Reflections

Posted by Paul Raven @ 26-09-2012 in DissertationDiary • Writing

It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?

**

Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org

The writing advice links, they are legion

Posted by Paul Raven @ 28-07-2008 in General

It’s been a hell of a long time since I did one of my writing tip round-ups… but I’ve been collecting links ever since. There are nearly fifty links in the following post, and I culled it down from close to a hundred so we just got the best and most pertinent. So read on – for here be wisdom.

***

We’ll kick off with some tips from rising star and all-round top chap Gareth L Powell. Gareth has some advice on how to start writing a story, and here’s another five useful writing tips

1. Never tell anyone the plot of your story until you’ve finished writing it. Once you’ve told your story, even in outline, some part of you relaxes.

Next, Luc Reid explains the nuts and bolts of plot – if you’ve ever been a little fuzzy on where plot begins and structure or character or worldbuilding ends (yeah, me too), this is an essential read.

“… I’ll suggest a definition of what a plot actually is, and lay out what I’ve learned so far about putting one together. Many thanks to friends who recently posed this question in a clear enough way that I realized I needed to think it out.”

io9 took a brief break from blithering on about Battlestar bloody Galactica and provided a rather useful post titled “How To Bring The Weird In Your Near-Future Stories”:

So how can we, as writers and storytellers, create a believable medium-near-future world?

How, indeed. Go find out.

***

No writing tips round-up would be complete without a healthy dose of Jim Van Pelt, so here’s some highlights:

  • Listen to Your Language: “The poet Lew Welch, whose thoughts about writing have influenced me, said, “The basic tool is speech.” What he meant is that what we write down on the page is a representation of ourselves speaking. But, as he also said, “If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you were talking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing.”"
  • Who Critiques Your Stuff?: “Imagine this situation: your teacher asked you to bring rough drafts to class for peer editing. You break up into small groups to share your manuscripts. The teacher may have given you pretty specific instructions for what to look for, or you may have been told, “Read your peer’s paper and tell them what you think.”"
  • Writing Rules: “Part I, and I think this is the hardest part, is figuring out what is in your head. What do you want to say? Fortunately, I think writing helps you to figure out what is in your head. Somebody said once, “How do I know what I think until I read what I’ve written.” There’s some truth in that.”
  • Procrastination: “Yesterday I put up a shelf in my eleven-year old’s room, which would be a pretty good thing to have done if I hadn’t have bought the shelf and hardware to do it six months ago. I’m a horrible procrastinator. There’s almost no job that has to be done right now that I can’t figure a reason to put it off until later, and that includes writing.”
  • How to Finish a Novel in Nine Months: the Teacher Edition
  • Why Writing is Good for Us: “Tonight was my last night for the college creative writing class. I end by giving them the “everything I wish other writing teachers had told me but didn’t” lecture.”

And here are some of his “The Day Job” columns for The Fix Online:

  • Making a Writing Group Work: “For most writers, part of their writing process involves seeking feedback. At first that might mean giving the manuscript to a friend or spouse, and sometimes that works out, but you’re darned lucky if someone that close to you can also give you an informed and honest opinion about your work.”
  • The Day Job: Quitting It: “Just like short stories, though, a novelist has to continue to produce novels to continue to produce income. An out of print book generates no income. I know at least three novelists who are doing kick-butt successes in the novel world right now, but none of them feel they have the income to depend on the books for their living.
  • Carpe Penicullus: “Time’s winged chariot pauses for no one, and for writers whose passion almost always takes multiple hours, days, months, or years for the completion of a single project, the clattering of those distant hooves must sound distinctly loud, if we remember to listen to them.”

Uncle Jim is the bomb, kids. Pay attention.

***

SFX (perhaps inspired by io9′s example) also took a break from wanking on about BSG and Doctor Who to do some interviews with some of the Gollancz UK publishing team, which means you can get advice on writing (and submitting) from Gillian Redfearn and Simon Spanton acting in concert, and from the formidable Jo Fletcher, who – ninja-like, perhaps – operates alone.

The SFX peeps also had a chat with genial rogue Paul Cornell to get the perspective from the other side of the editorial desk:

“Don’t tell them everything the character knows. Why is this odd scene happening? You can hold motivations back for as long as you like. Presenting something that’s anti-intuitive and then explaining it through the substance of the story always works. Like with Orwell’s ‘clock that was striking thirteen’ in 1984: it says wrongness.”

***

Another font of writing about writing is the redoubtable Jeff VanderMeer. Sometimes controversial, sometimes (to me at least) impenetrable, he’s quite the philosopher of writing-as-process and writing-as-life:

So mastery actually equals uncertainty. The more mastery you achieve, the less confident you become, although I don’t really mean “confidence” and “uncertainty” in the strict dictionary definitions of the words. This is a good kind of uncertainty, and a bad kind of confidence. Because you are uncertain, despite having mastery, you know that your writing is still alive, that you are not simply doomed to repeat the same path you chose so many times before. Because you feel once again as if you are writing your first book, you know that writing is still meaningful to you.

Whatever you do from now on, don’t feel that it has to always be successful. To be successful, to be as good as you can possibly be in whatever field you choose, you need to have permission to fail. You have to feel like you can bungee jump out to the edge of success and into that space where the ropes might break. If you don’t, you won’t take risks, you won’t get out there, to that area with a night sky full of unfamiliar stars where “success” might become either something extraordinary or utter failure. Because utter failure and extraordinary accomplishment are conjoined twins much of the time.

Or, put another way, the space between a “publishable” story or novel and a “good” story or novel can be a chasm.

I should give myself permission to fail, I think. It would make the, er, failing a little easier.

***

Nick Mamatas is the one person you don’t ask for advice on writing unless you’re prepared for the shocking warts-and-all underbelly of the writer’s lifestyle and mindset, stripped of glamour and cool before being laid out bloody like the flayed flesh of your naive dreams:

You have to stop caring whether you live or die.

This is not just apathy about life, but a more active denial of the social world. You have to get comfortable with the idea of walking around without skin, with not caring at all whether or not your parents ever speak to you again, with not stopping after your lovers all leave in teary huff after teary huff, whether your book sells two thousand copies or two million, whether or not everyone knows exactly what imagery you masturbate to. This doesn’t mean merely being confessional, but simply ready. If your imagination — your imagination — suggests that the best solution to some problem you have is the insertion of your right arm into a wood chipper, you must eliminate the social, personal, and autonomic buffers that would keep you from doing just that.

Eeep.

***

I’m always relieved to find that my dread and hatred of the mechanics of writing – the “actually sitting down and hitting the keys” part – is not something exclusive to me. S C Butler, for example, knows the pain:

You might ask, why do I write at all? The answer? Because the only thing I hate more than writing is not writing.

Nor am I the only person who beats himself up over getting nothing done (because I’ve been, I dunno, procrastinating and doing a gargantuan links post or somesuch). Howard Andrew Jones of Black Gate Books:

It is much easier for me to do this thing called NOT writing than it is to actually write. I imagine it’s easier for all writers to NOT write, except that when we’re NOT writing the NOT part eats away at us. Me, when I’m NOT, I feel more and more like a failure, or simply a wuss. Yet if I sit down and write 500 words I’m not satisfied. I say to myself, well, if I’d actually had two or three hours to write, I could have written a few thousand words, why didn’t I get it together? Wuss.

Hell, even seasoned pros like Elizabeth Moon find themselves saying “It’s not supposed to be this hard, is it?”

Sometimes the story comes roaring out like a flash flood down the creek. Unstoppable, full of energy, exhilarating (even a bit scary, and definitely LOUD.) When a story does this, it’s great fun to write, shooting the rapids and yelling in triumph at the end.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

And that’s the thing you have to fight against, says Justine Larbalestier:

Writing through a crap day is the very hardest part of being a writer. Then getting up the next morning and doing it again. And the next. And repeat until the bloody book is finally finished.

Then again, she points out that not everyone sees writing the same way:

A year earlier I was bitching to this same writer that I had no idea how my book ended. I had nine tenths of the book, but no ending, and I had no idea what to do.

They thought I was insane: “How could you get that far into a book and NOT KNOW THE ENDING?!”

Um. Cause that’s how I write books.

While you’re there, you might want to ask Justine how she finished her first novel.

***

M John Harrison‘s writing advice is multilayered, much like his stories: the advice itself is telling you something, but the way it is written is telling you something yet more. If you can decode it, of course.

Some kind of directness of image which would obviate all that narrative guff. You can find it in Surrealism, traditional ghost stories, 15th Century engravings of witches’ cats, in unwriterly reports of hallucinations, madness, alien abductions.

I feel exactly like Mrs Keilar, one of my alter egos in Nova Swing: “This morning,” she said quietly, “I sat here for an hour without moving. I ache. I’m waiting for something to happen, and I don’t even know what part of my life it will approach from.” Always write what you know. The book will tell you what that is. Eventually.

You have to look at the major transitions of your life with a metaphor that makes aesthetic and emotional sense.

***

Here’s a few thoughts from Paul McAuley:

Ian Fleming claimed to write the James Bond novels at the rate of 2000 words per day. 1000 in the morning, followed by lunch and a swim; 1000 in the afternoon, and then cocktails and the company of beautiful women. It took him six weeks of this regime to finish a novel. Nice work if you can get it.

SF and fantasy novels not only have to provide an ending for their characters; they also have to give an idea of how the world in which they are set has been changed, and whether it will carry on changing, and in which direction.

***

Here’s a mass of wisdom from Elizabeth Moon:

  • Word games… the constraints that your chosen form puts on word choice.
  • Characters I & Characters II: “It’s a principle of logic that statements in the indicative cannot (logically) lead to conclusions in the subjunctive or imperative. That is, factual statements do not lead *logically* to “should” statements….something we observe when we look at current events. Without the intervention of a value system, the existence of a problem does not induce action to correct it. For the fiction writer, this means that dumping a problem on your character’s foot will not ensure any particular action. Your character won’t act unless he or she is motivated to act, and motivation requires more than “just the facts, ma’am.”"
  • Story

***

The rate at which Jay Lake sells stories, you figure the guy’s gotta know what he’s doing. I expect he’d claim otherwise if pressed, but that’s modesty in action, methinks. Observe:

  • On “the plot diamond: “The second act is where you (mostly) stop throwing open new doors and begin to concentrate on what all those choices mean to the characters and their story. This is the waist of the diamond. The famous “muddle in the middle” comes from this shift in both momentum and direction, when the author has to figure out what the heck it all means and drive the story in some direction or another.
  • On reading as a writer: “… it’s dangerous not to read. And unpublished work just isn’t the same. The qualitative experience is different, first off – I’m almost always reading with a pencil in my hand (or the Word comments feature turned on). Which is to say, I’m reading critically, and not staying inside the flow of the story much, if at all. The expectations are different, too. A sheaf of printouts, or .doc file, are simply not the same physical or mental experience as a book.”
  • On description and setting: “I go back and forth on description in my own work. Generally, if I want to I can spray on the adjectives like an air compressor with a busted shut-off valve. Sometimes that works.”

***

Here’s some advice on character-building from David Louis Edelman:

… think of the art of characterization as something akin to the art of additive sculpture. When you build a character, you’re not describing an existing personality so much as building one from the ground up. (Additive sculpture, my Art History major wife informs me, is the type where you pile up stuff to build your object, whereas subtractive sculpture is where you start with an existing hunk of something and chisel away the stuff you don’t need.) Just like with sculpture, when building characters you’ll often throw in materials that you’ve got lying around the shop. And just like with sculpture, your characters don’t have anything that you don’t explicitly put there yourself.

And more elsewhere:

Almost all good stories need conflict – and not the epic battle-style of conflict. The conflicts that bring characters alive are the smaller conflicts that occur between two people, a small group and the internal conflicts we deal with on a daily basis.

***

Via Making Light, some advice from playwright and screenwriter Todd Alcott on writing dialog:

To every extent possible, characters should not tell each other how they feel. Any time a character tells another character how he or she feels, the audience is going to wonder “what the heck is he or she getting at?” Any time a character says “Here’s the truth of a matter:” what should follow the colon is anything other than the truth of the matter. Think of it: any time someone comes to you in your daily goings-about and says “Let me tell you something about myself” or “I have some feelings I want to share with you” or “The fact of the matter is…” you want to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Because the only reason someone would come up to you and offer you some kind of truth is because they want something from you.

***

Let’s not neglect the non-fiction fields, either: here’s 15 Tips on How to Generate Ideas and Write with Ease:

I find that some Zen meditation techniques enhance my writing. Most of the problems that arise in the writing process happen when our mind is at war with itself. At those times our creative energy is scattered, instead of being focused in one steady beam.

Plus 3 Things You Need to Know about Using Dialogue in Non-fiction:

Dialogue works as a hook because it makes a story out of mere information. Open a daily paper at random and observe how journalists use this technique.

And advice that applies equally to both sides of the fence, coming in this instance from a copywriter: How to Lose 30 Pounds of Word Flab Overnight

I always recommend lean copy. And it’s twice as important online. Whipping copy into shape is an important skill for any writer, because all of us start with flabby first drafts.

***

But what to do with that story when it’s finished, hmm? Well, first you check it thoroughly:

One of the best one-sentence pieces of advice about writing professionalism I got from Octavia Butler. She said that you shouldn’t ever send something out that had mistakes in it that you knew of. You were ultimately responsible and a professional didn’t send out something with errors.

Then you can send it out to adorn a slush-pile – but take a tip from Gareth D Jones and try some out-of-the-ordinary targets:

The moral to this tale is: don’t limit your markets.

Indeed – and don’t be so proud as to refuse to edit your piece if the changes mean the editor will take it.

It was funny though, that the publisher actually called me with the acceptance, because she had important news. It went a little like this…

Eventually, though, you may have to accept that no one wants to give your tale a home. Tobias Buckell talks about trunking stories:

I’ve written over 130 short stories and published just over 30 of them, and about 95 of those are now trunked (and for those following along ‘trunked’ means ‘no longer submitting the short story you’ve written to any markets.’)

And we’ll give fellow fictioneer Neil Beynon the last word as regards how you should react to those rejection slips:

… I could wax lyrical about how it’s unprofessional, how it shows a lack of realism around the way both small press and main stream publishing works – I could even tout that really irritating argument that every successful author has been rejected at least once. All this is true. But I fear it misses the heart of the matter.

That being it’s just plain rude to gob off about being rejected.

Amen.

***

Now, I should be writing something that isn’t a big links-list…

Publishing, promotion and print-on-demand

Posted by Paul Raven @ 24-06-2007 in General

It’s been a lively week in the publishing world – or so it seems to someone who was away from his RSS feeds for a week.

Genre mags are giving it away for free

I’m very pleased to see that Fantasy & Science Fiction are experimenting with publishing full stories from their back-catalogue on their website. It’s a great way to raise the profile of the writers, and to drive traffic to their own site by providing uniquely valuable content with no strings attached.

They’re some way from the mass of content that Subterranean are giving away, but it’s a good start. I think the recent overseas postal rate hike is making a lot of the small press mags look seriously at new options before they discover a hard place to hem them in between the rock at their back.

For example, I will not be renewing my sub to Locus in paper format; not because the magazine is no good, but because the airmail price increase means that I might as well stick to getting the news from their website – meaning that I get it when it’s still relevant. Hard choices, sure, but it’s a changing world. Better to jump before the chasm gets too wide.

Talking of giving away content, Gareth L. Powell’s story “The Last Reef” is available to read in full on the TTA Press website, as is a teaser for his forthcoming “Ack-Ack Macaque” (at the bottom of the same page, as a downloadable image of the mag layout for the start of the story). We’re looking at ways of expanding the amount of content that the TTA Press site carries over the coming months; more news on that when I have it in a definite format.

The Waterstones cash-for-promo leak

Of course, there are other options for promoting writers – but as the recent alleged leaked memo from Waterstones confirms, they’re strictly for publishers who have a lot of cash to splash around. As someone who gets to see some of the machinations of the music industry, those figures aren’t even slightly surprising. The record companies, music press and brick-and-mortar stores work in very similar ways to the bublishing industry, and that’s a large part of why they’re in such a mire of quicksand at present.

As I’ve said before, this is something the genre publishers should learn from sooner rather than later. Being smaller, they have the ability to change more quickly, being less caught up with the train-wrecking momentum of the big boys.

Harry Haxxor and the Pilfered Plot

The saturation of blather about the forthcoming final installment of [popular children's fantasy series that I can't be bothered to name-check] is reaching ridiculous proportions. I was more than a trifle suspicious when I saw the news that OMGHAX PL0+ SU|/||/|4RY G4N|<3d FRUM W3BSIT3ZORZ!!!1!!1, and Bruce Schneier also seems to be less than convinced that this is anything more than a publicity stunt.

The question of which side of the fence the stunt has come from will likely never be made apparent – at least not with the same degree of headline-grabbing fervour as the original story.

OUP just wishes Google would ask first

On the subject of the pilfering (or not) of licenced content, an executive of the Oxford University Press has gone on the record as saying that all publishers really want is the opportunity to give permission for their work to be digitised by Google, rather than the opportunity to refuse the permission already assumed.

I need to research this matter more thoroughly, so I’m not going to call one way or the other on the veracity of the claims until I know the facts of the matter. But there are hints that publishers are starting to wake up to the usefulness of the digitisation projects, even though they don’t want to go back on their earlier statements of outrage.

Espresso Print-on-Demand Machine goes live in New York

If nothing else, digital copies of public domain material could become far more useful and accessible in the next few years, once a few more libraries and bookstores follow the New York Public Library’s lead, and install Espresso Book Machines to print titles on demand for customers. Until we reach a point that the vast majority of readers are prepared for reading in electronic formats at all times, these devices are as close as the publishing industry can get to the just-in-time customer-satisfying power of downloaded music – and as such represent a wise step forwards in trying to adapt to a changing business landscape.