New Post Up on Ye Olde Writing Blog

For those of you interested in following the writer’s progress, I’ve started blogging my winter writing project. Yup. Time to get serious.

Those of you desiring an invite so that you may view my screaming and the occasional excerpt as this thing progresses, shoot me a request at dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com. And if you’ve requested before and not got an invite, I swear it’s not because I dislike you, but because I lost your email. Ask me again.

I’m off to stare at a blank page and start sweating blood now.

Why SF Is Important

Last Sunday, I posted my own thoughts on the importance of speculative fiction. Okay, yes, it was a rant. I do that sometimes, when things get up my nose.

We’re going to follow up here today with a fantastic post that inspired me to post that one. It’s called In Defense of Geekery: Why Society Needs SF/F. It’s written by Becky Chambers. I want to buy her a drink. I want to buy her several. Because she managed to say what I needed to say in far fewer words:

The other kicker is that our stories are ones that could be, not ones that are. This is a vital distinction. If I tell you a disturbing story, and I say, “this is how it is right now,” you may be motivated to do something about it. More likely, however, you will end up like me and my friends, picking at fries and feeling hopeless. You’ll feel pessimistic and disillusioned. You’ll feel like our species totally sucks.
But if I show you a fantastical place – even a scary one – that lights up all the little imaginative parts of your brain, and I tell you, “this is how it could be,” that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.

“This is how it could be.” That’s exactly what we writers of SF are telling folks, only we’re not bawling it in their faces, but whispering it in their ears. We’re giving them a delicious tingle down the spine. We’re giving them ideas. We are, in fact, inspiring them.

Here, for me, is the money quote, one I may have to have printed on pamphlets to distribute in venues where Very Helpful People may approach me to advise I am wasting my life and my talents writing fantasy when I could be writing something useful instead:

But what about fantasy? Fantasy can’t exist, no matter how we may long for a dragon heartstring wand or a dire wolf pup. What value can there be in exploring an impossible world?
Well, what if we frame the question differently? What if we ask, “What value can there be in exploring character studies in heroism, friendship, creativity, perseverance, and bravery?”
…yeah, that’s not even a question.

It’s really not.

And the brilliant thing about what we SF writers do is this: we change lives and minds, inspire people to do great things (read the whole of Becky’s article, and you will see how Star Trek gave a little girl the stars), perhaps even save the world, and we do it whilst entertaining the hell out of them.

There are some great jobs in this world. I personally think being a geologist is near the top, and there’s stuff like firefighter and astronaut and cake decorator that are a damned lot of fun and make people’s lives better. There are many careers a person can have that are fun, rewarding, and necessary.

But I personally can’t think of one I love more than SF Author.

Dana’s Dojo: A Time and Place

Today in the Dojo: How do you establish a story’s time and place?

Among the many pitfalls just waiting to impale the unwary writer is time and place. You’d think it would be so easy, right? How hard could it be to let people know the when and where of things? That’s nothing compared to the complexities of character, theme, plot, rising action, hooks, style…. Setting time and place is a walk in the woods after that!

That high-pitched shriek followed by the meaty thunk is yet another writer falling into the pit. A walk in the woods, indeed.

Not only is it harder to clue the reader in subtly to time and place than one might believe, it’s one of those chores that seem unimportant. As long as I let them know by, oh, say, page Three, we should be okay, right? you say to yourself, and Yourself agrees: Of course! Joe won’t be thinking about it being 1994 and living in Nowhere, Arizona when he’s in the house fighting with his wife. Of course it’s okay to only show that after he’s stormed out of the house.

Of course not. And I’ll show you why.

Where and When the Hell are We? A Cautionary Tale:

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have waited for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those spectators lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

Now, you’ve already formed a judgment about the time and place of the story. Old West, right? All the clues are there: woolen trousers, dusty street, six shooters, a gunfight, the saloon and dry goods store… That’s what your reader is going to think. That’s what you would have thought if you didn’t know I was about to pull a fast one on you. You would have been thinking, “Oh, no, another crappy Western…”

So what’s going to happen in the reader’s mind when they get past the gun battle, George hits the ground dramatically and then he and Butch both jump up to take their bows? Sure, we’ve revealed the time and place only about four or five paragraphs in – but by then it’s too late. The reader has already formed a judgment. They’re going to be jarred. They’re going to say, “Hey – I was expecting a crappy Western – what’s this story about two guys working for a Wild West Theme Park?”

It’s going to be even worse in the editor’s office, because if you’ve submitted this story to a publication that’s asked for stories set in modern times dealing with contemporary issues, you’re sunk. They’re not going to read past the first three paragraphs before stuffing your story into the return envelope and going on to the next.

“But you said to start in media res!” the writer wails. “This is in the middle of things! It’s right in the middle of the pivotal gunfight that George was scripted to win but Butch just had to go and win to prove how cool he is and and and… And there’s no room to say it’s a theme park! George isn’t thinking about that, he’s thinking that Butch is going to kick his ass again! He’s in character as one of the show people!” Or any number of other arguments as to why you can’t possibly mention the time and place just yet, ending with the very lame, “Well, look at the way he’s thinking! He’s obviously modern!”

Yeah. None of those arguments are working. And if the writer tells me with a smirk that they intended to pull a fast one on the reader, I shall give them a right sharp clout about the earhole. Don’t pull cheap tricks. If you’re planning a deception, it had better be for a far better reason than playing the clever bugger. And if the trick isn’t absolutely critical to the story, don’t pull it at all.

No, you can clue the reader in without destroying your magnum opus or being blatantly obvious about it. You don’t have to dump a clumsy reference to Billy Bob’s Wild West Theme Town into the first paragraph. You can tell the reader where and when they are by employing a whole range of tricks, which I shall now reveal.

The Subtle Art of Revealing Time and Place

So you want to set time and place right away, but don’t know how? I’ll tell you a secret: it’s easy.

No, really. It is. It’s just that we’re usually so close to the story, so committed to the way things are, that we don’t see it. There’s all kinds of opportunity already written into your beginning if you just know where to look.

The first secret is this: your reader does not need to know the story’s time and place so precisely that they can pinpoint it on a map and timeline. They just need a good, general idea to start with.

The second secret is that, like so much else in writing, you can start small and build. Time and place is often revealed as a totality of the evidence. Just like in that sample: you didn’t need anyone to say that “It was a sunny May 14th, 1872 in Dodge City, Kansas when George stepped out into the dusty street” to get a feel that this was a frontier city in the late 1800s (erroneous as that was). You made that judgment from far more subtle cues.

So what are those clues? Here’s a handy list:

Dress
Speech
Items
Transportation
Setting
Weather
Names
References to Time Period

…and so much more!

The trick is to choose details that are specific to an era that readers will likely recognize. Let’s turn to Joe and his arguing wife for a moment. Do you have his wife throwing the phone at him? Great! Is it corded?  Cordless? Cell phone? He’s stepped in front of his new TV to save it – is it a flat screen? Or one of those huge contraptions in a cabinet that were current back in the sixties and seventies? He snatches up his hat on the way out – well, this is Arizona, it’s either going to be a baseball cap or a cowboy hat, isn’t it? Not likely to be a fedora in Nowhere, AZ. What were they shouting – “Cool it, man!” is a different era from “Calm down already!” And so forth…

You’ll put in a bit of a description of the living room, which will be simple and country, not a palatial mansion – not in Nowhere, AZ. When Joe storms outside, he’ll see desert. He’ll see at most a sad huddle of houses in the middle of nowhere. He’ll get in his truck – and rather than saying it’s a Ford, you can tell us it’s an F150. Every little bit helps, as long as it’s not too intrusive. If you don’t want to talk about make and model, that’s fine – but you can mention whether it’s an 8-track, a cassette, CD or iPod he plays on the stereo. Comes to that, which band is it? Beatles could be from any era now, but if he throws in Coldplay, you’ve just dated the story. And you better not have them on an 8-track….

See how easy that is? By the time you get him down to the diner bitching to his buddies about being stuck in literally Nowhere with a harpy, the reader will already know that we’re in the American Southwest, and roughly what time it is.

Now that you’ve got the hang of it, we can return to George and Butch.

Gunfight at Billy Bob’s – The Reprise

George Owen strode down the middle of the dusty street, replica six shooters riding uncomfortably on his hips and the sun sharp in his eyes. He scrubbed his sweaty hands on his costume’s woolen trousers. “Butch” Monroe, twenty paces down the street, looked cruel and mean in silhouette. They should have scheduled this skit for high noon: bad enough that Butch was faster, but now the sun added to the other gunfighter’s advantage.
George swallowed hard, realizing that he was badly outmatched. And those tourists lining the boardwalk between the saloon and the dry goods store seemed eager to see one of them die…

There’s enough in there now to clue the reader in: the guns are replicas. George is wearing a costume, and this is a skit. There are tourists watching. It’s enough to be going on with. Your reader will now be expecting a story set in modern times with actors instead of gunslingers. This is all to the good, and it really didn’t take much effort. From here, we can build on the rivalry of these two actors, continuing to set time and place with more details. If it’s the present, you could throw in a cell phone ringing and even mention the ringtone. There’s a wealth of possibility already there.

Time and Place as a Part of Other Jobs

It’s best not to think of setting time and place as a separate job. It’s part of the whole shebang. While you’re setting time and place, you can use those details to do other work for you:

Characterization
Setting
Theme
Plot

…And So Much More!

Time and place defines who we are, the limitations and opportunities, what they mean for the characters, what can happen and how events will unfold. Bertha wearing hoop skirts and cooking over a cast iron stove is not only from a different era than Kylie wearing jeans and popping a Hot Pocket into the microwave. She’s also got a whole different set of social expectations, ideas, outlooks, specific problems, duties and abilities. She’s going to give the story a different feel. She’s going to drive the plot in ways Kylie couldn’t, and the things that happen to her will not be the same at all, even if on the surface they seem so. Her whole world is different. So will be Tatiana making borscht, or Spotted Dove roasting buffalo meat, or…

You get the picture.

Now go put your story’s time and place to work for you.

Dana’s Dojo: Characters So Deep You Can Swim In Them

There is this word, “deep.” People want deep characters. No one likes shallow, except folks who aren’t so great at swimming. Think back on the story people who’ve stayed with you for years and years after you first read about them, and you’re probably going to notice they’re deep. But what is this “deep”? How do you create someone who’s deep?

Patricia C. Wrede did up a couple of posts on it, books on writing almost always address it, and there are entire exercises dedicated to making deep people. Some of that stuff’s useful. Some of it just seems to get in the way. The thing is, there’s no one way to ensure you end up with characters who are more than ankle-deep. Fill out all the character biographies you like, you can still end up with cardboard with a few weird details thrown in.

I’m not going to tell you how writers make their characters deep. Writers are individuals, they’ve all got different ways of doing it. I’ll tell you how I do it, and you can filch any useful bits you like.

To begin with, I treat my characters with respect, probably more respect than I afford most real-life people. I don’t even call them characters. That sounds disrespectful. I’m disrespecting folks who exist only in my imagination, and I know that, but there it is: if I want them to come across as real and vital and alive, I have to treat them as such. They are individual people with their own foibles and concerns and desires and problems and habits, and they have their own minds, and they do not exist solely to help me move a story along. In fact, quite often, they’re southbound when I’m wanting to head west. I can sometimes persuade them that west is best, but more often, I’m forced in the direction they want to go. Much like you, and your more stubborn friends or family members. They cause me to adjust my expectations and rearrange things to their satisfaction, and the fact that they so often surprise me means they sometimes surprise my readers. I trust them. I trust them implicitly. My characters know far better than me. I’m just taking dictation.

That probably makes me something of a codependent doormat, but that’s fine by me.

But how do we get to that point? How do we get to know each other? How are they introduced?

They show up. Simply that. I’m not one of those writers who can sit down at the beginning and say, “I want to tell a story about weasel liberation gone horribly wrong. I shall have to have scientists at a research lab, young firebrands belonging to ALF, and probably a bumbling security guard for good measure.” I can’t write out a cast list and then start doing bios. That’s not how it works. Somebody shows up, pulls up a chair in my mind, and says, “Let me tell you a little story about the time we tried to free the weasels. It’s why I’m not a vegetarian anymore.”

All right. I have someone sitting in front of me. I can observe things like ethnicity, hair and eye color, height, weight, manner and style of dress, any tattoos, that sort of thing. I can listen to the cadence of their speech. I can tell if they’re full of themselves or self-deprecating, humorous or dull, get a sense of their education and outlook. If I was the sort of person who did such things, I could start filling out one of those stupid ten-page bios. I don’t. I let them babble. I write it down, and observe.

After I’ve got the bare bones, and they’ve introduced me to a few of the other folks involved, then I can start looking at bios. I do narrative bios, not fill-in-the-blank lists. I just start writing out things I should know: where they’re from, who their family is, what their lives have been like up to this point. When I get back to writing the story, after several pages of bio, I’ve got a better sense of who and what they are, and don’t have such a tin ear when I’m listening to them.

Then they surprise me. I may have a good, clear sense of how they see the world and how they might be expected to react in a given situation, but then they do something out of the ordinary, and I have to hit pause and say, “WTF?” More exploration in ye olde writing journal, figuring out why the hell they just said or did what they did. Often, this reveals facets I didn’t suspect were there. Bob the ALF weasel-freer didn’t get involved in this animal liberation stuff because he’s a True Believer, he did it for Kate, whom he’s been obsessed with since grade school. But when he looked into the deep brown eyes of a research weasel, he saw the eyes of his Aunty Dolores, whose life was saved by a lab rat once. But not via medical research, but because Aunty Delores was on the cleaning staff, there’d been a fire one night, and she couldn’t find the exit until she knocked a cage to the floor in her flailing, which then burst open and dispensed a rat who scurried for the door. Following the rat, she emerged from the building just before it collapsed. And if he lets this weasel go, who will be there to save the cleaning lady the next time the building catches fire? This is why he hesitates. And in this moment, he realizes he’s never really loved Kate after all, but the idea of Kate. Seeing her now, splashing red paint round the tidy lab, breaking open cages, he realizes that his idea of her and the reality are quite different things. And he thinks back guiltily to all of the people he knows whose lives have been improved or saved because of animal research.

These things go through his mind in a flash, and then he opens the cage and sets the weasel free. In this moment, with him doing something he absolutely does not want to do, I find another facet of him revealed, things I didn’t suspect til now: being raised by a military father and a deeply religious mother has made him something of a doormat. A rebellious doormat, but one who can’t rebel against the rebels he’s running with, as he hasn’t quite worked his way up to it.

And he doesn’t know this. He doesn’t know why he opened the cage. He curses himself for it. The reader won’t understand, just now, why Bob freed the weasel. But now I know that the reasons are ready to be revealed, a bit later, and I can be aware of other circumstances in which a deeply-conflicted Bob will be affected by things that barely even impinge upon his awareness, until someday and somehow, long after he’s done his jail time for freeing the research weasels (who were promptly killed by local predators, because research weasels were not bred to live free), told Kate to piss off, gone off the veggies and onto a strict meat diet, and married the scientist whose lab he trashed, these things will come clear to him (and to the reader).

Does this make him deep? Not necessarily. It’s mere detail, unless it changes the course of the story, affects his relationships and the situations he’s in and causes him to act in ways contrary to what we’ve come to expect from him. And Kate’s not deep, she’s just a shadow. I have to get to know her, understand her reasons for doing what she does, discover the motivations she hides even from herself, and use that knowledge to fill her. Only then can I have those telling moments, those deep moments in which something unexpected is revealed, in which the various ways people act and react and respond to each other and the situations around them tell us, possibly without words, that these are people with complexities, who cannot always be predicted.

There are off-camera events. I learned this from J.J. Abrams, and I’ve never forgotten it: these people have lives that happen outside the reader’s view. And the characters will reference them. They have their in-jokes, they gossip, and they’ll talk about things the reader hasn’t witnessed. The reader, in fact, doesn’t need to see everything that goes on. They don’t even have to understand it. They probably shouldn’t. A character seems rather deeper when we feel we’re seeing only a snapshot of their lives, when the whole photo album is closed and we know many and interesting things are in there, if only we could see them. Incidental mysteries, those, ones that give us the sense of seeing real people going about their lives just out of your sight.

Deep characters aren’t just ones with interesting quirks and distinguishing marks you stuck on because some writer’s advice column somewhere told you to do it. That’s false-deep. You could know all sorts of interesting details about Bob: that he’s got a chipped front tooth, he’s got a tattoo of a Chihuahua with the word YOWSA underneath, that he likes to eat wasabi on celery. What the fuck does any of that matter? Does that make him seem deep? It only matters if it’s important, and it’s only important if it fundamentally changes our understanding of him. It only matters if we know the reasons, and those reasons make a difference somewhere in the story. Otherwise, they’re just glitter, they’re rhinestones attempting to pass themselves off as diamonds. Walk-on characters can get away with a few wacky details that senselessly stand out and never matter, but your primary and secondary folk, those things should matter or they shouldn’t really be there at all. They’re just cheap tricks, stuck on with glue, and readers can see that for what it is: you trying way too hard to make someone deep.

What the fuck does it matter that Bob’s front tooth is chipped? Well, he got that chip the first time his dad let him shoot an M-16, and he couldn’t control the recoil. It’s a constant reminder that he’s never been able to live up to daddy’s expectations, and it bothers him. And what breaks the bank with Kate is when she asks him, after getting annoyed at him probing it with his tongue for the billionth time, why doesn’t he just get it fixed? No money, he says, but he’s had the money. What he hasn’t had is the mental strength to admit he can move on. He knows that all any dentist can do is make a cosmetic change. The chip will still be there and he knows it. So he spends his money on beer and X-Box games instead. And at the end of the story, when he gets that tooth fixed, we’ll know it means something more than vanity, now, won’t we?

Or maybe he gets that tooth fixed at Kate’s urging, and it’s only much later, when it gets knocked out by one of his former friends in ALF after he’s betrayed them all, that he discovers he’s free of some of that old baggage. Either way, it’s become more than a rhinestone detail: it’s now something that tells us a lot about him, affects a lot of situations, and makes him more than just some dude with a chipped tooth and no backbone.

So that’s what I do with those glittery little details: I dig, I find out why they’re there and what they mean and how they change things. If they can’t justify their existence, I don’t make a fuss over them. There’s no reason to. They add no value.

The most important thing, I think, is not those things, though. It’s putting people in situations together and watching them from a variety of angles. First draft, it’s all I can do to keep up. Second draft, or next scene, I’ve stepped back, taken the time to analyze things, tease out the stuff that’s odd or interesting or doesn’t quite make sense, and bombarded it with questions. Then I know. I know the people, and I know how they mix, and why they interact the way they do, and what led up to all that, and I’ve quite often done a lot of backstory that will never show up in the story proper but gives me a clear sense of everyone. And then I let all of that unseen detail impinge upon the story, and I won’t always explain. I’ll imply. I’ll let readers chew it over. I’m not good at that, I always feel like I should explain, but I try to avoid over-explaining. Let the readers have a mystery they’ve got enough clues to solve, if they’re clever. People like to be allowed to be clever, and I think that makes them see the characters as deep as well. They’ve figured something out. They’ve had an n-dimensional puzzle to solve. Characters who can be taken at face value aren’t deep, no matter how much detail you’ve thrown in.

Detail isn’t depth. Never forget that. Art needs empty spaces so that the picture appears full.

Do you want deep characters? Take the trouble to really get to know them. Set the questionnaire aside. Let them talk, let them act, listen, and then try to understand. Just as you would with people in real life. Get them to reveal as much of themselves as you can. And when you don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story, when they do something you didn’t think they’d ever do, don’t let your first instinct be to revise that out. When your characters surprise you, it’s not a sign you’ve done something wrong. It’s an opportunity to learn more about them, and adjust the story so that the unexpected is still surprising but isn’t coming completely out of left field. It’s an opportunity to let them be deep. Deep people do unexpected things. They don’t always explain why. But ultimately, even if we don’t know quite why they did what they did, it ends up making a certain kind of sense.

Deep characters are implied. Let the implications unfold. Don’t baldly state stuff like, “Bob was insecure about his chipped tooth because blah blah blah.” Let the details trickle out. Let those details come about because of circumstances, not because you decided you’d better insert a paragraph of exposition. Give the reader some clues and let them figure it out. Let Bob discover the real truth as things unfold, because he probably didn’t know himself. And for fuck’s sake, keep him off the psychiatrist’s couch.

It will take a lot of time, effort, and false starts before you have story people so deep people can dive into them without hitting bottom. But it’s worth it.

Are There Any Mineralogists in the Audience?

If so, have you ever howled at silly mineralogical mistakes in a piece of fiction? Wanna prevent me from making you scream?

I’m in the midst of worldbuilding, you see, and I’ve just come across the uncomfortable fact that I know bugger-all about minerals. I know some basics: that when a geologist is talking about a mineral, it’s not the same type of mineral your nutritionist will be yammering about. I know rocks are made of minerals, and that some minerals are commercially useful. I can, if pressed, name a few. Well, probably several. And that’s about it.

It’s pathetic is what it is.

So I’ve got this mining region. It’s got some normal aspects, and some that are decidedly not. On top of that, some mining operations take place off-world, on asteroids and suchlike. I’ve got questions piling up like tribbles. What sorts of minerals can only form on a planet like Earth? What kinds of minerals are found only in space? What are the properties of minerals? What might we be able to do with those strange outer space minerals?

If you’re a mineralogist who likes talking about minerals, and you’d like to give me a crash course, plus engage in some wild speculation, and in addition have some nifty resources you’re just itching to point an interested party to, I’m dhunterauthor on yahoo, and I’m standing by to take your email.

You could earn a bit of publicity if you like, certainly a drink, and more than likely a nice meal at your eating establishment of choice when I can make it by your neck of the woods.

And you will have the opportunity to make sure an SF writer gets it right.

If you’re not a mineralogist, but know one, please point them my way.

Thanks in advance, my darlings!

Dana’s Dojo: Get Your Black Belt Right Here

It’s the beginning of the winter writing season, and Sensei Dana is en la casa. Specifically, her arse is planted in the big chair, and her legs will soon have semi-permanent laptop-shaped impressions upon them. We do not know food. We do not know sleep. We do not know social events. We are writing.

Summer Sessions are over, people. Follow me into the Dojo.

There’s this sea of new faces, which look completely at sea, so we’ll begin this winter’s Dojo sessions with a bit of an explanation as to what this Dojo thing’s all about and what the winter writing season is.

Considering the arse-kicking I got when I said I wasn’t a geologist, I’m not even going to attempt to explain that I’m not a writer. That would be total bullshit, anyway, and I would never make such a claim. But honesty compels me to say: I’m not a formally-published writer. Yet. You won’t find my books on Amazon or in the few remaining brick-and-mortar stores. Yet. I’m working on that. It’s what the winter writing season’s all about.

So, not yet formally published. But if you believe that makes the advice contained herein suspect, remember this: I learned from the giants of the literary world. I’ve spent 20+ years learning this good business of wordsmithing. I may shuffle my feet and blush and demur when people tell me I’m a really real geologist despite the lack of degree, but I will look you in the eye and say, “Fuck, yes!” when people accuse me of being a writer. I might even, on occasion, admit to being a decent one.

I learned from giants. I get advice and input from wise and wonderful people. I know where commas go, and how to spin a phrase on its axis, and how to make people laugh, cry or scream, because of them. Least I can do is pass it on.

We mostly talk fiction here in the Dojo, but I’ve got some ideas for a bit o’ the old non-fiction, now that I’m becoming familiar with it, and perhaps a post or two on the art o’ blogging. I’ve got quite a few topics to be going on with, but I love having readers pitch ideas. Whatever you’d like me to cover, you just let me know. I know my limitations, and can’t always oblige – sorry, Nicole, but I am not the person people should talk to about organization! – but I’m usually able to give it the old college try. So tell me, what do you need help with? What frustrates you? Where are you stuck? What do you want to learn more about?

You folks who don’t write – yes, you, I see you trying to sneak out the door! Get back in here. You read. You love good writing. And you’re likely curious about how we wordsmiths make the magic happen. Ask me those questions you’ve always wanted to ask writers but haven’t asked. Just don’t ask where we writers get our ideas. We shall scream such a scream.

But if you really must ask that question, I’ll answer it. Under protest. And you may not like the answer.

Right. That’s the Dojo: all about writing, regularly every Tuesday. Get your black belt, my darlings!

And now to explain this winter writing season business. When I was young and eager and had no nerve damage, I used to write fiction year-round. That was before I moved up to the Seattle area and discovered that a nocturnal writer in the Pacific Northwest is pretty much SOL. That’s because Sol hangs about from round four in the ay-em to ten in the pee-em, and we get a concentrated dose of sunny weather the likes of which we will not see for the rest of the year, and we have all of this scrumptious geology just begging for field trips. So in the summers, Muse willing, fiction gets put on hold. And then, the first weekend in October, I wave goodbye to Sol until May, and allow my Muse to use and abuse me.

There will be weeks at a time when you won’t see much of me aside from the daily ETEV post. I may not always be around to respond to comments, although I always read and appreciate each and every one. I may forget to email you if you email me. You might invite me out for fun and interesting things, and I will look at you from eyes welling with tears and hook a thumb at the Muse. That’s her, over there, the one with the thigh-high leather boots and the wicked whip. She is a dominatrix. And she does not let me out of my bonds very often.

All I have ever wanted to be in life is a writer. Right now, I’m still putting together the body of work that will allow me to achieve that dream. Right now, I’m unable to get my patented Spider Jersalem tattoo and invite my employers to kiss it because I am quitting to become a full-time author. Until that glorious day, winters shall be fraught.

This also means that I may not be able to respond to requests for critiques of your own work. Sorry in advance. I’d love to help you individually, but my own work must come first, or I’ll never be able to get my ass inked.

For those who want a glimpse of my fiction, I have got an invite-only writing blog. Let me know if you wish to become one of my Wise Readers.

And limber up. The Dojo starts in earnest next Tuesday.

Dojo Summer Sessions: Steven Pinker Makes Me Feel Better

He shall probably do the same for you.

I fell in love with Steven quite by accident. I was at Bookmans, the most delicious used bookstore I’ve ever been in this side of Powell’s, and I was combing the Buddhism section for some Zen goodness. Behind me stood books on writing, so I turned round for a look. You never know but you might find something of use. And there, fortuitously out of place, was this book called The Language Instinct.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for neuroscience, philology, and psychology. This book was all of it. So I clutched it to my bosom and sashayed up to the register to negotiate its release to my custody. Read it. Adored it. Started reading more of his books, and I have to tell you this: few non-fiction authors have made me think as hard or deliciously as Steven Pinker. And I’ve read a lot of non-fiction authors that made me think hard and deliciously.


The Language Instinct is a book I’d recommend to any aspiring author, especially those who are trying to invent languages of their own. But it’s two other books we’re quoting from today. First, we have this delight from The Blank Slate:

“Paradoxically, in today’s intellectual climate novelists may have a clearer mandate than scientists to speak the truth about human nature.”

I’ve always avowed that fiction is a means for telling truths that are difficult to administer otherwise. It’s sad that scientists aren’t as well-regarded as they should be, and shat upon by the fuckwits in Congress far too often. Working to change that, in fact. But until their mandate is secure, I’m more than happy to speak the truth about human nature. Well, some truths, anyway – there is no the truth, no one single truth about human nature. It’s not only a fun and important thing to do, it makes me feel a little useful.

But it’s this second passage, from How the Mind Works, that I wish you to pay closest attention to:

“Geniuses are wonks.  The typical genius pays dues for at least ten years before contributing anything of lasting value.  (Mozart composed symphonies at eight, but they weren’t very good; his first masterwork came in the twelfth year of his career.)  During the apprenticeship, geniuses immerse themselves in their genre.  They absorb tens of thousands of problems and solutions, so no challenge is completely new and they can draw on a vast repertoire of motifs and strategies.  They keep an eye on the competition and a finger to the wind, and are either discriminating or lucky in their choice of problems.  (The unlucky ones, however talented, aren’t remembered as geniuses.)  They are mindful of the esteem of others and of their place in history.  (They physicist Richard Feynman wrote two books describing how brilliant, irreverent, and admired he was and called one of them What Do You Care What Other People Think?)  They work day and night, and leave us with many works of subgenius.  (Wallace spent the end of his career trying to communicate with the dead.)  Their interludes away from a problem are helpful not because it ferments in the unconscious but because they are exhausted and need the rest (and possibly so they can forget blind alleys).  They do not repress a problem but engage in ‘creative worrying,’ and the epiphany is not a masterstroke but a tweaking of an earlier attempt.  They revise endlessly, gradually closing in on their ideal.”

This passage should tell you three things:

It is okay if it takes years for you to develop into the kind of writer that other people believe must have been born with a supreme magical talent, so good are your works. You’re not abnormal or useless or not cut out for writing because you can’t write a masterwork on the first go.

Being a genius is bloody hard work, and it’s not right for everybody.

You’re going to have to work your arse off, did I mention?

Reading that passage in that book assuaged many of my doubts. I’d thought there was something wrong with me. Turns out not. And that’s what I wish you to take away from this: there’s nothing wrong with you, just because you’re not finished becoming a genius yet and you obsess over things. Turns out you’re just doing what geniuses do.

Now, get on with becoming a genius and telling the truth about human nature, perhaps whilst creating your own language, why don’t you?

Dojo Summer Sessions: Writing Inspirations, Good Advice

I’m busy writing a short story that decided it couldn’t wait and trying to pre-load meaty posts for this long winter writing season. So I shall foist you off on other, wiser people who had quite good things to say to writers such as ourselves. This is a small collection of quotes I’ve gathered over some years and meant to turn into a Dojo article someday. They need no help from me: they can stand alone.

“You ask yourself the following question: To what questions in life have I not yet found a satisfactory answer?”

-Holly Lisle, “Finding Your Themes

“An American editor worries his hair gray to see that no typographical mistakes appear on the page of his magazine.  The Chinese editor is wiser than that.  He wants to leave his readers the supreme satisfaction of discovering a few typographical mistakes for themselves.”

-Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

“There is a curious thing that one feels sometimes.  When you are considering a subject, suddenly a whole train of reasoning comes before you like a flash of light.  You see it all, yet it takes you perhaps two hours to put on paper all that has occurred to your mind in an instant.  Every part of the subject, the bearings of all its parts upon each other, and all the consequences are there before you.”

            -Lord Wellington, quoted in John Keegan’s The Mask of Command

“A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true….. the unit of truth, at least for a fiction writer, is the human animal, belonging to the species Homo sapiens, unchanged for at least 100,000 years.

“Fiction, in its groping way, is drawn to those moments of discomfort when society asks more than its individual members can, or wish to, provide.  Ordinary people experiencing friction on the page is what warms our hands and hearts as we write.”

            -John Updike, quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate

If at least one of those didn’t make your Muse sit up and take notice, then I despair of your Muse.

Dojo Summer Sessions: I Shall Require Topics

Summer’s drawing to a close, and the winter writing season is very nearly upon us. The Muse is back from wherever she spent her summer vacation. It looks like winter will be coming early. There’s a sharp chill in the night air, and a certain gleam in her eye that says I’m in for it. She also appears to have acquired a new whip. Dear, oh dear.

So I’m furiously loading up on posts before summer ends in order to clear the decks for some marathon fiction writing. I’ll need at least 30 Dojo posts fired up and ready to go in advance. I’ve got about half that nearing completion, and I’m running a bit low on ideas.

Topics. I require topics. What haven’t I covered in the Dojo that you’d like to see covered? Pepper me with questions about all things writing, whether fiction or blogging. Tell me what you struggle with. Are there contentious issues in the wordsmithing world you’d like to see me tackle with nothing more than my wits and perhaps a rock hammer? Get them to me. If you don’t want to go public, you can always find dhunterauthor at yahoo. DM me on Twitter. Drop me a line on Google+, only you’d better do that before October, because I’ve plans to abandon it willy-nilly if it continues to be evil. You can even find me on Facebook: although I tend to neglect that place shamefully, they always notify me by email when something gets messaged or posted.

Right, then. Fire away.

Dojo Summer Sessions: The Writer’s Gut

My heart sister says important things about writing. And you may say to yourself, “Well, of course, Dana would think so – Nicole’s the sister she never had.” That’s true. Yes, I am partial. But there’s also another factor: Nicole writes for a living, so when she says things about writing, these important things, it behooves an aspiring author to listen for reasons beyond the fact Dana loves and trusts her.

She had this to say just recently:

I have to trust myself as I write these stories. I have feelings about which stories will work and which should probably be included only in my journal. And I have those feelings for a reason. My writer’s gut is telling me which direction to go. I just have to trust it.

As writers, it’s sometimes easy to trust other people’s opinions more than our own. After all, writers are seeking approval of fellow writers, agents and publishers and, ultimately, readers. We want to know that what we’re doing is going to be read and enjoyed by people.

But only you know the best way to do your characters justice. Only you know how to write your stories. You have to trust yourself.

She’s right. She’s right about all of it. And those last lines, particularly, are ones that are now burned into my writer’s soul and will not let go, because they are true, and I sometimes need to hear them stated that starkly so that I am reminded of the truth.

But what did I get hung up on? The “writer’s gut.” What is that? What is this “writer’s gut”? Why should I trust it?

I’m not one much for talk of instinct and intuition anymore. I used to be. Then I started hanging round with scientists, who subject their “gut instinct” to rigorous testing. They’re so often wrong, these intuitions, these leaps. The writer’s gut, you see, is an instinct. It’s an intuition. Why should we trust it?

Because those instincts and intuitions are hard-won, my friends. They only happen after we’ve worked ourselves bloody, after we’ve been writing for a long time. The writer’s gut is different from that first flush of creativity, that alluring idea, that wild self-confidence you feel before you’ve actually picked up a pen and run up against harsh reality. The writer’s gut is developed only after years, perhaps decades, of hard, lonely work.

It’s your subconscious writer’s mind, the one you acquired after a billion failed drafts and some writing classes and/or workshops and reading countless books on writing and blogs on writing, the one that listened to and absorbed what the experts (i.e., successful authors you worshipped) told you about how to write, watching the story unfold and clearing its throat meaningfully on occasion.

It plugs you in to a high-voltage current and gives you the buzz of your life when you’re on to something, when you’re working with an idea that will lead to a fantastic story. It takes your brain and gives it a good hard wrench when you’ve hared off in the wrong damned direction. It can’t always articulate what’s wrong and what’s right. But if you listen just right, you can tell what it means. And when you’ve learnt to listen to it, it can keep you on a path that everybody says you shouldn’t take but turns out to be the right one in the end. It can steer you round stumbling blocks. It can tell you when you’ve gone badly astray and must backtrack rather than stumble stubbornly ahead.

Is it wrong? I’m sure it sometimes is. But if you’ve honed it, you can trust it most of the time.

I don’t actually think of it as my “writer’s gut.” I think of it as the story. The story knows better than I do. It always does. It knows what it wants and needs. It knows if I’m the right writer for it. I’ve got a hard drive full of story ideas, amazing ideas, wonderful ideas that would make fabulous stories, but I know I can’t write them. My writer’s gut tells me they’re not my stories. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to give them free to a good home. They should have adoption centers for abandoned story ideas. But there are ideas that look up at me with those big, soulful eyes, and wriggle just a little, and I know they’re mine. I know, even if they look ridiculous to other people at first, that I can help them grow into something sleek and beautiful and enchanting. There are stories that are mine to tell, and I recognize them now. They make it easier to regretfully pass the other stories by, leave them for another.

My writer’s gut also knows when I’ve gotten ahead of myself. It knows when a story idea is mine, but I’m not ready for it yet. Then it slows me down to a gentle halt, directs me to do some more work before coming back to that story. I’m manifestly not ready now for some of the ideas I have got. There are plenty of others to work with in the mean time. My writer’s gut tells me that this is fine. All of my stories will be better served in the end by writing the ones I’m prepared for first. There are stories I told ten years ago I couldn’t tell now, and stories I’m telling now I couldn’t have told ten years ago. And eventually, with work and care, they’ll be drawn together into a body of work, whole and complete, and ready to make their own way in the world.

You may wonder why I haven’t tried publishing those stories. My writer’s gut again. It tells me to wait, just now. I write out of order. After long consultation with my writer’s gut, it’s been determined that this is the proper way for me to write, but not to publish. That’s fine. Stories are patient. These stories will be just fine waiting a few more years until their siblings are ready to join them in that grand adventure that is finding an audience.

I can hear the publish-or-perish crowd howling in protest just now, but they shan’t overrule my writer’s gut. Theirs tells them to push their work out in the world, and they are right – for those works. Not these. I used to beat myself up over not being like them. No more. No, I’ve learned to listen to that instinct that’s telling me it’s all right to wait until the stories are ready. Not forever. Not until they’re perfect, because nothing ever is, but until they are as right as they need to be.

The thing about this writer’s gut is, you know your stories better than anyone else possibly can. You live them. They are inside you. And that’s what gives you the instincts you have got. Instinct is just a word for something you know so well you can’t articulate it. But it’s not that silly intuition that’s no better than tossing divining sticks or a pair of gaming dice. It’s that intuition that comes from knowing something very, very well.

So, yes, when you’ve lived with your stories long enough to know them more intimately than you’ve ever known a lover, emblazon these words upon your wall, so that you will never forget them:

But only you know the best way to do your characters justice. Only you know how to write your stories. You have to trust yourself.

And then, write.