Tuesday, February 22, 2011
A few weeks after that, I've been invited by Mary Menzel from the California Center for the Book to speak to a class of library science students about science fiction and fantasy, so I'll need to find the time to put together a presentation on that topic as well. So exciting!
Monday, February 14, 2011
Ever have trouble balancing the appearances of characters in your stories, or the way scenes are arranged? You want them to flow well, but also reveal information to the reader at key points, and you want your characters to show up with good timing. And even with an outline, this can turn out to be quite a challenge in your first draft.
Well, Mr. Corby had the ingenious idea of creating a spreadsheet to block this all out. Across the top, he put the names of the characters, and along the left side, labeled each scene. He puts an X in the appropriate cell whenever a character appears in a certain scene, and voila! It becomes much easier to track who shows up when, who shows up and then never shows up again, and so on and so on.
I had an extensive outline for my last manuscript. Pages and pages of text. But it was also the first novel I wrote with a very large cast of characters, and pretty soon I found myself swimming. What happened to so-and-so? Have we heard from them in a while? What about that subplot? Mr. Corby also color-codes blocks of scenes that have to be treated as a logical unit, and this allows him to see what scenes can be easily shuffled around if necessary. I imagine one could get quite complex, tracing when themes or subplots and so forth appear, rather than just characters. It's ultimately customizable and provides a quick visual reference to the structure of your story, and that's great. This strategy could have really helped me, and given how much I use spreadsheets in my day job at the library, I'm ashamed I didn't think of it first!
I'm planning to rewrite that last manuscript at some point in the future, and am looking forward, with probably more glee than is appropriate, to trying this out. I'm about halfway through my current manuscript and it, as is normal for me, has a smaller cast, but if I get stuck, I'll definitely pause to give this a whirl. I'm excited.
As a disclaimer, I had not heard of Mr. Corby before, as I'm not too into mysteries, but the voice and allusion to setting just in his little blog burb has made me anxious to track down his books. So it's a win all around.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
A year or two ago, a friend/writing colleague of mine and I embarked on a project to cure us of many bad writing habits: we decided to write the worst fantasy novel of all time. We aimed to utilize every stereotyped character type and plot line, every technical aspect that manuals and literary greats will tell you to avoid. We overused adverbs, had an unconnected prologue, used any tag except "said" or "asked", abused exclamation points, used clichéd turns of phrase, included page-long tangents that had nothing to do with anything, and so on. And we found it was liberating, and made us better and more conscious writers.
See, it's easy to tell oneself, "Use adverbs sparingly." It's another thing to use them so much that you can't stand the sight of any word ending in -ly. Even if it's not an adverb. Now, when I'm tempted to use an adverb in my normal ("good", in theory) writing, I pause. I won't say, "Never use adverbs", because I think like anything else they can be used effectively*, but I consider whether that word is needed. Is there a stronger verb I can use, instead of modifying a weak one? Will using this adverb increase the reader's understanding of the action? Will it make this sentence or section better or worse?
I'm not a perfect writer, and I still have much room for improvement, but I've found that intentional overuse of a device can perform a cauterizing function on bad writing habits. At the very least, I've learned to think twice before using many of these devices, and I hope that I've begun to do so in a more efficient and stronger manner.
What about you? Do you have any unorthodox writing tips?
*(See, I just used one. Effectively.)
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
I've come to a realization in the last year or so when reading science fiction from the Golden Age or a few decades after. While I can appreciate and enjoy the stories and recognize when they contain revolutionary ideas for their time, I don't think I am hit with the full impact I would have experienced had I read them when they were new.
See, the thing is, I'm fairly young and most of these stories were around at least a decade before I was (usually more like two or three). In the time between their writing and my birth, and my birth and the age at which I began reading anything, countless writers had already read those books, been influenced by them, and incorporated their ideas into their own writing. I've read THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, but only after reading many of the writers for whom LeGuin paved the way, so the unique ways she addresses gender don't strike me as so extraordinarily new as they would have, I suspect, if I'd read the book when it came out. The same is true for STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. It just seems so very 1960s to me, a perfect encapsulation of an era. If I'd been around to read it when it was first published, I'm sure its ideas would have seemed so much more original and revolutionary and controversial. Since I can only look at it from a historical perspective, it almost seems quaint. (Of course, I've got a background in studying religion, especially early Christianity and Greek mystery religions, so figures like Michael Valentine aren't all that new to me.)
Now, I enjoy these stories. I like the characters and the plots and many of the ideas. They have made me think critically about some of the things we take for granted in the world. But I still think I'm unable to feel the full effect they had when new. It's a bit sad, really. I can understand the impact these books had on thinking, on writing, and on culture from a historical and academic perspective. I can appreciate the doors they broke down or the topics they made OK to discuss. But I'm still somewhat removed by history and all the years and books and ideas that have come between us.
Perhaps I shouldn't take it to heart. After all, all ideas are new to the individual at some point. If I had read LeGuin before reading anyone else's take on gender that didn't conform to a strict dichotomoy, perhaps I would have been blown away. If I'd read Heinlein with no pre-conceived ideas of messianic figures or knowledge of the free love movement or--gasp!--Muslims as anything but radical figures, perhaps he would have shocked me. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE was the first thing of its kind I can remember reading, and that book shook me very much and remains a favorite to this day.
And each generation gets its own new ideas. I'm sure if I considered it, there would be books that have moved or surprised me now, or made me think about things in a new fashion. Who's to say these books won't be the big hallmarks of thought we look back on three decades from now?