Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writer's Indecision

Recently, I struggled with a piece that was meant to be a short story. My normal practice is to journal ideas before I write a new story. This time I dived in with an ending and no other plan in mind. About 3,000 words in I realized the story had to do something different, cut out most of what I'd written, started again. 2,500 words later, I still couldn't get my characters to the end within a reasonable short-story-sized story. I fretted, picked at the ms, then escaped into the last disc of Mad Men season 2 to get away from the battle.

Better planning would have told me this wasn't a short story, it was the opening of a novel. It had too much back story; too many plots wanted telling; too many characters inserted themselves in the first 3,000 words . Dealing with this issue reminded me of a problem I have on and off with my writing.

For a long time I'd wanted to write the kind of stories I enjoyed reading. It got to the point I wanted to publish those stories so others could read them, too. In order to learn how to do that I read a lot of books on writing, as you do. Add to that my tendency to be a literal student when I undertake something new or deal with something I don't do often. I blame being Virgo for this fault. That's less embarrassing than saying I'm naive.

Writers spoke of their characters talking to them. They described stories taking wild detours from carefully prepared outlines. I thought I had to wait for my characters to speak to me, for the story to tell me what it wanted to do. After a childhood and young adulthood of prolific writing I spent fruitless hours staring at a blank page, waiting like a needy girl who hopes that ringing phone means a Friday night date. I'd half-heartedly journal about my writer's block and lack of creativity. I did a lot of whining. It wasn't attractive.

I wasn't suffering from writer's block. I was suffering from writer's indecision.

I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring. I started journaling story ideas in earnest. That's when I got it. I had to ask 'what happens next' then explore the possibilities. I had to poke at characters to see how they reacted. I had to look at what I'd written then extrapolate the logical sequence of events. I could decide what kind of obstacles to toss in a character's way. With the piece mentioned above, I failed to plan then fell into the bad old habit of waiting for the work to speak rather than telling the work what to do.

When I first figured out my issues with writer's indecision I felt at once foolish and liberated. Writing became a pleasure rather than a chore. I could sit down every day at the keyboard and know I had stories to tell rather than waiting for the stories to talk to me. The stories I did tell got easier to write. Not better, necessarily, but easier. The better will come with the practice of daily writing.

For myself I don't believe in writer's block, anymore. I know, worst comes to worst, I can drop a ninja in the room and see what happens. I may have to delete a bunch of stuff but it will spark ideas I can explore. That's a more satisfying than staring at a computer screen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

When Do Writers Get Their Ideas

There are myriad blog posts about where writers get their ideas. For me, I think it's equally important to understand when the ideas happen.

When I first started writing I’d get an idea or I’d see a scene in my head, or hear a character, or a think of a turn of phrase that interested me. I’d put each one in a separate computer file, hording these bits and pieces like a kid with a memento box.

The more time I spent not writing and wishing I was, I discovered something. Ideas for stories were slow to come. Interesting characters didn’t pop up and speak to me. I could see fascinating things and my mind wouldn’t ask the questions ‘what comes next?’ or ‘what if that was turned this way?’

I feared my ability to come up with ideas for stories had deserted me. That I would be stuck with dozens of files of bits and pieces I couldn’t fashion into stories because I had no idea (pardon the pun) how to put them together.

This lead to writing paralysis, as ugly self-talk does. Why write if I couldn’t think of anything interesting or unique to write? I would slog through a few paragraphs of a potential story and come to a shuddering halt, staring at the page and hating every word on it.

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo with an interest in crossing the 50k ‘finish line’ by the end of the month you know that there’s little time for hand-wringing over a lack of ideas. You get desperate to fill in word count, whether or not you intend on using the NaNovel for a serious bid to get published later. Any crazy-ass half-baked idea is suddenly fodder for the NaNovel. When all else fails ninjas crash through the door and attack everyone. That’s sure to shake up a story and get the creative juices flowing.

NaNo helped break through that initial paralysis. But it was a few years later that I decided to get serious again about a writing career. You can’t have a career if you don’t write. You can’t write if you don’t have something to write about. So the memento box was opened and I started picking through the bits and pieces, trying to forge stories out of them.

I discovered something else once I started writing regularly. Ideas came from everywhere. I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without seeing or thinking something that might have potential to power a story at some point.

That’s when I figured out something else.

I have to be writing to have the ideas. I have to get into the nitty gritty of fashioning ideas into a story before new possibilities occur to me. It’s hard to keep working on one story when ideas for three or four others whisper seductively to me. I’m focused on writing short stories, right now, practicing and honing my craft. Even so, there are ideas for four different novels that are begging to be written, I'm excited by the ideas, interested in writing them. The nice thing is they’ll always be there, saved in the memento box of my thumb drive, ready to be written when the time comes.

I also learned that a story isn’t just one idea, but an amalgam of many ideas. My current work in progress combines a love of history, the story of a beautiful old mansion about to be demolished, and the heartbreaking picture of the head and torso of an angel abandoned in a field in New Jersey, taken from the old Pennsylvania Station.

My relief is huge. As long as I keep writing I will always have ideas I can write about.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Critique - It's Not All About You

A good friend recently critiqued a short story I'd given her. The short story is about a young lady who has been raised by a family of criminals and is now on her own, making her way in the world the only way she knows how, by committing crimes.

My friend is honest and she can say the hard things that others will hesitate to say. She's also good at spotting the weaknesses of a story. I value that about her. It's sometimes hard to hear your baby isn't properly dressed to meet the world. Better to hear it needs a coat and shoes than to send it out partly dressed.

I spent the day of the critique mentally girding my lions, ready to hear that the story was crap and I should hang up my fountain pen. I was surprised to hear that the story had some good bones. And then she pointed out the weak points. Some of them were things I'd feared myself. It was good to hear my estimation of the short comings confirmed.

Then she said something that surprised me at the time but, in retrospect, is both hilarious and true.

"I can tell you're not a criminal."

My friend is correct. What I know about committing crime comes from TV and reading, hardly the training ground for learning second story work or how to pull off a con. For a moment, though, I bristled mentally. It took an effort not to react to the statement. I had to make a concious effort to admit the truth. I was not a career criminal and I had not been Criminal McSlick in writing about the crime in the story.

Once I came down off the mental ledge, I could hear the rest of the critique in the spirit it was meant; making the story better. The story needs some work. I need to do some reasearch to make the character's behavior believable. The critique was invaluable and I am grateful to my friend for her effort. I think I can write a better story as a result.

It also taught me an important lesson about critiques. Critiques are meant to make the story better. It isn't a personal attack on my character or my intelligence. There's no hidden message that the inadequacies of the story translate to personal inadequacies. It's a relief to understand that. It'll make the critique of my next story easier to hear. It'll make the critiques that come from strangers easier to read.

There's a post at Warriorwrter's Blog that speaks to critiquing and the fear surrounding it. It's an invaluable post for aspiring writers.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Process Is Not Content

I'm the sort of person who plans out my errands based on distance from home. I go to the farthest point and work my way back. One of my prouder moments of efficiency comes from a Christmas shopping expedition where I went to two malls and two big box stores a week before Christmas, got everything I wanted on a long list of gifts, and did it in under 3 hours including parking. Each gift had a note about which stores to search and where those stores were located. Then I arranged the list by....

Don't look at me like that. There are some of you going "Yeah, that's how I shop!"

I also like it when I can perform a specific process that will give me a predictable result. Flip a switch and fill a room with light. Predictability is comforting in a world gone postal. The downside is it's boring as hell creatively and not conducive to writing.

I spent a lot of money on books about writing in search of this all-encompassing process. I was sure every writer who ever got published knew how to 'do it'. I was a mullet-less Robert Langdon*, hunting for the secret knowledge that would provide illumination.

I mistook the process for the content.

It took me a while to figure out there was no 'correct' way of writing a novel. Writing a novel is messy, unique, heartrending and exhilarating. There are some universal constants that every writer worth their salt follows:

  • Write every day
  • Practice by writing every day so you can get better at your craft
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation
  • Read the submission guidelines and follow them

This won't automatically get you published but it will put you a leg up on a lot of folks. The realization that the rest of the process was a matter of what worked best for the individual was at once frightening and freeing for me.

Some people outline their stories. Some people dive in the deep end and swim around with no idea where they're going. Some people have a beginning and know where they want to wind up but don't need to know more than that to get started. Some people have an idea and have to do the research before they feel like they can start. Some people say screw the research, they'll deal with it once the story is drafted.

I once heard an author on a panel call their first draft their 'vomit draft' because no matter what they came up with it all went on the page. No idea was too stupid, there weren't too many adjectives. I liked that. The beauty of the first draft is there's a second, and a third, etc.

The more I write the more I learn about what works for me. The result is wildly unpredictable (and not always in a good way), but knowing what works best for me frees up my mind to get creative and weird, to throw stuff at a page and see what sticks. The process provides comfort and the comfort provides the freedom to imagine. I finally figured out that it's the imagination that makes the content interesting to read, not how I get there in the first place.

*I've never read the books. I am embarrassed to admit I've seen both movies, at the behest of others I hasten to add. First and second time in my life I've napped in a movie theater.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Star Trek: Now With More Tired Gender Roles

Open Letter to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

A word of warning, there are spoilers in this post. At this point, though, it probably doesn't matter.

Dear Messrs. Orci and Kurtzman,

I remember when I got to watch my first Star Trek episode. It was the summer of 1970 and it was already in lucrative reruns, broadcast at a time when I was awake. I was fascinated by the idea of flying around in space and seeing new places. I thought the planet sets looked totally fake and sometimes the stories were silly but I was in love with the series. I'd act out some of the parts while watching; shooting the bad guys with my pewpew phaser and saving the Enterprise. To this day I still love the original show.

By now Paramount has made back the money they spent on Star Trek 11 plus an ass ton more. I'm sure you're bathing in the praise of the successful 'reboot' of the franchise. You're chortling about the bad reviews of your Transformers: Rolling on the Floor (as a friend calls it) movie because it has also made stupid amounts of money. You gentlemen have even confirmed that you're already working on ST 12, tentatively titled: 'OMFG They totally bought 'Red Matter'!

As for myself, it was a mildly enjoyable actioner with a large helping of handwavium. Not worth a full price ticket. Pro Tip here: Talk to real scientists when you write about Science! They're trained professionals. You're not. Even the original series made some effort to be scientifically sound.

On to the point of my post. Last time I checked the calendar this is 2009. Forty-four odd years after ST: TOS first aired. The original was a product of its culture and times. The men ran around buckling swash and, apparently, there were only three women in Star Fleet. We had Nurse Chapel, swooning over Mr. Spock; Yeoman Rand, whose job is never explained but the context is obvious; and the strongest of the group, the under-utilized Lt. Uhura.

So why did you see fit to have only five women with speaking roles in ST 11; one a doctor (presuming here), a mother who gives birth to the main character then disappears, a mother who dies as a plot device, and two booty calls?

This was your chance to give women a more prominent place in Star Fleet and a more prominent role in the retconned universe. Instead you stuffed them into the most antiquated gender roles available: Mother, Caregiver and Sex Object. Booty Call #1 is a green-skinned girl from Orion (ha ha, the whole Orion slave girl joke never gets old). The first time we see her, she's in chonies and bra about to knock boots with Kirk. If we see her again at the end of the movie, I don't recall. Booty Call #2 is Nyota Uhura. You give her even less to do than Nichelle Nichols had in ST:TOS. We get to see Nyota in her undies in the same scene as the green chick. Can we say pandering Messrs. Orci and Kurtzman? I knew we could.

You sink even lower when you set Uhura up as a potential point of jealous rivalry between Kirk and Spock. What. The. Fuck? I get the whole joke about how Kirk was a tomcat in the original show but in this movie he basically can't score. Who cares?

Weren't there other things women could do in the 23rd and a half century? Couldn't they be instructors at the Academy? Couldn't they captain starships (Hello? Captain Janeway?) What if Kirk's mother was the Kirk who died crashing the Kelvin into the Romulan vessel while his father was evac'd with the recently born baby James? Couldn't Uhura have done more in the movie than be a nag and sex object? Couldn't Uhura have been the one to clean James' clock in the bar for being boorish? I'd pay full price for that.

Another Pro Tip: Showing versus telling is important in novels. It's even more important in movies, a visual medium. There's a point where Uhurah explains something she heard when monitoring subspace signals (even the Wikipedia entry for the movie mentions nothing about the character in the plot summary) that relates to the Romulan vessel. It's apparently important to finding the vessel, but not really because you tell it rather than show it. Showing us her skill as a linguist and comm officer would have helped the audience relate to her as a person rather than a scold or a 'hawt chick'. Oh, that's right. According to Hollywood, men can't relate to women as people, only as a role.

You have an opportunity to give strong women more to do in ST 12. Let them buckle some swash, show them as strong, competent professionals. Let them punch stuff 'til it blows up! Otherwise this is one woman who won't be paying to see the next movie.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dreams of Childhood Fanfic

A post by Justine Larbalestier reminded me of my own first attempts at writing.

It was the summer of 1976, our second summer in the new house. I was 12 and I discovered the TV show 'The Magician' in late night re-runs. I was instantly hooked and made a deal with my parents; if I went to bed extra early I could get up at 11:30 p.m. to watch it then go straight back to bed. I can't say what it was about the show that addicted me. To this day I have a fondness for Corvettes.

I remember that I wanted to insert myself in that world. My first year at the new school was a spectacular failure (shy loner + new school = unhappy target). I wanted escape, I wanted to be the one in control of my world. The only way to do it with more permanence than day dreaming was to write myself into a different world. I borrowed my mother's Olivetti typewriter and wrote several stories that summer. The main character was a world-famous magician and she had all sorts of adventures including one set in Hawaii, a place I'd never been, before. I hole-punched the stories and put them in a report cover so it felt like I had a real book.

It was fanfiction. I had no idea it existed, at the time, didn't realize that was what I was doing. All I knew was that writing those stories made me forget the unhappiness of 6th grade.

That same summer I read The Hobbit and was instantly hooked on fantasy. I found Katherine Kurtz' Deryni books and McCaffrey's Dragonrider books among many others. Of course I had to have a fantasy character of my own but she was set in her own world, this time, an analog of ancient Egypt which I was also crazy about thanks to Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game. I made maps, developed a history, even made a clumsy attempt at lang con, including an alphabet I created.

As I got older all of the stories, maps and materials went into a cardboard box. I'd write from time to time on legal pads or in journals, adding them to the Box o' Writing but I wasn't serious about it at the time. I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life. I took the box with me to my first apartment and some of the stuff I'd done as a child actually provided a basis for my first (unpublished and rightly so) novel.

The box came with me to Oregon then back to California, surviving mostly untouched. Then, around 1993 or 1994 I did something I regret to this day.

Between 1990 and 1992, our roommates got us involved in Amway. Yes, I know. At the time, though, I was desperate to figure out where I belonged and it seemed like the right fit. If you know anything at all about Amway, one of the ways they keep you hooked is to sell you motivational materials. At the time it was cassette tapes. One in particular talked about if you haven't used or worn something in the last 6 months you should get rid of it.

Although I was no longer in Amway that idea stayed with me. I thought if I'd held on to something so long and hadn't done anything with it I should get rid of it, that I was a failure for holding on to stuff I wasn't using. I'd lugged that box of writing around for years and barely looked at it. So, one day it went into the trash along with other things that weren't worth donating somewhere.

All those childhood dreams of different people and different worlds gone. I thought throwing it all out would somehow make me better, more worthy in unseen eyes. I thought that because I hadn't touched the creations of my childhood mind in so long those creations were no longer worthy of having space in my life.

I don't keep a lot of mementos. I'm not sentimental by nature. My husband is the opposite, keeping the oddest bits. It makes for interesting discussions when I'm on a cleaning binge had have to talk him into throwing out 10-year-old catalogs.

I miss that box, though. I can still see the map I created for my fantasy world, the symbols I drew on it, the cities I created. I remember bits and pieces of the stories I wrote as a child and I long to have that book report cover in my hands so I could leaf through the adventures I wrote.

I keep all my journals now. I printed out the unpublishable first novel and put it in a binder so that when I could no longer access the soft copy version (written in WordPerfect on an old IBM XP) I had something I could read, something that would remind me of the joy of writing that awful, wonderful thing.

Never, ever cut yourself off from your creative voice or the product of your creativity to please an outsider, to pander to the nebulous They. Protect those creations, even if they make The Eye of Argon look like sheer brilliance. Treasure your flights of fancy whether written in childhood or written yesterday. Old dreams don't take up much space. So long as you don't live in them, they don't take up much time, either.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Confidence of Night

It's gone midnight. The heat is bleeding off, finally. Much as I love the summer heat and sun, I love summer nights, too. There is a cool confidence to the night I find soothing. Standing on the porch, gazing at the night sky I feel more at home within myself. It isn't a matter of darkness hiding me. It's a matter of possibility stretching out like the barely visible arm of the Milky Way. Each star is a pinpoint of potential.

I love driving at night during summer. Flying along Highway 5, new-mown hay acrid and green, stinging my nose. The highway quiet and empty between towns. Sensible people asleep while I swoop along the gentle rise and fall of the road. Driving at night in the summer means adventure, something new to see. I've always had a good vacation when it started out with a night-time drive.

It's dark beyond the window, a slight breeze easing the heat of the living room. The Beebe is streaming on the laptop, telling me news of things that American media will not tackle. I'm grateful for this technological that age allows me to hear voices of dissent from other lands, voices that make me uncomfortable, that remind me complacency is a path of cowardice.

Everything I hear, everything I see is a lesson, right now. There are always lessons but it has a way of swelling like a storm blowing in off the Pacific. Sometimes it feels like a baseball bat smashing knowledge into my head, as though some exasperated goddess has gotten tired of me being obtuse, or complacent.

So many people seem to learn these lessons at a much younger age. How do they do it? What life did they live that they 'got it' and I'm just now 'getting it'? I'm 44 and I feel like I'm just waking up. Where others have 60 or 70 years to utilize these lessons I've got 40 or 50 (the women in our family are long lived and pretty sharp well into their 90s so I'm thinking positive). Is it enough time? That's a silly question, though. Of course it's enough if I use the time well.

The things I'm learning aren't important to anyone but me. It's important, though, that you don't ignore the lessons around you. Be open to them. Be willing to see lessons even in places that don't seem appropriate for a lesson. Then take them into yourself and act on the things you learn.

I feel content for the first time since December. I think I can do anything, when I feel like this. I would like to make that true, this time.