Saturday, August 31, 2013

How Writing Fiction Is Like Martial Arts

Martial Arts of Writing

I believe a lot of elements of writing can be taught. An inexperienced writer who finds the right teacher, right for him or her I mean, can learn much about things like characterization, plot, setting, novel landscape, pacing, even to a certain extent paragraphing and sentences. Putting it all together in a unique and powerful way, though, is something the writer has to find himself. And so the reason writing programs give a lot of people MFAs who never publish or who publish very little. I got an MFA after teaching myself writing by reading (to me the most the single most important thing besides writing itself a writer can do to improve) and writing. Did the MFA help my writing? Yes. Is getting an MFA for everybody? No. Some it won’t help. Some don’t need it. But for me it helped me focus on my weaknesses and helped me know myself as a writer better.

When I was learning the martial art Taekwondo I realized the importance of breaking down moves. We’d work on part of a kick and then another part and then another part. It would take a long time to put it all together and be able to do that kick right and then even longer to be able to use the kick in combination with other movements. It would take still longer to be effective sparring with the move. Some people never could get there. They knew what they should do but they couldn’t make their bodies do it. Or they couldn’t let their bodies do it. Some people could do it fairly well. Only a few were really good.

Writing is more difficult. Still, I think writing’s moves can be analyzed in ways and by isolating each aspect of writing that aspect can be improved. Whether the writer does this herself or in a program or with other writers doesn’t really matter. Whatever works.

But are there some parts of writing that can’t be taught? Sure. The writer’s unique way of looking at the world. The writer’s style, too, can’t really be taught though it can be developed. The writer’s particular feel for language is, I think, like personality. And there’s that one very magical part to writing (like with Taekwondo); everything has to work together without the writer consciously forcing it to do so (of course when rewriting the writer will be very conscious about his choices). The writer has to find that unconscious place where he becomes the story. Everything slips away. The room. His fingers moving on the keyboard. Words like setting, plot, language, characters mean nothing to him. He is what he’s writing.

And here’s a blog from LitStack by Lauren Alwan about Robert Olen Butler’s book FROM WHERE YOU DREAM and his method of writing from inside the character…which I think has some similarities to my ideas about martial arts and writing fiction.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Importance of Taking Risks in Writing &, Zusak interview link about Book Thief and risks, link to specific suggestions

Sometimes you just have to tell the story you have to tell. It may be way out here, like having a dog for a narrator (Who’s going to publish that?) or a story about a spider or one told by a dead girl.

You have to be brave. It’s hard. It’s very hard to write something that you know is pretty far out there. When I began my ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES novel about aliens landing and taking over the world and enslaving everyone, I thought—really? Am I really going to try to write this? It’s so, well, weird. Who will publish it? You don’t want to have these thoughts. You just want to write, but most novels take a year or more to finish. It’s a chunk of time and your life. But ultimately we’re writers and that’s what we do and part of that is taking chances, following our passion. I suppose this is the writer’s way of following Joseph Campbell’s advice: follow your bliss.

Every time you write it’s a kind of leap of faith. You have to be brave. If your story is a strange one and it’s going to be told in a strange way, it may be harder to sell to a publisher. That’s true. But who knows what will happen then? An author named Stein did write a book from a dog’s point of view called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Great novel. Great reviews. Bestseller. And of course Charlotte’s Web is a great novel about a spider and ELSEWHERE and THE LOVELY BONES are novels with POV narrators who are dead girls. You just never know. You have to write what you have to write. You have to be brave.

Marcus Zusak, writer of the much-honored best-seller, THE BOOK THIEF, talks about taking chances in writing this phenomenal book.

Another writer explores the importance of taking risks and gives some specific advice.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Don’t let words get in the way of what you write

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader -- not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” E.L. Doctorow
            E. L. Doctorow eloquently states what I’m getting at about not letting words get in the way of what you write. It’s easy, as a writer, to get caught up in the sounds words make, in trying to make a perfect sentence, one that sings. The problem is sometimes this becomes more about the sentence than about sticking to this very simple truth: telling us it is raining is fine but going on and on about it because you like the sound of words often leads to indulgence and bad choices. For the reader, if this is done a lot, the whole story begins to feel forced, and they lose confidence in the writing.  SO, in my humble opinion,this kind of writing becomes a distraction for both reader and writer and often leads the writer into bad choices about story and sometimes character. 

One key point in creating fiction, in my humble opinion, is that the reader experience, with the characters, what's happening. Langauge that makes the reader feel the rain coming down on them instead of language that simply tells the reader that it is raining (and sometimes tells them at great length) is essential to making the reader experience the story. Or so I think today.

***ALSO, along these lines, see editor Cheryl Klein’s blog about not using sense words so much. Instead try to go directly to the feeling.
ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES is an Amazon special this month—which means KINDLE version is very cheap. Here’s the link if interested:
And it is also a top ten bestseller-- well, not really---#4 on the teen &ya>Sci fi & fantasy> aliens
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,430 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in
Kindle Store) #4 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Aliens
 ///If they just added "aliens that are green and very short" to that description the novel would probably be #1 in its category. I'm grateful that people are reading it and all, but I see how easy it is to manipulate the rankings. If you just make the description specific enough there are fewer and fewer books to be ranked with. So now when authors write their books are a top ten amazon seller...I have to wonder how much that really means...Maybe this is old news to some but new to me.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Voice/fresh way of seeing/ new novel arrives

Seeing Your Fiction

I think this has to do with the author’s vision. Whatever your skills with the various aspects of writing a novel, whatever your talents, you have a unique way of looking at the world. Everyone does. If you can imbue your work with the unique vision, find the voice for it, then you’ve done something. Something for you. Something for the person reading. I think this has to do with the strong VOICE that every editor and agent says they're looking for.

I know when I start reading certain books I feel an immediate rapport with the voice of the novel, an immediate interest, because it feels authentic. I get really excited if it also feels different. Your way of seeing the world is what makes your writing yours.

So all the talk about craft and all the various aspects of writing fiction and yadda yadda yadda—all important but the writer needs to put himself/herself into the work. That fresh way of seeing the world is so important and so hard to do.

Or so I think today.
here's a link about seeing the world in a fresh way by an author, Boyd Morrison,  who recently got a puppy and observes that the way the puppy engages with the world reminds him  he wants to create this same emotional enthusiasm in his fiction. I'd say it's kin to the sensual experience of the fictional world  that Robert Olen Butler talks about in his excellent, FROM WHERE WE DREAM.

AND here's also a picture (OK, I admit I'm a crappy photographer but...) of my new novel coming out Sept. 10--just got an early copy.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

formulas in fiction

Some thoughts on writing using formulas from Nathan B. with some links to more thoughts on using formulas and a blog I wrote about formula.

forget the formula
Bad Writing Advice #9: Write using a formula.

There are a lot of people out there who have story formulas they're trying to sell. And maybe they do work for some though I don't personally know any writer they work for. In most cases, I don't believe they work because writing is an organic act. You make a story come to life. Having to do X by page 49 and Y by page 61 and so on strangles the life out of your writing. This is not to say a writer shouldn't outline. Some do very well with an outline. It's not to say a writer can't plot and plan, but adherence to any formula throughout a manuscript robs it of the kind of spontaneity it needs to come to life.

You need, as a writer, to come upon surprises while you write and engage in those surprises in a way that they lead you to interesting shifts in story and character. You have to get down deep in yourself when you're writing and make connections between all the elements in your story. This requires intuitive leaps. Forget the formula.

Or so I think today.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Writers: Struggling With Rejection

Every writer knows rejection way too well. We all have to learn to deal with it. Sometimes the rejectors get it wrong. The NYT article below gives some good examples. I think sometimes rejection is just part of the process of improving your work. For most of us, it takes years of writing, revising, learning to find our writing way. In this blog entry, I wrote a little about being stubborn and give some  examples of famous work that was rejected.

You have to be stubborn to be a writer. You have to be stubborn with the work itself and you have to be stubborn to keep going in the face of compelling reasons not to write at all, let alone try to make a career out of writing.

One of the first things you have to be stubborn about is rejection. Every writer deals with it. Some have fewer rejections than others, it’s true, but with rare exceptions, writers will have a unpleasantly large collection of rejections. And each rejection is, at best, a thorn that you have to pull out of your side. On a bad day a rejection will be worse; it may become the voice that says, “You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough.”

So you let the voice have it’s say and you try to go on and if you can’t go on right away then you do something else for a short time. But you have to shut the voice up and remind yourself that the voice is you. A rejection of a story or novel is just saying that one person on that day can’t publish your work. It’s one opinion by someone who can choose very few pieces to publish. It’s not a rejection of you was a writer; it’s a rejection of one piece you’ve written. There’s plenty more where that came from. If you’re a writer, you have or will write many works of fiction. So let me just say it again. They are not rejecting you as a writer. Only you can do that.

And they’re fricken wrong a lot of the time. Here are just a few, a very few, examples.
William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES –20 publisher rejections
JK Rowling’s first Harry book—dozens of publishers passed (they cry themselves to sleep many nights)
Heller’s CATCH 22—many rejections
Madeleine L. Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME—29 rejections
Stephen King’s first novel, CARRIE—dozens of rejections
Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, William Faulkner, John LeCarre --all had rejections for great novels.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Using metaphor in speculative fiction

      One thing I love about writing speculative fiction is you can amplify an aspect of the real world and it becomes metaphor. In my novel, Alien Invasion & Other Inconveniences, I was trying to use an alien invasion to explore ideas about corporate greed and colonialism and power and what happens when a much more powerful civilization meets a weaker one. We know, from our own past, what often happens. This time all of earth is on the short end of that stick. OK, I want to tell a story, too, and make the language sing and make interesting characters, but the metaphor—the power of comparison and the various shades of mythical memory they can inspire—opened up many opportunities.
     The sequel of my alien duology is Homicidal Aliens & Other Inconveniences. This one plays more with myth, trying to use ideas of the “hero” to give the story  and main character more emotional depth.
     In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series one of the evil characters can actually change the way people think. It’s his grace. Of course we see this kind of influence all the time--sometimes in the minor way of a dynamic speaker and sometimes in the more extreme way such as cult leaders like Manson and political tyrants like Hitler etc… She amplifies this kind of characteristic and uses the metaphor to give the story and character deeper value.
     I think fantasy and sci-fi often are situational stories. There are great opportunities to use metaphor in any story but particularly in speculative fiction.