Category Archives: Writing - Page 2

The Oenophile’s Quandary

Cartoonist David Malki introduced us to the Oenophile’s Quandary:

Presented with something that, over time, increases in quality (like wine) or value (like money in a savings account), when’s the right time to use it? If you’re saving for a rainy day, how hard does it have to rain before that’s it? And as the item gains worth, wouldn’t it have to rain harder and harder before it makes sense to pop that cork?

And isn’t it good to exercise a healthy discipline of delayed gratification? If in doubt, save it?

Sound familiar? I think of this every time I finish something I want to send out for publication.

The work itself doesn’t improve over time, but it can potentially improve through revision. Theoretically, you could revise something infinitely, increasing its quality more and more with each pass.

Then again, you don’t want to have to wait forever to publish something, do you? In today’s world of zero-cost (or at least zero-upfront-cost) publication, you could e-publish immediately upon completion and start earning income right away. But a single pass through the piece to proofread it would be minimal time invested, and potentially keep from turning readers off with an errant first-page typo.

Or is it just an excuse to put off the unpleasant work of actually sitting down and editing one’s work?

This weekend I submitted something to a publisher during one of their rare open submission periods. I had to submit the first five chapters, and I spent a long time on them. Someone should tell philosophers about deadlines.

Swimming with the Query Shark

I’ve been reading the archives–the incredibly extensive archives–of the Query Shark, a literary agent who selflessly tears apart people’s query letters and posts them on her blog. It’s a lot nicer and more useful than I’m making it sound, I think.

So I came across this one, where she says:

One of the very first things to remember about any query is you’ve got to make sure your protagonist sounds like someone I’ll want to spend some time with. Either cause I like them, am rooting for them, am fascinated by them, or can’t wait to see if they get eaten by wolves.  What they can’t be is a two dimensional cartoon.

This did two things for me. First, it pointed out what I’m supposed to be doing with my queries in a way that I’ve never really figured out before. Make the reader want to spend time with the character. Excellent.

And second, it immediately pointed out to me what I could do to improve my own query.

Not that it’s a bad query, I’ll add: I got an e-mail from an agent, asking for pages, just last Friday. So it’s not a lost cause or anything.

But it could have been better, and now it is. All I have to do is read through the other two hundred queries posted by the Query Shark, and then I can send in my own.

The Oxford comma

I find it hard to disagree with this article. The strongest point is here:

If we were to universally accept the Oxford comma, there would be no instances where you would suddenly have to omit the Oxford comma for clarity.

The Oxford comma is more consistent and more clear. That just makes the tech writer in me ache to use it. A lot of the article is argument from authority, but this point actually gets to the meat of it.

I didn’t know that the Oxford comma is an American standard, though. Now if only we could get Americans to put their dates in a logical order, we’d be getting somewhere…

Incidentally, if we do go to war for the Oxford comma, I intend to be a profiteer.

On writing what you know

Dismiss that woefully misguided maxim ‘Write What You Know.’ Instead, and I emphatically believe this, write what you don’t know. Write about what confuses, enrages, haunts and confounds you. The writer who has the answers is penning propaganda; the writer on a quest for them is the one I’d rather read.

Apparently this is from a speech by playwright Doug Wright, though I can’t find a source. Whether he said it or not, he’s absolutely correct.

From a good thread on r/writing about dodgy advice for writers.

(I also weighed in with my least favourite, but almost ubiquitous, writing advice too.)

How much of being a great writer is natural talent?

A writer on Reddit asked the following question:

How much of being a great writer is natural talent?

I just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” and I’m having second thoughts on pursuing anything related to writing. Although the book was inspiring, I found it to be somewhat depressing, especially King’s thoughts on improving as a writer. He mentions the possibility of becoming a better writer, but rejects the notion that anyone can become a good writer, even with lots of practice.

What do you guys think about this? Does it really come down to natural talent?

I’ll answer the question with a “no”, but I’ll add the caveat that I think that there’s a problem with the word “talent”, as well as with the word “great”.

What is a great writer? Where’s the bar? It’s kind of a meaningless distinction. If by “great” we mean a huge seller like King or Rowling, eternal popular success like Tolkien, or eternal literary respect like Shakespeare, it’s probably not even worth having the conversation; these writers’ careers are all combinations of ability and luck that don’t really translate into success for the rest of us.

But if by “great” we mean successful, then it’s really all about goals, isn’t it? It might be worth spending more time considering what our goals are–and revisiting the question from time to time as well, because your goals might change over time–than it is considering what “great” might mean.

As for “talent”, I hate to bring up the old cliche, but it’s funny how the more you practice, the more talented you get.

Talent is such an indistinct concept, and so many things feed into it: the stuff you read, the stuff you write, the things that happen to you in your life, the things you do in your life, the people around you, the way you think about things… all of these affect your writing. Are they, taken as a whole, “talent”? What do we mean by “talent”, and if it exists, is it more important than all those other things?

It’s probably a lot more useful to take the time we would spend discussing and thinking about the things we lack as writers, and use it to read, or write, or do anything that will actually help us improve as writers.

We don’t want to find excuses for why we can’t write well enough; let’s use our energy to write better instead.

On Orwell’s “Writing Tips”

A user on Reddit’s r/writing board posted a link to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” with the headline “Awesome writing tips by George Orwell”.

I would suggest that the value in Orwell’s essay is not the list of “tips” or rules, but in understanding his point. The important things to learn from this essay, to me, are things like this:

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

It’s important to start to recognize when one’s writing begins to slip into this kind of lazy mode, where one starts to use phrases not because they are right, but because they are easy.

I absolutely believe Orwell is correct in thinking that our language affects our thoughts, and our thoughts affect our language. We need to be on guard, especially, when we talk about the things that we believe in most strongly. We get into the warm bath of friendly ideas and it’s easy to just say the things that confirm them; they keep us from thinking, from challenging our assumptions, from doing the hard mental work that has to be done sometimes.

Poor writing is often a product of poor thinking. That’s what Orwell is really talking about in this essay. The list of “tips” are pointless if we do not acknowledge and seek to address this root problem.

Soul Fuel and Soul Refuelling

Rose Bianchini has an excellent post on Soul Fuel, “the work we do that keeps us going, that uses our creative selves and makes us feel good.”

This is an important thing for artists — we don’t want to get into the mode where we’re beating our heads against the wall, trying to get the goddamned art to come out. I like the idea of doing things that fuel, rather than empty, our artistic souls.

One thing Rose doesn’t mention is the possibility of pulling off the road and refuelling sometimes. Seeing live music or theatre, walking around galleries or museums, reading outside one’s comfort zone, going to conferences or other events where we can talk to other artists about art and craft and all that stuff.

It’s important to keep the tank full, one way or another.

The Vanishing Setting

I came across this blog post recently and I agree with the sentiment: less skilled writers often don’t let the setting come through in their story.

Because we can’t see the setting, we also can’t visualize the characters’ interaction with the setting. How are they moving within this space? Are they both sitting down? Is Annie sitting while Marjolaine stands? Or is Annie scooping papers from the printer as she rushes to leave on assignment? Not only does this scene give the reader nothing but white walls, it also turns the characters into talking heads.

The author of the post does a good job of showing the difference between a scene that is a talking-heads conversation with no setting at all, and a fully-fleshed-out scene where actual characters are conversing. I agree with her completely on her points.

But the problem that I find with a lot of writers isn’t that they don’t provide any setting, but that the setting is remarked upon, then forgotten. Writers seem to love to paint their detailed picture of the setting, the colours, the weather, and then, the first paragraph of the chapter or scene complete, description is conveniently shelved.

If you want to put characters in a setting and have them move around there, that’s the way to do it. If you want them to actually inhabit their world, then you need to make it part of every scene, and have them act like it’s there.


Another one done

I finished my latest novel, tentatively titled “A Matter of Trust”, yesterday afternoon. It’s something like 70,000 words (it’s written longhand so I can only estimate at this point).

I haven’t talked to many people about it at all, for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t like to talk about the stuff I’m writing while I’m writing it. I find that hashing it out takes away from the energy I have for actually writing the thing. This definitely used to be the case, and I think it might still be, and I’m not going to threaten the completion of a novel by trying it out. (I think it might have had more to do with the fact that, when I first found that happening, I wasn’t very good at writing novels yet, but still, why risk it?)

But having finished it, I’m still a bit reluctant to talk about it. A few different reasons for that:

  • I have three finished novels that I’m interested in finding homes for. I don’t really want to dilute that by adding yet another one into the mix.
  • The subject matter, and therefore probably the genre, is very different from what I’ve written before. I don’t want to be pegged as a writer in this genre.
  • The subject matter is personally challenging to write about. That’s part of why I started writing it in the first place: I decided to write what scared me. I’m pleased to have finished it, but I don’t know if I want to put it all out there yet.

I guess the real question is whether the damn thing is any good. I think it is, or at least it has a lot of good stuff in it. There are also flaws — I don’t know that the ending is ramped up well enough, and I am a little concerned that its satirical elements don’t work. (It’s a satire about men’s attitudes and macho-ness and sexuality, but the satire might just come off as stupidity and sexism, I worry.)

I wrote it longhand, so the next step is to type the thing up. It might have the distinction of being my very last longhand novel, since I found out that I am writing much better and more quickly on the keyboard now. I’ve got maybe a third typed up already, and it’ll probably take a couple months to finish typing up the rest.

So let’s catalogue what I’ve written to date:

  • Untitled novel that sucks, 37,000 words, March – July 2002
  • LMF, 45,000 words, September 2002 – April 2004, published May 2006
  • The Famiglia, 65,000 words, November 2004 – April 2007
  • On the Heat, 90,000 words, February 2009 – June 2010
  • A Matter of Trust, 70,000 words, September 2010 – May 2012
  • Brendan’s Way, 90,000 words, June – November 2011

I might be misremembering some of the dates in there a bit, because there seem to be overlong gaps in the history. Since I wrote The Famiglia, I’ve had a novel project on the go continuously. Of course, those projects also include editing, and I am only mentioning actual writing of the first draft in that timeline.

Anyhow, it’s not a bad output, but right now the most important thing is to get the completed novels (Famiglia and Brendan) into the hands of agents. That’s going to be my main project for the summer.

Back on track

After finishing the science fiction novel last week, I went back to the “suburban satire” I had been working on. Back to writing longhand, back to the — relatively — real world of 1986.

I have complained often and at length about finding space to work in the afternoon; when I don’t take time for lunch (or sometimes while I’m eating lunch), I tend to sit and write. My place of choice was a Starbucks for a while, but they removed about a third of their seating and suddenly I was unlikely to find a seat there, no matter when I went over there.

I moved over to the Second Cup; it’s quieter, the staff are nicer, and there is almost always seating available. I find the counter by the window to be very conducive to writing — the seats are comfortable and the world passing by is just the right amount of distraction for me. Starbucks has one of these counters too, but it is more cramped and less comfortable. I hate sitting there at Starbucks, while I prefer sitting at the counter at Second Cup. Ah, the whims of the spirit.

Yesterday, though: thwarted. One of the rules of a modern urban society is — or ought to be — that bags and coats do not merit a seat. At the Second Cup yesterday, three people and their accoutrements had taken up the five seats at the counter. If there isn’t a law, there oughta be.

I have learned, though, not to be shy in these places. I think it is entirely permissible to share tables and ask people to move their things and so on. “Oh — is anyone sitting here? Do you mind if I –” is usually enough. I have yet to find someone who isn’t willing to share, or to make a big show of moving their bags (probably to cover up the embarrassment of being called out for taking up too much space).

The Second Cup was too busy, though, and the line was moving too slowly, so I tried Starbucks. Success: a table. I was even asked to share it, which I gladly did.

All this to say, I wrote six hundred words yesterday. Writing longhand is extremely slow, I’ve found. And I can’t find my good fountain pen, so it isn’t even enjoyable. But I’ll finish this novel, eventually, and somehow.