Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: April 2007

Book Signing!

It’s not much of a book tour–under a mile from my house–but it’s my first non-convention book signing! On June 5th, at 7:30, I’ll be signing “Common and Precious” at Books Inc. in Mountain View. I’m pretty excited about it! In the meantime, if you don’t want to wait for the signing to read the book, Books Inc. is stocking them. I dropped some off yesterday, so they should have them in stock pretty soon.
This is exciting! My book in a real bookstore. If you can make it to Mountain View on Tuesday night, June 5th, I’d love to see you there!

Now, if only someone could do one for "principle"…

I love this.

Worldbuilding revisited

This post on worldbuilding by M. John Harrison begins with a very quotable line: “Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” I’ve written on this topic before and drawn a similar conclusion, but I think that especially in the field of science fiction, there is some leeway to be found. There is definitely a segment of readers who want to read detailed descriptions of a world. Often these readers are the kind of people who like to imagine their own stories within someone else’s world and want as much detail as possible. At an extreme example, look at Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” which is little more than a worldbuilding exercise, or any of the subsequent books which do not so much tell further stories of Middle Earth as flesh out the background and texture of it. Even in the “Lord of the Rings” series, huge passages are devoted to loving descriptions of the world and its history. Stephen Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant,” similarly, break to give the reader lengthy passages of description and, on occasion, history.

If you limit the writing you do about your world to the immediate world your characters are experiencing, you will end up with a well-textured background to a good, snappy story. But people love unfinished business and possibilities, and a few extra paragraphs about history, a description of something not entirely relevant, a strange custom or behavior can all spark in the reader a curiosity that lingers after the story is over, that draws them back to your world wanting more of the tantalizing details you’ve dangled in front of them. Moreover, it can do the same for you, as you sit thinking, “okay…how DID the elves/aliens/Sharath tribe get there in the first place, and why do they venerate that artifact?” A whole other novel can come out of that. And yes, that worldbuilding doesn’t have to go into your story, but if it did, then you have a built-in hook to that second story for your readers, who may have been wondering the same thing.

The value of education

Via Copyblogger, this little snippet:

Another quote from Franklin illustrates the importance of constant learning: “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.”

I think what he was really saying was: you don’t have to pay back your student loans. Man, that Franklin really was ahead of his time. Glad I went to his school.

The first draft

I’m taking another screenwriting course in the evenings, and this is a good one. One of the things the professor said is, “Your goal should be a shitty first draft.”

Now, I’ve always resisted the prevalent wisdom surrounding first drafts–namely, that you should just let the words pour out without editing them and worry about the editing in your second draft. Perhaps because I also edit for Sofawolf, I cannot completely shut off my internal editor, and so my first drafts end up being revised while I’m in the process of writing them. Occasionally, something will be in my head so fully formed that I can churn out a few pages, but by and large my first drafts run slow. It’s worth noting that in my Beginning Fiction workshop, the book we used by Koch said that there are other writers who work using that method.

The problem lately has been that I’m not sure where the story is going, and so I foodle endlessly with one paragraph or another, or I take a five minute break to play Scrabble, or I cook dinner. But recently, hearing our professor say that reminded me that that is a valid philosophy, and so I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to just let go. Even if I’m typing something and I think, ‘This is stupid,’ where previously I would have stopped, now I’m trying to say, ‘Okay, maybe it is, but let’s see where it’s going.’ I know some of it will get cut, but maybe by laying down more foundation for the story, I will have a better one left over when I’m done the editing.

If nothing else, it’s helped me get some writing under my belt, which has given me renewed confidence, which has been good all around. So the lesson here is that sometimes it helps to try out a different style, and see what results. You don’t have to go all the way, but mix it up a bit.

Review: Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert
9/10, an entertaining look at the psychology of decision making

If you want to predict how happy you will be after a meal at a restaurant you’ve never been to before, would you rather look at the restaurant’s menu, or at a review by an anonymous person on the internet? If you’re like most people–me included–you would choose the restaurant menu, on the theory that Anonymous Joe might be some weirdo who likes raw squid, mouth-searing hot sauce, and/or SPAM. Gilbert demonstrates, methodically and fairly convincingly, that even though that might be the case, Anonymous Joe’s happiness during the actual experience of his meal is a better predictor of your happiness than your own imagination given the restaurant’s menu.

“Stumbling on Happiness” is a fascinating, detailed look at the way our unique and important ability to imagine the future is far from perfect. We allow our present state to influence our future imagining (compare the difference between grocery shopping when hungry and grocery shopping just after a meal), selectively edit memories, and attribute our mistakes to other factors, leaving us open to making the same mistakes again.

Gilbert explores this territory with authority and humor, slipping in wry observations and amusing remarks between the engaging discussions of how we trick ourselves. He offers many concrete examples (the restaurant example above is only one) for each progressive step of his journey, so that by the end, you emerge convinced that you can be happier by following his advice. Despite this, he observes with some weary resignation, you will probably not do it. To quote the late, great Douglas Adams: “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

This is a quick read, and an entertaining one. It provides a few gems for writers, such as confirming that people’s impressions of an experience are disproportionately colored by their impression of the ending (something I have been saying for years–I wrote an article about it for Sofawolf Press, which I may re-post here in the future). It’s also a great window into decision-making and all the ways a character might go wrong with it. If you don’t read it for yourself, read it for your characters.