Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dialogue Experiment

Recently I started thinking about the difference between writing something to be performed and writing something to be read. Aside from a bit of stage directions a play is largely about dialogue and a movie is as much about scenery and action as it is about speaking.  Pondering this I wondered if I could separate the dialogue from the narrative and what sort of story would evolve.

In most of my stories the dialogue, exposition, and reflections appear, but the inner voice of the narrator predominates.  I seldom use the omniscient viewpoint. So, for my experiment I excluded soliloquies and concentrated on only conversations or asides, at least, as a first draft.

Before I began I thought about the general arc of the plot; where I wanted to end up and the steps necessary to get there. This part was not too different from my normal practice of blocking a first draft.  At this point I wasn't worried about the development of the tension or where the emotional highs and lows might be.  Just getting the scenes and players set was all I needed before I began.

After setting one scene in my head I began writing the conversations. This was harder than expected because I kept wanted to inject adverbs and said-isms to denote emotions or attitudes. This had the benefit of making me convey those in the words themselves rather than describe or interpret them for the reader. No surprisingly this resulting in rather tight dialogue, a rapid back-and-forth patter.  It also forced me to make the voices distinct enough to convey personality and social background.  The resulting draft was six scenes of about three thousand words of "pure" dialogue.

The second thing to do was write the surrounding narrative - describing the physical surroundings, appearances, and time sequence of each scene.  This was not hard and only added another thousand words since there were only three (3) locations where all the action took place.

That done, I had to write the internal voice of the POV character; his reactions to the conversations, internal debates, reflections on things preceding the story and those currently taking place. The hardest part of this was the epiphany and denouement where he finally grasps the consequences of what he had done and the path he must now take.  This added another three thousand words.

Finally, I had to do the nasty writer bits - tying the scenes together, inserting gracious transitions, and tweaking the dialogue a bit more to get it right.  Five or six hundred works added at most, and probably a thousand or more adjustments to the text that tightened the pace. I probably wrote and threw away two thousand words at least in the entire process.

The take away on this experiement is that it is possible to write a story this way, but it isn't as easy as my normal idiosyncratic method. The dialogue does seem more authentic, but that might only be a subjective judgement.  The same comment on the undercurrent of motivation and observation.  Neither did the plot emerge any more easily. All in all this did not turn out to be the shortcut I'd hoped for.

I'd hate to write a novel this way.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Greatest Writing Book - EVER!

I am frequently asked about books on the craft of writing. "Is there," they say, "a book that will take me through all the steps necessary to turn me into a successful writer, one that will speak to the voice, the grammar mistakes, the sense of rhythm, of plotting, and of word choice?"

Over the years I have read a great deal of books on writing, on plotting, of which I am abysmally poor, and of character development. I've read books by people I admire such as Kress, Wilhelm and Bova.  I've been continually inspired by Tobias. While these have been somewhat useful and informative they were still not the book I needed.  I've searched the shelves of bookstores and read reviews to find that one perfect book that will unlock the mysteries of how to spin gold from the dross of my limited creativity. I have read good books and bad, long ones and short, and those whose pretentiousness exceeded the bounds of good taste. None, it seemed, filled the void within me as I struggled mightily to craft something readable and, if I was extremely lucky, saleable.

So what would you say if I told you that there was such a book?  What would you say if I revealed where you might find it, peruse and use it to develop that wonderful inner voice that would vault you over the difficult and apparently insurmountable barriers so many beginning writers face?  Such a book does exist and is probably available within my arm's reach.

It is the book I am writing.

This is not a joke. The truth of the matter is that only by writing am I learning the craft necessary to improve. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and page after page I see all of my faults and am able to correct them and then do so again and again until I have it right.  Only by editing a line until it glows with a wondrous inner luster have I begun to understand the meaning of nuance, of direction, and of description. There have been (and will be) failures.  Too often I will have to trash months of work as not worthy and with each deletion I feel that I  have moved a micro step closer to what I wish to become.
Has there been rejection?  Hell yes! And in great profusion: an avalanche of words that scream I am not worthy.  However, buried in those words, among the hurtful boulders of editorial distain, I learn what I;ve done wrong, where were my missteps, and how to craft something better. Time and again I beat my head against the wall until finally I feel that I have created something to be proud of.

The bitter truth is that writing well requires endless hours of effort with little reward. There is nothing someone else has written that will tell me how to become a writer.The only book that will teach me how to write better is the one I am writing.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Short Shrift

The first question asked when someone discovers that you are a writer is "How many novels have you written?"  Inherent in that question is the disregard and dismissal that anything less than novel length, by virtue of being short, does not really matter.

I am not a jealous writer. No sir.  I put in my time willingly and gladly. I have spent twenty years or more crafting short stories and ( mostly unsold) novels, scratching out millions of words in order to sell less than half.  I have created a few hundred characters, alien and human, and tried to give them emotional depth, unique characteristics, and appropriate settings in compressed tales of some complexity. The completion of each story has been hard won and emotionally draining, an exercise not unlike sprinting against thousands of opponents, all straining to reach the finish line of editorial acceptance. Writing salable short stories has been challenging, difficult, and at times, frustrating.

But short story writers get nary a nod of fan recognition at conventions while some author who managed to write a book - a single God-damned book! - has people lined up for autographs.  You can see many of these wordy bastards being taken to dinner by editors and publishers, feted at parties, praised by fans, giving readings to packed rooms, and sitting at tables at which a long line of people forms, each clutching a copy of the book to be autographed.  Novelists are the brightly shining stars in any convention's firmament.

Don't get me wrong.  I have no objection to those readers whose tastes force them to wallow in the trough of excessive narrative compositions, who wish to explore the biographies of each of a dozen characters, or who adore the author's limning descriptions in page after page of painstaking detail.  I have no arguments with those who prefer the long slog of a journey through hundreds of pages rather than the excitement of a brisk meaningful stroll through a dozen. But I fear that in the pursuit of the sheer volume of verboseness such readers are missing the pleasures of nuance, of craft, and of compact exposition.

Neither do I object to those blathering writers who consume entire chapters in expressing the same thing a short fiction writer can accomplish with one well-written paragraph.  The only answer I can imagine is that those who exclusively prefer novels must be so addicted to immersing themselves in the long forms that they've failed to appreciate the economies of expression that drive the short story to its razor-sharp conclusion.

Perhaps those who demean short stories are challenged by the variety and surfeit of ideas put forth in shorter forms, where every story is not only different but often expressed in a new way.  The reality is that the genre's shorter works are the cutting edge of styles, ideas, and approaches. Short fiction is not insignificant.  It is the crucible where concepts are forged long before they are exploited in the longer and more complex forms of novels.

So why does it get such short shrift?  Why isn't short fiction appreciated more?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Growing a Novel

I'm a short story writer by habit, disposition, and tendency, but mostly because I'm just not a wordy bastard.  So how did I manage to do something of novel length?  Persistence might be one answer, but actually it was more about being dissatisfied with an open-ended work and writing more novellas until the bug stopped biting me.

Several years ago* I wrote MAGIC'S PRICE, a novella that became a Nebula finalist.  A year later, since the story ended with an escape, and after a few requests for a sequel, I wrote another novella that further developed the romance theme and informed the reader more detail about the world. This was a great deal of fun in that I had to invent names for alien critters and plants that sounded, you know, human.  Instead of inventing weird-assed alien garble, I used the idiosyncratic logic of common names that settlers might give to slightly unfamiliar things.

 The second novella ended with a less than satisfying resolution as they arrived at the sea, a huge body of water beyond the protagonist's wildest imagination.  But even then the story seemed unfinished, so my tidy mind required me to write another novella to finish the arc established in that first story.  By this time I'd been spending a couple of years on this in fits and starts while writing lots of other stuff.  When I finally put finis on the project, I had a hundred thousand words for a make-up novel and started shopping it around.

Sadly, Magician! never managed to find an interested agent or publisher so it sat on my computer for quite a while until I finally took the e-plunge and published the entire work as an eBook. The eBook has had less than stellar sales, but still, the work was out there for people to read and hopefully enjoy.  For me, that was enough.

I'd thought that was the end of it, but one of the story's characters intrigued me, as did the planet on which the story took place. Not one to throw away good material I struggled to create a little back story - i.e. a prequel titled Somewhere a Sea- that turned out to be, according to too many editors, a little too "western" for a science fiction story.  So it went into the trunk, along with dozens of other failed stories, where it languished for years.

Then, at Boskone, I was graciously invited by Steve Miller and Sharon Lee to be one of their guest writers and submitted Somewhere a Sea to their Splinter Universe.  This opportunity has been rewarding in that, from my point of view, people are finally able to see the story.

And I guess that satisfies me.

* All right, in the last century, damn it!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Man walks into a bar . ..

Everybody says that humor is one of the hardest things for a writer to do properly, but I believe that it is a skill that can be learned should one have the patience and inclination.*  I expounded on this in my Laugh Lines article The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction from Dragon Moon Press. and which relies on the title line of this blog.

Humor requires not only a structured delivery mechanism that works, but also careful attention to phrasing to maximize the impact of the punch line.  In Laugh Lines I tried to reduce writing effective humor to a set of simple rules one could follow in getting from the set up to delivery.  I illustrated each with sprinkles of my own wit** caged from my Sam Boone stories, all of which were written in fits of exuberance and then edited to death to get the funny parts just right. 

Writing an entirely humorous story is not the point of the rules. Instead the various rules can be cherry picked to serve whatever ends the writer pleases.  Some of these rules came from articles, a few from random conversations, some were learned through many, many failed attempts, but most are so obvious it is amazing that they are ever overlooked e.g. Never tell the punch line before you start seems so obvious, yet time after time I see this being played out in novels and short stories as well as at well-lubricated convention parties.  

I'd like to say that my own brand of humor stems from my usual sunny disposition and positive outlook on life, that it is an expression of happiness at life; an optimistic  celebration, as it were.  But that is not an attitude that should be at the fore when the first draft is finished.  Editing requires a far different and often brutally humorless outlook.  Nearly all of my best pieces were edited when I was depressed, angry, or generally deflated about my writing and at my most critical. That frame of mind made me concentrate on the mechanics of the "jokes" and sharpen the humor.  In the end, both creation and editing states of mind involved a lot of hard work. For me, writing publishable humor has never been easy. 

Oh, and the title is from that classic tale of monkeys, beer, and the narrow focus of piano players.

*A sunny disposition and bottle of Scotch might help as well, but that's off the point.
** Hey, this is my blog and I can brag if I want to!