Electric Spec asked me to write a paragraph about the writing process. I picked the topic of focus and diversion and the need for both.
Here is the piece:
Electric Spec asked me to write a paragraph about the writing process. I picked the topic of focus and diversion and the need for both.
Here is the piece:
Back in January, I bought tickets to see Madeline Miller at the Tattered Cover.
A lot’s happened since then.
Luckily, in response to the pandemic, the Tattered Cover didn’t cancel the conference, but moved the Author Reading and Q&A to Zoom.
Hair the color of gingerbread, Madeline Miller appeared on my computer screen, on my writing desk, in my apartment; a celebrity encounter a little too intimate for my wife and myself. We repeatedly worried she could see or hear us, and we whispered sheepishly throughout the event.
(She couldn’t see us and the mikes were muted.)
Our awkwardness aside, the format was brilliant, with Len Vlahos (one of the bookstore’s owners) acting as interlocutor and host. Madeline Miller read from her work, her writing beautiful as Greek poetry, and talked briefly about childcare and cat ownership during the COVID-19 crisis. Her cat’s name is Sif, by the way, the Norse Goddess of Spring.
One of the themes of her talk was how classic literature can provide us context for modern problems. Miller employed the famous saying that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Humanity struggles, now and then, with many of the same things. Her first example was The Illiad. In Book One, a plague spreads through the Greek host and its leaders botch their response, ego and rage making for poor decision-making. How familiar. Her second example was Cassandra, the Trojan princess, who always presented the truth, despite being cursed by Apollo to never be believed. In many versions of the myth, Cassandra incurred the god’s wrath by refusing to be his lover. How prescient, Miller said, to have a woman struggling to tell her truth but no one will listen.
The central focus of the talk, however, was Circe.
To those unfamiliar, Madeline Miller’s best known novels are retellings of famous Greek myths, using a contemporary style combined with ancient backdrops. Her two great novels are The Song of Achilles and Circe, the famous sorceress from The Odyssey.
Madeline Miller was very clear about how intention guided her approach to Circle. Years ago, when she first read The Odyssey, Miller was disappointed by Homer’s depiction of the famous meeting between Odysseus and Circle. Here were two smart and complicated people, but while Odysseus was brave and clever, Circle merely fell to her knees before his sword then invited him to bed. “The phallic sword did not escape my notice,” Miller added. Furthermore, Odysseus was one of the most curious men in Greek literature, and Miller was puzzled why he never asked Circle about turning men to pigs.
Later, Miller realized Odysseus was also the greatest liar of Greek literature, and that Circle’s section of the epic was reported from his point of view while he was trying to impress a royal court. Odysseus was a man concerned about his reputation and status; by glorifying Circle’s beauty and his sexual conquest, Odysseus was really saying look how great I am!
“Odysseus has told his story for the last 3,000 years,” Miller said. “It was time for Circe to speak for herself.”
There were other elements the author was interested in incorporating into the narrative, like motherhood as its own epic story, and how Circle wasn’t born into power, but used witchcraft, a skill and passion that Miller likened to art. The author also wanted to redeem Circe from her villainization; to respond to male anxiety about female power. Writing Circe, therefore, was an attempt to give the sorceress a full psychological portrait. “This is a story about a woman coming into her power and into her voice in a world hostile to women in power and the female voice,” Miller said.
In other words, Circe was always intended to be a feminist take on the character, just as Song of Achilles was intended as a queer take on Achilles and Patroclus.
In regards to process, Madeline Miller was more ambiguous. She described the craft as a mystery, the reason the ancients spoke of inspiration as a muse.
“My role is to keep showing up to the work,” she said. To sit down every day, to focus, to write, to try her best to tell her characters’ story.
When asked, Miller said she doesn’t really outline. Instead, she has the ending of her novel fixed firmly in her mind. The problem is finding the beginning, the first line. “I know where to shoot the arrow, the target,” she said, “I just don’t know where to stand to shoot.”
“I research as I go,” Miller said. “When I get to a section, I deep dive. Only 1% of what I learn makes it into the novel. Any more would be deadly.”
An important aspect of history writing, she added, was the material culture. An author must give the story a real physicality. The knives, the broaches, the snakes, the beetles, they were all inspired by real finds and studies.
“What something looks like might not make it into the story, but it’s important for the writer to know,” she said. Miller also traveled to Greece to smell the olive groves, to look at the sea, to observe the light on the wall.
As for the author’s ability to give characters real voices, Miller relies on her theatrical background. One strategy is to read dialogue aloud. Another is to make very intentional decisions about word choice based on a character’s background or mental state. Would this person be contemplative or easily angered? And what would their metaphorical language be; the way they process the world? Circe, living deeply in the woods, draws on nature as her source for context. Patroclus, in rejection of the war-glory tempting Achilles, uses the metaphors of daily life, reflecting Sappho and the ancient poets of ordinary experience.
Overall, I was not surprised to find Madeline Miller as brilliant as her fiction. If you ever have the opportunity to sit in on her talks, I would highly recommend the experience.
Electric Spec posted my thoughts on my upcoming short story, “Rona of the Els,” which will publish in their May 2020 issue. I tried my best to keep the explanation brief and spoiler-free. I was 99% successful.
Here’s the blurb:
Electric Spec is a not-for-profit speculative magazine that publishes four times per year. “Rona of the Els” will be available on May 31st.
Joe Hill, the legendary offspring of the legendary Stephen King (and a damn good writer in his own right, I’m guessing his constant connection to his father must be irksome), came to the Tattered Cover to discuss his short story collection, Full Throttle, and writing in general.
With a friendly, comedic demeanor, and those classic glasses and beard, Hill spoke about his own experience in the publishing industry and read aloud an unpublished short story. The Q&A lasted an hour, followed by another hour of signatures and photos, but I was able to glean a few writerly advicey things.
Here they are:
Joe Hill cautioned that one-sentence ideas don’t necessarily make for a story. He mentioned that he was very good at making an elevator pitch, and yet “the better I got it the more I became convinced it’s completely unimportant.” Of course a good concept pulls people in. Nosferatu, for example, has a great pitch: “What if a guy had a car that ran on human souls instead of gasoline?” But, while Hill said he comes up with two or three ideas a week, “it takes me about a month to write a short story and it takes me about three years to write a novel.” The work isn’t coming up with the idea, but what the next four hundred pages will look like; and part of his second-guessing and insecurity regards whether the fundamental idea will be altered irreconcilably, or if the idea must guide the direction of the piece, or if the concept is harming instead of benefiting.
“I’m orderly on the outside,” Hill said. “But inside it’s total chaos.”
When asked whether he’s a plotter or a panster, Joe Hill said he’s “definitely in the latter camp.” Outlines do not work for him precisely because the most “exciting part of writing a short story or novel is falling in love with a character and wanting to learn about them.” How could he predict in an outline how a character will interact or conflict with others? How he or she will deal with the crisis at hand? According to Joe Hill: “There’s stuff about them that I can’t see but I feel will be revealed if I put them under pressure. Plot is the instrument to create pressure that will force the truth from my lead characters. I can’t plot out a outline about what they’re going to do or how they will respond to trouble because I don’t know who they are yet. … What do they hate, what do they love, what are their daydreams? I can only find that stuff out by churning out a lot of material.”
For a four hundred page book, Joe Hill will write a seven hundred page draft. All of which is a quest to discover who his characters are, how they tick and tock and talk. So some of his scenes are written for readers; they’re “part of the journey” the reader is on. But some scenes are necessary only for Hill to know how his characters might respond to this situation or that squabble. Those ‘scenes for me’ get cut, of course, but they help Hill solve the mystery of his characters.
James Brandon, author of Ziggy, Stardust & Me, came to visit my library. In fact, we were his first official school visit.
Brandon spoke of his experience growing up as a gay teenager when homosexuality was considered a sin and aberration and not another sexual orientation among many. He showed us awkward photos from high school, complaining that “I didn’t know what to do with my hair.” Now, in plaid and jeans, with friendly glasses, a high forehead, and hair at a near-coiff, he’d definitely figured out what to do with it. But the point of his lecture was to “Believe in Yourself.”
Brandon also spoke about forgotten LBGT histoy, including the year when the DSM stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disease. On a slide he showed us how a Chicago newspaper described the event: “20,000,000 Gay People Cured!” We learned about the Gay Liberation Front and Doctor Anonymous and the barbaric treatments used to ‘cure queerness.’ And we learned how an author can connect his own intimate life experience with greater historical events.
Brandon also imparted some excellent advice for our audience’s creative writers:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
The purpose of this article is to share some of my experience reading unpublished manuscripts and to provide some order to the process.
First, the terms:
A beta reader is a nonprofessional who reads the first or second draft of an unpublished manuscript.
An alpha reader does the same with an unfinished manuscript.
A proofreader is a professional who corrects syntax, spelling, and grammar.
A critique partner is a professional who assesses a manuscript’s substance and style.
For the past seven years, I’ve been reading and critiquing my friends’ unpublished, often unedited manuscripts. It’s grueling work—perusing a text for enjoyment and the author’s edification. But I do it because, well, I care about my friends. I want them to do well.
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):
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:
After reading a portion of his new novel, Zusak went to interview questions. I’ve collected the best of his answers:
And my favorite bit: