Writing Advice that I Just Don’t Get

This post is going to start off with some feeble excuses. Mainly, the excuse as to why it’s been a while since I’ve updated anything.

I don’t know if anyone else is having this problem, but I have difficulty writing both a work in progress and a blog post at the same time. This unfortunately means that when I have a lot to say on my blog, I don’t write a lot of what I want to write. And when I hit a good streak on a work in progress, the blog languishes (as it has been doing recently).

I’ve decided to gear up for Camp Nano in July, with a goal of writing about half a Nanowrimo novel – I’ve set my goal to 750 words per day. This handily works with the 750 words site and I won’t feel like I’m trying to kill myself. Also, I reserve a special place in my heart for Nanowrimo, and I feel that the particular kind of stress it brings should be a strictly November thing.

So, if you don’t see me during July, that’s why.

When writing we all come across a lot of advice. I think that enough people have ridiculed the ‘write what you know’ advice, so I thought I would spend a post discussing some of the newer advice on the circuit which haven’t particularly worked for me.

Before we begin, I’ll just note that writing is a personal thing, and what works for one person may not work for another. Others may find them amazing. I am, of course, open to all takes in the comments.

 

Ignore Your Inner Editor: I started getting this one a lot when I joined Nanowrimo. It was on their list of advice for writers and is clearly intended to help you keep moving. It’s a terrible thing to be completely paralyzed when you know you have to write 5,000 more words to get back up to your goal.

One day in November 2011 I was at a write in and sitting next to my municipal liaison. I was studying my prose, decided I could re-word a sentence, and moved to chop it out. My ML caught me in the act and spent the next 15 minutes lecturing me on how I needed to quash that inner editor and just go, go, go.

This advice is getting popular, it would seem. But it really, really doesn’t work for me. I have strong feelings of self-doubt and I like to edit as I go, even though it means I can spend hours staring at one sentence. It means that the novel is just a little bit better if I go through for edits and rewrites. And all those little bits really add up, and make it so that maybe I don’t hate my writing with a fiery passion and confine it to the dusty spaces of my spare hard drive.

Sometimes I do acknowledge that I’ll just have to fix a problem later, and I usually do that with Nanowrimo novels because of the time and word constraints. But that may be connected to the fact that I have never revisited a Nano-novel. To think that I might have written that s***…

Kill Your Darlings: This could mean a number of things, but most people seem to take the advice as, ‘kill your characters, don’t be squeamish.’ So that’s what I’m going to focus on.

A week or so ago, I read a blog post on George R.R. Martin and the mixed success his last two books have had, especially compared to the smash hits of the first three. One comment that came up again and again was that readers didn’t particularly care any more. Not to spoil too much, but George R.R. Martin likes killing off his characters. A lot. Often there’s a shock factor involved.

Two things have happened to his series: first, the characters we care about are all dying, so we don’t care anymore; second, the deaths are no longer a big shock.

It’s great to have a big twist in the story. It’s great to be willing to sacrifice something you love for the good of the tale. But maybe this advice should be followed by, ‘Don’t turn a writing feature into a gimmick.’

Never Give Up: This is a hard piece of advice because it’s the kind of advice we all want. It makes us feel like we could and should keep striving for success with our work. And yes, we should persevere. Just because we have a setback or two doesn’t mean we should abandon everything. But I’m going to delve into anecdote time again to show why I don’t agree wholeheartedly with this advice.

I wrote three novels between my 16th and 17th summer. One of them was a Nanowrimo novel, one I wrote in three months, one in six. I took a different approach to planning each of them, which I will spare detailing here.

One of the things they all had in common was that they were terrible.

No big surprise there. I believe that I wrote well, for a teen, but that didn’t make me a publishable author. And when I look back on those novels, I do love them in their own way. But I would never, ever try to edit and publish them under any circumstances. I like to think of them as practice, like Nanowrimo each year. They helped me develop the skills and and determination to write a longer piece of work, and they helped me learn what I was good at and what I was bad at.

For a while, I tried to edit one of them for publication. But there came a time when I had to face facts: it simply wasn’t publishable. It would be easier to rewrite it with a different plot and an altered cast of characters, more suited to the ideas I actually have in my head now.

This still happens to me. Recently I had to stop a work in progress and start a large part over from scratch, just because books and movies at the time were coming out with the exact same concept. Though I had conceived of it independently, I had to scrap the thing and start over because no one would care whether I’d thought of it ‘first’ or not. It would be derivative anyway. And while it can be depressing to look at a monster of a work and realize its days are done, surely that’s better than bitterly slaving away for years that will end up in the editor’s trash pile, or at the bottom of the amazon kindle list.

That’s all for now. If you’ve got extra pieces of writerly advice that don’t quite work for you, or if you have a good reason to trust more wholeheartedly in the advice above, do let me know.

The Pitfalls of Jumping from Fanfiction to Published Fiction

Awhile back, I read a blog post by a writer detailing how writing fanfiction had improved her writing abilities overall. While writing of any kind will improve our writing overall, I found myself adding a number of mental provisos to her post. Not long after that, a certain infamous piece of fanfiction was changed to ‘fiction,’ and became a worldwide bestseller (out of respect for the integrity of this blog, it shall not be mentioned by name here). So I thought I’d spend some time today discussing fanfiction and what it does – and doesn’t do – for writers.

Let’s start with a little personal history. When I was six I decided I was going to be a writer, and I started writing. I’ll reserve the nuances of that story for another day (or never, if you’re lucky). The point is that I wasn’t introduced to fanfiction until almost 10 years later, when I started high school. My two best friends were very into fanfiction, particularly that of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Suddenly I was swept up into this notion that I could contribute to the stories I loved the best, and put my own spin on them, and explore things that the author had left out. It was amazing, empowering, and it got me to write.

That’s what’s great about fanfiction. It gets you to write. You have a ready-made starting point, and from there you can go in so many different directions. It also comes with an in-built audience that isn’t afraid to tell you what’s good and bad about your story.

But.

There’s always a but.

Anecdote time again. When I left high school, I stopped reading fanfiction, more or less. I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, and it seemed less fun. When I stopped reading it I also stopped writing it, of course. There was only one fanfiction that I still read with regularity, and I was overjoyed to hear that the woman who wrote it was in the process of publishing a book. I followed her updates closely and, as a sign of support, I went out and bought her book the very day it was put on the shelves.

I enjoyed it well enough, but by the end I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The best way I could describe the book was ‘fanfiction-y.’ Great word, for someone who calls herself a writer.

By ‘fanfiction-y’ I mean that the entire book felt like fanfiction for another book that I’d never read. Imagine coming across some Harry Potter fanfiction without knowing the premise of Harry Potter. By the end of it you might have a rough idea of Deatheaters, Lord Voldemort, and magic in the world around us, but you’d still be missing something. That’s how I felt about this book.

Descriptions of the world were missing, little details that I would have liked to know. The characters were underdeveloped, as though we were already supposed to know them. And the plot – the plot was probably what made me feel most fanfictioned. The main plot felt like it was happening somewhere else.

All of these points made me realize why writing only fanfiction isn’t going to make you a strong author. Fanfiction is great. Fanfiction has a purpose. But the purpose of fanfiction is highly limited.

When you write fanfiction, your world is pre-developed. Your characters are ready made. And your plot works around the main plot, which is what fanfiction is all about but seems rather anticlimactic if a reader is unfamiliar with the original material.

A lot of people use fanfiction as a way to get started with writing, and I think that’s perfectly legitimate. But just because a person writes good fanfiction doesn’t mean that he or she can write good fiction. Practice in the craft of writing original fiction is needed before you make that jump to published author.

 

How about the other authors out there? Any thoughts on how writing fanfiction helped or hindered you?

Picture Worth Your Words: Forbidden

I’m deviating from my usual ranting so that I can post the story I just wrote for the third Picture Worth Your Words contest, posted by the lovely Aisha.

I stumbled on one of the pictures in the contest when another entry showed up in my feed. All the pictures she posted were incredible and normally I write fiction more in line with the other three, but as soon as I saw this picture I knew what to write about.

I don’t feel that this story is at all polished, but I figured if I didn’t get out there and do it, it might never happen. I hope you enjoy.

Forbidden

There is a little room, tucked below the stairs of one of the long, thin houses in Amsterdam. It is a tiny time capsule, showcasing possessions. The snapshot of her life just before it was snatched away.

The girl must have thought she would get them back. She lovingly placed the roses so that their delicate petals would be in no danger from the other, heavier objects. She set her favorite toys to stand watch over her treasures, moth-eaten and helpless as they look now. She must have brushed her hair before setting down the brush, soothing her hair and her own nerves with the repetitive strokes. She removed the cameos from their case one last time (turning them over and over in her fingers, I imagine), but the way they lie so carelessly on the boards suggests that she dropped them in her haste to quit the room and thus keep it secret.

Surely she thought she’d return in a week or two. That her treasures would be safe until she could reclaim them. And how could she have known? That even if the next five years didn’t kill her body, they would kill that little girl who snuck down under the stairs that night and set aside pieces of her life, one by one. She thought they would be forbidden her in the camp. But she didn’t understand.

In the camp, her life was forbidden her.

I cannot help but wonder if she made it – whether her sickly, starving form was pulled from the wreckage of history or whether she slipped away, a ghost in the gas chambers. Perhaps the life inside made it impossible for her to experience life outside. Perhaps it was just impossible to remember her own life and she left the roses to crumble, the toys to molder, the ivory to yellow. Bent double in that little room under the stairs, twirling the dusky roses between my fingers, I feel so close to her that I can almost reach out and touch her ghost as she reverentially lays down her photo, rubs her thumb over the surface of the cameo.

But as close as I feel, I can never truly know her. Only wonder at the knowledge that is forbidden me.

The Art of the Invisible, the Beauty of the Complete

One of the ways in which I try to keep an active writing life is by meeting with other writers in the real world. We don’t spend much time writing when we meet, but it’s a nice way to remember that there are people behind those mysterious blog posts, short stories, poems and discussions that I get embroiled in online.

One of my friends is a guy who’s been working on fantasy stories. He’s very passionate about writing, and very dedicated to fantasy. But he despairs at his chance of publishing traditionally, because he perceives that he writes fantasy that’s too untraditional for the publishing world.

When I incredulously but politely inquired as to the thought behind his reasonings, he gave me a number of answers. Some were good, some were bad, and one stuck in my mind. “I don’t do world building,” he told me loftily. “I do action, and characters, and people.”

This statement intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, this guy writes in a fantasy, otherworldly setting. So if his world is poorly constructed, it’s gonna show. Doesn’t he want his work to be the best it can? Secondly, revealing the world is kind of like revealing exposition. It should be done a little at a time, at points of relevance, so that by the end of the story we have a complete picture without any boring word dumps. Does he think that the people in his story have to bum around with someone like Tom Bombadil for fifty pages or so in order for a publisher to give him the green light?

Ah, Tom Bombadil. People either love you for the world you reveal, or hate you for impeding the story.

Of course, Tolkien is the Grand Maestro of worldbuilding. But we don’t have to be like him. We don’t have to invent loads of different languages, stories, races and religions that never show up in the completed work. Even George R.R. Martin didn’t do more than write key phrases of his languages. HBO hired a linguist to work the rest of them out.

In October 2012 I wrote another post on worldbuilding, detailing the sorts of things that we often forget but which make the world we write in so much richer. My friend is clearly of the opinion that the world doesn’t matter. How true is that?

My first reaction to his statement was that it was preposterous. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it –

Yep. Still preposterous.

If you’re a fantasy author who writes about people in a world different to our own, then you’ve already started to build a world. The magical rules they follow imply a different kind of physics. The social rules they follow imply their traditions, their politics, and to some extent their history. Even using vague monetary denominations such as copper, silver and gold pieces implies mining practices and the social value of these metals.

As fantasy authors we ask readers to accept our new world rules. So we’d better know what they are ourselves. If it helps, we can think of our world as yet another character that needs development.

Whenever I come to an understanding of how something works in my world, I write it down. Let’s take the money example. Is it metal money? How do they get it? Do they make coins from it, or do they use pieces by weight (such as the anglo method of clipping pieces off an armband)? If people use paper or other kinds of money, how is it printed/made? How can they ensure that no one will counterfeit it?

How much of that information gets used in a piece? Almost none. But if you mention the mines down south, or the Grand Treasury, that’s all you need to hint that those procedures are in place and that you’ve thought about them. It enriches the world without shoving the worldbuilding aspect under a reader’s nose.

All authors look upon certain writing chores as unfavorable. Sometimes you just have to buck up and do it. Worldbuilding is one of those times.

Otherwise, urban fantasy could use a refit from all those sparkly vampires.

Missed Opportunities

Today I was reminded of one of the benefits of self publishing – you do things on your own time and don’t have to feel like you missed an opportunity.

In this morning’s email sat a message from one of the publishers I follow, declaring that they were now accepting unsolicited manuscripts. I read the post two, three times, racking my brain for possible submissions and cursing myself for each one’s inadequacy.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to get myself out there and prove to myself that I didn’t have to be afraid to show others my work. It’s not that I think that the writing on my blog is a masterpiece or even necessarily publishable. But I did think I might get some feedback and encouragement. And at the same time I made a rookie mistake. I treated writing like it was a hobby, something casual to do when I had the time.

My hard drive is full of half-finished pieces, barely-started novels, outlines, character sketches and all the little things that mark the beginning of something. I don’t think I have anything that signifies the end – something that could be sent out as, say, an unsolicited manuscript.

It’s easy to say that I’ll finish it later, that I need more research, that I need to be in the right mood. But the reality is that writing is a test of fortitude. It’s easy to write the beginning of something, when the possibilities stretch out before you in all directions. It’s less easy to finish something. And then there’s the really hard part: going back and tweaking, untangling all the inconsistencies, turning it into something that a stranger could read an enjoy.

I’m trying to establish a writing regimen so that I actually get things done. I want to re-flesh some of the old skeletons buried in my hard drive, and turn them into submissions. Where I’d submit them, I have no idea, but even if I change my mind and take steps toward self-publishing, well, that would be an opportunity I created for myself.

My fellow writers, I salute you! Be steadfast, and good luck with your submissions, if that’s the kind of writing you go for.

Characterization in High Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading a fantasy book titled Ombria in Shadow.  I have to admit I’m still in some confusion as to how I feel about it. It’s obvious that the author has a great grasp of language, imagery, and the craft of writing itself. What is less clear is whether she has a grasp on how to write a novel. 

The book is about a kingdom called Ombria and the crisis which occurs there when the king dies. He is survived by his very young son and heir, his bastard nephew, his low-born mistress and an ‘aunt,’ a strange woman who has been a shadow power behind the throne for longer than anyone can remember. Of course, a power struggle ensues between those who want to depose the heir and those who want to protect him.

The plot itself is nothing to write home about, though it could certainly be worse. Unlike a lot of literature that deals in politics (fantasy or otherwise), the plot of Ombria in Shadow lacks a certain richness and complexity. We are never in doubt as to who is bad and who is good, or who wants what.

In that same vein, the characters are also strangely lacking. Take, for instance, the mistress mentioned above. In the beginning of the novel she’s being thrown out on the streets, in all her regalia, by the domineering ‘aunt’ who has seized control in the last few days of the king’s terminal illness. The mistress flees back to her father’s inn, where she had worked and been picked up by the king years before.

In the following pages, nothing of her characterization convinces me that she was worth the love of a king who could, presumably, have anyone. She’s a passive character for most of the book and a bit of a wet blanket, to be honest.  And I had trouble with a lot of the other characters as well. They had underdeveloped backgrounds, made poorly explained choices, and often had moments of clarification that were not preceded by moments of actual discovery. Which just goes to show, I guess, that even if you can write, it doesn’t mean that your journey is over.

The character arc can be explored in numerous different ways, depending on how the author wishes to direct the story. For example, in Ombria, it was clear to me that the author was more interested in the world she had created than in the people who inhabited it. Therefore they often did things that altered the world and forwarded the plot, but made little sense in their own lines of development.

Properly understanding and motivating a character can push him or her far towards becoming more like a real person and less like a tool. Back when I was in high school, in order to flesh out my characters I made a 3-page character sheet detailing their physical features and abilities, their strengths and flaws, their phobias and their big psychological traumas. I haven’t looked at that sheet for years now, but it helped me think about different aspects of my characters so I can understand their motivation and what might get in their way.

When fantasy was just starting out as a genre (and even in the case of high fantasy up to the late ’90s and the Harry Potter era) I think it was easier to get away with less-developed characters. Now there’s so much competition out there that we fantasy authors have to make everything as good as we can. We shouldn’t try to focus on a good plot or good description to gloss over larger problems in our work.

Anybody have tips for making a well-rounded character?

The Art of Writing the First in a Series (and a Tangent)

Nice to see the blog again! I have to issue an apology for being so bad at posting on time. But I got a bit of a nasty shock on Tuesday – my thesis defense was on Friday, and nobody thought I was important enough to know about it. That’s university bureaucracy for you.

The good news is, I did well, I am now a Master of Egyptology (whatever that means), and I have been offered the chance to publish parts of my MA thesis as an article in an upcoming collection. Exciting.

Before I found out that I had to make a presentation and prepare to be raked over the coals by my supervisor and assorted others, I had been cogitating about something. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books that are the beginning of a series. Now, I love a good series. Nothing’s better than immersing myself in a really good world when I know there are three or four books waiting for me.

The popularity of YA series such as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Twilight have led people to like series, and when one particular series is finished they’ll start looking around for the next big thing. So I understand why editors want to publish someone who says that they’ve got a series planned.

However, I think that perhaps some people more loosely define the term series than I do. Let’s take a book I purchased recently, Opal. Opal was published by World Weaver Press and brought some fresh perspective to the Snow White fairy tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, with one exception: I felt a bit cheated by the ending.

The book gears us up, provides mounting tension and excitement and gets us ready for a big finish. And then –

Then there’s an advert for Book Number Two, Coming Soon!

This is something that I’m starting to come across with more regularity. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in Cinder, which was a fun, action-packed, and overall brilliant adaptation of Cinderella. Without spoiling anything, the end of the book is a bit more climactic than Opal, but I still got the feeling that I’d been cheated of my proper conclusion.

It’s basically like ending The Fellowship of the Ring right after the Fellowship has been chosen at the Council of Elrond. Wouldn’t that have been disappointing?

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ending that leaves you wanting more. And in a series, endings don’t have to provide all the answers. You can leave a lot set up for next time. But these days, it’s a gimmick. Everything’s set up for the big climax, and then you get to wait six months or longer just to get the end.

I don’t want to buy a book like that. I want a book that blows me away and leaves me reeling all the way through the last line. If I think the book ended on a cheap note in a blatant attempt to keep people interested, I’ll be disappointed in it. And if I’m disappointed in it, I’ll be less likely to buy the next in the series.

So that’s my latest pet peeve. Is it just me? Do you think I’m crazy?