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.

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.

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.

World-building

World-building should never be done inside your book. This is another of Corey’s writing rules. Note: Corey’s first writing rule is you can (and should) break every writing rule if a) you’re good enough to pull it off, b) do it well enough to get away with it, and/or c) break it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

So, that’s why I like this world-building system. A quick and dirty, index-card based system for generating just the most important facets of your world. Once you’ve come up with them, they might find their way into your story organically, or they might not, but anything is better than paragraphs or pages, or even chapters, full of expository world-building that you couldn’t bring yourself to cut because it shows just how damn inventive you are.

Passivity

Some more little bits of writing advice I’ve come across here and there, posted for my reference, as much as yours.

T. Gene Davis offers advice, as well as publishing family-friendly genre fiction from themselves and others, on their blog. In this post here, they detail ways to put your submissions above the competition, and 2 of the 3 are interesting and practical suggestions – avoid using narrative summaries, and avoid those evil, dastardly passive sentences (which they expand on here).

And speaking of passive sentences, if you already know they’re bad, but struggle with locating them in your work, this post here could help you out.

The Dread Month November

It’s that time of year again for writers. NaFuNoWriMo, or National Fucking Novel Writing Month.

After hitting over 52k last year, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack this time around, and instead of a 50k novel, I’m just planning to bust out a 30k novella (though if I hit 30k and the story isn’t told, I’m going to be annoyed. If I finish the novella before the end of the month though? Hey, bonus editing time!).

So, here are some hints for my fellow NaNoers.

  • Planning. I know it’s a bit late for this ’cause the month has already started, but for future reference outline. Outline as little or as loosely as you want, but have something there, some skeleton of a story for you to stitch wordmeat onto. Trust me. ‘Cause writing 50k words in a month isn’t really that hard, but writing 50k words in a month that form a good story that you’re mostly proud of? That either requires a fluke, or a lot of planning.
  • Goddamnit, stop! Unless you need to bank some words ’cause you know you need to take a day off in the near future, always stop soon after hitting your wordcount for the day. I know this seems counter-intuitive ’cause you’re aiming for LOTS of words, but if you keep writing until you hit the end of the chapter or some other natural break, you’re going to find it so much harder to pick up tomorrow. Stop a couple of sentences into a scene, so the next day you already know what scene you’re working on, and hopefully by the time you’ve finished that scene, your brain is in gear and ready for the next.
  • It’s not the end of the world. Seriously, if you don’t hit your word limit one day, or every damn day of November, it’s not the end of the world. If you hit your wordcount every day, but at the end of the month you’re pretty sure the story is an unpolishable turd, it’s not the end of the world. The great thing about NaNo is that a month really isn’t very much time. If you’ve got a project that you’re not sure about – dedicate a month of your life to it, and if it turns out to have not been worth it, so what? You only lost a month, it’s no big deal (unless you’ve got a terminal medical condition, in which case, fuck, I’m really sorry).
    Plenty of us writer types deal with depression and anxiety, and it’s really not worth damaging your mental health for the sake of this little festival of words. Look after yourself.
  • Have fun, experiment. David Foster Wallace certainly didn’t write Infinite Jest in a month, but Philip K. Dick probably churned out plenty of great novels in less than thirty days. So, maybe this isn’t the best time to start on the literary opus you’ve had in mind for the past three decades, but you could sure as hell write that book about a Werewolf… detective… tracking a missing… heirloom potato farmer… IN SPACE. Do something you normally wouldn’t do. Experiment with genres, experiment with styles. And yeah, have fun with it, otherwise, what’s the point?
  • Make your own rules. Finish something you already started. Re-write something that desperately needs it. Edit the everlasting stupid out of last year’s NaNo manuscript. Don’t feel like you need to write 1,667 words a day to take part. If you want to take advantage of this month-long wordfest, do it, get involved, and get involved in whatever way suits you.

And I think I’m done…