Gin & Tonic & Writing Thoughts…

A day-off, a nice (if far too short) hike, and a gin & tonic at my elbow…

Ahh, it’s the little things that define a good life!

Just a few random thoughts for this post, mostly because I haven’t developed any of them enough to flesh out into a full post of their own.

I once mentioned, a couple of years back, that it took a certain mindset and focus for me to write consistently and well.  I had, I mentioned way back in that old post, finally become “good” at putting myself into that proper frame of mind.

Err…umm…well…

That doesn’t always apply, as it turns out.

Oh, everything works great when I am in a regular rhythm of writing; when I’m living & working a life that is predictable and even.  It doesn’t work so great, on the other hand, when I’m up here in Yellowstone.  I never know what the heck I’m going to do from day to day, so how can I get into a regular writing rhythm?

That particular problem sucks, and I’m pissed at myself for low productivity, but would I change anything?  Would I give up the things I get to see and do up here?

Oh hell no.

This blog started life as my attempt to “live blog” the process of conceiving and writing a novel.  That concept, of course, didn’t last more than the first few weeks.  I 1B634BD3-C987-46FB-9C24-801F46481272have just far too many squirrel-moments when I’m working on these (stream of consciousness) posts to stick to any kind of plan.  That doesn’t stop me from talking about writing, however.

Kinda like now…

I’ve been working — a bit — on trying to create the background and basis for a new story series.  I mention this because a friend up here asked me about writing.  “How do you,” he asked, “start writing a story?”  He wants to try his hand at it, you see, and he was hoping there was some secret, easy-to-use, insert-tab-A-into-slot-B answer…

Here’s news: there ain’t.

I tried to explain to him just how I do things, but I didn’t get it across very well.  My attempted explanation didn’t succeed because, well, I don’t usually think about the process intellectually enough to actually explain it.  So, after that conversation, I tried to think about it…and not for the first time, I might add.  I had to step back and think not about Connor & Oz and how I write their stories — not only am I too close to them, but they are also too well defined in my mind — but rather about this (potential) new series…

Now, David Eddings came up with the Belgariad and that universe based on a map he drew as a kid…

Raymond Feist came up with the Magician series and universe based on a role-playing game he had written and DMed in college…

Tolkien came up with The Hobbit in the trenches of WW One…

Jordan came up with the original idea for the Wheel of Time based on his return from Vietnam and re-acclimating to “normal” society…

So, for my friend Cody, here’s an attempt to clean up the (poor) answer I gave:

For me it’s the characters that drive the creation.  It’s always about the characters.

There are always characters floating around in the back of my mind, by the way.  There’s a huge cast in there, more than enough to fill several series…but they don’t always work and play well together.  Hell, they usually fight and scream and cause all sorts of havoc with each other…

But when they come clear…

When they start to crystallize as “people”…

Yeah, that’s when I start to move them from the back of my mind to the front.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: the ideas for Somewhere Peaceful, Silence and Flicker didn’t come first, the characters of Connor and Oz did…and they drove the stories.  Even before they had names, even before they “existed” in character sketches and background notes, they told me their stories…

The same thing is happening now.  I have two (main) characters who are becoming real to me, who are ready to tell their own stories.  They aren’t quite clear yet, I should add.  They’re still blurred and fuzzy, like they’re deep in the fog, but they’re moving towards me and becoming clearer with each step.  Only when the characters are clear, only when they are real, can I so much as start thinking about the plot that ties them together.

I know what these two are, and quite a bit about who, but that’s not enough.  Not by a long shot.  Oh, it’s enough to dream and imagine, but not enough to actually write a story.

This is where the…ahem…work starts.  I have to take these two characters — who have nothing really to do with each other — and bring them together into a compelling story.*  This is where the 3-4 months of planning and thinking, of writing and re-writing background pieces that will never see the light of day, comes in.  This is where the piles of discarded notes, and reams of deleted files, come in.

*It’s easier with Connor and Oz, by the way, since they were always conceived together…

This is also, unfortunately, where “feature creep” — or “plot creep,” in writing terms — begins to rear its ugly head.

“Hey, why not try and squeeze in this other story idea, too?”

Yeah, that generally doesn’t work out too well.  That’s where you start going off the rails and deep into the weeds.  That’s where you waste weeks of effort and time on crap that just doesn’t belong.

Not that I’ve ever done that.  No, sir, not me…

*sigh*

This conception process is also when you have to define yourself as a writer.  Is your story based on history, or something similarly extrinsic?  Or is it based on you, and what makes you you?  Are you a David Eddings and Raymond Feist?  Or a Robert Jordan and JRR Tolkien?  Do you want to write an admonitory fable, a la Haldeman’s The Forever War, or do you want to create something aspirational and hopeful, like Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama?  Hell, do you want to go completely off the reservation and write a philosophical/theological treatise like Herbert’s Jesus Incident?

I know where I come down, but I can only answer that question for myself.  Every writer — published or not, aspiring neophyte or best-seller — has to define for themselves just who they are as a creator, and why they write…

A final piece of this puzzle for me — a very, very personal, internal piece — is to find the right soundtrack.  Before I sit down to create the actual plot, I have to know the story’s feeling…and that means I have to have the right soundtrack and mood.  It means, when you get right down to it — as I’ve mentioned before — that I have to find that one song that defines the whole damned thing.

Once I have that song, I write the final scene…then it’s off to the races for the rest of the whole damned thing…

 

The Rules of the Game

All games have rules. Some games take that further and have rules that are as detailed as they are nit-picky and annoying. Then there’s golf, which has so many damned rules, even the professionals don’t know them all — they have to rely on freaking TV viewers to call in and report violations!

See…this is why I play hockey, our rules are simple: if it would be a felony in real life, it gets you two minutes in the box.

Writing, like *ahem* golf, has rules. More rules, in fact, than any one human can truly master….or even care about. Rules about grammar and punctuation, yes, but also rules about word-counts and naming conventions and style, rules about structure and pacing and subject matter, rules about this and that, rules about rules…

E646353B-E58F-4564-826C-B8FE4166E50AMy preferred — and flippant — answer is to treat those rules like I do the rules of hockey: do your crime, then do your time*. To put it in terms my current protagonist would use: you do what you have to, then you pay the price.

*I have, I should probably mention, visited the penalty box a time or two in my hockey life…

Neither editors nor agents particularly like that attitude, however, so maybe I should be a bit more deliberate with my answer (and my rule-breaking).

So, here it is: rules matter…until they don’t. Or, put more accurately: you can never break the rules, until you can break them successfully.

Tom Wolfe broke just about every rule of grammar and dialogue in existence. He even invented a few just so he could break them. But he’s freaking Tom Wolfe, for God’s sake. He did more than make that rule-breaking work, he made it his inimitable style. When it comes to the rest of the writer-ly universe, every (good) beta-reader and editor in existence is going to slap you silly for breaking the accepted rules of grammar and style…

…unless you make it work.

Heck, George RR Martin broke all kinds of rules, too, with the Game of Thrones* series. He broke rules about using names that were “too similar,” rules about depicting sex and rape in darkly explicit terms, rules about tone and content and subject matter. And…well…all that rule-breaking kinda worked out for Martin, too. But it worked precisely because that rule-breaking was the very basis for his world, and for the storytelling of the series. Oh, and because he’s pretty damned good at that whole “writing” thing, too.

*I know, I know — it’s technically the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, but “Game of Thrones” is just so much easier to type!

Robert Jordan didn’t just break the rules about word-count and story pacing with his Wheel of Time series, he had those rules hung, drawn & quartered, shot, stabbed, drowned, burned, and shot into the goddamned sun. Now, Jordan is an interesting case about rule-breaking: he made it work in that every single one of those books* spent time at number one on the bestseller lists, but…well…not to put too fine a point on it…he needed an editor able to say the word “No” in the worst freaking way.

*And the over four million total words!

There are any number of articles and posts out there with all kinds of rules and suggestions. Editors, authors, agents, readers…you can find a piece from any perspective you want. A good compilation of “rules” from successful writers can be found here, if you want a single go-to resource.

One suggestion I have — I’ll not call it a rule, thank you very much — is to spend some time researching those voices, and rules, that apply to your current story’s genre. Whether you choose to break them or not, you probably should know what those rules are.

Just one simple example as to why I mention doing that research based on genre: a new fiction writer with a first book is “expected” — which translates to “demanded” in agent- and editor-speak — to come in between 90,000 and 100,000 words. More than that and you’re in trouble. In sci-fi & fantasy, however, that expectation becomes 105,000-125,000 words, and it is when you come in below that lower expectation that the trouble really starts.

All that being said, however, there are some general writing-specific rules I have gleaned over time and practice that apply* across the board.

*Err…do I really need to add the caveat that these rules are just my opinion, and that your mileage may — and probably will — vary?

1) Read your stuff out loud — there simply is no better way to find those run-on sentences and awkward constructions and instances of stilted language, bad grammar/tense, and jacked-up tone/POV. The key corollary to keep in mind is that if you can’t read a sentence in a single breath, it’s broken. I find it best to do this process when I am revising for the second draft…which can lead to all kinds of, umm, interesting interactions in the taproom.

2) Words are meant to be cut — no, really, go through and kill all kinds of ‘em. 90% of the time, the sentence is — like biscuits — better with shortening. Shorter is (most often) more powerful. You almost never need, for instance, the word “that”…or adverbs…or most adjectives… And, yes, I do fully understand just how much of a hypocrite I am with this rule! Hey, I’ve mentioned more than once just how little editing I do on these posts…

3) Try alternatives — if a scene feels awkward or forced, try something different. A different tone, a different tense or structure, a different something. My favorite trick here is to write the damned thing from a totally different POV. Even if I never use that alternative, it makes me think about the scene in a completely different way, and (most of the time) gets me over that hump of “awkwardness.”

4) Don’t be afraid of your characters — let them speak to you, let them call their own shots from time to time. Far too many writers out there are slaves to their plot. X has to happen, in their world, because, well, it’s part of the oh-so-holy-plot…even if X is completely wrong for the character(s) in question. In the end, you’ll find that letting your characters make their own choices makes them deeper and more real. Of course, it also means that the lure of letting them call the shots just gets worse and worse as you get the deeper into your story…but that’s a good problem to have, not a defect.

5) Let go your conscious self — yes, I’m quoting Obi Wan Kenobi, dammit. He’s freaking Obi Wan, and I can quote him if I want to! Stop worrying about the details, stop worrying about what others will think, stop worrying about the real world, and let yourself go. Immerse yourself in what you’re writing. You had a vision and an idea when you came up with your story, and you have to let that idea (and the tone/feeling of it) run through everything you do. You’re a writer, dammit, so be a writer, not just someone trying to write. If you don’t believe in yourself and your idea enough to truly let yourself go, why the hell are you writing it?

Fail Less

So, I think about writing all the time.  About characters and settings and plots; about, in the end, the stories that are more than the sum of all those things.  I think about not just the stories I write, but also those I read.

It’s important to think about, and to learn from, the stories and writers you admire.  Whether that admiration is for the whole package, or for just an element or two, there is (almost) always something to study and learn.  But just as important — if considerably less pleasant — is the need to learn from the…err, less successful* stories and writers.

*And, yes, I am in fact using “less successful” as a euphemism for BAD.

When I watch some jackass set himself on fire in a drunken stunt gone wrong, I learn that most important of human lessons: don’t do that.  When I read some book where everything falls apart in a raging inferno of shitty characters or bad plotting, I (hopefully!) learn that same lesson: don’t do that.

But learning don’t do that isn’t enough, no more than is just learning the other great lesson of be more like this.  No, you have to continually work and think to apply those lessons to your own writing, too.  You have to be able to look at your own stuff like a reader, and to find and understand the flaws in your stuff even more than you do in the works of others.

There are a great many people who can identify the flaws in what they read.  Whether they have knowledge and vocabulary to explain those flows is immaterial, they can see and feel them.  What sets the “few” apart from the “many” in this respect, however, is the ability to see and feel the flaws in your own stuff.

Failure-350x264.jpgMy whole object in thinking about writing all the time is to learn that third great lesson of life: try to fail less.  You can’t beat yourself up about failure — that way lies madness, trust me — but nor can you be afraid of it.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try…and that lack of trying is the greatest failure of all.

Look, everyone who writes starts off rough.  Everyone has their collection of “trunk material,” the stuff that will never (and should never, honestly) see the light of day.  As Stephen King once said, the first million words are practice.  But those initial, arguably necessary, “failures,” those opportunities to learn, are one of the greatest barriers to making this whole thing work.  The vast majority of folks, no matter how great or how small their talent, often give up the authorial ghost with that first “failure.”  They simply stop trying.

Which of those failures was worse?  Writing a bad story?  Or refusing to start on the next one?

By now, you probably know my answer to that…

Now, I do have to add one caveat here.  If you write that first bad story, then start on the next one with no effort to learn from the first, nor to improve…well, let’s just add that to the list that defines writers who are less successful.

The military has this concept of the After Action Report.  It records everything that happened in a particular incident (battle, accident, event, etc..).  Now, the record itself is valuable, but the greatest value is found in explaining and understanding the mistakes — of judgment, of execution, of command — that are part of any operation.  Listing those mistakes, and going on to define the Lessons Learned for the future, is the heart of the whole damned thing.

In writing terms, that translates to doing an After Action Report on what you write.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What can you do differently to improve the next one?*

*By the way, this whole concept works in pretty much any sphere of life — I used to do it after every single project, back when I was still living the life of a cubicle-weasel.

I would guess that most writers already think about that stuff when wrapping up a story, but just thinking about it gives far too many chances, and too much excuse, to “forget.”  Or even, sadly, to ignore.  No, do yourself a favor and do an actual written AAR document.  It is really hard to not internalize and understand/learn the lessons when you write them out.

On a personal level, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet of Lessons Learned from every story I’ve written — good, bad or indifferent.  And I fully expect to keep that sheetWarGames-Trailer-700x300
growing as I keep writing.  Remember, my goal is not to not fail, it is to fail less.  In the end, the only way to not fail is to go all Wargames and not play, and that’s just not an option.

The Movie Marathon

I started thinking about movies…both the good and the bad.  More importantly, I started thinking about the greats that stand the test of time, and their contrast with, well, the rest of the shit.

Okay, okay…so I’m grumpy and ranting at the moment, but have you really looked at the formulaic crap the current studios and directors and actors are trying to pawn off on us?  If they think I’m going to waste my Netflix subscription — let alone the $567,834 a trip to a movie theater costs — on “Boss Baby” or a remake of “Jumanji” or **shudder** “I, Tonya”…

Oh, for God’s sake, just how low can we sink?

Where the hell are the real writers and directors?*

*Before you ask, I know essentially nothing about writing screenplays.  I’m a prose guy — my only interactions with scripts came in various high school and college acting classes.

I mean, c’mon…when even STAR WARS fails, when even those “remakes” are so bad as to make the damned prequels look like outstanding cinema, we’ve reached peak-stupid.

This all got started when I watched an Andrei Tarkovsky movie the other day (Ivan’s Childhood).  Shit howdy, what a difference.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing “dark” in the current stories, but I have a real thing for Russian writers and directors at the moment…

The thing is, that movie got me going.  It started a movie jag — a GOOD movie jag: Casablanca, The Shining, Unforgiven, The Godfather (I & II), Fargo, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Empire of the Sun…and the gut-punch at the end of the (multi-day) marathon, one of my all-time favorites, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Shit…how do you go watch The Commuter after that?!

I’ve said it before, but I want to stress again this point: stories are stories, no matter the medium.  You can — and should — learn from all forms of storytelling.  And movies — good movies — have a great deal to teach about storytelling.  Go watch the movies I list above, and pay attention to how they develop the themes, and the characters…pay attention to how they communicate, and how they elicit emotion and thought.

And don’t stop there.  Go watch a bunch of Kurosawa films, then change things up with some Mel Brooks.  Watch the classics (African Queen is another great Bogart movie), then dive in to some foreign stuff.  Watch the indies and the low-budget, then change things up with some anime (Akira still stands the test of time).

Watch to enjoy, yes, but also watch to learn.  How Spielberg tells Jim’s story in Empire of the Sun is a freaking masterclass, and when you follow that up with Eastwood’s handling of Unforgiven…well…if you can’t learn something from those, I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Terry Gilliam’s Brazil calling my name…