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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Nature details: how do???

I have a confession to make: I grew up in suburban Dallas, and I simply Do Not Grok Nature.

On the metric of effort-to-result, putting details about nature into my stories is probably one of the most labor-intensive things I do. And I don’t even mean long, rapturous passages of lyrical description about fog creeping over a pond at dawn or something like that; I mean that unless I make a conscious decision to go do some research, my characters walk through forests of Generic Trees, listening to Generic Birds make Generic Noises. When I do the research, it winds up being half an hour of effort for half a sentence of result.

I’m making an effort to improve at this, and having discussed it with some writers, I think a large chunk of what I need is simply better resources for the information, or better ways of finding the resources. Field guides are helpful, but even more helpful are books or websites that talk holistically about a specific landscape, so that I get integrated information like “down by a watercourse you’ll see these trees and these birds and these flowers,” rather than separated lists of all the trees found in a region, and all the birds, and so forth. I feel like this is relatively findable for the United States, but much harder for other parts of the world, especially non-Anglophone parts. Any recs for such things? I mostly use this for secondary-world purposes rather than this world, but I’d love to be able to have characters ride across grasslands that look more like Mongolia than Nebraska, or cope with environments like tropical jungles that we mostly don’t have here. Could be formal field guide-type stuff, or just somebody writing with really evocative specificity about not just the mood of a place, but the specific flora and fauna to be found there and how they behave.

(I know one bit of advice is “get out there in the naturez yourself!,” but that would mostly only help me learn to write about the northern California landscape. I do get out in the naturez, but I can’t just go hang out in Mongolia whenever I want.)

Units of Fiction IV: Attention and Focus (Chapters)

(This is the fourth post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part III.)

As I said at the beginning, this whole series of posts sprang out of a conversation I was having with other writers about chapter length, which included some discussion of deciding where to start and end a chapter, i.e. where the breaks should come between them. After three posts mostly about other things, we at last come full circle back to the original question.

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Units of Fiction III: Attention and Focus (Scenes)

(This is the third post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part IV.)

The second post of this series looked at the ideas of attention and focus, and how those apply to the structure of a paragraph. Now let’s turn those same lenses onto scenes.

First, the notion that a unit asks you to sustain your attention until its over. Scenes don’t require the same degree of concentration from the reader as a paragraph; if you put a book down in the middle of a scene to go refill your water glass, you probably won’t have to start over at the beginning because you don’t remember where you left off. But ideally, a scene should hold the reader’s attention without pause, and not let them up for air until it’s done.

One of the ways it can do this is through unity. We no longer hold to Aristotle’s classical unities as such, but in some ways the concept is still alive today at the scene level: we do generally expect unity of viewpoint, as I mentioned before, and we have a tendency to default to unity of location and time as well. When the characters shift location or a lot of time passes, we often insert a scene break to signal the transition and skip over the intervening gap.

But that isn’t the only way to handle those shifts. You can also use the narration itself to signal movement or the passage of time. How do you know which approach is better in a given situation?

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Units of Fiction II: Attention and Focus (Paragraphs)

(This is the second post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I; Part III; Part IV.)

In the first post of this series, I talked about the mechanics and pacing of where to break between paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. But “you have to start a new one under these conditions” and “merits and demerits of short vs. long” doesn’t get you very far; there are still enormous aesthetic decisions involved in where you choose to place your breaks.

(This is where I start flailing vaguely in the direction of articulating things I know, but have never tried to explain.)

As I said in that first post, I think this is largely a matter of regulating your reader’s attention. Unpacking that more, I think there are (at least) three aspects to this:

  • A unit, be it a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter, asks the reader to sustain their attention until it’s over. The intensity of that attention varies — more for a paragraph; less as you go up the scale — but if they’re going to look away, they should ideally do that when the unit ends, not partway through.
  • A unit is a way of signaling to the reader that there is a relationship between its component parts. Units whose component parts are unrelated are usually less effective — and again, that’s most true at the paragraph level, and less so as you go up the scale.
  • Finally, a unit guides the reader’s attention to particular points of focus. This is primarily true at the beginning or end of the unit.

Because the operation of each of these things differs significantly between sizes of unit, let’s take them one at a time, starting with paragraphs.

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Units of Fiction I: Mechanics and Pacing

A discussion among my fellow writers of chapter length and where to break (or not) got me reflecting on how little writing advice there is for thinking about this — and then from there I fell down a rabbit hole of realizing how even less advice there is for the sub-units below the chapter, the scene and the paragraph. (Or the higher-level units, the part or the book in a series . . . but that’s going to have to be a separate bit of pondering.)

This is stuff we’re apparently expected to learn by trial and error. You write stuff, and you notice — somehow — that breaking in certain places works better than others, and so you improve. Nobody ever really taught me how to think about these issues, beyond a few very basic mechanical points, and so as a consequence I’m not even sure how to articulate what it is that I do, even though I’m relatively pleased with how I’m doing it. This is the first in a series of posts that constitute an attempt to figure that out by talking through it out loud (so to speak), and I hope it will be of use to other people.

Note: what I have to say here is geared toward fiction writing, but certain aspects of it would apply to nonfiction as well, whether that be a blog post or an academic article.

Organizing it is a little bit hard, though, because I want to talk about all three of paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, and some of the points apply to all of them, but some don’t. Which means it’s not ideal to separate them, but it also isn’t ideal to tackle them all at once. I’m going to do a little from Column A, a little from Column B; I’ll start out with talking about the aspects where they’re the closely related, then break it up for where they diverge. Which also means this is going to be a multi-part discussion — four parts in total, with one being posted each day. (Edit: Part II; Part III; Part IV.)

So with that context out of the way . . . in thinking about this, I’ve come around to the opinion that there are three major factors at play in how we decide to break up the units of our tale. Those are: mechanics, pacing, and attention. And of those three, I think attention is both the most subtle and the most important.

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4thewords, Fan Art, and Pride!

For nearly two and a half years now, I’ve been using 4thewords, which is a writing gamification site. You queue up monsters and defeat them by writing — or, if you’re me, by copy-pasting the words I’ve written elsewhere — which gives you XP and various item drops, which you then use to complete quests and progress in the storyline.

I think I’ve mentioned this site here before, but I’m bringing it up again for three reasons:

1) I know a lot of people are having trouble writing right now, and if gamification and pretty graphics are the kind of thing that can motivate you, this might help.

2) The people who run this site (a very small cadre based mostly in Costa Rica) are really good about trying to make things inclusive and welcoming. Case in point: right now we’re in the middle of a 25-day special Pride event, amped up from the usual 10 days because so many in-person Pride events have been canceled. There is all kinds of related gear to customize your avatar with, including no less than fifteen palette swaps to represent a bunch of different Pride flags — not just the most well-known rainbow but flags for bisexual, non-binary, polyamorous, and other identities. This year they also wrote code for a virtual Pride parade, which you can choose to have your avatar march in; mine is there, decked out in straight ally gear (and a giant feather butt fan I picked up during the Carnival event a while back).

3) AND THEY GAVE ME AND ALYC ROOK AND ROSE FAN ART

Ahem. What I mean to say is, they’ve also responded to the pandemic by helping to support site users whose book releases may be affected. I tossed my name into the hat back when I thought The Mask of Mirrors was going to be coming out in November, so this is now more in advance of the release than I expected it to be, but . . .

4thewords promotional image

They made a wardrobe item that’s inspired by a mask in the novel!

That is our first public piece of fan art for this series. And the Festival of Reading is going to continue for 44 days (not counting the eight teaser days they had in the weeks preceding the Festival itself), each of which comes with its own special reward.

So basically, it’s a really wonderful and supportive community, and a fun way to motivate yourself for writing, with a story about questing to save the world from a corrupting Dust. It says quite a bit that I’ve stayed active there for two and a half years, alternating between normal quests and the regularly-scheduled special events. I would link you to neat features like the Pride parade, but I think you have to be a subscriber to see those; however, the subscription cost isn’t very high, and there’s even a community pool where people who can manage a little extra donate subscription time to be distributed to users who might not otherwise be able to afford it. If it’s something that might be useful to you, I encourage you to check it out.

Deferred rewards

One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.

Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.

Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.

Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.

Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.

Edits.

Copy-edits.

Page proofs.

Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.

And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!

Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.

This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

Things they never teach you

Writing advice books tend to go into great detail on things like how to structure your plot, or develop character, or describe things, or whatever.

They do not — in my limited experience; hence this post — bother to say much about how to decide where to break chapters, scenes, or paragraphs, apart from telling you to start a new paragraph if you’re switching speakers in dialogue. Maybe a vague nod at “cliffhangers are exciting!,” but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to figure that stuff out as you go, apparently. Or else (and this is entirely possible) it never occurred to the writer of the writing advice book that there’s an actual skill buried in there.

But I haven’t read a huge number of writing advice books, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that someone out there has at some point unpacked this stuff for the reader. Any recs? Because it’s one of those things that I do instinctively, without much ability to articulate how the decision-making process goes — and since I enjoy teaching writing, being able to articulate it would be useful.

I return to the teaching fold!

Temporarily, at least. 🙂

I’m currently slated to do two teaching stints in 2020. The first is coming up soon: Pen, Paper, Action!, a one-day workshop at Clarion West in Seattle on February 8th. There I’ll be covering not just fight scenes in specific, but action more generally.

The second is later this year, during the Sirens Studio that takes place before the main conference. I’ll be teaching a writing intensive on creating religions for fantasy worlds — going beyond deciding who the gods are, and delving into how beliefs can be integrated into the daily lives of the characters. Sirens is a beautiful event focusing on women in fantasy; I haven’t been to the Studio before, but I was one of the Guests of Honor at the conference in its second year, and had an amazing time.

Registration for both of these things is limited, so if you’re interested, sign up soon!

A different short fiction resolution

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times here, in both 2018 and 2019 I set myself the goal of writing six short stories. I came up one short in 2018, and then in 2019 succeeded despite making a mess of that count with flash fiction and a novelette that wasn’t intended for the submission treadmill and etc. etc. etc.

I’ve decided to change my goal for 2020.

My reasons are threefold: First, I have quite a lot of novel work pending for this year, which is going to eat a fair bit of my time and energy. Second, I rather expect politics will send me into at least a few mental tailspins before we ring in 2021, and allowing some slack for that seems like a good idea. And third, the best way to head my overachiever tendencies off at the pass before they can tell me I Have to Write Even More Than Last Year is to deliberately aim lower.

So my goal for 2020 is actually just three stories — but three specific(-ish) stories. See, a few years back I sorted my short fiction into groupings based on subgenre, and discovered that basically every grouping was either in the range of 30-40K words, or could reach that easily if I got off my duff and wrote some of the ideas that had been hanging around unwritten for years. Three of those — Maps to Nowhere for secondary-world fantasy, Ars Historica for historical fantasy, and The Nine Lands for stories in that setting — are out now. A fourth, the urban fantasy collection, is on the road to publication later this year. (Monstrous Beauty and Never After are a different ballgame, being micro-collections rather than novella-sized.)

That leaves me with three within striking distance of completion: one for folksong retellings, one for stories inspired by other kinds of folklore and mythology, and (in a surprise speed-run) another secondary-world collection, because I’ve accumulated nearly enough since publishing Maps to Nowhere in 2017 to hit that topic again. All of these are still pending the sale of multiple stories — with the exception of Never After, which was a special case, I’m only collecting reprints — but more to the point, they also each need me to write one more story for them to be complete.

Ergo, that’s what I’m going to focus on this year. My goal is not merely to write three stories, but to write stories that fit the following parameters:

1) One story based on a folksong. I have a song in mind; I just need my subconscious to cough up some interesting answers to the questions the song leaves me with. Technically I only need this to be 620 words long to get myself across the self-imposed 30K bottom limit, but I’d like a full-length story, since there are already two flash pieces in here (and those are why, despite writing two new pieces, this collection still isn’t complete). Given the song in question, though, and what I feel like the story it produces might be, I don’t think that will be a problem.

2) One based on Near Eastern mythology. This technically isn’t necessary, since the collection’s currently at 33K. But the story I unexpectedly wrote before Christmas left me in a situation where the regional groupings within the collection have four stories each, with the exception of the Near Eastern one, which has only three. So dangit, I want one more. Not sure what, though — so hey, if there are any Near Eastern myths or bits of folklore you think are crying out for poking at in fiction, feel free to suggest them in the comments!

3) One secondary-world. This is wide open; it could be anything, as long as it’s at least 3700 words long. (Which usually isn’t a problem for anything that requires me to do worldbuilding.) I have an idea I originally thought might go here, but further thought made it apparent to me that it’s going to be at least a novelette and maybe a novella, so . . . probably not? Because my imagination is fun of playing annoying and self-inflicted games, my inclination is to not have the additional story be a repeat in any of the settings currently slated for the collection, even though I have multiple ideas in that direction. I might take a crack at the story that’s the sequel to “Love, Cayce,” but that presumes I can figure out a way to write it without the sequel-ness being an obvious barrier to entry. But on my way to bed last night I realized I could take the opening incident of a potential future novel that currently has nothing but an opening incident and turn that into a stand-alone story — what I think of as a “proof of concept” story, poking at a setting and a character in short form before attempting a novel — so despite being a brand-new concept, right now that’s leading the pack.

Those are my goal. Let’s see if I can make ’em happen.