Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, or, The Dawn of the Short Story Challenge

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent series of posts called “Think Like a Publisher,” about how independent authors have to, well, think like publishers if they want to get ahead and make money.  That makes sense.  After all, according to one study, half of self-published authors made $500 or less last year from their writing).

Keeping that in mind, I’ve been plugging ahead, trying to build up a list of books to publish (according to Smith, you aren’t likely to reach the critical mass that attracts viewers until you’ve got 20 novella or novel-length works out for potential readers to find), while investigating methods for building up a platform (You Are Not Alone by Karen Lamb was good, but somewhat dated.  I’m hoping Platform by Michael Hyatt will be even better).  I haven’t actually done any of the promotion methods (unless you count blogging semi-regularly), but that’s okay: until I have more than one book “up,” there isn’t really much point in self-promotion.

The thing is, I think I’m putting the cart before the zebra, so to speak.  In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer.  Do I really want to pigeonhole myself into writing action horror and urban fantasy because that’s what the first two publishable-quality books I wrote were?  Do I want to make that a big part of my online identity as a writer, knowing that if I do, I’ll have to start over with another pen name if I switch genres?  Do I even want to have to keep different pen names straight?  I already feel a little sleazy with one (I’m currently writing under my middle name, which isn’t technically a false name, but it isn’t what my friends call me, either.  I do have a couple of minor academic publications under my first name, and I didn’t want to cross the academic research and genre fiction streams, so to speak).

And, most of all, what about my conscience?

Fiction should not, as a general rule, be prescriptive or didactic.  It isn’t always as bad as the Left Behind series (you can read the Slacktivist retelling here), but “getting the point across” too often kills the complexity, the ambiguity, and, generally, the emotional impact of the piece, pushing the reader or viewers away by clubbing them over the head with the message.

But every story tells a story, and every story has some kind of premise (I hesitate to use the term ‘moral,’ because the ‘moral’ of a story could be something very immoral, like ‘torture is okay, as long as they’re bad guys’ *cough, cough, 24, cough, cough*).  Granted, some stories are disorganized enough that any premise or moral tone is unintelligible, but that’s hardly something to emulate or brag about.

But if every story tells a story, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure my stories’ premises align with my own beliefs?  Yeah, I know, I talked about this before (link), and I thought I had it solved.  I think that may have been a bit of wishful thinking.  At best, it was a patch to buy me more time to figure the problem out.  By placing Blood for Blood within the context of a trilogy, I gave myself two more books to work out the moral, and I think, so long as I write book 3 well enough, I’ll have a good one (effectively, a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, which I think will be especially effective, given that Benedict is the kind of vengeful anti-hero you’d often find in action movies).

There are a lot of sub-skills to master in order to be a good fiction writer – character voice, sensory descriptions, pacing – but the most important is finding your own voice as an author, and that means understanding what story you’re actually telling, and making sure the premises of your stories actually line up with who you are.

To that end, I’m setting my long-form fiction aside for a while and just practicing.  My goal is to write ten short stories this summer, working hard on improving specific points in my writing with each one (thanks to Dean Wesley Smith, again, for this idea).   Now, with only demanding 250 words a day from myself, I could easily take 2 weeks or more to write a short story, and it may take me longer than “the summer” to write ten of them. That’s fine; the point here is writing one short story after another, working on improving specific things about my writing, working on hammering out my voice in a series of small, contained experiences, none of which have the high-stakes stresses that come from pouring several months of my life into a novel.

I’ll be posting a bit more about my journey of self-discovery through writing as I go.  I’ll be touching on some varied and possibly even controversial subjects, including the role of profanity in realistic dialogue, sexual content, intentional/unintentional messages, and spirituality.  The point of it all is this: before I work to build up a platform, to build an audience, to get the world to hear what I’m saying, I need to be sure I know what I’m saying, and just as importantly, that I believe what I’m saying.

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On Symbolism (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about symbolism lately, and the different forms it can take, specifically, how to do it well or poorly as a writer.  Of course, I’m writing this with myself in mind: your mileage may vary, I am not a lifecoach, etc… but this is what I like to read and how I like to write.

People sometimes like to read a complex symbolism into every possible detail of a story.  That’s fine, if they get more out of the story that way, but I don’t think writers should necessarily write with this in mind.  For example, Flannery O’Connor was once interviewed by a reporter who seemed fixated on the color of Misfit’s hat (in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find).  He kept asking, rephrasing, and re-asking why the murderous man wore a black hat, until O’Connor famously replied, “To cover his head!”  Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud.

That said, symbolism can be a good thing, since it can add complexity and emotional depth to a story, if it’s done well.  Basically, there are two ways to do symbolism: internal and external symbolism (I believe these are my terms, but I may be borrowing them without remembering where I heard them).

External symbolism involves the use of common symbols, colors, visuals, etc. that will hopefully convey meaning to the readers.  This would include such things as the color of a character’s hat or eyes, meaningful character names, etc.  Generally, this kind of symbolism is the only kind available to artists, poets, songwriters, and others who work in direct media.

External symbolism can be powerful, if it is used well.  Sometimes it works perfectly within the setting: Benedict wears a long, black coat to conceal the weapons he carries, a completely practical reason.  But anyone who’s ever heard Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” (which itself references John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” will recognize the similarity.  Everyone else will see the resemblance to the black cloak worn by the grim reaper, the black coats worn by gunslingers in old western movies, black as the color of mourning and grief, etc.  Long black (coat/cloak/dress/veil) represents death, but from Benedict’s perspective, he just needs a place to hide his guns and machete.

Naming children after saints was a common practice in the Middle Ages, and so we have Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana.  I almost backed away from this, because ‘meaningful’ names are just about the most hokey and overused piece of external symbolism out there.  The truth is, I couldn’t imagine any other names for them.  These were their names, and everything else seemed terribly false.  Still, I tried to stay away from anything symbolic in other characters’ names.

I believe that authors need to keep external symbolism on a short leash, because it has the tendency to get very hokey and pretentious very quickly.  However, as fiction writers, we have the power to use internal symbolism.

Internal symbolism involves things that are symbolic to the characters:  A pair of ravens follow, haunt, and help direct Benedict, so he nicknames them Memory and Thought, after the two ravens that attended Odin … and because memories of what he has lost haunt him, and thoughts of revenge drive him onward.  He buys a pair of high-powered pistols, and has them engraved with silver raven’s heads and wings, naming one Memory and the other Thought.

You could even call Benedict, Augustine, and Juliana’s names examples of internal symbolism: their parents named them after saints, hoping to encourage righteousness and (perhaps superstitiously) to ensure good fortune, borrowing a bit of the saints’ surplus grace and favor with God by attaching their names to their children.

At first this seemed to be going well: Benedict was a womanizer, but he was a strong man, a warrior, and possessed enough tactical and logistical sense to take over the knightly estate when his father passed.  Augustine was studying to go into the priesthood, since rules of primogeniture meant the elder son (Benedict) inherited the entire estate, and Augustine just got the family name.  Juliana wanted to join a convent, but had submitted to her father’s will that she marry another nobleman’s son, to help unite their fiefdoms and build their fortunes together.

Then it all fell apart.  Juliana was murdered, Augustine became a vampire lord, immortal and incredibly powerful for a millennium, and Benedict swore revenge, if it took a thousand years.  Now, Juliana is dead, Augustine is a creature of darkness, and Benedict is a vengeful, wandering killer.  That they carry the names of the saints is a bitter irony, especially to Benedict, who once believed in the church with superstitious fervor (clearly, that belief didn’t extend to sober living or chastity, but that is so often the case), and now finds himself as alienated from church and God as his brother.

Well, this has turned into an unusually long post.  I’ll leave it here, and perhaps return to it soon.  I haven’t touched on the symbolism in The Red Lands yet, and I haven’t given any advice on where the line is between too much and just right (in part because I’ve hardly “proven in” enough to be giving advice, and in part because that line is pretty subjective).  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post.

Reference:

I’ve heard about this from a number of places, but the source that really taught me the most is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel.  I ordinarily don’t recommend books on writing by people who aren’t currently making a living as fiction writers (Frey is making bank from writing books about writing now, and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t published any novels in over a decade), but this is a good book by a novelist who did quite well for himself for many years, written when that fiction success was still quite fresh.  In some ways, it’s a bit dated, and in others, I just outright disagree (Rewriting is not writing.  Period.  It’s editing, and not all writers are good editors.  Dean Wesley Smith is 100% right on this one).

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: A Memoir and One of the Best Books About Writing I’ve Ever Read

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, starting with my post on Dean Wesley Smith’s electronically publishedKilling the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and then blogging about Algis Budrys’s classic Writing to the Point.

The third and final member of this triad is a bit different, in that it is only partially a book about writing, by a relatively young writer who had great success with some books and not-so-great success with others.  While the first two books were (rightly) by experienced professionals, long-time writers and publishers (both Dean Wesley Smith and Algis Budrys have been involved in “both sides” of the writing experience), the third is a powerful, personal book about the nature of narrative, and finding the storyline within your life.

It’s called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and it’s written by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and Through Painted Deserts.  Miller is an openly Christian writer (the first printing title of Through Painted Deserts was Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and while I find that a plus, some of you may not.  I ask you to bear with me, and bear with him.  The exploration of the nature of story and narrative in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is worth reading even if you have an abiding disregard for Christianity.

Through A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller walks through the shadowlands of minor celebrity, writer’s block, and the fear that nothing he writes will ever be as good as or as successful as Blue Like Jazz – taking us on a first-person journey through the realities of what Dean Wesley Smith called the myth of ‘If I can ____, then I’ve made it.

Don Miller taught me to expect more of my characters, to make them deeper, and to make their narratives have meaning to them and to me.  I’m also trying to learn a few things about living my own life (my New Year’s Resolutions have survived into February, though they’re a bit ragged, so that’s something, at least).

Miller has also helped correct one weakness I sort of “took away” from Algis Budrys’s work (not Budrys’s fault, I’m sure): the tendency to make the main character somewhat passive, or at least reactive, coming into action only when a problem happens to him (or her). Miller’s description of story, “a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it,” is at once the most succinct and powerful description I have ever read.

Again, I strongly recommend you check out A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  It’s very different from the other two books I’ve recommended, but no less valuable.

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part Two

This week I’ll talk about a book I heard about in a discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s website, the late Algis Budrys’s, Writing to the Point.  I’d always had a tremendous difficulty in putting together good plots, especially endings, until I read Writing to the Point.  Budrys lays out the basics of plotting, with incredibly clear examples, and does it in all of 64 pages.  Seriously, this is the author’s Book of Five Rings.

It sounds ridiculous, a writer who isn’t good at plotting, like a drummer who can’t keep rhythm or a skater with poor balance.  But I was there, and I think a lot of new writers spend time in that dark valley: you’re bursting with ideas, characters, and themes, but without a plot, you don’t have a story.  Without an internalized plot that you understand, you don’t have direction, and your writing goes in circles, wandering in the wilderness for forty revisions (well, yours might not, but mine did).  King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  Well, without a vision, my writing perished.

Combined with my buying into the myth of endless rewriting, this sucked me into an endless series of rewrites and revisions, and every time I finished one pass, I realized I had even more work to do on the next pass.  No matter how hard I pressed the gas, I always got further from my destination.  It seems like that would be an obvious sign that I’m going in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?

Writing to the Point was road map, GPS, and a passenger-seat navigator all rolled into one.  Within the first couple of chapters, Algis Budrys laid bare everything I’d been doing wrong, and showed me how to start doing it right.

I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble if I give the basic seven-point story structure Budrys describes.  I’ve even heard online that it predates him, but you know how (un)reliable blogs and forums are. J

1) A character (or characters).

2) In a setting or context

3) With a problem (or a goal)

4) Basic attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal (calling the police, or realizing the police aren’t equipped to deal with a zombiepocalypse, for example.  This is mostly there so the readers know the characters aren’t carrying the idiot ball).  Clearly, this can’t work, or you don’t have much of a story.

5) Two or three escalating attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal.  Of course, these have to fail to resolve the problem, but they don’t have to be ‘failures’ in the sense of nothing getting accomplished or the protagonists being defeated.

6) The climax of the story.  Budrys calls this “Victory or Death,” and it’s the time when the main characters either stand or fall.

7) The denouement.  Budry calls this “Affirmation.”  Essentially, the reader needs to be assured that the conflict is over.  The goal has been achieved, the problem has been solved, or the character has failed utterly.  It’s done.

I’ve found this outline useful for writing everything from short stories to novels.  I’ve not yet written a novel with a single 7-step structures, but both Blood for Blood and Blood Guilt are composed of several of these story-structures with an overarching theme and timeline.

Part of being a writer is actually writing successfully, and plotting is absolutely foundational.  I can hardly express how helpful Writing to the Point has been for me on this point.  I think every writer, especially new and beginning writers, should read this book.

PS – On a related note, Writing to the Point is allegedly out of print, and people are trying to sell it on Amazon.com for $45, which is better than the $200 they were charging a year ago.  Even though the advice is well worth the price, don’t pay $200, or even $45 for a used copy: Action Publishing has new editions for $10.50.

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