Monthly Archives: October 2011

Avoiding Suck

I’m in the Revision cave atm, working on draft 2 of Book 2. So while my head is in the space, I thought I’d write down some of the sins I commit in first drafts and some of the tricks I use when revising, that you may avoid my magnificent suckitude. I know in last week’s post, I said thinking your work sucks is a good thing, because it’s a catalyst for improvement. This is all still true. But if it actually sucks in RL, as opposed to in your head, that isn’t so awesome.

As always, YMMV.

Dialogue tags – I used to think I was a Very Clever Writer™ when I replaced ‘said’ with something like ‘rasped’ or ‘growled’ or ‘gasped’. And yes, there’s certainly times when a more evocative dialogue descriptor will help. But don’t be afraid of ‘said’. Don’t think you’re a Bad Writer if you use ‘said’ – it still usually does the job better than ‘exclaimed’ or ‘guffawed’ or another ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a Very Clever Writer™” word.

Ain’t nothin’ wrong with ‘said’. Most of the time. Just sayin’.

Ninja dialogue – The important thing about dialogue tags is that they’re meant to be invisible. They serve two main functions – to tell the reader who’s talking, and to describe how the words are being said IF you can’t do it with punctuation. Try avoiding dialogue tags and using motion/action to indicate who’s speaking. This really helps in a conversation with more than two participants – when you’re constantly having to tell readers who’s doing the talking, but ‘Curly said’ ‘Mo said’ and ‘Larry said’ are all getting older than the concept of Reality TV.

“Those are extraordinary trousers, old bean,” said Mr Bingley.
“You flatter me, sir,” Darcy bowed.
Wickham looked up from Mr Collins’ twitching corpse. “Damn his trousers, man, pass the cleaver.”

Overused words – Everyone has a handful. I throw around the word ‘slick’ like cheap hooch at an Irish wedding. And ‘splayed’. If I had a dollar for every time someone’s slick hair was splayed over their face in this sequel, I could totally buy me some beachfront property in Fukushima right now.

Make yourself a list of the words you overuse. Seriously. Write them down. Do a ’Find’ on them in MS word. More than a few hits? Back to the thesaurus, you must go. (Note: in the awesome On Writing, Stephen King says any word you chose in a thesaurus is the wrong word. But maybe his vocabulary is better than mine.)

Extraneous words – There’s a couple of prime suspects here. ‘That’ is Lord of the Extraneous, ruling alongside his beautiful concubine ‘Was’ and their malformed twins ‘Began to’ and ‘Started to’.

‘That’ succeeds only in cluttering your sentences. You can almost always do without it.

The trousers that all mortals feared.
The trousers all mortals feared.

‘Was’ makes your sentences weaker, particularly preceding a verb. ‘Began to’ and ‘Started to’ just delay your reader from the point. There’s usually a better, shorter way of saying the same thing.

Mr Elton was running down the street with no trousers.
Mr Elton ran down the street with no trousers.

Mr Bennet began to put on his trousers.
Mr Bennet put on his trousers.

Note: ‘Was’ works if you’re providing a snapshot of a scene your PoV has stumbled into, ie “Emma was in the process of sniffing Knightley’s trousers when I entered the boudoir.”

Redundant anatomy lessons – there are some Very Famous Writers who are guilty of this one. I speak of the terrible sin of adding body parts to a verb that can only really be performed by one part of the human body.

She nodded her head.
She pointed her finger.
She pouted her lips.

You can’t pout your shoulders, right? You can’t nod your legs. And yes, while you can point with many parts of your anatomy, some might get you arrested, and pointing does have a default body part associated with it.

If your protag kicks someone, we’re already assuming it’s with their foot. That’s all I’m saying.

Assuming your reader already knows – I do this one all the time, assuming my reader already knows how something sounds/feels/looks/smells and not bothering to describe it.

Eg, I catch myself using the phrase “The sound of…” – “The sound of thunder”, “The sound of engines” “The sound of me hitting my delete key over and over during draft 2”. Maybe I’m the only one. But I do it so often, it rates a mention.

“The sound of thunder” doesn’t tell us anything. It’s lazy writing. Thunder booms, rolls, crashes, it shakes the dust from the eaves, it makes the earth tremble, it fills the sky. It does so many interesting things, your passage will probably be more evocative if you spend one or two words describing it. And while sometimes you just need to get to the point, SFX be damned, doing this too often is wasting opportunity.

Beating around the bush – I do this all the time, too. Taking too long to actually say what I mean. Draft 1 was riddled with the following construct: The [noun] of the [noun]. Sometimes it can add gravitas to a statement. Most times, it’s just me being a tosser.

The Lord of the Trousers.
The Trouser Lord.

The trousers of the King.
The King’s trousers.

Other times, I just waste timed getting to the point, using four words where one will work just as well (often better)

His trousers were filled to the brim with happiness.
His trousers brimmed with happiness.

Ten percent – I try and cut at least 10% of word count between D1 and 2. Is this an arbitrary figure? Yes. Is it hard to cut that much? Yes. Is my writing tighter after applying this arbitrary rule to what should be a free-flowing, take-as-long-as-it-needs love-fest of verbiage? YES.

Finally:

Read aloud  Honestly, if you never believe anything else I say (can’t blame you), believe this. Reading your work aloud helps you spot repeated words, typos, passive voice. It’ll help with flow and rhythm. Most importantly, reading insipid prose aloud will embarrass you, and you’ll want to make it better. (reading 80,000+ words aloud hurts though, you might wanna have a Swiss masseuse or at least some lozenges on standby)

That’s all I’ve got.

Looking through the above, most of these rules boil down to one asset that I’m trying to cultivate: Brevity. In most situations, shorter is usually better. Don’t state the obvious. Don’t waste words. Get to the frackin’ point and get out before you send them to sleep.

Unless you write bedtime stories, I guess…

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The Importance of Suck

Writing a book is almost like suffering from schizophrenia. Every writer I’ve spoken to tends to go through ‘swings’ with the book they’re working on, alternating between arm-flailing enthusiasm and absolute loathing.

The highs are extraordinary – when the words you’ve written fill your soul like the laughter of carefree children, or that scene in Top Gun where Tom Cruise murders all those commies and then Val Kilmer is like “You can kiss me on the mouth be my wing-man any time” and they hug in a completely platonic, heterosexual kind of way and the music swells, guitars all wailing and…

But the lows are equally extreme, despair inevitably coalescing into two words – an inescapable truth that sours your stomach keeps you awake at night:

YOU SUCK.

It’s true. You do. Everything you write is hackneyed drivel. Every idea you’ve got has been done a million times before, by someone who’s far more talented, likeable and has better hair than you. The people who’ve read your stuff and said it’s good? They’re lying to spare your feelings. All the stuff you’ve written before that got sold? Pfft. Flukes. Because now it’s just you and the word processor and that Blank Page of Doom™, the cursor blinking like the twenty-foot high neon above your head, illuminating the truth you’ve always known.

YOU. <blink> SUCK. <blink> YOU. <blink> SUCK…

The certainty that you suck leads you to developing a dark and almighty hatred for this thing that you’re working on – this so called ‘book’ (Lies. Books have plots. And decent dialogue. And characters with more depth than the flap of a Wheeties box – YOU HAVE NONE OF THESE). And suddenly, you find yourself not wanting to write this ‘book’ anymore. You’ll do anything but – Clean the yard. Sort laundry. Engage in meaningful conversation with your Significant Other. Watch Top Gun.

Thing is? Avoiding writing is the last thing you should be doing.

Instead? You should be relishing your loathing for this damnable ‘book’. You should go back to the ‘book’, regardless of how bad it makes you feel, how much you hate it. Despite the fact that you know ‘book’ is no good for you, and succeeds only in making you feel like roadkill.

…so actually, now that I think about it, writing a book is like being in a really dysfunctional relationship.

So why should you put up with ‘book’s’ crap?

Well, because I firmly believe hating your book can make you a better writer. Truth is, parts of your book probably do suck. And even if suck-age is remarkably absent, it can almost certainly be better.

If you hate what you’ve written, your mind can be opened to new ways of writing it. Hating what you’ve done brings possibility, clarity, creativity. There is power in your suckage, there is life and motion and energy.  All you need to do is channel it back into the manuscript rather than a back-to-back screening of S1 of Vampire Diaries in the company of some ultra-choc chocolate ice cream.

Any emotion, love, hate, fear – these things let us know we’re alive and breathing. Don’t waste it. Use it.

Because, as with all things, the MS blues will pass. Though it will almost certainly be torturous, the blank page will fill with letters and the neon sign will fade. And, if you didn’t abandon it, you’ll probably be left with a manuscript that’s stronger than it was before. To paraphrase a gentleman who murders another beloved portion of my childhood with every film he releases, your hatred will have made you powerful.

…So actually, writing a book is more like being a Sith Lord. I guess?

Yeah, lets run with that.


Calling Bollocks

So the Mad Hatter (@MadHatterReview) sent me a link to an article over at Tor.com the other day, saying he’d love to see my response to it, probably because he knows I rant like a pantsless hobo at the drop of a hat, and everybody enjoys a fireworks show.

It was 5am, and was on the wrong side of a half bottle of Gentleman Jack at the time, which would seem like fertile ground for a full-on psychobilly freakout, but surprisingly, instead of getting all angry-face ranty-pantsed, I wrote back to the Hatter thusly:

“Feels like a flamewar waiting to happen. Post is pure antagonism, from the title on down. Point of engaging would be…?”

And then I went to bed.

(Cool story, bro.)

BUT, the thought of it wouldn’t leave me alone. I gave it the 24 Hour rule. Hell, I gave it 48 hours. And in the interest of avoiding a flamewar, I’ve decided to respond here, where people can ignore me at their leisure. But I have to say something, because straight up, folks, this article strikes me as a work of astonishing ignorance.

The article btw, can be found here.

As I said to the Hatter, it’s pure troll-face from the word go. Apparently there’s a ‘problem’ with Asian Steampunk, being that authors/gamers/cosplayers ‘limit’ themselves to a narrow set of archetypes – a habit which western Steampunk (apparently?) avoids.

I call bollocks.

Firstly, I’m baffled anyone thinks there’s enough Asian-inspired Steampunk around for there to be a problem at all, other than the problem that there isn’t enough Asian-inspired Steampunk. AFAIK, Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath (released about 30 seconds ago) is the first major release with Asian-inspired SP to hit shelves, albeit set in the 20th, not 19th century, and the Asian section is only one portion of the book. Steampunk aficionados aren’t drowning in a sea of samurai and ninja – they’re surrounded by retroVictoriana and post-colonial Americana, with bustles and corsets and parasols as far as the eye can see. A body might be forgiven for thinking that it’s actually awesome for Steampunk creators to be exploring locales other than London or the Wild West.

Nevins however, claims these creators are ‘limiting themselves’ to certain Asian archetypes (samurai, geisha and ninja). First off, I’d like to know exactly which creators he’s talking about (mainly because I’d really like to read/see them – No examples are actually cited). Secondly, even if Nevins could pull a barrow-load of examples from the aether (see what I did there?), who the fuck says those creators ‘limited’ themselves?

Maybe they WANTED to tell a story about a geisha within a Steampunk framework. Maybe they WANTED to explore the notion of a ninja cabal in a steam-mechanized age – I don’t know, again, no examples were cited.

Nevins goes onto show us his Google-fu and cites a bunch of Really Cool Shit™ that 19th century Asian people got up to. Problem is, all but one of his examples are Chinese or Indian, which doesn’t seem to fit with his beef about samurai/geisha/ninja, given those are Japanese concepts (if you were writing SP in China or India, they wouldn’t fit), but moving on…

The real issue is that his entire article is based on the misconception that Asian-inspired SP creators have ‘little knowledge’ of all this Really Cool Shit™ Asians did, and that we’re all ignorant tools who believe everyone living in 19th century Asia slung a katana or was a high-priced courtesan.

Thanks, dude. But we can fucking read.

Pirates? Explorers? Really? Like this stuff hasn’t been steampunked to DEATH already? Would treading these already well-worn western roads with Asian protagonists really make a difference? Wouldn’t it be cooler to explore concepts that are uniquely Asian? Every culture in the world can trot out the hard-nosed reporter archetype or a pirate trope. You’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the planet that can boast the cultural tropes found in the Tokugawa Shogunate or Manchu Dynasty.

I appreciate the Wikipedia lesson, but maybe the creators who ‘limited’ themselves to these archetypes did so because they thought they might be able to do something excellent with them? Asian-inspired SP hasn’t really been done before, so almost anything they do in this sandbox is going to be new. But besides that, did George RR Martin ‘limit’ himself when he constructed a world on the same western medieval fantasy tropes (knights/kings/dragons) we’ve lived with since Tolkein? Did Patrick Rothfuss ‘limit’ himself when he decided to tell a story about a gifted man who studies at a magic university and goes on to become the most powerful wizard who ever lived? Can subject matter be considered a limitation at all, especially given the absolute dearth of Asian-inspired SP in the first place?

Is the wandering samurai trope any more ‘unimaginative’ than the wandering knight? Is an Asian sky-pirate somehow less clichéd than a white one?

Here is truth, and it is the only truth in this debate that matters: A great story is in the telling.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m drawn to these archetypes not out of some dipshit whitebread ignorance or acquiescence to the evil influences of Orientalism. I’m drawn to them because I find them fascinating. Because these cultures contain a beauty and artistry and aesthetic unlike anything else in the world. And if some people’s stories do gravitate towards these tropes, it’d be awesome if other folks actually read them before they declared every single one of them to be ‘limited’ and ‘unimaginative’ and ‘problematic’ based on their own narrow misconceptions.

(deep breath)

Just sayin’.


Breathing

I’m a reasonably pessimistic fellow by nature (noooo, really?!). And though I’m fairly good at not sweating the small stuff, I’m usually too busy looking for the Bad Thing on the horizon to enjoy the Cool Thing happening right now.

And this is just a little Cool Thing I’m talking about here. No lottery wins or spontaneous manifestation of mutant super powers (I’m hoping for miiiiiiiiiind bullets). It’s just a bunch of zeros and ones on a server half a world away. But the zeros and ones equate to my name and a little thing I’ve spent the best part of two years building, and it’s really cool to see it one step closer to the palm of my hand. So I’m going to stop, and breathe, and enjoy this Cool Thing, right here and now:

The listing is totally bare-bones, but Stormdancer is now officially listed on Amazon UK. 😀

Big scary hugs to Tez for letting me know, and much love to all the awesome people who are helping me make this absurd little dream come true.