Category Archives: Writing

Date A Girl Who Reads

I’ve been rather late on this, but a lovely little essay has been making rounds on the Internet, apparently in response to Charles Warnke’s You Should Date An Illiterate Girl. Rosemarie Urquico writes:

You should date a girl who reads.

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

You may find Rosemarie Urquico, a writer from the Philippines, over at Goodreads, and on Facebook. Here’s the full story of how she came to write this piece.

Friday, 9 April, 2010

Why Editors Are Important

Two days ago web fiction writer MCM posted a well-written argument against the book editor. He argued, approximately, that book editors have become obsolete in this day and age, for reasons somewhat related to the way writers are now chosen for publication by most major publishing houses. I’d like to present a counterpoint: I believe that editors will become increasingly important as publishing becomes digital, and that this change will happen over the next five years or so.

Writers in publishing houses have taken the editor for granted. Part of it may certainly be – as MCM suggests – due to the decreased investment editors have in writers, but I suspect a majority of traditionally published writers trust their publisher to bring quality to their work. More often than not such quality is attributed to book editors.

In the relationships between writers, editors and publishers, however, the balance of power seems to be shifting towards the writer.

Never before has the writer been presented with so many alternatives to the traditional publishing house. With the Internet, the iPad, and the increased competition from Apple v. Amazon, writers are now able to skip publishers entirely and deliver straight to the reader. It is likely that publishing in the future won’t be so much about publishing writers as it would be about empowering them.

With writers now able to write online – why, then, are editors still so important? The incorrect assumption to make here would be to say that the quality of writing in a post-publishing world would decline, and would happen due of a loss of editorship. But that assumption is merely that – baseless. There is nothing to suggest that editors would have to die along with publishers (if the publishers even die at all, which is unlikely) – rather, it is likely that writers will need editors all the more. To wit: here’s an example of an editor hiring a publisher. Absolutely impossible just a couple of years ago (not to mention crazy) but there it is, clear as day.

Craig Mod believes that editors will become increasingly important as writers become more empowered. I think this is true. But an interesting corollary to think about here is the changing nature of the editor. If the publishing equation has changed to favour the writer, then an editor’s loyalties will no longer lie with the publishing house they belong to, and instead change to favour the writer instead.

Why Writers Need Editors

Perhaps a more important question to answer is: do writers really need editors? Web fiction writer Lee L. Lowe turned to online publishing for the simple reason that she couldn’t stand being edited, and there’s something rather valid in that (another friend of mine told me recently that he was increasingly bitter at the way his publisher-appointed editor was treating his work … for ‘marketability’). If writers turn to the net because they can’t stand the nature of editing in a traditional publishing house, why would they want to hire an editor today?

The answer lies in the nature of writing. When you finish a book you’ve spent a year with, your first urge is to share it, almost immediately, with friends and family. This isn’t ideal, of course. Some of your friends know nothing about writing, and most won’t be able to give constructive feedback of any usable sort. (In fact many – my sister, for instance – will deliver judgment with a four word response: “Yes I liked it”.)

Writers tend to become wiser over time with whom to take their advice from. Most writers I know have a small group of friends and family they go to, after they’ve finished writing a piece. These people are the ones whose opinions they trust the most. Today – a portion of those people are likely to be Internet buddies, or writers clustered in small communities like this one.

When you hire an editor, what you’re essentially doing is that you’re paying for an extra pair of eyes. (A pair with good writerly instincts, of course.) And this is different from asking your writer friends for feedback. Hiring an editor is to force him or her to be on your team, to see you through the publication of your book. Stephen King once described writing as rowing a bathtub across the Atlantic, and what you’re doing, really, when you hire an editor is to invite someone else into your bathtub, some five hundred meters away from shore.

I’m not sure about you, but I think the monetary reimbursement is justified.

Editors of the Future

I suspect that the editors of the future will be exactly as MCM described, in the closing paragraphs of his post: smart, keen editors who still value quality and nurturing authors. The problem we might have, however, is for an easy way for writers to evaluate and choose good editors. There may be a technological solution to this (job boards for editors, anyone?) but by and large, I think this kink would work itself out, over time.

The more writers sufficiently capable of publishing on their own, the more demand for professional editing there would be. And you know what they say about necessity and the mother of all invention …

I look forward to the editors of the future. I hope you do, too.

Thursday, 18 March, 2010

Reinventing the Novel

This guest post is written by Pamela Redmond Satran, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Here she talks about her jump to writing digital fiction, and how she’s found it so far.

Ho SpringTwo things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancine who built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.

Saturday, 10 October, 2009

Writing As Performance Art

They say that ideas come into their own, given time. Here’s an idea that seems to be gaining traction: writing quickly, writing live, writing in front of an online, watching audience.

I’m not just talking about MCM’s 3-Days-1-Novel experiment, which concluded recently (see: Novelr’s The Dispatch), I’m talking also about a few other sites/writing-experiments that’s been done over the past couple of weeks, all of which are structured around a few cool ideas.

A couple of weeks back Paul Graham – the founder of Y-Combinator – did one of his essays on a public EtherPad document. He made it available online, for anyone who was interested to watch him as he worked. (As I’m doing with this post – well, at least just the first bit of it)

Granted, EtherPad, like Google Wave’s writing-as-you-go feature, is a pretty new technology built specifically for web-based collaborative writing. It’s designed around the idea that it is far easier to work on the same document when you can see – live – what your other team-mates are doing to it at the same time. But a secondary feature of EtherPad is also this: you can now record and broadcast the document – any document – as you write it, making writing not so much passive as we’re used to seeing it offline, but as live and as active as all the other forms of web expression available to us: as active as video, say, or webcasts, or music.

Another, less technologically-advanced take on this live-writing gig is that of MCM’s one-chapter-an-hour-for-51-hours writing stunt. To be fair, this kind of marathon-writing extravaganza isn’t new, given that there is a 3-day-1-novel yearly competition held every Labour weekend since 1977 (for the record: I suspect the competition’s for writers who’ve gotten bored with NaNoWriMo – meaning, well – not many of them). And some months back, Penguin’s We Tell Stories did a live writing experiment – this one in Week 4 of their WTS project. The work, entitled Your Place and Mine, was written every day at 6:30 pm for exactly a week, and structured in such a way as for both authors to post responding installments, each of them writing from a different first-person POV. (It’s a love story: one author presumably writes from the male lead’s POV, and vice versa).

Robin Sloan covered this four days ago, over at Snarkmarket, and while he isn’t seriously thinking about putting the concept into practice, he does have a few ideas about the use of such live technology:

Think instead of a short story writ­ten with play­back in mind. Writ­ten for play­back. Typ­ing speed and rhythm are part of the expe­ri­ence. Dra­matic dele­tions are part of the story. The text at 2:20 tells you some­thing about the text at 11:13, and vice versa. What appear at first to be tiny, ten­ta­tive revi­sions turn out to be precisely-engineered sig­nals. At 5:15 and para­graph five, the author switches a character’s gen­der, trig­ger­ing a chain reac­tion of edits in the pre­ced­ing grafs, some of which have inter­est­ing (and pre-planned?) side effects.

I’m struck by another similarity: this sounds an awful lot like a reading, doesn’t it? Difference being that you aren’t actually reading a completed work, in front of a gaggle of listeners, you’re writing and they’re all crowded around you, staring over you shoulder as you work your magic. (Yes, a reading would have more similarities to a webcast). But here’s another element of the writer-reader experience, unthought-of before the Internet, possible today, and a pretty cool idea at that.

Thursday, 21 May, 2009

Too Many Commas

We interrupt your regular dish of Internet fiction commentary with a brief interlude …

I admit that I’m not happy with the latest writing on Novelr. I feel that it’s starting to become too stuffy; too pedantic. Of the past 7 posts, 3 contain arguments that lack clarity and structure, 1 is a note on a month-long absence, and all involve writing processes that felt much like shitting through a bloody anus.  Moments like these call for a close look at my sentence-level construction … and I realized that I was using far too many long sentences. Dammit! I say. Bad habit of mine … and in front of a live audience, to boot!

On Novelr, I realize that I’ve got periods where I write stuff that I’m happy with – even two years down the road – and I’ve got periods where I just can’t seem to express ideas in a clear, chatty manner. I notice, too, that these writus horribilis periods seem to coincide with the waning of the moon, and are always preceded by a chorus of howling wolves. (I, err, was joking). But allow me to put up a short style guide for future reference, one you can bludgeon me over the head with if I stray too far from the beaten path. Also, feel free to learn from my predicament.

The Novelr Style Guide

The following are several tenets that I shall attempt to maintain over the next couple of months:

  • This writer shall put a lid on multi-clausal, long-winded, over-comma-ed, unstructured, rantish sentences that, added together, create multi-clausal, long-winded, over-comma-ed, unstructured, rantish paragraphs. (Sorry – couldn’t help it … I swear that’s the last!)
  • This writer shall use short paragraphs as much as is feasibly possible.
  • This writer shall stop pretending he is writing for the New York Times. He shall be personal. And chatty. Oh yes, who doesn’t love a chatty writer?
  • This writer shall stop playing casual games whenever he thinks he’s got a massive case of writer’s block.
  • This writer shall ask good questions, and (hopefully) find unexpected answers to those questions.
  • This writer shall attempt to be funny. If he isn’t funny, then he shall at least die trying.

I’m not sure how successful this style guide would be, considering that I’m supposed to have developed a proper style by now. (I have, after all, been writing here for about 3 years already.) But then again I seem to lose my way after every major examination in my academic year. No harm going back to the drawing board, and hashing out that idiot of a writer’s block. I’ll let you know how it goes.

[Update]: Thought I’d add several other things that I’ve been doing here at Novelr. All of the above are writing-related issues, things that I’ve been grappling with ever since I took that study break late last year (yeah, I lost my sense of direction during that period, which should change … in a bit). But the ones below are stylistic decisions I made, on the fly, while producing this blog. See if you’ve noticed any of them:

  • Novelr is referred to as a separate entity. Never my community; always Novelr’s community. Never my writing; always Novelr’s wiritng. This is to remind myself that Novelr is supposed to be community-centric: the ideas and the discussions are Novelr’s, and hence belong to the community clustered around it.
  • There are three kinds of articles in Novelr: Commentary, Ideas, and Bookmarked! posts. Commentary is a post providing in-depth analysis of a 3rd party link; Idea posts are original content written specifically for Novelr’s audience; Bookmarked! posts are collected links that I think you’d find interesting. This is an internal categorization, mind; not something you’d find anywhere in the blog’s archives.
  • All posts must be edited at least twice before publication. Sometimes more after. If a large amount of restructuring is needed, the post will be updated with an (edited) tag attached to the title.
  • I try to respond to all comments all the time. Lately, however, this has been erratic. Sometimes you guys are better at hashing out an issue than I am, and I gladly take a backseat in such situations. 
Monday, 12 January, 2009

Exploring Personality Bias

Early last year, 2005 Man-Booker prize winner John Banville did a fiction serial called The Lemur over at the New York Times website. When I covered the attempt here at Novelr I immediately received a comment by reader Bill Hilton, who groaned about the choice of author. Why him?! Hilton asked. It turned out that Banville had made a couple of obnoxious comments upon winning the Booker prize some time back: he implied that a lot of middle-brow novels were winning awards lately, and it was good to see a book of real merit – his – fiinally win. Hilton then went on to say:

I wouldn’t mind, but (the Booker-prize winning) The Sea is the most pretentious load of old tosh that I’ve read in years.

I didn’t bother to follow The Lemur after that.

I think most of us now recognize the Internet’s potential for social communication and information dispersal. The tidbit about Banville wouldn’t have reached me if I hadn’t been writing a lit blog, and it also wouldn’t have reached me if Bill Hilton hadn’t passed by and commented on the piece. But consider the other things that made the exchange of bias possible: Mr Hilton had probably picked up the news from a newspaper or such during the 2005 Booker Prize news coverage – something that I couldn’t possibly have done given the limited nature of book news in Malaysia – and he’d probably remembered that tidbit when he read Banville’s The Sea. Also, NYT online had published the Lemur on the Internet, had released the item in their news feed (which I had subscribed to), and had taken the time to mark it as web fiction. There was a whole lot of variables that made this exchange of views possible, and the most astounding thing was probably the fact that I lived in Malaysia, an inherently non-reading nation. I wouldn’t have contracted a bias against John Banville had it not been for the opinion of a British reader who had more information about Banville than I did, and who lived in a nation where getting this information and finding his book was easier. Once upon a time a friend’s recommendation may have been limited by social and geographical boundaries. That time no longer exists.

The above example, however, is just one of many illustrating the social side of the Internet, and I’m sure you can all come up with more. Let me throw you another. It is now possible for you to read a poem in a book, enjoy said poem, and then go online, head to the publisher’s website, and email the poet your thanks. I remember a writer (can’t remember his name, for the life of me) who did just that, and who later commented on how the Internet’s connectivity added another dimension to his reading experience. I’m sure this was possible before, with post, but the Internet has now made it global, and painless, and very, very cheap.

The point I’m getting at here is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to enjoy books without some knowledge of the writer that wrote it. And, in web fiction, it is becoming near impossible to enjoy a work without interacting, and perhaps judging, the online writer behind it.

Tuesday, 26 August, 2008

Open Mike: Do You Support The ‘F Word’?

The Open MikeI’ll be taking a study break from Novelr until late December, which means my posts here will be fewer and further between. Yes, I know this sounds quite awful, but I’m currently studying about 4 hours a day and it’ll only get worse as my Finals approach. Guest posts and community alerts are welcomed – I can come online, but only in very short bursts – so please shoot me an email if you’d like to write something for the blooking community.

I’d like to do an open mike before I vanish. An open mike is a post where you take the center stage, be it in the commenting section below, or back in your own blog, about a topic I’ll be discussing today. Brains turned on, then? Alright.

Here’s what I’d like to know: would you rather censor foul language for the sake of your audience, or would you keep it in your story, because that is telling the truth? Where do you stand when it comes to vulgarity in fiction?

This is an argument I’m pretty unsure about, because there are very valid opinions on both sides. On one hand we have Stephen King, who defends his use of the f-word because he is writing about common, working-class people, and they say fuck more than they do foie gras. On the other hand (the cleaner one, you’d suppose) you have the argument that it is just impolite to litter your prose with, well, impolite language. The most creative treatment of vulgar language I have seen is by children’s writer Diana Wynn Jones. Yes, you got me right – a children’s author. In her book Wilkin’s Tooth the neighbourhood bully is a particularly rude child, and he frequently uses (in her words) ‘colourful language’. Jones treats this quite literally – her dialogue from the bullies is filled with “orange” and “black” and “you purple red green boy you!!” Witty stuff.

Where do you stand on this issue?

Saturday, 16 August, 2008

Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

Kurt Vonnegut This article orginally appeared in Palm Sunday (New York, Dial Press 1999) from pages 65 to 72, 9 years before Vonnegut’s death. I thought I’d share it here.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful– ? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

1. Find a subject you care about

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2. Do not ramble, though

I won’t ramble on about that.

3. Keep it simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Thursday, 24 April, 2008

Good Writers, Bad Storytellers

315994_half_1.jpgI was reminded today that good writing isn’t everything. It was four in the afternoon and I was stuck at a turning point in one of my manuscripts, and it hit me that everything I’d done to improve my writing did not matter then and there. I could have just as easily messed up the entire project by tackling the scene the wrong way, even if I did write it beautifully. This wasn’t a matter of description or style or clarity of thought – it was something more. It was story.

Story is that extra something we writers don’t really understand. Take a stroll through any bookstore today and you’ll find writing titles jumping out at you: The Elements of Style, for instance. Or On Writing, that highly popular craft manual by Mr King. But pause for awhile and note that Mr King didn’t write a book called On Storytelling. Nobody has, in fact – I’m still looking for solid works on storytelling alone.

What I’ve realized is that writing is actually the easy part of the craft. The other part – the harder one – is the ability to create a mind-blowing good tale. And that isn’t something that can be captured in a book – I’ve yet to see manuals entitled How To Write Like Steinbeck, or Where To Find Story Ideas. Things like that fall from the sky, or they don’t fall at all.

I read an article last year by a writer turned editor complaining about how hard it was to filter short stories for a collection. She quickly identified two kinds of submissions – the first was by a good storyteller with bad writing (which she could work on), and the other was by the writer who could write beautifully but had nothing to say. The first needed a lot of polishing; the second, however, was impossible to work with. These 2nd category stories were beautiful on the outside, but in the end the aforementioned editor found them to be empty. Rotten apples. Hollow cores.

So I took a break from my manuscript today. I didn’t know how to go on from that turning point – the possibilities were just endless. But that’s not the point here. The point here is that I’m thankful for the storytelling department. For my storytelling department. There are people out there who can’t pull a good yarn even if it was staring them in the face, good writing or not. And I know my writing’s not perfect, but I’m working on it.

I’m just thankful I’ve got something to say.

Tuesday, 25 March, 2008

Internet Criticism: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

A Graffiti ProtesterAnybody creating on the Internet will have to face their audience sooner or later. This is particularly true if you’re using a blog – and yes, most of us do, whether we’re artists, writers, or musicians.

Now the problem with all this is that writing and feedback simply don’t mix. Writing is best done alone, with a cup of coffee at your favourite desk, and a cat curled up at your feet. I look for feedback only after I’m done with a story – and even then I have to be careful who I ask. I have five friends whom I ask for feedback. Each of them gives me a specific type of criticism – some I go to for their clarity, and others I go to just to gauge their reactions (these people are my Average Joe testbeds). I’m sure all of you have your own teams of feedbackers – these people may consist of your professors, your spouse, or your bestest friends. And these people are people you trust.

Now imagine an online situation, where you blook your story and this unknown dude comes up and says: “hey I like your story but can you please do this: *insert*” Or he comes up and he tells you how to improve your writing. The second is okay – hey, we’re all learning, aren’t we? – but the first is downright horrible. And the worst kind is the one that comes up and tells you: “I absolutely love your story. The way you handled this blah scene was amazing, and the way you construct your blah blew me away!”

The effect of all of this is to paint the writer into a corner. All writers have egos, and all bloggers have bigger egos than writers. We only take criticism from the people we know and we trust, and this applies to life as it does to writing. The first kind of comment distracts you from your story, the second kind annoys your ego (if that’s inflated this is a bad thing for said reader) and the third risks you doing something other than storytelling (like – I don’t know – showing off?).

On top of all of this is the simple fact that Internet criticism is propelled by the lowest common denominator. Youtube comments, for instance, are at monkey level. And blogs attract like comments: thinking blogs attract thinking discussion, self-help blogs have this ethos of helpfulness about its commenting section, and blogs that diss celebrities have equally mean feedback.

So what does this mean for us? How can we write and not be detracted by all the chatter coming back?

My solution is, unfortunately, multi-pronged. I would suggest finishing the whole damned story offline, edit it, bounce it off your circle of feedbackers and then blook it, and I would think this the best way to do blog fiction (feedback can come at the end of the story, at a comments page). But not everyone follows this model. Some of us come to blooking because we want to create never-ending novels, and another attraction to the medium of blog fiction is the flighty feeling of cooking up a story under heat of reader anticipation.

Wednesday, 12 December, 2007

Will You Read My Blook After I’m Dead?

DeathBob is a blook writer. He hosts his blook on WordPress, buys his own hosting plan, and has completed a masterpiece: a beautifully written work entitled Bob’s Blook.

One day he steps out of his house to pick up a pound of beef. It is a wonderful day for a walk down the road: the sky is an azure blue, his garden is in full bloom; the smell like wine in the air. He hums as he steps out of his front yard – there are library books under his arm he wants to return – and as he turns to head down to the shops he is hit by a speeding car.

Let’s take our mind off Bob for a moment (he won’t survive, if you’re wondering) and give some thought to his blook. What will happen to it? Bob has not left the password to the WordPress blog to any of his acquaintances, nor has he left instructions for the maintenance of his domain name or his hosting plan. Both will expire, and when they do, Bob’s blook will be no more. Since all copies of it exist solely in the digital domain it is highly likely no trace of Bob’s Blook will remain after a 5 year period. There is no chance of a grandson finding a dusty manuscript in a drawer, and there is certainly no chance of publication after death – a Children Of Hurin will certainly not happen here.

Poor Bob.

The above story brings us to the topic at hand today: we’re not going to live forever. When we’re gone, what’s going to happen to our online scribblings?

It’s a handy thing to note that the printed page will still be accessible 100 years from now. The digital page, however, may not. Times change, so do file formats. Who isn’t to say that HTML would be phased out a century from now, and that PDFs are to be laughed at?

Dave Winer gets down to the heart of the matter in his article Future-Safe Archives, which was sparked off by the death of blogger Marc Orchant.

People are humble, no one wants to come out and say their work has any value that’s worth preserving past their death, but come on, we know that’s not true. If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing on the web. As would Hemingway or Faulkner, Vonnegut or Mailer, John Lennon or Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandberg or Robert Frost. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. You think there isn’t any great literature out there on the web? I wouldn’t be so sure about that. What if there is? And what if a baby born today becomes a great creative force? Or what if there’s a social disaster like the Holocaust? Did you know that there are preserved diaries from pre-revolutionary America? Writings of ordinary people can be of enormous help to historians. And if we believe in citizen journalism (I do) why not citizen historians? Shouldn’t we be thinking out into the future? We should!

Winer humbly admits his entire web presence will disappear within mere days of his death. He runs his own server; tweaks and maintains it on a weekly basis. And in days his site will be gone, and the thoughts that defined him will be lost forever.

I agree with Winer’s view that creating future-safe archives will require ‘foresight and planning’. I intend to leave some form of continuation for all my web projects should I – knock wood – get hit by a bus. But, should it prove to be too complicated to protect my digital content, I have this to say:

There will always be paper.

Saturday, 1 December, 2007

A Pep Talk For Me And You

The Blank Page Is Scary.There’s a storm happening at a far, secluded corner of the Internet. It happens behind closed doors, in basements, behind windows. Very often it happens at a desk. Other times it is the lonely hotel lobby, loud and distracting. The National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is going on, and participants everywhere are suffering from the effects of marathon writing.

I’ve been following Write Now Is Good for quite some time now, and after my recent Internet inactivity I logged in to Netvibes to find a whole list of posts Kristin’s done on her writing efforts for the month of November. She’s linked to a series of Pep Talks from NaNoWriMo, written by authors all over the world, and man oh man is it good stuff. I’ve been forcing myself to write, these past few weeks, staying as far as I can from technology as possible (and failing miserably, as it goes), but either way it’s still been an uphill battle to finish my aim of 10 pages a day. Neil Gaiman’s, in particular, made me smile:

… I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm—or even arguing with me—she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, “Oh, you’re at that part of the book, are you?”

To all writers out there, regardless of whether you’re in NaNoWriMo or not: keep going, you’re nearly there.