Bad News/Good News

June 3, 2011 1 comment

Bad News: I’ve been thinking for a little while that Mage’s Price is becoming too derivative, and I’ve been struggling with how to handle that. I am doing some new things in the book, but I’m also retreading old ground. I’m just not sure what to do, and I’ve started languishing a bit. To help myself figure out what I need to be doing with it, I’ve setting it aside for now. It started as being ‘similar’ in many respects to the Wheel of Time series, which I was fine with, but I’m rereading the Wheel of Time right now, and that was making it worse. Much worse. I was getting close to being able to name my characters Rand, Matt, Perrin, and the like. Not good. So, I’m giving myself some distance for a bit. I’ve invest 47,000 words into it, so I don’t want to abandon it at all. But it will be better if I take a break from it.

Good News: I have started something that is in no way similar. It’s fantasy, but its in a different world. It’s different from anything else I’ve written, and it clings more closely to the things I wanted in my next novel. My writing is still improving, so I’m excited about that. Also, this next thing has a Roman flare. The fact that I’m trying to teach myself Latin probably has affected this decision. I just need to keep myself from making everything Latin. Novels written in dead languages don’t sell real well.

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Writing is like Fixing a Typewriter

My mind has been working on this a bit since I got my project. I’ve got the carriage moving consistently when I type, and the keys all work. It’s been a long hard road getting to that point. And someone who knew even the basics of typewriter maintenance could have achieved all I have and more in less than an afternoon.

Which is my first point:

It takes skill.

I was not born knowing how to repair Underwood No. 6s. The last week or two would have been easier if I had been, but I wasn’t. This wasn’t a talent issue, but a skill issue. I lacked the skill to complete the repairs. I had to work to increase my skills. The more I’ve worked, the easier it has become.

Writing is exactly the same, though with a longer learning curve. It’s skill I’m not born with, but skill I can learn.

Read about it all you want, learning a skill is in the doing.

I could spend all day every day reading the scanned Underwood manuals I’ve found and the forums where people discuss minutiae of typewriter repair, but until I disassembled the thing and got oil all over me, and blood all over it, I didn’t understand it.

Similarly, I could read about writing all day. There are more blogs devoted to how to write than any one person could hope to read. Yet they’re all out there. And they have some good ideas. But until you delve into your own writing, get it all over you and bleed into it, you aren’t going to understand it. It’s the difference between theoretical knowledge and applied knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is great for academics.

No one cares about your half-finished project as much as you, so you better really care.

Friends have asked about my typewriter project as I’ve gone through it. And I watched their eyes glaze over as I described the minor victories I had for the day. I knew they were only minor victories (‘hey, I understand which screws I need to unscrew now!’), but there have been days where the minor victories were the only things to show for hours of work. To get to even those kinds of victories, I had to spend hours tinkering with things I didn’t quite understand. If I had stopped caring, I would have quit. And no one, other than my wife, would have blamed me.

Writing a novel is the same. I don’t let myself talk about a novel in progress, but if I did, I would bore you to tears with the minor moves I make each day. (Today, I had a character realize he doesn’t understand his situation and nothing else!) I have to care about my work, because if I don’t, I’ll quit. If I quit, few will blame me (maybe my wife). After all, writing is hard work no one really understands anyway. I have to push myself to care, so that I can make a work people find worthy of caring about.

Even setbacks teach us something, if we are willing to learn.

The carriage return that wasn’t moving for awhile, now moves too much. I got the tension belt wound too tightly, and every so often the carriage jumps 10-15 spaces after a letter. That’s feedback I need in order to get it truly tuned. I then knew I needed to spray WD-40 along some key components and dial down the tension.

I try all sorts of things when I write my first draft. I make implausible leaps, I turn characters on a dime, I tried odd accenting and voices. I don’t do those things and then leave them alone. I examine them later and decide what worked, and more importantly, what didn’t. Once I know what didn’t work (Most everything at this stage), I try to understand why it didn’t work.

There’s more. I could probably hammer this metaphor to death, but I’ve learned a lot about typewriters, and writing, in the last couple of weeks. I’ll keep on failing and learning for months and years to come.

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Every Strength is a Weakness

While reflecting on some of my own personality traits, I came across this Idea I need to work into all of my characters- every trait that is a strength is also a weakness. This isn’t the same as saying a well rounded character needs to have strengths AND weaknesses. The more time I’ve spent thinking about it, the more certain I’ve become that’s not a fine enough point.

The seeds of this thought come from thinking about how parents exist in a state of perpetual catch .22. Force your child to play piano? you kill the child’s love of it. Allow you child to quite piano? You didn’t encourage her to work through her difficult times. Or, even broader, parents who are there for their children are also suffocating, while parents who give their children space are also abandoning them.

Along those lines, I think I’m decent at seeing situations from multiple points of view. I think this is of benefit to my writing and, often, my personal relationships. Also, it makes me a terrible sympathizer with regards to interpersonal conflict. If someone complains about a colleague’s actions, I too often find myself searching for explanations for the behavior. Intellectually, I understand my role as friend or husband is to say, ‘that person sucks’ or ‘you are so right.’ Yet I fail to do this. I have plenty of examples of this.

For my characters then, it’s a matter of perspective. If they are confident, then they view a particular trait of theirs as a strength. However, some others will see the very trait they value as a weakness. Similarly, if a character has low esteem, he will see a trait as a weakness, where others might easily see a strength. It’s all a matter of perspective.

And I need to do a better job of emphasizing how all of my character’s strengths are also their weaknesses.

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Change is Hard.

Changing others’ perceptions of you is hard. Sometimes impossibly hard. Characters should have this same problem. When a character grows over the course of a novel, or a series of novels, that character should also meet the ghosts of his past. Those ghost shouldn’t just come in the form of the repercussions of his previous actions, but in the reactions of his friends to who he is.

When a character grows over the course of a novel, he has the context of what he is thinking and the actions that change him; his friends, however, only have brief glimpses of what is happening. They see 10% of the glacier of his personality. If the point of the novel is a particular character’s growth, that should reach a point where the picture of who the character was and who he has become (or thinks he has become) are jarring to everyone involved.

A good example of this is Matt Cauthon from the Wheel of Time. He is a mischievous boy who loves trouble in the first book. By the later books he is a leader of men, a gambler, and a remarkable strategist. Still, his friends think of him as ‘same old Matt’. In some ways the first 18 years of knowing him is more important to his friends than the last few, even though the last few are the more important to defining the man he has become.

As so many things on my blog lately, this can come back to dissonance. The character’s friends reject dissonant information and accept consonant information. They hear Matt’s jokes and see his lopsided grin, but they don’t really examine how those have lessened and matured while he also provides real value in the form of his Band of the Red Hand. The women, especially, see this as affirming their belief in Matt’s carousing more than demonstrating his ability to lead men.

Based on some reader feedback, my main character in Wolf might change his opinion on another character too easily. He accepts some things about another character that is dissonant with his thoughts about her, and he just accepts those new facts. I may have to add in a few more layers of him thinking she’s a bit dense before she glaringly shows her intelligence and capability.

Of course if you’ve spent much of your life, as I have, being a sarcastic jerkwad, when you try to change, people still see many of your statements in that light. It doesn’t help, either, that as a natural part of growth and change one backslides. Those backslides from the point of view of the person growing are consonant information to those who are viewing from the outside.  Any truth growth may not ever be recognized by those who seemingly know us best.

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The Problem with FAIL (Update)

This picture was on the FAIL blog yesterday:

epic-fail-photos-sign-fail1

I have increasingly seen pictures like this on the FAIL site. My problem is this: how is this a fail? Yes, the audience the sign seemed aimed at is the very audience who can’t read that, but if it’s obvious to us, how much more obvious to the person who put the sign there. Clearly, the intended audience are the parents of those who can’t read the sign. The restaurant could have put a boring sign that said ‘Parents, please help your shorter children with the ice cream toppings.” Instead they went for a laugh; they went for something outside of the norm—something I find clever.

My problem isn’t the person who snapped the photo and put it on FAIL blog, per se. That person is just too literal to understand a joke. That’s fine, the world is full of such. I hope to write at such a level that at least some, but not too many, people just don’t ‘get it’. My problem is, with this sign on the site, or rather with signs like this on the site, there is the possibility people who might, in the future, think to put a clever sign up will instead put up the boring sign. None of us, at least a statistically insignificant number of us, want to be humiliated in public.

I suppose, then, as I think this through, my problem is the FAIL blog can, promote a culture of uncleverness. Uncleverness is not risky. Unclever signs will not ever be put on the Internet to be laughed at. And that’s a real shame, because cleverness, and a desire to take a risk on being clever, are some of the little joys in life.

Maybe ‘I’ve just had my get off my lawn’ moment of the week.

Update: Another post today furthers my point:

epic-fail-photos-parenting-fail

This father is cleverly holding on to his child in a public place while taking care of a biological necessity. Whoever posted this has never faced this conundrum and is less than clever.

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Current Novel (Mage’s Price)

Some notes about the novel I’m working on.

I am, as I predicted, loving third person. It allows great freedom in comparison to first person. It is less intimate than first person, but not horribly so. I am using third-person close, which allows me to get most of any character’s perspective when I desire it. It also allows me to obfuscate a character’s thoughts when I wish to by having another character talk to them.

I am currently 27,000 words in to what I’m tentatively calling The Mage’s Price. It appears to be a book about addiction. Not just addiction to substances, though that plays a part, but addictions to thoughts, ways of viewing ourselves or others, and how those addictions can ruin us. I hope it’s also about how we can become better if we fight through our addictions, but I, frankly, can’t be sure that’s where it’s going right now.

I also can’t even venture a guess as to final word count. It feels like a much longer story than Wolf, which clocked in around 80,000 words (330 pages or so), but how much longer ‘much longer’ is, I don’t know. I do want to finish it before my next baby arrives, via stork I’m told, in early August. I write 2,000 words a day and take Sundays off, so I average closer to 1,600 words a day. If I write until July 31st, that’s 128,000 more words or so for a total of ~155,000, which is roughly 600 pages paperback. I don’t know if it’ll be that long, or even if it needs to be that long. We’ll see. Hopefully, it’ll be as interesting a trip as it has been thus far.

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On Typewriters

For my recent birthday, my lovely wife got me a No. 6 Underwood typewriter. It’s in almost working condition and needs some restoration work, which I have no experience with. I looked up the serial number last night, and it was made sometime in 1935. That’s really quite extraordinary, and it gave me pause.

I wonder what I own that could possibly be in good enough shape to require ‘some restoration’ in 76 years. Probably nothing. The electronic revolution means that anything of interest will have its transistors rot well before then, which is unfortunate. We just bought some nice deck furniture. I’ll be really excited it that lasts us half of the lifetime of the typewriter. Really excited.

So I’m going to restore it and pick up a kit from USB Typewriter. It makes a typewriter into a USB keyboard, so I can use it with my computer. I think it’ll be a neat project, and one day I can see myself clacking away on the same kind of typewriter used by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but using a modern word processor. I have no intention of using it as an actual typewriter.

Last night, I lay in bed remembering the typewriter experience. No delete button, no auto correct, and messy ribbon. This typewriter doesn’t even have a carriage return— one must return the carriage by hand. That feels like ‘fire is new’ era technology.

Still, just the presence of the beast, and it is a beast, evokes writing in a way the modern computer doesn’t. There is a feeling, an aura, around the solid piece of metal that we have lost.

Thankfully, 1930s era mechanics are simple enough for me to understand, so I think I should be ok in my restoration efforts. If anything particularly interesting happens I’ll throw updates here. I might shoot some before and after pictures as well.

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