Category Archives: Writing

Potpourri

As I’ve been offline for a while, a bunch of random thoughts have bubbled to the surface. So, onward.

Give Godzilla a miss, or at least wait for it to show up on Netflix. You’ll thank me.

The next 50 years of Doctor Who start in August. While it was probably wise to have a hiatus after the madness of last year, still, one does go through withdrawal after a while.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is well worth seeing. (Minor spoilers ahead.) It strives valiantly to tidy up a number of messy plot threads from the other X-Men movies and succeeds for the most part. It features an unbelievably strong cast, some of whom are limited to little more than cameos. Most importantly, it wipes the travesty that was X-Men 3 off the map.

I’m starting to wonder: Is it any less work to world build for a short story than a novel? I suspect not. Developing the backstory for my original fantasy story, an urban fantasy but with elements of classic mythology, has been a fascinating experience.

Next up on my fanfic list is a sequel to the Firefly/Castle crossover, “A Firefly in the Castle”. This one will be called “Castle Serenity”. And yes, this time Castle and Beckett travel to the future.

I recently spent a night in Philadelphia due to a missed connection. A few people expressed disbelief that I neglected to take full advantage of the layover by not sampling a Philly cheesesteak. Will correct that next time.

The same junket that stranded me in Philadelphia also netted an opportunity to meet Mary Robinette Kowal in San Diego at a book signing. It was quite a treat as I believe she’s the first professional author that I’ve met. And not only does she write very well, she has a rich, multifaceted voice that’s a joy to listen to. It’s a voice that serves her well in her other profession as puppeteer. She also reads audio books.

On the topic of books, I find myself going back to re-read old favourites, mixing them in between new publications. The current old book may take a while, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Not just because it’s long, but because I read Dickens very slowly, savouring each beautiful phrase. Ah, to write like that…

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Joss-speak

Firefly, for those who don’t know, was a short-lived TV series that was broadcast in 2002. Set in the future sometime after Earth had been abandoned, it takes place in another solar system where terraforming has made many planets and moons inhabitable. While the central planets maintain a high degree of technology, the outer planets are quite primitive, living in much the same way as the settlers of the old west. After a failed war of independence, Malcolm Reynolds assembles a team to crew his Firefly-class ship, Serenity, performing jobs for a variety of clients, some legal, some less so.

It’s generally agreed that the series, developed by Joss Whedon, was brilliantly conceived and executed, and its premature demise is a source of woe for its legions of admirers.

Here’s the thing about writing Firefly fanfics: The inhabitants of the outer planets have a particular style of dialect that’s hard to capture. Some call it Joss-speak. To sensibly write Firefly, you have to re-watch some episodes to get into the rhythm of Joss-speak. Some examples:

It’s gettin’ too ruttin’ hot in here.

It’s the gorram law!

I aim to misbehave.

We just need a small crew, them as feel the need to be free.

Once you get into the zone and feel like you’re able to create dialogue that fits into the Firefly ‘verse, it can be hard to find your way back, and Joss-speak starts to leak out into real life. For instance it’s tempting to tell your spouse,

My car don’t crash. She crashes, you crashed her.

Or, you might aim to give your employees a dose of Joss-speak when they misbehave.

What in the sphincter of hell are you playin’ at?

On finding your favourite show is on TV when you’re feelin’ a need for simple comfort, you might say,

Shiny!

And so it goes. In the acting world, they call it method acting when you live and breathe the role, even off set.

Is there such a thing as method writing?

I Wuz Framed

The more stories I write, the more time I spend thinking of how to tell them. That is, how do I tell a story in a way that makes the most impact?

Present tense?

Jacob picks up the photo.

Past tense?

Jacob picked up the photo.

First person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that my friend, Sherlock Holmes, first spoke to me about his addiction.

Third person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that Sherlock Holmes first spoke to his friend, John Watson, about his addiction.

Naturally, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these. Writers and readers may have personal preferences. Some techniques may be currently fashionable in the writing community, some less so.

As a reader, I don’t like stories written in the present tense. They grate on me. Don’t ask why, they just do. So, for no other reason than that, I don’t write stories in the present tense.

As for first person versus third person, that’s a tough one. I have a nostalgic fondness for Victorian and early 20th Century fiction written in the first person. Arthur Conan Doyle is a great example. By writing the Sherlock Holmes stories from Watson’s point of view, and in his voice, we are forced to imagine, rather than know, what it is that’s really going on in Holmes’ head.

Mind you, that doesn’t always work. I think the Hunger Games books suffered from limiting themselves to Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. That’s one of the reasons I find the movies superior.

Which brings us to another point: that in some way, the most effective storytelling technique depends on the story itself. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plug the attributes of a story into a formula, and out popped the optimal narrative mode?

I started down this path recently, wondering about storytelling technique, because of the Firefly fanfic I’m currently writing. It concerns how characters Wash and Zoe, who initially disliked each other (we know from canon that Zoe initially disliked Wash; I assume the feeling was mutual), came to fall in love. Having finished the initial draft, it seemed that something was missing. I finally realized that the story needed something to frame it, to give it context. So, we start and finish with Zoe reminiscing about their relationship after the events in the movie, Serenity.

That made all the difference, I think. As to why that’s the case, I’m not sure. Wish I knew.

What’s your favourite storytelling technique?

How Do You Write?

I first learned about discovery writing from the podcast, Writing Excuses. This is a technique whereby you create a setting, populate it with some characters, then make things difficult for them. Depending on the genre in which you’re writing, you might blow stuff up, let the monsters out, create a love triangle, or kill someone. Maybe all of the above. Then you sit back and see what happens. Even the writer doesn’t know what comes next.

That’s not what I do. Maybe its my career in computing science, where I didn’t start to build something until I had some concept of the end result, but discovery writing scares the hell out of me. It’s taken the writing of a dozen or so short stories, feeling my way in the dark, to understand how it is I do go about writing.

First, there’s THE IDEA, the flash of insight that becomes the basis of the story.

If prolonged exposure to the time vortex can cause human DNA to resemble Time Lord DNA, then… (“Fate of the Earth”).

Suppose we took the characters from Castle and set them in the old west (“Western Castle”).

You get the idea. So that’s the start. Next comes the end state. In other words, before I start writing, I always know how I want the story to end. After that it’s just a question of how to get there from here.

Some writers blast through a story, never looking back until the first draft is complete. Then they make a second draft, and so on, until they’re satisfied that everything works. Not everyone does that. I’ve found that I’m a revise-as-you-go writer. I tend to write in chunks. Usually, a chunk equals one scene. I revise constantly. When I start to write on a given day, I look over the previous scene, and revise as required. This, I find, serves two purposes: it puts me back into the story, and gets my juices flowing so the words start to flow for today’s scene.

In practice, I rarely spend more than two hours a day writing, and many days it’s less than that. It’s slow but steady work, but extremely satisfying. Without that creative outlet, I find myself increasingly restless as the day goes by. I need that writing fix.

I’ve used a beta reader at least a couple of times now (hi, Twisha). It’s helped in ways I didn’t expect, pushing me to become better at world building, fleshing out characters, and making situations believable. In fanfiction, where there’s no editor to review your work, a second set of eyes can be very helpful.

I’ve added a new step recently. When the story seems to be all there, I get my computer to speak it aloud. It’s both entertaining and instructive. Detecting awkward sentences is easier when you hear them spoken.

As for tools, I’ve settled into the habit of using Google Docs for my fanfiction and Apple’s Pages for original fiction, just because I just like to be familiar with more than one editing program. They’re both excellent. Google has a slight edge in that it keeps dozens of versions of your document in the cloud. Pages has the advantage of existing as both a cloud service and a stand-alone, local program. While Microsoft’s docx file format is a lingua-franca for exchanging documents, you don’t need to use Word to create those files. I have Microsoft Office installed on my MacBook, but honestly, I rarely use it.

And that’s about it. At least, for short stories. I have a concept for a novel, but just a few pages written, so it remains to be seen whether this approach will scale up. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

So, how do you go about writing?

FanFiction

Do you read or write FanFiction? Do you care about it? If so, then there’s an article that might interest you at Wired.com.

keep calmWikipedia  defines FanFiction as “… a broadly defined fan labor term for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.”

Again according to Wikipedia, FanFiction.net is the largest FanFiction site, hosting some millions of stories. I post stories there myself based on characters created in Doctor Who, Castle, Firefly, and others.

The Wired article makes the case that FanFiction has generally been looked down upon by the writing community, but that this may be changing. They note that a new publisher, Big Bang Press, having successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign, will be publishing original works by FanFiction authors. Just as interesting as the article are the comments.

Normally I shy away from the comments section of Internet articles. They all too often have the intellectual and emotional maturity of eight-year-old miscreants on speed. Not these comments, which are well written and thought-provoking. They make some excellent points.

The key point is this: the world is full of derivative works of art. (If you want to impress your friends, talk about intertextuality, my new word for the day. You can look it up at Wikipedia.) Would you turn up your nose at AMC’s The Walking Dead because it’s based on a series of comic books? (Sorry, graphic novels.) Then there’s Robert Jordan, author of the beloved Wheel of Time series, who wrote a number of books based on Conan, created by Robert E. Howard. By Crom! And the list goes on.

Let’s be honest. Part of the reason FanFiction has its reputation is because of the quality of the writing. But come on. Lots of FanFic authors are kids. How often have you heard adults wringing their hands at how seldom kids read these days, and blame it on the Internet and (gasp!) Social Media (the source of all evil). But at places like FanFiction.net, you’ll find lots of kids, university students, and young adults who not only read, they write. They deserve to be cheered on, regardless of whether or not their prose is a match for Alice Munro.

Which isn’t to say you won’t find some great FanFiction stories out there. If you are skeptical, just check out “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky. You’d be hard pressed to find any commercially published work that was funnier or more thought-provoking. I’ve seen some FanFics that were painful to read, and some that were a joy. You can explore what-ifs, alternate universes, and the further adventures of your favourite characters. And all for free. Really, what’s not to like?

Writing FanFiction is fun, you see, and FanFics can be fun to read. Once you find some authors you like and start to follow them regularly, you’ll find the experience more and more rewarding.

Feeling spontaneous? Here’s some spontaneous FanFiction for you.

“Wash, we seem to be getting a might close to that sun,” Mal said.

Wash held the flight controls tightly and grimaced. “Afraid we’re going to get a whole lot closer, Cap’n. We’re caught in its gravity well. Got a plan though,” he said.

“Please tell me it doesn’t involve turning my boat into a molten puddle.”

“Can’t promise anything, but I think I can slingshot us ‘round the sun if I increase the speed,” Wash said.

“Sorry, did you say you wanted to fly us into the sun faster? That’s your plan?”

“Here we go,” Wash said, and keyed in the course and speed.

Mal picked up the intercom. “Um, this is the Captain. Those of you who like your meat extra crispy are in for a treat. Hang on to something.”

Some time later, he wasn’t sure how long, Mal picked himself up off the floor in confusion. Then it came to him. The sun. Slingshotting. Glancing out the forward window, they seemed to be in orbit around a planet that he didn’t recognize.

Mal shook Wash by the shoulder. “Wash! I need to you come ‘round, figure out where we are.”

But as Wash struggled to regain his sensibilities, Serenity received a voice transmission.

“This is Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise. Please identify yourself.”

Mal and Wash looked at each other.

“Oh, crap,” said Wash.

Oh, didn’t I say? You can write FanFiction crossovers as well. Feel free to take the above as a writing prompt and finish the story.


The image is from http://keep-calm-and.tumblr.com

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Have you heard it said that it’s all about character? Stories, that is. If your readers don’t care about the characters, then all the plot twists, surprise endings and literary gymnastics in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans, sweetheart.

paul_pipchinI know I’ve loved a book when I can’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. The first time this happened was when I read Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Not his best or best known, but a sentimental favourite because it was my first. Dickens that is. And as I put the book down at the end, I did so slowly. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted more time with those characters with whom I had fallen in love.

It happened again this morning (at the time of writing) as I put down Stephen King’s It. (Was there ever a more simply named book? Could there be?) Even though the book was over a thousand pages, it wasn’t enough. Mind you, after what those poor characters had been through, they deserved some time off. Still, for a time they had become part of my life and I know I’m going to miss them.

As I start to write more original fiction, that’s what I’m going to shoot for. I know that in genre fiction in particular it seems to be all about the Really Neat Idea, but for me, regardless of the genre, it’s all about character, and I’ll know I’ve done it right when someone tells me they didn’t want to say goodbye.