Throwback Thursday: “I Suck at Writing” Revisited

i-suck-at-writingThis one goes back to Jan 13, 2011. There is still a great deal of truth in these words.  I will say that for the record I don’t say those words very often any more. I have gotten better. I can recognize mistakes much easier now and I have learned to trust that inner voice. But imposter syndrome is a real thing and I still deal with that when I am around friends that are published, even though they keep encouraging me.


You ever read something you’ve written and then throw your hands up in the air and tell your spouse “I suck at writing!”?

I’ve done it several times in the course of writing my novel, but I think I’m coming to the realization that sometimes I do suck. Not always, but sometimes I do. I am figuring out that I need to trust that inner voice that is telling me I suck. I’ll come back to that.

I’ve also read scenes that I said to myself, “Damn, that’s pretty good!” Sometimes, not always, and not nearly as often as I would like, but usually I’m somewhere in the middle. There is a big gulf between “Damn that’s good!” and “I suck!” Large parts of the story are moving between the big scenes in the outline, and I often don’t know for sure where I’m going between those big scenes. A lot of it might end up on the cutting room floor during the rewrite, but it’s good for me to write those scenes out so that I know where it’s going. I have the outline in my head (part of it on paper) but I do what is referred to as “Discovery Writing” for the stuff in between. I’ve had to back-track a couple of times because my characters were leading me down a dead end or a direction that would completely change the story. Sometimes those tangents are good enough to make me tweak the outline. Letting the characters bring the story to me is one of the great joys of writing.

I’ve heard many authors and writing coaches suggest that if you are stuck on a scene to just move past it and come back later, but my brain doesn’t seem to work that way. I need to know what’s going to happen next, because it might change everything. I grind on a scene for hours sometimes. I’m not what you would call a fast writer. The most I have ever written in one day is about 4000 words. It’s usually a lot closer to 500. But I struggle to get it right the first time. I’m not going to be one of those writers that can pump out a book every 3 months. It’s just not gonna happen. Not unless I see a major change in my skill set. I’m ok with that.

Getting back to listening to the inner voice, it can be very frustrating to work on a scene for hours then sit back and read what you’ve written and lament to your spouse that you should give up writing. What this usually means is it’s just not crafted right. Maybe it’s a scene that needs to be skipped because it’s boring, if you’re bored so is your reader. Sometimes the struggles mean it just needs to go. Sometimes it means you are making the reader read your story instead of feeling the story.

After working one of those scenes that made you say “I suck!” until it feels right can really validate you. It can make you feel like maybe you can write after all; maybe you do have what it takes to do this as a professional. Sometimes the POV needs to be changed or maybe you need to add some movement so it’s not all just dialogue. People rarely just sit still and speak. They play with their hair and scratch their face and other body parts and fidget all over the place. Show that to your reader. Put them there in the scene so they can see the entire picture.   Let them feel the emotions of your characters, don’t just tell them that your character is nervous or angry, show them.

Trust yourself when you read back over something you’ve written and want to throw up. Just go back and fix it! You can do this!  You’re a writer after all!

 

Clear Ether!

The Life Cycle of an Idea

Kids are able to make up stuff on the fly, but as adults we have a really hard time with people changing stuff on us. Why is that? Do you remember when you were a kid and the world was full of wonder and nothing seemed impossible? We could dream big. One of my dreams was to be an astronaut — I really wanted to be Han Solo, truth be told. We could tell outlandish stories to our friends that made no sense, but we told them anyway because it was fun! Remember fun? I see my kids do it all the time. They take a simple idea and run it over and then back over it and run it over several more times, making it different each time and laughing all the way.

Somewhere along the line of becoming an adult we lose that outlook on life and become cynics to one degree or another. Things need to make sense. Life becomes about the realities of the world and not the possibilities of the world. All the mundanities of life intrude on our time for reverie. We have bills to pay, and jobs or school or both that eat up gobs of our time. We start having children and then we have not only ourselves to worry about but little protégé to teach our worries to. It’s amazing we have any imagination left at all!

Well, as writers we have to find a way to tap back into that dream space that holds imagination. It’s our job to find the barely believable, to look around the corners that hide the stuff that’s not quite normal … to rediscover the impossible. People ask all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” They actually come from all over the place. You have to keep your eyes open, and your mind open. It’s usually a combination of interesting events or articles that I read that trigger a thought. That thought needs to be nurtured and cultivated. I write it down, and then I think about it more. Sometimes they come in the form of a dream. I still have very vivid dreams, which are sometimes like a James Bond movie, or a fantasy film. I try to write down those ideas too, before they flicker out. If you don’t write them down they will fade away and out of your mind’s grasp. I keep a couple of notebooks at arm’s reach most of the time, because you just never know when lightening is going to strike.

I recommend reading … a lot! Read blogs, read news articles, read stories from your favorite magazines. Read books by your favorite authors, or maybe a new author in a new genre that you haven’t tried before. You never know what will combine into a glorious idea. Ideas are glorious and they need time to grow. They don’t usually burst into life fully formed. You need time to think about them more, to add to them. Keep reading, work on other projects then come back to your idea and check on it. Sometimes it will appear as if it’s hasn’t grown at all. Other times your imagination will spark and the idea will grow and mutate. Sometimes you need to prune it back a little, as it goes strange. I find that showers are great for helping the idea grow; my muse likes showers for some reason. Write all these down in your journal.

It’s also a great idea to take two or more of your ideas that you’ve been cultivating and see if they will fit together. Sometimes this will create a really great kernel for a novel. Sometimes ideas are more suited for shorter length and are just not destined to grow any bigger. That’s ok too, especially now, we seem to be seeing a rebirth of the short story that fits very nicely into the ebook format. They are perfect for a $.99 cent sell on Amazon.

Just because we are grown-ups now doesn’t mean we can’t recapture our youthful imagination. It’s like a small ember that needs some kindling and a little breath of air, then we can add some smaller sticks to it, and then bigger sticks and finally some logs as we kick it into gear.

 

Clear Ether!

More Cowbell!

morecowbell.jpgIf you haven’t seen the classic skit on Saturday Night live, here is a link.  I think it’s apropos to what I want to talk about this week.  It’s all about adding the right components to your story as you go along.  Maybe not quite that much cowbell, but definitely more.   It may not be quite as important on the first draft, but it really needs to be paid attention to in the rewrite phases.   If you’re an aspiring writer you really should be listening to Writing Excuses.  They have a real knack for presenting material in a way that is easy to understand and provides some great instruction.   They just added the wonderful Mary Robinette Kowal to their permanent team and this week’s episode was about Internal Motivations.  She is a great add and she has a fascinating take on how to write and is very good at clearly describing how she thinks about it.

This week’s episode spurred a conversation with my wife about maintaining the right perspective through your POV character and how when it is well done really makes a huge difference in the showing instead of telling.  I think we all know when we read something and it is compelling.  It just feels right and evokes emotions or understanding on our part.  However, I’m not convinced that we all know why we feel that way.  If a character has been giving hints as to how they think with little snippets of how they see the world peppered in along the story if makes their observations intuitive later in the book.  It cuts down on the need to tell about something when you are already in that narrator’s head.  My wife made the comment, “isn’t that just common sense?”  You would think it would be, but I think a lot of new writers don’t quite get it.  It makes a lot of sense on hindsight, when it’s pointed out to you how the author built their character’s POV along the way, but seeing something that “feels” right and really understanding how the author got you there is not so intuitive.   We know as writer’s what we should be doing, but so many new writers still end up telling instead of showing because they miss adding the little touches along the way and then want to convey something, but end up having to add an info dump or take the reader out of the story to add a narrative to add in extra stuff to make their point.  This becomes the classic telling instead of showing.

It’s the smooth touches along the way that add the magic.  The reader hardly notices that the writer is adjusting their point of view with subtle hints and observances.  In the last book I read, the main character was always noticing what things were made of or who designed it because she was very much about design.  It was one of her characteristics that she was good at noticing trends in the subculture and Gibson didn’t just tell us that, he showed it in every detail along the entire story.  She noticed architecture and materials and when things were old or new.  But it wasn’t in your face; it was just her noticing it, with very little actual text — just little bits and pieces here and there.

As you’re going through your rewrite really focus on staying in the POV of the narrator and show the reader what they see, just a little bit here and there, it will save on the telling later on and will make your character come to life.  We can all use a little more cowbell in our writing.

 

Clear Ether!

 

Finding Your Voice

voices.jpgPoint of view is a basic building block of writing a story.  It’s the vantage point from which a story is told.  When done well, it can really make your story pop.  First person is obvious; you are in the head of the main character and stay there.  2nd person is a little strange, and rarely used in story form, but puts the reader into the story, referring to “you” instead of the “I” of 1st person.   3rd person is the most commonly used form for narratives and has many forms, from Omniscient, where you see into everyone’s head, to Objective, where you see into nobody’s head, to Subjective, where you have the point of view of a particular character.  Subjective seems to be coming into vogue, and to me, it gives you, the writer, a lot more options to do interesting things.   Limited 3rd person POV falls in this category and I’m using it for my current WIP.  I started with the story in 1st person, but I decided to bring in a second main character, so I needed to change up how I was writing it.

Limited 3rd person POV gives you the flexibility to change points of view and stay in the head of the narrator for that section.   It is very similar to first person, but allows you to tell the story from more than one character, and if there are parts of the story that your main character won’t see but you want to share this can really add a lot to your narrative.  Or maybe you just want to bring in a different view point to see something from a different angle.

Another subcategory is the unreliable narrator, which adds another flavor to the story.  This from Ask.com:

The opposite of a reliable narrator, an unreliable narrator typically displays characteristics or tendencies that indicate a lack of credibility or understanding of the story. Whether due to age, mental disability or personal involvement, an unreliable narrator provides the reader with either incomplete or inaccurate information as a result of these conditions.

Done well it will really draw in and perhaps down a path that may be misleading, as you can’t be sure what you are experiencing is reality or just how the character perceives it.

I do have a pet peeve though and nothing bothers me more as a reader than when the author jumps from one person to another in successive paragraphs without so much as a breath, especially if they are very similar in perspective and style.  I really dislike it, so I’m switching chapters for each change, at least until my main characters come together in the story.  I may switch those to chapter changes as well after I finished reading a book by one of my favorite writers.

I just finished William Gibson’s latest novel, zero history, and it’s a work of literary art in my opinion.   His best work I think and I’ve read all of his novels.   It is a study in character development and the use of limited 3rd person POV and a well done unreliable narrator in the character of Milgrim, a recovering addict.  There is one particular scene that really stood out as a great example of how to differentiate your voice when looking through the eyes of a different character.  In this setting each character climbs a stairway in the Salon du Vintage in Paris separately.

Hollis Henry — She went with them, up a minimalist stairway of pale Scandinavian wood,…

Milgrim — …he climbed a handsomely renovated stairway to the second floor.

 

In these short sentence fragments you can see how the world looks differently and how Gibson shows it.  She notices the type of wood used and the architectural design.  Milgrim just sees a newly renovated stairwell that he is favorably impressed with and little other detail, because he just doesn’t know architecture or materials.  It’s a very small piece in a novel filled with details like this.  But this is the stuff that sets the really great writers apart from the average.

Every character should have a distinct voice that the reader should be able to pick up without you having to put up a neon sign.  It can be tricky.  You don’t want to start overdoing the speech idiosyncrasies; a little goes a long way.  Men and women are different, but not so different that you turn them into caricatures.  They should see the world differently, as they bring their prejudices and expertise, or lack thereof, to their viewpoint, but it’s little things.  As the example shows, in the long view, many little things add up to a nice tally at the bottom of the balance sheet.

Good luck in your writing!

 

Clear Ether!

Do Genres Hurt or Help?

Genre derives from the French around 1770 referring to independent style.  It is useful when looking for similar types of literary work, but it can be very limiting.  In Science Fiction alone there are 10 sub-genres listed in Wikipedia plus one for other, which covers a lot of ground left untouched.  Then there’s mixing genres, like fantasy and science fiction or romance and horror, referred to as paranormal romance.  Romance is very popular in most genres it seems and there is even a new sub-genre for science fiction called Science Fiction Romance.

I understand the desire to be able to pigeon-hole a story into a neat little genre so the retailers know how to market the novel.  I also understand that people tend to read in one or two genres and tend not to drift too much from their favorites, and being able to label something as a specific genre helps the reader knows where to look.

Genre can be a good thing for an author if they fit neatly into one; their readers know right where to find them.  But it can be an albatross as well, if a writer wants to write in a different genre.  I’ve heard stories of writers being shunned because they wrote a book in another genre.  Personally I think that just plain sucks.  Writers should be able to write whatever they want.  I know several that write comfortably in more than one and I think it helps keep the creative juices flowing.

What if your story doesn’t fit neatly into a well-defined genre?  The current work-in-progress crosses several genres and I’m not sure how I am going to market it.  Even coming up with a good tag line for it is difficult.  It’s parts Space Opera, Military SF, and Paranormal Romance.  I’m not even sure which one would garner the most traffic.  No matter which way I go I’m bound to turn off someone.  Some people don’t like vampires or romance or science fiction.  I guess I am looking for people just like me, but I haven’t met very many that share the same likes and dislikes exactly like mine.  I don’t want to be stuck writing the same stuff over and over either.  I like fantasy.  I like adventure stories.  I like historical fiction.  Maybe I want to write in all of those areas.  I guess that is another check in the plus column for self-publishing.  But, I’m still undecided on that front.

What do you think?

Clear Ether!

Tearjerker or just Jerky?


I hate crappy endings. It’s a real drag when you’ve invested time and emotional energy into a story and then get slapped in the face at the end when one of the main characters dies. I read books and watch movies for entertainment and to escape the worries that plague us in the real world. I don’t mind a little emotional turmoil, as long as it’s accompanied with some heroic action, or overcoming the odds. That’s the stuff that really gets me. Most of us want to feel something while we are experiencing the story and it’s the authors job to bring that to the table, but sometimes they go for the big hit by killing someone that wasn’t really necessary to kill, but creates a big emotional impact.

I was in 5th grade when Col. Henry Blake was killed at the end of season 3. We used to watch M.A.S.H. together as a family and absolutely loved the show. It was hard to figure out why they did it. It was the talk of class the next day and we had a substitute teacher that day, who was also a big fan of the show. We all wrote letters to the producers of the show complaining about how unnecessary Col. Blake’s death was and how much we loved the character and the show. One of the show’s producers, Larry Gelbart, was gracious enough to write each of us back with a hand-written letter on cool M.A.S. H. letterhead in green felt-tip pen to explain that bad things happen in war. It was debated across the country and upset many fans and even many of the actors, who didn’t know what the producers had in mind until just before the last scene was shot. The letter was beyond cool, but it didn’t mollify my feelings. To this day I think it was a poor use of a beloved characters death just for the grandstanding moment. But many people think it was what brought the show to a new level.

I was reading through some stuff the other day and came across a reference to Romeo and Juliet — quite possibly the worst ending of any story of all time. I mean seriously lame! So why is it so ubiquitous, even today? Is it because of the twisted ending? Would we have cared at all if they ran off and lived happily ever after? It would probably have faded into oblivion. I’m puzzled why it would remain such a popular. Well, I’m not even sure I would call it popular, but it is certainly famous. WHY!? Was it the unexpectedness of the ending? The emotional impact? Or maybe the ‘WTF’ factor?

I won’t be doing any of those kinds of endings…or maybe I just might.

What do you all think about how a book ends? Am I alone in hating crappy endings?

 

Clear Ether!

 

Week in Review 17-23 Jan

It was a struggle this week for blogging and writing.  I did manage to get 3000 words this week and passed the 400 page mark, but begrudgingly.  I am in the climax and trying to get it right, and its coming a little at a time.  My muse can be stubborn at times.  That coupled with work and home events kept my mind from any productive blogging, if there is such a thing.  The grand total right now sits at 96100 words.

I twittered plenty, but it was mostly retweeting.  I did come across this:

Squishy Moonrise from Space

And posted this video of one of my favorite songs form a band that broke up after one album: Big Dismal – Reality, rumor has it they are getting back together.

Kam Weiland had this excellent post about the 3 Traits of a Successful Writer

Fake Mars Astronauts are close to arriving at Fake Mars

NASA posted this about Zeta Ophiuchi — Runaway Star Plowing Through Space Dust Pretty dang awesome!

Nanotech News -another step toward complex nanomaterials that assemble themselves

Betelgeuse and 2012

 
I enjoyed this post Until you do it…
 
William Shatner started this webplace for Sci Fan fans: My Outer Space
 
Until next week…Clear Ether!

"I suck at writing!"

You ever read something you’ve written and then throw your hands up in the air and tell your spouse “I suck at writing!”?

I’ve done it several times in the course of writing my novel, but I think I’m coming to the realization that sometimes I do suck. Not always, but sometimes I do. I am figuring out that I need to trust that inner voice that is telling me I suck. I’ll come back to that.

I’ve also read scenes that I said to myself, “Damn, that’s pretty good!” Sometimes, not always, and not nearly as often as I would like, but usually I’m somewhere in the middle. There is a big gulf between “Damn that’s good!” and “I suck!” Large parts of the story are moving between the big scenes in the outline, and I often don’t know for sure where I’m going between those big scenes. A lot of it might end up on the cutting room floor during the rewrite, but it’s good for me to write those scenes out so that I know where it’s going. I have the outline in my head (part of it on paper) but I do what is referred to as “Discovery Writing” for the stuff in between. I’ve had to back-track a couple of times because my characters were leading me down a dead end or a direction that would completely change the story. Sometimes those tangents are good enough to make me tweak the outline. Letting the characters bring the story to me is one of the great joys of writing.

I’ve heard many authors and writing coaches suggest that if you are stuck on a scene to just move past it and come back later, but my brain doesn’t seem to work that way. I need to know what’s going to happen next, because it might change everything. I grind on a scene for hours sometimes. I’m not what you would call a fast writer. The most I have ever written in one day is about 4000 words. It’s usually a lot closer to 500. But I struggle to get it right the first time. I’m not going to be one of those writers that can pump out a book every 3 months. It’s just not gonna happen. Not unless I see a major change in my skill set. I’m ok with that.

Getting back to listening to the inner voice, it can be very frustrating to work on a scene for hours then sit back and read what you’ve written and lament to your spouse that you should give up writing. What this usually means is it’s just not crafted right. Maybe it’s a scene that needs to be skipped because it’s boring, if you’re bored so is your reader. Sometimes the struggles mean it just needs to go. Sometimes it means you are making the reader read your story instead of feeling the story.

After working one of those scenes that made you say “I suck!” until it feels right can really validate you. It can make you feel like maybe you can write after all; maybe you do have what it takes to do this as a professional. Sometimes the POV needs to be changed or maybe you need to add some movement so it’s not all just dialogue. People rarely just sit still and speak. They play with their hair and scratch their face and other body parts and fidget all over the place. Show that to your reader. Put them there in the scene so they can see the entire picture.   Let them feel the emotions of your characters, don’t just tell them that your character is nervous or angry, show them.

Trust yourself when you read back over something you’ve written and want to throw up. Just go back and fix it! You can do this!  You’re a writer after all!

 

Clear Ether!