Art vs. Craft (Writing Theory Thursday)

One of the hardest things in the world to balance as a writer (other than time – that one’s a killer) is the tension between art and craft.

By art I mean authenticity, rawness, real-ness.

By craft I mean skill, polish, and style.

The truth is that they shouldn’t be in tension, shouldn’t be in conflict.  A writer needs both.  Even a writer whose only goal is to entertain his readers needs both skill and a genuine sense of fun, suspense, fear, etc.

For a writer who’s still entertaining thoughts of inspiring, questioning, or broadening the minds of her readers, the two both have to be there.  It’s simply non-negotiable.

It’s also a lot easier said than done.  Regardless of whether that tension “should” exist, it does.  It is very hard to focus on specific tasks and sub-skills (like character voice or sensory input or short sentences) while simultaneously “writing in your own blood” (to paraphrase Nietzsche).

I don’t really have an answer, here.  Looking at my own work, I think it may be a matter of keeping that tension alive, forcing yourself to be honest and vulnerable while you write.  Eventually, if you write enough and identify areas that need improvement, your writing will improve.

Craft requires practice, and focused practice.  And that’s not necessarily easy to do.  It requires us to master our authorial egos, recognize that this particular book or story may not ever shake the foundations of the literary world, honestly assess what we’re doing wrong, and try to do better the next time.

But all this is for naught if we lose our honesty, vulnerability, and conviction along the way.  “What good is it if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Jesus of Nazareth famously said.  I might add, “What good is it if an author gains technical skill and financial support, but loses his voice?”

…in the Details (Writing Theory Thursday)

Last Thursday I talked about the important foundations  of writing: plot, characters, premise.  Those are the cake, so to speak.  Today, I’ll talk about the icing, the little details of writing style that make or break it all.  Few people want to eat icing without any cake underneath, but nobody wants to eat a cake that’s covered in stinking, soured, spoiled icing.  And almost everybody loves a good cake with top-notch icing.

Again, I say this as a fellow journeyman, not a master who’s “arrived.”  I haven’t “arrived” in any way in my writing.  But I know just from my own improvement that I am on a good path.  Maybe not the only good path, maybe not your good path.  But a good path.  So I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me.

God and the devil are in the details, as the saying goes, and writing style is all about details.  Readability is paramount.  Some books are much easier to read, even compared to other books with content of similar difficulty.  It’s almost as if writing styles are user interfaces to the ideas and content within.  Some applications (and some books) have easier, more intuitive user interfaces than others.

I’m working really hard on this one myself.  My instinct is to write long sentences with several clauses, sentences that sort of curl back on themselves and don’t flow directly into each other.  I know this is slows the reader down unnecessarily, so I’ve tried to stop.  But it isn’t always easy to change ingrained habits overnight.

I’ve also learned to stop qualifying my sentences with unnecessary words.  Many times something can be said directly and quickly, without “seems” or “like” or “that.”

But short, fluid sentences aren’t the end-all and be-all of writing style.  Things like character voice are also vital.  Character voice is exactly what it sounds like: each character’s dialogue should “sound” distinctive.  Readers should be able to tell who’s speaking without saying “Angie said” or “Zac said.”  This takes some practice, and it helps if you create characters who are significantly different in interests, education levels, and temperament.

The only caveat is that it’s usually best to avoid writing dialect into speech.  I say usually because sometimes it’s absolutely vital to the story or novel.  If you have to write dialect in, be as respectful as possible.

Let me reiterate just how difficult this can be.  If all the characters come from the same culture (middle-class American, for example), it can be hard to make them sound different.  If they come from different nations and cultures, it can be hard to make them sound authentic.  This can even be a problem with fantasy races … I can’t tell you how many fantasy dwarves I’ve seen who sound like a cross between James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott and Michael Meyers’s angry Scotsman.  But I can tell you that I’ve been to Scotland three times and never heard that accent from a real Scotsman, not even once.

Sensory details are another key aspect of writing style.  When writing fiction, it’s best to frequently include details that will “stimulate” the various senses.  Describing colors, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and temperatures really helps draw people in.  It’s important to try to hit them all as much as possible, because people have different sensory preferences.

I’d suggest avoiding “sensory dumps” where you drop a heap of sensory information into one paragraph after ignoring them for two or three pages.   I’m prone to doing that myself, and it’s kind of embarrassing to go back and read later.  I mean, really?  Three pages of bare dialogue and then one jumbo economy-size sentence in which I hit every sense I can think of?  Um, no.  I don’t normally rewrite, but sometimes I have to break my own rule.  Ick.

That said, Roger Zelazny peppered his Amber novels  with sensory dumps, but they worked.  He’d hit the senses during a meal, when the narrator was really hungry, and you could practically taste the food.  During the Hellrides or Pattern walks, he’d give so much sensory information I felt I was there.  But  these were in-character sensory dumps.  The characters’ senses were going full-blast, and the text conveyed that.  They’re great books, and I highly recommend them.

But don’t take the word of some nobody blogger like me.  The best thing to do is find a couple of authors that you respect, and go read a few pages from the middle of a story you’ve already read.  That way, you’re not caught up in the story, and you can focus on how they handle character voice, how they handle sensory input, how they write their sentences, etc.

You might also like to read a story and create a plot outline, to see just how one of your favorite authors breaks down story, character and rising action.   I don’t think you should try to be “the next ____.”  You should try to be yourself, as honest as you can be, even if you’re using a pen name.  But for the craft aspect, the skill aspect, it helps to study people who’ve already arrived.

Credit where credit’s due

Hi, everyone.  Just a twitter-length post to thank Lindsey Clarke for giving me the idea to do themed posts with names that alliterate with the day in question (“Theme Music Monday,” “Writing Theory Thursday,” etc.).

I think it’s going to be a great motivational tool to help me post more regularly (and more frequently)..

So many thanks, Lindsey Clarke!  And the rest of you, go check out her blog, si vous plait.

Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.

 

Did I Have a Dream? (Theme Music Monday)

I’ve always been inspired by music.   I get a lot of story ideas while listening to music, whether I’m inspired by a lyrical fragment (almost always taken out of context) or the overall shape of the soundscape.  I almost always listen to music when writing.  I make a new playlist for every series and listen to it in my car, which always gets me in the mood to write.

Music been a pretty solid constant in my creative life since before I was even really writing fiction.

Right now what I’m focusing most on is Strange Fire (Book Three of The Red Lands).  As many of you know, The Red Lands spans the worlds, beginning on our Earth, continuing through a nightmarish liminal space (the road between worlds), through a dead world already conquered by the sorcery of the Red Lands’ master, and into the Red Lands themselves, a mad purgatory forged by the will of its master, the Red Knight.

Garrett Maines, the main character, sometimes finds himself doubting his sanity.  He stepped into this nightmare journey willingly, to save the life of the woman who broke his heart, the woman he walked away from.   He has to believe that the nightmare is a reality, and that it is a reality he can overcome.

I’ve got several songs on my Red Lands playlist, but the one that stands out most, the one that sums up everything The Red Lands is about is Nocturne by Rush.  Listen to the song, and you’ll get a feel for the madness, darkness, and hope of The Red Lands.

Body and Soul…

No, I’m not talking about a new buddy-cop story featuring a ghost detective and a zombie beat cop (even though I would totally read that).  I’m talking about the way our (my) bodies affect our (my) cognitive, emotional, and social states … especially with regard to writing.

Writing The Red Lands has been really interesting, because the characters are all learning to deal with physical deprivation.  As they cross the darkness between worlds and try to survive the dead world, hunger stalks them like a wolf.  They, like me, have really only ever had to deal with “First World Troubles,” what De Graaf, Wann, and Taylor call “Affluenza:” our inability to cope with the stress of our own affluence.

Well, I’ve been fighting a bad case of affluenza myself, and it’s been hell on my writing.  Distracted by, well, everything from Arkham City to my Kindle to 100 cable channels (I never thought I’d watch a fishing show on TV, but Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters changed my mind) to I Can Has Cheezburger, I haven’t been getting enough sleep.

Of all the things not to get enough of, sleep is the dumbest.  It’s free.  All I have to do is get my shower and go lie down.  Of course, playing one more game  of Pandemic with my wife is always worth it 🙂

I’ve also been fighting a battle with food.  For any of you outside the U.S., let me explain how this goes: around here, it’s about ten times more work to eat healthy than it is to each good-tasting-but-bad-for-you food.  It’s also significantly cheaper.  I can get a lot of low-grade meat for $5 – hot dogs are 99 cents a pack, full-fat sausage is almost as cheap, bologna is the same.

I can get a large, fresh, pepperoni pizza for $5.45, tax included, without calling ahead.  I just show up, give them a trivial amount of money, and go home with a meal that should realistically feed four … and it tastes so good.  Frozen vegetables cost more, to say nothing of fresh.  Cooking at home costs more, to say nothing of the time and energy required.

Seriously, did Jabba the Hutt design this country?

Well, there’s still nobody to blame but myself.  I have more than enough money to eat healthy foods, if I’ll just suck it up and do it.  And I know I’ll feel better if I do.  High glycemic index (sugary/starchy) foods make me feel like hammered mud.

Needless to say, I don’t get much writing done when I feel like hammered mud.  And whose fault is it?  Mine.

So, for the sake of my overall productivity (at work, writing, and in my studies), I’m going to try focusing substantial energy on increasing my physical well-being.  I’m betting it will pay off big time.

I can guess what you’re saying: “Yeah, right.  We’ve all heard that before.  The same old New Year’s Resolutions aren’t any more realistic just because Brent’s making them in July.”

Well, you’re right.  But I have a plan.  I recently read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  He describes habit loops, consisting of a cue, a behavior, and a reward.  He digs into the science behind them, which I don’t have the space to get into here, but, to make a long story short, it’s entirely possible to replace the behavior portion of an existing habit, especially if you keep the cue and reward portions (totally breaking habits is extremely difficult, but breaking the parts that hurt us is less so).  It’s also possible to create new habits.

I’ll be working on doing both.  As a matter of fact, I’ve already created a new habit of getting up 15 minutes early and working out on a punching bag before I get ready to go to work.  It’s helped me feel better, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome my other bad habits.

My concentration is definitely suffering, along with my motivation to do anything difficult.  I’m hoping that changing a few habits will fix that, and maybe even let me shed a few pounds (my wife things look great the way I am, but my knees beg to differ).

Wish me luck!

 

Massive Productivity as a form of Procrastination? Indeed.

Well, there’s nothing like the difficulty of doing something that scares me a little (like writing a short story) to inspire me to get other work done.

In the last two days I’ve written roughly 7,500 words and completely planned out the plot for Red Lands Book 3 (Red Lands Book 2, City of the Dead, is currently with the trusted first reader getting checked over).  I wrote a lot of dialogue (as I tend to do when I’m outlining), and planned out several specific scenes.

Now, granted, I had been thinking about Book 3 for a long time, but I’m glad to finally have a solid grip on it.  My problems in writing Book 2 (City of the Dead) all came out of trying to make it something the series isn’t.  I wrote too many “character interaction” scenes that didn’t have sufficient personal conflict to keep the “fist of broken nails” pace and feel of Book 1 (Toward Darkness).  Once I finally figured that out, I was able to fix it. I don’t think that will be a danger in Book 3 (which I haven’t named yet).

But, to adapt a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “I was writin’ this stuff to keep from writin’ something else,” namely, the short story challenge I set myself up on.  I don’t know why I’m so nervous about writing short stories, but I am.  But hey, if 3600+word days are the result of my procrastination, I’ll take it.

So, have you ever had that situation, where dodging something unpleasant led, not to laziness and stagnation, but massive productivity?  Is it even worth pushing through to write the short story, or should I just milk it for every massive word-count day I can get?