Month: August 2016

Writers as Readers

Note:  As I was writing this, I realized that I had gone into full nerd mode, which is something that most people don’t need, most of the time.  So I’m going give what I think most people are going to want first, and then leave the full-nerd-mode blog post after a break, in case you are not most people, most of the time.

Here’s a situation that happens more often than I like:

I don’t spend a lot of time reading, said the writer.

Okay.  I get that life happens.  But whaaaa??!?!!???!!  NO CAN BRAIN.  IS NOT THE LOGIC.  Often the writer later begins to speak of all the television they’ve watched lately, and I tune out.  Blahdiblah.  Blah.*

I get that it’s overwhelming to try to select a book to read next when you’re not reading on impulse; I too suffer from decision fatigue.  Anyway, as best I can tell, your best no-brainer plan is to find a top 100 list for books in your genre and start picking your way through them.  At least put one book on your phone and read it while you’re standing in line.  Go in alphabetical order, date order, list order–just pick an order, so you don’t have to think too hard about which book to read next.  It’s fiiiine.

Here are some decent top-100 genre lists, broken down by “I am so not going to think too hard about this” genres:

If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, you could, you know, use the Google to find something more to your tastes.  Or read the full-nerd article below if you’re like WHAAAAA YOU PICKED THE WRONG LIST or THAT LIST I DISAGREES WIF IT.  Up to you, but you’ve already been warned about that.

If anyone has a curated, solid top-100 list for Westerns or overall Historical, or pulp, OMG I have been wanting a good pulp list forever, let me know.

 

*#notalltvshows

Note:  Here beginnith the full nerd.  You have been warned.

Writers read books.  It’s like an internal compass; if you drop a writer in the wilderness then they automatically turn to face the nearest library or bookstore.  And yet it’s possible for a writer to have reading-related issues.

These issues usually don’t look like reading-related issues.  They look like, oh, marketing-related issues, or creativity issues, or grammar issues.  But the root cause often points to not knowing what other books are out there.

So I’m gonna talk about how to get a broader knowledge of what books are out there, why you should bother, and how to drill down on specific problem areas.  Your mileage may vary; if you’re satisfied with what and how often you’re reading, cool.  This is just how I do it.

First and foremost:  are you reading enough?

My baseline assumption is that if you’re not reading a book a week as an author, you’re probably not reading enough (say a half hour to an hour a day).  Some books take longer, some less time; if you’re a reader of epic fantasies than perhaps you may spend an hour a day and not get through a book for a month.  If you have a reading disability, you might cover less.  You might have personal obligations.  So be it.  But I’m assuming four books per month:  not for all readers, mind you.  For writers.

I also recommend finding a way to track your books, so you know what you’ve read over time and can spot the holes in your reading habits.  I like Goodreads and try to write just enough of a review that I can remember what the hell I read and why I liked it or didn’t.  I don’t review–and don’t count–books that I don’t finish.

I personally find myself struggling to keep up with TV shows/movies that are relevant to my niches; I should probably work out a way to burn through more video in general (especially because I work in the horror genre–a lot of seminal work started not in fiction but on the screen).  But that’s another blog post.

How do you know if you have a reading-related issue?  It’s a possibility if…

  • You have no idea what genre or subgenre your book is in.
  • You have no idea what subgenres are in your genre.
  • You can only discuss your genre as it existed fifty years ago, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • You can only discuss the current books in your subgenre, all of which you have read, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • Your favorite book in the genre is pretty much the only book in that genre you have read.
  • You are consistently screwing up one element across stories.
  • You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.
  • You have no idea what the expectations are in your genre.
  • You have no idea what books are like your book, so that you can compare them to your book for marketing purposes (query letters, book covers, etc.).
  • Early comments on your work include statements like, “reinventing the wheel,” “not fresh,” “it’s just like book X,” “it’s an X knockoff” (“it reminds me of book X” is not a bad thing, though).
  • You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.
  • You can sneer at any category of book (particularly bestsellers).
  • You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.
  • You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well, or blame their success primarily on luck or readers’ stupidity/foolishness.
  • You have no idea who publishes work in your genre.
  • You have no idea what flavor of your genre different publishers publish.
  • You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.
  • You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you (don’t consult your ego on this–consult your shelves).
  • You assume your book will be enjoyed “by all audiences.”
  • You can say, “I read what I like” or “I don’t care about what kind of person wrote the book, I just read what I like” with a straight face.
  • You know the basics of writing but your stories still feel thin and fake.
  • You don’t recognize your readers’ other favorite authors in your genre.
  • You have no idea which of your books to recommend to readers based on what they read.
  • Your ability to recommend books based on a reader’s preferences stops at “buy my book.”
  • You have no idea why some people don’t like your books or might review them negatively.
  • You don’t know where to steal cool new techniques from to make your own.
  • You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

A couple of notes:

I read a lot, and I still do more than a few of these things:  I’m always trying to improve my reading selection.

Also, readers who aren’t writers get to do whatever the hell they want.  Doing the book thing isn’t their job.

Just as writers should know the rules of grammar, they should also know what’s been done with stories and books, both in what’s been written and how they’ve been organized (in genres, usually), and for pretty much the same reason:  know the rules so you can break them.

This means a lot of reading.

If you’re not doing a lot of reading, that’s another blog post for another day, something titled, “Ten tricks to read more” or something.  I’m personally not interested in writing it.  Let me know if you know of a good one and I’ll link to it.

If you’re already doing a lot of reading, great.  What you need then is to investigate what areas your current reading tendencies are missing and find which books you need to fix that.

It used to be that there was a “Western Canon,” that is, a list of books (and other media) that you could point toward and say, “This is what formed Western civilization and is therefore where you should start as the basis of a good Western education.”

However, as of late a lot of people have been saying things like, “wait a minute, that so-called canon of yours doesn’t actually have anything to do with my actual, lived life, or how I see the world now.”  Then other people began saying things like, “but the canon has always been the canon your books aren’t any good compared to the ones in the canon.”  And that’s when the fight between the prescrivists and descriptivists started.

We’re going to skip that part.

The best books for you to read are the ones that accomplish what you want accomplished.  Sometimes the process of figuring that out is mysterious, indirect, and strange–you may have to read some books that strike you as purely repugnant or illogical in order to define what is it that you want to accomplish (“not that“).

I tend to focus on reading lists, so my suggestions are based on finding a reading list rather than other possible techniques, but you don’t have to stick with a pre-made list.  You could also try:

  • Bestseller categories.
  • Award winners (I generally don’t follow these; awards can be selected based on some truly mind-boggling rules).
  • Asking people who are long-term readers of a type of book that you’re interested in (ah!  recommendations!).
  • Bestseller lists, like the New York Times, USA Today, or from a genre publication (e.g., Locus Magazine for SF/F).
  • Books mentioned by your favorite writers (for example, Stephen King).
  • Best-of Anthologies (make sure to read the introductions and honorable mentions).
  • Books that you assume you won’t like for some reason.
  • Librarians.

I tend to use the following guidelines when looking for lists, although of course there’s never a perfect list–just the best list for whatever your purpose is.

  • Consider the source.  A list that somehow factors in a wide variety of opinions without giving undue weight to any set of opinions.  A list argued over by multiple people familiar with the topic is far preferable to some random list on Amazon.  A list by a famous writer who writes the same kind of thing you do is better than a Goodreads list.  A Goodreads list is better than a list made by someone with a soapbox, etc.
  • A larger list is better than a shorter one for genres; a shorter list is better than a larger one for subgenres or other specialty topics.  I like 100-book lists for entire genres or “best books evah.”  I like 10-25 for subgenres.  Trying to do a top 100 of Steampunk means a lot of “yeah whatever, points for participation” books sneak in.  And a top-10 genre list is too short to give a sense of the possibilities of an entire genre.
  • Diversity of the list is important.  If I start skimming through a list and there are 10% or fewer women, I’m out.  If I can’t find at least one person of color on the list, I’m out.  Those lists reflect such an extreme amount of bias that they’re not worth my time.  It’s funny how often that is actually a factor.  If I ever find a list for a genre that reflects the type of people who actually live in United States (let alone the world), I may shit a brick.  And before you comment about “but what about all the collections/lists that only feature women writers/writers of color/insert whine here?” please take a look at the books you read in the last year and tell me whether it reflects the actual demographics of the country you live in.  I know of some people who are exceptions, but I’m not one of them.  Half of what I read for pleasure isn’t women authors.  I can’t even bias my own reading habits toward people who share my gender and who happen to be the majority of human beings and writers in the United States, even when I’m making a point to read more women authors.  That’s saying something.  If you have the attitude that you only need to read the books you like and don’t consider race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/etc. when selecting books, then what the hell are you reading the full-nerd section of this post for anyway?  Full nerd.  You aren’t one.
  • How many books I’ve read that are on the list is important to me, too:  If I’ve read over half, it’s questionable how much I’m gonna get out of it.  But if (and I’m fairly widely read, so YMMV) I haven’t read at least 10% of the books on the list, I won’t bother with it, either; I have no way to assess whether it reflects the genre or not.  With a genre where I’m running completely blind (as I was a few years ago before I started reading romances), I’ll go for a top-10 list for a genre just to dip a toe in, or focus on a subgenre that I know that I’ll like.  Nerdy girls who get the handsome guy and get to wear the pretty dress?  I’m in.  (Regencies.)

Lists take a long time to read through.  I know this.  And you have to track down books that might not be at your library.  But consider the expense and time involved in a grad school program.   Consider how long and how much effort it takes to become a doctor.  You’re a professional.  There are no certifications in “being a writer” land.  There are just all the books you read.  That’s your certification.

“I keep up with my genre.”  A statement that reflects a world of work.  Be proud of it.

 I’m going to go back through the list of issues above, put them into general categories, and address what to look for when you’re reading.

  • You have issues inside your “home” genre.  You don’t know what genre or subgenre your book is in.  You don’t know what’s currently being done or what has been done in your genre.  You don’t know what the expectations are in your genre.  Your book “reinvents the wheel,” etc.  You don’t know what books are similar to your book.  You don’t know your genre’s publishers or why they’re different.  You’re not familiar with other writers in your genre.
  • You have issues with not reading widely enough across genres.  You’re consistently screwing up one element across stories.  You can sneer at a given category of book (and don’t understand why anyone would read it).  You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.  You don’t know where to steal new techniques from, or where other writers have stolen their techniques from.
  • You have issues with not reading from a wider audience’s perspective (people who are not like you).  You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.  You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.  You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.  You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well.  You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you.  You assume your books will be enjoyed by all audiences.   You “read what you like.”  You can’t recommend books tailored to a reader’s tastes unless they are the same as your own.  You don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like your books.
  • You have issues with not reading enough nonfiction.  You have a grasp of basic writing techniques, but your stories feel thin and fake.
  • You’re overthinking this.  You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

If you have issues within your “home” genre, there are several things to look for:

  • Have you read about 80% of what a variety of people consider the “classics” of the genre?  Do a search for “best [insert genre here] books of all time” or look at the lists at the head of this article and skim through the titles on various links.
  • Are you familiar with your genre’s subgenres?  Do a search for “list of [insert genre here] subgenres.”  Note the subgenres.  Then do a search for “best [insert subgenre here] of all time.”  If you think it might be your subgenre, then prioritize those books.  If you’re interested in the theory behind what makes a particular subgenre what it is, then search for “What is [insert name of subgenre].” There will be arguments.
  • Are you familiar with the current state of your genre/subgenre?  Do you not particularly want to read every possible book in the genre but feel kind of unsure about the various awards and their biases?  Search for “best [insert genre/subgenre here] books of the 21st Century” or since 2010, or of 2015, etc.  “Best new [insert genre/subgenre here] books” also works well.  Look for commonalities between lists.  Finding good sources for recent books in a subgenre is sometimes difficult (“Buy my book!” tends to drown out curated lists), so when you do, bookmark them–they may continue to update their information with new books.
  • Pay attention to the publishers of books that you read and like, and investigate their backlists.  Smaller presses, especially, have a distinct vision of what books need to be in the world.

If you have issues with not reading widely enough across genres:

  • Read the top 100 list from another genre.  Which genre?  I recommend romance for relationships (including romantic ones) and how to write a happy goddamn ending or a satisfying ending, period; crime for any kind of “what is going on here?” story, and also for setting/description issues; science fiction and fantasy (not all SF/F, but the best of it) if you have issues with, hmmm, how do I say this? Not being able to pull off anything original; Westerns for setting and satisfying endings and character; horror for a wide variety of pacing techniques and in accepting how personal a reader’s tastes can be; historical fiction for setting, character, and handling Too Much Information; general fiction for the BIG GUNS of story and a wide range of what it’s possible to do in fiction (hint: a lot); middle grade for making your writing clean and clear without writing down to your audience; YA for character voice.

If you have issues with seeing your stories from a wider’s audience’s perspective:

  • Read for a wide variety of authors.  In the United States, approximately 50% of people are men; 66% of people are non-Hispanic Caucasian; 90-95% of people are cis and straight; 90% of people are abled.  So, roughly, if more than a third of any given list is straight white guys, you already know that 1) it’s been strongly affected by bias, and 2) you are not reading the best possible books.  Some of those books never got written or published, because bias sucks, but you can still find a lot of them if you try.  Search for “women writers of [insert genre here]” or “people of color writers of [insert genre here].”  Or possibly “best international writers of [insert genre here].”  Or best Native American writers…best LBGTQ or queer writers…best writers with autism…best Chinese writers in translation…the list is endless.  If you don’t question the diversity of your reading, then you’re not reading the best of what is possible, or even the best of what is out there, and your mind’s gonna get blown.  To learn how to bust up the assumptions of a genre while still writing solidly within it, read diverse authors.  You won’t even know the assumptions that you’re making until you start doing this.  (For example:  Japanese vs. U.S. horror.  Graphic novels vs. manga.  Historical romances that aren’t set in the Regency, Victorian, Highlander, or Western eras.  African-American sci fi.  Non-Tolkein fantasy…)
  • Read slush.  That’s right, volunteer to read the raw fiction coming in to an online short-story publication in your genre.  Most of them are looking for volunteers.  That which does not kill you will make you stronger.
  • Read the USA Today bestseller list.  It’s a firehose–you can never keep up.  But find the first author you haven’t read before and pick up one of their books from the last ten years.  (The latest book is often checked out from the liberry.)  The New York Times filters, nudges, and winks at the data…USA Today is more of a spigot directly to what most of the people read, most of the time:  not book lovers, not regular readers, but people.  These are the books that out-entertain Netflix and Angry Birds.  Respect.
  • Yes, there should be more male writers of romance.  But that’s what happens when you make an entire genre the “girl germs” of books:  not enough male writers.  I say go for it; I’d like to see more of it.

If you’re not getting enough nonfiction under your belt:

  • I skimp on this all the time because nonfiction is more demanding and slower to read than fiction.  Also, the skill set necessary to select nonfiction books is enough different than fiction books that I have a hard time with it.
  • If you’re not reading a nonfiction book per month, you’re probably not getting enough organized, curated, researched, and considered information to be able to make your stories feel solid.  Granted, you’re probably going to read a lot more if you’re writing historical fiction, historical [insert genre here], westerns, or science fiction, but pretty much any writer needs to be aware of what’s going on in the real world.  The news is one thing–but it hasn’t been put in perspective by a professional in a relevant field.  A book about neuroscience is going to be more considered than an online article summarizing a scholarly paper that nobody can read because it’s behind a paywall.  A book on history written by a historian is going to give you more than a Wikipedia article.  And so on.  Even if you later dig down to primary sources, I think that having a professional–better yet, several professionals–walk you through their opinion on the matter is going to be of great benefit to your writing.
  • How to find the books you want?  Even though they aren’t curated, I’ve had the best luck with Goodreads lists.  Many Goodreads fiction lists make me raise an eyebrow; a lot of authors hustle to get on the lists, then hustle to get more votes.  But I’ve had a lot of luck with the nonfiction lists, and you can get as specific as you like and probably still find resources.  Search for “goodreads nonfiction [insert subject here].”  Another good technique is to find one book you like on the subject and raid the bibliography.

And last but not least, if you’re overthinking this and not reading what you love:

  • At least one book a month (still going off the one-book-a-week minimum) should be a book that you’ve been looking forward to reading, or a book that you randomly grab off a shelf, or a book that you’ve been meaning to reread, or…
  • Whatever books you do read, don’t analyze them until after you’ve read them.  You can yell at the book, you can throw it across the room, you can put it down, you can cry, you can laugh…but you can’t pick it apart until you have declared yourself done with the book.  (I also have a terrible time with this one.)

So now you’ve read the full-nerd version, and you’re like, “Oh, De.  You’ve given me too many things to read now, so many that I can’t even pick the list that I want to work on first, let alone the book.”

I warned you, right?

But I do have suggestions for that.

If you go by a four-books-a-month goal, then consider this as a plan and see whether it’s doable:

  • One book a month to tackle a genre reading list.
  • One book a month of nonfiction.
  • One book a month that’s a bestseller or something deliberately diverse.
  • One book a month for pure pleasure.

I read more than that, so I pretty much do this:

  • Book from horror reading list.
  • Book from crime reading list.
  • Bestseller
  • Nonfiction
  • Book from underrepresented group–I tend to skip straight white women as a target group at this point.
  • Between each of those books, I generally read or reread a book for pleasure (lots of graphic novels in here).
  • I finish about three books per week and often go out of order, but try to keep an eye on it.
  • I’ll ditch the “for pleasure” books at the drop of a hat, but it takes a lot to make me put down a list book before the end.  Especially with the horror list, I’m getting a lot of “books that were not written for me, a woman, in any way shape or form,” and I end up going “well, that thing that drives me up the wall, don’t do that” a lot.  But I already know the genre better as a whole than a lot of other horror writers do.

I’m starting to approach the end of the horror list; I’ll probably switch to all things gothic after that.   A lot of the women horror writers that I discover aren’t from the list I’m reading at all–they’re shoved off under other umbrellas, one of which is “gothic.”  This annoys me to no end.  Half of a genre I love is hidden under a code word; no wonder horror books aren’t selling that great, outside King and Koontz. The full range of possibilities aren’t being included–and the genre is starving to death as its target audience gets smaller.

And before you start arguing with me on this one… You know what’s not on that horror list?

  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Bronte sisters
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Angela Carter
  • Patrick Suskind
  • John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • M.R. James
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Toni Morrison
  • Mervyn Peake
  • Kafka
  • Anne Rivers Siddons
  • Robert Chambers
  • A ton of modern people I’ve never heard of.

So that’s something to keep in mind:  not all these people are women.  In fact most of them aren’t.  Of course a list of 100 books can’t include everyone…and some lines have to be drawn…

But Edgar Allan Poe isn’t on the list.  There are no collections of early ghost stories.  Stephen King has seven books on the list, one of which is the eminently forgettable Bag of Bones.

Every list has issues.  Every genre has issues; that’s one of the things you’ll discover the better you know a genre.  Keep a sharp eye out for bias, watch for patterns in what you read versus what your ego says you read, and send me list suggestions.

Full nerd 4ever 🙂

 

Pacing: The tentative explanation

Pacing.  What is it?

Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events.

Writer’s Digest.

Okay, fair enough.  But what is that tool?

 It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.

Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace, though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.

This still doesn’t tell me what pacing is, just its attributes.  It’s skipping the part where you say “Aphrodite is the goddess of love,” but noting that she has a nice butt and tends to sleep around.

Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices, and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.

For a moment I got excited…but the passage still didn’t define pacing.

Explanations like this drive me nuts; they’re bandaids of meaning, trying to patch up a hole where “dunno what it was, guv, but it went that way” would more properly go.  It’s easy to note that pacing exists.  It’s hard to put a finger on it, or to use it properly.

So what is pacing?

Pacing is the art of selectively matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content.  Matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content allows the writer to convey the desired experience of the story to the reader without having to inform the reader of what experience the writer desires the reader to have.

(“This is a fun book!!!  You should read it!!!”)

Pacing is a lens that only writers, editors, and some critics can see.  Even better, most of the time, writers can’t see pacing in their own work either–unless it’s broken and they have to fix it.  The average reader cannot see pacing at all–they can only feel it as the story rushes past, or crawls along their skin, making delicate, wincing bites.

Let’s say you’re telling a joke:

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”

“Wanda!”

“Wanda who?”

“Wanda hang out with me right now?”

This is a simple joke.  If it took five laborious minutes to tell it, it wouldn’t be worth your time.  Short words, short sentences, short joke.

…I was sorry to see Gentleman John Kilian approach the chalk line with a gin-and-gin in his hand. John is a short dapper Englishman with a quick mind and a wicked talent for summatory puns. He’s not on this side of the lake much, and a lot of folks dropped what they were doing to listen.

“I commanded a submarine in Her Majesty’s Navy during the last World War,” he began, tugging at his goatee, “and I propose to tell you of a secret mission I was ordered to undertake. The famous spy Harry Lime, the celebrated Third Man, had developed a sudden and severe case of astigmatism—and many of his espionage activities forbade dependence on spectacles. At that time only one visionary in all the world was working on the development of a practical contact lens: a specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I was ordered to convey Lime there in utmost secrecy and dispatch, then wait ’round and fetch him home again.”

“Is this gonna be a Limey story?” Long-Drink McGonnigle asked, and Callahan took a seltzer bottle to him.

John ignored it magnificently. “He was an excellent actor, of course, but before long I began to suspect that there was nothing atall wrong with his vision. I searched his quarters, and found correspondence indicating that he had a girlfriend who lived some twenty miles from the hospital. So I called him into my cabin. ‘I can’t prove a thing against you,’ I said, ‘but I’m ordering you–‘” For effect, he paused and elegantly sipped gin.

I hated to do it. I’m a liar: I loved doing it. In any case I had seen the punchline coming long since, and so I delivered it before he could. “’–to go directly from the sub, Lime, to the Reed oculist.’”*

Every element of this joke says:  wait for it…

Word choices:  sorry, gentleman, approach, chalk line, gin-and-gin, hand, short dapper Englishman, quick mind, wicked talent, summatory puns, this side of the lake, dropped what they were doing to listen.

The word choices here are longer than those of the the previous joke.  Even the shorter ones are carefully arranged together for a slow, dry comedic effect.  Even the drink is essentially a martini so dry that it has nothing but gin in it.

Sentences:  The sentences are medium to long, except in the interruptions, where they are much shorter.

Paragraphs:  The paragraphs are medium to long, except in the interruptions, once again, where they are much shorter.

Entire section:  The author is so confident that you can’t guess the pun at the end that he interrupts the joke twice in order to dare you to work it out–like a mystery–before the punchline.

The word choices, sentences, paragraph, and indeed the entire section are written in order that each element matches the content–in order to manipulate the reader.  A fair chance at “solving” the pun is offered, but the author acknowledges that it’s a tease and probably the reader won’t solve it in time.

Is one joke’s pacing better than the other?  No.

Both are appropriate for their content–and are designed to effectively manipulate their respective audiences (for example, the first one definitely takes the attention span of a five-year-old into account).

You study pacing just like I did above:  type it in, break it down.  Over and over again.  The connection between the content and pacing of a particular passage might not be obvious at first; it’s probably better to read the whole work, then double back and start studying (although I do do some cold pacing study every week on SF/F/H long-term professionals, and that’s good, too).

Getting to the point where you can “see” pacing is a weird process.  It comes in fits and starts…and I doubt there’s any end to how much depth you can get out of it.  Right now I’m working a lot on the pacing of the openings and closings of various levels of storytelling, and it’s really interesting.  But even if all you do is type in the opening of your favorite book and take a quick look at it, you’re bound to find something wonderful and strangely appropriate.

Pacing.

What is it?

Where writers get really clever.  And often don’t even know it.

 

*Spider Robinson, “Have You Heard The One…?” from The Callahan Chronicals.

 

 

 

August 50% Promotion @ Kobo

Kobo always has a ton of sales.  From now until August 22, 50% off a bunch of titles, including Alice.

Here’s the link for all the books in the promotion.  The promo code is 50AUG.

Alice's Adventures in Underland Book 1

Alice’s Adventures in Underland Book 1

And here’s the link for Alice.

 

Information Management & Storytelling, Part II: Beginnings

So after I wrote the previous post on information management, I let my subconscious play with the idea.  Sometimes, sometimes, if I’ve done my homework and researched my researches and thought my thinks, my subconscious can be set loose on a problem and can come up with an answer.  Voila!  Insight.

It was another one of those blatantly obvious ones, in retrospect.  So blatantly obvious that I had actually told myself the answer weeks ago.

So:  if information management is the art of storytelling, as opposed to a craft, then of course your mileage is going to vary here.  Because there are a thousand ways to open a book or a chapter or a scene–and every one of them is right, as long as it makes the reader happy.

But this is one technique that makes me happy.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I like to cut right to the action in a scene.

This is generally exactly the wrong thing to do.

Because guess what goes in the beginning of a scene?

All the things that people tell me that they get confused about.

Scene descriptions, character descriptions, backstory, opinion, how much time has passed, setup on future plot points, setup on character development, setup on mood and theme…

Ugh.

I was in the shower (you know that showers are the quickest way to get ideas, right?) and suddenly I realized it:  I had figured out the theory of the thing in my current state of advice to other writers:

Beginnings introduce the story in its various aspects:  character, setting, plot, theme, etc.

SO MAYBE IF YOU’RE CONFUSING READERS ON ONE OF THESE ASPECTS, THIS IS THE FIRST PLACE TO CHECK.

[Slaps self on forehead.]

Anyway, I started a new book for a client, and he’s giving me feedback as I’m writing it, which normally annoys the holy shit out of me, but is working well now–because I’m taking his notes about things that are confusing and writing new beginnings on the scenes where he’s confused.

And it’s wonderful.

Instead of trying to bury the information that I need to bury somewhere in the scene, I write a new opening to the scene.  If he is not confused, I don’t.  I have a couple of scenes that don’t have a lot of opening to them at all–but now I can look at them and go, “There’s a reason I don’t need to introduce the scene for more than a line or two.”  In one case it’s because the scene after that scene is all backstory that explains a timejump (and shows how much the character grew over his obnoxious teenage years while we weren’t following him around, thank God); in another case, it’s because the setting is the scene–a guy is getting chased around a city, and you get description of the city layered in as he runs.

Whenever he says he’s confused, I find a new way to open the scene.  Usually I don’t have to rewrite anything–I’m just add a completely new opening of the scene, right before what I thought was the actual opening of the scene.

I’ve been typing in a lot of Dan Simmons’s The Terror lately (and am thinking about working deeply with Drood, too).  His chapter openings (and endings) have multiple layers to them–he’ll do an opening that establishes character, and then another opening that establishes setting, and then another opening that transitions the reader from the inside of the character’s head and into the action of the story.  He’ll have thousands of words of a character pondering their backstory, then the dark and the ice and the stinking ship upon which they are stranded, then come back to the here and now as they get ready to talk to someone.

Granted, The Terror is a really thick novel, in more ways than one.  But a technique of using multiple openings is a thing, and I can do it if I want to.  Or at least to the extent that it works for me in each chapter.

Nyaa.

Something I’d like you to do, if you have a moment:  go back to the beginning of this post and read it again…but only after the first set of section-break formatting dots.  Those three dots are where I would have started a week ago, thinking that I had said everything that needed to be explained in order to set up the blog post.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I approached this blog more like I’ve been approaching those ghostwriting chapters:  take some time and set things up.  I didn’t think too hard about what was going in there; I just wrote.  But I think the blog post flows better with it than without.

Those chapters very certainly do–the client is very happy.

Blog posts take time that I’m not using to write fiction.  So if you’d like to express your gratitude for this post or my blog in general, sign up for my newsletter.  I’m really behind on it so I think you’re pretty safe from newsletter harassment, but if I do get one sent out anytime soon, I promise to include a couple of bad puns.  I’m trying to ease myself out of doing so much ghostwriting, and into writing more for myself–and one of the best ways to do that is to build a mailing list of people who are a) loyal fans, b) moderately interested fans, or c) can be bribed into forwarding things on social media.

If you’re not a fan of bad puns, all I can say is that at least the newsletters don’t come out very often…

 

Information Management & Storytelling

So I had another one of those big-picture insights.  I wish I had an interesting story about how it came about, but I don’t.  I was just sitting in front of the computer working on an outline for a client and…pop!

It happens sometimes, you know.  I have a brain like a computer.  You set up a properly-worded program, and the computer masticates its painstaking way through said program until it pops out results.

I was complaining to Jamie Ferguson that I hate trying to deal with information management in stories–when to tell a piece of information, how to deliver it, when to hold it back, etc., etc., because I seem to be so bad at it.

“Um, great story but it was confusing” = story of my career.

I just got another rejection that was like, “Hey, I can tell you have a great voice but goddamn if I can figure out what was going on here.”

Siiiigh.

The conversation drifted, as it does, but apparently I said something that triggered the internal computer to start grinding its way through the question.  What is information management, that I am so bad at it?  Is it more than the obvious, of just picking the right time to tell your reader what they need to know?

So it busily ground away, without me really paying much attention. Until…pop!

I probably couldn’t have come up with this until just now, or at least after the previous realization about defining story.

When I sit down to write, I basically just transcribe whatever the voice in my head is saying until it runs out of words, and then I go do something else until it catches up again.  Sometimes that’s housework; sometimes it’s just staring at the screen and drooling.  As you do.

That time, I ran out of story-words and thought,

Hey…isn’t information management just how you tell the story?

Hey…isn’t how you tell any given story all about the information management?

I drooled and stared at the screen.

After a while, I got up and did the dishes and made some tea.  For a while, the little black marks on the screen didn’t make any sense.

Then, fortunately, the part of my brain that was working on the actual story caught up with me and started saying the same words over and over again, which is usually my cue to sit down and start dumping them on the page.  Until…

Everyone manages information differently, you know.  How much, how little.  When you tell the reader.  Why you tell the reader.

How much you lie.  How much you make the reader wait for it.

One of the funny things about one of my clients is that he is always fooled by my outlines.  What I think of as the most obvious twists, if I don’t warn him and have to stop in the middle of an outline for some reason, he’s like, “DON’T TELL ME THAT THE HERO IS REALLY GOING TO DO X.”  I have to leave him notes:  “Note:  Really, the hero has faith in the heroine, he’s just faking it in front of the bad guy, he doesn’t really break up with her at this time.”

It feels like the Grandfather talking to the Grandson in The Princess Bride sometimes.

I love that.

That’s what storytelling is, spits out the program as it works through its iterations.  Plots never change, characters never change.  Good storytelling is just really good information management.

Just watch the first couple of minutes of that movie:  kid coughing, a video game with the sound going slightly flat.  A bored kid, a plastic-faced patient mother who gives him the forehead-fever kiss.  The grandfather is here to see you.  I don’t want him to come, he always pinches my cheek.  He’s already here, be nice, he’s old.  Ta-daaa! says the grandfather, already having read the look on the grandson’s face an instant before he speaks.  He has a book in his hand…

You already know it’s gonna be good.  Moment one, all the ducks are already in a row.

When you set all the craft aside, that’s where the art is.  

Nothing more than information management.

***

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Current Fiction Writing Advice – 8/1/16

OVERALL

  • The best people to get fiction writing advice from are long-term professional writers who have been supporting themselves through their fiction work for 15+ years, publishing at least a book a year (therefore not relying on a fluke).  Short story collection = 1 book.  Other types of writing (e.g., graphic novels) don’t count.
  • Therefore I’m not the best person to get advice from; feel free to read what I got but a lot of it’s repeated from other sources and there may be a lot lost in translation.
  • Business writing advice is a whole different ballpark; I’m not going to cover that here, and I suck at it anyway.
  • What makes a story good isn’t the plot or characters or any separate aspect of the story–what makes the story good is the storyteller, not only in the sense that the storyteller has a job to do (making stories), but also in the sense that the storyteller is the story.

HOW TO WRITE (the short version):

  • Be yourself.  This is more important than it sounds at first.
  • Read a lot.  For pleasure first, even if later you get all analytical.
  • Write a lot (in the millions of words range).
  • Type in, outline, and research the work of long term professionals whose work you love.
  • Experiment with other people’s advice rather than swallowing it whole.  If it works, great.
  • Don’t wait to get “good” before locating opportunities for rejection.  (It doesn’t count if the possibility of getting published doesn’t exist.)
  • Don’t work for free.  This is not just a business move.
  • Either readers give a shit about how you make them feel or they don’t.  If they don’t give a shit, it’s on you–either up your game or get better readers or both.

HOW TO WRITE (higher level theory)

  • I mostly deal with Western commercial “genre” fiction.
  • Western commercial fiction (from the cultures descended from European countries) is all about beginnings, middles, and endings.
  • Western commercial fiction relies on conflict.
  • Modern Western commercial fiction relies on free will and resolving or failing to resolve one’s conflicts rather than the actions of the gods or fate, although those elements can be used if handled with sensitivity.
  • Modern Western commercial fiction relies on tricking the reader into feeling that they are either “in” the world of the story, or are otherwise emotionally connected to it.
  • Current techniques for studying modern Western commercial fiction involve breaking down fiction into different aspects–plot, character, mood, theme, etc.  However, these things aren’t truly separate and divisions between them are artificial.

HOW TO WRITE (medium level theory)

  • Beginnings introduce the story in its various aspects:  character, setting, plot, theme, etc.
  • Middles carry the story through permutations of conflict.  The character tries to resolve the conflict, continuously failing to do so in one way or another–either because of their own actions, or because the situation gets worse.
  • Endings resolve the conflict, either successfully or unsuccessfully, and wrap up loose ends so the reader feels at ease with finishing the story.
  • The patterns of beginnings, middles, and endings are repeated on every scale and through every aspect of fiction.  Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and ending; each scene has a beginning, middle, and ending; each beat has a beginning, middle, and ending; each character (and each character trait) has a beginning, middle, and ending; each setting has a beginning, middle, and ending; etc., etc.

HOW TO WRITE (ground level theory)

  • Find what works for you.  This is what works for me.
  • Get in character with sensory detail, character attitude, and internal monologue about the setting:  beginnings.  Plot takes a backseat for a bit.
  • In the beginning of the middle, exploit the possibilities hinted at in the beginning as tools for resolving the conflict.  Drastically change the level of conflict in the middle of the middles.  At the end of the middle, prove that none of the tools from the beginning will work, even as the external situation gets worse.
  • Detail the logical consequences of trying to solve the conflict at the endings (which often goes poorly…until the last second, perhaps, during the final scenes), then hint at the next thing to come OR tell the reader there’s no more (the end of the end).

HOW TO WRITE (butt level theory)

  • Whatever works to get the words on the page and out the door is the right thing to do.
  • If it does not get the words on the page and out the door, it is not the right thing to do.
  • “But I just–“
  • No.

FAQ

  • Should I write to market?  Up to you.  The market changes.  As soon as you get good at one thing, you have to switch what you’re doing and write something else–if you only write to market.  If it’s fun, though.
  • Should I get major in English/get a creative writing degree/go to a Masters program/take an online class/go to writer conferences/take a free class?  Up to you.  Main question:  is the education being provided by a long-term professional writer who has supporting themselves through their work (not by teaching classes) for the last 15+ years, publishing a book a year?  If not, apply salt proportionate to cost.
  • Should I self-publish?  If and when you’re reasonably prepared for a one-star review from someone who doesn’t get your work and who insults you personally, you can self-publish.
  • How much should I edit?  Nobody cares as long as the story makes them feel the way they wanted to feel.
  • What story structure should I use?  Whatever works.  Nobody gives a shit what story structure you use unless it doesn’t work.
  • Should I outline or not?  Nobody cares as long as the story is good.
  • But so-and-so said I had to…  No.  Nobody cares as long as the story is good.

 

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