Writing and Other Afflictions

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

Monthly Archives: January 2008

Workshop Feedback

I workshopped “Other Side of the World” (formerly “Aya’s Journal”) Monday night in class. It was, as always, a rewarding experience. Everyone seemed to like it, even the people who avowed that they never/rarely read science fiction. There were some interesting reactions to the Roux/human marriage, with some people calling it “creepy” and others wanting more detail. I guess when you have equal numbers on both sides, you’ve struck the right balance. :)

Workshopping is always valuable because you get such different perspectives on your work. For example, everyone liked Aya’s character, but had difficulty with the combination of how uninterested everyone in that world seems to be with the Roux and how dispassionate she herself seems about them. That was intentional, but obviously I didn’t convey a justification for it well enough in the text. That’s okay, I have some ideas now for how to get it across. The second entry (also known as “the big lump of exposition”) can probably be modified to get that point across better.

I’ve never participated in an online workshop, but I can’t imagine the energy in the room Monday night being reproducible in an online situation. People feed off of each other and follow ideas around further than they normally would. Our workshop leader did a good job of making sure that it was a very positively focused session, too. All in all, I’m very jazzed, and actually anxious to go back and edit!

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Just What I Needed

We had our local convention this past weekend, and with all the busy-ness and stress that my day job has been affording me this past week or two, it was nice to get a break. Friday I was not in a great mindset, but by the end of the day, I succumbed to the environment of creativity and fun that reminded me that there is more to life. We sold a good number of “Common and Precious” at the con and I signed a few of them–thanks to everyone who bought! A couple people were nice enough to ask what I’m working on next, which is a great compliment. One of my goals for this year is to get a short story or two out there, whether to Amazon Shorts or to another publication. In any case, it was just the perfect time for me to be steeped in another world and remember the importance of these parts of my life.

There are a lot of challenges ahead of us this year (“us” here includes me, my partner, my writing group, and all of you). I think I have a few posts to come about marketing yourself, persistence, and networking, which all go hand in hand and are sometimes thought of derogatorily as “the business of writing.” For now, though, I just want to make the observation I have before, which is that although writing happens as a solitary activity, it doesn’t require a solitary life.

Are you overwriting the obvious again?

One of the more common mistakes I see in the writing of more experienced amateur writers is the tendency to overwrite. They write more than is needed to get the point across, often inundating the reader with the same information expressed in a few different ways (or in some cases, expressed in the same way). Most of the time, you don’t need to tell the reader something three or four times. The reader is usually capable of picking up information with one or two clues, so there’s no need to overwrite. All this does is slow down the pace of the story and …

Yeah, see what I did there? It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that first paragraph, except that it contains about three too many sentences. Try this one out:

One of the more common mistakes I see in the writing of more experienced amateur writers is the tendency to overwrite. The reader is usually capable of picking up information with one or two clues; anything more is annoying overkill.

Overwriting is not an indication of poor writing skills. It’s an indication of insufficient time spent editing. A friend of mine once said that he’d read that every sentence needs to move the story forward. I thought that was a bit excessive at the time, but it’s not a bad rule to keep in the back of your head. Are you writing what the reader wants and needs to see next? Or, as Frasier Crane said on Cheers, “Oh, now you’re saying that I’m redundant, that I repeat myself, that I say things over and over.”

In fact, overwriting is a good thing in drafts. It’s not bad to have the same sentiment expressed several different ways. Then, while editing, you pick the one that works the best in terms of pacing and language, and get rid of the rest. But don’t be afraid to edit. If you feel you have to mention something several times for emphasis, space it out. Let the feeling build through the story rather than being slammed home all in one paragraph.

It’s not a bad flaw to find, and I guarantee you, everyone does it. Be diligent while editing, and it won’t be an issue.

Review: Cheating at Canasta

Cheating at Canasta, by William Trevor
8.5/10, a superbly written collection of relationship stories

William Trevor joins the elite ranks of repeat authors reviewed in this space thanks to Rikoshi, who gave me this collection for Christmas. I liked the collection quite a bit, but most of the stories didn’t have the power of his novel. Odd, because he’s mostly known as a superb short story writer.

Indeed, there are a few stories from the collection that shine. It was just that I ended many of the stories thinking, “Wow, I enjoyed meeting those characters and being in Ireland, but…that was it?” The themes of the book center around relationships, whether between friends (“Folie a Deux”), families (“Children”), couples (“Cheating at Canasta,” “The Room”), or an odd love triangle (“Old Flame,” my favorite story in the collection). The relationships range from passive to passionate, the characters always very alive and real even if they are despondent or lethargic.

Character is a strength of Trevor’s work, probably why I like him so much. His focus on relationships is interesting because he picks out many non-traditional ones. There’s a woman blackmailing a man for affection (“The Dressmaker’s Child”), a former child wheedling money from a priest who cared for him (“Men of Ireland”), and a sister who depends so much on her weaker brother that she controls his life (“Faith”). When I praise his writing, I mean mostly the way he’s able to express character traits without stating them, how he shows you a character naturally and builds the setting around them in the same way, and the occasional turn of phrase that just makes you stop and say, “That’s great.”

…seen through drizzle on a pane, the sea is a pattern of undulations, greyish green, scuffed with white. The sky that meets it on the far horizon is too dull to contemplate.

I appreciated the short stories he wrote, but in many cases I wish he’d spent more time developing the characters. It seemed I’d only gotten to know them before the story was over. Still, if you want some terrific writing, Trevor is always a good choice, and this collection got finished in the middle of a fairly busy time for me specifically because it was short stories and could be read episodically. And, honestly, it’d be worth getting just for the four of five of the dozen that really do grip you, even if the writing weren’t so good.

Unexpected Poetry

I got the above in my spam filter over the weekend. Rather pretty, I think, and I like that it came from a coincidental sending of two unsolicited e-mails.

Unless they coordinated it to produce specifically this effect…I think that’s a lot more work, but if it happens again, I’d definitely take notice.

Vocabulary Lesson

Today’s word, courtesy of the New York Review of Books: chiliastic.

It’s nothing to do with superb Texas spicy beef dishes, and it’s not pronounced that way (it’s “kill-ee-as-tik”). It actually means “millenarian,” or pertaining to the belief Christ will return to rule for a thousand years.

Etymologically, it’s Greek, which you can see if you spell it more phonetically–it comes from khilioi (“a thousand”)–the same root we use for “kilometer.”

I don’t know when you’d use this word, but I liked it and wanted to share.

Colm Toibin

I attended a reading at Stanford this week by Irish author Colm Toibin, whom I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of until our workshop instructor recommended him to us. I am now writing to recommend him to you.

The man who introduced him recommended Heather Blazing of Toibin’s published works. It’s going on my list as of now. Toibin himself is an engaging, pleasant speaker, who began his talk by saying, “My father died when I was twelve.” In true Irish fashion, this story leads through a few other stories about Irish funeral customs, how people would just come over to his house to pay their respects for months afterwards, to the story that leads into the work he’s going to read from. A woman he didn’t know well was over to pay her respects to his mother, and told his mother a story of her own, about her daughter who she found dead in her bed (two dead people already–you can tell this is an Irish story). The death prompted her other daughter to return from Brooklyn (not just “America,” but Brooklyn specifically). For a time, she stayed with the mother, the mother thinking she’d returned for good, until one day the daughter said, “Mum…I’m married in America.” And then it became clear that she would have to go back.

That one small story became the basis of his upcoming novel, “Brooklyn,” which he read two passages from. It’s funny (no dead people in either of the passages) and very lyrical, and despite the fact that I hadn’t slept well the night before, my eyes didn’t droop once. The first passage he read concerned his heroine’s passage in third class on a boat from Liverpool to New York, much of which is spent vomiting; the second passage takes place in Brooklyn on Christmas Day, 1951.

I’m adding his books to my stack and will certainly pick up “Brooklyn” when it comes out. Though I wouldn’t have discovered him without the workshop, ironically, I won’t have time to read any of his books until the workshop is over.

… Happily Ever After?

There’s a line in one of my favorite musicals: “But we go on pretending / Stories like ours / have happy endings.” In some of the recent memes floating around the web of “top ten signs a book is written by me” (which I have yet to complete), I saw several people write that there is usually a happy ending.

I think that’s true of my own work as well, but I started wondering how much of a cop-out it is. We complain about stories being unrealistic, but we often squirm at depressing or uncomfortable endings. Myself, I like a happy ending as long as it’s satisfactory. That is, the protagonist has to learn something and change somehow, but not be ruined or killed by the experience. There are some stories I’ve written that are a mix of the two; “A Prison Of Clouds,” the first New Tibet story, has what I consider a happy ending, though people have disagreed with me on that one.

Personally, I think in order to learn something and change, the protagonist has to give something up. It may be something tangible or something emotional, but some sacrifice has to be made for the lesson to have impact. Often in amateur fiction, you get wish-fulfillment endings, in which the protagonist basically gets everything he or she wants. Those ring hollow to me, because then the lesson doesn’t seem valuable.

“When Harry Met Sally,” a very good movie, had many people complaining about the ending. The happy ending in this case didn’t feel realistic enough to them. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I can see the point. To some extent, it does feel forced. The characters don’t really make any sacrifice or change to achieve their happiness.

How happy are your endings? What’s an example of an ending that was too happy for you?

Get Paid to Write Wolf Stories

Over at Wyrdsmiths, there’s an announcement for an upcoming anthology of wolf stories. Occurred to me that some folks here might be interested. :)

The Power of Four

I previously talked about the “rule of three.” Today’s post comes from a somewhat unusual source: ESPN’s Sports Guy. I read his columns a fair amount, because he’s an entertaining writer and offers a great mix of sports knowledge (historical and current) and pop culture.

Anyway, in a recent column about football studio shows, he brings up this theory about “the power of four”:

Unless you’re putting together a poker night or a group to play pickup hoops, in nearly every other conceivable scenario, you’re better off with four people than five or more. Dinner always works better. Vegas works better. Cabs work better. Sporting events work better. Road trips work better. Local newscasts and morning shows work better. Rock bands work better. The most successful sitcom ever (“Seinfeld”) centered around four friends, and the most popular female comedy series (“Sex and the City”) did the same. If you keep the number at four, you’ll always have enough people to make it interesting and everybody has a chance to shine.

Apart from the fact that I personally agree with him (especially about the dinner thing), this is an interesting concept to keep in mind when writing your scenes. Most of us tend to write scenes between two characters, sometimes branching out to three. I think you could reasonably go to four without confusing the reader. Beyond that, though, it gets difficult.

Depending on the length and genre of your work, four is probably the limit of major characters the reader can really care about, too. It’s like he says: keep it interesting, and everyone has a chance to shine. If you’re doing a big epic adventure fantasy where character development isn’t so much an issue, then you can have a Fellowship of nine plus a bunch of supporting cast. But in Katharine Noel’s Halfway House, for example, we have the protagonist, but her father and mother also have strong character arcs in the story. Her brother works as a secondary character, but doesn’t get a lot of the focus. “Common and Precious” has two main characters and two major secondary characters, and that’s about enough for that book as well (I did write a dialogue scene with four characters that was challenging, but a lot of fun to carry off).