Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Feedback (Not the Rush Covers Album)

So I went into the workshop Monday with a fantasy story that was barely more than a rough draft. I felt like, in places, the writing was a little better than my average rough draft, but it still left a lot to be desired. I also knew there were major issues like places where I'd summarized instead of writing scenes just because I was on a deadline and in a hurry. Then there were the places where I'd forgotten to include information and written inconsistent information. Sometimes my rough drafts are little more than brainstorming sessions where I throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks, and I don't always go back and correct earlier sections with the new information. I figure I'll make sense out of this mess during revision. Unfortunately, this time all I had time to do was go back and try to fix the worst of the inconsistent information, and maybe spare the class the three different names for the village in which the story is set and the two different names for one of the major characters. I was finishing this up on Sunday about 6:00 p.m., and if I didn't get it posted in time to give my classmates Sunday evening to read it, I would basically derail everything.

My disappointment in not being able to at least edit the word choice and grammar mingled with my normal anxiety when I'm going to be the center of attention in class (see my worries about my exercise facilitation). By class time on Monday, I was too insecure about this particular draft to do a reading. I was afraid if I tried to read, I would spot some bad writing every few seconds, and my reading would would go something like this: "Lorem ipsem--D'oh!--e pluribus unum--Gah!--que sera sera--Dammit!" Basically, it would sound like Tourette's Syndrome Theater Presents: Dramatic Readings of Amateur Fiction

Fortunately, at this point in my life, I've advanced past the point where I can differentiate my writing from my own ego, so I was able to smile and nod as the critiques came in:

"Too much summarizing" (Fair)
"Love interest isn't well-developed enough for the main character to accidentally kill his whole village over her" (Totally fair)
"Main character doesn't have much of a reaction to killing off his village" (Yep, I was really in a hurry writing that last scene)
"All the magic's in the last half" (Yeah, definitely dropped the ball on that, given that one character uses magic in his everyday life)
Etc., etc., etc.

However, I did get a few ideas I had never thought of. Most notably, there was the idea that the content of this story, fully realized, would be the first few chapters of a novel, not just the opening chapter or the first of a series of linked stories. Now that I think about that, I can completely see it.

The written feedback was also helpful. Just tonight, I started going through all the questions about the plot and the setting that my classmates came up with and writing answers down. This gave me the opportunity to do some more detailed world building than I'd even done before. In particular, I was able to sit down and really examine the magic system. The world in which this story is set was originally supposed to be a D&D setting, but since I'm using it for fiction first, I decided that I should go down the list of D&D conventions (I'm talking pre-4e, BTW) and decide which ones I want to keep.

When it comes to magic, the first major tropes to go were
  • "Fire and forget" Vancian magic. This system was added to D&D for game mechanical reasons and isn't found in non-D&D fiction outside of Jack Vance.
  • The planes as a source of magic power. I guess this one isn't a standard D&D trope, but I had originally had a system where my spellcasters got their powers from different planes. I decided that talking about things like the Ethereal Plane in non-D&D fiction, even though WotC doesn't claim to own any intellectual property in them, would be a little like talking about dilithium crystals in any sci-fi setting other than the Star Trek universe.
Having started to slough off the conventions foisted on the original setting by archaic game design, I'm now liberated to think about things in terms of what makes a compelling fictional universe and what works for the kind of stories I want to take place in this world. The only problem is that, once this class is over, there are still going to be at least a couple of other projects ahead of this one.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Old Story

So it turns out that my boot camp attendance was for naught, at least as far as generating a story for class is concerned. Though I've decided I'm going to finish that story and submit it somewhere (maybe to Nexus just for fun; it's not the kind of story that's going to make money anyway), it's probably way too short for the length guideline. And the other story I was considering for this purpose isn't revealing itself to me fast enough for the deadline. So, given the choice between two unpalatable options, I'm going for Option #3.

Option #3 would be this old story I'd started on, which was set in a world I'd tried to create as a D&D campaign setting. I'm about as far along on it as I was on the other story at the end of boot camp, but this one has so much more waiting to happen. Now I just have to finish getting it all on paper by Friday.

In other news, I apparently nailed that exercise facilitation I mentioned in my last post. Nine out of ten. Shocked the hell out of me. I have never felt less confident about anything while I was doing it than I did about that exercise.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I had to lead a writing exercise in class today. While looking for ideas about an exercise to get people writing courageously (a vague, amorphous concept not conducive to easy ideas), I looked at this self-help book for writers called The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. While it didn't have any exercises that were appropriate for a class, I did manage to take enough inspiration to come up with a half-assed, serviceable exercise on my own.

One particularly interesting passage dealt with the role of anger in a well-adjusted person's life.

Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out. Anger points the direction. We are meant to use anger as fuel to take the actions we need to move where our anger points us. With a little thought, we can usually translate the message that our anger is sending us.

"Blast him! I could make a better film than that!" (This anger says: you want to make movies. You need to learn how.)

"I can't believe it! I had this idea for a play three years ago, and she's gone and written it." (This anger says: stop procrastinating. Ideas don't get opening nights. Finished plays do. Start writing.)

"That's my strategy he's using. This is incredible! I've been ripped off! I knew I should have pulled that material together and copyrighted it." (This anger says: it's time to take your own ideas seriously enough to treat them well.)

I would add that when you're angry about your job, the anger isn't saying, "Kill your boss" (no matter how evil and narcissistic your boss actually is). It's telling you it's time to get out of dodge and work toward doing what you really want to do with your life. And it only took me about 4-5 years after first getting that feeling to act on it. This passage represents the thing I most wish somebody had told me 10 years ago.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Wright State AIC Boot Camp

So I went to the writing boot camp event I mentioned a couple of days ago. At first, I didn't feel like it was the most productive time I'd ever spent. The first two of the three sessions I'd signed up for felt like the most tedious waste of time ever. The writing seemed to be like pulling teeth, and I was painfully aware that of how little I was actually getting done. Writing first drafts in longhand can give you the illusion of accomplishing more than you think, but I'm immune to that deception these days. I know exactly how many (or how few) words a page of my handwriting contains.

Really, the magic didn't start happening until the last quarter of the last session. That's when I really started getting into a zone and writing feverishly. At the end of the day, my output was close to seven handwritten pages for a word count of about 850. In retrospect, that's not necessarily disappointing. I was talking to one of my classmates who attended both days, and she said she got about three pages of 12-point Times New Roman on the first day and ended up with a total of eight pages over the two days. Like me, she was working on an entirely original story for class. Three pages of the required 12-point Times New Roman is approximately 1200 words to my 850. In light of that fact, I guess I didn't do too bad for one day of trying to write a totally new story.

My biggest problem is that one of my goals was to decide which of two possible stories to write for the class' original story requirement. Even though basically all the work I got done today was on one of the stories, I'm still not sure I've decided. Even though I love the way this story is turning out, I'm not sure it's long enough to submit for this assignment. The professor's 15-20 page guideline for grad student stories is just that, a guideline. However, I'm afraid this story might end up being short enough to qualify as a short-short story. If you work in that length, she requires you to submit multiple stories that add up to at least 10 pages, and I don't have any ideas for other stories I could bundle with it.

Nevertheless, I like this whole boot-camp idea. I feel like if I could do one of these on a regular basis, I could really get a lot of writing done. Seriously, this sounds like a good concept for a general writing group unaffiliated with any university.

Friday, May 14, 2010

LeBron Watch

According to ESPN, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert held a press conference to announce that he is not firing coach Mike Brown after the debacle of a series against the Celtics. I find that somewhat surprising, because when I was watching ESPN on TV at Wright State, killing time before an appointment, I assumed that the announcement of a press conference at 2:30 meant somebody was getting fired. Either that or Gilbert was going to do something really unexpected like move the team to Seattle. It'll be interesting to see what happens now, since somebody's got to take the fall when a team with this much talent loses in the second round.

Of course, the big question now is where LeBron James will play next season. For some reason everybody thinks the Knicks are a top contender. I don't see why. They sucked this season only marginally less than they did last year. Bottom line, they didn't make the playoffs. The way I see it, James doesn't need the money, and he doesn't need more media exposure in the U.S., so he will want to go somewhere that offers him a chance to contend for a championship in the near future. I don't follow the NBA closely enough to know which decent teams have the cap space to sign LeBron, but I'm pretty sure New York is out of the picture unless they trade for  Tony Parker and win the lottery to get the #1 draft pick.

But since I've written this prediction on the internet in a public place, we can probably assume that the Knicks will sign Lebron on July 2 without either of those two events happening.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writing Boot Camp

It looks like I'm going to be on the Wright State campus Saturday to take part in an annual writing boot camp. The idea is to get writers to sit in the chair for long periods of writing interspersed with breaks in which you can interact with the other writers and possibly get advice and feedback about your project. I'll be using the time to try to get as much of my original story for class done as I possibly can.

I actually decided to register at the last possible second, mostly because of some last-minute confusion about my story. The story I was originally going to try to write was having some major issues at the conceptual level. I still believe in this story, and I'll write it someday, but I'm not sure I can develop it into something halfway decent by next Friday night, when I'm supposed to post a draft to Course Studio. On the other hand, a writing exercise we did at the beginning of class today inspired me to start thinking about another story I'd toyed with writing. This one isn't my usual sf stuff, but it's a better vehicle for the techniques we're studying in class, and it doesn't have as many issues as the other one.

Since I'm still undecided, I figured I would just jump back and forth between both of them at the boot camp, depending on my mood and and that of the writer's block demon. With any luck, I'll figure out by the end which story will be my class story, and hopefully have a huge chunk of the first draft done.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Charles Baxter, Dostoyevski, and Rush

I was reading an essay in Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext for my creative writing class. This particular essay was called "Creating a Scene." The title's a clever play on words, as the essay's really about causing a commotion in the world of your stories. The idea is that too many writers (particularly of literary fiction) have their characters avoid conflict, a behavior common in real life. Unfortunately, people read fiction for the excitement and conflict, so good fiction requires characters to be more confrontational than many people are in real life. The essay had three effects on me:

Validation: I like sturm and drang in my stories. Everything I write that isn't set in an imaginary world tends to involve getting inside the head of somebody mentally unstable and to have a body count. I didn't need anybody to tell me to have my characters say and do outrageous things that move the action along. It was just nice to have one of those authors of snobbish literary fiction endorse something I already instinctively believe in.

New Author to Read: Baxter went on and on in this essay about the famous 19th-Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski. Specifically, he mentioned Dostoyevski's tendency to create characters who "make scenes" and to write intense scenes that made his readers uncomfortable. This tendency caused many of his contemporaries, including Anton Chekhov, to call him "indulgent." This attitude is apparently echoed by a lot of modern creative writing professors and students. But hearing about this disconcerting intensity made me decide that I'm going to have to read me some Dostoyevski at some point. The fact that the snub of Dostoyevski is mirrored by a near universal acclaim of authors like Alice Munro only adds to this urge. We've had to read a bunch of Alice Munro stories this quarter, and I've come to the conclusion that, while I can tell she's a skilled writer, reading thirty pages of her at a time is a chore for me.

Crazy Tangent on Music: Reading about all this indulgent intensity immediately made me think of some of my favorite bands. I had the new Coheed and Cambria album The Year of the Black Rainbow playing in my car's CD player last week, so I guess I was primed to think about why I like bands like Coheed and Rush. Their styles can also be described as indulgent and over-the-top. Rush has sometimes been slammed by music critics for their "too busy" arrangements. Of course, anyone who's ever listened to "Tom Sawyer" knows that's what makes them fun to listen to. Indulgence is the point of hard rock genres. Meanwhile, Coheed and Cambria has songs like "Welcome Home," which sport indulgent, over-the-top arrangements and lyrics that can make some listeners uncomfortable. So basically, I like my literature like I like my music: with an emphasis on mythic, intense subject matter or emotional states rather than real-life monotony.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ohio Primary

Today, I voted in a primary election for the first time since my senior year in high school (1988--yes, I proudly voted for Dukakis). This isn't because I'm politically unaware. I've voted in every even-year general election since then. The problem is that the odd years usually feature obscure races and issues. They're so obscure, in fact, that I'm lucky to even know what's on the ballot in those years. It turns out that the same holds true for primary elections in even-numbered non-presidential years.

Actually, the most notable thing about the ballot was how few contested races were on it. It was six computer screens long, and most of the races featured one candidate running unopposed or no candidate at all (presumably races the party had conceded to Republicans). In the major contested race, for U.S. senator, I voted for Jennifer Brunner, mostly because Lee Fisher strikes me as incompetent. The biggest thing I remember about the local primary coverage is this non-sequitur from the Dayton Daily News

Despite Fisher’s efforts, DHL pulled out of Wilmington and jilted 8,000 workers. Fisher calls it “the greatest tragedy of this recession.”

The central message in Fisher’s campaign is jobs. His TV ad says it, his campaign literature says it, and Fisher says it in nearly every campaign appearance as he touts his two years as state development director and his continuing work on economic development for Ohio.
That's right, this guy is soliciting donations as the jobs candidate by highlighting a huge failure to save jobs. Since there's no competence advantage for Fisher, I figured I might as well vote for the person who seems to have her heart in the right place. Not that it did any good. It looks like Fisher has won by around 54%-46%. In any case, I still have to vote for Fisher in the Fall to keep W's former OMB director out of the Senate.

I also voted in favor of renewing the Third Frontier program. Not only is investing in technology good for the economy, but it could also be good for my own career prospects as an aspiring technical writer. Selfishness and altruism actually converge in this case, so it was an easy decision.

Finally, I voted in favor of relocating the Columbus casino approved in the gambling initiative last Fall. I was tempted to vote against it and leave them stuck with the old location just to teach politicians a lesson about writing such detailed proposals into the state constitution, but I thought better of it.