Reminder re: Failure

I don’t have much time this week to blog (a deadline is a week earlier than I thought it was!!!), but I’ll get back to the study series as soon as I can.

 

Failure is life’s way of telling you that you need to change.  Not necessarily that you need to completely dump all of your life’s plans and start all over again.  Maybe something small.

Maybe it’s just “stop being so damned impatient, keep getting better at what you’re doing, and just wait.”

We all have to scrape ourselves out of despair sometimes.  This week was mine 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

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Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

The Art of Surprise

How do you surprise your readers?

I use two methods:  Wilhelm’s Law and the Agatha Christie Technique.

Wilhelm’s Law:  throw away your first three ideas.  

What this means:

  • Your first idea is generally the most obvious one.  It’s been done.
  • Your second idea is generally a response to the first.  Because most stories have been done before, this is the first plot “twist” that comes up…for almost everyone.
  • The third idea is a stretch, but it’s still pretty logical.  The audience will go, “Yeah, I see that.”
  • The fourth idea (sometimes this state takes more than four ideas) is the place where you surprise yourself as a writer.  Yes!  Aha!  Oh, that’s terrible and I must do it!

The fourth idea is the perfect place to be.  Let’s say you want to write a story about zombies.

  • Zombies take over the world and try to kill everyone.  Ehhhh.
  • Zombies take over the world and it’s a metaphor for social ills of some sort.  Okay, if it’s done well, or if it’s done first, or if it has really engaging characters in it.
  • Zombies take over the world but stop if you love them truly.  Warm Bodies.
  • Zombies take over the world but there’s a cure, only it makes you the slave of a half-zombie fascist.  Z Nation.

Guess which one of these concepts involves a giant wheel of cheese rolling down the street.  The fourth idea is where the audience goes, “Where do you get your ideas?!?”

The Agatha Christie Technique: identify a reader assumption and undermine it.

Kris Rusch jokes that Agatha Christie just picks the least likely person to have done it.  But I had to wonder–how do you pick the least likely person?

Some assumptions about a mystery that Christie undermined (spoiler alert):

  • One or two characters are the murderer(s)–>The Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects helped murder the dude.
  • The narrator is a good guy, a kind of sidekick for the detective–>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator did indeed do it, cleverly concealing this as he goes.
  • The people who get framed didn’t do it–>The Murder at the Vicarage, in which the murderers frame themselves, then “reveal” that they were framed.
  • A pattern of clues is meaningful–>The ABC Murders, in which a murderer kills several other people in order to make it look like a deranged alphabetical serial killer is on the loose.

Readers tend to focus on the method of solving a crime (“the little grey cells”) rather than the method of choosing what crime that what characters commit–as a writer must do.

Mystery isn’t the only genre you can do this with.

So let’s say we have a romance, which is sometimes seen as the most locked-in, predictable of genres.  You can’t mess with the falling in love bit, OR the Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending.  Those aren’t just assumptions but expectations; if you don’t deliver those things, readers are going to be pissed.  My examples are going to be a bit dated here, because I really, really love old romantic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out how they work.

  • The hero is tall, dark, and handsome–>The hero is a phenomenally ugly man with a big nose but a talent for poetry.  Cryano de Bergerac.
  • The hero is an honorable man–>The hero is an airhead.  The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • The hero falls in love at first sight–>The hero sneers at the heroine and ignores her for the first quarter of the book, then insults the holy crap out of her.  Pride and Prejudice.
  • There are some books that even sneak an end-run around violating the HEA/HFN rule:  The hero falls in love and they live happily ever after–>Both lovers, who never even had sex, die, but their kid falls in love and lives on.  Les Miserables.

You can’t just overturn the assumption and do the exact opposite of what it proposes.  That’s when you end up with “the butler did it wait what that was random” kinds of stories, which overturn assumptions but don’t meet expectations.  The story still has to feel meaningful.  If you set up a dilemma between two lovers, for example, making your heroine instead choose a third can seem completely random–readers have invested in the two lovers, not the third.  And having one of them die so the heroine can conveniently choose the other, well, whatever.

But if you combine both methods and have two men who look identical in a love triangle, then have one of them sacrifice himself to save the other, because he’ll be able to give the heroine a better life, well, that’s A Tale of Two Cities, and if Dickens were still alive, he’d still be making bank off of that.

Click here for an example of a killer plot twist in action.

How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

The Story Game

Here’s a game I came up with.  Asking one person is interesting enough, but asking at least five is essential to the point of the game.

It’s a dark and stormy night and you’re on a road going somewhere that you don’t want to go, but have to be.

  1. How are you traveling?
  2. Where do you have to go?
  3. Is anyone with you?

And the final question (ask this after everyone has a go-round) is:

Okay, so what is a story?

I came up with this while I was at the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference; it’s the culmination of about twenty years of pondering over something in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  I had to laugh when I realized it had literally been that long–it’s from The Wake, the last of the graphic novels, which was released in 1996 and which I read that year.  So twenty-two years, actually.

If you play this with enough people, you’ll notice:

  • Nobody gives the same answer.  They might have kiiiind of the same answers (e.g., some type of passenger automobile), but the answers will be different, and if you ask two people who say “a car” what kind of car, it definitely won’t be the same type of car, unless one of them is a complete smartass–which also says something.
  • Some people will break the rules.  I had one guy say he was in a speedboat and not on a road at all.  Breaking the rules is part of the rules of the game, though:  whatever the person answers is the right answer.
  • Some people will think their answers aren’t good enough, even when you’re like, “Huh.  That’s interesting.”  They can’t hear the uniqueness of their own selves; they’re too used to themselves.
  • That the structure of the three questions is really arbitrary in and of itself, and you could ask pretty much any three questions, or set up any given situation.  I just liked this one.

Very few people will be able to take the point of the game to heart very quickly, which makes the surprise of the reveal fun to watch.  Personally, I got a lot of stock answers about what a story was that boiled down to “a plot happens.”  When I gave the reveal, people struggled with it, then went, “But…” and then “Aha!”

The answer of the final riddle is:

A point of view.

Every person has a unique point of view.  Sometimes that point of view involves breaking the rules.  Sometimes you can’t hear your own uniqueness.  But it’s uniquely yours, and that’s the important part.

Please note:  if someone says, “But my definition of story is the right one,” talk about Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which has no plot and no characters–just an automated house running on autopilot long after humanity has destroyed itself.

You used to be the kind of kid that spun around in circles until you feel down.  And then you stopped.  And you know why you stopped…only you don’t know, not really.  This is the book for you.

Stephen King’s Grocery List

There’s this saying that Stephen King is such a good writer that he could write a grocery list and have it be entertaining.

I took a brief look to see if he had written such a story, but couldn’t find one.

Nevertheless, this should be a Thing, at the very least, an official thought experiment that involves:

  • The “ideal” writer
  • Writing something that appears to have none of the elements commonly expected in stories
  • That is nevertheless as entertaining or more entertaining than stories with the elements commonly expected in stories.

So the thought experiment should go like this:

  • Is Stephen King’s Grocery List a story?

I say yes.  But that’s just me.  I’d say that one relevant example is “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the short story by Ray Bradbury, which admittedly has setting.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference 2018 Wrap-Up

Books I was recommended:

  • Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Silence, by Tim Lebbon
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman

This list is shorter than I like, but I do have permission to ask Jonathan Maberry for some good action/horror titles.

Book to Study:

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, as per Laura Hayden’s mystery class.

Books I would like to demand get written:

  • Nonfiction forensics book by Megan Rutter.
  • A book on…how to say this?  Disrupting your assumptions from an anthropological (and feminist) basis, by Kristy Ferrin.

Books I want to write:

  • The Writing Class, a meta-mystery about a class designing a murder mystery.  Laura Hayden taught a class on reverse-engineering a mystery and I was fortunate enough to sit next to someone who suggested the frame story.
  • A book on intermediate fiction techniques to start studying/picking apart.

Class I need:

  • I want Sue Mitchell to teach a “how to be a freaking presenter” class, because I am still screwing this up, especially every time a mic is involved.

Special thanks to:

  • Kameron Claire, who ranted about men hearing about something on the Internet and deciding they’re experts on it, while women undersell themselves brutally.  It was timely.  Fine!  I am enough of an expert 🙂

This is the first year that I’ve stayed in a hotel for a writers’ conference.  It was bliss.  When I needed to run off for a bit and hide, I could do it.  I didn’t even have to keep shouting, “This one is occupied” every five minutes as I hid in a toilet stall.  Linda Tschappat, besides having worked her ass off as the Green Room volunteer all weekend, made for an awesome roommate, too.

I got to hang out with Megan Rutter on Thursday as she took over the full morning session that she was supposed to share with Pete Klismet, who was in the hospital.  I learned more about jurisdiction than I thought I would ever need to know.  Now, as my husband watches Supernatural, I crack up every time they walk into the room and claim to be FBI agents.  That’s how unexpectedly amusing that information was.

Thursday afternoon I moderated Pam McCutcheon’s synopsis class, where we worked on log lines and back cover blurbs.  She was incredibly supportive and generous with her advice, and our small group positively bathed in all that attention.  How often do you get that chance?

I taught a class on Pacing, in which like five people walked out…and everyone’s faces were glazed over. As I spoke, I felt ashamed of every minute that I tortured people with the indigestible information I was delivering. But after the class several people thanked me.  I was more relieved than I can ever say.

I figured out a Story Game and tested it out on a few people.  I’ll blog about that separately.  It feels like its own private victory.

I went to Megan Rutter’s poisons class, which was jam-packed with info, but just made me realize I need to read up more on poisons.

As mentioned, Laura Hayden’s class on reverse-engineering a mystery was inspirational.  I absolutely need to write a mystery featuring a stalker as the amateur detective now (around which the writers’ class is framed).

I sat on a horror panel with Steve Saffel and Jonathan Maberry, and I’m not gonna lie, I was sure I was going to shit a brick.  But it went great!  In the end, Steve (an editor at Titan Books) said something like, “This just inspires me to buy more horror.”  Mission accomplished.  My fellow horror writers, you can thank me later.

I taught a class on How to Study – the same stuff that I’m blogging about here.  Obviously, I’ve been running out of time lately and need to finish blogging that.  I think that went better than the pacing class, but also it was hot in the room and I was telling people to do more work that wasn’t actually writing (ugh, I know), and so people weren’t as jazzed when they got done.  Except for one person…I won’t name her in case she doesn’t want to be called out.  She asked a ton of questions.  And I went, “She’s the one who gets published.  Maybe not soon, I don’t know.  But she does.”

I went to Kristy Ferrin’s Whores, Sluts, and Prostitutes class, which turned out to be a class on questioning your cultural assumptions.  At first I was a bit doubtful, but I soon began to see what she was doing.  A real “aha!” moment.  I just wish she had more time and gone on longer…

Mariko Tatsumoto gave a class on multicultural novels that was fun, straightforward, and practical.  I always feel like I’m putting a foot in my mouth when I’m including cultures I didn’t grow up with in my stories (I probably am), but this makes me feel better about how to research and winging it when I can’t find what I need.  Ahhhhh…

The rest of the time I spent talking.  Okay, I did do some hiding up in my room.  But mostly I stopped and talked to people.  How did your pitch go?  What’s a good copywriting book?  Everybody has an interesting bio, are you kidding me? You studied to be a paleontologist.  It’s a dark and stormy night…

The speakers were all good, the hotel was good, I suffered a little bit less than usual from imposter syndrome, and I can only feel grateful to the organizers and volunteers.  PPWC helped raise me up from a baby writer.  I can only feel proud of attending, and hopeful that once again they might have me back 🙂

 

 

 

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