Month: June 2019

Which is more important, a good idea or good craft?

A question came up on Twitter that I’d like to address:

Is it more important to have good ideas or good craft as a writer?

A professional writer had told the questioner that good ideas were more important than good craft; that agents and editors needed something unique to sell and they could edit it better later but they can’t add ideas.

In my opinion, this sort of dichotomy misses the point entirely, and, on top of that I feel that the professional writer’s answer (whoever they were, I don’t know) was biased by their status as a professional writer.

To a professional writer who has already achieved a certain level of craft, the level of craft is no longer a factor.  To a professional writer with a sufficient level of craft, they no longer have to worry about craft.

They should, because you can always get better.  But it may appear to a writer at a certain level of craft as though it’s the ideas that are the issue, not the craft, if they get accepted or turned down on a proposal or submission.

In my opinion, here’s the actual answer.

  • You have to have a certain level of craft before you’re worth editing.
  • That level of craft appears to involve the intermediate-level skills I’ve been talking about on this blog:  pacing, structure (not plot), control of sensory details, character voice, and information flow.
  • Once you have that level of craft, readers who are not mostly like you can enjoy reading your work, and you have a wide enough appeal.
  • Craft is a factor but not the factor.
  • Ideas are a dime a dozen; without craft, they’re worth nothing.
  • A good, hooky idea is worth something, but cannot on its own guarantee success.
  • An “original” idea probably isn’t.
  • People enjoy remakes, retellings, and tropes more than originality in every art form imaginable; truly original work can take years to appreciate.
  • For example, it always takes me 2-4 years to appreciate a new Bjork album.  And I like her stuff.
  • Ideas are a factor in the success of a story but not the factor either.

What is it, then?  What is the secret key to success as a writer?

Make the reader feel something.

No one element of writing arouses feeling in a reader.  Each element of writing exists because it contributes to, and controls, the arousal of feeling–but it is all of those elements working in concert that causes the arousal.

Including, and especially, the reader.

(In other words, please don’t take it personally if people don’t like your stuff.)

The world is madness which can only be combatted with sly nonsense.  Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!

 

Short Stories for Novel Writers, and Vice Versa

If you are a short story writer, then it is likely that you struggle with writing novels; if you are a novel writer, then it is likely that you struggle with writing short stories.

And yet people do write short stories, and they do write novels, so it must not be impossible.  Just…difficult to translate.

NOVEL WRITERS

A short story has four basic pieces.

  • Setup (a character in a setting with a problem).
  • The character tries to do something.
  • The attempt either succeeds or fails.
  • Wrapup (where the characters end up, whether the setting changes, and how the problem is resolved).

I’m going to guesstimate and say that a setup takes about 400 words, a wrapup about the same or less, and each try takes 400 words.

You can have several tries, but each will require 400ish words, with an extra 200 words of transition or setup, and another 200 words or so if you change settings.  I highly recommend that multiple tries in the same story be aimed at the exact same goal.  As the character fails at one tactic, they shift to another, but it’s still the same goal.

Some notes:

  • For flash fiction, generally, the charactor and/or setting are implied, and the problem gets the biggest description.
  • If you’re reading a short story and can’t spot the setup or wrapup, it’s because it happens elsewhere in the story, shh, almost like a secret.  Mostly don’t do this, but if your heart guides you there, it can be done.  Generally the story has to be pretty short to get away with this.
  • Don’t try to cut words on the setup.  Just write at your normal novelist pace.  You won’t have too much to set up, so it probably won’t end up as long anyhow.
  • I would stick to like 3 tries to do something.  Otherwise you’re going to start going, “Time for a plot twist!” and turn it into a novel.
  • To a novelist, a novelette is a laboriously long short story, like “The Metamorphosis” or “The Old Man and the Sea.”  The novelette is mostly about one main thing, and you don’t really need a novel’s plot points.

SHORT STORY WRITERS

A novel is a fractal short story.

  • The novel as a whole has a setup, a big push to do something (the main point of the story), and a wrapup, just like a short story.
  • However, every element has fractal setups, fractal tries in which the character attempts to do something, and fractal wrapups.
  • The difference is that you can’t resolve anything until the climax, or the overall main push of the story.
  • Thus, every attempt by the protagonist to do something must fail until they hit the climax.

The difference between a series of interconnected short stories and a novel is that the interconnected short stories have mini resolutions at the end of each short story.  A novel has zero resolutions until you hit the climax.  The wrapup resolves everything not already covered in the climax.

Some notes:

  • If it looks like something is going well in a novel, there must be something truly awful happening right afterward.  Two characters reconcile?  Soon, one of them will be dead.
  • A chapter as a whole has a one main “try.”  Each scene has its own “try.”  Inside each scene, there are a number of different “tries.”  Every time a character tries a new tactic, it’s a new “try.”
  • Each try will have a setup, a try, a failure of some kind, and a wrapup.  The setup and wrapup might be implied, or super short.
  • Transitional material between tries doesn’t itself have to be a try.  It’s more of an extended setup.  No worries.
  • Generally, the entire novel is split into like four main tries.  Low level tries (first 25%), well that was interesting tries (second 25%), HOLY SHIT THINGS GOT SERIOUS tries (third 25%), and We Are Putting This to Bed (last 25%).
  • There is usually some Big Stinking Deal at the 50% mark that makes everything 10 times more serious.
  • The last section is weird, and usually ends up with 75-85% being getting ready for the climax, 85-95% being the climax, and the last 5% being the wrapup.
  • These percentage things are weirdly consistent; I’ve been checking on my Kindle.
  • A novella is a short novel, like Heart of Darkness or The Turn of the Screw, where a lot of stuff is going on on a fractal level, but you’re in and out, BOOM, no subplots.
  • Subplots often have either exactly the same plot as the main plot, or exactly reversed.  Subplots tend to look like minor short stories “stitched” into the main plot in a dotted line, where most of that plot is hidden by the fabric but pops up occasionally to show off the thread.

POETS, PLAYWRIGHTS, LYRICISTS, AND OTHERS

Oh GOD.  You literally do have to tell readers everything in a short story and in a novel.  You have to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them about what you just told them.  Literally 80% of what you write is explaining, and re-explaining, what the fuck is going on.  This is no different in a mystery.  You hide nothing.  It’s appalling how little fiction readers actually notice what’s going on, but it pays better.  The more you explain, as long as you explain in character, the more readers will like it.

Also, fiction writers tend to screw up the details and dialogue.  They get wrapped up in plot and forget about making it feel, and sound, real.  Put in good sense details and dialogue, and the readers will be all over it, even if you can’t plot for shit.

The world is madness which can only be combatted with sly nonsense.  Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!

The New Thing

Once upon a time, a person had an ambition to do something new.  This new thing, it didn’t seem like a big deal.  “Aha!” said the person.  “I’ll just tuck that into the corners of what I’m already doing.  It will be fine.”

But it was not fine.

The new thing kept getting pushed back on the schedule.  There were always a million things that needed to be done, and the new thing, being new, was last on the list.  It involved a bit of a stretch, you see, so the person couldn’t just start work on the new thing.  There were other moving parts that had to be handled before the new thing could really get rolling.  A learning curve was involved.

Because the new thing hadn’t seemed like a big deal, and still didn’t, really, the person had promised to do something with the new thing that had a deadline involved.

And that deadline was fast approaching.

“All right,” said the person, “time to do the new thing.  For real this time.”

The person decided that all that was lacking was a little resolve.  Everything would still be fine.

Unfortunately, it was not fine.  The deadline was blown, people were disappointed.  The person may even have suffered a series of illnesses and minor emergencies during this time.  The new thing could all still be patched together, but it wasn’t actually fine anymore.  It was too late for that.

This time, the person really did dig in and start on the new thing. They didn’t want to fail at something so small.  So not a big deal.  But as the new thing drained more and more of their time and energy, they realized something:  they kind of hated the new thing now, and the only thing keeping them moving forward was just the idea of failing.

In the end, they finished the new thing.  Never again, they swore.  Or at least, never that foolishly again.  The new thing, now that they’d worked out most of the bugs, wasn’t so new.  If they just gave themselves a little extra time…

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.  I must have done this a hundred times since I started freelancing.  I’ll come up with an idea for a project, and it will sound like the easiest thing in the world.  Then I’ll try to start working on it.

And even before I can run into actual setbacks, I’ll put everything off.  Something about starting doesn’t feel quite right.  So I don’t.  Until it’s almost too late.

It usually turns out that I’m fighting myself.  I’m scared of what I might accomplish if I succeed.  I’m scared of people I might piss off if I write the wrong thing.  I’m terrified I’ll end up with a hundred one-star reviews, or a book full of typos, or a blog post that someone sneers at in front of me, or a badly-created book cover.  There is no end to the nightmare scenarios I can come up with.

I’m not alone, though.  I see other people doing this to themselves, too, especially writers who procrastinate to the point of self-sabotage.

I think a lot of writers have big problems with scaling the learning curve on anything that isn’t writing.  We spend a lot of time learning how to write.  Trying to master another skill is like adding insult to injury, as if being a successful writer means you not only have to learn how to be a brain surgeon, but also a used car salesman.  “I just want to write!” is something you hear a lot from writers.

Other people, too, but because I mostly know writers…it seems like we’re the worst.

Everyone resists growth at least a little.  It’s hard.  But writers seem to be especially good at resisting—possibly because actual growth as a writer almost always involves either heartbreak or hundreds of hours of work, and usually both.

I don’t mean to lecture you as people, readers, or even as writers, saying that you just need to push a little harder, get started a little sooner, and fear success a little less.  That’s too exhausting to even think about.  Ugh, we’re already good at beating ourselves up.  Just no.

My only real point is:

When this happens to you, just remember, it’s completely normal.

My advice is to laugh at yourself a little as you get back up again, apologize to anyone you pissed off, and move on to the next no-big-deal-next-to-impossible project.

Trust me, you won’t be able to resist.

This post originally ran in the Wonderland Press Newsletter.  Interested?  Sign up here.

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