Category Archives: Writing

The Point of Science Fiction

Years ago, I read a cartoon strip that has stuck with me.  Sort of.  The caption was something like, ‘the earliest science fiction pieces,’ and it had four panels.  Panel one was a cave man with a stone hammer hitting a larger rock, while I guy behind him yelled out, ‘thag, you crazy, you play god!’ and the panel after that shows the earth being split in two, presumably from the cave man hitting one rock with the other.  Then there was another one, this time with a cave man trying to start a fire while another cave man warns him of his insanity, followed by a picture of the world in flames.

It struck with me because I’d never seen science fiction this way before, but looking at the images, it kind of made sense.  There is a theme in SF of someone pushing the bounds of science, being warned against it, and then the entire world is in jeopardy because of their hubris.

And I do, from time to time, find myself reading a comment online from someone commenting on some scientific experiment with, ‘Oh my god, didn’t you read Jurassic Park?  This is how the world gets overrun by dinosaurs!’ or someone talking about how cloning is a terrible idea because of all the ways it could go wrong, usually exemplified by some pivotal piece of science fiction.

So, it kind of make sense to look at science fiction as being anti-science.  But that’s not really how I’ve ever read it.

To me, science fiction isn’t about the dangers of science, it’s a reminder that no matter how far technology goes, people will always be people.  We’re always subject to the same flaws in thinking, the same impatience, the same hubris.

The problem isn’t what technology can do, it’s what people might do with technology.  Cloning won’t bring about the destruction of humanity, but the people who control it might.

“I’ve got a great idea for a story”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that.  Sometimes, when I hear the idea, I agree with them; sometimes I don’t.  But here’s the thing that I realized after having spent over a decade of my life as a writer:

The Idea is the Least of the Important Parts.

To be clear, I am not saying that it is unimportant.  Ideas are great.  A great idea can be the foundation for an amazing story.  But of all of the many important parts that go into writing a story, the idea is the least important one.

For years, I guarded my ideas like gold.  I was uncomfortable with the thought of letting other people read my work because, dammit, I didn’t want anyone stealing my amazing ideas!

One of the first clues I got to the mistake I was making was when I realized a basic truth of storywriting: we’re all stealing ideas all the time.  Sometimes it’s obvious.  When I was younger, in particular, it was a bit of a problem, I’d see a movie or read a book, something would resonate, and I’d write a story disturbingly similar to it.  Over time I became more sophisticated in my thefts, but make no mistake, they’re all over the place.  Whether it’s choosing to write from a particular perspective, or a moment in time designed to evoke a feeling I had when reading something else, all of my ideas are patchworks of things I’ve read other places or done other places.

Have you ever watched an old movie?  Something that someone else told you was ‘amazing’ and ‘revolutionary’ and found yourself thinking, ‘please, I’ve seen this a dozen times, and done much better, too!’?  Of course you have.  The first time I watched Psycho I was terribly disappointed.  I knew the big twist at the end, but even if I didn’t, the possibility would have occurred to me fairly quickly.  A major character who doesn’t ever appear and is only ever interacting with one other character?  Come on.

But the reason it’s so obvious now, the reason it’s been done so many times is because it was so revolutionary at the time.  The reason it was done better later is because so many other people stole it.  That’s what you do.  That’s what writing is.  You take what’s there, you mix it up with other stuff, try to do it better than it was ever done before, and when you fail, you try again.

The fact that there are so few new ideas is sort of the point, though.  Whether or not you have a great idea, the point of a story is to use it well.

I’m reminded of the movie ‘throw mama from the train.’  The story of a writer teaching a writing course who gets into a quid pro quo murder scheme with one of his students.  When everything is said and done, they both write books about it.  The student writes  a children’s pop up book, and the teacher writes an award winning novel.  The same information went in, but each of them took very different journeys from there.

Ideas are great, but don’t worry about them.  You’ll have plenty.  And for god’s sake, don’t ask a writer to write your idea for you.  It’s taken us a lifetime to figure out how to screw up our own stories.

The New Plan

So, one of the hardest parts about trying to ‘make it’ as an author is promotion.  It is an unfortunate fact that, no matter how good your writing is, you can’t do it for a living if you can’t get people to buy it.  And that means promoting yourself.  Unfortunately, for many, if not most artists, ‘sales’ is contrary to our very nature.

A friend of mine, also an author (Jason Richter, look him up!) has a plan that seems like it won’t be nearly as painful as most self promotion techniques.  It is a multi-step plan which will start right about the time I release Curdled Cuisine.

I look forward to sharing more about it once I actually start, but for right now the part that I’m working on is a series of short stories.  I haven’t done a lot of short story writing in the last couple of years, so I have to ask: if I’m sending out short stories or serialized short stories to people’s e-mails once a month, how long is too long, and how short is too short?

What makes me a writer

There are certain words in the English language whose meanings are set in stone.  Words that have little to no ambiguity, in most situations.  Words like ‘lungs,’ or ‘North,’ or ‘diabetes.’  These words have specific meanings that are not really open for debate.

Other words are a bit more malleable.

For example, ‘writer.’  I remember going to a writing conference and hearing someone say, ‘if you write, then you are a writer.’  In the strictest sense of the word, I suppose that’s true, but I think that it diminishes the relationship between many writers and their work.

I don’t have the right to determine who is or isn’t a writer, obviously, but I do feel comfortable sharing why it is that I call myself a writer.

And it certainly has nothing to do with sales.  I’ve got three or four books out in the world, under various names, and in an average month, I sell right about at enough to get myself a coffee.  One coffee.  Thankfully I don’t drink coffee, so I get to use the money for other things.  If finances were all that was involved, I’d have to call myself a farmer, since that’s where the majority of my income comes from.

The amount of time that I invest in my activities might have something to do with it.  I do make a point of writing every day… most every day.  Five out of seven?  Anyhow, the point is, I put in time.  But even when I’m working a full time job and can’t put in nearly as much time, I still consider myself a writer.

I figured out what made me think of myself as a writer one day after depositing a check from work.  The check wasn’t huge, I’ve never had a job that paid a lot, but it was for a couple hundred bucks.  Enough to cover rent and a couple of meals.  I deposited the money, I went home, I checked online to see if anything had happened with anything I’d published and… something had.

My heart jumped, my breath caught, and I read a five star review on goodreads.

It was not my first five star review, but it was one of the first ones I’d received from somebody I didn’t know.  I don’t think they wrote a review of the book, but they gave me five stars.  Somebody liked what I’d written.

The book that I’d sold them made me all of a buck sixty.  Unless they bought an electronic copy, in which case it was closer to a buck.  According to their goodreads profile, more than half of their reviews were five stars.  There was no value to what they’d given me, but I was exhilarated! More than exhilarated, I was ecstatic!  I had connected to a reader.  I had created something, they had picked it up, and they had ingested a little piece of my mind.  And they enjoyed it.

I rode that high all day long.

The money for work would let me live and keep a roof over my head, but my writing made me feel whole.

I believe that everybody has something in their life that keeps them sane.  We spend most of our time dealing with things that we must, but we all need something that anchors us and helps us define who we are.  Whether it’s religion, family, art, work, study, some activity.

For me, it’s writing.  I love it.  There are parts of being a writer that are difficult and frustrating.  There are times when the words don’t come, and when everything I write seems trite or absurd.  There are bad days, of course, but writing is more than just a thing I do, it’s a part of who I am.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’m a writer.

My Really, Really, Ridiculously Long List

So one of the things that’s important, if you’re going to be a writer, is to read.  It’s kind of like the way that if you want to be a chef you need to eat, or if you want to be a painter you need to look, or if you want to be a composer, you need to listen.

Anyhow, I’ve got to admit, I haven’t been reading as much as I should lately.  Part of it is finding writers I enjoy.  I spend so much time analyzing what I read that I have trouble really losing myself in a book the way I used to when I was younger.  Now I just see the faults, and what I would have liked them to change.

But another part of the problem is money.  My god, am I so freaking broke right now.  I have dozens of books that I need to get.  I have nearly a dozen writer friends who have books out that I promised to buy and read as soon as I can.  And I have at least as many books that people recommended to me.  No, not recommended, recommended would be ‘hey, you should try this.’  What do you call it when people are like ‘READ THIS!  You HAVE to read it!’  Foisting?  Is that it?

The long and short of it is, if somehow my book hits the right niche and suddenly becomes wildly successful, I will have to spend my entire first paycheck, and probably the one after that, on books.

On the plus side, I will then have a lot of books to read, and I have to admit, I miss those days when I would lie in bed, glancing at the clock every few minutes and going ‘I don’t have to get up THAT early tomorrow.’

Juggling

So here’s the thing about writing as a business:  There’s a lot of waiting around.

I think I addressed this a little bit in some earlier posts.

When you’re just writing for the love of it, time isn’t a factor at all.  You write when you want, don’t when you’d rather not, edit whenever the mood strikes you.  When you decide that you want to write for a living, however, everything changes.  After you write, you send it to people to help you edit, and you wait.  You get it back, you make some changes, you send it to people who might want to publish it, and you wait.  You mostly get rejected, but let’s say you don’t: you get accepted, and then you wait.  You find out what they want changed and change it, and you wait.  You get a little news here and a little news there, and you wait.  Everything finally gets finished you find out when it’s supposed to be released, and you wait.  Well, actually you promote, but whatever.  It gets published, you promote it and you wait.  you promote it some more and then you wait.

A lot of downtime.  So eventually you realize that you need to have other stuff going on during the downtime.  Maybe you work on another book.  Maybe you critique stuff for other people.  Maybe you help a friend write a movie script.  But whatever you’re doing, if it’s in the writing world, you will soon find yourself in a spot where you’re waiting for both projects to come back to you.  Why?  Because that’s how waiting works.  You can bust your ass trying to get your part done as fast as you can, but at some point you’ll find yourself in line behind a bunch of other people waiting for something that you can’t make go any faster.  So you start another project.  And maybe another.

Then one of the projects that you have up in the air comes down.  Usually when you’re right in the middle of something else.  So you manage your time as best you can and try to get both balls up in the air again, and when you do… guess what?  Now you’re waiting again!  You start a new project because there’s no sense in wasting any time, but just when you get started on that, one of the other balls comes down.  That’s okay, you just did this five minutes ago.  Rush, rush, rush, and both balls are up.

Eventually one of two things happens, you’re either fifty years old juggling eight projects and not doing anything else with your time, or all of your projects fall down around your head at the same time.

Or maybe I just need to work on my time management skills.

The unreliable narrator

In my ‘Corpse-Eater Saga,’ I wanted to push myself a bit with my writing.  I try to do that as often as I can.  In this case I did a couple of things that I don’t normally do.  The first thing I did was give myself a narrator who relies less on his eyesight than the rest of us.  That has actually been much harder for me to handle than you’d think.  Recently i went back over book one and I found several things I should have done differently if I really wanted to make that detail stick.

But the other thing I did, the thing that I want to contemplate right now, is use an unreliable narrator.

As a rule, the unreliable narrator is not my favorite tool.  Mostly it goes back to my own gullibility.  As a rule, when somebody tells me something, my first instinct is to believe them.  Even after having been lied to many times, and having discovered that I was given an obscenely one-sided story, when I talk to people and they tell something, I have to make a concerted effort not to assume that their recitation is the literal truth.

I have used unreliable narrators before, particularly in short stories.  Having someone who is misinformed or unable to perceive the truth of a particular situation is quite useful for twist endings.  But in ‘Awfully Appetizing,’ I am trying for something a bit subtler with my character.  I’m trying to write the story of somebody who is dishonest with himself.  Giving quiet hints that his perception of the world is skewed has proven more difficult than I anticipated.

Part of the problem may be that I’m going for something a little bit too subtle.  Or maybe he’s not dishonest enough with himself.  Is he really an unreliable narrator, or is he just uncertain?

Maybe I failed to make him unreliable and only made him conflicted.

One of the tricky things when you’re looking at writing a series is that it’s hard to maintain what you perceive as a flaw in your narrator over the course of years and years, and books and books.  You see the flaws in them so clearly, you can’t imagine how they could completely miss it in themselves.

Well, if that’s the case, at least he should pick up some of my own personal flaws, the ones that I’m blind to.

Starting at Zero

Have you ever gone to a movie and realized about halfway through that the jackass who made the trailer for it spoiled one of the major plot points?  One of my favorite examples is The Sixth Sense, where the creepy kid confides ‘I see dead people,’ in the trailer, a very important plot twist that doesn’t come until about halfway through the movie.

Well, the same sort of thing can happen in books.  I’ve had, on multiple occasions, found myself a chapter or two into a book when I suddenly realize that the author wanted to spring something on me that I knew going in.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the novel is set on a spaceship traveling to a new solar system.  The first few chapters take place on a farm, so when we get to the end of a chapter and the boy is peering through the glass dome and realizes that he’s out amongst the stars, it’s supposed to take our breath away.

It’s a little hard to be surprised by that revelation, though, when the cover of the book shows a spaceship that happens to have a giant dome on its back and what appears to be a continent within it.

Similarly, the scene where the kindly old professor reveals himself to be a bloodthirsty vampire is just a bit less of a shocker when the cover shows me an old man grinning to reveal two impressive fangs.

Not to mention everything that a back cover can give away.

Part of the problem is where the control over these things lies.  If a writer has final say on a book cover and jacket blurb, he’s got a good chance of getting out ahead of these problems.  But if the publisher isn’t interested in feedback and just wants to rush the manuscript through their machine and get it out in the world, things can be a bit more complicated.

But even if the writer does have control over these things, it can be tricky figuring out how to market certain stories without giving things away.  Take that story about the farmer who discovers he isn’t on a world, but on a spaceship.  If that revelation is in chapter two, then presumably most of the book is a science fiction story.  How do you hide what it’s about, while making certain that the appropriate audience reads your book?

It’s a conundrum.  And something to think about.

Sometimes you have to go forward, to go backwards, to go forwards

So I’ve got an idea for a book.

Okay, I’ve got oodles of ideas for books… for those of you who have writer friends and you want to tell them an idea you had that they could write about?  They’ve got plenty of ideas.  Ideas are the easy part.  But we’ll set that aside for now.

So, the problem I have with the idea that I want to write about right now is that it isn’t a FULL idea.  I don’t have all of the pieces.  I have an idea that I think will work well to hook the audience in, and which will force me to be more creative in the way I address certain things.  I have ideas for characters that I like.  They’re complicated, three dimensional (well, most of them) and well flawed.

The story itself I’m still working on, but that isn’t the hard part…

The hard part is the world building.

Please… don’t give me any advice, I’ve built worlds before.  Plenty of them.  I know tricks and tropes and techniques and… and… stuff.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’ve got a fairly vast world, to which I have made a number of deep changes.  The way time is measured is somewhat different than what we’re used to. The kinds of currency that are used is different.  Certain expressions are very different.

All of which would be fine if I were writing this more traditionally, but I’m doing something a little bit different with perspective I’m writing this from.  In order to introduce the narrator correctly, I sort of have to ask the reader to take a couple of leaps of faith with me.

But you can only ask for so many leaps of faith.  You have to give the reader a place to start, a foundation from which to understand the story.

In the end I realized that the only way I could figure out where to begin, was to start in the wrong spot, go as far as I could go, then look back and figure out where I should have started instead.

It’s kind of frustrating.  I’m going to write three or four chapters that will all be thrown out just as soon as I figure out what I need to figure out here.  But it’s exciting too.  I can really go for it, I don’t have to worry about making everything comprehensible, or getting the terms just right.  I just have to pick up the bat and swing for the fences.

Go forward, so I can go backwards, so I can go forwards.  Maybe I’m biting off more than I’m ready to chew, with this project.  Maybe if I waited a couple of years and tried again it would flow perfectly and easily.

Then again, you never make progress if you only do what’s easy.  The more you struggle with a project, the more you have to wrestle all the details into place, the more you learn and the better you are when you start something new.  Right?

Training your muse

One of the interesting bits of trying to become a professional writer seems to be figuring out how to train my muse.

I remember, when I was much younger, back when I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but had my entire lifetime to figure out what that actually meant, I would go days, weeks, sometimes even months, without getting any real writing done.  Sometimes I tried to force myself because I knew how much pleasure it gave me to sit down and watch the words roll out onto the page, but if the muse wasn’t whispering into my ear, nothing happened.

At a certain point, however, I realized that if I wanted to write professionally, I needed to be able write regularly as well.  Figuring out how to pull that off was a long, hard process.  And I mean long and hard.  Like that was of my major focuses for over a decade.

It can be done, as it turns out, you can teach yourself to write every day, although I have to admit that there are some days when I have to carve the words onto the page with a poorly balanced chisel and a two ton mallet, and other days when I seem to be able to splash chapters into place without breaking a sweat.

But as I try to make this transition, from amateur to pro, I find myself butting heads with the muse over something else altogether.

Content.

When I was a kid I had a bitch of a time actually finishing a story.  Oh, I had ideas.  I had oodles and oodles of idea.  I had ideas about aliens and machines and magicians and spaceships and other dimensions and superheroes and… well, for the sake of brevity I suppose we can stop there.

I had ideas a-plenty, so when I sat down in front of the computer, and when the muse was willing to lend me her time, I just let her pick the topic.  And off we would go!  A whirlwind adventure describing some alien planet or the strange laws that would exist a hundred years in the future.  Eventually I would find myself in front of a wall that I couldn’t see an easy way around, so I’d save the document and start a new one.  Round and round and round we went.  There were times, growing up, when I had a hundred plus stories started, and not one of them finished.  And that was fine, because what was I going to do with them if I finished them anyways?

Now, unfortunately, I have people who are waiting for things.

Ideally, it won’t be long until those people are my adoring public.  Or maybe my friendly public.  Or mildly interested public. But for now, it’s my beta readers, editors, an the people who want to work on projects with me.

Unfortunately my muse is loathe to give up her ability to channel surf in my brain.  Yes, I need to get a copy of book two to my editor, yes I have a friend in hawaii who wants to see the first couple pages of that project we’ve been talking about.  Yes, I have a lot on my plate.  But she just had an idea for that superhero story we’d been playing around with a few years back.  Let’s focus on THAT!

Well, what’s a boy to do, except lock the door, drink a bunch of caffeine, and start trying to train his muse all over again.  Stupid muse.  God I love her.