Seeing what’s there

I finished my mystery WIP from last week. It did look very like a skirt in the photo I showed you then, but in fact it is a table runner.

Only I think I need a bigger table! It was meant to live on my sideboard, but it turned out way too big. Even on the table it takes up a lot of space but it’s very pretty. Here’s another photo which gives you a better idea of the colours. They’re so gorgeous.

I had a few random wedge-shaped scraps left after I cut out the table runner, and those beautiful fabrics were calling to me. “Don’t throw us out!” they said. “We could make a really pretty little art quilt.”

I’ve never made an art quilt before, but I’ve been wanting to try for a while, so last night I had a lovely play, sewing random scraps to other random scraps with joyful abandon. I ended up with this: my newest WIP.

Yes, that’s a real leaf sitting on top of this little quilt. That’s why it’s still a work in progress. I have to applique a fabric leaf on there instead, then quilt and bind it. But I got that leaf off the maple in our front yard to help me draw it right.

(Actually the Carnivore got it for me, bless his little cotton socks, at about 10 o’clock last night, when it was probably all of two degrees outside. That’s true love for you.)

Only when he handed it to me, I was shocked at how long and skinny the points of the leaf were. It was nothing like the picture of a maple leaf I had in my head.

And then I realised I’ve lived here for 17 years, and walked past that maple tree day after day – and never known what its leaves really looked like. My mental classification system has just gone “yep, maple, I know what they look like”, without actually seeing what was in front of me.

I suppose classifying is a self-defence mechanism of the brain. If we couldn’t make assumptions based on previous experience, our brains would have to examine and evaluate every single thing we saw and did, every time. We’d be overwhelmed by detail, unable to function. Maybe it’s even a survival skill – “ooh, I remember how sick I felt last time I ate the shiny purple berries, better not do that again”.

But if you’re a writer or an artist, sometimes you have to take the brain off automatic mode. You have to see those details you normally gloss over before you can describe them or represent them visually. You have to listen to what people really say when they’re frightened/ecstatic/overwhelmed, so your characters don’t sound like animated cardboard. (Believe me, I know cardboard – there’s an awful lot of it in Man Bites Dog. The interminable revision grinds on.)

So I’m going to practise being a soaky soaky little sponge, and really see the things I look at. I’ll try to give people my full attention, instead of half listening and half formulating my response while they’re talking. (Unless it’s Baby Duck rabbiting about monsters or X-Men or aliens. I reserve the right to tune out baby babble.) Who knows? I might Become a Better Person. Or more likely I’ll forget – but it would be an interesting exercise, don’t you think?

And speaking of forgetting, I almost forgot to wish my blog a happy birthday. Two years old today, and if not exactly “going strong”, at least still going!

Notes from the white room

I received a very useful rejection for a short story recently, which pointed out that my tale suffered from “white room syndrome”, ie the action could be taking place anywhere – or nowhere – due to the lack of detail of the setting. As often happens, once I became aware of it, I started seeing it everywhere – in stories I was critiquing for others, in the book I’m revising, even in published novels. (If you’ve ever read The Partner by John Grisham, you’ll know what I mean. It’s a fast-paced thriller with very little description of any kind.)

By coincidence, I was working on the lesson that covers settings in the course I’m doing, How to Revise Your Novel by Holly Lisle, when I got this rejection. For each setting, I had to fill in a page which included, among other things, listing what elements of the setting I had described in the scene. Before this exercise I would have said my settings were well described. My main characters, after all, are artists, so visuals are important to them. They notice details of colour and lighting. Or do they? Hmmm. Hope their favourite colour is white.

Yep, page after page came up empty. A “table”, not described, would be the only object mentioned in a scene set in a dining room, for instance. Yet in my head I had seen the tablecloth, the cutlery, the subdued lighting, everything. But none of it had made it into the story. I could draw you the floor plan of whole houses in this novel, but no one could ever guess it from what I’ve written. Not that I’d want to bore readers with floor plans, of course! I don’t even look at maps in fantasy novels. But I need to find a happy medium between the “nothing to see here” style of a John Grisham and the “five pages to describe the butcher’s shop window” of AS Byatt. (I love AS Byatt. But she has the skill to get away with it. I don’t.)

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, how much work readers will do to flesh out a writer’s creation. I built pictures in my head while reading The Partner, despite the lack of description. Grisham said “courtroom” and my mind supplied the wood panelling, the rows of hard bench seats, the gowns and wigs, courtesy of all those Hollywood courtrooms I’ve seen. In fact the reason I read the Grisham book was that I’d heard he deliberately wrote very sparsely. He started off writing down the bones of his story, thinking to flesh it out later with descriptions and details. Eventually he decided to leave all that out, since people normally skipped over it anyway. I think he put it as “leaving out the boring bits”.

While I certainly wouldn’t condemn all description as “boring bits”, I know what he means. No one wants the story held up for big lumps of setting or long descriptions of what people are wearing or eating. I like descriptions in small, easily digested amounts – little “telling details” that individualise a character or place.

Probably it depends, too, on genre. Small details can play large roles in crime fiction. Descriptions of exotic alien places and customs are half the fun in fantasy and science fiction. I don’t read much romance, but I imagine loving descriptions of the hero and heroine’s charms could be a feature there.

What do you reckon? How much is too much, or not enough? And do you think the magical Goldilocks amount varies by genre?

Bunfight at the SF corral

There’s been much discussion on the internet over the past couple of weeks about pay rates for short stories. John Scalzi, author and respected member of the sff community, pointed out in this post that people who are serious about building a career as a writer shouldn’t virtually “give away” their work to low-paying or “for the love” markets unless they are getting some other advantage from the deal.

Some of the semi-pro magazines have experienced editors who can bring out the best in a story, for instance. Some of them get a lot of critical notice, leading to awards or inclusion in best-of anthologies. Some just cater to a particular niche that might fit a story that wouldn’t find a home elsewhere. All of these could be good reasons to forgo the big dollars – though with five cents a word counted as a professional pay rate, no one’s going to make their fortune on selling short stories.

Some leapt to hot defence of their beloved non-pro magazines, seeing slights where none were intended. The resulting debate has been enlightening.

Yes, I can see how people are happy to submit anywhere, just to get into print. I’ve done it myself, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a great feeling to be able to say “I’ve been published”, even if it’s in a magazine that only the other contributors have heard of, like my ZineWest publication.

And yes, it may be good to experience the whole submission/working with the editors thing. It’s fun and it can be instructive, depending on the editor. And at least your work gets some readers rather than languishing in your drawer, though obviously not the wider exposure a big-name mag can bring.

But if you’re trying to build a career, people like Ann Leckie and Patrick Neilsen Hayden – people who ought to know – are saying not only are these minor credits not helping, they may actually be harming your efforts.

Obviously not all publication credits are created equal. Editors may be inclined to take a closer look if I can say I’ve been published in Asimov’s, whereas telling them I’ve been published in ZineWest means nothing. So much I knew. What I didn’t realise was that listing a string of unknown credits may actually put the editor off. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says in comments “speaking as a sometime short fiction editor, I find I’m much more encouraged by ‘Here’s a story, hope you like it’ than ‘Here’s a story, here are 25 mediocre small-press publications I’ve managed to eke out sales to over the last eight years thus making it highly unlikely that I am an undiscovered genius, hope you like the story.’ ”

Making it as a writer isn’t like climbing the ladder of promotion. You don’t get points for “serving your apprenticeship” in the smaller mags and working your way up. This from Ann Leckie: “I’m just telling you, if you’re submitting somewhere only because you think it’s necessary to have some credit, any credit! on a cover letter, that any credit at all that you can scrape up will make an editor pay more attention to your story, you’re absolutely dead wrong … Don’t worry about credits. Just write better.”

Which leads to the point somebody raised (sorry, I can’t remember who, I’ve read a lot of comments all over the place) that getting published in the easier markets may lead to complacency. “Hey, they think I’m good enough to publish, so I’ll send more stuff to them”, rather than striving to improve enough to make it at the big end of town. Again, not a problem if your goal is the fun of seeing your work in print, but if you want to be published by the pros you have to learn to write at pro level.

So the take-home message is: if you want a writing career, submit to the pros first, and move on to the semi-pros if you get rejected by the pros (unless you have some particular reason for aiming at the semi-pros, as discussed earlier). Aim high and keep working to improve your writing. I’d heard this advice before, from Jay Lake, but I have to admit I haven’t been following it. I guess I hadn’t thought it through properly. I’ve just been sending things out rather randomly, without formulating a proper plan of attack.

That needs to change, and I’ve found some recommendations of good markets through all this discussion, as well as discovering the amazing website I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of it before but never got around to looking at it. It’s a fabulous tool for a writer looking for places to submit.

Time to get serious!

Reader/writer schizophrenia

Some months ago I read a review of the movie Disgrace, based on the book by JM Coetzee. The reviewer praised John Malcovich’s performance, saying “his Lurie is such a proudly unrepentant predator”.

No doubt it was a fine performance. It was probably even a thought-provoking and interesting movie. But I didn’t go to see it. “Proudly unrepentant predators” are not my idea of a good time, and I go to the movies to be entertained, pure and simple.

Call me shallow, but I love me some happily ever after. I’m like this as a reader too. Occasionally I’ll try something challenging, but most of the time I like to lose myself in fantasy worlds where good conquers evil and all my favourite characters end up in a happy place. I blame my youthful obsession with fairy tales. If Once upon a time doesn’t lead to and they all lived happily ever after, I am not a happy camper.

But when I put on my writer’s hat that all changes. It’s such fun to kill, maim, destroy and generally blight your characters’ hopes. Not so much in novel-length works, because that would be too much depression, but in short stories I do dreadful things to my characters and love every minute. And then my poor writers’ group reads my stories and goes “well, that was a bit of a downer” – and I’m surprised. I’ve had such fun writing it that I haven’t even realised that it’s a miserable story that leaves the reader wallowing in depression.

The first time I did this one of my writers’ group said, “it was well written but I don’t like depressing stories. If it was a novel I would have been really annoyed to get all invested in the character only to have it end like that”. And the little light bulb in my head went off and I thought, hey, me too! So how come I wrote it? Obviously my writer self is looking for different things than is my reader self.

So now I understand better where all those authors who write depressing books come from. Why things never seem to end happily in “literary” novels. It’s fun to write like that – to explore sadness and realistic consequences and the kind of things you generally don’t find in fantasy novels. (Of course I’m generalising here, and there are fantasy novels that don’t follow the common pattern, but on the whole I think happily ever afters are one of the conventions of the fantasy genre, just as in the romance genre.) I could never see it before I started writing myself – why would people want to write something that leaves the reader miserable? Now I know.

It seems a bit perverse though, doesn’t it? To write something that I wouldn’t want to read if somebody else had written it. Not that I do it all the time, but often enough that I’ve started to notice it. Does anybody else find their writing preferences are different to their reading ones?

Or am I the only weirdo?

Delight, despair, delight, despair: lather, rinse, repeat

Or: when it’s good, it’s very very good, and when it’s bad it’s the most torturous way to spend your time ever invented. That’s Nano for you. A real rollercoaster ride.

Things I have learned on this year’s Nanoing adventure:

— I use the word “stuff” waaaaay too often, even for a novel featuring a pair of thirteen-year-olds. And “that”. My God, if I had a dollar for every “that” in this manuscript, I would be writing this post from a beach in the Bahamas. Or possibly the deck of my new yacht.

— If Nano isn’t challenging enough, new levels of difficulty can be created by inserting a character into your work who only speaks in rhyme. All I can say is, thank God for online rhyming dictionaries. Sometimes my brain is just too overwhelmed to come up with a decent rhyme.

— It’s a lot of fun to read each completed chapter to an appreciative eleven-year-old audience. She’s following the story with great interest, and I enjoy listening to her speculate on what’s going to happen next. (By the way, said eleven-year-old has passed 3500 words out of her 5000. Demon Duck is languishing on about 1000 out of 4000.)

— I’m beginning to suspect I don’t have a good enough imagination to be a fantasy writer. This in spite of apparent evidence to the contrary: I have space-going whales, a tree as big as a planet and flesh-eating pirates whose ship is made of organic balloons. Sounds like a good imagination, doesn’t it?

The trouble is, I find those parts difficult to write, and it seems to me they come out kind of flat. Whereas the “real world” sections have voice and personality and I zip through them with (comparative) ease.

The writers among you are now probably chanting “that’s what revision’s for!” and sure, I know this stuff is fixable (ten points if you spotted that “stuff” – I swear that word is following me around). But surely a fantasy writer shouldn’t have so much trouble with the “making stuf things up” part?

But still, in spite of these quibbles, things are going well (touch wood). Wordcount today is up to 29,528 words, which means I’m a little ahead of schedule for the month. Story-wise I think I’m about halfway through, though it’s hard to tell when you’re writing by the seat of your pants. My attitude to outlining is a little like my attitude to dieting. I can see it’s a good idea, but I never quite get around to doing it.

But probably the biggest news is my new technological best friend – a Philips Voice Tracer, purchased for me at great expense by the Carnivore, bless his little cotton socks. In the old days this would have been called a dictaphone; I’m not sure what the proper terminology is these days.

Regardless of its name, it’s made a big difference. I’m a very slow writer. It can take me five or six hours (or even more with bouts of procrastinating thrown in) to write the required number of words every day. I’m not sure why, but even trying as hard as I can I can’t write much more than 500 words in an hour.

Desperate for a way to reduce the hours I spend slogging away at the computer, I decided to try speaking the story and typing it later. I tried this once before, years ago, and found it unsatisfactory – I was too selfconscious. But, longing for some free time and a bedtime before midnight, I decided to give it another go. We only bought it on Saturday, so the jury’s still out on it as a long-term strategy, but so far I’m very pleased.

Last night, for instance, I couldn’t start writing till 9:30 – kind of late if it’s going to take five hours to get the wordcount. But with my new mate Phil’s help I knocked out 2000 words in two hours. True, the prose is a little uninspiring – a lot more “she went here, he said this” than when I’m typing directly, but that can be fixed, and if it gets the story out quicker I’m all for it.

Because after you’ve found out what the story is, you get the fun of revising it till it gleams. Maybe with Phil’s help I can finish the whole story, not just the first 50,000 words, by the end of November. That would really be something to celebrate. I could face Christmas with a clear conscience.

Aaarrgh! The dreaded C word! Just don’t ask me if I’ve started my shopping yet …

The universe conspires

Whenever I start a new book I find the universe starts throwing all sorts of useful things my way. Sceptics would suggest that it’s just that I’m more receptive to noticing related things when my mind is working on a subject, but I prefer to believe in the beauty of serendipity.

For instance: remember there was a lighthouse in my story? Guess what we visited on our holiday. There’s nothing like a location visit to get you in the mood. Then last Saturday there was a feature article about a very similar lighthouse with a gorgeous photo, so that got torn out and pasted into my novel notebook.

In my story the characters travel to other worlds on the sea of stars through a magical gate. I knew it was all dependent on tides and moon phases, so I had a great time researching those. I discovered tide clocks – too cool! Who knew such things existed? I know, probably everyone else but me.

Then I found a photo of a really beautiful tide clock and a few more pieces of story clicked into place.

I decided to use Fingal Bay, which I know well, as a basis for my imaginary setting. In looking up information about the lighthouse there I discovered that the present day sandspit used to be a permanent part of the headland till a big storm destroyed it.

Click click click. More ideas.

A photo of an actor in the paper – perfect for my villain.

In the travel section, a photo of a Japanese torii gate standing alone in the middle of the sea – wow. Gates, sea, lighthouses everywhere I turn.

On Tuesday I attended an author visit at the local children’s bookshop. The author was Martin Chatterton, who was very entertaining. No gates or lighthouses, but a very useful piece of advice – when he’s thinking about what he will write he likes to imagine scenes he’d like to see in a movie.

I don’t know why that struck me so much; it’s not a new thought. Lots of authors, including me, say that writing is like watching their characters act out a movie in their heads. I think it was more the “imagining what he’d like” angle, as if he were encouraging me to dream up the most colourful fantastical thing I could – and then stick it in my novel.

Which is what fantasy authors are supposed to do, I suppose, but I’d never thought of it quite like that. Maybe I get too bogged down in plot and motivation and mechanical-type things, and forget the whole “sense of wonder” part.

Whatever. My mind is open to all and any delights the universe wishes to throw my way. Bring it on, universe. I’ve written 10,000 words and I’m ready. At this stage of the game anything can happen.

And probably will.

Easy as falling off a log

I was prowling the secondhand book stall at a local fete on Sunday. I was very strong and didn’t buy anything, but I couldn’t very well go past without even looking, could I?

So I’m cruising along checking spines and the two ladies cruising the other side of the table start discussing Matthew Reilly.

“You read any of his?” asks one, gesturing at Ice Station.

“Yeah, I read that one set in North America.”

“I’ve read a few, but they’re pretty bad.”

The second lady laughs. “I’d like to be that bad, if I could have his money.”

I’m not sure if people outside of Australia are familiar with Matthew Reilly but he’s a young guy who self-published his first book, sold enough to get noticed and has gone from strength to strength. He’s not “literary” but he sells like hot cakes, and good luck to him.

The first lady didn’t seem to understand the point her friend was making.

“Well, it’s easy, isn’t it?” she said dismissively. “Anyone could write them. I could write a better book myself. It’s just a matter of finding the time.”

Wow, I thought. My first real-life experience of what so many authors have talked about – this popular perception that writing is so easy anyone can do it. As long as you’ve got the time to “waste” on it, anyone can sit down at their computer and knock out a bestseller.

I’m still gobsmacked thinking about it. How can people take so much hard work for granted? Just because reading a book is easy doesn’t mean writing one is.

Bad decisions make good stories

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a good post recently on the importance of proactive protagonists. A good protagonist doesn’t just wander along, reacting to events, they make the events of the story happen. They take action, make decisions.

They can make mistakes, but what they cannot do is sit passively waiting for the story to happen to them.

This ties in with another well-known truth of writing – that in fact, mistakes are where the story happens. If everything goes smoothly, it’s not much of a story. But if every time the protagonist tries to solve their initial problem, they just dig themselves deeper into a hole, the story gets interesting.

Bad decisions make good stories.

It amazes me how I can know all this in theory, yet in practice, I not only make all these writing mistakes I’ve read about, but I don’t even see that I’ve made them.

I’m 90,000 words into Dragonheart, and not till my heroine hurls an accusation at her long-lost love do I look at what I’ve just typed and go hang on … She’s right! She did devote the whole first part of the story to doing X to try to be reunited with him. So how come as soon as she met up with some other characters who wanted to do the exact opposite of X she meekly fell in with their plans? How the hell does that work?

There’s a gaping hole in her motivation you could drive a truck through and I didn’t even realise. She was just floating along, letting other characters drive the action. And look what a cool conflict I missed! She wants X, her allies want the exact opposite – sparks should be flying. She should be up to her armpits in alligators, as everything she does makes the situation worse, not cheerfully letting these other characters run her life for her.

Sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees. I get so tangled up in the intricacies of the subplots I forget about the big things.

I guess that’s why they invented revision.

The soul of an accountant

I was amusing myself trying to write haiku yesterday. There’s a local haiku competition coming up and I thought, why not? I’ll give it a whirl.

I remember writing haiku at school when I was about Drama Duck’s age. Back then, of course, it was all about the physical structure: the three lines of five syllables, then seven, then five again. I doubt my teacher even mentioned the finer points of nature/seasonal imagery or the way a haiku captures the essence of a moment, gives an unexpected insight. If she did, I certainly wasn’t listening!

I found a gorgeous definition of haiku, itself a haiku, on the haikuoz website, by a bloke from Perth called Andrew Lansdown:

“Haiku are pebbles
poets lob into the pond
of our emotions.”

So I was sitting there, scribbling away, counting syllables on my fingers, when Demon Duck asked me what I was doing.

“Writing haiku,” I said.

“Oh, we’ve done that at school,” she says, with all the lofty confidence of a nine-year-old. “I’ve written 16.”

Then she looked over what I’d written, counted the syllables and said, “That’s good, Mum, you’ve got it right.”

Next up was Mr I-don’t-have-a-poetic-bone-in-my-body, aka the Carnivore.

“What are you doing?”

“Writing haiku.”

“What’s that?”

Maybe that nine-year-old confidence wasn’t misplaced after all. At least she knows more than her father about haiku.

After I’d explained haiku, including how they’re usually about nature, he said:

“But you could write them about anything, right? Important things, like tax?”

Later in the evening he came to tell me he’d written one, grinning from ear to ear. I present it here for your edification.

“Transfer pricing,
Thin capitalisation,
Tax office pressure.”

He is such an accountant.

Memory is a funny beast

Memory is a funny thing. If you want a phone number, the date of a friend’s wedding anniversary, the details of a long-ago conversation, I’m your woman. The Carnivore, on the other hand, like many men, can’t remember his own children’s birthdays. Some days he’s not even too sure how old they are.

You’d think, being an accountant, he’d have a bit of an edge in remembering such number-related things, but no. His memory appears to be jammed full of the plot of every novel and B-grade movie he’s ever read/seen. He can even recite dialogue from some of them.

Whereas I, the more word-focused person, can reread novels without remembering anything of the plot. Sometimes I can recall one scene, or a character I liked, maybe a hazy recollection of the initial set-up, but the ending comes as a complete surprise.

It’s a little alarming to realise how fast my brain empties, but quite handy too. I never run out of new stories to read!

I was reading today and a new application of this anti-skill occurred to me. My eyes filled with tears at a moving bit, and the writer part of my brain stopped to analyse the effect. I wondered if the author felt moved when she wrote it. Maybe she was deliberately trying to engender this effect. If so, how would she know if she’d succeeded? Since she knew what she was aiming for, since she’d constructed the sadness, she couldn’t very well come at it as a new reader would, and experience the sadness.

Then I realised, due to the black hole in my memory where plots go to die, I can have my writerly cake and eat it too. (Which has always struck me as an odd expression. “You want to have your cake and eat it too!” people say, as if that’s a bad thing. But what else are you going to do with cake? Who are these weirdos who just want to look at their cake?)

I only have to leave anything I write a few months and I forget so much of it it’s like reading something somebody else wrote. Very handy for assessing what effect the story might have on a reader, though a little awkward if I ever do get published and people want to discuss my novels with me. “So Marina, why did you have So-and-so do X in your story?” “Er … remind me who So-and-so is again?”

Yesterday I reread a short story I finished back in June. That’s only three months ago. Couldn’t wait to get to the end to see what happened.

How could I forget so quickly?

At least I still liked it. Old Whatsername writes a pretty mean story when they let her out of the padded room.