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[writing|process] Old home week at Wordos, “The Stars Do Not Lie”

Yesterday, Lisa Costello and I drove the 100+ miles down to Eugene, OR to attend a Wordos meeting, with a dinner preceding. This was the first Wordos meeting I’ve been to in years, though for the first half of the last decade I was an almost weekly attendee. It was great good fun to see some old friends there, as well as meet a few new ones. And it was a very strange experience to hear my Nebula- and Hugo-nominated novella “The Stars Do Not Lie” be discussed in critical terms.

One of the points several people made was that the story would have taken a real beating at the critique table. The first two paragraphs are so dense and strange that they violate a number of the classic Turkey City lexicon rules. Yet those first two paragraphs neatly encapsulate one of the basic themes of the story, and foreshadow much of the plot. In other words, they work in spite of themselves and the rules we try to follow.

It was also interesting to hear people talk about my intentions for this-and-that, and how I crafted the contrasting voice for the two mutually antagonistic protagonists, and so forth. To my mind, one of the oddities of literary criticism (as opposed to critique) is the imputing of motives to the author. I can remember back in high school hearing English teachers say things like, “What Faulkner is doing here is emphasizing [some cultural trope]“, and thinking, No, what Faulkner is doing here is telling a damned story. It’s the readers who find those other things.

Over three decades later, it turns out I was right. That discussion really made me reflect once more on the concept of unconscious competence. When I wrote “The Stars Do Not Lie”, I was just telling a damned story. I was generally aware of what I was doing — I’m not blind to my own thinking, after all — but I never sat there and said to myself, “Gee, how shall I emphasize the dynamic of faith in conflict with reason in this scene?” I never said to myself, “Oh, this fits into the conversation-that-is-genre going back to Lord of Light and Universe.”

Those sorts things are true, in the sense that they are very clearly present in the text, but Fred put them there, not me. At least not my conscious, self-aware self.

All in all, it would have been a fascinating experience in almost any context, but all the more so among the friends and writers who played a powerful and very material role in launching my career.

After that discussion we had about a thirty-minute impromptu Q&A on the craft and business of writing, which was kind of fun, too. Like world’s shortest writing workshop or something. And again, as I said to Lisa, a decade and a half ago I was at the other end of that exact same table, asking those kinds of questions. Quite weird to be talking to my past self. Giving back by paying forward. Plus it was a lot of fun.

My thanks to the Wordos for inviting us down and hosting us.

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[writing|process] Yet more work on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

Two questions emerged during yesterday’s efforts on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. One is a character issue, the other is stylistic but at a very deep level.

Regarding characters, [info]klwilliams commented thusly:

“No female perspective for Manifest Destiny? [sic] I think you’re missing a good opportunity if not.

This flushed out two issues for me. One, the stated issue she cites, that I don’t have a female POV on the Manifest Sin side of the plot dynamic. Two, that despite decades of careful effort, I’m still quite capable of unconscious sexism in my writing. Of the seven protagonists named in yesterday’s post, one is female. Four are white men, though one of them is essentially undead through most of the book and another is a ghost through much of the book — I don’t think that lets me off the hook. One is Native American and one is Chinese, and one of the white men is gay.

This is why we have first drafts. To find such issues and correct them. Because while I don’t labor at political correctness, I am perfectly aware that world today is constituted of far more people who are not straight-identified white men like myself than it is of people who look and sound and act like me. I am also perfectly aware the historical reality is likewise constituted of far more people who are not like me. It just makes sense to me to write about the world in all its complexities. Plus that’s just more interesting. I’ve held this view since long before I had a writing career. And still my unconscious defaults can take hold when I am not paying attention.

Stylistically, yesterday I drafted the first dialog between Original Destiny and Manifest Sin. Oh great Ghu is it bad. I’m talking junior high school poetry bad. Declamatory text, fruity diction, overwrought emotional color. Stinky, stinky, stinky. Very wrong for what I want and need in this book. Yet what they are actually saying to one another is almost exactly what I do want and need.

Long experience tells me not to revise while I’m drafting. I know some writers do that, but I’ve also seen a lot of writers fall down that hole and never come out with a finished manuscript. Again, this is why we have first drafts. The dialog says what it needs to say, however badly it does so. I’ve satisfied the structural and thematic needs of the book here. Later, on revision, I’ll go back and rip it out and try again to capture the voice and flow and rhythm and speech register and sensibility I want there. For now, this steaming pile of angsty crap will serve as a placeholder and carry my intended meaning until I’m ready to do those dialogs proper justice.

Later, though. I have a book to write in the mean time.

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[writing|process] More work on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

I really need to come up with an online icon for this book.

Spent a bit of time yesterday mapping the timeline and structure of Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. I’ve realized I’m going to have to approach this book differently from any of the other 20+ first draft novels I’ve ever written. With the partial exception of Madness of Flowers, I have always written in reading order. This regardless of how the plot or narrative timeline are structured. Even when writing first draft, my experience of story is remarkably parallel to the way I experience story as a reader.

Except that’s not going to work on this book, unless I want an especially messy first draft. And the meta-requirements of the voice of the book impose another layer of craft I really don’t think I can account for with my usual linear writing problem. I need the piece to be a dialog between Original Destiny and Manifest Sin. In my character sheet, I have labeled them “urges”. That word is a backformation from demiurge, and is a concept I’ve explored somewhat in the Green continuity. (Which, to be clear, is entirely a separate thing from the continuity of this book.)

In simplest terms, Original Destiny is the voice of pastoralism, premodernism, magic, divinity and the naturalistic world of God’s creation. The Dionysian impulse. The feminine principle. Mythos. Manifest Sin is the voice of industrialization, Enlightenment civilization and an increasingly mechanized, deterministic empirical world. The Apollonian impulse. The masculine principle. Logos. I need to work on those definitions a lot, obviously, but it’s the dialog between those two voices that must frame the book and provide the through-line, reader identification and narrative continuity. And I have to do so in a way which engages the reader’s attention.

So yesterday was a lot of thinking about that.

Likewise, I was looking at my character list with an eye toward whose individual stories are being told to highlight this tension. It is pretty obvious from how I’d first begun to address the story that my personal sympathies lie strongly with Original Destiny and the Dionysian impulse. But then The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen was always my favorite movie of Terry Gilliam’s Apollonian-Dionysian film quartet. However, this book isn’t about my personal preferences. I want to tell this story as a sort of parable about the evolution of the modern world, and it doesn’t serve me well to impose a moral axis. The Apollonian-Dionysian tension is fundamental to the choices that govern both culture in general and our individual human existences in particular, at least when seen through the dualistic lens of Western thought and philosophy. It’s not a good-evil dynamic at all, though in our world both great good and terrible evil have arisen as real consequences of that dynamic. And that Western dualism is decidedly the tradition in which I write and live my life.

Still, I will have my little jokes. So when I realized that Original Destiny was well-represented in the human narratives by Peony Sykes, Red Eyes Parker, Li Cheng-Ho and William Clark (who in historical reality was very firmly a creature of Manifest Sin), but Manifest Sin only had Aaron Burr and Thomas Edison to tell his story, I had to add another major point-of-view character. In this case, the logical choice seemed to be George Armstrong Custer. Why? Because I can!

So, anyway, that’s where my head is at today.

PS: I debated going into this much detail about my internal process in developing the book. I don’t normally reveal quite so much. But I figured, why not? It helps me to articulate my thoughts, and might be a useful glimpse into my writing process for those of you who read this blog primarily from a writer’s perspective. Feel free to ask questions or seek clarification on what I’m discussing.

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[writing|process] Working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin

I’ve been working on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. Which is to say, I’ve read the roughly 17,000 word stub I’d already written, plus the unpublished short story “Fool’s Curse”. Plus the synopsis. Plus the other synopsis. Plus the timeline.

It’s a damned complex book. I mean, I knew this all along, but I know it all over again.

So yesterday I drew up a Dramatis Personae. Named characters. Significant unnamed characters. (The killer angels, for instance, do not have names at this point, though they have distinct personalities and important roles in the story.) Named animals, mostly horses, oxen and dogs. (This is the Old West, after all.) Named places that are ahistorical. Named steam rams. And identifying the story year(s) in which each of these occurs, because the narrative spirals through the first 70 years of the nineteenth century, wandering across both space and time as the story unfolds.

I was laughing at myself for naming horses that don’t even appear on the page, for example, while leaving all sorts of people referred to only by their presence in a crowd or their profession. It feels right, but it also feels complicated. I expect that by the end of the weekend I’ll have begun laying down new words, but I need a very good handle on this indeed for this book to come together anything like my vision of it.

This is the most fun part of writing for me. Primary creation.

Just for fun, here’s the named animals so far. One of them is an actual historical character (so to speak). I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide which names belong to horses, oxen and dogs, respectively. In some cases, it should be obvious.

  • Belle
  • Seaman
  • Bucephalus
  • Kennesaw
  • Faith
  • Poquito
  • Little Dog
  • Mencius
  • Esau
  • Jacob

I am having a very good time with this.

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[writing|process] Once more with the diving board

I’ve commented before that for me, writing often feels like jumping off a high diving board and filling the pool on the way down. The more substantial the project, the more I tend to experience this sensation. Which means sometimes there’s a pause for breath before I step off the edge into space.

I’d committed to myself to start writing Original Destiny, Manifest Sin this month. That’s my Old West alternate history fantasy. So what did I do Monday? Two hours of critique, batting clean-up on the recent Writer’s Digest University online workshop in which I participated. What did I do on Tuesday? Spent ninety minutes reading first drafts of some of the stories for METAtropolis 3: Green Space, the audiobook project I am co-editing with [info]kenscholes for Audible.com. Both of these were necessary and timely Writing Related Program Activities which resulted in zero effort being put in on Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.

(In case you’re wondering what I did with the rest of my time these past two days, recall that I have a full-time job, a teenager in the house, and late stage metastatic colon cancer. I keep busy.)

So today I am stepping off the board. As almost 100 pages of Original Destiny, Manifest Sin exists from my first, aborted effort to write the book most of a decade ago, I’m going to start by re-reading that. I need the characters and more importantly the setting to reinhabit my head.

One of the real challenges of this novel is that it is driven by plot and setting. There are multiple viewpoints with no strong central protagonist. That undermines opportunities for reader identification and can cause problems with the through-line. I think I know how to resolve this, based on input from Howard Waldrop and Maureen McHugh at Rio Hondo a few years back.

And, well, if I’m ever going to write it, now would be the time. I expect to be seriously ill with cancer treatments again in either June or August, and I don’t expect to ever recover from that once I go down that road again. Essentially, unless I get unexpectedly lucky along the way, I have one last time window in which to write this novel. Or any novel.

So once more with the diving board. Today, I jump. Likely no word count today, as reading and making notes will almost certainly occupy as much time as I have available (if not more). Still, I am stepping back into my own personal once upon a time in the West.

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[process] On workshopping and critique: Nobody’s born knowin’ nothin’

I just finished a series of critiques for the Writer’s Digest University online workshop I have been a part of. That’s been interesting for me. It’s been a while since I’ve critiqued new writers.

There’s something I tell [info]the_child when she’s worried about a social or academic situation. A very common complaint from her is that she doesn’t know what to do, or how to do it. I often say, “Nobody’s born knowing anything.”

We all have to learn.

Now it is true that some of us have different profiles of raw talent than others. This points back to the “hand of cards” theory [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. That can confer some natural advantages to certain aspiring writers. But without the effort of acquiring, refining and directing one’s skills, not to mention learning the infrastructure of writing — manuscript formatting, the importance of the narrative present, punctuation, etc. — those potential natural advantages are almost meaningless. Hard work trumps skill. Hard work plus skill trumps both.

So it was interesting to me, in this season of award nominations, to look at manuscripts and reflect back on a time in my life when I had trouble managing the verb tense on the page. Or keeping a point-of-view properly controlled. I can remember when the engine of story seemed an impossible beast with far too many parts and pieces. Not unlike how it was driving a car at sixteen. Brake and clutch and accelerator and steering and turn signals and wipers and peripheral awareness and looking ahead and and and…

I’m not talking about relatively subtle elements of writing like managing character speech registers in dialog or wrestling with the nuances of the past perfect tense. I’m talking about the basics of making a story comprehensible. Things I do today, almost a quarter century after I began my serious efforts at being an author, with an unthinking and automatic ease were once so very difficult to comprehend, let alone execute. And remember, it took me eleven years from first sitting down to serious professional critique before I sold a story.

Apparently I am a slow learner.

So it’s valuable for me to workshop with brand new writers from time to time. Not only does that help me pay forward for all the help I can never pay back, but it also reminds me how far I’ve come. Like many people, I tend to automatically assume anything I can do with facility isn’t hard for others. Yet this was all hard for me.

It’s still hard, too, just in ways that are far more interesting to me. That’s what keeps this business fun. You never get good at writing, you just get better. And nobody’s born knowin’ nothin’.

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[writing|process] On writing and finishing a story

Yesterday, I finished the first draft of my spec novella, “Hook Agonistes”, at 18,100 words. This is the second story I’ve written since Fred woke up post-chemo around the middle of last month.

My reaction was pretty funny. I spent much of the morning in a mild but noticeable euphoric mania. I’m pretty sure I was rather a trial to Lisa Costello‘s legendary tolerance. Envision if you will me in a state of bouncy, happy, babbling squee. Because I’d finished something important to me.

At this point, I have no idea if the novella is any good. I never do right after I’m done. Muddle in the middle was particularly strong in this one. I went through the usual emotional stages while writing this, sort of Kubler-Ross for authors:

1. Excitement – “Yay! I can has writing!”
2. Dedication – “Must keep going, must be a good writer.”
3. Doubt – “Oh, man, this thing is sucking wind. No one will ever buy it or read it.”
4. Denial – “What, me? What story? Nope, no draft here. Just some fooling around. Never mind.”
5. Acceptance – “Yay! I can has writing!”

But I’m done. And that’s important, regardless of whether or how the novella pays off commercially and critically. I climbed the same hill I climb with every piece, even after drafting twenty novels and at least six hundred short stories. I learned the same lessons I have to re-learn every time. And it felt good. Because doing these things has gotten harder as I’ve grown progressively more ill with cancer. At a time in my professional life where I should finally be glimpsing some mastery of my craft, every word written is both a battle and a victory.

Did I mention that I had finished a story?

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[process] Some rambling thoughts on the working of the auctorial mind

This is a lightly edited version of an email exchange between me and the editor working with my forthcoming book on writing process for Apocalypse Ink Production. I said a number of things I thought might be worth repeating, and with their permission, am doing so here.

> Here’s the question I’ve had from the beginning but waited until I’d
> read everything there was to read cause I figured there was an
> explanation somewhere. Fred has always been something I understood,
> but did not know was a particular reference. I will admit to being a
> little disappointed that the name “Fred” wasn’t something you’d come
> up with, as it seems to be reasonably rare for male writers to denote
> a male persona to the unconscious writer brain. Maybe it’s a holdover
> from using the term “muse” but in my (albeit limited) experience it’s
> more common for female writers to denote this as a male persona.

I copped the name Fred (indirectly) from Damon Knight. I find it occasionally useful to think of my writing brain as a separate entity, as it certainly sometimes behaves that way. I will note that the longer I do this, the less it feels separate to me. Sort of like developing a new personality and then integrating it?

I did seriously propose to a psychologist friend some years ago that he do EEG scans of writers in normal conversation, then do EEG scans of those same writers deep in their writing process. (This would require a fairly phlegmatic crew of subjects, a quality not often associated with writers.) I have this very half-baked hypothesis that the language centers engaged in writing fiction are different from the language centers engaged in ordinary discourse. Sort of like how different parts of your brain light up when speaking English rather than Spanish, or whatever. I hold up as my tattered shred of evidence the observable fact that for many authors, myself included, the syntax and vocabulary we use in fiction can be very, very unlike our commonplace speech patterns.

So Fred is both a signifier for what you refer to as the Muse, and a shorthand of my own for my perception that the cognitive processes of writing are distinct from the cognitive processes of everyday life.

Which may, of course, be me saying the same thing twice.

> Do you think of Fred as being sort of an internal person or persona
> that does the story magic, or is it simply a four letter term to
> reference the not-quite explainable part of writing?

More the latter. I’ve never literally (or even hard-metaphorically) thought of Fred as a distinct internal persona. He’s an aspect of my writing my mind, given some anthropomorphic character.

Some writers do talk about their characters telling them what to do. I’ve had that experience from time to time myself. I think very few if any of us take that literally. Rather, that’s a special case of Fred talking to us.

What I do believe is going on, aside from the neuropsychobabble above, is that as with most people, the writer’s subconscious mind is a lot smarter than the writer’s conscious mind, within its given domains of expertise and experience. Good writing, writing with power, is of necessity tapping that deeper well. Otherwise it’s just words on a page. The style, the intensity, the sweatiness, comes from reaching beneath and beyond the casual stringing of descriptive words and phrases.

It’s a truism that the human mind functions on two levels as expressed in the classic model of logos and mythos. This is the basis of the Apollonian-Dionysian tension that has driven much of Western culture since pre-Classical times. We see it in everything from the psychoanalysts’ description of the ego-id conflict to the dynamic between Spock and Kirk.

(Digression: one of the best expositions ever in popular media of this tension is the quartet of Terry Gilliam movies that starts with Time Banditsimdb ], goes to Brazilimdb ], then The Adventures of Baron Munchausenimdb ], then The Fisher Kingimdb ]. In Time Bandits, essentially nobody wins. Baron M. is about the triumph of Dionysian culture. Brazil is about the triumph of Apollonian culture. Fisher King is about an imperfect fusion between them that finally restores balance.)

Writing, in the sense of simply putting words on a page, is an act of logos. Writing, in the sense of story telling, is an act of mythos. The journey of becoming an author is the journey integrating those two, of learning how to use the objective tools of vocabulary and grammar and structure to tap into and feed the deep, subjective experience of being human.

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[process] Editing for continuity

Yesterday, I spent an hour doing a first-pass edit of the Green novelette, “A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura”. This wasn’t really a prose edit, or a plot edit, or a redraft. It was a continuity edit. Which I don’t usually need to do a heavy job of on short fiction.

This is what happens when one writes a story about a character and setting documented through three published novels and a handful of shorter pieces. Especially when writing with tendrils of chemo fog still writhing on one’s brain.

So, for example, I knew I wanted Mother Adhiti in the story. She’s a very minor character in the books, but has a distinctive personality and physicality that fit what I wanted to do in several scenes. As I was drafting, I knew what she looked like, how she would act and speak, but for the life of me, I could not remember her name. So she was Mother [Name] in about a dozen places, until I could bat clean-up with the manuscripts from all three novels open and searchable on my laptop.

Likewise the spelling of various place names, the orientation of landmarks, and so forth. None of which had any particularly deep effect on the story I wanted to tell. But that color, that detail, is what makes this a Green story, and not a story in some other similar, self-plagiarized setting. I’m not above filing the serial numbers off a failed experiment and retrying, but Green is hardly a failed experiment. So I had to get a bunch of things right.

I marked them in text with [brackets] as is my wont, and yesterday, I went on a search-and-destroy mission for [bracketed text]. The problem, of course, will be the mistakes I made without realizing it. The things I assumed I got right when I did not.

And, well, actually making the story work as narrative. But that’s work for today, tomorrow, next week, as the mental weather allows.

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[process] Balloon prick ideas

Yet another topic that came up in critique discussion this past weekend at Cascade Writers was the concept of a balloon prick idea.

This concept was first pointed out to me some years ago by the brilliant Dean Wesley Smith when he was critiquing one of my stories. Basically, it’s when an author introduces a story element or plot twist which would in reality so profoundly undermine the world in which it exists that the story no longer makes sense.

Dean was critiquing a story of mine where homelessness was in effect a transmissible disease. If a homeless person touched you, you swiftly became homeless, and then socially invisible, and then literally invisible. This was going in a setting of contemporary Portland. As Dean quite rightly pointed out, if such a thing were true, nobody who could possibly afford otherwise would go out in public without body guards and a security perimeter. The separation between the wealthy and the middle class and below would become an uncrossable gulf. Life would look nothing like it does in our current society if this were true.

More prominent examples of the balloon prick idea include the Star Trek transporter. With such a device and its attendant features such as the biofilter, you have fantastic healing powers and functional immortality. Topics which are barely addressed anywhere in the multiple series, and when they are, only as plot conveniences. Likewise, since they can do point-to-point transportation when needed, why bother to ever have a transporter room? These issues are simply never explored. There’s sufficient story action and plot sleight of hand that most viewers never notice.

For another example, see Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Within the narrative, it is observed that the Romans had dragons. Presumably so did other ancient cultures of the world. That’s a balloon prick idea. Aerial reconnaissance capability means that over-the-horizon deep water navigation is reasonable from the very beginning of long range seafaring, which profoundly changes the dynamic of ancient maritime cultures such as the Minoans, the Romans and the Phoenicians. The likelihood that the trade and colonization patterns of those cultures would have led to a close equivalent of Napoleonic Europe is deeply improbable. The Temeraire novels make sense only if you parse them as being about people who have acquired dragons in the very recent past, and not yet undergone the cultural changes that free flight and aerial combat impose. Which is, in effect, what’s actually going on in the books of that series. The central story question is “How would dragons have affected Napoleonic Europe and rival world powers?”, not “How would dragons have affected the development of human civilization?”

Mind you, I am a huge fan of both Star Trek and Temeraire. In both cases, the balloon prick idea in play doesn’t interfere with the success of the narrative because of other strengths. But for this reader and viewer, in both cases, the balloon prick idea interferes with my suspension of disbelief and requires me to work harder to buy the story.

Take this concept of the balloon prick idea for what it’s worth, but do take it into account when building your worlds and writing your stories.

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