When Life Strikes Back

Sometimes life doesn’t seem to play fair. You have an idea you are working on, maybe you have a story to edit, maybe a story you want to write, whatever. You have enthusiasm. And you have time. Then suddenly you don’t.
This Sunday, I was thinking about the novel I’m currently trying to write the second draft of. Despite my best efforts, it has been going very slowly. If I’m lucky, I can get about five to eight pages done in a day. Other days, I’m lucky to get two pages done. I had, at one very foolish point, planned to aim for the story to be done by the end of February so I could start something new in March. As you might guess, this did not pan out. In fact, this whole week so far, I’ve gotten about six pages done. Why? No, it’s not writers block (that will probably be another post), but life that got in my way.
You see, I work at a small store, under a married couple. Well, the wife is ill, so she can’t come in. Because she’s ill, her husband has to take care of many other things, so I have put in more hours in the past three days than I have in all of last week or the week before. When I come home, I am exhausted, and writing is one of the last things on my mind. That’s why this post is so late. Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like blogging at all. Sorry.
Sometimes life will slow you down, fill up your time, or just generally get in your way. I’m lucky in that my situation is both minor and temporary. So what if it isn’t? What if things are bigger than putting in extra hours, or you don’t see a way out? I’m not a counselor, so please don’t ask me for help. But my advise about writing, when you are tired, busy, or down, is that it really depends on you.
One summer I was working at a camp and my time was strictly regimented. I had a few hours a day that I could do whatever I wanted instead of what they told me to do. When I had so little time, I made writing a priority. When I had to take a couple days off because I got sick (I worked in the kitchen), I ended up writing 10,000 words in about a day and a half. Other times, I’ve decided that writing is making me so frustrated that I had to take a day off. Then again, at times writing is wonderful therapy. Writing your emotions in a diary, or making life more difficult for your main characters because you are having a rough time, it can be amazingly therapeutic. Really, you are the only one who can tell.
Basic advice: If writing really is a priority to you, then try not to go more than three days without writing something. Doesn’t matter what, or how much. Just don’t let your creativity muscles atrophy. Two, when your writing makes you want to tear your hair out, take a break. Three, consider your priorities. When faced with a true emergency, your writing can, and probably should, be put on the back burner. Don’t feel guilty about it.
Now, if you excuse me, I have a novel to work on.


What does your character know?

I spent a good portion of yesterday morning figuring out what to write my blog about today. I had a plan, then totally threw it out based on a comment someone said.
For background, I was wearing a shirt with birds on it. In the foreground were a male and female cardinal. Someone talked to me about birds, mentioned cardinals, and how the sexes looked different, known as sexual dimorphism, and how that didn’t exist in some other birds. Which is true. Then he mentioned sparrows as an example. Without even thinking about it, I said, “Oh, yes they do.”
Why did I argue this point? Because when I was a teenager, and obsessed with birds (still am, the obsessed part, not the teenager part), my parents bought me bird books. I immediately started trying to identify all the birds that lived in our area. I learned that while there are a lot of different kinds of sparrows, the most common where I was living, and everywhere else I’ve lived (lots of places) are House Sparrows. These birds have subtle, yet distinct, differences between the male and female. Well, the immature males look like a mature female, so I’ve probably made a few errors. Don’t care. Once you know what you are looking for, it’s really easy to see.
If I look at a flock of birds, I don’t have to think ‘Which are the males, which are the females?’ I look and think, ‘Two female sparrows on the ground, one male on the fence, three females and a male on the bush…’. It’s automatic. Another person looks at the same flock, and thinks ‘Sparrows’. A third sees little brown birds. None of us are wrong.
On the other hand, when looking at cars, I see a red car, a blue car… I can identify most brand symbols if I get a good look at them, that that’s about it. But when I see something with yarn work, I look to see if it was knit or crochet, and try to figure out the pattern. So, why am I telling you this?
What your character knows effects how they see the world.
A master swordsman knows all the moves that are used in sword fighting, the types of swords that exist and how to tell a good sword from a bad one. They can probably also tell who knows what they are doing with a sword, and who doesn’t.
The pilot of your star ship had better know the controls, and not look at them as a bunch of blinky lights and shiny buttons. (Please note that I make absolutely no claims to any such knowledge. If I did, I doubt you’d believe me.)
The problems comes when your characters know things that you do not. Believe me, happens to me all the time. That’s where research comes in. No one is asking you to be an expert, but you should at least know enough to make sure your supposedly knowledgeable character doesn’t come off as an idiot.
Try to spend some time looking around, pretending to be your character. What do they notice? What interests them? Does your mechanic notice a unique car on the road? Does your librarian not pay any heed to the rare book on the floor?
It’s an interesting thought exercise that should help you with viewpoints and getting in your character’s head. Good luck.

The best advice no one ever gave me.

There are thousands, perhaps millions of books, websites, seminars, etc. on how to write. Some of the advice is good. Some is bad. Chances are, if you’ve tried to get writing advice at all, you’ll run into certain things. Some say to write at the same time every day. Some just care about writing every day. Some write in spurts. Write what you know, write what you want to find out about. There are oceans of tips out there. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.

1. Make a calendar when you are pre-writing. If you outline, great, you can make it then. If not, fine, make it as you go along. Just make one. Not a timeline, though that’s a good thing to have too. But you want a calendar. It keeps you from making mistakes like having your character meet someone on Friday, and two days later it’s Tuesday. Also, if anything happens on special days, mark that. If your character has meetings every other Thursday, make sure they aren’t doing that and doing something else on the same day. If you have Werewolves or any other kind of Were, for Heaven’s sake, figure out the moon phase in your novel. That was what messed me up. In two different books. If you are doing an actual year, do you have to use the actual moon phases of that year? That’s up to you. If you can, wonderful. If not, most people won’t notice. To mess up a quote, if a river isn’t where it needs to be for your story, move the river. If you know who said that, or the original quote, please let me know.

2. Sometimes a story will flow, sometimes it won’t. Neither necessarily have any affect on the the quality of the story. You may be straining to get something written, the words fighting you every step of the way, but when you read it later, it sounds fine. But just because it flows when you write it, doesn’t mean it works well in the story.

3. No matter how supportive your friends and family are of your story, they will grow tired of hearing it long before you are tired of talking about it. The characters live in your head. Part of you feels they are real. You want to spend your time exploring them. Your family and friends want to know when they can expect a decent conversation that doesn’t involve fictional character and events. If you are fortunate enough to have someone willing to be your first reader, make sure you do not tell that person too much about the story. Can you surprise them? Do they feel the same way you do about the characters? Did they see the plot twist coming?

You’ll find your own rules as you write, and I’m sure I’ll cover more common rules too. But what have you discovered?

Why write speculative fiction?

Why would someone want to write about the impossible? Why write about meeting aliens, or dragons, or wars being fought in the mind, or aback dinosaur? There are several possible answers, but first let’s look into one question. Why not write speculative fiction?

            This isn’t a simple reversal. There are certain legitimate reasons for not writing speculative fiction. For one, there is this strange idea in some people’s minds that certain kinds of writing are some how ‘better’ than another kind. I don’t mean one person’s a better writer than another, we all know that happens. But some consider certain genres to be better than others. For most of these, ‘literary’ fiction is the best writing, while genre writing is considered trashy, tacky, the domain of ‘hacks’ or otherwise inferior. Nevertheless, literary fiction is indeed it’s own genre, generally characterized by beautiful prose, often in depth characters, and very little plot. If that’s your cup of tea, go ahead. Enjoy.

            Even among the genres, some critics act as if certain genres are better than others. And, for reasons that completely escape me, Science Fiction and Fantasy are often considered bottom of the barrel. If you don’t believe me, or want to learn more, please check out TV Tropes.org, their article on the science fiction ghetto.

            Many writers of the genre have complained that they get pigeonholed as a ‘Science Fiction Writer’, or Fantasy writer or horror, or what have you, and all their future books get lumped into that category whether they are or not. Their agents or editors may even discourage them from writing in other genres, because their fans expect X. This may happen to writers in other genres, but I’ve not heard any of them complain about it.

            If you are like me, the above will not scare you off. So, why write speculative fiction?

  1. Because that’s what you like. If you can’t enjoy reading a genre, you certainly aren’t going to enjoy writing it. Believe me, it takes a lot longer to write the average book than it takes to read it. The quickest novel I ever wrote took me about twenty-four days to write. Interesting coincidence: that’s about how long it took me to read the unabridged version of Les Mis. My copy was 1463 pages. My book was about two hundred pages, double spaced. Also, if you don’t enjoy writing a story, it will show.
  2. Because your story will only work with speculative fiction. If you dream of telling a story where the dinosaurs evolved into dragons and have a secret colony on the moon, that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Speculative fiction is the only spot where it works. (If you are writing a story like that, I’d like to read it.) While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that anything is possible with speculative fiction, a lot more is. Maybe your story requires magic, or a technology we don’t have and may never. Go for it. Just make it seem plausible.
  3. Many great ideas were once speculative fiction. The first person to try to patent a submarine was initially turned down because the clerk had read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and thought they already existed. Leonardo De Vinci drew up patterns for a flying vehicle much like a helicopter. While that is art, not fiction, I believe my point remains.
  4. Because it’s a good way to stretch your imagination. Yes, not everything is possible in speculative fiction, because even there you need to be consistent, but there are more avenues to explore. 
  5. Because it’s fun. There is something freeing about your options with speculative fiction. I helped my brother map out a possible story about emus colonizing Mars. We had a blast coming up with the story and potential plot points. If the story gets written, will it be ‘Great Literature’? Probably not. I certainly wouldn’t expect people to be reading it in fifty years. But it’s a fun romp where we took an impossible idea and played with it. If that is what you want to do, then go for it! Who knows, someone may eventually consider it ‘Great Literature’. Shakespeare wrote to be enjoyed by the common theater goer, and The Hobbit is a children’s book. Even Dr. Seuss wrote many ‘Classics’.

Write the book you enjoy. What the rest of the world make up it’s own mind about it later.   


(What are your reasons for writing speculative fiction, or wanting to?)