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I’m Still Here For an Argument

I haven’t given up on the argument posts, don’t worry. My blogging has had to slow down due to a confluence of events: kitchen renovations, a lengthy bout with a stomach bug, and general business. I also picked up a copy of Stephen Toulmin’s original book on the philosophy of arguments in which he introduced some of the concepts I’ll be talking about, and I think I’d like to finish it and then revise my posts.

Also, I have an exciting bit of news: One of my SF/mysteries was accepted for publication! I’ll pass along the details of how you can get to read it in two weeks.

Finally, a request. The story I’m working on is really lacking in the zombie action department. I just don’t write action scenes well. So… who does? Not necessarily zombie action (though that’d be a plus) but who in general do you think I should read and learn from on this front?

 
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Posted by on 18 March, 2011 in Reading, Writing

 

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Typing vs. Handwriting, Writing Profiles

A perennial subject among the writers I know is whether it is better to write by hand or to type. This post in particular was prompted by my reading this post about some of the quantitative differences between writing longhand or by computer. There’s some interesting stuff in there, and in the paper it’s based on.

Personally, I do some mixture of both handwriting and typing: most of my notes are by hand, in my notebook. I’ll write individual scenes by hand as well, but I’m finding that (unless I’m seriously blocked) I prefer to type.

There are additional benefits to each. Marko Kloos advocates for handwriting better than I can in terms of just getting things done (Money quote: “The notebook is a one-trick pony, but it’s a fantastic trick: putting words down without distraction or endless on-screen corrective sentence noodling.”) but I find that it’s also useful for slowing me down and making me think. I’ve been writing out my most recent short story in a notebook I bought from Borders specifically for that purpose: prose on the right hand side in pen, notes on the left hand side in pencil. It has worked pretty well so far, and while I’m a little unhappy with some of what’s there, I can just make a note on the left and tango on.

There are benefits to typing, though, too. My writing process is often highly non-linear: I skip around a lot, adding a bit to one scene, then going on to another, then back-filling. I can think of only one story I’ve written that I wrote straight from beginning to end, and it was 700 words long. Even there, I knew what the ending was going to be, and it was only the short length that prevented me going and writing those sentences first. Part of this process has been the discovery of Scrivener — before then I either tried in vain to put the whole story in one long document, or I broke it up over multiple documents, then juggled those.

The other nice thing about typing something out is that it becomes easier to radically re-cast it so that I can instantly read my prose in a new light. I frequently write in Times New Roman, then proofread in Courier (though maybe I should switch to Comic Sans?)

The Van Waes and Schellens paper* from the blog post above covers the handwriting vs. typing subject with an interesting experiment, which is summarized admirably in that blog. But it also has a discussion of earlier notions of writing styles, including an earlier paper by Hayes and Flower** on the writing process from 1980. I’ve not yet read that one, but according to Van Waes and Schellens, they make a distinction between “Mozartian” and “Beethovian” writers; the former of whom plan out their work in detail, and the latter rush through their first draft and revise later — the more familiar terms these days are “planners” vs. “pantsers”, but I intend to adopt the prior terms as somehow more august. ;)

They also outline four writing profiles from Hayes and Flower in a way that I haven’t seen before, of people writing longhand. (I’m just going to quote Van Waes and Schellens here instead of rephrasing)

1. Depth first, in which the writer tries to produce a perfect first sentence, then a perfect second sentence, and so on. That is, the writer completes the work of planning, implementing and reviewing each sentence before starting to work on the next.

2. Postponed review, in which the writer writes down his/her thoughts as they occur and reviews them later.

3. Perfect first draft, in which the writer tries to generate a perfect first draft. Planning is very explicit and directed towards the text as a whole.

4. Breadth first, in which a draft is planned and then written out in full before any revision is contemplated.

Now, this is about student composition, I gather, so shorter works than most fiction. I find, on reflection, that my handwriting style tends to fit pretty squarely in #4: I plan the hell out of the story, maybe even sketching out a few sections, then sit down and write with little revision. This ignores my habit of eventually abandoning the handwritten word for the typed one (usually midway through) but even in typing I’m not far off from that.

The interesting thing about this (at least, to me) is that I know that I used to follow #2, at least to the extent of the chapter/scene level. I’d have a general sense of where I wanted things to go, and might make notes about neat ideas, but otherwise I’d tear on through and not even re-read until much later.

I can see fiction writers attempting #3, especially for flash fiction. But #1 is a puzzle to me — I don’t even know how that *could* work. It seems like a recipe for misery to even try writing that way. To my mind, the sentence is just not the unit of composition, and writing at the level of perfecting individual sentences as I go… I think that I would very quickly lose track of what I intended to write. Do any of you write this way? How do you make it work?

Van Waes and Schellens then discuss a more recent paper, by Schwartz***, who established nine basic profiles. These profiles, they note, overlap and need not be consistent across a work, but may vary from paragraph to paragraph. (Again, I’m quoting Van Waes and Schellens)

1. Language production and regeneration profiles, in which the writer either writes down more than is needed and then reduces it later (the ‘overwriter’); or economizes on the initial text and then adds more later (the ‘underwriter’).

2. Structural reformulation profiles, in which the writer rejects the text and starts again (the ‘restarter’); or rejects it, making only a few changes (the ‘recopier’); or pieces together old sections into a new structure (the ‘re-arranger’); or builds on the original structure (the ‘remodeler’).

3. Content reassessment profiles, in which the writer is concerned with the pro- priety of the text (the ‘censor’); or with its accuracy (the ‘refiner’); or with the correctness of its form (the ‘copy-editor’).

I can much more easily find myself in these profiles: by and large, I’m an overwriter when it comes to dialogue and an underwriter of description. I’m an avowed re-arranger; the other three profiles in that section just seem weird and wrong to me. As for the last, I’ve sat here thinking for a few minutes and I don’t really know which I am. I think that I tend to revise most with an eye to form: I mostly don’t give a damn about propriety (even for academic papers, it rarely even occurs to me) and accuracy, to my mind, is properly a function of the first draft.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on quite a bit. Let me turn it over to you folks who haven’t fallen asleep: are you handwriters or typists? Mozartists or Beethovians? Do you write perfect sentence-by-perfect sentence, then revise to censor? Or do you get it all down, then rewrite from scratch a few times?

* Luuk Van Waes, Peter Jan Schellens, 2003, Writing profiles: the effect of the writing mode on pausing and revision patterns of experienced writers.

** Hayes, John R., Flower, Linda, 1980. Identifying the organization of writing processes.

*** Schwartz, Mimi, 1983. Revision profiles: patterns and implications.

 
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Posted by on 6 February, 2011 in Writing

 

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My Janus Impression: Looking Forward and Back

How appropriate that I have a crick in my neck!

2010 is the year I got serious about writing: No more fiddling around writing (just) for my friends, no more getting one rejection and sulking for months. All together, I figure I wrote about 50,000 words of fiction this year. I didn’t sell a damn thing, but I wrote or finished four short stories and racked up over 20 submissions, some of them still outstanding. I got my first personal rejections from professional-paying markets.

I got into, and attended, Viable Paradise XIV. This was a major turning point for me. I started to enumerate the ways, but I don’t think I’ll know all the ways it helped me and my writing for some years to come. But there is one big one: I finally felt like a real, honest-to-god writer after that. I feel like I’ve been invited to the big kids table, and there are some very entertaining folks there!

I tried NaNoWriMo again, and in the process plotted out a YA novel that I’d like to write one day. But I also discovered that I’m just not comfortable working that way. To some extent, I still have my editor’s cap on while I’m writing, a habit I’d like to shed or diminish. But to some extent, I just write better when I can pace myself: like Mr. Earbrass, I belong to the straying rather than sedentary type of author. (Though sadly, I frequently only stray as far as a browser window rather than go do something else entirely…)

On to the future. One of my goals for this past year had been to get something published. This was something of a foolish goal — it’s not something that I can control. I can only do what I did, which is to write stories as good as I could, seek and incorporate feedback, and put them out on the market.

So, my goals for this year are to do more of what I did last year. I started two novels: I’m going to finish one of them. I’m going to continue shopping around the five short stories I have on the market, and I’m going to put five more on the market. I’m still deciding what would constitute a good submissions goal: to some extent, that’s also outside my control. (Some markets are slower than others, and hopefully editors will start hanging onto my stories longer than they have been) So instead I’ll try to stick to the rule that a rejected story isn’t allowed to stay the night. Once I’ve decided it’s sellable, every time it comes back it goes right back into an envelope or electronic submissions queue.

I also want to push myself more as a writer: write shorter pieces, stories that make me a little uncomfortable, characters whose heads I have a hard time getting into. I want to spend more time thinking about writing, and putting interesting things on this blog. I need to learn concision. I need to learn discipline. I need to learn to better edit my own work. I need to learn what questions to ask critiquers to best make use of their time and mine. I probably also need to lose weight.

Happy New Year, everyone!

 
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Posted by on 30 December, 2010 in Philosophy, Writing

 

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Instant Expertise

The always-fascinating Jim Macdonald wrote a post some years back on the Absolute Write forums (you’re a member, right?) on the subject of becoming an instant expert in a subject.* There’s nothing hugely ground-breaking here, and yet… nobody ever really bothers to spell out this process, do they?

To summarize (though you should read his post): Go to your library. Start with recent kids’ books, to learn the basic concepts. Take those concepts to the thicker books, and drill down. Take notes. Specialize as you go, from broader concepts to more specific analysis, maybe even to original works (either primary documents or the original papers) Remember that for the writer, this is a directed process, for people who know from the outset what they want expertise in, and so you’re following a basic depth-first search strategy.

I suspect that people doing this sort of thing are going to want to start, not with a kid’s book, but with Wikipedia. That may be a mistake — there’s a LOT to be said for spending a day in the library doing this, with no distractions from Twitter or email or videos of cats. And there’s also a lot to be said for letting someone distill it down to an overview for you, letting them set aside the stuff that you’ll learn later but don’t need to know now. Wikipedia has a lot of information, which is both good and bad. It’s intended to be encyclopedic, which is not necessarily what you want at the outset. You need to pace yourself, or you will overstrain your brainmeats and start clicking on creepy pictures of Jimmy Wales. Once you do go to Wikipedia, though, I recommend spending time grabbing articles, then using Wikipedia’s book creator tool. The act of organizing something that you will then read offline will itself be useful. In that vein, Google Scholar becomes useful at a later stage in the process, when learning about more recent advances.

Finally, this is all also a lesson in satisficing: Part of the skill in researching for a writing project is knowing when you know enough to proceed. Nobody will see that first draft except you, it’s OK to be wrong in a few places, or to add sections of text like, “[Insert intelligent discussion of the properties of cyanide]” or “[Fix this later]“. Sure, to some extent it’s better to be right than wrong during that first draft, but if you’re like most people you’re 1) not going to have fully understood everything you just learned, and 2) are going to forget or misremember things. In other words, you’re likely to be wrong about a few things in that first draft anyway, and will be in a better position to fix it if you go into your editing process knowing that you got stuff wrong.

* I learned of this technique originally from Debra Doyle at VP, where I had the additional benefit of her insight into the process and the opportunity to talk about the differences between learning about science and about history. I still have the paper plate I took my notes on, too!

 
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Posted by on 14 December, 2010 in Writing

 

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Well, Hell. I’m Doomed to Write a YA Novel.

I’ve been working, on and off, on a mystery novel through the summer, as I’ve posted before. It’s coming along (about 5,000 words written that I haven’t thrown out already), but the writing is slow because, ultimately, I’m kind of unhappy with my outline, etc. etc. It’s stalled.

I had been thinking about doing NaNoWriMo, as a way of breaking that logjam. It occurred to me last night, though, that if I do NaNo for the novel I’ve been working on, 1) I’ll be cheating, and 2) it will probably still be stalled for the same reasons, and forcing myself to write may or may not help. (I’m willing to hear arguments against this, though!)

So last night I decided to lay out the five novel ideas that I already have. Three are Crandall novels: “Where Do They Bury the Survivors?”, “Midnight Train”, and “Down Came a Blackbird”, two of which are expansions of shorter stories I’ve already written. A fourth is a dark little hard SF story tentatively titled “Alone,” about a failed mission to Mars[1]. The fifth, well, it was just a slip of an idea for a YA novel about a couple of kids who want to go to the moon. I’d been kicking around the one-sentence idea for months, and added it to the list merely for completeness.

I put together a list of pros and cons for each novel as a potential NaNo project. What did I think I could sustain for a thousand or so words a day? What would keep me interested? I expected to conclude that I should start over on “Survivors”. But “Down Came a Blackbird” surprised me because it kept popping up: it was interesting, I had a basic plot outline, but not much more. It was still fresh. But I had misgivings — mysteries are hard to plot, and I tend to obsessively go back as I write them. Not terrible misgivings, though, and there’s a lot of interesting world-building to be done there in describing a new colony world. But speaking of fresh, that little YA idea, that’s pretty fresh too. No baggage to it at all. I chatted about it with a friend on IM, and had some neat ideas. Then I went to sleep, figuring that “Blackbird” had come out on top of that pro/con list, and (if I did NaNo) that’s what I would be writing.

My subconscious decided otherwise overnight. All I could think about this morning was little bits and pieces of that YA novel. It is said that ideas are dissolved in tap water: between the shower and my morning coffee, I got an overdose. I wrote them all down (with my new fountain pen — thanks, Marko, for that suggestion!) and discovered that I had a basic plot arc. Actually, kind of an interesting one, one that would let me pull in some rather more adult ideas I’ve been thinking about a lot lately if I wanted to, but didn’t necessarily need them.

I had a late morning because of a doctor’s appointment (cholesterol levels much lower now, w00t!) and filled the time just jotting things down. Nothing fancy, just little events. The names of the four kids. I’d been thinking that a plague year (like the one that sent Newton home, where he wrote the Principia, as one does) would be interesting, but then I realized that World War I might be more interesting still.

Then I remembered, in connection to the last bit, that I had been bequeathed by a classmate a full copy of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, plus 1922 addendum. It is at this point that I finally caved in and acknowledged that this would have to be my novel, or it would eat my brain and not allow any other ideas out.

Well, what the hell.

[1] I had actually attempted this for NaNo back in 2008, which was my idea of getting back into writing for fun after grad school had beaten the fun out of writing. I failed miserably at it. I don’t think I got more than 7,000 words. But there was a tiny little subplot in “Alone” about the speed of light that blossomed into “Where Do They Bury the Survivors?” a year later when I started thinking about murder mysteries. That got me writing detective/sci-fi stories, one of which (“Death in a Tin Can”) got me into Viable Paradise.

 
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Posted by on 20 October, 2010 in Fantasy, Novels, Writing

 

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Still Alive, Still Scribbling

I’ve been pretty quiet here lately — work and life and a nasty summer cold intruded. But I’m still scribbling away in that little black Moleskin of mine and in Scrivener and, mirabile dictu, progress is being made.

Most of my worry these days is about prologueing. Survivors as I have it outlined will be a very sedate novel: a murder that doesn’t look like one, and people who want it stay that way. I’ve changed the conflicts a bit, made them a bit more hands-on. Nobody here is simply waiting and hoping that Inspector Crandall does what they want: they’re making plans, taking out insurance, and keeping their eyes open.

But it still does not open with a bang. Currently it opens with Crandall trying to sleep through the jump to normal space, keeping a trash can close in case he pukes again. There are exciting bits referenced — the disaster at Nuova Italia, for example, which has been made twice as exciting with extra niacin! And that is basically where the story starts. If I wrote a prologue detailing those events, then I can introduce the universe in an exciting way, with explosions and stuff.

I’m not sure how it’ll work, is the trouble. The rest of the story will be sedate by comparison, the dangers more subtle. And the prologue will inevitably draw attention to that aspect of the plot long before I would otherwise like to. I can’t tell whether it will add dramatic tension by so doing, or just destroy the mystery.

The answer, probably, is to just write it and tack it on and see how it works with and without it. Good beta readers will be crucial to this part, which means that I will need to pass out candy and booze and other bribes, and will probably wind up shopping it around with the prologue attached, then getting into long discussions over whether it ought to stay. Fun!

In addition to thinking about prologues, I’ve also had to read up a bit on why, exactly, FTL travel implies time travel and allows non-causal messages. This is a danger, as the story at hand centers on the concept of the light cone. The whole thing makes my head hurt, though. I’m an engineer, damn it, not a physicist! Fortunately, the Wikipedia page on time travel is excellent. I think, after reading all that, that I’ve set up my universe in such a way that non-causality is minimized. I may write another story at some point playing with it, once I fully understand it. But for now, I’m just not going to worry about it: I’m waving my wand and saying that travel through ‘shift space’ does not cause Einsteinian time-dilation, and phooey to anyone who says otherwise. And just in case I change my mind later, each of the characters carries a personal chronometer to tell them how old they are.

 
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Posted by on 25 July, 2010 in Writing

 

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Getting Ready For VP

I’ve been spending some time and energy getting ready for Viable Paradise. I picked up a number of books by and recommended by the instructors. So far I’ve been very impressed: Steven Gould’s Jumper was fantastic, and Doyle and Macdonald’s Land of Mist and Snow is a fine piece of fiction, too. Scalzi’s recent short story at Tor was also well worth a read. There are a few more books by all the instructors that I’d like to read, but there’s plenty of time.

What I can’t quite figure out is what to do with my own fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 20 July, 2010 in Reading, Writing

 

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