We roasted a leg of lamb for Easter dinner.  It would have been a half-leg of lamb — which is more in line with the number of people in the house these days — but the grocery store didn’t have any half-legs left by the time we did our shopping, so a whole leg of lamb it was.  We stabbed it with a knife and put in slivers of garlic, then laid rosemary sprigs on top of it and cooked it at 325F for 25 minutes per pound, and served it up with mint sauce and roasted potatoes and asparagus in hollandaise.

The potatoes and the asparagus are gone, along with the hollandaise, but we’ve still got half the lamb in the refrigerator, and now I’m thinking about leftovers.  Lamb sandwiches, probably, and maybe a shepherd’s pie.

It isn’t just cooking that has me thinking about leftovers.  Writing jobs have leftovers, too — the paths the story tried to take that turned out to be dead ends; the bits of other as-yet-unwritten stories that cropped up in the current project by mistake; the occasional perfectly good, yes-it-really-happened scene that nevertheless had to be excised from the finished text because it slowed things down at a point when they needed to be moving fast, or because it threw unwanted emphasis on something that needed to be kept in the background, or because the book had a firm word count requirement and was already threatening to run long.

But the dead-end paths and the outcroppings of other narratives can often be reworked into fully realized stories in their own right.  In fact, their appearance in a story where they don’t fit can often mean that your subconscious muse is telling you something about what your next project ought to be.  As for those snippets that were removed in the service of the greater good — it used to be, there wasn’t much a writer could do with them except put the pages away in a desk drawer with a sigh of regret, but the internet has helped us with that as it has helped us with so many other things.   Those snippets can now be posted on a novel’s web page as extra treats for faithful readers, or turned into Kickstarter rewards, or compiled into a self-published chapbook and put up for sale by the author.

So don’t throw out those leftovers, any more than you’d throw out a perfectly good half-eaten leg of lamb.

Desk Job

Sometimes I fantasize about having the ideal desk.  It’s nice and solid, in oak or cherry or some other polished hardwood, and it puts my monitor at just the right height, and it’s got three or four proper-sized drawers that I can put things away in . . . something rather like this one, in fact, which I would buy in a heartbeat if I had all the money in the world.

Since I don’t have all the money in the world, I’m still using the same particle-board desk my husband/co-author and I bought as one of a pair in a 2-for-1 sale at K-Mart the year we took up this freelance writing gig.  It’s not even a little bit ergonomic — the computer magazines were only just starting to take up that idea — and it’s ugly as a mud fence plastered with tapoles (to use an idiom of my youth), and so far it has proven damn-near indestructible.

Taking a sledgehammer to it would be cheating.

I tell myself that with a new desk, a proper desk, I would experience a sudden efflorescence of creative enthusiasm.  I know better than that, alas.  The quality of the desk has little or nothing to do with the quality of the writing.  I did a lot of very good work during the five-year span where I had my computer and printer set up on a table in the kitchen where I could keep an eye on the front door — that being the time period when the two younger children had learned how to work the latch on the front door but had not yet attained the discretion necessary to not go out and play in traffic.

Nevertheless, a writer can dream.

The Return of the Intellectual Packrat

By way of apologia for having been Away From Keyboard for a couple of days, have a couple of nifty research sites.

The Memoirs of Pascal Bonenfant.  The site name notwithstanding, this isn’t actually anybody’s memoirs; rather, it’s a collection of research sources and links for 18th-century social history.  There’s a database of thieves’ cant, and a page with recipes from a period pharmacopoeia (I really want to know what the “Powder of Millepedes” — Take Millepedes prepared 12 grains; Saffron 3 grains; Flower of Benjamin, Salt of Amber, each 2 grains; Ginger 1 grain; Oil of Aniseed 1 drop; Bring all to a Powder — was supposed to be prescribed for), a “List of the Flying Coaches, Stage Coaches, Waggons, and Carriers” going in and out of London in 1721, and a plethora of other fascinating things.

And then there’s the Food Timeline page.  If you want to find out the wholesale price of wheat in Philadelphia in July of 1762 (5.5 shillings the bushel), or the cost of a  Thanksgiving turkey in New Jersey in 1931 (39¢ a pound), this is the place to look.

Because if you really want to write about the past and make it real for your readers, you don’t just want the wars and the politics.  You want the food and the drink and the furniture of everyday life as well.

Peeve of the Day

Another thing a lot of writers get wrong:  cold.

Film and television writers are particularly bad in this regard, possibly because so many of them live in southern California, where cold is something that you make a day trip to visit and then drive home again.  But they aren’t the only ones.

Cold — true cold — isn’t charming and picturesque.  It’s dangerous and debilitating; it drains your energy and makes you stupid and has no compunction about killing you dead.

A few writers have gotten it right, notably Jack London in “To Build a Fire.” (The fantasy novelist Sean Stewart also got it right, in an elegant homage to London’s work that appears in his novel The Night Watch.)

More Thoughts on Rejection

Anybody who writes for money is going to become, perforce, an expert in the types and levels of rejection.

There’s the generic form rejection, which usually reads something on the order of “Your manuscript does not meet our needs at the present time” — which may on rare occasions mean “Your story was so bad it made our eyeballs bleed” but which usually means nothing more than what it says.  Your manuscript didn’t meet their current needs, whatever those needs may have been.  Maybe they bought a story similar to yours just last week; maybe your story was an awkward length and they already have enough stories of that length in inventory to keep them supplied for a year; maybe you happened by chance to write upon a subject that gives the editor hives.  Or maybe your perfectly competent story just didn’t quite push the editor’s “Buy This One!” button.

(That last is a dreadful stage to be at in one’s writing career, by the way.  It’s like perpetually getting B-plusses and never quite getting an A; it’s like watching everybody else in your high-school class get asked out on dates while you’re spending your Saturday nights at home with a good book. A lot of aspiring writers give up at this point.  A lot of others turn bitter and morose, and are left unable to enjoy themselves when they finally do make that first sale.  The only consolation to be had is that everybody who’s eventually sold their writing has gone through this stage first.)

Then there’s the personalized and encouraging rejection, wherein the editor takes a minute or so from a busy schedule to add something like “Keep on writing!” or “Try us again with your next.”  These notes are good and flattering things.  The wise aspirant doesn’t take them as an invitation to initiate a personal correspondence, but files them away in the “Attaboy!” (or “Attagirl!,” as appropriate) folder to take out and contemplate on those grey and rainy afternoons of the soul that writers are so often prone to.

Then there’s the rejection letter with specific suggestions:  “Shorten this by 500 words and I’ll give it another look” or “This isn’t really our sort of thing, but you might consider sending it to Anne Editor over at Marketable Magic Realism.”  In those cases — for heaven’s sake, don’t be dense.  Shorten the story and resubmit, or send it over to Marketable Magic Realism post haste with a note in the cover letter to the effect of “Joe Editor over at Rivetty SF suggested I send this to you.”

Maybe you don’t think your story was magic realism; maybe you think it was hard sf.  (You’d read Rivetty‘s submission guidelines, after all; that much of a newbie you aren’t.)  And maybe you’re right.  But editors make their reputations by knowing how readers are going to see these things, and Marketable Magic Realism‘s checks clear just as well as those from Rivetty SF Stories.  Take the money and run.

Really, don’t. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently consign yourself to some editor’s Creepy Stalker file.

Some Things Never Change

Found while looking through my bookmarks the other day,  a blog post from back in 2010 talking about something even earlier:

A (personalized and encouraging) rejection letter from William Dean Howells, in 1900.

I don’t know if Howells also had a stack of pre-printed “your manuscript does not meet our needs at the present time” letters, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out that he did.

Further Causes of Reader Disgruntlement: Tone/Plot Mismatch

Sometimes, clothing the plot of one kind of story in the tone of a different and contrasting kind of story can  produce startling and unusual effects that give pleasure to the reader.  Other times . . .  well, at other times, the reader is more likely to conclude that the writer was trying to be clever, and failing.  This tends to make the reader unhappy.  (See John Scalzi on the failure mode of clever.)

This was brought home to me when I watched the 2009 film Duplicity, a complexly-plotted movie about corporate espionage and double-dealing which left me sufficiently disgruntled that I spent most of a long drive home from the movie theater trying to figure out what had gone wrong.  My ultimate conclusion, at least as far as my own disgruntlement was concerned, was that the tone and the plot of the film didn’t match. The tone was romantic comedy with a side order of intrigue, while the plot more properly belonged to a Cold War era spy thriller in the Le Carre or Deighton mode — the sort of film that gets shot with a monochrome filter and you count it a win if anybody even vaguely likeable is still alive when the credits roll.

The proper ending for a romantic comedy/caper flick is for the sympathetic characters to finish it up drinking champagne and eating strawberries and chocolate in bed on high-thread-count sheets in a luxury hotel someplace with no extradition treaties. Nothing else counts as a win. With a Cold War spy thriller, just having the sympathetic characters (if there even are any) come out of things alive at the finish is enough to keep it from being a stone downer, and alive-and-together is enough to count as a win.

Similarly, the reader of a Cold War thriller will accept betrayals and skullduggery and sympathetic people doing morally-ambiguous things because the fate of nations is at stake — if things go wrong enough, it won’t just be a few people sold out and bleeding, it’ll be whole armies of them, and civilians as well.  The reader of a romantic comedy is unlikely to be as accepting.

(Does this mean you should never play mix-and-match with tone and plot?  No.  It means that if you’re going to do it, be certain you can carry it off — and keep in mind the consequences of the failure mode.)

Film and Television Aren’t Your Friends

There are a few things — more than a few, actually, but this is a blog post, not an exhaustive list — that you’re going to get the wrong impression of, if you’re relying on film and television and not real life:

How dark darkness really is.  Scenes on television and in the movies that are supposedly set in lightless or minimally-lit places (the woods on a moonless night; a windowless room) are in fact taking place in a representation of darkness and not the real thing, and the representation has to have enough light going on that the viewers can follow the action.  You’re a writer, not a film or television director, so you don’t have access to that particular artistic convention.  You need to keep track of what your light sources are, and if you don’t want your characters to be tripping over furniture in the dark, have them remember to bring along a flashlight.

How much injury it actually takes to put somebody out of action.  If all you want to do is sideline a character for a few chapters so that, for example, other characters are temporarily deprived of their assistance, it’s not necessary to riddle them with bullets or put them in a coma.  A severe sprain, a minor dislocation, a bad case of flu or even food poisoning . . . any of those will work as well.

How loud gunshots really are.  Make that how LOUD.  Your characters aren’t going to be holding any complex conversations in the immediate aftermath.

At what speed the wheels of justice really turn.  Anybody who’s ever served on jury duty knows that the reality is a long way from its fictional counterpart.  There are fewer moments of high drama, and more moments that sound like a couple of highly-paid professional litigators playing a complex but boring game of Mother-may-I.  (If you’ve never served on a jury, do so if you’re called — the experience, for a writer, is invaluable.  Lacking that opportunity, you can sometimes find gavel-to-gavel trial coverage on television or the internet.)

The moral of the story, unsurprisingly, is that if you find yourself writing about something that you only know about through media representations . . . back off and do some research.

A Friendly Reminder

As of this week, we’re roughly halfway through the application season for the Viable Paradise workshop.

If you’re planning to apply, now is a good time to do it; there’s always a big rush of applications at the very end.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of the eight instructors at Viable Paradise; this year’s full set also includes James D. Macdonald, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Elizabeth Bear, Sherwood Smith, Steve Gould, and Steven Brust.)


Going There

Sometimes, in the course of writing a short story or a novel, you come up to a scene that’s going to be . . . difficult.  You know going in that it’s going to be tough to write, because it means dealing with subject matter that makes you uncomfortable, or that could make at least some of your potential readers uncomfortable, or both.  It may touch on sex or violence or both, because as humans we tend to be kind of screwed up where those subjects are concerned, and especially screwed up at points where they intersect.

At this point in the writing process, it’s usually a good idea to stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need to go there?”

Not “want” — we’ve already established that you don’t necessarily want to do any such thing.  You know that it’s going to be hard work, that it’s not going to make you happy while you’re doing it, and that there’s a good chance that at least some of your readers are going to be upset with you afterward.  So — not want, but need.  Is this the scene that’s going to best serve the long-term goals of your story?  Is its inclusion necessary to the truth — moral, thematic, artistic — of your story?  Can an equivalent but less disturbing scene serve the same purpose in your story, or would making such a substitution be tantamount to lying to your readers?

Some of the time, the answer is going to be “No, I don’t really need to go there.”  It’s entirely possible that what at first plot-outline thought seemed necessary is actually a hackneyed trope and the easy way out.  (Gratuitous rape scenes, I’m looking at you hard with a cold and fishy eye.  Common decency aside, gratuitous rape has been used so many times to provide characters with dark and troubled pasts, or motivate them to roaring rampages of revenge, that its inclusion in a narrative these days serves mostly as an indicator that the author couldn’t be bothered to think of anything original.)

Other times, however, you’re going to look at your story and ask it that question, and the story is going to look back at you and say, “Yes.  You need to do this.”

At that point, the thing to remember is:  Don’t flinch.

If you’ve made up your mind to go there — wherever “there” is for this story — step forward without hesitation.  Don’t walk around things you don’t want to look at, don’t keep your hands away from things you don’t want to touch.  Whatever you do, don’t worry about what your mother, your significant other, or the nice people in your writing group are going to think about you because you wrote this.  Think about your readers, who will always be able to tell when you’re dodging the issue, and keep yourself honest for them.

Nobody ever said that writing was a job for the timid.

It could involve almost anything, though. There’s no telling what a given person may find unpleasant or disturbing.