Thursday, October 23, 2014

Turkey City Writers' Workshop

Turkey City 2014
I didn’t blog last week because I was preparing for the Turkey City Writers’ Workshop, which happened Saturday, October 18. I found it to be a useful and positive experience. It is also a ton of work. They don’t call them workshops for nothing.

Turkey City has been around since the early seventies, and its participants through the decades are a who’s who of genre writers, especially cyberpunk. This workshop is geared for advanced writers, and is known for its tough love approach. The expectation is that all the attendees have mastered the basic techniques of writing and storymaking. I found this to be the case for the most part. Even the less experienced participants brought material worth discussing, in my opinion.

For the past few years Chris Brown has graciously hosted it in his amazing home. He also participated with an excellent story that sat right at the intersection of genre and literary and wonderfully captured the gestalt of Austin hacker scene.

This year the word limit was 10,000 words, and with twelve people participating, well, you do the math – that’s a lot of preparatory reading. Not everyone turned in a novelette, but since my regular crit group limits pieces to 5,000 words, I did relish the opportunity to submit something longer.

We were six men and six women, and with strong female voices such as Patrice Sarath and Stina Leicht attending, I found the opinions and insights well balanced along gender lines. Anil Menon and Jasmina Tesanovic also provided international and literary perspectives to our pieces. All in all there were plenty of fascinating, quirky, and useful opinions to go around.

Corey Doctorow even stopped in at the after party as he was in town for the Texas Teen Book Festival (which is becoming quite a thing BTW).

I was determined to bring something new to my first Turkey City and worked hard to complete a 9,000-word novelette from a previous fragment. It was pretty green. If I’d had all the time in the world, I would have taken it through one more revision before submitting it to group critique. It got dinged on the things I pretty much expected it would. Elements of the story are a little pat; the characters tend toward types. Subtlety and nuance, for me, tends to blossom in revision. The first pass is usually about setting the storyline and expressing the characters basic traits. (I’m one of those weirdos who likes revising way more than pounding out the first draft.)

I also got some excellent food for thought, especially from Bruce Sterling, who was the idea man of the critique group. He threw out all sorts of alternative scenarios for my story and its characters that really freed up the way I was thinking about it. The novelette is taking a well-deserved rest this week. Next week I’ll pull it apart and revise it and get it out there into the world.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Game Plan: Story Structure for Football Season



Telling a story in three acts – or not.
(Bear with me: I'll get to the football soon, promise!)

As a storyteller, the concept of the three-act story form is unavoidable. The idea is particularly popular among screenwriters, and is found in numerous books, featured in lectures, and on countless websites. It is often applied to narrative storytelling regardless of the form. But wait! FILM CRIT HULK presents a counter argument to the idea of the three-act structure in his epic take down, The Myth of the 3 Act Structure:

 HULK HAS NEVER SEEN SOMETHING SO UNHELPFUL BECOME SO WIDELY ACCEPTED. SURE, IT MAKES SENSE AND IS A SIMPLE WAY TO SEE STORIES FROM AFAR, BUT IT’S ALSO SO SIMPLE THAT IT’S TAUGHT TO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS WHEN THEY’RE FIRST GRASPING THE CONCEPT OF NARRATIVE. AND WHILE HULK ARGUES THAT THE SIMPLE TRUTHS ARE OFT TIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES, THE EXPRESSION OF THOSE TRUTHS SHOULD BE FAR MORE COMPLICATED. AND THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE IS NOT EVEN “A TRUTH.” IT’S A WRITING MODEL ATTEMPTING TO HELP YOU GET AT ONE. SO HULK THINKS THAT HOLLYWOOD COULD MAYBE STAND TO DO A LITTLE BETTER THAN A THIRD GRADE GRASP OF STORY.

Oh, preach it brother! Seriously, read the whole essay.

Of course, Aristotle laid down the foundation of narrative theory in his Poetics where he describes a story as “a whole [that] has a beginning and middle and end.” This is absolutely true, all stories have these three parts in some degree, but I think confusion arises when we conflate the idea that these three parts of the narrative will align with a story’s acts. In other words, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, but they can have any number of acts.


A story should have exactly as many acts as it takes to bring it to completion. That could be five acts or seven or twelve or more. I’m currently writing a short story with two acts (and of course, it still has a beginning, middle, and end).


For a practical guide to narrative structure (and a survey of popular theories of narrative structure including three-act and the Hero’s Journey) read John York’s Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, which is one of the best books that I’ve read about story structure in, well, maybe ever. * In it, York defines an act as:



“A unit of action bound by a character’s desire.”

THE GAME
Last Monday night, I was sitting on the couch watching the Monday Night Football with one eye (as I do) and thinking about story. Recently, a friend asked me what I found appealing about football. As a writer, I enjoy watching sports because it reduces drama to its essential elements. Two teams take the field, both want to win, only one will. This is conflict in its purest form. When watching scripted dramas, I often get distracted second-guessing what the writer was trying to accomplish, or thinking about how the director’s choices affected the scene. I can’t help myself. While this has its own pleasures, a football game, with its direct conflict overlaid with the commentators’ patter to give a little color to the characters on the field, is just the thing after a long day in the word mines.

It's this no strings attached narrative that draws me in. By observing a football game’s narrative, we can see how its structure contributes to dramatic tension. We can see, with a just few rules to provide a framework, how flexible the parts that form the whole can be.


THE CLOCK

This is the most artificial construct of the game and the most necessary. It’s the running time of a movie, the word count in a short story or novel. Everyone can relate; the Clock itself is a kind of antagonist, ever present, stalking us all to our dying day. The winning team will try to run out the clock. The losing team is playing against, not just the opposing team, but time itself. This arbitrary limitation is the essence of what shapes the game. And it’s time and its limits that shape the stories we tell. But within the constraints of any given time frame there are an infinite number of variations.

THE DRIVE

When a team gets the ball, it tries to score with a series of plays that together form a drive toward the end zone. Like the act, a drive is a unit of action bound by the team’s desire to score. A drive is made up of a series of plays, and an act is made up of a series of scenes. A game can have any number of drives. A drive can end in failure after one broken play or a fumble, or in success with one magnificent Hail Mary pass. A drive can consist of dozens of running plays and short passes, making downs by inches, moving the chains just enough to keep the drive alive. A drive consists of exactly as many or few plays as it needs for the team with the ball to either achieve their goal (touchdown!) or fail (because they couldn’t make enough ground or they turn over the ball).

THE PLAY

Drives are made up of plays just as acts are made up of scenes. Each play is the very soul of conflict, the lines smash together, the linemen try to sack the quarterback, the quarterback sends the ball sailing toward a receiver - will it be caught and held, or fumbled, turned over for a reversal? Scenes are the basic elements of story. The binary code of success/failure that drives narrative.

THE STORY

Each game is bounded by the same rules, but no two games are alike and they can contain any number of plays that make up any number of drives. Yet, each game tells a story, one that we recognize as such on an elemental level. So, when you’re writing, while you know that every story will have a beginning, middle, and end, consider all of the myriad ways that you can travel that road.

 


* and believe me I’ve read more than a few.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The New Novel Plan or I’m Making This Up as I Go Along.

U of Louisville puts entropy to work...
How do you plan a novel? I wish I knew; yet I keep trying. A plan is a comfort even when I know that it is no more than a container. A vessel that I fill with both my dreams and my commitment to chase them, a fragile clay pot to stand against the universe’s inevitable urge to entropy and all the myriad ways that manifests in my everyday life. For more on that go read Pamela Zoline’s Heat Death of the Universe (PDF). 

I was all set to blast through this novel in about three months. The outlining is finished, and I’ve been drafting the new first chapters to work with the material I’d already written. Then, a couple weeks ago I got word that I’ve been invited to attend the Turkey City Writers’Workshop later this fall. I’m thrilled, and I really want to write a shiny new story for it, so that I can get the most out of the workshop.

Yet, I don’t want to completely abandon my novel, so I’m changing my plan. Instead of drafting it at white-hot speed, I’m going to work on it super slowly. I’m going to use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method and write at least 25 minutes – and no more than one hour – a day, every day. This will probably get me about 350-500 words a day. At this pace, I should have a finished draft in about six and a half months. Of course when I get to the other side of this workshop, I’ll decide if I want to change my plan again.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Words Fail Me: Writing the Impossible


Ernest Hemingway said good stories should be like icebergs.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit the things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
Earnest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

His theory of omission kicked off an era of minimalism that was a mixed blessing because achieving what he’s talking about takes a level of mastery that few writers attain – not that we shouldn’t try. His instinct to have the heart of the meaning express itself in the unwritten warp and weft of a story has without a doubt enriched modern literature.

Hemingway didn’t say that it was impossible to render the entire iceberg, only that it was better not to. Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s a writer’s job to take in the whole iceberg. I agree we must try to embrace the entire experience of what we are attempting to write about. In fantasy and science fiction this may mean hours spent building alien worlds, cultures, politics, or magic systems from the ground up before writing. Always, it means being alive to everything and everyone around us.

Despite our best efforts, we are all doomed to failure. We never grasp the entirety of any experience, the layers of nuance, the shades of meaning, the unknown histories. Worse, there is no way to hold onto the fragility of a fleeting moment without etherizing it like a butterfly and pinning it to a display case. A dead butterfly is still a butterfly, but it’s not the same thing that fluttered over the sun-splashed meadow.

Some things are omitted because there is just no way to articulate them. Karen Russell acknowledges this in this gorgeous quote from her wonderful novella * about a strange plague of insomnia so severe that sufferers eventually die:

"Then I wish for whatever is flowing between us to remain unnamed, formless, unmeted into story or ever "experienced" in the past tense, and so concluded; I don't want to say it, I don't even want to try to understand it, and so begin to mistake it for something else, and something else after that, paling shadows of this original feeling, something inaudibly delicate that would not survive the passage into speech."
From Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Writing is a way to plumb the depths of the unfathomable experience of our existence, and in the end, though we dive deep, it is impossible to know every contour of the submerged iceberg. And as Russell says, some things you can bring back from your journey of exploration and others you cannot.
* You can listen to Russell talk about Sleep Donation on Fresh Air, though I would recommend reading it first.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More for Your Ears


Lady Reading by Robert James Gordon
It’s always nice to sell a story, it’s a special treat to sell one to a podcast. For years now, I’ve enjoyed listening to the written word as much as reading it. I discovered audio books and podcasts when my kids were little, and my sitting-and-reading time almost entirely disappeared. Conversely, I spent lots of time on mundane tasks like laundry and driving to and from endless errands.*

I found audio books first, on disk, at the library. I dug up my dorky old CD player and it’s dorkier neoprene jog-belt carrier and started listening to books. There’s an art to sweeping the floor and listening to a book, a different kind of focus. But, if you’re busy with the banal jobs of keeping body and soul together, the house clean, and the kids diapered, it’s an art definitely worth mastering. 

I load books onto my iPod now (which is getting old and I suppose one day will be dorky too). I also stay current by listening to just a few of the hundreds (thousands? Millions?) of podcasts out there. I’ve listed some of my favorites previously, here are some new ones that I’ve added to my feed.

Cast of Wonders
And not just because they produced my story! There's a nice selection of excellent stories here as well as links to the Camp Myth novellas. Just because they call themselves a "young adult" podcast, doesn't mean us grownups can't listen to them too.

Toasted Cake
Another Parsec Award winning podcast run by author Tina Connolly. This one specializes in flash fiction - like a little dessert for your ears.


This excellent weekly speculative fiction magazine podcasts selected fiction and poetry read by the talented and satin-voiced Anaea Lay

Once a month the fiction editors at the New Yorker ask a writer to read one of their favorite stories that has been published in the magazines pages. This is followed by a brief discussion of the story. Good stuff for writers!


A free audio show covering the latest in science news. Once a month they read a flash fiction story from the print journal's Nature Futures feature.

One of my favorites. Produced by The Poetry Foundation, this podcast features one or two poems followed by a short discussion. Always lovely and useful.  

Go forth and listen!

 

* When I think back to my college days, I remember spending entire afternoons with friends at our local hole-in-the-wall bar where we would all complain that we didn’t have any time!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cast of Wonders Produces my Short Story – Flotsam – for your Ears!


Hey, Sunday!

Listen to my short story, Flotsam, for free over at the Cast of Wonders.

I’m so glad I discovered this nifty little outfit! Cast ofWonders is a Parsec Award* winning podcast out of Britain that specializes in Young adult fiction. As a reader and a parent, I love listening to novels, stories and podcasts. I also love reading out loud to my kids. I believe hearing stories, as well as reading them, is a great way to broaden your experience with all things literary. That’s why it’s so wonderful to find people who are passionate about bringing great stories to kids ears.

Be sure to check out their Camp Myth project while you’re there.  
“Cast of Wonders presents the first Camp Myth novella, Phoenix Watching, as a full cast audio drama serialized over 15 episodes. Each episode also features a camper spotlight, showcasing the rich and divers cast of characters.” 
Listen to it for free, get it on Kindle or spring for the actual, physical book. Camp Myth has its own very cool website and there’s even an RPG game – I think these guys get kids!



* The Parsec Awards are a “celebration of speculative fiction podcasting.” They’re like the Hugos of the podcast world. If you’re looking for great spec fic podcasts, these awards are great place to start!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Creative Development is a Progression: Finishing Things and Letting Them Go

Neil Gaiman's good advice
From Heinlein’s Rules of Writing to Gaiman’s advice (pictured above) to Chuck Wendig’s “finish your shit”; many writers agree, it’s not enough to simply write, you have to finish what you start. I also believe (like Heinlein) that after you finish a story, it is important to send it out into the world.

FINISHING THINGS
For me, writing is its own reward. This is what keeps me writing day in and day out, but once I commit to a character or set of characters and to their story, it’s important to see at least a draft of that story through to the end.

Simply writing all the way to the end – even if it’s the wrong ending and I end up replacing it – has taught me to emotionally commit to a story. Almost everything I write falls on tough times somewhere in the middle. Committing to finishing also forces me to come up with solutions that I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d given up.

After drafting it, resting it, revising it and giving it a final polish, I assess the story. I might see a soft spot in the logic, or a sentence that could maybe be tweaked one more time. But, if I feel that this is the best I can do with this story where I am today as a writer, then it’s time to let it go and move on to the next one.

LETTING THEM GO
You can only grow as a writer to a point if you never send your work out into the world. When I started writing, I would hold onto my stories working them over and over. I think I labored under the misconception that one day, in the future, my understanding of the craft would be complete. One day I would be a journeyman writer and the next day I would cross some invisible threshold to become a fully-fledged Writer. Of course in all truly creative pursuits, we are all always journeymen.

I know now that I have to put myself out there as I am with the full knowledge that tomorrow I might very well look back at today’s efforts and find them sophomoric. I’ve discovered that getting a story published is more than just a feather in my cap. It’s a kind of letting go that frees me to pursue the next level in my own development. 

PROGRESS
I am continually pursuing mastery, striving to become a better storyteller, and I can see now that any productive artist comes to understand their creative development as a progression.

Painters don’t slave over one canvas for years, sculptors don’t carve only one figure. Artists keep producing until they have enough photographs or drawings or sculptures to fill a coffee shop or gallery. Musicians don’t work on one song or album endlessly; they make song after song, album after album. They go on tour then it’s back to the studio to record the next set of songs. What filmmakers (that you’ve heard of) only made one “perfect” film?

People working in creative arts may focus intensely on a particular work for a discrete amount of time, but they know that they’re playing a long game. Look at any artist’s body of work, whether its pop songs, etchings, or television shows, and you can see them try out new ideas, you can trace their beliefs as they become solidified or change direction. You can watch them explore new techniques, master them, and find their idiom. Each piece or song or novel is a record of his or her creative progression as a human being.

I feel vulnerable putting work out there when I know that I’ll be a better writer tomorrow. I want the world to see a perfect artist, but I’ve found it’s better to let people see me as I am today. There’s no such thing as a perfect artist just as there is no perfect work of art. Each story, painting or album is simply another link in the chain of an artist’s creative life. It’s the autobiography we all write without knowing the ending.

I don’t know who I will become, but if I keep on writing, finishing things, and sending them out into the world, one day ten, twenty, or thirty years from now, future me will be able to look back and see the steps I took to arrive at that day.