Tag: Planning

Joe Hill — Writing Things

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and those classic glasses and beard, Hill spoke about his own experience in the publishing industry and read aloud an unpublished short story.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:

Good ideas do not necessarily
translate into a good story.

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.”

The most interesting characters
start as mysteries to the author.

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.”

Sometimes write scenes for the reader and sometimes write scenes for you.

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 — Writing Things

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:

  • Writing is creating real life characters. As an actor, I need to research how to embody a person. As a writer, I need to research how to embody twenty persons. One of the techniques I remember reading on the internet was to write fifty things a reader will never know about your character. I decided to go further and filled a spiral notebook for each character. Dialogue became easier because I knew about the secret conflicts my characters were dealing with.”
  • Research will unlock the greatest mysteries of your novel.”
  • “I needed to tell this story because I wasn’t seeing me out there. I wanted to write not by looking in but looking out.”
  • “It’s okay if your book takes a while. Writing my book took about 18 months to go from draft zero to draft one. Then I wrote about a hundred drafts before I turned in my manuscript to my agent, and she and I rewrote the book three more times (which took another two years) before submitting it to publishers.”
  • Most important, believe in yourself. And be you. We don’t need anything less than who you are. And your differences are your most beautiful you. We suffer without it.”

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.

Betaread, Proofread, Critique

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.

Miche Gray-Newton. Writing in Theory. Saatchi.

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.

(more…)

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.”