19 June, 2009

Power and progress

Been thinking about why I write. I'm halfway through watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. What a terrible world we live in if the average person is impressed by the actions of evil, selfish men. What they covet is nothing more than power, and so they are nothing but imbeciles, fools.

If evolution is nothing but the progress of power, the result would certainly involve forsaking all that mankind holds dear. Does art have any place in such a world? Yes. Art is necessary. Art has the power to wake people up, to make them more caring, more intelligent. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone just tried to make the world good, if we all tried together. Not with politics, but with care for our fellow man. (Don't let politicians convince you that the conflicts we see today are an inevitable, natural process. Think for yourself.) First, here's something to help you conceptualise the world if we stay silent:

Pearl Jam - Evolution (A collaboration with Todd McFarlane (the Spawn series))

As an artist, I can never hope to achieve the kind of money the new-world kings possess, but money means nothing of itself. I can wake people up.

18 June, 2009

A strangely emotional day...

I had my last meeting with Paul McAuley recently. It's funny studying under someone whom I'm a genuine fan of. (Don't end a sentence with a preposition? That's a French rule, popularised by Victorian snobs. At least I think they were Victorian. They were definitely snobs, and they were wrong. It's not an English rule.) I really wanted to impress him, which I think I accomplished as far as I could reasonably hope for. (There I go again.) He sent me off with kind words in a signed book, kind words in person and a hand shake. I got the impression he genuinely hopes I do well, which makes me happy. At the same time, there was the distinct melancholy of a good thing having come to an end. He has more to teach, I have more to learn, and frankly, I like the man. He's kind, unassuming, fiercely intelligent and generous with his time. If you ever read this, Paul, a thousand times thank you.

Just in case anyone ever reads this blog looking for writing advice, I'll share two things with you. First you should know that in my last meeting I had re-drafted a story called Dud Hands, which will probably wind up called something else.

The first thing relates to my last post about hooks. I had complained about a story I read in which the author didn't explain enough about his world at the beginning. Sometimes this is done extremely well. I recently read something by James Patrick Kelly, published in Asimov's Science Fiction, that started right in the middle of a visual scene. That's a great way to start a story, but it doesn't always work. It worked for James Patrick Kelly, not for the other guy who shall remain nameless. But Paul asked me an important question when I complained.

I said I didn't know enough, and he asked, "Did you want to know? Because that's the whole point."

Truth is, I didn't want to know in a good way. It was more a process of Sci-fi jargon clouding my experience of the narrative. James Patrick Kelly, on the other hand, was extremely artful about withholding information. I wanted to know, and nano-seconds before it became irritating, at the precise cusp between intrigue and annoyance, he told/showed me. Always take the reader where the reader wants to go. When Sol Stein said otherwise, he was talking about withholding resolution artfully, not pissing people off with stories that fail to keep their implicit promises. There is a promise that runs through all fiction, constantly, and a writer must never break it.

What's Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman about, for instance? It's about a feisty, intelligent girl and her conflict with the status quo. What happens in the first scene? She learns something intriguing and potentially quite horrid about the status quo. She is in conflict with the status quo from that moment on, and she wants to know more about the thing she learned. So do we.

Tada! That leads me to the second important thing I learned. This I found so insightful I wrote it on my wall. For this comment alone I must thank Paul McAuley. It's a real gem and it's something hard for a new writer to realise:

The reader isn't following the story. The reader is following the character.

I don't know what you'll get from that, but alarm bells rang for me. It's why one should never ask (as I used to), "What happens next?" (Scott Bradfield once told me that I agonized over the wrong things. Ding ding.) One should instead ask, "What would my character do here?" I think, in the few seconds it took for me to hear those words, I became a better writer.

05 June, 2009

Looking at the opening: what in blazes is a hook?

Editors talk endlessly about hooking the reader. It sounds complicated, but everything I've learned about craft is, compared to how it originally sounded, actually much simpler once you understand it. Here's something I learned from a short course with Paul McAuley. Hooking the reader means getting expectations and/or questions running in the reader's mind. That's it. That's how writers talk about hooks.

Think about it: if the reader is wondering about things they are feeling involved in the story. If they have expectations they feel involved in the story. What can you do to help? Let's see...

1) You're not going to build expectation/intrigue unless there's some story element strong and clear in the opening. Usually you see character and setting, but sometimes stories do it differently. Character and setting seem very important, though. I always try to give character and setting and I find that method extremely helpful.

2) An interesting idea will, naturally, build wonder to a greater extent, and thus help build expectation/intrigue. If you're interesting idea is well drawn, there will be narrative elements tied to it, of course. Include those elements, or at least expectation/intrigue for those elements in your opening.

There are other ways, I'm sure, but these are the most important ones I can think of right now. I have to get back to writing.

OK bye.

(The hidden message in all these posts were I rush off is that if you want to be a writer you'd better be busy writing. If you have a job that's fine. Back when I had to work a full-time job I averaged about 2000 words per day. I itched to write constantly while I sat in my squeaky chair in office Hell. I used to sneak off to the bathroom to plot my stories. I convinced one boss I had bowel problems for that purpose. On Saturday, instead of going out, I wrote. I didn't just want to. I had to. If you've stumbled upon this blog and you want to write, let me pose the most important question to you: how badly do you want to write? If you want to make a career of it, the answer had better be that you have to. I don't even know you and I guarantee you can succeed if you have a dream. Talent is great it you have it but it won't make you succeed any more than intelligence will get you good grades at school or big money at the office. Work does that, and it often brings people success even when they lack talent.)