Category Archives: On Writing

I Handwrite My Fiction, But I’m Not Stuck in the Dark Ages – I’ll Prove It

writingRemember back in November I said I managed to spew out 50,000 words in a month in order to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? Well, I may not have mentioned those were handwritten words, so really my total of 50,000 was a guesstimate. I have recently been occupied in typing these words up. And the result… well, do you think I over- or under-estimated?

Over. Definitely over. I’ve hit 46,000 words and I still have a third of the manuscript to go. Which leads to the question – why on earth would I use such an inefficient method of writing? I mean, handwriting? Hasn’t that gone out with the dark ages? They don’t even teach that to some school kids anymore!

Well, let’s bring in the authority of the New York Times on this issue, through their article “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” I’ve written before about how I feel less creative typing, and how handwriting helps me to actually connect to my subject. Turns out there’s actually some scientific indications that this is not just a weird anomaly that occurs only in me.

According to the study quoted in the article, children who wrote text by hand not only produced more words (hello to me overachieving on my NaNoWriMo word count!), but also expressed more ideas (hello to the fact I feel more creative handwriting!). The article ends by quoting psychologist Paul Bloom as saying, “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important. Maybe it helps you think better.”

As I said in my previous post, “My theory is that typing and handwriting use different parts of the brain, and in me only one of them is linked to creativity.” Wouldn’t it be neat if I wasn’t completely off-base? But then – what does this mean for technology? Are our computers soul-sucking beasts that are slowly draining away all of our society’s creativity?

I think not – to some extent the dulling effects of technology can be overcome. I can write far better by typing than I used to, though my fiction still comes out sounding wooden. More practiced authors, especially those raised on computers, will strengthen the brain’s creativity-into-typed-words pathway even more than I have. But hey, maybe someday someone will do a survey of all this century’s ‘greatest’ literature and find none of them have been typed – who knows? Get a scientist to research that.

So if you ever find yourself faced with a blinking screen and a bad case of writer’s block, why not try writing something the old-fashioned way? You might surprise yourself.

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Why ‘Write What You Love’ Means All Fiction is Fanfiction

Fanfiction gets a bad rap. Some of it is deserved, of course, but what else do you expect from amateur writers scribbling basically for their own amusement?

Of course you’re going to get purple prose, authors inserting themselves into stories as Mary Sues, and unrealistic and uncomfortable situations. But maybe the difference between ‘original fiction’ and ‘fanfiction’ is not that one is sadly ripping off other people’s characters, while the other is actually coming up with new stuff.

Maybe the difference is – ‘original fiction’ is just much, much better at hiding what it’s inspired by.

I started thinking about this issue lately because I’m currently working on two very non-serious bits of writing: one about the characters from The Iliad making havoc in the modern world, and the other re-imagining what Mansfield Park would look like if it was set today. (I have many more ‘serious’ projects that I’m procrastinating on, of course – don’t we all?)

Anyway, I started wondering – am I writing fanfiction? Or are they different enough from the original to be ‘original fiction’? After all, several authors have published books reimagining both The Iliad and Mansfield Park. Both The Iliad and Mansfield Park are in the public domain, of course, so that makes it easier for authors. No one’s going to sue them if their work is ‘not original’ enough. But don’t tell me that’s seriously the only difference between fanfiction and original fiction – that fanfiction is fiction about characters that are not in the public domain.

The next thought is obviously – everything is ‘inspired by’ something else. Authors love to talk about their influences on their writing. If you, as an author, want to see more of one type of story, you start writing them yourself. If you do this, you are a fan of something, and you are writing about it because you are a fan. Stretched to its broadest definition, this is what fanfiction is.

So at what point are these inspirations and influences far enough in the background that the world can acknowledge these authors as ‘real writers’? You can even tell, in some works, when an author models their character on another well-known character. And published authors are definitely guilty of inserting themselves into their own stories – both Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer have been accused of inserting themselves as Mary Sues into their plots. And in terms of plot – Shakespeare basically just re-wrote famous stories in his plays, and he is considered a master of literature. And many authors have made a career re-writing fairytales. Is this ‘original fiction or ‘fanfiction’?

Basically, I think my conclusion is, that like with anything else, the line between the two are not black and white. Fanfiction tends to be found on internet websites, tends to be of amateur quality, and deals with copyrighted characters. But that’s not always true – many fanfictions contain very high quality writing, and there are definitely writers who work with public domain characters. Also, ‘original fiction’ tends to be published by publishing houses, and contain original characters. But sometimes these original characters are clearly influenced by other characters. And sometimes published books could easily be described as fanfiction if they’d happened to be published online on a website instead.

Which brings us to that age-old question – what is originality? Does it even exist, or is everything just a recombination of old things that always existed?

In other words, it is possible that there really is “nothing new under the sun.” And if everything is just a recombination, maybe some writing is just a better and more interesting recombination than others. Which could lead to my radical title up there at the top – we could legitimately call all fiction writing fanfiction.

Provocative thought, no? Agree or disagree?

Note: check out my previous posts on The Iliad and Mansfield Park, if you’d like to know why I’d be enough of a fan of these works to write about them 🙂

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Rant on “Ruining the English Language”

All those crazy kids on the internet, jibbering in text speak and handing in essays with hashtags in them, are a menace to the venerable old mother tongue, the tongue we all speak and most of the world speaks… a language known as English. A respected language that is beginning its slow slide into decline, because of the ignorance of grammar, complete unawareness of sentence structure, and the mangling of words. When “lol” is used commonly by the masses, is it not a sign of society’s decay?

Wait, wait, wait, back up a moment. Is anyone seriously nodding along here?

This is the worst kind of paranoia, technophobia – nostalgia for a past world where grammar teachers stared down through their spectacles at you and made you write “do not end a sentence with a preposition” fifty time on the blackboard.

How on earth is the internet ruining English? Just because English might possibly turn out to be different? Just because it might follow a different set of rules than the archaic ones you grew up with, the language is ruined? What, you really think the language they used fifty years ago was orderly and rational, and, thus, worth keeping?

Look, the internet understands each other. We might type LOL, and TTYL (which are ancient abbreviations in internet time by now, by the way), and make jokes referring to memes (“In a CAVE. With a box of SCRAPS!”), but do you think in the least that we don’t understand each other? Or, that, because you have lost all ability to understand us, the words we use should be regarded with scorn and disgust? If we want to use new words – make up new words, throw useless grammar rules out the window, try out new grammar rules and see if we can’t have fun bending the rules inside-out – why should we be barred from doing with English what English has always done – evolve?

Why should our tech-obsessed crowd be barred from something tech does so incredibly well – create?

Oh, but we won’t be able to get jobs. We won’t know the proper place to use text speak, and we might use it in places where the established rules for centuries has dictated that we write in complete sentences, with subjects and predicates. We might look stupid, because we veered too far away from being formal.

Fine, you can clearly see I’m willing to bend. I can spout out as many paragraphs of the most sleep-inducing, formal, mostly-grammatical-correct writing as you could require. I’ve always BELIEVED in writing so others can understand, and if the other does not want to be presented with the language of the internet at a certain point in time, I will refrain from using it. I adapt. I change my tone of voice depending on the context and circumstances.

But if other people don’t, will the pillars of our society come crumbling down?

If you hired someone who described themselves as “social media savvy,” would it inevitably mean that person will be unable to cope with the job?

Because people use emoticons, or decide not to capitalize words, does that in fact mean they are functionally illiterate? Even when others understand them?

Let’s stop wailing about the decline of English. Let’s stop pretending young people don’t know how to communicate, just because they communicate in a different way. Let’s not always act as if the sky is falling down.

English will change. It might look a little more chaotic, or maybe it will just find a new set of rules. Either way, it’ll survive. It lasted for hundreds of years without any standardized spellings of any words. And life went on.

Relax. We’ll survive.

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Ebooks Have Not Killed the Printed Book (Yet)

Two years ago, I asked the question, will ebooks replace the printed book? Will we turn into a world of readers who stare at the glowing screen, instead of burrowing our noses in the musty pages of a hardcover? And I predicted that the good old printed book will never go extinct. Not completely. If vinyl records are still being used by music lovers, why wouldn’t printed books stick around for all of us book lovers? And it looks like, so far, the evidence bears me out.

I obviously have a vested interest in whether ebooks are read by anyone – I’ve published several short stories in this format. But, as a reader, I will never lose my fondness for actual pages. And recently Time magazine reported that printed books are not dying, despite all dire predictions. And, as a bonus to me, ebook sales are still increasing alongside. So the conclusion basically is–ebooks are a great, portable complement to printed books. People don’t feel like they have to choose only one or the other. And really, that’s great. There’s no reason this has to be an either-or situation. It just makes a good story to declare this an all-out war.

Of course, this study is just a snapshot of how things are right now. Everything and anything could change in the future. People might start exclusively buying ebooks. Or ebooks might just turn out to be a fad after all. But at the moment, it looks like both the printed book and the ebooks have staying power.

What about you–do you find you read both ebooks and printed books, or only one or the other?

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Writing Is Difficult!!!

quotables button“A writer—someone once said—is a person for whom writing is difficult.”

peptalk from Lev Grossman, during Nanowrimo

A writer with real genius makes writing a book look easy. When you read the book, you don’t feel all the blood and sweat and tears the author poured into the manuscript – you just follow a good story. Which leads to a persistent belief of writers that writing itself should be easy too. That, when the words just aren’t flowing, something must be wrong with you, as a writer.

I always get discouraged when writing gets difficult. Sometimes ideas just flow, and you know what you want a story to be – but when you sit down and write it, you just can’t squeeze out the words. Every sentence is agony, and you just think, at this rate, this novel will take ten years to finish. And then you give up.

But writing is difficult, and that’s okay – you are a writer as long as you keep stringing one word after the other. Not because you find it easy to do so. But because you keep trying to do it. (And it’s always comforting to know “real” writers don’t define themselves by how easily the words flow for them either.)

So I’ve got to break out of my procrastination funk I’ve fallen into since finishing my NaNoWriMo novel! I’ve barely written anything (because Christmas is so busy, I told myself), and haven’t edited anything at all. So hopefully I can do better!

My writing goals for this year:

  • type and edit my Nanowrimo novel, and decide whether it’s worth showing the world or not
  • write something new
  • edit and publish some old stuff that I feel pretty sure is worth publishing, but which I haven’t gotten around to yet

How about you – any writing or reading goals for the new year?

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When Fantasy is Self-Indulgent

Note: This should’ve gone up Friday. In fact, it would’ve gone up Friday – was all ready to go up Friday – when my computer experienced internet connectivity issues. So, you get to enjoy it today instead!

A major part of writing fantasy is world-building – everyone agrees about that. What’s the point of setting your plot on another world, if everything that happens could’ve occurred in the very city you live in without anyone blinking an eyelash? Characters have to act in a realistic other world, a world that is somehow different than the world we live in.* This is the fun part of fantasy, but also one of its pitfalls.

And not just the realistic part. It’s tough to think up another world all on your own, and not even Tolkien’s world is without its flaws (Tolkien, by the way, admitted once or twice that the geography of Middle Earth was sadly unrealistic). Another pitfall is, after putting all your effort into dreaming up a wonderful alternate reality, you want people to know how much thought you put into it.

Shown their work” is one name for this, and don’t get me wrong, this can be done well. But everyone’s heard of historical novels where characters spend pages explaining the political situation of their time to each other, just so the reader knows how much effort the author put into this. And, you know, the exact same thing can be done in fantasy novels, and is definitely one of the reasons non-fantasy readers find them boring. Because there is usually a LOT of back story about the setting, characters and society that somehow has to get across.

I’ve certainly got the feeling before, while reading fantasy novels recommended to me as “good,” that these particular characters are chasing this particular MacGuffin into this particular country, just so the author can show off the fact he/she actually INVENTED another country/society/setting in their fantasy world. That their world has breadth and depth, just like the real world. But in reality, those scenes could be cut from the book and the only result would be that the plot would move along a little faster.

Or, the feeling that a particular fantasy series is going on forever because the author wants to explore the outer edges of his world, while the reader would be perfectly satisfied for the plot to just get on, already!

In these cases, the reader feels like the world was created far more for the author’s own pleasure than for the readers’. That we are just being dragged into a very long trip into someone else’s imagination – someone who is very proud of their imagination, and thinks the sheer scope and force of their imagination will convince everyone else it’s good too. When, in reality, the story is lost behind dense layers of self-indulgence.

I’m speaking here as a reader and not a writer, obviously. I know it’s a tricky balance, getting out everything you need to say in a story without destroying the illusion by saying too much.

Anyway, I’d just like to point out at the end, instead of listing off every terrible fantasy book out there (which would really just be tearing other authors down, rather than saying anything useful), one author who does not fall into this pitfall. You can pick up any of her books and feel the full force of disorientation of falling into a fully realized world in the first chapter. Very little is carefully explained, but none of it feels like it was hurriedly thought up at the last minute. She’s done her world-building, but she doesn’t tediously show it off.

I’m talking about Diana Wynne Jones here, of course.

According to her, the reason she doesn’t feel this urge to precisely describe every aspect of her world-building is because she spent so much of her career writing for children. In her own words, here’s a brilliant quote that explains why this is:

 “When I was asked if I’d like to try my hand at an adult novel, I most joyfully agreed… I found myself thinking as I wrote, “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” Now this is something I never have to think when I write for younger readers. Children are used to making an effort to understand… I can rely on this. I can make my plots for them as complex as I please, and yet I know I never have to explain them more than once (or twice at the very most). And here I was, writing for people of fifteen and over, assuming that the people who read, say, Fire and Hemlock last year have now given up using their brains.”

 This is, perhaps, why I have such trouble finding new fantasy books to read, despite my love of the genre. I don’t mind if every little detail isn’t explained – as long as there’s enough details for me to put things together. I don’t need every book to be a doorstopper. So I often find myself reading children’s fantasy, and I’m not ashamed of it. I still hold out the hope, though, that I’ll find more fantasy novels that I truly enjoy.

* I recognize many fantasy novels are set in our world, but by this sentence I mean in those novels our world has to be our world but different, for it to truly be a fantasy novel. You know, like in Harry Potter, where wizards and witches live hidden under our very noses. And so on. In this case, using our world as a setting is using it as more of an alternate fantasy version of our world.

** After complaining about the above at length, I realize it’s almost hypocritical of me to still love Lord of the Rings. But I’m willing to make an exception for Lord of the Rings. Because it’s – well, it’s Lord of the Rings.

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Rebellion of the Starry-eyed Idealists–Let’s End the Irony!

Starry NightThe next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things.

–          David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

Everything is ironic nowadays. Hipsters, as everyone knows, dress ironically. People like Justin Bieber–but, you know, only ironically. You can figure out what that means for yourself, if you decide that the word “irony” actually means anything anymore. But hey, you can’t deny idealists stick out. People who don’t regard our culture with weary cynicism, and actually feel there’s a message worth getting out there.

David Foster Wallace wrote the above quote (and essay) back in 1993, and he was talking about television. The essay is basically about how television relies on irony to keep people watching, despite humanity’s sneaking feeling they might be not making the best use of their time doing so. And because so many writers are raised by television, this ironic attitude carries over into fiction. Some of which is beneficial for fiction, to point out when it takes itself too seriously. But you can’t just keep using irony to tear down fiction, and the culture surrounding us, forever.

Basically, this essay blew my mind. I’ll put a link to the full thing here, even if it’s forty-four pages and I know most of you won’t read it–but, you know, just in case you do want to. I long for an update that takes into account the way the internet has changed things. In some ways people are less passive about their entertainment, but in other ways everything is still the same. We still waste endless hours living life through “more exciting,” imaginary people’s eyes. And irony still rules–if anything, the default mode of the internet is to look at everything ironically.

It does take bravery to stand up and decide to treat the world’s problems honestly, and dare to suggest ways of coping. It’s easy to be cynical and tear down facades endless. Because we know so much–we know millions of ways to poke holes in solutions, view things from a different angle and point out why it’s invalid from a certain perspective.

But, even though I myself am cynical all the time, I know Wallace is right when he says irony is only useful for deconstruction. It’s good to tear things down sometimes, but at some point we have to start building things up again. Give people something to believe in. Believe there’s truth out there.

It’s about finding the right words to start putting those “single-entendre,” earnest values out there.  And then finding the nerve to do so.

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The Gap Between Your Ambition and Your Actual Terrible Writing

Everyone who attempts to be creative, and writers not the least, know the feeling of envisioning a super-awesome story or artwork or song. Excitement courses through your veins! This will be a masterpiece! And then… you try to create it. It sounds/looks/is terrible. There’s an enormous gap between what you want to create, and what you’re able to create with the skills you currently have.

Ira Glass advises us that this is a good thing. I hope he’s right, because I know this feeling all too well. In the beginning, he says, you have to feel your work isn’t as good as it needs to be. It means you have good taste. (I’d like to believe this is true in my case!) The challenge is to not get discouraged, and keeping fighting through this!

This bit of advice for beginners has been wonderfully illustrated in comic form by Gavin Aung Than – I’m going to post the first bit of the comic here, but please follow the link to see the whole comic and read all of Ira Glass’s advice! Gavin Aung Than also did the sweet comic using a quote from Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin & Hobbes) that’s been spreading around the internet, so I think his comics should really be viewed on his own website. But here’s the first part of the Ira Glass one, to give you a taste:

comic 2

Enjoy!

Is this a familiar feeling, to all you writers out there?

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Riding the Roller Coaster of Story Plots

Since I’m plugging along through NaNoWriMo at the moment, I thought it’d be appropriate to share this lovely illustration from the New York Times that a friend shared with me. Let’s hope there’s not too many unresolved subplots and plots holes in this manuscript, but hey – I guess that’s all part of NaNoWriMo, huh?

The Story Coaster

The Story Coaster, from the New York Times

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Let’s Call the Ebook Something Else – It’s Not Really a Book, Anyway

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle Touch, by IntelFreePress (CC BY 2.0)

“We need a new word for ‘e-book,’” Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich declare in Slate – basically arguing that process of reading things electronically is so fundamentally different from reading the printed word that they shouldn’t be compared.

Well, they do have a point. When I read stuff online, I frequently fall down a rabbit hole in a way I never do when reading a book or magazine. I follow link after link, and discover I’ve learned a truckload of information on, say, Les Miserables, when I did not intend to do so when I sat down at that computer. But it was just so interesting. And, Finn and Eschrich argue, ‘e-books’ have the potential to tap into the fundamentally different world of electronic reading, by experimenting with crowdsourcing, embedding videos, and faster publication. And this ‘reading experience’ should be known by another word than ‘book.’

Yes, a book is different than electronic reading in my experience too. When I turn back to print, I have to consciously shut off my ADD tendencies learned from online reading and link-skimming, and commit. Frequently, I force myself to finish books just so I don’t succumb to a short-attention span completely. And, the amazing thing is, once I shut off the ‘skim-reading’ part of my mind, I can suddenly fall into a deeper reading experience than I ever do with online/electronic reading.

 To be clear, I love BOTH types of reading – the exhilaration of link-skimming and information overload, and the deeper experience of committing to a book. But I mean to underline here that I agree the two experiences are very different – and that currently e-books exist in a funny kind of limbo between the two types of reading. And that the world of e-books could be broadened in a way that makes them bigger than their current existence as electronic copies of printed books (though whether this will happen is a different story). But if this does happen, a new name for e-books could help people understand how e-books are different than books, and take advantage of the fact they are electronic.

 However, I have a couple things to say about Finn and Eschrich’s choice of a replacement word for ‘e-book.’ They want to call it a codeX. First, what I like about the word, and then what I don’t.

 I like the roots of the word, in ‘codex.’ I love history, so a term with a long history behind it, and a reason for using it, makes me feel warm and cozy instead. (I am just naturally drawn to stuff with a history, that’s just the way I am. Anything brand-new makes me feel empty and sterile).

 Now, for the bad – I really, really hate the CamelCase. CamelCase is random, capitalized letters in the middle of a word. In many cases, especially in things like URLs, using CamelCase does make things easier to read and remember (for example, HarmaMaeSmit.com instead of harmamamesmit.com). But in this case, it looks like the X is random, and it would be pronounced the same way no matter which letter is capitalized.

 Secondly, ‘X’ is pretty much shorthand for making things sound science-y, modern and technology – ‘X-rays,’ ‘Xanax,’ and ‘Xerox.’ (both ‘x’ and ‘z’ are prone to this – see the number of drug names with those letters in it). This runs the danger of making the word look out-of-date when the technology is no longer brand-new – see ‘X-ray’ and ‘Xerox,’ above –and I can definitely see the word codeX falling into this. For example, in the nineties’, it was cool to put ‘e’ in front of everything technological, and then it was cool to put ‘i’ in front when the iPod came out, and now brands who did these look like they just jumped on a bandwagon.

 To follow up on that point – we don’t need to make books sound cutting-edge to make people want to read them, and many people who read lots don’t care about being cutting edge. I’d be okay with just calling it a ‘codex,’ though I can see people might be afraid it sounds too academic. After all, ‘e-book’ sounds familiar. It sounds like something you already have experience with.

Basically – if we have to a a new word for ‘e-book,’ let’s make sure it doesn’t sound gimmicky, shall we? 

But don’t worry, I haven’t seen any signs that vast hordes of readers are rallying behind this new name for e-books, which means the name probably won’t change any time in the near future. But I do think the idea of emphasizing how different e-reading is from print reading is an interesting one. In a world where Apple is patenting a way for authors to electronically authorize e-books, and most electronic publishers are slavishly trying to copy every aspect of a print book, the idea of trying to find a new path for electronic publishing that takes advantage of the very ‘electronic-nish’ of it could change publishing forever.

It’s just that no one’s quite figured out how to do it yet.

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