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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.