Category Archives: Craft & Skills

Writing what you don’t know – How I learned to enjoy the process

This post is more about the process of writing rather than technique. I’ve been writing for years and while holding my published book in my hand is an unparalleled joy, the writing itself has always been excruciating. I think I’ve isolated, at length, a solution.

Before my recent decision to start writing fiction, I had published a number of techology books. With tech books, you generally only have to write a sample chapter, a synopsis, and an outline, and you can sell the book. Once the book is sold, a target completion date is set, and the clock starts ticking. For me, this ticking clock was a great motivation, and also a curse upon my life.

The cycle usually went like this:

  1. I would realize someone really needed to write a book about new technology X
  2. I would excitedly and interestedly organize the topic into chapters and outline the chapters with ease
  3. I would write a sample chapter first draft with some of my best ideas right away
  4. I would submit my idea and credentials with a publisher
  5. The publisher would say “great idea, let’s do it.”
  6. I would hate my life for the next six months to two years as I struggled to write the rest of the book
  7. My family would miss me
  8. I would finish the book
  9. I would absolutely love the book and completely forget the pain
  10. I would repeat the cycle until about the fourth book or so my wife said “You may no longer sign book deals without my permission.”

Recently, after working on my first fiction novel for a year (ok technically 5 years, but that’s just thinking, plotting, outlining, re-thinking, recording dozens of hours of notes, re-plotting, and re-outlining), and then procrastinating for about 9 months out of that year, I realized that the book wasn’t making me tense or ruining my life like the earlier books had. But it also wasn’t getting written. Here’s how long my earlier books took:

  1. Book 1: One year, part time (co-author was mostly editor)
  2. Book 2: Six months, part time (solo with some contributors)
  3. Book 3: Two months, full time (50/50 with a co-author, guns to our heads)
  4. Book 4: Eighteen months, part time, two months full time (approximate) (two co-authors, two re-starts, guns in our mouths held by us)
  5. Book 5: Four months, ultra-part time (I contributed a couple chapters)

I took a look at my own concept that “I love writing books.” In fact, up until now, I hated the process. I had set a goal to publish a new book every year for five years, and I succeeded in my goal, and the books are high quality (not schlock). But the process was agony.

I suppose I should be more specific about what kind of agony writing was:

  1. Waking, sleeping guilt that I was not writing
  2. Severely abuse of a drug called “sleep deprivation”
  3. Drank enough Coca-Cola to form rock candy in my kidneys
  4. My young children asking me daily “is your book done?” so they could see and/or play with me

Generally, though, I tortured myself but I kept my publishers happy. Except for one moving-target subject, I believe I generally met expectations on time and didn’t shift ship dates outside of the publisher’s goals.

So I sat myself down and really thought through what I would have to change in order to enjoy the process, not just the results.

I looked at a few things:

  1. I would need to write in a way that fit into my life
  2. I would need to write part time until I could really transition into full time writing
  3. I would need to enjoy the process, not just during the outlining but during the sagging middle act of writing the book
  4. I would need to be inoculated against writer’s block

The good news is that I found some answers that worked for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

KEEPING THE ROLES SEPARATE

There are various roles involved in any activity, including the life of a writer, especially today in the world of self-publishing where you have to be the marketing department, senior editor, publisher, and writer all rolled into one.

Many screenwriting and writing books include the truism that you need to “turn off” your internal editor to get anything written. But I think a whole book could be written about this.

There’s a similar rule in brainstorming sessions: “there are no bad ideas”. In a group setting, when you want to get creative juices flowing, you need to make sure there are no buzzkills in the room that say “lame idea” because that will stop the creativity in it’s tracks. Sure, some of the ideas are derivative, some awful, some good, but the point is the mechanics of creation and ‘ideation’ have to be in place so that any creativity can be expressed at all.

The same sort of thing has to apply in a solo writer context. If you’re trying to wear the hat of the sensitive yet creative artist, you don’t need a self-editor sitting on your shoulder mocking your work before it’s even done.

Imagine if your boss sat behind you at work and coached you minute by minute on your work. Well, that’s what on-the-fly self editing can become.

So the first big realization was that I needed to sequester my self-editor, put that part of the job away.

What did this entail? If you’re one of those people who are trained to edit-as-you-go, say for last minute term papers or for last minute job documents, then that habit needs to be broken. When you’re being creative, you need to string a line between you and the end of the story and then threaten to shoot anyone who comes near that line.

For me, I wanted to enjoy writing. I love expressing my ideas, and I tend to ‘think out loud’ as a habit. So being able to get started on a path and produce, without overthinking, was the first very workable change I made to my writing habits.

Some people might lump this into techniques such as ‘free associating’, but I’m not talking about ideas for how to ‘get writing’ when the wellspring of ideas dries up. I’ve never had to solve the problem of ‘not enough ideas’; I overflow with ideas. I underflow with execution, which is what I’m trying to solve.

WRITING WHAT I DON’T KNOW

The other huge problem I ran into was not so much the editor in me, but the potholes of ignorance. What do you do when you’re trying to describe a scene, and you can see it in your mind, and you just don’t have the vocabulary to describe it?

I’ve been running into this constantly in my current novel. It’s set in 1960’s Los Angeles, and there’s so much beautiful architecture I wanted to describe. Sadly, I just don’t know what it’s called. Before I started I barely knew a Cape Cod from a Hacienda. Now I have a better sense, but it’s taken a bit of research.

I used to run into this in my tech books. I’d get to a chapter of my outline that I knew had to be included for a proper coverage of the subject, but which was a blind spot in my knowledge. I naturally had to go do the research. And even after I got a conversational level of knowledge of the topic, I’d find that I had to go fact-check every other sentence when I was writing those chapters.

I hate not knowing. I hate being uncertain. I hate feeling stupid. And I found that it was the same effect that was delaying me whether I was trying to muddle my way through an unfamiliar technical area or if I was making up fictional characters in fictional settings and situations.

The main crushing anxiety of writing appeared to boil down to a lack of self confidence. But it wasn’t a generalized ‘lack of self confidence’, it was a very specific lack of being confident in what to write next, what to say next, and a feeling that if I wrote something I might be completely wrong. Whether it was unforgivable factual inaccuracies or naive crimes of plot, or dialogue, I was haltingly concerned with making mistakes.

I finally solved the problem, and like the martial art of jujitsu, I solved it with it’s own energy. I cynically used the following two tools to overcome it:

  1. Blithe ignorance
  2. Procrastination

Ignorance is every bit as bliss as they said it was. The castles of my mind are my own. I don’t have to show them to anyone until they are complete. If I build them out of sand and they collapse in the morning, no one is the wiser. Thus, the first thing I decided is that it’s absolutely fine if the material I write is drivel. Just like the coward who lives by only assaulting his better foe under his breath, I am liberated by my ability to write by acknowledging that there’s no one else looking at it but me, just yet.

Procrastination is the other tool I use. It’s like my years as an academic slacker, only far less disciplined. When I encounter a term I should have a better synonym for, or a character who’s background I should understand more; when I’m writing a scene that needs a little more local color, or I’m giving a character some dialog that pertains to their profession, I take the simplest approach: I do NOTHING about it.

I have learned to sprinkle my first draft, if I feel compelled to do anything, with [brackets]. I won’t let my ignorance slow me down. Some of my best scenes of this nature read like a Mad Lib:

[name of protagonist which I’m still thinking about; ‘Joe’ for now] drove his [60’s car – Packard?] to the [local diner I need to look up] in Santa Monica. The weather was [whatever it was in April 1963] and he had to [remove/put on] his [what kind of cloth was that] jacket. He tapped his pack of [popular cigarettes] before pulling one out and lighting it with the cigarette lighter that had just popped out of the dash…

I simply refuse to be impeded by my own ignorance, my own lack of memory, my own literary immaturity, my lack of vocabulary, or my lack of creativity.

And as long as I leave my notes in an unpublishable form, and ensure that my will expressly disallows their publication, and make sure I don’t have any estranged, exploitative children who will publish a “last novel” comprising the most clueless of my half-baked incomplete thoughts, I should be fine, and/or not worried about it because I’m dead.

I now write for no one but myself, and if my ideas are vague and indistinct to others, at least when I look back at what I wrote there’s one person in the world who knows exactly what I meant. Perhaps when I go for my second draft I’ll be able to fill in the blanks. But when I’ve done this, I’ve already found that some of these early bits go by the wayside, because in just writing the first 20,000 words of the book, I’ve matured. My understanding of the theme, plot, setting, and pace of my book have developed, and I can see what is important and what is not.

And most fortunately, I didn’t spend all that time researching when I should have been writing.

As I said earlier, I imagine a full book could be written about arresting your internal editor. Without a first draft, there’s really nothing to edit. And it’s been said that some of the best book editors, who got the most out of their writers, weren’t writers themselves.

The same goes for self editing. Let the writer inside you write. If you don’t, who’s going to write your book?

 

P.S. By the way, see these numbered lists above? Can you tell I used to write tech books? Don’t worry, there’s not as many in my supernatural spy thrillers…

 

 

 

 

 

 

To World-Build, or Not To World-Build

Picking up the discussion where I left off before my musing interlude post, I’d like to talk about world-building. The fact that this is a subject that occurred to me may give you a hint that I write fantasy and science fiction. ‘Tis true, I admit. And the label world-building may seem to imply those genres; in fact, when most of us think of “world-building”, I dare say we think of it almost exclusively in terms of F&SF. When we attempt to create a background for a story, we are creating a world for our readers to experience. That’s pretty self-evident if our story is going to be laid on/in Venus, Barsoom, Oz, a dwarf planet circling the star Fomalhaut at a distance of 8.3 AU, Lilliput, or the Hierarchate of High Phalangistan.

Lately, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while it is perhaps not so self-evident, all writers practice world-building whenever we commit fiction. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. World-building is not exclusively an exercise for the F&SF writers; instead, it should be the equivalent of the mason’s trowel in our tool-kits.

This is true even if a story is laid in a setting as modern as 2011 New York City. A writer might live in the setting of her story. She might know the setting backwards and forwards, have the most intimate details so ingrained in her memory that she is the consummate authority on that locale. But . . . (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) . . . the vast majority of the readers of that story will not have that knowledge. They’ve never been to New York City, and all they know is what they’ve seen in the media; or if they have visited, chances were it was a number of years ago. Either way, their superficial knowledge is hopelessly restricted and obsolete in relation to the author’s up-to-the-minute story requirements. In this situation, readers probably have no hope of understanding many/most of the foundational elements of the story. Unless . . . (surely you saw the ‘unless’ coming) . . . unless the writer builds the scene for them, giving them enough information and description and detail that they can place the characters and events of the story in their proper framework and context.

So we all, we writers, practice world-building when we commit fiction. It is impossible to write good fiction if we don’t. And we need to do it well, for two reasons: first, to play fair with the readers, who are totally dependent on our skills as world-builders to bring that setting alive for them; and second, because even though the vast majority of our readers may not have the knowledge or experience to question what we write, there are always a few out there who will know as much (if not more) than we do, and will happily inform us of our mistakes. Count on it.

Lovely case in point: L. Sprague de Camp wrote one of the earliest and finest alternate history novels ever written, entitled Lest Darkness Fall. It’s an absolute classic, even now, 60 + years after it was first published in book form. (What? You haven’t read it? Tsk. Go read it. Now. I’ll wait.)

Anyway, the story is laid in 6th century Italy, and Sprague researched it to a fair-thee-well. In a bit of biography (that I can’t provide a cite to because my library is packed away for a move) he told the story on himself that, proud of his research, he wrote a bit of dialog in one scene in 6th century Gothic. After the book was published, Sprague received a letter from a professor complimenting him on his use of Gothic, but informing him that he used the wrong grammatical case for that bit of dialog.

There’s always someone out there who knows more about something than you do. Always.

Actually, in the scale of difficulty of world-building, we writers of F&SF may have the easiest time of it, overall, because we can invent our story universe out of whole cloth, if we so desire. (Okay, maybe not all the time, but still . . .)

Writers of historical fiction (including alternate history) probably have the next easiest time of it, because once they do the research to get the big stuff right, most of the details can be invented as part of the story process, and the proportion of experts in the reading public who can catch errors at that level of detail is normally pretty small.

The writers of contemporary fiction may face the biggest challenge today, especially when they’re setting a story in a place they’ve personally never been, because there are potentially hundreds or thousands (if not millions) of readers who can catch them in errors and happily splash it across the internet. To do it right, they often have to do mind-numbing amounts of research to provide the foundations for a story, the results of which will mostly never appear at all.

Well, I’m ready to dive into details of world-building, but it seems I’ve about run out of space today. So, set a place-holder and we’ll resume from here next post.

Four Elements, Part 2. . . .yeah

But first, a bit of musing by way of interlude….

I’m a reader. I read like most people watch TV. I’ve been that way for years-most of my life, actually. I can remember in junior high reading 28 young adult novels a week during the summer between school semesters. (The library only let me have 4 per day. I’d check out 4 about 1 pm, read three before bedtime, read the fourth the next morning, and repeat after lunch.) I once tried to estimate how many fiction books I’ve read in the last forty-mumble years, and quit trying after I arrived at a number even I didn’t want to believe. One of my major complaints about actually succeeding at writing is that it cuts waaaaaay into my reading time.

I discovered science fiction in sixth grade, by way of Andre Norton’s novel Catseye. (It gladdens me to see Ms. Norton receiving from many of the current generation of great writers the recognition she is due. It saddens me that she didn’t receive it during most of her life.) From there the jump to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc., was a short one.

I think what caught me up in SF was what the old-timers used to call the “sense of wonder”. But in my case, it wasn’t from the idea of space flight or zoomy technology that grabbed me. No, I was hooked on the worlds. Even at ages 10-12, I began to see beyond the limits of the page and wanted to go to those places.

And then I arrived at eighth grade. Age 13, bright, introverted, lazy, and defensive. (“You really read that science fiction stuff?”) And then I discovered Tolkien.

This was 1964-5, right before the first paperback editions came out. In fact, I first read The Hobbit in paperback, but I read The Lord of the Rings in the hardback edition from the library. And of course, I had no idea what a trilogy was-who did, back then-so I read them out of order. (Did the same thing with Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, too. I told you, I was 13.) And boy, did I get confused, not least by the fact that the two main villains were named almost identically. (Sauron/Saruman-c’mon now, hand up those who didn’t stumble over that the first time through.) (That’s what I thought.)

But what caught me up in a hold that still exists to this day; what caused me to read the entire trilogy 12 times in eight years and re-read my favorite excerpts many times over since then, was the world. Say what you will about the stories-and I know that Tolkien is not everyone’s cup of tea-(Philistines)-the creation of Middle Earth is unequaled in the field of literature with a small ‘L’. The height and depth and breadth of Tolkien’s conception and realization is unparalleled, to my way of thinking. Of course the fact that he spent 20-30 years building it might have something to do with that. (Sometimes we feel like if we spend 2-3 months building our story universes, we’ve wasted time.)

The appendices at the end of The Return of the King quickly became some of my favorite reading. That’s where Tolkien gave me glimpses of everything that was lurking behind the scenes and under the surface. And I wanted that. Oh, how I wanted that. I copied out the tables of the runes from the appendices, and used them to translate the bands of runes on the title pages. (You do know that those aren’t just decorative, right?) I would pore over the genealogies, looking for correlations to the trilogy narrative. I would even lie awake at night and try to figure out what would go in the blank spots where he didn’t say anything…to no avail, of course.

And gradually, the desire began to grow in me to write. But I didn’t want to write to make a buck, or to impress people, or to feed my ego, or even to scratch an unscratchable itch. No, what caused me to set pen to paper (literally) in 1977 was a deep-seated desire to craft something that people would be drawn into the way I was drawn into Middle-Earth.

Oh, I know I’ll probably never attain that. The circumstances behind Tolkien’s craftwork are unique, and will probably never be duplicated. And even if it could, I don’t have 20 years to spend in doing it. But the fact that a goal may not be attained does not mean that it should not be striven for.

To this day, the works that are most likely to be retained in my library for frequent re-reading are works whose worlds are masterpieces of the world-building craft.

So that’s why I’m taking time to share thoughts and discussion about world-building.

Okay, end of musing interlude. On to discussion about world-building…next post. Promise.

Major Character Fail: Alexander the Jittery Mess

I waited until 2011 to watch Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie Alexander, even though I’m a fan of Stone and a sucker for ancient Greece. Critics and moviegoers alike trashed the film, so I put off seeing it until I was sick last week and needed to kill three hours from the couch. I’m glad I waited, though, because now I can draw a critical storytelling lesson from this failed epic.

Critics slammed Alexander on many levels, but I saw one central problem with the movie: a tragic failure to give us a central character that we’ll want to watch for any length of time-not to mention for nearly three hours.

Stphen Hunter writes:

If you played a word-association game with “Alexander the Great,” you’d probably come up with “conqueror,” “king,” “warrior,” “legend,” “despot,” “wastrel” or “killer.” Unfortunately, Oliver Stone has chosen to build his epic of the Macedonian military genius around a word highly unlikely to make the list: “crybaby.”

 

It’s almost as if Stone set out to make one of the world’s most storied conquerers as weak and unlikable as possible. With a strong, charismatic Alexander, this film might have turned out fairly well. Without such an Alexander, it’s a disaster.

The first problem I found was that few characters in the movie actually liked Alexander. David Farland once pointed out in one of his free Daily Kicks that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of the reasons we like Ferris is because everyone else does; he’s incredibly cool. Stone’s Alexander isn’t. His soldiers argue with him. His mom thinks he’s a “boy” even when he’s a grown man. His dad nearly kills him and frequently threatens to do it. His wife doesn’t respect him. Many of the finest men in his army think he’s a royal putz.

And you expect me to care about the guy? Maybe if Alexander seemed like a real victim–just a poor misunderstood guy. But that’s not what we get here.

Compounding this problem is Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Alexander (I liked Farrell in In Bruges, btw). His errors remind us that a protagonist shouldn’t make us want to slap the snot out of him in every scene. Desson Thomson writes:

Farrell puts a lot of energy into his role, but his character’s pulled and tugged in so many directions, we’re not sure what to make of him. He’s tough in the battlefield, anguished over mutiny from his soldiers, torn between lovers, impulsive and fearful, heedlessly brave and fitfully sensitive.

Hunter again:

His Alexander, as expressed through the weepy histrionics of Colin Farrell, is more like a desperate housewife than a soldier. He’s always crying, his voice trembles, his eyes fill with tears.

So, few characters in the movie really like Alexander and Alexander himself is a jittery mess. Can we at least feel sorry for him? I didn’t. Sure, he had a complicated childhood. But Stone and Farrell never gave me much to actually like about Alexander.

Alexander says he wants to do good things for the people he conquers, but this feels hollow when he seems to be driven by an ambition that comes out of his Oedipal psychology. Then he actually does some nice things for the conquered, but his men sneer at him for favoring foreigners. Even when he marries a sexy Persian dancer, Alexander gets no dap from his boys.

Our protagonist just wants to be loved, but even after he sexually conquers his tigress of a wife, he whispers something in her sleeping ear (or at least he thought she was sleeping) about her heart being a pale reflection of his mother’s. Meanwhile, Alexander doesn’t have the conviction to give himself to his true love (his boyhood friend and lover Hephaistion) in a passionate way; or, if he does, it happens off stage.

And then he wants his men to cross snowy mountains to die in India, while none of them seem to want to go along with him.

What am I supposed to feel now?

Pity? Meh. How many people has he gotten killed?

Admiration? What’s there to like?

On top of all of this, Alexander just seems bland. Roger Ebert writes:

Farrell is a fine actor, but on a human scale; he’s not cut out for philosopher-king. One needs to sense a certain madness in a colossus; … Farrell seems too reasonable, too much of ordinary scale, to drive men to the ends of the world with his unbending will.

Stone and Farrell gave us plenty of reasons to dislike Alexander and few (either unconvincing or undermined) reasons to like him.

As a writer, telling a good story with an unlikable protagonist takes great skill and creativity. When a story like Alexander’s depends wholly on that central figure then it’s even more important that the character works. When writing about a relatively unlikable figure, at least give us something to like or respect about the character, and at least define him well. Alexander wasn’t likable to begin with, we never quite figure out who he is, and he ultimately meets a tragic end without redemption. So I just watched a movie about someone I want to choke, someone I don’t understand, whom no one else seems to like.

And then he dies.

Note to self and kids: Don’t try this at home.