Forgetting to Remember the Best Advice

fig split

The good stuff is apparently in the middle. (photo by Richard North)

The best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone happened in a community writing group I visited fifteen or so years ago. People went around the table and read their pieces, and critique happened on the spot. I was fresh out of an MFA writing workshop, my bag of tricks was newly acquired, and I was experienced at using them, in a beginner’s sort of way. Some of the writers in the group had some chops, but it welcomed all comers down to the utterly inexperienced. A woman read a poem that seemed to wander, but really strengthened partway through, and I politely suggested that she cut the first X lines. The group had various reactions to this, including some bristling on her behalf. She seemed at first a little taken aback, but later expressed real gratitude, as she felt it tremendously strengthened the poem. I said “shucks, ma’am, twarn’t nothing” and rode off into the sunset.

Fifteen years later, I always keep an eye out for weak openings in my work (it’s on the checklist), but rarely do I encounter an easily hacked-off lame duck. Last week I started into what I hope will be a meditative, genuinely creepy ghost story, in a somewhat John Langan-y mode. It was wandering, I couldn’t figure out the problem, nothing was quite right… and then I remembered the best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone. I cut off the first three pages, and now the aimless chit-chat has been replaced with what I hope is an unnerving character sketch that seems like a good hook that’s not overly hook-y. I guess we’ll see.

book cover

Starve Better, by Nick Mamatas

Along these lines, currently I’m reading Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. It’s a short book about writing, both craft and business. Much (all?) of it is reprinted from his blog or miscellaneous small publications. His style is distinctive and his tone is bracing, so it stands out among writing technique books. There are various good bits that I won’t spill because I think you might find it useful, and it’s also a good read. I got it on my Kindle, and it would be cheap at twice the price for his advice about dialogue alone, which I’ve applied to the above-mentioned story and seems to have been helpful.

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Wine, Word Play, and Writing Process

Writing Process, with Hats

Writing Process, with Hats

Today’s Monday, and what does that mean? The aforementioned posts in the My Writing Process blog tour from two of my writerly friends.

photo of S.J. Chambers

S.J. Chambers

S.J. Chambers writes about cutting up manuscripts, theming wine, womanhood, and the poverty of marketing labels when discussing writing.

“I don’t like fetishizing or explaining things away–I like for there to be poetry”

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Meier photo

Mark Meier

Mark Meier writes about word play, German literature, and making the world a better place.

“…I don’t want readers to escape this existence so much as to study and reconsider it, especially in their relationship to other beings.”

 

My Writing Process

library of congress photo

Scribble, scribble, scribble!

When Shawna Christos approached me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour (see her post here), I hesitated to accept. I have no ironclad process, nor do I feel it’s a good idea to imitate others’ practices (he said, having tried to do it himself). That said, I grow as a writer by reading, writing, thinking about writing, etc., so I hope the below is of interest.

1) What am I working on?

Currently I’m drafting a novel set in Richmond, Virginia, somewhere in the land between magical realism and literary fantasy. I’ve jokingly described it as an “anti-bildungsroman,” because it’s the tale of a painter grappling with life while steadily abandoning her adult responsibilities. Her inner strife manifests in various weird ways, one of which winds up becoming the source of the novel’s primary conflict.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This particular novel is set in Richmond, for starters, which isn’t the world’s most common literary setting. I have an affinity for place, and so many of the stories on the border between realism and fantasy happen in quasi-semi-sort-of-fable land. That’s rarely for me, and definitely not with this book.

I’ve also written many stories set in Seattle, or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, because it’s my home place and always will be. I’ve lived a substantial portion of my life away from there, though, which leads to a kind of distance that I like to think gives me greater powers of observation. Writing about Richmond while living here presents certain challenges, but que sera.

Artists show up often enough in literary, historical, or genre fiction, but I rarely seem to encounter them in literary fantasy. This makes sense, given the delicate layer of unreality that makes most of that particular stripe of fiction tick, and creatives are an easy out when it comes to writing about things fantastic. That’s going to make this tough to pull off without veering down well-trodden paths, but the book seems to want out, so we’re off to the races.

RVA

RVA

3) Why do I write what I do?

My primary idiom is the fantastic because it’s how I view the world. That’s not to say I expect a dragon to come flying out of the sky when I’m walking down Cary Street, but I think we have a bunch of traits as a species that turn us, more or less subtly, to focus on the day-to-day. By externalizing inner metaphors, I find it easier to talk about the world, and to do so in ways that make sense to me.

4) How does my writing process work?

It changes from year to year and month to month, and sometimes I don’t get the memo from my subconscious about what’s next. That can mean a lot of fooling around with pens, computers, typewriters, journals, index cards, voice recorders, dictation software, etc. until I get it right. At some point the words come out, and then I’m writing.

Revision is a somewhat different process. It involves a pretty standard range of tricks to defamiliarize my story, draft by draft. The steps are some combination of:

  • print draft out, edit by hand, enter edits on computer
  • edit on screen
  • print draft out, edit by hand, rewrite by hand, enter in computer
  • record myself reading the draft aloud, make notes on what I stumble over, then edit
  • play a recording of myself reading the draft, make notes on the parts that sound frail, then edit
  • change font and/or fonts size
  • change text color or background color

…and so on.

Caffeine is usually involved in a.m. writing, alcohol often in p.m. writing.

The other constant to my process is one that Kristi Tuck Austin commented on: “This is shit.” If I say that at any point during the production of a story, damn sure it means I’ve got a winner on my hands. Why? It’s repeatedly proven to be true in terms of publication, quality, or both. My assumption is that it means I’m invested enough in the story to be disgusted when it doesn’t work right, so I go off in a rage/huff. Later, if I persist, I return to find that, yes, this thing I care about is fixable.


 

Next Monday, you’ll want to check out what Mark Meier has to say. He was born in Brazil and grew up in the United States. He taught in urban public schools before graduate school and now teaches at the university level. After considering a career in national intelligence, he instead worked as a consultant doing work for the UN and US EPA. He continues to enjoy learning, having acquired a few languages (including math) and various belts in isshinryu karate, haidong gumdo, and aikido. He has raced as a cyclist and continues to appreciate the outdoors. He belongs to the Authors Guild and other writing and community organizations. He has traveled, lived, or worked in Germany, South Korea, India, Switzerland, and elsewhere, and donates a portion of the profits from his first novel Wisecrack to organizations that support international peace and the rights of women and children.

You’ll also want to check out what S. J. Chambers has to say. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in a variety of venues including Mungbeing magazine (which is currently running her wino-fiction serial “Vintage Scenes”), New Myths, Yankee Pot Roast, and in anthologies such as the World Fantasy nominated Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet Of Curiosities (HarperCollins, 2011), Zombies: Shambling Through The Ages (Prime Books, 2013), The New Gothic (Stone Skin Press, 2013), Acronos II (Tyrannosaurus Books, 2014), and in the forthcoming Steampunk World (Alliteration Ink, 2014) and the Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing, 2014) collections. Her non-fiction has appeared at Tor.Com, Bookslut, WeirdFictionReview.Com, and Strange Horizons (where she was also the Articles Senior Editor for two years). Her first book, the Hugo and World Fantasy nominated The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image, 2011) was co-authored with the award-winning Jeff VanderMeer. She can be found to blog irregularly at selenachambers.wordpress.com.

 

Three Weird Old Writing Tricks for Make Better Productivity

library of congress photo

Next Stop: Wordcountsville!

In attempting to ratchet myself back into the daily writing game, I’ve been drawing from my old bag of tricks and coming up with new ones. There are 1,001 ways to spur yourself as a writer, from prompts to time limits, but here are a few I’ve been using lately…

The ridiculous working title. Fashions in titles come and go, from synopses to twee run-ons to The Evocative Single Word. My current story-in-progress has a ridiculously literal description of the story at the top of the page. Whenever I see it, I giggle, and that tends to break the tension. Whether it’s “Robbers Get Robbed But Good” or “The Girl So Bad at Yoga That She Died,” they tend to refocus me.

Too small to see. I do variations of this all the time, but in essence, it’s dropping the font to 2pt, or something like that. It lets me see the relative lengths of lines without being able to worry about content. Requires substantial editing afterward, more so than trying to write a good draft as you go, but that’s the same as any “produce lots of words” method.

Fuckity fuckity Communists reaming whales with Ku Klux Klandlesticks. This method will naturally not appeal to everyone, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll (try to!) let my id off the chain and write absolutely nonsensical things that violate taboos or rules of propriety. The resulting prose has no bearing on the story, but it’s more engrossing than “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and spewing juvenile blasphemies will sometimes break the dam and get things rolling again.

I assume the above tricks aren’t unique to me, but good luck with your writing in any case, and I hope they may be of help.