Tag Archives: Writer

Words to Live By

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

—Stephen King

This little tidbit was posted to my Facebook page by The Writer’s Circle, a group I found at random, and I’d have to say I’m living proof of that. I haven’t even been able to make a post here on my blog for the last two weeks. Finals are coming up, though, and actual homework is slowing down, so I’ve been able to do a little more reading than I have for the past four months or so.

And that makes me feel more like writing.

Not just blog posts, either, I’m hoping. My Lyle Villines prequel is gathering electronic dust on my computer, and I don’t like that. But ideas have been coming to me a bit more here recently, and I hope it’s a trend that’ll last.

Mr. King is right, though. Reading is like fuel for writers. We get our inspiration from it. Sometimes we get whole ideas from it, situations we can put in our stories. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen what I call throwaway lines in other writer’s novels that I decide need more attention. I’ve rarely actually fleshed one out, at least in writing, but they’re good exercise for your imagination muscles. Like going to the gym, only it’s a mental thing.

I know that’s been a big part of my problem lately. I’ve had to devote so much time to schoolwork (and I’ve still got a lot I need to devote with no less than three class projects) that I’ve not had much time for recreational reading—everything’s been geared toward getting homework of some kind done.

That means my imagination engine’s been running on fumes and not doing a very good job of feeding me material. I don’t blame it. It’s not its fault I haven’t had time to write or read. But I’m going to school to put food on the table and all that. We all have to make choices in life, and I have to be practical and say I’m not likely to make a living from my writing any time soon.

Besides, having a skill to fall back on—in my case, networking and web programming—is a wise choice, in my opinion. Very few writers manage to be full-time writers, supporting themselves with their wordsmithing.

So take Mr. King’s words and put them up in your writing space or on your fridge or somewhere that you’ll see them, because they’re words of wisdom and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of them from time to time.

Read so you can write.

Write so you can enjoy life.

Later,

Gil

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Political Correctness Invades the Writers Group

“‘They looked down at the body for a moment, and then Rory took Glenda in his arms and kissed her passionately. Yes, there would be the police to deal with, but he knew in his heart of hearts that this was the end of the matter, and that he and Glenda would have a wonderful life together.’”

The silence stretched out for some time after Paul finished. He’d been reading his novel to the group for months, and he felt the feedback had helped him immensely. But the ending was the important thing. Had he wrapped it up right? Would it put paid to the rest of the story?

Jackie cleared her throat. “Um, well, Paul, that was certainly an interesting novel.” She stared down at her copy of the manuscript. “I mean, um, the way you kept the plot confused right through the ending really kept me, um, guessing at what was gonna happen next, you know? And, uh, I really like that you leave the ultimate conclusion up to the reader instead of forcing the reader into your idea of how it should end.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Terry said. “I’m still not sure who really did these things, even though Marty died at the end. I mean, he could have done it, sure. All the signs seemed to point at him in the beginning. But then you took the plot line in an entirely new direction maybe a quarter of the way through it. It was like, um, two books in one, maybe even three, with that twist close to the end. Well, maybe that made it two books and a novella, but you see what I mean. Jeez, man, when you brought in that guy we’d not met yet and made him seem to be the bad guy…that was, um, great. Totally unexpected.”

That made Paul feel good. As the founders of the writers group—as well as being published authors—Jackie and Terry always got to speak first. Once they were finished, the others could add anything they wanted. It was all part of the critique—what the group preferred to call the finessing—of the story. Having both Jackie and Terry like his work was gratifying.

“Anybody else having anything for Paul?” Jackie said, finally looking up.

“Um, yeah,” Derek said. He was a younger guy, and it showed in his writing. Not many in the group liked his profanity or his graphic violence. His stories seemed so…mainstream. “I gotta wonder about pulling this one dude out at the last minute. I mean, it was cool and all, ya know? But, like, maybe you should go back and foreshadow him or something? Right now, it feels like you put him in because you needed a worse bad guy than—what was his name? Oh, yeah, Marty—a worse bad guy than Marty.”

“Are you sure that’s fair?” Jackie said. “Unexpected plot turns are part of the genre, aren’t they? Don’t you see that kind of thing in Michael Connelly’s novels? I’ve never read one, but I understand he does that a lot.”

“Well, sure,” Derek said. “But he plants clues that let you look back at the end and realize it was all laid out for you. Connelly just plays cat and mouse with you, making you think one thing when it turns out you’re interpreting the evidence the wrong way. That’s how he gets his surprise endings.”

Michael Connelly? Who was that? Did he write about crime, too? Paul jotted the name down, thinking he should look the man up. He couldn’t be too serious a writer, though. Probably had a book or two out, just breaking into the business.

“But, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a mainstream, commercial writer,” Terry said. “What about symbolism? What about being all-inclusive? Paul does that with his story. He’s got someone from every culture represented—well, except, perhaps, for persons of reduced stature—and the characters are all so tolerant. Even Marty ends up changing his opinions about African Americans before he dies. And since we don’t know for sure if he killed all those people or if it was this other guy, that makes it all worthwhile. And I like that you left this other bad guy nameless. That way no one is really to blame.” He chuckled at his pun.

To think that, when Paul started this novel, he wanted it to be a real whodunit, like the ones he saw on the bookshelves. How hard could it be, after all? Just put in a supposed crime, then have the protagonist find who did it. But under coaching from this group, he’d started including symbolism and socially conscious discussions in the text, all of which helped him cloud the main issue further. By the time he finished the book, even he wasn’t sure who’d done it, or even if anything had happened.

But he’d finished the novel, and without one of those pesky outlines. Planning anything when you were being creative was so restricting, after all. And using all those repeated words and confusing paragraph structuring just gave the story an avante-garde feel, maybe even a Bohemian bent. Wasn’t that what every writer wanted? What was bestseller status beside that?

He glanced at Derek, but the man wasn’t saying anything, just staring around at the rest of the group with a look of…was that disgust? Amazing. Especially considering the stuff he brought to read. It was offensive, really. Characters actually used racial slurs. How did that reflect on Derek as a person? You had to hold those kinds of beliefs to write them, no matter how much Derek denied it.

“I love it,” Moira said in her soft voice. She was the shy one. Paul didn’t understand her poetry, but it was beautiful anyway. “I think you should maintain its integrity and self-publish it, Paul. Don’t subject yourself to the competitiveness of the markets. If you self-publish, you’ll know that everyone who buys your book will really want to read it instead of wondering if they bought just to go along with the masses.”

There was a general chorus of agreement.

“Anybody else?” Jackie said.

No one said anything.

“All right. Next up is Adam with his existential science fiction story. Adam?”

***

I know that’s not very good. Satire isn’t my strong suit, at least not in any extended way. I can make satirical comments, but I think good satire requires more planning than I usually do. In fact, the above is a good example of how a scene can turn out entirely different than what you originally pictured. 

But that’s okay. This isn’t about the real quality of the story so much as it is an attempt to make a point: I hate political correctness, and it seems to me that a good writers group is one of the last places where you can get an honest opinion these days. I hoped to show that in a more humorous way, but I have trouble taking PCness in that vein. It pisses me off too much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should be impolite. God knows criticism can be hard enough to take at times, even when it’s couched in good manners. Sometimes we can’t help but be offended when we think no one else gets what we’re doing. But, the key to that is giving yourself time to cool off and think about it rationally. After all, if no one else gets what you’re doing, that probably means you’re doing it wrong.

No amount of political correctness will help you, um, correct that.

I just hope that PCness never invades writers groups. If it does, we won’t be reading stories anymore. We’ll read existentialism gone wild. And how entertaining could that be?

No political correctness

No political correctness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later,

 Gil

Just A Little Update

For those of you who still check on this blog, I’m still doing okay. Well, in some ways, better than okay. The writing has been going great. I didn’t do well with the handwriting part. In two weeks I only wrote twice (I think I said that in my last post). But, I looked at my spreadsheet and, overall this month, in 12 days of writing (that includes last night), if I remember the numbers correctly I’ve written over 30,000 words, all on my crime novel Pipeline. In fact, a couple nights ago I wrote 4,000 in one sitting. And it was a night when I didn’t think I’d be able to get very far. I’m not saying any of this to try to seem superior. Not at all. As a rule, I’ve always been a lazy writer, but this experience has taught me that if I just sit down and do it, the process pushes itself in some ways. Ideas spark more ideas and you just keep going.

Having said that, I’ve also found that I can’t write every day. My brain needs recharging. But I don’t see a problem with that. I’ve written more this month than in any other month every, I think, and I’m happy with that.

One strange side effect seems to be that I can’t come up with good topics for this blog. I guess I’m concentrating on my story so much that any other creativity is sidelined, or something like that. Or maybe it means that, when I had an Internet connection at home, I spent too much time worrying about what I was gonna post here and not enough worrying about what was gonna go into one of my stories. Anybody else have any thoughts on that?

So, anyway, that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve established something of a routine, where I edit other stories in the morning and write late at night. For some reason, the creative bug doesn’t bite until at eight pm at the earliest. And then I have a hard time getting up from my computer.

Hope things are going great for everybody out there. Those of you who follow this and did NaNo, how did you do?

Later,

Gil

The (Un)Importance of Blog Stats

There’s a short but somewhat interesting discussion getting started over on my daughter’s blog. It started on a blog she follows, which (stay with me here) is a comment on agent Nathan Bransford‘s post about letting our blog stats possibly become far too important to us (I’m pretty sure I’m through posting links, so unless you want your local weather, you can stay here now lol).

It seems that Mr. Bransford is concerned that, as authors, we might start playing what he calls the “If-Only Game” (you can follow his link to that post, since I fooled ya with that weather link above), wherein we start relying too much on achieving the next goal and not being happy with the one we’ve just achieved. He starts out by talking about having a bad day writing, so we start daydreaming about how, if we can just get rolling, we’ll be writing a book that will outdo Harry Potter in sales and we’ll be so stinking rich…. Well, you get the picture. It’s okay to do this to an extent, he says, because it can help motivate us to get through those dry spells. But we don’t want to take it too far and never be happy with where we are now.

He says it better than I can:

When you allow daydreams to fill that gap to get you through the tough times, or even when you’re just letting your imagination get the best of you, the dreams can gradually evolve into the reason you were writing in the first place. They were how you got through the tough times, so now they have to come true for it to be worth it. They start to become a crutch–take that crutch away and you fall over because you were leaning on an endlessly elusive dream.

This all started because my daughter read Carissa’s post on the subject and it sold her on reading that blog regularly. I have to say it got me, too. But my kid went on to tell how I text her to tell her how many hits I have on this blog and, to me at least, it sounded like she was concerned that I might be depending too much on this number. And maybe, in a way, I was.

I started this blog as part of my “writer’s platform.” It’s the 21st Century way of selling by word of mouth, still the undisputed king of sales. You read a book, like it and tell me. I read it, like it and tell someone else. And so on.

We  live in a world where Ashton Kutcher tried for a million followers on Facebook and we tend to find self-importance in how many friends or followers we have. This is the danger Mr. Bransford was talking about, where we substitute numbers on a monitor for self-esteem. And it’s easy to slip into. I still look at how many hits I have when I log on, and to be honest, I’m a little astonished to have 60+ hits only a week or so after I started this exercise. But, I look at this as a part of my writing platform, a way to talk about what I’m going through as an unpublished writer. My version of Marco Polo‘s journal, as it were. And I intend to keep adding to it when I’m published (how’s that for self-confidence? Or is it self-delusion?).

I don’t know how many people are visiting this blog. I try to post on my Facebook page whenever I write a new entry here, so I hope at least a couple of the people I know there are reading some of this. But my daughter says most of the writer’s blogs she’s visited have very few comments (a fact that came as a relief to me. Whew!), so I guess I’m doing okay to get as many hits as I have, even if almost nobody comments on what I’m saying.

So, for all you who are reading me now, hang around. One of the things I like most about doing this blog is that it gets my creative juices flowing and fires me up to write what, at some point in the future, will hopefully be paying words. So stick around. One day I hope to announce the publication of my first book on these very pages. Hope you’re still here for that. That’s when I’ll get caught up in some numbers. Especially the ones on my advance check.

Later,

Gil

Changing the Way We Write

I’m a dinosaur. I admit it freely. While I don’t predate the computer age, I do predate the personal computer age. Computer classes were just starting to be offered during my high school years and, like the CEO (I can’t remember his name right now) of Tandy said when IBM came out with their PC in 1980, I looked at them this way: They’ll never amount to anything.

Good thing I’m not in the prophecy business.

But, thanks to computers and the “gotta have it now” mentality they have helped inspire, I have witnessed a substantial change in how writers, especially unpublished writers like myself, have to ply their trade.

Of course, fads in writing come and go. I can remember when having at least one sex scene in your book or story (let’s just shorten that to the word story, shall we?) was obligatory: if it wasn’t there, you were lacking in something important. Didn’t matter if it moved the story forward or not, or even needed to be there. To be a modern author of commercial fiction, put the sex scene and stretch it out. Ditto with profanity. At least some of your characters should swear like sailors or worse, whether they needed to or not.

These were fads, though. I’m talking about things like description, flashback and back story. And I might be able to think of a few others along the way.

I go through spates of trying to read classics, the books a lot of us were forced to read in high school and  college, whether they were relevant to anything in real life or not. Books like Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans and others of their ilk. Now, I’m not going to make some blanket condemnation of these books, even if a lot of us have had to practically OD on some kind of stay-awake pills or multiple pots of coffee to get through the things. That’s beside  the point. What I’m trying to put across is what makes these books boring to modern readers: pages and pages of description and back story. Especially description.

I remember one particular endeavor in futility when I tried to read The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now, I would have to say that the title is a fairly succinct description of said dwelling. But dear old Nathaniel would probably disagree, seeing as how he started the book with something like seven pages of describing everything from the color of dirt in the yard to how each wooden shingle lay on the roof (yes, I exaggerate for effect, but not by much). Needless to say, I didn’t get through the entire description. Good thing it was one of those Walmart two-for-a-buck editions with the price sticker printed on the cover. They put those out for a while back in the 90s (and may still today, for all I know).

Moving up to more modern times (and books I can actually get past the first five pages of), look at one of Stephen King‘s stories. One of the hallmarks of his writing is his characterization and that makes sense. He has stated that his stories tend to start with characters rather than situations, and by the time he starts writing the story itself, he knows a lot more about his characters than ever makes it into the book. And he gets a lot about the character in there. There are long blocks of back story to let us know why so and so does what he or she does. For some readers, these are boring. For me, by the time the story kicks in for good and serious, I’m invested in these characters and I want them to succeed. And, after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read a story?

But now we’re in the age of the Internet and social networking and short attention spans. Readers want the story and they want it now, and please don’t bother them with things like description and back story. Or flashbacks. Oh, sure, some of those things should be in there, but as Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy state in their book Writing Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing), if you put flashback in anywhere in the first five chapters of your book, make sure you’re willing to pay the editor ten bucks a word for it because it takes that long of the readers to care enough about the characters to be interested in flashback or back story. And, as for description, well, we are told to keep it sparse. Relate enough to give the reader a general idea and move on. Don’t stop the story.

This last has a reason, and maybe a good one at that. There are several points of view that a writer has available to choose from when writing a story, but the most popular these days (in order of how I’m seeing them) are first person and third  person (there are two more categories of third person writing: third person head-hopping and objective. I won’t go into details right now). Both of these views get inside a character’s head and subjective viewpoint, so I can understand not getting too detailed about description. After all, when you walk into a room you’ve never been in before, do you notice everything in the room? I doubt it. We notice the things that stand out to us. So, when we describe things in a story, we’re expected to pick out things that our character would notice, not give a detailed inventory of every object there. That’s how real people operate, so our characters should as well. Let the reader fill in the rest as they will.

To truly care about the character, we must be in his or her (or its, in the case of some sf and urban fantasy stories) POV. That means no more seven page descriptions of  a frickin’ house. Or long discourses on the character’s broken childhood. Drop some hints here and there and keep moving. It’s the 21st Century version of the old writer’s adage “show, don’t tell.”

I’ve heard story after story about the short attention spans we are getting as a result of the Internet. We are told that readers now scan the first few paragraphs of an online article at best and, if it looks too long, we don’t read the rest. I find myself doing the same thing. It’s a bit disconcerting.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping the story moving, and I have to admit that I seem to prefer to have my back story and flashbacks revealed to me in bits and pieces. For me, coming upon these little tidbits is like finding lost treasures: the character is revealed to me a little at a time, just like we get to know people in real life (which is another reason for doing it this way. We don’t get to know one another in huge chunks). On the other hand, I used to enjoy those long, leisurely jaunts through a character’s past. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but I admit I find that I have trouble tolerating long chunks of expository text. Give it to me in sound bites, please. Sad, I suppose, but true.

The Internet is changing how we all read, and it’s led to such things as Flash Fiction and its cousins. That’s okay, I suppose, but I hope we don’t lose sight of what came before. I really enjoyed those long, rainy afternoons with a thick book in hand, the sound of the rain on the roof a pleasant backdrop to my reading.

And on a personal note (hey, it’s my blog!), I find it passing strange that a sf writer like me is griping about what computers are doing to us. Seems counterintuitive to me. But that’s life.

Cheers,

Gil