Month: March 2020

No Blog Today!

With the shutdowns due to COVID-19 and various other real-life disruptions, I decided to just acknowledge that it wasn’t business as usual for yours truly, and do a short (but nutty) project about helping writers cope, particularly writers who weren’t used to working from home or having the time to conceive of what they do as a business.

I decided to start it April Fool’s Day, because that’s how my brain works.

More later 🙂 Please stay safe.

Writing Craft: How to write faster and more often (more burning questions!)

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

Faster.

Believe it or not, the secret of writing faster is to not write slowly. Whatever your normal typing speed is, that’s your normal writing speed, unless you’re doing something that slows you down. You can write as fast as your fingers will carry you forward—if you don’t get in your own way.

That’s a pretty big if, though.

Most of us have been taught to distrust ourselves, our perceptions of the world, our creative natures in general, and our imagination in specific.

And, unfortunately, most of us don’t actually start out knowing how to write professional-level fiction, and are trying to assemble a working theory from first principles…while we’re making up a story.

In theory, writing fast is simple. In practice, quite hard.

The tricks of writing faster come down to forcing or fooling your brain into not noticing that it’s typing faster than it thinks it should—then measuring the speed—then telling your brain that that is the new acceptable average speed.

The meat of writing faster is learning how to write, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel while increasing word count. We’ll cover learning how to write later in the book.

Some tricks still might help while you’re learning, though…

(Click here for tips on how to write faster, and more often!)

What Makes a Good Blog?

Blogging, in general, has overall strategies and individual tactics. I’m not going to talk about why to blog, what to blog in general (although I will touch on what to blog in particular), or how often to blog. This is just a blog on tactics. What makes a good blog? How do you sit down and write, right now, a satisfying blog post?

First: what is a blog post?

It’s not a news article; it’s not a diary entry. It is not quite a newspaper opinion piece, but it’s close: newspaper opinion pieces are much bigger in scope than your average blog. A blog ideally contains neither reasoned arguments nor ranting, although sometimes it does so.

A blog is a writer’s opinion on a topic—their thoughts, if you will.

And yet it is perfectly possible to enjoy a blog when you disagree with the opinion presented, and even if you know the facts are a bit off. And it is perfectly possible to hate a blog even when you agree with it.

A blog, then, is not merely a writer’s opinion on a topic, although without an opinion, a blog will feel flat, stiff, and uninteresting.

What makes a blog enjoyable? What makes it worthwhile?

The facts that are presented in a blog—really, even the topic of the blog itself—is more or less immaterial. It’s all about who’s writing the blog, not about what’s being written.

Your voice.

Whatever you write, however you write it, should carry your voice. But blogs especially should carry your voice.

A simple pattern for a blog is to make clear the facts or situations you want to discuss, give your opinion on them, then conclude that you’re right to do so. A perfectly good blog results.

You often see it in food-writing blogs: the recipe is explained; the author gives their opinion about how the recipe turned out, what adaptations they made to their source, and what they would do differently the next time; the author concludes that the food was eaten (victory!). Then comes the recipe, which many readers would prefer to read first.

There are other food blog patterns, like “let me tell you about my vacation, after which I cooked this thing” and semi-informative articles about food or health that seem fact-focused, but are mainly about hooking the reader with an opinion.

For an example of the latter, here’s a blog on selecting the best chickpeas at food-writing website The Kitchn: “I Tried 10 Different Cans of Chickpeas and There Was One Clear Winner.” It would seem like an informative, fact-filled piece. Several types of chickpeas are tested in various states: drained and uncooked, in hummus, roasted and crispy. In the end, one of the types of chickpeas is declared the winner.

Are the chickpeas tested in any sort of objective way? No. No metrics were mentioned. Are the chickpeas tested by a panel of experts? Also no. They were tested by “a group of testers” in a blind tasting—the same sort of situation as the taste tests between Coke and Pepsi in years of yore.

Was the blog written with an objective tone? Wow, no. It’s 675 words long. Thirteen of those words were I. Three mys. One your. Fourteen wes. Two ours. The blog is written with a personal tone, centered on the author and the testing group. About five percent of the words are personal pronouns.

Should the blog have been tested objectively, by a panel of experts, in an impersonal tone? I don’t think so; I enjoyed the blog that was there, and would have been less interested in a dry article. Will I rush out and buy the recommended brand of chickpeas? No. I thought about making some hummus, though.

Mmmm, hummus.

When reading the article, you might not notice that it’s written from an opinionated position. A journalist would notice, of course. But an average reader would probably not do so—unless they didn’t like the tone of the blog, or they disagreed with the opinion. Most people will simply be drawn along by the piece. It’s a solid piece, although not exceptional: the most action you’re likely to be inspired to do is to stop and think about food in general, chickpeas in particular, perhaps a specific chickpea brand or two, and wish that you had more time to cook—or feel proud that you were taking the time to cook.

However, the blog doesn’t contain a lot of personality, a lot of the author’s voice. You get a sense that you know someone has written the piece; it wasn’t generated by a computer. But who wrote the piece isn’t clear: they like chickpeas and would prefer their chickpeas to have a reasonably good quality. More than that is difficult to guess. And, for what the piece is meant to do, that is sufficient.

What interests me in a blog is when I can get a sense of who the author is, without the author having to describe themselves.—Some authors do describe themselves, at great length, and are amusing when they do so. The Bloggess has made a career for herself in describing herself and her (mis-)adventures, things that she likes, and (yay!) things that she doesn’t.  Other authors don’t describe themselves; Seth Godin always amuses me, even though he talks about you and about generalities far more often than he talks about himself or anything so specific as to have a location, a date, or a name. Here’s a fairly typical blog: “Of course it’s a difficult problem.” He goes on to say “All the easy ones are already solved.” His blog is a bit Zen, a bit oversimplified, even a bit patronizing—but I always enjoy it, and I admire the skill with which he reveals himself without actually giving you information about himself in the blogs (although he does provide more information elsewhere).

Those are good blogs. But what about the best blogs?

I don’t know about other writers, but here’s how it works for me: my most satisfying, “best” blog posts happen when the process of writing changes my opinion of what I write. Those are the fun blogs, the ones where I learn that ancient Romans used to ward off the evil eye with flying penises. This blog is one such blog post, too. When I journaled on this topic as an early draft, I completely missed the opinionated-but-not-voicy blog posts that are the mainstay of most “informative” blogs. I went searching for a random, typical voicy foodie blog, and almost facepalmed myself. Duh.

I feel like this post only livens up when I reached the point where I stopped regurgitating what I already had in mind to write. Before that, it’s stiff and uninteresting (in my opinion). A bunch of stuffy blather. I decided to leave the opening as it was, though, so you could see the difference. At least it’s clear, and it’s not too long. I hope it’s not so offputting that people skip this blog before they get to what I consider the good parts, but—well. I couldn’t blame them if they did.

The endings of blogs are always the worst for me. I usually scroll up to the beginning and see if there’s something I can steal.—No, not this time. It bores me. I’m just going to have to come up with an ending on my own. My past self didn’t leave me any bread crumbs to find my way home.

So let me just say that I’m glad I wrote this, even if it wasn’t what I expected to have written when I started. Viva la blog!

Like what you read here? More of the same at the Wonderland Press newsletter!

 

 

 

Writing Craft: Am I even a real writer, and other burning questions.

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

This section contains questions that I have struggled with myself, or have heard more than once from friends, colleagues, and clients. My initial list was quite long; I could write a full-length book addressing questions that writers use to distract themselves from their work.

At the heart of each question is: But I’m tired.

At the heart of each answer is: I know. Give yourself a break, but don’t give up.

  1. Am I even a real writer?

If you are reading this book at all, you are likely a natural storyteller who enjoys stories in general, and, further, enjoys immersing yourself in your own stories, whether written or merely daydreamed. Asking “Am I even a real writer?” is neither useful nor appropriate. You are already marked, blessed, or cursed with a tendency to make up stories, and it is unlikely that you can remove that tendency. You can only bury it, at which point it will, like many repressed talents and emotions, cause you to make a complete ass of yourself on a regular basis.

If you don’t create something, no matter how bad it is, you’ll probably end up self-destructive, depressed, a burden upon those who love you, and an annoyance to those who don’t.

My advice is to buy the fancy journal and the too-expensive pen, and use those tools to write complete trash. You, and the world, will be better for it, even if none of your writing ever sees the light of day.

If you need it, you have my permission to write poorly, with no success or recognition whatsoever, upon whatever self-indulgent daydream suits you best.

Your writing is probably not as bad, or as good, as you think.

(Continued here.)

Why can’t I write high fantasy?

So I’ve always struggled to write high fantasy.

“High fantasy” was a term coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander, author of The Black Cauldron and other novels, to describe fantasy set in a secondary world that is not a version of the “real” world. The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.

I like reading high fantasy; I just struggle to write it. (Unless it’s set in Wonderland, for some reason; I’ll take a guess at it in a minute.)

Example:

I designed a short story to be told about a 1920s-style secondary, high-fantasy world in which all the machines were really enslaved fae. The high elves ran everything; humans thought they were the lowest of the low, but then discovered that the machines that everyone took for granted were even worse off.

I couldn’t write it.

I ended up using the core idea about the machines for a short fantasy story set in 1920s Hollywood, where Baba Yaga sets herself to reclaim two house fae from a movie actress.

That story? Easy to write.

I remained mystified until I read an article by Emma Whitney called, “What Is It with Us and ‘Good Royalty’?”

She says that “good royalty” seems to be a big factor in YA fantasy set in secondary worlds. She posits that some reasons may be that we’re used to seeing monarchy in fantasy and have internalized it; that monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger; and that making people part of the monarchy gives them access to power, which makes stories move faster (so you don’t have to spend a lot of time with a poverty-stricken, uneducated newbie character).

It’s the second part that resonates with me: monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger.

That’s just it. I don’t like stories that have a big scope. I like stories about one person experiencing personal wonder, personal horror, personal mysteries. I love it when those things have wider implications, but please don’t start me out in a book by trying to save the world. I would much rather read about characters acting for small, petty reasons.

I am always going to like The Hobbit (where a story of small scope gets out of hand) over The Lord of the Rings, where the fate of the world was always at stake.  I like Stephen Brust’s Dragaera series, because when the tale goes epic, it also gets petty: an apocalypse happens because some arrogant (noble) dipshit thought he could control a pony nuke near a uranium mine, as it were.  Don’t tell them that I meant well…

In video games, I’m always looking for an excuse to reset a character or start over with a new one. (I just did this in Grim Dawn.) My favorite fairy tales aren’t the ones about kings and queens, but about the braggart tailor who killed “seven with one blow”–seven flies, that is. High-powered characters just don’t do it for me.

In case you were wondering, I see Wonderland as the tale of a girl who thinks power is just as crazy as anything else that’s going on: royalty is obviously corrupt, possibly horrifying (as in the case of the Red King’s Dream, in which if he wakes, we’ll all “go out–bang!–like a candle”), and all of the characters, Alice included, are foolish and petty.

I think the core of my issue is: I don’t trust the concept of “heroism.” People trying to do the right thing? Sure. But when I see a hero, I look for the sleight of hand; such stories always seem like propaganda to me.

I think the closest I’ve come to a high fantasy that works for me is The House Without a Summer. The main character is a marquis, the son of an earl.  The wealth, power, and magical resources are all high-leveled. The scope is the universe (potentially).

But.

Wealth and power aren’t just there to expand the scope of the story, but are the story problem itself: if it weren’t for wealth and power, none of this ever would have happened, and the characters could just leave. And the scope…well, the scope gets very small indeed.

All of which make me comfortable with the world of the story.

(Mostly; there’s one chapter that always makes me go, “This book is terrible! I should at least delete this chapter,” but that’s because I put my own hot-button fear and dreads in there, and my subconscious wants to avoid even having to think about it.)

Will I ever write “regular” high fantasy? Probably not. But I would like to be able to write in secondary worlds.  So thinking all of this through has me at least a little hopeful. It might not be that I can’t write well in secondary worlds, but that I have to be more careful about what stories and worlds I attempt them with.

Like what you read here? More of the same at the Wonderland Press newsletter!

New Release: The House Without a Summer

The House Without a Summer

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

The year is 1816, in Northamptonshire. A red, spiderwebbed haze covers the sun. Temperatures drop, fields flood and freeze, grain rots on the stem. The people are starving, and even the wealthy and titled are affected by shortages. Sickness spreads as a red fungus overtakes fields, seals over windows, and infiltrates cellars.

On the way back from the Napoleonic Wars in France, Marcus, the younger son of the Earl of Penderbrook, returns to find his brother dead, the estate covered in fungus, and his father sinking into madness.

The last thing Marcus wants to do is be responsible for Penderbook; he wants only to spend the rest of his life playing cards, drinking, and seducing other men’s wives. But even the responsible life of an heir escapes from his grasp, as his brother’s body disappears, his father turns violent, and pale monsters horrify the countryside.

As Marcus pieces together the truth, he discovers a past more tainted with evil than he could have suspected.

From the family wine cellar to the folly behind the house—from the pond where he played as a child to the new cotton mill built along the stream—

None of what happens at Penderbrook is innocent.

And the monstrosities that have been committed may still be carried in Marcus’s blood…

A tale of transformation and terror, set in the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

A Sample from A House Without a Summer

Historical Note

The year of 1816 was known as “the year without a summer.” Across the world, temperatures dropped. Snows and frosts lasted until June, interspersed with heavy rain. Sunspots visible to the naked eye covered the sun. Crops rotted in the wet fields. When the fields were replanted, the crops rotted again.

Napoleon had only just been defeated. A plague of typhus spread across Europe, killing more people than the Corsican general had. Merchants bought up what stores of grain there were to be had, increasing prices. Farmers refused to sell their grain outside of their home districts. In Great Britain, what with one thing and another—including the ludicrous Corn Laws, designed to keep the prices of grain high—over a hundred thousand people died of illness and starvation. Food riots happened all across Britain and France.

To some, it was very nearly the end of the world.

The year before, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted in what was then the Dutch East Indies. It was an eruption ten times as powerful as that of Mount Krakatoa in 1883. The Mount Tambora eruption was the most powerful one known in recorded history, at a seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. (Krakatoa was a six; Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens were fives.) So much gas and dust were thrown into the atmosphere that it chilled the surface of the earth for two years. Worldwide famine followed.

Painter J.M.W. Turner caught the strangely miscolored skies after the eruption. His paintings from before the tragedy, in 1814, depict skies of a cool, bluer hue; afterwards, at dawn and sunset, the skies in his paintings burned the color of blood, and in daylight hummed with an almost eerie golden light.

The light remained in its distorted colors for almost the rest of Turner’s career; he died in 1851.

The summer of 1816 saw Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in Geneva, Switzerland, telling Gothic tales with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the doctor John Polidori. The rains kept them indoors most of that summer. Mary Shelly’s ghost story was that of a resurrected man, and the mad doctor who brings the creature back from the dead: thus, Frankenstein was born. It also saw author Jane Austen beginning to sicken and fade from a mysterious illness, from which she died in 1817.

By September 1816, the snows had begun again. In fact, snow tinted red from volcanic ash fell in some parts Italy all throughout the year.

It was the Regency Era.

While the upper classes held their endless parties, balls, and operas, attended gambling hells, scrambled to make advantageous marriages for their daughters, and obsessed over French fashion, the lower classes rioted and starved.

Many people were convinced the world was ending.

Prologue – The Crystal Palace

It wasn’t until Miss Lucy Abbott had attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 several times that she began to truly understand what had happened in the year of 1816.

Decades had passed; the unendurable, mad year of 1816 had come to a close; those who had died had faded from memory for the most part, either disappearing as if they had never lived, or taking on the aspect of the people they ought to have been, rather than the blackguards they were. In particular, the reputation of the Earl of Penderbrook had been much ameliorated.

In Lucy’s secret heart of hearts, she suspected that she herself had been changed little by what had happened, although at the time she had felt herself to have been transformed entire. What she had lost seemed the world to her. But, both before the tragedy and after, she was as dark of mind and eye as ever; her heart still dwelled upon the injustices that she saw everywhere. But who might she have been, if events had occurred otherwise? A wife, a mother, and a fine addition to society—if somewhat macabre of humor and a little too interested in novels.

Until the Great Exhibition, she had supposed herself entirely recovered of her peace of mind. And indeed, the first several times she visited the Crystal Palace, home to the exhibition, she felt only wonder, sore feet, and delight.

But as the Great Exhibition progressed, her heart began to leap uncomfortably about in her chest: at the sight of certain too-familiar, yet altogether featureless faces; the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies; even the sound of a laugh, shrill yet commanding, that reminded her of the Earl’s.

As she wound her way through the endless exhibits collected by Prince Albert and his committees, she was forced to remind herself more and more often that she was not walking through the halls of Penderbrook.

Penderbrook was gone as though it had never existed.

Thank God.

When first the Great Exhibition had opened, she had gone to see it like everyone else: it was a marvel, a wonder, the gathering of all that was brightest and best in the world, the promise of increase and prosperity to all mankind. She went because she had been invited by friends. She went because she had always had more curiosity than sense. She went because she had an idea that she would like to set one of her stories there, or at least to gather the flavor of a hundred different countries around the world, so that she might set her stories anywhere, and at least have some hope of getting something right.

She was always in despair that a reader would catch her out in some hideous inaccuracy, although they seldom did, or cared.

The Crystal Palace was a shining edifice, grand and impressive, a hall made of steel and glass. She could see inside it as the carriage approached, the sea of humanity that entered it, and, through the glass, the bustle upstairs, and an endless row of booths. She was handed out her carriage, escorted inside, and treated with all civility. She was not so overwhelmed that she did not understand that she was being treated as visiting royalty in the hopes that she would write something favorable about the exhibition for the Press.

It was everything that she had hoped for, and she promised herself that she would return again and again, and the next time she would attend with a notebook and more comfortable shoes. Later, she remembered little of her first visit but a blur.

She continued to visit the exhibition, to take copious notes, to study, to dream.

This continued into October of 1851, when the exhibition was about to close. The sense of wonder still remained, but it was a frantic sort of emotion now, the kind of feeling that one gets when one stays up past one’s bedtime and had drunk just enough brandy to feel a certain amount of strain underneath one’s own merriment.

It was a twilight sort of mood.

The exhibits, over the course of the exhibition, became less and less well maintained. The upper tiers of British society began to absent themselves, and the exhibition put on specials for the lower classes to attend more cheaply. The halls were more packed than ever. Little things began to disappear, either stolen by thieves or preventatively removed by the owners, wary of thievery.

She began to feel a certain familiarity, not of the exhibition itself, but of some other place, which she could hardly remember.

Then one day she turned in the hallway around one booth to the next and did not recognize where she was. She was surrounded by pale figures rushing past her, not quite ghosts, but men and women with all the color washed out of their faces, as though they were illustrations printed on onionskin paper. They grimaced at her and at each other, baring their teeth. Her skin rose up in instant gooseflesh, and her teeth chattered against each other several times, shivering, before she clenched them together.

When she glanced back over her shoulder, the hall seemed familiar again. There was the new steam engine; there was the new type of lock that everyone had been so certain of no-one ever being able to pick! But of course it had been defeated by an American locksmith in a matter of days… In other words, she knew her ground. The phantoms had vanished, or rather been subsumed back into the people surrounding her, who seemed as perfectly ordinary as always.

But upon walking forwards a few steps, she shuddered again.

Penderbrook.

As the word came to her, she jumped back from a pale-faced gentleman who had come forwards to shake her hand. She had no wish to startle the man—he wished only to tell her that he enjoyed her stories—so she forced a laugh and quipped, “You made me think of my editor for a moment!” He laughed, and they chatted briefly.

She hoped that she had concealed her true emotions from appearing on her face.

At any moment, she expected to be snatched from behind, a cold limb twining itself about her shoulders.

Lucy…

You know you must leave, Lucy, before it is too late.

After her admirer had excused himself, she had been solicitously asked by her secretary if she wished him to find her a seat; she had gone quite pale. She clutched his arm, saying that she felt a bit dizzy and did not wish him to leave her side, lest she fall.

Do not let me vanish.

It had long seemed to her that she owed a debt to Penderbrook. Or perhaps debt was not the right word. But there was a part of her which belonged to Penderbrook, which she had always suspected would someday be reclaimed as its own.

Her secretary held his arm stiffly at his side, and she clung to it, near to weeping. The halls seemed to spiral about her, wrapping her tighter and tighter until her breath became painful in her chest. The sense of being pulled or called increased. The faces spinning past her seemed to leer at each other, every face turned into a kind of translucent, bloodless clay.

This place is dying, she realized.

The Crystal Palace was clinging to life as a drowning man might cling over-tightly to his would-be savior, causing them both to sink.

As Penderbrook had done.

And she, of all who were present, was perhaps the only one to understand the sensation, because she had felt it before.

She must not let it take her; she must not let it take her secretary. She would linger no longer.

Slowly, carefully, deliberately, she took a step forwards. The Crystal Palace pulled at her. Oh, how it pulled! Like softness, like warmth, like the stupor after lovemaking, like candlelight. But she knew what it was now, knew that it was only winding up its cocoon, tighter and tighter, seeking a place of safety and finding only self-destruction.

Lucy…

You must leave, Lucy, before it is too late…

Her secretary stopped her to ask, “Miss Abbott? Are you quite all right?”

“I have a desperate need of air,” she told him, and he led her outside of the Crystal Palace, to which she never again returned.

The building was pulled down soon after. They said it was to be rebuilt on the top of Sydenham Hill, to hold permanent exhibits.

But it was not the same place, and she ever after felt herself having very narrowly escaped indeed.

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