Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Solipsist Sodality

Posted by midiguru on July 9, 2013

Writing is a solitary activity. When not writing, some writers are outgoing and sociable, but a lot of us aren’t. Making connections with your peers is a valuable thing no matter what field you’re in, but those who engage in solitary occupations face some special challenges.

Today I’ve been looking into writers’ organizations. I’ve got a couple of leads that may pan out, but on the whole it’s not a pretty picture.

The California Writers Club has a chapter headquartered not too many miles from me. The chapter has monthly activities. But when I look at the bio pages of about 20 members, I would have to say they’re not my peers. Not to disparage any of these charming people or their passion for writing, but I’ve been a pro for upwards of 30 years. It’s not the case that any two people who put the word “writer” in their bio are automatically peers, or that they can engage in mutually beneficial concourse.

I’ve tried a couple of online writers’ groups, but it’s pretty much the same picture — a horde of amateurs. Not people I can discuss nuts and bolts with. Plus, an online forum is a public place. What I’m seeking is more in the nature of a private, personal dialog with two or three people who have similar experiences and concerns.

Conventions are a big deal in science fiction and fantasy. Lots of writers fly off to conventions, both to promote their books to fans and to schmooze with one another. At the risk of indulging in a cliche, I would rather attend a convention than have bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails … but, well, how many bamboo shoots are we talking about? I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about what I’m writing, though that’s fun (and I’d be happy to hear about what you’re writing, if you’re one of my peers). I’m more interested in Read the rest of this entry »

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Get Your YA-YAs Out

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2013

I start reading a lot of novels and don’t finish them. I can think of at least two ways to interpret this bad habit. One would be, fiction doesn’t really interest me. Another, opposite interpretation would be that my unconscious is getting disgusted and saying, “That’s not how I would do it.”

For reasons that I may talk about at some point, I’ve started reading Young Adult (YA) genre fantasy novels, and forcing myself to finish them. I’ve now made it through two — Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Masks and Cinda Chima Williams’s The Demon King. Both of these are first volumes in multi-volume series, and at some point I may be moved to go on with either series. In the meantime, I have half a dozen more first volumes to explore.

Both books are decently written. What they have in common is that the plots are not structured in quite the way that a plot would be structured in a novel for the adult market. In both books, the hero and heroine (one of each, in each book) sort of drift along, carried forward by events in the adult world.

This wouldn’t work in a novel for adults. The idea in the latter, or so I’ve been taught, is that the hero or heroine Read the rest of this entry »

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Quality Assurance

Posted by midiguru on July 6, 2013

Okay, I admit it. I’m a snob. I like excellence, and I have very little patience with shoddy workmanship.

Over on the Hatrack River writers’ forum, I stirred up a wee controversy this week by suggesting that how-to-write suggestions from unpublished authors ought not to be blindly trusted. I was responding to a statement by the moderator, who said this:

“After all, one of the reasons a workshop like this can be of any use to writers is the idea that a writer may be able to help others’ writing even if that writer has not succeeded in producing publishable work yet.”

One of the regular contributors to the forum echoed this sentiment, saying, “…the one strength we have to share is that there are no wrong answers. There is only what in any one individual’s opinion works or doesn’t work for that individual.”

My first response was this:

“I can certainly see that an unpublished writer can Read the rest of this entry »

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Scratching the Itch

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2013

A few days ago I was talking with a woman who would like to be writing fiction. She has written a few stories and would like to sit down and edit them, but it’s hard for her to find time to write, because for one thing she has two small children.

I whipped out my standard advice for aspiring writers. What I told her was this:

As a writer, you’ll need to solve literally thousands of problems — what to name a character, whether to split a long sentence into two short sentences, where to start the action in a new scene, whether a character’s actions make sense or need to be changed, what kind of furniture is in the character’s bedroom, whether your story idea is fresh, hackneyed, or perhaps a copyright violation, and so on. It’s endless. And the very first problem that you have to solve is how to find a time and place to write. (Preferably every day.) That’s not the only problem you’ll face, it’s just the first of many. But until you solve that one, you won’t be in a position to tackle any of the others.

When I was about 19 years old, I went to a friend of my father’s to ask for advice. I think I had some vague idea of becoming a famous writer or musician — I know I didn’t have anything very definite in mind, and probably what I wanted was advice about how Read the rest of this entry »

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Pulleys, Levers, and Gears

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2013

If you’re writing fiction — be it for fun, professionally, or because you’re aiming at professional publication — you might want to jet over to the Hatrack River writer’s workshop forums. I recommend the forum called “Ways to Critique.” The threads called “critiquing guidelines (set 1)” and “critiquing guidelines (set 2)” are a great check list for gleaning how-to-write tips.

To give just one example, in the list of plot problems we find: “offstage action — point-of-view character (and therefore reader) doesn’t see what happens and so needs to be told.” There are, naturally, cases where this technique is needed. If you’re writing a mystery, for instance, your detective is not likely to be present at all of the key events in the plot. Often, he or she will be interviewing witnesses, so the witness will have to tell about offstage action. But a mystery in which all of the action (or even a big slice of it) is offstage is going to fall flat, at least for the modern reader. And in almost any other genre, putting the action onstage is vital.

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The Idiot Plot

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2013

One of the many ways to bungle a work of fiction is to create a plot that only makes sense if one of the lead characters is a complete idiot. If your hero acts like a complete idiot, readers will lose all sympathy with him. If the villain is a complete idiot, you haven’t given your hero enough of a challenge.

Some years ago I read a science-fiction novel — mercifully, I can’t remember the author or the name of the book — in which some people set up a base on an alien world and then wander off into the local wilderness without bothering to carry any weapons. Because, you know, what could possibly go wrong?

In the interest of getting the story to move in the direction you need it to, you may occasionally need a character to do something that is against her own best interest — something that she should know better than to do. The way to handle this is to give the reader some interior monolog in which the character debates a few courses of action and consciously chooses the wrong course for reasons that seem compelling to her at that moment, even though she knows she may be letting herself in for a heap of into trouble.

Producing a plausible rationale for idiotic behavior is tricky, but possible. If you’re having trouble writing a paragraph in which the character weighs his choices and then makes a bad decision — if all of the reasons that you try to give the character are silly — then maybe you need to rethink the plot.

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Dialog Do’s and Don’ts

Posted by midiguru on June 29, 2013

It’s possible that Jack London may have written a few stories with no dialog at all, because one of his fascinations was man in the wilderness. For most writers of fiction, though, dialog is a central concern.

There are no rules for how to write great fiction. Whatever works, works. Whatever fails, fails. But aspiring writers may find a few rough guidelines handy. Below are my personal guidelines for dialog.

First and foremost, does the dialog move the story forward? At the end of a passage of dialog, as with any other type of scene, something should have changed. If two characters are walking along discussing the weather, seriously consider deleting the scene.

As a corollary, using dialog to let the reader know something that the characters in the scene already know is a Very Bad Idea. If there’s a fact that the reader needs, but there’s no reason for the characters to mention it in dialog because they know it already, just write a damn declarative sentence. Making the sentence an interior monolog by one of the characters is perfectly okay — something like, “Jack had known for years that the old house was haunted.” See how easy that is?

Second, having two characters disagree is fundamentally more interesting to read than having them agree. If A is reassuring B about something, have B not believe the reassurance! If B says, “Oh, thank you. I feel so much better now,” the tension has leaked out of the scene. If there’s no Read the rest of this entry »

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Concerning Heroes

Posted by midiguru on June 28, 2013

For reasons that I may explain someday, I’ve been looking into the field of YA (“young adult”) fantasy fiction. I’m certainly not the target reader for these novels, so it would be wrong for me to try to write a conventional book review. It’s not to be expected that I would have the appropriate emotional response to any of the stories.

But I can pay attention to the technical side of storytelling, and flag things that seem to me to work well, or not.

I’ve just finished reading Stravaganza: City of Masks, by Mary Hoffman. Briefly, it’s an alternate-world story that flips back and forth between 20th century London (in our own world) and a city quite like 16th century Venice, but a bit different. I’m a sucker for alternate histories and pre-modern cultures, so this kind of thing is my cup of tea. The two lead characters, a boy and a girl, are both 15. The plot is mainly palace intrigue — a well-trodden field (I can think of a dozen examples), but one in which there are plenty of variations to explore.

The world-building is a little thin, but will probably go down well with 15-year-old readers. There’s plenty of local color and a bittersweet ending.

What concerns me, from a technical standpoint, is this: The two lead characters don’t do anything. They do a lot of sight-seeing, and the boy quite accidentally foils an assassination attempt by stumbling in on it. But all of the action that moves the story forward is undertaken by the adults.

One of the basic guidelines of storytelling (I won’t call it a rule, because I don’t believe there are any rules) is that the lead character should get out of the difficulties that rise up and smack him or her in the face through his or her own strenuous efforts. The lead character should not sit around passively and wait to be rescued.

I can’t say young readers won’t like City of Masks. I’m sure a lot of them will relate to the characters, enjoy the scenery, be thrilled by the suspense, and end up happy. But I can’t help feeling the story would have been stronger if Lucien and Arianna had tackled a few thorny problems on their own, rather than sitting around passively and letting the grown-ups hand them satisfying solutions on a silver platter.

Granted, 15-year-olds have somewhat less scope for independent action than adults, but if you compare City of Masks to something like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the difference is obvious. In the latter, the kids are pretty much on their own, forced to deal with difficult problems again and again without the comfort of adult help.

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What Makes It Real?

Posted by midiguru on June 28, 2013

The art of fiction is the art of creating an illusion. When we read a story, we think we’re visiting places we’ve never been, seeing and hearing people as they say and do things, and so on. What we’re really doing is sitting in a chair, staring at a bunch of words on paper.

Okay, these days it may not be paper. But you know what I’m talking about.

The neurological process that allows this illusion to occur is fascinating and not well understood, but that’s a topic for another time. At the moment I’m more concerned with how the writer creates the illusion. To create the illusion, the author needs to master at least four distinct techniques:

  1. Psychological truth.
  2. Narrative flow.
  3. Sensory detail.
  4. World-building.

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. Without a seat-of-the-pants theory about why people do (or fail to do) things, you can’t possibly create characters. I don’t just mean you can’t create good characters — you can’t create characters at all.

Fortunately, human beings are endowed with an instinctive apparatus for imagining what other people are thinking and feeling. If you have this apparatus in a well-developed form, and if you pay attention to it while writing, you’ll do fine. Your instinct will tell you, “That feels wrong. That character wouldn’t do that.” Or that it feels right.

Writers who start out with too rigid an idea of the shape of their plot may be tempted to ignore their instinctive nudges. Their characters may behave like Read the rest of this entry »

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Getting Inside

Posted by midiguru on June 27, 2013

When I was writing my first novel, almost 30 years ago, I had a 3×5 card thumbtacked above my desk. On the card were my two rules for writing fiction:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Put the reader in the scene.

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, learning how to apply those rules is the work of a lifetime.

Tonight I’ve been thinking about rule 2. I’ve been working on a critique of an unpublished novel by an aspiring fantasy author, and it has gradually seeped into my awareness that the author is not well versed in the techniques required to implement rule 2.

It’s not just a matter of physical description, though that’s part of it. Visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile — necessary, but not sufficient. If you hope to be a decent writer, you also need the ability (and it takes practice) to imaginatively cast yourself into the skin of one or another character. To see the world as that character sees it at that moment, and to feel the emotions that character would naturally feel, given whatever is going on in the story.

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. An amateur philosopher, too, but that’s a subject for another time. As a psychologist, you need to imaginatively construct Read the rest of this entry »

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