Tag Archives: writing process

Stretching

I’ve been reading the excellent new run of Demo, comics by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. If you are at all interested in comics, you should be reading these. They’re a series of standalone stories, so each week’s issue is self-contained. They have some supernatural element, but so far it’s been slight–the sort of supernatural element that you could chalk up to imbalanced perceptions on the part of the narrator.

This week’s issue of Demo, called “Pangs,” was the best read of my week by far. It’s a story about a cannibal, and at some point I’m going to have to go through it panel by panel to figure out how the creators achieve the effect that they do. They don’t pull punches on the horror of cannibalism. It’s awful, and I spent the whole comic terrified of what the main character was about to do to himself or the people around him. On the other hand, they create so much sympathy for him that I wanted him to succeed, to be all right, to find a way to get away with it.

For one thing, this comic has excellent use of the second person. In the past, I’ve written on the confessional power of this tense:

“But as the reader gets more deeply into these stories, it becomes clear that the “you” isn’t really instructional. It’s more of the “you” that substitutes for an “I” in certain types of conversations. It’s used for statements like: “You know how sometimes you’re just angry at people who don’t deserve it.” But what I really mean is, “Sometimes, I’m mad at you when you don’t deserve it, and I’m sorry, but too afraid to say so.” It is a “you” that signifies a frightened “I,” and so contains a plea for identification, an upfront assumption that you and I participate in exactly the same sins.”

I stared in awe at the power of lines such as, “You realize it’s no good. You just can’t eat anything else…”

But before I go off completely on a rant about this particular issue, I also want to point to the other thing I find fascinating about Demo. Both Wood and Cloonan have included material in the back of each issue about how they stretch themselves for this series, playing with different concepts and different ways of telling stories. This material provides a shining example of the benefits of experimenting with style and genre.

Here’s something Cloonan wrote in the back of issue 1:

“Back when we started, I was actually surprised by how much Brian trusted me. I barely trusted myself–I had what I could only describe as stage fright, which I guess is a weird feeling to get while drawing, but as the issues went on (I’ll be the first to admit some more successfully than others), I came into a sort of sense of self about my art. For the first few issues I felt schizophrenic, but then I realized that all of this, all of DEMO was just aspects of me, and of Brian, and together the issues became more than just a sum of their parts.”

I think that’s beautiful, and I’ve experienced that feeling of stage fright when I have an idea that I like but am not sure I can pull off. Go read these.

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How to Find Out What Editors of Online Journals Like

I love the Million Writers Award for many reasons, but one great reason to pay attention to the nominations might not be obvious to all. Over at this page, the editors of dozens of online journals have posted links to what they believe to be the three best stories they published in 2009. You can’t buy a resource that good. Not only is it a great place to find out about online journals and see if you like what they publish, you can get a pretty good sense of what the editors are looking for and what they’re proud of.

I also find it interesting to gain insights into related magazines. Some writers have been nominated by several different editors. So, if you like the work of X writer and think yours is similar, this might give some clues as to where you should be sending your own writing.

Jason Sanford says this year there have been more nominations than ever before. My observation is that there are everything from very obscure niche publications (Stymie, a magazine that until recently was devoted entirely to literary stories about golf) to professional speculative fiction markets such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Every writer should have the page I linked above bookmarked.

Best of Every Day Fiction

My story, “Home to Perfect,” has been included in the Best of Every Day Fiction Two anthology. The book is now available for order in both hardcover and paperback.

Every Day Fiction posts one flash piece a day and has developed a great community that comments intelligently on the day’s stories. It’s definitely worth dropping into the feed reader. If reading online’s not your thing, here’s your chance to check out what they do.

I’m very proud of “Home to Perfect,” and I’m glad to see its life extended this way. I thought this might be a nice occasion to talk a bit about what goes on when I write a piece of flash fiction.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion online recently about how long it takes to write various types of fiction. Most of what I read about flash fiction suggests that these are quick, easy pieces that you can dash off in a morning. That’s not my experience at all. The only reason I can afford to write flash is that I have a day job.

“Home to Perfect” took me a solid 15 hours to write. I’ll try to break down how those hours were spent. You should read the story (linked at the top of the post) before reading my explanation–I’m not going to worry about spoilers.

I got the idea when I was poking around the Internet one day and found a video on YouTube of a kid pulling off 100 percent FC on expert of “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero. At the end of the video, the kid is visibly trembling, cursing in disbelief, totally overwhelmed (I’d link it now, but I can’t find it anymore–if you search for this on YouTube, you get totally overwhelmed by bots and parody videos). I found myself thinking over the next several days about the kid’s awe and how he shared it with an audience on YouTube. I wondered if his parents had any idea what that moment meant to him.

I spent about 3 hours over the next several days developing the idea. I asked myself who Vic (my main character) was, why he cared about 100 percent FC, and what else was going on in his life. I wrote extensive notes on him, his mom, his dad, and his brother Kurt. This was the point at which I realized that I was writing about domestic violence. I could tell you a lot of details about all of these characters that never made it into the story. I believe a story should be an iceberg–what’s visible should be only a small amount of the material that’s in the author’s possession.

At that point, I wrote my first draft, spending about 2 hours on it. (My first draft rate for longer pieces is much faster, but my speed of writing seems to be inversely related to the length of the piece).

I put my first draft down for about a week. When I picked it up again, something was wrong with it, and I couldn’t figure out what. After much rereading and consideration (which I’m not counting towards the total time spent on the work), I figured out that “Through the Fire and Flames” was the problem. I had no emotional connection to the song, and I hadn’t spent much time playing Guitar Hero. I had, on the other hand, pulled many all-nighters playing Rock Band. There’s a song on Rock Band called “Green Grass and High Tides” that I love deeply and find wickedly difficult (I can beat it on hard, but that’s the best I can do). I changed the story so that Vic is playing Rock Band, and spent about 5 hours writing a new draft. While I wrote this draft, I played “Green Grass and High Tides” on repeat and periodically took breaks to watch videos of people playing this song on Rock Band.

[As an aside, when the story was first posted on Every Day Fiction, fellow writer Deven Atkinson pointed out that the lyrics of “Green Grass and High Tides” are actually very inspiring and appropriate to Vic’s situation. Though I normally pay a lot of attention to song lyrics, I hadn’t in this case. However, the story just didn’t work for me until I saturated it and myself with the mood of this song. I think it’s quite possible that I was subconsciously aware of what the song is saying to Vic.]

At that point, I thought I’d finished the story, so I let my husband read it. As always happens, he made me realize that I was far from finished with the story, pointing out several problems with how it was structured. I spent about 3 hours restructuring and fixing those problems. Then, I spent 2 hours doing a final polish and preparing the story for submission. For me, this consists of reading the whole thing out loud several times, fixing anything that trips me up and fiddling with things until I’m sure I really want to send this out into the world. I run spellcheck. I obsessively study the guidelines for the market to which I’m sending the story.

And that’s a wrap. I’ve wished that I could write faster, but I’m much happier with the version that’s on the Every Day Fiction site than what I would have come up with if I’d stopped after the first or second draft.

Sometimes Your Novel Breaks

I’ve been doing better with Nanowrimo this year than expected, and for about the last week have maintained a slight lead on word count. This is a nice change from my usual “should I drop out” doom and gloom around the third week of November. However, the lead hasn’t made me immune to novel breakage.

Maybe this eventually goes away with experience, but in all my novel drafts to date–indeed in any story I write–there comes a point when the whole thing breaks. Something happens that feels so outside of what I originally planned that I’m wondering if I can even finish the story. This often manifests for me as some jarring jump in tone or genre.

For example, this year I planned a science fiction romance, and I wanted to keep the tone light. That was great until I sent my hero off to get captured by the bad guys and then wrote a scene in which one of the bad guys gloats to the heroine about how the hero cracked under torture. Torture had not been part of the plan. I went with it, but found myself considering things like, “How has his personality been affected by torture?” I wrote a love scene in which he lost interest in sex because his mind was on what had happened to him.

At this point, I felt I needed to reassess what I was up to. Did my story want to be a different genre? Should I cut this torture thing out and go back? I just felt the story was getting a lot heavier than I’d meant it to be. I can’t say what the end result’s going to be because I’m still only in the mid-30Ks on this novel. However, I can say that if I’d worried too much about all that stuff at the beginning of this paragraph, I wouldn’t be that far.

Instead, I just kept writing. I’ve had drafts totally disintegrate on me, and that’s always a fear, but this didn’t feel that way. In fact, in this case, I think the moment I felt like things went terribly wrong was the exact moment at which my characters really came to life. Not exploring this avenue feels like it would have done a disservice to the story.

I can’t say yet how it will all work out, but I can say that the torture incident and its fallout is a more honest reflection of what I find romantic than what I originally planned, and I’m glad I allowed it into the draft.

As far as I can tell, that moment of breakage occurs in every draft, not just the first. It always seems associated with things coming to life. I currently use this to measure when I’m done revising. If I go through a draft, polish things up a bit, and nothing breaks, then I’m done. If I go through and find myself changing male characters into females or adding long-lost siblings or reworking significant portions of the premise, I know I’ve got at least one more pass before it’s over.

I read an article once by Zadie Smith that really stuck with me–she talked a lot about the process of writing and revising, and I’ve thought a lot about what she said and how it compares with what I do. In that article, she talked about how some writers edit drastically, like move their novel’s setting from England to the U.S. between drafts, or change the time period, or make other big changes that she finds overwhelming and exhausting. When I first read this, I thought, “What crazy person would change the setting mid-stream?” Then my husband pointed out that I do stuff like that all the time. I’ve changed main characters, rewritten stories in a different tense or person, and just ditched entire drafts and redone the story from scratch. For me, the story is wildly malleable, and when it stops shifting all over the map, that’s when I know I’m done with it.

So that moment your novel breaks? That’s just it twitching to tell you it’s still alive.

First Outside Author Pep Talk Knocks it Out of the Park

A couple days ago, I wrote that, while I enjoy the pep talks that famous writers put together for Nanowrimo participants, they often feel out of touch with what I think the month is about:

Today, I eat my words. Jasper Fforde gets it. His pep talk, the first I’ve received this month from an outside author, is one of the best things I’ve read about the idea of practicing writing. I’m hoping Nanowrimo will post it on their site somewhere, but at the moment I can’t find a link.

Here are his opening sentences:

I once wrote a novel in 22 days. 31 chapters, 62,000 words. I didn’t do much else—bit of sleeping, eating, bath or two—I just had three weeks to myself and a lot of ideas, an urge to write, a 486 DOS laptop and a quiet room. The book was terrible. 62,000 words and only twenty-seven in the right order. It was ultimately junked but here’s the important thing: It was one of the best 22 days I ever spent. A colossal waste of ink it was, a waste of time it was not.

He goes on to explain exactly why it wasn’t a waste of time to write 62,000 words that then get thrown away. Very much worth tracking down and reading.

Consequences

Here’s another installment in what seems to be my occasional series on things I learn about writing from being a GM (gamemaster, for those who are less geeky than me).

I was testing a new game system on Saturday with a group of players (the Mongoose Traveller science-fiction role-playing game, for those who are interested). Our group mainly plays Dungeons and Dragons, where most of the conflict occurs when battling monsters. There are skill checks occasionally, and I run political games where the characters have to talk to people and convince them of things, but, for the most part, if something bad’s going to happen to your character, it’s going to be at the hands of some three-headed monster.

Traveller has combat, but it’s also designed to focus a lot on the skills that characters have. A number of scenes in my game required characters to do things like fly out of a crowded shuttle port under intense time pressure, or repair a collapsing tunnel, or deal with failing life support. Because I’m not used to thinking of skills in terms of life-or-death situations, I failed, at first, at giving a sense of consequence. Characters would fail a skill check and I’d say, OK, roll again. Obviously, this kills the sense of rising tension. My husband says I was doing better by the end of the session, but it got me thinking about writing.

Whether you’re writing genre fiction or not, there’s a lot that matters beyond obviously life or death moments. Every time the character does anything or opens his mouth to say anything, he’s doing that one thing instead of dozens of other possibilities, and there’s no taking it back. I’m asking myself if my stories truly reflect the consequences of these character actions. Am I portraying the characters’ choices as truly important? Or, as a writer, am I telling my characters, “Um, OK, roll again”?

In other news: I’m on vacation this week, people. I’m still going to schedule posts, but I may be slow responding to comments. Don’t forget to enter to win a subscription to The Sun. Leave a comment on this post before 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Monday, July 13. Good luck!

Never, Ever Put Down a Story in the Middle of a Draft

I should just repeat the title for the rest of this post. I’ve been treading water for a week trying to get back into an edit I dropped for a while–the edit I was working for Nanoedmo, no less, which means I’ve already invested a fair bit of blood, sweat, and tears into this thing. It’s great to put a story down between drafts, but murder to put it down during a draft. Add to this that my current writing struggle is to find a method for editing that works for me. I know how to white-knuckle my way to the end of a first draft, but white-knuckling to the end of a second, as I’m trying to do here, is proving to be a formidable task.