There is No Excuse

When you use your real name as a domain name you’re making yourself something of a public figure. (Possibly in the loosest sense of the word, just go with me for now). When you’re a public figure you have to be very careful how and what you say, so as to not unintentionally offend.

If you want to be a writer of fiction and you haven’t listened to the Writing Excuses podcasts then you’re flat-out crazy.

It needed to be said.

And perhaps you needed to hear it. You’re welcome.

As an amateur writer when I insert a character into a story I’m aware of their motivations and how they’ll interact with the other characters and situations. (At least I try to be).

When one of the Writing Excuses podcasters puts a character into a story their aware of so much more on a fundamentally deeper level. When it comes to constructing stories, while I build a lean-to in a slum they build a Palace fit for a King.

In a recent podcast (s9) Dan Brown talks about how his main character is a sociopath. The problem with sociopaths is they’re not really very likable people. So Brown puts in even more  unlikable characters around the sociopath. Relatively speaking therefore the reader likes the sociopath. He also gives him a healthy dose of gallows humour (pun intentional).

Just a small example of how they’re thinking way beyond the sentence structure. When you have to take some time out from writing, you’d be wise to listen to Writing Excuses. It’s fifteen minutes of informative conversation interspersed with humour that will have you laughing out loud. Probably best not to listen to it at funerals.

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Stephen King’s On Writing

Over the years I’ve tried a few times to borrow Stephen King’s On Writing from the library. To my dismay it was always booked out and had a loan-list as long as a welfare queue on payday.

stephen_king
StephenKing.com

I’m not sure why it took so long but last month I handed over some cold hard cash and bought a copy (you’re welcome, Stephen). Most rewarding and valuable $13 I’ve spent in recent days. It was cheaper, lasted longer and was more enjoyable than three cups of coffee, and sent me to the bathroom less.

I haven’t read much of King’s work. I’d guess at a book and a quarter; the quarter being ‘Insomnia’ which I considered aptly named. My lack of readership relates to the genre, not at all the author.

Most assuredly, King is not everyone’s favorite author. He writes content which is scary, often a little warped and is the product of a creative, perhaps disturbed, mind. In On Writing he owns it; he writes as his characters lead him and doesn’t shy away from an honest portrayal of those characters and settings, even if it ruffles the reader’s sensibilities.

I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

King starts off On Writing by describing – in snippet form – his childhood and how he began as a writer. He then moves onto the style of writing and his thoughts on what makes good writing. (Some of his ideas do challenge the advice that I’ve otherwise heard, and I will share them in future posts). His commentary and insights on writing are many and valuable, always returning to the theme of ‘it’s all about the story’. Like most authors he encourages prolific reading and writing:

[Reading] also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself…

He speaks candidly about his former substance abuse; something which seems to be an epidemic among the wealthy and successful.

The point of this intervention, which was certainly as unpleasant for my wife and kids and friends as it was for me, was that I was dying in front of them. Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house. She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that very reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide.

He didn’t have to share this but I’m glad that he did. It is owning the mistakes of the past, and also giving credit where credit is due (to his wife, family and friends).

One thing that I really liked about On Writing, and did not expect, was how highly King praises his wife. Throughout the book he speaks highly of her: her support, good qualities and dependability.

[Tabby’s] support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given. And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

He writes of the van which nearly killed him, and the long and painful journey back toward normality. It is in this time when the value of his wife shines through again, helping to get him writing again.

In the end it was Tabby who cast the deciding vote, as she so often has at crucial moments in my life. I’d like to think I’ve done the same for her from time to time, because it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tiebreaking vote when you can’t decide what you should do next.

It is clear that he values her, and their marriage. To that, I applaud most wholeheartedly.

Mr King, if you’re ever in little old Adelaide, please come for a meal. I’ve told my wife you’re on the want-to-have-to-dinner list.

Resource Alert: Brandon Sanderson 2016 Lectures

Just a quick one because I am supposed to be finishing the short story When Nightmares Wake. Brandon Sanderson has begun releasing his 2016 writing lectures. He announces the videos here.

I have previously found his earlier lectures very helpful, and you can’t argue with the price of FREE. I love how Brandon and some of his fellow writer’s actually love to give back to the community of readers and other aspiring writers.

Delving into Culture

This is an (updated) post I wrote on an earlier blog regarding the story of Betty Mahmoody told in Not without my Daughter.

Story Recap

Betty is an American woman who marries an Iranian-American. The courtship and the first few years of marriage were wonderful. Her husband ‘Moody’ is a successful doctor. Together they have what most would consider a successful life. After several years of marriage around the Iraq/Iran war, Moody falls into depression (no pun intended). Moody is increasingly critical of the US, and his old life and loyalties are a powder keg between his new life and wife in America. The relationship becomes strained.

Moody decides the family should have a 2 week holiday in Iran. Betty fears that if she goes she will be trapped in Iran if her husband refuses to let her leave (in accordance with Iranian law). If she doesn’t go, she fears she will never see her daughter again.

She goes, and as expected he admits that none of them will ever leave Iran. She is beaten repeatedly and locked in a room as her husband tries to break her will and turn her into a submissive Iranian wife. To her horror, she is in a foreign country hostile to women, hostile to Americans. Her captor is empowered through law, culture and religion. She escapes to the Swiss embassy, only to find that under Iranian law she is Iranian. and the embassy can’t help. Thus begins her journey to escape Iran before she is beaten into submission, killed or her young daughter becomes indoctrinated into Iranian culture.

While the writing style is satisfactory, the true story is engaging. It is a good read.

Cultural Differences

However, as a writer it was even more interesting. Growing up in the West without much exposure to other cultures, it was a good insight (albeit vicariously) into another culture. Not being particularly well-traveled, I naturally assume that some things are universal, but that is not the case.

Here were a few of the culturally interesting things:

  • The concept of taraf which is basically a polite offer of something, but with no intention of delivering. For example, as an avid reader of my blog I would be pleased to offer you a place to stay if you ever come to my country. Sorry, but that’s an insincere offer. Using taraf you can offer something, and the receiver will accept it politely, but know that they are not do actually expect it.
  • General cleanliness and hygiene. Bathing irregularly, not caring about spilling food all over the floor or having cockroaches scurrying around the floor. Insects in the rice? No worry, don’t bother trying to sift them out, just cook the lot!
  • A male relative in the house automatically becomes ‘the boss’ if the husband is not around.
  • Under Iranian law the wife and the children belong to the husband. If the husband dies, the children belong to a relative. They never belong to the mother.
  • A wife and children must absolutely obey her husband. If a promise is given to a man it will not be broken.
  • An alternative idea of modesty. In public a woman must completely cover up and be displaying no face or hair. The most devout women only show one eye. However breast-feeding can be in public without covering the breast. Betty also recounts seeing a live birth of national TV – showing all of the woman’s ‘bits’ except for her head and arms!
  • Making do. Cramming 10+ people into a car we would only seat 5.
  • Religious police who enforce the miniscule or nit-pick.

Getting Comfortable Indoors

In Editing Lessons #3b I admitted that one of the areas I had to improve on was being more descriptive in scenes. I seldom described a scene – because I didn’t know myself what the scene looked like; no surprise I I couldn’t describe it to my reader. I was too caught up in the plot moving forward that I forgot the where is also valuable in creating a rich story.

So for today’s blog I spent 20 minutes coming up with prompters that would help in constructing a scene (or location) in the writer’s eye.Or more precisely, in all of the writer’s senses. (In this post I am restricting myself to describing an indoor environment, hence the title of the blog). Walking into a room, what can you perceive…

What do you see? (Visual)

  1. Does the room have windows? How big and what type of glass, frosted or transparent? Tinted? Double-glazed?
  2. What time of day is it?
  3. What can you see out of the windows?
  4. What are the light sources in the room? Are they harsh or soft? Revealing or hiding anything in particular?
  5. Are there shadows? Do the shadows conceal anything?
  6. What types of furnishings are in the room? Is the room cluttered or spartan?
  7. What does the rooms appearance and use say about its purpose?
  8. Are the items new or used? What do the furnishing choices and condition tell us about the owner? What other items are in the room? Expensive tastes?
  9. Is it messy or clean? Is there dust? Water damage? Dirt? Are things well-maintained, or tacked together with sticky tape and a prayer?
  10. Are some furnishings or items in contrast to the rest of the room?
  11. Is the room aesthetically pleasing? What are the walls made of? Colour? Covering? What are the furnishings made of? Floor coverings? Fittings?

What do you smell?

  1. Is it antiseptically clean? Lived in? Musty? Moldy? Fresh? Fragrant?
  2. Does the smell tell us about who is/has been in the room (perfume, cologne. body odor)?
  3. Does it tell us about the rooms’ occupants behaviours or habits (cigars, grease, cats)?
  4. Do the belongings in the room smell new?
  5. Does the smell tell us how long it has been since someone was in the room? Strong hint of perfume or stench of spoiled food?
  6. Does the smell tell us what has been happening in the room: cordite, glue, blood?
  7. Does the smell of the room make the character feel hungry or sick?

What do you hear? (Sound)

  1. Do sounds permeate from surrounding rooms / outside?
  2. What kinds of sounds? Constant, intermittent or occasional noises? e.g. yelling, the methodical banging of a blacksmith, birds chirping, waves crashing.
  3. Does the room absorb sound or cause it to echo.
  4. What is making noise inside the room? The steady click of a clock, the intermittent whir of a hard drive?
  5. Does walking around the room make noise? A crunch of dirt or squeak of lino.

What do you feel? (Touch)

  1. Is the room cold or warm in temperature? Can you feel the warmth of the sun or fire?
  2. Is there a discernible airflow? From where?
  3. How do different surfaces in the room feel?
  4. Are the furnishings comfortable? Does the desk have sharp edges or splinters? Is the seat plush or like riding a camel?

What can you Taste?

  1. Is there something so unusual about the room that you can taste it? Garlic? The metallic taste of blood?

The Sixth Sense

  1. Does the room feel evil or welcoming?
  2. Does it remind the character of something?
  3. Does it bore them or excite them?

Conceptual/Dimensional aspects

  1. Placement: Is the room a basement, ground floor or fortieth floor?
  2. How big is the room? Is it spacious or cramped?
  3. What other doors are there and where do they lead?
  4. Are others in the room? Are there insects, rodents or other animals?
  5. Where are the relevant items located inside the room?

Note that you wouldn’t put all of these into the final text, or even answer all of them. Some will be more applicable, depending on stories, but it is important for the author to know what a scene or location looks like.

Got any other great ones I can add to the list?

Character and Society Value Systems

If I had unlimited resources one of the things that I would like to do would be travel extensively. But when I say travel, I don’t mean visit: I would want to dig deeply. I’d want to literally live in a location for a year or two so that I could really get to know it.

Not having had that experience I’m aware that I have a very unary world view. I see things through my Western mindset, and don’t really appreciate that other people might see it differently.

I was reminded of this when recently I read…

In sub-Saharan Africa, relationship is such a highly regarded value that for many tribal Africans that value often takes precedence over truth – which most westerners usually consider the higher of the two values. That difference in perspective can create serious misunderstandings, unnecessary conflict and sometimes even tragic consequences. An African might choose to massage or shade the truth, or withhold important information, because he doesn’t want to cause offense. He might refuse to say something that others might not want to hear.
When that happens it would be easy for an American to see the African as deceitful and untrustworthy, even lacking in moral character. The African, however, might feel that he has actually demonstrated the highest integrity and trustworthiness by honoring what he has always been taught to believe was the most important cultural value. For him, consciously saying something that he feared could damage or strain a relationship would have been the far greater wrong. (Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God, page 209)

When we are writing fiction it is important to really plumb the depth of our characters and societies to bring out diverse views and perspectives.  Part of what I find invigorating about writing is being able to take something which is ‘normal’ and turn it onto its head.

The Science Fiction genre

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 8 and 9. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Why we write/read science fiction

  • Philip K Dick said “Science fiction and fantasy is about writing and experiencing new things.” Science fiction is conceivably possible, fantasy is conceivable impossible
  • Because it is optimistic – telling tables about the wonders of the future, or telling cautionary tales.
  • Science fiction originated as a ‘meant to instruct’ story-telling, but is now more reflective.

These quotes (from BrainyQuote) also speak to ‘why’ science fiction.

  • “Science fiction is trying to find alternative ways of looking at realities. Iain Banks
  • “Science fiction has a way of letting you talk about where we are in the world and letting you be a bit of a pop philosopher without being didactic.” Brit Marling
  • “A good writer should be able to write … fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder…” Neil Gaiman

I found this to be a particularly important comment that I need to try and remember for the future (no pun intended):

  • “A short story reveals character through actions, a novel reveals action through who the character is.” Philip K Dick

Personally, I like to write science fiction and fantasy because of:

  • the freedom that it gives me to re-imagine social structures, norms and technology.
  • it is a blending of my rational mind and unconstrained imagination
  • ironically, it gives the ability to craft a more realistic story than the classic hero vs super villain story. In an alternate world super-human people (good or bad) can legitimately exist.
  • …and rightly or wrongly, it also means less research is required – it doesn’t have to be as precise as a Period writing

What does it take to write good science fiction

  • An understanding of the current sciences astronomy, biology, chemistry… You need to work out what is plausible. You can do this by reading the work of others, and then researching the aspects which grab your attention.
  • In order to get a unique plot, it is much more important to know what has already been written.
  • More than other genres, science fiction readers are looking more for new, exploration and discovery. (However there will always have new people to the genre and if you write for the young adult market you will know they are likely to have read less).
  • Books and authors they mention: Larry Niven (“Flight of the Horse” and “Neutron Star”), Isaac Asimov (everything, but especially the “Foundation” series), Robert A. Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Kim Stanley Robinson (“Mars” series)

Science fiction sub genres (episode 9)

Note that back in May I provided a summary of genres.

Space opera – travelog, world-to-world, station-to-station. It is the missing link between science fiction and fantasy. e.g. Star Wars. It has a compelling main character and fun comes before science.

Hard science fiction – where science is paramount. It has to be something plausible under current knowledge of science. You have to know your science. It is about inventing the future. e.g. Arthur C Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Larry Nevin.

Military science fiction – the realism of military lifestyle is very realistic. Has a focuses on weapons technology. Credibility as a military personnel is very important to you, otherwise you must consult. e.g. David Weber, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, John Scalzi. Tom Clancy is a good source of military.

Cyber punk – near future dystopian. Extensive modification of the human form. Blurring the line between humanity and technology, trend projection, privatisation. e.g. William Gibson

Why is it important to know which genre you’re writing?

Because you need to be able to

  • categorise work,
  • to stay on task.
  • write what you’re passionate about.
  • identify what you’ve already written, what else is out there and talk about the sub genre so you know who else is writing in it.