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Under a Cabbage Leaf (where stories come from)

October 7th, 2008 3 comments

WARNING! IN THE FOLLOWING COLUMN I SHALL ENGAGE IN A SERIES OF GROSS GENERALIZATIONS. WARNING!

The question writers dread most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, the universe and its ironies being what they are… that’s also probably the single question we get asked the most often. (1)

And because we mostly don’t know where we get our ideas–or if we do know, because the answer is hopelessly complicated–we develop a battery of mildly amusing quick answers, so we can get past that part of the interview and on with things we might actually have a chance of not sounding like idiots talking about.

Well, I’m here to break the cone of silence and talk about where those ideas come from.

Some of them are, indeed, inspiration. They leap up from some deep preconscious place and seem to emerge fully-formed. I have a story–“The Chains that You Refuse”–that exists because my friend Celia Marsh bet me I couldn’t write a story in future perfect second person, and have the POV and tense choice actually inform the story. We were in a chat at the time, and without hesitating, I typed, “It will have been raining in Harvard Square for only half an hour when you give up hope.”

And I was off. I finished the first draft in about an hour, and I’ve never done anything much by way of editing it except moving the semicolons around. It just came out that way–which is almost unheard of for me; I edit and revise very heavily. Looking at it, I can identify some of the DNA from which my subconscious spliced it: a few nights I spent walking around Boston in the rain, a black denim jacket I wore habitually through my twenties, the too-good-to-resist names of some shops and restaurants in Harvard Square, a juggler I once saw performing street theatre there, the Shriekback song “Signs,” and of course the Great East Coast Blackout of 2003 (2)

But when it got itself writ, it was a synthesis, a blaze of inspiration, a flash of glory. It happened all at once.

Or so you might think, but the fact was that I had been collecting its various component parts for years, squirreling them away like a New England farmer ploughing up rocks for an eventual dry fieldstone wall. Celia’s comment was a catalyst, a grain of sugar dropped into an already supersaturated solution.

More often, this process happens a lot more slowly. I start off with a single idea, something I know I’m going to use eventually, and I pack that away in a corner–possibly I start writing it, and possibly I don’t–and then I start looking for the other bits that go with it. To extend that drystone wall metaphor painfully, you put in the big boulders first, and then you look for the bits that fit perfectly around them.

If you just pile up big rocks, you have a pile of rocks. The pieces you use to support and shape the wall are essential to its structure.

So say you’re building a wall… er. Writing a novel. You might start with one big block and a couple of little ones, and have no real idea yet how they go together. So you fuss with them a bit, move them around, and figure out some of the ways they might fit. But then you need more pieces. Fragments, bigger stuff. Great big chunks you have to call a friend to help lift. You start putting them together and see how they fit, and when you’ve got them wedged and balanced just right–voila, you have a book. Or a wall. Whatever.

So where do you find all these bits?

I find ‘em in all kinds of spots. The answers are going to be different for you, but some of the places I look are in news stories (3), songs, nonfiction, television documentaries, fiction, poetry, personal experiences, conversations, and stuff I just stumble upon. After a while, you become like a treasure hunter–always keeping your senses peeled for the perfect little thing that will prop of the wobbly end of that big lump and make it fit seamlessly into the whole. (4)


Image by helena.40proof, used under a Creative Commons license.

(1) Even more often than “Will you read my manuscript?”

(2) which I cleverly missed, because I was in Las Vegas at the time…

(3) especially some of the quirkier stuff that gets on NPR

(4) I think this is part of what people mean when they talk about artistic awareness

Categories: ideas, inspiration, Writing Tags:

Think about what you’re doing, not about how you’re doing it.

July 7th, 2008 8 comments

As those of you who have been reading my updates here for the past few months are aware, I’ve been wrestling with some problems with my process. That’s entailed, more or less, trying to move from a level where I have to think through everything I’m doing as a writer back to a more organic one, where things come more naturally.

It’s like learning to drive a car. Assuming you have learned how to drive, remember when you first started, and you had to think about everything you were doing very carefully? If it was a manual transmission, there was the process of clutching, shifting, and controlling the gas pedal. Once you actually made it out on the road,you probably found yourself microsteering, making tiny course corrections and constantly fiddling with where the car was going rather than aiming it along the road like a pro.

We don’t drive the car, in other words. Instead, we shift and clutch and steer and manipulate the blinkers and check our blind spot more or less as independent actions. Until eventually, one day, after we’ve beendoing it for a while, we get into the car while we’re distracted by something else–maybe we’re mad at our boss or worried about our elderly parent–and discover to our surprise that we have made it to our destination without thinking about each individual element of the process.
That’s an ongoing problem in learning any new skill. At first, it requires massive attention to detail and we have to wiggle each bit as an independent element, but eventually we find we’ve reached a point where to progress in the skill we have to internalize what we’ve learned, and make it automatic.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with how to stop thinking in detail about my writing, and just let it happen. I’ve been noticing that the actual process of writing is taking up more of my intellectual capacity: I used to use music as a distraction while writing, to occupy my conscious mind and get it out of the way of the storyteller down there in the subconscious.  Lately, I’ve been finding even that is too much of a drain, because I am trying to think about too much.

Just last week, I overheard a piece of advice that wasn’t even directed at me, but which hit home quite spectacularly. Think about what you’re doing, not about how you’re doing it.

Well, of course, I realized.  That’s the secret, right? Think about what you are doing. Not about how you are doing it.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Because my learning process for the last seven years has been heavily geared towards intellectualization and practice. I’ve been very conscious of what I have been learning and how I have been learning it, and of how I have manipulated my process to make myself a better writer.

And now, suddenly, that learning process, which has been my friend since 2001, is tripping me. And so I am endeavoring to take this advice which I have appropriated, and just put one word in front of the other and tell a story with interesting characters and well-developed themes.

Just drive the car.

Categories: Writing Tags:

In it up to your elbows.

June 7th, 2008 4 comments

Writing is like everything else.

And as this is apparently the week for food metaphors on Storytellers Unplugged, who am I to break a trend?

See, I just finished stage one of one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever been a part of. It’s this thing called Shadow Unit, Season 1. It’s not over yet, but this first bit–an interactive hyperfiction serial modeled on a television season, as you have probably inferred–is finally in the can. It consists of 250,000 (one quarter of a million words) of fiction written by Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, Amanda Downum and myself; interactive character blogs; original artwork; message boards; and other goodies. It’s about a group of unrealistically sey smart people saving the world from the worst monsters imaginable (I said it was modeled on a TV show!), and it’s some of the most fun I have ever had with fiction.

Anyway, one of the characters likes to cook. Likes to bake, in particular, and in particular likes to bake bread. And as he blogs about baking bread at great length, this has naturally led me to consider how writing is like baking bread.

And how stories are like bread loaves.

They start off much the same way, with some leavening, yeast or a starter. You add flour and water to make a sponge, and then you walk away for a while and let the leavening work. So maybe the leavening is sort of like your initial idea, and the flour and water are research, or the other things you add to the original idea (or character, or setting or argument, or whatever) to give it some substance. Something to work on.

And then after the sponge starts to bubble and expand, you have to add the things that will give it texture and flavor: salt, oil, milk, herbs, whatever. This is sort of like the part of story writing where you are figuring out the cool stuff, the quirky little magical things that make the story more than generic.

Then you have to knead it, which you could liken to writing and rewriting the story. And at this point, both loaves of bread and stories gloop to your fingers and are sticky and get on everything and you work and work and wear yourself out and then suddenly, magically, they form up and pull themselves together into clean squeaky rounds.

And you might thing, ahh, it’s done. All my patience is rewarded. But it doesn’t work that way, because there’s still the rising, and the slashing, and the baking–
…and then the eating, of course.

Which is what it’s all about.

Well, that and the picking crusts of dough out from under your nails for days afterward.

Categories: Writing Tags:

You realize, of course, that this means war.

March 7th, 2008 6 comments

Some of you will probably remember that in the not-too-distant past, I blogged here about a young character who had taken over my life–rearranging my cooking and exercise habits to suit himself, waking me up late at night to whisper secrets in my ear. Well, the secrit projekt he was a part of is a secret no longer–it’s live.

It’s called Shadow Unit, and it’s an experimental interactive hyperfiction modeled on a television show, and the fan community for a television show, and, well–go look. Poke around. There are many concealed goodies, and (so far) novellas by Emma Bull and myself, with more to come from (Storytellersunplugged’s own) Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, and Amanda Downum.

But that project, as much as I love it and as excited as I am about it, is not what I’m here to talk to you about today.

No, I’m here to talk about the horror of deadlines, and the kind of books one is not excited to be writing, because they feel like albatrossi around one’s neck.

You see, I have one now. And I’m sweating it. The deadline was originally set for April 15, but it was evident as early as last year that I wasn’t going to make that happen. I’ve gotten an extension to June 1, and I’m scared to death about it. I have characters, and a sort of plot, and a setting… and I don’t have a book. It’s not ripe yet. All the disparate pieces are floating around in my head, but they’re not yet soup, if you know what I mean: they’re just chunks of potatoes and onions and meat and uncooked, crunchy barley. I am, to make it absolutely plain, trying to write this book too soon.

And I don’t really have a choice about it.

Because I have a contract, and the cat has to eat.

When a novel is really firing, it fills up my head. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else–getting bills paid, eating, remembering to bathe, talking to friends on the phone or the internet. I become irritable when interrupted by the fact that the coffeepot is empty. I become unbearable, I suspect: totally pwned by art. It’s a possessing force, and I get really, well, boring about it.

Currently, this book is more like the bright elusive butterfly of love. I catch glimpses of it, flitting around, and it throws me occasional cool things. (Like “Cyberleeches!” and “Baby Mammoth!”) and then flits away again, refusing to be, you know, a narrative. So it’s just a collection of Cyberleeches! and Baby Mammoths!

And I’m not quite sure what to do about that.

Except persist, I guess.

This is where the professionalism comes in, and I keep telling myself that. That craftsmanship and hard work carry you over the places where inspiration fails. But man, it’s hard to keep writing seven hundred or a thousand words a day when you feel like it’s all flat, and it’s not moving the story forwards because you don’t feel like you know what the story is, and none of the characters are very interesting at all.

Of course, the funny thing is, looking back, I felt exactly this same way about Undertow, which is nominated for the Dick Award (Yes, I’m twelve, and I love typing that) this year. Like I was just groping forwards, with no sense of what was going on here, and none of that certainty that knowing the story brings. (I know the story in Shadow Unit. It’s in my bones. I can feel where that one is going, with trainwreck inevitability, and it’s exciting and so what I want to be working on. But alas, that is not what I am promised to perform, and it’s also not what pays the bills.)

So I guess I will persist, and get through this, and I will have to rely on somebody else to tell me if I’ve written a publishable novel or not.

I wonder if I can get it done by deadline. Because I would really like to have this albatross off my neck.

It makes me tired.

And because the perversity of the universe tends toward a maximum, I think that in the course of this extended whinge, I may have figured out one of the things I was doing wrong. I’m trying to make the dratted thing make sense, and be rigorously logical, and it’s just not that kind of book. It’s a gonzo book, and it needs a gonzo attitude.

…huh. Maybe I can do something with this, after all.

Categories: Writing Tags: , ,

on writing… groups.

December 7th, 2007 3 comments

People get awfully heated about writer’s groups and workshops–either as vocal advocates for same, or as critics. I suspect that this has more bearing on the writer’s personal experience with the usefulness of critique than whether writer’s groups, in general, are useful.

There are those who will tell you that the whole process is a time sinks. The only way to write is to sit down in a room alone with whatever devices you use to convert your ideas into black and white and scrape your brain out on the paper. Don’t talk your ideas out with anybody else. Don’t show people unfinished work. Sit down and write. A writer’s group or workshop is either going to process your work into pablum, or it will be a mutual admiration society that will tell you nothing but how good your book is so long as you return the favor.

And then there are those who will tell you that critique is indispensable, that their wise readers are responsible for them having publishable books at all, and that they can’t write without an ear to bend about the stories gelling in the back of their heads.

So who’s right?

Well, they both are.

A bad writer’s group is worse than useless. How do you tell if your writer’s group is bad? Well, if it consists of people sitting around telling each other how wonderful they are, it’s probably bad. If somebody in the group is determined to undermine everybody else, it’s a bad group. If nobody is consistently writing new things, it’s probably a bad group. If everybody keeps workshopping the same stories they have been working for the past ten years? Bad group. If people who leave the group start making strides towards getting published, it may be a bad group.

And so on.

A good writer’s group is worth its weight in gold, however. It consists of people who will kick your ass when it needs kicking, question the flawed spots in your work, and–most importantly–give you stories to read critically. You see, the big dirty secret of writer’s groups and workshops is that it’s not the critiques you get that teach you to write. It’s the critiques you give.

People come to writer’s groups and workshops hoping to get their stories fixed up and made publishable, and honestly, that’s not what happens. Because the vast majority of those student pieces are not salvageable. They’re broken, and they’re going to remain broken.

I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Which is why, once you’ve workshopped a story once and revised it, you should stop. Because running that damned story through every workshop in the country is not going to make it better. Nor are you going to learn anything new revising the same story over and over again. You hit the point of diminishing marginal returns very quickly, and painting the same student portrait over and over again is a really good way to make sure you never advance.

I’m sorry, but that’s true too. You have to learn to let go.

But what a workshop can do is teach you how to recognize flaws. The hardest skill for any beginning or intermediate writer to learn, I think, is reading critically, and accepting that yes, their work can be full of suck. (It was hard for me to accept to, honestly.)

Reading the work of other student writers, which is probably also full of undisguised suck (pros have usually learned to kick some leaves over the suck, so it’s not as obvious, and therefore harder to learn from) will help you learn to diagnose your own suck. Because you know what? No matter how convinced I am of my own brilliance, those crappy POV shifts aren’t honestly any better when I do them then when my crit partner does.

I know. Sad, isn’t it?

And there’s no shortcut to learning to do that. You just have to read a lot of broken stories, and a lot of brilliant stories, until your brain starts to see the differences in the pattern of a broken story and a brilliant one.

Categories: advice, Writers, Writing Tags:

clinging

November 7th, 2007 7 comments

So I’m learning to climb the walls.

It’s simple, you see. You just don’t fall off. The problem is, as my friend Hannah says, that simple does not equal easy.

Believe it or not, the wall-climbing is work-related.

You see, there’s this young man in a long-term project who likes dangerous, strenuous sports. I am not taking up parkour, so he’s stuck with rock-climbing. Thank God he doesn’t BASE jump anymore, because unlike him, I do have a sense of self-preservation. I’m also drinking a lot of soy milk chai and eating my veggies, because I am a method writer, I’m afraid, and my characters’ personal habits infect my life.

But wait, you say: that’s crazy!

Yeah, probably, but it’s true. And it works. When I let my characters infect my life a little, they feel comfy in my head and move in. They bring their tics and quirks, and writing those character details becomes almost automatic. I know all sorts of things about them that never make it onto the page except in that they inform their kinesthetics and their personal behavior. Cathoair has a stiff neck; he rolls his head a lot to ease it. Jenny’s favorite color is purple and she loves scratchy wool sweaters and heavy blankets and boots. Michelangelo’s a borderline sociopath. The reason nobody ever freaks out over Jeremy mentoring an orphaned sixteen year old girl is because he’s gay. Isolfr can spit water between his teeth a good ten feet.

And Chaz, the current boy? He’s about a half-inch from clinical attachment disorder, and he knows it. Also, his clothes never fit quite right, because of his build. And he loves to climb things, and he’s good at it too. His climbing friends call him The Gecko, for his manner of scurrying across the rocks. They don’t know what he does for a living, or that it’s terrible, and while they’re a bit awed by the sheer volume of food he puts away, they also don’t know he’s a superhero.

And the reader, honestly, may never know that he spends three nights a week in the climbing gym during the winter, and goes bouldering with the gang on weekends in summer. Just like they may never know that Sol has a Harley Softail he takes out to Virginia on Saturdays in good weather, or that Reyes can cook.

But I have to know these things, because these are the things that inform the character’ voices, the metaphors by which they process the world.

Which is why I spent the evening falling off walls. Well, one reason: to better inhabit my character. To pick up a few bruises the same way he picks up his bruises. (My friend Marna says, “A day without a bruise is wasted.” I think Chaz probably says that too.)

Another reason I spent the evening falling off walls is that learning to do a thing helps one write it. The kinesthetics of climbing are not easy to understand just from watching somebody else do it. It’s not CGI. It’s got weight and strain and the shoes hurt. When you’re balanced between two tiny footholds and one inadequate handhold, straining for that second handhold, and you have to shift your weight over a deeply flexed knee and somehow stand up on it and then lunge to grab that hold that’s just an inch out of reach, well, that’s a practical problem, an intellectual problem, a problem of courage, a problem of mechanics, and a problem of physical strength.

Having real knowledge of things helps; wearing (or swinging) a sword is not what you might expect. Nor is wearing a medieval gown. Or a pair of stilts. Or shooting a gun. Or lossing an arrow. Or doing any of the myriad other things a fictional character might do. It’s that difference between reality and CGI, between the Hollywood swordfight and a real, bloody swordfight where you are wary of that flashing metal thing, because it can hurt you. (The movie Rob Roy, if you were wondering, has pretty good swordfights. The part where the combatants fall back and circle each other and pant? That’s dead-on.)

That’s a second reason that learning new things benefits one as an author. Here’s a third: you never will get to that handhold you’re trying to reach unless you commit. You have to have the courage to push off, release the secure place you’re standing on, and trust your ability to hold onto that tiny little crack in the rock that you can’t see or even touch from where you are standing.

And the funny thing is, you have to stay close to the rock to maintain balance. If you lean back, you’re supporting your weight on your arms, and you wear them out. But you have to lean back to see where to put your feet, especially if you are a girl, you know, with girl architecture. (Or if you have a little bit of a belly.) And you have to lean back to see what might be over your head for holding on to.

On the other hand, the closer you are to the rock, the more stable you are.

That’s a lot like writing. You can’t see the story when you’re too close to it, but you have to be in it, immersed, up to your neck to write it well. So there’s this routine where you jump in, cling it, push, climb, struggle–and then fail and fall back and stand at the bottom and stare and make faces and go “Hmm.” And then you try again, with this new path you’ve charted, which never survives contact with the wall.

Our brains are very good at modeling reality. However, reality never acts exactly like the models.

And there’s a fourth thing.

Because I think in pained metaphors most of the time, one thing I am learning over and over again is that writing is just like everything else I try. (Writing is like archery, and horseback riding, and paying the bills, and–)

Writing is like climbing because art is about failure. Art is about taking the big risk, the big jump, and wiping out–and trying again until you get it right.

And so is climbing walls. You cling precariously, you stretch, you jump, your foot slips and your fingers don’t quite reach and your balance is off and you wipe out over and over again. (Ideally, there is either a crash pad under you or a rope holding you up, so no permanent harm is done.) And eventually you get there, and manage to stand up on the next foothold, and you confront the next small problem. Meanwhile your hands ache and your strength is failing, and you think you probably got your feet in the wrong places getting past that last bit. Which means you will never get up to the next handhold unless you can somehow switch them on the fly.

So you cling, and you think. And you chew your lip and make those faces and go “Hmmm.” And you try something else.

And you fail.

And eventually you learn to climb this wall. Or write that book.

Well, maybe. I hope. I still have not made it to the top of even the easiest climbing wall at the gym I go to, so I am not speaking from experience.

And what you learn does in fact help you climb the next wall, because you have picked up technique and strategy and strength along the way. But it doesn’t teach you how to climb that next wall, because every wall is different. And every one is something you have to figure out along the way, and then get strong and crafty enough to handle.

And if you’re working honestly, each one is probably a little bit harder than the last.