There seem to be two prevalent stereotypes of the “writer”: one that seems to be based on merging the beats, the writers in Paris in Gertrude Stein’s circles and whatever the indie-cool is becoming these days; and the other, messier, smellier, in much need of reminding of the aspects of living (that is, all of them) they’ve forgotten while focussing on their writing.
Using camp nanowrimo’s 50k wordcount and a looming retreat from everything (including coffee, speech and dinner), I finished draft two of ‘With a Chance of Tomorrow’ (still a working title until I find something catchier). The last week was lacking in things like fresh air, lunch, reading, showering, but if I didn’t bend over suddenly I couldn’t smell myself and I got the last 25k done (the last 3k a few times even).
Now, I didn’t focus so much on writing that I didn’t have time for the basic luxuries. Nor really did I wake with such singular focus that I couldn’t see past my computer and coffee to the world beyond. Maybe it’s like the baseball players and their unshaven faces and stinky socks, but simple things like staying hydrated threatened telling the world that I did have time for it and it would suck me back to reality and gone would be the regular 5-10k days of productivity. Whatever the strategy, it seems to have worked well and I’m dazed to be back in the real world (just to leave it again!).
Taxes are done and I’m off to meditate for 10 days. Hopefully I don’t obsess over edits the whole time I’m there! See you on the other side.
For drafting a novel, you’d think finding a free little text editor would be a cinch. Unfortunately, there seem to glitches to all of them. Between file size limits, unstable behaviour, and missing word counts or basic formatting, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect (free!) text editor out there. Yes I’m being picky: I want smart quotes, word counts and italics and I don’t want the program to start crashing when my file gets to near novel lengths. Here are the text apps I’ve tried.
Textedit Maximum file size? I wasn’t even a third finished my draft and the program stopped autosaving. At least it warned me.
Textwrangler This simple text editor is a staple on my laptop, but it’s better at parsing code than composing in.
Celtx This is a powerful little app for formatting and organization. It separates chapters and stores index cards by project. Also intended for scriptwriter, the formatting is truly superb. Unfortunately, to show a word count one must awkwardly select the text and right click (the word count shows at the bottom of the drop down menu). I’m compusively motivated by an increasing word count so seeing it live is important (chipping away at my first million).
Ommwriter Beautiful backgrounds and sounds, chimes for each keypress, this little app feels like a trip to a yoga studio. Unfortunately it’s full screen and plaintext only. Sometimes, text just has to emphasized.
Bean Bean is quite the ideal little app (word count, full screen, customizable views) except that the screen freaks out (all squiggly lines and dots) like it’s about the crash every once in a while. Scary.
Texts This program is a little different. It’s a markup text, that is, it saves in plain text but embeds style tags and can output to a variety of formats including rtf and html. As opposed to other markup editors though, the style tags are hidden and the view is formatted output. Very nifty. There’s a live word counter in the upper right hand corner so it seems ideal. Unfortunately, it uses the Mac’s overly aggressive autocorrect and a partially finished word can morph into something unintentional and a change undone is liable to remade the next time the space bar is hit. When all you want to do is blaze ahead with a semblance of the intended word (and no, not a word vaguely spelled correctly but with a wholly different meaning), stopping and correcting the autocorrect all the time is more infuriating than autocorrect on a smartphone. It can’t be turned off within the app, but at least I can disable autocorrect Mac-wide (drastic, but works). Other text editors seem to manage to reign in the Mac’s autocorrect making it usable.
I’m still using Texts with my OS-wide autocorrect disabled.
Anyone else on a Mac working with similar text files have other suggestions?
We’re obsessed with the coming downfall of man, of society, of the planet. Or, we’re at least obsessed to read and write about them. I’m as guilty in the latter part as anybody. As a kid I couldn’t put down The Stand or, more recently, the Hunger Games; I just suffered through “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall“; and I’m right now tearing through the sequel to Partials. Which got me thinking.
How will the world end?
Isn’t this fiction?
Real-life authenticity may add credence to your imagined dystopia but sometimes, good ol’ fashioned making stuff up could just do better. Use the same specificity as fact and make sure not to trample on the locals by, e.g., turning a neighbourhood of highrises into walkups. But in case the real makes the story ‘realer’, I’ve assembled a few resources for planning different end-of-the-world scenarios. Mix n’ match, make up in between, but do enjoy!
Although Partials is a combination “our creations turn on us”/”viral epidemic” end of world scenario, Dan Wells also introduces flooding in Chicago. Stories of ‘The Flood’ appear in nearly nearly every mythology. Global warming and the melting of the ice caps and glaciers threatens to raise sea levels: forecasts suggest up to a 2 m rise by 2100. Suppose that were accelerated? Intentional melting to drown the coastal cities; unanticipated catalyst melting, the first layer melting leading to a chain reaction must faster melting whether by increased absorption of solar energy or increased thermal conductivity; breaking off of large sheets of ice into the ocean raising the sea level in sudden jumps; etc. And what about the deluge from tsunamies and hurricanes (thinking of Irene — she followed me personally to my campsite on the Isle of Skye wehre she flattened my tent with me in it! — and Sandy, back to back while I was on the East Coast). Who will be drown first? Flood maps highlight the submerged land as a function of sea level rise. My hometown Vancouver doesn’t fare too well, but I should be safe in the mountains.
What about the Great Lakes, for places like Chicago? They already sit higher than sea level (lake Michigan sits at 176 m above sea level!) so they’re level isn’t directly affected by a rise in sea level. However, the warming will directly affect the rate and patterns of evaporation/precipitation that give the rate of fall and rise of the lake. If the heat evaporates the lakes and transports the moisture elsewhere as precipitation, the water level drops. If precipitation is transported from elsewhere faster, then the level rises. Predictions for the water level of the Great Lakes in fact predict a drop in water of up to 2 m.
The recent nuclear scare-near-full-scale-disaster in Japan makes us think nuclear. This map cross-correlates with major fault lines for a likelihood of another earthquake instigated meltdown: refer to it for both the worldwide nuclear station sites and major fault lines.
For added ‘authenticity’ I have to recommend MOST (because they got me drunk enough to head butt a shotglass with the bump for a week to prove it), but look at Kepler too. Both look for specifically Earth-like planets (where we expect our invading aliens to come from). For more exotic locales (that exist), there’s a complete extrasolar planet database. Of course, you could just make it up.
The main CDC (Center for Disease Control) is in Druid Hills, Georgia but wikipedia shares a list of similar sites throughout the world. The highest level of containment that a research lab can have is BLS-4 and for a list of such labs see here. Of course, like in the movie Contagion, there could always arise an entirely novel disease from a confluence of normally segregated phenomena: in the movie, pigs meet bad shit. Vampires and zombies technically qualify as epidemics.
The planet’s population is ever-increasing –although the rate is deccelerating — and the projected population in 2050 is ~10 billion people. Of those, only 1/10th will be in “developed” (as opposed to developing — who’s to say some of those may not develop in time?) countries. Balance that with over-farming degrading fertile land and leading to erosion and desertification, will there be the food to feed all these people? Or will GMO’s save the day — or worse, hasten the ‘inevitable’? Will we fight when the food becomes scarce?
Other Options of Doom
War (brought on by the usual political greed or religious zeal, or a competition of the dregs as followup to another option); crazy weather (as global warming translates to wilder extremes of hot/cold bringing on great hurricanes/tsunamis/etc); the ‘singularity’ (computers become aware); ice-9; asteroid/Melancholia crash into the Earth; a slowing down of the rotation of the Earth (and only a drill to the core can restart it?); (for Partials, Terminator) our machines/biosynths fight back; and more I just haven’t thought of!
Her first forecast caused her friend to disappear and precipitated a thirteen year path to disaster; can the forecast unravel past and future in time to save them now?
Carma learned hacking and heists playing with David when they were kids. She followed him everywhere, even shivering waist-deep into the cold lagoon to spy directly on Merlin, the Intelligent Data running Vancouver since the rebuild. But when they first kissed, that kiss intrigued her more than any of their games and she spent her life savings to forecast it. He’s been missing ever since.
At You+, Carma works as root matchmaker alongside her best (and only) friend who forecasts fashion. Her childhood of deceitful plotting makes her brilliant at matching couples but otherwise dreadful in life. She never considers a heist of her own until one is forecasted to explain David’s disappearance and how to find him.
The heist is successful — too successful — and Carma is arrested for conspiracy to collapse the economy! The Data Agency wants her help to avert disaster and will get it, willingly or not. A fashion counter-revolution, emergence of a hidden “ghost” population, and a tense first contact with China are competing threats that ensnare everyone Carma knows, including the missing David.
If Merlin crashes, the collapse would leave the city isolated, starving and ignorant, and all trace of David gone forever. But what can she do when the assigned agent and maybe even Merlin itself is lying to her?
The idea for this story began as a simple romance: she’s falling in love with him despite being embarrassed by him (in a very shallow future); they break up; he rises to the top of social ladder by devising an app to predict fashion while she plummets to the bottom (for reasons that I hadn’t worked out); a fashion counter-revolution equalizes them and they get back together. [Note that this barely resembles the current story.]
I fleshed it out during Nanowrimo last fall — the future they were in (dystopian of course), the characters, their motivations — and found myself converging toward a vastly different story!
December I let it sit and Jan/Feb I tore it apart. I’ve restarted draft 1 (and calling my Nanowrimo one draft 0) from an detailed outline, cornering all the major events, climax and resolution (mostly/sort of but leaving room for the protagonist to make a few major decisions that will decide the ending, her own choose-your-own-adventure).
I submitted this pitch to the affiliate competition Pitchapalooza. Pitching within the 250 word limit led back and forth to changes in the overall outline: I had to present the protagonist, her motivation/obstacles/failed attempt to overcome it and the crisis that it led to, her world, the stakes and all in the correct tone for the genre1. Both flow far more smoothly and I can ‘feel’ the whole story fit together now.
Back to writing and we’ll see just how far I deviate after I’m done!
1. I still don’t think I’ve nailed it. But then what do I know: it’s still not finished.
Multiple writing blogs have recently offered a take on harnessing cinematic technique in writing1. More often as not, the cart is put ahead of the horse and they fail to mention that, vice versa, cinema first adapted these famous techniques from writing! Even before writing, stories were shared round the fire and recorded later in pictures, so that, indeed, maybe the comic strip frame by frame is closest to the earliest recorded story medium and with as much to offer.
Narration transcends the medium2 and many of the techniques of film and writing have been passed back and forth with the refinements suggestive of each. Each have their own unique techniques unavailable to in the other.
D. W. Griffith may be the grandaddy of modern film but he credits it all to Dickens:
When Mr. Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return to be followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting.
“How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”
“Well,” said Mr. Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”
“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing; that’s different.”
“Oh, not so much, these are picture stories; not so different.”
reminiscences of Linda Griffiths, his wife
Surely we understand that the wife will be waiting a long time for her stranded husband, that she doesn’t know he’s stranded: the juxtaposition provided by the cut makes the situation all the more touching.
Angle, close-ups and wide panning shots offers us and our director friends a wealth of variety to control the pace, tone, and underlying meaning of a scene — the subtext3 — and entrance our ‘reader’. In both, perhaps the single greatest power of narration is the retelling in narrative-time the real-time unfolding of the story. We can jump back and forth in time, speed up and skip sections altogether, summarize others, then slow down for minute inspection of the juicy bits. Story by picture (or any other single frame medium) loses that dimension of narrative order but, where it has lost, the viewer has gained a freedom in how they choose to view the whole4.
Written description is not just visual, but uses all five senses: sound goes beyond ‘he said, she said’; smell and taste, intricately linked, are most evocative of memories and otherwise inexplicably recalled ideas; and touch makes the story tangible.
Words are not merely factual. Specific word choice reflects subtext framed within the perspective of the narrator whatever the POV taken, reliable or not, because even the so-called ‘objective’ narrator will be opinionated. To trust these opinions, whether the reader agrees or not, the narrator must always take a firm stance (no wishy washy maybe could be’s!). Specific words/images evoke a meaning in the reader that, strictly speaking, you can’t control but you can direct nonetheless if you reflect on the beyond-the-dictionary/google response you have with them.
Description is powerful in the particular choice of what to describe and what to leave out: apply the most salient strokes to paint a scene and carry on with the story. In film, the analogous close-up of particular details gives them too much weight; we can’t single out the most important points; the entire scene must be laboriously constructed, robbing the ‘reader’ of their creative input, indeed, distancing them from participation in the ‘reading’. That’s why watching a movie feels more passive than reading a book.
As a writer, be proud to work in a medium that’s so powerful and with such a long and rich history. Sure, our tastes are converging toward movie-like presentation — they’re evolving with the times — but it’s belittling to say that it’s the movies alone that have influenced us. Surely our distaste of verbose passages and purple prose are as much a statement of today’s culture and we can attribute these tastes to fast-paced living and our shortened attention spans, or, conversely, our demands to counter those all-too-real stresses and regain an active evocation in our reading. Taking the next step: how should our writing evolve to reflect our ever-changing culture?
Notes and further reading:
A variety of essays in the readings of a course on Film Adaptation are wonderful: I recommend the Eisenstein essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” and I borrowed ideas unabashedly from Chatman’s “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (and Vice Versa).” There are a few others I plan on reading, but do comment if you beat me to them and would like to recommend.
2. The medium of narration can be film or novel, but think of the many others: spoken word, graphic novel, interpretive dance, etc.
3. Beyond pacing, tone, mood and ‘atmosphere’, subtext gives the underlying meaning, the themes and resonances connecting the scene within the whole, the background motivations of character and action, all the way to the commentary of the world, real and story, our story makes. I’m sorry this is vague — it’s still vague to me! I should probably reread Baxter’s book.
4. Imagine a painting in which the elements of the whole present two stories depending on the order of viewing them: in one viewing, say clockwise, maybe the blood is the consequence, but in the other, counterclockwise, viewing, the blood is the cause.
The recent posting hiatus was because I sold an apartment worth of furniture, packed and shipped the rest, and drove nearly 3000 miles: the bulk of these miles were getting myself from Boston to St Louis, preceded by a final goodbye north to Montreal and on two back-to-back day trips (guiding winter hiking) in the snowy White Mountains and followed by a bonus day trip to Chicago for my train shipped possessions that didn’t fit in my wee Accent (so my life’s accumulation/culling of stuff is roughly two not so full Accents full).
My time in school, roughly ten times longer than my time outside of it, two thirds of which was at various universities, began with the Notre Dame du Sacré Coeur and culminated with a now completed post doc at MIT in theoretical physics. Which I’m leaving to write. Nope, not non-fiction, not even science fiction. I lean toward young adult fiction and/or dystopic futures, as I call them, more commonly known as speculative dystopian fiction. A border guard went so far as to accuse me of abusing my education to abandon it.
Since before I could write, I’ve known the power of books and stories and a large part of me always wanted to a writer. The first novel I “wrote” was a simple boy-meets-girl story in pictures ending with an image of them beside a bed, although it’s doubtful I understood the mechanics of what would happen there. Also early, I spent many cold nights watching the stars (for some reason more commonly in winter, likely because sunset was early so far North and thus before my bedtime) and memorizing stars and constellations, and nebulae and all the other beautiful anomalies in the sky (Messier many). I wanted to do physics before I even knew what physics was. Finally, irrationally, my dream was to get a PhD in physics and then become a writer. The post doc was extra.
My dilemma now is completing irrelevant forms asking nonetheless my “occupation”. A month ago I could write “post doc” or, more cheekily, “physicist”, but now, while I am certainly a physicist still — this part is rather like contracting one of those diseases that you can never be totally cured of and go on to carry for life, and, likely, remain to some extent contagious too — however it seems presumptuous to call myself a “writer”. Then again, I hear that this sense of presumption never goes away. Presumption or no, this week I entered into my first form “occupation: writer”, cheekily perhaps, but inwardly deeply honest. We’ll see how I feel the next time it comes up.
The greats like Dickens and Tolstoy may have done a lot more showing than is now acceptable, but, nonetheless, they too heeded it. This guest post seems to suggest otherwise, but what C. S. Lakin surely suggests has changed arises from our image-based cinematic influences. Applied to writing, we write in long and short “shots”, slow and fast ones, presented from the most poignant (varying) angles, layering “shots” into “scene” with a meaning and rhythm greater than the sum of its parts.
In a work of art everything is laden with affect, and whenever you put two of anything next to each other, a third thing emerges. In film the juxtaposed elements are most often visual, but in fiction the flexibility is almost infinite.
We’ve all heard it, we all (try to) follow it, and, yet, we seem to have dubious conceptions of ‘show’ and ‘tell’.
Show: be visible, display, manifest, demonstrate to, prove,escort, appear.
Tell: inform, relate, instruct, assure, reveal, inform on, distinguish, give the game away, ascertain, take its toll.
In writing, we can’t literally manifest of course, but when we ‘show’, our words evoke the scene in our reader’s mind. Whereas in telling we inform the reader what is happening, by showing it, we prove it to them.
She was devastated that he was leaving her.
He looked back over his shoulder — she caught his eye hopefully — but he promptly dropped his gaze to the floor. “Don–.” Her throat swelled closed midword. The door closed behind him as he left.
1. I haven’t read this and, incidentally, Koch doesn’t recommend doing so.
I’m not particularly faithful to any genre, be it fantasy, comedy, or sci-fi, although I do have a penchant for young adult and dystopic futures. After a short series of books that demanded that I read them1, I asked myself what they had in common… really. Although all four were young adult, one was a dystopic future, another a fantasy, another a sci-fi and, finally, a present day romantic/comedy/thriller. In common however, all four featured a surprising MC2: a philosophic zombie, a crazy descendent of Alice in Wonderland, a cyborg Cinderella, and a part-Asian, ass-kicking, funny/quirky teenage girl. Coincidentally, YA and dystopic futures nearly always feature a quirky/strong MC.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that these ‘surprising’ characters are such a draw. What makes compelling fiction after all? Surprising details, surprising plot developments (not, jerky, what the … developments, but insightful, oh, right/wow! ones), surprising stories that reveal something, well, surprising.
For such an obvious insight, it has considerably helped my story planning and, indeed, has incited a merger of two MC’s (rather, one was dropped and the other took up the extra action!) — no longer will they be splitting the glory of the storyline.
This may just be a passing phase for my browsing tastes, but I’d wager not.
Please share what moves you to pick a book from the many, many others.
1. Recent finds: Warm Bodies, Splintered, Cinder and Maid for Me. Of those I’ve finished so far, Cinder was the only one to sustain that initial hook to the finish (I can’t wait for the sequel!). Warm Bodies was superbly written and the zombie narrator was philosophically hilarious, but the ending didn’t deliver. Maid for Me was super fun but not so well written in my opinion. Look for a more thorough review of Splintered after I finish reading it. 2. Main character
There are oodles of lists of 10 ways to fight writer’s block out there, such as here, “snazzy” ones here, or here, and really many many others, mostly repetitive, mostly not entirely helpful. That’s not to say it’s not useful advice of course, but, the reason we get blocked in the first place involves some hard to overcome and scary stuff inside. If it weren’t, well, we probably wouldn’t be so blocked in the first place, right?
Grand Wall, Squamish, BC
I don’t want to talk about writer’s block in specific, but rather a universal aspect of it, that staggering inability to get up and do something, that something especially important to us, so important we must get it right, we have to. I’ll begin with a seemingly entirely unrelated fear that has crept into my climbing.
A little over a year ago, I went trad climbing with a new partner. Without going into specifics, understand that “trad” is the most unreliable protection kind, “lead” climbing involves the biggest falls, and a new partner is one that hasn’t earned my trust and vice versa. It was late autumn and the rock was often wet and sandy. Before this, my only other large lead fall was when I reached for a sandy ledge and lost my grip of it. Luckily, that first fall was entirely overhanging so there was nothing to hit in the fall.
I’d already been forced into climbing fairly far above my last protection, unable to find place for another. Finally, I found a shallow crack that might take something. But my feet were tenuous and my hand hold was slick. I tried and failed to wedge something in. My arms were getting tired and failing, my grip was slipping, and then I fell.
I was tipped over backward and landed some ten meters lower, swinging flat backed and head banging against the rock wall. My glasses flew and the world became an out of focus wobbly blur.
I was ok. I finished climbing that day, and a week later shared a lead with two good friends up a well known climb on Cannon in NH. My back needed physio in the new year, but really, no harm done. Except that with every climb staring me down I’ve backed up a step further, afraid. And with each climb that I handed off the lead, the next stared down even harder. Until now I avoid climbing altogether, out of practice, because how can I explain that I need to start back at the beginning?
This shame/fear baggage hangs after all kinds of failures and rejections. That failed relationship that holds us back from honestly trying in another? That draft of the story that was nothing like we imagined, a betrayal to ourselves?
What part of this is debilitating?
Backstory: I’m least afraid in the face of real danger. The climbs that I’ve been talking about involve small falls caught by a sproiging rope with ample foresight against landing on protruding ledges that might actually hurt. Chance of death? ~0%. By real danger I mean, on the other hand, crossing a ledge over (effectively) the abyss with howling winds and brain squeezing cold, untethered. Each step is my sole focus, my breath is even and controlled, and I’ll give whatever solid confidence my partner needs in the moment1.
Ultimately, if it were purely fear, well, we could handle it in that ‘there’s no other choice’ focussed kind of way. But there’s all that image-worrying-goal-oriented ego tied into the mix. What would get me climbing? Honestly, letting myself go back to the beginning, #2, and remembering the real reason I love to climb (which has nothing to do with grade levels, showing off, and competing, mostly), #10. Just letting go of ego. What will keep me writing? Focus in on that writing, inevitable. there can be no other way fear of it and screw worrying about results just yet. There’s loads of time to edit afterward.
1. I’m no Alex Honnold, although he certainly talks about this egoless focus when he free solos.
Remember that famous writing advice to always stop mid-scene, at the most exciting part, maybe even mid sentence, so that you’ll be yearning to get back to it and continue? Hemingway certainly suggested it, and many others have followed suit, crediting him or not. How on earth is this a good idea? The momentum gets lost. The train of thought is gone. And in the meantime, after “writing” the rest of the scene in my head, several other scenes begin clamoring for attention.
As it turns out though, that was only half the advice.
Mice: How much should you write a day?
Y.C.: The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.
Mice: All right.
Y.C.: Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. Once you are into the novel it is as cowardly to worry about whether you can go on the next day as to worry about having to go into inevitable action. You have to go on. So there is no sense to worry. You have to learn that to write a novel. The hard part about a novel is to finish it.
Mice: How can you learn not to worry?
Y.C.: By not thinking about it. As soon as you start to think about it stop it. Think about something else. You have to learn that.
The ‘don’t obsess’ half of the advice is often lost, or retold as a separate tip, but clearly, or at least in my case, the two are inseparable! I’m still not sure I’ll leave my writing mid-scene, but I may try quitting a session only with a future scene in mind (a week ‘off’ after nanowrimo has… erm… led to some writing block — more to come!).