photo by Kelly Robson
Something I’m trying to do right now is work up a list of all the questions I–and other authors–get asked on a regular basis. These are questions my students ask me, or that come up in conversations at readings or launch parties or what have you. I want to gather up piles of them: twenty questions, thirty, even fifty. I want to tidily sort them into piles by their general intent: are they craft questions? Genre questions? Process stuff? Are they about selling, marketing, and the publishing biz?
Here’s the quick and dirty list I’m using to get started, in no particular order. It’s essentially a rundown of the things I’ve been asked in the last month or so, at places like SFContario and in the classroom.
1. Where do you get your ideas?
2. Why should/shouldn’t I self-publish my book?
3. Should I be writing short stories or novels if I want to build a career?
4. How come I hear people saying my new novel should never have a prologue?
5. Is it automatically YA novel if the main character is between ages 10 and 16?
6. So you write a book (or so) a year… are you really disciplined then?
7. Should I do NanoWrimo?
8. “Is said really an invisible word?” she grumbled petulantly.
9. What made you decide to write genre fiction?
10. Isn’t whether or not you sell a book mostly dependent on who you know, or your Twitter following?
I welcome any and all additions to this list.
Friday happened and I didn’t manage to post anything… honestly, because I forgot I was trying for a few gratitudes to wrap up the week. But…
One of the things that is exceedingly lovely for me is that notes are coming in from my trusted readers on the nth-draft version of The Nature of a Pirate, and the feedback so far leads me to believe that it’s about as good as I think it is, with a few fixable flaws to give it personality.
Even now, Kelly is typing madly at the last of what I know will be an excellent and insightful round of comments.
Two: I have begun work on what I hope will be a short story (as opposed to a novelette, or a novellismo, or a novella, or some other deitydamned long thing, that is) and I’m dictating the draft. Its working titles are “The Perils of Slow Reflexes in Meatspace” and/or possibly “The Euphemism Font.” Dictating meant I could work anywhere, and I spent a happy couple of hours on the shore of Lake Ontario today, looking at all my fellow sun-worshippers, enjoying the breeze, committing fiction, laughing at doggy antics and taking the occasional bird photo. Then I went to the bakery and bought a serious load of Forno Cultura cookies and bread items, which is a source of gratitude all on its own.
Third and finally: I am beginning to bash away at the beginnings of having a Redbubble store for a few of my best photographs. What this means, eventually, will be that a handful of them will be up all the time for the ordering, as prints, greeting cards, tablet skins, and what-have-you. And when someone asks for a print of something specific, as sometimes happens, I’ll add that to the mix, possibly on a limited-time-offer kind of deal.
What it means now is a lot of experimenting and play, some of it with photos that will only be up until I determine exactly what I want. One of the current experiments is the above shot of CinCin, which–thanks to Cats of Instagram–is now and will probably remain the shot of mine seen by most humans anywhere ever.
If you’ve asked for a print in the past, still want it, and remember the shot (or can even describe it using your words) let me know and I’ll bump it up the queue. And yes–the dragonfly close-up will go up soon, I promise, once I’ve racked up a few more experiments.
If you happened to be outside my front window right now, this is what you would see. (Please don’t step on my flowers while you are there, you mad stalker! I actually got some bulbs going that the squirrels have so far neglected to eat.)
My birch trees are busting out fine new leaves, perfect little chlorophyll-laden shapes, with edges like serrated knives, and I have been writing Novel Writing III critiques about a meter from the bird feeder, which is exceedingly popular with the local sparrows.
Yesterday tasted of summer. It was bright and sunny and the house got a little bit stuffy. You could walk outside in a dress. No tights, no coat required. Kelly and I strolled out through a cherry blossom-infested U of T campus to Bloor Street, and a matinee of the film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. This was a speed version of Thomas Hardy. Look, a girl! Look, a boy! Another boy! A third boy! Unhappiness! Misery! Woe! Boom! Conveniently, we’re now back to one available party representing each of the sexes. Someone read the damned banns already.
To sum up my emotional reaction to this particular costume drama: the horses were pretty and nobody got hanged.
We came home, waited for it to cloud over, and climbed into the hot tub. This enabled me, later, to phone Vancouver, say “Thank you for giving me life!” and proceed to brag about how awesome a day it had been.
Today it is cooler and foggy.
I have a schtick on Facebook whereby I’ll often give the cats (whom we adopted 358 days ago, I’ll have you know) super-sekrit spy names for the day. Moose and Squirrel. Joe Dick and Billy Talent. Laundry Chicken and What’s Going On? Today it was Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, which has spawned a small conversation about whether anyone could successfully reboot WKRP In Cincinnati and, if so, how? My position is that it would have to start exactly like the Battlestar Galactica reboot: Earth gets nuked, but Cincinatti survives. For obscure reasons (one friend claims this would be Johnny’s paranoia in action) the radio station was shielded against EMP.
Red Wigglers the size of Cadillacs would be roaming the Midwest, which makes it all seem like a mash-up with Dune.
Continuing on with the random, I am pondering a few fine linguistic details within the Stormwrack universe. A few of these came up when I was reviewing the copy-edit of A Daughter of No Nation. I got a query about when I use “in Fleet” as opposed to when I use “the Fleet.” (Answer: ‘in Fleet’ when they mean the city, and the words ‘in Tacoma’ could be used just as correctly. ‘The Fleet’ when we’re talking about the subsection that is a navy: “We’ll be sending the Fleet around to see if you’re in compliance with the Treaty.”) I had been doing this correctly but without conscious thought.
And here’s something that doesn’t happen to literary writers all that often: I had already known that the portions of the Hidden Sea Tales that take place on Stormwrack (as opposed to in San Francisco) were playing out, linguistically, in Fleetspeak. This means that those scenes played out in Fleet and were translated, by me, into present-day English. This is something that’s essentially invisible to everyone but my wacky imagination, but it became something of an entertaining conceit through the copy-edit process.
See, I’m no Tolkien. (I know, you’re shocked.) I don’t actually speak Fleetspeak. And the poor copy-editor really doesn’t speak Fleetspeak. So there was a bit of them going “Here’s a foreign word,” and me going, “No, that’s actually a real English science word. I had to look it up, too.” And them going “Here’s another foreign word ,” and me going, “It’s not foreign in Fleetspeak.”
Them: “Here’s another another foreign word.
Me: “Yes, that one’s Erinthian. Obvs. We can italicize that.”
None of which actually happened face to face, you understand. I’m describing a process of me talking to pencil marks on a 600-page manuscript that is now, blessedly, wrapped, taped, bar-coded and in the hands of Canada Post.
The c/e did a meticulous, thoughtful job and I’m so fucking grateful you can’t even imagine.
Finally, I am groping for a verb I can noun (or a noun I can verb) to describe a particular element of the magical inscription process, whereby a spellscribe takes an existing spell and creates a variation on it. I played with embroidering, but it’s long and unwieldy and not quite right. The embroidered spell? A broidery?
The closest equivalent to the variation/embroidery process would be someone taking a fiddly gourmet recipe and creating an undeniably different–but recognizably similar–food. Going from curried plantains in coconut milk to… maybe something with green mangos?
Why am I not currying plantains tonight? Why am I not currying plantains right now?
No matter what genre you are writing in, your novel has to take place somewhere. In some cases that world is the here and now, a place you and your readers ought to find quite recognizable. In others, you may need to research a less familiar setting. No matter where or when you set a book, though, it is important to remember that every place and time is unique, and that no matter how ordinary an environment seems to you, there are readers who will find it vivid and intriguing–if only you take the time to make it so.
It is all too easy to take the present day for granted, but compare these two fragments:
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, water-color nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer-full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing washing-lines; it chimes and fountains with bird calls, bees, leaves and foot-ball bounces and skipping chants, One! Two! Three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black-lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
In the Woods, Tana French
The rain’s wet Denny’s shirt flat to his skinny back to so the bones of his shoulders and the trail of his spine show through, even whiter than the unbleached cotton material. The mud’s up around the tops of his wooden clogs and spilling in. Even with my hat on, my coat’s getting soaked, and the damp makes my dog and dice all wadded up in the crotch of my wool breeches start to itch. Even the crippled chickens have clucked off to find somewhere dry.
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Both of these novels take place in the present day, and both evoke the past as a means of anchoring writers in the present. But they couldn’t be more different. French evokes the romance of an Irish summer; Palahniuk the grim reality of a U.S. historical theme park on an especially dismal day. Despite the fact that they theoretically take place within the same world and timeframe, it is hard to imagine Denny and Victor running loose in the bright backyards of French’s Ireland.
Rather than letting your setting work as a simple, perhaps even generic background for your characters, think of it as the stage on which your novel takes place–and remember how much work goes into designing stages in theater and film. A good set is designed in detail, built from the ground up and carefully ‘dressed’ with objects and spaces that allow the characters and the audience to fully explore the world they move through. In a similar fashion, a well-rendered setting can amplify your theme, enhance mood, add new dimensions to a character’s plight, provide ‘props’ for the action, and even take on character traits of its own. More importantly, setting is where your readers ‘go’ when they enter your fiction. Writing transports readers out of their daily lives and into new realms. . . and, indeed, you will hear from many people that this experience is exactly what they are looking for when they pick up a novel.
Needless to say, some settings are more easily established than others. Speculative fiction authors may build entire worlds from scratch; writers of historical fiction must bring the past to life.
When looking at setting, whether during the draft or revision process, ask yourself what is remarkable about the environment in which your characters move. Might any element of your ‘stage’–from the weather to the architecture to the religious climate–be considered noteworthy, even extreme? What is the first thing an ordinary person would notice, were they to walk through this world? What would excite them, or scare them? What would arouse their curiosity? Where and when are they, in other words? Does the environment require anything special of them–access passes, survival gear, money, social status, a minimum level of physical fitness, a health concern, or simple travel?
Once you have given your setting some thought, your task becomes making it real to readers. How do you do that? You can describe your setting, of course–but all too often new writes fall into the trap of offering a few bland visuals before moving on. Pause for a moment, and think about all your senses. How does this place smell, taste? What are its textures? If there is a dominant visual element, is it particularly compelling?
When teachers or workshop members tell a writer their work could use more sensory detail, this is what they are talking about: specific images that allow readers to experience what being in a particular place is like.
Compare the two text fragments above once more. How many colors does Tana French mention? How many sounds and tastes has she evoked within the short passage quoted above? How many of these images are things you remember or can clearly imagine? What about the Palahniuk? Do you have a good idea of what that damp and rainy cold must be like?
Now, consider the novel you are working on. Where does it take place? What is that place actually like? What are its ambient smells, sounds, and colors? What is the quality of the light like? Are the surfaces hard, soft, or a mixture? What does a footstep sound like? Do voices echo? Is it hot or cold? Ask yourself: how does this place affect its people? Who are the wealthy and poor of this world, the weak and powerful? What is an ordinary person’s life like in this milieu?
If you’re working on something now that could use a dialed-up setting, take the time to make a short list of these details, breaking the list down into several examples of each sense being evoked: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Next, decide which of these details is most vivid, or see if you can sharpen them from the generic (a blue summer sky) to something more specific (French’s “hot pure silkscreen blue”).
When placing your reader within a particular setting, the old adage “show, don’t tell” comes in. Having made your list of vivid sensory details, place them within your narrative–and let your characters experience the reality you have created. Instead of saying “It was hot,” show your characters sweating miserably and fainting from heatstroke. If it stinks, have them gag, complain, run in the other direction, or, eyes watering, reach for a gas mask.
If you can learn to evoke the heart of your setting with intensely sensory phrases, preferably filtering the sensations through a point of view character you’re developing at the same time, you’re already on your way to writing an unforgettable book.
Readers don’t ask me where I get my ideas that often, in the grand scheme. In my more self-aggrandizing moments, I like to imagine they look at my ideas and run screaming. What’s more likely is that the people I talk shop with tend to have already tried writing. As a result, they’ve had a chance to figure out that having ideas is far easier than crafting them into stories. Perhaps they already know that the real bind is having ten great concepts and knowing you won’t get to them all, certainly not before you’ve had a thousand more.
Ideas can, in fact, be very easy, especially once you’ve had some practice.
Don’t believe me? Try this. It’s not a new exercise, certainly not unique to me, but a few times now, I’ve decided on a new project by making a list of every single thing I could think of to write next. These were long lists, numbering twenty-five, even fifty items. The lists included simple and perhaps questionable ideas (“Macbeth in Spaaaace!”) and complicated, unworkable ones. They had pure romances and hard SF concepts based on articles I’d read in anthologies like The Best American Science and Nature Writing and lots of offshoots of the things I love to write most: other world fantasies, historical fiction, time travel, alternate history, magic-mystery fusions. They also had stuff I write less often, like YA and horror. Though I write prose fiction, they’ve included concepts that screamed screenplay; there’s even been a musical theater idea or two.
Even if you are pretty sure you know what you’re going to work on next, there’s value in embarking on this type of quick sift through the idea basket.
Why? First, it plugs you directly into the fun of writing. There are few things more gratifying than the pure untrammeled glee of creation, of playing with your subconscious, your muse, your writerbrain… whatever you care to call it. Thinking about what you might write is like the part of your birthday where you get to open your gifts and count up the loot, but haven’t yet moved on to discovering that one of the sweaters doesn’t fit, or that some of the boxes say Some Assembly Required or Protagonist Not Included.
A wide-ranging and uncritical exploration of possible writing projects creates a collage of the inside of your mind. It gives you a good picture of where you’re at artistically and emotionally, what you are interested in exploring, the psychological and thematic terrain you may want to cover. These insights can, in turn, inform the idea you eventually choose, whether they initially seem like the heart of the matter or not. When you generate dozens of possible ideas for novels, some of them are sure to overlap. If there are three stories in your long list that center on lost kids, or unrequited love, or people grappling with their parents’ health issues (or any common element) it may be a hint that you’re ready to dig into that material.
A long list of everything you might write might just as easily contain a couple variations on stories you’ve done before, giving you an opportunity to evaluate that impulse to cover old ground… to decide if you’re taking on something that might be comparatively unchallenging. The list should have a few things that are so ambitious they feel well beyond your current reach. One hopes, finally, that there will be a couple oddball concepts in the mix, glimmers of silliness or lunacy, peculiar possible experiments.
Finally, once you go through them, the long list of everything you might write should turn up a few things you are desperate to work on. Ideas so compelling that the thought of shelving all but one of them is painful. Bright, challenging, cool and above all exciting… that’s the one you’re looking for.
(And what if you can’t narrow it down? What if there isn’t one obvious contender… what do you consider when choosing between a small group of obvious winners? That’s a subject for another essay… so stay tuned.)
Every time you commit to a writing project, you’re simultaneously deciding to not write ten or twenty or a hundred other things. Having a look at the opportunity cost, before you start, can help ensure that you are making the highest and best use of your precious writing time.