My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Story Fundamentals, Part the Third: Characters by Arielle K Harris

Story Fundamentals, Part the Third: Characters
Arielle K Harris  

In my previous articles I’ve discussed the Style and Setting aspects of storytelling, two essential aspects of the writing craft.  However, I believe there’s an argument to be made that modern readers care more about characters than previous audiences through the history of literature and are generally more willing to forgive a lack in other areas of a story if the characters are compelling enough.  So this stuff is important.

Like in world-building, building a character is an exercise in details.  It’s as easy and as hard as making up a person, a human being complete with flaws, motives, secrets, quirks, aspirations, doubts, love, hate, and all the rest.  (Unless you’re not writing about human beings, but even then most of those things likely still apply.)  Every character has a story, even the most minor character, and it’s your job as their writer, their creator, to know what that story is even if it’s never fully told.  You never know when a minor character might suddenly become a main player.  Your earlier casually-dropped details about that minor character are now effortless foreshadowing for what’s to come.

A lot of writers talk about this element of unexpectedness when dealing with characters, having a protagonist go off-outline whether the writer likes it or not, or self-determining sudden actions previously unaccounted for.  Inexperienced writers, or those disturbingly normal folk who aren’t writers at all, might be like, “Eh??  But they’re your characters, you made them up so you can have them do whatever you want to, right??”

Sort of.  Yes, you’ve made a character up, it exists only inside your brain and on paper, and you can control what it does.  To a point.  There comes a time, however, when you find that you’ve given your character too much autonomy, like a rogue AI program that suddenly becomes self-aware.  The part of your brain that houses that character is now an autonomous part of your consciousness with its own motives and self-interests which sometimes gives you sass and argues back when you try to impose your original plans upon it.

And this slightly disturbing development is precisely what you’re aiming for as a writer.

You want a character that’s been so well created that it becomes its own voice inside your mind, because if you haven’t reached that point then you’re not chronicling the story of unique and compelling beings.  Instead you’re moving puppets around a backdrop, and the voice that comes out of their mouths is your voice, not theirs.

What’s the key difference between your voice and your character’s voice?  Well, in some writing there is no difference.  There are some stories which, whether deliberately or not, transpose the author into the main character, for better or for worse.  I would like to make the argument, however, that this is not ideal.  In order to write effective fiction with compelling characters I honestly believe those characters need to gain autonomy from their authors.  This is part of the craft of fiction writing.

Given their own flaws, motives, secrets, quirks, aspirations, doubts, love, hate, etc., etc., as previously mentioned should be enough to help you find a character’s unique voice, or better still, to let that character find their own voice.  By all means use your own experiences to “write what you know” and give authenticity to their journey through the story, but your character may respond to events differently than you.  Give them the freedom to do so.

In speculative fiction when you’re worldbuilding don’t forget how that world affects your characters.  They have their own language, though you’re helpfully translating into one your readers can understand.  And for the love of all things literary please don’t just call it the Common Tongue.  Language is so rich and interesting, don’t let your created language down.  Obviously there are very few of us capable of creating actual languages themselves to the high standards of the likes of Tolkien but even if you don’t actually create the language you should know what it is, what it’s called, and what other languages exist on your world.  To be a realistic world there should be other languages, unless your world is very small indeed, or recently colonized.

Let me get linguistic on you for a minute.  There’s are lot of links between worldbuilding and language and character, as geography affects both the physical interactions of societies and their language development.  Languages lend each other words when they interact regularly, so physically distant groups of people who don’t interact develop languages which are more obviously distinct from each other.  Consider this phenomena fully.  How do your world’s languages interact?  Who can understand who, and how do they reach that level of understanding?  Generally only the wealthy, who have free time and funds to spend on learning, will know more than one language unless necessity or constant multilingual interaction of the lower classes results in otherwise.  However, misunderstandings are a great way to further plot and create tension, so you don’t necessarily want to gloss over the difficulties of language interaction.

Religion is another important world-building facet which links to character development, and just like language this can provide another conflict between either groups or individual characters.  This affects how characters speak to other characters who are within their religious group or outside it, how they utter obscenities, and how they make promises to each other or swear fealties.  This may affect what foods they eat, and when, what holy days they observe, or deliberately don’t observe.  This may affect a character’s relationships with other characters, determine expected gender roles, or have serious repercussions if they defy those precepts.

I think it’s important for a writer of speculative fiction to answer all the important questions of language and religion, philosophy and society, and every other facet of worldbuilding before deciding even the most basic of details about a character.  Even something as simple as a name is firmly rooted in language and/or religion and has societal implications and significance.  Names have so much potential to impart subtle messages to the reader, and sometimes messages that are… not so subtle, e.g.: Cruella de Vil, Voldemort, Hannibal Lecter, and Kilgrave (Jessica Jones said it herself, “Kilgrave?  Talk about obvious.  Was ‘Murdercorpse’ already taken?”) so don’t throw away the opportunity to underscore something of importance to your readers.

Above all, avoid writing character stereotypes.  The farm boy who would be king.  The questing hero with his band of followers, never forgetting to include the one feisty female included to add sexual tension and to prove that the (inevitably white cis-male) author is giving a nod to feminism.  (He’s not.)  The plain little Mary Jane who has one endearing character flaw like being unable to cross a parking lot without getting nearly killed, who is oh so very unattractive, which she bemoans at length, but somehow is caught in a love triangle with two hot guys with rock-hard abs and optional sparkles.  Yeah, just stop that.

Given enough thoughtful detail a writer should be able to avoid all the pitfalls in character creation, and then be blessed with several argumentative new brain-friends.  After that, all you need to do is tell the story.  I say that like it’s easy, but of course it’s not and my next article will focus on this next vital and devastating step in the process of storytelling – telling the damned story.

Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.

She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Monday, April 24, 2017

WAW's Facebook Page FAQ

[Everything in brackets will disappear in a couple of weeks.

As part of a major overhaul to those tabs that run across the top of the screen, soon the one on the far right (Adspace/Help Us Out) will be dedicated specifically to the various things I'm getting tired of repeating for the currently almost half a million followers of Writing About Writing's Facebook Page. This week I'll also be adding a couple of "Rules" pages for some regular bits I do that I want to be able to link instead of constantly rewriting. But for today we're going to write up the FAQ that is exclusively about FB questions.

I'm also running behind because of major Contrarian tag in time this weekend. I wouldn't trade it for the world cause I love that little guy like woah, but it'll have my posts rolling in off schedule for probably most of the week.]

FAQ for Writing About Writing's Facebook Page

"I'd like to give you a donation? How can I do that?"

If you want to be a monthly contributor and get in on a number of reward tiers, please consider becoming a Patreon patron. Even a dollar a month is enormously helpful and will get you in on the "backchannels" of questions about my work, polls only patrons can respond to about upcoming projects, and solicitations for feedback.

One time donations are of course welcome as well. The conspicuously placed tip jar is over to the top left, or you can use Venmo. My e-mail is chris.brecheen@gmail.com

"Will you promote [my thing]?"

If your "thing" is exactly the sort of content I'm usually posting (memes, macros, "you should be writing," quotes, and the occasional really good article about writing, maybe some book love, or a really funny miswritten sign), I might post it if–and this is a big if–I like it. I tend to avoid the posts some typical writing pages share a lot of, like ableist inspiration porn or classist (and often racist) prescriptivism. I'm all for giggling about a misplaced comma, but only so long as we're giggling about what the sign says instead of AT the person who did it. But if you send me something you made that is our usual fare, especially if it's "doin' me a laff (and not a concern),"  I'll consider putting it up along with a link to a page if you want.

If it's not the normal stuff, but is at least tangentially related to writing, and if you send me a PM asking nicely first I will let you post on our "Guest Posts."  (For the record, Dave M, the following is not acceptable: "Hey bro, you're not going to get your panties in a twist that I posted this on your wall, are ya?") If you are about fifteen teirs less misogynist and more polite than Dave M, I'll probably say yes. Be advised: web content filler slapped up there usually gets about the three or four clicks it deserves, but I've noticed that the response to quality posts is decent.

If it is wildly not about writing or it is your own creative writing, the answer will be no. I have a regular post where you can share your own writing. And if you think a page called Writing About Writing is a good spot for your car detailing business commercial, I don't know what to say.

BTW: If you don't ask and just slap up your self-promotional link into the guest posts, I just remove it, even if it's totally about writing. And if I recognize your name from having pulled the same thing before, I'll ban you.

I'll be really honest with you about my one of my many failings as a human. I've spent years now building this page up. Don't even get me started on the first year when I was posting to 95% my own friends and like four other people. Or the June in the middle of year two when I whooped inside a Kinkos because I'd passed 1000 followers. This page takes a lot of effort, and even though it's led a few more people to my blog and maybe been responsible for a few donations, it's mostly unpaid labor. I have fed my petty cottage cheese and bile, taught it the dark side of The Force, and watched it grow up big and strong. I cheered it when it force choked the better angels of my nature. I kind of hate how people are crawling out of the woodwork–NOW–and trying to ride my coattails without a thought about reciprocity or so much as a peep asking if it's okay. I really quite enjoy being able to point at something one of my friends did (or someone whose work I've been following with interest) and send lots of eyeballs their way. But I feel really used when people act entitled to it.

If your stuff is self-promotional, I'm going to be harder on it–especially if you don't ask. Darth Petty demands no less.

"Will you read my creative writing?"

I can't. I'm sorry.

There are nearly half a million of you, and this page grows by a thousand followers on a slow day. I'm getting a couple of requests a day to read things--everything from a ten line poem to a short story to a full novel manuscript. I know you've poured your soul into it and it's dear to your heart. I also know that because you've poured your soul into it and it's dear to your heart, that even for that ten line poem which I could read in a few seconds, you probably want more feedback than just "Nice poem" or something. I know how serious that request is for you and how important it is to you and even how much you may have psyched yourself up before sending it. ("Fortune favors the brave, Milton. FORTUNE FAVORS THE BRAVE. LET'S DO THIS THING!!! LEEEEEEROOOOOOOOOY JEEEEEEENKIIIIIIIIINS!!!!!") But still...as much as I admire your moxie, there's only one of me.

A good week for me clocks in around 70 hours between all my jobs. I barely even have time to read and give feedback to good friends.

Of course, if you want to hire me, that's another story (see below).

Will I tutor/edit/do some writing for you?

Sure. My freelance rate is $50 USD/hour. ($75 if you want me to drop everything I'm doing and give you all my writing time). I will need you to pay for your first hour up front, and we'll figure out over e-mail or chat what you need. I can give you a billable hours estimate and a rough timeline for completion, and then I will work whatever is left of our hour, and you can see if my time is worth your money. After that, I'll ask you to pay me for every couple of hours for the first 10 hours or so. As we work longer and longer and build up professional trust, I can give you bigger chunks of time between payments. I'm much better at developmental editing than copy editing

Oh...did you mean for free?

I am interested in buying your page? Will you sell it?

Sure! Deposit $50,000 into an account I designate (that's about ten cents per follower--the price may go up if the page grows) and after the money has been verified I will relinquish admin controls. (That's after I walk into my bank, asked for a manager, and made sure that there is no possible way that I'm being scammed and the funds will not disappear.) That's about what it would be worth to me to go build an audience from scratch on another page and might just cover the costs for the time it takes to do so.

I know the bitter, cruel irony here is that no one who sends me these fucking messages will ever read this FAQ. So mostly I'll just go on hating them.

Oh great. I see that you've seen my message but you won't reply. Thanks a whole lot you jerkwad. What is wrong with you?

I hate that people can tell when I've "seen" their chats. I hate it with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas. Because not everything is urgent. And sometimes I triage that shit. And sometimes I triage it right into the ignore pile. And it is a universal constant that the people who send the most ignorable messages are also the ones who think they are absolutely the most important people in the universe and get bent out of shape if I don't reply.

Sorry random person. There was a time when I could give thoughtful responses to everybody who sent me a private message. That time was about 400,000 followers ago. Now I'm writing an FAQ instead of a regular post so that I can reply with this to generic questions I get a zillion of.

Can I get an autograph?


This is all very new to me and weird and I've got huge imposter syndrome and I still think people who want my autograph are trying to trick me somehow, but this question keeps coming up, so I better answer it.

If you let me know you'd like to send me physical correspondence, I will give you a P.O. Box address that I check regularly.

Send me something I can sign (I don't have a book I've authored or anything yet) with a self addressed stamped envelope, and I will sign it and send it back. Please cover all the postage both ways. I won't turn down a donation, but there is no "charge."

If you're so overwhelmed, why don't you get admins?

Well, aside from the occasional Social Justice Bard post or maybe a macro that suggests that bigotry isn't awesome just because people who don't suffer systematic forms of it have decided that a particular expression is no big deal, I don't really get the kind of comments off of grammar jokes and "You should be writing" memes that require roving bands of admins. I can swing through posts like the ones above, clean up the worst offenders, and trust that most of my followers are adults who will message me if they need me to step in. [Please include the link as well as telling me what's going on. Sometimes the comments rage for DAYS and I won't be able to just figure out which post you're talking about.]

And even though admins can reply to messages, having them handle "Can you post my thing?" or "Will you read my story?" isn't really what I think anyone would want to do.

Basically, it's the wrong kind of "overwhelmed" for farming out the work. Hopefully this FAQ helps.

Hello from my sock puppet. Why did you ban my main account? Can I get reinstated?

Probably because you violated the commenting policy.

I might be willing to unban someone if they apologize, but I'm not going to do so on a timetable that would allow them to jump right back into whatever argument got them banned in the first place. So you will have to hang in the penalty box for a while either way.

Can we be Facebook friends?

Okay, people don't really ask me this, per se; they just send me friends requests. And I'm not sure, but I think I recognize some of them from the people who comment and like posts on my page.

Yes, you may, but let me make a few disclaimers:
  • This is my public account: Chris Brecheen (Public) My private account is for friends, family, and people I've known online for a long time. It's not the VIP room or anything, but it's an essential aspect of a private life as my online persona becomes somewhat more popular. Most posts there are locked to at least friends only.
  • You might want to follow for a while and decide IF you want to send me a friend request. I'm definitely not everyone's cup of tea with the geekery and the social justice stuff. 99.9% of my posts are public, so you really wouldn't be missing anything except the ability to comment.
  • If you don't care for my (very) occasional social issues post on the Writing About Writing Facebook Page, you will like my profile even less. I write about that stuff almost daily.
  • I can be a bit much for people. I post a lot. 
  • I have 1 "Note" that is a Commenting Policy for this profile. You should read it before charging in. ESPECIALLY before charging into a contentious post.
  • Send me a PM with your request. (Don't worry, I check my "Message Requests" at least once a day.) That account gets around 200-500 friend requests a week depending on how many posts I've got getting shared and stuff at any given time. I reject most of them because I don't know if they're there to sell me sunglasses, phish my info from a pr0n site, or just pick a fight in the comments.

More to come....

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Vlog returns

[I gave up with a flawed take after...I dunno twelve tries?]

Hi everyone,

Today seems as good a time as any to reintroduce Vlogs here at Writing About Writing. We got a little side tracked there for a while because of the move and stuff, but life is getting back to normal and some of our old regular bits here are returning.

Now this one here is just a filler vlog, to kind of remind folks that this is something I will be doing, and that I always intended to get back to it as my life came back together and stopped looking so much like a post apocalypse movie.

We’ll probably only do about one a month.

I know some of you don’t like vlogs, preferring to just read. I’m the same way, so I’m going to put my write up in text at the bottom. It may not have every tangent I go on, every change I make extemporaneously, and my speaking rhythm is much different than my writing one, but for those of you who hate vlogs, it will at least have the basic information.

I also have a video editing program that came with my MacBook, so over the next few months, depending on the learning curve for that, I may be able to make videos that I don’t have to do all in one take.

The reason I’m posting this TODAY is because of Writing About Writing’s meta mission to bring you the “behind the scenes” of writing–to demystify the impression some people have that writers do very little work they don’t like, simply get hit by inspiration, and then birth a work of genius.

So let me tell you about yesterday….

Yesterday I sat down to work, because that’s what working writers do, and I stared at the same paragraph for 14 hours. The words just did not come. And I sat there and sat there, and I pecked at that paragraph and I finally got it done. But it took all day.

And some days are like that. You just have to sit down and have shitty productivity because that discipline and habit is the price you pay for the twelve and sixteen hour productivity days the next day or the next week.  Now today, I’ve managed to do a couple of hours of solid writing already but if I’d just given up yesterday, it would be that much harder today.

So I just want people to know… if you think that just because I have an audience and make money writing doesn’t mean I don’t have shitty days…it doesn’t.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Best Book Marketed to Young Women (Last call for nominations/seconds)

What is the best book marketed to young women?  

I've got a dozen things to do today that aren't blogging, so I'm going to just remind everyone that I'm going to start semifinals (quarterfinals?) for this poll THIS weekend. So get in your nominations in and second the titles you want to see on the poll. But do so on the ORIGINAL POST! I can't guarantee any nominations on this post will make it onto the poll.

Also the rules are there; probably worth a glance.

If I fall into the free time that is theoretically out there after all this basic crap is in the "Done" pile, I'll keep going on the Tab Cleanup Project™ which is about to enter the Facebook Page Stage–a handful of posts for the now half a million people following Writing about Writing on Facebook. You might see something going up later on today if that goes well.

Note: I've noticed that a few of the nominated titles are definitely NOT Y.A. (remember it's not when a bunch of bibliophiles reading way above their level got into it that defines what that means). I don't really have a way to enforce what gets nominated or even a good definition for where the line is, but I'm going to veto some of the clearly adult titles.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Steps to Motivational Rejuvenation (Mailbox)

How do you get back lost motivation for a project that's been on hiatus? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Thursday might look suspiciously like Wednesday when I am actually so far behind that this should have gone up six fucking days ago.]  

Antonio asks:  

I have a story that I had to put on hold for at least six months because of other projects. Now I really want to get on it. But every time I see the point where I left it... I kinda feel disconnected and unmotivated.


My reply:

I answered a question not too long ago about how important it can be to at least "poke" at a work in progress if you don't want it to go stale. One of the reasons for that is exactly this. If you leave a project on the back burner for too long, there can then be a divestment of brain from interest. Maybe you think of a couple of good things here and there or a twist you would love to add, but mostly that motivation has dried out and your passion for the project goes stale. It can be really hard to try and just pick back up where you left off when your mind is scratching at the inside of your skull to try and get your idea onto paper.

Before I let Ima Lister slap down the Patented Guide to Rekindling Your Passion....(for an abandoned work in progress)™ let me just make one more quick USDA Writing Guild required disclaimer. This is the reason that it's generally a good idea to keep a limited number of irons in the fire and is why so many writers who have "made it" yodle from the mountaintops, at the slightest opportunity, the advice to finish one's shit. It is so so so so so fucking easy to take a break that turns into forever. Finishing projects, especially before bounding off to new projects, is one of the most powerful skills a writer (any artist really) can ever learn.

From here, I'm going to hand my reply over to Ima Lister, who has a few things–well five of them actually–to say about this.

Hi everyone. Time for me to drop my Patented Guide to Rekindling Your Passion....(for an abandoned work in progress)™. Remember to try these steps in order as each may depend on the aggregate effect of the last. Skipping right to step four might seem like taking Percoset instead of Advil for your headache because "fuck it, I need the good stuff," but it'll actually be less effective if you haven't run the gamut first.

1- Reread your work. 

Simple. Elegant. Refined. And ironically so overlooked.

Many writers simply look at their stale work in progress and never pick it up. And when I say they "look at it," I mean they physically glance at it from across the room. Or think about it in passing as they're eating a chocolate cream pie and rewatching season 1 of Sense 8 to prepare for the coming of season 2 next month. Or perhaps once every few months they open the text file to that blinking cursor, skim the last paragraph for the thousandth time, and then close the file again because they're just not feeling it. And if they're really avoiding it, they might carefully tiptoe around the WIP, avoiding it at all costs. They glance down the hall to make sure it's not in the bathroom before darting to their bedroom, and listen carefully for sounds in the kitchen before going to eat so that the don't run into it at the breakfast table–a bite of bran flakes frozen halfway to its mouth as their eyes meet.

"Why aren't you working on me?"

"Eat your fucking cereal."

*eyes narrow*

But what they don't do is sit down and reread it–from the very beginning. They don't give themselves that jump back into the world of their fiction. They don't engage what once captured their imagination and let all those ideas come flooding back. They don't remind themselves of all the little things they gave attention to when writing it.

Honestly, give the old dusted off words a good once over. Let it take you back to where your mind was when you were writing it. Fire up a few of the old synapses. You're going to remember more about what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go than you even realized you forgot.

For the first time through, don't mess with it if you see some revisions you want to make. Let the urge to make it better go un-indulged and let that create a tension within you to return to the work.

And if reading it doesn't work by itself....

2- Do a little revision. 

Holding back from revising during your first read might have you chomping at the bit to make some changes.

That's okay. That's what you want.  Anything to get you back to this piece.

However, if you're not so enthusiastic even after reading over some things you really think you could have worded a lot better, go ahead and try to make a few changes anyway–even if it's just to clean up the language and tighten up the grammar. Lord knows that shit could at least use some proofreading.

Going under the hood of your story kind of forces you into that mode you were in when you were working on the story before. Like most of writing, it's recursive, and you are likely to think of improvements faster than you can make them. Hopefully this knocks over enough dominos to start a chain reaction and topple you back into the headspace you were when you were really hitting it on the regular.

But if that doesn't work....

3- Skip ahead from where you are, and write the next scene you are really into.

One of the problems with a project losing steam is that you just weren't as into the next thing that needed writing as the arc in general. Maybe the next scene you were really into was several pages from where you are now and the idea of the filler wasn't grabbing you. Maybe every time you thought about getting back into the writing, you were daunted because the next thing you had to write was a scene you weren't that into or some plodding exposition to get your characters from Cool Event 1 to Cool Event 2.

Setting aside for a moment that your reader is likely to be Just. As. Bored. and feel like something is mind-numbing filler if the writer does, the easiest way to deal with this as a writer who "doesn't wanna" right now is to skip ahead. Fuck it! There's no rule that you have to write the whole manuscript in order from first page to last. Do a scene you're really excited about to help get you back into the groove. Then use that momentum to swing back around on revision and fill in the stuff you weren't so hot on.

You may even think of a much a better way to get through that part you're not so hot on besides a slog of events you're less excited about writing.

And if this doesn't work, it might be time for some painful self honesty.....

4- Are you sure you want to write this? Like...really sure?

Okay, so you've tried everything else and nothing's working. You're just not feeling it. It's time to ask yourself a really tough question from that place of deep and profound honesty. Go to your happy place, align your chakras, and high five your patronus. And then ask yourself this question:

Do you really want to write this piece?

Remember you're not asking yourself if you think there's any possible story there or any writing value, or even if you might want to return to this story someday. Rather, you're trying to figure out if you really want to put in the time and energy to write this piece right now.

And please understand...you don't have to. You're not obligated to love everything you start. (It's a good idea to try to finish, but there's a difference between abandoning one project that just wasn't doing it for you after a while and having sixteen half finished novels lying around the house, all of which you're going to get back to "someday.") Maybe inspiration really did dry up. Maybe you've moved on as an artist. Maybe it'll come back around in a month or a year.

Sometimes writers get attached to projects because of the amount of time they've already invested in them. It's kind of part and parcel with this hubris that everything written must somehow be destined for future publication. They really need to remember that some things they write are only ever going to be practice.

Is it possible that what you really need to do is put that project on the shelf for either years or forever? Reach deep into your soul and be brutally honest.

You still want to do this? Okay, well in that case....

5-Physically rewrite what you have so far.

Take a copy, print it out, put it down next to you, and start to type the whole thing from scratch.

Hang on. Deep breaths.

I know you just felt your anal sphincter clench hard and that may sound very, very daunting, but this is actually something you should be doing anyway. Computers have made a generation of writers who are terrified of revision involving full rewriting, and they only want to tweak their completed computer drafts. Truth be told, the best thing most of them could do would be to completely rewrite their story at least once.

Can you imagine that this was once the only way to revise? Even ten, twelve, twenty times...always completely rewritten. We may not be fettered to archaic technology, but sometimes a good part of the writing process gets tossed with the luddite bathwater.

Two things happen here. Number one, you can't type as fast as you can think (by hundreds of words a minute) and if you're forced into the world of your story, you're probably going to be thinking about that. Now maybe this will simply yank your creativity cord like starting an old small engine. (Is it true lawn mowers don't have pull start engines anymore? KIDS THESE DAYS!). You may recognize this technique from the movie Finding Forester. (Or maybe you're way too old to have seen that and I am obviously a fossil.) But they did pick a trick that actually works pretty well. It's rather difficult to type something and not engage it in a creative way.

This may also lead to some of the really good artistic magic. Since you're rewriting instead of cutting and pasting, you will likely be willing to make bigger chances–like changing the tense or removing whole scenes or taking out a character. Redoing the whole thing means you're less married to all that draft and since you're doing the work regardless, you might find exactly the bit that was causing the wind drag in the first place. And with some surgery, your story is back where you were, looking better than ever, and with you excited about moving forward.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It's Going to Get Weird Until Wed

Not that weird.
It's going to get a little weird for the next few days.

You might see posts going up late, early, or a couple one day and none the next.

It's going to depend on writing time and internet connectivity while I spend a couple of days and change in Yosemite balancing majestic vistas with the brisk cold that is April on a mountain.

I also will be continuing the "Tab Maintenance" this coming week, which means some days with multiple postings for those on feeds. Some of that information is three years out of date.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Logan: Why Character Matters

**Part 1: No Spoilers**

A year ago if you'd told somebody that arguably the most popular X-man movie of all time, and (to many) a rival for the best of all marvel movies, would only actually have two X-men in it–two older X-men way past their prime to boot–you would probably find yourself on the working end of some skepticism.

No Magneto? No multi-mutant fight at the end? No Apocalypse or sentinels chewing though two or three mutants every time they are on scene to prove the stakes are really, really high? Pfffffffft.

And if you said that a number of critics would hail it as the best superhero movie of the decade, perhaps ever, you would likely have to deal with a bit of laughter as well. (The snickering kind–not the good belly laughs you hear before someone asks if they can buy you a mug of the finest ale this side of The Dragon's Thirst Inn in Valacia.) Going up against The Dark Knight or The Avengers, as well as older titles like Raimi's Spiderman 2 or even something a bit genre bending like The Incredibles is not something genre fans would think could be done casually by two aged out X-men.

After all, the formula for superhero movies has been ramping steadily upwards to bigger and better fights with more and more superheroes on screen at a time, higher stakes battles, more CGI than you can physiologically process, and often the fate of the very timeline hanging in the balance.

Yet there's something undeniable about these movies as they become bigger and bigger special effects extravaganzas with more and more and more superpowered characters stacked in like cordwood. (And it's not just that I stopped considering them to be on my "Must See" list after X3.) Their interest to their audience doesn't grow exponentially. The epic-fury of their battles don't make the movie "good" or "bad." Even when a story does focus on a small cadre of characters, the focus on external plot instead of characters can make blockbusters imminently forgettable–and writers don't have the benefit of soundtracks, huge stars, or special effects budgets.

The conversations about these movies still end up being about the same thing: the characters. Were they interesting? Were they believable? What did they want? What were the stakes? Did the internal conflict matter in a way that made the story more interesting or did they just ho-hum stop the city from being nuked (again). Though film gross is based on a lot of factors, and some of these movies still do well in today's market, the more critically acclaimed the film and beloved by fans, the more their characters are interesting and not their battles eye-popping.

A lot of writers describe the epicosity of their climactic battle. ("It's this HUGE battle between three massive armies....") There's something in the success of Logan, and films like it, for writers to learn about what makes a character arc genuinely compelling and what stakes will drive the highest levels of tension. After all, while a writer has an effectively infinite "special effects budget" and seamless "CGI" for as long as they want to commit pages and pages to such descriptions, writers run the same risk that any summer blockbuster might of getting so caught up in the tools of telling a story, that we forget the story itself.

And as cool as that end battle is, if readers are not invested in the characters, it'll be forgettable–no matter the magnitude or scope, it'll be forgettable.

While I have my doubts that Logan is going to "redefine the whole genre," given the current Marvel plan for a thirty movie ramp up to a sixty character crossover two movie battle royale with each movie making more than the GDP of some European countries, its runaway success and spectacular critical reception is a cautionary tale to writers who forget that what readers are really interested in is the characters, and a reminder to us all that they're the engines of any story we have.

**Part 2: Contains Spoilers**

Look at how well these characters arcs played out.  Within just a minute we've established Logan's wants and needs, and that they are constantly struggling within him. He wants to get out, go away, take a boat away from everything. He wants to die. And he wants to not love things in his world so that he can let go. But he does love things. He's fettered by his concern for the things in this world. And though at one point it seems clear that had his body not betrayed him, he would have abandoned Laura at Xavier's grave, in the end he keeps stepping up to the plate again and again for those fetters.

And in the end, they are what set him free. Not just a physical release, but his own redemption as a character.

One of the greatest successes of the character arcs in this movie is how it shows without telling. Take this very early exchange between Charles and Logan:
Charles Xavier: Fuck off, Logan.
Logan: See, you know who I am.
Charles Xavier: I always know who you are, I just sometimes don't recognize you.
So much is said in this exchange. Not just about the devastating tragedy of neurodegenerative diseases and how they take away one's ability to recognize loved ones, but also on a subtextual level to establish a meaningful lens into Logan as a character. He is "unrecognizable," which might be same thing any fan of classic Wolverine might say at the outset of this film.

This exchange also establishes a bickering relationship that is the source of so much fun (and often well needed levity) in the film. Logan never says he loves Charles. But even though he wants Xavier to die (so that he can kill himself), he still spends all his time and energy trying to protect Charles from those chasing him as well as the memory of the abject horror that it is Charles who has killed all the other X-men. Logan even indulges Xavier's quest to find a "utopia" that he (Logan) believes isn't even real. Charles never says he loves Logan either. But he spends all his time and energy trying to give Logan's life the tiniest spark of redemption and connect him with his daughter. Their actions belie their constant fighting.

Actually the movie is really great about not spoon feeding the audience in general. They never came out and said that the mutant gene had been suppressed through corn syrup, but there's some evidence there if you pay attention. Trust your readers to be smart enough to get some things, especially about character relationships, without your help. You don't have to give them everything on a silver platter.

One of their best successes is finding the way symbolism fits into the story rather than shoehorning a story into symbolism. X-24 is how Logan sees his younger self–mindless, savage destructive rage. It is his past come back to haunt him....in this case literally. And that rage kills Xavier. Wherever Logan goes, that violence follows him and destroys the innocent bystanders around him (as he did the Munsons).  In the end Logan does not have the strength to defeat his past alone. He needs the help of his daughter.

The entire movie is a parable for getting old, dying and death (as well as the loneliness that accompanies these), how the past comes back to haunt us all, but at the same time about family, redemption, and the sacrifices of a parent. The guy who found walking excruciating was able to engage in mortal combat to the last once he had a reason.

In the end, there is even a poignant metaphor as the torch of all this power is passed to a wildly diverse group of children from two white men who have spent the movie protecting it from the hands of another group of white men who wanted to control it and keep it to themselves.

But none of this symbolism came at the expense of telling a fun story about bad guys who wanted to kidnap kids and good guys who would put claws through their brain pans.  They teased the symbolism out of a compelling romp rather than try to wrap a story around a bunch of symbolism. And that makes all the difference in how compelling a narrative can be.

And perhaps more importantly, the external plot was almost insultingly simple: "Mutant-creating bad guys want to get back a mutant they created who escaped." Everything beyond that was developed through character, whether it was Logan's reluctant willingness to indulge Xavier's fantasy of Mutopia or Xavier's want of some creature comforts that ended up placing the Munsons in grave danger. What drove Logan, through all its tragedy, angst, and eventual redemption was not a railroaded plot about stopping the end of the world but rather the characters.

Logan wasn't a perfect movie. It had pacing issues in the third reel, especially when Logan kept passing out to advance through the various plot points. The serum that made him Wolverine-y was kind of an awkward "Ha I'm badass again! Nope, just kidding!" plot point, and the grunting, limping, how-pathetic-am-I? portrayal was at times overdone. The "Chekhov's Gun" of the adamantium bullet being what would kill X-24 was stone-cold obvious about 90 minutes and change before it happened. The use of Shane was an excellent parable, and a fantastic choice for meta-media, but arguably was also a little heavy handed. A whole other article could be written about Logan and the "white savior" trope, and it never even gets particularly close to passing the Bechdel test. Overall though, Logan was an intensely character driven ride about the human condition that blew audiences away and brought the X-men arc that Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman began 17 years ago to a bittersweet and nostalgic, but satisfyingly crunchy end.

Logan's success, measured against a tiny handful of the best movies of the genre ever, carries with it a lot of lessons for writers. Characters are vital...more important even than a big exciting external plot. A couple of well thought out characters inexorably drawn towards a climax of high personal stakes in a tight, contained story within a story about how excruciating death without meaning can be is far, far better storytelling than a railroaded, save-the-universe plot with epic battles and dozens of heroes.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Best Book Marketed to Young Women

What is the best book marketed to young women? 

I have extra time with The Contrarian again this week, so my heavy hitters are going to be over the weekend. We'll also be finishing up our "Tabs Cleanup" over next week, so those of you on feeds, be ready for a bit more posting than normal.

Obviously the heightened state of the nominations means we're certainly going to take this poll into semifinals (and perhaps quarterfinals). Regardless, it'll extend beyond April, so let's take another week to grab all the nominations we can get and have a proper throw down.

Rules are on the original page if you have questions, particularly about what "marketed to young women" means for the sake of the poll.

Please please please put any new nominations on the comments of the original page. If you leave them here, you might not get a second, and I might not see it when I compile the poll.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Story Fundamentals, Part the Second: Setting (by Arielle K Harris)

Story Fundamentals, Part the Second: Setting
Arielle K Harris  

So you don’t want your writing to be crap, and you’re here for advice.  You now know, either by reading my last article Story Fundamentals, Part the First: Style or by using your own acute observational skills, that style is a thing and as essential to writing as your pen and paper, or your fingertips and your word processor.  What I failed to mention in that article is that style doesn’t necessarily need to be a conscious choice or decision you make, just a sense of self-awareness.  If you try to consciously adopt a particular style it may quickly backfire on you and become forced and contrived if not done perfectly right.

The same goes for the next element of storytelling I’ll discuss, which is setting.  A poorly contrived setting is as easy to see through as that of style, but even worse is a story that omits setting details altogether and relies on vagueness, minimalism, and hopes that the reader fills in the blanks.  A story written like this doesn’t really have a setting, it has a set.  Not the good kind of set like for a high-end movie or HBO series, more like a middle-school production of As You Like it where the Forest of Arden is constructed out of toilet paper tubes.  You know how much I love to quote Ursula Le Guin, well I’m going to do it again:

“It is a fake plainness.  It is not really simple, but flat.  It is not really clear, but inexact.  Its directness is specious.  Its sensory clues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalised; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic.”

You can clearly see the fakeness in a setting made of cardboard, and with that awareness no reader will be able to immerse themselves into your story.  A setting must be fully realized, solid, and instantly felt and seen through your words.

I’m a fantasy writer so I worldbuild my settings.  This is my favorite part of the writing process; it’s like traveling but free, inside your own head, and you always know the language.  Building an entire world out of nothing can be daunting but I actually find it less of an undertaking than setting a story in the real world.  Real world stories require intense research, especially if the location is not where you live, or have lived, and if you get it wrong then critics can easily point to flaws in your assumptions.  Worlds you make up are entirely under your control so you can’t make up a street that shouldn’t exist.  If you’ve written it then it does exist.

However worldbuilding requires utmost consistency, maybe you wrote that street into existence on page 25 but by page 60 your characters are running around and that street no longer leads to where it used to, unintentionally (there are times when, of course, this may happen intentionally).  Or the path through your forest is supposed to be going east but several scenes later your questing hero drags herself forward, nearly reaching her destination, but is now facing into the sunset (unless of course you’ve already made it clear that your world has a sun which sets in the east).

The best way I’ve found to ensure internal consistency in worldbuilding is with maps (this could easily be true in real world settings too, and the maps are already drawn for you).  There’s no better way to make sure you know your way through your world than to put it down on paper and refer to it frequently.  Your map doesn’t need to be particularly attractive or artistic if it’s just a writing resource for your own personal use, it just needs to show you the geographical space your characters are moving around in so you can see directions, limitations, and distances.

What do you mean that this isn’t a good map, it has a compass and everything!

The above was my working map for the first part of Bestial, and I have to admit it was not my best effort at cartography.  It did the job, though, I was able to orient myself appropriately when my characters moved between these three locations.  Sometimes it’s really as simple as that!

There is of course something to be said for a more detailed map that covers more geographical area, but that’s only necessary when your story takes place throughout a larger region.  If your entire story takes place in one city it’s unlikely you’ll need to know the geography of a whole continent.

That's a bit better.

This one was a map I drafted for an older, unfinished novel and it looks a bit more like one might expect of a fantasy map – it even has simplistically-named mountain ranges √† la Mount Doom.  I did intend this one to be added into the book which is why it’s all pretty and stuff and not on a post-it note.  This novel was going to take place across the whole of this landmass so I needed to know a lot more than the orientation of three locations.  I intended to do a second map just of the capital city of Cobault as well, giving myself street map with which to orient myself and inform my narrative, so that I wouldn’t get lost in my imaginary metropolis where a lot of the action would happen.

When in doubt always worldbuild in more detail that you might actually need.  Even if you don’t think you’ll ever refer to the types of vegetation that grows on your world’s hills, or the region’s primary exports (which is invariably determined by its geography), or the relative position of the sun when your characters start questing, you should know it.  The more you know about your world the more fluent you are in its details.  Those details are what makes a setting fully realized, believable, and lacking in cardboard.  For a great worldbuilding resource have a look at Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions which are incredibly detailed and pretty damn comprehensive.

One issue I’ll discuss in terms of those beautiful details, however, is the horror that is the infodump.  You know infodump, it comes at the beginning of many stories, often labelled as a Prologue (I’m looking at you, Anne McCaffrey, the first mother of dragons, may you rest in peace), and what follows is an expositional orgy, sometimes as much as ten pages of it.  You might feel like there’s a lot about your world that needs explaining but infodump is a surefire way to bore the pants off your reader.

So your world has two moons and an unusual tidal pattern because of it.  Don’t tell me “On the fifth planet from the star K4-B lies a planet with two moons and an unusual tidal pattern.”  Tell me something like:

“J’ruk looked up quickly to orient himself, seeing the second moon Hoj rising towards its sister Ko.  He readied his fishing gear on the sand, grateful for the exposed length of sandbar and the brilliance of the sky.  This would be a good night to go derssi-fishing as the lithe and elusive cephalopods would only found in the tidal pools on this, the lowest tide of the cycle.”

Make the details embellishments to your story and, further to that, have them drive your story onward.  If the tides hadn’t been that low J’ruk wouldn’t have been out there that night, leading to whatever exciting action is bound to happen next.  If there hadn’t been two moons then this incredibly low tide wouldn’t have occurred.  It’s all connected, or at least it should be.

A good setting is more than just a backdrop to your story, it should be part and parcel of it.  Your story shouldn’t be able to exist without it.  Could Lord of the Rings have happened anywhere other than Middle Earth?  No, certainly not.  Throughout the writing of your story the setting will influence your character’s decisions, motives, history, and even their moods (I dare you to try to stay cheerful on a long, difficult journey in the rain).  It will determine limiting factors in battle and define whole civilizations.  It will tell you what foods are eaten, what fabrics are worn, and what professions people have.  Only once you understand your setting and have created your world in its entirety are you able to tell the story taking place in it.

But first you’ll need to know your characters, so stay tuned for the next installment of Story Fundamentals!

Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.

She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Current Dilemma and How YOU Can Help

Note: Word count accountability will be back next Monday, though the outrageous pace of this week and last may make them a bit unimpressive.

I'm getting close to one of those big artist moments, and you can help.

Let me give you the background first:

Currently my financial situation is cobbled together from a Kickstarter (funds drawn from the account as slowly as I possibly can while I write a book), a quid pro quo arrangement of watching The Contrarian, money I saved up before I moved out, teaching (though I took a semester off in spring) and money I make from writing. It's quite a little hodgepodge and future me is already glaring at now me at the headache 2017's taxes are going to be next year around this time, but I'm making ends meet.

In fact, things have been a little cup-runneth-over for me. I'm behind in my Kickstarter project but not because I've been sitting around blowing through that money and updating Facebook. The money is still sitting in the account, barely touched, because I keep working massive hours on day jobs. I'm poking at my novel, but have had very few of the real rocking sessions that get a manuscript drafted. At this point I'm getting a little nervous about how far behind my original projection I might be.

This is my pensive face.
I took this semester off of school and it has helped me to get more hours in front of that novel and writing in general, but the time is fast approaching where I'm going to have to commit (or not) to fall semester.

I love teaching. I love it so much that in the past I've taken on a class or two even though I didn't need the money. (Of course, that was before I moved out on my own and I needed that income to do things like not starve.) Unfortunately, as I've pushed myself to write more and more, I've begun to realize that my real world limitations are encroached upon by teaching. It's not just seat time, but prep time, commute time, the horror of put-on-pants time, and a several-hour committment plunked down into the middle of writing sessions.

"But wait?" you say (and rightly so!). "If you are working too much even without the teaching, and barely even need this Kickstarter money, why not keep doing that."

Right you are hypothetical you. Here's where things get weird.

Okay, not that weird.

Things are about to change.

Come Fall, The Contrarian won't need as much supervision. The quid pro quo arrangement that has kept me from needing to spend money on groceries will be down to a half quid pro quo. I don't know exactly how much I can count on (it may still be a bit too much), but if I take too big a hit in income, I will have given up on teaching but have nothing to replace it once the Kickstarter money runs out.

Now you start to see why Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are being high-speed circled by the camera while they stand up slowly.

Teaching is also...it's the last semblance of my "normal" life. It's my tether to the "real world." The last steady paycheck. The last definite per-hour compensation. The last fetter to the idea that if this writing thing doesn't work out, I could go back to school, get a teaching Masters, and make a decent living trying desperately to get freshmen to write a thesis statement.

Giving up teaching would be gambling away something I love for the chance that something I love even more won't explode spectacularly and end so badly that a Vorlon has to warn me about it.

"Well then," you say (and rightly so!) "Now seems like it's not really the time to be giving up on teaching."

Well you're right. Except for the fact that I really need to do right by my Kickstarter backers and get this fucking book written, and if I get more hours than I'm expecting with T.C., then everything swings back the other way. And I really am close, so very close, to being able to just baaaaarely afford to take this risk.


If you like what I do, and want to see me keep doing it (and also don't want to see me have to cut back on doing it), now would be a great time to become a Patron.
Check out my Patreon!
I'm not sure how many hours of entertainment Writing About Writing might provide you, but for as little as a dollar a month (less than the price of a movie each year), you can give back in a way that honestly helps an artist keep producing and entertaining. Plus, that same dollar will get you in on patron-only conversations, give you some weighed input into my future projects, and give you a vote in patron-only polls.

Of course I don't expect to be solvent after this post. As often as people write out those statuses "If every one of you gave me a dollar....," I roll my eyes at the thought that even 1% of their readers have the discretionary income and inclination to reach for their wallet. But just a few more patrons, even at the dollar level, signed on, I would reasonably portend that by Fall 2017, I could expect to have a handful more than that. And by the time I finished my novel (and the Kickstarter money's absence would be noticed) I would have even a few more than that. Basically, if I weren't quite so close to this dangerous precipice, the numbers being plugged into this calculated risk might look a little less terrifying.

So if you've enjoyed having WAW around, enjoy the constant content of my W.A.W.'s Facebook page, like my personal FB rants, want to see me devote more time to some of those deeper articles, and don't want to see my content take a dip come fall because I have to punch a clock, a dollar a month (or more if you wish) is a great way to do that.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

When to Throw in the Towel (Mailbox)

At what point do you give up? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And yes I'll be doing this every Thursday...eventually.]  

G asks:

Hey Chris.  I have a short story that I've been working on for nearly 18 months.  I've done my best to refine it time and again after every rejection, taking on feedback from my readers until they gave their complete approval. I thought it was good enough to actually stand a chance *cue canned laughter* so I submitted it (again).  Got a lovely reply this morning, some crap like "We're not interested this time but please try again later, we want to hear from you again", and now I'm beginning to wonder if it's worthwhile bothering with that story any more if it's not good enough.  At what point is it best to just abandon a story that you thought was good enough to be published?

My reply:

You have touched my fee-fees, G.  Truly. But I come bringing glad tidings.

Rejection sucks. It sucks so so hard, and not even remotely in the good way. Rejection is such a tough part of trying to make Writing: The Hobby™ into Writing: The....Something-More-Than-Hobby™. It's no wonder people never really try, give up, or just go publish themselves no matter how much they maybe need someone to say "You shall not pass!" to their first draft prose.

G, there are two real answers to this question, and one is practical and one is more existential. I'll start with the existential answer first.

Existential answer-

As you can imagine, the existential answer to this question isn't easy. It involves introspection and personal determination, and it's going to sound a bit like it came off the back of a cereal box of Clichè-O's.

But it's kinda true.

You've got to look at that story with eyes completely unhooked from your ego. Forget how clever it is. Forget how much you want to be published. Forget how much time you've put into it. Ask yourself a couple of questions and answer them with brutal honesty.

Like Voldemort brutal.

1- Is it really as good as I can make it?  Revision is a critical part of the writing process and there's almost always something more a writer can do to strengthen a piece. Whether it's to punch up the verbs or drop in a concrete detail. Whether it is to clean up a clunky expression, or trim a few words. If you truly believe you can't make it better–or if you have no interest in the fine detail work of that level of revision–then it's time to go on to the next question.

A lot of writers–and god I love them because this is so fucking HUMAN–but they hold back. They hold back because then the rejection won't hurt as bad. If a little piece of them can tell themselves "I didn't really try," they can do some damage mitigation. Because it hurts that much more to just POUR yourself into something, and still get rejected.

But you've got to make it as good as you can.

For those of you having trouble imagining.
2- Do you believe in this piece? For proper inflection imagine I'm holding both my clenched fists up above my head when I say "believe."

Now there's no real way to circumvent self-deception here. People are going to Dunning Kruger themselves and think they're geniuses when they are writing crap. And if my workshop classes are any indication, white guys will do this at a rate of about 90%. (Honestly, it happens a lot in art.) But I don't think you'd have sent me this question if you thought your shit didn't stink, so let's assume you have a reasonable gauge of whether or not you believe in the piece.

If you don't believe in your piece, set it aside. You can never unwrite those words, or undo the skills you learned. Maybe in time you'll figure out how you can go back to question number one and make it better. Or maybe part of it becomes a new piece. Or maybe you continue to shop it but with a lot less "vested" in whether or not it gets picked up.

If you DO believe in it, never give up. Never. Ever. No matter what. Keep sending it out. Keep improving it if you see a way to do so. Keep looking for the right fit of venue. It's a rare thing to believe "I have made something and the world should see this," and you shouldn't ever let a gatekeeper take that away from you. If you believe the world needs this story, then don't stop until you put it out there.

Rejection is a part of traditional publishing. Most old-school authors talk about being rejected a thousand times. Most of them could wallpaper a room with all their rejections. But they all had one thing in common: they didn't care what the first 999 gatekeepers said.

Pragmatic Answer-

You actually got a pretty good rejection, G. I mean as far as rejections go. When writers "rank" their rejections, form letters are the worst, and personal feedback with an invitation to submit again is the best.

It might feel like I'm saying, "Oh this is the best possible condiment for a turd sandwich!" but hear me out.

Imagine if you asked someone out to a dance, and they said to you, "I don't dance, but I REALLY hope you ask me out again sometime." Pretty promising, right? Like the problem isn't you...it's the dancing. That's the literary equivalent of the rejection you just got. The fact that they took the time to tell you that they hope you try again is a really good sign. They wouldn't tell someone they thought was terrible that they wanted to hear from them again. That person would just get a form letter of rejection. They like your writing. They just didn't want your piece. And there are a lot of possible reasons for that.

I'll let you in on a bit of a trade secret. It's not really a "secret" secret (like I'm not going to have to kill you if I tell you and I won't have to go on the lam after I hit "post"), but most writers don't know it because they don't bother to learn the editing/publishing side of the industry they hope to get into. Most writers submit and get rejected (or accepted) and think that it has to do exclusively with the quality of their writing. To some extent it does, but when you're on the other end (as I have been), there are a lot of other concerns that also go into that decision as well.

Imagine you want to go out to eat. Yes, you won't go to a place that has shitty food, but you also probably won't walk into the first place you see that has okay food. You probably have a number of things you're thinking about like what you're in the mood for, price, how far away the restaurant is, and if their salad bar has those little corn cobs.

Publishing is the same kind of calculus. A longer story might be harder to get published simply because it takes up more pages and that's ever a concern of a magazine or periodical. If they've done a zombie story already this month, they might pass on your zombie story or even your vampire story. (And most gatekeepers are also going to protect a certain whitewashed aesthetic as well.) They may be trying to establish a mood or even have a loose theme that your story doesn't quite jive with. There are a lot of possibilities that have nothing to do with your story and certainly have nothing to do with your writing.

Hell, I've seen pieces get published because they were thematic, only took up a couple of pages, had some clever wordplay, and they kept the overall mood the editors wanted, but everyone sort of thought the writing sucked. They were like the Casa Bonita of short stories.

So the best pragmatic advice is to start writing your next piece, keep shopping this piece, and do your best to just treat these rejections as part of the process instead of a devastating blow to your personal ego. It's not easy (though it's a little easier if you've done the existential work) but it's the best advice there is in a business that involves just SO SO SO much rejection in the early stages.

And good luck, G.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Story Fundamentals, Part the First: Style (by Arielle K Harris)

Story Fundamentals, Part the First: Style 
by Arielle K Harris  

I’ve been undertaking the writing of a new novel and I thought that perhaps it would be helpful, for others as well as myself, if I wrote a series of articles on the fundamentals of storytelling as I go about the process.

A disclaimer before I go any further: I don’t profess to be any kind of writing expert, that’s not what this is about.  Everything I say comes purely from my own personal experiences, my interpretations, and from sometimes wildly quoting my writing idols at length.  Feel free to take everything I say with a pinch of salt, if not a heap, or quite simply ignore it altogether.  Every writer writes differently.

However, let me put my feelings of imagined presumption aside.  My first article is about an essential part of storytelling that often gets ignored by new writers but without it your story would fail to exist.

To explain with an example, let us consider the following of Chris’ excellent meme collection posted the other day:

I think this is from a Tumblr post, but the land of memes is so incestuous, I'm not really sure

What is the difference here?  Each of these passages describe the exact same event but written very differently.  The difference is each example’s authorial voice, its style.  And that changes everything.

What followed in the comments section was quite simply amazing as many of you followed this exercise through to other writers.  I admit to cackling to myself rather a lot and getting concerned looks from my dog.  You’d think he’d be used to me by now.  Each example you made was brilliantly accurate in capturing each writer’s voice, and this was possible because the authors quoted have a unique style that shines through even in mimicry.

This is what we’re aiming for, my dear writing comrades.  This is the reason for developing your own writing style because a story is so much more than a list of plot points.  Style is everything.

Let us hear some words from my personal hero Ursula Le Guin on the matter, for not only is she an excellent writer of both science fiction and fantasy but she is also a brilliant essayist and critic.  From her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” she writes:

“Many readers, many critics and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added on to the book, like the frosting on the cake.  The style, of course, is the book.  If you remove the cake, all you have left is the recipe.  If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.  
This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction, and absolutely true of fantasy. 
In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader’s point of view.  From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer.  Style isn’t just how you use English when you write.  It isn’t a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected).  It isn’t something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something ‘like it is’.  You can’t do without it.  There is no ‘is’ without it.  Style is how you as a writer see and speak.  It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.”

She goes on to discuss the next important thing about style: it takes time to perfect.  I think I can safely say that all writers learn to write by reading, and so it follows that writers learn how to write their own style by first imitating the styles of those authors they read.  Even Neil Gaiman has admitted to this, and in one particular blog post he wrote about discovering some old stories he wrote when he was a teenager.  But he says of them: “there was almost nothing there that was written by me”.  He could tell exactly what he had been reading at the time from reading those stories, and none of them were in what he recognized as his own style.  The important thing, he noted, was that he was writing.

This is how we all learn, just as we learned language in the very first place as toddlers.  Mimicry is an essential part of language acquisition, and that’s exactly what writers are doing: acquiring their own language, learning to speak their own words.  It’s a long, hard process and there are no shortcuts.  To begin you must simply start writing, and then keep writing.  Discover what makes your view of the world unique, because it is, just as you are.

I’m still learning, and still imitating.  My novel Bestial is certainly a mish-mash of various fairytale authors’ styles, but as I wrote it I began to find myself in it, too.  I’ve come to discover that my own style is some strange combination of (often thesaurus-driven) serious prose with a touch of utter wackiness.  I can’t help but add touches of comedy into my stories because I sometimes go to some very dark places, and without humor I don’t think I’d survive telling it.  My readers may not survive reading it.  This is why the climactic scene in Part 1 of Bestial, when my Beast is in the grips of self-pity, despair, and quite nearly suicidal out of loneliness, includes an exchange with a torches-and-pitchforks waving mob about a cow.  A dead cow.

Now I’m in the beginning stages of writing a new novel and the very first thing I’m concerning myself with is the style of it.  I know what I’m hoping to write, but I need to establish how I’m going to write it before I can proceed.  A novel should tell a good story, certainly, but the plot can’t exist in a vacuum.

Further to narrative style, which is to say your authorial voice in showing your readers around the world and its events, there’s another style that needs to be considered: the style of each of your characters and their own unique voices.  This is the stuff that makes writers seem like they’re suffering from multiple personality disorder, because the voices you hear your characters speaking in will be different – different from your voice and different from each other.  There have been too many novels by inexperienced authors I’ve read where if I took away the character’s name tagged on to a piece of dialogue I’d have no idea who was speaking.  This shouldn’t happen.

Obviously not every piece of dialogue can be wholly unique, sometimes they’ll just need to say “Yes” and that’s that.  But even then maybe your character says “Yeah” rather than “Yes” because they abhor formality.  Maybe they say “Aye” because they’re a rogue Scotsman wandering through your pages.  Each character must have their own unique voice that only comes from a fully realized persona complete with motives, flaws, history, aspirations and doubts.  More on that later in another article, however.  For now let us suffice to say that style and voice are as crucial in dialogue and characterization as they are in narrative.

The reason I’ve made style the topic of this first article on story fundamentals is because this is the stuff you need to decide on before anything else can happen.  Style affects everything, because style is the story.  The style is you, writing it.

Look at the authors you idolize and identify what makes them so incredible at their craft.  Read their stories with a critical eye in order to figure out exactly what about their style is unique to them, and then try to imagine their stories without it.  It’s impossible.  One can’t exist without the other.

As writers we’re told that “every story has already been told, but not by you”.  This couldn’t be more true.  You make it different and your unique style is that difference.

Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.

She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris

If you would like to guest blog for Writing About Writing we would love to have an excuse to take a day off a wonderful diaspora of voices. Take a look at our guest post guidelines, and drop me a line at chris.brecheen@gmail.com.