Sunday, January 30, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Reads

Buddy Lindsey Duncan (plug!) turned me on to Good Reads dot Com, which is kind of like a Facebook for literate people. It looks like a nice way to get recommendations, and a potential black hole of free time as you go through their millions of books, reminisce on your favorites, and add them to your shelf like little paper and ink trophies of your leisure conquests.

I'll be your friend if you be mine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One Hundred Things

The following is a writing exercise I do on occasion in pursuit of better description. When it was introduced to me, it was just called 100 Things, and I assumed most everyone writing had heard of it. I mentioned it to a friend and he was so delighted by it, I thought I'd share it.

The goal of 100 things is to pick an adjective. Take any you like, or use this list: red, white, blue, green, black, sticky, sharp, large, small, soft, stinky, hard, cold, hot, fast, slow, etc. Simple descriptive things you find yourself wanting to embellish.

Take your adjective. For this example we'll use green. Make a list of 1 to 100, and start listing things that are green/hard/hot/whatever you picked. Your first ten or so will be banal.

1. trees
2. emeralds
3. snot
4. avocado
5. moss
6. grass
7. sour apples
8. algae
9. lime
10. mouthwash

The point is to get the trite ones out of the way early. "Her eyes were the color of emeralds" is a sentence so done it becomes painful. "Her eyes were the color of antiseptic mouthwash" has a bit more bite to it.

You'll have to stretch as you keep going.

11. caterpillars
12. grass snakes
13. the dumpster behind the apartment
14. army fatigues
15. packers' jerseys
16. punk rock hair
17. "go" lights
18. jade
19. old bottles
20. neglected teeth
21. modem lights
22. cats' eyes
23. bathroom tile
24. agave plants
25. radiation
26. The Hulk
27. infected puss
28. parrot wings
29. dragonflies
30. grasshoppers

And so on. Each description will give a different flavor. Play around with them. Take the analogy one step further. It doesn't have to be fabulous, just get used to the idea of having fun with free association. "The fruit, covered in morning dew, was the reflective green of cats' eyes, and it seemed that every tree glared down on him as if it was full of predators swishing their tales" and so on.

Obviously you should still be writing actual stories, but this is a fun game to help get you in the mood, if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How Writing Doesn't Work

I've had to explain to a few people recently how writing doesn't work. I blame Hollywood for the bulk of this misconception, because writing in practice isn't exciting enough to make much of a movie out of.

As near as I can tell, many people I know believe that writing works in the following sequence:

1. Be a naturally talented artist (Ideally played by Ewan McGregor)
2. Struggle with the implacable demons of boredom and writer's block (Ideally taking time to dramatically clasp your unshaven face over a beautifully cinematic yet empty old-school typewriter. Bottle of vodka optional)
2b. Potentially produce something laughably bad, because you lack a muse.
3. Get drug out into the world where you lose yourself in a fast paced whirl of drinking, drugging, wild and memorable misadventures, and talks with utterly fascinating characters whose speech and mannerisms will later populate your novel.
4. Meet an attractive and quirky member of the opposite sex who bonds instantly to you and provides you with a goal and a grounding during said madcap adventures (Ideally played by Natalie Portman).
5. Have a fight with your quirky muse, make terrible but easily reparable mistakes.
6. Come home to that typewriter you haven't touched in long enough for the audience to forget it's there.
7. Spend exactly one montage typing. (This should take about one verse and chorus of a recognizable song, ideally Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (I'm just saying, it's been in more movies than Kevin Bacon)) Create a thinly fictionalized recounting of steps 3, 4, and 5.
8. Cut directly to a bookstore. It has perhaps been long enough for the author to have a new haircut. Your book is either selling as if it were made of pure cocaine or receiving the enthusiastic accolades of the top critics and gushing fans alike (possibly also the praise and understanding of your previously distant parent)
9. Roll credits, assume a happily ever after.

I'm not per se finished becoming a successful writer, but here is a more accurate layout of the process as I understand it:

1. Read and enjoy the written word.
2. Practice writing. Write a great many terrible things.
3. Through constant practice, improve on a variety of skills including characterization, pacing, narrative structure, point of view, and general language dexterity.
3b. Take classes, read instruction manuals, attend seminars, and join discussion groups to guide said practice.
4. Write better things. Edit and submit them. Wait, on average months, to receive mixed responses, the overwhelming percentage of which are rejections. Continue writing while waiting for responses. Repeat step 4 as many times as necessary.
5. Sell pieces. If you are very lucky, receive 5 cents per word for short fiction or a $2000 advance for a novel.
5b. Make any edits demanded by editors.
6. Wait. Sale to print on a book may take 18 months. Sale to print for short fiction may take several months. Continue writing while waiting.
6b. If you are lucky enough to sell on spec or be solicited, write with an eye to deadlines.
7. Promote your work.
8. Continue to repeat steps 3-7, hopefully to greater effect each time.
9. Continually reassess your career to make sure you're not alienating your original fans, while still broadening yourself enough to draw in new ones. Try to provide enough familiarity to inspire loyalty with enough novelty to stave off boredom.

Which, as I said, doesn't really make for a good movie.

The other thing I don't seem to be able to explain to people is that hoping to be the next J. K. Rowling is very much like hoping to be the next Elvis Presley. We'd all like to be rock stars, but most of us are just the guys playing at the bar for beer because we love to sing. Maybe we're even really good, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're going to get a record deal, much less radio air time.

Ah well. There's always dreams and ambitions.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Writing Excuses!

I recommend: Writing Excuses Podcast in which published authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler take 15 minutes at a time to discuss specific topics within the craft of writing. It's insightful, funny, on task, and easy to fit into a busy schedule.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction #4!

The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction is now listed as available both at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, so I figure it's as good a time as any to announce it as one of my sales.

John Skipp, who guest edited this one (the werewolves and shapeshifters special!) has been incredibly pleasant to work with, and in addition to having written his own stable of best selling horror, is also a pretty excellent anthologist. I'm currently reading Zombies, Encounters with the Hungry Dead, which starts off, if you'll believe it, with a story from 19th century Russian playwright Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev. It's sad and beautiful and a really fabulous spin on undeath. Gaiman's "Bitter Grounds" is another one I've loved to death. There's also some neat deconstruction of zombies of both the enslaved and horde variety. Also, this book is massive enough that in the event of hungry dead, you'll be both well-read and well-armed. I recommend it highly.

Edit: Verified! You can in fact buy this magazine and I believe you should!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Fantasy

Genre is kind of an arbitrary thing, and it's at once useful and wasteful to talk about. They tend to be broad umbrellas, but at the same time, there's a pattern and a set of reoccurring themes that people gravitate towards.

While I write dark fiction, I consider myself more of a fantasist than anything.

Ultimately, I think the strength and the attracting factor of the genre is the dynamic tension between the real and the unreal. We live in a world that can be described by science. We understand cause and effect. We have a mental library of observations and learned formulas against which we measure what is likely to be true. We're creatures of the real.

But we can imagine something outside of that.

It's probably fair to say to a certain extent that all fiction is fantasy. If a character is hit by a Mac truck, simply saying so isn't enough. You need to describe your hypothetical truck with the trappings of the real: weight, force, velocity, mud on the tires, candy wrappers in the cab, and so on. But the trick, the magic, and the fun of fantasy, in my opinion, is taking those trappings of the real and hanging them on something purely imaginary. It's not enough simply to say there was a unicorn. Putting something unreal into a story displaces the world around it like Archimedes' gold into a glass of water. You can test the validity of its composition by how it affects the real and measurable things around it. What is the smell of a unicorn? Has it ever had to put its horn through a wolf to defend itself? What does it eat? Where does it rest? What are the consequences. How is what we would expect of the real world changed logically by its presence?

There are dozens of admixtures of reality and whimsy that fall under the genre umbrella: the surreal, where the familiarity of dreams and the re-blending of everyday and fantastic symbols makes up for the strange internal logic; the allegorical, where things that cannot be stand in for things that are; the mythological, where the accumulated weight of history, folklore, and tradition lend credibility to fantastic claims; the romanticized historical; the scientific gone wild; and so on.

For my own writing I tend to lean heavily on the surreal and mythological. It's still important that things feel real, even if it's primarily accomplished by identifiably human characters having understandable, real-seeming reactions to the impossible.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Published Author Statistics!

http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/survey-results

Jim C Hines breaks down information on how about 250 authors sold their first professional novel. Fun with statistics!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

State of the Union

2010

Looking back over the last year, I'd say I've progressed in several aspects of writing. I think two or three of the pieces I've done this year have been my best, which I like to think is something I should be able to say every year. I've taken on more ambitious projects, including a grown up novel. The novel is, at this point, emphatically NOT the best thing I've ever written. I have hopes for improving it. I got my first publication, my first solicitation, and my first invitation to participate in an anthology. I managed through total serendipity to land two of the most friendly and helpful editors imaginable in K Allen Wood and John Skipp. I've sent out more stories this year than in all my previous years combined, and I understand the market infinitely better. I'm also getting something of a better hang of editing. On the down side, I haven't written near the volume I feel I need to, and any reason I can give is an excuse, because I've still managed to make time for things that mean less to me than writing.

I also wrote 34 blog posts, and managed to more or less keep to my promise of one substantive post per week.

2011

I have goals set out for the year and I've put them down in the corner so that I have just one more place where I can't ignore them: 365,000 words of fiction either written or edited to a printable standard; 30 stories in circulation, which is something of a moving target, because it doesn't count sold or trunked stories, only ones undergoing review; a finished, edited and submitted novel; two professional conventions (luckily my hometown is hosting the World Horror Convention); an SFWA membership; and a continuation of the one substantive blog post a week policy. Less measurable goals include experimenting more with structure (not necessarily in the dadaist sense of being experimental so much as trying my hand at different styles outside my normal range), writing a few more things I consider to be either terrifying (or hilarious) rather than just unsettling (or amusing), and speeding up all of my processes. I also plan to actually draw that background I've been meaning to for this site.

Having publicly posted goals has already helped me stop hemming and hawing on at least one submission. Here's to hoping it's a bright new year! I'm not always optimistic about the future, but I've got a good feeling about this one.