Some Bright Sides

June 17th, 2008

Well… with the computer out of commission, I found myself unable to get much work done on the big project. That was frustrating, as this week was supposed to be the big push to finish it, I should have been able to do that by the end of the month.

So I wanted to be able to get something done on that front while I waited to get my computer back, and was busy grousing to myself that the other computer was the one with all the software licenses. This gave me a chance to use Google Docs. I’d never done so before, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to get me to abandon what I normally use, but it’s fine in the short term.

It also reminds me that I’m a little crazy for having a program just to do outlines. And despite that program, I’d let my outline of the text fall off in the past few chapters and I was flying blind. Without the main text though, I’m outlining the last eight chapters finally, which should speed things up if it is anything like when I was last working with an outline. Not my most efficient use of time, these past few weeks, if loosing my primary computer forces me to get cracking.

Also, as a PSA for the few people who read this in Minneapolis: (and some who may be coming into town for the wedding) Dreamhaven is moving. What does this mean? They’re not looking forward to having to haul all their stuff, so for this month there is a big sale. Used paperbacks are 75% off original cover price, with a minimum of 75¢. That means most books are under a dollar in their used section. A lot of the comics are 10¢. The other day I walked out with a pile I could barely carry for just over $15. You should check it out if you are in town.

Anastasia and Fear

June 2nd, 2008

One of the worst parts of writing, to me, is the fear that I’m just running along the same lines as some book that someone else published and I never read. I have been working with the idea for the current project for about two years now, while I finished up the last one and read for this one, and then started writing about a year and a half ago.

During that time I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Absurdistan. Both were pretty good books, despite frustrations and flaws that I had with them. Nothing is perfect after all, and I’m a fussy bitch of a reader. But I also spent an undue amount of time while reading these books thinking, “is this too much like what I’m writing?” Well, of course it isn’t, because I’m writing my own damn story, and while there are elements of the stories that I can’t help a little overlap with, that’s all of fiction. There are only so many things you can put in a novel, and any novel, sufficiently long, will have overlap with something.

Nevertheless, because my main character thinks he is a relative of Grand Duchess Anastasia, I have been feeling a little like the man in Ficciones who sets out to write Don Quixote from scratch.

Today I found out that there was a thriller published in 2004 that had the Romanovs as the central element, I had a long period of panic that I was sitting on over one hundred and twenty thousand words that were too close to this other one. I had to read the wikipedia entry on it to satisfy myself that it was sufficiently divergent, a standard antiquities/supernatural/thriller in the style that a certain Mr. Brown, not to be confused with the Browne who will be a groomsman at my wedding, has made popular.

And even then all I did was shift the worry from accusations that I’d stolen and idea to the idea that I’m working on terrain everyone is sick to death of. That may be due to the fact that everyone is a little tired of the Anastasia stuff. Hell, I’m tired of it, but I tell myself that it’s not such big part of the plot that it sinks everything.

Back to Books

April 1st, 2008

Today, after poking at it for a while, and spending a bunch of time outlining plot points, I got back to the big writing project.

The words came fast and easy as I sat there. It was quite a relief. Over the past few months I’ve been working on getting into grad school and getting married. Now, with a lot of that off that taken care of (though both of those things are far from done) I’ve cleared away enough time to hopefully finish this before school starts. I was quite nervous at the start. For a while I had been quite regular about sitting down and writing. I had tracked the rate at which I produced words and dropped other tasks when I wasn’t making my count. When I needed to study for the LSAT I abandoned the writing for a while. I probably should have done that earlier, but it was what it was.

That was months ago, and all the little tasks had kept writing on a back burner. The story was still there, but I hadn’t given it the time it was due. Writing is at its best when you can fall into a sort of a trance. The editing doesn’t work so well that way, but the first draft is always more fun when it happens. I didn’t get there today, but I did manage to get solid work done without staring at the screen wondering what came next. So that was nice. I’ve only got a few more weeks of work and then it’s nothing but the writing and the wedding before grad school.

In other news, the latest update of WordPress seems to have broken the old url for this blog. Before I got ianmacleod.net, I just had a subdomain on my friend’s deepthought.org. I’m looking into how I want to fix that, as it seems to be related to how the new version handles the database. While I work at an ISP, that’s not something I generally work with. In fact I never really touch them. It’s a whole branch of computer knowledge that I’d always meant to get involved in. The current job did not really work for that though, and it seems I’m likely to remain ignorant about it for the foreseeable future. The writing projects feel more pressing to me now than the computer skills. Then, for the next five years or so, I’m probably not going to want to use what little spare time I have on more enjoyable things.

Snowed Under

December 4th, 2007

How quickly one can fall behind on just about everything. I’ve spent the last couple of months stressing, to various degrees, about the LSAT. For better or worse, it’s done now. I spent the last few days relaxing, and then started to dig myself out of the large pile of crap that had accumulated. There is still the business of actually applying to the schools, but that seems small in comparison to the three hours of tension.

And in all of that, the writing fell by the wayside, which was frustrating. Over the next couple of weeks I will be finishing the applications, and that will free up even more time. With that, I plan to put a little more on that second page here, the stories one. Short term, I will be putting a story up there and sending a few out to people who may put them in print. Long term, if I get into a school that I feel is worth the time (and that is not certain), I will be taking several months of to do nothing but write. Going off to law school would get in the way of getting much writing done, for quite a while too, and I’ve wanted to take the time to really bear down on a few projects.

With that in mind, it was good to have a crazy productive day. The cocktail blogging that I would occasionally do here has been moved over to Eric has been putting me to shame on the day to day front. We shall see what happens.

And now to relax, my back hurts from shoveling.

As someone who has, for some time, been trying to write in long form prose. I have had a good deal of time to consider the relative merits of longer and shorter novels. Granted, there are plenty of people in this boat with me, but it’s my blog, so if you’re reading, you’re reading my view on this.

It takes less time to write a novella than a novel. Unless you are prone to writer’s block, or general paralysis and fear, when it comes to your fiction. You will be able to turn out a novella much faster than you will be able to squeeze out a novel. It’s a pity that an industry that once published large quanities of the former, now turns out mostly the later.

The novella was a form that was well suited to the dime novel era, low cost to produce, and thus relatively low risk. It was consumed by the reader in short order, and could be produced by an author of moderate to good skill in little time. Agatha Christy managed to churn out quite of few of them, for example. Each one was a tightly plotted and economical with words. This has its strengths and weaknesses of course. But it allowed her to create a situation in which she got those who liked her work to toss in more money very frequently. My father once told me that they had an old advertising slogan back in the day, “a Christy for Christmas.”

Now, Christy is perhaps a bad example, as she was so successful. Writing in a certain form will certainly not guarantee success. Philip K. Dick was certainly not financially successful, despite churning out books at quite a clip. Dick was also a little inconsistent. His sanity/drug issues, which helped propel his writing, made some of his novels… less than excellent reading.

Novellas were mostly the realm of mass market, with little intent spent on making them high art, as least from the publisher’s perspective. The high volume and low cost made them less of a risk. Like the movie industry, the publishing industry has shifted more to the blockbuster approach, which rewards phenomenons more than it does hard workers. This is exacerbated by seemingly absurd internal issues. Random House, for example, allowed its internal publishing houses to bid against each other on advances for authors. This artificially raised the advance, and thus the risk to the publisher, which in turn made it less likely to take a risk on new or marginal author.

I’m not prone to believing in golden ages, and I’d be willing to bet that there are just as many, if not more, novel readers than there were 50 years ago. But as I said all those weeks ago in the first post about novellas, there is a lot of stuff out there vying for there attention. Mysteries of Pittsburgh, just to pick a quick example, benefited from being relatively short. That low bar of entry helped get a new novelist an audience (being mistakenly identified as an up and coming gay author apparently didn’t hurt either).

And where did all of this come from? I had been writing one day, and suddenly was worried that some part of me was trying to write “the next great American novel.” It had gotten big, and sprawling, and at the time looked dangerously close to getting out of my control. A shorter novel sounded like something I could write quickly, and then work over and over until it was just right. It sounded almost relaxing, and then I remembered how out of favor novellas had fallen.

Novellas 1.5

April 27th, 2007

There will now be a short break from what I had thought would be the next bit about the novella, as I address the five points Colin posted in the comment thread of the previous post. I responded briefly in the comments, but have decided to go into more detail.

“1. I read quickly.”

Well wow, all of us who read slowly, and take a while to work through a long novel are duly shamed by your ability to out pace us. I am trying to say that authors should be careful to only write long novels when there is no other way to write what they want to write about. But I’ve been put in my place, I just don’t read fast enough. It’s a character flaw.

“2. Modernism.”

What the fuck?! No, seriously. What the fuck kind of argument is that? Are you saying that modernism justifies length? Are you trying to say that modernist novels need to be long? Is the word meant to stand alone as some sort of modernist statement? I don’t know, because that isn’t an argument. It’s a word, totally removed from the context that would normaly grant it meaning.

“3. The Great Gatsby is overrated and trite.”

I don’t care how highly rated Gatsby is. That has no bearing on my argument that it does exactly what it means to do, and does so quickly. And further, just to take a moment to defend the novel, part the reason people think it is trite is due to the heavy use of its material by other storytellers.

“4. But there are some world-changing novellas out there.”

Fine.

“5. Supreme arrogance is not an undesirable trait in an artist. See Joyce, Warhol, Milton, Davis.”

I might not have been clear enough in saying that I don’t hold all long novels in contempt, I find many of them frustratingly over long. Underworld was used as an example. Editing could trim many long novels down. I implied that there was an arrogance to writing long novels, and arrogance is indeed often justified. Only two of those artists you mentioned were writers, so it’s harder to work them in. Though Miles Davis and Andy Warhol did produce works that were abnormally large for the format they worked in, neither Warhol’s art movies nor Davis’s later fusion era works (some droning in at over 45 minutes) claim as much of your time as an 800+ page novel will.

Joyce wrote several very long works. I’ll be honest. I haven’t read them yet, though I will probably be tackling Ulysses later this year. Does Joyce, or for that matter many of the Russian novelists, have material that justified the comparatively enormous size of their individual works? Maybe. The reader must decide on a case by case basis.

The argument that I’m working toward, and will be fleshing out in later posts, is that an author should be very careful to only write long novels when the ability to express their intent is compromised by shorter forms. I used Underworld as an example because I feel that it would have been better released as a series of short stories, possibly over the course of multiple collections. The effect of mashing all the stories in Underworld together, I feel, ultimately subverts what is good in the stories it contains.

Sometimes, as I’m writing, I find myself wondering about the way the short story works within America’s reading society.

The market for short stories might be the most over saturated of all the markets for any form of entertainment. When it comes to breaking into the writing world, the short story is the method of choice for a great many of the writers, and would be writers, that I talk with. They flood any periodical that publishes short stories with submissions. To make matters worse, there are hundreds of venues for short stories, many with tiny readerships. A friend who goes to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop recently told me that everyone there is intent on getting published in the New Yorker. That’s all well and good, but we can’t all be published there, at least not our first story. Many of the short stories published are in periodicals with absolutely tiny readerships. Some of those readerships are probably composed entirely of writers and would be writers. Getting published in one of these doesn’t even necessarily get you published in a second one.

On top of this, the short story is an incredibly limiting form. The size of a short story theoretically goes up to 20,000 words, according to most sources I read. In practice they rarely do, with most of the short stories I see clocking in at between 5,000 and 9,000 words, give or take. This gives very little room for error and very little room to explore. It may be a limitation of the current writers I see getting published, but even in the top end periodicals I read, there is a great deal of very bland fiction. I’m talking about generic stories of young male discovery. I’m thinking of stories where an aged narrator learns something late in life that proves to be of great emotional value, or teaches a youngster the like. Hell, that second one is a plot that I’m shopping a copy of, and polishing another that arguably follows the same line.

It just doesn’t give you much to work with. You have to be in and out of the narrative so quickly that a lot of things don’t have time to develop. You have to realize what you are willing to leave out, and when you can do the leaving without frustrating the reader. It’s actually a great exercise for someone to learn about how narrative works. But I think maybe we’ve gotten too enamored with the exercise, and now we’re publishing it, instead of the adventurous stuff.

Sometimes it feels like we’re all building the same things with the short story, like its the ranch house of the fiction world.

It would be tempting to say that I’m not cut out for the short story, but I see so many other short stories that are falling prey to the same dangers. I read a fair number of short stories, and perilously few of them stick out for me. Is this a byproduct of the short fiction by committee attitude that I seem to hear about in writers groups? Too many times I seem to hear people subtly tailoring their own narrative desires to that of the small group that they work with all the time. The more I read short stories, the less I want to read them, the more they seem like a chore. These things should be palate cleansers. After a long novel, I should be able to pick up a collection of short stories and get a few sweet bursts of joyous concentrated narrative. What you think “joyous concentrated narrative” means should be open to interpretation.

It could mean a man meditating on the shape of his shoe as he puts it on in the morning, and then deciding to leave his wife. I could be four viewpoints on a dead man, from the minds of the people at his wake. It could be a madman in an asylum screaming about how we’re all doomed. I don’t really care as long as you grab my attention. It should not be another goddamn three part story of a teenager coming to terms with their own hesitant sexuality. Yes, I know, you went through that, we all did. Remember when reading was fun and mysterious? Maybe we should all be trying to get that feeling back into our fiction.

Next time: The novella, why I think we should all be reading and writing more of them.

We Could Be Heroes

March 1st, 2007

Ok, and now it’s time to put off some plotting. Nothing so satisfyingly avoids making outlines as writing short snippets that don’t lead to any fiction whatsoever.

I’ve been watching Heroes, and while it’s been good in some ways, it’s constantly skirting the “Ok, I’m done!” stage. In the end, if I do give up, it won’t be the plot holes or the weak characters. Now, in case you haven’t been watching this show, it has some impressive plot holes. I’m talking plot holes so big that I could mess with Texas, and Texas could then step through the plot hole to mess back. Mohinder, one of the ostensible main characters, is so boring and inessential to the plot right now that they stuck him with one of the villains to try to spark things. It’s like they are trying to see how amazingly stupid they can write a man who supposedly has a PhD in Genetics, (which I’m pretty sure they don’t just give away, at least not without being asked nicely) before the collective collapse in the audience’s suspension of disbelief creates a rift in space and time.

I mean, this is a show where characters can phase through matter, and fly, and have super healing, and turn invisible, and all manner of oddments, and I’m standing in front of the screen screaming “Oh, my fuck! He can’t be that dumb!” When that’s the biggest threat to my suspension of disbelief in a show based on comic books, you know you have problems.

And still I watch. Here’s what’s killing me.

The plotting. The plot for most episodes is the structural equivalent of watching a blind smack addict drive a pinto around the Black Rock Desert. I don’t care if the pinto has been redone as an art car. I don’t care that being blind is a tragic, and that it’s not his fault. The man is on fucking smack!

I can deal with not knowing where the plot is going, the mystery of it is part of what drew me in, but I get the feeling that the writers don’t really know either. Half the time I feel like I’m watching them try to write themselves out of holes that they write in the other half. Hmmm… this is turning out longer than intended. More on it later. Back to work with me.

Book Reviews

February 16th, 2007

I once tried writing book reviews. It didn’t go well. I’ve contemplated doing it more, but I’m still a bit scared to dip my foot into the pool again. I feel I’m much wiser about it now than I was at the time. I was horrible. I think back, and I’m blushing. There are a few people who’ve seen that stuff. They know how bad it was.

And today I stumble upon a comforting meme. It wasn’t just me. People, as a whole, have been sucking it up at writing reviews. First I foundsome tips on writing a good review. Then I found this take down of TNR that deals with their book reviews. And my first link, Open University, has been, between contemplations of what modern antisemitism could be, talking quite a bit about the need for a new book review. I’m not going to link specific bits on that last one, half the recent posts relate. Sounds like a good idea to me. Just as long as I’m not writing the reviews, yet.

Or maybe ever.

Making a List

February 6th, 2007

I turned 26 today, or more accurately yesterday, but it never feels like the next day until you’ve woken up. As per usual, I mostly got books. As per usual, I mostly asked for books.

The weirdest acquisition would have to be software for outlining. I’ve told myself that it will be helpful in writing, but the age old problem of having to actually sit down and write comes up. In the past, this sort of thing has been wasted money. Every now and then, a purchase works to spur me along. Climbing shoes got me climbing, to justify the cost, when I was scared to death of heights. Sitting on the first third of a big novel, picking at the little flaws that need fixing, and tempted to go back, I wanted to cut the next two parts down to size a little, and hopefully not get too distracted by going back and fixing the first part, they’ll be plenty of time for that when it’s drafted.

Creative Motivation

January 27th, 2007

With the start of the new year, thousands and thousands of aspiring writers across the nation make resolutions to work harder at writing.

The at least one person behind National Novel Writing month is thinking about motivations for more than just writing. It seems like a natural expansion, because writing that novel is on so many people’s lifetime to do list, might as well get off our asses about the other stuff too. Maybe you should look into that. Maybe you should learn to play the tuba.

Maybe you don’t think it’s worth it. Maybe you read the latest Cormac McCarthy, and think the end is near enough to not bother doing anything. Over at Dislocate, they’re contemplating the end of the world, and what it means to their writing. I’m not sure I’m with them all the way, but sources assure me that the end of the world is the hot new thing. I’m not quite sure where he’s going with that, but it seems to be someplace positive.

Vocabulary, Novels

January 25th, 2007

I will shortly be passing the length of the longest thing I’ve ever written. This is, in itself, a very pleasant feeling, but there are aspects of it that make me nervous.

The longer the work, the more intimately aware of my own vocabulary I become. As I’ve gone on with this project, I’ve come to realize how little of my vocabulary actually makes it into my fiction. You have to be fairly comfortable with a word for it to be used. If you aren’t, it will feel awkward, and stick out on the page, making it more likely to be removed. Words that are seldom used seem to need to excuse themselves. A while back on The Valve someone commented that they noticed china Meiville using ‘recurved’ a lot.

Maybe it’s me being neurotic, but I’m starting to notice words showing up too frequently. Most recently, it’s been a fear of sounding overly equivocal. I find myself wondering how many times I’ve used ‘perhaps’ in the first 50,000 or so words. I feel that text leans toward that word too often. I’m trying not to use that particular word, as I’ve started to think of it as distasteful. Why does the narrator need a word like perhaps? He’s the narrator. He gets to say what’s what. The reader can believe him or not.

You often see writers mention Nabokov’s amazing vocabulary. It really was impressive, and every time I read or reread one of his books, I’m struck by his usage of this or that word, often ones he rescued from obsolescence. Still, even he has words that start to stick out as favorites. He’s the only author I can think of who uses the word ‘purblind,’ but once you know the word, it sticks out in his writing every time he uses it. It doesn’t help that purblind means the same thing as blind, highlighting the fact that it is used for languages sake only.

Its surprising sometimes how quickly the English language can start to feel like a cramped house.

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