Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reliability: The Writer's Most Crucial Trait

Back at the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop, one piece of advice I felt comfortable dispensing to the crowd of students was about any social media presence they might have.  Namely, I said, "If you're going to have a blog, then have a blog."  It's advice I live by: I've steadily posted here twice a week for a year and a half, and here I am with my 250th entry.  But the reasoning behind my advice is this: if you're going to have a presence online as a writer (and you should, and you should be building it before you really "make a name" for yourself), then make sure your presence is one that shows you as a person who gets stuff done, regularly and systematically. 

I know when I've had to research fledgling writers, there's nothing quite as disappointing as finding their blog with only a handful of haphazard entries, like thirteen scattered over the course of a year.  Or with a flurry of daily entries for about three weeks, that then tapers off to an unpredictable drip.  These things show me that a writer cannot follow through, or that they are incredibly unfocused.  If I were a publisher or an agent, and I found that, I would be highly disinclined to sign with such a person, regardless of their talent.

For example, I read a fair amount of media tie-in books as my "popcorn" reading.  There is one particularly prolific author in the media tie-in world whose style... I'm not a fan of. But he keeps getting work. Why?  I suspect the "prolific" part plays into it.  He takes the job and gets it done.  You can't deny the appeal of that.

Because when it comes down to it, reliability trumps talent in the business side of things.  Not that talent isn't crucial as well, but looking at the business side, which would you rather have: someone who might give you something amazing, but you're not sure when (or if) you'll actually get it, or someone who will make every deadline and deliver something that's acceptable?  Not brilliant or earthshattering... but perfectly fine.  You need something on the shelves in October, so you want the job done, period.

Of course, ideally, one tries to be brilliant and reliable.  Still working on that one.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Writers' Tools: The practical, actual tools

I won't lie: as a science-fiction writer, I love living in the future.  Not just because of the pure gadgetry of it, though that is cool*, but how much easier it is to be a novelist today then it was just twenty-five years ago.  But the main thing I have is the ability to work quickly and easily, with a lot of mobility.  Here are my tools, both hardware and software.

Computer: I've got a MacBook Pro laptop, which is where I do most of my writing.  For the most part, I use it on the shared office table where I work with my wife, the two of us sitting across from each other.  But my ability to work just about anywhere is something I prize greatly.  I think a good chunk of the rough draft of Maradaine Constabulary was written in the car in a drive out to West Texas.  For someone who grew up with the idea of a "computer" being a rather bulky thing that lived, planted in a workspace, that's still pretty incredible, even if we now take it for granted.
Bluetooth Headphones: I need music to write.  And sharing my primary workspace with my wife, she doesn't always need my music.  Plus there's something I find very focusing in having the music be right in my ears.  Frankly, I have an imaginative brain that is easily distracted my shiny things, so music gives that distraction-hungry part of my brain something to grasp onto.**     
Portable Laptop Station: Handy device that elevates my laptop so it's less straining on my eyes and wrists.  I love this thing.  If you're interested, google its SKU*** number: UB2400-25J.  Well worth it, in my opinion.

At any given point, I'm running the following:
Scrivener: This is my go-to writing program, and I find it very useful for writing, editing and outlining.  My only complaint is the corkboard/research functions don't let you go full-on Wall Of Crazy.  If someone has written a Wall of Crazy program, please let me know.  I would be all over that.  Because, let's face it, even as dedicated outliner/planner, it's not always a sane or linear process.
Freedom: Yeah, that distraction-hungry brain of mine?  Sometimes I just have to starve it, and that means just shutting the damn internet off. 
Excel: I may have mentioned my love of spreadsheets.  Especially to keep track of 4.2 million cubic lightyears worth of space. 
ChView: My beloved, if outdated and unsupported star mapping program. 
iTunes: To play music for said headphones.

*- I mean, come on.  I have a device that I carry in my pocket that allows me to have a live video call with someone on the other side of the world, at no extra cost to its standard use.  Plus it carries several hundred songs. I have another device that I can easily carry in my bag, with which I can decide I want to read a certain book, press a few buttons and start reading it.   I can tell you, 1987 me would have flipped at that.  1987 me had a calculator watch and thought that was freaking amazing, so he might not be the best judge.  1987 me also had every episode of Star Trek on fourteen VHS tapes.  DVR would have blown his mind.  Sure, I can't do a quick jaunt to a space station, but as far as 1987 me is concern, I am living in Science Fiction.
**- Seriously, do you have any idea how many times I've switched tabs and read a few paragraphs of something while writing this?
***- One job I held, back in the Wild West days of the internet, was to take a bunch of SKU-- Stock Keeping Unit-- numbers, and then with pre-Google search engines, try and classify and categorize those various items, as well as dig up some standardized specifications.  I don't think that company stayed in business very long. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Worldbuilding: Skip the Travelogue Plot. Just Write the Honest Travelogue.

In my worldbuilding efforts, I'm often trying to think of new ways to present the information about different places in dynamic and interesting ways.  I've considered the wiki route, writing things up as if they were being presented in a dictionary. 

My problem with that was narrowing the perspective, figuring out authorship.  Perspective always has some bias, and even if the author is coming at things from, say, an academic perspective, it will still have bias.  Even the attempt to maintain neutrality can create bias: it depends on who the author is.

This is my longwinded way of saying I attempted to write my worldbuilding documents "neutrally", but I never felt that worked.

Now, on top of that, in having done so much worldbuilding, I was first struck with the urge to go full on travelogue.  As I've mentioned before, this can usually only give terrible results.  If your story is driven by where people go, as opposed to why they go there, then the plot is going to feel inorganic. 

Then it hit me: combine that urge with the exercises I talked about last time.  Instead of writing a travelogue plot, where I make some poor attempt to string together a plot that serves the purpose of going from point A to B to C, why not just create a small group of academic characters, and have them write a travelogue.  Journal entries of their perspective as they go from place to place.  No pretense of plot.  Just going around, experiencing culture, meeting people, trying the food. 

Essentially, the fantasy (or space opera, depending) equivalent of No Reservations

It wouldn't be a novel, of course.  Or even a short story.  It really wouldn't be more than for my own edification.

But, I think it would be a fun exercise.  And it would be useful in knocking these cobwebs out of my creative centers. 

Maybe, if I like them, I'll even post a few...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Perils of the Writer: The Creative Freedom of Deleted Scenes

Of late, I've been a bit blocked, creatively.  Not exactly writers' block-- but more a sense that the flow isn't what it should be. Even writing this is taking more effort than it ought to.

I know what part of the problem is.  Space Opera has been crawling through my brain like a fungus, absorbing my focus away from the things I'm trying to finish. But it's still all setting, very little character or plot.  Also, it's not what I'm "supposed" to be working on, in as much as I'm required to write any specific thing at this juncture.* 

But more of the problem is just a general creative malaise.  The juices are just stagnant, or at best only oozing when they should be bursting at the seams. 

So, how to get past this?  Part of what I do in times like this is more work on worldbuilding, and in a pinch, mapwork or other goofing around on photoshop**. This helps do a degree, changing the creative channels in my brain and shaking things up.

But this time, I think I need something else.  Something to really blow the doors off my brain.  I have almost a perverse urge to cover the walls in giant sheets of paper and start scrawling, in an explosion of brainstorming and long term planning.  I like the pure visceral feeling of doing this, physically writing these things down.  As much as I love working on my laptop and with Scrivener, there is something cathartic in actually writing things out.

I probably won't do that-- at least, not in a giant, take-over-the-walls way.  I don't think my wife would approve.

But the other thing I can do is get a better grasp on these elements that are causing me trouble, especially with the space opera stuff.  Character and plot are still eluding me, so some writing exercises to play around with these things might be in order.  Not stories, not anything that have to have structure or beginnings or endings.  Just vignettes, sequences, with no purpose beyond getting my head together.  Deleted scenes that no one is going to read.

There's a lot of freedom in this.  If you know you have no intentions of sale or audience, it's just for your own growth, you can be indulgent.  Infodump like crazy.  Have characters just chat, without the conversation having to mean something or drive the plot forward.  

I think this can be a very helpful exercise, and might be just what I need to break through these blocks.

*- I would prefer to have at least a rough draft of Way of the Shield, so I have all four of my intended Heroes of Maradaine series started before I move into Space Opera proper.  But a big part of this blockage is Dayne is not being a cooperative protagonist. 
**- Frankly, this mostly serves to remind myself that I am not an artist. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Plotless Meander

"Celeste And Jesse’s script... is shapeless and witless, aiming for an offhandedness in the interactions that instead comes off as contrived, or sometimes just bland" - AV Club review of Celeste And Jesse

 I'm not specifically going to knock on Celeste and Jesse-- I haven't seen it, and I really have no opinion on it.  But the above quote does hit right on the sweet spot of my major complaint with a lot of "independent" film, as well as some of the slush novels and plays I've had the displeasure of reading. 

Namely, the tendency to eschew plot structure in favor of a characterization heavy, plotless meander.  Three Acts are replaced with Zero Acts.  In a novel, this sort of writing is downright excruciating, at least to me.

Now, this can work a bit better on stage or screen, or in short story format.  But, frankly, that relies on the character coming through as being so compelling that you don't really care that nothing much actually happens.  Frankly, on stage or screen, you have a charismatic actor doing the heavy lifting.  In prose of any length, it would rely on the writer's skills... and if they aren't doing plot work, then their character and mood work might not be all that strong either.

Not that I'm not guilty of it myself. Lord knows that the (mercifully trunked) Crown of Druthal was more about characters that I thought were fun to hang around with, and therefore it was worth sailing around on a ship and going to places and having them talk about history and language and NO PLOT REALLY HAPPENS.  Well, a plot happens, but it takes a SERIOUS back seat to character and worldbuilding meander.  Frankly, I decided first the route I wanted the characters to travel, and then threaded a weak plot to match that route.  Not compelling writing.   My several failed attempts at space opera (namely, USS Banshee) suffers from the same problem.

So I have to ask, what is the compulsion to write this sort of thing?  Is it that we come up with characters and settings that, frankly, we geek out about (again, going back to the "fandom of one" problem) so much that the fact we don't really have a story to tell doesn't dissuade us?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Villains with Clear Motives

This weekend I watched last year's premaquel* of The Thing.  It was... fine.  That's really all I can say about it.  It achieved its goals, given that its goal was to essentially be a widely release fanfilm about what happened at the Norwegian camp before the events in John Carpenter's The Thing

Now, I should say, Carpenter's movie is possibly one of my favorite movies of all time.  I don't get obsessive about it-- I really can't recall the actual characters' names**, nor am I invested in Who Got Turned When. But it's a fun thriller with damn cool practical creature effects, and it's a movie I can happily re-watch again and again.****

 But, that praise given, I've always been puzzled by the Thing itself, what its motivations are, what it's trying to accomplish, and how its actions further those accomplishments.  These questions pop out even more in the premaquel. 

For those who've never seen either (or don't recall the details), the creature has been frozen in the antarctic ice for millennia, and once its out, it's eating the occasional person or dog, and then mimicking them.  Why does it do this?  Because it can, of course.  That, and to blend in.  Until any particular iteration of The Thing doesn't feel like blending in anymore, and then it becomes all tentacles and teeth.

But this brings up questions: what does The Thing want?  There's some lip service to the idea that it might want to get to civilization so it can make all 4 billion***** of us into tasty cakes.  But I don't think that's the plan, because if it was, it makes terrible decisions.  (In the 2011 version, at one point there's a helicopter taking off to McMurdo station, and the thingified person in there goes into tentacle mode, making the chopper crash just a little ways out.  So "getting away" is hardly the plan.)  In terms of what it does, getting the hell off of Earth might be the real plan, since in the remake one iteration goes back to the ship and powers it up, and in the Carpenter version, one iteration is building a ship in the tunnels under the camp. 

The thing (ha!) that always jumps out at me is that The Thing is clearly intelligent, rather than a reactive animal, and in mimicking humans, is capable of holding conversation as a mimicked human.  So you would think that, once confronted it could go, "Look, I just want to go home.  Sorry about the mess." or words to that effect.  But it never does.  Once someone is revealed as being Thingified, they just go into full-on monster mode.  No more talking, no more mimicking-- just tentacles and teeth and SMASH EVERYTHING.  Which looks cool, but it reads more as Angry Alien Badger rather than Intelligent Alien.

Now, one can excuse some of that with the word "Alien": it doesn't think like us, so we can't understand how it thinks.  And that's fine.

But for villains that are human, you need clear answers.  What they want, why they want it, and how what they are doing helps to achieve that.  The minute you have them do something bad just "because their evil", you've lost something critical in the storytelling.

 *- It's a prequel! It's a remake!  It's kind of both!
**- It's pretty much Kurt Russell, Wilfred Brimley, David Keith***, that guy from LA Law, and a bunch of other guys.
***- Or is it Keith David?  I always mix up which is which.
****- And, as of this writing, it's streamable on Netflix!  Just saying.
*****- This was 1982, after all.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Visual Influences and the Failure of Words

Every writer has their weak points.  Visual descriptions is definitely one of mine, I'll own that.  I can muddle my way through describing people and clothing all right.  In those cases, it's mostly a matter of feeling unnatural to me, the process of writing those descriptions.  I know how do to it, I'm just not happy with the results a lot of the time.

But the one that really fails me?  Architecture.  Here because I lack the instinctive vocabulary.  Yes, I can look things up, research, etc., but when it comes down to it, I don't know, on a gut level, how to describe buildings. skylines, etc.

Let's take the City of Maradaine, for example.  I know, deep in my subconscious, what it looks like.  Had I drawing skills, I could show it that way.  But I don't.  All I have is words, and the words fail me in this instance. 

Now, I could just cheat it.  A few buzzwords to give the sense of Dickensian London (or worse, Renaissance Faire town)-- but that's not really right.  Closer comparison come to looking at old neighborhoods of cities like Boston, Montreal or Mexico City.  Look at these, trying to see past the cars and powerlines to the bones of what's there. 

There's still a certain use of keywords to get my points across: "cobblestone" is a big one.  "Brick" is another. 

So that's an area that I still need to work on.  Build up that vocabulary.  Strengthen those writing muscles.

 And then I'll be able to paint a clear picture of the city, without resorting to adding a bunch of pictures....

Monday, September 3, 2012

Evolving from a Fandom of One

Back at the ArmadilloCon Workshop, the fantastic Mark Finn talked a bit about that moment that many writers dread: when someone approaches you with "the idea". 

Now, in this case, the person with "the idea" wasn't pitching "This is my idea, YOU write it, WE'LL make millions!"  Rather, she was presenting the book that someday she's eventually going to write.  She had a whole binder filled with research material: sketches of maps, worldbuilding and character notes, pictures of actors who fit the characters, other pictures of costumes.  But what was not there was telling: actual text.  And Mark asked, do you have anything of the story written?  Oh no, she said.  I'm not ready.

Mark ended this anecdote by saying, "I'm not sure exactly what you call that, but it's not writing."

I knew what to call it: A Fandom of One.

She was the biggest possible fan of something that existed only in her head.  The problem, as I interpret it, is she didn't know how to move past being a fan of it to being a creator.  She wanted to love it, love it as her new favorite novel series, but could only think about it in fannish terms.  She didn't have the tools to midwife it into being an actual thing.

Now, here's the thing: we all start that way.  Lord knows the characters of Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew, Maradaine Constabulary and Way of the Shield all existed in my head, but more as abstract concepts (as did the city of Maradaine, the nation of Druthal, and the whole rest of that world).  It took time, and real work, to figure out their actual stories.  To figure out what they were all about and what they needed to do.  But I had that same desire: to be a fan of this thing that I thought was so cool.

(Steven Brust, at one ArmadilloCon, made a comment that stuck with me, saying that Every Sequel is Fanfic of Yourself.  This comment received some groans and argument, but he further clarified, saying, "If you're writing a sequel, and are really doing it because you have this driving love to do it, it's because you're being a fan.  You are so geeked out on what you've created, you need to play in it more."  That really resonates.)

But part of that trick is really figuring out what you have to say.  Fandom, and by extension fanfic, is often more interested in theme and character interaction and relationships over the nuts and bolts of plotting and story structure.* 

You have to love your work.  You have to be a fan of it.  But you have to love it enough to slog through the hard parts and actually give it enough for everyone else to join you in your fandom.


*- My biggest issue with fanfic is how fandom communities easily embrace lazy writing.  Fanfic writers don't have to do character- or world-building, or much in terms of description, because your reader base already knows it all.  So most fanfic** ends up as vignettes for characters to hang out, rather than have a story with solid structure.  Or worse, elaborate set ups to enable characters to have sex with each other. Yes, I'm sure there's some good stuff, and I know for certain many solid, published authors have their start in fanfic.  It can be a good training ground. But it's a training ground where instead of having grizzled vets telling you to be better, you have teddy bears telling you how great everything is.  
**- From my experience.  I don't really care to hear recommendations or anything.