Category Archives: Writing

A Roadmap not Train Tracks

I work from an outline and my current Work in Progress has the most detailed outline I have yet produced for a novel, 85 pages. I also work from an act structure. I used to be a three act sort of writer, Establishment, Conflict, Resolution because it tracked so easily onto western narratives but fairly recently I became a fan of the five act method. (Establishment, Rising Action, Point of No Return, Spiral out of Control, Resolution.) Between those two elements of pre-writing you might think that when it come time to put it all together the process would be fixed, and for some writers that is true, but my process still remains fluid.

My acts and my outlines do not put me on a set of narrow gage railroad tracks carrying inexorably towards a fixed destination. Rather they act like roadmaps, giving me the ability to peer ahead and navigate the terrain to reach my destination. Sometimes I even find that the basic structure as originally envision is in error.

Last night as I worked and neared completion of Act one for the new novel I stumbled across the realization that what I had conceived as the end of Act one simply had nothing to do with the actual organic structure of the act.

Act one started with the characters central story dilemma, the thing that is at the heart of is problem, and it ended with him taking command of the starship that will be the setting for the rest of the story. That taking of command is a very dramatic moment in the character’s life, representing an achievement that he has sacrificed much to achieve, and it has nothing to do with the story or plot structure. It would happen even if the character sat back and did nothing for the entire first act. His earning of the command has been laid out and paid for with the first book in this series.

What the character has been driving for and fighting for in the story so far is the obtain a particular mission for himself and his first command. A mission that he thinks will bring him a resolution to certain problems but in fact will only add to his physical and psychological dangers. It is when he gets the mission, when he thinks he has achieved a goal but instead has actually raised the stakes that the story transitions from Act 1, Establishment, to Act II, Rising Action.

You can spend weeks writing an outline, months thinking on structure, but when you actually start writing there are plenty of elements still to discover.

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Setting vs Genre

At a fellow writer’s Facebook wall we’re discussion the elements required for a story to be noir. Because we are SF writers the conversation naturally revolves about the intersection of noir and science-fiction. This has gotten me thinking and those and a few other terms and I’ve come to the conclusion, probably not original, that there is a difference between Setting and Genre

In this concept Science-Fiction is a setting, it has particular rules that govern its use and violation of those rules can lead to some and even most people excluding a piece from the setting definition, but it seems to me that genre is more about what is the intended or likely emotion reaction of the reader and as such is independent of the setting.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was, according the author, written as an SF/Romance. The setting is science-fiction, the far future, humanity spread out among the stars broken into new nationalities. The genre is romance, the story of two people divided by their warring cultures and yet who fall in love.

Alien is Science-Fiction/Horror the setting is clearly sf, a spaceship deep into space. The genre is horror as the characters, trapped aboard their isolated spaceship, contend with a monstrous being.

Back to the Future is science-Fiction comedy the science-fiction elements, a lone scientist, time travel, are clear while the story is a farce about the clash of perception versus reality when it comes to one’s own parents.

All three of these works are Science-Fiction but looking at them simply through the lens of their setting tells us very little and nothing at all about if these are stories we want to experience. It is only when we examine to the mood intent of the piece, romantic, horrific, or hilarious that we can gather these disparate works into recognizable useful categories.

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Representation Matters

Popular art reflects the culture from which it sprang. It is this basic fact that underpins the concept that representation in the arts is important. How people of all types are depicted in the arts both reveals the cultures attitudes towards those people and how those people see themselves within the culture at large.

In my book there is a world of difference between representation and bean-counting. The latter is simply plugging is a person of X characteristics to simply say that those characteristics are in the work. Bean-Counting takes no notice of character, reducing people to tokens for fulfilling quotas. Representation is about having characters realized to your fullest ability who happen to encompass a broad range of traits and characteristics. Both require conscience effort on the part of the artist but one makes for better art and more honest representations.

Representation matters because art effects those who consume it. Not only the dominate member of a culture but those who are not in positions of authority or respect. People internalize the depictions that they are exposed to and those internalizations warp the self-image and behavior of all who take them in.

Representation matters because without it we have a terrible waste of talent and resources. We need artists of every stripe participating in the communal village. Even voices you do not agree with, particularly voices you do not agree with. There was a time when the concept of individual rights was the dangerous new idea that the old order tried to extinguish. What uplifting and revolutionary thought is waiting out there?

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And a New Novel is Started

Today I begin writing my next novel. Not outlining, not world-building, no engaging in character creation and study, words in a row, prose production, actually writing the book.

This may effect my productivity here on the blog but I am going to struggle to keep that interference to a minimum.

My production goal is 1500 words per day minimum with a stretch goal of 2000 words. I am shooting at a 90,000 to 100,000 word size for the book so it should not take too long.

For those in the know this is another Seth Jackson novel, about an American serving in the European Union’s Starforces. Set in a future where America took a wrong turn early in the 21st century and ended up a third rate power and humanity has expanded into the local stellar area still shackled by their bickering nationalities.

The first book in the series landed me an offer of representation and I look forward to spending time again with these characters.

 

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They’re More Like Guidelines

What Barbosa said of the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is equally true to any ‘rule’ of writing.

No art has hard inviolate rules, but there are guidelines that experts knows, understand, and ignore with the knowledge that the ‘rule’ doesn’t always apply.

Take ‘Show don’t Tell.’

As I have expounded on with other essays there are loads of time when tell is the better option than show. Understanding s=why you show vs tell also informs you as to when you tell versus show.

Cut out of adverbs and or adjectives.

You know those words with the pesky -ly endings that pop up so easily when you are drafting prose. in many cases that -ly words weaken your sentences. In the case of the adverbs it is usually the case that another verb works better rather than altering the verb you have selected. Yet there are times when going to the -ly word is fast and punchy compared to perhaps a longer and more complex composition.

Start with the action!

Sure starting your short story or novel with a weather description can be deadly dull, but there are light-years of difference between a dull weather report and something sets a mood and an expectation. A proper mood at the start preps the reader for the experience, laying down the authorial promise of competence and a tale that will be told correctly. An additional danger of starting right away with big action is that without prior knowledge of the characters it is likely to come of as flat and interesting. Action is meaningful and emotion when it has consequences and it can only have consequences if we are invested in the characters.

These are just a few of the ‘rules’ for writing, there are many more and they should all be viewed with a suspicious eye.

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Harlan Was Wrong

Harlan Ellison is a powerful voice in speculative fiction, a celebrity within the genre subject to countless second-hand stories, and the credited writer in what is arguably the best episode of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever.

It is a well know within the industry that Harlan was -displeased- with the final version of City and that identity of the person who re-wrote his screenplay into the final version was a secret for decades. (Eventually it was reveal to be the show’s story editor D.C.Fontana, a fantastic writer herself.) I have read both the final version and Harlan’s original script, published as part of his book about the experience.

There is no doubt a number of major changes were made to the script, some of them lost touching moments of history, some of the added wonderful moments of comedy, (Stones knives and bearskins) but the greatest change and the one that appeared to upset Harlan the most involves the story’s resolution.

Quick recap of the story: Kirk and Spock have followed McCoy through a time portal to the great depression where McCoy, under the influence of an accidental drug overdose, somehow alters history and prevents the formation of the Federation. They discover it is because he saved a woman, Edith Keeler, from a traffic accident and she prevents the US’s entry into WWII, leading to a Nazi victory and a new dark age.

In Harlan’s original vision, at the moment that the truck is barreling down on Edith, both McCoy and Kirk, Kirk because he has fallen in love with the idealistic pacifist, rush to save her, but cold, emotionless Spock holds them back, dooming Edit and saving the future.

For the Broadcast Version when the truck speeds towards Edith, it is Kirk, though in love with her, that restrains McCoy, killing Edith and saving the Future.

Harlan has said that in his opinion it makes sense for Spock to be the one to hold the emotional men back, that he is the only character capable of taking the required action and there is a powerful logic to that argument.

However logical, I think it is weaker storytelling to have Spock force the issue. To me the most important and powerful stories are about characters, their choices, and the consequences of those choices. Spock saving the future is a foregone choice, hardly one at all. The consequence to Spock is that he may damage his relationship with these two humans, but given his unemotional nature that is hardly a consequence of importance compared to the entirety of history.

Kirk making that choice is much more powerful. He is a man of passion and emotions, the abstract future weighed against the very real woman he loves is an agonizing choice. The consequences are personally devastating and irrevocable. It ranks right up there with Sam Spade sending Bridget over for killing Miles Archer, but has even more of a gut punch because Edith was pure and Bridget was evil.

No, the better storytelling device is Kirk torn and making the decision that will haunt him to the end of his days.

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What’s My Motivation?

It is an old and tired cliché; an actor demanding of the director ‘what is their motivation?’ The actor is asking the wrong person, but sadly in filmmaking the screenwriter is too often shunted to the end of the production priority queue.

However all writers, screenplay and prose, should take this question seriously and ask it of themselves repeatedly. You see what the actor in the cliche is seeking is their character’s goal, usually one that is bound to the scene in question.

For a scene to be about something, someone has to want something and they need to either get it, or fail to get it. The consequences of that want and its outcome drives the action of following scenes and the story. If an actor is asking about their motivation then their character is likely lacking a clear goal and the scene may be nothing more than exposition.

If as a writer you find that it is difficult to write a scene, if it seems to lie lifeless on the page, perhaps you have neglected to give the character a need and something that is denying the fulfilling of their desire. Look at the scene, the characters, and ask the critical questions of storytelling.

 

What do they want?

What’s stopping them from having it?

How far will they go to get it?

 

Keep this in mind, know the answers cold, and your characters will drive the story forward.

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Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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Of Girls, Bulls, and Artistic Intent

March of last year the sculpture “Fearless Girl” was installed on the streets of New York City standing defiantly before the now famous sculpture ‘Charging Bull.’ Greg Fallis at his blog has done a pretty goof job going over the histories of the two statues and how those histories interplay with the meaning intended for the pieces so that’s not going to be focus of my post.

Though when you get to the slipper subject of ‘meaning’ it is important to remember that the artist may intend one thing but the people who experience the art take away something utterly different or even diametrically opposed to the original intent. A case in point on that is the singer/songwriter Sting, his piece ‘Every Breath You Take’ and the scores upon scores of couple who have used it as their wedding songs.

Charging Bull‘s creator Arturo Di Modica has recently complained about the installation of Fearless Girl and expressed his desire that the statue be removed from it place before his own. Many of the fans of ‘Fearless Girl‘ have rejected his position and a common defense I have heard is that Art is often in conversation with previous pieces. This is true and since my background, and I suspect yours, is Science-Fiction let me use a well know example from that field as an example.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the novel ‘Starship Troopers‘ and with that works explored the relationship between the common solider and his society. The book provoked a fiery conversation that continues to rage until this day. Sometime later author Joe Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War,‘ a novel also exploring the relationship between the common solider and his society. ‘The Forever War‘ makes radically different arguments and comes of very different conclusions. Both books are considered classics and both are terribly good reads. It is considered an accepted fact that Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War‘ in direct response to ‘Starship Troopers‘ a perfect example of art in communication with art. I would strongly urge people to read both books.

But you do not need to read both to see the value in either novel. Either can be read alone without the other and the experience is full and complete. This is not true of ‘Fearless Girl.’

Fearless Girl”s artistic expression is reliant on ‘Charging Bull‘, without the Bull she is not fearless for there is nothing to inspire fear. Further more The two are seen together changing the impression once is likely to form upon seeing ‘Charging Bull.‘ Returning to the example of ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘The Forever War,‘ it is as if instead of writing a new novel that could be read alone Haldeman has written six new end chapters to Heinlein’s novel and sent them out attached to the previous book. There’s nothing wrong and in fact much to respect in Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s book but meaning is not the point. The point is there is a difference between answering an artwork with your own and changing another artist’s work. Placing Fearless Girl directly before the Charging Bull sculpture, and being utterly dependent on that earlier sculpture for context also changes the context of Charging Bull.

Di Modica has called for the removal of ‘Fearless Girl‘ feeling that in damages the artistic intent of his ‘Charging Bull.’ He is not without a point. In my opinion it is not relevant that ‘Fearless Girl‘ started life as advertising for a corporate product, intent and interpretation are different things and the powerful interpretation many hold for ‘Fearless Girl‘ is one that strikes many people to their very identity.

This is a problem with no easy solution. Leaving ‘Fearless Girl‘ clearly changes in common interpretation of ‘Charging Bull,’ but removing it creates its own host of negative impressions.

Personally I am torn without resolution, as an artist I am sympathetic to Di Modica’s point of view but the two statues together have an emotional punch that neither could achieve on their own.

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I suck at Proofing

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I think that I excel at constructing plots and stories. There are rarely holes in the plot, though they may be from time to time holes in how well I explain my plots. And when a beta reader finds a hole I can’t simply paper over it, I have to root it out and fix it so the plot is again whole and relatively seemly.

Now, I cannot speak to what is my greatest weakness when it comes to the actual prose. I am too close to the issue and someone else will have to supply that information, but I do not outside of the words in a row aspect of writing where I need to work the hardest for improvement.

Patience.

It is no surprise to those who know me that I am impatient. There has rarely been any great sting from a rejection slip. Usually the rejected piece is back off to another market within a day and not a tear has been shed. Rejection is part of the business and it never ever goes away.

However, waiting for six, eight, twelve months or more for an answer tends to drive me batty. Now those are very long wait times, but they are also beyond my control so my annoyance in those situations would count as a minor flaw at best. The sad truth is I get terribly impatient with things I control as well, and that’s a far greater flaw.

It is not at all unusual for me to clock a thousand words of prose in an hour. When a story is cooking to flows from my heated brain down and out my fingers and into the keyboard with speed and ease. The truth of the matter is that I couldn’t slow down that aspect of the process. It is what it is.

Where speeds works devilishly against me is the proofreading pass.

You cannot do a good lob of proofing and doing it at warp speeds. I rush the process and too many error survive. (As anyone who reads my blog is well aware of.) It is also one of the reasons why I know the self-pub route is not for me, I’d go to hit that ‘publish’ way too early.

I am trying to find a system that will help me in the proofing process. Right now I am proofing a manuscript, novel length, I wrote last year. I think the process I am going to have to use it page by page having my Mac read out the text. That forces me to go slow and listen to each word, making the mistakes pop out.

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