matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-02-21 01:15 pm
Entry tags:
matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-01-20 10:06 am

don't cry, 'cause i ain't changing my mind

(For first part of post, SEE FIRST ROCK.) (For second part of post, SEE PREVIOUS ROCK)

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE, PART III

11) But what if I want to write a tragedy?

Well then. Let’s look at Unforgiven, shall we? I’m not going to go into the whole damned movie, because this is already four thousand words long. But it serves as a good example of catharsis through the denial of character growth. It’s a tragedy, and it leaves that haunted, achy feeling behind that good tragedies do.

Because Will Muny never manages to do the thing he needs to do, and let go of the ill-advised revenge killing-for-hire that he’s embarked upon. Even when his best friend is dead, even when his protege has repudiated him, he’s dead set on his mission. He does what he wants, not what he needs, and the result is awful for everyone.

He never takes a heroic action. He fails protagonist. Tragedy ensues.

See also: Hamlet.

Sometimes this structure is easier to pick this out when it fails–and it can fail by being heavyhanded and painful. Copycat (1995) is a great example. How is it even possible for a movie starring Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver to be that bad?

And yet it is.

The salient bit here is the character flaws, which are agoraphobia (Weaver) and an unwillingness to shoot to kill (Hunter). Because it’s handled in such a heavyhanded fashion, we know from the end of the first reel that at some point in the movie Weaver’s character will be trapped by her fear, and that her heroic action will involve crossing an open space. We also know that Hunter’s character will get somebody killed by refusing to shoot somebody in the head, and that at the end of the movie she’ll have to do that.

On the other hand, take Die Hard (the original from 1988, please) which does almost all of these things well. I’m going to leave the process of deconstructing it as a machine to the reader, because normally at this point I’d make my class do it. But feel free to argue about it in comments.

And the Reginald Veljohnson character (Fondly known to all as Twinkie Cop, though the character’s name is Al) has exactly the same flaw and resolution as the Hunter character.

So why doesn’t it suck when Al shoots somebody in the third reel to save the day? Um. Well, the writing and characterization are much better, for two things. But those are different lectures too.

I think it comes down to rhetoric. A story is an argument, and Copycat is a really unconvincing one.

12) A three-act plot is a machine.

If you put the gears and magnets and linkages in the right place, and give it enough juice (in the form of a strong conflict), it will work every single time. It may not be great literature, but it’ll work.

More experimental forms can fail for no good reason except gravity. They’re an art; three-act structure, however, is a science.

This is why it’s used so often by scriptwriters and pulp hacks, who must produce a working story reliably under immense deadline pressure, or they don’t get paid. I don’t mean to denigrate the three-act plot by saying this. I rely on it extensively–under deadline pressure, or because there’s no thematic or narrative need to do anything fancy and exhausting, or simply because it’s elegant and invisible and I can use it to support all kinds of interesting narrative curlicues and whorls.

A three-act is sound engineering, in other words.

I’m a huge proponent of the idea that for any given narrative need, the simplest tool we can field that will do the job elegantly is the best one. Stunt writing is all well and good, and sometimes it’s incredibly useful–sometimes, a really flashy trick is the only trick that will get the job done*. Too often, an apprentice writer will reach for the biggest hammer, so to speak, even when she’s trying to drive a finishing tack. Or she won’t be able to find a hammer at all, and she’ll wind up driving the tack with the side of a pair of dikes.

I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

And every time I pry the lid off a paint can with a wood chisel, I picture my grandfather the plumber-savant rolling over in his grave.

The good news is that as the writer matures, her tool box fills up with any number of specialized tools, and a lot of good handy general purpose ones.

There are no rules. There are only techniques that work or do not work in any given application.

Three-act structure is just such a robust, elegant, and infinitely flexible tool.

And now you know how every uninspired episode of a network TV show will end.

13) Hacks

This counts as a Stupid Writer Trick–one of those great dirty underhanded tricks that writers can pull to make ourselves look smarter than we are.

You can use three-act structure to tell a nonlinear story. And when it’s done well, the result is like a huge kick in the reader’s brain, like a great glorious a-hah! moment. So much of writing is about hacking your readers’ neurology.

How do you do this?

Memento.

Pulp Fiction.

You tell the story using three-act structure. But you tell it out of order, so that the discontinuity supports the story you want to tell. (If you try doing this with a story that doesn’t need it, it just looks pretentious. Be wary.)

***

**Other parts of the world had and continue to have their own stuff going on, narrative-structure-wise. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Here’s what I know about that: bupkiss.”***

*I refer the interested reader to Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which uses a hugely flashy POV trick–a first-person omniscient unreliable narrator–without which the book could not work.

***The footnotes are asterisked out of order because they are asterisked in the order in which I wrote them. I am a somewhat nonlinear writer, as it happens.

****The Matter of Britain and Chaucer both tend toward either the One Damned Thing After Another plot that Aristotle so loathed and maligned, or the morality play/just so story. Beowulf, most curiously, consists of three independent and perfectly cromulent three-act structure stories, which is probably why we still read and enjoy it today. The Táin Bó Cúailnge is strikingly modern in structure, too.

*****In genre stories, the game is for the reader to figure out whodunnit (if it’s a mystery) or how the world works (if it’s science fiction or fantasy) or to evoke a specific emotional response in the reader (horror and romance and erotica and humor and thrillers). In satire, the game is social commentary. In travelogues, of which the planetary romance and quest fantasy are subsets, the game is to experience a place. In literary fiction, the game is for the reader to tease out theme and structure and character and experience the personal changes and failures to change of the characters******.

******Please note that none of these are exclusive of any other. It is perfectly possible, if challenging, to write an SFnal travelogue romance murder mystery spy thriller literary novel. That book is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, which I recommend.

*******Okay, you got me. It’s really a sawtooth wave. But this way looks prettier.

********Hero’s Journey, Kishōtenketsu, Nodal, Open, Modulated, stuff. Get Googling.

*********Unusually for modern television, not three; count the commercial breaks!

**********This is stated repeatedly in the film–count the number of times somebody says something to the effect of “I ain’t like you,” or “You and me, we’re alike.” The Gene Hackman character is even also named William, for crying out loud.*************

***********Ideally, anyway. In suboptimal cases, we can become profoundly irritated by them.

************However, B:tVS largely handles its character arcs through the epic model.

*************This can also be done with characters who serve as foils for each other. See John McClane and Twinkie Cop************** in Die Hard.

**************Everybody loves Twinkie Cop.

matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-01-20 10:02 am

i don't need to see any more to know

(For first part of post, SEE PREVIOUS ROCK) (For the last part of this post, SEE NEXT ROCK)

THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE, PART II

7) The road winds ever on.

Then there are the really long stories. These tend to have the picaresque, episodic, or epic structures.

Picaresque is a series of events which are unconnected to one another, and in which each event does not have any effect on following events. Picture the classic episodic television shows of the era leading up to Hill Street Blues, where at the end of each episode a cosmis reset button has been pushed. The characters do not develop, and previous events are never referred to again. There’s a quality of this as well in certain types of series novels–events are totally resolved at the end of each one, and all change is external to the protagonist. You can read them in any order, basically: think of the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books.

2014-03-30 15.56.59

The episodic structure is one where each individual story contributes to an ongoing narrative arc, but is complete in itself. Sometimes they escalate in tension as a season progresses, functioning as sort of macro-scale rising and falling action in a larger three-act structure (Buffy: the Vampire Slayer************), and sometimes they just lead one into the next (the aforementioned Hill Street Blues).

2014-03-30 15.56.48

2014-03-30 15.57.07

The epic form is exemplified by shows like The Wire or Heat or Game of Thrones. They are, essentially, soap operas. Same structure. Same techniques. It’s what we use in those multi-volume epic fantasies, too.

The long running soap opera is the modern equivalent of the newspaper serial or comic book or radio drama, and all of those are progenitors of epic fantasy as we know it today. They’re all addictive as hell. One part of this is because of long-spun plot lines that we come to care about–mysteries we want to know the answers to–and another part is because we become incredibly invested in the characters over time***********.

A story told in western 3 (or 5) act structure has one long peak with a series of quick up-and-down ticks in tension (rising and falling action, always trending upwards to the climax).

But the plot cycle in an epic fantasy or soap opera or serial is a series of overlapping sine waves*******. (One for each character or plot thread.) Each peak in each sine wave is one of those three-act structure peaks in miniature. They overlap, ideally, so that one narrative’s tension is rising while another is reaching a denouement.

2014-03-30 15.57.20

This is also why the damned things are so hard to end, by the way. You get into a rhythm, and used to spinning out long plot threads and thematic lines and hooks to carry you from one arc into the next. So the story, after a while, has a momentum. A natural tendency to propagate itself.

2014-03-30 15.57.30

2014-03-30 15.58.24

Shifting from “middle” to “end” is brutal when you’ve gotten into that habit.

8) Fichtean Curves

Well, that’s the exposition handled. Let’s talk about three-act structure for reals, and how you build your machine.

Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

2014-03-30 15.56.18

Three-act structure is the basic modern structure for the goal-oriented plot. In essence, the character has a goal and meets a series of challenges or obstacles of increasing difficulty in order to achieve that goal. The first act is generally introduction, demonstrating what’s at stake, establishing characters and getting the wheels started turning. By the end of the first act, we generally expect a reversal–also called a turning point–where something happens that will change the protagonist’s life forever no matter how they react happens.

Basically, this is where you break something. And generally, the earlier in the narrative that something changes, the better.

At the two-thirds point (this marks the end of the middle of the narrative, or the end of the second act) we find the second turning point–where the conflict has escalated to the point where it looks as if there’s no way the protagonists can prevail. (A really interesting and well-developed antagonist and/or villain–they’re not the same thing exactly–is very useful for this, but that’s a different lecture.)

But the protagonist perserveres, and eventually reaches an ultimate conflict–the climax–and then proceeds to a resolution through the heroic action of said protagonist.

A funny thing about three-act structure. It’s a complete natural for trilogies, and one of the best examples of how it works when it works well is the original Star Wars films.

A New Hope (I will never be able to type that without flinching, which tells you pretty precisely how old I am), while it’s a complete three-act story in itself, is also the first act of the larger story. It’s climax (the destruction of the Death Star) also serves as a turning point for Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie. (Even though Chewie doesn’t get a medal, and yes, I am still bitter.)

The Empire Strikes Back is also a complete story in itself (people complain about the middles of trilogies often because the writer neglects to structure the escalating action so it has an arc, and then it just kind of sits there–this movie passes that test better than most.) whose climax also serves as the second turning point (sometimes known as the Darkest Hour) where Han is frozen and kidnapped, Luke is maimed, terrible secrets are revealed, Vader finds out about Leia, and it seems as if all is hopeless.

The Return of the Jedi serves as the third act, leading up the biggest climax, the bossfight, and the putative antagonist’s crisis of conscience that leads to the victory. (I say putative antagonist because it’s my contention that there’s a good case for Vader as the protag, but that’s a different argument.)

9) Okay, so how do I build this machine?

First you assemble your bits.

You need a character in a situation with a problem.

That character must want something. (This is incredibly important, and not merely to drive the plot. A character who wants something is a character with whom the reader instantaneously connects. We talk a lot about “audience identification” and “likable protagonists” and while it’s nice if you can get it, in my experience a far more necessary thing is audience engagement. Katniss isn’t particularly likable to many people (hell, for me, part of her charm is that she’s snappish and opinionated), but boy does she engage.

So. Identify your protagonist. Identify their situation. Provide them with a problem–the bigger and more immediate, the better, but anything will do to start. You can (and will) always escalate later.

Now figure out what they want, and also what they need. These things should be in conflict with each other–what they want, in other words, should not be what’s good for them. The difference can be subtle, and one thing can be a precondition for the other–or they can be directly opposed, which gives us a great opportunity for character growth.

The reason for this is because where we get theme, in a three-act story, is from the conflict between want and need.

Now, that thing your protag wants? You wave it under your character’s nose. Let her get a real good sniff. And then you take it away from her. (This is also referred to as “the inciting incident.”)

I’ve said for years that one of the most important tools a novelist can have in a story is a character who runs toward the sound of gunfire. (We all have that friend, right? The one that can’t go around mud? When you can, make your protagonist that guy. He’ll make his own fun.)

But if you’ve just stolen your protag’s emotional and physical security, well, he’ll bloody well move heaven and earth to go and get it, won’t he?

You also have the option of giving your character some sort of flaw that they must overcome in the third act (as part of their heroic action at the climax) in order to complete the victory condition of the story. This needs to be handled very lightly. Because the result when it doesn’t work out is dire.

Once you have those things, you have everything you need to tell a story. And the best part is, the end is implied in the beginning. You’ve set up the problem you have to solve.

Now the problem that remains is to find an interesting way to complicate and then solve it.

10) Now, you may say this sounds formulaic.

That would be because it is a formula. If not used advisedly, it will indeed produce a formulaic result.

And part of the trick here is that while you often know where you will end, you can have a lot of fun with the path you take to get there. I am not alone among writers in having taken an unpublishable early novel, kept the beginning and the denouement almost unchanged, ripped out the majority of the second and third act, replaced it with something better, and produced a much better book.

Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas and look for better ones.

When this formula is it’s used well, after all, the result is Casablanca.

We have our protag, Rick Blaine. We have the thing he wants: initially, it’s to be left alone. “I stick my neck out for nobody.” This want eventually evolves into wanting Ilsa Lund back. But neither of those things is what Rick needs. What he needs is to get his mojo back; to become a man again.

Rick won’t run towards the gunfire. He has to be dragged. (This is actually his character flaw: he’s lost his courage.)

So we present him with the inciting incidents–we take away his alone. He comes into custody of the Macguffin–the thing everyone in the story wants to get their hands on–and his lost love, the person who broke him, comes back into his orbit.

But there’s a complication. She’s married. And her husband is both a hero and a wanted man. (There’s Nazis. The villain in this movie, Strasser, is actually not very interesting–far more intriguing is another antagonist, Renault, who is a Vichy French chief of police.) Ilsa’s husband complicates things further by using Rick’s bar as a staging ground to foment anti-German feeling.

At this point, it’s just a matter of setting up action and reaction, each move building on the next, each character acting in the interest of their own goals and within the limitations of their design. It’s exactly like writing a fight scene or a conversation in macro–action, reaction, ripost, reaction–raising the stakes slightly each time.

At the end–the climax point, we resolve it by bringing Rick’s (evolved) want (Ilsa) into direct conflict with the need that he has now come to recognize–that he will not be himself again unless he fights the Germans. He overcomes his learned cowardice and fights the Germans. He sends Ilsa off with her husband; Renault experiences a crisis of conscience and comes to Rick’s rescue; and the two of them make a pact to help the resistance.

This is a satisfying ending because it offers catharsis in the form of narrative justice. Rick must sacrifice something (his desire for Ilsa) in order to make himself whole and also to do the right thing on a larger scale. (Ilsa has a parallel plot arc, where she too must choose to do the right thing–stay with her husband–over going with Rick. Ilsa’s husband’s crisis comes earlier in the plot, when he urges Rick to save Ilsa and is willing to sacrifice himself to make it happen.)

A satisfying ending for this structure, in other words, is usually one that requires some sort of sacrifice or compromise to get there, and which always requires some growth. (With one exception, explored below.)

None of these choices are easy, but they are ethical, and they exhibit the growth of the characters. Casablanca is a heroic narrative.

(SEE NEXT ROCK)

matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-01-20 09:56 am

the sun in your eyes made some of the lies worth believing

The following is a version of the lecture on how to plot a story that I gave versions of every year at Viable Paradise from 2008 to 2013, to one each Clarion and Clarion West classes, and also once at Odyssey.

I’m retiring it now and putting it here, where it can serve both as resource material for future incoming VP classes and as an example of the sort of thing we talk about while we’re there.

This lecture assumes that the reader has some basic competence with narrative, and is familiar with the basic idea of three-act structure and how it works. It then attempts to present some tricks for writing one successfully. And also talks about some other stuff. As one does.

There will be spoilers for the movies Casablanca, Unforgiven, and Die Hard, and for the original Star Wars trilogy. The newest of those is over twenty years old. You’re not allowed to complain.

There will also be badly photographed hand-drawn images scrawled in my notebook. I thought it would be whimsical, but I think the final effect was something more like “duct-tape bodywork.”

***
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A NARRATIVE

By the end of this essay, I expect I will have ruined Hollywood movies for you forever. The good news is, you can have the fun of explaining to your friends exactly how they’re going to end after the first act, and you’ll have pretty good odds of being right.

I will also have taught you how to produce a working plot for a short story every single time, without fail. This is not the only way to structure a plot, and we’ll talk about some of those others in passing.

But it is a tool that will always work, once you know how to apply it, and you can hang all kinds of special effects on it to make it fancy.

1) In the beginning, there was Aristotle.

Aristotle, who made the radical discovery that stories should have protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe. Or as we would say these days: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I know! It seems self-evident. A matter of common sense, even. But it turns out that like displacement, the heliocentric model, and the idea that the brain is the center of the emotions, some things are only evident once somebody points them out.

Here’s what he had to say, from Poetics: (S. H. Butler translation):

Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

He also had a heck of a lot of stuff to say about the unity of action and place and time, and other things that only concern us these days when we choose to concern ourselves with them, though they can certainly be used as tools when a writer decides to do so. One radical thing he does say is this, however: Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero.

In other words, a plot is not the same thing as what we, now, would call a Bildungsroman–that is to say, a fictional biography. It can be a piece of a person’s life, united by action, place, and time. Or what we, with the benefit of an additional 2400 years of dramaturgy, would just call “a story.”

He had a few nasty things to say about Series Of Unfortunate Events as a plot structure, as well. If I may translate into the vernacular, basically: “It ain’t.”

Here’s what Aristotle’s plot looks like, as described by a simple geometric shape.

2014-03-30 15.54.54

2) Horace splits hairs.

Aristotle’s plot structure seems to have largely held sway as the dominant Classical modality for some three hundred years**. I’m sure there were slapfights over it. There are always slapfights. It will take someone more educated in the classics than I to tell you if any such slapfights have survived.

Then Horace decided (rather prescriptively, it seems to me) that a play should have five acts, “no more and no less,” and as it was written, well, so it was done.

3) Oh, those wacky Elizabethans

Meanwhile, off in the Germanic-speaking portions of the world (including the bit that would eventually evolve and Creolize into the English-speaking one) other stuff was going on. Romans came and Romans went and as you know if you’ve read period literature, not a whole lot of attention was paid by the indigenes to the conqueror’s narrative formalisms****.

Suddenly, in the 1500’s, the five-act structure suddenly caught on again among Tudor dramatists. You may know their names: Jonson, Marlowe, Nash, Kyd, Shakespeare. That lot.

Why?

Well, because it’s a tremendously powerful and flexible tool. It provides tension and resolution, opportunities for character growth, for triumph and tragedy–basically, it keeps your audience interested.

It turns out that’s a valuable property in an entertainment when your competition is bear-baiting across the way, and you’re performing on an open stage in front of a short-tempered audience armed with plenty of rotten fruit and well-lubricated with pottles of ale.

Here’s a picture of how the five-act structure works.

2014-03-30 15.55.15

4) Freytag is a little misleading.

In 1863, Gustav Freytag codified the five-act structure with the diagram usually referred to as “Freytag’s Pyramid.” I didn’t draw you one, so here’s a link to Wikipedia.

Kind of makes it look like the falling action is as long as the rising action, doesn’t it? And like exposition is a thing that happens in its own block, set off from the actual story. And like there’s some difference between falling action and denouement….

5) Hybrid vigor

How did the modern three-act structure evolve from the Elizabethan five-act structure? I don’t honestly know, and a very cursory examination of Wikipedia fails to enlighten me. My English Criticism classes were a long, long time ago, and it’ll be good for you to Google it.

Maybe it has something to do with commercial breaks.

Suffice it to say, it did evolve. And what we have now is a wonderful hybrid of Aristotelian and Shakespearean models.

Which we’ll come back to in a moment.

5) But I digress.

Now, as I said, modern three-act structure is not the only way to structure a plot. And in many cases, it may not even be the most appropriate.

It’s safe, because once you learn it it’s unlikely to fail, and even if you break it the failure modes are rarely catastrophic and often easily yanked back into shape. Now, safety is not the soul of art, and if you’re not falling off you’re not climbing hard enough (after all, that’s what the ropes are for), but sometimes you want your risks to be somewhere else other than your plot structure.

We learn by experimenting. We learn by failing. I encourage apprentice writers to try out all of these plot structures, and figure out what they’re good for. And then go out and discover all the other ones********, because what I present here is just a sampling.

Dare to suck.

6) Wheels within wheels

One way to establish theme is through repetition, parallels, and situations that reinforce, comment on, and critique each other. This is a plot structure common in literary stories, where the game is different than it is in genre stories*****.

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This is often called the “circular” plot structure. I personally prefer the term spiral structure, because “circular” suggests that the same thing happens over and over again exactly, but really, what happens is that there are thematic repetitions of events. It’s almost balladic in a way–we keep coming back to a refrain. And it is common in literary stories.

Doesn’t mean you can’t use it in genre stories, though. The early seasons of the television show Criminal Minds combine four different plot structures: each episode is a discrete five-act structure*********, the character arcs follow an epic structure (see below), the seasons follow an integrated episode structure (also see below), and the thematic structure is this spiral, with repetitions and variations on a theme.

Narrative tension in this form is often generated through personal development or withheld information. There is conflict, but it may not be structured in the familiar rising action to a climax with which we are familiar from television and the pulps.

Adaptation is a movie structured in this fashion, about a guy trying to turn a novel structured in this fashion into a Hollywood blockbuster with a three-act structure.

Heat (the 1995 Michael Mann crime drama with Pacino and De Niro) gets its thematic impact this way. It tells the stories of a number of relationships in parallel, and in every relationship one character is presented with the opportunity to keep or to break faith with the other. The fate of these characters reflects which decision they each make.

Karen Joy Fowler’s brilliant 2013 novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is structured in this fashion.

Unforgiven also gets its thematic imapct in part from this technique. It uses the mythic structure in which every character in it is a reflection of the protagonist (or, more properly, antihero), Clint Eastwood’s character William Muny.**********

It’s often a thematically useful trick to allow the antagonist to reflect or mirror or subvert certain qualities of the protagonist. These may not always be positive ones–a good antagonist has positive qualities as well. If she’s ambitious when the protagonist is feckless, so much the better.

Unforgiven is particularly useful to us because it also gets its thematic impact via a more traditional three-act structure tactic, and we’ll be back to that.

(Livejournal feels that this post is too large, so SEE NEXT ROCK  and SEE FINAL ROCK for the remainder of it.)

matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-01-17 09:49 am
Entry tags:

how i learned to stop worrying and ignore the internet.

You there.

New writer.

Freshly-published debut author.

Get off tumblr, stop worrying about what people think, and go write your next book.

Okay look, I'm not saying that one should not consider thoughtful criticism of one's work, or that one should isolate one's self from the community. I'm not saying that criticism has no value. I'm not saying be an inconsiderate asshole.

Don't be an inconsiderate asshole. Or try not to: we all fail that one sometimes, too. And not just to our mothers.

I'm saying that there are people out there who want to make you write their book for them, and that's impossible, because nobody can write their book except for them. So when they start reading as if they are measuring every single book against the perfect book in their head, well--they will never find it.

Because as all writers know, the only way to get that book--the book that speaks with your own voice--is to write it.

And then fail, because every book is a failure in some way, even if only its author knows it.

They're never quite perfect, our creations, because writing is too hard to do well. Fail better next time. Let those other people write their own books.

If you haven't written a book yet, but nobody else is writing the books that say what you want said, well, you have exactly one option. And it's the same place every single published author started out, at one time or another.

There are no shortcuts. Use your voice.

So stop kicking yourself. Stop catering to someone else's ideal, and set your own. It'll probably still be unattainable, but it will be yours.

Stop trying to speak with somebody else's voice because that somebody told you your own voice was inadequate or uncommercial or wrong. Stop telling yourself that your work is garbage. Stop telling yourself that nobody else wants to hear what you have to say. Accept that there are people who will hear you wrong, and that that's not your problem, and you get to have boundaries as an artist.

You get to have boundaries, even as an artist on the internet.

You have a voice. One voice.

It's your voice.

Your voice is important.

Use it.
matociquala: (bear by san)
2017-01-05 05:32 pm

(no subject)

I'm trying an experiment with Ancestral Night and its voice.

Usually, when I write a novel, what I do a lot of in the early chapters is work out, integrate, and assume a voice. It could be a character voice--Karen Memery, Jenny Casey--or it might be a genre/setting voice: The Stratford Man's Nature Identical Elizabethan Flavoring, for example, or the high fantasy tone of the Eternal Sky.

This book is just me. Basically, the same narrative voice I use in my blog. Just, you know, a couple hundred years from now.

It's interesting, actually, because it gives me access to the full range of the narrative tricks. And in Haimey, I'm writing a character who is closer to me in what she cares about and how she thinks than anybody since Matthew Szczgielniak.

Weird to kind of take the puppets off and do the story with bare hands.

And now, a little bit of administrivia, and then back for another thousand words.
matociquala: (jarts: internet lawn defense league)
2016-02-19 09:37 pm

is my malfunction so surprising 'cause I always seem so stable and bright?

So I want to talk about diversity, and representation, and why I think these things are so damned important. And it's really, really simple, but I think some people don't get it simply because they don't have the personal context to get it.

Representation is important because everybody needs to see themselves reflected in art. It's validating. It tells us we have a right to exist. And more than that, it tells other people we have a right to exist. And the important thing is not that any one artistic version of a member of an under-represented or habitually erased group is perfect, because it's impossible for any single character to adequately reflect the experiences of an entire group of people.

See, the funny thing is, it turns out that people of color and queer people and women and genderqueer people and disabled people... we're not types. We're not categories. We're individuals with certain characteristics and we may have very different attitudes and philosophies and relationships with those characteristics.

So, saturation matters. We need a lot of stories with different kinds of people in them, and not just a token stereotype, one per book or movie or TV show.

And actually, finally seeing yourself as a protagonist or a significant character in art is a tremendously empowering experience. Seeing yourself reflected makes you feel real and noticed, and it's important.

Finding yourself in a story for the first time is like looking into a mirror and seeing that, at last, you exist. You take up space and you are real. It's incredibly exhilarating just to know you're not alone. Not the only one. And that other people see you and acknowledge that you are real.

I think a lot of straight white guys don't understand this because they have never not seen themselves. They have no experience with being marginalized, pushed out of the frame, unpersoned. There's five or ten white guys to every black guy or woman, and let's not even talk about the representation of queer, trans, Asian, Latino, or disabled characters... or any other even more vanished groups.

And if you haven't never seen yourself, it's very hard to understand how disempowering it is for other people not to see themselves in art.

So they don't get why people get excited to find a character they identify with, and might like a book or a movie just for that reason. It's not political correctness; it's not pushing an agenda; it's not judging a story by whether it reflects one's politics. It's being happy to find a place where you feel welcome and understood.

And that's part of what everybody looks for in art. It's just harder for some of us to find it, so when we do, we get even more excited.

Black people are not used to seeing futures on TV where they just exist. Women are not used to seeing worlds where we make up 51% of the fictional population. (We make up 51% of the real world population, so why is there exactly one woman with speaking role in some entire galaxies?)

And those men who are very used to not just seeing themselves, but dominating entire narratives--well, some of them are really great about it, once they notice what's going on. Some try to fix it and make room for everybody.

But some react defensively, angrily: some see it as chipping away at their space when other people get some too. Rather than realizing, "Hey, this feeling of there not being a place for me hurts. Maybe I shouldn't do it to others!" or thinking, "Hmmm, maybe this thing isn't for me, but there's stuff over here that is for me!" they angrily oppose the existence of the thing that challenges what they perceive as their right to exist.

It's just that for the rest of us, it feels like they are insisting on their right to dominate the conversation. Even in corners where nobody asked for their opinion. because we were making our own fun.

The thing is, art is a big tent, and it expands to include everybody. It's not a zero-sum game, especially in the current era of easy content flow around the traditional gatekeepers. The existence and success of Karen Memory does not mean fewer sales for Pat Rothfuss (and Pat knows this: he's enormously supportive of other writers.) It means, rather, that fantasy appeals to a wider range of readers--and a lot of them will like both.

It's also an unfair burden on the marginalized to expect them (us) to carry all the water of representation. I believe in reading widely, challenging my own default narratives, and reading stories by writers who are not necessarily speaking to or from my comfort zone. I believe in supporting writers who have come to science fiction through nontraditional routes or from nontraditional backgrounds. But I also believe in presenting diversity in my own writing. Because the world is diverse, and in writing that I am just writing the world I experience.

The true world.

So if you're feeling nervous that you might never get to be in the spotlight because somebody else is, don't be. At the very worst, you'll have to share it, perhaps. Or we can set up a lot of spotlights and shine them around.

I believe the future has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and it will expand to make room for us all.
matociquala: (rengeek will and tilda)
2016-02-18 05:57 pm
Entry tags:

if you live for something, you're not alone.

One of the things I've realized that I need to work on in order to develop a healthier relationship with my job involves certain toxic aspects of the professional writing/publishing culture that I've done an overly good job of internalizing. And I'm trying to scrape it out of my soul, because in the long term it winds up being the opposite of productive when dealing with a creative career.

Some of that is a competition thing: "Writer X turns in three books a year and I'm a slacker if I don't, too!" And that's not great, honestly, and the sheer pressure to produce isn't great, either, and doesn't necessarily lead to good work. One has to think up new things to say between books, after all, or one ends up writing the same book over and over again. No use in that.

I think there's a certain bravado of culture among may writers that is actively toxic in a lot of ways. And it's tied to the NaNoWriMo kind of mode of "produce a bunch of stuff really fast, lather rinse repeat" pressure, and also the "THIS JOB SUCKS AND WE'RE WARRIORS FOR DOING IT" thing. It's this weird Puritan machismo in suffering.
 

I mean, you don't learn to write well by turning out 50K in a month once a year. It's the two pages a day or whatever that get you there. Constant practice, as with any art. And mammals don't respond well to punishment for performance. If we do a thing and the result is horrible, we generally avoid doing that thing again.

So when we punish ourself for performing by setting ourselves unreasonable goals and having impossible expectations and never acknowledging our successes? Cue anxiety and avoidance behavior.

Seriously. From now on, if I get some writing done, I'm not going to bemoan how insufficient my effort was. I'm going to have a piece of chocolate instead.

If you work for yourself and your job sucks, it might be because you have a shitty boss. Or it might be because you are suited to different work than what you're doing.

I have literally dig ditches for a living (and mucked out stalls, and done several other extremely physical and occasionally nasty jobs), and I suspect most of the people who are like "hur hur sure writing isn't hard, try digging ditches," probably have not done both. The thing is, they're both hard. Digging ditches is physically exhausting and can be quite painful, especially in hot or cold weather. But while it's meticulous work (This surprises people who haven't done it, but ditches are dug for reasons, and those reasons affect the way they slope, or how the sides are shaped, and digging ditches does in fact involve a certain amount of work with a plumb line and a level. These days they probably use lasers.) it doesn't necessarily use a lot of executive and creative function the way writing does.

Writing requires mental rest.

Digging ditches requires physical rest.

And I'm totally talking about myself here, because I absolutely have fallen into the anxiety-driven must-produce thing.

And you don't build a career by SUFFERING THROUGH THE AWFULNESS. That's different than having the discipline to get your work done.

(Comments are turned off because I am traveling and don't have time to moderate.)

matociquala: (can't sleep books will eat me)
2016-02-01 07:34 pm
Entry tags:

oh my darling oh my darling benzedrine

Hey there internauts. Welcome back to the re-emerging chronicle of my rebooted life. Tomorrow morning, I get up and go to see a sports medicine dude about my Achilles tendon, which has been seriously cramping my style since June and, after the manner of tendons, just refuses to heal. (My heel won't heal! O Noes!) This has, needless to say, been having an extremely detrimental effect on my running and dancing and basically everything cardiovascular I enjoy doing.

The climbing was going pretty well, and the weight-lifting, before the pneumonia thing started. But curiously, it's hard to squat 200 when you're coughing up alien civilizations and your toes, so when I come back to it, I expect to be significantly deloaded. *dogsigh*

But I didn't come here to talk about sports injuries. I came here to talk about the problem of my writer brain. Which is, more or less, I've realized that writing stopped being fun at all immediately after I attended a pro-level workshop in 2007 (there was so much else going on in my life at the time that I didn't actually connect the two things until later) and turned into an exercise in willpower, grim determination, and consciously applied craft and skill and technique.

I got a lot better from thinking about it so much. But I also got a bit like the centipede that gets around just fine until somebody asks him how he rums.

So here I am with 62 pairs of red Converse All-Stars and the laces are a hopeless knot.

I was getting through basically by gutting it out for quite a while: I'm a very stubborn girl, and I can do an amazing amount on willpower and discipline. The thing is, well, somewhere in the middle of that second draft of An Apprentice to Elves, well. Something just kind of snapped. Went sproing. And the gears have been grinding louder and louder ever since.

Add that to a moderate case of overwork and burnout, and....

So I have to figure out how to relax and trust myself again, I guess. To actually engage with the stories on a level of feeling excited by them and enjoying them, instead of wading through oceans of self-loathing to get there. As regular readers of this journal will recall, all of this is of course gorgeously complicated by a really exciting history of complex PTSD, some of which has gotten kicked to the fore again recently by some triggery happenings...

Basically, I'm in the ridiculous position of having the job I always wanted, a job I love and am good at... and not being able to do it because I'm too busy second-guessing myself.

Which is why the deadline stuff is getting pushed back a bit, so I can have some breathing space and try to get rid of some of this pile of "should" and turn it into "want to" without the hyper-critical selfconsciousness and feelings of being overwhelmed and scraped thin.

But it's February 1st, which is when I told myself I'd get back on the horse, and I've printed out some short fiction I'm poking at, and I'm going to see what I can start doing with it in as relaxed a fashion as possible.

Wheeeeeee. :)
matociquala: (criminal minds gideon murder before coff)
2016-01-27 11:34 am

he's got one trick to last a lifetime but that's all a pony needs.

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is authenticity, finding your voice, finding your self. And it's such a tricky topic--in art as it is in life. Because we all have aspirations (I hope we all have aspirations!): better selves, the person who we want to be, the change we want to see in the world. The artist we want to become.

I'm a terrible guitarist and singer. I do it for fun, and I refuse to take it terribly seriously, because I know what happens when I take art seriously: it starts to become a stressor, a thing I worry and fret about, a thing I become perfectionist over. But I still like doing it, and I still practice new things, and I have some vague aspirations to take singing lessons when I'm doing a little less traveling.

I did not, however, really learn to sing at all until I was in my late thirties. And a lot of this was because I didn't learn to stop struggling with the voice I thought I should have (I wish I had a lovely, smoky contralto) and be comfortable with my own voice until then. (I have a very high singing voice, and I don't like it very much. But I like singing, so I work with what I have, I suppose.) I kept trying to make my voice into something that it wasn't, into what I thought it ought to be, and that prevented me from working with what I did have and making it better.

This principle applies to writing, as well. And, well, life. You have a voice, as an artist and as a human being. That voice is part of who you are, and it's comprised of your core beliefs, your internalizations, your hopes and dreams and influences and experiences.

You can develop it. You can make it better. But until you find it--until you find that authentic voice, and accept it, and begin working on making it stronger and trusting it and letting it shine through--you will always sound artificial and affected. 

And there's a reason we call it "finding your voice," and not "creating your voice." The voice is there. Whatever it is, you are stuck with it. So you might as well learn to like it, and work with it, and improve it.

And when broadened out to life, this involves being who you are, rather than who you think you ought to be.

And sometimes that's hugely painful or difficult, especially when we've been socialized to believe that who we are, deep down, is somehow immoral and incorrect. Because the first thing you have to figure out is who you are. And what you want. And that it's all right for you to want and be those things, even if somebody else told you it was wrong. Even if it's risky. Even if your family might not understand. (Of course, it's also risky because it might involve important relationships changing drastically, giving up things that are precious to you, and re-assessing your investments or renegotiating your life path.)

That can be a tremendously painful process, this letting go of what you thought you ought to be, what you were invested in being--and just being what you are. Feeling your feelings, Writing your words. Making your art, which involves telling your truths.

And it's tricky! It's so tricky! Because it involves determining what is an unrealistic desire for a thing we aren't (I want to be a contralto) but not accepting limits that don't have a foundation is reality, but only in our own fears and risk-aversion (I don't have a voice at all and shouldn't try to sing). 

That learning process is part of the path to authenticity. And authenticity and saying what you mean and observing honestly, inside and out, is where we find art. Actual art.

And I think it's also part of the way out of anxiety, because anxiety arises from internal conflict (fear vs. desire, or incompatible desires, or desire vs. obligation). And if we don't learn who we really are and what we really have to say, we can't make honest art, and we can't actually accept ourselves and learn to sing as best we can with what we have.

Because we're too busy trying to imitate somebody else, or be what somebody else expects us to be, or be what we've been trained to believe we ought to be.

This is also, a lot of the time, when we're wasting a lot of energy trying to control somebody else's life or choices or art, because is we are insecure in our own choices, we feel challenged when somebody else makes a different choice, and we thus try to invalidate the thing that challenges us. Denial is a hell of a drug. The classic example, of course, is the unhappily married person trying to matchmake all of their friends. Or the guy who complains about books that have adverbs in them, because they have internalized some weird advice from some book on writing that you should never use an adverb.

Relax. Smoke an adverb if you have one.

It's all good.
matociquala: (comic tick ninjas hedge)
2015-05-17 09:38 am

i killed a man for flora, the lily of the west

My least favorite writing advice today is the old "cut your first drafts by 10-15%" canard, which seems to be making another round.

You know what? It's great advice for some writers, with some stories. But like all one-size-fits-all advice, it actually doesn't necessarily fit most very well.

Me, for example. My first drafts tend to grow by 10-20% on redraft, because I tend to write my first drafts without things like transitions, exposition, dialogue, dramatization, and setup for thematic developments. They're more or less nothing except plot and character development, and all the other stuff gets put in later. I also have to insert white space a lot of the time, because at novel length extremely dense narrative becomes exhausting, and that's what I naturally tend towards.

My earliest decent short stories were all around 1500-3000 words. It wasn't until I learned to unpack those, to get the interesting bits out of my head and trust that I wasn't going to make them boring by explaining them, to write them at 5000-7000 words for the same sorts of ideas, that they started selling well and attracting positive comment.

I've several times shown my students the first draft of "Shoggoths in Bloom" as well as the published version. The story won a Hugo in its longer, published version. The first draft was largely opaque and hasty, and I know this for a fact, because I took it to Sycamore Hill and sat in a room while a dozen of my colleagues told me exactly how much of it was incomprehensible twaddle.

(Not always: sometimes I need to cut things. But it's incredibly rare for that to happen, and feel free to ask my editors.)

In my experience as a teacher of writing--going on ten years of it now--this is true for a good third of my students, as well. Some of whom have struggled extensively because of this advice, which gets parroted around as if it were true for everyone, all the time.

It's not. Just as the advice to "expand that--dramatize that--explain that better" is not true for everyone all the time.

(In point of fact, I suspect that there are no generally applicable answers even for particular writers. Sometimes we'll overwrite, and sometimes we'll underwrite, and experience and good editors will eventually teach us which is which.)

The trick is not to apply some magic metric like "Oh, cut 10% of everything you write." The trick is to learn what information is necessary and what information is not, and provide the former--and as much of the latter as is entertaining and fun.
matociquala: (rengeek kit & tilda lucifer/gabriel)
2015-02-05 11:40 am

we save no souls. we break no promises.

First, --30--. I just finished the rough draft of the robot termite story. Which means tomorrow I work on the sargasso lighthouse story, and also that I can start on the final revisions for An Apprentice to Elves, which [livejournal.com profile] truepenny just sent over to me with her changes. After lunch. And shoveling. We have always lived in the shoveling.

I've been thinking a lot about stereotypes and representation lately, what with Black History Month, and with seeing the banner art for Gotham Jazz, and Karen Memory entering the world, and various discussions going on elseinternets. And I've been thinking about representation of historically marginalized groups, and how they--we--tend to continue to be shuffled to the side of stories. Not just cast in supporting roles, but cast in the same, passive, extremely limited supporting roles.

Some of it is, I suspect, because we are presented in media with a world that is extremely whitewashed, masculinized, de-queered. People who are not white able-bodied kink-free hetero cismales exist in a marked state in Western media. We're liminal, and in media where we start to approach anything like the saturation we have in the real world, it looks like we're taking over.

You get this in professional groups, too. Many people start feeling as if a space is feminized when it reaches, oh, 30% female. That's less than one in three, just to reinforce the point.

I hear a lot of my colleagues saying that they write stories in settings that don't have roles for women, people of color, queer people. This, of course, ignores the fact that we liminal folks have been existing in non-liminal spaces since people started to choose up sides and wear armbands based on race, creed, color, gender identity, and sexual identity. We've been erased from those narratives, largely, or at best footnoted.

But if you tell me that you can't write a World War II spy thriller with gay characters, or women, or people of color--I'm going to have to assume that your research is pretty surfacy in order to have missed Alan Turing and Noor Inayat Khan. If you're going to tell me you can't have a black gunfighter in the American old West, I'm going to wonder why you haven't heard of Bass Reeves.

The thing is, people who are not the default, who exist in that marked liminal state, deserve to have stories told about us. We deserve to have stories told about us which are not strictly about the ways in which we are not the default, too! (Old joke about the Gay Agenda, which involves Bowling Night and PTA Potluck.) Which is not to say that such fiction can't acknowledge the challenges of the marginalized, but our challenges are not our lives.

And I've certainly learned that with a little creativity, with a little stepping outside the stereotype and the default, history and the real world--not to mention completely made-up fantasy realms!--are full of unexpected places for historically liminal characters to make very fine protagonists. Like, oh, medieval women--as in the work of Sara Douglass--or enslaved Americans, as in Solomon Northup's Twelve Years A Slave.

Which isn't even fiction.

This has the added benefit of telling stories that are a little less played out, incidentally.

tl;dr: Yes, Virginia. Oppressed peoples still have agency.

And there's no earthly goddamn reason why it's any harder for a white man to see himself in a black woman character--for that black woman character to serve as an audience identification character for a wide range of readers--than the reverse, except that she's been taught to do it since birth, and he's been told he doesn't have to.
matociquala: (writing gorey earbrass unspeakable horro)
2015-01-12 12:00 am

eye of braille, hem of anorak

Dr. Straightcopy

Or,

How I learned to stop worrying about wordcount and love telling stories again



So one of the questions people who want to be professional writers ask me is, "How much do you write a day?"

This is code.

It's code for, "How much do I have to write a day to be a professional writer?"

So here's an answer to the question people who want to be professional writers want to ask.

The answer is, "Some."

I track my wordcount. I do it for two reasons.

One is so that when my brain tells me that I am a horrible lump of flesh who just sits around on Twitter all day, I can say, "Nuh uh, I wrote over 200,000 words last year, despite all the traveling!" And despite all the days when I produced no words at all.

(Also, for me, I only get an endorphin cookie from my brain when I finish a project. So I need palpable things that I can use to reward myself along the way, or I get sad and despairing and feel like I'm spinning in sand. Watching that finish line creep closer makes a huge emotional difference.)

It's also so I have a reasonable idea of what I can produce consistently, so I can set my deadlines in a reasonable fashion that allows me time to have a life.

I know what the maximum I can produce in a year is. It's about 600,000 words.

That's actually a pretty unreasonable amount of words. If I were doing that much work every year, I would basically not be able to do anything else. And I would have to establish a couple of pseudonyms to have markets for my work, because I would autocompete "Elizabeth Bear" off the market.

And I think my quality would slip a lot, too, because the year I did that I didn't edit a great deal, and I certainly didn't have promo and production deadlines to deal with. Or a life. And I trashed my health.

Also, my boyfriend would leave me, and my dog and my mother would sulk.

And, honestly, I write more slowly now than I did then. Again, for two reasons. One is that my draft copy is honestly a lot better. It's doing more things, and I think it's more fun to read.

The other is because, well, I've written 27 novels and 110 short stories. At this point, I've said all the easy, glib things that were in me to say. I have to think up new things now, and thinking takes a lot longer than typing.

I'm thinking right now, in fact. Before dinner tonight with friends in Boston, I took a nice long walk around Commonwealth Avenue and the Common looking at the lights in the trees and the skaters on the ice and trying to figure out how the story I'm working on now ends.

I have everything but the ending. The walk didn't produce it, but it probably brought me closer.

I could write an ending that was just the first or second things I thought of, but neither of those were the right ending, the ending that gave me a little shiver of recognition when I thought of it. So, I will walk and think some more. Maybe tomorrow.

Fallow time matters. Recharging the well matters. Thinking new thoughts matters. Reading new books matters, for all of that.

So, in practical terms, how much do I write a day?

My best day ever was a little over 8,000 words. I've also written over 7,000 once, and a couple of times broken six. I get up after a day like that with aching hands and no will to live,  though. It exhausts me.

The fastest I have ever written a book was By The Mountain Bound, which I wrote in June of 2002. I don't know the exact dates, but basically, I sat down at my keyboard and it fell out of my head. Of course, there was a 4-day cross-country drive in a limping Chevy truck with no radio immediately before that.

I had some time to let my brain ponder, is what I'm saying.

Also, it was my third novel. And it was the third novel with those characters, so I knew them. Writing was easier then (writing gets harder the better you get at it) and I had a fair amount of time to let the back of my brain chew on things along the way.

But my averagedaily wordcount varies, depending on the year, from somewhere between 700-1200 words per day.

Three to five pages.

That's all.

And yet I have a reputation as an extremely fast, extremely prolific writer. I write at about the maximum capacity my career, under one name, can support. And I think I am writing at a comfortable pace these days, within myself, that allows me time to produce a good amount of quality work--without often being forced to turn in something that's hasty or raw. (It does happen, of course. Deadlines get away from one. Family members get ill. Non-writing professional demands, like promotional appearances, proliferate.)

That's two novels a year, guys. Or a novel and a pile of short stories. Or a novel, some short stories, some essays.

(I don't count blogging and so forth, unless it's paid in some way.)

Basically, an ability to generate massive wordcount is not a prerequisite for being a writer. In some ways, I feel that focusing exclusively on wordcount can be a detriment, because we start thinking of our productivity only in terms of new words. And not brilliant ideas or masterful sentences or character moments soaked in humor, pathos, or both.

Or braining. Braining matters a lot. If I force myself to write when I don't have the braining in place, I'll wind up throwing all that away.

I'll tell you a secret. For a while, I quit tracking word count, actually, because I was getting into a mindset of "I must have X words evey day or I am a horrible person!" Tracking wordcount was becoming very bad for me. The compulsive workaholic equivalent of calorie-counting to somebody with disordered eating issues.

At the time, it was bad for me. Bad for the muse, and--far more importantly than the muse--bad for the timid little mammal who lives down in my belly blinking its big dewy eyes and shivering its big translucent ears and generally needing all the encouragement I can give it to get up in the morning and get back on the damned hamster wheel for another hard day running in place.

That animal needs encouragement. It needs cookies. It needs rewards.

I bribe it with nice clothes and gadgets if it finishes a project. "Look, little shivery animal. Finish the book and I will buy you a nice warm sweater in a pretty color! I will buy you a pair of frivolous shoes!"

It works out much better than kicking it ever did.

We're so hard on ourselves, and as a by-product, we inadvertently train ourselves to avoid our creative work. Because we punish ourselves with really brutal goals, for example.

(Which is not to say that an all-night cram session can't be fun, of course. It's fun to push yourself sometimes, and sometimes in the 11th hour it's really nice to get the damned book over with any way you can. In fact, if I could figure out how, I would like my books to generate by montage. With 80s music.

And a succession of cute outfits to show time passing. I'd progress from fingerless gloves and a knitted scarf, a candle by my keyboard, to a long summer evening of slanted light and a wind ruffling my hair as if through an unseen window. Maybe we could watch me type from the point of view of a ruby-throated hummingbird feeding from trumpet vines in the yard or something.)

Anyway, I started tracking again, because I was feeling like I didn't do enough work. But now I make a bigger effort not to goal shift on the little critter, and to make sure it has a nice warm cave with cuddly blankets, and some healthy food to eat, and other little animals to cuddle with sometimes.

The important thing is finding a way to get to a good story, preferably in the time frame in which I promised to deliver it. Not in making sure I spend a certain number of hours on the hamster wheel every day.

Today I wrote about four pages. Pretty good ones, I think. Tomorrow I might work on something else, though, because I still don't know how this story ends.

matociquala: (criminal minds pentiss and reid back)
2015-01-07 10:09 am

this summer i might have drowned. but i held my breath & i kicked my feet & i moved my arms around.

Words to live by, that. It's amazing how much one can actually accomplish by applying that as a metaphor for life.

So yesterday I did not blog my progress, for various reasons that mostly amount to absolutely everything taking longer than it needed to. But I got about three pages on the replacement story, and my plan for today is to get even more.

I also did a bunch of research on north African dinosaurs. Which led inevitably, and with a kind of terrible logic, to watching Jurassic Park III so I could make fun of it on twitter. (I also watched Agent Carter and surprised myself by quite liking the first half, which was stylish and had great dialogue. I only half-engaged with the second half, though--somehow it lost tension for me, which may have had more to do with losing the plot when I went to forage for cheese and crackers than any failing of the show.)

I seem to have a mild bug, so I have an excuse to curl up with the dog and not do much else but write. And convert some leftovers into pot pie for dinner.

I did have an interesting conversation with [livejournal.com profile] fadethecat earlier this week regarding writing plot, which I wanted to write down for posterity.

I was arguing that plot is the easy part, because plot is a machine. (Okay, #NotAllPlots, but three act structure is pretty much a thing where you can put a quarter in the slot and get a plot out the end, once you know how to turn the cranks.)

Basically, the most common forms of working with plot are a science. The hard part is the parts of story that are arts--character development, theme, emotional resonance--the things that work in more mysterious ways. The things that are emergent properties of other things, basically.

But plot, and to an extent language--in the sense of rhetoric--are pretty well defined and well discussed in various places. One still must practice, of course, but there's not a lot of mystery in how they work.

The tricky bit is that some of us come in with a set of skills in one of the more mysterious aspects--so characterization, say, is easy for us. But at some point, we're probably going to have to up our game on that front too. And because it's been instinctive up to that point, we have a hell of a time learning how to learn.

Tea yesterday: Caribbean blue lady
Teacup yesterday: Dragonfly tea bowl

matociquala: (criminal minds reid airquotes)
2015-01-05 10:51 am

just because you're better than me doesn't mean I'm lazy

The single thing I see most journeyman writers do that impedes their careers is overthinking.

I spent a lot of my apprentice and journeyman time doing the same thing, honestly. And then I realized how much better off I would be if I took all that emotional energy spent comma-fucking and worrying about where and whether to submit things and put it into telling stories. Overthinking, it turns out, is a form of self-sabotage.

It's okay for things we write not to be perfect. It's okay for us to look at something we've done, declare it practice, and toss it in a folder. I give you permission!

It's not okay to do that to everything. Rejection never actually caused cancer. Get some stuff out there and let it get handed back to you, and learn it's not personal.

I suspect there are those who underthink, too. I probably just don't hang around with as many of those. I suspect, honestly, that there's a socialized-in gender divide. Women are socialized to second-guess and diminish everything, and men are socialized to never admit doubt or failure, and really, neither extreme makes for a healthy attitude towards a career in the arts.

Oh look, a fence. I'll straddle it.

Winter is finally here for reals, and the wind is rattling the windows in their panes and making a howling noise in the chimney that I forget about every summer. Today may be more of a problem-solving day than a wordcount day. That's also fine. We don't have to rush through things, as long as we're making forward progress. As long as our deadlines allow (Yes, I am the writer who cares about deadlines) sometimes it makes for a better story in the long run to stop and work stuff out instead of pushing ahead when you're not quite sure you're headed in the right direction.

So I have to work out the climactic conflict in "And the Balance in Blood," and I have to figure out how to justify the title, which isn't quite owning the story yet.

And, today on The Thrilling True Tale of a Professional Writer, I have to Name That Dwarf.

In the meantime, here's a photo of my workspace today. I can't believe how big that African violet has gotten: it needs repotting again. And the Christmas cactus is a cutting provided by an acquaintance (it's a bit off the giant 70-year-old Christmas cactus at a local yarn store!) and that's it's first blossom here. The color is outstanding, a translucent fuchsia. It washed out in the sun, but the sun was pretty, so I used the photo anyway.

Tea today: Holy basil with lime syrup
Teacup today: by Jon Singer, a gift from the artist.
The mug is by Heather Fachen (?sp on the last name), bought in Madison.


matociquala: (can't sleep books will eat me)
2014-10-29 03:46 pm

i only hear the singing

1500 words today on the welves, give or take. And I've been engaged in the auctorial pastime of updating my honeydew lists... and having one of those self-indulgent moments where it feels like it might actually be under control.

One of the things I've been meaning to chat about is the tendency of writers, and creative people in general, to really shit hard on themselves and their work. Stop me if this sounds familiar: Nothing you do is ever good enough; no daily wordcount is ever enough; no recognition is deserved...

Stop it.

Seriously.

Stop trash-talking yourself over your art.

That kind of unrelenting self-criticism is one of the best ways to (a) make it harder to work (human beings, like all mammals, respond to being punished by not wanting to do that particular thing again) and (b) eventually break your own creativity, if you keep it up for long enough.

There are enough people in the world who will tell you that anything you do is not up to their standards. No matter what you do, and no matter how hard you work at it.

Try giving yourself a cookie for good behavior now and again, instead. It works for pretty much everything.

We reward the behavior we want to see more of.

If you want to be more creative, don't punish your creativity. Reward it.



travel and appearances 2014:


October 31-November 2, 2014: ICON: Iowa City, Iowa (Guest of Honor with Scott)
November 14-16, 2014: Windycon: Lombard, Illinois (Guest of Honor with Squeecast)



2014:

Tiptree reading and judging

An Apprentice to Elves: Autumn 2014
"Gallowglas":  31 December 2014


2015+


story and ap content for Worldspinners: January 31, 2015

The Stone in the Skull:
September, 2015
Ancestral Night: February 2016
The Red-Stained Wings: March 2017
White Space #2: August 2017
The Origin of Storms: September 2018

Appearances 2015:

February 13-15: Boskone (Boston MA)
March 13-15: Tucson Festival of Books (Tucson AZ)
April 2-5: Minicon (Minneapolis MN)
May 9: CAPA U Writer's Workshop (Hartford CT)
June 25-28: 4th Street Fantasy (Minneapolis MN)
July 2-6: CONvergence (Minneapolis MN)
August 19-23: Sasquan (2015 Worldcon) (Spokane WA)
October 8-12: NYCC (NY NY)
October 18-24: Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop (Oak Bluffs MA)
November 4-8: World Fantasy Convention (Saratoga Springs NY)



No fixed deadline:

Smile (unless its name is actually Salt Water)
The Poison Tower
Unsuitable Metal
Patience and Fortitude


Untitled Gangland Urban Fantasy That Keeps Bugging Me
Untitled Bard troll story

"Tall Ships Go"
"A Time to Reap"
"Periastron"
"Posthumous Jonson"
"On Safari in R'lyeh and Carcosa with Gun and Camera" (It finally grew a plot!)
"Cecily"
"Coronado"
"Flush"
"Steel"
"Persephone Takes the A Train"

matociquala: (can't sleep books will eat me)
2014-06-11 11:24 am

she opened a book and a box of tools

I wrote a long-winded explanation of some things you can do with three-act structure and some other narrative tricks for the Viable Paradise site, and you can read it here. I'll have a new lecture this year. *g*

There's still FOUR MORE DAYS to apply to Viable Paradise for 2014!
matociquala: (criminal minds diana reid crazy)
2014-05-09 12:15 pm
Entry tags:

brace yourself for elimination

So, first things first. I'll be at Annie's Book Stop in Worcester tomorrow (10 May 2014) signing Steles of the Sky and other things, reading stuff, answering questions, and hanging out. I'd love to see some of you there!

But that's not what I came to talk to you about today.

I came to you today to talk about characters.

And something I've been figuring out for the past couple of weeks, which is the thing that makes good characters--at least for me--and why I find a lot of characterizations to be flat and two-dimensional.

Shadow Unit is part of what taught me this, actually, and working with a fistful of other writers who all have slightly different concepts of who these people are. This creates characters with complexity and depth, who have different aspects when squinted at from different angles.

A lot of characters I encounter, well--they're too damned consistent. If they're competent, they're good at everything. If they're goofy, they're never serious, even when it would make sense. They only have one defining trait or hook, and because of that they always exhibit that single trait.

Real people don't work that way. We're messy. But we're messy with patterns; we're messy but we have tracks we fall into. Things that we reliably like or dislike. Buttons that can be pushed.

But we're still surprising, and we have a lot more than 64 facets.
matociquala: (spies sandbaggers sense of occasion)
2013-07-26 12:42 pm
Entry tags:

the trick is to keep breathing

On the subject of the rave rejection--

I have sinned. It has been 23 days since my last blog post.

In that time, I've been to two conventions, written a review or two, threw a birthday party for a housemate, took my boyfriend on a whale watch, cleaned up the sort of paperwork and dust that piles up when you are away from home for five weeks, done more traveling than I want to think about, started my story for the Hieroglyph Project, started work on the copy edited manuscript of Steles of the Sky, and coped with Southern New England whipsawing from 101 degrees to 51 degrees in the space of a week.Which I provoked by clipping down my poor dog, by the way.

Here he is, half-clipped, cosplaying his favorite Batman villain:

2013-07-23 13.18.20

I've even been pretty good about exercising. Including an 11-mile run before the heat broke, which was just sodding miserable and I got nailed by a black fly on my ankle. But I did see an Eastern bluebird and a pair of goldfinches and a whole lot of tiny frogs, so there's that.

I still have a bunch more writing and paperwork to do--"Dark Leader" still hasn't written itself, more's the pity, and I'm still trying to work my jaws around it like a python with a too-big rat--while also working on these other projects.

So of course my head is full of blog post. Which means its time for tea.

2013-07-26 11.48.54

(It's even cool enough for tea again. I'd forgotten what that was like.)

A friends asked me recently for some strategies for dealing with the rave rejection--that frustrating stage in a writer's career when you're getting the very, very encouraging "no"s. And it struck me that that would be a good topic to blog about, because let's face it--as nice as it is to be loved a little, a check is nicer, and a steady diet of "there's nothing wrong with this story but--" is about as much fun as scrubbing out a peanut butter jar for recycling.

So. In general, what those kind of rejections mean is that a writer might not be doing anything wrong--but they're also probably not doing enough right. The writer in that case has achieved basic competency; they've managed to learn four chords and they can grimace musically. But they haven't yet achieved the strength of voice, the narrative drive that makes a story not just tolerable but gripping.

There are, fortunately, some pretty good techniques that, once learned, help get over that hurdle of not just making a particular story salable--but being able to write a good story every time. (Plenty of salable stories aren't actually really good--but without the push of an established name, a new writer's will probably have to be. Sorry about that, in the immortal words of Rowlf the Dog.)

So if you're stuck in that limbo, how do you grow?

1) Voice

The more time I spend as a working writer, the more convinced I become that the single most important aspect of a writer's craft, what wins us an audience and keeps the audience coming back for more, is voice. It's the ability to make the reader want to listen to us tell them a story. How does one develop a voice?

Well, one writes. A lot. To extend the metaphor above, apprentice writers are a lot like garage-band guitarists. They all sound pretty much alike, or at best they sound like pastiches of more experienced acts.

This is easier to illustrate than explain. Here's David Bowie in 1967, desperately trying to be Mick Jagger:



The good news is, he grew out of it*. And so will you.

The bad news is, it takes practice. Years and years of practice. John Gardner used to tell his graduated students that they had done well, and now they should go write for ten years.

There are, however, some ways to hothouse that voice.

Write a lot. Work at identifying and expunging cliches and lazy word choice from your prose. Find sharp verbs and strong, observed details. Read things out loud and if you don't like how they sound, change them. Embrace whimsy and quirkiness, but only inasmuch as it is natural to you: otherwise you run the risk of becoming twee. Play with pastiche. If you have a natural wit, let it shine through. Be playful.

2) Narrative drive.

It's pretty well-established what makes a story gripping to a Western audience: make your character want something, even--as Kurt Vonnegut said--if it is only a glass of water. Then make her do something to get that glass of water. Make her engaging; make us care about her.

How do we come to care about a character? Well, the common wisdom is that we care about characters we identify with, and they should therefor be as generic as possible for a mass audience. I don't buy that for a second.

We engage with and care about a character because she is charming (she has opinions and she expressed them in witty, sarcastic, or clever ways), or because she in her turn cares about something or someone. A character who loves something, or who holds fast to an ideal, is humanized and becomes approachable. A character who takes action lures us unto caring about what she cares about.

Look at Ellen Ripley, for example: one of the great, beloved heroines of science fiction. In the most successful of the Alien films, Ripley is fighting for something besides her own survival--both a personal ideal of sorts (against the callous economic fascism of the company) and for another living creature--Jonesy, Newt. But Jonesy and Newt are both resourceful fighters in their own right--they don't just hang around waiting to be rescued.

We love people who fight.

Anyway, that's not a comprehensive answer--but it is, I hope, a manageable bite-sized helpful chunk.

In other news, the sunsets are bloody marvelous.

2013-07-20 20.35.12


*Oh, David. Those flat-fronted trousers. Sweetie.