Tag Archives: This is Not Advice

Weird Directions

It’s early days on the new WIP, which is always exciting, and things are going pretty smoothly. They usually do when I’m just getting started, because I can jump right in on all the scenes that I’m particularly excited about and know just how to do. The tougher work will come later, so I’m enjoying things like the 2,000 word morning I had today while that lasts.

I also recently had an idea that would change the WIP a fair bit. I think it’s pretty cool and I like it a lot, but it would also make the whole thing a good bit weirder. I mentioned this on Twitter and most of my writer friends responded with variations on ‘do the weird thing’ which should not be a great surprise coming from a) creatives and b) writers of primarily SF, Fantasy, and horror.

Now, you might argue that I might want an unbiased opinion, but honestly, however much I know they do tend to love weird shit, they are also professional creators of this kind of thing and if their advice is to steer into the weird, it’s an idea worth giving a lot of weight.

I do think, generally, that you have to write what excites you, or it won’t be as good as it could be, and if the idea that is making me ‘ooh, yes please!’ at the moment is something pretty out there, well, so be it. Maybe the sober reflection on suburban life will be next in the queue. (It will not be next in the queue.) I also think, from my fairly limited experience, that it’s easier to dial things back in terms of how daring and intense they are than it is to turn up the volume on later drafts. So I’d rather write this thing as weird as I can conceive of it and figure out where to pull back on it if it turns out to be too much than write something where the primary feedback is ‘well, it’s a bit dull’.

All of which to say that I’m going with the pretty weird idea and steering the WIP in a direction that will make it very different than the way I originally imagined it, probably riskier in terms of whether it is going to work or collapse into a glorious mess, but will also definitely be a more unique tale. Those are the ones that are the most worth telling, I figure, so off we go.

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Tools

Not much of an entry again this week; I’m still swamped at work and now also sick into the bargain, so this has been a far-from-productive last few days. I guess the only significant Writing Thing I did recently was taking the plunge on buying myself a copy of Scrivener. (Let no-one say that I don’t do retail therapy, at least a little)

At least in theory, I think it might be helpful for me. As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I tend to write my stories out of order, doing whatever scenes I feel inspired to write or have clarity on as they come to me. Then eventually I stitch them all together. I am given to understand that Scrivener will make this a bit easier as you can have parts of your overall document defined as scenes and then easily shuffle them around. Sounds good, if I can teach myself how to use it.

A lot of emphasis is sometimes placed on tools, and sometimes we attach identity to them. I have seen various people say something along the lines of ‘if you’re a serious writer, you must get Scrivener’. I’m sure that’s not accurate – obviously lots of people thrived as writers before it existed, and many still do. I wrote King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures on nothing more complicated than Open Office, and although Heretic Blood is probably not in its final form, I’ve created it the exact same way.

More importantly, I’m not sure it’s *helpful* to suggest that in order to be taken seriously at any particular craft, you have to use a particular tool or set of tools. For writing, all you really need to do is write. It doesn’t matter how you do it, and you should probably look around at different options and try some different things to find what you’re most comfortable with, but as long as words are ending up on the page, nothing else matters. Getting a tool doesn’t get you anything if you don’t use it, and you can do a lot of work done with really basic stuff as long as you just keep at it. I suppose I’m just a little tired of seeing suggestions that people are Doing It Wrong.

I didn’t pick up Scrivener for any reason other than that I am at the start of a new project and now is the time to try it out. (Well, also that retail therapy thing) We’ll see how it goes. My guess is that at first it’s going to slow me down as I learn to operate it, but hopefully down the line it will make things go more smoothly. And if not, well, Open Office is still always there.

That’s it for this week; I hope to have a little more to talk about next time. Thanks for reading.

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Back to It

Just a very quick note this week as I don’t really have a great topic idea while also getting a bit busy with the impending start of the fall term and doing some programming work for Can*Con. I also just got home from a vacation up north a bit where I was able to spend some time tending a fire again. As I’ve written about before, I find that deeply satisfying and it was a very nice break. Now back to it.

Primarily right now, “it” is doing revisions of Heretic Blood to get ready to try to find a home. I always find it a strange experience going over my own work. I wrote all of it (honest!) but I will find mistakes that I absolutely cannot believe I made that make me cringe (discovered today: three consecutive ‘Chapter Seven’s) along with word choices and phrases that strike me as awful. I can’t believe I wrote that, yet I indisputably did.

I will also find those parts that make me smile, I’ll read a turn of phrase and think it clever, and every once in a while I will read something that gives me a little chill or flare of excitement. I can’t always believe I wrote those bits either, yet I indisputably did.

Part of this is just to say how important it is to revise thoroughly and find a process for it that works for you. When I sent out the first ‘complete’ draft to my Eager Volunteers, I thought it had most of the rough edges knocked off it, but both they and I have found really glaring errors. They’re in there. Edit your stuff.

Part of it is also what is for me a helpful reminder that even though all the missteps, large and small, are in there, the good stuff really is in there too. Finding a flaw in the work isn’t a sign that it needs to be abandoned, or burned to the ground and started over. It just needs more work.

Revising is not nearly as fun for me as creating something fresh, but it’s at least as important if I’m going to end up with something that people actually want to read. If ‘being there’ is a significant factor in success, so is being willing to do the grind. Most any field that I have any experience with whatsoever has some kind of grind associated with it, and if you want to work in that field, you gotta do the grind eventually. Put it the work, get it done, and that’s how you get back to the fun parts. And it is satisfying, in its own way, to look back at what you were just able to grind on through, know that you took care of that, and did it the best you could.

I have comments in from another Eager Volunteer. Back to it.

Thanks for reading.

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Not Insane

From time to time I meet up with some other local authors and we sit in a place (it varies) and do some writing. It’s very slightly social (the idea is not to talk to each other the whole time) but mostly the idea is to be productive. I find doing it in a group useful mostly from an accountability standpoint, i.e. I will feel guilty if the others see me goofing off on Twitter instead of writing the thing I’m meant to be writing. Also, going to a different place to work from time to time (although I deeply value my Writing Deck time) is useful because it stops me wandering off to do laundry or pet the cats instead of staying on task.

So the group writing sessions are very useful. I got refocused and back on track with the first draft of Heretic Blood by going to a bunch of them, and today I got a nice little bit of the new project hammered out by just going to a room with some other writers and sitting there and getting shit done. Well worth getting out of my pjs for.

Today’s session was also useful in a different kind of way: during one of our ‘get more coffee’ intermissions, we got to talking about how we work and I mentioned that thing I do (which I have written about here several times) where I write the first draft of my stories out of order. I think I’ve also mentioned that when I explain this process to other people, I get a strong feeling that it sounds insane.

Today though, one of the people I was writing with, who happens to be a thoroughly legitimate professional (and, in fact, I suspect that after a few more years go by, people won’t believe me if I claim to know him) said that he does the same thing, for many of the same reasons. I don’t mention this to argue that this means I am doing things Right (I still don’t believe that there is a Right way to do things), but because it was really very validating to have another writer say that yes, they do things that way too.

I think it’s very easy to convince ourselves (especially those of us prone to Impostor Syndrome) that however we do things is a massive ongoing disaster and that people will think we’re insane for doing it. So it’s almost a relief to hear that yes, other people use the same methods. I would go so far as to speculate, in fact, that no matter what method any individual writer is using to get the words on the page and their stuff completed, there’s a whole bunch doing the same thing. Because it works for them.

So what I’m doing isn’t insane (or at least no more insane than the endeavour of ‘creative writing’ is as a whole), what any of you reading may be doing also isn’t insane, and what matters is that the shit gets done.

Man, that’s dangerously close to advice again. We’ll call it there.

Thanks for reading.

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And We’re Back

Last week, for the first time in a very long while, I missed a blog entry. There were reasons.

You may recall from the previous one that I was away on a trip overseas, and last Tuesday was the day I was travelling home. In theory it was all supposed to work perfectly – I would get home in the evening with enough time to sit and write something for this. I even had a good idea of what I would write about.

Didn’t go according to plan. Due to a huge flight delay, my trip home ended up taking just under 23 hours, door to door, and I didn’t arrive home until the early hours of Wednesday. Not a great way to end what had otherwise been a splendid trip, but (as I have reminded myself several times) if my problem is that there were problems with my international travel, I’m really doing pretty well overall.

However, the blog didn’t get written. One might argue – with some fairness – that I should have had lots of time to write something while I was waiting around in the airport, but I was a) jealously conserving my battery power so that I could monitor what was going on and communicate with people; creating a tiny illusion of control or agency in a situation in which I could really do nothing at all. I was also b) grumpy, increasingly tired, and running on bad airport food and thus not in a mood to write anything at all.

So the blog didn’t get written, but what I wanted to do today was not present a bunch of excuses (or at least, not only that) but to use this as yet another example of how sometimes, no matter what our intentions are and what plan we have, the world intervenes on us and things do not get done as we hoped they would. Probably well-meaning writing advice often insists on writing every day, or writing set amounts or at given rates. Sometimes this is very useful advice, but sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes, life is not on your side, and you’ve just gotta let things wash over you, and when it’s done you get back up and you get ’em the next time. A plan is good. Recognizing that sometimes the plan needs to bend, and that that doesn’t mean you’ve failed, is better. Ideas like ‘write every day’ or completion schedules are useful to us only insofar as they help us be productive. If they become a thing that adds to stress or becomes a way for us to beat ourselves up, then they’ve stopped serving any good purpose, and it’s perfectly okay to let them go. It doesn’t mean you quit. It doesn’t mean you failed. It doesn’t mean your work is any less legitimate than anyone else’s. It just means that man, sometimes you have a day, or two, or several.

You get back at it. Writing the blog is something I enjoy and doing it every week is a way to make sure that I don’t find that three months have passed without me doing any entries. However, it wasn’t the end of the planet that I didn’t get an entry done last Tuesday, and doesn’t mean anything other than that it was a really bad day. I’m back at it with this, and back working on revisions for Heretic Blood and planning the new WIP. The work is always there when you’re ready to get back to it.

So, starting a new streak of ‘every Tuesday’s today, and as always, I thank you for reading.

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(Not actually) Finished

I’m pleased to have as my topic for this week’s blog that I finished a complete draft of Heretic Blood today. I’ve been working away at it, at varying rates and to varying degrees of success, for what feels like a very long time. There have been numerous challenges (many moaned about here on the blog) and I think this book may well be the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.

It changed, or at least my impression of what it needed to be changed, at least twice as I was writing, requiring some extensive rejigging of things both already done and yet to be created. There are also some challenging things in it (that I’m not entirely ready to spoil just yet) that go beyond what I’ve tried to grapple with in my fiction before. In the end I have something that (even reasonably deep in the Statler and Waldorf process) I think is reasonably good and should only get better as I begin the next phase of the job, editing and revising.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I wrote this book just as I pleased. I picked the words I wanted to pick, wrote each sentence the way I wanted it, and gave more or less zero thought to any of the rules of writing that you’ll encounter on any typical cruise around the internet. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure there really are rules, or at least (as one writer put it on Twitter recently) not in the sense that there are rules for how to assemble an engine. There are, of course, principles that will work somewhat more often than they won’t, and approaches that have succeeded for a great many writers. When it comes down to it, though, what you’re left with is you, the page, and getting words on it. You have to do what works for you, and you’ve got to make it your story. That’s what I think I’ve done with Heretic Blood, which may or may not be an unreadable mess, but it’s my unreadable mess, and I like that.

Editing will probably demand a lot of this changes, and that’s good. My hope is that I’m starting from a place that has a strong voice and tells a story the way I would like it told. I’m sure it won’t be for everyone; with luck it will resonate with some audience, of whatever size. I really do look forward to hearing what my Eager Volunteers think of it, and then hopefully what more of you think of it when and if the book gets to you.

I hadn’t expected to finish today. I knew I was reasonably close, but then this morning I was working on rewriting a scene, took a look to see how much more work there was to do it total, and realized that I could just do all of it today. I changed the plan for my afternoon a little bit, pushed on, and got it finished. It was somewhat like that feeling towards the end of a race when you see the finish line and realize you can sprint to the end. Just: wow, yes, we can get this done!

I made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I think a lot of it was having a stretch of days to devote to writing, and really focus on it, to kind of get my legs under me. I hate to continue the running analogy, but there are things I don’t properly realize until I’m doing them. When I’m running, I need to be able to feel the right stride for me to use – the one that feels slower-paced, but with bigger strides that digest the kilometers, not the quicker, shorter one that burns my cardio and ends up a more frantic, slower movement. It really is similar with my writing; I need that block of days to feel myself settle into a good steady rhythm, and then the pages fill themselves.

I think I hit that over the past week, in particular, and now this job (or a phase of it, anyway) is done. I need to carry this momentum on to another project, and I have a couple of ideas.

Finishing is a lovely feeling.

Now to start something new.

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The Wire

In my bid to keep the finger of this blog firmly on the pulse of about 15 years ago, I recently finally started watching The Wire. (Quiet, you.) The writing is, as very widely reported, very good, and (insofar as I am qualified to judge these things) the performances by the actors are excellent. It is also (as no doubt very nearly all of you will be aware) extremely bleak and not easy to watch.

And yet, I’m really entertained, and very much enjoying it, and this despite the decreasing enthusiasm for ‘shades of grey’ stories that I have mentioned here on more than one occasion. In general, right now I like a story that has some kind of positive resolution, and I tend to like there to be unambiguously ‘good’ characters. The Wire – although I am only one season in – is very clearly not going to provide either of those things. And yet, I’m liking it.

This has gotten me to thinking about why, and in a larger sense, what can make shades of grey stories work, when they do. Part of it, I think, is that even if you’re going to make all your characters various shades of terrible, you still need to make at least some of them individuals that your audience is going to want to spend some time with.

I think The Wire has that. But honestly, I think the larger factor is just that the whole thing is supremely well made. I am consistently, thoroughly impressed with the quality and craft of the writing. The dialogue is consistently entertaining and plausible – sounding enough like things people would actually say – and the plot lines are clever. There are more subtle touches, too, that leave me very impressed. One example: at one point there’s a young kid who had been involved in selling drugs who gets taken out to his grandparents’ house in the country as a kind of protective custody so he can later provide testimony the police need to make their case.

When he arrives, he gets out of the car, and asks what all the noise is. The cop with him has to think about it for a second before replying: ‘crickets’. And that’s the scene. It communicates perfectly how out of his element this kid is and foreshadows that this is not an environment or a situation he’s going to settle into. You could convey those things with a lot longer dialogue or with a bunch more ‘fish out of water’ scenes, but the writers here figured out how to do a lot with a little, and then had the confidence to leave it at that and trust that their audience gets it.

So the story they’re telling is really dark, most if not all of the characters are some degree of terrible people, and just as Season 1 did not have a positive resolution, I feel confident we won’t get one at any point along the way. And yet, despite the fact this is nearly the exact opposite of the kind of story I’m inclined to look for these days, I’ve still entirely bought into this one. Because it is so very well done.

What I think we end up with is yet more proof that you can tell almost any kind of story and get your audience to buy into it and really dig it. You’ve just got to tell it well. There’s a lot of advice for writers out there about which stories are done to death and which genres are dead and even which formats are simply not workable. I gotta say, at this point I don’t buy it. I think people will read just about any story, if that story is told well enough.

When I was first getting The King in Darkness ready to come out, there were many words of wisdom about how dead the novella was. Then some really well done SFF novellas came out, and now novellas are fine again.

It is both a wonderful thing and a horrifying thing that ultimately there is no magic formula for the story that everyone will love, other than: a really well told one. I am increasingly convinced that you can spend as much time as you want chasing the hot genre and the stories on wish lists and none of it matters unless you tell that story really well, and if you can do that, you can find an audience for the story you wanted to tell anyway.

It is both liberating and terrifying, because ultimately, you just gotta write.

Which reminds me that I should indeed be doing that thing.

Thank you for reading.

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The Negative Review

So, as I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re looking for a good way to maintain momentum while trying to finish a novel, it turns out that reading negative reviews of your previous work is a pretty bad idea. I did this to myself recently, and on some level deserve it, because I was procrastinating doing something else. Around the same time, an author friend of mine was wondering on Facebook about when you should listen to someone’s critique of your work, and when you should say ‘no, the way I’ve done it is right, even if they don’t like it.’ So I’ve been thinking about critique and criticism, the last couple days.

There’s no denying that it stings, a little, when someone says your stuff is bad or that there’s a part of it that they don’t like. Ideally, everyone who read my stories would love them, and it’s always going to be at least a little bit of a drag to have someone say that this thing you created, that has so much of yourself in it, didn’t work for them. I think that’s also where the impulse to get defensive over criticism comes from – essentially, we’d like to convince everyone that no, they really did like our work after all.

Obviously that’s not a useful response, and I basically agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s best never to respond to one’s critics. In part because you can tear yourself to pieces in fruitless arguments, and also because people are entitled to their response and their opinion.

This is one of the hard things: not everyone is going to like what you wrote, not ever. Name any book, movie, TV show, no matter how critically acclaimed and beloved, and if we spent a little time digging around we’d easily find some people who don’t like it for various reasons. Just the same as nearly any book, movie, or TV show you care to name is someone’s favourite. People like different things, they often do so for intensely personal and intrinsic reasons, and you can’t change it. I can acknowledge that the objective quality of Breaking Bad appears to have been very high, but I just didn’t like it. (I could explain why, but it’s not important) So, part of being an artist and putting your work out there is that some people won’t like it. They’re neither right nor wrong, except in the sense that they like what they like and your stuff was not it, this time.

So you have to learn not to listen, a little, or (especially in person) to listen politely, and then to let it roll off. It’s ok to disagree about what works or doesn’t work in something as subjective as art, and sometimes a writer and reader are just not suited for each other. You move on. A big part of it, I think, is developing confidence in your work and in yourself as a writer, that yes, you’re good at this, and yes, your stuff is good, having that belief in what you created and how you wanted to write it. Not everyone will like it, but that doesn’t make what you did wrong. It’s good the way you did it, and more importantly, it’s the way you want it to be, and that’s important. Developing that confidence is hard. I’m still very much ‘work in progress’ on that one.

The even harder thing, though, is that sometimes you do want to listen, at least a little. You have to try to be honest enough about your own work (even as you’re confident in its quality) to be open to the idea that there are flaws in it that maybe someone else saw better than you were able to, and that there are ways you could either do that particular piece better or to do the next one better. Because it’s good, and you know that, but it’s not perfect. With some assistance, it can be improved.

That kind of usefully critical opinion is invaluable, which is why readers who will look at your stuff and tell you the truth about it in a useful way are such a precious resource. It is why I am so grateful to the Eager Volunteers who have helped me with my writing. I know they’ve found problems where I thought there weren’t any and my writing has been better because of it. I imagine I got to the point where I have things published because of it. So yes, sometimes you do need to listen.

Which brings us to the very hardest part, which is distinguishing between those times. Knowing when to let a particular opinion slide away and when to pick it up and try to work with it. I think some of that is knowing and trusting where the opinion comes from, and some of it is probably just another of those things we continually have to work on, as artists. I’m not really great at it, yet, which is part of why I can read a negative review and get a bit dragged by it, for a while, although I’m at least at the point where I can talk myself out of it relatively quickly.

Anyway, this is all dangerously close to advice, but honestly this is mostly me talking myself through this thought process again. Which I guess is what a blog is for. Thank you, as ever, for reading.

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The Wave

It’s finally somewhat approaching spring here (although as I write this, snow is falling outside, again) and so I got in my first outdoor run of the season on the weekend. (Yes, friends, another running blog. I know you’re delighted.) It’s much more enjoyable than indoors on the treadmill, of course. There’s much more to look at – I’m fortunate here in Ottawa to get to run through mostly very beautiful surroundings, there’s wildlife to enjoy – and the terrain is naturally varied. It’s also just outside, with the fresh air and the breeze. And, as I was reminded this weekend, there is also what I call The Wave.

It’s a little thing that runners do when we pass in opposite directions on the pathway. Nothing big. Just a little wave to the other person. No-one ever told me to do it or talked to me about it – I just noticed, when I was out running, that most of the other runners I met would do a little wave. So I started doing it as well. You don’t do The Wave to cyclists, and not to people walking. It’s just for runners.

I get a nice little kick out of it, every time. It’s a little bit encouragement – good job, out here – and a little bit acknowledgement, understanding that we are both meeting basically the same challenge, even if we’re going at different paces or over different distances. We’re all on the road. To me it always feels like a little understanding that only another runner, who also gets up early and out on the road, or spends part of a holiday weekend putting in the miles, can really provide. Someone who doesn’t think you’re crazy to be out there, or if they do, at least understands this particular species of crazy.

I think it works somewhat the same for writers, although obviously we never pass each other in the same way. But we tell each other about our WIPs and our word counts and there’s an reinforcement from the ‘well done’s or what have you that comes from a fellow messer-around with words that is especially valuable because it comes from someone who knows the same challenge of sitting down on the days when the words don’t want to come or you’re already tired or would really just have liked to sleep in but – gotta write.

I have found few things more helpful to me trying to grow as an artist than having a community of writers who both challenge me to do better but can also, essentially, give me The Wave. For that I’m very grateful.

And thank you for reading.

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Blank Pages

It’s been a(nother) busy week amid midterm season, but I’m still moving the WIP forward, at least somewhat. I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s blog, but then yesterday I was listening to a podcast I enjoy (My Favorite Murder) and one of the hosts (Karen Kilgariff) talked about her experience writing (in this case for television) – that you’ve got a blank page, and you’re just flat out making something up, and you’ve got to believe that people will like it.

That struck me as perhaps the best description of the difficulty of writing that I have heard. It’s certainly true for writing fiction. You’re pulling something out of nothing, and aside from your own satisfaction in messing with words, the only thing you’ve got keeping you going is a belief that there is someone out there who wants to hear this story, so you should keep writing it. I’ve started many projects where that belief collapsed before I finished it, and I couldn’t write them any more.

The intimidation factor of the blank page is no great revelation to anyone who has ever sat down to write. I think we all feel it, to varying degrees, from time to time. I suppose it gets a little better once you’ve written a few things that people have read and have said they liked – I’m slightly more confident in my writing with the two novels published – but the question never goes away, entirely. Is this thing any good? And, of course, it is probably human nature that our failures and rejections (I had a short story turned down recently) weigh a bit heavier in our psychic balances than the successes.

There are two things that I, at least, try to come back to when the blank page is doing its number on me. One is that there is also an astonishing, wonderful freedom in just being able to flat out make stuff up, to make up whatever the heck you want and bring it into being. That’s the special treat of creative writing. The other thing, that Ms. Kilgariff mentioned herself, is the shot of joy you get when someone takes in what you wrote and you know they liked it. And there’s only one way to get there: gotta keep filling in those blank pages.

Nothing particularly ground-breaking there, but it’s what is on my rather fatigued mind this week. It is most resolutely not advice. I shall try to have something a little more daring for you next week, but in the meantime thanks for reading.

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