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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Lessons in Life and Writing

Sometimes, you get good advice where you least expect it.

I'm reading such a book, thinking: "This guy writes rude, coarse, even obscene prose, he's done some truly despicable things... but - damn him! - he has his story to tell. And he knows how to tell it in the most direct, blunt manner possible. He knows stuff. He's spilling the beans about writing movie scripts, and reveals how it's actually done."

Even as I often try to be polite, I respect frankness.

Even when it comes from Joe Eszterhas.

I'm reading his autobiography, Hollywood Animal. It is totally unsuitable for young readers. The book contains too much violence, swearing, bad sex and bad behavior.

However, he also gives the reader a rare peek into the life of the Hollywood screenwriter. His horror stories of excess, inflated egos and corruption have permanently scared me away from working in that business.

OK, I wrote a script once, but I'll never go near Hollywood. It's too dangerous. Eszterhas describes how several of his friends literally DIED from the corruption, stress and heartbreak induced by the movie business. He writes:

"If you allowed Hollywood to infect your soul... not your brain, not even your heart, but your soul... you became vulnerable to the shiv with which Hollywood could kill you."

If you are over 18 and have film ambitions of any kind, I can recommend you read Hollywood Animal. If you're not, take this advice: stay the hell away from Hollywood!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Happy Easter!

I'll be away over Easter, so no new posts until Monday.

In the meantime, why don't you visit my homepage and read some short stories for free?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Isaac Asimov's Writing Secrets Uncovered!

Isaac Asimov, an extremely prolific (and enduringly successful) writer of hundreds of books, took part in a conference in the early 1980s.

Shannon Roe was there, and wrote down notes about what Asimov said about writing. Now, her notes have been presented in the article "How to write a lot" . A little gem, this document, which shows how Asimov saw himself and his work.

Typical of his self-deprecating humor is this quote:
"I can't tell you how to be a good writer," he had begun, "because nobody ever says that I'm a good writer. It's always 'prolific writer.' That's a polysyllabic term for 'hack.' "

Read the rest, and be a little wiser.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

How To End Stories

On the ASIMOV'S Message Board are two interesting threads about endings in science fiction books and stories:
-Why are endings in science fiction so often disappointing?
-Why these interminable "series" and "sagas" instead of complete novels with definite endings?

In the threads, I offered these possible explanations for disappointing endings:
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"Why do SF novels so often have weak endings?"

Answer 1: Because SF, with its emphasis on possibilities and new opportunities, tends to undercut or completely subvert many "traditional" endings. Resolutions don't come as easily as they do in, say, romance or detective stories.

Answer 2: The kind of SF that tends toward wish-fulfilment is dreamlike. And dreams don't have "real" endings... you just wake up from them.

Answer 3: SF writers often create imaginary worlds so complex and large, they create more loose ends than can be tied up in a single novel.

Answer 4: The fans are nitpicky. ;-)
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As for the "sequel plague" in the genre, I wrote:
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A series, for a writer, is like a trust fund. It ensures him a reasonably steady income. (And steady income is the Holy Grail of writers everywhere. I stand accused.)

Sure, a series becomes derivative sooner or later. But also, fans perpetuate them. If you personally don't like a series, you have my sympathy... but market forces keep them around.

(They will probably continue to crank out new "Foundation" and "Dune" sequels fifty years from now. Such is life.)
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Gardner Dozois, longtime editor of ASIMOV'S, weighed in:
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The bad part of the emphasis on series, for both science fiction and mystery, is that when series books don't earn up to expectations, the publishers drop the series without bringing out the rest of the books, so the landscape is left littered with broken series where you never are going to find out what happens next to the characters, no matter how much you might want to know.

Be nice if publishers would give the authors one last book to wrap all the loose ends up in once they've decided to drop the series--the fans would certainly be happier that way--but publishing isn't a business that can afford that sort of luxury.
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Many more good points are made on these discussion threads - by readers and writers - so check them out, if you want to learn more about readers and writers.

Isn't it great that readers and writers can meet and discuss like equals on message boards? Personally, I love it!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Stephen King's Writing Advice Rocks!

Stephen King has produced two of my favorite books about the writing craft: Danse Macabre and On Writing. Both are honest, down-to-earth, funny and chock full of practical advice.

Craft. That's the thing. You can't do "art" until you know the craft. How do you structure sentences? How do you create a good ending? Do the characters work? Are there too many characters? What is the "theme" of your story or novel? King lays it all down. I'll take his advice over any arty-farty academic from some English Lit faculty.

(I wish, though, that King would follow his own advice and sometimes write shorter novels...)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Did I Say "100,000 Readers"? I Meant 200,000...

I just received an official confirmation on a Chinese bulletin board: my short story "See" has been published in the year's first issue of the magazine SCIENCE FICTION STORY (a.k.a. "Ke Huan").

And the same day as I spotted that confirmation on the Zhwj website, an email arrived from another Chinese publication, WORLD SF. The magazine has accepted my short story "Telephone Conversations" for its forthcoming 2005 summer issue.

"Telephone Conversations" originally appeared on my old homepage, under the title "Keeping Up With the Cloneses" (And the award for Worst Pun goes to...).

It's a series of "overheard" phone conversations by a gossipy housewife (a Desperate Housewife? ;-)) in the posh suburb Green Awnings, in the very near future. Some new neighbors have moved in across the street, and the housewife doesn't like it.

Not the best story I ever wrote... but good clean fun.

"Telephone Conversations" is an example of how to write about an extraordinary subject matter from an everyday viewpoint. Instead of depicting events from the "heroine's" viewpoint as she moves into a close-knit suburb, you see it from an angle everyone can recognize: "What are the neighbors saying?" This also allows for a satire of bigotry, plus the bonus that the villain is the protagonist.

I'm thinking of posting the English versions of "See" and "Telephone Conversations" on my homepage... but let me check with the Chinese publishers first, that they are OK with that.

Are you thinking of getting published in China? Read more about it here.

UPDATE:
I've received more information about the magazine WORLD SF, from the Chinese writer Ruhan (a.k.a. "North Star").

Quote:
"World SF" ("my magazine" :)) had spent a lot for marketing this new SF magazine and had a strong consulting committee which includes James Gunn, Elizabeth Hull (probably Fredrik Pohl, can't remember) and some other famous Chinese and Japanese SF writers). Its editorial committee is also composed by some of the the most active young Chinese SF writers, well, I may be not that young:). I just got the second official issue. It looks quite good.

NOTE: It can be a bit confusing to keep track of Chinese magazines - titles and covers are often quite similar, and there's the obvious language barrier for Westerners like me.
WORLD SF is not the same as SF WORLD, which is older and also the science-fiction magazine with the world's largest circulation+readership. (That's where I'm trying to get published next.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rejection: The Part Of The Writing Job That Sucks

I could play cool, and pretend it doesn't hurt to receive a rejection slip from an editor.

But it does. It always hurts every time... like having your heart carved up with a rusty nail... like hearing your parents say "We wish you'd never been born!"... like having your legs run over by a truck while you hear Britney Spears singing "My Prerogative."

It softens the pain, though, to have an agent who receives the rejections and forwards them to me. (Thanks, Faye.)

When an editor rejects a manuscript, the worst part is knowing how arbitrary the publisher's review process really is. There is no objectivity.

You can polish a manuscript all you want... in the end, you may still be treated like J.K. Rowling, who was rejected by nine editors who thought Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone wouldn't sell. (Listed by The Sun as one of the 50 Worst Decisions Ever.)

If you bear in mind what happened to Rowling, your rule of thumb should be: Don't give up your manuscript until it has been rejected at least 10 times. Then you shelve it and start writing something else.

If you want to read other writers' acounts of rejections-before-success, this article has several.
If you just want to wallow in the misery of other writers being rejected, there is the Rejection Collection.

But why do that? You should rejoice in the regret, self-loathing and bitterness of the editors who rejected J.K.Rowling. Every time you meet a publishing professional, ask which person rejected Rowling. And if you ever come face-to-face with one of the editors who decided the rejection, ask him or her:
"How does it feel to be such a f***ing jerk?"

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Hair Club For Writers

OK, suppose you get a publishing deal - perhaps not a big one, but your first one, and you feel great. You think "My work is done!" and start to relax...

WRONG.

You will now be faced with the first real challenge, that can make or break your writing career: Do you have a good, or at least original, haircut?

Many writers seem cursed with hair that makes children cry and run. "There, there, dear... did the hairy man frighten you? It's okay, it's not a werewolf, it's just a writer..."

It's not enough to have just a "decent" haircut. It has to give you distinct identity. Your hair will be your trademark... or damage your image.

You don't believe me? Look at this. And this. And... this.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Dr. Synopsis, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Plotting

When my agent accepts to represent one of my books - or movie scripts - she asks me to deliver a snappy summary of the plot and characters. This is also called a "pitch".

How to pitch HAMLET: "They killed his father - now he's out for revenge! Who will be the last man standing?" (A pretty accurate plot summary.)

However: A snappy plot summary is NOT the same as a synopsis. If you want to write a full (and successful) novel, begin with the synopsis.

A writer's own private book synopsis needs to be very detailed. It can - and often should- provide the "back story" and information the writer needs to "make sense" of his imaginary world. (Neither the reader nor the editor need to see the writer's synopsis. The version they get to see is more like a pitch.)

I go so far as to draw sketches of the characters and locations in a book. (Of course, if the location also exists in the real world, you can look it up. For instance, you can find a variety of detailed maps of every country in the world.)

If there is a major inconsistency or plot-hole in the story I wish to tell, it's always better if it shows up in my synopsis and preparatory notes... so I can work it out in advance... instead of appearing much later, after the book is released, when the publisher asks me to write a sequel.

Almost no writer escapes making an error now and then. Luckily, readers are a forgiving lot... but watch your step! Legend has it that Frank Herbert was mercilessly taunted by nitpicky readers. They would sneak up on him during conventions and say "Oxygen!" (Meaning: where does the oxygen atmosphere on the plantless, waterless desert planet Arrakis in Dune come from?)

The readers and publishers wanted sequels to Dune (and did they get sequels)... so Herbert had to work out the oxygen issue in later books.

When I wrote Terra Hexa, I took a huge leave of my senses. (Or two. Or three...) Instead of working out in advance how the imaginary world of the story actually worked and where it came from, I decided to not give a damn. I was convinced the book would never be published in my home country anyway... and a sequel to that book was as likely as a flying pig... so who cares? Wheeee!!

But such was the whim of a capricious fate, that it tossed a giant-size humble pie in my face. The publisher asked me to write a sequel. I'm writing it now. And I have to work out the issues I ignored when I prepared the first book... and the readers and critics have been kind enough to point out all the loose ends and inconsistencies.

It's nice to know they care. :)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Short Stories Are Long Efforts

I've mentioned that books should not be too long. This gets even more crucial in short-story writing. I'm the wrong person to give advice about writing short stories, because frankly I'm not very good at it.

I have learned great patience when writing novels (One year's work to finish the 100,000-word book? Okeli-dokeli-do!).... but I get incredibly impatient when I sit and write a short story (Spend two whole WEEKS to polish that 1,500-word short? Never!).

Why is that? Feel free to offer explanations.

A recent short story I wrote - in an impatient rush, hastily revised - has now been posted on my homepage. "The Last Weblog Of Jonathan Lippincott" is a pastiche of H.P.Lovecraft's horror tales, set in a present-day environment. It's also a satire of weblogs, and can be read either as a morbid joke, or an "urban legend" type of horror story...

The main part of said story uses the weblog format - including the Comment field where readers can leave their feedback. (Note how the fictional "comments" to the fictional blog posts provides a sort of "Greek Chorus" to the story, and emphasize the spooky mood!)

This may seem like a new trick, but is actually quite old. A classic example of a story presented as a series of "found" documents - letters, diaries, newspaper clippings - is Bram Stoker's Dracula. An even older example, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) is written as a series of letters. (Click those links - it's free literature online! Free books, damn it! What are you waiting for?)

I encourage any aspiring writer to use this "found document" stylistic device. It's a tremendously effective "infodump" technique, and brings a "you-are-there" urgency to any story.

Or how about combining this trick with an uncommon choice of genre: "The sole witness to the meeting, a housemaid, claims she heard Mr. Butler say: 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,' before he left the house. Ms. O'Hara has refused to make any statements to our Atlanta correspondent."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

How To Write A Best-Selling Fantasy Novel... Or Maybe Not

Australian comedy writer Ian McFadyen has written a very funny article, "How To Write A Best Selling Fantasy Novel" - packed with excellent advice for Tolkien imitator hacks everywhere!

Among McFadyen's many useful rules, I find this to be the most important:
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"7. Make it long. The important thing about an epic fantasy novel is that the reader must be exhausted at the end of it. They must feel that they have overcome as many obstacles in getting through the book as the heroes have in fulfilling the quest. So the book must be as difficult to read as possible. To do this:

(a) Tell the story in incredible detail. Describe every day of the journey, how far they walked, what they ate, the weather, where they slept, especially days where nothing happens.

(b) Fill every dramatic situation with lengthy introspection. At every moment of crisis the hero must minutely examine his feelings, perceptions, identity, whether he left the gas on etc.

(c) Never take the easy way out of a crisis. For example, if the Wizard Guide holds great power, he will never use it to solve a situation."

(From"How To Write A Best Selling Fantasy Novel" by Ian McFadyen)
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In other words, your Best-Selling Generic Fantasy Novel must be an absolute ordeal to read.
OK, sarcasm off. What's the real lesson here?

1. Make it LONG ENOUGH.
2. If you need exposition, scatter it through the entire book.

3. Do... not... bore the reader. EVER. If some part of the hero's journey is uneventful, skip to the part where something interesting starts to happen.

If you can't come up with a good title for your fantasy epic, simply use my
GENERIC FANTASY TITLE GENERATOR (tm):
Just combine words from the following lists into fantasy titles:
1. Subject:
HERO/ES, WIZARD, WARLOCK, ELF, HOBBIT, KING, QUEEN, ORC, UNICORN
2. Object:
RING, SWORD, DAGGER, SCEPTRE, SPEAR, STONE, JEWEL, CROWN, THRONE, CASTLE
3. Relevant Astronomical Object:
MOON, SUN, EARTH, STAR/S
4. Mood:
DARK/NESS, SHADOW, NIGHT, LIGHT, DAWN, SILVER, GOLD
5. Action:
QUEST, FALL, RISE/RISING
6. Fillers
A, THE, OF, OVER
Example: "A Dawn of Unicorns"
Or: "The Sun Dagger King's Quest"
Or: "Fall of the Hobbit-King's Shadowquest of the Moonsword Castle"

Or better yet, don't write a Generic Fantasy novel. Come up with your own ideas instead.