On the mystery of shorts

PS_1940_3_L

Planet Stories ran from 1939-55; this artwork was probably produced by Allen Anderson or Kelly Freas

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Ray Bradbury

I’ve never really got short stories. I’ve read quite a few collections in my time but, with rare exceptions, they’re from authors I know and like rather than miscellanies or speculative picks.

There’s no good reason for this: I totally (like, totally) respect short stories. I guess I’m just used to the long form: a short story, for me is either experimental (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman), and couldn’t be sustained over 300 pages, or feel to me just too short. I want to know what happens next. I want to know what came before. I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – some are perfect. Pratchett (‘Final Reward’) and the aforementioned Gaiman (‘Chivalry’) have written some wonderful short fictions. Asimov is at his (inconsistent) best when writing shorts, and all ‘classic’ SF writers seem to have collections in their libraries.

But when I hear a favoured author has a new release on the way I’m always a little disappointed when I find it’s ‘just’ a collection. I want more. I want depth. I want the classic forms of storytelling.

It’s not you, little stories, it’s me. I want more than a casual fling. I’m looking for commitment.

So why have I suddenly started writing them myself?

The quick answer is that I have no idea. I just found myself struck, last September, by an idea that seemed to work best in the short form. I wrote it down. I struggled with it, toyed with it, put it down for later reworking.

And then, a few weeks later, I wrote another.

Now I find myself with four of the little blighters and an expression of puzzlement on my face like a veteran punk-rocker who suddenly wakes to find he’s the far side of forty, has four kids and a job in telesales.

How has this happened?

I guess partly it must be because, with a freshly-minted youngling of my own, I’ve not had a chance to really get to grips with a new novel. The short form is merely my creativity seeking some kind of release.

Another reason is that I’ve had a lot of time to ponder little things: the rise of fake news, for example; or the changes in technology and attitude that have led inexorably to the Fitbit. These have given rise to little ‘what if we take this to its logical conclusion?’ questions – in other words, speculative fiction. These thoughts are often inconsequential, whimsical: they can’t on their own sustain a novel-length plot but strike me as – well – fun.

I struggle with fun. Humour is one thing that my novels really lack. But in short fiction I can play. I can (by my own standards) be witty. I can be Douglas Adams or Pratchett; I can embrace lunacy and surrealism the way I’ve never managed before.

I’m also writing purely for my own pleasure. Short stories: the literary equivalent of masturbation, or modern jazz. I’m not going to seek publication; there’s no great message I’m trying to impart. I’m just enjoying myself in a way I’ve never done before.

That’s not to say that if I see the right competition or submission criteria I won’t chance my arm. I’m also aware that enough material might lead to a compilation of my own. These stories are words in the bank, so to speak. But I’m not writing with any particular aim in mind.

I’m simply having fun. And this is a revelation. No-one ever told me writing could be enjoyable.

Now: back to the thorniest issue of the day. Why didn’t King Arthur wake during the second world war?

Advertisements

Sex & violence

halsey-tattoo-Romeo and Juliet

This arm belongs to someone called Halsey,  who is apparently famous. The quote’s from Romeo and Juliet

So I’m back at The Nasty Scene. I’ve written about this before – repeatedly, in fact (see here and here) – but it’s still vexing me. If you’ve neither time nor inclination to check those links, this is my scene of sex and murder. It is, deliberately, deeply unpleasant. And I’ve decided to cut it.

I’ve been considering deleting it ever since I initially wrote the damn thing. Before, in fact; it was nearly killed at birth by the guardians of taste that dwelleth within. But write it I did and ever since I’ve been wondering whether it should remain.

Without going into too much detail, my justification was that this scene matched the characters of both killer and victim; that the novel needed a dose of visceral horror at this point (it forms the mid-novel pivot); and that it served to propel the story forwards. These are all true. So why have I decided to get rid of it after hours of writing, rewriting, testing on colleagues and rewriting again?

Well, the short answer is that I read of a new prize for thrillers that avoid sexual violence against women. Now I didn’t immediately think ‘Hey, I can win this is I just rewrite this one scene.’ For one thing Oneiromancer ain’t a thriller except in the loosest terms. It’s more that this was the last piece of evidence I needed for a conviction. It brought home to me that I was/would be perpetuating a trope that I dislike.

I don’t believe in censorship. I’m glad that people can self-publish material even if I find what they’re saying objectionable (though of course it’s people’s right to complain about such material). I’m not saying that I would never write another scene of sexual violence, should the story demand it.

But I also have to live with myself. I’ve never been happy with this scene, and that should be enough to tell me that it needs revisiting. Everyone censors themselves every day (all the things you didn’t say or do) for a whole host of reasons: writers call it editing. I’m not happy with something I wrote so I’m doing something about it.

I’m glad I tried. It proved a good exercise, pushing me beyond the safe and into new territory. It made me focus on a new kind of language and imagery; a (literal) nightmare of sensation and emotion I’ve never tried to conjure before.

But now it’s time for it to go.

Of course, this means I’ll have to find something to replace it. But that’s an entirely different matter.

The rotting carcase of the word-whale

Whale-and-writing-tattoo-280x311

Ideas. I don’t trust ‘em. Sneaky little beasties, creeping in where they’re least welcome, turning your world upside down and then glancing apologetically at their watches and sidling out when you need them most.

I’ve been working on my Problem Child of a manuscript for five years now. I’ve written two others in that time so it’s not been wholly consuming, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had unfinished business with this one. Now I’ve had an idea that might – might – just help me fix this horrible quagmire of a nearly novel.

Five years is a long time. Long enough for the Earth to die in. I could have saved myself the pain – and all the time spent scowling at an uncooperative manuscript – if I’d just abandoned the thing long ago.

Or if I’d self-published it.

And this is the question: even without the re-write I’m contemplating now this novel is better than the one I originally drafted. But would I have been better off just moving on and working on other things?

I’m a perfectionist, but then isn’t everyone? No-one sets out to put out bad work. I know writers who self-publish and I admit I envy their way of moving forwards; they somehow seem to know when a book is ready for the wider world. Do they have the agonies of chances missed? Do they ever feel uncomfortable about the material they’ve shared with the world?

I guess the envy really is in their resolution to say ‘That’s done. It is what it is. Onwards.’

Because the alternative is to endlessly circle the basin and never quite fall down the plughole. I know there really is no such thing as perfection; the basic conceit will always have a flaw somewhere. There’ll always be descriptions you can’t bring forth because you have to keep the story moving. There’ll be times when you have to bend the characters to your will. There has to be a beginning and an end and these are never the true start or finish, just the place the telling demands. There’ll also be the things you never saw but the readers will leap right on.

And that’s before we get into plot-holes, clichés, stereotypes and all the other things we’re going to hit in our first, roughest drafts.

How long can you keep at a piece before the structure beneath you starts to sag with the weight of rewrites, bolt-ons, new characters, new locations? How long before you’re left with nothing but the rotting carcase of a word-whale?

Maybe you should have self-published years ago. Maybe that really is the better option.

The big board of truth

writing-templates-2017-640x390

I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

20180117_105202

A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

20180117_105229

I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

The problematical son returns

C and H bad writing

@Bill Watterson

It’s an interesting, uncomfortable experience, editing old work. For reasons of new possibilities I have taken up Australis again (a novel which may well be retitled) and am starting to inflict the Red Pen of Destiny upon its sickly frame.

Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and has long been my problem child. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s drowning in words and I’m struggling to set it free. There’s a strong theme – a point – to the story, an expansion of the mythos, and characters I’ve enjoyed developing.  But something is getting in the way and I can’t see how to release it from its shackles.

Perhaps more interesting is to re-evaluate my writing after a gap of three years. And… well, for the most part the writing itself is actually okay. Or, to put it another way, I’ve not improved as much as I should have.

The two major problems I’ve found so far:

  • A pesky overuse of dashes. This is quite embarrassing, but a relatively easy fix
  • Too many words. This isn’t so much a case of over-writing – though there are some deletions that can be made – but just the look of the script on the page. My writing feels dense, unappealing. This is much harder to deal with as to unpick and unpack would also be to lose coherence.

In other words, my problem child is still a problem. She doesn’t just need a new suit and a bit of a haircut but a thorough delousing and training in the basic routines of civilised hygiene. I can’t yet see a way to provide her with that: I’m no paragon myself.

Everyone says that reading old works can be painful. You can see every single mistake you made, every cliché left in, every stereotype, every innocent adjective sadly abused. But the writing industry is all about editing. You have no choice but to look backwards. You have to get to grips with your own flaws because it’s your job.

Sometimes the best option is to abandon a work and move on to the next one. But if you can’t do that? You just have to suck it up. Get that red pen out and, if necessary, rewrite the whole damn thing.

Hey, you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Best get the whole time-travel thing sorted, then. You’re lucky. You’ve got the chance to kill your sins before they’re inexorably committed to the public record. Not everybody has this opportunity.