Category: The Process of Writing

Advice on planning, drafting, and revising the written word.

Writing Process — “Zelzer Stiff”

I want to talk about how I wrote “Zelzer Stiff.”

The reason? It’s an odd, little piece that is both a successful execution of my idea and far better than I intended.

As a science-fiction writer, this is a rare event. Often we shoot for the stars and bounce off the moon. But my hope is that by logging the process, I will gain some insight, and fellow writers something useful.

Brainthumping

Idea, first. As a writer, I operate under the Laws of Association. This principle works like the conceit of a poem (where two unlike things are compared in metaphor, becoming the piece’s central image), constantly linking the unfamiliar into surprising meditations of meaning.

My role is to extend comparisons, contrasts, and contiguities to their logically absurd conclusions.

How does this look in practice? I knew I wanted to write about guns, about the limit of a gun, about the promotion of the Second Amendment, about the moral circle of who ‘should’ own a gun and who is disqualified. In my mindful maelstrom, I connected this to robots, to android rights, to the possible inability for machine intelligence to prioritize, empathize, and detect subtlety like a human being,  My love of the western pulled in the image of a robot sauntering into a bar, packing a revolver.

All of these thoughts became notes on a page, including other images, impressions, strains, threads, solutions. Conflicts emerged. I wanted the robot to misuse their trust; to misread the situation and end lives unjustly. Yet, what better logical and absurd conclusion to a robot-rights story than an android committing a massacre but justifying the action with a data-dump?

Outline Time

I love it when ideas appear like pokémon in tall grass, but we don’t always have time to roam. Instead, I carefully and intentionally construct my narrative outline. The idea is to make each step a logical continuation of the last one, and to slip in natural character development. Readers might not intuit the architecture, but they’ll want something anthropocentric (i.e. gossip about the human condition—good, bad, or weird) and easy aesthetic (something simple to read).

With “Zelzer Stiff,” this started as a basic summary. Something like this:

Second Amendment has given robot’s rights. Robot with a gun walks into a bar. Confronted by a bigot. Kills the bigot, bartender, and anyone else who flinches (“offensive actions”). Robot uploads cam-feed and data to the police, gets a drink.

Now I needed to decide my medium. I knew what I wanted to write, but how should I write it? Prose? Poetry? A newspaper article? A story some couple thousand words? Flash?

I chose the drabble-esque, worried too much development might reduce shock. Pithy over the prolonged.

Daft Draft

I wrote the piece, following the preconceived plot with the poetry of words. My focus was on specific details. Done poorly, abstraction kills good literature. I wanted my reader ferociously engaged in the intensity of my images. There was a bit of internal debate about exposition. I decided to insert the historical account (“…the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment”) between a reference to processing speeds (foreshadowing?) and conflict (a robot with a gun).

The rest was matter of opinion. My original names were conventional. Place-holders. I decided to replace them with bizarre concoctions like “Kghoshi” alongside quips like “You packing, tin can?” (When, as a writer, do you ever get the opportunity to use the overused in an interesting way?). My best lines were developed in the vivid haze of brain thumping. The rest, intentionally, unintentionally, while drafting.

Tittles (I mean Titles)

Serious thought should go into a title, or you will be tempted to keep your initial project title. Suddenly, the weird and wonderful is stunted under “The Dragon” or “The Hunt.”

Personally, I have titles I am happy with (Black Bear on White Paper) and titles I’m unhappy with (The Spheres) and titles that were pragmatic but not poetic (Flexible Groups). My story House Divided continues to frustrate me because it’s (a) the perfect moniker for a piece about a suburban home split between two dimensions, and (b) its too Abraham Lincoln-esque.

For this piece, I chose random over revealing.

Finally, the result:

“Zelzer Stiff” by Desmond White

The android was making them all uncomfortable with its Zelzer Stiff eyeing them from its hip. It’d only been forty point three seconds since the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment and this son of a manufacturing plant had just walked into the Rig & Rattle with a laspistol holstered, twinkling. Kghoshi—a real bastard on a good day—splashed his drink on silver chestmetal and said, “You packing, tin can?” The bartender—a saint on a bad day—put an arm on the droid: “C’mon, now, let’s not do this.” The move was registered as an offensive action and the android shot the bartender between his eyebrows. Kghoshi’s finger moved a centimeter toward his gun when a second shot put a red dot on his forehead. The men in the bar leaped to their feet. Offensive actions. The men in the bar toppled over chairs and tables. By the time the android reached the counter, empty now of breathing souls, a feed of reaction times, facial registers, psycho-prints—all pointing to self-defense—had been submitted to the authorities.

As you can see, there are many arbitrary decisions. The decision to keep everything in one paragraph. The decision to use a whimsical name for the gun that also sounds like a cocktail. The em dash couplet describing Kghoshi and the bartender. The repetition of “offensive actions.” Flourishes as fickle as free verse.

I would argue aesthetic can be like that, can seek music without meaning, as long as the foundation is laid rationally.

Was I successful? I think so. Others do too. Some, not. The final step:

Move on, my dude

Don’t dwell. Write your piece. Get it to where you’re 85% happy with it. Then write something new. Experiment. Exercise. You will fail. You’ll succeed. Tuck away the failures, submit successes, and keep lying, dreaming, writing.

Denver Pop Culture Con 2019 — “Death in Fiction”

denver comic con
Photo by Josh Starbeck

This summer, I went to Denver Pop Culture Con, once Denver Comic Con until San Diego made them change the name. The convention had the usual—the cosplay, the contests, the artist alleys and merchant mesas, and many, many literary panels.

Being a dabbler of morbid subjects, I went to a panel, entitled “Death Becomes Her: Representing Death in Fiction,” which sought to explore our literary fascination with death.

The panelists were Brenna Yovanoff, Sherry Ficklin, Cat Winters, and Paul Kreuger, and the moderator was Amalie Howard. I found each of the authors had something to say of importance, and I will collect their best statements below:

Brenna Yovanoff

  • Literary deaths can be a safe space for readers who need to cope with their emotions. Books allow you to process at the spend you want to process. You have control. You can always put a book down and think a while.”
  • “Zombies compel and repel us. It’s the uncanniness. A thing that is supposed to be empty and still getting up and moving around.”

Sherry Ficklin

  • “Often YAF characters are experiencing things for the first time. First love, first death. It’s a fun playground because everyone reacts differently, everyone copes differently. It’s kind of like coping mechanism origin stories.”
  • The death of an inanimate thing can impact us as much as the loss of a life. The loss of a job, the destruction of an ideal. In fantasy, this can change from ‘my roommate moved to a different city’ to ‘my roommate turned into a cat.’ It’s still the loss of a friendship.”
  • “Death is not judgment. Time is the enemy, wearing down heroes and villains alike.”

Cat Winters

  • “Death in fiction can give us hope that there’s life beyond. Even the restless spirit appeals to us. Says—This might not be it. Death is not a stopping point. However, even if death is not finite, we still will not have what we have now. Death increases our appreciation of life.”
  • “Edgar Allan Poe was able to write about being alone, about not knowing how to handle the death of loved ones, the weirdness in our souls. He got away with horror and murder and madness under the stamp of literature.”
  • There is often hope in horror. Sometimes the story ends with the character destroyed, sure, but usually we get to see our protagonist once the horror has passed. We see what the character looks like on the other side of darkness. A stranger, broken, but on the path of healing.”

Paul Kreuger

  • “I often think of the post-apocalyptic story. The death of normality, of stability. And compare that to my experience as a millennial. The death of that promise I’ve had my whole life that if I get good grades and graduate from a good college, I will have a happy, cushiony job waiting for me. A house, a car.”
  • Fiction sometimes romanticizes death, but there’s a wide gulf between 13 Reasons Why and the economy of hot or not. I like hot monsters. I’d be okay with the grim reaper having ripped abs. If death were sexier I’d welcome it. But often, when suicide is glamorized, the author is usually the least affected by death, and the least responsible for the effect of their books. I question purpose. Unless its a martyrdom for loved ones, self-destruction is not congruent with hope.”
  • “Zombies can be whatever we want. They’re a blank slate. Romero had zombies represent the glut of U.S. capitalism. In Kim Eun-hee’s Kingdom, zombies literally eat the rich. They’re the external manifestation of the rot in South Korea coming from greedy rulers.”

Brandon Sanderson — Writing Things

I went to see Brandon Sanderson at the Tattered Cover in Denver.

You know, the guy who finished the Wheel of Time series and wrote Mistborn and forty-four other novels. He’s sort of the James Patterson of fantasy literature except Brandon actually writes his books and has a powerful, simple prose (as opposed to just simple). Maybe Stephen King would be a better comparison?

Brandon focused his lecture on failure and the difficulty of transferring nebulous ideas into physical writing. Although he was here to sell Skyward, the nucleus of the night was how his failed attempt at a novel in 2002 became Way of Kings.

A few of his best bits (paraphrased o’ course):

  • “You create beautiful stories in your head. Then sit down and what comes out is awful and dreary and miserable and flawed. You don’t know what to do, and feel dumb because you’ve been learning how to write since Kindergarten. You worry that you’re screwing up something wonderful.”
  • “I’m here to tell you there’s creation in destruction. And good stories from patience.”
  • “Sometimes you need to write the imperfect story. Reach into the stars and reveal their ugly flaws. You won’t get the story you’re searching for. But someday later, you’ll reach back, and give your brain something to fix.”
  • “The more you write, the more you identify plot archetypes, and separate archetypes from trappings. I’m not dismissing other writers, just different directions. Only when I’m stumped do I go to others. Otherwise, I use my instincts and systems. Going from premise to outline to drafting. Keeping that careful balance between determination and discovery.”

 

Markus Zusak — Writing Things

I went to see Markus Zusak (of Book Thief fame) read from his latest novel, Bridge of Clay.

Zusak wore a cream sweater and thin black pants—a mix of charm and casual. He had a surprising Australian monotone with which he delivered an arras of anecdotes and advice. From a story about his life (basically, Zusak manipulated his brother to crack an egg on his forehead), he drew five key points:

  1. “Stories from your life are the easiest place to start.”
  2. “There were two levels to my story. On the top—the switching of the egg. Underneath was the backstory. About hating my brother. About my Dad’s gruff exterior. Know what happened to the characters before they show up.”
  3. “I include small details like sitting on paint cans and the crack of the egg not because I can picture it, but because as a writer I can do simple things well, so people will believe.”
  4. “The best moment was supposed to be my brother smacking himself with an egg. But the best reaction was when my Dad said, ‘Brilliant.’ The unexpected is what helps story.
  5. “I’ve told this story a thousand times. It’s been work-shopped.”

After reading a portion of his new novel, Zusak went to interview questions. I’ve collected the best of his answers:

  • “It’s often the little things in books that are true.”
  • “Writing is a mountain with a sandpit at the top and if you can get there you can play.”
  • “Coffee is good.”
  • “Don’t network or latch onto other writers or form a club. The key attribute to writing is you need to be sitting alone. A lot.”
  • “It’s not about being better or worse than others. Write books only you can write.”
  • “More often than not the author did intend the meaning. I put it there for a reason. But also the more depth you put in, the more there is to find. The connections and relations.”

And my favorite bit:

  • “Absolutely no one encouraged me to be a writer. My teachers didn’t think I could write. Parents didn’t know. I just knew what I wanted, that I was most alive when I was reading or writing. I never won a contest, never published. I bet everything on my book, and endured eight years of rejections. You don’t have to be encouraged. No one has to believe in you. You can do it, you just have to really, really want it.”

Kathleen Glasgow, Library Luminary

Kathleen Glasgow (of Girl in Pieces fame) swung by my school to speak about the dark places she’s been and the dark things she’s written.

Glasgow wore a black coat, a shirt reminiscent of prison bars, thick glasses, the kind writers wear. I felt bad for her. The air was insufferable. This time of year, Colorado has a pattern of snow days, but today the sun was out, the streets glaring, and the school hadn’t lowered the thermostat.

When she started, I thought she was about to ask if anyone had read Girl in Pieces. Instead, Glasgow asked, “Have you ever lost someone?”

So many students put up their hands.

“Do you know someone who self harms?”

More hands.

From there, her lecture sought to answer the question: What do you do with pain? With darkness? With feelings that hurt?

As you may not know, I’m a high school teacher, so I had to smile at my colleagues’ faces when Glasgow spoke about low grades, perpetual truancy, her expulsion and GED, drugs, alcohol, an early career at Wienerschnitzel and Jack-in-the-Box. And when she muttered “shit” into the microphone. Not exactly the narrative we impress on students.

Now, while she may not be a model of academia, to the nation of women falling and failing and hiding scars under long sleeves, Kathleen Glasgow is an avatar of hope—a sign that art and literature and the wondrous act of creation can salvage scraps, can save the soul.

But the answer wasn’t only art. It was the act of honesty. Of unwinding and expressing the truth without romance. “I write books for people who think help me help me help me,” Glasgow told us. “But say I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“People tell you—you’ll get over it, you’ll heal. Not true. You go on with the weight of that trauma for the rest of your life. You learn to be with it.”

“If I’m not going to be open about it, who’s going to be open about it?”

Her final piece of advice to the assembled classes, freshmen to senior, was this:

“Do not self-censor. Always believe in the story burning inside you. Write it. Rewrite it. Read as much as you can. Reading assists your sense for story, teaches structure. And never, never be afraid of the things you want to say.”

Writing Dialogue for the Elder Gods

lovecraft_god_dialogue

As a writer, how do you format the dialogue of an elder god?

This was the problem I faced while writing “The Elegy of Entrails,” a Lovecraft lovefest set on an extraterrestrial world.

Quotation marks felt too petty. You don’t say “What’s up?” to Cthulhu and expect “Not much” in return. Sure, the gods in Homer’s The Illiad speak like anyone else, but what about those things beyond existence? Creatures more dream than meat?

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Failed — Desmorious

Every writer has several projects initiated with gusto, abandoned with reluctance. My first was a forty-page novel in middle school—a Lord of the Rings knock-off called The War of the Bowl. In high school, my friend Jon Ying and I devised a western desperadoes-and-dragons webcomic called Dustbound. In college, I wrote rough drafts and buried them in the rough. Even now, as I revise my novel, I fear its future in a back-folder on Dropbox.

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