Burn is best described as a superhero story without a hero. Here’s the cover blurb:
Alexa Bernell can do what no one else can — or so she thought, until the Omen Project found her. Shaped by drugs and brutal training, she was their weapon. Until she got loose. Haunted by the memories of what she’s done, Alexa ran. Now the Project is hunting her. They’ve sent Cav, her friend, her lover, and her only confidant. If she wants to be free, she has to kill him.
Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal has kindly offered to illustrate a comic for the month of November, highlighting the joys and trials of National Novel Writing Month. Check back for more installments throughout November. And! If you’re looking for an illustrator for your Nano novel, check out Tracy’s portfolio of awesome illustration work. She does terrific work at a great rate, and I say that as a happy client.
You may have noticed that my blogging has dropped off dramatically. In fact, if you were very vigilant (which you have no reason to be), you may have noticed that my schedule went from “MWF” to “TT” to “quietly removing all traces of a schedule” and the sound of crickets.
Simply put, my life blew up there for awhile. I won’t get into the details, because they’re kind of drab. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been overcome with the desire to get my book finished and out there. People want to read it. I want them to read it. Most of all, I want to finish it so I can move on to new things. I love this book, but it’s outstayed its welcome at this point. And yet I can’t afford to be impatient with it. There’s probably a whole blog post I could write about just that. But anyway.
I’ve also got a couple of paid writing gigs, which take a pretty sizeable chunk of time. Between that, the book, and the rest of my life, something had to give. And for the last few weeks, it’s been this blog. I realized I could either blogormake the progress I want on my book, but not both.
Also, I realized that for the moment, I have nothing else to say on the craft of writing. I’m sure something will come to me eventually. But I really want to spend less time talking about writing, and more time actually doing it.
However, this is not a hiatus. This is not “going dark.” This is not the abandonment of Surly Muse, at least not yet. It is, however, the end of regular content for the time being. Much as I wish my writing energy were bottomless, it just isn’t right now, and the blog is kind of the weak link in the chain right now.
It pains me to neglect this space — I love reading your comments, engaging with you, and chatting on Twitter and G+ and Facebook. The time’s just not there.
The good news, there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and its name is Orison. Which is the book I’m writing. More on that later. I’ll still be posting updates, they’ll just be sporadic for awhile. And then, one fine day, we’ll be back in force.
Until then, I miss you all. Cheers and good luck with your writing.
It’s that time again! Actually, it’s not, but you can smell it in the air: that smoky melange of burnout, hope and desperation that is National Novel Writing Month. Though I’m probably not participating this year, here are some links from last year to help you gird up for your journey through jacked-up word counts and mutual despair!
For preparation and planning ahead, try out The Hailstorm Approach, your guide to prepping in seven days or less.
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless. – Neal Stephenson
Whenever I read Neal Stephenson’s books (I’m making my way through REAMDE at the moment), I often find myself stopping and checking the dictionary, or Wikipedia, or both, to figure out what he’s talking about. Not that Stephenson is particularly difficult; he just happens to be as dense as Gibson and equally fond of charming-but-colossal infodumps: “The protagonist was playing a game of World of Warcraft. He sent his dwarf in to mine some gold. And now, an extensive historical overview of geology and the mining industry to lend this moment context.”
I appreciate Stephenson’s attention to detail. Having recently finished with a long run of indie novels, REAMDE has called attention to how much detail many other authors skip over for the sake of expediency. Not Stephenson. Before that gun on the mantlepiece gets fired, you can be damn sure you’ll know everything about its manufacture, capabilities, and mechanical quirks. (The only reason this works is because Stephenson rarely does it gratuitously. These trifling details serve the story.)
Anyway, while picking my way through REAMDE, I found myself interested in Stephenson’s mention of the “flow state,” a mental state of mind which one of the characters — a ridiculously profound fantasy author — must achieve in order to get his work done. Since being ridiculously prolific is something I’m in favor of, I decided to find out more about it… and now I feel kind of ridiculous that I’d never heard of it before.
The “flow experience” is defined by psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi by six factors:
1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience (Wikipedia)
All of these add up to a state that a lot of creative types think of as being “inspired” or “struck by the muse”:
These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” (Psychology Today)
In a curious bit of coincidence, my research into flow found this article, which linked the flow state to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post:
According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action. Think of the way tennis champion Roger Federer, after years of training, can gracefully combine a complicated series of actions – keeping one eye on the ball and the other on his opponent, while he lines up his shot and then despatches a crippling backhand – all in one stunningly choreographed second. (New Scientist)
The New Scientist article goes on to talk about the possibility of dramatically shortening the time required to obtain such mastery through acquiring the “flow state” — although, as I said yesterday, I’m less interested in tracking hours than I am achieving greater creative output.
Does all this sound mind-numbingly clinical yet? Boy, I sure hope so.
So in reading all this, I began thinking about my own obstacles when it comes to achieving the “flow state.” Here’s what I came up with.
1) Regular practice. The wealth on contradictory advice on how often and regularly one should write is well-heeled, so I won’t regurgitate it here. In my work, however, I find my gears rust up pretty fast. A few days without writing, and it’s a huge struggle to really find my groove. I started this blog in no small part to address that concern and compel myself to write daily no matter what. It’s turned out to be slightly wanting in terms of execution, but that’s how we learn from our mistakes, I guess.
2) Poor planning. This is basically the cause of 1). My least productive days are the ones where I get up, check my email or voice mail, and then basically react to things until all the time is gone. The days where I block out writing time and stick to the plan are far more productive. I’m sure there’s some clichéd adage about failing to plan being a plan to fail… oh, wait, that’s it.
3) Distractions. This is the big one. And now, an annoying autobiographical interlude!
Years ago, when I moved out on my own, my first place was a beaten-down old house in the middle of nowhere. There was no life within a quarter-mile in any direction. I lived on a blasted plain of dead grass and abandoned farm equipment. Now, of course, it’s all been developed into cracker-box condominiums, but back in the day, I was Robert E. Howard. It was just me and my little Apple II. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t even have a working phone.
I lived there for about three years, and in that time, churned out a huge body of work. All of it was garbage — I was young, stupid, and completely ignorant of proper storytelling craft — but I did nothing but write, in no small part because writing was all my little computer did. It had no games, no Internet access. It was a glorified typewriter.
Now, I’d love to say “and that’s the way it was and I liked it,” but in truth, I really love the information age. I love having oceans of data at my fingertips. I like not having to hoof it to the library to do research on some trifling factoid that’s holding up my story. I think the twenty-first century is awesome. But I have far more distractions now than I did then. Creating that kind of isolated environment doesn’t come easy anymore. It means forsaking not only the telephone and the doorbell, but email, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and the churning Sargasso of yummy information that beckons one like a siren onto the jagged shoals of farting around.
For me, finding the flow state means shutting out all distractions as much as possible. Some people can write on buses or in crowded coffee shops. Not me. I’d have to wear earphones and probably blinders. My attention is too easily diverted from the work. My best stuff comes when I slam down all the mental bulkhead doors and quarantine myself with my writing. Only then, after a lengthy struggle, does the flow state happen.
Of course, I’m not about to say that my experience is universal. I stopped writing in groups and at coffee shops because it doesn’t work for me. I think too much about what other people are writing. I worry about how much coffee I have left. I tune in on other people’s conversations. I can’t achieve that lovely fugue where the world recedes into fog and all that’s left is the page. I need to be alone, with nothing to pull me away, for the surly muse to emerge from her abattoir.
But that’s my experience. What’s yours? Can you write amidst distraction? How do you cope with it?
While chatting with my partner-in-crime Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal this afternoon, we started talking about the hoary old guideline of 10,000 hours to master your writing (or whatever skill you’re attempting to master). At which point she dropped this delightful bomb of bitterness into the conversation:
If I see that 10,000 hours, I CAN MAKE YOU DO IT QUICKER tidbit on another blog, I am going to hate-spew a geyser.
First of all, 10,000 hours? That’s a handy approximation that may or may not be supported by scientific testing. Instead it is provided as *whatever kind of metric* everyone can use! But bam! with my SHAM-WOW WRITING COURSE I can cut that down to 8,000. What a bargain?!
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book in which the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” is first mentioned, and I don’t really have a problem with the rule by itself. I believe the myth of “overnight success” is one of the most poisonous lies in our profession. I do, however, think that obsessing over the raw numbers themselves is a mistake. If you’re truly seeking mastery of your craft, there are better places to put your focus than how many hours you’ve clocked.
1) Make mistakes.
There’s a reason all the books on writing tell you to write every day, or at least as much as you can. It’s because all the theory in the world won’t teach you anything until you dive in and start getting dirty. The 10,000 Hour Rule is less about the hours themselves than about cultivating passion, routine, and a wish to learn from your mistakes. Of course, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t start making some. So strap on your helmet, get in there, and start screwing up.
2) Fail outright.
One of the shaggiest adages from life’s Barrel-O-Advice is that “you learn more from failures than from successes.” There’s a terrific Ira Glass quote about this that sums it up more beautifully than I ever could, so I’ll just post it here.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Note that Glass doesn’t mention “hours” at all, but rather a body of work. Of course, building a body of work takes time, but the work matters most. Time is the means. Work is the end.
3) It’s not the hours, honey, it’s the mileage.
Say you were to write twelve books, all featuring the same plot, the same characters, and the same basic story arc. Maybe you change a few details here and there, but essentially you write the same book twelve times. Have you really gotten any better? Have you learned anything? If you have, it was probably by accident. The hours you spend should not be comfortable hours, breezily covering the ground you know well. Push yourself. Write something scary and exhilarating. Make some mistakes. See how it all fits together?
4) It’s not a numbers game.
Seriously, no Hours Police are going to show up at your door in overcoats and porkpie hats and chastise you for not putting in enough time. If you have indeed turned out a book before it was sufficiently polished, or sent out a query before you really have it nailed, your time deficit is likely to be reflected in unhappy readers, poor reviews, and rejection slips. Again, the real point of all those hours is to fire up your passion and your drive, not check off ten thousand tiny boxes with a #2 pencil.
5) Find what works for you.
Of course, all writing advice is ultimately disposable, including the advice you’re reading now. Maybe you’re a prodigy with enormous talent and you’ll make the squishy, uncertain status of “mastery” in 5,000 hours. Maybe you’re busy and unfocused and it will take 20,000. Either way, you’ll get there when you get there.
Which is not to say you should just relax and assume it’ll all work out — quite the opposite. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a writer is what a cruel and cunning enemy time is. His arsenal of weapons (deadlines, fatigue, scheduling conflicts) is enormous and daunting, and you’ll have to fight him every step of the way.
Don’t focus on how long you’ve been fighting. Learn to fight smarter and fight better. And above all, keep fighting.
I apparently think people wink a lot. My characters need to tone down their eye issues.
I used several rhetorical devices without realizing it (e.g., anaphora), and adding a few more helped with pacing and intensity.
After I was done laughing, I started thinking about the things I tend to use a lot in my prose — either things I’ve caught myself, or things other people have pointed out to me. Since I’ve been doing a lot of editing lately, here’s what I like:
1) Characters nonchalantly examining their fingernails to show how unconcerned they are with the situation they’re in. I’m so fond of this, apparently, that one of my readers said he expected it during a certain scene and wondered why it wasn’t there. Apparently that’s my shorthand for “I could kill you right now, but you’re not worth the trouble.”
2) The desk confrontation! Character A sits behind his desk, clearly plotting something. Character B bursts in and demands ALL RIGHT SUNNY JIM WHAT IS ALL THIS MONKEYSHINES. They then spar verbally until someone gets mad and leaves. I know, this is awfully specific, but it shows up a lot — so much so that I try to weed it out when I see it coming. I’ll set it somewhere fresh and inventive, like an underground parking garage, or… hmm. You know, forget it.
3) The Inept Bad-Ass. I love characters who are apparently hapless, but have some inner reserve or talent that overcomes their generalized lameness. I’m also fond of “Fool” archetypes who are too clueless to know any better, but get through the story through a combination of blind luck and the charity of others. Fortunately, I don’t usually make that guy the protagonist.
4) Characters raising one eyebrow in consternation or amusement. I’ve chopped that out so many times. No one wants a book of people doing Spock imitations. I also write people “barking” laughter a lot, which I suppose we could all live without. Woof woof!
In sufficient volume, these become risible cliches. You can’t read a discussion about Jordan’s Wheel of Time without someone mentioning the constant tugging of braids and adjusting of articles of clothing. I’ve never read WoT, but apparently it’s legendary for this kind of thing.
On the other hand, these personal chestnuts can add voice and character. Stephen King’s characters, for example, tend to fall back on a library of homespun Maine aphorisms and turns of phrase. Chuck Wendig’s characters lay out some of the most blistering and inventive profanity the written word has ever seen. Predictable? Maybe. But not necessaraily evil.
The key, I imagine, is whether these elements derive from character and contribute to story, or whether they’re filler because you can’t think of anything better to write. If the former, keep them around. If the latter, jettison them without mercy.
So what’s “that thing you do?” Any confessions you’d like to share?
First of all, I want to thank Terri Long for the opportunity to participate in BlogFlash 2012. Although I didn’t make it across the finish line — and, in fact, determined that daily, manic blog posting contests are not for me — I had a blast participating.
And now, on with our regular long-form blog posts.
The Problem With “Pearls”
If you’re a fiction writer, you may have caught wind of the controversy over Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls. For those of you who don’t know, Save the Pearls is a book about a future where an environmental cataclysm has wiped out most of white humanity, leaving the dark-skinned people (or “Coals” as the book calls them) in charge. In this dark future (get it?), the Coals ruthlessly oppress the light-skinned “Pearls,” who must endure such routine humiliations as wearing blackface in public. There’s even a book trailer featuring a young blonde girl wearing blackface.
Like so many other critics, I haven’t read Save the Pearls, nor do I have any interest in doing so. Even if the premise itself didn’t strike me as ill-advised and problematic, it still wouldn’t be my thing.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail about how wrong-headed I think this concept is — although I will say that “what if black people were oppressing everybody and the white women were super-afraid because they weren’t in charge anymore?” is not what I call meaningful satire or social criticism. It’s runaway privilege masquerading as racial sensitivity, and Foyt should have known better. Maybe there’s something brilliant in Save the Pearls that saves the core idea from itself — but I doubt it. At best, this is like the kind of idea one should sit down and think twice about before pursuing.
However, I do want to take a moment to talk about Foyt’s reaction, which I think is a textbook example of how not to deal with your audience. Foyt’s defense on HuffPo basically amounts to “you’re reading it wrong,” telling her audience that if they have a problem with her work, that’s only because they don’t understand it.
Readers with long memories might recall Anne Rice’s meltdown on Amazon a few years back, in which she called her own readers big dummy doo-doo heads for blasting Blood Canticle, capping it off with rating her own book five stars. (The review was later pulled by Amazon, but replaced by a fan of her diatribe.) Rice went one step further, saying that she had outgrown her editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself… for me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.” (Incidentally, the number one criticism of Blood Canticle? “Needed an editor.”)
Here’s why this kind of thing generally doesn’t work in your favor.
You don’t get to decide how readers react to your work.
Once you finish a book and put it out there, it pretty much has to speak for itself. You don’t get to tell your readers how they’re allowed to interpret it, or how to feel about it. If they find what you write offensive or objectionable, that’s their right.
This may come back to bite me someday, but I believe that once you release a creative work into the wild, to some degree, it belongs to your audience. George Lucas has taken no small amount of static over fiddling with his beloved movies long after fans began to think of it as their own. Lecturing your readers on how they’re supposed to react — what they are and aren’t supposed to like — will do nothing but alienate people and undermine your credibility.
Your readers are smart.
Not every criticism is valid, or even worthwhile. Yes, some critics will willfully misinterpret your work because they want a good excuse to hate on something. But readers, and genre fans in particular, aren’t all dunces with no sense of subtlety or detail. If anything, the most hardcore fans are often incredibly detail-oriented, analyzing every last paragraph for weaknesses, like a sapper preparing to lay siege to a fortress. If smart, educated people gather in force to tell you in detail why your work is problematic, maybe it’s not because they lack the brainpower to comprehend your awesomeness.
Also, if you must rail against your own readers for daring to question your work, don’t end your defense with “well, my book won a bunch of awards, and [name-dropped celebrity] said it was good, so clearly I’m right and you’re wrong.” That’s pure clown shoes.
If your book requires a separate, detailed explanation of its own premise, you may have a problem.
After the opening salvo of “no, you’re the racist,” Foyt’s article moves into a defensive recap of her book, explaining why all the problems in the book aren’t actually problems. You say “coal” is an actual racial slur against blacks? No, see, that doesn’t matter because “coal has energy, fire, and real value,” and that exempts me from having to do any historical research. You say the title of the book loosely translates as Save the White People? No, it’s okay because I’m being provocative. You say that “confronting racism” by making it all about the poor white people being oppressed is incredibly problematic? Well… um… provocative! And you’re dumb and racist!
I’m not making the case that fiction should be so watered-down and easily digestible that it will offend no one — but if you go to this level of detail to explain why people have no right to be offended and why you’re not a huge racist, you might want to take a look at your elevator pitch and rethink it — or maybe come to grips with the realization that you don’t have the chops to pull off a brilliant racial satire.
Don’t call your readers racists, and don’t obliquely compare them to McCarthy.
Foyt responded to criticisms of her work by saying “this kind of blind attack is exactly what creates racism or condemned many progressives as communists in the Fifties.” Attempting to martyr yourself with this kind of thing will win you exactly no points with anyone. Go ahead and feel like a persecuted outsider all you like, middle-class white lady, and feel free to compare your critics to blacklisting scaremongers from a bygone racist era — but don’t expect your readers to swallow that kind of insult and pick up anything you write ever again.
What do you think? Am I being too hard on Foyt? Not hard enough? Sound off in the comments.