Reverse Poison: Writing Advice

Chemical weapons are funny things. I remember doing research on them back in high school, and reading about what were called “medical countermeasures.” This meant, basically, that you would take someone who had been exposed to a nerve agent that, say, depressed neurotransmitters, and you would give them a shot of something that would overproduce them. Of course, you really had to be careful with this, because taking the antidote by itself would kill you just as surely as the chemical agent was. Essentially, you poisoned the body in the opposite way it had been poisoned, and that let you go on living. But the body had to have been poisoned that way in the first place.

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird reminded me of this, especially when, late in the book, she gave the advice that when one is suffering writer’s block, one must “resign as the controller of one’s fate.”

Now, the problem with that advice is that by itself, it is exactly the kind of advice that I-As-A-Beginning-Writer did not need to hear. It sounds like, “Hey, don’t worry about being blocked. Go off and fill yourself with the universe and come back when you are Inspired And Ready To Write.” And by itself, that advice is the Death Of All Writing. Because that feeling is rare and far between, and the only way I have ever found of summoning it with any chance of success is to write when I do NOT feel it.

Now, taken in context with the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear that what Anne means is more along the lines of, “You can’t summon brilliant writing on demand, so you have to abandon that hope and resign yourself to writing what feels like shit for awhile, even if it’s only a little of it, until you push through and it feels good again.” In that context, the advice is extremely valuable, and leads to good results. The problem is that the quote is so., well, quotable that you run the risk of finding it in isolation — or worse, understanding it in isolation — and poisoning yourself by taking the antidote to a problem you haven’t been privileged to have yet.

Wait for the problem of being a disciplined writer first. Then the advice to resign control of the forward motion makes sense.

Maine Reactor Back Online…

Hello, loyal readers. Just a little update on why the long radio silence, here.

Last week was our first really, really BIG family vacation, prompted by the 90th birthday of my wife’s only surviving grandmother, whose big birthday request was a family reunion. So, naturally, the first thing we had to do was send me and Son to Webelos Weekend, because when you’re planning for a week away from home, the best thing to do is start things off right with a camping trip for half the family. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, as it did not to me, I suggest you review this faithful transcript of the conversation I had with my wife over the matter:

Me: “We’re going to be driving with all our children to MAINE. It wil be exhausting, and besides, there’s a Scout camp every summer. Do we really have to..?”
Wife: “YES.”

So, having been convinced by that argument, Son and I went to Webelos Weekend where we donated approximately a half-gallon of blood to Satan’s Aerial Red Cross, but other than that had quite a bit of fun. We then came back and took off for Maine.

Get ready for a profound observation: The United States is really, really big. The last time I drove to the East Coast, it was from Kansas, not Wisconsin, so technically that was a bit longer. Notwithstanding, that time I was splitting the drive five ways, not two, and I was also about 23 years younger, and the youngest person in the car.

All kidding aside, it was a great blessing to be able to show the kids something like a sixth of the country. We waded in the Atlantic Ocean. On our travels, we saw crabs, snakes, and more deer than I ever thought possible. We met cousins we hadn’t seen in years, or in the case of the kids, ever. And they got to meet their great-grandmother. That’s not a thing that most of us get to do, these days. I remember my own great-grandmother clearly from my childhood, and treasure it. I am glad that my own children will at least have some of those memories.

On the way back, Wife’s uncle was kind enough to invite us to a wonderful barbecue, and if you have never eaten smoked salmon, pork, and brisket in the same meal, I highly recommend it. The weather was wonderful, and the only real downside to the trip struck on Friday morning, when Elder Daughter succumbed to carsickness, and we had to deal with very unpleasant odors on the way back.

I must say that while visiting Niagara Falls was wonderful, I don’t really recommend visiting on Saturday. Also, go EARLY and avoid the lines that plagued our visit. That said, riding the Maid Of The Mists practically into the Horseshoe Falls is well worth it.

Also, Saturday nights in summer, the hotels all along I-90 in Ohio are booked. Solid. Be warned.

However, that is why I have not blogged this week. Everything should be starting back up now. Watch this space for details.

Science-Fiction Dont’s: A Micropost

Hi, readers!

I know it’s William Shakespeare’s Dune Monday, but I’m a little behind, so I have to leave you with this observation:

One of the worst things a science-fiction writer can do is to introduce an amazing technology or alien ability, and then do nothing with it.

I was reminded of this when watching Attack of the Clones with my kids. Zam Wessel is chased down by Obi-Wan and Anakin, and under stress begins to revert to her true shape. Anakin recognizes that she is a Changeling.

And then, she utterly fails to change her face, attempting to sneak up on Obi-Wan disguised as the same attractive woman she was when they started chasing her. The whole thing goes nowhere, and we’re left with a terrible sense of disappointment. Never do that to your readers. It’s like going to a banquet and finding out that the delicious dessert in the center of the table is a frosted cardboard prop.

So, the reason I’m behind is that I’ve spent the last month (and a VERY intense last WEEK) revising a 620-page novel and have just sent it to a publisher. I’m done writing today.

How I Learned You Do Need An Editor

Okay, so I realize that many smarter people than I already figured this out. This post is for people, like me, who are better-than-average at spelling, sentence construction and mechanics. People who, like me, are often told that they write very clean copy. People who, like me, have sometimes wondered why they would need an editor before self-publishing. Upon re-reading my novel that I have fully revised TWICE and was now revising for the third time, AND which has been through easily a half-dozen beta readers, I discovered, among other things:

That most of the regiments and noble houses had at least two different color schemes for their banners and uniforms.

My main villain’s formal regalia was elaborately and stunningly described, with some of the best prose I have ever written… three separate and completely different ways.

During the climax, A military unit ambushed and murdered another military unit that it had relieved over a week previously.

The succession of the kingdom was arranged such that my villain could and should have solved the problem with a cup of poisoned wine and an unfortunate accident about ten years ago.

My protagonist’s nasty younger brother reacted to something before he ever showed up.

My protagonist’s personal rifle had a plot-activated bayonet.

Now, I’ve never used a professional editor, but I had read this thing a half-dozen times, had beta readers do the same, and while they pointed out a number of problems, these skated right by them. So I know the results of NOT using one. And they are to be avoided.

Edited To Add: I would like to say (because I meant to, but not strongly enough) that I do not mean any of the above to cast aspersions on my wonderful beta readers. Firstly, there was a lot MORE wrong with the novel when they saw it, and they caught a BUNCH of errors and weak points. Secondly, it’s not really their job to catch everything. That’s why you HAVE an editor.

 

 

The “Importance” Of Originality In One Easy Lesson.

I just sold a story about Space Marine Midwives with Disabilities to a pro market magazine (announcement of which one when contract is signed).

This should teach us two things about “originality.”

  1. No idea is so completely bizarre that it should be cast aside as unworthy  of being published.
  2. Since the GENESIS of this story was actually a Call For Submissions (for an anthology that as far as I know, never even opened to submissions. Yeah, um, really should have gone on to that if you wanted this story, guys) that SPECIFIED “Space Marine Midwives,” there is no idea so completely bizarre AND original that no one has thought of it already.

In other words, “Originality” doesn’t matter a DAMN as long as it’s good writing and doesn’t FEEL like a retread.

The rest is up to you.

How To Tell If You’re In A Dystopian YA Novel.

“So,” said President Maximum Leaderking. “You come highly…” he paused to look at the notes in front of him. “Recommended.”

You’ve been on your own for seven years now. Seven years since the Derpvirus swept the globe and turned all the adults stupid. Well, stupider. Now, you’re more intelligent than any adult human simply by virtue of being sixteen. President Leaderking used to be a Nobel Laureate. Now, he might be qualified to manage a McDonalds. Only problem is, all the adults remember how to use guns, and President Leaderking’s goontroopers each carry an AH&SKS-757 Magnum Assault Rifle.

Seeing as there are six of them behind you, you say, “Yes, sir.”

“But you were not unaffected by the virus, were you?” President Leaderking continued.

How had he found out? You’d been so careful! But he knew. He obviously knew.

“No.”

“Smile for me, please?”

Alone in the room with him, you withdraw your luscious, full lips, revealing your vampire fangs.

“Well,” said President Leaderking. “That, combined with your top scores in archery and unarmed combat make you especially useful for our Outcast Squadron. It’s a group of ultracompetent freaks like you that we train to be terrors in combat and then unleash on the unsuspecting Borderlands totally unsupervised so that you can clear any survivors from our territory.”

Curse them for sending you out with nothing but natural talent and military training into a whole populace of poor people that the Government ruthlessly oppresses. What hope have you?

“It’s time for you to meet your new comrades.” And Leaderking mashes a button that activates the trapdoor you’ve been standing on, sending you down a ten-story chute.

A rough hand helps you up. It’s bigger than any hand you’ve ever encountered. “Hi,” said the boy. He must have been at least nineteen, and built like a really sexy tree, with dark brown hair and a beard that was at once full enough to make him look manly, and scraggly enough not to be gross. “I’m Logan Darkblade. You must be our vampire. Sorry about the ride.”

“What are you?” you stammer.

“He’s our shifter,” says another voice behind you. You turn and see a slender, olive-skinned boy with long, blond hair coiffed in a neat ponytail.

“What’s a shifter?”

“It’s like a werewolf. Except for not being gross or a curse. I can turn into a wolf that looks like an enormous, well-groomed dog at will.”

“Wow. And what do you do?”

“I’m Gareth Longthorne. I’m the Hunter.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m very good at every martial art and form of weapon known to man. I’m just good enough that you almost can’t show me up because you’re a girl. You’ll find that makes me devastatingly attractive. Now I should introduce you to our siren.”

“Why do we need a..?”

“No, her name’s Lydia Gravesend. She’s almost as beautiful as you, and you can tell by her red hair and snotty manner that she’s so freakishly outcast that she would never betray us to President Leaderking if we should give our allegiance to the oppressed of the Borderlands and lead an insurrection.”

“How do you know?” you ask.

“She’s wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Not A Spy For The Office Of The President.”

“Oh, good.”

 

A Few MORE thoughts on Worldbuilding with Food, and Art

So, a few weeks ago, I posted some Thoughts on Worldbuilding. And in the natural course of things, another blogger linked to it here.

Now, while it’s always flattering to have people link to your blog, because it means that they found what you had to say worthwhile (or at least, worth screaming about), I fear that my colleague of teh Interwebz misunderstood the technique I was trying to highlight. Because he (or she) had this to say:

“Food is the easiest but only becomes a concern when the characters don’t have a steady reliable supply of it. Or if they are moving between multiple cultures. Art and music are best left for the slower parts of the story and again would only be noticed if the character is operating outside his usual culture.”

And the problem is that this is both right and wrong at the same time. It lacks imagination, and it lacks an understanding of the role of the storyteller.

Now, it’s correct to say that noticing food, art and music are best done in the “slower” parts of the story, but that in itself reveals a limited understanding of pacing. Certainly, you don’t want characters thinking of food, art and music during a gun battle or a chase. But a fast pace, or rising tension, do not have to encompass anything that is literally fast or athletically active. Consider, for example, the dinner-party scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The tension rises inexorably as the various factions present do verbal battle for supremacy, and through it all, the food lays out a vibrant background that illuminates the cultures of Arrakis and the Imperium. It has nothing to do with a lack of supply, and little to do with multiple cultures.

But there are always multiple cultures in the act of telling a story. At least, there are two: the real culture of the real reader, and the artificial culture of the work. And even in a contemporary novel of America, food and art and music can be used to signal what things are important to the characters. Is this a man who turns up his nose at scotch improperly oaked? Or a man who enjoys ketchup sandwiches? Does she listen to Rob Zombie, or Pink Floyd?  Or Vivaldi. Does he notice the Warhol print in Wal-mart and spend money on it? Or is he going to snort at that and smugly congratulate himself on his understanding of Pollock?

Now, in F/SF, you have a whole culture to map out. It’s a challenge when your characters are intimately familiar with that culture, and they’re certainly not going to say things like, “Welcome to our home, Bob and Linda! Do sit down and partake of these lovely snarf-burgers, the principal Arcturan delicacy!” But look at what S.M. Stirling does in his excellent book, the Peshawar Lancers. He has to set up an alternate 21st century in which the United States was destroyed, and most of Europe crippled, by a cometary impact. It’s over a century later, and the British Raj is the dominant power. How does he portray this in the opening scenes of the novel?

Well, for one, he has his principal heroine sit down in the lavishly appointed dining room of an airship. She notices all the dishes (because of course we notice what we are eating, whether we are in a different culture or not) and her mind wanders to the huge reproduction of a famous mural that dominates the dining room, portraying the Exodus from England as the government of Great Britain removes itself from the Thames, sailing to Delhi. She then thinks how monstrously inappropriate a scene that includes cannibalism is for a dining room and of the Kipling Cantos that inspired the artist to paint such a thing. And so, in a couple of pages, we are treated to a snapshot of the culture of the 21st-Century Raj combined with a good deal of backstory which the heroine has good reason to be thinking of. It flows with a brilliant ease and never feels artificial, and it all comes from a lady sitting down and dining alone inside her own culture.