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Story Snarls

Posted on 08.18.2014 at 10:15
I haven’t finished a story in the past year. This spring was so frenetic I barely had time to do any leisure reading to maintain my sanity. (I’m disappointed if I don’t write regularly, but I practically collapse if I go too long without reading from my own shelves.) So I had one resolution for this summer: I’d write and finish a short story draft—even a really shitty one—before the fall semester began. Barring any miracles, I’m not going to succeed.

I could make excuses, but I’m not interested in sharing them, and I doubt you want to hear them. I’m not writing this post to enumerate all the reasons I’ve fallen short of my modest goal; I’m writing it to articulate the difficulties I’ve been having with this particular story.

Without getting into all the details, the story is part homage to, part revision of the mecha trope. I love giant robots, though I’m not nearly as steeped in the genre as I could be. I’ve only seen G1 Transformers, of course, and only a handful of episodes of the various Gundam and Voltron series. As for written examples, I’m not sure if it exists in any substantial form. (There’s Armored and the Battletech series, but even these aren’t quite what I’m after.)

So, without much for reference points, I find my story taking on a military science fiction bent. This is a challenge for me. One: I don’t have any genuine interest in military SF. I don’t gravitate to those kinds of stories as a reader. And while military SF has high levels of drama and action, the stories I as a writer like to tell don’t lend themselves to that milieu. Two: I’m not, to my mind, a particularly good SF writer. I don’t have the scientific or technological literacy that SF can—though not always does—demand. I don’t have nearly as much familiarity with SF’s tropes as I do with fantasy’s. And I haven’t yet figured out what I can get away with as an SF writer, what logistics should be thought through and which can be taken care of with handwaving.

Now I’d be a poor writer if I wrote only the same kinds of stories or the ones that came easily to me. But I wonder how to recognize the distinction between not writing a story because it’s hard and not writing one because it’s turning out to be something you’re not even a little excited by. So, to get back to the mecha story: In writing it, I’ve encountered a lot of questions. That could be positive, right? An indication I’m being more thoughtful and conscientious in my writing choices. But the more I mull over these questions, the farther away I feel the story veer from one I want to tell (to say nothing of what I’d hoped to tell, though I think in the end stories bear only faint resemblances to their initial vision). So should I pursue it to the end, just to see how it winds up? Or would it be better to just start over to see if I can get the execution to be more in synch with the intention?

I’d love to hear about your experiences when the writing goes in a direction you didn’t expect and maybe weren’t enthusiastic about.

Some Things I've Learned About Research

Posted on 05.27.2014 at 11:43
If you’ve ever heard me talk about my MFA program, you might have noticed I tend to speak in superlatives: It was one of the best decisions I ever made, I found some of my closest friends there, and I learned so much about my writing that I can hardly identify any major gaps—save one. The one significant (to me) lesson I hadn’t picked up during those two years was how to research. Not the fusty kind involving library visits, MLA format, and all that. I mean the kind that starts with “I’d like to write a story involving world-class marbles players but I don’t know the first thing about marbles, let alone at the pro level.” So where/how do you start? That question took up residence in the back of my mind, occasionally traveling to the forefront when I considered breaking out of the rut of stories informed by what I already knew. Daunted by the potential of failure, I shied away from experimenting, from discovery, and instead kept to the paths I’d walked so often.

Thankfully, I lucked into a Research for Creative Writers class this past fall; in taking the class, I got enough familiarity with how to research topics with an eye toward story fodder that I feel more confident about venturing out into that unknown. But I have to warn you: It’s a pain in the ass.

Four questions guided us through the semester as researchers. What do you already know about the topic at hand? What do you want to know about it? Where can you find that info you don’t yet have? And how do you put it all together gracefully? I don’t think I’m giving anything away by sharing these questions; it’s finding answers—even tentative ones—that’s the real challenge. Like all the other bromides about writing—simple in theory, less so in practice.

I’m oversimplifying when I say this, but it seems like there are two approaches to research. One is to gather as much material as you can before setting out to write, collecting more as needed during the actual composing. The other, and the one that strikes me as far more manageable, is to write the damn story and figure out where you have gaps—of setting, character, etc.—that could be filled in by researched information.* I don’t much like the first approach because it can theoretically go on forever. How do you ever really know you have enough? Eventually you just have to put your butt in the chair and words on the page. Besides that, you’ve got chaos, no sense of order or relevance of what you’ve collected. The latter approach makes more sense to me because, though researched material can impact a story beyond lending verisimilitude, I prefer to see what shape the story takes independent of outside interference. And once I know that, can see where I might need a fact or a detail, my research has a direction and purpose, instead of a mad grab for info.

But even with a direction and purpose, you don’t always turn up the info you need—or you don’t recognize a detail’s usefulness right away. It’s a process of back-and-forth, trial-and-error, which is also why the (over)preparation method seems odd to me; you’re going to have to do all kinds of scutwork anyway. May as well cut out the extra step and get right to it.

Even if you find all the info you need and blend it seamlessly into your narrative, there’s still a chance you’ll get something wrong. And someone will invariably catch you for it. Not a good thing—not just because most people don’t like having mistakes pointed out, but because that slip-up could break a reader out of your story. Some readers might be forgiving, some might not notice at all, but some will lose the sense of the whole due to one loose thread. You can’t please every reader, and I’m not even suggesting you try. I’m just saying that when you introduce research into a story, you’ve got one more plate to juggle in addition to believable characters, a compelling plot, sharp prose, et cetera, et cetera. But that also means a greater sense of satisfaction when you pull it off.

For me, the greatest benefit of research—and I’m paraphrasing something I read long ago, can’t remember where—is it expands the sphere of what you know. “Write what you know” is a great place to start, but, if you write enough, eventually you run the risk of exhausting what you know (or at least what you know that feels viable as Story). Research ensures that, in some sense, there’s no end to what you can know.

* I think fiction writers have the advantage over nonfiction writers in this; with fiction there is still, ideally, a story independent of the facts, whereas that may not be the case with CNF. A post for another time, maybe.

Writing Longhand

Posted on 03.31.2014 at 09:05
I have a distinct memory of typing my first story, a piece of fan fiction, on my uncle’s computer. I had written out by hand nine double-spaced pages, which was far more than my teacher asked for with that assignment. (The prompt? “Write a story.” You can imagine how much I, still loyal to structure and clear guidelines, gnashed my teeth over that overwhelming freedom.) Since we didn’t have a computer at home, the keyboard was unfamiliar to me. I hunted for letters, tapping them out with an agonizing slowness that took the bulk of an evening. Maybe that’s why I hate composing on the computer so much.

Obviously, I’m much quicker than I used to be. Even though I’d never gotten comfortable with the home-keys position, years of e-mails, IMs, and college/grad school writing improved my speed so much that one of my creative writing teachers remarked he’d never seen anyone work that fast typing so untraditionally. But I find myself somehow divorced from the writing process if I write by computer, as if those motions, while learned, still don’t feel native to me. Maybe it’s because the product looks too uniform, like anyone could have written it. Maybe I just fool myself into a better headspace through the physical act of making marks by hand on a page.

But I don’t think it’s only psychosomatic. I have good reasons for writing by hand. Like my friend Paul says, it keeps all the work in one place. I own nearly two dozen marble notebooks—they’re cheap and durable—full of the fiction, essays, and even [sic] posts I’ve done over the past five or six years. They’re easier to track down than the scattered files on my computer, though without the benefit of a search function. I like the portability. I take a notebook or memo pad nearly everywhere I go, whereas my laptop only occasionally travels with me. Writing longhand is unrestricted by battery life and the availability of outlets. I also don’t type nearly as fast as I write; when I’m in the middle of a story, I’ve got to keep up with the speed of thought. (More often than not, my first drafts happen by inspiration and figuring it out as I go. It’s only certain kinds of writing that I do any significant planning for.)

I also like the way revision happens when writing by hand. I make a few squiggly lines through material I want to scrap, but I can still see the words. Sometimes, they provide a useful direction or an idea to be salvaged for later. On the screen, I don’t see any traces of where my thoughts have been, what’s been abandoned or tweaked. (I know about Track Changes, but I’ve never really gotten the hang of that option.) Adding notes to myself on paper is easy—I have arrows and asterisks on nearly any given page, reminding me to insert an elaboration, more details, a stronger word choice. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to make sense of my system, but to me, it’s simple enough. Plus, when I do sit down to type what I’ve written, I edit on the spot, reworking phrases and cutting excess. It’s the rare piece that makes it to digital format exactly as I wrote it. Of course, that means a final draft takes more time for me than for a writer who prefers the keyboard, but it’s worked so far. When I have to get away from my normal writing process, I’ve gone to the computer. Even if the result isn’t actually any different, it definitely feels that way.

Besides all that, print has this air of permanence to it that the digital lacks. (Maybe that’s just the Luddite in me.) I have multiple backups of my most important writing, but I can’t help worrying about technology’s unreliability. Then again, I’d lose so much if a fire ever happened. But I’d never fight a force of nature so hard if it meant saving my writing from oblivion.

I guess that’s why some of us write, whatever medium we use—to preserve something valuable.

Ten Books That Stuck

Posted on 02.10.2014 at 09:38
Not long into the new semester and already I feel swamped by obligations. These are the first words in weeks I’ve written for me—and for you, though I use [sic] to think on the page, so I don’t really consider it as writing for others. Because I’ve been so swept up by school-related matters, I find my mind blank. Nothing to write about. So, in the absence of a pressing urge, I’m sharing a meme. I rarely do this; clearly things are out of order somehow.

A few months ago, people on Facebook were posting their personal lists of ten books that stuck with them. The caveat: to do so quickly, without thinking. I’ve read hundreds of books. Coming up with ten is easy. Keeping it to ten? That’s a different story. Still I managed, though I confess I did spend a little time—not a lot, mind—thinking about this list. In no particular order:

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Cosmos, Carl Sagan
The October Country, Ray Bradbury
Blankets, Craig Thompson
Spider-Man: The Venom Factor, Diane Duane
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
On Writing, Stephen King
The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff

I wasn’t going for representativeness, but I think that’s what happened. I see my tendency toward wistfulness, quests and searches, Taoism, a sense of wonder. More besides, I’m sure. I also place a lot of value on firsts: Stardust was the first Gaiman novel I read, and The October Country was the first Bradbury I independently read, both catapulting me toward seeking more of their work. The Tao of Pooh started my forays into Taoism. Macbeth was the first piece of “literature” I remember liking. And Duane’s Venom Factor is the book that got me reading.

So many other books I want to tell you about. For instance, over the summer I reread Chris Barzak’s One for Sorrow in preparation for a lengthy post on it. My goal is to spotlight some of the other books that have impacted me, a few that may be familiar, a few that probably won’t be. But good books need to be shared and discussed, however great it feels to have a secret all to ourselves.

A Novel Or Bust

Posted on 01.13.2014 at 12:16
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I decided on this a few months ago, but it seems appropriate to share it now with everyone talking of resolutions and goals for the new year: I’m going to write a novel.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. When I was younger and had far more braggadocio, I attempted two novels, one a rather bland idea stretched thin and the other a by-the-numbers fantasy that I can only charitably call derivative. I didn’t get very far with either of those projects before I realized they weren’t worth finishing—if I didn’t like the story I was writing, I held little hope anyone else would. Those attempts—which I’m sure I labeled failures at the time—likely soured me on any subsequent tries at writing a novel.

I turned my attention to short fiction and everything changed. While I did—and still do—have a tendency to riff on old ideas, I found that I could tolerate the familiarity short pieces accommodate. I liked the potential for experimenting with style, form, character, and so on, unlike a novel, which demands a certain consistency. And I liked the satisfaction of seeing a project finished, whether successful or not, in a relatively short timeframe, rather than chipping away at something on blind faith (and maybe some stubbornness).

Lately, I have novels on my mind. I read a lot of short fiction this past year, and, though my love of the form hasn’t diminished any, I’m craving the immersion novels deliver. And with school claiming the bulk of my time, I feel like I need an anchor in the creative world. Leisure reading has been instrumental in that, as has writing short stories, but both have been sporadic. I can’t help wondering, then, if a single large writing project, instead of several smaller ones, would improve my focus any.

Besides which, I’ve been thinking about time and regret, priorities and choices. Existential stuff, as you do. I don’t want to die without ever having made a sustained, earnest attempt at a novel. I want to prove to myself that I can. I want to test my creative powers. I want to make a grandiose gesture of commitment to the writing life, despite my professional obligations. To do so, I’m choosing to write a novel.

As you might expect, I no sooner made the decision than the questions began: What are you going to write a novel about? By when? What if all that time and effort results in a book you can’t publish? Can you decide to write a novel, or do you just get an idea like a bolt from the heavens? And more occur to me with each passing day. I’ve managed to quiet the doubts, since I’m still in the process of brainstorming. We’ll see how long that lasts and how long it takes for thought to become deed. More on this as it unfolds.

A number of you have written novels. I’d love to hear your experiences, especially in the early stages.

When A Book Leaves You Cold

Posted on 12.19.2013 at 13:44
A few weeks ago, I finished a book that I was not terribly fond of. I hadn’t gotten very far in before I realized what a chore reading it was. Yet I pressed on, hopeful, eventually desperate, that the author would turn it around, that the next story would make me feel like my commitment would pay off. It never happened. As short as the book was, I found myself wishing back the time I’d invested, which happens so infrequently that, when it actually does, it’s a shock.

Because the book was a collection, I felt justified in my optimism—even the best ones have a few stories that just don’t work for me. On some level, though, I recognized I was ignoring my instincts, the ones saying it was a lost cause. I stuck with it partly out of stubbornness: I had only given up on one other book before, and I would not be defeated—yes, giving up on a book meant personal defeat—by yet another. The other reason? I had hoped to learn something from it, a totally sensible reason writers routinely endure wooden prose, bland plots, flat characters. Lessons in What Not to Do. I never did learn anything from the book, but only in retrospect can I say that; in the moment, I’d hoped for some kernel of wisdom.

I’m not going to lay the blame for the reading experience I’d rather forget on that writerly advice. After all, I can choose to follow it or ignore it. Or, my actual plan, to tweak it. Life is short and my reading list is long; only one of those gets longer by the month. I’m a fairly discriminating reader, so it’s the rare instance I choose a book that I don’t appreciate on some level. Even so, it happens, and rather than soldier on out of some warped sense of obligation, I need to change my habit.

I want every book I read to blow my mind. Who doesn’t? But I know that won’t happen. Still, I should be getting something out of the experience. If not, well, I’ve got other books clamoring for attention. So here’s the plan: I’m going to give a book that’s really not working fifty pages or so to convince me. Plenty enough time to do something interesting, to show me a glimpse that, even if I’m not enthralled, I’ll take something away from the experience.

Several friends of mine have long had the win-me-over-by-page-X policy in place for years; they can hardly believe I’ve been reluctant to give up on books. Now, it’s a different story. Fifty pages, authors. Make ’em count.

Avoiding Adaptations

Posted on 10.30.2013 at 10:21
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In the winter of 2005 I came home one day to find that part of the roof over my room fell in, bringing with it the ice that had sat there over the previous few weeks. I reacted as you might expect. Few of my possessions were ruined in the collapse, thankfully, though there were some casualties. One of those was my copy of I, Robot with the Stephen Youll artwork. I had bought the book over a year prior, because I knew they were making a movie version soon and I didn’t want an actor’s photo on the cover. And now it was water-damaged, the ink smudging across pages, the whole curling up on itself when it finally dried.

Over the next few years, I checked every bookstore I came across for a replacement copy. More times than I care to count I found the tie-in edition, Will Smith striding in such a way to suggest action without committing any. Even when I visited other states I came up empty-handed. Seven years later I found at last a clean copy with Youll’s illustration.

Perhaps not the best segue into my resistance to adaptations, but it’s clearly related. I could have bought I, Robot a dozen times over, used or new, in those seven years. But I refused. I like to keep my books separate from their spin-offs, thank you very much.

When I read about an upcoming film or TV adaptation of a book I love, or one I want to read, I’ll typically rush to the bookstore and buy myself a copy, before those “Soon to be/now a major motion picture/TV series!” stamps or photo stills show up on the covers. That’s an aesthetic thing, sure. What about the adaptations themselves?

In general, I avoid them, sometimes with a fervor that borders on zealotry. At least, that’s the case with stories I love. If I’m not as invested in the story itself—which is rare; this is me we’re talking about—it depends on circumstances: who’s involved, how it looks in development, etc. I don’t know if I’m more visual-minded or whatever, but I’m extremely susceptible to others’ representations of characters and settings overwhelming my own, especially if all I have to go on is prose. You would think that, as a writer, I would not be so easily influenced in my imagination. I would think so too. To my own chagrin, though, that isn’t the case. When I return to the story after seeing a screen version, I see the actors in my mind’s eye, hear their voices instead of the ones I invented. And suddenly I feel less involved in my reading; I can’t participate in the same way I used to.

I’d love to be able to separate the two out, to recognize that the story is its own thing as is the movie or TV show. (Other kinds of adaptations, strangely, leave less of an impression on me.) But I can’t do that. So if you ask me why I haven’t seen or won’t see such-and-such, you’ll know: because I have a particular image and sound in my head and, despite what I may be missing, I want to preserve them.

What Now? When A Story Gets All No's

Posted on 09.24.2013 at 09:33
Before this year, I didn’t take submitting for publication very seriously. I sent out two stories to be exact. Part of that was because I didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what kind of work other magazines published. I didn’t at the time think I had much in my inventory worth sending out. And I had fun just writing; I figured I had plenty of time to get my work out into the world.

Things are different now. I’ve read at least some offerings from many—not all, not yet—of the major magazines. I’ve got a sense of what they’re looking for. I’ve written a handful of stories that I feel are worth sharing. (They still need revisions, but they have at least a core worth keeping.) And, while I do have fun just writing and still may have time enough for my work to see the light of day, I’ve grown frustrated with the lack of a success. The only way to remedy that is to circulate my stories.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, if only in a casual way. Grad school and teaching, as you might expect, take up massive swaths of time, and they don’t leave much mental space for creative thoughts. Thus I’ve been sending out the one story I finished last year, which came in a fit of inspiration and, so far as I could tell, didn’t need much revision to make it match my intentions.

My intentions, however, don’t seem to be enough. That story has earned five rejections over the course of this year.* It’s awaiting a verdict with one magazine, and if it gets rejected there, I still have two more on the list. (It isn’t that I’ve exhausted the list of spec fic magazines period—only that this story doesn’t fit the aesthetics of certain publications.) And if I run through the entire list and it’s no’s all the way, what then?

Truth be told, I hadn’t expected that, to try every viable option only to fail. I’ve heard stories about writers who collected reams of rejection slips before they broke through, but I haven’t heard about when those writers decided to give up on selling a particular project. Maybe they never did.

This, then, is my dilemma: Do I send the story to a less prestigious magazine (with the rationale that a credit is better than none)? Do I trunk it and accept that this one just wasn’t meant to be? Or have I overlooked a third possibility? A friend of mine told me that she gave a story some time off if it made the rounds and came back with rejections. When she returned to it later, she revised it if she felt she’d gained some new skills in the interim. I wonder if that’s worked.

Three more venues for this story. I hope one of them says yes, not only because I want to have a sale but because I think this story’s good enough to deserve a home. I wouldn’t be sending it out if I thought otherwise. (I’ve trunked plenty of stories without submitting them because I didn’t think they were good enough.) We’ll see if an editor agrees, else the story will continue to exist as just words in a file, as scribbles in my notebook.

* One letter said, “Not for us but send more” and another editor enjoyed the story but felt it lacked pay-off. Little encouragements like that go a long way. Progress.

A Paradox At The Heart Of Reading

Posted on 08.22.2013 at 14:10
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The other day while waiting for the bus I saw a young girl start Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. At that moment I felt an overwhelming ambivalence. On the one hand, I really wanted to talk to her about it—to ask her why she picked the book up, to ask if she knew there’d be five in the series, to say I knew the author and she was a fantastic person. On the other hand—leaving aside the reasonable wariness a girl would have being approached by a man my age, even with her father nearby—I didn’t want to  disrupt her reading, especially at the very beginning, when the possibilities and mysteries are the most numerous. This to me is one of reading’s paradoxes—it isolates us (at least in some ways) even as it presents an opportunity for connection.

Most of us read alone. (I have read along with others, and it has always given me a frisson of joy.) Even when we read together, though, we read at different paces and, far more importantly, our imaginations are distinct. Sure, the fictive dreams in our heads would be similar, prompted by the author’s words, but they would not be the same. A film, meanwhile, doesn’t rely nearly as much on its audience’s co-creative powers, so our experiences are far likelier to match up. (Yes, even then our experiences won’t be identical, but I think overall the similarity would be much higher.)

And yet, we are social, have this deep-seated impulse to communicate. To share. Art seems to routinely stir this impulse. Think about it. How disappointing is it seeing a movie alone? Even more than the stigma of being alone in a theater (unfair as it may be), not having someone to talk about a movie with afterward makes the solo outing unappealing. The almost natural reaction to a film, even among people who wouldn’t think of themselves as critics, is to talk it over. I feel that desire to discuss with pretty much every artistic product, including books. Others must feel the same way. Why else would book clubs be so prevalent? Or look at the success of Goodreads and other sites designed for bibliophiles.

To some extent, that’s why I write here on [sic]—to express my thoughts on literary matters with a definite aim toward starting a conversation. (I have admittedly been writing less about specific books, something I mean to remedy soon.) I think that, post-MFA, I’m lacking that community of people to talk books with. My fellow students all read a lot, but our frames of reference are wildly different. I suppose, then, if I can’t find what I’m after, I’ll do what any artistic type does when faced with an absence in the world—create something to occupy it.

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