Posts Tagged ‘On writing’

Oh no, a new year’s post

Thursday, January 1st, 2015

I have a love/hate relationship with resolutions because I’ve made a lot of foolish ones, and seen other people make them, and then we all fail together and commiserate and learn little from the process. I’ll say, this year is the year I’m going to exercise three times a week, and I’ll buy new sneakers that are like walking on puffy clouds. I’ll run for a few weeks before waking up one day and thinking, oh no, it’s raining, can’t run in the rain, maybe tomorrow, but then the rain stops while my excuses keep pouring out.

Excuses are easy. Giving up is easy. Making unreasonable resolutions and then missing a day and feeling like a loser and never getting back on the proverbial llama: easy. Llamas are large and temperamental things, all spitty and bitey and kicky. Best viewed from afar. Do not engage.

Last year, I tried to set some manageable goals for myself. Write 12 short stories. Finish my novel in progress. Revise a previous novel and start looking for beta readers.

I did write the 12 stories, plus a poem and a play, but I didn’t finish or revise any novels. I abandoned the novel I was working on because I didn’t love it. I started to revise another novel and abandoned that one, too. I submitted stories and I revised stories and I got 39 rejections. I felt like a failure. If you’re wondering, failure feels like a sick tummy and a hot neck. And llama spit.

But the writing life is a game, and as any child can tell you, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you put away the board and sulk for a while, but eventually you pull it back out and pick your color and play again. Snakes and ladders. Sometimes you climb, and sometimes you land in the mouth of the beast and it craps you back out where you started.

The thing about being at the bottom in this analogy is, trite as it may be, you have nowhere to go but up. You can’t do worse than lose. There is no double-losing.

I took three classes: one with Nick Mamatas, one with Jillian Burcar, and one with Jeff VanderMeer. All were excellent in very different ways, and in all I found new friends who I hope will one day be counted among my old friends. I wrote a story, and people enjoyed reading it, and it turned into a novel project that still gives me a kind of giddy glee.

If there is a single vital thing I learned this year, that’s it: write what you love. What excites you. What entices you. I wrote a lot of stuff that was trying to be thoughtful and important, and so little of it was really what I wanted to write, as much as what I thought people wanted to read. Backwards of me, I think. And now, that’s behind me.

So, resolutions. Read more. Write more. Write better. Keep helping other people do the same. Snakes and ladders this may be, but you’re only really playing against yourself, and there’s no penalty for reaching down that ladder and giving someone else a hand up. And if you see someone sliding into a snake–if you’re that someone–cut the creepy crawler wide open and use its guts for a rope.

Get back on the llama. It’s actually kind of soft and warm once you get to know it better.

Postmodernism in fantasy: huh?

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Brandon Sanderson recently wrote a piece with the lofty title “Postmodernism in Fantasy” that makes some interesting points. He claims (as far as I can tell, feel free to comment) that virtually all fantasy after Tolkien is in some sense postmodern. Or perhaps he means that all fantasy written after the fantasy that was written as a reaction to Tolkien is postmodern.

His main criterion for what makes a fantasy novel postmodern appears to be how much it subverts or breaks away from the body of work that is primarily imitative of Tolkien. He explains that previous attempts at postmodernism typically yielded unsatisfying results because they were only modifying particular tropes or modestly tweaking expectations; they were either still too similar to the source material to appeal to people seeking originality, or they resorted to twists that undermined the genre rather than expanding its scope. His example:

“Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”

This book idea, he claims, fails because it will alienate readers who enjoy the beginning and therefore feel betrayed by the twist at the end, as well as readers who are immediately bored by the beginning’s lack of originality. He says it’s a fine line between subverting established tropes in an entertaining way, while conforming to those very tropes because readers expect and desire them.

The success of the books was in hitting the right balance for the right people; those like myself who love the old epics, and like some resonance with them—but who also want something new in their storytelling. That careful blend of the familiar and the strange, mixed up and served to people who have tastes like my own.

But, as Jeff VanderMeer points out, postmodernism is not reducible to some cosmic scales with convention on one side and originality on the other. Even the definition of postmodernism on Wikipedia states, “Postmodern literature, like postmodernism as a whole, is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance…” It has many elements but not necessarily all at once, and even those elements are up for debate. I like the way he sums up his argument:

Perhaps the most important point in all of this (and this now has nothing to do with anything Sanderson said in his post) is that writers don’t choose the way they view the world–that’s inherent in their psyche. When you view the world a certain way, you may gravitate toward certain approaches and techniques–with digressions because no one is all one thing–but it’s not a cynical matter of deciding to be experimental or deciding to be postmodern rather than a modernist, for example.

My humble opinions: It’s one thing to know your genre–modern marketing requires it of any writer. It’s also wise to know what has come before in order to avoid excessive repetition and inadvertently retread well-worn ground. But as far as classifying your work beyond that? Leave it to the literary critics. If you’re choosing your themes and techniques to deliberately conform to some nebulous, decentralized, disorganized and ill-defined literary movement, I submit that perhaps your priorities are skewed.

One at a time… but which one?!

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Like many, many other people around these parts, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times now, which means I have about five incomplete manuscripts lying around collecting dust. Those of you who have actually finished and edited yours have my unmitigated jealousy and you shame me intensely. That’s why I recently started working on one of my older drafts, the one I’ve talked about here a couple of times: The Blue Lady’s Children. It’s been fun and sort of liberating to tear it apart and put it back together better.

But oh, my most recent novel attempt, The Lamanai Codex. Why must you try to seduce me with your pulpy antics and your charming main characters? Your dangerous love interest and your icky creature feature violence? Your devil-may-care dialogue and your crazy cult members? Don’t you realize that I am working on a different novel right now?

Once again, I assume that many others have experienced a similar dilemma: which of my multiple manuscripts should I work on first? I started with the one I wrote first, but that’s about as arbitrary a reason as any other. I could have started with the one I liked the best, or the one with the most interesting characters, or the most fully developed world, or even the one that I thought would require the least amount of work to complete. Given the struggle I’m having with the one and the siren song of the other calling out for attention, I can’t help but wonder: did I choose poorly? Or is my frustration with the one fueling my enthusiasm for the other?

So, my comrades-in-arms, how do you decide which of your manuscripts to work on first? Do you have any specific criteria in mind, or do you go with your gut, or what? Do you stick with one at a time or switch it up when you lose steam? Share your methods and madness!

Make mine mysterious

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

I’ve been a fan of mystery stories since I was a kid. I remember sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother, watching Murder, She Wrote and Columbo after coming home from kindergarten. In books, Nancy Drew led to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, and even as I indulged in epic realms of fantasy, I was always most attracted to detective stories. When I reach for one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, three times out of four it will be one about Sam Vimes and the City Watch. There’s something about mysteries that works on both a visceral and intellectual level, challenging you to figure things out even as they goad you along with concern for whether the hero will get to the bottom of it in the end.

The novel I’m working on is urban fantasy, but it’s also a mystery: who is murdering homeless children, and to what end? This means that I have to consider all the tropes and conventions of a mystery novel while also juggling the expectations of an urban fantasy reader. I have to set up the crime even as I show the world and what makes it different from ours. I have to introduce the suspects as quickly as possible, which is a challenge when your main character isn’t a detective. I have to work magic into the methodologies of both the protagonist and the police, and I have to make it reasonable that the latter are failing where the former will succeed. I need to plant clues and red herrings and bring it all together at the end. And since the main character is a college student, I have to make sure she goes to class occasionally, even if her mind is elsewhere.

So far, my biggest problem has been pacing: how to fit the work of mystery-solving into the context of a college environment, and a magic college at that. How to deal with the trials and tribulations of a dyslexic freshman who also happens to be a murder suspect. Most intimidating is how to ratchet things up sufficiently in epicness so that the Final Battle is awesome instead of hokey; don’t want to turn the volume from three to eleven over the course of a chapter.

Anyone else have experience with meshing the worlds of mystery and something else? Mystery and science fiction? Mystery and fantasy? Mystery and romance? What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them, or are you still struggling? Or, as a reader, what have been your experiences with straight-up mystery novels or mixed genre goodies?

Making magic

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

When crafting a fantasy world, be it medieval or modern or a completely new creation, one of the first things we have to figure out is the system of magic. The two biggest issues that most people focus on are power level and access: is magic capable of really big booms or mostly minor mischief, and can anyone do it or only a select few who are born with the talent or trained in its use? But beyond those major questions lies the real fun of making up magic: how does it actually work?

The possibilities are virtually limitless. You can go with wands and oral spells, like in Harry Potter. You can use scrolls and scrips and songs, like in The Magicians of Caprona. You can have energy manipulation with command words and add more elaborate approaches ad hoc, like in the Dresden Files series. How do you decide what methods and materials to use in your system, in your world?

One thing that most magic systems seem to have in common is that they are relatively simple for the reader to grasp. Take Harry Potter as the example. Congratulations, you’re a wizard! Please collect your wand at the shop. To cast a spell, wave your wand and say the magic words. There are occasionally more steps involved, but that’s the basic gist. It doesn’t get much simpler or most straightforward than that.

But how satisfying is it to the magically jaded? Once you’ve read enough fantasy books, do you find that you crave something different? Something new and original? Or do you feel comforted when you can slip into a familiar system without questioning the technical aspects? Even Harry Potter eventually adds things like shapeshifting and non-verbal spells to spice up the story, but these merely supplement the relatively strict wands+words=spell formula.

Let’s take an analogue from science fiction. There’s hard sci-fi, which places more emphasis on using theoretically feasible and specifically detailed scientific ideas that are often carefully explained in the story. Then there’s soft sci-fi, which tends to focus on the characters and the story with more hand-waving with regards to the mechanical stuff. Neither one is inherently superior to the other, and each attracts a different set of readers.

Is there anything like this when it comes to fantasy? If not, why? Is it that readers of fantasy have more in common with readers of soft sci-fi? Does fantasy itself slant towards character-driven tales such that any technical jargon alienates readers who just want to know if the hero and the heroine defeat the bad guy and fall in love? Or is there something fundamentally mysterious about magic that defies explication, so that in explaining it you destroy the very thing that makes it, well, magical?

The novel I’m working on takes place in a magic college, with lots of courses and different majors that run the gamut not only in terms of purpose, but also methodology. Even a mere divination student has to learn astrology, cartomancy, oneiromancy, I Ching, tasseomancy, cheiromancy… And that’s just a single major! As the author, it’s hard to step away from the magic system building and focus on incorporating only those elements that are essential to the story, in the same way that a hard sci-fi writer must chomp at the bit to explain exactly how that deep sea geothermal energy plant works.

So, people… how do you make the magic happen?