Monthly Archives: May 2011

Writing Is Like Karate

Besides blogging, noveling, and dayjobbing, I also take martial arts classes: karate and jiu-jitsu. I’ve been going to the dojo for three and a half years now, and in certain ways, karate’s not that different from writing.

(By the way: writers think everything is like writing. Doesn’t matter what it is. You could force a writer to grind turnips into turnip paste, and by the third day he’d be all “Well the turnips are sort of like adverbs, and by destroying them you produce stronger sentences, as represented by the turnip paste…” See? See? I made up that example to be ridiculous, and I’m already starting to agree with it. It’s a sickness.)

Writing. Karate. Yes.

For me, one of the key concepts in karate – and most any martial art, I suppose – is purposeful action. Everything you do in karate has a purpose, and is entirely focused on that purpose. If you punch, you don’t just sort of put your fist out there and hope for the best. You have a target, and you put all your energy – your whole body – into striking that target with maximum power. If you block, you don’t just sort of wave your arm optimistically, you block forcefully and stop the attack.

There are no half-kicks, no sort-of chops. You have a goal, and you pursue it with deadly focus. By putting all your energy into key strikes, you don’t waste it on needless motion.

Purposeful action.

This concept is so important in writing. Every scene, every sentence, every single word must have a purpose, and it must be striking toward that purpose with maximum power. If not, you delete it. Never waste your reader’s time. Don’t just put words down aimlessly – or rather, it’s fine if you do, but fix it in the revision. Tighten. Focus.

Does that mean you can’t have flowery language? That you can’t have jokes, or long rambling sentences, or colorful metaphors, or whatever fun thing you might want to put in? No. You can have those things, you can use those tools, if you use them economically. Take risks, if you need to; this isn’t about coloring inside the lines. It’s about making every word matter.

Sans segue: I just finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Both fun to read, intriguing, shorter than I expected. Also, they had pictures! I really miss pictures in a book, you know? We should bring that back. I’ll call up Cormac McCarthy.

Currently I’m on Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original Tarzan book that started it all. Fascinating novel, in so many ways. Postmortem coming soon, after the, you know, mortem.

Second pass revision on The Counterfeit Emperor: 81%.

Critiquery

I’d like to start this week by giving a big Thank You (a “shout-out”? “mad props”? “wicked ups”?) to Chuck Wendig, who just last week personally critiqued the first 5,000 words – about twenty pages – of my novel. He gave a lot of helpful constructive criticism and was very encouraging in general, and made me think that getting the thing published might not be utterly impossible. So, pretty excited.

Chuck is a seasoned veteran of the Writing Down Words For Money industry, and I was able to snag his critique due to my insider connections paying out cold, hard cash. Not to him, though. See, Chuck was kind enough to donate his time in a charity auction to benefit the survivors of the earthquake in Japan. I won two other critiques in the same way, one for 50,000 words and another for 100,000 words, and I’m waiting on both with a combination of Christmas-Eve excitement and stark terror.

Critiques are a funny thing. On the one hand, you need (crave, lust after) honest feedback: someone who will read your writing and tell you what they actually think, and not just say it’s “good.” (Protip: to make a novelist want to kill himself, read his 115,000-word manuscript and tell him it’s “good.”) But on the other hand, the tiniest bit of negative feedback makes you feel like this:


(Heh. Yeah, that really is me. Think I can use it as my book jacket photo?)

Anyway: critical feedback. Yeah. They say you need thick skin to survive as an author, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s more a willingness to get stabbed over and over through really thin skin, and act like you like it.

Second pass revision status for The Counterfeit Emperor: 80%. SO CLOSE

Hitting the Links

Some really good stuff in this week’s link roundup (including two – two – comics), so let’s get right into it.

First off, this comic is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a while. If you’re an artist – any kind of artist – you really should read it. (When the page loads, click the image to expand.)

Continuing with our Artist Inspiration Theme, have a look at this quote from Ira Glass. He explains that, if you’re going through years and years of disappointment with your work, that’s perfectly normal. The ones who succeed are the ones who keep going anyway. That should be you. (But the actual quote explains it all better, so give it a click.)

Jumping from beauty and inspiration to pure, shameless, self-whoring promotion, we have the New York Times giving a long list of great authors who have done exactly that. You have to click the picture of Hemingway to see his ad, because it’s just…words can’t describe how ridiculous it is. (Nevertheless, the moral is clear: if you have art and you want an audience, get out there and peddle.)

Next up, if you’ve followed the Neil Gaiman controversy (and by “controversy” I mean “some dude being a dick to Neil Gaiman”) you’ll enjoy this comic. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read Gaiman’s explanation. Or just read the comic without background, it’s still pretty entertaining.

We also have the lovely Intern with her take on what it’s like to receive a critique of your own work. As someone who just recently got a critique himself (more on that soon), I can vouch for the veracity of this. Minus the baking cookies part, because I am way too lazy for that.

And finally (spoiler alert) we have a long list of last sentences from novels. As the author of the article notes, last sentences are harder to understand than first sentences, without context; but I still thought they were fun to read.

And now we’re approaching the last sentence of this post. (See that? That’s called a segue. Write that down.) Have a good weekend, everybody.

I Am, Of Course, Quite Mad

Writers – you may have heard – are crazy. They are crazy because it is a part of their genius.

Oh, man. I almost kept a straight face there.

Okay, writers may be crazy in part because of the acid monsters and space pirates and steampunk empires that rattle around perpetually in their brains, but mostly they’re crazy because they’re human, and crazy is sort of what humans do.

If you’ve ever felt like you have a screw or six loose, take a peek inside my brain:

1. I get nervous about getting nervous about things. That is, some event is coming up that – in itself – doesn’t bother me in the slightest; but I know the event will make me nervous, and I get worried about that. Thing is? I’m not wrong.

2. I have to expend more mental energy to distinguish east from west than to recite the first twenty digits of pi. I am not joking about this.

3. If I find a spider in my house, I capture it alive and release it outside. In general, I do not do this with any other kind of bug.

4. Every time someone says anything even remotely unflattering about Shakespeare (for example, “Shakespeare is not godlike but merely angelic”) I imagine Harold Bloom twitching somewhere in the world.

5. After shampooing and rinsing my hair in the shower, I have – on multiple occasions – forgotten whether I shampooed my hair and had to do it again. You may be wondering, then, why I say “again” if I can’t remember in the first place. People: I’m assuming.

6. I have – on multiple occasions – revised an instant message for clarity before hitting Send.

7. Probably the majority of my philosophical knowledge – including absolutely everything I know about John Stuart Mill and Wittgenstein – comes exclusively from research I did after being curious about the names in the Monty Python Philosophers’ Drinking Song. Again: I am not joking about this.

Anybody think they can top any of that? Leave it in the comments!

Fiasco!

You already know how incredibly geeky I am, so perhaps you are not surprised to learn that the Online Etymology Dictionary is one of my very favorite websites. You type in a word, any word, you click a button, and it will tell you that word’s life story.

Magic, I say. Magic!

Etymologies are all kinds of awesome. I’ve already mentioned there’s a whole subset of words for which the etymology is just “Lewis Carroll sat down one day and willed it into being.” If you don’t love etymologies, I mean, I don’t even know what to tell you. You’re a well-adjusted human being, maybe?

Look. I’m rambling. The point is, I found this new etymology and oh my gosh you guys I have to tell you about it.

The word is “fiasco,” as in, “a complete and unmitigated disaster.” Apparently this word comes from the Italian phrase far fiasco, which literally means “make a bottle” (far = make, fiasco = bottle). So this word that we use to refer to catastrophes means bottle? Well, after all, “fiasco” and “flask” do look similar; turns out that’s not a coincidence. But how did something as bizarre as “make a bottle” ever come to mean “have a catastrophe”?

I’ll let the Online Etymology Dictionary take it from here:

The reason for all this is utterly obscure today, but “the usual range of fanciful theories has been advanced” [Ayto]. Weekley finds it utterly mysterious and compares Fr. ramasser un pelle “to come a cropper (in bicycling), lit. to pick up a shovel.” OED makes nebulous reference to “alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history.” Klein suggests Venetian glass-crafters tossing aside imperfect pieces to be made later into common flasks. But according to an Italian dictionary, fare il fiasco used to mean “to play a game so that the one that loses will pay the fiasco,” in other words, he will buy the next bottle (of wine). That plausibly connects the word with the notion of “a costly mistake.”

“Alleged incidents in Italian theatrical history.” Righteous.

I learned this, by the way, from Kraken, which – for all its flaws – had a metric crap-ton of interesting stuff in it.

The Impossible Situation

My degree is in computer science, but back in the day, I took English classes whenever I could. It was during a Russian literature class that I read the novel Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.

Oblomov is about a man named (surprise!) Oblomov, who is lazy and fat and weak and never does anything. He lies in bed all day, rarely leaves his room, and almost never leaves his apartment. He seems like a nice man, but he’s utterly passive, utterly unexciting – in other words, exactly the kind of character you’d want to avoid if you’re creating a novel. Right?

Yet I tore through those first hundred pages like the book was on fire.

Why?

Believe me, I wondered about this. There was no action in those first hundred pages, nobody shooting, nobody getting angry, no love affairs, just a middle-aged man lounging around his apartment. If the author of this book had found some magic formula for transmuting boredom into suspense, I was very interested in – ahem – getting me some of that.

Here’s what I decided.

The plot begins with Oblomov getting a notice that he’ll soon be evicted. Nobody’s pounding at his door or anything, but he knows that very shortly, he’ll have to leave. He’s hardly left his apartment in the last decade, he’s built his whole identity around laziness and staying still, but his landlord says he will absolutely, definitely, no-questions-asked have to leave.

He’s in an impossible situation. Or, rather, the book is in an impossible situation. There’s simply no way the plot can move forward without something breaking in the status quo. Either the landlord will change his mind about the eviction (and what kind of event would it take to change his mind when he’s so adamant, and doesn’t care about Oblomov at all?) or Oblomov will have to go out into the world (and how can he possibly cope with such a change?).

Something big is coming. There’s a tension inherent in the concept. I kept reading to see how it was resolved.

Just last night I finished reading Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (good book – thanks for the recommendation, Pablo!) and started, finally, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I was struck by the way Carroll hooked me from the very first scene, even the first paragraph, and I tried to figure out how he did it.

At the start of the book, Alice is sitting around, bored, when a white rabbit runs by, checks his pocket watch, and exclaims that he’s late. She’s curious and runs after him. This, I think, is an even clearer example of an impossible situation. There’s no way the status quo can survive an encounter like this; a rabbit is talking, and Alice knows that’s impossible, and her perception of reality is going to have to shatter. And what on earth will take its place?

I think this concept of “impossible situations” is a bit more complicated than I’m making it sound, and I may go into more depth someday, but I do believe this is a very useful way of thinking about and generating suspense.

Have you encountered any impossible situations lately in your reading (or movie-watching, or TV-watching)? Tell me about it in the comments!

Bookshelves!!

Oh, man, oh man! Look at this giant pile of books on the floor. What a mess:

Pile of books

If only I had some sort of…wait. Wait. What strange and wonderful thing did someone sneak into my house this weekend?!

Empty bookshelves

If only they were personalized in some way…

Letter "B" closeup

Goodness! I feel so extravagant.

Let’s see the magic…

Shelves with books

All those books, and still room to grow.

I need a whole new emoticon to express this much joy, because colon hyphen D just isn’t cutting it. (Click images for a better view. Please excuse the bad photography.)

My wife’s dad built these for me, and he came and installed them this Friday. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, solid oak.

I have a library room.

Now, if only I had a spare week year to set aside just for reading…

Fun Times

This is quickly turning into the morning from hell, so I don’t have time for a proper post. Here, have a poem instead - it’s one of my favorites. (The first sentence is kind of hard to parse, but just run with it.) Hope your day is better than mine!

A Thunderstorm 
Archibald Lampman

A moment the wild swallows like a flight
Of withered gust-caught leaves, serenely high,
Toss in the windrack up the muttering sky.
The leaves hang still. Above the weird twilight,
The hurrying centres of the storm unite
And spreading with huge trunk and rolling fringe,
Each wheeled upon its own tremendous hinge,
Tower darkening on. And now from heaven’s height,
With the long roar of elm-trees swept and swayed,
And pelted waters, on the vanished plain
Plunges the blast. Behind the wild white flash
That splits abroad the pealing thunder-crash,
Over bleared fields and gardens disarrayed,
Column on column comes the drenching rain.

Don’t Use Your First Idea

Continuing with our current theme of Brian Dispenses Dubious Writing Tips (installment 14 of 78,345,900) I’d like to share some advice I’ve found useful at almost every level of the writing process. It’s very simple. Don’t use your first idea.

(See? My post title was foreshadowing. Write that down.)

Don’t use your first idea, I say. You say, I have this great idea for a story that I’m really excited about, do I need to give it up because it was the first thing I thought of for the story? No, I don’t mean that; ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere, and if it sparks something great, by all means run with it. Write the story that’s in your heart.

What I’m talking about instead is execution. Let me give you an example.

Let’s say that part of your Big Idea is for the hero and villain to confront each other in some climactic battle scene. There’s nothing wrong with that, but think: is there some other way they could have that confrontation? A race, a debate, a contest, even a game of chess? Or, if you’re set on having a battle, could it be unusual in some way: maybe an honor system that forbids certain types of attacks, or they’re blindfolded for some reason, or whatever.

I’m not saying to avoid battle scenes, and I’m not saying to throw in randomness for the sake of randomness. What I’m saying is that, chances are, the first idea that pops into your head won’t be extremely original. Your first idea is likely to be the same kind of idea that a hundred other people will have, and you want to stand apart. Don’t forsake your original passion; instead, let that fire transform your work into something even better.

This applies to characters, too. Maybe your heroine needs advice in the next scene from some Wise Sage Person, and your first instinct is to throw in some old, white-bearded Confucius figure. Why not mix it up and use a middle-aged woman? Or a young boy who is, for some reason, wise beyond his years? Or three people instead of one? Or some fool who inadvertently gives advice by showing what not to do?

Does your protagonist wield a sword? Consider a bo staff instead. Is he going to meet a king? Maybe an earl would be more interesting. Fighting a dragon? Have you considered wyverns?

You can even take this down to the language level. If you need a metaphor to express bravery, a lion may be the obvious choice; so don’t use it. Avoid cliches. I’m not saying every sentence should be hacked into something unusual; that would drive your reader crazy. Just quietly, unobtrusively, search for better ways to say things.

You may be thinking that no story is completely original, so why bother? I say, no story is completely original, but some are a lot more original than others. This isn’t about making every element totally unique. It’s about constantly challenging yourself to use fresh ideas, approach things from new angles. Often times even your second or third idea will be stale; so use your fourth idea. Branch out. You’re not stuck with the first thing that pops into your head, no matter how great or clever it may seem at first.

I’ve been entering more short story contests lately, and generally they have some sort of prompt, or theme. So often, this is what happens: you get this great idea at once, sit down, write the story, submit it…and then browse through the other entries and see that ten or a hundred other writers had the exact same idea as you. The one that stands out is the story you didn’t even think of, but could have, if you hadn’t just gone with your first idea.

Like it or not, getting published is a contest; and even if you don’t care about getting published, fresh ideas will still improve your writing. Go forth and be awesome, my friends.

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

I am writing to you this cloudy morning from a hotel room in Roanoke, Virginia. I’m traveling for business. That’s right – even when I’m out of state, my first priority is to you, my readers. What a guy, huh? And today, I have for you: writing advice!

“But Brian,” you scowl, “you’re an unpublished author. Are you even qualified to give writing advice?”

Ha ha! What a silly question. Of course I’m qualified. I have a blog.

So if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard this: “Show, don’t tell.” Aspiring authors reverently repeat this mantra to each other, pointing out passages of “telling” that can be fixed by “showing.” Heck, it has its own Wikipedia article. But is it good advice?

In a word: no. Or rather, yes, but it’s poorly phrased and misleading. Really it should be called “Show, don’t tell, except when you should tell, which is a lot of the time.” Catchy, I know.

First off, what do we mean by showing and telling? Telling is this: “Jenny was scared.” Showing is this: “Jenny quivered, heart pounding in her chest as she huddled in the corner.” Makes sense, right? So what can we learn from these brilliant, insightful examples that I just made up?

Well, the second one (showing) is a lot more dramatic. It’s more engaging, more specific. You get a picture in your head; it’s raw and it’s physical. You probably empathize with Jenny more. All good stuff, right? Absolutely. This is where the “Show, don’t tell” advice comes from.

But what do you notice about the first example (telling)? It’s shorter. You get the information in three words, you know instantly what’s going on. Concise is good, right? Sure. Sometimes – a lot of the time, in fact – you need telling instead of showing, and that’s why I say the advice is misleading.

How do you know which one to use? In my mind, there are two guides.

First: are you in a scene, or are you connecting two scenes together? If you’re deep in the action, following your character moment-by-moment, showing is generally better than telling. You’re trying to give your readers the same experience your character is having, something immediate, so they can feel like they’re right in the room with her - in her skin, even. On the other hand, if you’re in between scenes, maybe you’re just trying to move the plot along, and you need to summarize quickly. “After leaving town, he worked at a variety of jobs, and gradually his self-confidence grew.” This works, and there’s nothing wrong with it (though you will eventually want to show some examples of that self-confidence).

The second guide is this: what kind of information are you conveying?

If it’s cut-and-dried, factual information, telling may be the right choice. For example, if you want to let your reader know that so-and-so is the United States Secretary of Agriculture, just tell them. Imagine trying to show that: “I could see by the knowledgeable gleam in his eyes when I mentioned wheat production forecasts, that he was hardly a stranger to…” It’s exhausting. Give it to your reader straight – or, better yet, have someone mention it in conversation.

If, on the other hand, you’re making a judgment on something, such as what kind of person somebody is, or what their emotional state is, showing may be better. “She was very brave.” Weak. “She volunteered to lead the mission, though she knew her predecessor hadn’t returned.” Strong.

One final note: you can combine showing and telling, often to great effect. Telling can summarize and encapsulate the details you get by showing. “The room was a mess. Dirty socks lay strewn over the murky carpet; a moldy banana peel sat on the dresser.” Sort of a one-two punch.

As usual, I’ve rambled on longer than I wanted, but that won’t stop me from rambling more tomorrow. Time to go. Have a good day!