Advice from Ursula Le Guin

I came across this post at openculture and thought I might share it here with you all. There’s more at the link (and more at a links at the link), but here are the three bits that grabbed me the most:

  • The problem of exposition:

Most of us, Le Guin writes, “Are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need to know when reading it.”

To avoid the “Expository Lump or the Infodump,” as she calls it, Le Guin advises the writer to “decide—or find out when revising—whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story… giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion.”

 

  • The problem of description:

It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.

  • The problem of dialogue:

All I can recommend is to read/speak your dialogue aloud. Not whispering, not muttering, OUT LOUD. (Virginia Woolf used to try out her dialogue in the bathtub, which greatly entertained the cook downstairs.) This will help show you what’s fakey, hokey, bookish — it just won’t read right out loud. Fix it till it does. Speaking it may help you to vary the speech mannerisms to suit the character. And probably will cause you to cut a lot. Good! Many contemporary novels are so dialogue-heavy they seem all quotation marks — disembodied voices yaddering on in a void.

Character As Plot

This is some fantastic advice from Charlie Jane Anders on how to build a character-focused story in a way that also helps you to build a plot with a lot of forward momentum.

In the 11 ‘ways’ she outlines, I see some things I manage to do in my writing, some things I really need to work on, and some stuff that never occurred to me before. Needless to say, I highly recommend following Charlie Jane on your social media platform of choice, as she is full of wisdom.

Loco

Following on from Wednesday’s post via Bruce Sterling, here’s a short story by Sterling and Rudy Rucker, Loco (audio here).

“Forget about Patel, he’s stuffed in a nuclear waste barrel. Let’s talk about Waverly. Even if a steamroller crushed him, it’s not scientifically established that he’s dead.”

“Where do you get that idea? Of course he’s dead. I saw his brains come out of his eye sockets.”

“I need facts,” insisted Becka. “Not your interpretations.”

“Oooh,” said Gordo. “The dragon lady. Okay, as soon as we stepped outside the safehouse, Waverly started babbling. He said, ‘I’m going everywhere.’ He was slobbering. Then he lost his muscle tone. His hands pulled up into his sleeves, and he went all boneless. And then—wham! That steamroller comes out of nowhere and runs him over.”

“Just like that?” said Becka skeptically.

“That’s how I saw it. That’s the machine that killed him, still tooling around out there. It’s like a remote-controlled drone.” Gordo peeped out the window. “Look, it keeps backing in and out of our garage. That’s where I dragged Waverly. It’s still running over him. Again and again.”

Atemporality for the Creative Artist

Reading Ales Kot and Will Tempest’s comic Material (which I highly recommend – it’s near-future SF with socio-political issues coursing through it, and stark, striking art) put me onto this talk by Bruce Sterling: Atemporality for the Creative Artist.

We’ve moved into a new town, and the first order of business is like : ok, what gives around here? Well, there seems to be this sort of decayed castle, and there’s also a lot of slums…. That’s not the sort of thing which requires a punk ‘no-future’ rage. Like: ‘You’ve taken away my future, and I am going to kill you, or kill myself, and throw a brick at a cop!’ I don’t really think that is helpful.

What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ’em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of ‘world music.’ That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars.

The kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end, really an atemporal meaning of life. High-art.

And I would like to see some of that. I think there is a large hole there that could be filled, from an atemporal perspective. Not at the lowest end of artistic expression, but way up at the top philosophical end.

And this great piece of wisdom that Sterling passes on from William Gibson:

The ‘pre-distressed antique futurity’. William Gibson wrote about this when we was writing about atemporality, associating it with his ‘Zero History’ novel that he is working on. Gibson was saying that if you have a genuinely avant garde idea, something that’s really new, you should write about it or create about it as if it were being read twenty years from now. In other words, if you want to do this, you want to strip away the sci-fi chrome, the sense of wonder. You want it to be antique before it hits the page or the screen. Imagine that it was twenty years gone into the future. Just approach it from that perspective.

No longer allow yourself to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty. Just refuse to go there. Accept that it is already passe’, and create it from that point of view. Try to make it news that stays news.

Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence to the past. If they are really the same thing, you need to approach them from the same perspective.

2015 – Year in Review

I figured I might as well have a look at my writing practice for this year. That’s how my brain works – constant analyses, devouring statistics, looking for ways to hone itself to a sharp, fleshy blade.

In 2014 my writing practice was all about quantity. I aimed for a thousand words a day, 5 days a week, and five hundred words a day on the weekend. I only took time off to edit or when my mind-spiders had spun a particularly thick web. Between a couple of novels and a fair number of short stories, I guess I wrote about 150k words, but because my aim was for quantity, I ended up with a lot of aborted projects that had a lot of words and little potential, stories that were way too long for what they were trying to do, a lot of things that needed to be fixed in editing.

In 2015, I don’t know that I ever had a set idea of what I was going to do differently in my writing practice. The one thing I knew I needed to do was start submitting more stories, get myself used to rejection, develop a thick skin and keep on working regardless. And so to submit stories you need to write stories, and this year I’ve finished twenty stories, ranging from a 250 word flash piece to a 30,000 word novella.

This year, I wrote a lot of action-oriented stories, which was sort of an unintended side-effect of me wanting to work more on plotting (and when you think of plotting you tend to think of action, and explosions, and things being propelled forward). I feel like in 2016 I’m going to have to try and set a rule for myself in regards to main characters – no soldiers, no cops, no criminals. Maybe even a ‘no guns’ rule. Because I feel like if I can take what I’ve been slowly learning about plot and combine that with the more contemplative and emotive stuff I’ve written previously, then I might start to get there (where ‘there’ is having stories people want to publish).

Now a stat breakdown (with special thanks to David Steffen at Diabolical Plots [I promise I’ll donate some money after my first story sale]).

Stories completed: 20
Stories abandoned: 4
Stories in development: 9
Longest story written this year: 30,012 words
Story submissions: 94
Publications submitted to: 60
Most submissions to single publication: 8 submissions to Clarkesworld (sorry Neil)
Stories second-rounded: 3
Stories sold: 0 🙁
Rejections received: 78
Dead letters (or similar): 2
Submissions pending: 13
Highest number of rejections for a single story: 10 (two stories both tied at 10 rejections apiece)
Longest wait for a decision: 176 days
Shortest wait: About 4 hours

It’s not easy, the rejections. I’m sure for some writers they are, or they become that way, but you’ve got to do the work. You’ve got to write, and you’ve got to send the stories out, and when an editor takes a moment to point out what did and didn’t work for them, be grateful, because they are probably dealing with slush piles that could crush a small child… but don’t be grateful in their inboxes because busy. Just send them positive vibes or something).

And you know what? It’s alright to be sad sometimes, it’s alright to get down about the latest rejection, but only if you pick yourself up and try again, try again.

Alright, that’s it from me for now. Happy holidays, happy new year, etcetera, etcetera. Be good to one another, and be good to yourself.

HP Lovecraft’s Writing Advice

He was a creepy-looking racist, sure, but you can’t pretend that HP Lovecraft hasn’t had a huge influence on weird fiction and horror in all it’s permutations.

Courtesy of Julian Simpson’s excellent INFODUMP newsletter, I came across these ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction‘, which I found quite interesting.

The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

He also suggests first writing an outline in chronological order, and then in narrative order, which is a writing tip I’ve never come across before, but sounds like it could be an interesting way to think about your plot, the revelations therein, and how you might wish to reveal everything.

So, check it out, it’s relatively short, and you might pick up something useful.

Gift People

Here’s a little flash piece I wrote for the Apex Magazine Christmas Invasion, but seeing as they passed on it, I thought I would share it with you folks here. It’s dedicated to the memory of the Prime Ministership of Tony “The Mad Speedo Monk” Abbott, the hateful LNP, and their efforts to dehumanise, punish, torture, and murder the world’s most vulnerable people – refugees fleeing war and other forms of violence to come to Australia, the so-called ‘boat people’.

Merry Christmas and/or other holiday, and be sure to take care of you and yours.


 

Gift People

“Confusion this morning as thousands of children find not presents under the Christmas tree… but Elves.”

Sadi had turned the TV on hoping for information. The only useful thing she’d learned was that her family wasn’t the only one experiencing this strange visitation.

“We seek asylum from the oppressive dictatorship of the North Pole!” said the Elf on screen.

“We seek asylum,” parroted the Elf in Sadi’s living room.

He – he? – wasn’t at all how Elves were usually depicted in Christmas cards, cartoons and films. He had the pointy ears and his clothes were the expected greens and reds, but they were made of tattered leather, and his skin was jet black.

Sana had squealed when she opened the box and the small person had got unsteadily to his feet and started talking. She was instantly enraptured. She had both arms around the confused fellow before he could say “We seek asylum.”

“Can we keep him?”

The Elf on TV sounded angry. “Seeking asylum is a human right!”

“But, you’re not human,” the reporter countered.

“You would say that!”

Mummy?” Sana whined.

Sadi sighed. “You must understand, dear, he’s not ours to keep; he’s a person. Though if he’d like, I suppose we could let him live here; we do have plenty of room.”

Sana cheered, and even the confused Elf seemed pleased.

“Why don’t you open up the rest of the presents,” Sadi said. “There might be more Elves in there who need our help.”

Ideas – Where? How?

I’m dating another writer, which is a new experience. It means they get it, they understand the weird compulsion to write, they know how much a rejection hurts, they understand the way we have to steal from real-life, and that we sometimes put our craziest, least-attractive selves on the page.

It also means you get to see the way another writer works up close, it means you can try and find out what makes them tick… It also means you can share in (and be jealous of) each others’ successes. My partner is having an absolutely killer year, but she still gets jealous of my unpublished arse because of the way I generate story ideas constantly. A couple of times, late at night, I’ve woken her with the bright light of my phone screen, tapping a story idea into an email to myself for later.

So, I thought I’d try and write down a few thoughts, things that I actively do that might help others maintain their own constant flow of ideas.

  1. Steal from everywhere. There’s some famous quote about artists stealing that I can’t be bothered looking up right now, but yes, STEAL. Steal from headlines, steal from overheard conversations, steal from real life, steal from fiction. Obviously, you’re only stealing tiny little bits and pieces and then weaving those into something bigger, but what this is going to help you do is hone your observational skills, and also your deep-reading skills.
    What is it about the way that person speaks that catches your attention?
    How do people use body language?
    How do other writers describe things? For instance, Lauren Beukes’ description of healed burn scars in Zoo City is perfect, and now that I’ve read it I couldn’t think of any other way to describe that kind of scarring.
    What is it about a turn of phrase that makes it hook into your head/heart?
    You’re not stealing for the sake of stealing, you’re stealing for the sake of learning.
  2. Related to the above – be wary of what you consume. If you’re going to get ideas, steal ideas, and be inspired by what you consume, then think about what you’re consuming. For example, for me personally, books and comics can get right into my head and start setting fires (in a good way). So can long-form articles and email newsletters. But movies? TV shows? Video games? They might generate some reference points (for instance, using Primer-style time travel in a TT story), but for me they don’t generate ideas.
  3. Keep ALL your ideas somewhere, even if they seem stupid or pointless, or if it seems like you’ll never be able to do anything about it.
    Warren Ellis has always talked about his ‘Loose Ideas folder’, but it wasn’t until I got serious about writing fiction that I actually found the idea useful. Prior to that I’d have an idea and I’d write it, and that was that. Nowadays I have heaps of ideas, and some of them don’t work now, some of them don’t quite get my brain’s attention now, some of them aren’t quite a story on their own, but I put them aside anyway. My doc is called ‘Orphans’ (it seemed to work, and then I realised there was a Tom Waits connection, so that made me happy), and a whole lot of half-formed/malformed things go in there. This year I’ve lost track of how many times one of those ideas has combined with other ideas to form a story, or one of those ideas has been able to neatly slot into something else I was working on – and often in unexpected ways.
    And just last week on twitter I saw that Kelly Sue Deconnick calls her loose ideas folder ‘the Morgue’. So make one, give it a cool name, and USE IT. And remember to go over it once a month or so. Delete or cross out ideas you’ve incorporated, and just freshen up on what’s still there.
  4. This is some ancient wisdom, but I’m going to reiterate it because it, y’know, works. Always keep something in, or right beside, your bed that you can write ideas down in. No, you won’t remember it in the morning. Best case scenario you’ll remember you forgot something, and that’s just irritating.
    I find sending myself an email from my phone is the best way – I don’t have to turn on a light, and if I would have otherwise forgotten that I even had the idea, I’ll get reminded in the morning when I check my emails (particularly important for ideas related to projects you’re currently working on, when the sooner you can incorporate that idea into your thinking the better).

That’s it for now. But think of generating ideas as a type of mental exercise – the more you work on it, the better you’re going to get.