Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene come and gone

Hurricane Irene was hyped as a dangerous storm here in New England.  But ultimately, its bark was worse than its bite.  There was a lot of rain and wind, and some fallen branches, but we never even lost power.

The only downed branch I've seen so far.

Not that there's been no damage.  500,000 people in Massachusetts are without power, and at least 15 people were killed in the US (though none reported in Massachusetts so far).  Kristin and I stayed inside all day, finding ways to keep ourselves occupied.  We didn't want to be outside in it, but overall, it looks like we've come through the storm all right.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Million Words

There's a saying that every writer needs to write a million bad words before he writes any good ones.  Like most aphorisms, there's some truth to it, and some exaggeration.

I started writing in middle school.  I wrote a lot all through high school, and submitted my stories to all the contests they have for middle school and high school writing, and placed in a number of them.  So I was actually a fairly good writer for my age group.  That did not mean that I was a good writer overall.  It was just that I and everyone else at that age was going through our one million words.  So my bad words were maybe a little less bad than a lot of the other bad words.

One I started college, I pretty much stopped writing, and didn't pick it up again until I was well into Grad school.  And lo and behold, I discovered that I was now a much better writer.  I've always sort of wondered how that happened.  It wasn't like I wrote my last bad word in high school, and when I started back up, I was starting to write good ones. For one thing, I had never written that much. But it does seem like it should have taken a lot more practice to turn the corner.  Something must have changed in my life so that I was better.

Well, something did change.  I was older.  More to the point, I was wiser.  I had read a lot more, experienced a lot more, thought a lot more, and even written a lot more, even if what I was writing was mostly technical.  This, in turn, made me a more competent writer by the time I set pen to paper, or more precisely, hand to keyboard, again.

This did not, however, make me a good writer.  I had become better, without practice, but that was not enough to make me good.  I still needed the practice.  I still had to write a lot, until my better prose became decent prose, and maybe even good prose (good enough to get published, at least).  That's where I am now.  I've sold five stories so far, and I'm hopeful that I'll sell more, so I'm at least that good, and I did it in well under a million words.  But I have a long way to go in becoming a better writer, in learning how to do better dialogue and stronger characterization, in making my descriptions richer and my settings more alive.  So in that sense, maybe I still have a ways to go in my million words.

So is there truth in the saying?  Yes, in that every writer must write in order to become good at writing.  That it doesn't come without effort.  But the exact number isn't set in stone, and neither is writing the only thing that makes you better at writing.  It's a necessary part of it, but it's not the whole of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

That movie stole my cliche!

Kristin and I saw Cowboys & Aliens last night.  I had something of a professional interest, as one of my stories had turned into a weird western while I wasn't looking.  Once I knew where it was going, I watched a lot of westerns as research, including a few weird westerns.  This let me incorporate a number of western tropes in the telling of the story, enough to give it the right flavor, while still having what I thought was a unique twist.  I'm proud of that story.  I sent it off to Fantasy & Science Fiction, the premiere speculative fiction magazine, just yesterday.

Watching the movie last night, I was struck by the horrible realization that I'm going to have to change my story.  When we went to see Cowboys & Aliens, I was interested in seeing which tropes they would use.  As it turns out, all of them.  Including one of the driving tropes of my story--the antihero getting into a fight with the spoiled son of the rich landowner, and this leading indirectly to his arrest by the sheriff.  I mean, it was uncanny how similar it was.  I can just picture the editor reading it and saying "Oh, he stole this from Cowboys & Aliens," and then tossing it aside with a chuckle.  And he'd say that even if it were a good movie.

Cowboys & Aliens somehow missed the first rule of western story telling--you need to be selective of your tropes.  If you just throw them all in, it becomes campy and corny.  Which is what the movie achieved, intentionally or not. Of course, I might have enjoyed it more if not for the folks sitting behind us snickering at most of it.  Granted, a lot of it was snicker worthy, but I think I could have had an easier time turning off the critical part of my mind if not for the constant reminders.

I'm hoping that the next time a movie borrows from the same cliche as one of my stories, the movie will at least be a good one.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Discipline of Writing

Mike Duran has argued that the craft of writing is at least as important as creativity to a writer.  If creativity is about inspiration, craft is about discipline.  It is about spending the time and the energy to learn how to write well, and to do the work of writing.

I've been trying to develop a more disciplined writing schedule.  I usually write as I feel inspired, writing as much as I feel comfortable writing, until I get the ideas that I already have in my head out.  Recently, I've started trying to write consistently, at least 800 words a day, five days a week.  I'm focusing this writing on producing a novel.  At this rate, I produce one chapter a week, and should finish in about twenty weeks.  I'm about a quarter of the way so far, so I think it's going well, at least as far as the word count is concerned.

One of the frustrations of maintaining this discipline, even though every writer I've ever heard give advice on writing insists that it's necessary, is that it feels as though the quality of my writing suffers when I focus so much on the word count.  I feel like the creativity portion of the craft and creativity suffers from me trying to force my brain to come up with something rather than letting the ideas bubble up on their own, and simmer for a while before putting them to paper.  Writing at this rate forces me to come up with new ideas on the fly, and to devote them to paper without the proper aging.

I wonder sometimes whether this is my imagination.  When I look back on some of my earlier writings, I don't always find that my ideas were as well thought out as I thought they were at the time.  And when I read over stories that I've written quickly before, they seem less disjointed and wandering than they felt when I was writing them.

Some people say that you can't force inspiration.  I really don't think that is right.  Prolific writers are capable of writing at high speeds because they learn to come up with enough ideas to maintain that speed.  But I'm beginning to think that I need to figure out how to force inspiration.