A writerly skill exercise. Link to my Curious Fictions blog post:
My thoughts on transitioning from conventional to the world of self-publishing. Here’s the link to my Curious Fictions post: Curious Fictions: The Self-Publishing Plunge by Al Onia
My father recently passed away at 103 years old. Universal among condolences from family and friends was the comment of the great stories he told. Having been around him all my life, I took his talent for granted but now I want to examine his memory closer. Was it the stories themselves, the way he told them or a combination of both? And can his skill be transferred to a son who never lived through his experiences?
Born near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1916, dad was fourteen in 1930 when the Great Depression’s wrath slammed the prairies already suffering drought. He and a chum hit the rails and rode freight cars in search of a better life. Clearing the Frank Slide, picking Okanagan fruit, panning for gold, selling household chemicals door-to-door in the poorest Vancouver tenements and eventually fishing and working in sawmills on north Vancouver Island, the 1930’s were filled with Steinbeckian misadventures.
WWII brought some relief in terms of steady employment in the Vancouver shipyards before dad joined the army. Basic training, meeting and marrying my mother in a whirlwind romance before shipping overseas to England (weird coincidence, his younger brother whom he hadn’t seen in years, was on the same troopship), and combat episodes in Holland and France provided more epic material for his stories.
Despite this tough life, dad never viewed it as anything other than ‘life’. Not to be merely endured, but to be harvested for the good times and the good people he met. That was the success content in his stories. No matter the bleak moments, the closure often, though not always, provided a positive takeaway. Life carried on and one gave back when and where one could.
He had the travails but he wasn’t unique. Many people suffered similar hard times in the ’30’s depression, the war and the post-war struggle to build security for a new family. He told his tales with a great ear for dialect. He plucked the humour from the embarrassing and frightening moments. He put his heart into the description. He could pick out a visual cue which brought an image full-blown to the listener’s mind and nailed the story down for future remembrance.
Now to my author part of the exercise, though I do treasure the chance to share his memories: how to adapt verbal storytelling skills to the written page? To my mind, the shared ingredients are: pathos (honest emotion), believable dialogue, risk (stakes), triumph or defeat (conclusion, not ‘closure’, for the story goes on after the last page), and a key to tie it all together with style (presentation is the divider between those who can tell their story well and those who have a good story but can’t deliver it memorably).
I’ll close with a short anecdote about dad. During a lunch many years ago, my folks had long-time friends visiting from out of town. Following one of my dad’s tales, one guest commented that he should write a book. Dad’s normal answer I’d heard many times was “no one would believe it”. This time he threw me, his response was, “I’ve done too many things I’m not proud of.” Dad, I get the final word this time and it is, “No you haven’t. I’m proud of everything you did and accomplished.” Thanks for the stories and the gift (I hope) to tell them.
A recent discussion topic with my writing critique group was backstory – what happened before the current story began to make the story. We debated when it’s needed, how it’s woven into the story and what pitfalls to avoid. It led me to examine posthumously how I inserted backstory into my Transient City/Rogue Town duology. My comments below apply mainly to novel-length work. Short stories are a different breed. In the short form, one begins ‘as late as possible’ and provides only what is absolutely necessary in the way of backstory.
First, the need. Background information about character and physical and social setting enhances the reader’s appreciation for motivation and the obstacles blocking the characters’ goals. Understanding motivation can increase a reader’s dopamine level, many readers seek personal identification with the characters presented. Additional layers of world and persona-building give depth in novel-length works. The incremental ‘reveals’ judiciously sprinkled through the tale keep the reader’s interest and if they can share in assembling the parts, the act of participation rewards through that old dopamine rush. If done well.
If done well. The techniques vary from smooth integration in dialog to clumsy exposition. Verbal exchanges can ‘worm’ information from a character who has their own reason for reluctance. Withholding key data could be an embarrassing or shaming experience. It could be for safety reasons. Doling it out piecemeal as the plot’s stakes rise adds tension, the key element in moving all fiction forward.
Sensory or emotional triggers can produce flashbacks which function to explain why the character reacts as he/she does. A place, a word, a person from the past can cause a sudden recollection. Dreams and hallucinations can offer similar opportunity for the author to slip in crucial information.
Other less subtle techniques include news items garnering the protagonist’s attention. Journal or logbook entries break up the narrative flow but handled with care, can still evoke genuine emotions in character and reader. Larger chunks of exposition giving history can slow the pace and are to be used with care, if at all.
Victor Stromboli, my lead character in Transient City, has a gift in the form of perfect memory. The talent allows him to eke out an existence as a crime-scene ‘witness’ for the City’s police. The procedure involved in locking down the memories is an ordeal for Victor every time. I wanted the reader to question how Victor came by his talent in the first place. Before the book ends, I outline an incident from his early life which not only reveals his discovery of the ability but also served to elaborate on his socio-economic position in Transient’s hierarchy. One event, multiple functions.
Transient City is Victor’s story. It’s sequel, Rogue Town, is Shoes’ story. Shoes is a secondary but enigmatic, character in the first book. Rogue Town gave me the chance to background her past. This time I dovetailed another character’s previous career into Shoes’ past trauma. It provided more information for both characters, a nasty bit of ‘City’ history and created mistrust (i.e. tension) for Shoes to be working with that character.
If you want to see if I’ve succeeded, read this blog no further until you acquire the books.
You’re back? Excellent. I hope you enjoyed the novels. You will have noticed secondary character backstories were also woven in as part of TC’s history, for the City too is an important character.
A caution. One can get carried away with backstory. Background detail can be like research: you need it to write the story but it doesn’t all need to be in the final product.
From a writer’s viewpoint, backstory supplies one additional service. It can provide the inspiration for prequel stories or other tales contemporary with the source. A canon of Sherlock Holmes stories and scripts have been inspired by unpursued (by Conan Doyle) references littered through the original series. Asimov went backward in time as well as forward in his Foundation and Robot series, taking advantage of the rich background created for the initial novels.
The discussion arises from my own experience examining the writing process and on this topic, breaks down into two considerations. The first looks at common sources open to all writers ‘combing the ether’ for ideas. That which roots in the outside world. The second is more personal and deals with the known vs. the unknown sources inside the writing brain.
Most writers are receptive to their surrounding world. We note news items ranging from the major to the inconsequential and file them away in our memory, or write them down. As long as they hold interest, they are worth saving for future use in our stories, sometimes on their own, more often combined with other, disparate items, characters, settings or plots. I often read a short story or piece of a novel and see exactly where the inspiration originated because I too took notice of the source material and have either used it in one of my stories or was waiting for the right time and ninety-degree turns to make it interesting. You can’t wait too long, I think these ideas have a shelf-life of one or two years. After that, your idea has been exploited by another writer or the topicality has passed.
As always, the originality arises in the way each author interprets the key elements and applies them to a human condition worth dramatizing. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as creativity from thin air but we share experience and environment. We need to have depth in our writing and to be accessible to readers who may or may not seek subtext commonality but do seek a unique, accessible and entertaining take on a subject.
The second manifestation of this subconscious phenomena comes to me in the form of my direct inspirations in novel writing.
My book “Transient City” owes a bow to Christopher Priest’s “Inverted World” (one Goodreads reviewer got it!). Priest’s mobile city concept struck a chord years ago when I read it and seemed the ideal setting for my tale of endless memory and homage to 1960’s British pop culture. This was a conscious attempt on my part to acknowledge but not imitate.
I will occasionally re-read a previously-enjoyed book and be surprised by a scene or plot thread which I recognize came forth to a conscious level during my creative process, one I didn’t trace back to source when madly writing a new scene but nevertheless has enough similarity in origin to tag it after the fact. It doesn’t happen a lot but I estimate one or two significant ideas per book which I thought were all me likely have an outside source, though re-imagined to fit my experience and need. This raises a greater question: does the unrestrained, non-editorial free-flow of early drafts/new scenes unleash the creative mind or plumb the memory? Memory isn’t a filing cabinet; it usually doesn’t offer up exact copies of an event. It recreates the event from additive experience to closely resemble the original. Another level of modification or creativity, depending on how askew the ‘new’ differs from the source.
A mildly scary epilogue to “Transient City” is an old SF novel I discovered recently by Mack Reynolds called “Rolltown”. The cover depicts a large RV, a micro-habitat on treads. The cover of Transient depicts my imagined city perfectly – a town-sized complex on treads. It is coincidence; the similarity ends with the cover. Reynolds’ story takes place on post-catastrophe dystopic Earth, involving masses of RV’s travelling together for safety. I neither saw nor read the book when it came out in 1976 but seeing that cover in the used book store less than a year ago gave me a moment of shock. Perhaps I plumbed forty-year old ether for that one.
Writers and readers share enough experience, whether cultural, anthropological or global zeitgeist to survive the translation from author’s mind to page to reader’s eyes to their mind hopefully consistent with the creator’s intent. Striking the reader’s tuning fork melodiously is what I seek as a writer. Understanding how I got there is more complex than typing the words on a screen. Who is in charge? In my case, it varies. The end result always amazes my conscious mind, the first reward for hours spent at the screen. The second reward is when a publisher finds it as amazing. The third and most important is when the reader discovers it.
Often in my critiquing group, the discussion turns to a classic work in the genre or out and the group will be divided into those who’ve read the subject work, those who haven’t and those who’ve never heard of it. The latter two usually ask, “Why should I read it?” There are reasons for and against and all valid to some respect. Though I fall mainly on the ‘why’ side, I’ll examine the ‘why not’ and the ‘don’t bother’ position.
Let’s examine the why first. You never suffer by reading an outstanding story or novel. As a writer, you can read jointly for enjoyment and to study technique of someone who pulled magic from the muse to create a classic. There’s another reason besides entertainment or craft building. Most ‘How-To’ genre writing books emphasize early on that one should ‘know what has gone before’. Science Fiction has a rich century-plus legacy. A burgeoning author can attempt a story about a Martian invasion failing due to earth virus/bacterial infection (or an alternate history Mayan invasion of medieval Europe defeated by smallpox) but know the ground has been well-tilled by H.G. Wells. This is an extreme example but many such classics exist without a series of movie adaptations. One could craft a story about a desert planet civilization breeding the finest warriors in the galaxy but don’t try to market a Dune clone out of ignorance of its existence. A chance exists your first-reader group may not have read it either but a competent editor (and well-read fans) will have. Your work will be compared to precedents as well as contemporaries. If found to be a weak imitation of a landmark story of years ago, it may not pass the slush pile.
One of the reasons I hear for not reading this or that particular seminal work is a frustration in style evolution or biases no longer politically correct. But such differences can often inspire a new take. Consider Don Sakers’ ‘The Cold Solution’, a more culturally acceptable answer to Tom Godwin’s classic ‘The Cold Equations’. Sakers created a classic of his own while paying homage to a decades-old but perceived out-of-date standard of the genre.
Knowing the history of the genre one is writing in can be essential not to unknowingly imitate a common theme or idea and can stimulate an entirely fresh approach. What if the classic’s assumptions are wrong? What advances in technology or human understanding render the original obsolete? Respond with a modern interpretation.
Writers must be judicious in their time budgeting. The question arises of ‘Why should I devote precious writing time to reading time?’ A valid point, if the two are interchangeable. Twenty minutes on a bus ride or in a doctor’s office could be more rewarding as a reading session than a writing one. Often for me, reading recharges the muse, plants ideas in the conscious or subconscious for future exploitation during the creativity process.
A more gut response to not pursuing the classics is sometimes just being contradictory for its own sake. Writers are a quirky bunch and expecting them all to react or behave as I do isn’t realistic. I recognize the diverse personalities and respect their unique approaches to the creative process. The diversity is welcome when it comes to critiquing, if you please everyone, you’re not doing it right.
The response is the ‘I’m unfamiliar with that story’. Again, a valid position but not for the growing writer. Occasionally we have mystery and horror stories tabled for critiquing by our group. I’ve heard the ‘I’ve written a cozy mystery but have never read one so I don’t know what they are or if this qualifies’ introduction. I leave it to the reader to react without editorial comment from me.
I remain on the ‘for’ side. I like being entertained and stimulated by reading the best, and this extends beyond the classics to the yearly Best collections to see what’s being explored recently. I can appreciate the idea some writers don’t want to be influenced by another author’s take on a familiar theme. But most SF themes are familiar, it’s the fresh execution which elevates your story out of the slushpile.
I often hear authors and editors referring to a novel where they believe the writer has ‘found their voice’. What is this mysterious benchmark and how does one know when it has been achieved?
Authorial ‘voice’ is different from the point of view character voice. It is the author’s ‘persona’, the voice behind the curtain whose outlook determines the tone of the novel. This tone can be humourous, optimistic, cynical or downright bleak. The subject matter and plot may not determine the tone, it is the author who makes the choice.
Carl Hiaasen writes from a humourous slant but his books are full of deceit, crooked politicians, violent deaths and serious societal issues. He’s chosen a funny delivery either because of his personal view of the world or he’s deemed it the most effective way of conveying his theme.
On the optimistic side, many SF writers from Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and forward view the future with hope. Star Trek too had a positive, almost utopian, vision of man’s future. The significant hurdles to reach such a future are myriad and the challenge is often the crux of their stories.
Cynical voices in the SF world would include Richard Morgan, whose homages to the noir-detective genre are almost necessarily cynical, echoing Philip Marlowe. The first-person point of view convention in this case blurs the distinction between author and protagonist voice.
Bleak books are often dystopias (1984 for example). Things are bad and they’re only going to get worse. Christopher Moore bridges depression and humour brilliantly. A subset, or perhaps a set on its own, would be the novels of a world or universe in chaos. Nothing follows the rules we understand; action generates overwhelmingly unequal and nihilistic or discordant reaction. China Mieville’s compelling novels seem rooted in such a null-value system.
To the question of finding one’s own voice. It may or may not reflect the writer’s outlook on life. It can be chosen to distance the writer from the material in order to tell the story more effectively. Damon Knight wrote that his fiction improved dramatically after he invented a writer to write his stories for him, one who was more mature, skilled, inventive and knowledgeable than he. I think he does himself a disservice here, he likely became all of those with experience as a writer and maturity as a person. It’s worth exploring the value of donning a mantle when one does write. That mantle can certainly be of a ‘better’ writer. You put yourself into this new creation running the keyboard and then proceed to tell the story from within the disguise. The voice takes on a new identity, separate from the person owning the byline.
One need only look at the titles of many authors’ websites to see the persona adopted by them as illustration of the above. They have found a mantle. My analysis and categorization convince me voice exists. But do writers really ‘find their voice’ or do they just become better writers? Does voice translate into reader popularity?
My next novel, The Sixth Helix (currently scheduled for late 2018 release) is a better book than its predecessors. Have I found my voice or just refined it from Transient City and Rogue Town? I was more confident in writing it from page 1 of draft 1. Confident in the story, the characters and setting. The mantle I found in this case was the self-assurance of my skill being up to completing the book as I imagined it, no falling short of my ambition. I hope readers will agree.
I recently began writing my one-hundredth work of fiction. Considering the few decades since I started, this does not make me particularly prolific but I was working full-time up until a few years ago. Still, it’s a milestone of sorts and gives me pause to reflect on these 100 attempts to tell a story.
Not all of the pieces were finished, my files hold a few aborted novels which ran out of steam around 30000 words and a few short stories which never progressed beyond an outline or idea list. But it’s interesting to me to compare the first fifty with the last fifty under some criteria of professional measure.
I published 8 of the first 50 (I count only paid publication, whether nominal or not) and 18 of the second 50 (this number I expect to grow as the more recent efforts are just starting their marketing crusade). Four of the accepted works are novels and comprise two-thirds of my novel submissions (I have a heroic fantasy under query to an agent and a sequel to Javenny in limbo). I have two novels currently nearing completion and hope my success ratio on the longer works continues.
A better measure to me is what have I learned over the course of creating 100 pieces? What skills have improved? It’s almost embarrassing to review some of the earlier works to realize ‘I submitted this?’ and the editor remained completely professional in their polite rejection. Bless those souls who toil the slushpiles, I can think of no worse non-manual labour task.
If these early stories are unpublishable, then I must have gained some improvement. I have not reached Ray Bradbury’s benchmark of one million bad words before you figure it out. Access to more resources than Ray had may shorten it to seven or eight hundred thousand words of drek. Numerous how-to books and online resources have helped. Critique groups have helped more.
The first really useful how-to books I devoured were L. Sprague de Camp’s Science Fiction Handbook, Revised and Barry Longyear’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I. De Camp’s book originally came out in 1953 and the revision in 1975. Not a lot of nuts and bolts but inspiring and a look inside the life of being a writer. Longyear’s is The Nuts and Bolts guide (he even calls it ‘fiction mechanics’). Barry distills the essence of commercial fiction requirements in order to qualify as a complete short story and sets out a number of skill-building exercises to develop the template until it’s in your bones. It might seem formulaic but knowing the rules before you break them is better than defying convention through ignorance. There is one more classic reference book I’ll get to shortly.
Other books supplemented over the years, each more or less appropriate to my own stage of development. The most currently relevant for me is Stephen King’s On Writing (the second half after the short autobiography). He inspires, distills, describes and reflects on what makes good writing. The other major text resource which I’ve found myself referring to across my entire experience is Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. It is full of exercises designed to stretch and re-orient your perceptions and get that unique perception or voice onto paper in a compelling form.
I mentioned the value of a critique group. A respectful critique group is irreplaceable. I review others’ works in my group to see what works and what doesn’t and then examine my own work to see where I’ve made similar errors and where I can improve.
The best way for me to hone my skill is to write and write some more. Ideas make room for the next batch when you get them out of your brain onto paper or screen. I don’t know if I will reach opus two-hundred but when I started, I doubt if I imagined reaching half of that.
In the last couple of years at When Words Collide (a writer’s conference put on in Calgary during August), I’ve attended workshops and panel discussions on the emergent world of self-publishing and hybrid publishing. The changing world of conventional publishing has pushed authors to alternative action to get their work out to the public.
Self-publishing circumvents the long lead times of non-simultaneous submission, follow-up query and moving on to the next market. Most big publishers (the ‘big 5′) won’t take unsolicited or un-agented submissions and the task of finding an agent for an unknown writer is often as daunting as finding a publisher.
Self-publishing provides the prolific author with the opportunity to publish more than one book per year; conventional houses rarely release more than one book per author per year, particularly for a mid-list writer. Frequent releases actually benefit the self-published e-book author as readership can be voracious, especially for series work.
Self-published books also do not have to conform to the conventional wisdom of one-hundred-thousand-word epics which look great on bookstore shelves; a thick, meaty read, thinks the prospective buyer. Self-published e-books apparently sell better, especially a series, if they run fifty or sixty-thousand words.
Hybrid-publishing refers to the author who sells to conventional publishers but is too prolific, prefers writing shorter novels, or has books out of their usual genre. This writer needs another outlet and follows both paths.
So, what about balance? Every single panel and workshop about self-publishing stresses the time and effort the independent author should spend creating a personal brand. Writing, editing, formatting and releasing your book is only the first stage. Promoting your work is a continuous and consuming task. Mark Leslie, Axel Howerton, T.K. Boomer and other presenters at WWC offered numerous suggestions for using social media to increase potential readership.
How does one balance energy and time between self-promotion and putting words to paper and screen? Every hour spent on social media is an hour of not writing. I look at it as another discipline of the same overall task. I had to learn to self-edit, not the most creative endeavour. I am not a gregarious person by nature and I value my privacy, whether in the real or cyber-world. Yet I recognize the need for some presence, if you will, and maintain a profile through these blogs and author dashboards on Goodreads and Amazon.
Guy Gavriel Kay summed it up best for me at this years’ WWC guest of honour speeches. An acclaimed writer in the conventional publishing world, Guy must continue to maintain and grow his readership. For even such an award-winning author, conventional publishers devote little time and even fewer dollars to promoting his work. Outside the self and hybrid-publishing regime, the author must be the publicist. Guy’s advice paralleled my sentiment, and I paraphrase, ‘do what you are comfortable with’.
My passion is writing, creating stories which reflect my sensibilities. I’m happy to talk about my work more than myself. I’ve been lucky, in my opinion, to have a small-press publisher for my SF novels but I’ll consider hybrid-publishing (I have a fantasy novel making the agent rounds but will look at self-publishing it if necessary). And refine the balance to promote my works.
When I finished my first published novel, Javenny, I wanted to create a sequel escalating the theme of water. I began Rebuilding Javenny but only after I’d written the first draft of another book, one exploring the theme of memory. That novel became Transient City. My publisher expressed interest in the Javenny sequel as my second contracted book for Bundoran Press but I had so much more passion about Transient City, he agreed to look at it. He bought it and before it was even published, he offered a contract to write a sequel to Transient, sight unseen.
I was flattered in his confidence but wasn’t certain I shared it. I wrote Transient as a stand-alone book, no loose ends: everybody dies or moves away (no spoiler here). I took a day or two to mull the offer over. Of course I was going to do it, this is what being a ‘writer’ is all about, the ability to create a compelling story from scratch and not awaiting the muse to inspire. What to do? First, sign the contract. Second, don’t panic. Third, get past the panic. Fourth, pull a book out of my…brain.
My brain surprised me, as it often does during the writing process. Stories do end but the lives of the surviving characters do not. Protagonists are supposed to change and certainly Victor had. Being changed doesn’t mean he’d be any less vulnerable. As I thought about him, I recognized changes create new challenges by bringing the character or characters into conflict with the world in which they’d previously survived despite their quirks and handicaps. There was the kernel of the sequel.
I needed more. Secondary characters from Transient now had an opportunity to step up and have more of their story told. They’d have to, I’d removed (spoiler alert here) the villains and one of the most compelling aspects of Transient (you know if you’ve read it). I had a revelation at this point, why should I do all the heavy lifting? I had superb Transient beta readers. Put them to work earning their spot in the Acknowledgements. I asked my minions what they liked most about Transient and what they wanted more of. Big help to focus on themes for the sequel.
The final key component was the freedom to introduce new characters. The plot threads came out of character and setting, the new people and places came from my imagination. Don’t discount the power of deadline and expectation in the creative process.
Rogue Town: Transient Lost (working title) nears final edits for a Spring 2017 publication and I’m thrilled. It was no chore to write it and I thoroughly enjoyed the cast this time around. The techniques I learned from the exercise I will use in the future. Hopefully when my publisher says of some work, “hey, that was really good, you should write a sequel.”
Is there a third book? Well, never say never. Again, I wrote Rogue Town as complete in itself, especially wishing to avoid the sometimes weak-middle-book-of-a-trilogy syndrome. I have other books in preparation (plus that Javenny sequel is sitting on the shelf), so it will be a while before Transient Found is more than a title on a 3 x 5 file card.