Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Question: What's your worst writing habit?

My Answer: Words that undercut my own intention. Like sort of, kind of, and seemed to. John felt sort of sick in the afternoon = John felt sick in the afternoon. They are my plague. Kill, kill, kill! Runner-up: I use passive more than I should, and more than I think I do. Often, I'll use it on purpose, for a particular effect... but then I totally overuse the effect, and then the effect becomes an unconscious habit and slips in elsewhere, and then... Grrrrrr.

So what's your answer? Worst writing habit? (and it can be about any aspect of writing, near or far)

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Who are your favourite literary characters?

Nathan Bransford's post on favourites got me to thinking about this question a little more seriously. It's fun to think about your favourite characters... but it might be helpful to think about why they are your favourites. As a reader, what is it about those characters that drew you to them? What made them captivating? Haunting? Hilarious? Are there any common threads that run through these favourite characters?

The next step, I guess, is to consider the question in regards to your own writing. Who are your favourites among your own creations? Any similarities with your favourites as a reader?

I guess what I'm thinking about is the key elements for the creation of captivating characters. What can we draw from the characters we are most infatuated with in literature and carry into our own writing, our own creative process? What are the elements that draw you to these characters, and do you make use of these elements in your own writing? And have you ever been inspired by a character you've read to create one of your own?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Word Gremlin and the Philosophy of Bacon

Ink: What's this big gap in the middle of my philosophy section?

Word Gremlin: Nothing.

Ink: It looks like a gap to me.

Word Gremlin: Gaps are usually made of nothing.

Ink: Well, yes, you miserable little devil, but where are all the philosophy books that are supposed to be inside that gap to make it not a gap at all?

Word Gremlin: I ate them.

Ink: Ate them? Why?

Word Gremlin: Personal edification. Plus, I was hungry.

Ink: I thought you were eating old picture books?

Word Gremlin: I did. They were good.

Ink: Yeah? What does a picture book taste like, anyhow?

Word Gremlin: The usual. Tastes like children.

Ink: ...

Word Gremlin: You can only eat so many.

Ink: Well, now my philosophy section looks crappy. I think you ate Francis Bacon.

Word Gremlin: Yup. Oddly enough, he tasted like bacon. Floppy bacon, with lots of juice. None of that charred stuff your wife eats.

Ink: What about Hobbes?

Word Gremlin: Fish.

Ink: Oh.

Word Gremlin: Big Fish.

Ink: Hey, that's the name of a book.

Word Gremlin: I ate that, too.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Retinal Scans and Literary Fingerprints

We are what we write. Or are we?

As writers, how much of our self-identity do we place in what we do? What is it about writing that so closely ties what we do with who we are?

Because I do think there's something abnormally personal about writing - we can see that in our own actions, and we can see it in how society judges and interprets what we do. If I tell people I play some tennis, no one asks me if I'm going on the ATP Tour, or if Roger Federer is better than me. No one dismisses me if I've never played at Wimbledon. And yet, if I mention I write, this statement is inevitably followed by a question: "Are you published?"

It's a disconcerting thing. Curiosity, yes, forms part of it. But there's an element of judgement here, too. Judgement not just of your skill as a writer, but of you as a person. It's a faulty dynamic, I think, but it relates back to the personal nature of writing, to its uniqueness and individuality.

Writing is expression, and stories are our thoughts shaped into narratives. Our stories, in some sense, are the art we make of ourselves. We make it of what we've read, of what we've seen and heard, of what we've felt and experienced. Of what we've imagined. So, that judgement seems not just an evaluation of the words we've put on the page but of the thoughts behind it... of those ephemeral aspects of self.

We buy into this, partly because we have to, because there is more of us in our writing than in our tennis, our sudokus, our favourite television programs. There is something indefinably us about our writing. Yes, it may be influenced by others, or even imitative of them. But there is always something of the unique voice in it, and the stronger the writing the stronger that voice becomes, the more particular, the more you. The writing is yours, and something only you could have done. No one else could have written it quite so. You have left a literary fingerprint upon the page. You have left a little of yourself behind.

This is the beauty of writing, and some of it's danger, too. A danger because we absorb some of that cultural evaluation. Publication! Oh, I must have it! I must be able to answer that horrible question with a "Yes!" We internalize it. We want a book on the shelf with our name on it. That thought becomes a part of you, a part of how you see yourself. It is your future. If it's not here yet, well, that's only a yet...

But we won't all make it on those shelves. There ain't enough room, sad to say. What then? What if that endless "No" comes to bury even the thought of yes?

This is where it hurts, I'm guessing, and that question of self-identity comes back in. I am a writer. Yes, this is wonderful, but you can't forget the rest. Better to say just I Am Me, because that "me" can, and must, encompass more than writing.

I was a soccer player growing up (footballer, for you Brits). And I was a very good one, among the best in the province. I had dreams and aspirations. A scholarship, a professional contract... I had played since I was four, and playing was part of me. I was a soccer player. It was an identity, part of how I saw myself. Why doubt it? My future with soccer seemed somehow inevitable.

And then when I was seventeen I wrecked an ankle. It seemed innocuous enough, pivoting to kick the ball. It was a championship game, city title on the line, a title that seemed part of that inevitable future. But... no. A terrible pain in the ankle, a pain that wouldn't go away. I watched, from the bench, as the game went to extra time, and then a shoot out. I watched as someone else took the final shot (my shot, that was my place) and missed. That dream of a title vanished even as the first crack appeared in my vision of an inevitable future. One surgery, and then a second, and then a pile of different therapies, one after another. In the end everyone would give up. Sorry, no can do, better luck next time.

I felt a loss. Not just loss of the game, which was hard enough, but a loss of self. I had to readjust my idea of who I was. If I was not this, not a soccer player, what was I? A slow feeling out. I didn't have a retinal scanner to give me a quick answer. But I found my way, in the end.

And yet that's why I worry, too. For "I am a Writer" is part of that new identity I found. And yet it can't be all. I have to remember, first, that I Am Me. Writing is a piece in the puzzle, no more. It can't be more. And yet how do we separate ourselves from our writing? From these words that are reflections of who we are, or who we might be?

It helps me, I feel, to think about writing as not who I am, but as how I find who I am. Writing is not the product of me, but the process. It is not about the story I've written, but about what the story has shown me. Writing is the window, and I am what is on the inside, looking out. It is through that window I truly see the world.

Sometimes stories are rejected. Sometimes windows break. Jagged words, scattered bits of broken glass. But there are new stories, new panes of glass. And it is always the view, in the end, that is important.

Any thoughts? How do you navigate your writer's identity?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Like a Shark with a Frickin' Laser Beam Attached to Its Head!

I've been mucking about with this writing thing for a couple of years now and I'm thinking maybe I'm getting a tad bit better at it. Perhaps…a tad…what, no comment from the peanut gallery?
Ahem, errr, so, as I continue to hone my craft and hopefully improve HOW I write, I'm beginning to wonder if I shouldn't be putting more thought into WHAT I write.
Historically the inspirations for my stories have come from rather mundane sources: A chocolate chip cookie. A tattered comic book cover. A discolored bit of sidewalk.
These don't strike me as the sorts of things that might inspire greatness. But then again, who am I to judge?
Actually, if I'm to be perfectly honest, I will have to admit that this line of thinking has been born out of my search for homes for my little orphan short stories. I don't know if any of you have been trying to place stories in speculative fiction markets lately, but editors can be so…persnickety.
One wants romance stories about left-handed dwarves, another buys only myopic, alternate histories featuring gender-bending anthropomorphized woodland creatures. On and on it goes. So picky.
I know if I keep on looking and sending em out, one day—like those poor creatures on the Isle of Misfit Toys—my stories will find a home. But as I begin to envision my next project I wonder… Do I? Dare I? Consider writing to a market? I mean, actually researching what a particular editor wants and attempting to focus in like a laser beam on that kind of story.
So, my question is this: is that selling out? Is that giving in to the man and relinquishing my artistic freedom—nay, RIGHT—to create my own stinkin' crap, versus stinkin' crap that someone told me they wanted me to write?
Or is that simply market-savvy writing that gets right down to business like a shark with a frickin' laser beam attached to its head?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why You Should All Write Short Books (And Why I'll Kill You If You Don't)

The pyramids are beautiful things, transcendent against the sky.

But the labour of them... think of yourself down there, under the scorch of the sun, hauling, hauling, hauling. Hauling what? A big piece of rock. Squared off and symmetrical, yes, but still a big rock. Heavy. Obdurate. So painfully unwilling. And your task is to haul this heathen rock to a pyramid and stack it wearily into a sacred object of grace. An almost divine transformation...

But on the ground, heaving the stones... the grace seems far away. There's just the heat, the sweat vaporizing off the skin, the faltering muscle and bone. The sand absorbs half of your strength, sucking energy from each step. Dust puffs around you, whitening the soon-to-be-holy stone. You have banged against the hard stone. You are bruised, bleeding. You push on against the wilful disregard of the stone.

Your breath grows haggard in your chest. Your joints hurt. Your fingers ache terribly, the pain running up to your elbows and beyond. Your knees and ankles burn, as if the bright sun above had spawned cruel children inside them. Shoulders and back tighten and grow heavy, thick, as if the skin is swelling to burst.

And always the stone resists. Its ally, gravity, mocks your struggles. The pyramid is tall... how can you haul the stone so high?

But you do. It is the only option. You haul the stone up, regardless of weight and wilfulness, and mark its holy place with a little more of your sweat and blood.

But the stone is as nothing to the pyramid. It is a speck, a mere piece, a fraction of something much larger, almost lost in the vastness of the whole. And you are being called, by word and whip, to come down. To come haul another stone. And another.

Some have fallen on the way. It is too hard, and death is easier. They fall by the wayside to lie idly in the sand, a windstrewn corpse already forming small drifts, nascent dunes. You go on. You go on to die each night, hauling stone, only to be reborn the next day as yourself, reborn to continue the endless task.

But lo, the great square blocks are no longer cut from hard stone, but rather they are crafted from cardboard. You breathe a sigh of relief. Cardboard you can carry! But what's this? These terrible blocks are not merely soft cardboard and softer air, but heavy things filled with books, terrible weighty books heavier than any sun-baked brick. Look at them all, look at all that forms the sacred pyramid: Thomas Hardy, you villain, and Stephen King. Galsworthy and Trollope! How could you? Rowling, you started so fine, and then, and then...

All must feed the pyramid. All must be hauled, each printed word a little heavier than the last. You come to hate Robert Jordan. L. Ron Hubbard is despised, at least until you find money in one of those terrible blocks of words and allow your opinion of scientology to rise upward accordingly, bribe or not. Marcel Proust you confine to the most withering reaches of Hell, genius or no. Finnegan's Wake seems more cruel by the step.

Oh, but Agatha Christie you love, that sexy old dame. Mass market paperbacks, so thin, so bearable, so close to air that you almost weep for the joy of it. Oh, the Harlequins, lined up so neat and trim, torn bodices hidden behind the shoulders of neighbors.

Such laudable writers, the harlequinites! So concerned with brevity... You become passionate about the minimalists, and with them you mock Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward, Angel, and here's your hat. And Tom Wolfe, too, for that matter. I'll give you a different sort of bonfire for your vanity...

And yet you must admit that you were once a sinner, that once (well, twice) you wrote a first draft whose wordcount started with the number three, that most awful of all numbers (excepting, of course, four, and five... and six we will not speak of, no, let us not speak of it). But no more! No, you will never sin so surely and lengthily again. Not now, or ever.

You will write short novels, tight with pace and flowing like a newborn river from a high mountaintop, brisk and keen with glacial melt. Slender things, these will you write. Books whose spines will almost be lost on the shelf, available only to the most curious and questing of fingers.

You will write short books, light books, and take pity on the poor haulers keeling over in the dust, the poor crafters of the holy depositories (those little temples filled with sacred rows and discount prices). Pity the weak and foolish booksellers. Pity them and write short books, for such is the mercy of all good writers.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Immediate Attention or Gestation Period?

You know this feeling: a set of thoughts and ideas begin to sparkle, they come together and shine at you, saying, 'This is the beginning of the best story you've ever produced!'

After that feeling strikes, how long do you give it before committing something to prose?

I've read loads of times that writers should carry around a notepad and a pen, both for occasions as described above, and for picking up tidbits, snippets of conversation, or mannerisms, or anything else that catches their eye while they're out and about.

In principle, I think yes, it sounds like a good idea to carry around pen and paper for just such occasions. In reality, though, I think doing so would be mildly embarrassing, and rather pretentious, so I've never done that. But I accept that it'd be helpful to the sort of person who wants to get new ideas immediately committed to prose, or at least note form.

So, yes, you have an idea. A new idea. A very shiny idea. How long do you leave it before starting to write?

Do you allow the idea/s to gestate and develop, to mature into something reliable and worthy? Or do you capture the flow of enthusiasm as soon as it strikes and start writing immediately?

I tend to toss ideas around for a few days, maybe less if there's a lot to it -- it's a novel idea, say, with good characters and a few cracking opening scenes. If an idea hits with that amount of 'already figured'ness, I'll give it a quick journey from inception to ink.

But less developed ideas, or short story ideas, or scene snippets and stuff, they can be mulled over for a while before I tap into the flow and get something down. Like a testing period, in many ways, I'll examine and re-visit the idea in my mind before focusing on it as a writing project.

I've tried writing 'immediate' style, of course, but to my mind, the 'gestate' method produces better results.

What are your experiences with this?