I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Five things Lisa Shearin has learned about writing

Novelist Lisa Shearin has posted the first of her writing articles based on my challenge. She starts with an article on how to approach your novel in managable chunks. I particularly liked this thought:

"Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don't have the whole book in our heads when we finish."

Read the whole article at her blog here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Five things Andy Remic has learned about writing

In my last post, I challenged four other authors to blog about five things they've learned about writing. The first of these articles is now live at the blog of Andy Remic, author of War Machine. His article includes this seasonally appropriate bit of advice on plotting: Your story should be like a Christmas tree. You’ve got your central plotline, the trunk, which starts at the base with lots of different branches arcing away, so maybe A needs to find B, take it to C and destroy it with Z. From this trunk, as the novel progresses, secondary plotlines evolve and are completed, all branching from the main plotline; as you reach the end of the novel, the secondary plotlines must be shorter and shorter, as the pace increases, and then you reach the glittering star- or the climax- of the story J. Check out the whole article at Wired, Weird, and Wonderful.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

You Never Write Alone

Most fiction writers write alone. Sure, you might occasionally go out to a coffee shop with a laptop or a notepad and scribble down a few lines. Yet, for the most part, writing requires an active concentration and a certain amount of stillness to allow you to hear the unspoken words inside you. Even if you are sitting in the coffee shop writing your stories, it’s a good bet you’ve tuned out all the voices and distractions around you. When you are writing, there is nothing in the world but you and your words as they seep out one by one.

I remember hanging out with my artist friend Eric Buchanan in his studio in the years after college. He would paint while a half dozen friends came by. Everyone would sit around chatting and Eric would talk but keep painting. I was very envious. I cannot imagine carrying on a conversation while writing. Harlan Ellison may sit in the windows of book stores and write short stories, but writing isn’t going to be a public event for most authors.

Yet, the title of this article is, “You Never Write Alone.” Kind of at odds with my opening paragraphs, yes? So what do I mean?

Two things: First, and most importantly, all fiction writers must learn that there is one more person involved in the creative process other than themselves and their fictional cast. That unseen person is the reader. The sooner you become aware of the reader’s presence, the better your writing will be.

One eye-opening thing that happened to me at Odyssey ten years ago was the response I was getting from a room full of twenty people. Some of the readers in the room seemed to get me, and liked my stories. But, the majority always seemed to miss some point I was making. They were confused by the character’s motivations, or bewildered by the setting, or just couldn’t follow the leaps of logic in the plot. I could read my own story and have all these things make sense, but I was failing to put what I knew about the characters and the setting onto the page in a clear and easily grasped way that readers could understand.

Looking back, I believe my biggest problems were that I was trying to be coy, or subtle, or clever with my writing. I had an innate fear of simplicity and directness. Subtlety and cleverness are fine qualities for a writer to strive for, but they are also pitfalls that many a fine story has fallen into. One bit of advice I read years ago was, “Never be afraid to be too obvious.” It’s advice I try to follow. If you are too obvious, an editor can understand what you are saying, see that it’s worth saying, and tell you, “You’re being too obvious here. Tone it down.” If you are being too subtle, however, you aren’t going to get feedback telling you what it is that the editor doesn’t get. It may be you’ve placed a very subtle clue to your character’s motivations on page three of your thirty page manuscript. So subtle that the editor doesn’t get it, and ten pages into your story decides that your characters are behaving in a random and unconvincing fashion and simply moves on to the next story.

It is vital to understand that you are writing to be read. You don’t need to talk down or pander to your unseen reader, but you shouldn’t be afraid to offer them any help you can in order to understand your story as quickly as possible. College literature classes have skewed many young writers because they expose writers to stories that require footnotes and multiple readings to understand, and hold this up as the pinnacle of fine writing. But, most readers in the wild, outside the confines of a classroom, aren’t looking for a novel they have to read multiple times to fathom. They want a story where they know who the characters are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they are doing it. Get all this onto the page as directly as possible and you will have a larger pool of potential readers than if you purposefully craft prose that is obscure, arcane, and downright unintelligible.

Of course, it may be that you wish to target fans of the downright unintelligible, as James Joyce did with Finegan’s Wake or Burroughs’s did with Naked Lunch. You are free to choose the unseen reader you most want to engage. If that unseen reader is a literature professor, there’s no shame in that.

My unseen reader has changed over the years. It began as a teacher, then a college professor—they were being paid to read my writing when I was a student, and I wanted to write stories that pleased them. Then, my unseen writers started to include close friends. Of course, my friends often knew what the story was about because I talked to them about the writing it before I ever wrote it. My unseen reader expanded when I joined the Writer’s Group of the Triad in Greensboro. Suddenly, strangers were reading my writing, and I was getting very different feedback than I had from my friends.

The more people who read my work, the more I found myself adjusting my writing strategies. I kept honing my style to fix the points that readers kept stumbling over. I began making my plots more linear. And, I kept building my circle of readers. While with the WGOT, I’m guessing 50 people over the years read my words and gave me feedback. Oddyssey added another 20 people to this, then maybe 20 more in the online critique group that followed. I later went to boot camp, which added another 15 readers to my circle, and began posting stories on Zoetrope.com and roped in another 30 or 40 readers. Codexwriters.com added dozens more.

Now, when I write, I may be sitting alone in a room, but I have the comments, criticisms, and kind words of about 200 people echoing in my ears. I cannot possibly name them all here, but I maintain strict POV within scenes because Rick Fisher used to catch each and every time I didn’t. Elizabeth Lustig used to hand back my pages to me filled with red ink. I still find myself in the middle of fifty words sentences from time to time and try to imagine how she would fix it. I remember Harlan Ellison delivering a scathing critique of one of my stories because I’d been purposefully obscure in the opening paragraph. He told me I wasn’t good enough to pull it off and he was right; his words still push me to strive for clarity. Suanne Warr wrote a blog post about Bitterwood where she said she’d found the multiple POV’s distracting. I thought it was a good point, so I made the choice to limit the number of POV characters in Dragon Forge to only a half dozen or so before I got too far into it.

Currently, as I rewrite Dragon Forge, I keep sending out chapters to a fairly large group of people. Some have read Bitterwood, some haven’t. Feedback I got from my live critique group of Alex Wilson, Suanne Warr, William Ferrus, Mike Jasper and Jud Nirenberg has already reshaped the draft I’ve been sending to my second draft readers of Laurel Amberdine, Cathy Bollinger, Ada Brown, Guy Stewart, and Oliver Dale. Slowly a consensus is building as to what’s working and what isn’t, and soon I’ll be starting a third draft where I try to address their concerns and put in more of the stuff they liked.

While the individual reader feedback still resonates with me, it’s the collective reader I write for—and that collective reader just gets better the more people I get feedback from. Now that I’m published, I get have the advantage of having my stories reviewed and blogged about. I check Amazon all the time to see if some new feedback has been posted on my books.

For the beginning author, your best source of feedback is other writers in training. They are all over the internet. Unless you are the world’s least competent googler, you can find something that suits your needs pretty quickly. You can probably also find a live critique group in your area that meets frequently. If you live in the Research Triangle Area and are looking for a group, let me know. We’ve got open slots in the one I attend.

The key, I think, is not to get locked into just one group. You want feedback from as varied a population as possible. If the same five or six people keep reading your work, you will have a harder time moving forward than you will if fifty or sixty people read your work. And when I say, “your work,” I don’t mean one story. To grow as a writer, you need to write a lot of stories, and have them read by a lot of people. Your goal here is to allow your style to develop over a body of work, not to keep revising the same story a dozen times based on the feedback of a dozen people.

Finally, there is one final important presence in the life of writers—their peers. It’s vital, if you are a new writer, to get out and talk to other new writers who are blazing their own paths to success. Some people will say that you should go and get the advice of old pros. While I found advice from Orson Scott Card and Harlan Ellison helpful, I also realized that so many of the bridges they crossed to reach success have long since burned. If you are at the beginning of your career, it’s useful to talk to other writers near the beginning of their careers. They are going to often have more realistic and practical advice than authors who’ve had years to build a fan base.

Speaking of the realistic and practical advice of my peers, I’ve sent out a challenge to some of them to see if they would be interested in sharing their wisdom, and several have graciously stepped up to the plate. So, in the coming weeks, check out the blogs of Lisa Shearin, author of the fantasy series that launched with Magic Lost, Trouble Found; Edmund Schubert, editor of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show; Ken Scholes, author of a five book fantasy series from Tor; and Andy Remic, author of War Machine and many other fine tales of future combat. I’ve hung out with most of these people at cons or other events, and think you’ll find their insights illuminating.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Embrace your demons

This is perhaps the most presumptuous of these five essays. My first three articles were mostly a collection of writing techniques--build your story out of scenes, recognize the value of writing a bad story, and learn to write your first drafts quickly. This time, I'm not going to talk about how to write as much as I'm going to talk about why to write and what to write about. The why and what questions are going to be answered differently by everyone. Everybody is going to have slightly different reasons why they write. And, there is no "wrong" subject to write about. Anything you want to put on paper is fair game.

Still, I feel like any writer is going to benefit from pausing for a moment to consider why they are writing what they are writing. You can be a very talented writer with a real flare for poetic prose, but if you are only picking trivial subjects to write about, you might find your career going nowhere.

My earliest attempts to write SF and Fantasy showed some technical promise. I could plot; I could write dialogue; I had good instincts for writing action and knowing how to draw the reader along from one event to the next. But, all of those early stories feel hollow to me now. They are mostly "nifty idea" stories. Wouldn't it be nifty if all reality was computer generated? Wouldn't it be nifty if the Greek gods were working at the local television station? Wouldn't it be nifty to find life on Mars? In retrospect, these weren't the most original ideas, though I don't know that originality is as big a selling point as beginning writers may think it is. But, the real problem I see with these stories when I look at them now is that they are, for the most part, shallow. I don't feel anything when I read them. Writing them took no emotional effort, and I wasn't risking revealing anything about myself by writing any of these stories.

One thing that used to worry me as a beginning writer was the question, "Are people going to think I'm writing about myself?" My protagonists were a fairly shallow bunch because their problems were surface problems: How to I find the murderer? How do I fix my space ship? My characters didn't possess any deep emotional problems. One thing that used to hold me back was the question, "What if my mother reads this?"

After I had written some of these shallow stories, Orson Scott Card visited the writer's group I was a member of and said something that I thought was profound. He said that the people who wrote stories only because they wanted to be writers weren't likely to accomplish much. He thought that the really good writers were people who were writing as if they were on some higher mission--they were trying to change the world with their words. This was eye-opening, and I felt like he'd really pegged me. I was writing mainly because I wanted to be a writer. I wasn't trying to change the world with my stories.

In the following years, I decided I would start writing protagonists who championed aspects of my world views. My stories took on a decidedly political slant, reflecting my libertarian leanings. I also started writing stories that were atheist manifestos, ridiculing every aspect of religion.

Those stories sucked, for the most part. They weren't as petty as my earliest writing, but they were still shallow. They were intellectual arguments pounded into something roughly resembling fiction. I was putting my opinions out there so the world could benefit from my wisdom, but the stories were still insufferably trivial. I was writing about things I spent a lot of time thinking about, but my stories didn't have any heart.

Then, in 1998, I went to Odyssey and ran into the buzz saw that is Harlan Ellison. Harlan tosses out critiques like they were hand-grenades. I left Odyssey convinced that no one would ever want to read my little political and religious diatribes. I came home certain I had no talent, and that no word I ever wrote would be published.

It was the single most important event on my path to becoming a writer. In the aftermath of hurricane Ellison, my writing portfolio looked like New Orleans after Katrina. Everything I'd written before, three novels and about 50 short stories, had been blown over. I didn't think anything could be salvaged. Yet, after a few weeks, I found that I wanted to write more stories. I knew I would never sell them. The new ideas I was having were twisted and unmarketable but I didn't care. I was having this vision of a guy running around a flooded city looking for the perfect place to shoot up heroin and die. Another idea I had was of a city of immortals where life had become so utterly meaningless that people had to commit atrocious acts such as rape and murder just to feel the slightest emotion. Another story I had in mind had a terrorist protagonist; it made perfect sense in his world to change things by blowing up a truck in a busy location. I don't think I could have written these stories before Odyssey. I was still invested then in writing stories I could sell, even though I wasn't, you know, selling them. But, post Odyssey, I figured, what the hell. My Mom isn't going to be reading these stories because they aren't going to ever be published.

I don't expect readers here to be familiar with every short story I've ever published, but all of those dark and disturbing visions went on to become my earliest professional sales. Before Odyssey, I had been writing stories for the intellectual challenge. After I had surrendered hope of publication, I began writing stories for the same reason some people pick at scabs. I was no longer writing about my beliefs. I was writing stories about my demons. I was writing about subjects that made me uncomfortable, ideas that kept me awake at night. Before, I wrote stories about atheism. Now, I was writing about that haunting feeling I sometimes get late at night when I know with all my heart that I'm going to die and I will simply vanish from this world and nothing waits on the other side. Or, worse: something does wait on the other side.

I'm a man who has suffered through two divorces and lost a third love to cancer. So, again and again, I write about love, despite my inner fears that people will read these stories and think, "Wow, no wonder women leave him." As a boy, I witnessed the casting out of demons in my fundamentalist church, and remember the preacher warning how the demons might try to get into us if our faith wasn't strong enough. I reached down and found this terror when I wrote "Eater," a story about demon possession (as yet unpublished). The horror the hero feels as his own soul is pushed out through his pores originated in my nightmares thirty plus years ago.

I don't purposefully set out to offend, disturb, or shock with my writing. Yet, I find that my most powerful writing comes when I turn my stories over to the demons within me and let them create scenarios that disturb, offend, and shock me.

An ex-wife once recommended that I seek therapy to deal with the emotional trauma of my fundamentalist upbringing. It's possible that there might be lasting psychological damage from telling a ten year old he's at risk of demon possession, or telling a twelve year old that he is permanently and irrevocably damned. To which I can only say, "Thank God for lasting psychological damage!"

The worst things that have ever happened to me become the soil in which the best stories I've ever written have grown. I've been lucky enough not to banish the devils that visit me in the dark moments; I've learned to embrace them, to kiss them on the lips in gratitude for the stories they bring me.

Your angels may bring you pleasant dreams, but it's your demons that will bring you art.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Momentum Matters!

Momentum matters in two ways.

First, momentum is important in drafting a story. Nothing has killed more of the stories I’ve started than simply stopping in the middle, then ignoring the story for a few days. Days turn into weeks, then into months, and before I know it, I won’t remember why I ever wanted to write that particular story in the first place. My hard drive is littered with these aborted stories. I write a few pages, setting up the characters and plot, maybe even finish the opening scene. Then, I’ll get stuck. I won’t know what happens next. Sometimes I’ll have doubts about the characters I’ve chosen. Once I know I wasn’t happy with my knowledge of a setting and went to a library and got a book about the city, then never came back to the story after I read the book.
One could make the argument that it makes sense to abandon works where you’ve lost enthusiasm for the characters or lost faith in the premise. The story may not have been worth wasting your time on anyway. This is, bluntly, a load of hooey.

Every good story I’ve ever written passed through a phase where it was a bad story. (See the previous article.) Especially on a novel, it would require almost superhuman skill to sit and type out 120,000 words and not have moments of severe doubt and second guessing. My advice: Never look back. Keep typing. Press ahead as quickly as you can, moving the story forward. You will never really know what the first chapter of your book should be until you’ve written the last chapter. First drafts aren’t the time to worry about the fact that your characters are inconsistent, or that your plot has holes, or that your characters aren’t able to speak in anything but clich├ęs. Or rather, it is a good time to worry about it, but it’s not the best time to go back to try to fix it. Keep moving forward. Make note of what you want to change. Fix it in the second draft.

For instance, in Dragon Forge, I have a character named Burke the Machinist. The first time he appeared, he had an unnamed teenage son. A few chapters later, I thought the son would be more interesting if he was actually a she, so I made her his daughter disguised as a boy so she could join him on the frontline of the battle. Later in the story, though, I fleshed out Burke's back story and decided that the events of his life required his daughter to be older, probably 19. Also, the daughter had gotten bolder and more assertive as I wrote her, so it no longer seemed realistic she would fight in disguise. She’d just be herself and let others think whatever they wanted to about a woman fighting on the front lines. Then, very late in the story, I wrote a scene where Anza, the daughter, moved through an entire scene without saying a word, communicating only with gestures. It was so fun writing her communications with the other characters without having her speak, I decided that was going to be a permanent part of her character. Making her mute set her apart from the other cast members, and gave her an extra air of mystery. Now, as I rewrite the book, I'm enjoying the challenge of making the scenes where she had conversations with her father unfold her end being conveyed only in body language.

If I had gone back and revised previous chapters every time I reimagined her character, I would never have finished my first draft. Anza changed from little more than a prop at the start of the book to a fully formed supporting protagonist at the end. I make these changes all the time as I’m writing. I just write the later chapters of the first draft as if the early chapters already have the important information about the character in it.

I generally don’t show people my first drafts until I’ve written the last word. That’s almost always true with short stories. I occasionally share chapters from novels as I move forward, but not often. On my first drafts, I don’t even stop to reread the chapter I just wrote before moving on to the next one. Rereading is only going to lead to rewriting. It’s more important for me to get two or three chapters out in a week than it is to spend to or three weeks working to make a chapter sparkle.

This flips in the drafts I send to publishers, of course. Two or three weeks is a long time to spend on a chapter, but on my current rewrite of Dragon Forge I’m spending a fair amount of time on each chapter before I move on to the next. I reread each chapter three or four times—and before I turn it into Solaris, I’ll be reading it three or four more times and tweaking and sharpening each pass.

In the rewrite phase, I think walking away from the project for a while is actually useful. But, you aren’t going to get to the rewrite phase if you don’t get that first draft phase behind you. Momentum matters!

A second way that momentum matters, of course, is in your actual story telling. I’ve read a lot of unpublished novels by my peers over the years. For me, the single biggest problem that sucks the life out of most novels is when I reach a point in the book where I just don’t feel like the story is going anywhere. The characters are meandering around aimlessly. I’m not sure what they want or how they are working to get it. I get bored and start asking questions. After a few more pages, I’ve asked enough questions that I doubt the skill of the author and no longer trust them to finish the story in a satisfying matter.

This may not be a problem in all literary endeavors. Naked Lunch certainly doesn’t care about maintaining a feeling that the story is moving forward. Neither does Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Still, if you are an author looking to break into print for the first time, especially in SF or fantasy, a lack of forward progress in the story can be fatal. The people reading your story in the slush pile won’t muddle through more than a few pages where nothing important is happening. If the beginning of your book was gripping, maybe you have a little buffer. Perhaps you’ll get a chapter or two of leeway where you story doesn’t progress in any meaningful way. But, why take that risk?

Not every novel needs to be a page turner, and you certainly don’t have to make each chapter end in a cliffhanger. When I say a novel needs to feel as if it’s moving forward, it doesn’t have to be action propelling the book. A conversation where the characters learn more about each other can advance the story. A long and detailed setting description can advance the story. Even a long monologue on the meaning of life can advance the story. And, at the risk of being contradictory, all three of these things could also sap every last bit of forward momentum in your tale if handled clumsily.

How will you know if your protagonist’s ten page monologue on the absence of God is fascinating or boring? Write a lot of stories. Get them critiqued. Eventually, after you’ve had a few hundred thousand words critiqued by a couple of hundred people, you’ll know what's working and what’s not. However, this is getting into the subject of my fifth article in this series, so I’ll wrap up here. One secret to maintaining momentum is knowing when to stop!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story

This second bit of writing advice may also be obvious, but my personal experience tells me not everybody gets it. When I say that the best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story, I mean it in two ways.

First, beginning writers are often too easily discouraged. I've had writers come to a writer's group and witnessed their faces fall as they were told that their plot was implausible, their characters were all worn out stereotypes, and their dialogue read like it had been written by someone who had never actually heard English spoken before. They came to the meeting thinking they would be praised for their amazing talent, and left utterly discouraged. Many people never return to critique groups after their first critique.

Now, I've been to some critique groups where there have been rules in place that always require members to say at least one thing positive about a story. (You really know how to use an exclamation mark!) Personally, I think this is a silly rule. A true writer isn't going to be permanently discouraged by a savage critique. I actually felt something approaching elation on my first truly harsh critique. I knew, in my heart, that my first novel wasn't very good. The plot veered all over the place, it had passages of dialogue where characters would break into two or three page monologues, and my characters were little more than names and brief physical descriptions. My friends mostly told me it was pretty good; but one friend named Ken Ward told me it read like it had been written by someone who had never read a novel. He pointed out the places where the characters acted dumb. He wrote snarky notes in the margins when I slipped into cliches. He expressed exasperation with the clumsy scene jumps and the passages that just didn't seem to even belong in the book at all. I confess, I was depressed at how much work lay ahead of me if I was going to fix that novel. But, I was happy to now have a clear catalogue of my most grating writing mistakes. As it turned out, I didn't try to fix that book. I decided I'd tackle a new book, one that avoided some of the structural pitfalls of the first--i.e., I had a plot in mind when I started the second book, and at least one character with an actual life story and motivation to drive things along.

And that second book still sucked! Seriously, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. But, I went to the critique groups, I patiently listened to the catalogue of new mistakes I was making, then, a year later, I started my third book--Bitterwood, which, roughly a decade later, made it into bookstores.

Writing is the only art form I know where people approach it with the notion that their first time out they are going to succeed. I don't think people sit down at pianos and expect to compose a melody the first time they touch the keys. Moving to sports, I can't believe that many people bowl in the high 200s their very first game. In all other areas of life, you start bad and you get better with practice. Writing is no different. It's not a waste of your time to write a bad novel. Writing a bad novel teaches you things; you discover you have the discipline to actually sit and type out 60,000 words or more, for instance. Even writing a bad novel, you are going to be thinking about how your characters interact with one another. You're going to (I hope) be writing dialogue, and describing settings, and figuring out motives. You may do some of these things well, you may do some of these things painfully bad. Let people read it, find out what you're good at and what your bad at, then write a second book that keeps the good stuff and improves the bad stuff. And if this book sucks but you love writing, write a third bad book, then a fourth one. There is no human activity that doesn't improve with practice and experience. You are going to be a better writer by the time you reach your fifth novel than you were when you wrote your first one. (Though there may be a point of diminishing returns; that's perhaps a subject for a different essay, however.)

The second way in which the key to writing a good story is to write a bad story is this: Much of the real craft of writing comes in rewriting. People who read my first drafts are probably fairly shocked at the contrast between my unpolished writing and my published works. I can read through and tweak a story a dozen times, and every time find new things to tweak or chop or expand upon. These revising passes are where my writing really comes to life. My rewrites are like a sculptor adding increasingly fine and polished details onto his carving of a human face. But, before I can do this fine detail work, I first need a block of rough marble to get to work on. This is my first draft.

First drafts are the act of creating something from nothing. I pull characters, settings, conflicts, and dialogue out of the black box of the mind and constantly stop and wonder "What the hell was this doing in there?" I used to write only when I had inspiration; if I didn't feel like I had a brilliant idea, I would just do something else. This is a dangerous pitfall you must learn to avoid if you want to be a truly productive writer. To be truly productive, you must be able to sit down on a regular basis and crank out a story even if you don't know what that story is going to be. Set arbitrary deadlines, tell yourself you're going to have a story completed by your birthday, or New Years, or some other date that seems significant to you and just start typing. Let yourself meander. Let your characters be stereotypes, and your plot twists be worn out ones, if that's what it takes to get the words onto the page. You have to get that first draft out of you with your internal critic holding his tongue. Let yourself write a draft you'd be embarrassed to show anyone. Then, revise it to a point where you're no longer embarrassed. Then, let people read it. Then, revise it again. Repeat the cycle until you are happy, or until you decide it's time to just set this particular story aside and move on.

I wrap up here, since it's time for me to return to my own rewriting now, the second draft of Dragon Forge. That book had an interesting history that I've never revealed before now. I'm calling what I'm working on my second draft; in reality, it's probably much closer to my fourth draft. My first draft was roughly a year ago; I wrote a 20 or 30 page outline for a Bitterwood sequel set seven years after the events of the first book. Bitterwood wasn't in it; it followed the adventures of a more adult Jandra and a teenage Zeeky, mostly. But, the outline wasn't one I was thrilled about. It was lacking something; in the end, I realized that the main thing it was lacking was a tormented character. Bitterwood was interesting to write because Bitterwood, the man, is so miserable. His darkness fascinated me as an author, and my sequel didn't have that underlying darkness in it. So, I trashed it and wrote a second outline, this one closer to 50 pages. This outline was set only a few weeks after the first book, and still had Bitterwood slinking around in a bad mood. Jandra, who was a well adjusted adult in my first outline, is still dealing with the repercussions of events in the first book; she's not exactly a dark character, but she does have some ghosts haunting her. And, I envisioned a new dragon character, Graxen, who would be a young, angsty yet likable protagonist and who, as a new character, would serve as a good gateway character for new readers. He solved a problem I felt bogged down my first outline--so much of the story depended on backstory I worried it would alienate people picking up the book who hadn't read the first book.

So, my second outline was really my second draft; it was just the story told in the broadest way, without actual scenes. My first draft was really my third pass at the story--the first one where I wrote out scenes and dialogue, but my third time of thinking out the character motivations, plot twists, etc. Now, I'm polishing the book further, and most of my readers right now are responding positively. No one ever saw that lifeless first outline, but I couldn't be writing the good story I'm writing now if I hadn't written that bad outline and figured out what it was missing. Some good drafts do occasionally spring out of me on the first try, but for the most part my good stories stand triumphantly atop the bones of the bad stories that preceeded them.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stories are made out of scenes; scenes are made out of nouns

This post may fall into the category of "pretty darn obvious." Still, I've been participating in writer's groups and critique circles for fifteen years at this point, and I've read a LOT of unpublished and unpublishable writing. Heck, the majority of stories I've written are unpublished and unpublishable.

The number one problem I've encountered over the years in reading unpublished stories is a pretty simple one: I get to the bottom of the first or second page and I don't have a clue what is going on. Often, I get to the end of the first sentence and know that I'm in for a rough ride. Writing fiction isn't exactly the same as writing a lead paragraph for a newspaper article, but some of the principles are the same. If I'm reading your story, I want to know the following things as quickly as artistically possible: Who is your lead character? Where is she at this moment? What is her problem?

Yet, again and again, I pick up stories where these simple bits of information remains elusive. One common pitfall is the first person voice. The story starts off with someone telling the story: "I was sitting in the chair thinking about my grandmother, etc, etc." Time and again, I'll be two or three pages into the story and find that the only thing I know about the narrator is that he or she calls herself "I" a lot. I won't know her name, I won't be certain of her sex, her age is a mystery, I'm unclear as to what time period she's living in, and, while I sometimes have learned her back story, I have no picture of where she is in the here and now.

A few years ago, I figured out that one quality my writing possessed that people were responding to was a sense of immediacy. I wasn't interested in the character's long and complex history so much as I was interested in what their immediate problem was. I could write a good moment in a character's life, and people responded to it. On the other hand, when I would write fuzzy, sceneless prose with backstories and flashbacks, I would lose readers. So, I printed out in large, bold letters these two words:

I taped these to the walls above my computer and have tried to abide by them ever since. I never write without being able to answer the question, "Where is my character? What is happening to him now?" Even if the scene is one where a lot of backstory will be revealed, this backstory is revealed in the frame work of a scene. One of my most successful stories, "Final Flight of the Blue Bee," the first story I ever sold reprint rights to and foreign rights to, has a tremendous amount of story that happens forty years before the current story. The present story is taking place in New York City. The action is unfolding in a hotel room, then atop the Empire State Building. To reveal the back story, however, I didn't use the typical flashbacks where the character slips into memory. I simply cut between two parallel storylines. In my odd numbered scenes, the events of the present day unfolded. In my even numbered scenes, the events of the past unfolded--but they unfolded in moments that had immediacy. They took place in specific locations, with a specific set of characters, and were written as if they were unfolding now. The reader had no problem, hopefully, shifting gears between the past and present. Keeping all the events immediate and specific helped keep the reader engaged. If I had fallen into a memory based flashback, or into a page long speeches explaining the past, I would have risked losing the reader.
So, it seems very simple and obvious, right? Build your story out of scenes. Each scene unfolds in a definitive place, in a specific timeframe, to identifiable characters. Each scene exists to accomplish something--we get introduced to an important character; we learn a clue to the mystery; we discover a terrible secret; we get to see a character tested by conflict, either internal or external. In my novel Bitterwood, I can tell you what any given scene was meant to do. The scenes existed to give the reader a piece of information they needed to understand the plot, the settings, or the characters (often all these things at once). If you don't know what you are trying to accomplish in a scene, then the scene may not belong in your story.
Which isn't to say there isn't room in fiction for sidetracks and diversions and meanderings; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite novels, and it's almost nothing but diversions and meanderings. But, the strange places that book takes us to work because Hunter Thompson was a masterful enough writer to actually take us places. While he can go off on rambles about history or politics or drugs, these things occur in the context of his here and now.
As long as I've brought Hunter Thompson to the party, we can use him to move into my next point: Scenes are made out of nouns. The opening line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Brilliant! In one sentence with very simple language he's introduced his setting to us--the desert near Barstow--and his problem--he's tripping on drugs. As the page unfolds, he describes his convertible as a Great Red Shark. He talks about bats swooping down from the sky. Images form in your mind as you read--the attorney in the car next to him pours beer onto his chest to facilitate the tanning process. He builds a here and now that intrigues us in his first few hundred words--then swings into a quick bit of backstory explaining how they got into this situation. But, he doesn't use the backstory until he's already hooked us with his setting and characters. We want to read the backstory because the front story is so fascinating.
When you study Thompson's style, it's built of very simple words. Nothing on the first page is going to send anyone running for a dictionary; we may not all know where Barstow is, but we know it's in a desert, and since "Las Vegas" is in the title we can figure it's taking place in the American Southwest. Later he introduces us to a rather formidable catalogue of drugs the two men are carrying; a few of these exotic items might throw a reader, but they are exotic in the best possible way--we know from the context that they are drugs, and the fact that they aren't all familiar drugs gives us insight that these are hard core users on a far different level from your friendly neighborhood pothead.
Hunter Thomson is writing his novel in first person, which provides a special challenge. We know a little bit about the characters from their immediate situation, but the first person voice means he's talking to you as if you already know who he is, and you don't. So, he does a very simple yet brilliant thing: He has the characters pick up a hitchhiker, then they introduce themselves to this new character, providing a formal introduction to the reader. We learn their names, their jobs, their mission, and quick summaries of their world view. Simple, straightforward, and completely effective. I've never read a critique of this novel that complained about the rather naked storytelling device of introducing the hitchhiker as a way of getting this information onto the page. The fact is, it's information the reader wants. He tells it to us in an engaging fashion. And when the plot device of the hitchhiker has fulfilled its usefulness, the hitchhiker runs off into the desert and plays no further significant role in the book.
On the first draft of this post and the previous post, I wrote that "scenes are made from words." Which is true in a very broad sense; every word is important. Your choice of verbs and adjectives are vital. But, I revised "words" to "nouns" as my essay developed. It's nouns that truly paint the pictures in people's heads. And not just any nouns--you want concrete nouns all over your page. Words like love, justice, god, and antidisestablishmentarianism are all nouns, and may all be important things to write about, but they don't build scenes. You build your scenes out of concrete elements, things your characters can touch and taste and feel and see. Your story may be about the absence of God from the universe, but your scene should be full of things like cigars or pines or elephants or t-bone steaks.
Time and again I've read the advice that writers can punch up their style by avoiding the verb "to be," and choosing verbs with a lot of action. But, let's return to Thompson: His opening sentence has three verbs: were, began, take. His verbs are almost invisible in order to let the nouns take center stage and build the scene. Would the opening be improved in any way by more active verbs? "We zoomed toward Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs gripped us." Ug. Save your action verbs for actual action. Don't be afraid to let your nouns do the heavy lifting.
Here's a simple exercise: Grab your favorite book, go to the first page, and circle all the nouns you see. Good, scenes are built out of familiar, quickly grasped, specific nouns. Thompson first talks about the bats swooping around the car--the juxtaposition of bats and car is interesting to our mental eye. Then, he gets specific about the car--a huge red Chevy convertible. He gives the car a name--the Great Red Shark. If you were to erase all the words on the page but the nouns, you would still have a good chance of building the scene in your mind--drugs, desert, bats, beer, convertible, highway. I'm guessing that your favorite novel will possess the same quality--strip it down to the nouns, and the nouns tell you who, what, when, where. Good nouns are like flashbulbs, popping in the darkness of the mind, lighting up a picture. Here's a trashcan, here's pizza cheese stuck to a cardboard box, here's a raccoon.
I'm sure there are exceptions. The only nouns on the first page of your favorite novel might be utterly bland--man, woman, building, city. And it may be that you are a brilliant enough story teller that you can draw readers into your world even with generic language. But, I would challenge you to think about how much more story you can wring out of the right nouns.
So, here's a second exercise: How much story can you get out of four nouns?
Take "man, woman, building, city" and replace them with more evocative nouns.
"Cop, nurse, Superdome, New Orleans" There are hints here. I can see a story taking shape.
"Shuttle pilot, astronaut, launch pad, Cape Canaveral" Hmm. Throw in a diaper, and you've got something.
"Cowboy, princess, sushi bar, Havana"--Okay, perhaps the story isn't obvious, but you've at least got my attention.
One last note on nouns: I find that one effective tool is to mix something sinister or strange with something fairly mundane. My first sale to Asimov's starts: "There was a shark in the kitchen." It's the juxtaposition of the dangerous thing--the shark--with a familiar setting--a kitchen--the makes the mind sit up and pay attention. A skull in a graveyard is okay; a skull on the coffee table is better. A lion in the zoo provokes a yawn; a lion in a laundromat opens the eyes. A giant lizard attacking Tokyo creates interest; a giant lizard reading to a kindergarten class demands explanation.
Scenes. Nouns. Here. Now. Go write something.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Five things I've learned about writing

I had a 12 hour drive back from World Fantasy and spent a good chunk of that time thinking about writing; not just my immediate projects, but larger lessons I've drawn from my experience to date. Much of this has been prompted by my dinner with fellow Odyssey grads. I'm returning to Odyssey next year as a lecturer, speaking on the subject of style, and I was trying to work out things I would say on the subject but kept spinning out into larger issues. So, in the spirit of the "five things few people know about me" posts I did back in February, I'm going to do a series called "Five things I've Learned About Writing." I'll flesh out all these topics in the coming weeks, and may refine or alter my list. But, right now, five things I think I know about writing that I don't think I fully understood when I went to Odyssey ten years ago would be:

1. Stories are made out of scenes. Scenes are made out of nouns.
2. The best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story.
3. Momentum matters!
4. Embrace your demons.
5. You never write alone.

Some of this probably seems pretty obvious, especially #1. But, I'm constantly discovering really simple things about writing that just shock me that I didn't figure them out years ago.

More soon. Right now, I must get another chapter of Dragon Forge behind me. Because of #3.