Friday, March 28

Comparing drafts of Greenhelm

I've been working on the Greenhelm rewrite, and I thought it was time to break out a bit of the first draft again, for amusement's sake. Well, the very first draft was on paper, and I'm not going to type it up right now, but it's pretty similar to the second draft, which was the first to make it to a computer.

Just trying to find two versions of the same scene to compare is a bit of a struggle; the plot has changed so dramatically that I wouldn't recognise it as the same story. I'd forgotten so much of what I now consider to be digression had seemed vital at the time. I had a huge blind spot to certain gaping plot holes (why has the head of a nation joined nother nation's army? What?) and felt obliged to spin bits of the plot out to make it longer (that lasted into draft three, which got hacked into draft three point five as I went along). It was also deeply, deeply derivative.

Stylistically, I know there are still flaws, not all of which I'm dealing with in this draft. There will be, once I've written the second book (and preferably the third, but I know myself well enough not to hold hope), a fifth draft, but hopefully there won't be any more dramatic changes to the plot.

Anyway, the following contains some pretty strong spoilers for Greenhelm. I don't suppose anyone cares at this point, considering the most recent draft isn't finished yet. Comparing two versions of what is essentially the same dream sequence. The second is cut to pieces because it's (a) quite long and (b) mostly not concerned with the dream that the other draft contains. Diligent and Galahad are the same person, he just suffered a name change.

Aged 13, draft 2:

“I’m family, you know it” taunted the blonde mage, “you know it.”

“Don’t be stupid, I’ve got none.”

The blonde mage showed Galahad the ice blue Magick in his fingers. Galahad could see the same Magick in himself.

“I’m family.”

Galahad shrugged nonchalantly. “You’re no brother of mine.”

“A lot more secure tonight, aren’t you. You actually believe your friends will never desert you. Friends forever. Of course, it’s not like you’ll ever have a girlfriend.”

“I what?”

“You’ll always be single, never marry, never sleep with a girl, never kiss. No girl will find you attractive. Always alone. You’ll go mad with loneliness. Watching your friends marry and have kids, watching everyone around you laugh and smile with their partners. Ethan will leave you, not want to even acknowledge knowing you. Ivy will fear you, in case you lash out at her, rape her even because you’ll be so desperate. Everyone will hate you.”

“But, but you said my friends will never desert me.” Quavered Galahad.

“I lied!” The blonde mage sneered.

Well, that was physically painful. Is there some rule about gratiutously bringing up rape? There should be.

Aged 21, draft 4:
[...] He’d been dreaming of home, too. His chest tightened slightly: the blond man, now a recurring theme, had mentioned the curse.

Diligent sat up, pushing the heavy covers away from him. His nightshirt was damp with sweat, and the air was heavy around him. Shoving open the curtains on the bed didn’t help. He climbed out of the bed, the beginnings of a headache threatening at the back of his mind and a faint, unfamiliar nausea swimming inside of him. He stumbled over to the window and opened the shutters. The atmosphere remained oppressive, but the burst of raindrops that splattered across his face and chest was surprisingly welcome.

He arranged himself on the already wet window seat, leaning his forehead on the damp stone outside of the window and taking deep breaths of moist air through his mouth.

He wondered, one hand wrapped around the slimy wood of the shutter, if he was coming down with something. Maybe that was what the dreams harboured. He coughed, but felt neither better nor worse for it. Maybe he was just overheating as he slept.

He’d dreamt of flames; he’d dreamt of the blond watching them. It hadn’t been his home burning, though. No sense of what was on fire. Sometimes they had looked more like the blue of his Blessing than real fire. Again, always, that sense of knowing the blond. Handing the key to him.

[...]Diligent supposed he must have dozed off sitting upright, because he opened his eyes with a start and a mortal fear of Trusbury House. The watch and key were still firmly grasped in his lap, the window was still spitting rain at his feet. His heart was thudding, though, and he could feel the sweat on his skin. His breaths were fast and shallow.

[...]The blond face rose in his mind, the dreams leaving the imagined stranger linked with thoughts of his home. Maybe it was his father, Diligent realised. Maybe he was dreaming about his father. It would explain the guilt, the fear, and the knowing. It made sense. He was not ready to deal with what had happened to his father, and what it meant for himself. The curse.

And yet... No. Diligent refused to acknowledge the nagging doubt. He was dreaming about his father, that was all, and he was protecting himself from the dreams by changing the man a little. Making his father more like himself. Recognisable. It was just grief, that was all.

He fell asleep, wondering if he ought to cry.

Well, at the very least my grammar's improved!

Wednesday, March 26

If immitation is the highest form of flattery, then I write because I like reading

If I'm writing about writing, I suppose I should write about why I write.

Partly, I suppose, because I like sentences like that. Language is fun. Layout is fun; I like visualising sentences and paragraphs. I like knowing when I want to use italics or bold or underline, when to use uppercase or lowercase, whether I want a comma or a semi-colon, which font I want and how I'm going to place the heading.

I don't write because I feel I have to. I wouldn't go mad if I couldn't write (well, I've not put it to the test). I don't have the characters clammering in my head. I don't miss it when I don't write. I don't feel a desperate need to share my thoughts with the world. I don't need to write.

But I still do, and I always have.

I remember writing a story about foxes on a little black-and-green screen computer. I can't have been more than about six. It was, and I think I realised this even at the time, not very good. If I could remember why I'd sat down to write that story, I'd know why I write now; instead, I can only surmise based on the fact that it was very heavily inspired by Farthing Wood:

If immitation is the highest form of flattery, then I write because I like reading. Simple.

I write for the same reason I made tomato soup cake last week. Because I felt like it. I was inspired (by a recipe, I hasten to add), and I had time, and I wanted to enertain myself. The cake, by the way, was probably the best cake I've ever made, though the icing was a bit of a disaster. If you want the recipe, let me know.

The Dark is very much tomato soup cake. Greenhelm is more of a three course meal, I suppose, and god only knows what the rest is. I enjoy writing far more than I enjoy cooking. Cooking is a chore; it's something I have to do to live. If I had to write to live, I wouldn't enjoy it either. I have no intention of ever becoming solely an author; I need structure in my day to tell me when I'm 'on' and when I'm 'off'. Doing an arts degree hammered that home, but I already knew it from watching my mother work from home. I don't want to be wandering around at ten o'clock at night feeling obliged to work because I 'wasted' the morning cleaning the house (or rather, I would have not cleaned the house because it would have felt like wasting the morning, and spent the time watching TV and feeling guilty instead). I earn money to live from nine to five; I buy food and collect prescriptions and pay council tax on days I'm not at work; I write whenever I have a day I'm not doing either. At the moment, that's not actually very often, but I need to stop accepting quite so many extra days at work (I don't feel bad, because on quiet days I can write at work, but it's just mindless jottings and feels more productive than it actually is).

I like writing best at night, when it's raining, with a candle lit and Einaudi playing. To be honest, I just like being when it's like that, but I'm not good at doing nothing (I prefer to be doing at least two things at once; right now I have five tabs open on firefox and Walking with Monsters on tv and a casserole cooking), and writing is the most context appropriate thing to be doing. I don't like writing after work, unless I've had a hugely inspirational day, and I don't like writing when I've been running around doign prosaic things all day. I don't like writing when I know there's going to be a cut off point, like before work, and I don't like writing when there are guests in the house, even if they aren't here to see me. I don't like writing in silence, but I don't like writing with music with lyrics playing.

Despite all this, I still like writing, and that's why I do it. I like it because I like reading. Immitation - flattery. Writing.

Tuesday, March 25

Genre Fiction

I've been meaning to write a post about why I like genre fiction. I much prefer it to, well, non-genre fiction. I'm not terribly fussy about what genre, either; scifi and fantasy, horror, romance etc. Genre fiction is, it's true, formulaic; you know roughly what's going to happen. This means, to write it well and keep it gripping, you have to be really good. And it's so satisfying when it's done right; more so, I find, than more avant garde fiction.

Genres split into two kinds: plot, and situation. On the one hand you have Romance, Adventure, Mystery and Horror; on the other you have Westerns, SciFi and Fantasy. The latter three, in terms of plot, all fit the same formula: difficulties are overcome, sacrifices are made, and good triumphs over evil.

Horror: evil arises, people die, evil may or may not be overcome.
Romance: flirtation, source of confusion, resolution.
Adventure: cool people go somewhere interesting, danger happens, they overcome.
...And so on.

The above may give you a hint as to which genre I'm currently enamoured with. Pulp. Science Fiction pulp, or Boys Own Adventure Pulp. Not the big in-space stuff or the technical computer-y stuff, but finding dinosaurs and huge predators in unexpected places, new species on earth, homemade rockets to the moon. Wyndham, Wells and Verne. Pulp.

1850-1950, for preference.

I blame a book I remember having before I could read: Reptiles and Amphibians. It had 10p written in wax crayon on the cover. I don't know where the shark love came from, to be honest, but they quickly joined the reptiles and cephalopods (the Amphibians of the books title didn't grip me in the way that the snakes and crocodiles did) on the list of coolest animals ever. I mean, I loved the big cats and wolves and various land predators, but they don't quite compare. For a start, they were all too similar to animals I encountered day-to-day, and I was scared of pretty much all animals I encountered (I still have a mild phobia of dogs, and I'm nervous of every farm animal I've encountered so far). But something like a Vampire Squid? Coolest. Thing. Ever. Instead of ink, it squirts bioluminescence. Who cares about dogs? Do they squirt light when threatened? No, they bite. Much less cool.

Aside: I think Dirk Miles, from The Dark (my current pulp fiction project), might need to go and study some marine biology, so that I can have sea creatures. Not!Morlocks is rather limited to freshwater, being set in the mountains of a landlocked country.

Nearly all the fiction I write is genre fiction. In fact, it's all Good vs Evil genre fiction: Children's Fantasy, 50s SciFi Pulp, High Fantasy. I'm tempted to try my hand at a bit of romance (though it'll probably be Paranormal Romance). I certainly read predominantly genre fiction, though due to my tendency to absorb ideas I tend to avoid reading fantasy any more; I've pretty much already hit the two books that could heavily influence The Dark, so I've got no problem plowing through the rest of Wells's short stories, and I don't tend to buy children's fiction I've not read before any more.

A lot of people look down on genre fiction. I find it... weird. The New York Times points out that just because genre fiction tends to be easy to read, it doesn't mean it's easy to write (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is where I picked up the link, and adds its own thoughts. Despite not reading Romance novels, the SBTB appeals to me because so much of it applies to other genre fiction too). In fact, this is my problem with modernist, post-modernist and various forms of avant-garde fiction; the fact it's meant to be hard to read means that it can be easy to write. You can fake it, and even if the critics and academics can tell the difference, most people can't (hell, you can think you're faking it, as the Ern Malley poets did, but the critics and academics will tell you otherwise). I've written the pretentious kind of stuff, and it's probably not very good by pretentious people's standards, but I can tell you that it was a hell of a lot easier to write than the genre stuff, which has a hell of a lot more constraints. Maybe if I wanted to write it well, it would be hard, but I honestly wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the good pretention and the bad. I admit, I like it when I write something that only makes sense to a few people, but they are all people I respect, so it becomes an inclusion thing, rather than the distinctly exclusionist vibe I get from a lot of non-genre fiction. Hey, no reader likes to be informed that they're not smart enough or informed enough to Get It.

[I am using 'pretentious' here to mean 'deliberately obscure with unusual literary techniques', and not really as I let H2G2 define it later (which is mostly a Rushdie thing), but hopefully you'll get the jist]

I don't set out to read as an academic, and I don't write for academics; I write for the people who want something easy to read, because I'm one of them. It's not that I don't enjoy challenging books, the weird and wonderful and strangely written, but I couldn't read them all of the time, and I don't think anyone could. I wouldn't want to marathon Salmon Rushdie's pretentious Literature, but I could read Wyndham for hours on end. I'd rather read a book that I can't put down than a book I need to put down on a regular basis to find out what the hell it's referencing now. I react badly to Self-acknowledged Pretentious Fiction, usually written by people who think writing genre fiction is like covering yourself in cow dung as a weird fetish thing and running through the streets shouting about it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to write avant garde fiction, with wanting to wite books that people will remember for the rest of their lives and display prominently on their shelves and make them think and change their lives and generally improve the world. It's an honourable goal. But it's not mine, and I don't like being dismissed for it. I do object to people who write fiction because they think being obscure and confusing people makes them look smart.

The thing about genre fiction is that more genres are huge. You're competing against millions of other books, similar to your own. You need to be really good to do well. Write something avant-garde, and the only thing you're competing against is the fact that most people would rather be reading genre fiction (which, okay, means it has to be good too, to persuade those readers onto your side. Or it would, if most of those kind of authors thought those people were worth persuading). Really Good genre fiction is deeply satisfying. It's enjoyable to read. It's hard to put down. It's gripping despite running to a formula.

Really Good genre novels don't 'transcend' their genre; just because they're popular doesn't mean they suddenly cease to be genre fiction. 'Transcend' suggests they're not part of that genre; they might have something in common with it, but they're not genre fiction. They might be mainstream (whatever that means once you extract it from genre), they might be avant garde, but if they've trascended genre they're clearly not genre fiction. 1984 has a scifi setting, but it's not scifi genre fiction, for example. It didn't transcend the genre; it was never part of it to start with. If genre fiction is particularly good and well known outside of the genre (say, Day of the Triffids, to squee about my favourite author, or Frankenstein for Gothic fiction, or Pride and Prejudice for Romantic) then it's a good writing within the genre. It's still genre fiction; it still fits the formulas (genre fiction can play with the formulas a little, and completely flipping the formulas gives a sort of sub-genre fiction, but significant alterations to the formula expel it from the genre and back into that category the 'transcending' fiction lives in).

So, genre fiction. It's hard work to write. It's great to read. Don't be hard on it just to look smart*. It doesn't work.

*You can be hard on it for other reasons, but you better be able to support them. I'll just drown you in reccomendations in response, to be honest; most people who are hard on genre fiction haven't read much, but if you have then I'd love to discuss.

How I write

A few duplicat posts from another blog to start with, okay?

This post was inspired by rionaleonhart's post about writing strengths/weaknesses. It's quite fun to analyse your own stuff, trying to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I am, overall, quite happy with my writing, though I feel I lack any kind of concrete style. Thus, this is a fairly self-deprecating list (I'm arrogant enough to start out assuming I'm perfect, and so this is me picking holes in that).

- I like to think I'm fairly good at both dialogue and description, but I can't do both at once. People have conversations in voids, or hang out in scenery with nothing but indirect speech to tide them over. Mushing together tends to end up with something along the lines of:

"Dialogue," he verbed, actioning.

"Dialogue dialogue," she verbed adverbly, actioning in scenery. "Dialogue."

He improbably-verbed, "Dialogue." He actioned.

Characters either hang in space for the entire conversation, or accompany every sentence with some form of fidget. I also can't handle a conversation between more than three people; characters go completely mute. Council scenes in Greenhelm are a pain, because there are just too many characters, all of whom ought to be saying something relevant (often the same thing, or over the top of each other). This is why some of them tend to fall asleep, or sulk.

Also, it's the same actions over and over. All the show-don't-tell has left me with a group of actions that I use as shorthands for emotions, but they don't always show the same emotion (which is realistic, but when the one character uses the same action twice in one conversation for two different things, and another uses it in response for something else entirely, it's kinda meaningless). Characters are constantly tilting and cocking their heads, chewing on their lips, and tugging on their own hair. I have to watch myself to make sure I don't use any of them more than once in a section, and not by multiple different people in a chapter. All my characters are bald with terrible neck strain and ragged lips.

Also, improbable verbs and adjectives. Which, later, I can't remember why I used. Sometimes it's cool, but a lot of them time they just feel like typos. I just get sick of words like "said" and "asked".

- I lack patience for writing exercises. I just... write. If I'm suffering from writer's block, I do a description of random things. If I'm suffering from laziness, I do dialogue only. If I'm facing a hard bit, I do something else. I'm lucky, because I almost never get writer's block, but I am an immensely lazy writer. If I challenged myself to write 500 words a day, I could, easily, though not always on the same project. But I'd rather watch TV.

- I don't like finishing things or declaring finished things done. I never submit anything anywhere because I'm waiting for some magical day when I'm done learning to write, and I can go back and edit things in the knowledge that at no point will I look at them and wish they were different.

- My writing is derivative and easily influenced (like me!), but I view this as a kind of tool in itself now. I know where every influence came from, what effect it had, and how I changed it to make it mine (I'll do a breakdown of Greenhelm one day, and you'll be able to see what novels I was reading when). I'm the same with dreams, actually, and seeing how they've been influenced by recent thoughts and events. I'm not a deeply original person, and I know it.

- I love plotting, but suck at plots. I don't like endings, specifically, and I can't handle climaxes, so I take something deeply generic and shove it in instead as a placeholder until I actually get there.

When I get there, I'll tell you how it works out!

- Though I'm fairly proficient at writing angst, it does bore me, and I do get carried away once I start. I don't like reading/watching it, particularly. Apparently I write depression well enough that people think I suffer from it, so, um. I enjoy writing about pragmatists, and about decisions they face. I like writing about anger, and fights, but I think I tend to do them too fast (people go from civil to exploding very quickly, especially if they're not the viewpoint character). Boredom is a good excuse for skipping over things and plugging some description in instead.

- I use a lack of contractions to indicate a non-english speaker. I don't know if this is a good or a bad thing (it's got to trump writing out accents, though, especially when you don't bother for the default dialect), but I do do it for all non-english speakers, which probably isn't terribly helpful.

- I write short pieces and vignettes, and forget that the information in them doesn't appear in the main novel. I enjoy writing them because I don't even have to pretend there's a plot. I like Significant Moments. I just don't like working them into the main text. It's why I like writing on my blog and doing challenges.

- I don't edit short stuff (I often type things straight into my blog these days), and I get so wrapped up in editting long stuff that I don't write anything new. See: Greenhelm, Children's story. I almost never use beta-readers (dun dun daaaaah). Too impatient. Thus, I suffer from typos.

- Odd sentence structure. I love it. Speech tends to be fragmentary, but I also have a tendency to play with syntax and clauses (and I split infinitives with abandon). I, I must admit, love clauses in odd places within a sentence, but I suspect, with reasonable evidence, that I do it too often. It's certainly not great for flow. A paragraph where every sentence is broken at least once, either by a clause or a semi-colon, is both typical and Not Good. I also love throwing italics about for emphasis, but I don't always get it right. I like to start sentences with words like "also" and "thus"; I think that's probably got something to do with my own speech patterns. I mumble a bit at the beginning of sentences, so it's good to have a non-essential verbal run up, even if it doesn't always make sense. And, mmm, imperatives.

- I love it when I can visualise the way a paragaph ought to look, especially how speech ought to be laid out, and I have an innate sense of punctuation thanks to an old English teacher. I can't always visualise layout, but when I can it just fits. It's why I love doing the magazine; I use what I've been taught most of the time, but when it comes naturally I don't want to deny it. This month's interior cover is a bit like that: I know there needs to be a small photo, with rich colours, in a certain place, even though I don't actually have a photo I can use there.