1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
Friday, April 27, 2007
1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
The Fantasy Novelist's Exam.
They also do a Book-a-Minute archive. To, you know, help with all that pesky reading...
And lastly, a lightbulb joke, from Jokes About Writing:
How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Two. One to screw it almost all the way in, and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.
Do you see yourself,
Do you see yourself on the TV screen,
Do you see yourself in the magazine
When you see yourself does it make you scream
X-Ray Specs, Identify
I have a guilty pleasure. Almost a secret. Except I'm blogging about it, of course.
I *love* Victorian 'sensation' novels.
This does relate to modern fiction. I promise.
Those Victorian thrillers are unbelievable freaking potboilers. Any writer living would be hard-put to stir up suspense the way Wilkie Collins could. I mean, stay-up-late-at-night-then-eventually-turn-off-the-light-cause-its-morning-now suspense.
But like Cold War spy novels, the conflict in those Victorian stories tends to be pretty much the same over and over. But where Fleming and LeCarre gave us Communists (and to a lesser extent, our own watchmen), the great threat to Victorian society was loss of identity.
And outdated as both sets of conflicts may seem, they both gave us moments of harrowing thrills that still have us turning pages generations later.
Victorian thrillers were about identity for a reason. Who we were was fragile for the first time EVER in that culture. Before then, people mostly stayed in their own towns and farms. An entry in the church register was all the written record many had of their lives. The meticulous over-documentation of the twentieth century was still in the future.
Identity was fragile.
In the mid-1800's, people were moving around more. They might live miles and miles from that parish register or half a planet away in New Zealand, Austrailia, India or the West Indies. We were who we said we were, and proving the point was a ticklish business. A changed line in a church register, or the unscrupulous lies of an alcoholic scoundrel, could royally fuck up an honest person's life.
The twentieth century changed a lot of stuff. Year after year, we documented more and more of our lives. Those Victorian thrillers became increasingly difficult, maybe even impossible.
Or did they?
These days, identity might be more fragile than ever.
On the one hand, we're us. Inalienable, a priori. I lift my right hand (typing slowly with my left) and touch my chest. My heart beats under my palm. There I am. I'm sure it was the same for the good people of the 1800's.
But how did they prove whose hand did the lifting? Whose heart did the beating? They didn't have driver's licenses, library cards or Visa. They had friends who could vouch for them, letters of introduction and those all-important entries in the parish register or family bible. Not what you'd call incorruptable...
But what are we?
I've got a wallet full of paper. Some of it has my picture on it, some of it just my name, and all of it adds up to a composite of my odd little life. My NZ driver's license is my main ID. I used my Minnesota license to get it. I got *that* with my Social Security number and birth certificate. All my US paper, even the passport I used to move to NZ, all came back to a bit of blue paper and a number.
And news stories have shown us the horrors that await an honest person whose blue paper and number fall into the wrong hands. And what about our online identities? Every bank account I have, the email that runs my work lives, even this blog, all are just a few user names and passwords.
Information is corruptable, and people are infinitely corrupt.
Might be time to look back at some of those Victorian thrillers. They might inspire some ultra-modern thrillers.
PS. I do realize that punk diva Polly Ester was talking about a different aspect of identity, but I couldn't resist the reference...
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Dude writes some fast-paced fiction. At a book signing once, he said his writing method is to jot down thoughts as they come to him on 3x5 cards and stick them in a box. When the box gets a certain amount of full, he's got a book.
As many methods as there are writers, I suppose...
Saturday, April 21, 2007
Or if he didn't, he should have. Cause that's what we do: we make stuff up, left, right and center. But the stuff we make up has to ring true to hold up our end of the story contract. For her part, the reader agrees to put aside some skepticism to play make-believe with us.
Until we drop the ball.
I'm not talking about the obvious suspects:
Info-dumps ("As you know, Bob, these caves are rumoured to have been...")
Eye-crossingly bad dialogue ("If you dare to move I will shoot you," he threatened menacingly.)
Hackneyed story tropes (A needlessly complicated serial killer makes fiendish puzzles out of his victims, and a moping vampire crimefighter needs to stop him before the innocent love interest is next. Yawn.)
Those are all style problems, and bad style can be unlearned. I'm thinking today of those times we tell the reader the wrong lies and knock them out of the story. CS Harris did a couple of great posts on man-stuff and women-stuff that strains story credibility.
Or on Killer Year, Sean Chercover put up this post on fictional firearms gaffs. My personal pet peeve is the hero giving us the make and model of the gun the bad guy's pointing at him. I've had guns pointed at me, and never once did I think, "Why, that's a Colt Python .357 Magnum," or "Hmm, now is that pistol a Berreta or a Sig Sauer? Sigs have that slim line, but I think it's the Berreta has that particular butterfly safety."
Or whatever. To be honest, I can't remember what the hell I ever thought in those moments. I'll buy James Bond or Jack Reacher being disinterested enough to think about these things. The rest of us? Not so much.
It goes back to the writer's sense of the world, and of people. When it differs too much from the reader's, the reader is knocked out of the story. Naked women admiring themselves in the mirror, men commenting on their own chiseled jaws and sensuous mouths, teenagers who talk like the Scooby Doo gang, all are at odds with life as I know it. And probably the reader, too.
It's not always the writer's fault, either. I rented the first season of The Wire recently. I was riveted. The Dynamo watched maybe five or ten minutes before pronouncing it unbelievable. "Those kids dealing drugs, why aren't they in school? And nobody curses that much, especially not cops."
Widely different experiences of the world. I lent the DVDs to another Kiwi who *loves* The Sopranos. He brought it back the next day. His comment?
"People in the US don't really curse that much, do they?"
Thursday, April 19, 2007
First, it was uphill but easy. Then we forded a river and it got harder. Then towards the end, it got *really* hard.
Then, the waterfall! Forty meters of free-falling glory...
Long way to go to wash an apple....
Also, a fun link!
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
According to this article, authors, painter and sculptors are some of the happiest people. Bartenders, cashiers and waiters are among the least.
Clergy are happiest overall (no creative blocks, since the text is written for them?), while roofers are the least. Poor damn roofers.
The article cites the satisfaction of serving others as the source of a lot of that personal and professional happiness. It's certainly what gets me up in the morning. It never ceases to touch me that people find it worthwhile to part with their hard-earned cash for my offerings.
Used to seem to me, everybody needs to eat, but nobody *needs* a painting, tattoo, drawing, or a story. Now I'm not so sure. Art and stories, beauty and entertainment, all fill a need deeper than any can of pork and beans can touch.
It's just harder to put a finger on the needs those things fill. But there's no mistaking the charge of knowing you've touched another person's life.
I credit that feeling of service to others to my own happiness. And my happiness to my continuing and unnatural youth...
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
So what's next?
One problem with running full-throttle is stopping.
I finished last night and sat on my hands for a couple of hours before bed. Fortunately, the Tiny Dynamo thought she saw a mouse, so there was screaming and standing on chairs, etc. to keep me entertained.
It's fall. We live next to acres of fields. It's warm inside. But try telling a fearful Dynamo that. Like getting an amphetamine-fueled leprechaun to do algebra.
I also finished my latest read: The Blue Girl, by Charles DeLint. Good stuff, and I'll be reading more. Next up: Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan and Clockers, by Richard Price.
Sometime in the next couple of days I've got a drawing to do for a client, a painting or two I've been thinking about and, apparently, a driving need to mouse-proof my home. Somehow I just know that will involve lots and lots and lots of (shudders, same voice Jerry used to say Newman) cleaning.
I'm trying to give it a day or two before I start back in. Not sure I'll be able to handle the break, but I'll try. Fortunately, I've got a couple of ideas in mind for my next two books, so I won't have to live with that 'will I ever write again' feeling. Just the 'will it be any good' and 'is this one I just did any good' ones. Oh, and 'what if the power has left me'. That's always a fun one, if you listen to it...
Mostly, I'll be a reader and movie watcher (when not -- ugh -- cleaning) for the next short while. I do loves me a good story. And I learn a lot from a bad one, so it's a win either way.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Closing, closing, closing in....
Yesterday the Dynamo asked if the new book is any good.
My honest reply: "I don't know, I haven't read it yet."
That's actually still months away. Next I'll be doing what I call penciling. Y'see, when I draw a comic I start with a blue drafting pencil. The lines are loose and all over the place, many elements on the page little more than fuzzy blue clouds suggesting a hand or a face or a parked car. That's where I'm at right now with the book.
Then I give the page a light pass with an eraser and go in with a regular mechanical pencil. The rule? One line. One. No fussy clouds of Da Vinci-esque 'suggested forms'. Pick a line out of the mess and use it. If it doesn't work, erase and pick another one. Indicate blacks, hatching, etc. where I see it.
That's next. False trails and flailing will come out. Characters shall have one name, and one name only. Hopefully only one eye color as well, but I swear gremlins creep in and fuck with the files. Stuff will go in, as well. Themes amplified, symbols repeated or accented, certain characters' journeys of the soul more fully explored.
After that I'll put it away until I can't quite remember it anymore.
Then, and only then, will I get to read the damn thing. And see the typos, the clunky wooden bits, the occasional nice spot and the character whose eyes change color halfway through!
But thank heaven, I'm almost done with this bit. I need one more dead character (dying as we speak, in another window), and the last half of the denouement. Maybe today...
Saturday, April 14, 2007
I think this is the last scene. After that, the story arc will be complete and the ruthless pruning will begin. I'll make a quick second pass to knock out any obvious false starts and wooden notes and to add anything that feels missed. For instance, the young girl's mother went from 'introduced and all but forgotten' to 'major force at bitching things up', while a third villain I'd been setting up early didn't work out as planned.
Some would say my first drafts are really long outlines. James Ellroy style long. I guess.
But it has nothing to do with my geekitude, so whatever.
I had a great time yesterday. It was a small and intimate con, fitting in such a small and intimate city. Some old friends were there and some new. I ended up watching the table for the two other Kiwi cartoonists so they could grab pizza, comics, beers, whatever. Sold some books, did a little bit of charicature and mostly had a fine old natter with others who like comics.
There were heaps less comics than usual, though. Those rows of long boxes full of cheap back issues (in which I spent many a happy hour of my youth hunting) are gone. The three (!) comics dealers brought a few graphic novels and a box or so of regular ones, using their space mostly for toys (Kurt Cobain figurine, pretty neat!) and Japanese manga.
It makes sense. Those long boxes go largely unsold, they're heavy, and they cost more to ship, even if 'shipping' is throwing them in the back of the ute. Toys are light, expensive, and flying off the shelves yesterday.
The sea change was evident. In a roomful of hardcore fans, comics and graphic novels are vanishing. They're just not as worthwhile for the direct market retailers anymore.
And that might be a good thing. Mainstream retailers are selling a lot of the graphic novels now, and mainstream publishers have been jumping in with both feet. It might just be that the medium's coming out of its little self-imposed ghetto.
It's a warm thought on a cold gray day, and I've got a stack of new comics!
Friday, April 13, 2007
I've got a post in mind, inspired by some of CS Harris's this week, about story-jarring unbelievability, how it relates to truth, how writers' lies tell the truth, etc.
But not yet. Not yet.
After I finish this pot of coffee, I'm off to Armageddon, NZ's only real geekfest. It started out as a quiet little (read: near dead) comics gathering some years ago. Then Bill got involved.
Bill is like the Saul of Kiwi comics. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Bill transformed our intimate little scene into a major cultural event that attracts tens of thousands of people every year. He brought in Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. He brought in wrestlers and rappers.
By now, the convention bears the same resemblance to a comics event that Christianity bears to the gnostic Judaism of Jesus, James and Thomas.
But I digress.
This will be the first time in a couple years (novels, anyone?) that I've been to one of these. They aren't usually held on the South Island (not enough people), and without new work to promote and sell, I couldn't justify the trip to the North Island. I know, we should all have these problems, right?
But today the con is in my own back yard, and I have a chance I haven't had in more years than I want to think about. I get to wander the aisles as a fan.
No drawing. No hand-selling books. No charicatures of kiddies to keep the people coming by the table. (Hmm, note to self: drawing as a way to draw a crowd at a book signing?) (Note to self: have book to sign.)
(Further note to self: QUIT ruminating and finish this freaking BLOG!!!)
Okay. Um, yes, where was I? Oh yes.
I'm getting my geek on today, reconnecting with that inner little kid who still thrills at the idea of people in their underwear throwing cars at each other...
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Which offers lovely views:
I didn't bring my camera, so had to kype these off the web. Sorry.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
One ending has been chosen, the other locked in its cupboard. The scratching behind that door grows feebler, the weeping softer. Soon they may stop entirely.
Meanwhile, CS Harris got me thinking. She's got a great series of posts up right now comparing bestsellers with similar, though much less successful, books. The differences seem to jump right out.
Which made me wonder, what's talent got to do with it?
The creative fields are a funny business. Art, literature, music-- hell, interpretive dance and mime are crowded with yahoos whose self-esteem eclipses their ability (think American Idol open auditions), and then there are the few superstars who make it to being household names. And those two ends of the scale are all people know.
Mention you're a writer at a party. You'll hear about Uncle Elmer's manuscript, unfinished after twenty years. You'll hear about how JK Rowling's richer than the Queen. You might even get my favorite suggestion, "You gotta get you an idea like that one." Gee, thanks.
It takes an enormous amount of work, training, drive and maybe talent just to rise onto the lowest rungs. And from there? Fuggeddaboudit....
I worked hard, trained hard and drove over, under or through every obstacle to carve out a lovely career for myself in art. Then, selfish prick that I am, I 'decided' (reason for air quotes: see That Twisting Urge) to reinvent myself as a writer.
So what's talent got to do with it?
I had no idea if I had any, for one thing. I also didn't care, for another. Now, I don't mean that in the sense so many Idol hopefuls obviously do. It's just that there are several factors important to success.
Talent's the only one we have no control over, so why worry about it. Most people don't fail through lack of talent, and quite a few succeed despite any discernible scrap of it. They fail due to fear, laziness, priorities and bad influences.
Fear: kills heaps of dreams before they start. Understandable, I guess. The creative life offers no steady paychecks, no built-in understanding from family and friends and the sorts of embarrassment that make standing naked in a roomful of strangers seem easy by comparison. It's not for the faint of heart.
Laziness: A many-headed beast I rail on about a lot on this blog. It takes a lot of hours to write a novel, even a bad one. It takes a lot of hours to do the reading to stay up on the field. And it takes something extra to not settle for any less than your best.
That means not accepting stereotyped characters, flat prose, hackneyed situations and anything less than total honesty in our observations of human nature. I think the horror genre unravelled in the eighties under a flood of 'good enough' work.
Good enough never is.
Priorities: I had to include this to be honest. I have no children and a 'job' that only requires me to work two or three days a week. I keep my needs modest so that I have the time to write thirty, forty, even fifty hours a week if I feel like it. Most people don't have that, and some will just be too plain tired at the end of a day to sit down with pad and pen or keyboard or goose quill and parchment and give it their best.
Fair enough, too.
Bad Influences: Another form of laziness, really. Before I got serious about writing, I read what I felt like, and my tastes are quite frankly a little on the trashy side. I come back again and again to 50's and 60s pulp crime, 80s horror and sci-fi/fantasy. Like a lot of casual readers, I was reluctant to take a chance on any first-time novelist and anybody who wasn't on the bestseller lists.
My first novel sure reflected it, too. I put myself on a strict program of every award-winning debut novel I could find, as well as the top winners in my favorite genres. There was no use looking at where the bar had been set thirty years ago. There was no use looking to certain established authors who'd been writing essentially the same book over and over for years, either.
Where does talent fit in?
It's a tiny, tiny leg up. It's a little rush of pleasure and promise that gets us started. It's an extra inch or two forward on the long, long, LONG road to becoming as good as we can be.
And maybe, in fact probably, it's also the hidden end of our personal ruler. I'm tone-deaf, and I seriously doubt that any amount of hard work, training and perserverance will make me a concert violinist.
Too many musicians out there putting in the hard work who actually have talent, too.
Sunday, April 8, 2007
I seem to be writing two seperate endings to this story. The one I originally anticipated (my 'mental outline', as it were) ties most everything up in a neat bow, but it feels protracted and contrived now that I'm up to the writing of it.
Track Two is fast-paced, exciting and grew completely out of the moment and the decisions the characters really would have made (assuming they, and their universe, were real). It also leaves me with an ungodly amount of loose ends, more than I can wrap up in the denouement.
Writing both of them is starting to piss me off. I suspect the thing to do is write to the end of Track Two and then see what the characters want to do next.
Actually, I *think* I may have an idea....
Meantime, I rang mum and dad for Easter yesterday. They don't know it, but their combined small talk gave me an idea for a creepy-ass thriller set in small town Georgia, where they live. I'll let it marinate, see if it sinks its hooks in deep enough.
Often, I finish a book and feel a little empty. I'm always glad the damn thing's over, but I also miss it. Like a lot of writers, I worry that maybe that one was my last book ever. Foolishness, of course, but those small doubting voices usually are foolish.
It's nice, too, when I'm between books. I catch up on my reading. Doing only one job feels like a vacation. And I quite enjoy the editing process.
But like any addict, I can't wait for my skin to start itching again. I don't want to be coasting on the effects of the last story, I want to be mainlining the next one.
This isn't the post I meant to write at all today...
I'm going to go work on my book again.
Friday, April 6, 2007
Good Friday with Clan Dynamo was much fun. Jotted 1000 words-ish in a note pad at odd moments. It did occur to me that my tennis game would probably improve if I didn't stop in the middle of the action to get down a couple lines of dialogue.
I have a real urge to tell stories. Probably no surprise given I'm writing a first draft in three months, but there you are. Although I've only been 'writing' a couple of years, that urge has been there all along.
Waaaaaaaaaaayyyyy back in my sidetracked twenties, I was the World's Greatest Dinner Guest. My jokes and stories were in great demand (great advice for any starving artist: make people want to feed you), as my various hosts knew that they would laugh, cry, tremble in terror, laugh until they cried, tremble until they laughed, whatever. I made it all up on the spot, or took bits out of my life and put the appropriate spin on them as the mood demanded. It was all about moving my audience in the moment. I was That Guy.
Back then of course, I didn't write. I was tattooing and painting and living as fast as I could (Full Throttle and Fuck It is more than just a writing style...), and those dinners (and picnics, pub nights, bong sessions, coffees, etc.) were the only way that urge could claw its way out of my skin.
I gradually realized I wasn't getting any younger, and the urge twisted. I got serious about my comics, and as is the way with me, turned the machine all the way up to eleven and snapped off the lever.
And completely lost the ability to tell a decent story. Old friends would meet me for dinner and say, "Tell the one about the vomiting Egyptian," or "What about that guy who took off his pants." Half the time, I couldn't even remember how they went. I'd fall back on a joke about two nuns and a cheese grater instead.
Then maybe three years ago or so, I was doing so much comics illustration that I didn't have the time to write comics anymore. Drawing a page, mine or anyone else's, takes maybe six or eight hours. Easy to see why I couldn't do both.
The urge twisted again.
I started writing fiction. Just a little, in a notebook. Then a novel on a typewriter. THen another on a laptop. Then--
Well, I can't tell a joke now to save my life. That storytelling urge is so used up in my work that I fuck up punchlines, stumble over the order of events, you name it.
I've become This Guy: "And these two guys, wait, I forgot. They're not guys, they're girls, and, um, I think, yeah,, that's right, they're nuns..."
Train wrecks, every one. These days people still laugh, but we all know it's at how badly I tell the joke, not the joke itself.
Back in the sidetracked days I used to be with a junkie stripper who fancied herself a writer. Except that she always had a thousand excuses why she couldn't write just at the moment. She could only write on a computer, she said. She wanted to get a bit more life experience, she said. Work took too much out of her, she said.
When she overdosed, she didn't even leave behind a diary. All our friends were puzzled, but I wasn't surprised. She was so afraid of herself and the pain she carried that she'd rather go numb than face it and let the stories come.
Me, I figure my stories would want out if all I had was a circle of faces around a campfire. A medium (printed word) that brings a wider audience? Icing on the cake.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Seriously, when not underwater, it's an awesome place to spend a couple of days. You can go out whale-watching (they come close enough to touch sometimes!) , swim with dolphins and seals, do bush walks full of rare native bird life, and the views are stunning.
Except, of course, when it's rolling gray mist in every direction.
So we had a bad tourist lunch at what used to be a nice place, had good beer at a South Island pub chain and lost a couple of bucks playing the pokies. Video slot machines are okay and all, but I don't see the I-played-them-so much-I-lost-my-home thing.
Instead of staying over, we came back home.
The loudest sound in the house was our teeth gnashing.
I'll blog again for real soon, but today I've got lunch and (shudder) more tennis at Castle Dynamo. At least many, many members of Clan Dynamo will be there. I might stand a chance against some of the more elderly ones.
Who'm I kidding? They're all so small and darty. Great, great uncle Horace Dynamo, with his walker and oxygen mask, would beat me...
Monday, April 2, 2007
I keep twisting and turning and surprising myself. I'm pretty sure the story is two thirds or three quarters done (I'm guessing I'll keep 50-60,000 words of what I've done so far. maybe), but really, it's anyone's guess.
My original 'deadline' in the story gave the hero four or five days to get the job done. Then I shortened it to the next morning. Things began moving quickly.
Now, I'm pretty sure I'll end up shortening it even further. Ratchet that tension til something pops!
In other news, the email inbox of the worst engineer in the Star Wars Empire...
And I took the Which Superhero Are You? quiz.
Apparently, I am Supergirl
Lean, muscular and feminine. Honest and a defender of the innocent.
Because I'm not the best with this shiny box of lights, I couldn't make the whole thing display properly. Suffice it to say the runners up were Green Lantern and Wonder Woman...
Turns out as a villain, I'd make a great....
A prime example of emotional extremes: Passion and fury incarnate.
I also scored pretty good for Poison Ivy and Mystique. I know they do guys in tights too: Iron Man and Superman, Magneto and Doctor Doom were all down there on the column.
I'm blaming my results on my long hair and hot body. Yeah, that must be it....
Sunday, April 1, 2007
Obviously I've got some lost time to make up for, so here's a link to a fine and entertaining collection of what-not-to-do-when-you're-writing that I've ever seen...
(just go down past the early para's about the writing groups.)