Struggles with the Craft


Buried in Revisions

buried-in-sandI’m currently buried in grammar, plot, and character while I try to finish the second re-write of Alchemist.  I’ve been, in the words of good friend Taylor Anderson, “writing my fool tail off” in an effort to prepare for an impromptu writing workshop that I’ll be attending next weekend. I intend to begin submissions again shortly after.

My hope is that the end result will be a cleaner manuscript, and one that is not rejected so easily by potential agents and/or publishers. 

Among the changes I’ve made is a complete re-write of one of the main female POVs. This is more difficult than I’d thought, because my tendency is to crush women under plot devices until they cry, then provide some sort of resolution. While this can be entertaining if done properly, it has the potential of alienating female readers, especially if there is not a sympathetic female viewpoint upon which to fixate.

I’ve also gone through flip-flop number 583; in this revision, I have significantly toned down the language and tried to use curses/swearing that would make sense within the world as developed. That means fewer f-bombs, less overt “carthartic” cursing, and more dialogue that makes sense without being gratuitous. I’ve had comments before that my writing under-utilized this language device, resulting in dialogue that didn’t feel “real.” Hopefully, I’ve come to a compromise without having to sound like Quentin Tarantino. 

My presence here will be sparse through the end of next weekend, whereupon I’ll hopefully have some decent feedback to share with you guys.

Some thoughts on rejection

rejectedIt sucks.

No, really.

Entropy of Memory” was just rejected today by Clarkesworld Magazine. (This is a great publication very much deserving its Hugo nomination this year. They reportedly publish only twelve stories from slush each year, and they get hundreds of submissions. I would have been honored to be included in their magazine, but I fully understand the demands of the market, the state of the genre, and my own previously unpublished nature.) This makes a total of seventy-three (73) rejections for me over the past several years. Some of them are shorts submitted to various markets, most of them are query letters to agents, and a couple of them are attempts at getting one of my novels out of the slush pile. 

It begs the question, doesn’t it? Everyone says: “Persevere!” Part of me is struggling with this idea. I want to curl up in the fetal position and protect my ego from any further body blows.

The best thing to do is what I’m doing right now. Hunker down, punch away at the keyboard and keep slugging. 

Reject me, will you? Hah! I’ll just send you MORE!

Epic vs. Popcorn – The Debate Rages

Well, maybe saying that the debate “rages” is a bit much, but this is a topic much on my mind lately.

In the science fiction and fantasy realm, there are (roughly) three aspirations of any author. They are, in no particular order:

  1. Realism. The story, be it fantasy or scifi, tries to be so realistic that the pickiest bullet/arrow counter is happy. Hard SF falls into this category, as well as some of the quasi-historical fantasy novels. Think procedural crime drama mixed with the Discovery/History channel.
  2. Popcorn. Realism takes a back seat to an entertaining story. The hallmarks of popcorn fiction are humor, lots of action, and usually a character that resembles a cross between a body builder and a stand-up comedian. These are your beach reads, your books for airplane rides, and your mindless entertainment. I would equate these to a big-budget summer action film.
  3. Epic. These are the stories that aspire to greatness. They may mix one or more of the above elements under the realism and the popcorn categories, but these stories are elevated by their style, their themes, their imagination, and their ability to change the way people think and perceive the world around them. These are the books best suited for long winter afternoons, rainy days, and uninterrupted pondering. The most obvious analog to the visual arts would the Lord of the Rings movies (and books!), Braveheart, Spartacus, and Ben Hur.

I sometimes ding authors when I read their books and review them if I think that their stories aspire to epic status but fail. I say this fully aware that I am an armchair quarterback, but I am peeved when something doesn’t quite measure up. I felt that way with Gear’s Forbidden Borders cycle (three books that could have been so much more) and Weber’s most recent book By Schism Rent Asunder. Granted, I am comparing them to the likes of Tolkein, (Frank) Herbert, Jordan, and Martin.

I find myself aspiring to the Epic with a twist of Realism, but I look at the current market and realize that Popcorn completely dominates. The Realism group hasn’t been popular since the mid 90′s–Stan Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars books might have been the last hugely popular of the hard-SF camp. Scalzi has made his brand name by writing popcorn, and a whole slough of authors at Tor are following in his footsteps. Baen has taken it a step further with the many publications of John Ringo, producing pure, mindless action, some of which isn’t even science fiction.

Why? It sells. That’s why. I even find myself reading about 60% of it at any given time. 

I’ve heard time and again at every con I go to, at every convention that I attend, that you should write what you love. If I do that, though, I may find that (assuming a receptive agent/publisher) my manuscript(s) are unsalable due to market conditions. Do I give up, as Jim Butcher is reputed to have done, and become a genre drone? In Butcher’s case, Harry Dresden was the result–one of the most memorable characters to come onto the scene in a long time. Those who know Butcher’s work well know that after he published the first several books of the Dresden Files, he was able to publish his first love, a swords and sorcery fantasy series. Perhaps that’s the route I should take.

As I consider my next project carefully, I need to weigh this to figure out what direction I’m going. I’m hoping that Viable Paradise will give me a much-needed kick in the right direction.

Struggles with the Craft IV – Sitting Down and Writing

For the amateur writer, this is perhaps the hardest thing of all–sitting down and writing.

Writing doesn’t pay my bills. My blog would earn only minimal cash (and looks like it would earn barely enough to cover my hosting costs if I sold advertisements), and while I’ve had positive feedback from many regarding my stories and the podcasts we (sometimes) produce here, I don’t kid myself that people are lining up to pay me for my “talent.”

There has to be something, then, that drives each of us who struggle to write to sit down and do just that. A genre writer who can earn enough to support a family and pay a mortgage seems to be a rare breed, so if I commit to writing science fiction and fantasy, I need to be willing to make the sacrifices involved. That means that I’ll keep my full-time job as a scientist and balance my time writing with my family and my other interests.

It’s those other interests that keep getting in the way. I have other hobbies than writing. After a hard day at work, sometimes I want raw escapism. Sitting down to write can feel mechanical and job-like on those days. It’s one more thing to cross off of my to-do list before I can finally rest my head on the pillow and read myself to sleep.

Before I became serious about writing, I found it to be recreational. I would write for a night here and there, finishing a short story or sketching a plot idea, but never really taking it anywhere. When I realized that I would like to try it seriously, it became an intermittent consuming passion. My desire to create the art and practice the craft became almost obsessive. I would think about what I was writing to the extent that I would lose myself in waking dreams, twisting the skeins of plot together in my head until I was satisfied. After a week or two of this, I would burn out and find myself playing video games, reading books, or catching up on old science fiction television shows. Slowly, I would regain my ardor and begin the cycle anew.

The trick that I haven’t mastered is the consistent dedication required to constantly hone and polish the craft. There are days that the last thing I want to do is write. Those are the days that I have difficulty writing anything, including the mental regurgitation that sometimes splashes these hallowed pixels. I need to find a way to overcome the difficult days when my muse isn’t whispering in my ear. In short, I need to learn to sit down with a blank screen and begin to type. If I can’t write to the outline that I’ve established for a given project, I should start pushing keys and see where the words take me.

Struggles with the Craft III – Self-Criticism

I’ve been wrestling with my first completed novel (Loss of Innocence) for a while now. Kate and I had initally said that we were going to podcast it in its entirety throughout the year until we were finished, but as I dug in to seriously edit the manuscript, I realized how far I had come since completing it and beginning work on Alchemist. (And yes, there are two more sections ready for Kate to podcast. They delay between episodes is due to me whining about how bad I am and not Kate’s procrastination.)

There are two forces at work here. The first is that when I have a new idea or a cool concept, I generally take it and run with it as quickly as I can. In my excitement, I can’t see the holes that are obvious to everyone else. The second is that I am an intensely (and notoriously) critical person. I have to fight this every instant of my life, whether its at work, in my personal relationships, etc. Most of the time I succed in suppressing it. Most of the time.

My critical persona is especially brutal when it is self-directed. Given a bulk of my own work, I am never satisfied. I’m not talking about the little errors that always creep up in a manuscript. I’m talking about the “meta” errors, such as story arc, setting choices, and characterization. I’ll re-write dialogue two or three times until I get the sound or the tone of the conversation just right, then read it later and want to gouge my eyes out at my sheer ham-handedness with the English language.

Back to my first novel: I’ve heard several authors talk about that first novel they wrote, which is so uniformly bad that they hope it never sees the light of day. I’m having that struggle again as I wrestle with the text of Loss of Innocence. Vast sections need a complete overhaul, while occasionally I’m reading things that make me pause and wonder where I got a particular idea or turn of phrase from. I’m momentarily stunned that I find those jewels of text within the work. I feel as though I need to elevate my writing to that standard all of the time, and not just in those rare flashes of brilliance.

However, if I keep making tiny edits and changes until I have something perfect (perfect, at least, on that day), then I never drive to finish. Even the greatest novels have their dull points. Rather than trying to rid myself of them entirely, I need to force myself to drive the story to the point where a professional can step in and tell me how to make it better. Otherwise, I’m like a bag full of starving, feral cats.

When is the harsh self-criticism apprpriate?

I find that when I limit myself to the harsh self-criticism on first drafts, I get the most use out of this aspect of my personality. If I take it beyond the first draft, then I start causing damage to the fabric of the story I’m trying to tell. I’ll begin to think tangentially rather than linearly, which muddies the plot, blurs my characterization, and leads to inconsistencies.

Struggles with the Craft II – Point of View

Does anyone really think about point of view? The answer to this question: If you’re doing it correctly, then no, they don’t.  When someone notices that you have a point of view problem, the issue with your work isn’t necessarily plot, setting, or character–it’s the the structure that you use to present each of them.

As a general rule, most genre novels are written in one of three points of view: first person, third person omniscient, and third person, limited-omniscient. The first is obvious. These are the books in which everything is written as personal experience. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Butcher’s Dresden Files, and portions of Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind are all written in first person. Third person omnscient is when the narrator is “godlike.” The narrative is driven by peering into the thoughts and motivations of all characters at any time. I’ve found that this technique can be clumsy unless it is handled well. In it, the author chooses to reveal certain portions of the story which may not agree with what the reader wishes to see or what the reader finds important. The author essentially opens a Pandora’s Box that results in a difficult structure for the duration of the book. (Mysteries are almost never written in this point of view.) The last point of view is the most common, and is seen in most genre novels. George R. R. Martin has an elegant solution that I have followed (at least in outline) in my own work by naming chapters after the point of view characters. This immediately establishes sub-plot and setting for the reader. It’ll give them a thrill if they like the character, or turn their stomachs if they don’t.

I ran across point of view as an issue when I attended the workshop back in April at Penguicon. In the prologue of Alchemist, I use two characters as a lens for the events rather than picking one and staying with it. I could have established that I was using third-person omniscient  but I didn’t, and I didn’t want to. When I changed points of view between the two characters, even though I wasn’t in the first person, the transition was problematic, especially given that one point of view was a small boy and the other was a soldier. After I read the Prologue again in light of this critique, I could see that it was awkward.

I struggled with redrafting the section several times. I needed to tell things from the boy’s point of view, but I also needed to establish the motivations of the soldier who found him. Ultimately, I ended up partioning the Prologue into two sections. The first section is told from the eyes of the boy, and the second is told from the point of view of the soldier. I restructured some of the events so that they were seen from the appropriate point of view. The result is tighter prose, a little more structure, and no awkward changes between characters.

The temptation for me is to just step aside and give away freebie information by narration. I find that I sometimes want to use just a brief point of view switch to make a point that I lack the craft to make smoothly through other means. Hearing this potential problem in the writing workshop made me more cognizant of this tendency to “cheat’ and has forced me to look at why I need to do that. Most of the time, I can accomplish it in other ways. Subtlety is better in the long run, anyway. You want your readers to have a tantalizing hint about something, but you want to keep them guessing just a little bit.

In all of the fiction that I like best, I elevate those authors that keep me guessing to the very top of the list. If I can give someone just enough information that they talk about the potential outcomes with their friends, around the water cooler, or on message boards, I’ve done my job. If I serve information to them on a silver platter through clumsy narration, I’ll never be more than a passing fad.

Struggles with the Craft I – Dialogue

As my visit to DragonCon and my attendance to Viable Paradise looms on the horizon, I felt that it might be prudent to examine what my struggles are with the craft of writing. Doing so helps me to identify, in black and white, exactly why I struggle with certain elements of story crafting. The intent of this series is to perform a set of honest assessments of my own abilities to date and open the comments for discussion on how a writer (not just me) can improve their grasp of each element.

My biggest weakness, in my own opinion, has always been dialogue. The only thing that I can identify is that I sometimes try too hard–I want my characters to run the whole gamut of human emotion. I want wit, cruelty, mirth, joy, sadness, anger, and rage, but I find that when I’m carried away with the scene that sometimes this feels forced. The words themselves might make a great comeback, or it might be a great rant, or a meaningful condemnation. Making these things fit into the greater piece, or handling the transitioning and the flow from one character or another sometimes leaves me with a feeling of incompleteness. In other words, it’s important to carefully craft the phrasing that a character uses. There are many ways to convey the same idea, but only one or two will really fit the situation and the character.

I’ve tried several exercises to rectify this. One of them is that when I travel, I try to eavesdrop on conversations around me. I’m interested not necessarily in what people have to say, but how they say it. My love of English for the sake of English leads me to be a bit pedantic at times. I have to watch that tendency, and endeavor to understand that not only is the content important, but also the way in which the idea is delivered. Try these examples, as told from the point of view of a college Freshman describing a girl to his friends:

1. “She had the pale beauty of a perfectly formed pink rose. Her satiny complexion and piercing green eyes were instantly mesmerizing.”

2.  ”She was totally hot, dude. Those eyes! Wow…I’d do her.”

If my character is a college freshman, which dialogue choice is more appropriate? There’s no doubt that one shows slightly greater “skill” with wordsmithing than the other, but is there really any comparison? I must confess that I have to fight this tendency toward florid phrasing as much possible. 

That brings me to the next point, which is making the dialogue appropriate to the speaker. You can’t simply write words on a page and put them in a character’s mouth. You have to know something about the character, what their motivations are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. At times, the reader has nothing on which to base their impressions of your characters other than what they say. Is a character educated? Were they raised on a farm? On a space station? Their vocabulary should reflect their background as well as their outlook on life. You’re painting a picture with that character’s dialogue. Make sure it’s the picture you want the reader to see. For example, a beggar boy is never going to use the words “ambivalent” or “enraged.” If you are trying to convey those ideas, the character might say “I’m uncertain!” or “I’m mad.”

One of the biggest temptations I have as a writer is to show off of my huge vocabulary and make people think I’m smart. The sad truth is that people don’t care how smart I am; they care only if I can deliver an entertaining story. I do that by making sure that my dialogue choice is consistent with characterization. The last thing that I do when I’m editing dialogue is to go back and examine every multi-syllable word and see if it really fits. Winston Churchill was a great orator because he used words with punch. For example, he wouldn’t say “stubborn,” he would say “pig-headed.” 

To recap:

  • Dialogue can be phrased many ways, but only a few phrasings will truly fit the situation.
  • Content is as important as the idea.
  • Words should be appropriate to the speaker (consider background, motivation, etc.)
  • Eliminate unnecessary polysyllabics. Phrase things with as much emotional punch as possible.
  • Never show off in dialogue. Remain true to character.