WARNING: AUTHOR IS OVER-CAFFEINATED AND THEREFORE EVEN MORE RAMBLY THAN USUAL. THE AUTHOR ASKS YOUR FORGIVENESS FOR ANY LONG-WINDED TANGENTS SHE MAY GO OFF ON.
Today I was participating in a thread on the NaNoWriMo forums and had a sudden realization. (Yes, I’m participating this year. Yes, I know I wrote a whole blogpost last year about how I was never going to do it again. I’ll write one explaining why I changed my mind soonish.) You see, the thread was one where you shared the best line you’d written today. I could have, as most people seem to, have shared the most profound or most poetic.
I didn’t. I scoured the nearly 3000 words I wrote today for the funniest line I’d written that could stand alone. Yesterday, I did the same thing. (Except I was looking through the, frankly, mind boggling amount of words I wrote yesterday: 5684, or something very much like that.)
Today, however, doing this made me realize something: I’m writing a sitcom. Or whatever you call the written equivalent. I almost always am; I certainly am always happiest with my stories when that’s what they are. Even my darkest stories have some humor in them.
I don’t know why it took it me so long to come to this conclusion. I’ve been describing the rpg version of the setting as “a sitcom in a space opera setting” for years. Depending on exactly what’s going on, it ranges from The Cosby Show on a different planet, to MASH on a different planet. Because my brain is a very, very weird place. (And I watched too much TV as a child. Or listened to it in the background while re-re-re-reading the Little House books. Come to think of it, the intersection of 80s sitcoms and the Little House books is pretty much exactly what one of my works-in-progress is . . . except on a poor ranching world in another galaxy, 250 years in an alternate future.)
But the written stuff . . . I don’t know, I guess part of it is that when I think of funny books I think of things like Discworld and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I’m no Pratchett or Adams. And, holy shit, they’re both dead now. That’s fucking depressing to think about. Anyway, I never thought of my written stuff as comedic, despite the fact that what thrills me the most when my wife reads what I’ve written any day is when she laughs, despite the fact that every single positive review for Jake’s Last Mission mentions the humor, most of them using some variant of “witty” to describe it. Despite this, I somehow labored under the delusion that I was a serious writer, writing military sci-fi, or slice-of-life space opera, or whatever.
Hell, just re-reading this post, especially the warning at the top, I’m wondering how the fuck I didn’t realize that “wit” is my natural mode of communication. Silence or sarcasm are pretty much all you get from me. Hmmm . . . maybe that’s why I didn’t realize I was writing any kind of comedy; to me, sarcasm is a much a basic part of life as oxygen is. It’s not something that stands out, in fact, I’m more likely to notice a total lack of it in a book or movie or whatever than its presence.
I’m wondering now if me trying so goddamned hard to keep The Crown of Eldrete serious was as much to blame for how much it, honestly, isn’t very good, as it being in third person is.
I also thought today about some of the bad reviews I’ve gotten and realized that the problem was, ultimately, that some of the reviewers were obviously thinking Jake’s Last Mission was a serious book, instead of a light-hearted tale of a guy who really just wants to go home and retire, but fate has other plans first. I mean, criticizing the lack of plot twists in something like that, or complaining that there’s no real tension, seems to be missing the point quite a bit.
I think, maybe, I’ll rewrite its description in one place to emphasize how light-hearted it is and see what that does to sales. Will be an interesting experiment, if nothing else.
But, really, mostly I just want to know why the fuck I take so goddamned long to figure out the bloody fucking obvious.
For my next amazing discovery, I bet I’ll realize that I swear a lot. 🙂
Oh, and here are the lines I shared, first yesterday’s and then today’s (or day before yesterday’s and yesterday’s, by now. Whatever.):
Yesterday’s (Whole short conversation because I couldn’t find a solitary line that stood alone well):
“Remind me again why I ain’t spaced you yet?”
“I’m your first officer. If you tried to space me, I’d have you removed from command, as you’d be unfit for it. So you’d never succeed.”
“So because you’re a clever bastard, got it.”
Some things need to be said in person. Like “Darling, we’re going to be taking the battle directly to the homeworld of the crazy, murderous asshole, and, oh, did I mention the fleet guarding this world is, by all accounts, undefeated for hundreds of years?”
The story these are from is the tale of Jake (he’s rapidly becoming my favorite person to use as a narrator) becoming commander of the Sweytzian Space Fleet pretty much right as a war gets desperate enough that taking out the entire leadership of the other side is seen as the best plan. Which, I easily see, would probably be something super serious in most author’s hands.
In mine? Well, you get conversations between the command crew like yesterday’s quote and thoughts from the narrator like today’s. There is serious stuff — Jake’s worried about his son-in-law who spent half a year enslaved by the bad guys and hasn’t quite fully mentally recovered, yet is still involved the war because he’s one fucking stubborn son of a bitch; Jake’s missing his wife and kids and grandkids; but for the most part? The story is people bantering with each other and Jake getting driven crazy by everyone in the universe. Maybe the other sort of story would sell better. Fucked if I care. I’m having fun writing this, and somebody’ll enjoy reading it, I’m sure.
I’m not going to bother with editing this to make it relevant to here. I just need to make some things clear everywhere I can right now. The last paragraph applies to anyone reading this blog too.
I believe whole-heartedly in freedom of speech. I think it’s, possibly, the most important freedom we have. That said, I’ve come to realize that along with your freedom to say things is my freedom not to listen to them.
Back in this post last year, I talked about the creative writing course I took in college and why I hated it so much. Today while doing some cleaning I came across the copies of the fucking story the professor and everyone hated so much that they’d marked up. And that sentence could probably be phrased better, but I don’t fucking care right now.
I discovered some interesting things:
- Contrary to my memory, the professor had complimented two things in the story. He liked the phrase “on his fair face” because it reminded the reader of what the elf dude looked like. He also liked my pacing during one spot, even though he thought (correctly) I should flesh the scene out more because it read like a summary. I’m not sure how you can like the pacing of a scene and simultaneously think it needs fleshed out, but apparently this made sense to him.
- The professor was really fond of the phrase “Whose story?” I recall now that this was written in the margins of a few other stories I did for that class too, and I still have no idea what he meant by it. In this case he seemed to do it any time the woman in the story mentioned her baby, so I really have no clue why he said that. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention the baby unless the story was about it?
- The professor also questioned the need for “all this slight humor”. As more the one of the reviews of my published work compliments my “skillful touches of humor”, this shows that my professor apparently didn’t recognize one of my strengths.
- Also he thought I had too much dialogue and didn’t spend enough time “establishing a sense of place” (I think? Something like that anyway; his handwriting is very hard to read.). What’s weird about this is that even though I didn’t consciously remember this criticism, I must have internalized it because I’ve spent from then until I discovered Mike Resnick a few months ago — the only sf author I know of who uses as much dialogue as I do — thinking that my stories were too dialogue heavy without knowing where the fuck I’d gotten that idea from. Resnick has won five Hugos. I’m going to assume writing like him is okay. (This is also very similar to a criticism I got from a lit fic writer, so maybe it’s a lit fic thing?) Also, again, my reviews tend to praise my dialogue, so, really, it looks like this professor wasn’t good at recognizing what I do well.
- Now, the most absolutely fascinating thing I discovered today: With the exception of a couple of students who said that it wasn’t clear when or where the story was set and that they were therefore confused, the students wrote that it was a good story that just needed more fleshing out. Remember what I said in that last post about how they tore the story apart during the workshopping of it?Now I’m wondering how much of that was an attempt at sucking up to the professor. Or possibly just “Let’s all pick on the nerdy fantasy writing girl who barely talks in or out of class.” (I know most creative writing courses are full of people who are nerds or geeks or otherwise different from the norm. This one wasn’t. This one was full of people who wrote barely fictionalized accounts of frat parties and getting so drunk you hook up with someone ugly and other such highly imaginative fare.)
- Oh, my last sentence reminds me of one of my professor’s other criticisms: Narrators aren’t supposed to be sarcastic. My copies of Little Women beg to differ with him. (Abridged print version, unabridged print version, ebook version of that same one (it was free), ebook version of the original printing . . . It’s possibly my favorite book, okay? Pretty sure this line is in all of them.) “Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die.”
So, that was interesting. And, before anyone says it, I know I should just let it all go, but you see, here’s the problem: I couldn’t write for a couple of years after taking that class! It was over a decade later before I finished a fantasy story again, and that one was less than a thousand words. I learned nothing from that course, either. I went into that class sure I was a great writer, but knowing I needed some help with the more esoteric bits — plot structure, pacing –things I still struggle some with, in fact. I came out of that class no better a writer than I went in and with a bitchton of anxiety hanging over my head every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard for ages. So, yeah, I’m still pissed. And I’ll probably stay pissed.
(Also, sorry about the way the blog looks right now. We’re not sure what’s wrong. Something’s broken, obviously, but tracking down what is proving difficult. And our thermostat died overnight, so we’ve been a bit distracted. (It’s October. We’re in Massachusetts. The heat coming on when it should is just a tiny bit more important than my blog looking like it’s supposed to.))
I’d just typed a long, rambling blogpost, only to find this while looking for a different quote, that sums up what I’d said much more succinctly. This is probably why he’s a Hugo winner, and I can’t even give away some of my books.
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.”
I wrote this over a year ago and very shortly after that ran out of decently paying markets that might accept it, so I’m not sure why I haven’t posted it yet.
Anyway, the idea for this one come from me getting ticked at a character being stupid in something I was reading and amusing myself with how Jake would’ve handled a similar situation.
If you like this, especially if you like Jake, he’s the main character in Jake’s Last Mission, which should be free at every major ebook retailer except Nook. (If anyone wants it from there, remind me to fix that in the comments, please.) Though a longer version will be available soon-ish, so if you want to wait for it, that’s cool too. If you want to beta read the longer version, that would be fucking awesome, so please let me know.
Gerard and I were enjoying a game of tyol when the alarm klaxon sounded. We were both on our feet and headed out of my quarters before we were consciously aware of it. “What’s going on?” I asked Zardel — the officer of the deck — as soon as her face appeared on the comm.
“There was a small explosion in engineering. The damage doesn’t seem to be significant, but none of the crew down there are responding. I’ve already dispatched a security and medical team to investigate.”
I nodded. “Gerard, head to the bridge. I’ll go see what’s going on.”
“Jake . . .”
I interrupted my first officer. “This gonna be the speech about how it’s your job to keep me from risking my neck needlessly again?” I don’t know why he kept trying it. After all those years you’d figure he would’ve realized it was pointless.
“Save it.” I pretended not to hear the curse he muttered as I left the room. My chief engineer wasn’t answering his comm. That worried me. Normally Timil would’ve contacted me already, either to tell me he had the situation in hand, or to explain why he didn’t.
Halfway to engineering, my comm chimed. Instead of Timil, it was Martina, the recently promoted first assistant engineer. “Sir,” the tiny blonde woman said, “all entrances to engineering are locked. I haven’t been able to override them to get in, and Timil isn’t answering.” I was proud of the little lady. This was the first crisis we’d faced since she’d been in a position of authority, yet she still sounded managed to sound perfectly calm. Her face showed a little fear, but my own probably did right then too. An explosion in engineering and a missing chief engineer is not a combination you want thousands of light years from home. Hell, just an explosion in engineering ain’t a problem you want thousands of light years from home!
“Do you know who was in there when the explosion happened?” I asked, hoping her answer might give me some clue what was going on.
“Vemis was the officer of the watch, but beyond that, no. No one should’ve been doing anything that could’ve led to an explosion, though.”
“What do you think . . .”
“Not now,” I interrupted her. “I’m almost there. We can talk as we work together to figure this shit out.”
My comm chimed again when I was nearly to engineering. I immediately recognized the face on the other end. There was only one Zilvat on my crew, a verlot who worked in engineering.
“Mithoska,” Tal’xygiva said, pronouncing the Galfarran word pretty well for a guy who’d only learned the language a couple of years before.
“Hello, Tal’xygiva,” I said, doing my damnedest to sound perfectly neutral as I tried to pronounce that damned name properly. You’d think that after all these years as spacefaring races Zilvats and Kivanians would give some consideration to naming people things that can be pronounced by those of us without ridiculously complicated vocal cords. “Is there something you want?” What can a Zilvat survive that a Human can’t? I asked myself, wracking my brain for an answer.
“Yes. You command the whole Fleet, yes?”
I nodded. In theory I did. In practice . . . I was pretty sure I could disappear and no one would notice for a few days unless there was some sort of huge crisis. The Fleet pretty much ran itself, which is exactly as it should be.
“Then you have some impact on the Council, yes?”
I almost smiled. That misconception was common among people who’d originally come from more hierarchical societies. “Less than you probably think. If this is about our mining of the Xanthas system asteroid belt, Zilvax’s government agreed to give us fifty percent rights to it since no one could conclusively prove which of us discovered it first.”
While I was talking I’d caught up with Martina. She jumped when I put a hand on her shoulder, but quickly calmed back down. The security and medical teams were nearby, looking ready to run in as soon as she got the door opened. I smiled approvingly at my crew.
The young Zilvat, sounding threatening, said, “Promise me you’ll make the Council return full control of that belt to us . . . to Zilvax, or you’ll regret it!”
“I’m sorry, son, but I really don’t have that kind of power. The Council listens to me when it comes to Fleet related matters because I’m in charge of the damned thing. In anything else, I’ve only got as much influence as any Sweytzian.” Some people have a really hard time grasping how a truly direct democracy works, even after living in one for a while.
While I was talking, Martina had given up on overriding the lock and removed a nearby panel. I wasn’t sure quite what she was up to, but I hoped it worked. I was starting to get concerned about the lack of word from inside engineering . . . aside from Tal’xygiva, of course, and he wasn’t exactly making me feel reassured that neither my crew nor my ship had come to any harm.
The view from my comm abruptly changed. It panned around engineering, showing everyone in there laying on the floor. Kid, you should’ve thought this through better, I thought as I sighed deeply. You’re gonna regret this. The comm’s view continued to pan, showing Timil, looking pretty damned battered, tied up near the maneuver drives with a blaster to his head. I clenched my fist and fought the urge to try to beat the door down and deal with the traitor personally.
The view switched again to the kid’s face. He said, in tones that made his previous threat sound downright pleasant, “Reconsider your answer, or he dies.”
I said a quick, silent prayer to the spirits of space and friendship, ending it with, Forgive me if I screw this up, Timil. “What will you gain by killing my chief engineer? You’ve already hurt whatever point you’re trying to make by gassing my crew. Tasalim so you could breathe it with no ill effects? I guess Timil came in just long enough afterwards to not be affected. Then you screwed up the doors so no one else could get in.”
Martina signaled to me that she’d finally dealt with the lock. I shook my head slightly. My priorities had changed. If we charged in there right then, Timil would die.
“Actually, the door locks were damaged when . . . ow!” Tal’xygiva solidly punched Timil in the gut, causing my engineer to double over in pain.
“I didn’t tell you to talk!”
I sighed. This kid was proving impossible to deal with. And my patience was getting thin. “I’ve got the general idea now, anyway. Answer my question: What will you gain by killing my chief engineer?”
“The explosion, the unconscious people, even Timil, they’re all just tools to get your attention! Now, promise me, or,” he clicked the safety off, “he dies. Trust me, Mithoska, you don’t want to see what I have planned next. I suggest you give in now.”
“Give me five saenead to talk to the vabrez. He actually does have this kind of influence,” I lied. Quirino Evans actually had no more influence than any other respected citizen in non-military matters, but so far Tal’xygiva didn’t seem to understand how the government worked, so I was counting on the lie buying us some time.
“You have two.”
Thank you, spirits, I prayed, touching the charm of the spirit of spaceflight I wore at my neck. “Who’s your best marksman?” I asked my security team the moment the young Zilvat disconnected. I didn’t like the next part of my plan. I didn’t like it one bit. But I really couldn’t see any other way.
“I am, sir,” a very young man with a serious look in his eyes said.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Galvas, come here and listen to my plan. And you can leave off a few of the ‘sirs’.”
One saen and fifty piclanid after the young Zilvat said I could have two saenead, Martina opened the door and Galvas put a blaster bolt straight through the traitor’s head.
“I almost pissed myself when that kid shot at Tal’xygiva, Jake! What would you have done if he’d hit me instead?” was how Timil greeted me when I went to visit him in sickbay later that evening.
“Knowing your husband, probably have died myself as soon as we got back to Sweytz,” I said with a slight grin as I sat down. “I checked the duty roster. You weren’t due back in engineering for most of a day, yet to have gotten in before the locks were engaged you must’ve been on your way before the explosion, why?”
“Tal had asked me some odd questions when we ran into each other in the gym earlier. I was a bit concerned, so I went to check on the kid. His well-being was weighing on my mind.”
“What kind of questions?”
“If I feared death and other stuff like that. I thought he was suicidal, not . . . Dammit, Jake! He was a good kid! And just a kid, barely old enough to enlist!” Timil’s eyes were filling with tears. So far I’d managed not to cry over what I’d had to order done, but I was pretty sure I’d break down later while telling my wife about it.
“The moment he acted against my crew and ship, everything else about him stopped mattering,” I said softly. “I regret what had to be done, but I really didn’t see a choice. If Galvas had just injured him, he still could’ve killed you. He’d already caused some damage to engineering — nothing major,” I hastened to add, seeing Timil ready to get up and go investigate for himself, “and knocked out several of the crew. He had to be stopped.”
“I know that. I’m just . . .”
“You’re upset, shocked, and a whole bunch of other shit like that,” I interrupted, patting him on the shoulder. “You concentrate on getting better. I’ve got what’s sure to be one hell of an awkward call to make. His parents are miners. They’d just moved to Xanthas when the decision was made. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it does explain his motive. I wish he would’ve pled his case before the Council instead of this, but . . . anyway, you get better. I need you to keep this thing flying.”
He nodded. I squeezed his shoulder and then headed off to make what was sure to be one of the most painful calls of my career.
I was trying to write a blogpost griping about two plots I see far too often in space opera published in the past several years, and praising a Mike Resnick book I just finished for being so very, very different than those plots. I hit a snag. A very, very big snag: I needed to define space opera to make my argument, and . . . Let me show you some of the variety of definitions out there:
a novel, movie, or television program set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature.
Wikipedia, in the “Space opera” entry:
Space opera is a genre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology.
Wikipedia, in the “List of space opera media” entry:
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer define as “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.”
And, finally, TV Tropes:
Space Opera refers to works set in a spacefaring civilization, usually, though not always, set in the future, specifically the far future. Technology is ubiquitous and secondary to the story. Space opera has an epic character to it: the universe is big, there are usually many sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigue. The action will range part of a solar system, at least, and possibly a whole galaxy or more than one. It frequently takes place in a Standard Sci Fi Setting. It has a romantic element which distinguishes it from most Hard Science Fiction: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring scenery, and insanely gorgeous men and women.
Tackling these one at a time:
Google’s is obviously stupid — there’s no other word for it — because its definition limits the media that can be space opera. I’ve read space opera short stories. By that definition, they were something else.
Wikipedia’s, in the “Space opera” entry, is better, but I think it sells the genre short too, by making it seem like it must have space warfare and interplanetary battles to qualify. I’m pretty sure most people consider Firefly space opera, and I don’t recall much in the way of big scale fighting in it. (I refuse to watch Serenity, so it may be different if you count it.) Also, I’m pretty sure most sf readers count the Vorkosigan books as space opera, and I only recall warfare playing a major role in one of the ones I’ve read (which is far short of the whole series, I admit, but most of the people I know who read the books aren’t fans of military sci-fi, so I assume my point stands.)
I like the definition given under “List of space opera media” better, mostly because it uses words like “often” and “usually”. The only thing it gives as definite characteristics are “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure” and “competently and sometimes beautifully written.” It’s that last part I take issue with. I’ve read lots of works that were space opera by any sensible definition, but they were far from competently written. And I think we can all think of at least one movie that qualifies . . .
The TV Tropes’ definition is, I feel, the best. Partially, yes, because it doesn’t limit the plot to action stories, and obviously because of the kinds of things I write I’m going to prefer definition that don’t. But mostly because it emphasizes the epic character of . . . everything. That, in my opinion, is what makes space opera space opera. As I’ve put it before in conversations about Universal Nexus, the difference in their reality and ours is in ours, the dials go from 1 to 10; in theirs, they go from 0 to 11 . . . at least.
(Also, I could go on a very, very long tangent about the bit about technology being secondary to story and how very, very wonderful a thing that is, so I’ll save that for another day. Well, not quite. Quick question: Does anyone actually think that all of the scientists over the years who’ve been inspired to become scientists because of science fiction did so because of books that went into excruciating detail about how everything worked? I’ve never read an interview that supports that idea. Also, if you’re writing with the idea of influencing people to become scientists, then you’re probably not writing a good story anyway. Ones written with a goal like that rarely are.)
Space opera isn’t, or rather, doesn’t have to be, about big battles. It doesn’t have to be about intergalactic war. It can be a simple love story. But the backdrop of that story, and the characters in that story, have to be larger-than-life. And if there are big battles . . . or even small ones, for that matter . . . nothing as silly as the laws of physics should get in the way of the story.
At the library a while back I picked up a writing book purely because its cover was interesting. (Highly scientific methodology for choosing what to read, I know.) The book had an interview with GRRM that made clear the interviewer wasn’t paying attention to a damned thing the man said, some strange essays including one arguing that genre authors are less likely to have writer’s block than other authors because they aren’t concerned with making something great and meaningful (if anything, I’d say sf/f writers are MORE prone to it, probably because we’re such an over-analytical bunch. Centipede’s dilemma, you know?), one campaigning for a return to infodumping because the world is what interests people in science fiction and fantasy (yes, you read that right), and lots of writing exercises. (Oh, and lots of art, most too surreal for my tastes, but some was quite pretty.)
Now, I know some authors actually find things like this useful, but for me things like the following are utterly unhelpful in making me a better writer:
- Write no more than 500 words about what’s going on in the picture
- Taste something you never have before and describe it
- Go to the grocery and note the five strongest smells and describe them without naming them
- Write a scene from the point of view of a distant observer, then rewrite it purely in dialogue from the point of view of the participants, making sure not to contradict anything from the previous versions
They’re are, in fact, far from helpful. Instead they force me to think in ways I find completely alien.
I can see how describing a picture could be helpful for the sort of weirdo who thinks infodumps are a good thing. But I, unlike the apparent target audience of this book, care a hell of a lot more about the characters than the setting. Yes, I admire good description. I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’d kill to be able to describe places half as vividly as Louis L’Amour, but that probably works better for people who don’t have such poor direction sense that they sometimes get lost in their own house. It is really hard for me to describe places because my brain flat-out refuses to store things like what’s on the left and and what’s on the right. Also, some of his best descriptions were of places he’d been. I’m writing about alien worlds. Obviously I haven’t seen them. But! L’Amour’s descriptions enhance the story, they don’t take you abruptly out of it by just being description, which is what I’ve always known infodumping to mean.
As for the exercises involving taste and smell, yes, I understand they can help things feel more immersive. But, in real life, do you tend to note more than whether something tastes salty, bitter, sweet, etc., or whether it smells good or bad? Probably not. So why do I need to practice describing things in more detail than that?
What does Bilbo’s hobbit hole smell like? What did the food he served the dwarves taste like? If Tolkien said, which I don’t believe he did, it’s certainly not what’s stuck with me about that scene. No, what I recall — even on those occasions when I let it be years between times I read The Hobbit — is what that scene looked like, how the characters acted, and the general feel of it. Those are the qualities that make fiction immersive, not whether arbitrary sensory details are included or not.
As for the last exercise I mentioned . . . look, I frequently choose the wrong POV for a work, but even I know you shouldn’t just arbitrarily write a scene like it’s being observed from a distance. There is very rarely a time when that’s the correct narrative choice. And the second part . . . why? Is this supposed to be one of those exercises demonstrating the correct way to do something by making you do it the incorrect way first? I’ve always detested those. (Possibly that was the intention of this exercise. There were seven more things involving that scene, but I was too fed up with the book by then to keep reading and discover what they were.) It strikes me as a waste of time to have to write bad versions first. The length requirement was 1500 to 3000 words. That’s, depending on the day and whether I’m writing by hand or on the computer, between one and eight hours worth of work per version. For that much time and effort, I’d at least like to know what the purported purpose of the exercise is up front, you know?
I’m, in general, in case you somehow hadn’t gathered it from my other rants on this and related subjects, not a big believer in writing exercises. Despite what my 11th grade English teacher wrote in the margins of my journal in response to a rhetorical question I’d written, you can’t force creativity. It either happens or it doesn’t.
“But . . . but how do I improve without doing writing exercises carefully crafted to improve certain skills?!” I hear you asking. Easy. Read more. Note how authors you like do whatever it is you suck at. Maybe even, and I know that this is anathema to some people for some reason I can’t understand, accept that what makes a book great isn’t anything that can be taught. Writing is an art, not a science . . . and even science should allow room for “this is probably crazy, but what if?”
(Damn, am I good at short and pithy titles or what?)
Long story short, I live in a place that is not exactly conducive to either reading or writing. To somewhat mitigate the negative effect this has on my sanity, I’ve been spending a couple of afternoons a week at the library.
Now, was my OCD still completely out of control, I have no doubt what I’d be doing is working my way through my over 1400 book long “to read” list on Goodreads. Since my OCD is more-or-less managed right now though, instead I’ve been wandering pretty aimlessly through the library and reading whatever grabs my interest at the time.
So, here’s a list of books I’ve either read or at least read a significant portion of in the past few weeks (There’ve been others I’ve tossed aside after a chapter, usually non-fiction that was blatantly stupid or dry enough that the subject matter would have to be something I found very interesting for me to push past it to read the damned thing.) (Goodreads links included, in case any of my readers may wish to find out more about any of these.):
Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: And Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt
Time Out For Happiness by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
End of the Drive by Louis L’Amour
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pamela Smith Hill (Editor)
Various In Nomine rpg books because the above inspired an idea that is, alas, too easily resolved because of one sort of angel’s special power, so that was a waste of a couple of days. I’m not linking to those because they’re tangential to this discussion because I already owned them. If you’re a fan of quirky out-of-print rpgs, here’s a fun free sample adventure with enough of the rules to play it: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/SJG37-3345 (I should probably confess that I know the author and owe my ability to use commas properly to her, so I possibly don’t have an unbiased view of this adventure.)
Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life by Terry Brooks
And I get the feeling I’m forgetting something.
Now, according to surveys done by various people and organizations over the past several years, since the self-publishing boom started, the main thing that gets people to read books is them being recommended by a friend.
Zero of those books were recommended by a friend. Three of the authors were ones I’d first read because of my mother . . . Gilbreth, Wilder, and L’Amour . . . but none of the specific books were. And I long ago quit being one of those readers who automatically reads anything by a favorite author. Being one of my favorite authors just means I’ll try to read anything by you; it doesn’t mean your book won’t end up back on the shelf after a chapter or two.
Another thing authors, especially the sort who think some degree of spamming their fanbase is acceptable, say is that studies have shown a person needs to hear about a book a certain number of times before they’ll read it. (I have yet to see one actually link to said studies, so I doubt the veracity of this.) I’d heard of three of those books before, but forgotten two of them existed until I was looking right at them and then recalled, “Oh, hey, that’s that thing I wanted to read!” (The one by Gilbreth and the one by Brooks.)
So why did I choose those particular books?
The first one . . . look at the title. Who could pass it up? I was literally wandering around that time.
The second one . . . I was trying to remember why I was looking in biographies and saw that, knew that I loved two other books by Gilbreth, so I checked it out.
The L’Amour short story collection . . . okay, this one I was looking for the author. Because I couldn’t find any good non-fiction on life as a cowboy and figured I could count on a L’Amour short story collection to have something useful and interesting. (My L’Amour books are presently inaccessible.) (I’m writing a space western version of the Little House books, basically. Because it kept bubbling up while I was trying to write other things so I gave in.)
Pioneer Girl I was, as I said, looking for specifically. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of it seven times or whatever the magic number is when I decided I wanted to read it though. Pretty sure, in fact, that I signed up for the mailing list to find out when it was out the very first time I read that it was going to come out. (And then missed that email because of an overzealous spam filter, so the first notice I saw about it being out was that the first printing had already sold out!)
Unholy Business . . . the title. I forget what I was looking for; I might’ve been just wandering then too, but what made me pick up that particular book was the title. And the cover and blurb.
The next book . . . this area has lots of interesting history so I was looking in the local history section and, well, it was a book that combined local history (some of the research the author did for the book was done at the very library I checked it out of, in fact) and a bit of a bio one of my favorite musicians. Of course I had to read it!
The last one . . . I had been looking for a specific book but couldn’t find it, so I was wandering around and seeing what else caught my eye. I saw that book, recalled that I’d read a sample and liked it, and decided to read the rest.
So that’s seven books — more than that if you count the rpg books — that I’ve read, or at least read a good portion of, in the past three weeks. None of them are in the genre I write which is, according to some authors, therefore the genre I should be reading . . . so I can keep up with trends and therefore be sure to write something that will sell. None of them are books I decided to read after hearing about them several times. None of them are books that someone I trust recommended to me.
Let’s look at some of my most favorite books, defining favorite as books I’ve read so much I’ve had to replace them or would have if they weren’t e-copies:
Imzadi, possibly the non-YA book I’ve read most — bought it because I was a hard core Trekkie when I was younger. (These days my tastes have changed and I’m likely to lecture you about the superiority of Babylon 5 if Star Trek comes up.)
Little Town on the Prairie — Okay, Mom recommended the series, I chose this book first for some reason that I’m sure made perfectly good sense when I was . . . eight? Nine? Something like that. I remember an excerpt from By the Shores of Silver Lake was in my fifth grade English book and I’d already read the whole series by then, so I was definitely younger than ten.
These Happy Golden Years — See above. This and Imzadi are also the closest things to a romance I like.
Anne of Green Gables — I got it from somebody when I was too young to appreciate it, tried to read it again for some reason — possibly because it was there — when I was about ten, read most of the series in one day. I remember this because I am too pale skinned to sit outside reading all day without there being consequences. The sunburn was worth the enjoyment, though.
The Hobbit — I saw the Rankin-Bass cartoon and fell head-over-heels in love with Middle Earth. Over two dozen years later, that love hasn’t decreased one bit.
Name of the Wind — I recount how I discovered this book here.
Discount Armageddon — I believe I’ve told this story before, but am a bit rushed so I won’t look for it right now. In short: I followed a link to a blogpost of the author’s where she described a character as the child of Batman and Dazzler. So I downloaded the sample. About five pages in, there was a bit of dialogue that could’ve come from one of my rpg sessions. I decided I had to read the book because the author and I clearly were on the same wavelength.
Little Women — This, honestly, is the first book I ever remember hearing read to me. I have no idea how young I was. It was upstairs at my grandparents’ house is all I recall. But I’m pretty sure the fact that I read my first copy so much that the front cover fell off, then the bit over the spine fell off too, to say nothing of the fact that I know the book so well that I can spot every word that’s different between my abridged and unabridged copies has nothing to do with that. Reading it in the first place, sure. Re-reading it again and again and again when I was old enough to actually grok it fully? Pretty sure that’s got nothing to do with Mom reading it to me before I could read myself.
So, in short, I conclude that those surveys are stupid. Possibly because most of them seem to focus on those weird people who only read one genre. I am, as should be clear from my list of favorite books and books that I’ve read recently or am presently reading, not that sort of reader. Neither are most of the readers I know.
Clean cut looking ship’s captain, looking at Jake critically: How old are you, son? Standard years, not local.
Jake, fourteen Earth years old, slightly shaggy shoulder length red hair: Seven, give or take a bit.
First dude, looking a bit disappointed and shaking his head: I’m sorry, but I can’t take you on. You’re . . .
Jake: Why not?! I’ve been doin’ a man’s work for two or three Standard years already, for fuck’s sake! I’m young, yeah, but I ain’t a kid.
The man again: My boss sets the standard for my ship, sorry. The charter won’t let me.
Jake nods, looking angry, and starts to walk off. Stopped by gruffer looking captain, craggy features, unkempt long dark hair: You said you been doing a man’s work for a couple of years already?
Jake: Yes, sir.
Unkempt captain: What kinda work?
Jake: Ranch hand, mostly. Bit of this and that to make more money from time to time. I’m decent at speeder repair too.
Unkempt captain: Ranch hand? Good. ~nods and smiles, very slightly~ I need a cattleman for this run. You in?
Jake, thoughtfully: Depends on how much it pays, I guess.
Jake, to Harlan, his boss . . . and the father of his girlfriend, a few hours later: So, I guess this is it.
Harlan: Looks that way. Your dad would be proud of you, finally gettin’ off this rock. Spirits know he always wanted to.
Jake, quietly: I know.
Harlan: You told Valerie yet?
Above, you have the rawest bit of my writing process I’ve ever shared. You see, for me stories very, very rarely start with an idea. Usually I’ve got some dialogue, maybe a bit of a setting around it, and generally it’s characters I already know from other stuff . . . I’ve been revising Jake’s Last Mission all week, so it’s not surprising he was on my mind. Also, this . . . or rather the version of this that was going through my head at 8:50 this morning, but more on that later . . . like most of my “ideas”, was there suddenly in that weird period where you’re not quite awake but not quite asleep either.
I wake up with weird little bits of dialogue in my head lots of days. I never bother with recording in any way most of them because they go no further, regardless of what I try to do with them. This one though . . . I was trying to enjoy the scenery as we drove back from my wife’s book-signing today and this dialogue kept creeping back into my mind, with little revisions each time. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it . . . both segments end abruptly and the next thing I know about Jake’s life (from something I worked out ages ago) is that he gets married over a year later, so I’ve got this little bit with nothing to do with it. Yay.
Usually, I just let these things sit in my brain and percolate or get lost. But, well, I was reading writing advice books (to make fun of . . . this really is a sickness, I think) and they kept going on about “how authors get ideas” and “here, step-by-step, is how to go from idea to final draft” and . . . it was all so motherfucking completely alien to how I do things! So, I decided to share how things work for me, at least at the beginning.
And a bit of what might, someday, be a story. What’ll I do with this? That depends. This might be all there ever is. Or I might someday have a lot more of what’s going on around it in my head, and then I’ll pour that out on paper/screen, and then revise the fuck out of it several times before I have something to publish.
As for what inspired this . . . who the fuck knows the direct inspiration? I know parts of it: months ago I read an article about cattlemen on merchant ship’s and it occurred to me that it might have been a way for Jake to transition from ranch hand to spaceman, I’ve been listening to the Hamilton cast album pretty much non-stop for the last month or so and, well, listen to the first verse here and I’m pretty sure you’ll understand how it puts me in mind of a guy who went from orphaned ranch hand on a world in the galactic boonies to commander of a world several thousand light years away’s entire space fleet. And, as I said, I’ve been working on the expansion of Jake’s Last Mission, so that doubled the amount Jake was on my mind.
In other news, the revision of No More Lies has hit a point where it’s equally divided between scenes I love so much that I can’t see errors in them even when they’re pointed out to me and scenes that I detest so much that I want to delete them and rewrite them completely. So it’s sitting until I can approach it more rationally.
Jake’s Last Mission, Expanded which is still lacking a decent title obviously, is finished . . . for meanings of “finished” that ignore editing and revision and figuring out which of “Mugdaran” and “Mugdarran” is the one I meant to use (I’ve added both to spellcheck’s dictionary. Oops! And it turns out that previously published works use them an equal number of times. Shit.)
None of my other stories are progressing at all, which is incredibly annoying. I keep getting ideas for what to do about the Quinn/Renata story at very inopportune times — I can’t exactly sit down in the middle of the grocery store and write (well, I guess I could, but I’d look a bit crazier than I like to) — that won’t stay in my head long enough for me to get them down on paper for some reason. Like I said, annoying.
Now, back to trying to convince my cat to push the curtain out of her way and get in the window like a normal cat instead of trying to scale the curtain to get to the window. (She is very convinced that climbing over things always gets her to where she wants to be. She tries to climb windows all the time to try to get to things outside. She is a very strange little cat.)
I know some people interpret that “Kill your darlings” bit of author advice to mean you should ruthlessly delete every bit you really love, but I think that’s daft. So these lines are almost definitely staying. I also think that sharing these lines with no context can’t possibly hurt any potential future sales. So, enjoy.:
Telling the woman you’ve only known for a less than a day that you know an author is describing how to lethally stab someone in the kidneys from experience is not a good idea.
Why did I have to go and get involved with a smart woman?
Sure, the kitchen sink and some other stuff folded out of the walls, there was barely room for two people, and the building looked like a good strong storm — which didn’t happen in that area of Kythin, thank the spirits — would take it down, but it was nowhere near bad enough to have communal bathrooms!
The last time a girlfriend had gotten that mad at me, I’d ended up dodging blaster bolts, so I tousled my hair, smiled my most charming smile, and said, “Sorry, babe.”
“Get back to your story before I have to kill your father,” Mom commanded.
“Based on the other tattoos I can see on your arms, I’d guess it says something like ‘sushi bar’.”
On the bright side, I thought, if she doesn’t believe you, at least she’s not going to dump you for lying to her.
It’s not that I’m anti-intellectual or anything, it’s just if I’m gonna have my face buried in a book, it’s going to be one full of fight scenes and death defying feats, not one full of numbers and science-y stuff.
To judge from Lance’s smile, he considered ‘oversexed space rat’ a compliment.
“If you’re really going to kill me, would you just get it over with and spare me the dramatics?”
“You may be a total dumbass, but you’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
“Actually, I’m an adult and I’m actin’ like this, ergo, I’m actin’ like an adult.”
“I still owe you an attempted drowning from when we were twelve.”
“Now, you’ve spent your whole life saying I never notice when you do something right, so fucking let me compliment you, son!”
Our friendship was based on our mutual insulting in large part.
“These things are divinely delicious, and she punishes people for misbehaving by not letting them have any!”
“I was mad, and I said something really fucking stupid that I didn’t really mean; it just kinda slipped out and now she’s furious with me and I’m one screw-up away from no cookies for the rest of the season . . . I already can’t have any more tonight, because I tried to sneak a whole plate of them away when my parents were already pissed at me for what I’d said to Ana! . . . and my life is utterly, totally miserable.”
Is he even trying to aim?! I thought, disgusted by the lack of professionalism these Anerix assassins kept showing.
“I’m supposed to be helping Ginny keep Ria and Sarah out of trouble, so I need to go figure out where Ria is.”