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Archive for the ‘Writing process’ Category

I’m a writer. This means, of course, that I hope soon to be making my living primarily by writing. I scribble in a variety of genres. Some of what I write I call literary, while much of my works are westerns and science fiction, with a smattering of beats-the-hell-out-of-me. I do tend toward what used to be called romances. Understand that the term once meant stories about ancient Rome–in other words, tales of long ago and far away.

Today, we call those speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and so forth. Tolkien referred to them as faerie stories. But whatever name you care to give them, they all involve a narrative that pulls the reader out of the mundane and into magic. (Recall that Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic.) But how can you know if this particular genre is what you ought to be writing?

Here’s a sentence that will answer the question:

The empire in the west had fallen, but remnants survived in the east.

What does that sentence do inside you?

If it calls to mind the Roman Empire, you have a good grasp of history.

If thoughts of the Mongols or the Chinese come to mind, you’re a multiculturalist. (Unless you’re reading me in Asia, then apply this to the first reaction.)

If your reaction is one of boredom or revulsion, I can’t help you.

But if you read that sentence and feel a wave of fascination about distant lands, shifting powers, the possibilities of kingdoms won and lost, maidens (or fine swains, depending on your interests) seduced, and mysteries to be opened and beheld in awe, then you stand in good chance of being a bard of Faerie.

The rest is the discipline of the craft.

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This fellow, one Fred Nietzsche, 800px-Nietzsche_Olde_04_(cropped)
had various things to say on the subject of morality.

After much discussion with my cat
Li Po
about where he may lounge while I’m writing, I’ve had to accept it as a fact that cats are beyond good and evil.

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I’m working my way through the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. For those of you not familiar with his work, he was a writer of horror stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here’s a sample of his work, from “The Statement of Randolph Carter”:

In the lone silence of that hoary and deserted city of the dead, my mind conceived the most ghastly phantasies and illusions; and the grotesque shrines and monoliths seemed to assume a hideous personality—a half-sentience. Amorphous shadows seemed to lurk in the darker recesses of the weed-choked hollow and to flit as in some blasphemous ceremonial procession past the portals of the mouldering tombs in the hillside; shadows which could not have been cast by that pallid, peering crescent moon. I constantly consulted my watch by the light of my electric lantern, and listened with feverish anxiety at the receiver of the telephone; but for more than a quarter of an hour heard nothing. Then a faint clicking came from the instrument, and I called down to my friend in a tense voice. Apprehensive as I was, I was nevertheless unprepared for the words which came up from that uncanny vault in accents more alarmed and quivering than any I had heard before from Harley Warren. He who had so calmly left me a little while previously, now called from below in a shaky whisper more portentous than the loudest shriek:
“God! If you could see what I am seeing!”

As you can see, he wrote in the florid style common to writers of English until Hammett and Hemingway taught us to be sparing in our words–and let me not forget Strunk and White.

But what’s wrong with this? Lovecraft creates an atmosphere in his writing, doesn’t he? It is clear that the characters are horrified. The trouble is that I as the reader don’t know why.

What, for example, is meant by words like ghastly, blasphemous, ceremonial, or grotesque? I realize that the person saying those words has a strong dislike for what he is seeing. But since I can’t see them myself, I’m in the dark. It’s as though the narrator is telling me that I must accept his opinion on the scene without question.

Now I’m not one to demand a lot of descriptive writing in a story. I myself go for Hammett’s style–I told you there’s a chair and a bed in the room. What else do you need to know? But if the author is going to inform me that there be a sight worth seeing heere, I want it shown to me. Don’t just tell me what the author or a character thinks about it. Don’t use vague words that presume that I’ll agree with their opinions. If you want to tell me that there’s a hideous mushroom in the midst of the unquiet cellar, do it this way:

On the damp dirt floor, a lumpy white and red-spotted fungus stood. Was it fond of the odor of decay in the cellar? I wouldn’t know, having never held communication with a mushroom. The smell and the whistling of a faint breeze through the broken pane of glass at the far end certainly made me uneasy.

What I did there was show you the important object, gave you a sense of the cellar around said object, and let you know how the character feels about it. But I also allowed you to decide if you agree with the character.

To quote from Lovecraft’s story again, “God, if you could see what I am seeing!” Indeed. That’s exactly the point. If what the character is seeing is all that important, I need to see it to, not just be told how the author wants me to react.

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My advice to new writers is to write short stories. This teaches building a scene with concentrated conflict and concise action leading to a point. Novels are like undeveloped land in the South–temptations for schemers to sprawl. Of course, said tyros should also be reading such stories, but if I have to tell you that reading is a good idea, you’re probably not meant to be a writer.

Still, we do have to be clear on the purpose of the exercise:

1. You will be writing for practice. You will be writing for enjoyment. You will be writing to keep yourself writing while you’re learning the craft.

2. You will also be writing to put your name and voice out in public. Short story markets are few and far between, and even fewer last more than a handful of issues. If you write westerns, by the way, one that’s shown its intention to remain is Frontiertales.com. Check the authors page for some of my writing, by the way. Understand that when you write short stories, the public purpose is to connect your name to something that people enjoy reading. You’re building a fan base. (All your reader are belong to us–you want this.)

3. But there’s something you need to know before you start. You won’t get paid for short stories. Paying markets are just about dead. There was a time when new writers could get a foothold and make a living by writing science fiction or westerns or even literary stories. No more. No matter what The New Yorker claims, new writers don’t have a chance. Apparently, not even good ones. You don’t write short stories to make money. You write them for the first two reasons.

4. Alas, there’s a fourth lesson. Sometimes, a magazine will dangle the promise of actual money, only to pull a fast one. And thus I must tell my own tale.

In 2008, I submitted a short story to something called Astonishing Adventures Magazine. (I’d give you a link, but I can’t, and you’ll see why soon.) Said outfit claimed to be looking for pulp stories–translation, lots of plot, plenty of action, and none of the high-brow or raised-eyebrow stuff that gets published in the, um, New Yorker. Well, thought I, this is something I can provide. I had written a perfectly atrocious science fiction novel in the mid 90s–yes, sometimes, I have to learn through experience. But some of the chapters were good, so I pulled them out and polished them into a worthy short piece and submitted it. The editor said he liked what I wrote. Big smile. The editor said he wanted to publish it. Happy dance. Life is good, right?

Hold on there, hoss. A short while later, he wrote back to say that the magazine was folding due to lack of funds This happens a lot in the business, as you’ll come to find out if you submit stories. So the years go by, and in the fullness of time, I turned the story into a short e-book for sale on Amazon. Why not? It’s a good story. (You should buy it, he whispers)

Then one day, I was wandering about the aforementioned on-line book seller’s site when to my surprise, I came across this, my story, for sale, in Astonishing Adventures Magazine: Issue 4.

¿Como que huh?

There’s my story being sold without anyone having told me about it. After stomping about my home and scaring my cat, I talked to a few friends who told me to keep calm and carry on. This is life.

Indeed it is, regardless of how unfair it may seem. The lesson here that I have had to learn, the lesson that I’m now trying to teach you, Dear Reader, is that having my name attached to a good story in a place where people can see it is a good thing. Clicking on my name in the list of authors takes you to my own page. Truth be told, I’d rather you buy the story from me directly, but I’d also rather you read it, no matter how you do it.

Yup, keep calm, carry on, and some day, publishers will look at your novel. Until then, write.

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If you spend much time studying the writing process, you’ve heard the advice to write what you know. As with other bits of pseudowisdom, this sounds good until we analyze it. For example, I write science fiction and westerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I don’t know from living on the Moon or wandering the Old West–not in the sense of personal experience, at least. So what’s a writer such as I supposed to do?

First off, a better piece of easy advice might be to write what you research. A while ago, I wrote a short story, The Driving Flame, which has my western character, Henry Dowland, battling a gang of toughs along the line of the first transcontinental railroad. All I knew about said project was what any schoolchild (who pays attention–a rare breed) knows. That wasn’t nearly enough to sustain a story about a specific period. To prepare for the writing, I read a weighty tome (redundant, much?) on the subject, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Some might say that reading an 816 page book for a twenty-some-odd page story is excessive, but I enjoy history, and I want to get the details right. If I’m going to say that something existed in Cheyenne in 1867, I damn well want to know that I stand on solid ground in saying it.

This goes against another bit of pseudowisdom that a person ought just to write. That’s fine for writers who enjoy going back and making huge changes ex post facto, but I’m not that kind of writer. I write slowly, and only when I know what I’m talking about. Is that writing what I know? It’s writing what I’ve researched. Again, I didn’t live in the period, so I can’t claim to “know,” if by knowing we mean something that I’ve experienced.

The beauty of writing in this present age is that information is available. If you want to know what the top of Mount Everest or the inside of an Old West mine, pictures are on the Web. As a substitute for personal experience, this works well for an author, though it removes the excuse of needing a vacation to be able to write. (Really, honey, I do need to spend three months in Nepal for this stunning piece of literature that I’m working on…)

But as I’ve said, this is not the form of knowing that our Founts of Wisdom (TM) proclaim. Uh huh. So? The real question here is what writing is about. Travelogues are about a place and time. Good for them. But literature is about human beings. (Even if they’re rabbits or Klingons.) When we write stories worth reading, we’re exploring what it means to be human.

That takes a bit of explaining. Good stories are about characters, not events. The plot is a vehicle that shows us how characters act and react, based on their natures. Bad stories are just a series of events. (And no, Dan Brown, you don’t get a link.) That being the case, authors who care about the craft are writing something of what they know.

There’s more to be said, though. (You knew that was coming, no? [Just as you knew there’d be a parenthetical statement?]) Various writers have said words to the effect of “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” What that means is that writing is the process of discovery. What we know expands when we write. We see the world in a new way. We explore a new means of dealing with life. We plumb new depths of the human condition.

As an example of this, I now see that “write what you know” in fact does have some good advice in it. How would I have known about that if I hadn’t written it?

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People obsessed with safety tell us that distracted driving is a bad idea. To me, the bigger concern is all the people who drive while stupid, but life is risky, ultimately a terminal illness, so I can’t get too excited about this. As a writer, though, I am interested in the question of distracted writing.

I recall reading a while ago a story of how Victor Hugo stripped naked, gave his clothes to a servant, and went to his tub to write. The servant had orders to return the clothes when Hugo had written a thousand words or a chapter or something like. That’s a cute story, but I don’t have a servant, and I’d object to someone telling me what to do, anyway.

When I write, I have music on. Westerns get Irish folk music, a band called Great Big Sea, or country. (You can read examples of my westerns here and buy one here.) I write science fiction while rock or classical. (More on that subject here.) When I try my hand at poetry, I can’t listen to music with lyrics, but otherwise, someone singing is fine.

But music isn’t enough. This is because of the crushing onus of white space. White space demands that the writer fill it. It also creates an expectation of creating Good Writing (TM). This causes writer’s freeze, if not outright block. I have two solutions:

1. Every writer ought to have a cat. Felines provide helpful distraction. When that white space is being particularly oppressive, the cat will jump into the writer’s lap and insist on being petted. In the process, words will shake free in the writer’s brain.

2. Twitter does the same thing. The announcement that I have a whole new batch of tweets to read gives me a moment of irrelevance. Then I can go back to filling that white space.

Perhaps this reveals me to be a sufferer of, um, SQUIRREL!

If you feel the need for your own distraction, you may follow me @GregCampNC.

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