Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Adventures of Links

Greetings, loved ones. LET’S TAKE A JOURNEY.

First up in links this week, we’ve got The Spectator with a compilation of the worst analogies imaginable, as submitted by their readers. My personal favorite: “The accountant had the world-weary air of a ferret that had been up so many trouser legs that life held no more surprises.” More where that came from.

Numero dos is the indomitable Chuck Wendig, who this week gives us 25 things every writer should know. It’s good stuff (though I don’t fully agree with his advice in #10, “don’t work for free”). For my money, the best one is #9, Storytelling Is Serious Business: “Treat it with respect and a little bit of reverence. Storytelling is what makes the world go around…Don’t let writing and storytelling be some throwaway thing. Don’t piss it away. It’s really cool stuff. Stories have the power to make people feel. To give a shit. To change their opinions. To change the world.”

Meanwhile Nathan Bransford has an intriguing take on confidence versus self-doubt, and how they are – in a way – the same thing. “To be able to spot your own flaws requires confidence.” Of course, while self-doubt can be a tool when applied in healthy amounts, it can also destroy you if you let it go too far. He makes that point too.

Finally, we’ve got this advice for artists: Don’t just do something, sit here. It’s about living in the moment, and it’s good advice, but I’m linking to it mainly because of the poem at the end of the article, which I would not otherwise have discovered. It’s so beautiful that I’m reproducing it here in full, because I’m afraid you might not read it otherwise.

The Writer
Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Elementals

Let’s talk music for a second. I’m not a very musical guy, I don’t know what most of the Italian means, but – as they say – I know what I like.

You know Ode to Joy, right? I don’t mean the big German choral piece at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth, I mean just the tune itself, plain and simple, like on a piano.

I don’t know how it is for you, but to me, this tune feels…elemental. It feels basic, like wind or water, like relativity waiting for Einstein to discover it. Rationally, I know Ludwig sat down and wrote the thing at some point in the early nineteenth century. But instinctively, I can’t imagine a world without this music. You don’t write music like that; it just is.

(The fact that he did sit down and write it is, of course, a testament to his staggering genius.)

I was thinking about this the other day, and I couldn’t come up with any piece of writing that feels the same way. Probably that’s because music, as a medium, feels more “basic” than writing; words are inherently human constructs. But there are a few quotes that come close. The most obvious, for me, come from the Bible:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

Why these quotes? Well, they all seem very simple and deeply profound, which I suppose is what it takes. (The fact that it’s the Bible, and I’ve read it and heard it quoted all my life, is probably a factor too.)

I know lots of other quotes that are equally profound, but it’s hard to find them worded in such simple language. In fact, I just looked through my entire quotes file (an ever-growing text file where I write down any good quote I find, as I read it; it’s quite long by now) and there was really only one non-Biblical quote I could find that seemed to fit the bill:

“Be as you wish to seem.”
-Socrates

(This is attributed to Socrates, anyway, but I never have found a source for it. I’m wary of source-less Internet quotes.)

Anyone else know any other bits of writing (or music) like this, or even just some good quote you’d like to share? Leave it in the comments!

Every Time You Write “Utilize” Instead of “Use,” A Deinonychus Eats A Baby Angel’s Wings

That is all.

Kraken Postmortem (Minor Spoilers)

I said yesterday that I just finished reading Kraken by China Mieville. Check out that badass cover. Read me, it says, read me! So, you know, I did.

I also mentioned that I didn’t much care for the book. (In fact, I would’ve stopped reading halfway through, except that I had just previously stopped reading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld when it didn’t grab me after a hundred pages, and if you quit two books in a row, that makes you a book-quitter. Trufax.)

If you’re a writer, I think it’s important to consider why you don’t like a piece of writing. So let’s (ha! ha!) dive in…

The premise of the book is that someone has stolen a dead giant squid from its equally giant tank in a London museum, and the scientist in charge of caring for the specimen is trying to figure out whodunit. As he investigates, he delves steadily deeper into the bizarre underbelly of London, a world of squid-worshipping cults, Chaos Nazis, disembodied pigs, charmed iPods, sentient tattoos, and actual functional Star Trek phasers. The biggest question about the kraken heist is not who but why, and the whole thing is wrapped up tight with the impending apocalypse that everyone agrees is coming closer every day. Science, science fiction, fantasy, and the occult all swirl into a giant vortex of death by the time this book is over.

Now, if you’re like me, all that sounds pretty righteous so far. And I was hooked, in fact, for the first hundred pages or so. But the further I read, the more things fell apart, and not in that juicy W.B. Yeats kind of way. So what happened?

Style was an issue. Mieville’s style is light, playful, and sometimes fun to read, but he also leaves so much unsaid and uses so many difficult words and obscure references that he’s hard to follow at times. That’s a problem, but it’s not the problem.

Plot was an issue, only because there were so many layers of deception and conspiracy that it got hard to keep them all straight; but that wasn’t the problem either.

Characters were a much bigger issue; I didn’t especially like or dislike any of them, didn’t care what happened to them, didn’t get choked up when anybody died. But the characters are well-drawn, believable, likable, unique, and potentially very interesting. So why didn’t I care about them?

The real problem, I think, is that the book was just too much of a jumble. Too many disparate elements thrown together, without enough care taken to assemble it all into something coherent. Everybody says they’re worried about the end of the world, but nobody has any idea how to avoid it or even what causes it, so it’s just this disembodied plot element, floating there ominously but – pretty soon – uninterestingly. And the world is bursting with so many different kinds of weirdness, so many competing magics, that absolutely anything can happen, whenever the author wants it to. After a while it becomes a pretty much constant stream of deus ex machina, so you’re just sitting there waiting for Mieville to tell you what the answer to the mystery happens to be. By the time he finally did, I no longer cared.

The takeaway, I think, is that a story – even something deliciously crazy, where weirdness is the point, like Kraken – has to make sense. It has to have a system. The reader has to feel like he understands the rules to some extent, because if anything can happen, then he never feels like he’s backed into a corner, and then there’s no tension.

Thus sayeth Buckley.

By the way, new theme for the blog, you like it? I changed it because my friend pointed out that the old one didn’t have previous/next links on the posts, but I think the new one is just better visually, too. “Elegant Grunge,” it’s called. Classy.

Les W00ts

What’s up, blog readers?! I am happier than a man has any right to be at 6:04 on a Monday morning. Here are five good reasons why:

1. I entered Janet Reid’s short story writing contest a while back (and when I say short, I mean a 100-word limit, so we’re talking blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stories here). Didn’t get first place, but I finished in the top four out of over a hundred contestants, so I call that a pretty good day! (Ctrl+F “buckley” on either of those pages to see my entry.) By the way, does anyone else think that judging writing quality has to be just about as hard as writing the damn stuff in the first place? I would make a terrible agent!

2. Reached 70% on Counterfeit Emperor revision. You may have heard that novel-writing is largely an exercise in sadism; that is, you make your readers fall in love with something, then you roundhouse kick that something in the jaw and stomp it while it’s down. Well, Step 2 of that process is ramping up lately, and the surprising amount it seems to hurt makes me optimistic that Step 1 is working now.

3. Finally, finally finished reading China Mieville’s Kraken. Mieville is clearly a pretty smart dude, and the book has lots of good stuff in it, but neither of those facts ever turned it into an actual good book. Postmortem tomorrow. Started on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which seems like it might be good if she could take a break from her endless descriptions of architecture and scenery and conversations and get to the point already, and a line break once in a while wouldn’t hurt either. Next up after Woolf: not sure yet. Thinking about Ivanhoe.

4. Bought two new books: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which I’m pretty excited about despite the fact that its subtitle, The Evening Redness in the West, is – as the Spanish say – estupido) and a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield (who I’d never even heard of, but apparently these are classics and the book was 50 cents, so we’re batting a hundred so far). Ms. Mansfield wrote these alleged masterpieces at the age of twenty-three, twenty-three, which I consider unsportsmanlike and totally uncalled-for.

5. My daily run is up to a mile and a half now. Running is surprisingly similar to writing, psychologically: the id going “Don’t wanna” while the superego beats it with a stout club and tosses it some endorphins at the end. Satisfying, that.

But enough about me – what news, blog readers? You never call, you never write. (Don’t call.) Anything w00t-worthy or otherwise going down in your life? Share in the comments!

Links Awakening

I read a lot of blogs by and about authors, agents, editors, and books in general. Some of them have a thing where every Friday they post links to their favorite content from the past week. I enjoy these Link Fridays, so I thought I’d give it a try. Not sure yet if this will be a regular thing.

First off, author Lilith Saintcrow has a great post about writers and their fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure, all the usual. She says that fear hasn’t gone away for her even as a professional author. She also points out that fear is a constant, in the sense that it will always be there, even if you don’t write. “Quitting writing will not stop the fear; it will simply take different shapes and return in other areas of your life. Accept that while you’re alive, you’re going to be afraid of shit. It’s the human condition.”

The indefatigable Chuck Wendig lists six signs you’re not ready to be a professional writer. He’s partly kidding – one of the signs is “I Still See That Glint of Magic and Hope In Your Eye” – but he has some serious points, and it’s worth a read.

A trio of literary agents has started a regular feature where masochistic authors (the only kind) send in the first page of their manuscripts, and the agents – very gently – tear them to shreds. The first first page is up now. It’s a great insight into the mind of an agent as she’s reading unsolicited submissions. Though if you’re thinking of submitting your own work, I should warn you, they’ve received over seven hundred entries already; your odds are not good.

The Intern confesses that a voice in her brain is always yelling at her to be like other authors. Her response to that voice: “You write what you write. You are what you are. And, no matter how anxious you may be to have everybody like you, you’re not going to get there by scrambling to become what you think the world wants.” Tru dat, Intern.

Finally, a great article from Today In Literature about Mark Twain’s final years. “The white suits began in 1906 — a secretary’s diary gives us the precise date of being told by “the King” to order five of them — and they suggest more than a chuckle or another self-promotion.” Good stuff, though unfortunately that link will only be valid for a couple of days unless you’re a premium subscriber (I’m not). I can’t say I really understand a content website’s decision to hide their content behind a pay wall, but Today In Literature is a good daily read anyway.

Happy Earth Day, Happy Good Friday, Happy Easter! Have a good weekend, everybody.

Revision Tactics

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on my second pass of revision for The Counterfeit Emperor.

The first pass was largely the process of straightening out a somewhat fractured original draft, full of notes-to-self like [This character now has a totally different backstory, go back and update it everywhere before this point] and [This scene is terrible, FIX IT] that would have rendered it nearly unintelligible to a potential reader. It wasn’t until the end of the first pass that I let anybody read any of it.

At that point, I had something like eight or ten beta readers who were kind enough to give their comments: my wife, family, friends, and even a critique on my first couple of chapters from Natalie Whipple, that I won in a writing contest on her blog. Once I got everyone’s feedback, my process was very methodical. I created a text file called “Notes from critical readings.txt” (I put all my notes in text files, don’t ask me why) and carefully sifted through all the advice.

Some of it – a fairly small portion – I simply discarded. Some changes were small enough I simply made them right then and deleted them from the list. Some comments came from more than one person, so I combined those. Everything that was left, I dumped into a big list with all my own revision notes, then organized those by what part of the book they belonged to. And now, as I get to each new section of the book, I consult my list, decide what changes each revision will mean for each scene, and revise the scene accordingly.

Even that’s an oversimplification. My writing process creates lots of artifacts. I have a Timeline.xlsx, a Character Descriptions.txt, a Character Profiles.txt, a New Ending.txt, and dozens of other files that I consult regularly and not-so-regularly.

It’s complicated, but it all makes sense in my own brain.

Mostly.

I should note that all of the above is totally descriptive, not prescriptive. Everyone’s process is different, and I think most writers cringe at the thought of trying to use any other writer’s revision tactics. Do what works for you.

Second pass revision progress: 66% (Woo, two-thirds done!!) The last few days I haven’t had as much time to write as I would like, because we just had carpet installed (looks very nice, btw) but I get tomorrow off work so hopefully I can catch up then.