The One Piece of Writing Advice I Dare Give

I spent some time recently caught in a malaise. I hesitate to say that I was blocked, because I don’t believe in ‘block’ (at least so far as the romanticised,  anguished, cliche the term evokes) and because really I was still able to write, it was just… crap.

I wrote smaller and smaller spurts of words, a few hundred before I became distracted or drawn away. I was not immersed in what I was writing, in the way that I normally become when the words are flowing more freely and the fingers flying across the keys. Nor was I producing quality, I think. I read back over some old stuff I wrote and it didn’t seem half-bad, perhaps even read quite well if I do dare say… but then I read back over something I wrote more recently and I couldn’t stand it. Its flaws towered over the page, casting long shadows. Its cliches snapped and snarled from between the lines, or from within the lines, warty and ugly and plain for all to see. The prose limped along, workman-like. Plots stagnated. Characters gathered in bland surroundings to have inconsequential conversations that meandered around rather pointlessly, their disembodied dialogue ping-ponging back and forth, leading nowhere, signifying nothing. Idiots telling each other their idiot tales.

The difference, of course, is that the older writing was the result of a process: was drafted, revised, revised again, edited, modified, corrected and brought to a point where I was happy with it. My more recent work was only at the start of that process. It was nascent, and thus found obviously wanting when compared to its more polished predecessors.

So not block, but perhaps something worse. A pipe half clogged but still able to spill a trickle of septic sludge.

And I thought for days stretching into weeks about what might be causing it. I hadn’t settled on a project, and I flitted between several unfinished drafts of grand ambitious plans, and I’m sure that didn’t help. As a writer, I find that I need to sit in a narrative, to live with the characters talking and arguing and plotting and scheming in my head, mentally writing and re-writing their lines before I even sit down to the computer, before I even take a pen to hand. And sometimes I did but than I would leap across to one of the other worlds, to characters from another story. They are diverse enough that I could still track that leap, but would I not have been better to have written one novel than to have four drafts in the 20-30,000 word range?

And what does it say for the quality of those drafts when even their author seeks greener grass in another document?

I sought solutions…

I bought Scrivener. It helped me make some truly excellent plans. It has a virtual corkboard and virtual notes on which I planned scenes and chapters and character descriptions and setting notes… and all of these wonderful satellite resources to my writing are marshaled now. Their creation came at the expense of words on the page. The delicate restructuring and rearranging of labels at the expense of a chapter or two. I was able to convince myself I spent an hour writing and have not a single additional word on the draft to show for it. So Scrivener is good at what it is designed for, but it did not solve my problem.

I read. I finished the book I’d started last year. I went to the Kindle store. I read books for my work and for my sons. I read short stories and online zines. I read the draft work of fellow writers and friends. I read guides on writing and pitching and querying, on synopses, on the industry. I read Twitter and Facebook and learnt from professionals and publishers… this too was valuable. This too produced not one single word on any of my drafts, and so it has not solved the problem. One must beware of writing-like activities through which one might convince oneself that progress is being made when in fact it is not.

And now I blog about it, so that I can reacquaint myself with writing, with getting the words down, with the tap of the keys beneath my finger tips and the wonderful march of letters across blank space. I haven’t written here for 6 months, and perhaps that was a part of the problem, and perhaps it needs to be part of the solution. The feeling of being productive, the experimenting with words and sentences, the shaping of thoughts into physical form–or digital form at least–and sharing them with the vast and global void into which we all stare. And yet for all the good that comes from the thousand words here, not one of those words adds to any of my drafts, and so this too has not solved my problem.

There is but one solution then.

This is the only advice on writing I dare give, and I give it primarily to myself:

Write the words.

Even though they are crap. Even though they might need to be re-written, many or all, almost certainly, even almost entirely. Just write the words. Finish the draft.

 

Get yourself into a position from which there is no way out, but through. Break the 30,000 barrier, and the 40- and the 50- until the ending seems so much nearer and you can fall toward it. Know that ‘THE END’ is not the end, and you will always be able to come back and rewrite the few thousand you forced onto the page, even if those few stretch out to 20,000 and even if all 20,000 are irredeemable, still you’ll have a draft. You cannot have a book without a draft, and so the finishing of the book is not your goal… not yet. It is the finishing of the draft on which to set ones eye, and even before that on the finishing of the chapter, or the page, or the paragraph or the line… on finishing the word and selecting the next and so on, onward.

So that is my advice, as much for myself as for you, dear reader. More for myself, really than for anyone else.

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2016: A Year in Review

Hmmm, what to say about 2016…

It’s pretty widely acknowledged that this year was not the best, for a great many reasons. For me there was a tragedy in my extended family near the start of the year, like the rest of you a cavalcade of deaths of celebrities I admired, the US election result, and then it ended with more bad news for good friends of mine.

So perhaps F-U 2016 is the best response. Good Riddance.

fu-2016

Image from this article (which was written before we lost Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds)

Which is not to say there were no positives (for pop-culture, the resurgence of Star Wars through both Force Awakens and Rogue One, and the return of Spidey to the MCU) but, yeah… not a year for the highlights reel.

As a writer, this year was a tough one. I had my first short published in 2014, in a tiny token-payment magazine which is now defunct. In 2015 I had a story in one of Australia’s most significant SFF magazines, and felt like I was making progress. In 2016, no shorts published. I did have a greater focus on novel writing between late 2015 and now, but there were a few short stories I put out there, without any of them getting published. Hit the second round on a few magazines, including one major Hugo-award-winning international magazine. I’m taking that as a sign of progress in the quality of what I’m putting out there, but near-misses are still misses.

Novel-wise, well, ups-and-downs. I started well, in February completing a manuscript of a sequel to my novel ‘Rakan’. That makes the third full-length novel manuscript I’ve written, and I’m definitely feeling the improvement in understanding the process and in getting the work done. I’ve had some success with ‘Rakan’, some full-requests and some great feedback on what it does well. Still querying and still waiting on some decisions, so that’s in a bit of a holding-pattern. Watch-this-space. After finishing the Rakan sequel and mapping out the third of the trilogy I have shifted focus, experimenting with several novel ideas without really committing to any until late in the year. Now I’m committed to ‘Biotropolis’, which is at about the 30,000 word mark and looking like it’ll get to somewhere between 70 and 80k.

As a reader, I’ve shifted through a few genres. The year started with a classic: ‘The Big Sleep‘, by Raymond Chandler, which helped me a great deal in understanding Crime Noir’s origins and the value of a tight, well-paced plot. Road Brothers is Mark Lawrence’s collection of short stories based on characters from his Broken Empire trilogy, and a good example of character-driven Fantasy (Grimdark?) shorts. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson was Hard SF, harder than I’d normally read but I really enjoyed his science, moreso than his characters. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, was much different Sci=Fi, a sharp little novella full of ideas and alien images. I enjoyed the focus on communication, rather than conflict. 2016 was also a year where I read more YA, and Aussie YA at that. Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight was a Fantasy revenge tale of a young girl honed into a master assassin. The first of a trilogy, it was more violent and sexual than I’d expected from a YA novel. Also by Kristoff, co-authored with Amie Kaufman, ‘Illuminae’ was a highlight. A Sci-FI adventure narrative cobbled together from transcripts, emails, message boards and other non-standard narrative forms. I’m currently reading the sequel, ‘Gemina’ which is as good and features illustrations by Marie Lu. The release of ‘Gemina’ interrupted my reading of Ninefox Gambit’ by Yoon Ha Lee, which had an intriguing start and which should be right up my alley, being space-opera with weird and mathematics mixed in. I’m looking forward to returning to once ‘Gemina’ is finished.

For short stories, I enjoyed Brooke Bolander’s harpy revenge story, Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, published in Uncanny, and Cassandra Khaw’s dark mermaid horror, And In Our Daughters, We Find A Voice, published in The Dark Magazine.

In other media, the Star Wars films were a highlight, as I said. ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was also great (team Cap!). ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Finding Dory’ were good fun with the kids. ‘Jason Bourne’ was a disappointment. We don’t get many chances to go to the movies, and that was one wasted. We missed a few I want to see as well. I did discover the most excellent movies channel on YouTube: ‘Movies With Mikey’ which is amazing and wonderful.

On TV, I finally discovered Black Mirror, I enjoyed the crazy/horror/comedy/gorefest nostalgia of Ash Vs Evil Dead, and the Marvel TV Shows. Liked the Punisher storyline in Daredevil S2, but was less interested in the Elektra and ninjas and all the rest. Jessica Jones was great, but sometimes very difficult to watch. Luke Cage was stylish and cool and excellent while Cottonmouth was around, and spiraled hard toward a disappointing finale when he wasn’t. The Brazilian sci-fi 3% was pretty interesting, even through the bad dubbing. The Expanse started pretty well but for some reason failed to keep me hooked. Netflix has me watching more than I used to, but there’s still not a great deal of time for TV. Game of Thrones, always an exception.

I got stuck playing ‘Fallout 4′, in Survival Mode, slowly rebuilding the wasteland with comfortable beds and dining areas for all my multitudinous Minute-Men-loyal settlers. I got the remastered ‘Skyrim’ too, and sometimes I just go and walk by the lake I can see from the manor I built, just enjoying the way the water moves and fending off the occasional threat.

And what will 2017 bring? Who knows. There’s an unpredictable geo-politic at play and a sense that things will get tougher before they get better, (near-future sci-fi will be difficult to write, as the ridiculousness of our reality outpaces it), but there is no way out but through and the rewards will come to those who keep working for them. Persistence and progress. It can feel like a tough slog at times, and each hard-fought inch of forward motion can sap our energy, but ever-onward. Write the thing, submit the thing, write the next thing. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep reading, keep learning.

Keep going…

My reading/writing goals for 2017:

Read 12 novels (one per month)
Read 50 Short stories (approx one per week)
Finish ‘Biotropolis’ by mid year
Finish at least the full first draft of another novel
Keep querying with ‘Rakan’
Start querying with ‘Biotropolis’
Write 6 short stories
Keep on submitting…

All the best for 2017, you guys. Thanks for stopping by and reading, and thanks for giving me an audience while I shout out into the void.


On the benefits of ‘failure’

I set myself a goal at the start of the month.

In fact I set several.

The most salient goal for this blog was the #NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words written in November. I did not achieve that goal. I didn’t even come close. It wasn’t a case of ‘just one more day’, or ‘just a little short.’ I failed to achieve 50,000. I failed to achieve half that.

 

from this blog on why we shouldn't fear failure: http://aib.edu.au/blog/fear-of-failure-4-reasons-embrace-failure/

sourced from this blog on how to embrace failure

And that’s ok.

Coincidentally, at the start of November, I also started a new job. It’s a similar role to the role I previously had, but the small and specific differences are significant. It’s at a different organisation, and a much larger organisation, than my previous employment. I’ve had to learn the new culture, the new hierarchies, the systems and protocols and all those elements of a workplace which go so often unstated. I’ve had to meet new people, learn names, determine the interconnections between each of them and me, between their roles and mine, how I can help them, how they can help me. It’s been a big transition, and in many ways one which is time-consuming and mentally demanding, coming into an existing project and quickly evaluating how the expertise and experience I bring will contribute. And I feel (one month in) that it has been a success.

I also set a personal health goal at the start of November, because I was feeling run-down and unhealthy, I was overweight (no shaming intended, but overweight for me. You be whatever weight you’re comfortable and happy with. I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy, so ‘overweight’), I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I was stressed… I was struggling. So I made some changes, on my own terms, and I set some health goals and behavioural/habit goals. And I’ve been successful there too, both in terms of the numerical targets I’m hitting and the general feeling of wellbeing.

And then there was the election of course, and all of the existential doubt and fear that flowed from it.

Graph of November

Graph of November (from here)

Life is about balancing things. That’s probably as true for you, reading this, as it is for me. It’s probably true for all of us. But sometimes we see people doing amazing things, devoting a lot of time and energy we don’t see to produce fantastic results we do. I had a friend posting astounding word-counts for the first week or so of #NaNoWriMo, an the temptation to compare myself unfavourably was strong. But I wasn’t competing with her, and her circumstances were not my own.

Recently Kameron Hurley spoke on Twitter about being a ‘binge writer’: writing tens-of-thousands of words a day, for several days on end, rather than writing every day (a nice antidote to the ‘write every day‘ mantra which can lead to feelings of guilt or failure when your life doesn’t allow you to write). But I’m not competing with her, and her circumstances are not my own.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of writing. One of the most striking changes I see in myself between my earliest dilettante days of ‘aspiring’ to be a writer (the advice to drop that qualifier was invaluable for self-perception) and the ongoing development in the midst of which I sit today, is my understanding of what writing is, what it is not, and what it requires.

Among other things, writing requires failure.

Initially in the sense that you need to accept failure merely to write anything at all, because it’s important to give yourself permission to suck, and to accept that your first draft of anything is shit.

But more than that I think writing (and really any creative/artistic endeavour) requires that we strive for something we know we may never achieve. And yet that we keep striving.

This is why we should not hate bad art. Peter Ball pointed this out for me, and it has changed the way I look at the Beibers of our world. We should critique, of course. We can express our dissatisfaction or distaste. We can call out problematic or offensive tropes and features. But bad art is important. It’s especially important if other people (for some unfathomable reason beyond your ken) like it, even love it. It’s the creative endeavour. It’s someone trying to make something and share it, and maybe you don’t like what they made, but then again maybe you’re not the intended audience, or maybe it doesn’t matter if no one else likes it because bad art matters to the artist. And bad art is so often a precursor to good art, or to better art, at least. If people stop making bad art, or are afraid to make bad art, how can they ever move through that phase to what comes next? As Alison Gerber points out, bad art benefits us all.

If you are serious about writing, you will create bad writing. You’ll fall into cliche, lean heavily on tired tropes, trot out stock phrases, overuse your pet words. You’ll make errors, break grammatical conventions accidentally or with ill-conceived intent, run-on your sentences, split your infinitives, dangle your participles, changed your tense mid-sentence. You’ll be incomprehensible, miss the mark, wander off on tangents, maybe be bland or boring. All of this is part of the process. If we castigate ourselves for these ‘failings’, or worse, if our fear of them paralyses us, we will never achieve the greatness which may lie just beyond them, just a little further along the path, just beyond the work-shopping and revision and re-writing which can only follow once a thing is written.

So what benefits are there in this failure, my #NaNoWriMo failure?

  1. I have about 20,000 words about a weaponised infection, a dying city, and the reluctant poetry student who may hold the key to the cure.
  2. I added another 5,000 words or so to a separate story about a retired government cyber-agent drawn into an international quest to learn the truth about her high-school sweetheart’s death.
  3. I have a much clearer sense of where both of these stories are going, and more fully developed planning documents which will guide me there.

And I have perspective.

The month was not wasted because I fell (well) short of the arbitrary figure set for #NaNoWriMo. I have another month, and another after that, and at 25,000 or so words per month, I’m only a couple of months away from finishing another novel.

That’s an exciting feeling.


Review: “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (Short story)

I don’t normally review short stories because I read quite a few and I don’t often get time to reflect on them and write up those reflections here, but I’m making an exception, in part because this is a pretty exceptional story (and in part motivated by a tone-deaf review I read which seemed to miss the point of this story completely. I won’t link to it. If you’re desperate to know, trawl my Twitter feed for my reaction).

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies appears in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13.

You can read it (or listen to it) here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

issue13coverv2_large
(Cover art by Julie Dillon, www.juliedillonart.com)

I first read Brooke Bolander’s work with her rightfully acclaimed And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead, which was published in Lightspeed Issue 57 (Feb 2015). That story went on to be a finalist for Nebula and Hugo and set a high bar.

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead - illustration by Galen Dara
(Art by Galen Dara, 2015, which accompanied Bolander’s story in Lightspeed, 57)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a much different story, and much shorter, but it packs much of the same punch.

Bolander has a talent for an opening. In And You Shall Know Her… that was in a first paragraph with deep hooks in it. Here, she has boiled that down to one sentence:

“This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.”

One of the most remarkable features of this story is how compact it is. It comes in at barely more than 1,000 words, but it’s full to the brim. It’s as lean and muscular as a prizefighter, not a word wasted.

Bolander’s opening paragraph makes the thematic purpose clear. For all the otherworldly elements, (copper feathers, wing stubs, immortality, multiple realities, black holes and parallel universes, to name but a few), this is a story about our world: a world in which the victims of violence become anonymised and the perpetrators become celebrities, where women’s brutalised bodies are ignored at best, displayed as warnings or entertainment at worst, and where excuses are found for nice boys from good families.

But while the reader can make connections between this story and the Stanford rapist, the Steubenville rapists, the likes of Ted Bundy, this is not a story about them. It’s a story which deliberately and explicitly ignores any temptation to sympathise with, or even to explain or understand, guys like that. It doesn’t want to tell their tale. This is someone else’s story; not theirs.

With theme established, Bolander delivers the main narrative in sparse but descriptive detail. Each piece of information is a bullet-point on a list, and we as readers must bring these discrete facts together. We co-create the narrative. I’m not always convinced by this as a story-telling form, but this proves that the technique–done well–carries power.

The final paragraphs bring it all back together, and broaden the scope from the gritty detail to the epic scale suggested by the title.

This is an excellent short story. A galaxy full of stars for it, from me, provided it is a small galaxy with 5 stars in it (or a crushed galaxy, perhaps, wherein 5 stars remain).

 

 


NaNoWriMo 2016

Last year I took my first run at getting 50,000 words written in the month of November. This is the goal of NaNoWriMo, but I consider that my efforts ran parallel to, rather than within, that program. I certainly used NaNo… as impetus to write more and more frequently, but I didn’t sign up to anything or really participate in the community of it.

This year, more of the same.

Here’s last year’s results:

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

I made it, by the skin of my teeth. The novel I worked on with those words needed extensive reshaping and revisions and edits, but it’s a 90,000+ manuscript now which I completed in February of this year.

Since then I’ve written half a dozen short stories, and made starts or false starts on five novel projects. Clearly I’ve got a problem with diving into an idea and then wandering off to a new idea rather than sticking through.

So, this year I want to get more than 50,000 words in the next 30 days, and I want them all on a single project. I’ve got one with two versions I’ve abandoned, one at about 5,000; the other just shy of 10,000. I’ll maybe draw on work already done in these, but quarantine those words from my monthly total. Adding some of those to the 50k I want to write this month would probably be enough put me in range to finish the novel draft by the end of the year, based on an 80,000 goal.

Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or running alongside like me, or if you’re a professional FT author for whom 50,000 words a month is just you doing your job, I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to check in here, or on my Facebook page (link should be in a menu to the right of this post) or on Twitter (@jmmelican) and we can arrange some writing sprints or similar.