30 September, 2012

A Trick for Getting Un-Stuck

When I first started posting every first and third Sunday, I meant to post every other week.  But September is a jerk that has three Sundays, so here's a brief extra one.

Recently I was feeling stuck writing my novel.  My ideas for how to move the story forward felt trite.  I plot as I go along, so all I was asking from myself was an extremely rough outline.  So I made one.

I was annoyed at my trite ideas, so I told them off as I wrote them down.  This journey sucks, I said.  This boring straight highway happens, then I'll swerve left at Tritesville and finally we'll wind up here in Idiotsberg.

As I did this, I was letting my imagination flow.  "Zen and gusto," Ray Bradbury used to say.  I was being emotional about my writing, and next thing I knew things didn't look trite at all. 

You see, I was bored with my work.  There's a saying that if you're bored with your own story you can bet the reader will be, too.  But after letting my ideas spill out, I wasn't bored.  I got excited and wound up with an extremely rough outline that I'm happy with--even proud of.

In retrospect, it was actually quite telling that I was angry.  "Zen and gusto."  That means being emotional about your work.  I believe my story deserves to be great, so when it seemed inadequate, I was angry.  I'm sure I'll get angry again and again as I move forwards, and I'll try to remember to savour that feeling, because all it means is I'm trying my hardest.  I'm in love with my story and I hate the thought of it stinking.

It's a simple trick--just writing the ideas regardless of any doubts.  It's letting go, savouring love and hate and finding the floodgates they represent.

16 September, 2012

Marketability Means Marketing Part Three: Network

"Don't waste your talent, boy," said Iain M. Banks.

As you may have by now guessed, Iain's words embody everything I know about marketing.  It's so dang easy to waste your talent for one very good reason:  your job as an artist is to focus on the art.  Simple and true.

Here's the tricky part:  it's a huge world out there.  How will anyone ever know about your work?  In the face of billions, how does your face matter worth a smeg?

Here's the wonderful part:  it's a huge world out there.  There's a publishing industry that exists to find good authors and make their work known to readers.  Plus, you are in the face of billions.

Yes, the rules are changing.  Industry standards may collapse and if they do, old publishers, with their great amounts of money to invest in such matters will either change, or they'll be replaced by new businesses.  Either way, the author's job will be to make good art.  Changing rules doesn't change the fact that there are readers and that people will want to make it their job to get writers' work into the public eye.  And why are the rules changing?  Because you are in the face of billions!

It seems daunting at first.  That's natural.  But the reason we feel lost in such a vast mire is precisely because we live in an age where everyone can communicate with vast numbers of people if they only try.  One thing I've learned to do is mention my blog whenever someone asks me what I do for a living.

I say I'm an author and, to my initial amazement, most people say, "Really?  I've got a friend who's into writing."

I say, "Cool.  I actually write a blog for--" blah blah et cetera.

They go away with my name and blog address on a sheet of paper and I go away thinking there's a chance I'll have another blog fan.  Networking can seem un-artistic, even disingenuous.  I feel like that almost every time I open my mouth about myself professionally.  I even feel weird admitting this stuff to you now.  But the facts are two-fold:

1) It's no different from making new friends.  I am a writer, I enjoy teaching, and I write a blog with the intent of teaching writers.  In saying this I've only answered a question honestly.  Yay me. 

2) It boils down to sharing yourself, and that's all any artist does with their work.  Again, readers want writers.  That's why we exist.  How is letting readers know you exist unprofessional?

These trepidations sound insane when displayed in text.  If you were to put these in an encyclopaedia of stupidity they wouldn't by under "W" for "Writers' Trepidations".  They'd be under "T" for "Top Ten Idiotic Professional Hang-Ups".  I still feel them, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if many new authors feel the same way.

It's a daunting world because it's so huge.  Neil Gaiman makes the analogy of sending bottles out into an ocean.  That's what it can feel like sometimes, but it's an illusion.  It's more like chucking stories folded into paper airplanes at a huge crowd of waiting readers.  If they like your work, they'll want another airplane.  Yes, you must usually get 'past' editors, but they exist because readers usually find good stories via trusted markets, such as book shops and quality fiction magazines.  Think about this fact for a second and you realise that, if you're a good writer, it's every editor's job to discover you. They want writers simply because they want readers.  Remember the rest of what Iain M. Banks said to me?  Let's re-iterate the whole quote:

"Don't waste your talent, boy.  If an editor asks to see your work, send them the best you've got, right away.  Let Mr Hedgecock decide if it's good enough, before he forgets meeting you."  I can't thank Iain enough for saying this to me.  In three sentences he taught me everything I need to know about marketing.

It can feel a strange world to enter.  What my previous two marketing posts, "Don't Agonise" and "Just Spew It", really come down to is the fact that people in the industry actually are interested in serious newcomers.  This is simply because there is an industry.  This post is about why there's an industry, and why therefore you can be a part of it.

In three sentences Iain summed it up.  Make good art.  Let others see it.  Let the world decide.

Don't agonise.  Just spew it.  Network.

In my blog description, I've changed "marketing" to "practicalities of success".  This is a far broader topic in which I think falls a great deal more advice.  For marketing, the answers are simple and I'd be willing to bet you already own the necessary printer, email access, deodorant and money for travel expenses.  Don't be afraid to visit conventions. That's how I met Iain M. Banks.  Just make sure you wear deodorant and pay for parking, or your train/bus ticket.

03 September, 2012

Follow the What!?

"The reader follows the character, not the story," wrote Scott Bradfield.

As this quote exemplifies, the thing about most good writing advice is that it sucks.

It's like a fog horn.  You're lost, drifting alone, blinded by doubts as well as hope.  You hear some distant calling.  You face the general direction.  Eventually if you persevere it becomes a distant light.  You're not sure.  It could be the moon.  Perhaps you'll just circle your lonely planet, wind up where you started.  But you persevere anyway.  Then it becomes blinding, and your eyes adjust and you can see, and then you realise this glimmer you've captured only helps make obvious further darkness, farther down the ocean.  And then you begin all over again.

When Scott said this to me I was confused, pleased, and I was certain that it had instantly raised my level of understanding.  Then I tried to write, and realised that it hadn't helped a smeg.  I'd only heard the fog horn.  It was years before I'd found the light and I'm now in every artists eternal struggle with using such knowledge:  the struggle with craft for perfection.

The ideal of a writer is to reach readers.  I'll re-iterate this point a million times (that's not a numerical promise--see End User Licence agreement 1.3:  smeg smeg bollocks et cetera).  Again, as with most advice, it seems obvious but it's vital to ponder about.  Imagine each story is a crystal ball.  Most are all cloudy and convoluted.  Ideas certainly tend to start that way.  But the reader wants a story.  They've picked up your ball and stared into it.  The clarity with which they see your magic is the quality of your story.

Now, you're going to hear many terms that separate a story into its elements, and these are important to understand, and mostly so because you don't want to lose sight of the ultimate unity of a story for incomplete understanding of what its components are for--forest for the trees and such.

I'll write a post on each element alone to discuss each in greater depth, but for now I'll make an overview to illustrate a point.  Most writers and editors will differentiate four story elements:  plot, character, setting, theme.  That's also what you'll hear a million (not an actual million, see above disclaimer) times on your way to meeting your first good writer.  Now, it's true in a sense, but the trouble is, if you think too hard about it you'll get confused because it's so infuriatingly incomplete.  The (good) writers who make this differentiation have a holistic understanding of these elements.

So, plot:  The aforementioned bad teachers will define this is the "action" of your story.  They're wrong, but only because they don't know what "action" means.  It isn't a story's happenstance.  It's about what happens.  Many writers will talk about a story's "arc".  They don't mean, as how-to journals will tell you, that a story has a "hook", a "climax" and an "end".  Those terms are misleading.  Rather, something compelling happens and this is carried forward to a satisfying conclusion.  See the difference?  (We'll return to this distinction many times.  Everything in a good story is action of a type, and this is very confusing.  For now, let's just focus on the difference between these two ideologies.)  In the latter, the focus is on the reader, not the words; an ultimate goal, not component elements.  Good writing isn't decoding an idea, it's making the idea evocative for readers.  Too much focus on components and we can forget their purpose. 

Character:  Who is in your story?  Why are they there?  See how these questions apply equally to every story element?  This has been discussed in "Readers and Characters".  Some will tell you that characters are a story's people, but since not all stories have people, this must be bollocks.  Characters are a story's personalities.  It is those personalities, those human connections, through which the reader will experience the story.

Setting:  Where are we?  Sometimes where a story takes place will be more important than other times, some will tell you, but sadly, this is also bollocks.  A setting will always influence the mood of a piece and its characters (intrinsically as one).  There aren't degrees of importance in art, only quality of execution.  However, in some stories the setting will be more integral for the overall purpose, and if that's true, a setting isn't just where a story takes place.  It's the mood of your piece.  It's possible for the story's atmosphere be the chief opponent of our main character.  Just look at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Theme:  Here's a tricky one.  When something looks simple in art, you can bet it's one of the more difficult things to understand.  Often a thing's simplicity means simply that there are no guidelines.  Theme means your story's "idea", right?  Wrong.  "Idea" can mean anything from a cat shaped door-mat that stirred your imagination to the general premise that people should be nicer to each other.  Not every story has a theme, and not every story wants one.  It isn't the "purpose", because that's to impact upon the reader.  It isn't the "moral", because some of the deepest themes don't attempt to define right and wrong.  You might ask a writer, "What's it about?" and receive for reply, "A dog/cat hybrid named Lassfield!"  Then you ask, "Okay, but what's it about?" and receive a blank stare.  A theme is a story's idea about the universe.  I avoid saying it's about "life", here, because it need not even be about that.  I must say "universe" simply to be all-encompassing, and I think that illustrates just how encompassing the notion of "theme" really is.

Now, let's go waaaaaaaaaay back to our metaphor about the crystal ball.  We've just taken the ball and smashed it on the floor.  Thankfully, I haven't mislabelled the shards, but the rest is still up to you:  figure out how to stick it all back together again.  It may seem impossible, but the list of authors who can do it is long, and it's the most definite, least luck dependent way to become successful.  I'll make a post on each element individually to discuss them in greater depth, but you should always refer back to this post.  The point here is that they're all shards of the same ball.  You should never, in creating a story, keep them separate.  Even to say they "support each other" fails to define their nature.  In essence, they are one.  As with most advice, this last bit sucks.  It doesn't mean anything right away.  But it does help.  It's a fog horn.  Keep your ears open to it, acutely as you learn.