Creative Calisthenics

So the question comes up, from the earnest student in the front row of the lecture hall:  “Are there specific things that I, as a writer, can do — in terms of practice exercises and the like – to improve the quality of my work?”

And the answer is, yes, there are a few.

Here’s one for starters: Try writing things that are further out toward the edges of your comfort zone, whether in terms of form and style, or in terms of content.

For example, if you don’t like writing in first person (or in second person present tense, or in third person objective, or whatever), you can make a point of writing a short piece or two that way.  Likewise, you can try writing angst-ridden noir if you normally turn out lighter pieces; or comforting fluff if you normally go for the 88%-cacao-dark; or a tightly-plotted caper story if your usual product is loosely-plotted character-driven vignettes.

You may surprise yourself and get something publishable out of the exercise.  And even if you don’t, you’ll have exercised some new writing muscles.

It’s the Real Thing

Straight out of the tale of Hansel and Gretel, it’s the world’s largest gingerbread house.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, for one thing, it’s proof that the real world has a lot of strange stuff in it all by itself, without writers necessarily having to make strange stuff up.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with making up strange stuff for the fun of it, if that’s what you like to do.)

And for another thing, it’s a salutary reminder, for those of us who write science fiction and fantasy, that we work in genres where things that in the world of consensus reality are only imaginary concepts, can and do achieve solid three-dimensional existence.  Our gingerbread house isn’t just a daydream or a metaphor any longer — it’s right there in front of us, and the door is open.

Does This Mean We’re Respectable?

It certainly looks like it.  The Paris Review has interviewed Ursula K. LeGuin.

The interview is worth reading for a couple of different reasons . . . well, actually, at least three.

One is that the interviewer is not somebody from inside the science fiction/fantasy community, so the interview’s questions and answers aren’t the ones that a lifetime of reading interviews in Locus and similar in-group publications has trained us to expect.

Two is that the interviewer is not someone who knows a great deal about science fiction, to put it kindly, and watching LeGuin maneuver diplomatically around the resulting areas of ignorance is a pleasure to behold.

And three, this is Ursula K. LeGuin we’re talking about.  She’s always interesting, no matter who’s interviewing her and for what.

The Season Approacheth

With National Novel Writing Month receding into the past, and the midwinter giftgiving season drawing ever closer, it’s time again for a display of crass commercialism on my part.

If you’ve got your NaNoWriMo manuscript in hand, and would like help in taking that finished product to the next level, I’m here to help.  My base rates are $1500 for a novel, or $100 for a first chapter sample (or for a short story, if that’s what you’ve got.)  More details can be found here.

Also, if you’re looking for a present to give to the writer in your life, you can give them a virtual gift certificate for a line-edit and critique — you can purchase my services in advance at the usual rate, and they can schedule the job whenever they’re ready.  If you like, I can even send you a PDF of a nice-looking gift certificate that you can print out and put into an envelope, or in a great big enormous box with a lot of packing peanuts, if that’s how you roll.

Peeve of the Day

Today’s peeve, gentlebeings and fellow wordsmiths, is that pair of weasel words, “somehow” and “something.”

We’ve all used them, at least in our first drafts.  Our hero is engaged in breakneck pursuit of the villain, and his energy is flagging while the villain has wings on his heels (possibly literally, if we’re writing fantasy) . . . but somehow, our hero finds within himself a last reserve of speed and collars the miscreant.  Or possibly our hero is fast overtaking the bad guy, but somehow the bad guy pulls ahead by just enough to swing aboard a passing garbage truck and make his escape.

Later in the same epic, our hero is about to enter his home through the front door after a hard day’s work . . . but something prompts him to go around back and enter through the kitchen door instead, thus allowing him to get the drop on the waiting villain.

This is lazy writing.  It implies causation (thus taking the curse of random coincidence off the turn of events), but it does so without bothering to be specific about anything.  The alert reader — and it never pays to assume your reader is anything but alert — will notice that an actual cause or agent is missing, and will lose a certain amount of faith in the writer because of the omission.

Most of the time, you can jettison the “somehow” and no one will miss it.  The hero puts on a burst of speed and catches the bad guy, or the bad guy pulls ahead and makes his getaway — state it with confidence and your reader will believe you.

As for that stealthy entrance through the kitchen door . . . ditching the “something” isn’t enough to help you there.  For that one, you also need to come up with a reason.  If your hero goes round to the back based on the promptings of his intuition, you had better have established already that he’s an intuitive sort and that his intuition works in his favor more often than not.  Otherwise, you’d better have him noticing that the doormat is no longer lined up squarely with the edges of the front step, or that his cat is not dozing on her favored late-afternoon spot on the living-room window-sill, or that the burnt-out match stub he normally shuts between the door and the doorjamb when he leaves in the morning isn’t there any more (depending upon whether your hero is obsessively tidy, or a cat person, or professionally paranoid.)

The two general rules that apply here:  one, don’t dither; and two, specificity is your friend.