Category Archives: the writer’s life

Editing is a wonderful thing, even when you find icky stuff, or, a few thoughts on exposition

I am now about two chapters into the second draft edit of Princess of Fire. That’s around 13,000 words corrected for gross deficiencies, inconsistencies and obvious grammatical crimes, which, for me, is the main purpose of the second draft. In all, those 13,000 words represent about ten percent of the whole book. A fair piece of work for a couple of days.

But I have already turned up one major problem. Somehow, without intending to, I basically turned Chapter Two into one of the most blatant info-dumps in the history of sci-fi– and, brothers and sisters, that is saying something.

I distinctly remember feeling uneasy about the chapter when I wrote it, but under the principle of getting the first draft down without regard to its quality, I wrote the damn thing and moved on. Now, revisiting it, I can see it’s a blatantly clumsy attempt to tie up loose-ends from Princess of Shadows. Worse, for the most part it’s Kathy rehashing the past six months in her head, double-clumsy. It’s the sort of thing you read, and then afterwards, mentally, it’s as if you’ve been eating chalk.

The problem of conveying information to the reader, exposition, is a thorny one. Novelists have it a little easier than screenwriters, but it’s still an issue. There is nothing sillier, or more deadly to the story, than two characters sitting around telling each other what they already know– the dreaded “As you know, Bob” approach. This is generally considered the mark of an amateur, but I have seen published novels by big-name authors doing variations on this (one certain sci-fi author, not to be named, basically has his characters sitting around agreeing with one another– three or four books of that sort of thing and I was ready to drive nails into my head with a ball-peen hammer. I no longer read this author, out of self-preservation).

Having a character who’s a stranger to things is one solution to this problem. In the first Divine Lotus book I got away with a lot of direct exposition because Kathy was new to the Jauthur universe and had to have a lot of things explained to her. Peter Weir used this technique rather artfully in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World by the presence of Stephen Maturin, ship’s physician, who keeps having to have nautical terms explained to him (and thus, the audience).

Another technique is “incluing”, which undertakes to weave the needed information into the narrative in bits and pieces and by techniques other than stopping the whole story in its tracks. I favor this approach, as it seems far more artful– but, obviously, I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

And then there is the idea that it is okay to leave a certain amount of information to the imagination of the reader. Readers can and will fill in many gaps, and doing so will invest them more deeply in the story. You just have to make sure the gaps you’re leaving open don’t involve really critical information, for example, the gender of your protagonist (unless, of course, their gender has no bearing on the story. If so, have at it). However, many writers, and not just newbies, don’t seem to trust their readers at all– which says more about the writers than the readers.

As for Princess of Fire, I’ve already have an idea of where I can shift some of the information, and there’s probably more that’s actually non-essential and which I can leave out. What remains will, I hope, constitute a legitimate flashback. I should be able to straighten this out without too much difficulty.

But in the meantime…chalk. Bleech.

E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel and thoughts on writing.

Princess of Fire is now at 60,000 words. My best guess at the moment is that this is perhaps halfway through the story. I went back and looked at my progress reports from last year and did some comparisons. With Princess of Shadows it took me approximately six months to go from 26,000 words to 60,000. To cover that distance with Princess of Fire it’s taken me about six weeks. I continue to be amazed at this level of productivity, but I do see some potential trouble down the road. Because I’m writing the easy, pre-written/pre-imagined stuff, some sections still to be written are going to be harder to get down. More than that, because of the way I am writing this novel, I’ve got numerous disconnected sections that will need to be linked up and reconciled. Still, I’m okay with those kind of problems if they’re the price of completing a first draft in jig time.

On NPR this morning I heard an interview with E. L. Doctorow regarding his latest novel, and in the interview are some of Doctorow’s thoughts on the process of writing. One of these is “write in order to find out what you’re writing.” That may not make sense to everyone, but does to me. I thought the interview was worth sharing– let me know what you think.

I’m thinking I need to add some of Doctorow’s titles– probably Ragtime and The March— to my literary bucket list. Jane and Chuck, move over and make room.

Writing plans for 2014

As is typical with me, I’m late marking the turn of the year. Yah, 2014. New opportunities, etc.

Okay, that’s done.

I have some definite plans for what I want to accomplish with my writing this year. Firstly, unless something goes very badly wrong, I should be able to complete and publish Princess of Fire this year, perhaps by late summer or early fall. Publishing two novels within a twelve month period would be a first for me.

There will be a downside, however. I anticipate Princess of Stars, the last part of the series, is going to be mammoth, probably somewhere north of 200,000 words, which will almost certainly mean I will need to eventually break it into two separate books. I want to write it as one narrative stream, however, so at the moment it is a unity in my head. Because of the length, there will probably be a long gap between the publication of Fire and of Stars, especially since there are things in Stars that may stretch my skills to the breaking point. I need to make Fire fairly memorable, to keep people engaged during what promises to be another long hiatus, and that is what I am working on at the moment.

It won’t be just the size of Stars that will be tough; I expect the book will be internally complex, as I pull together all the threads that I have been developing in the previous four books of the Divine Lotus series and resolve them in what I hope will be an epic science-fiction story. The size and complexity of the novel may well push me during this year to do something I usually don’t do for my stories– write an outline. That, or the equivalent of a movie treatment. Either way, I anticipate having to plan for Stars at a level I usually don’t attempt. I am normally a pantser, but this book feels as if it will need special treatment.

At the same time, while I work on Fire and prepare for Stars, other projects are romping around in the back of my brain. I have talked about some of these projects in previous posts, and at different times one or another of them looms larger in my consciousness than others. At the moment I am thinking about a historical novel set in 1900 (there was a lot going on that year) that I have had in mind, but it is actually an open question which project I will take on after the completion of Stars, which is, more than likely, at least two years away. Meanwhile, I am basically reading and researching for the other projects on an ongoing basis.

The last major piece of my writing plan for 2014 is to continue blogging, diversifying what I blog about (more reviews, less whining) and staying engaged with the online community I’ve discovered. 2013 was the year I began to blog in earnest, and I plan to keep it up. Aside from that, I will probably doodle away on pieces on the side, such as Dinosaur Planet (a new episode coming soon), more abandoned fragments, and assorted topics as they come to me.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy year. Then again, life has a way of throwing me curve balls. Or avalanches. We’ll see.


The Writer’s Needful– Part Five– The Web of Experience

Thirty-six years ago, when I was the most naive newbie tank crewman in the United States Army, I had a friend by the name of Greene, from Boston (or Bahston). He and I were the only sci-fi nerds in our troop, so we basically bonded, despite the fact that he was years older than my nineteen, as well as a socialist and an atheist (the Army expanded my horizons in many ways). Even then I knew I wanted to write, and I tried to share some of my early scribblings with him. Greene basically felt it his duty to inject some realism into my wide-eyed optimism, and one of the points he tried to impress on me was that many or most writers don’t really achieve success until they reach middle-age. At the time I remember thinking I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?

The mileposts on that road have moved a considerable distance since then….

But the point that Greene was trying to get through to me was important– life experience is critical to the growth of a writer.

When I was nineteen, because of the insular culture in which I grew up, I was very naive and out of touch with how most people lived. Getting dropped into the Army was a profound shock. My lack of experience showed in my writing, which was why Greene was trying to introduce some correctives into my thinking.

‘Life experience’ is another one of those topics you can Google and get a boatload of links. In fact, some helpful people at Goodreads have gathered up a few hundred quotes on life experience from writers and put them here. I’ll just steal the topmost from the list–

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”
― Stephen King

In the thirty-six years since my buddy Greene tried to talk me down out of my naivete tree, I can testify that the experiences of my life have informed and transformed my writing. Military service, college, failed relationships, marriage, academic success, academic failure, work, miscarriage, late-life fatherhood, all have fed into my writing. It doesn’t matter that most of my writing is in the sci-fi and fantasy genres; the mundane details of an ordinary life translate directly into richer detail in any imaginary universe, whatever the genre (I’ll tell you a secret– sci-fi has always been about people. Forget that ‘literature of ideas’ stuff).

Because I’ve lived and worked with some very interesting people, I have a wider palate of characters to draw on now than when I was nineteen. I have lived through, and survived, many, many mistakes. I know from the inside what failed relationships feel like. I know fear, because I tasted it the moment they told me my wife had pre-eclampsia and my daughter was coming into the world seven weeks early (update, fifteen years later: both are doing great). I know what it’s like to bury a father.

At this point, many, many young writers are probably dismayed, or crying foul, or saying “I have to wait until I’m thirty-five?” (Take it from me, you’ll get there sooner than you think). I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from writing just because they’re young. The first thing I want to say is that, if you want to be a writer, you can’t start too soon. Practice is critical, so if you can start as soon as you can string words into sentences, do so. No later than eight, I’d say.

The second thing I need to say about experience is that it is not just enough to live a number of years– everybody does that. The important thing a writer has to do with that experience is notice what is happening– in other words, to observe what life throws at you. Someone once said that writers are supposed to be good ‘noticers’. I like the word– to me it sums up one of the most important tools in a writer’s kit.

Jane Austen only lived to the age of 41, and she lived that short life within the confines of a small, middle-class country society of spinsters, gentry and ministers. It is generally agreed, however, that Austen produced great literature, and she did it by closely observing that society and fearlessly writing about it.

Shakespeare was probably not yet thirty when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The film Shakespeare in Love is about ninety percent fiction, but I love it for how it depicts Shakespeare as a writer melding the experiences of his life into the creation of the play (and not scrupling at stealing a good line when he hears it). Tom Stoppard was one of the writers on the screenplay, and it shows.

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was sixteen.

Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon at the age of fifteen.

The point is that, however much life experience you have, you can create powerful literature out of it if you observe it closely, and write honestly about it. Older writers just have the advantage of many more life lessons on which to draw. Personally, my own development as a writer was delayed because it took me a long time to understand the necessity and power of observing life closely.

So be of good heart, young writers– you can still write, and write well. You just have to work harder at it.

As for us older writers– well, we have less excuse if we screw things up.

‘Nuff said.

With this post I think I have covered everything I want to say regarding a writer’s needfuls. I didn’t want to just repeat the standard advice you can get by googling “writing advice”– I wanted to talk about some of the habits of mind and qualities of spirit I think a writer needs. Again, however, nothing I discussed is original with me.

Ironically, doing one of these posts a day has once more put me behind on Princess of Fire. I am therefore setting myself a goal– I want to get to 50,000 words on Fire by January 1st. That would be about 14,000 words in 7 days. That will be a forced-march pace, but I want to give it a shot.

All bets are off, though, if I get a job.


The writer’s needful– Part Two– The foundation of courage

Cowardly Lion: What makes the Hottentots so hot? What puts the ape in apricot? Whadda they got that I ain’t got?

Dorothy, Tin Man and Scarecrow: Courage!

Cowardly Lion: You can say that again.

Of the writer’s needful things, perhaps the most counter-intuitive is courage. What’s so scary about writing? Writers just scribble down words, right?

Actually, though, if you have to really ask that question, you either haven’t been writing very long or you are just not paying attention.

Writing is lonely, scary and usually without immediate reward. In the first instance, you have to face the blank page. Whether it’s a piece of paper, or an empty computer screen with a blinking cursor, the first blank page is a horrifying challenge that frequently overwhelms writers. What if my stuff is not good enough? What if I sound like a jackass? If I actually put something on the page, will it be okay, or will I be revealed as a complete fraud? This is why writer’s block is so very terrible– usually it rears its head when something has challenged the writer’s (often) fragile grip on the self-confidence they need to start stringing words together– and getting back that confidence can be a terrible struggle.

A second source of fear is what others will think. Writing, if you’re doing it honestly, is baring your soul to potentially thousands or millions of strangers. We don’t usually think of it in such terms, but writing is a form of performance art. And the consequences of going onstage and blowing your lines (so to speak) can be devastating.

Once again, these are not original thoughts with me. One of the best books I know on writing, Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write, approaches the whole subject of writing as a problem in courage, how to find it, how to keep it, and how to use the fear of writing, or of what you are writing at the moment, in a positive way to empower your writing. I recommend this book to anyone who writes. Others have compared writing to a hero’s journey, or a warrior’s path. Whatever the metaphor, it’s widely understood that writing for public consumption is scary and difficult.

The only people who appear to be oblivious to this truth seem to be 1. very new writers who don’t know enough to be scared out of their wits, and 2. writers so sure of themselves (whether that certainty is justified) that they ride blithely above the terror that infects mere mortals. Both groups can be blind to what that fear is trying to tell us– that there are terrible pitfalls and hungry lions littering the writer’s path.

How, then, do you get past the fear? Mr. Keyes outlines any number of methods, and the precise constellation of techniques will vary from writer to writer. Personally, I get a lot of mileage out of telling myself that whatever I am writing at the moment is either a ‘doodle’, as if it’s a little squiggle I’m drawing on the margins of a notepad during a boring meeting, or that it’s just a draft, and all the evident problems with the piece will get resolved in subsequent drafts. I’ve also learned the hard way that perfection does not flow out the tips of my fingers; this encourages me to keep going even when I hate what I am doing and I’m sure I’m the worst writer since (insert your least favorite author here. I’m not going put mine in because I’ve already beaten up on Fifty Shades of Grey enough this week. Oops).

One lesson about fear that The Courage to Write highlights is that fear can actually be fuel for our writing, that if you write honestly about something that scares you, your writing takes off. Honesty of emotion, and tackling things that make you uncomfortable, can make for great prose. It’s a lesson, frankly, that I am still trying to internalize– it’s just too easy for me to keep things safe. But until I get past that reticence, I suspect my writing will not be all it could be.

One other aspect of writing that I group with courage is the necessity of growing a thick skin. Writers need this, and usually it’s one of the hardest items to acquire. Others might classify it with persistence, the next needful thing I intend to talk about, but I think of a thick skin as being able to take the critique that makes you feel like talentless cow-flop, thank the critique provider, and move on to the next critique. It’s the ability to pull the fiftieth rejection of your novel out of the mail, read it to see if it contains any helpful suggestions, file it and then send your novel out again the same day. It’s taking the one and two-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, again reading through them to see if they can help you make the story better, and then moving on, while keeping your ego in neutral and not responding to the reviewers, even if they’re obviously malicious (in fact, especially if they’re malicious, but that could be a whole other blog topic). If all that doesn’t take courage– like crawling forward while enemy bullets spatter around you– I don’t know what does.

So, brothers and sisters, if you’re scared when you write, good. It means you’re aware that you’re in danger, and that you need to find ways to press ahead. It may also mean that you’re closing in on something good. Pay close attention and listen to what your pounding heart is trying to tell you. You may score a major victory.

Next topic: Persistence.