Archive for March, 2010

Blogging Basics: New Networking Toy

Astute readers will already have noticed that there’s a new link on the sidebar for the blog’s RSS feed; for the rest of you, I direct your attention to it now.  Exactly what its advantage is escapes me, but it was recommended by a couple of friends, who both said that they would read the blog more often if they got it via RSS.  I never thought “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” was all that hard to remember (and I’ve been good about that schedule, too), but I guess the feeds help condense everything that people want onto a single bookmarked page, or something like that.  I still do things the old point-and-click way; I like telling myself that I’m giving everyone’s page another hit each day this way, and making them feel that much better about their statistics for the day.  Or maybe other people get so many hits that one here or there doesn’t phase them anymore?  I’m not exactly a genius of social media networking (witness the three-month delay in getting an RSS feed up), so I can usually count my daily readership without even taking my socks off.

I do, however, like reading other people’s blogs; I just don’t get them via RSS feed, and usually don’t leave a comment or actively seek linkage either.  I think I’m what constitutes as a “lurker” in most online communities, at least until I’ve been following someone’s writing long enough to feel like I have a good sense for what they’re after from their audience and what sort of comments they find useful and respond to.  Lia Booke of “Ex Libris Bookwyrme” was the first exception, because we go back a ways before our respective blogging, and we do a little bit of reading/editing for one another now and again; if I ever find that I have something useful to say to Cassandra Jade or Tsuchigari of “My Literary Quest” I’ll usually drop them a line too, since both are clearly the outgoing sort and have occasionally posted comments on this blog.  All three are much tidier bloggers and networkers than I, skilled in the arts of hyperlinks and Top Ten lists and the like.  And there are many other that I simply follow in silence, quietly adding my count to the page hits — perhaps I even read yours!  In fact, if you wound up here because you have a blog about writers and/or writing, it’s very likely I read yours.

My grandfather used to run his law practice out of a coffee shop, without using their phone (because that would have been an imposition of him), and he knew everyone in the city — I think I’m more a kindred spirit with the barrista that watched it all than I am with him, unfortunately, at least digitally.  But all the same, there is a social-networking post for you all, and Friday we’ll be back to the usual writerly observations.

Writing LIfe: In-Jokes and Mindful Self-Indulgence

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I love wordplay.  I’ve even called it the “special effects” of writing, as satisfyingly gratuitous as spaceships blowing up in high-definition.  So it should come as no real surprise that, as a writer, I have to struggle to keep my shameless self-indulgences out of the text, or at least out of the way of the plot when they get there — and puns are not the only offenders.  Allusions, sometimes torturous ones, slip in here and there to make the savvy few giggle when they stumble across them.  It’s shameless.

To a point, I will argue that self-indulgent wordplay is no bad thing.  It shows up in some very good novels; a few writers got famous for it (Joyce, Nabokov, etc. — I wonder if being multi-lingual doesn’t have something to do with the urge).  But if an indulgence is noticeable, it had better make a noticeable improvement in the paragraph/chapter/section/whatever it appears in, or it’s going to fail the fundamental question of editing:  does this sentence make the book a better read by being here?

And sometimes, they do.  We all like to feel clever, and catching an author in the act is a clever kind of feeling — aha, I see what you did there! Clever little allusions, subtly done, can also help the more fundamental task of setting the mood; Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor:  A Family Chronicle is a book about witty and often frivolous aristocrats, and his incessant narrative punning (which starts at the title and goes all the way through the novel) gives the text the same careless whimsy as its protagonists.  The amount of clever in-jokes that appear in your work will affect the tone just as much as more basic considerations of style (how many adjectives to slap an adverb on, whether or not to venture beyond “said” in your dialogue attributions, etc.).

Because everything is better with examples, here are a few self-indulgences, written in mostly for my own pleasure, that have still made the cut to remain in the most updated draft of the fairy story:

– Two of the characters share a drink in a tavern called the Melancholia, which is described as “indistinguishable from those to either side of it, save for a small grid of numbers carved on the door for an address.” (Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melancolia I includes a magic square in its imagery.)

– As the ships of two fairy princesses approach, an alarmed observer warns the prince “Look — the Aarne and the Thompson. Your royal cousins are come!” (The Aarne-Thompson classification system is the standardized cataloging tool for folk tales)

– In the greenhouse of a creature called the Gardener of Dreams, the main character finds a bush covered in silver roses that give off real scent.  The Gardener makes a passing reference to “letting one go for a song” when an Austrian visited her years ago, and later offers the prince one, saying “no one ever comes here anymore; I can afford to be cavalier with them.” (Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier features a silver rose, perfumed to give off a rose’s scent, which the young cavalier presents to his soon-to-be-lover.)

What all of these examples share, and what I think justifies their continued existence:  They appear, they do their thing for anyone who notices, and they go away.  Most crucially, the story isn’t affected if you don’t catch the joke. There’s nothing unusual about a tavern with numbers on its door, the ships have to be called something, and the Gardener needed some kind of metallic plants on her bushes because I wanted her home to be empty of normal living things.  All of the allusions are seamless for people who don’t pick up on them; for people that do, they’re a little blending of our world into the fairyscape — no bad thing, in a book about a human girl running away to become a fairy prince.

So there’s a place for the self-indulgences, I think, properly downplayed and spaced out (remember, the above examples are scattered in the midst of fifteen thousand words or so).  And, given that the three examples I pulled were all allusions, rather than puns or other wordplay, I think we should all take a moment to be proud of how far I made it without riffing on the allusion/illusion homonym!

Devil’s Details: Dialogue and Paragraph Breaks

Today is sort of another nuts-and-bolts post — I’ve been playing around with dialogue, and with the way you break it up with action and paragraph spacing, and it’s proven to be a surprisingly flexible formatting tool.  The basic rules, I assume everyone knows (new paragraph for each speaker and so forth), but within those, there’s still a good bit of authorial freedom to space the narrative out.

The most basic thing I’ve figured out, after some trial-and-error playing with the ENTER key:  following dialogue with action or description contained in the same paragraph makes it belong more strongly to the character speaking, and less to the narrator/reader’s objective knowledge.  Putting a break between dialogue and action makes them two separate things that are both happening where the reader can observe them, and putting action directly before dialogue, without a paragraph separating them, makes the speaking part of a larger image.

Examples are easier to understand than big blocks of explanation, yes?  A few of those, then — not anything I’m working on, just a made-up bit of pulp to play with:

“Okay,” said Lt. Cabor, “it’s just us now.  Ship’ll be back in three days, and we’ve got six hours to get underground before the enemy nav-sats come online again.  Get moving.”  The red sun shone dully, like a scuffed penny on a huge, beige sidewalk.  Cabor judged the distance to the cliffs on the horizon mentally; his reader would have it to the millimeter, but there was no guarantee that they’d have working readers by the time they came back out.  Better to have an idea of it in his own head.  Behind him, Mullins spat chaw.

 

“Figure it for even odds?” he asked.  “Or did Cap’n sell us down the river this time?”

 

“Stow that talk, Guns.”  Cabor scanned the top of the cliffline, trying to make out any suspicious regularities that might betray gun emplacements, or worse, satellite relays.  Equipped for beaming to the nav-sats, the relays could also serve as ground sensors, if you jerry-rigged the sensitivity down far enough not to set alarms off any time a mouse farted.  He didn’t know whether the Melks knew the trick or not, or would be paranoid enough to try it while their satellites were down, but in their place… “Gonna need your breath for walking.”  This was it, then — no power armor, no air support, nothing but the oldest fashion of soldiering there was.  Pick up your weapon.  Walk somewhere.  Kill someone.  If you were lucky, walk back.

So, what to take away from this example?  For starters, it’s theoretically a limited perspective at this point (although who knows what the rest of this imaginary chapter would look like) — we’re in Cabor’s head, hearing his thoughts about the sun, the cliffs, satellite relays, soldiering, and all that.  The dialogue/paragraph spacing supports that; each big block of descriptive text is incorporated into a paragraph that begins with Cabor’s speech.

Now, to make the whole thing more omniscient, and more spread out — a bigger, more space-opera feel, something more in the line of a television script (for a series starring William Shatner, no doubt) — the dialogue can be separated from the action and scene, with a few extra attributions stuck in to clarify who speaks when:

“Okay,” said Lt. Cabor, “it’s just us now.  Ship’ll be back in three days, and we’ve got six hours to get underground before the enemy nav-sats come online again.  Get moving.”

 

The red sun shone dully, like a scuffed penny on a huge, beige sidewalk.  Cabor judged the distance to the cliffs on the horizon mentally; his reader would have it to the millimeter, but there was no guarantee that they’d have working readers by the time they came back out.  Better to have an idea of it in his own head.  Behind him, Mullins spat chaw.

 

“Figure it for even odds?” he asked.  “Or did Cap’n sell us down the river this time?”

 

“Stow that talk, Guns,” Cabor said.

 

He scanned the top of the cliffline, trying to make out any suspicious regularities that might betray gun emplacements, or worse, satellite relays.  Equipped for beaming to the nav-sats, the relays could also serve as ground sensors, if you jerry-rigged the sensitivity down far enough not to set alarms off any time a mouse farted.  He didn’t know whether the Melks knew the trick or not, or would be paranoid enough to try it while their satellites were down, but in their place…

 

“Gonna need your breath for walking,” he added.

 

This was it, then — no power armor, no air support, nothing but the oldest fashion of soldiering there was.  Pick up your weapon.  Walk somewhere.  Kill someone.  If you were lucky, walk back.

Not as good, is it?  But it captures the spirit of a certain genre, and a certain age in literature — there’s that very Golden Age, television special or comic book pacing to it, speech then image then speech then image, and so on.  And sometimes that’s valuable!  When things need to feel very stretched-out and dramatic, consider spacing the dialogue and the action out with some extra paragraph breaks.

And just as a last example, here’s the same little scene as the first, with exactly one sentence moved:

“Okay,” said Lt. Cabor, “it’s just us now.  Ship’ll be back in three days, and we’ve got six hours to get underground before the enemy nav-sats come online again.  Get moving.”  The red sun shone dully, like a scuffed penny on a huge, beige sidewalk.  Cabor judged the distance to the cliffs on the horizon mentally; his reader would have it to the millimeter, but there was no guarantee that they’d have working readers by the time they came back out.  Better to have an idea of it in his own head.

 

Behind him, Mullins spat chaw.  “Figure it for even odds?” he asked.  “Or did Cap’n sell us down the river this time?”

 

“Stow that talk, Guns.”  Cabor scanned the top of the cliffline, trying to make out any suspicious regularities that might betray gun emplacements, or worse, satellite relays.  Equipped for beaming to the nav-sats, the relays could also serve as ground sensors, if you jerry-rigged the sensitivity down far enough not to set alarms off any time a mouse farted.  He didn’t know whether the Melks knew the trick or not, or would be paranoid enough to try it while their satellites were down, but in their place… “Gonna need your breath for walking.”  This was it, then — no power armor, no air support, nothing but the oldest fashion of soldiering there was.  Pick up your weapon.  Walk somewhere.  Kill someone.  If you were lucky, walk back.

This time, Mullins stands out much more as a character in his own right, because his action (spitting) is directly tied to his speech.  It could still be a limited perspective, or it could be an omniscient one — how much other action happens outside of Cabor’s perception determines that.  But even if it’s all from Cabor’s point of view, he’s now seeing “Guns” as someone who is thinking and acting independent of Cabor’s control, rather than as a talking piece of scenery.

Since this is an out-of-context example with no larger vision to contribute to, there’s no way to say exactly where the paragraph breaks should go to wring the maximum narrative effect out of the text.  It would all depend on what sort of a story I was trying to create.  But I think just those short examples at least gets the point across that something as simple as hitting ENTER can make a reasonably large difference — and all within the established rules of dialogue; nothing experimental or deliberately in violation of convention.

Something for all of you to play with!  If you don’t already.

Works in Progress: Brushstrokes

Remember NaNoWriMo?  (I assume that everyone who did it remembers, since they’ve been bombarding us with e-mails about Script Frenzy, on the assumption that anyone who has one month to waste has two I suppose).  I think there’s really something to be said for the approach, the whole “just put words on paper” ethos that cranks out the 50,000 by the end of the month — for someone who’s just starting to struggle with the idea of “being a writer” and doing the writing thing every goddamn day, whether inspiration strikes or not, it’s a fantastic boot camp (and also probably a pretty good test of whether or not this is actually a thing you want to do with your life).

Unfortunately, the result is an enormous pile of pages to edit, many of which are so bad that editing them is a waste of time — they need to be scrapped entirely.  I discovered (about the end of December or so, I would say) that I hate that kind of bulldozer-approach editing, so despite my staunch resolutions to boost the ol’ wordcount, I find myself producing less and less gross words-on-paper every month.  I tell myself that this is not a problem.  What I’m getting instead is a much higher percentage of “finished” words, which aren’t actually finished in the sense of a finished draft, but are at least pretty certain not to end on the scrap pile after a single glancing-over.

The process for this is a little repetitive.  This post is titled “Brushstrokes” because there was going to be a sort of visual arts metaphor-mixing thing  (I do those, sometimes) about writing the same basic scene over and over again on scrap paper and then sitting down with all the scraps to produce a single, typed version — lots of little traces and dabs layered on top of one another to make the whole.  Brushstrokes, see?

But Monet I ain’t; what it really boils down to is a lot of re-writing instead of the NaNoWriMo “write the scene, move the plot along, and fix it later” approach.  Since this was going to be a quick little one-month project back in January and it’s now the middle of March, I think the disadvantages of the method are fairly obvious — my hope is that, in the editing stages, the advantages will become manifest.  Certainly I can re-read the whole thing (I just did, a few days ago) without wincing at any point, which is more than I can say for the romance that came out of November.

At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing yourself.  I hate editing enough to abandon large projects rather than have to do nothing but for weeks on end, so I’m doing as much of it as I go along as humanly possible.  Other people with more of a tolerance for it might do better slamming an entire book out from the beginning to the planned ending and then reworking major pieces of it; presumably there are even geniuses out there who write the whole thing in one go, touch up the spelling and punctuation, and publish.  But if you’re not one of them (and I’m not), there’s some figuring out of pacing to do.  I’m hoping I’ve got mine figured, now?  We’ll see.

Writing Life: Founded Optimism

Don’t be alarmed when I open today’s post up with a link to the webcomic Questionable Content.  It’s not actually about webcomics and why they’re awesome (or why they suck, or really anything about them).  I just like the author’s newsposts, particularly during the early years of the comic (which is a sort of day-to-day-life comic about indie kids, and if you don’t read it, that’s plenty of summary for today’s purposes).

Now, for those who haven’t jumped on the webcomics bandwagon, or who indulge in moderation, the “newspost” is generally a little blurb, either at the bottom of the comic or on a separate page of its own, where the author puts pretty much anything.  Some comics rarely feature them; some practically require the explanatory text for the uninitiated to even get what the comic is talking about.  Questionable Content is one that has a newspost at the bottom of each new comic.

And doggone it, they’re just so happy.  Even early on in the comic’s history (the creator “went professional,” doing only the comic and the associated merchandise sales for a living about a year after it started), the newsposts tend to include things like “I am pretty pleased with the artwork in this one!” or “Man, I am having fun with the artwork lately.”  The most negative I have seen it be runs along the lines of “urgh, the background here was hard to draw.”  There’s probably also at least four or five comics in there with something along the lines of “This is the best comic I’ve drawn yet” at the bottom — and hey, the artwork’s always improving, so who’s to say that it wasn’t true of all of them?

And so QC (and creator J. Jacques) makes it briefly onto the blog as an example of the sort of optimism I think all writers and artists should strive for.  It’s a reality of creative life that once in a while you’re going to produce something you’re not thrilled with (and that other people aren’t thrilled with, and they generally tell you), but that’s no reason to be unhappy.  Assume that everything you produce is improving your skills, in one way or another — the J. Jacques approach — and writing/drawing/crocheting/whatever will be much more pleasant!

This is advice I am working on taking right now.  After a couple of days’ trouble with moving the fairy story forward in a way that I liked, I sat down with a blank Word document and the current draft side-by-side, and started reading through sentence-by-sentence.  Sentences I liked got copied over to the new document; sentences that needed to be there but didn’t suit my taste got reworded, and some things got cut outright (I also patched up a few growing plot holes and stuck a few connections in to plot points I hadn’t thought of during the original writing).  I’m feeling a little more confident with my characters and where I want to go with them, but also with my writing in general — most everything made it across the gap, even if it needed a little tweaking.  Some of it is really pretty good!

There are still some serious “where is this thing gonna go” plot issues to resolve, but I’m at least feeling up to the task again (and have a slightly neater draft to expand on).  I think the optimism (founded, given his success thus far) of J. Jacques’s newsposts were a good influence!

Personal Pages: Calendar Art

No, not “calendar art” like little fuzzy kittens in cute hats (although I do know where you could get a few of those cheap, if it’s your thing).  My desk calendar is one of those page-a-day art museum things, from the Metropolitan in New York.  What has this to do with the writing process, you say?

Well, I’m up late in the evenings, and I rise late in the mornings.  So just about every night, right around midnight, I get to decide when to flip the calendar.  I won’t cheat ahead — no flip before midnight.  But does the next day start at midnight, or does it start when I get up in the morning?  The old day’s picture decides — if I like it, the next day starts in the morning, when I get up and flip the page.  If it’s awful, the next day starts promptly at midnight.  And if it’s tolerable, it just depends on my mood.  I think I’m usually willing to gamble on flipping to something better, which might be foolish optimism on my part (lots of old tables and lamps and stuff in the Met collection).

And over Valentine’s Day weekend (Sat. and Sun. share a single page), I got a picture of Cupid urinating on Venus.  How romantic.

Anyway, a quick look at this week’s creative productivity:

- A very pleasant visit from a couple houseguests over the weekend cut into the usual word-count by quite a bit — we’ve only got one room beside the bedroom, and the futon guests sleep on is directly behind my computer.  So with folks turning in early after doing the town, my usual up-late schedule was a no-go.

- Very lightly edited and re-submitted a couple of short stories.  The one I like best has garnered the most rejections (five), but that may just be because the first few publications I sent it to had faster turn-around times.  No reason to panic yet.

- Finally stepped past an irritating plot-logistics block in the fairy novel(la?) by just saying “fuck it, it’s Fairy; they can go to sleep one place and wake up in another and that makes perfect sense.”  That opened the door for some real progress, and the word-count bounced back up.

- Took a little time off from the “professional” stuff to work on a side-project for a friend.  Personalized, one-of-a-kind art, or a cheap way out of buying presents?  You decide.

- You’ve all seen the blog; you know what it’s looked like this week.

Closing thought:  Today’s Metropolitan Museum of Art calendar page is the entire bedroom of a 1st century B.C. Roman named “Fannius Synistor.”  How awesome of a name is Fannius Synistor?  Seriously now.

Clever Touches in “Wolf Hall”

Something of a late post today — I got up this morning and finished Wolf Hall before doing anything else, since I’d made it almost to the end by staying up too late last night, and then couldn’t keep my eyes open for the last twenty pages.  Which turns out to have been all right; the novel ends sort of in the middle of the protaganist’s life, with Thomas Cromwell scheduling a short vacation for himself:  “Wolf Hall – five days.”

Wolf Hall, the Seymour estate, hardly comes up in the book at all — just enough that we know what it is, really.  It’s a good title; as someone who’s abysmal at picking titles, I always enjoy ones that work.  It’s practically a sequel in its own right, for anyone who happens to know the name of Henry VIII’s queens (or anyone with a moment to wikipedia it).

The other writing-related thing of note in Wolf Hall (beside the exhaustive research that went into making sure all the historical figures were in the right places at the right times) is the attributions, both of dialogue and action — it’s the first of Mantel’s novels that I’ve read, so I can’t say if it’s part of her style or if she came up with the technique just for Wolf Hall, but throughout the entire book the protagonist Thomas Cromwell is the default “he” in the narrative text, regardless of who was mentioned most recently or whether or not Cromwell’s name has been used in a particular chapter at all.  If it says “He…”, it’s referring to Cromwell.

This is disorienting for about two pages, and from then on it just makes the novel a faster, cleaner read, and I think helps to make Cromwell feel like even more of a powerful, driving sort of personality — he dominates the reader’s world, by virtue of being the person that our narrator is always talking about.  We don’t need to ask who a bit of text refers to; it’s always Cromwell, Cromwell, Cromwell.

And I thought that was very clever indeed.

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