large a number of other people as possible up to and including the entire universe.” But this is actually a pretty decent way to decrease the suspense in your story. Is the main character going to die horribly? Particularly in a show where you have actors under contract, is the star who is under a big contract going to die horribly and not be on the show any more? No. No they are not. I was watching a show last season where people said, “I can’t believe they killed off one of the two leads!” And surprise: they didn’t. In the middle of writing this, I watched an episode where they upped the stakes from “will this kill one of the main characters?” to “will this kill the entire cast?” and guess what, no. It did not.


Some stories try to kill characters off early to show you that they mean business, that no one is safe. This almost never works unless you are not paying attention. Early deaths almost always mean less investment from the viewer/reader–you’ve been with that character for twenty minutes, not twenty hours. And it’s also less investment from the storyteller–especially in media that involve big name actors whose level of involvement in a project is going to be clear from ads. Even prose writers who don’t have to worry about that thing tend to get used to having particular characters to play with. So what early deaths mean is “this will have some level of death/gore,” not “no one is safe.” I can tell you who’s safe. Ask me.


One way to manage this kind of tension is to make the suspenseful question not whether Our Protagonist will get out of this particular bear trap but how. Getting the reader/viewer invested in the details of the story is never a bad idea. If they just want to find out yes/no on horrible deaths–if yes/no on horrible deaths is all you’ve given them as a question–their investment level will probably be pretty low anyway.


Another is to use what appear to be lower stakes problems, because they can result in more tension/suspense if they’re things that might actually happen. Are you going to kill off the protagonist of your successful series? Probably not, or at least not in any lasting way. But are you going to make their best friend or family member mad at them? Are you going to give them setbacks along the road to their goals? Almost certainly. Are you going to give them this particular setback? The reader/viewer doesn’t know. And that’s where the suspense comes in.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

Every writing problem has an equal and opposite writing problem, right? It’s like Isaac Newton or something. So any time you hear a piece of advice, the opposite is almost certainly also great advice for someone. So let’s talk about one of those: the good enough problem.


There are the perfectionists: nothing they write ever reaches “good enough.” They revise it over and over again and never let anybody see, or never anybody who might do anything with it. Or they don’t revise at all, because everything is so flawed that there’s no point, they might as well try again and look, the new thing needs revision too. Definitely flawed. Might as well scrap it and try again.


And then there’s the other category: the people who don’t want to be told how to revise their piece, they want to be told that it’s good enough already. Just as it is. You may find some of these people at student workshops, but they don’t want to workshop, they want to be the immediate and effortless star of the workshop. They want to show up and have the pros running the workshop say, “This is so amazing, let us shower you with fame and wealth.”


Perfectionism is the enemy of good fiction. So is the conviction that good enough is good enough.


The thing is, if you’re going to ask “is this good enough?”, the question is, for what? Good enough to be published? Well, sure; all sorts of awful things have gotten published. Good enough to be a strong contender for publication? Maybe. Good enough that you’ve done what you can do with the idea with the skills you have right now? Good enough that you learned from it? Good enough that figuring out what to do with it and moving on to the next thing is the best plan? Good enough that it will help you make the next thing better?


If you’re aiming for good enough permanently–if you want it to be a minimum bar you clear–then it can get in the way of aiming for good.


If the only thing that’s good enough is perfect, you’ve given yourself an excuse not to work for better.


And either way you miss the satisfaction of “as good as I can make it for now, and the next thing will be better.” Which is worth finding, whether you’re publishing or not.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (taking a break)

I am newly returned from a week and a half out of town. I went on a writing retreat and visited some friends for a few days. I came back to a bunch of stuff to catch up on and am still not quite caught up. Closer, though.


And I want to say: this is great. I have done more of it this year, I will continue next year, it is so good. I think it doesn’t require a particular shape of thing to be good. Whatever you can manage, whatever works for you. For some people this will be an hour at a coffee shop, for some a weekend at a friend’s house. For some people, having any humans around defeats the purpose, and for others having to do any maintenance work does, so those shape what will be possible for you. If you really need to not have to think about food and cleaning, housesitting for a friend while they’re out of town won’t fit the bill. If you need at least a day to really get mental distance, a few hours by yourself won’t work. If you can’t have people around you, getting an airbnb with half a dozen friends will be a pleasant vacation rather than a productive retreat. But.


But consciously, actively making a quiet, separate space–this is a thing that I think is undervalued, especially for people trying to do large creative projects. It’s not just the room of one’s own. It’s the time of one’s own, the permission to take that time. The sense that taking that time is not the same thing as powering through a word count goal. Ideas may come, word count may come. But the quiet comes first. Even if it’s half an hour’s stop at a waterfall on the way home from running errands, a quick dash into the woods when you’ve been doing eldercare. Whatever shape it takes for you.


I have seen in people of all ages–though reflected in different behavior sets–the idea that being up on current events and well-informed is an unlimited virtue, and a virtue that requires the intake of every soundbite that comes out of a politician. I am all for informed voting and civic engagement. But 1) You do not get informed from soundbites. Yes, there are times when “this candidate said this appalling thing” is news you can use. But it’s not all there is to the vast majority of campaigns. If you were going to buy a major appliance, you wouldn’t consider yourself ill-informed if you hadn’t watched all the company’s commercials–or well-informed if you had. “Hey, the Maytag man said they’re reliable! He said it again!” That’s not research. Neither are the soundbites the news/commentary cycle thrives on. And 2) Everything you do in life, you do within your own limits. Even if you’re committed to making home-cooked meals, some days that’s going to mean pasta or scrambled eggs instead of five elaborate courses. Your limits include your emotional limits as well as the limits of your time and understanding. Doing your best does not mean doing nothing but reading political commentary for months before an election. There has to be room to set it aside and think of other things. Your family, your friends, your scrambled eggs, your creative work. The way the river looks as your plane lands.


I really mean “has to.” There has to. Our elections have gotten unreasonably long in the US, and it’s affecting everyone else in the world. If you stay intensely engaged on it, you will get exhausted, you will burn out. There has to be space to breathe occasionally.


I know I’m lucky to have the money, the flexibility, and at the moment the health to go somewhere completely separate from my ordinary life. I’m really lucky. But I also think that it’s a good thing for most of us to look for opportunities for set-aside space within our lives, however we can find it. Not just “I am on deadline and now I will go and go.” But also “what is this thing that I am doing that is worth doing, and how can I do it better?” and “what am I missing, what am I not seeing?” And other subtler questions that are how we keep our heads above the waves, other questions that speak to what we’re doing that’s worth protecting. Culturally easier when you’re at some stage of a large project–I could say to my Facebook, “I’m going away to start my new novel,” and that was true. But the novel is what it is because I had the conceptual space, the emotional space, to make it that and not do it by rote and reflex.


No matter what work you want to do, I think that’s something we all need from time to time, especially in times of whirling chaos.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.


These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.


I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.


So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.


Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.


Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.


What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.


Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (writing everywhere)

Today I sold my third short story this week. I also had a revision request from an editor I work well with and have done revisions with in the past; while a sale is never guaranteed in those circumstances, it’s certainly better than a rejection. Two of the stories I’ve sold, I wrote this summer; the third I co-wrote with Alec Austin in early 2013. I mentioned this on social media, and my kind friends are congratulating me. That’s really nice of them, and I do feel proud of the work I’m doing.


Here’s the thing: before this month, the last time I sold a story was April. And before that January. One of the most important things that would-be writers should know is that this business is completely sporadic–but even people who know that can I think have difficulty with the phenomenon of comparing other people’s highlight reels to their own uncut footage. This week I am the superstar who sold three stories in a week. Last week I was in a drought lasting a third of a year. Same writer, same writing.


So you hear wry quotes about how intermittent reinforcement drives lab rats crazy. I have a solution to that. Do not let sales be your main positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong–selling stories is great. If I didn’t want to sell stories, I would write them and throw them in a drawer; it’s not like attaching files to emails and web forms and keeping track of who has seen what is deeply entertaining. But if I was relying on sales to be the reason I love this work, I would be miserable.


The work is the work. The work is its own reward. And if you’re finding that the creative work you’re doing is not its own reward–whether you’re a person who likes to write or likes to have written–then it may be time to assess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You cannot sell something every day, or even every week–even the most prolific writer just does not have that consistency of response. (Or probably that many markets, unless they’re writing a huge variety as well as a huge amount of fiction.) The editor who is going to love this particular piece might be on vacation this week. They might have a family emergency. They might, God forbid, have left the magazine. Or there might not even be an editor working yet who will like this particular piece–you might have to keep sending it around and being patient.


Look: a friend with a geology degree posted to Facebook a meme claiming that a career in geology sounds so much cooler if you talk about it like a six-year-old. It’s true. But: there is approximately no way to talk about my work and sound any older than that. “I make up stories about magic and the future and different worlds.” How cool is that.


So yes, we get happy about sales. We celebrate the sales. But it’s far easier to avoid getting anxious and wrung out if the main enjoyment is in making the thing you wanted to make. People are saying things to me like, “You’re on a roll!” And in fact I am. But not just for the reasons they’re thinking. I’m on a roll doing the things that will make another week like this next month or next year. Doing the things that will sit for weeks, months, without any thought of being published. It’s a good writing time for me. It’s really nice that it’s a good sale time, too. But if I attached too much to that, it would interfere with the good writing time. And we can’t have that.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

I often hear people say of actors they particularly like, “Oh, I could watch them read the phone book.” You never hear that about writers, “I would read it if they wrote the phone book.” And there’s a reason for that. A major part of being a good writer is the judgment about what to write. When people are saying that about an actor, they mean that their voice, their face, their body language, everything is very expressive and interesting. And there is a common writerly impulse to take any statement of “I find [thing] boring” as a challenge, to make it interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good impulse; writing interesting stories is hard enough without being belligerent about things that bore your reader friends.


Recently a friend of mine started reading a fantasy piece with rogues in it, and it started with two annoying characters boasting to each other. “If [bestselling author friend] or [other bestselling auth–oh, fine, she said Scott Lynch and Steve Brust] had written this, they could have pulled it off, they could have made it funny, they could have undermined the annoying characters and shown what jerks they were,” she said, and I said, “Okay, but part of what makes Steve and Scott as successful as they are is that they generally choose not to do that.” They choose not to lead from a disadvantage that’s a boring disadvantage–not “can I make my reader sympathize with this intriguing villain” but “can I make my reader sympathize with a guy who’s like the annoying co-worker they’re glad they left in their last job.” Sure, someone with writing chops is in a better position than a beginner to pull that off. But it’s writing the phone book. It’s challenging for no particularly good reason.


I can’t remember where I read the review that suggested that Lois McMaster Bujold could write another novella between the two recent Penric novellas, in her Chalion universe, that would basically be a training sequence for the protagonist. And…okay, so there is an adage in physics that I think has a parallel here. If a respected, award-winning senior physicist tells you that something is impossible, she may or may not be right; if she tells you that something is possible, listen. In writing, it’s this: if one of the most decorated writers of her genre of all time chooses to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives of her genre, she may or may not have a good reason for it. Genre conventions sink into us all, just as the sense of constraint does in physics. But if she chooses not to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives, to skip over that bit and on to the next, pay attention, there was probably a really good reason why she didn’t find that part interesting enough to focus her time on it. And that’s worth learning from.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (question)

I am a sucker for advice columns.


Usually I describe this as: I want to see what people who think of themselves as normal think of as their problems. I want to see what people feel are insoluble problems, or at least problems for which they really need outside perspective. I know what I think is hard, and what I think is a lot of work but straightforward, and what I think is just plain all-around easy. But no one’s skills and strengths are universal, and seeing where people run into a wall and ask for help–and how they ask for that help–is fascinating to me.


This does not explain why I like this new project my friend Rose is doing, Story Hospital. Because Story Hospital is for writers with a particular kind of broken relationship: the relationship with one particular story or with their work in general. So: people who think of themselves as normal are pretty much right out the window, then, we are talking about the sort of people with entire imaginary casts in their heads. This project stemmed from a story-fixing panel at Readercon, and you can write in with whatever feels like it needs a fix, in whatever detail you want to give.


I guess this still fits the “other people’s problems” field, though. Gives you perspective on your own–of various kinds. And I think that Story Hospital will not get very many of my least favorite kind of advice column questions: “Other person is doing a thing in their own life that doesn’t affect me much, but it looks like a problem from here. How do I make them fix it?” (“My sister-in-law raises her children in the following non-abusive way. How can I make her stop?” “My adult child’s non-abusive romantic relationships or lack of same are disappointing to me. How can I make my adult child live my life instead of their own?” etc. This happens all the time in regular advice columns. I think it will not in Story Hospital.


I don’t know, maybe I’ll see my own problems solved in other people’s questions, but I think much more likely it will be a companionable feeling, like working side by side with people who are doing different things but in a congenial way. And one of the things I like about general advice columns that I think will be even more true here is that, unlike people who have modes of pressure to bring to bear on the person asking, an advice columnist really can’t. You can ask, they can answer, and if you don’t like their answer, reacting against it provides its own useful answer in some way. “That totally won’t work because what I really need is–” can be its own flavor of useful in creative projects. I’ll be interested to find out.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

So there was a Fourth Street panel where Max Gladstone wanted to talk about on-ramps to the weird: what accessibility we provide readers to works with a sense of alienation and dislocation, how we allow them to navigate works of science fiction and fantasy either without feeling uncomfortable or despite that discomfort, and what tools we can get from other genres in their on ramps–genres like magic realism and surrealism. (I’m paraphrasing Max, and he should feel free to correct me if that’s not what he was talking about.) But that wasn’t the direction of the panel he was on–it was another panel but not this year’s That’s Another Panel–and then Max had to get to his next thing Sunday afternoon, and by the time Readercon rolls around, the thoughts I had early Sunday morning will be stale. Nor am I sure they’ll fit on Twitter without a blog post link to point to first. So here we go: this is your blog post link.


First of all, I think that different works of science fiction and fantasy are doing different kinds and levels of sense of dislocation and the weird. The name that gets canonically brought up in terms of “entry level” science fiction these days, someone who “provides on ramps” to science fiction, is John Scalzi. I think that in a conversation about sense of dislocation and the weird, this is more or less a complete red herring, but worth tackling first for demonstration. Most of what Scalzi has done in most of his books–I haven’t read all of them–is not all that weird. Nor is it trying to be, nor should it be trying to be–I want to emphasize that sense of dislocation, sense of the weird, is not an unmitigated virtue, is not being defined as the science fictional or fantastic thing to do, and therefore I am saying that John or his work should be deprecated for not doing it. Everybody should write the level of weirdness, alienation, dislocation, that their work demands, that they are interested in writing. John is given credit for not being highly referential, but this is blatantly false; John’s works are constantly referential. But they’re contemporary references. So the people who are frustrated by the feeling that they have to have participated in a hundred years of science fiction genre in order to understand a science fiction novel will not have that obstacle. That is one on-ramp he provides. Another he provides is almost more a staircase, because it provides access for some and not for others: it is exactly those contemporary references and style. When you have a scene of dialog with complaints about the monotony of a cafeteria menu, in exactly not only the type of complaints but the type of specific menu items that would come up for an American slightly older than me–an American John Scalzi’s age–there is a large audience for whom that is a very comforting access point. Look! It says. Things here in the future are not so weird. There may be galactic spaceships or green rejuvenated people or whatever space thing we are doing in this book. But people are still just the same. We go to our jobs and do them, we gripe about the food, we get on with it. So that sense of interpersonal familiarity is heightened with the utterly contemporary grounding. Our pop culture figures are name-checked, our relationships are reinforced. So while John gets people to buy and read science fiction–and in that sense may get people comfortable with the idea that science fiction in general is not too unbearably weird for them–what he’s not doing is getting them comfortable with a massive dislocation that is written to feel utterly unlike everything they’ve ever known. Nor does he need to want to do that. It just means that his toolbox is not all that useful for the people who do want to do that.


So. Other genres of the weird. In the course of the brief discussion during the panel, we mentioned surrealism and magic realism. I think one of the biggest on-ramps surrealism has is metatextual. People who pick up a work of surrealism have buy-in that the experience is going to be weird and dislocating before they ever get started. This is what they’ve signed on for. For all that SFF likes weird sometimes, SFF also likes adventure and speculation and many other things; alienation, dislocation, and sense of utter weirdness is not the only thing or even the main thing that a person picking up a work of science fiction and fantasy can be signing on for. So in some sense this is like asking, “How does porn get people to want to be aroused?” There is some of everybody in the world; surely there are people who watch porn for reasons other than to be aroused and then find themselves aroused anyway. But arousal is the thing it says on the tin. That is what you are buying if you buy porn. (“Buy” in the most general sense.) And the sense of dislocation, alienation, and the weird is what you are buying if you buy surrealism; the disappointing surrealism is the stuff that doesn’t deliver it. Much of the other weird avant garde that is not specifically surrealism–much of modern and post-modern art–is the same way: you go in knowing you want some of that, and if you take someone to a museum who doesn’t already want some of that, it’s not necessarily great at prompting them to start unless they just have a lightbulb moment. Much like many of us got to the weird in speculative fiction.


Which is great. (I mean, it’s terrible. Very little worse than mundane surrealism, ask me how I know. But it’s good to know.) But not very helpful in getting science fiction and fantasy writers more tools for the persuasive/converting toolbox.


An interesting counterexample to this is Banksy. Their work is not in museums; their audience is not very self-selected compared to most contemporary artists. I think that there are three key accessibility points there: literal physical accesssibility. Banksy stuff will be on the street where you will see it, and you will either like it or not, but you are not asked to go out of your way to get to this art that you may or may not like; the energy cost is low. Banksy’s stuff is “short” for time investment. You look, you take it in. And in fact I have seen more publication of dislocational, deeply weird fiction in short speculative fiction than in novels. And Banksy’s stuff is at least sometimes funny. Humor is a great access point if you can pull it off. If your humor is three levels of abstruse and obscure…that’s great, honestly, I love that kind of humor. But it’s important to realize that “I’ll make this really bizarre thing funny” does not automatically get you a larger audience. (Worth doing, though, because it entertains the crap out of me, and that’s what’s really important here, right? Of course. Okay.)


So the other genre we were going to talk about was magic realism. And I think one of the major tools magic realism has is sensuality. Sensuality of image and sensuality of prose. I think that most science fiction and fantasy writers know that sensory input is important at some level for almost all readers. Young writers will get advice like, “No one will care if you calculated the warp core mass exactly correctly if they can feel the spaceship controls under their hands.” But do we do it? When is the last time you could really feel the spaceship controls under your hands? Of course there are books like Dandelion Wine and the works of Cat Valente that focus on the sensual, but in general I think the speculative genres tend to shy away from it. Magic realism, on the other hand, wallows in sensuality. Why on earth is there a rain of roses in this scene? That is totally bizarre, what is going on here? Wait–do you care quite as much what’s going on here? You can practically taste the heavy, choking scent of roses in your nostrils. You can feel what the petals would be like on your skin, on your lips. Whether or not you know what they’re there for, those are some real roses, and for many readers, that pulls them along into the next piece of the book–or at the very least keeps them anchored in this one.


(For some readers, yes, you really do care. Some people bounce off magic realism because of the balance of sensuality and explanation. But if speculative writers are borrowing tools from other people’s toolbox, they can try to have both.)


And that made me think about paranormal romance. For my money, the entry point of most romance genres is sensory writing, not love or relationships or even sex. There may be stereotypes that romance novels have someone gasping, “Oh, Perceval!” on page one, but in the vast majority of romance novels, you have to wait some time to get to the sex. If sex was the on-ramp, you would have exited, parked your readerly car, and wandered off into a field of daisies. Something else has to be the on-ramp, and because I am a highly non-visual person, it looks really obvious to me that highly visual writing is one of the things it is. So: sensory writing, but focused on one sense in particular in most cases. Highly effective for a large number of readers.


Now. Does this mean I’m saying everyone should do more of this? No. I’m saying it’s one set of on-ramps, one set of access points, I have noticed, and particularly if you’re trying to do something deeply weird, deeply dislocational, and are trying to expand your audience for it, it’s a thing to think about. Adventure is a really traditional access point for both science fiction and fantasy. You can sort hard SF writers into which ones really really want to write about explosions and feel obligated to have some kind of science to dress it up and which ones really really want to write about science and feel obliged to have some kind of explosions to dress it up. Especially late in their careers, when one or the other goes out the window. But similar categorizations are more broadly true for other kinds of ideas and other kinds of action/adventure.


And I bet there are more access points I’m missing. And I’d love to talk more about them. Here or there or on Twitter. Even if you think I’m wrong. Especially if you think I’m wrong. There’s more to say here, too, about exoticism and escapism and phantasmagoria of ideas vs. senses–I know, because I’ve been having some of that conversation on email already–but honestly this is long enough and I need to hit post at some point and actually, y’know, start talking. And simultaneously get back to the story I’m writing.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

I think we all know the Dragonsinger problem of poetry in fiction (I will describe it in case someone doesn’t), and this week I found its opposite.


The Dragonsinger problem: all the other characters go on and on about how brilliant Our Protagonist’s poetry is. “You are the best poet of your generation!” they cry. “Possibly the best ever! Our country/language/planet has never seen such a wondrous poet as you!” Problem: very few authors are the best poet of their generation. Very few best poets of their generation decide to write speculative novels. So if you do show even a few lines of such a poem, rather than only the reactions to the poems, it jolts the reader right on out of there. Or immerses them in pity for the country/language/planet that is stuck with no better poetry than that. One of the worst examples is Menolly of Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. Everyone falls all over themselves to praise her. Her peers are sooooo jealous. And Anne McCaffrey shows quite a lot of Menolly’s lyrics in the books, and they are…not, shall we say, in stiff competition for the best of her generation. I first read them right before I turned twelve, and I am not convinced that they were better than I could have done at that age. I believe they rhymed die and cry, among other things. And I was reading T.H. White at around the same time, so I had the ants to help me make fun of them with the moon/June/soon, love/dove/above, and thanks to T.H. White whenever pop music is particularly annoying me I think of Al Jolson.


Anyway.


Yesterday I encountered the opposite. The author was quite aware that they were portraying bad poetry. It was supposed to be youthful and exuberant but not at all good. And it went on. And on. AND ON.


This is just what Douglas Adams did not do with the Vogon poetry. Vogon poetry, as Adams described it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, was notoriously bad throughout the galaxy, weapons-grade bad poetry. But he described it. He had a line or two. Enough for people to chuckle at how bad.


And then he was done.


Because people believe you that your bad poetry is bad. Oh, they believe you. They just don’t need to sit through it. You only need to hear the clarinets honk once to believe that a grade school band concert is bad. Too much longer and people look away. There is a very narrow land between two swamps, and those two swamps are Embarrassment Squick and Boredom. Being bad at things is rarely interesting. Dart in. Move on. Even if you’re setting a baseline for later improvement, the reader will believe you: yep, they’re bad, they can get better. Golly, we hope they get better. Soon. Now, even. Time for the training montage. Or the cut-scene to exhausted-but-better. Or something else.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

That is: you can go over it. You can around it. You don’t have to go through it.


But sometimes you should.


Here’s what I’m talking about: the other week when I was having tea with some writer friends, one of them started talking about a problem she was having in her work. Let’s say that it was that people were finding her settings too generic. (It wasn’t. But let’s say that it was, because I like my friends to be able to discuss their problems without feeling like the whole internet will then become their confidante without their permission.) And the way she phrased this problem meant that the rest of us were helping her brainstorm ways to make a generic setting okay–the sorts of plots where a generic setting would not call attention to itself or bother anybody, the sorts of characters that could do their own personal, individual pyrotechnics and not make anybody go, “…does this person actually come from anywhere in particular? it feels like not.”


And as she was listening to us, she backed up and said no, what she actually wanted now that she was listening to us all was to make her settings less generic. How to work on that. And we immediately switched gears. Oh! You want to work on that, right! Let’s talk about ways to work on that!


There actually could have been three things there, though: 1) Her settings were not actually generic, but the unique stuff was not coming through. Work on how to bring out the unique stuff. 2) Her settings were generic. Does not actually care much about setting compared to other elements. Make other elements so amazing that people are too busy going, “wow, I love this protagonist,” or, “I could not wait to find out what happens next!” or, “What snappy dialog!” or whatever. 3) Her settings were generic. Try to make them less so.


#2 is risky in some ways–the good-enough story element–because on the one hand you have to admit that the odds that you will knock everybody’s socks off in every single aspect of a book are essentially nil. But on the other hand…deciding right up front that you don’t actually care if a major element is very good leaves you pretty vulnerable, especially if readers don’t like the basket you put all your eggs in. “I have really awesome speculative ideas!” you might say, and I might roll my eyes and say, “wow, this is supposed to be hard science fiction? because let me tell you how the physics of that totally doesn’t work. And also the characters are completely cardboard. Yick.” That has happened. That has happened more than once. On the other hand, the authors with whom this has happened have plenty of fans. So–priorities. It’s really hard to identify everything you might want to improve simultaneously, even if you’re just pleasing yourself and not cranky people who majored in something related to your idea. Sometimes it’s really, really okay to work around one or two things that you know are weaknesses for awhile.


Sometimes it’s time to dive in and try to get better at them.


You’re the one who gets to say which is which.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

One of the problems I have with our system of schooling is that it sets up the expectation that if you want to know something, if you want to know how to do something, other people will tell you what it is that you need to know, the steps you need to fulfill, the boxes you need to check off. Want to learn Spanish? Here is what learning Spanish means! First you pass Spanish 1! Then Spanish 2! Here are the vocabulary lists! Here are the grammatical forms you learn and the order you learn them in! Your Spanish class will vary from someone else’s, but you will each have external validation that you are doing it properly, you are doing the thing.


This is basically not how learning goes. It is not how projects go. Most of the time–most of life–there is no one you can ask and get a definitive answer: am I learning the thing? Am I doing it? And even more basically: is this the thing I should be doing? Either learning Spanish itself or this set of vocabulary words, this set of grammatical forms, this type of pronunciation: is this the thing I most need to work on in order to be better at this? Or is there something else? Because there is, isn’t there. If you’re doing translation, if you’ve gotten to the point of real conversation or real reading, there are the parts that are cultural. The parts that do not fit any list. Where no one can say to you, “here is your new list!” or even, “your long a sound, it sounds too broad, it does not match coherently with your i sound to make an accent recognizable in any Spanish dialect.” The parts where you have to reach for a phrase instead of a word, and you start learning about pieces of culture to know what phrase. People can tell you some of that. But if you don’t start reaching for those pieces yourself, you will stay adequate, never better than that. It’s like that with music, with math, with baking, with everything. You can start with the externally validated list of Things To Learn To Get Better At The Thing. You can consult the experts: how do I thing better? And they will have opinions. But if you don’t start having opinions yourself, you won’t become one of the experts yourself.


And this is where I think a lot of writers run into a problem with criticism, with what criticism is.


Criticism is not a substitution for these lists. It is not trying to set itself up as your new list. You can take it as one if that’s useful. When you’re saying to yourself, how do I thing better? In this case write. How do I write better? What do I want to get better at, in my writing? You can say, huh. A lot of people who talk about the last thing I wrote said that the dialog sounded very wooden, maybe I should work on that. But that’s not what they’re doing. They are not your teacher. They are not writing you a to-do list. They are saying what they thought. You can choose to try to work on that thing next time. You can choose to shrug and say, well, I agree or else I don’t, but that’s not what I’m going to try to do.


Your agent or your editor can say, “This needs clearer exposition,” or, “I’d like the voice to come out more vividly here,” or, “I just don’t think this will sell unless you strengthen the protagonist’s motivation.” And if you’ve chosen to go with a form of publishing where you have an agent or an editor, that’s part of why you have them. Your critiquers can do it. But that feedback can only take you so far if you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re not saying to yourself that you want your premise to be more ambitious, or your portrayal of working relationships, or your descriptive prose. They are working on selling the writer you are. They can see the outlines of the writer you could be. But only the outlines. You’re the one who has to color that in. And if you can’t–your critique group, your editor, your agent, your family, your friends, your mentors, all those people–they can give you a boost. They can try to extend your reach. But you’re the one who has to figure out what you’re reaching for.


The critics, the reviewers–they can point out weaknesses. But it’s up to you to decide if you want to work around them or strengthen them until they’re not weaknesses. Or ignore the criticism. It is there for readers. You can choose to learn from it, but it’s not there to teach you.


I am all in favor of clear communication, but it’s very hard to communicate to someone that they aren’t doing something no one imagined they might want to do. There are so many things to be done that if you don’t communicate that you’re trying something, the odds are pretty good no one will think that you are and tell you that you could and how to get there. This is true if you’re not making social efforts: no one will come in and say, “Hey, by not ever asking people to do anything, you’re failing to communicate that you want to do anything.” It’s also true for particular writerly ambitions. Mostly we try not to write reviews excoriating books for not doing what the reviewer imagined they could unless there is some good reason to think the writer meant to. I’ll have some things to say about Diane Duane’s Games Wizards Play in my book post, but none of them will be, “Hey, this is not a very reliable treatise on planetary astronomy.” And there will always be reams and realms of things you could be trying in your fiction that no one will come and chide you for not doing. Because they didn’t know you might want to. They thought you were content as you were.


Don’t be.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

I think–and this is by no means a new thought that I’ve had–that it’s better not to slam books for something they were never trying to do in the first place. If something is not a genre romance, the author never promised that the book would definitely have a love story and a happily-ever-after, so saying that the author screwed up because it lacks those things would be unfair; similarly, you don’t have a bad author for not providing a solution to a crime at the end, what you have is not a genre mystery. It’s fine to then go on and say, “I prefer romance,” or, “I prefer mystery,” or, “Even outside those genres, I prefer those elements in my non-genre fiction.” But there seems to me to be a useful distinction between what you want and what the author was aiming for.


I was thinking of this with a book I was reading, because the way the cast of characters was drawn differed from a psychologically realistic portrait in ways that seemed clearly deliberate. Only the protagonist got to be a fully realized individual with motivations and desires of their own. All the other characters were specifically arrayed against them, not just in the ways that people sometimes do oppose one, but in universally loathsome ways. In ways that entirely precluded being a fully realized individual with motivations and desires outside the protagonist. And this was done so completely that it seemed impossible to me that it could be an accident. Everything about these characters was calculatedly loathsome–no one ever just happened to like a food or a mode of dress that might be perceived as neutral or even liked by some readers or not by others. Everything was at a fever pitch of hatefulness, all aimed at the protagonist.


It struck me that rather than considering this failed psychological realism, a better term for it might be psychological expressionism. That, like in a Munch or Kandinsky painting, the supporting characters were all there not to be realistically drawn but to evoke a feeling in and about the protagonist–in this case the feeling of being all alone and persecuted. I’ve seen others that are about feeling overwhelmed, which are less disturbing than the persecution complex book I was reading and eventually set down and did not finish. You can dislike this mode of characterization just as you are not required to like a particular style of painting. But I think it’s useful to dislike it as itself rather than as something else.


One of the weaknesses of psychological expressionism in literature, of course, is that when it’s not a clear-cut case, it can blur into theory of mind problems in the author–just as half-assed Expressionism can blur into attempts at realism wherein the painter really just can’t do faces very well. But I don’t think that invalidates it as a deliberate artistic choice. And once people are making it as a deliberate artistic choice, I want the vocabulary to talk about it. So here we are.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

Last week I sent my agent a revision of a book of mine, and I’m really happy with it. I think it’s a good revision that did a lot of exciting things to this book that made its core more itself rather than radically altering it. I think one of the hardest things for new writers is that revision gets really, really hard to tell from sunk cost fallacies. And the advice you get depends on the direction of characteristic error the person giving the advice tends to have.


On the one side, you have the infinite comma fiddling. Sometimes a draft really does need to be put to bed. There is a virtue in doneness, good enough is better than never seeing the light of day, and all that jazz. Will you learn more from changing the adjective on page forty-seven or from writing an entirely new story? And will you improve your odds of getting it out there in front of an audience from changing that adjective or from having two manuscripts that might appeal to people from slightly different angles?


On the other: there are many editorial passes involved in an unpublished manuscript. No, many. No: many. And usually there should be. Usually for a novelist who has not published a novel before there is a darn good reason for each editorial pass. Unwillingness to do the work to get the manuscript into shape means standing in your own way. And there will always be a newer, brighter, shinier idea, and nobody actually cares how shiny your ideas are, because authors don’t write ideas, they write books.


My first thought on how to sort whether a revision was a good revision or a bad revision was whether you had a good reason for doing it. But I’m not sure that’s a good way to figure it out, because some of the good reasons involve waving your hands excitedly and making swoopy noises, and some of the bad reasons can sound very erudite. (But that’s not a clear indication, because you can fool yourself with swoopy noises and make total sense with erudition, too.) I think that assuming that most books need at least one or two revision passes is a good start, and if you don’t need those you’re a rarity and an outlier.


And…I think if you find that you’re doing large numbers of big revisions, over and over again on the same book, my best rule of thumb is if you have a smart reader who has read this specific book, can you describe what you’re doing and why? And does that smart reader say, “Oh yeah, that sounds much better?” Or do they at least say, “Okay, well, that makes some sense?” Obviously you don’t want one smart reader to be in sole control of your fate. But if you’ve done a couple of revisions and you decide you need to do one more–but you can’t really describe it so that a smart reader who has read your book and generally liked it things that you are improving things or at least prooooobably not making them worse–that’s a pretty big danger sign, and worth at least thinking about.


Literally everyone I talked to about this revision said, “Oh yeah! That sounds much better!” So either I’m on a really solid good track…or I’m getting really good at describing revisions now….




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

Last night I didn’t read Anna Karenina. I didn’t watch Simon & Simon or consume walnuts or gluten or alcohol. I didn’t play Moonlight Sonata on the harmonium. I didn’t buy a hamster.


All the things you don’t do are pretty boring to write about.


For one of my friends, though, not consuming alcohol was a little more interesting, because she was recently actively staying sober as a choice that she needed to make for her health. Not like me–I’m at a point with my vertigo and my vertigo meds where I can have a bottle of cider or a glass of wine and enjoy the pleasant taste, and some days I do, and most days I don’t. When I do, the taste can be interesting to comment on; when I don’t, the lack is completely boring.


Earlier this week, people in my Twitter feed were talking about the perception that all writers are heavy drinkers. And honestly some of the reason for this is that a bunch of writers really are heavy drinkers. And some of the reason for it is that conventions bring out the heavy drinker in some people who are otherwise pretty moderate. But some of the reason for it is that those of us who are, like me, light drinkers, and those who are non-drinkers, don’t talk about it in those terms; it’s just not an interesting thing to discuss. At best, boring. At worst, it sounds defensive or false. “There I was, playing the harmonium and TOTALLY NOT DRINKING HEAVILY WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT, GOD, EVELYN.” Or, “There I was, buying a hamster and NOT drinking heavily NOT LIKE SOME PEOPLE, KYLE.”


So it’s a good thing to keep in mind: like many topics, you’re not going to hear most of what other people do, and that occasionally means you hear from people like my friend who say, hey, this is how many days (or in the case of other friends, years) I’ve been sober. But for most cases it means you hear, hey, I’m having this drink, and it tastes like this. Or, I’m having this many drinks, wooo! (If you’re thinking that I find “it tastes like this” more interesting than “wooo!”, yeah, guilty. But people get to have their “wooo!”)


If you’re trying to work in this field and do convention culture and you’re someone who is concerned about heavy drinking in writer culture, though, for personal reasons–maybe you’re someone like my friend who needs to stay sober for your own health. Maybe you’re shy and not very comfortable drinking in professional circumstances. Maybe you just don’t like loud bars. A million reasons. I think it’s probably a good idea to think of what positive things you’re doing for convention/colleague bonding instead. So that you have something to talk about and focus on–“hey, I am doing fancy brunch with people!” or “I am doing tea tasting!” or whatever else you are doing. Rather than, “I am not drinking!” Karaoke. Trying to find someone who knows about fight scenes and is willing to nerd out about yours until you can fix it. An outing to the best restaurant you could find in walking distance–they have [specialty of the house here] and you heard it’s amazing.


You’ll end up with some of the heavy drinkers with you, because they like [specialty of the house here], too, and karaoke and tea and brunch and fight scenes, too. And also some of the moderate drinkers and the light drinkers and the non-drinkers. And hey, isn’t that what you wanted? Because the stuff you’re not doing…is kind of boring. And not your focus anyway. So better to accentuate the positive, see how that works. And if it doesn’t, try a different positive, because messing with Mr. In-Between is pretty much never the answer.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

  1. There’s stuff you don’t have to revise any more when you get past a certain point, because you never mess it up in the first place. That’s convenient if you can get it. Do as many of those as possible. But don’t expect them; they come where they come, and yelling at yourself for not having more of them is counterproductive. Your favorite writer in the world wrote something completely idiotic in the first draft of your favorite book. Really. I promise they did. Ideally they revised it out.

  2. There’s stuff that would have looked impossible when you were newer at this. When someone says, “I’d like you to do more of x, more of y, and more of z, and can you do it in 10% fewer words? Thanks.” Sometimes you look at that and think, “Well, sure, yeah. I see how to do that. That’s only work, no problem.” And you know for a fact that when you were newer at this, less practiced, you would have cried. You would have thought this was ridiculous. Smooth out the pacing, what does that even mean? Does this editor, agent, or critique buddy hate you? I bet they hate you. They just say these things because they hate you. Whereas a few years and a bit of practice and the very same critique suggestion is reasonable. It’s like yoga, when they tell you to breathe into various body parts that are not your nose, sinuses, or lungs, and at first you balk and think, “Ludicrousness right here, what do you mean, breathe into my tailbone, you breathe into your tailbone, lady,” and then after a bit more you’re like, “Oh, breathe into my tailbone.”

  3. And then there’s the stuff that you know better than to attempt. Because you have the experience to know that it’s a bad idea. It looks very much like the stuff in #2, only, y’know, bad. Do more of x, y, and z, in 10% fewer words? You breathe into your tailbone, lady, that is bad for my story and I’m not doing it. Not even belligerently. Just: time for the nope, the calm and rational no thank you, nope. Knowing which reaction goes where and how to implement them: that’s the important part of leveling up.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

July 2017

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