theferrett: (Meazel)

It’s official as of last night: the first draft of my novel The Flex and the Flux is complete.  102k words of drug-dealing magicians.

So let’s talk about what I discovered this time around.

I have written a lot of novels: eight of them, if I bothered to count.  Six were before I restarted my writing career at the Clarion Sci-Fi and Fantasy Workshop, so I don’t count them.  I’ve written two as what I’d tentatively call a “mature” writer – as in, “Ferrett is now aware of his flaws, knows his writing process well enough to squeeze the best work possibly out of himself, and has accepted that he requires heavy revisions to function.”  (There are people impressed by the mere fact of finishing a novel, but remember: my strength as a writer is tenacity.  I could spew out words at will, and regularly did.  For me, the trick was learning how to spew out the correct words.)

So.  Two novels.

…I don’t want to talk about the failed novel in between, but alas, I must.

If you followed me over the summer of 2012, you’d see me discussing my novel Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend, which was pitched as “Pre-powers Buffy discovers her best friend is dating Edward.”  I spent about eight months wrestling with that idea, because it was such an insanely great idea to me – not from a marketing perspective, but from the clash of emotions that’d result when two best friends were separated by what was, in many ways, an attempted murder.  And I did my research: I read Twilight, re-watched some Buffy, found the town in Oregon this was set in, checked some medical tomes on ophthalmologic disasters (since one character was missing an eye).  There was a lot that went into that novel.

And yet no matter how I approached this rich trove of emotion, I couldn’t find its soul.

I probably should have been tipped off by Cat Valente’s reaction to the fact that I wasn’t keen on Labyrinth, when she expressed astonishment and I replied, “The husk of a dead thirteen-year-old girl rests inside my withered heart.”  Am I well-positioned to write about the travails of two adolescent teenaged girls, especially modern ones (for I hate books that act like AIM and texts and Facebook never existed, simply because the author wasn’t around when those were part and parcel of high school), one going through a flighty, Twilighty romance?

I wasn’t.  But it wasn’t because they were girls that I was repelled: it was the Twilight, inextricably wrapped around the core idea.

I coined the term Philosophical Allergy to discuss how I felt, reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  In many ways, Lev’s book is a gorgeously written adult take on Harry Potter, meticulously characterized, with many sharp and imaginative twists.  But the central core of The Magicians is alienation – the characters are all genius outcasts who, rather than band together in the face of loneliness, devise better excuses to create class divisions and emotional distance.  They’re all very real people, acting in very realistic ways; having grown up in rich Connecticut, I’ve known these people intimately, sometimes literally so.

I just loathed all of them.

And so, while reading it, I found myself rejecting some of the core tenets, and finishing the book became kind of a hair shirt for me.  It was a very good book on some levels, but on another, I’d found someone chronicling the precise opposite of what I hoped one day to write.  I could read it, but I could not ingest it.  I vomited out what it was attempting to do, even as I admired its technique.

So it was with Twilight.  (Which, if you’ll recall, I think is a very effective book at what it does.)  They say that much good writing is a dialogue, where one short story inspires another, and I believe that’s true.  A lot of my tales are me reading someone’s story and going, “Oh, that’s not how people react in a situation, let me show you how it goes.”  And for me, trying to hew close to the idea that one of the characters was having a Twilight romance with a vampire, I found myself ridiculing the idea.  Vampires are killers.  This adolescent love of Edward she has is compelling, even universal, but if you’re smart you get over that and walk away… and if you don’t, you find yourself constantly chasing new relationship energy, trying to build a love out of that first transitory rush.  The more I thought about the question, “Why would a century-old vampire find any seventeen-year-old girl appealing?” the creepier the answer became.

And I’m very clever, and very tenacious, so I spent a lot of time devising ideas why this could all hold together.  The problem is, those reasons weren’t convincing to me.  I was writing by the numbers, not invested in the characters to the depth I had to be to follow them through four hundred pages of adventures – and when I realized that I couldn’t justify the very things that needed to exist to make this novel tick, I immediately ragequit.

That was eight months of my life gone.  And so I was a little terrified to start a new novel.  I had all that tentative fear that a man gets on his first date after the divorce: am I really fit for this?  Especially since this new novel was inspired, once again, by another television show: what if Breaking Bad dealt with not drugs, but magic?

Yet this novel is successful.  Very successful, I think.  So what’s the difference?

In a way, the collapse of Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend made me sensitive to what I needed to learn for this novel.  After all, if I wasn’t a big fan of The Magicians, then a novel based on Breaking Bad is probably not going to be warm and fuzzy.  Breaking Bad is about a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-dealer – and it’s blacky funny in the beginning, when Walter is still learning his trade, but with each season Walter gets more efficient and less lovable.  The stated goal of the show is to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, and though the show isn’t quite done yet, they’ve very much succeeded.

So considering that I like to write about love and friendship, how do I reconcile that with the source material?

What I wrote was indeed about drug dealers, and a violent lifestyle, and a ‘mancy system that only springs from functionally-incapable, crazed-cat-lady-level obsessions. But even drug dealers feel affection towards each other, and drug usage has that lovely romance period where you’re both taking this drug, it’s awesome, the world is full of possibilities.  And this time, I treated the core of the idea that gestated this work as a mere suggestion, not a rail.  Whenever any of it conflicted with what I loved, what I loved thoroughly won.

In other words, I didn’t let someone else’s philosophy drive me.  I let mine.  And so, what in the hands of someone else would have been, well, Breaking Bad, instead turns into an extended musing on fatherhood (for the Walter-analogue here has a young daughter, who unlike in Breaking Bad features prominently), and how you deal with life-destroying trauma.  It’s a surprisingly warm and fuzzy book about outcasts who wreck the world with their reality-warping psychoses.

If I’d been smarter, dealing with my collapsed book, I would have realized soon on that the Edward-Bella love thing is really a philosophical allergy, and I would have not simply tried to adapt it, but I would have transformed it.  I wouldn’t have asked, “So why are they in love?”  I would have asked, “So what would I fear about that love?  What would I have been attracted to?”  And rather than constantly trying to wedge them into the plot that I’d devised, I would have found my own voice to respond to Stephenie Meyer’s take on NRE, treating it not as this thing to be transplanted into my novel, but rather my own relationships reflected in fiction.

My error was treating the idea as if I could respond to it by copying it.  You can’t do that.  You respond to another work of fiction by breathing it all in, then breathing it out as something so completely you that it’s no one else.  There are adolescent romances that I could write about – for, as has been noted, in many ways I move in constant tides of crushes, falling in love with strangers at the drop of a hat – but I’d have to write about the kind of vampire that I’d fall for, and not Stephenie Meyers and all her kin would.  And would that idea survive the first contact with my other concept of a Buffy-analogue wanting to kill the Edward?

I don’t know.  But now I’d be wise enough to understand that if it wouldn’t fit, then that darling should be the first to go.

Anyway, I’m rambling.  The point is that what I learned this time around is the most obvious point, which is really what writers do: we find the obvious advice everyone bandies about, and find the way to internalize it.  The point here is that novels – that fiction – is about your fears, your deepest desires, your internal kinks that pull you along… and anything that leads you away from that is blunting the strongest thing in your fiction, which is to say your passion and voice.

I lost mine.  I got it back.  And now I’ll spend the next several months re-passing this novel, deepening the themes and tuning the characters and making those emotional beats resonate.  Which I’m able to do because at some point, I went beyond just filing off the serial numbers and actually adopted it as all my own.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I wrote an essay that’s just a smidge too sexy for what I now perceive as this blog, but I’m happy to share it over at FetLife (the Facebook for kinksters!).  If you want to read it, it’s over there.

A sample:

“We went to a movie. Then we had two beers. Then he put his penis inside of my vagina.” – bad description of a good date

I have friends who chronicle their sexiest of sexitudinest times, those nights so hot that it looks like a fire hydrant has exploded in the bed… and then, after they’re done jotting down their descriptions of non-Euclidean sexual positions and out-of-body experiences, they wonder why nobody comments.

Well, it’s because you’re listing instead of writing.

Now, keep in mind that written erotica is like porn or pizza in that no matter how bad it is, someone is whacking off to it. (Rule #34, people.) Human beings are basically a big ol’ fuck-making machine wrapped inside a thin layer of justification, so if you told people that this refrigerator was totally hot for their bodies, some significant subset of people would go, “Oh, God, the fridge wants me. Look at the way the cubes in her icemaker are jiggling.”

That said, the #1 sin of written erotica is the list. It goes something like this….

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So as mentioned, I’m doing National Novel-Writing Month, and the words are pouring out.  Whether they are coming out as liquid silver or pea-choked vomit remain to be seen, but I am 34,700 words into this draft already, cruising quickly into the second act.

The void is killing me.

I think that’s why I like short stories; I write 6,000 words at most, and when I’m done, I hand them to a crit group, and within two weeks I know how well I did!  Anybody can get through a short story.  It doesn’t matter whether the feedback is bad or good; I just like to know how much work I have to do.

But this novel, man…. I used to make Gini read my novels chapter-by-chapter as I wrote them, but then I realized that no human ever reads a novel like that.  (Here, read a novel over the course of four months, in erratic drabs that have nothing to do with your interest in it.)  So instead, I let her read my larger works in larger pieces – I usually try to get to the end of it, but what’s happened is that I get to a point where I’m not certain what happens next, and I can’t bounce ideas off of Gini until she knows what’s going on, so she winds up reading the first third of the novel so I can figure out how to get to the second third.

Gini, however, is involved in a crushing project.  She will not be available until mid-December.  By which point I will have hopefully finished up Act II, and be well on to Act III.  I may even be completely finished by the time I make her sit down for a weekend and read it.

In other words, I’m writing this whole novel without knowing whether it’s any good at all.  And I’ve sort of abandoned the idea of writing a salable novel, but I would like to know whether the novel I am speedily plopping onto the page is going to require seventy rewrites or just a touch-up.  Are my characters likeable?  Does the plot have too many whafucks?  Is it interesting?

I am driving blind down a foggy path at seventy MPH.  I hope I’m on the right path.  But there’s no markers to tell, and eventually I’m going to coast to a stop and discover whether I’m at my destination, or stuck axle-deep in a boggy marsh.

That’s kiiiiinda scary.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

After graduating Clarion, I wrote short stories for four years.  I did this because short stories were easier to write; I could take drastic differences in tone and approach, attacking a different problem with each story, and get it all done in 5,000 words.

I got published in a few venues, and then I got my first professional publication, which set me on my way.  What would happen next was predictable: I’d sell more short stories to a mix of markets, until eventually I got my third pro sale (which was my entry to the Science Fiction Writers of America), and I’d sell more stories until my name was out there.  Then maybe I’d get nominated for a major award.  Then I’d write a novel, and I’d get an agent to sell it, and that novel would get good reviews.  And I’d keep writing novels until I made a name for myself, and then I’d be a Real Writer….

Except that didn’t happen.  My finished novel is circulating among agents, and has gotten some interest, but has not been an automatic sale.  In the meantime, I started work on another Very Salable Novel, which imploded after six months of writes and rewrites, and I eventually determined that I couldn’t write it at all.

Now I’ve got a third novel I’m planning, and my so-called career is a weight around my ankles.

I’ve literally been unable to get out of bed in the morning, harried by thoughts that OMG I don’t want to start it, because what if I fail?  If I don’t get it published, then I’ve wasted time.  My career is supposed to move smoothly from “well thought-of short stories” to “starred review first novel,” and if that doesn’t happen then who am I?  I’m certainly not a Real Writer.  I’m just some fraud, throwing out words but not moving down the correct path.

Plus, as I’ve gotten desperate to push this stalled career along, I’ve started thinking in terms of commercialism.  “People like happy endings,” I think.  “Maybe I should write happy endings.  People liked Sauerkraut Station, what lessons can I learn from that?  Sauerkraut Station was a Little House on the Prairie riff, what else can I emulate?”

The problem?  Sauerkraut Station wasn’t a goddamned commercial fiction.  It was this unwieldy, horrible novella I was convinced I’d never sell, let alone get any acclaim for; I liked it, and for the longest time I was the only one who did.  My best stories, as always, are the ones I write for myself.

What I’ve come to realize is that my writing career needs to get fucked.  All it ever does is make me compare myself to other writers, wondering where I’m ahead or behind on the curve, bringing unwarranted feelings of envy for people who write delightful stuff.  All it ever does is make me feel like shit for not hitting arbitrary goals.  All it ever does it is make me feel as though there will be some point in my life when I’ll feel so confident about writing that I’ll know how to do things… and the truth is, writing’s complicated.  I’m going to be taking huge chances all the time.  If I ever did get to the point where I knew how to toss off a bestselling novel, I’d start experimenting on the side with the things I didn’t understand.

I am never going to feel comfortable with this.

So fuck my writing career.  I’m still going to write, of course.  I’ve got this novel I’m excited about right now.  But when I write it, I’m not going to think of the agent who’d want it, or whether it’ll fit in this market, or what will happen if I don’t get it published.  I’m just going to put the words on the fucking paper, and make it the kind of thing that is as good as I can get it, and everything else will happen in its time.

I called a mulligan on my writing career, once.  I’m doing it again.  From today forward, I have no plan aside from my fingers, on these keys.  Writing.

Maybe someone will even like it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

When I talk to writers about their characters, what I often hear are simple motivations: “Daisy wants to climb Mount Everest” or “Phil wants to be a star.”

Problem is, those aren’t really “motivations” so much as “statements of their goals.”  There are a hundred reasons why Daisy might have become obsessed with conquering the peak, and all of them add different flavors to the story.  Is Daisy an out-of-shape businesswoman, used to taking over corporations on a daily basis, and she figures if she can afford to pay $30,000 to these package-vacation Sherpas she’ll have a great story to impress potential customers with at conventions?  Or is Daisy from a poor village in some distant country, having grown up feeling that the world has yet to acknowledge the tenacity of her people, and she’s determined to be the first of her people to climb Mount Everest without an oxygen tank?  Or is Daisy a thrillseeker, an Xtreme sports addict who thinks she’s going to live forever, who plans to snowboard down the west face of the mountain?

As you can see, even without a plot, these are three very different stories.

When you’re thinking of a story, you tend to think of goals, because hey, you want to write a tale about Mount Everest, so you need someone who wants to go there.  That’s a normal way of developing a tale.  But goals are not motivations.  Once you’ve gotten the immediate goal, start thinking about the gaps that person is trying to fill.

Most people have a gap in their development, an incompleteness that they’re relentlessly trying to fill by repeatedly doing something that’s self-destructive.  That stupid act fills the gap for a time (even if it never ever quite fills it).  There’s some insecurity they’re fulfilling, even if they can’t quite bring themselves to articulate what it is – and in fact, they usually can’t, because if they could acknowledge this deep feeling, often they’d fix themselves.

You’re not just looking for a character who wants to climb Mount Everest, you’re looking for the need within themselves that they fulfill by climbing a mountain.  And often, in finding that emotional resonance, you find the heart of the story.  (Stephen King is the master of this, and that’s part of the reason he’s so successful.)

Want a real-life example?  Let’s say we’re writing a story about a guy who falls in love with a demon, and so meets a terrible end in an alleyway.  You need someone who’s patently attracted to dangerous women, so you say “Phil’s really attracted to psychotic women.  That’s why he meets a demon.”

That’s not enough, though.  You have to ask, “What emotional gap is Phil fulfilling by dating dangerous women?”

Dig deeper!  The truth is that Phil is insecure and unaccomplished, and doesn’t feel wise at all.  By dating really unstable women – and he has to go wandering far to find women crazier than he is – he becomes their mentor, advising them on patently obvious things, and for a time he gets to feel like a guru.  That’s the gap that gets filled.  Now, that inevitably disintegrates (as gaps are wont to do), since he actually doesn’t like living with women who can’t keep a job, and in time his girlfriends come to resent his control-freak issues.  So he continually bitches about why he can’t find a stable woman, but then he finds a new crazy girl and things are okay for a time.

That’s an actual character, someone unique that you can build a rather fascinating tale upon.  (And one that may not involve a cheap death in an alleyway – would this Phil really be fulfilled by dating an aeons-wise demon who knows more about human nature than he ever will?  What will the demon teach him?)  But that involves really thinking beyond obvious goals, to the inner emotional state of the character.  Which, if you can do it, will lead to richer stories.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

That’s the most critical piece of writing advice, amiright?  Write every damn day.  If your mother died?  Write at the funeral.  Boyfriend dumped you?  Splash those tears on your keyboard, missy.  Lost both arms in a wrestling match with an alligator?  You can type with your toes!

Just write!  Write!  Write, until you uncork that best-seller from within!

But let’s get serious.  I do write pretty much every day, and I attribute that dedication to the success I’ve had as a fiction writer.  Neil Gaiman once famously told me, “Ferrett, you just need to write,” and after blowing through fifty wretched stories I started to get to some decent ones. I treat my writing career as if my boss were Ebeneezer Scrooge; I show up every day, no vacations, and toil well past the time I’d scheduled.

That’s what works for me, but every writer uses a different method to harness the muse.  Some people must plot in advance; I have to make it up with each sentence.  My friend Kat has to write it all down in longhand; I need a keyboard.  I have to revise a story five times minimum before it’s ready for publication, whereas redrafting for others is like shoveling ashes on top of a burning fire, damping all the energy of that first burst of creativity.

Some people, no, they can’t write every day.  They need to take a week off from fiction to refresh their creativity, wandering and dreaming before returning to the Land Of Difficult Words, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re not slackers; this is part of their creative process, and they know this is how they make their best work.

Still, the reason this “Write every day” schtick is so schticky is because every professional writer I know has one talent in common: they write when they don’t really want to.  Because as a writer, while it feels better to write while inspired, most of us soon discover that there’s not much of a difference in terms of what you actually create.  Some of my best writing has come from days where I felt like I was trudging through broken glass, and some of my worst writing has flown effortlessly from my fingertips to land on the page like fresh cat droppings.  For most – not all, but most – what we create has little to do with how we feel about it while creating it.  So most of us learn not to wait for inspiration, but rather to squeeze it out of ourselves like toothpaste from a wrung tube.

You may not write every day, but the world is busy and does not care if you’re a writer.  If you do not make time for the act of creation, then laundry and children and lovers and work will swallow your ambitions whole.  So you need to create time. The more often, the better. Because the number-one enemy that eats talented writers for breakfast, devouring millions of words of beautiful prose that we’ll never get to see, is Real Life.

…And yes, revising stories and critiquing stories all counts for this time.  If you’re thoroughly analyzing fiction, this counts.  You’ve set your brain to work on the big question, which is “How can I make this better?”

Which is the other problem with the “write every day” thinking: it assumes that merely writing is enough.  I know people who churn out 10,000 words every day, and they’re just as terrible when they began.  It’s not enough to just vomit words onto the screen – it has to be a focused writing, thinking about the details, bolstering your strengths, asking, “How can I do this better?” If you’re endlessly enamored of your own work, convinced it’s beautiful and not a word could be improved, you’re not writing, you’re masturbating.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with masturbation, but it’s not improving anything except your ability to pleasure yourself.

When you sit down to write, do so in a focused manner.  Think, “How am I going to make this the best story in the damn world?”  You probably won’t, but asking the question and analyzing will lead you to better and better techniques.  And one day – even if that’s a day you did not necessarily write – you’ll find that you’ve become the sort of writer you’d hoped to be.

Good luck.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Hey, guys!  The Clarion Blog-A-Thon starts today – and with it, my attempt to outline my novel live, in a members-only community, as an advanced seminar in plotting, theme, and character!  A $10 donation and an email to theferrett@theferrett.com with your LJ name will get you access – and also help one of the greatest writing workshops in history.

How good is Clarion?  In twenty pre-Clarion years, I had three sales.  In three post-Clarion years, I had twenty sales.  That’s how much you learn.  And the Clarion Echo, where I’m doing all of this plotting, is designed to be a little taste of Clarion.  I’m certainly teaching you everything I learned.  So I’ll ask you to donate, both for a good cause and some entertaining tutorials.

So what am I writing today?  It’s an essay on what benchmarks make for a good scene, and it starts like this:

To plot this novel during the Blog-a-Thon, I’m going to have to break everything down into scenes. That’s tricky for me, because I’m an exploratory writer — I usually don’t know what’s going to happen until the words hit the page.

Now, in a lot of cases, I get to a point where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s when my writing theory skills come in handy.

See, all that writing advice you’ve ever gotten? You never need it when a story is working. You only need to reach into that bag of tricks when a scene’s falling flat, or an ending is nowhere in sight, or when that character is relentlessly limp.

Now, for me, when I hit that terrifying blank page, I fall on my old standbys for What To Do When You Don’t Know What Happens Next. Neil Gaiman told me that every story is really about what a character needs — and so I think, “What life lesson could this character use most in this moment, and how can I teach it to her?” James Patrick Kelly taught me that if I couldn’t figure out what happened next, come up with ten terrible endings and think about why they’re terrible… And lo, elucidating the reasons I hate this awful, cheesy, and obvious ending makes me realize what I want to have happen. And I have my own custom advice, which is, “If you were the GM in a game, how would you plot this?”

All utterly unneeded when things are going well. But when instinct fails, theory’s what gets you back on track.

So for me, in unfamiliar territory, I thought about what would make a good scene for this novel, so I’d have a clear-cut set of tests to apply during plotting.  I read probably four or five books dealing with novel-writing and outlining, to try to devise a set of “acid tests” to see if something was up to snuff.  Which is important in novels; a short story is usually about one or two ideas, and if your writing is compelling or your ideas dazzling, you can kind of tapdance around that rotten hole in the stage.  But for novels, you need to have an underlying structure that works… and without actually writing the scene, something I’ve always done before, I need something else as a sanity check for this novel.

Note those words: for this novel. I’m writing what hopefully will be a very cinematic, simple script — other novels may have different scene requirements. For example, some novels may need breather scenes where the character sits back and thinks. That’s not the effect I’m going for here, so I’m going to try not to have those.

So what will my sanity checks for this novel, as we plot it out together, you and I?  I made a list.  And that list contains both generically good scene advice, and advice specific for this novel….

The rest of the entry can be found here, but you can only read it if you donate.  It’s $10.  That’s not a huge amount, it will get you entry to fabulous prizes from twelve amazing authors, and I’ll consider it a personal favor.  So why not donate?

 

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Finishing up a huge project for today, but over at FetLife (TheFacebookforKinksters), I wrote a humor essay on a neglected topic: How To Be A Super-Duper Ninja Sex Texter.

The obligatory sample:

So! You want to make people masturbate to thoughts of you, using only your phone. And yet whenever you text, “I STICK IT IN. I STICK IT IN!!!!!” you get nothing but awkward silences.

Possibly because this is because you accidentally sexted your mother. Or possibly it is because you do not know the secrets of effective sexting. And you know who knows all the secrets of effective sexting? Not me. Shit, that’s a deep well, dude. There’s like ten million ways to get someone off with your mind and an unlimited data plan.

…but I know a few.

The essay’s over here, and actually contains some pretty salient tips on writing customized erotica.  So go check it out, if you’re interested.  Ask questions.  Kick the tires, you know how it is.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

During Clarion, I coined the phrase “busking on the wrong corner” to describe the phenomenon of “entertaining writing that doesn’t serve the story.” It’s the reason writers have to  kill their darlings.  It’s the trap that stops a lot of good writers from making the transition to great.

“Busking” is the practice of playing in public spaces for donations – you know, that guy playing the guitar, his guitar case open before him, full of scattered singles and quarters.  Buskers are often some of the most talented musicians.  But the buskers’ art is also partially a knowledge of where the crowds are.

You can sing your fucking heart out on a corner where there’s no foot traffic.  If you’re really good, you might make a few bucks.  But if you’re really good and really smart, you’ll position yourself near the subway where people are pouring out by the hundreds as rush hour ends, a place where even a mediocre musician can clean up.  Part of your strength is not just the raw force of your musicianship, but knowing where to place that skill so it’s maximized with silver rains of spare change.

Writers (me included, oh so included) are often putting their talents to use on the wrong corner.  This chapter is brilliant writing, it’s got great characterization, it’s exciting.  But underneath, the scene is at odds with what the story is trying to do, and what you’ll wind up with is a great scene that advances the story in the wrong ways.

Lemme give you the real-life example: the lead character of the novel I’m plotting right now, Autumn Akeley, is a taxidermist.  In the beginning of the book, Autumn is deep in the woods on a rumor, searching for the Hulk.

Why the Hulk, you ask?  Because she’s not just any taxidermist – she makes wild viral videos online parodying recent movies in order to drive business to her online taxidermy shop.  Autumn’s latest planned video (“The Bearvengers”) needs a gigantic, light-skinned animal she can dye green to play the part of the Hulk.  Autumn does not kill animals for her entertainment (she takes the death of any creature very seriously), but she just got a tip from a hunter that there’s a decaying grizzly in the woods she might be able to use.  She tracks it down with her friend Karla and examines the corpse – it’s a little too moldy for her liking, but it has very light fur.  She thinks she can salvage it.

Then a shot rings out across the forest: there are poachers in the woods.  As someone who hates to see an animal killed senselessly, she does not take lightly to poachers.  She sets off to investigate, starting the chain of events that sets up the novel….

…Now, that’s a pretty good scene.  It’s got an interesting character doing something we’ve never seen done before in a book, it displays her odd compulsions, it allows us to watch her work (if you have a character with an odd profession, people love to see the fine details), and for a short intro it’ll do quite nicely.

And yet we are busking badly here.  Why?

Because this novel is about Autumn’s friendship with Karla.

Okay, unfair, I didn’t tell you that – but the whole point of the novel is that a new man in town with a shadowy past begins to romance Karla, causing a rift when Autumn discovers the man’s past as a serial killer.  And this scene, while good in a vacuum, utterly fails to set up the dynamics of Karla and Autumn and their friendship.  In fact, you’d be excused for forgetting the existence of Karla in this summary, because while we can put in some nice dialogue and characterization to set up Karla’s character, the underlying structure of the scene is not about her at all.

This is a great scene for a novel featuring bold Autumn Akeley, bold adventurer.  It’s a terrible scene for Autumn and Karla’s big fight – especially since the next scene involves Autumn tracking down poachers, which has even less to do with their friendship.  And if you’re not a careful writer, you’ll think this is an awesome scene because it’s got it all – humor, good characterization, a quick hook to action – without realizing that it’s an awesome scene that’s structurally at odds with what you want to do in the long run.  It doesn’t set up the things that need to be established.

It’s a good scene in isolation.  In context, it’s a darling that needs to be killed… Or at least dramatically changed so that Karla does something so interesting here that the scene metamorphosizes away from Autumn’s search for the Hulk and into an expression of how Autumn and Karla couldn’t get along without each other.

The point I’m making here is that had I written that chapter, I’d have been very proud.  It’d be a nice, 1,500 word opener that would grab the reader, full of lovely details and fun stuff.

And then I’d have to place it into my trash folder, because ultimately it doesn’t do what it needs to, then hunt for the right scene to write.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So I’m 30,000 words into a new novel, and this weekend I realized that I have to throw out everything except for the first 600 words.  The last two months of work?  Completely erased.  Hit “Delete” and kiss that effort goodbye.

Normally there’s something to be scavenged from a manuscript collapse, but this is a total implosion.  My protagonist used to be a harried, frightened nerd, prone to punching when cornered; in this new novel she will become a nerd-king, the kind of super-popular high-school kid that has yet to realize that she’s peaking and that things have already begun to slope downwards.  The villain in my old book was a charming, well-meaning rogue; now he’s a sneering killer who’s only masquerading as human.  I’m reducing everything to such rubble that there’s nothing I can retain.

Such an exciting failure.

Failing is a good thing in writing; it means you’re taking risks.  But furthermore, it indicates you’re skilled enough to recognize that you’re writing something flawed.  Which is a sign of growth to be cherished.

A few years back, I would have looked at the scenes I’d written and said, “But those are good scenes!”  And indeed, they are; some of them are touching and beautiful and honest in a way that I’d never been capable of before.  There’s a scene where my protagonist faces down her reclusive, immature father to have to justify her expulsion from school – which was one of the subtlest and truest things I’ve ever written.  There was a lot of good stuff in that 30k, personal high-water marks.

Yet the novel as a whole wasn’t up to snuff, with character largely revealed through interminable interior monologues and backstory instead of action.  The fact that I recognized that was a sign of how far I’d come.  And figuring out how to fix it involved a combination of using every tool I’d developed as a writer and having the boldness to go, “No, this can’t be massaged back into position.”

Now, I’m trying a new technique: I’ve never outlined a novel before.  I’ve only written the scene that comes next, hoping my internal searchlight would find the correct path.  But in outlining, I’m having to use all sorts of techniques stolen from the theater – the three-act structure, internal versus external challenges, ensuring that character is revealed through action, explicitly raising the stakes with every chapter – and that’s a sweaty workout.

I’m learning so many new things that I feel revitalized.  This novel doesn’t feel like a slog any more, but a mountain to be climbed.  It’s tough, but there’s a certain masochistic satisfaction I’m deriving, a brisk slap to the face.

To which I say to you, dear readers, is that there are mundane failures and exciting ones.  The mundane failures you can’t learn from, you just did the same thing all over again.  But the exciting ones are the ones where you can break yourself and then reforge your shattered forearms into adamantium claw-laden superpowers.

What I encourage you to do is to fail big.  Write to the edge of your limits.  And when you realize you can’t pull off this tricky story you’re halfway through, don’t get depressed; take it as a sign that you’re recognizing flaws even if you don’t know how to correct them yet.  Writing’s full of invisible pitfalls where you think it’s brilliant, but your readers are unsatisfied.  Just understanding that something doesn’t work is a major accomplishment, one you should congratulate yourself for.

What’s important is not this story.  It’s your overall skill level.  And a failed story can teach you far more than that easy sale.

Today, I’m taking the first step in spending at least a month outlining my novel chapter by chapter.  Maybe it won’t work.  But I’ll learn, and if this collapses then it’ll be such a glorious failure that I’ll be harvesting new talent from the ruins.  Celebrate with me, people.  Go blast a story of your own.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The book was published in 2010, and purported to be about the distant future.  And yet its opening chapter was based on a premise that wouldn’t have flown in 1995.

The book was about an antiques dealer, sitting at his desk, when a customer came in with some effects from a dead celebrity.  The antiques dealer had not heard of said celebrity, and as such told the woman that these items weren’t worth much.  As it turns out, the dealer “doesn’t get out much,” and the celebrity was in fact very big news in certain circles, and was later called upon the carpet by his boss.

Note what did not happen in this crazy future-world: not one fucking Google search.

Back when I was editing for StarCityGames, I’d get articles by people I’d never heard of.  And even as scattershot as SCG’s editorial focus was back then, I Yahoo-searched every name to make sure they hadn’t won a Pro Tour or something.  Sometimes they had, and that saved me much embarrassment.

So what we have is someone presented as a competent employee, who doesn’t think to type a name into a goddamned computer.  Which is a social failure on the part of the author, who also references a lot of old-school printouts and books hanging around in a future rife with AIs that can talk and evolve.  Won’t e-books and bookmarks have consumed those wholesale by then?

I don’t think that it’s that she’s bad at writing (the book’s quite fun otherwise!), but that she’s so busy envisioning a future where black holes and time travel matter that she’s accidentally skimming over the very changes to society that technology has wrought right now.

As a science fiction author, that vexes me.  I think it’s our job to look at how technology changes people, and part of that has to be looking at the society that we’re becoming.  Facebook is causing all sorts of havoc in the college field, because you have some sleazy hookup with someone, and wham!  Tomorrow, an embarrassing friends’ request.  That person’s now connected with you, a part of your life in a way you didn’t necessarily want but would now be a dick to refuse.

Things teenagers say are now amplified in weird ways.  Drama spirals out of control so much quicker when it’s all in the public arena, dogpiles of crazy waiting to happen.  Dumb photographs you took when you were fifteen now lurks in your Facebook archives, waiting to be revealed by employers at the worst possible moments.  And always, always there’s the possibility of your idiocy going viral, where in the blink of an eye your fun weekend project becomes the next Rebecca Black.

As people who are looking at the future, we need to examine that, and extrapolate, and figure out where all of this enmeshing of society goes.  Maybe that’s a part of my history, because at the age of 25 I started writing crazy sex stories that opened up my personal life, and twenty years later that’s such a part of my identity I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be a blogger.  But the choices I made when I was young, dumb, and full of cum are still influencing my life years later in massive ways I could not have anticipated…

…and that’s the future.  This having every word on the record.  This me, changing the details of the book so I’m not calling out another author in public, because I don’t want to start a flame war with someone whose book I think is otherwise quite good.

This is the new society we live in, where all information is just a touch away, and I think as authors we need to examine that warp and weft of our fabric more closely.  To figure out how our culture will either adjust to this craziness, or to figure out how we’ll start to bend the rules so that it becomes healthier for everyone.

Either’s okay.  My first pro-published story, Camera Obscured, is all about a boy trapped in the web of social media.  Sauerkraut Station is about a lonely girl who’s too far from the social networks, but note that there’s at least a nod to the expense of sending emails.  I’m not saying they’re works of genius, but they’re at least making concessions to the future that’s spinning off of today’s headlines.

I think the singularity is coming, but it’s not what you think.  I think it’s going to be a hideous snarl of concentration-shattering advertising and reptile-brain attention grabs and selfishness ego-shouting, and when it comes it’s going to shred us apart because the corporations will have learned how to pander to our worst desires out to three significant digits.

That’s my vision.  Yours will be different.  But please.  Apply a little thought to what’s going on now, and don’t just have the next generation of people be just like us.  They will have a lot of similarities.  But they’re growing up in science fiction now, so honor that by viewing it through a lens that is flexing and distorting as you read these words.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The greatest gift the Clarion workshop gave me is that it made me feel like A Real Writer for six weeks straight.  That was the longest continuous period of feeling like a Real Writer I’ve ever had.

I say this today because of an absolutely beautiful post by Justine Larbalestier, which lists all the times when Justine knows she will have made it as a writer.  Which is wonderful, heartbreaking, and true.

Truth is, I don’t feel much like a writer these days.  Yes, I have this lovely Nebula nomination… but I also haven’t had a story accepted in four months despite having eleven stories darting from market to market.  I haven’t written that much, because I’m mentally planning a novel and even though I’m creating characters in my head I’m not actually knocking words on the page.  And my novel is still waiting, precipitously, for near-certain rejection by agents.

Yet I’m still doing pretty well.  It’s just I have to look for evidence to remind myself of my Real Writerhood when I’m mapping out my next novel and realizing it’s too much for me and oh God I’m not sure I can do this.  (And I think, honestly, that’s every novel for almost everyone.)

The thing that Justine’s post highlights so well is that it’s hard for many of us to feel like Real Writers because even the best writers keep getting evidence that we’re not Real.  All those rejections and bad reviews hurt… And that’s part of the deal you took with this crazy career.  Four months without a story sale?  Heck, I’ve had nine-month dry periods.  Jay Lake had ten years, for Chrissakes.  We all have our deserts to cross.

The truth about being a Real Writer is that it’s not about paying attention to the external factors, which will never really set you free.  You’re a Real Writer when you apply ass to seat, write, finish, and send it off for someone who might publish it.  (Or if you’re a self-publisher, to a lot of people who might purchase it.)

All those other hallmarks Justine mentions?  They’re temporary highs, fleeting triumphs that will make you feel confident and strong for a day or two.  Then it fades.  And you know why?  If you’re a good writer, you’re always stretching, writing off more than you can chew because you know the only way to get better is to do new things.  Constantly.  And that means you don’t really have many moments where you go, “Yeah, I got this” because you’re always reaching out for greater emotional depth, better prose, more entanglement.  You don’t feel confident because you’re brave enough to move beyond where you know and to boldly set out for What You Could Do If You Tried.

Then you send that new-as-scabs talent out for someone to potentially ignore, reject, and even hate.  This is a brave thing.  This is what makes you Real, even if you may not necessarily feel that Realness thrumming along your heartstrings.

But hey.  If you’re writing regularly, and doing your best to get it out to an audience, I will tell you true: you’re a Real Writer.  Take pride in that.

Now get back to work.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

David Steffen wins a pizza for a five-minute rejection!Congratulations go to David Steffen, whose flash fiction story got rejected by PodCastle in a blistering five minutes yesterday.  As David said, “I had not even finished updating the entry in my submissions spreadsheet  before it got rejected.”  The email confirms it: submission at 8:57 a.m., response at 9:02 a.m.

You know what that means: free pizza!

If you will recall my consolation challenge, I had promised to buy a consolation pizza for any author who got rejected more quickly than my previous record of twenty-nine minutes.  As David said, “What better way to wipe up my tears than with a delicious pizza?”  Here, you see David eating his pain, complete with manuscript, ham, black olives, and extra cheese.

I should note that in both cases, the rejection came from blisteringly fast rejectioneer Ann Leckie – so if you’re looking to maximize your hopes of a free pizza, submit to either PodCastle or Giganotosaurus, both of which are fine markets to be published in or to be rapidly ejected from.

In any case, the timer has been adjusted, and to win a pizza you must now be rejected in four minutes or under.  The rules are here.  Should you be rejected in four minutes or under, I will buy you pizza – a pizza that will take longer to arrive than your rejection did.

Best of luck, writers!

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

My friend was very excited, because his new novel featured a first for him: a female protagonist.  He was looking forward to the challenge of writing something long-form that had a different viewpoint character than his other, male-centered, novels.  And he was so concerned with getting it right that he’d asked a bunch of us to talk it over wih him.

Unfortunately, he made an error that I think a lot of male writers do.  And that error arrived with this statement:

“Okay,” he said.  “At this point, she’s been brought to a foreign land, and I need to raise the stakes so that she wants to stay here and fight for this culture.  So I think she needs to get pregnant.”

Cue groans from the women in the session.

Now, I’ve observed before in that in fiction, women have one of two roles: to get raped, or get pregnant.  And I think, watching my very well-intentioned friend go at it, I’ve finally understood the reason why men do this.

See, in his excitement to write a woman, he got caught up on the differences between men and women.  If women can get pregnant, and I’m writing a woman, well, I should immediately start with this biological difference!  That’ll be a plot that only a woman can have!

Except it’s a plot that almost any woman can have.  In attempting to differentiate your character, you’ve just made her like 95% of other women in fiction.

Plus, pregnancy is just one of a thousand different motivations that can get a woman to do things.  If you had a male character, would you define his sole reason for staying as being biologically-based?  Of course not.  You’d look at all the myriads of motivations that could drive humanity to fight for a cause – love, justice, revenge, obligation, pride, the challenge of starting over again, survival, redemption, hatred – and choose one that was not based on a man’s unique ability to squirt sperm.

So why do you narrow it to pregnancy?  Why?  To write a woman’s plot?  Then what you’re saying, whether you mean to or not, is that women have one role… and I gotta tell you, from the groans of protest I heard from the women, they’re getting pretty tired of that crap.

Pregnancy is just one aspect of a female character.  Look at all the emotions that might motivate a woman, and allow that pregnancy is also an option, but let it be just one option among many.  Then choose the one that fits this character.

As someone wisely said during the session, “A woman’s character is not formed from biological imperatives.  It’s formed from a difference in experience, and that experience is often societally driven.  If women think differently, it’s because people treat them differently – but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel all the same emotions that men do.”

And those emotions run the gamut to “not wanting to be pregnant.”  Yes, protecting your baby is noble – but as others noted, assuming that I was whisked away to a foreign land consumed by war, my instinct would not be to double down on fighting for this land, but to get my kid to a nice safe hospital back in the States. Pregnancy is a specific event for a woman, yes, but there are lots of abortions and lots of neglectful mothers, and not every character is going to react in the “traditional” way to the news of impending progeny.

In fact, is “traditional” even what you want?  I mean, when you’re writing a male character, do you want someone who reacts in the way that men are inevitably supposed to react?  Isn’t the point of characterization to give us something surprising?  Don’t you want something a little better than the stock-in-trade reactions that have been seen a thousand times before?

So why make pregnancy, that traditional “This is where the woman gets strong” moment, the crux of your novel?

The good news is that my friend listened to the feedback given, and hopefully changed all this stuff before he started.  As a guy, that’s the best start you can have – talking to women you trust, and listening to what you get wrong.  I sympathize.  I’m about to start a novel involving two teenaged girls, and as a guy I assure you I’m going to get it wildly wrong.  The female experience is complicated, female adolescence doubly so.  The best I can do is to write honestly, and keep listening to actual female feedback to keep me on track.

But when I write women protagonists (which I have in Sauerkraut Station, In The Garden of Rust and Salt, My Father’s Wounds, and The Backdated Romance, among others, each of which features wildly differing characters) I’ve always tried to ensure that their motivations are more than biology.  I think that’s the baseline with which to start.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

I wrote another essay today over at FetLife, the Facebook for kinksters, where I discuss the more personal sex-related topics that I don’t necessarily want people to stumble across accidentally.  (If you seek it out, great.)  And today’s essay is how some revelations I’ve had on writing have led me to feel better about my sexual style:

All my life I’ve been insecure about my sexual ability. No, check that:

All my life I’ve been insecure.

In a sense, that insecurity is a good thing, because it drives me mad to correct my faults. When I fuck, I fuck with a considerable amount of skill because I am determined to become better in bed with every coupling. If a woman is kind enough to let me into her bed, least I can do is not kiss like a slobbering German Shepherd. So I work that shit, even as I still lose myself in considerable passion. (I was told this weekend I “fuck like a beast,” which I’m going to purr over for a bit.)

But with insecurity comes the badness: the need for reassurance, the anxiety of Doing It Wrong, the drive to sometimes push when stasis is not only fine but what’s needed.

That said, one of the things that Neil Gaiman said to me at my Clarion class resonates in a weird way with sex….

If you want to read it all, well, it’s in the usual place.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

“Rewriting is writing,” goes the old saying, but so much of writing advice focuses on first drafts.  I don’t think there’s nearly enough discussion on how to get from first to final draft… And yet that process is critical for most professional writers.

I once asked my Clarion teacher, Neil Gaiman, how close he came on the first draft.  “I’d say 95% there,” he answered, and my heart stopped.  Seeing the stricken look on my face as I realized he tossed off 95% of award-winning stories the first draft, he quickly added, “Oh, no, Ferrett!  That five percent takes all the time.  It is, as Mark Twain says, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Inspired by Jake Kerr’s post on his herculean efforts to get the science right in his own Nebula novelette “The Old Equations,” I’m presenting the first draft of my Nebula-nominated novelette “Sauerkraut Station” as a Word document, with sixty-plus comments explaining what was changed, and why.  After writing this, I finished one more draft before presenting it to my online writing group, The Wind-Tossed Coalition, who gave me much useful feedback.  I wrote two more drafts, taking about three months between rewritings, and then gave it to my real-life writing group, the Cajun Sushi Hamsters — which was the big test, since the group includes Geoff Landis, who is a NASA scientist who would doubtlessly call me on my bullshit science.  (Which he did.  I even listened to some of it.)

Since the Hamsters gave it a thumbs-up on the whole, I did a final draft, at which point it had ballooned to 20,000 words.  I then 10% Solutioned it down savagely to 17,000 words and started sending it around.

Ann Leckie, the editor at Giganotosaurus, bought it and asked for minor changes before publication — mostly around my inaccurate descriptions of sauerkraut (which I actually hate) and the removal of a small scene she considered too melodramatic and out-of-tone for the rest of the novelette. From there, it was straight to publication.

So that’s five drafts from start to finish… And while the bones of the story have remained absolutely the same, the way the scenes have changed in tone and effectiveness are, I think, quite worthwhile for someone looking to separate lightning from lightning bugs.

I’ve added several notes as to why things were changed, to show you some of my thought processes along the way.

I strongly urge you to read the finalized story first at http://giganotosaurus.org/2011/11/01/sauerkraut-station/, as I’ll be assuming you’ve read it.  Then download the Word document to compare and contrast.  I’m happy to answer any questions about why things were changed, if there’s an interest; leave a comment here or contact me at theferrett@theferrett.com.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The Novel of Doom: Vanquished.

The heap you see here is the last pages of the fifth and final edit of my Novel of Doom. It is now complete and ready for me to start shopping it.

If you were kind enough to come with me on last Summer’s Clarion Write-A-Thon, where I live-wrote the first draft, you may note that this is now the fifth draft.  About a third of the scenes have been rewritten, with completely new ones put in.  Characterization has been improved.  More description to make it more visual has been stuffed in.  A few additional subplots have been added. If you read the first draft, I think you’ll find it quite edifying to see the difference between first and final.

And in the past three weeks, I’ve gone through and yanked 15% of the words out, bringing it down to a lean, mean 89.5k.

(I’ve suffered from the Death Flu, but by happy coincidence I did most of the heavy lifting scribbling on pages, noting what emotional notes to add to what scenes, overviews of new dialog, and so forth.  So when I’ve been stuck in my house muzzy and stupid, I simply followed the directions I’d given myself one page at a time, flinging it to the other side of the couch when done, and then 10% Solutioned it a chapter at a time.)

So, barring some last-minute proofreadings provided by my helpful assistant jenphalian, this is the finalized novel.  I have to take a break, now, and then start reading up on query letters and Synopses That Sell! and all the other crap that comes with finding an agent.  Which is going to be a scary process, made a little scarier by some other factors I can’t get into now but will probably end up helping.

But right now?  That’s a full novel.  Sixteen months of effort.  And it is done.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The story I’m writing now is a clear window on how far I’ve come since Clarion, because I can view it so vividly and yet I’m spending all this time trying to figure out how to write it.

The story’s simple, and it’s set in a New England seashore tourist town… In other words, where I spent every summer as a kid.  So I have a great deal of familiarity with the location.  I know the ending, which is unusual for me, so there’s no plotting issues.

So what I have here is a tale where I know everything that happens in it, and can close my eyes and literally see the map of where it’s set… And I’m still trying to find the best way to tell the story.

The story is about a girl who goes insane and takes the sea as her lover, and it’s tricky because it’s actually several substories wrapped in one arc – the first 750 words are where she meets her only “real” boyfriend, the next 500 are where she has the fallout with her mother, the next 400 are where she loses the baby and finally snaps, and so forth.  It’s a madness tale.

And in past days, I would have written this opening (as a first draft) and been entirely happy:

Not many talked to Ella, ungainly as she was, so it was left to her mother to lecture her on what the rest of the town already knew: tourists were like the tides. They swept in with the good weather, party-giddy once they’d slipped loose the bonds of their fatcat jobs in New York, forking over $20s for conch-shell necklaces and flimsy T-shirts (“IT’S NOT A BALD SPOT, IT’S A SOLAR PANEL FOR A SEX MACHINE”), guzzling Anchor Steam down at the seaside docks and clumsily steering their oversized, electronics-packed yachts all over the damn harbor.

They flooded into Port Waukanamee in a drunken frenzy, filling it with enough money to make it through New England’s harsh winters, when the shrimp fry-stands shuttered up and a handful of loyal Waukanamites kept the city just warm enough to start up again in spring. Tourists were useful. Tourists were necessary.

Yet you’d have to be as stupid as a tourist to fall in love with one. But Ella had never been much of a girl for lessons….

Thing is, while that’s a decent opening for other stories, it’s a terrible opening for this story. This is a tale about spiraling madness, and what we have in the opening is a distant voice that doesn’t rub up close and personal against the character. It’s the voice of someone who’s not in the town, but a far-distant observer voice… And this story needs to be in lockstep with Ella’s descent, walking right with her into the abyss.

So then I tried starting at the point of maximum impact:

Ella kneels in the salt muck, hermit crabs scuttling away from her screams, jagged oyster shells slashing her feet. Between the contractions, she hears Mama’s words: never fall in love with a tourist, never fall in love with a tourist, never fall in love with a tourist.

She’s been a fool. She hugs her belly tight, hoping to keep the baby pent inside by force of will alone, not sure what’s happening, knowing no one she could ask. The only person left in this world who might love her is now dribbling down her thighs.

She howls, her anguish echoing across the cold September bay.

That’s got everything I would have killed for before: a strong start, a good hook, some strong raw prose. But that’s not the story; the story is the arc of her madness, seeing her start from dumb teenager to old crazy lady, and by starting in the middle you get a stronger start but no middle. You’re seeing this intense moment happen at a time when you know the least about our lead, and as such you take a potentially climax moment and turn it into a “What’s going on?” moment… Which can work for certain stories, but not in a story where the story is the journey is the descent.

I eventually traded in for a not-quite-as-dramatic opening, one where she’s going to meet her boyfriend that she met at the Shrimp Shack, and as such you get to see her at the beginning so the full slide as she becomes loonier and loonier is (hopefully) more unsettling.

The interesting thing is that this story may never gell, because there’s all of these other elements about it that become tricky – it’s the story of about two decades’ worth of crazy, told in flashfic segments, and when you take on something like that then you have this twinned problem in that every flashfic segment has to be entertaining and compelling on its own (so effectively, this one story is about seven separate stories), and it has to pull you through with a linked nature so that there’s a narrative thread that pulls you through the individual segments, like the string on a necklace.

Regardless, it’s just a show of how much damn craft I’ve accomplished.  What I’ve written for beginnings are decent beginnings for the wrong story.  And now that I know enough, I keep turning my tales over and over again, analyzing them with an increasingly experienced mind, to recognize not just works for this sentence but what serves the story as a whole.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So.  You’ve been through six weeks of the most intense, most educational, most stressful writers’ boot camp around.  And in a week, as of this Saturday… it will all be over.

How do you survive that transition?

There are eighteen students leaving this year’s Clarion in a week — and as it turns out, happily, the advice I’d give them upon leaving the pressure cooker is pretty much the same advice I’d give to writers in general.  And that advice is this:

Advice #1: You’re Gonna Have That Gap, And That’s Okay.
The best advice I have to give is not from me: it’s from Ira Glass, talking about the Creative Gap.  Sit down, spend five minutes, and watch it.

If you’re not in a place where you can watch this right now —and you should find the time later — this is the relevant quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you…

 

Everybody goes through that. For you to go through it—if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase—you’ve got to know that’s totally normal. The most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work.

And that’s the thing about Clarion: when you come out, you often feel this huge pressure.  You’ve spent six weeks among the best in the business, and now you have to deliver.  And if these next words aren’t golden, you’re a failure, you suck, my God how did anyone think anything of you?

Relax.  Take a deep breath. Let it go.

This feeling of “not-good” is healthy.  It’s the sign that you’re taking the craft seriously.  Yet if you allow that feeling to seize you, holding back because if I can’t produce brilliance, it’s worth nothing, then you’re not helping yourself.

Keep writing.  Elizabeth Bear taught me a wonderful mantra at Viable Paradise, and there are times I chant it repeatedly: It’s a draft, it can suck.  Let that suck seep from your pores, get it all out, because stressing over Your Grand Career is just going to hinder you.

There are so many unknowns.  So many.  All you can do is get better, and you do that by continuing to write.

And speaking of that…

Advice #2: You Are A Writer…
At Clarion, you had a vastly empowering thing: for six weeks, not one person doubted you were a writer.  Your teachers agreed you were a writer, your peers all agreed that you were a writer, and you had all this wondrous time to write.  That made it easy to be a writer.

Then you leave Clarion, and you discover that maybe you’re not.

In the outside world, you run into all these distressing people who don’t know you’re a writer and don’t care.  They will make requests of you that suck away your writing-time.  They will see you not as A Writer, but as A Student or A Parent or A Barista…

…and that erodes your confidence, especially when those rejections start to flow in.  Every rejection feels like a little “Nah, maybe you’re not.”  And outside of that helpful Clarion bubble-culture, it can be hard to retain that necessary feeling of writer-ness.

But there’s two things about writers.  First is, they make space to be writers. When the world crushes in with its deadlines and fun times and work, real writers push back.  They realize that the world is a big sponge that will suck up every last minute of your time, unless you stop that world and say, “This hour is for my writing.”

You need to have the confidence to say “Yes, that’s my time.”  That’s part of being a writer; taking that space by yourself, even when Clarion doesn’t give it to you.

(And if you’re lazy one day and fail to write, don’t use that as an excuse to fail a second day.  It’s okay to fall off the horse; it’s not okay to lay in the mud for a couple of days because hey, I already fell, maybe I should just take a vacation while I’m down here.)

The second thing about writers is that they get rejections.  Do not look at a rejection as a sign that you’re not a writer, but rather that you are.  You know who doesn’t get rejections?  The people who keep all their manuscripts on their hard drive and never send them out.  The only way to not get rejected is to not actually try to get published.

If you’re a writer at all, you’re going to pile up tons of rejections.  So wear them with pride.  Every writer has a box full of “No”s, and your goal is to get as many of them as you can.

It’s okay.  Remember.  You’re a writer, and this is what writers do.  Sometimes that feels a little weird, standing amidst the piles of laundry and proclaiming, “I AM A WRITER” – but writers also do laundry.

Advice #3: …If You Want To Be. 
You know what’s okay?  Not being a writer.

You might want to try it for a while.

Some people find that the post-Clarion pressure is too much, and it destroys them.  But while it helps if you write a lot to flush all those terrible, terrible words from your system, you have to find what works for you.

And sometimes, what works is giving up.

Thing is, if you view it as “I’m going to stop writing for a week, but then I have to get back to this,” that’s just going to make you feel guilty and stressed the whole damn time.  Your creative batteries may not be charged by that diamond-hard pressure of MAKE A STORY NOW, MONKEY-BOY.  And if you keep trying to force it through, then you may crack.

So seriously.  Give up.  A lot of people came out of Clarion and discovered that this writing thing involves a lot of agita and one too many doors slammed in their face, and realized that while they had the native talent, it was just too much of an effort to turn this raw materials into finalized career.  And that was a very useful thing to know.

You don’t have to do this.

And for a lot of those people, once they gave it up for six months or a year or whatever, their subconsciousnesses started churning and soon enough, like green shoots poking through cracked concrete, they found the stories welling up again.

Others found out that they had no need — that they were happier not making the attempt.  And that’s okay.  Spending six weeks to find out that this is not a path that’s going to make you happy?  That’s cheap.  Some people wander in the wrong careers for years.

Life is hard enough without holding a gun to your head.  Be free to choose another path if writing doesn’t make you happy; it’s equally valid.

Advice #4: This Feeling Will Never Fail You.
When Cat Valente told me I needed to go to Clarion, she mentioned how “the Clarion kids” were at conventions.  “It’s like they all know each other,” she said.  “And they have these happy reunions, even if they’ve never met.”

Which is true.  When I see you at a con, you tell me what year you are, and I will clasp your hand and give you the big secret Clarion grin.  Because I know you’ve been there with me.  We’ve done this together.

But your classmates?  You’ll stay in touch — through Twitter, through private mail lists, through chats.  And I know what you’re wondering:

Will this feeling of togetherness last?

And I am here to tell you: Yes.

God yes.

Whenever I see my old classmates, it’s like I’ve found my secret family again.  We pick up right from where we left off, and it’s some of the old tensions, all of the old love — that beautiful realization that we shared this moment, and in some part of our brains we’re always sharing it, and now we’ve synced up again in real-time to do it again.

Space will divide you.  Time will divide you.  Differing paths will divide you.

But you’ll always be one.

(Hey, come on – you think I’m doing all this writing for the Clarion Blog-A-Thon just for kicks?  I do it to honor the Clarion experience.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

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