Saturday, March 31, 2012

Conversational Process Fatigue

The first question (and a I agree that it's a good one) is: what is conversational process fatigue? Or, to paraphrase that thing that one or another wonderful fictional character or historic personage said--or should have, if there is any justice in the universe: what the hell am I talking about?

This, of course, is a specious line of questioning, since I am not actually talking, but rather am writing. And yes, specious means what I think it means. I just checked, thankyouverymuch. I will answer the question anyway, since otherwise this blog is going to be rather short.

Conversational process fatigue is the condition I am currently suffering from, whereby I am sick to death of hearing other writers yammer on about their writing process, and not too keen on continuing to discuss my own. Which--according to my pageview stats--the Internet isn't keen on me continuing to discuss, either.

Yammer on is probably a far too negative choice of phrasing. Those other writers, whose podcasts' novelty is wearing out, are very nice, trying to help, and often holding forth in an enlightened and illuminating manner. It's just that I've heard almost everything they have to say a bajillion times now. It turns out that most of the basics of writing are pretty similar for most writers.

It's not that I think I know it all, or that I don't think I have more to learn. It's just that none of what I'm hearing anymore is really helping. It's the same old stuff. If I haven't grasped it by now, I'm not going to. (I make no claims either way, in terms of application.)

So. What then? How now, bored cow?

I've been listening to more audiobooks lately. A lot more. One or two a week. Mostly fiction, some non- (see media breakdown, below.) I am finding myself dropping more and more of the podcasts I used to look forward to in favor of these audiobooks (for those of you who don't know: I drive a van for a living, so I have about 30 hrs a week of usable listening time.)

I am learning so much more by listening to the fiction of of writers I admire than I ever did from podcasts. At least as far as writing goes. When I add to that my own writing, a cycle whereby I hear (read) what some author has done, go write a story in which I try to do something similar, then compare and contrast/get critiques/submit or whatever, I'm picking up tons.

And steadily losing interest in hearing or talking about "process."

Which brings up one problem: I mostly blog about my writing, and that is mostly about my own process. If I'm boring myself, and presumably my readers--no bueno. So what do I blog about?

The short answer: I have no clue. I got nuttin'. I can do media, throw in the occasional gadget blurb, I guess. I can kvetch about... you know, stuff. I can... I can...

I guess I'll have to think about this one. Or I may just forget all about this next week. It's certainly happened before.

Two things, though: writers learn by reading, and writers learn by writing.

Media Breakdown: I finished Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. It was really good. Unfortunately, assuming I understood everything correctly, it was also really depressing.

Gladwell is a nurture over nature guy, and the basic argument of the book is that really successful people (outliers) are the ones who get enough early advantages (being smart and talented helps, but the most important determinant is early lucky breaks.) He makes a good case, provides plenty of in depth examples, and I think he's right. The bad thing about that is that if he's right, my chances of success (say as a writer), are pretty much outside of my control.

I can work hard, and hard work is a necessary component of success. But so is luck, apparently. Thanks for breaking my stride, Mr Gladwell, he said sarcastically.

There is a lot more to the book than my flip comments above. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in, er, the story of success.

That's all I got for this week, see you next time.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's Not a Stream, It's a Flood

I am going to try something totally new for today's blog post: I am not stopping for anything. The local time is now 11:35 AM. Let's see how long it takes me to put up a post, shall we.

Thought the first: I couldn't touch-type less than a year ago. I did take a typing class in high-school, so the problem wasn't lack of knowledge but of practical experience. I can now touch-type with a fairly average degree of speed and accuracy, nothing amazing but at least functional. I still have problems watching the screen Vs watching my hands and still make plenty of mistakes, but so far so good.

Learning to touch-type has been a huge factor in increasing my writerly production. If you are hunting and pecking, using anything less than all ten digits, it will be well worth your time to learn to touch-type. Unless you plan on dying in the next year or so.

Thought the second: Learning how to turn off your internal editor is crucial. The genius of Kerouac was that he got all of his ideas on paper, filterless and without restraint. The tragedy was that he didn't go back and rewrite afterwards (grin). I find that my best ideas often grow out of my worst ideas: ideas that wouldn't have made it on the page and thus been up for further processing if I hadn't let myself write whatever drivel I durn well wanted too.

I used to revise as I wrote, doing what Dean Wesley Smith calls "cycling": put up a paragraph or page or several, run out of steam, cycle back to the beginning or earlier of the new material and get a running start again. While this method does produce cleaner copy, I feel that it is inferior (for me, of course, you can figure out for yourself what works best for you) to just dumping the whole durn story and then figuring out what to fix.

I save time this way. Sometimes the story isn't worth fixing, and the sooner I move on, the better. Sometimes the structure is flawed, or characters need reworking, or events need rethinking. Once I have a solid structure, time spent polishing is much less likely to be tossed out later on. Also, as noted above, often the warts turn out to be the most interesting parts of the piece, suggesting new avenues that I would have just plain missed if I had cleaned them up beforehand. This is possibly more important than the mere conservation of effort.

Part the third: The realization of growth. I take it as a good sign that much of my earliest work is--to put it kindly--not done in the same manner as I would do it now. I have grown tremendously as a writer, to the point that the only way I would touch some of my earlier stories, if at all, would be to completely rewrite them from scratch. This is another variation of the no-cycling or editing practice from above, seen through a much larger lens: months, instead of days, hours, or minutes.

At a certain point, a point that I am realizing is arrived at far quicker than I might have suspected, rewriting, polishing, fixing old stories in general: all are worthless. I can tell a new story, from scratch, far better than I can tell the old stories. I can do it in less time, with less effort, than it would take to revamp an existing work. Easier to tear down the building and start fresh than crawl amongst the decrepit ruins and rot and shore things up, so to speak.

Onward and Upward. That's the way it goes, right? Not Fix It and Fix It Some More. Also, Less Is More.

And my favorite: Do It Right the First Time.

Media Breakdown - I just finished Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey. It was well-written and enjoyable, but I had several hang-ups. The story is basically a cross between military SF and cop/detective drama. I liked the former and didn't care much for the latter (just my tastes.) The novel is a great synthesis of previous ideas, but didn't offer much in the way of anything new or fresh, SF idea-wise. The narrative moved incredibly slowly, with a heavy focus on internal tension and angst (the aforementioned cop drama). Worst of all, the central mystery of the book, and thus the key plot point, (which I'm not revealing for fear of spoilers) wasn't resolved at all. The ending was more of a stopping point than an ending and was a huge let-down for me.

To be fair, this is the first book in a series. I expect series books to stand well on their own, however, and this one doesn't. I might be inclined to keep up with the series anyway, and/or read it when all the books are done and out, but... that glacial pacing is a huge stumbling block. So I won't be reading further when the remaining volumes come out. Verdict: well-written, but  slow and thus not compelling, unsatisfying ending (as a stand-alone book.)

Final Thought - The time is now 11:56, making this a twenty minute blog post. What say you? Should I have gone back and tweaked and reworked, or is it fine the way it is?

See you next week.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Turning Up the Tension

Turning Up the Tension

It's not obvious, but the title for today's blog is a sort-of twofer. I want to talk about adding tension to your stories (or mine, for that matter); this is the main meaning of the title. Also, I am coming up on my one-year anniversary as a writer, and I'm both excited and more than a little discombobulated. I'm not quite ready to do an official one-year-milestone type post, but I do want to talk about (you guessed it) How I Feel. Or rather--Some of the Things It's (Hopefully) Normal to Feel as a New Writer After a Year or so of Chasing Serious Success. Phew.

But first, the actual craft-related part of the blog.

I've been reading/critiquing a lot of stories lately where the worldbuilding, characterization, and so on are really good, but the stories themselves are only so-so. Mostly this relates to a lack of tension in the story, a lack of any reason for me to cheer for the protagonist. The writer has been so focused on describing what happens that they forget to fully explain why. And it's the why that is truly important.

This is actually easy to do; I've done it many times myself. I think it's one of the drawbacks of discovery writing (vs outlining). I rarely have anything more than a vague idea what's going to happen next in my stories. Which is fine, as far as getting the basic story and ideas down. And I rarely feel like my characters are lacking in emotional depth or expression. All of the descriptions are there. But sometimes the other crucial bit isn't, the bit that makes the reader give a damn.

A definition: Story -- a story is an event or series of events in which one or more characters change.

The key thing here is that the characters have to change. Not the situation. It isn't enough for the hero to save the world, or get eaten by the monster, or discover the real murderer. The hero has to grow as a person, to not just be affected by events, not just have their agency change the course of events, but have their agency be a direct result of their own inner realizations, revelations, and adjustments.

A story is not stuff that happens, is not stuff that happens to a sympathetic character, is not stuff that a sympathetic character does. It's stuff that changes a character while a character simultaneously changes it. Tension arises because we sympathize with the character, we know the character is facing an obstacle they cannot overcome, and we know that if they could just (learn to) X they might have a chance. Even if X costs them Y.

It's not enough for them to get lucky, or win through cleverness or toughness or any other quality they possessed at the outset of the story. The person they are at the beginning of the story cannot be capable of winning as-is. It's not enough for them to take losses. They must take losses deliberately, choosing them. Agency + Growth + Sacrifice = A Victory About Which the Reader Gives a Damn.

One of the things I am doing now (have learned how to do via participation in critique groups) is going back over my completed stories and trying to isolate all these things. Who is the protag (usually an easy question)? Who is the antagonist? What is the conflict? How does the protag change? What do they lose? What do they gain? When does the real story begin and end? (More on this last one in another column, maybe.)

On the other side of the things, the How I Feel side, I am both impressed and annoyed with myself. Less than a year ago, I had no clue how to write a story, period. As in, I couldn't even come up with a few characters and a plot. I had no ideas. Nothing. I've come a long way since then. I have ideas coming out my wazoo. I have no shortage of interesting characters and events to write about. And, if I daresay, I have at least a basic grasp of grammar and style.

But, looking back on what I've written so far, it so often comes up woefully short in that most crucial of areas--being interesting to anyone but me, ie storytelling skill. I am convinced it's not enough to be an excellent writer (although that is still a goal worth striving for), but that I have to become an excellent storyteller as well. And the more I learn, the more I realize just how much there is to learn, and how far I have to go. Even worse: the more I try to accomplish with my stories, the more I put into them, the more difficult they are to write.

Isn't this stuff supposed to get easier as I go along? What a gyp. And yet, I've come to far to quit now. Not only is all the effort I've expended so far on the line (a not inconsiderable amount of skull-sweat), I've seen the potential in myself to be so much more than I am. My future is at stake, the me that I wish to be. And the only thing holding me back is my own inertia (read--laziness).

In other words: If I continue to work at it (agency) and I improve as a storyteller (growth) and I let go of all those other things--often so much more entertaining--that I want to do with my time (sacrifice) = I just might win. And maybe you, or maybe the me that watches me, the inner me that both judges and condones, might be moved enough by my story to cheer me on. To give a damn.


Media breakdown - I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close last night. It was an absolute tear-jerker from start to finish. I really liked it, and I highly recommend watching it (preferably with your support group in place.) It was over-the-top emotionally in all sorts of ways (only about 50% on Rotten Tomatoes), so be forewarned. I didn't like that it was based around 9/11, because I hate the "9/11 changed everything" political meme that has destroyed our country, but the film was only political by omission (no mention of the 9/11 truth movement or any other dissent, for starters). Still very much worth watching.

And that's all I've got for today. See you guys next week.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On the Double, Half the Trouble

I skipped last week without even meaning to. Writing the blog on the tablet just seemed like a hassle, so I figured I would do it later (when I was out of bed.) Then this led to that, the other intruded, and poof (or ta-da, or kaboom, whatever sound onomatopoeia seems appropriate)-- no blog. It slipped my mind so successfully, in fact, that I didn't even realize I'd skipped a week until around Wednesday (cue sad trombones.)

Sorry about that, folks.

I haven't had a particularly busy last few weeks, anyway. I restarted Novel Number Two (very tentative title) at the beginning of the month and have been slogging away at it. I am again finding that the Nano model of 2k a day come Hell or high water just isn't working, the same as last month. I am persevering anyway, sometimes only getting a page or two, sometimes getting nothing. In the last two weeks I've managed to write four chapters (out of close to forty planned.) I have no idea why this novel is so much more difficult for me to get going on, but...

The ultimate answer here is--it doesn't matter. I want to write this novel; I'm going to write this novel; the end. If it takes me six months or a year or whatever, so be it. I really would love to figure out what's slowing me down and correct it, and I will continue to devote some mental energy to doing just that, but the most important thing is that I keep pushing forward until I hit the finish line, irregardless of whether I am doing so in the most efficient way possible.

When I first tarted writing fiction, lo these many months ago, my goal was simple: finish a story. I've always had a hyperactive imagination, but plotting was an absolute mystery to me. It took me a few weeks to write 3k (and it wasn't a particularly inspiring first effort at that.) But I finished, I showed it to a few first readers, I edited and submitted, and i collected a stack of rejections. And I wrote the next one.

I believe finishing the second story was even more crucial than finishing the first. One of the things I learned from that first story was that I could write a complete story, featuring both characters and a plot. I learned from the second (and every subsequent one) that I could do this more-or-less at will. I've completed the majority of the stories I've written since then, although I've abandoned several that just weren't working as well. But I made sure to finish those first few, to establish the habit and to give myself confidence.

I'm in the same boat now. I'd actually started several novels prior to Nano last year, when I finished the zero draft of The First Novel (or Fnerge!--another tentative title.) One novel made it up to about 14k before I fizzled on it (and I might still return to it.) So I've had enough of unfinished novels. That sort of thing wrecks my confidence. So I am keeping my concentration firmly on this novel until I hit THE END.

My plan to do 2k a day five days a week is going right out the window (and has been all year.) I am going to still try to keep at the self-pubbing (on weekends,) but I am willing to let that slip as well. For the long-term health of my career as a writer, I have to learn how to produce quality novel-length fiction at a reasonable pace.

Plus, like many others have commented, novels are actually easier. At least in terms of effort per page, if not in terms of total time commitment. Short fiction takes a lot of work to pull off. I'm certainly not abandoning the form, but I want to be able to write at whatever length suits me, and write well. Which means practice. Which means I have to keep at the novelling. Ipso Facto Ergo Sum Lorium Axiom Non Serviam. Which translated from the Latin, means (roughly): I don't know any Latin.

Media breakdown - I finished listening to Halting State by Charles Stross. The second person multi-character POV was a little hard to get into, but he pulled it off, overall. I wouldn't say that the POV added anything essential, but it was an interesting change of pace. The near future media/connectivity/hacking and security focus was quite well done. The world-building and character interactions were the main draw; the actual "mystery" at the heart of the plot was rather hum-drum and mostly involved people standing around in rooms explaining things to other people. There were some fun action bits, though. I enjoyed the book and plan on reading Rule 34 (the semi-sequel.)

I've been enjoying the heck out of the recent episodes of The Walking Dead. The show is still as drama-queen focused as ever, but they've gotten pretty good at including a few juicy action bits every episode. Good stuff and probably my favorite current TV show. The upcoming second season of A Game of Thrones might change this, however.

Gadget Corner - I've been using the Android OS a lot more, now that I have two tablets. My older tablet is rooted, but not the newer one (Acer Iconia A500). I find them convenient, if a bit underpowered (in utility, not in actual processing) compared to my netbook (which mainly functions as a desktop.) Android is lacking in quality applications, plain and simple. Even worse, the OS encourages applications to be far more intrusive than I am comfortable with. I am becoming increasingly annoyed by this. I use Ubuntu

The one thing Android does better than Ubuntu is games. The repositories (Android Market and Amazon are the main ones I use) are much flashier as well, and somewhat easier to navigate. This is more than offset by the difficulty getting root, the lack of customization, the paucity of apps (no Openoffice or Audacity, Firefox is still in beta, and so on), and the OS's insistence on constantly trying to monitor me, and apps insistence on launching themselves and/or reporting back to wherever they report back to.

In other words--in terms of my privacy, Android is insecure; in terms of utility, Android is inadequate. Android feels very much like an OS that is more concerned with telling me what I can do than with allowing me to do what I wish. I'll say it again: I can't wait until I can use Ubuntu (or any other open-source Linux distro) on my tablets.

I hate having to hack on the OS just to get root. It's my hardware: I bought it; I own it. I should be able to get root as a matter of course. I should be able to set it up however I want, to do whatever I want, and to prohibit it from doing anything I don't want it to do. Seen in this light, the Android OS is an absolute failure.

And with that rant, I'm done for the week. See you all next time.

EDIT: I just had to switch over to my Ubuntu desktop computer to finish publishing this blog. It took me nearly as long to pub it as to write it on the tablet, and I was still getting screw-ups. Grrr... Android + Safari + Blogger = Suck.