Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

So this week, I'm working on a part of the writing process that's somewhat unusual for me:  I am rewriting a story.  To clarify, I'm not editing or simply retyping and making changes as I go (which is a strategy I've used in the past) - I've started writing the same plot and characters from scratch, beginning at a different scene, saving only a few choice phrases and the essence of the tale.

The concept and plot is a lot of fun, and the characters are enjoyable - but the writing itself is awful.  Seriously, who wrote this drivel?  (Me. Sigh.)  Also, a few elements of the plot need to be extracted and altered.

To be honest, I don't rework short stories this thoroughly often for two reasons.  First, if a story is deeply flawed, I would rather put my energies to a new work.  The pool of ideas is simply too rich to obsess over a single story.  Second, there is a point at which alterations to the story changes its inherent nature:  it's no longer the story I set out to tell.  If I wanted to tell a different story, that's where I would have started.

When I have rewritten, it's most commonly because it's one of my favorite ideas, but the prose needs to have a hammer taken to it.  It's too flawed to be handled easily by typical editing - take a few links out of the narrative chain, and it falls apart.  For me, however, an idea is the whole package, and there will usually only be one or two significant points I want to change.

Now, all of this applies mainly to short stories - a novel has so many more working parts and so much more that can (and needs) to be changed.  But for me, with fiction, my time budgeting usually calls for new works rather than taking a wrecking ball to existing works.

Monday, March 25, 2013

GoodReads Review: I'm Just Here For The Food

I'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = CookingI'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking by Alton Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a cookbook: it's a mad-science exploration of cooking. Alton Brown explains the chemistry, physics and processes of the foundational methods of cooking food, breaking them down with hilarious commentary and consistent precision. Throughout the book, he explains the inaccuracies in home equipment and how to combat them ... at an extent that is frankly ridiculous for any but the most neurotic, but it certainly is entertaining to ponder - and that's the point. But no, I won't be melting ice cubes on my grill any time ... wait, I don't have a grill. I digress.

This book is accessible and laugh-out-loud funny, and also a little disturbing - anyone who gets just a liiittle lackadaisical about kitchen sanitations practices will no longer feel that way after seeing the breakdown of hazards in actions we take for granted. And as I said above, it is not a cookbook: while there are recipes, explained with the same clarity and precision as the text, they tend to be fairly standard and iconic - blueprints rather than the specialty products of Brown's kitchen and cookery.

This is definitely a sit-down-and-read book rather than a flip-through book, and it holds up very well to this kind of intensive review. Recommended.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today, I want to talk about family dynamics in fiction.

I'm an only child and grew up with my own space ... a lot of space.  While I was homeschooled for a few years with another girl, that was still a finite situation:  when the "school day" was over, she went home.  So I've never had siblings, and I never had personal experience with the trials and joys of it.  It's probably impossible to interact in the world and not have some knowledge of sibling dynamics, but I was always on the outside looking in, and I found them fascinating.

(Homeschooling also had another effect on my understanding of siblinghood.  Since my interactions weren't confined within a specific age / grade range, I had what I think was more than usual tolerance for brothers and sisters.)

In general, though, my family dynamic was small, close-knit and healthy ... at which point, I will stop talking personal biography and get to the point.  The way that families interact, to me, is endlessly fascinating, with so many powerful permutations - many of which defy logic.  The most virulent rivalries are amongst families ... and so are unbreakable bonds and loyalties held even by people who might otherwise have no redeeming qualities.  A parent's love can overcome tremendous obstacles or scar a child for life.  Sibling rivalries can be the stuff of myths - literally.  Romulus and Remus, anyone?

And what about more distant relatives, with whom we have less frequent interactions?  So often, there's an obligation to spend time with or do things for someone we just don't like.  (I'm fortunate enough that that's not my family, but I know I'm in a minority.)  Family is a grab-bag, often with few common interests and incompatible personalities.  And when a family member is down on their luck, there's pressure from multiple sources - particularly society - to pick them back up.  It's altruism for a stranger, expectation for family.

The nature and intensity of the family bond isn't a static, singular thing, either.  There's a great range in how much people are willing to give, forgive, tolerate, embrace ...

In fiction, family helps make a character feel as if they didn't simply drop out of the sky, fully formed.  It provides them with roots, with a sense of continuity - that impression of history before the story, even if ma and pa's courtship wouldn't make for riveting drama.  Because we all have strong feelings about family, show a character interacting with his or hers - or simply referring to them - and you instantly learn something new about them.  Showing the family at work (or play) provides another avenue for introducing or implying backstory without an infodump whack over the head.

Family is also interesting for the contradictions that develop.  I'll 'fess up:  one of my favorite things to do with my antagonists is to give them a deep sense of family loyalty.  They may do terrible things and have less-than-winning personalities (though I've always liked an honorable antagonist, too), but they have a sibling or child for whom they will do anything.  When I set up Treddian, one of the dubious heroes of Butterfly's Poison, probably the first redeeming quality we see in him comes from his interactions with his daughter.  (That whole book was a lot of fun to write, because it was the first time I really worked with mature characters who had long histories and extended family ties, including children - but I digress.)

Family presents any number of plot possibilities, from a disapproving parent to a tagalong younger sibling ... and especially for short works, it's a good short hand in motivation.  If something has happened to the main character's brother, it needs less explanation than with some other relationships.  Of course, a good story should explore the motivation further, but it's an easy hook to present to hang action upon until there's time to slow down and provide detail.  The emotional charge is instinctive.  We all translate our own experiences.

It's hard to think of a novel I've worked on, at least for some time, that hasn't had some family dynamic.  The main plot of Journal of the Dead pivots around Rhiane and her son.  Butterfly's Poison - see above.  Even Scylla and Charybdis has some elements, with Gwydion being in (unrequited) love with his brother's wife.  And Flow?  Flow is absolutely a story about family, identity and discovering the lines between the two.

(As to the heading of this post - hey, I started this when it was still Thursday.  It counts.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

GoodReads Review: The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women

The 12 Secrets Of Highly Creative Women: A Portable MentorThe 12 Secrets Of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor by Gail McMeekin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Liberally filled with thoughtful quotations and illustrative stories, this book tackles the subject of making space in your life to pursue creativity - in terms of time, physical space, mental energy, privacy and many other aspects. Although the author asserts that the contents apply to anyone who wants to access their creativity, the book's slant and the lion's share of the miniature biographies focus on women who pursue creative work as a career. Still, I think it can be validly helpful for those who "merely" want to have a hobby ... but you may feel a little pressured by the end of the book.

It's hard to provide an objective analysis of this book because the subject matter is deeply personal and intrinsically dependent on one's internal beliefs about the societal pressures on women and the creative process, so I feel I should put my biases up first. When it came to the societal elements, I felt that the book verged on a radical feminist perspective in some places, and this made a little skeptical of the contents. As far the creative, I think there's a certain New Age view of creativity as something sacred and exalted, and I've never been totally comfortable with this formalized, almost religious reverence for it. I think to improve the quality of what you create, you also have to treat it as a craft and even (sometimes) a science, and refusing to take creativity down off this spiritual pedestal hampers that.

Some of what is presented in this book is common sense ... but often, common sense isn't, and it's a rare book that can show you something that you knew all along, present it in a new light, and make you see the significance of it. I had that experience multiple times reading The 12 Secrets, particularly the chapter about fallow periods.

I was not so sure about the underlying message that the universe will provide and that persistence and belief will bring you to the right path. I thought that the stories offered throughout didn't provide enough assessment or discussion of what happens when an endeavor falls through. Too many of them seemed to involve serendipity, and I found my inner skeptic piping up. What about those of us who don't have fortunate coincidences? I would have loved to see a cautionary tale about someone who invested too much and went awry. For me, this would have strengthened the inspirational tales and lent validity to them, not subtracted it.

For me, this book happened to come at the right time and proved to be very powerful. It helped me center myself in a mental transition period, and I'm very grateful for it. I do question, however, whether it's a book for all people at all times - but maybe there's something to the synchronicity I just criticized. So maybe I should say that if you're just casually curious, this book may not be for you, but if its premise somehow speaks to you ... read it.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

It's common (though not universal) wisdom that a professional writer needs discipline:  you can't wait around for inspiration.  Writers who write every day (or lock themselves in their office for the whole weekend) are considered to be better technicians and have better outputs than those who only touch the keys when the right mood strikes.

To a certain extent, I agree with this in the sense that writing is a skill that improves with practice and the ability to write for long stretches requires endurance.  It's like a muscle:  the more you exercise it, the longer you can keep going.

But there's another component to the exercise metaphor:  rest.  Few exercise regimens recommend working out every day of the week.  Instead, you might take a break two days out of the week - or more, depending on the strenuousness of the exercise.  This gives your muscles a break and prevents your body from falling into a routine, which is when exercise becomes less effective.

Similarly, I believe that most people have dormant periods where they need creative rest - time away from the writing to pursue other interests.  It gives your brain a break and prevents writing from feeling like a chore.  A few days a week?  Probably not - I tend to see this in terms of weeks and months, but everyone will be different, not everyone will have a pattern, and frequently it's a question of when and how life interrupts.

When this happens, it's about trust and self-discipline.  You have to know your patterns and believe that the creative spark will come back.  You also have to know when you really need a break versus simply feeling a bit lazy.

And what does one do during the breaks?  Live life - and that's all fodder, after all.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Two of the most important elements in any work of fiction, I feel, are foreshadowing and fair play ... which in some cases are even interchangeable.  When writing, I apply them to many of the elements of story.

Foreshadowing, of course, is the use of elements or hints in the story to prepare the reader for what is to come - a glimpse ahead.  Fair play, for me, is a shorthand for the rules of fair play used in mystery novels.  These are the standards that allow a mystery reader to play along with the detective.

But foreshadowing and fair play are applicable in more situations than setting up a big event or building up a mystery.  I find fair play particularly important when building towards a twist or revelation - a sudden change in the story that makes perfect sense in hindsight.

To be satisfying, any twist (especially a twist ending) needs to have solid grounding in the facts of the story - and the reader has to be aware of these facts.  So creating a good twist is something like a mystery:  you put in clues for the reader leading to an "aha!" moment.  Perhaps the main difference is that in the mystery, the author is rooting for the reader, whereas in the twist, the author is trying to trick the reader ... but both play by game rules.

To play fair with a twist, however, you can't fool all of the people all of the time, so I've never been fond of stories that depend solely on the twist for interest.

Foreshadowing can be used not only for major plot elements, but for the evolution of character interaction.  Romance, in particular, has its own elaborate language of foreshadowing, hints and touches and baby steps that range from so subtle even the reader may miss them to painful, blunt thudding-over-the-head.

In fact, I like to apply both fair play and foreshadowing to the overall development of plot - any plot.  If the character has a knack for gardening that will turn out to be the common element with the sea monster he meets in the final sequence (... work with me, here), I had better hear him praising the azaleas in the beginning of the story.  If the primary race in the story has telepathy, it shouldn't come up the first time a third of the way through - when one of the characters mindspeaks another so they can coordinate their escape plan.

Does this mean everything is known ahead of time?  Hardly.  Just because the reader might pick out that this piece or that is significant doesn't mean they know how it will come into play ...

It's a delicate balance between predictability and deus ex machina - but if I must err in one direction, it would be the former.  Enjoyment of a story should never be predicated on surprise.  It should be the organic product of everything that comes before, and the reader finding out they were right should be just as satisfying as the reader finding out they were wrong.