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Bestseller.

I was asked a question on a panel once that was something along the lines of what advice I’d give to aspiring authors. My answer was that they should let go of the idea that everyone should “like” their writing.1 “Heaps of people hate Stephen King, whose stuff I love,” I said, “and love JK Rowling, whose stuff I can’t stand. And no-one at all defends Dan Brown, yet he still manages to be a bestseller!”

Having said that, a week or so later, I read this.

Incidentally, I think “not very clever media designed to make men feel they’re very clever” is probably a genre in-and-of-itself. And a lucrative one at that…

  1. I stand by this. It’s anecdotal, but still one of the biggest dividers I’ve found between novelists who’re successfully published and those who, uh, will probably never be. The former tend to understand things like audiences, markets, and YKINMKATOK. The latter, no so much… and often like to make sweeping generalizations about the “universality” of certain subjective plot lines, tropes, and authors while they’re at it. []
2018-11-26T08:10:02+11:0016th April, 2018|Tags: pop culture, publishing, writing|

Obscurantism.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in critically examining “grand theorists” in his field who used verbosity to cover for a lack of profundity, pointed out that people respond positively to this kind of writing because they see it as “a wondrous maze, fascinating precisely because of its often splendid lack of intelligibility.” But, Mills said, such writers are “so rigidly confined to such high levels of abstraction that the ‘typologies’ they make up—and the work they do to make them up—seem more often an arid game of Concepts than an effort to define systematically—which is to say, in a clear and orderly way, the problems at hand, and to guide our efforts to solve them.”

Obscurantism is more than a desperate attempt to feign novelty, though. It’s also a tactic for badgering readers into deference to the writer’s authority. Nobody can be sure they are comprehending the author’s meaning, which has the effect of making the reader feel deeply inferior and in awe of the writer’s towering knowledge, knowledge that must exist on a level so much higher than that of ordinary mortals that we are incapable of even beginning to appreciate it.

Nathan J. Robinson on misdirection.

This is about Jordan Peterson—because of course it is—who’s a dude I’d never heard of until, like, Camestros Felapton started posting about Peterson’s woeful-sounding 12 Rules. But apparently Peterson’s the alt-right’s new philosophical darling because he likes to use big words to describe small mindsets which, yanno. Go figure.

As an aside, though; there’s an entire school of fiction writing which also falls into the “so verbose it must be deep” bucket. It turns up a lot in Certain Unnamed SFF Magazines and… yeah. I can’t stand it there, either.

Like, seriously kids. Something being too abstruse for you to understand doesn’t actually make it “smart”; most of the time it just makes it badly written.1

  1. And this is coming from someone who likes abstruse/surrealist/ambiguous media! []
2018-03-16T07:41:22+11:0016th March, 2018|Tags: books, culture, sff, writing|

A writer writes.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with aspiring writers. […] A significant fraction of these random aspiring writers would talk about stories that they were working on but couldn’t quite figure out how to finish. And once I got into the details with them, it would eventually emerge that they hadn’t actually written any of the story. It was an idea they had and which they had talked about at length with friends. In many cases they would talk about the files they had full of descriptions of characters and an outline of the history of the world, but when pressed, they would admit that they hadn’t actually written a single word of the story itself.

Planning and thinking and even doodling about a story, gathering research and writing up background information are important tasks which are often necessary to the writing process, but none of that is the actual story.

fontfolly on getting the words down.

He goes on to give some advice, which I think solid and which basically boils down to, “Stop calling your procrastination ‘worldbuilding’ and get to writing!”

I’m talked before about how I think a lot of worldbuilding–specifically, mechanically focused worldbuilding–is overrated. Sketch out just enough of what you need, then let your characters tell you the rest as they go along.

2018-05-22T09:00:49+10:0024th February, 2018|Tags: sff, writing|

Heiney Sue.

Once he was established as the grandmaster of SF, and someone everyone else in the field looked up to, all Heinlein’s worst aspects came to the fore, and his books tended to consist of long speeches by middle-aged male writer characters called things like Hobert A Beinlein, explaining why capitalist libertarianism is the single best political system, why incest is a good thing not a bad one like you think, and why red-headed young women should have sex with older science fiction writers, with the other characters then commenting on how wise, clever, and sexually attractive these older writers are.

Andrew Hickey on inserts.

Also known as: Why I Never Want To Hear Anyone Whining About “Mary Sues” Written By Teenage Girls Every Again.

2017-09-04T12:25:35+10:0020th January, 2018|Tags: fandom, pop culture, sff, writing|

Ring Plot.

For me, the revelation that “plot is character” dissolves many popular critical terms.

Take, “the characters were thin”.  Many classic books renown for their rich characterisation are actually rather short by modern standards. The Great Gatesby weighs in at 47K. Catcher in the Rye, 73K. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about 50K. Of Mice and Men, about 30K.

How do they fit in that rich characterisation? By having plots that force the characters to show us who they really are far more effectively than could any literary character sketch, no matter how elegant and insightful. So if the characters seem thin, then perhaps the story needs more plot.

Conversely, the same goes for, “the story was too slow paced”. Some really big fat volumes are riveting reads right until the end of the series.

How do they manage to have plots that stretch so very far? By having characters who generate plot by being themselves. Powerful, complex characters on all sides take a long time to battle it out. So if the story seems slow paced, perhaps it needs more dynamic chracters to make stuff happen.

M Harold Page on plot-as-character.

[Content warning that the full article contains a very off-hand description of a mythologized-yet-brutal-rape as a “writing example”. Which… can we just not? Ta.]

I’ve been thinking about things like this a lot, lately. Books nowadays–particularly genre books–seem to be trending fast towards the doorstopper, particularly when compared to novels ten or twenty years ago. I don’t mind a good doorstopper, but the critical word there is good; if you’re going to sell me a twenty pound bag, you’d better have at least twenty pounds of plot to put into it. And yet I’ve read… a non-zero number of 100k+ word books over the last few years that are more of the “five pounds” variety.

Incidentally, I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Annihilation so much was that it was pretty much the opposite; the book is only about 60k, but that 60k is dense.

2017-08-03T12:54:16+10:0028th November, 2017|Tags: writing|

Self-inert.

Culturally, we spend a lot of time mocking female writers for their (supposedly) thinly-veiled self-insert characters, and yet I can say with authority that I’ve never encountered any such work by a teenage girl that manages to be anywhere near as obnoxiously obvious as the equivalent fantasies written by grown men.

Foz Meadows on who gets away with it.

2017-08-01T13:19:36+10:0027th November, 2017|Tags: culture, pop culture, writing|

Speedwriter.

I know I’ve told this story before, but at a conference once, an author on a panel was asked how long it took her to write a book, from idea to publication. She said idea to publication, ten days. Ten. It takes her seven days to write it, a day to self-edit, and then a couple days to format it and set up sales channels, etc. She skips having someone else edit her work because it slows down the process, which makes her readers unhappy. They want as much new material as she can write, as fast as possible, and since they loved her books, there can’t be much wrong with them, right? It’s this story that made me absolutely skeptical of the quality of work authors with monthly or bi-monthly releases because the timeline doesn’t allow for another human being to put their eyeballs on their work. So, yes, technically this can be done. Whether or not it should be done is entirely subjective.

Jenny Trout on turnover.

Coming from fandom I find this kind of interesting, because very fast turnarounds in fanfic are both not-uncommon1 and always welcome; no one ever complained that their fav WIP got chapters added too quickly.

I think the fastest I’ve written a novel-length (60k-ish) fic was slightly under two weeks. The caveats are I didn’t have to work out characterization, setting, or lore–since they’d all been provided to me by the existing canon–and, even though I still think the fic is quite good, I find new typos and badly written sentences every time I re-read it. I also not-quite-unobviously changed the direction the fic’s finale was headed in halfway through, meaning some of the early foreshadowing is off. It’s something I’d fix up in a “profic” but didn’t worry too much about when I was posting something chapter-by-chapter to the AO3.

On the other hand, fandom is as fandom does, which means no-one’s ever complained about the fic’s deficiencies; only praised the parts about it they like. It doesn’t mean the rough edges aren’t there, though, and it doesn’t mean that learning to both, a) identify them, and b) polish them off isn’t a valuable skill. It’s just not something I feel all that bothered about doing when I’m posting fanfic, which is basically why I write fanfic; because it’s such a low-pressure2 exercise compared to producing pro works, and yet is something that helps me develop certain craft skills in ways the pro workflow doesn’t.

  1. That is, not necessarily common, but also not necessarily uncommon. []
  2. And high feedback! []
2017-08-21T08:46:15+10:0016th November, 2017|Tags: fanfic, profic, writing, xp|

A beginner’s guide to beta reading.

So there’s a post that’s been going around presenting an argument against beta readers. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently, for a variety of reasons, and so obviously I have Opinions on both the post specifically and beta readers in general.

To get the basic stuff out of the way first, I deeply dislike (though am hardly surprised by) the sneering, arm’s-length-pinched-nose way the article talks about the term “beta readers” in particular. As far as I know, the concept of betas comes out of fandom (who cribbed it off software development), so old dudes choosing to single it out for ridicule above-and-beyond other, similar concepts (e.g. crit circles) gets my back up.

That being said

Yeah. I kinda agree with the premise. Sort of. I agree with it in the sense that getting a good beta reader is hard, meaning most people end up with bad ones, and I’d argue that a bad beta is worse than no beta at all. Obviously (and as the article points out) this isn’t something limited to beta readers: I have a friend, for example, who’s lamented to me in the past that they stopped attending their local writer’s group because it basically turned into the group’s president hosting vicious teardown sessions of everyone else’s work. This, incidentally, is not the sort of beta/”crit” that’s helpful.

That being said, I have both performed and received beta reads in the past, and I do think they can be useful, under a couple of provisos:

(more…)

2017-10-11T11:53:45+11:008th October, 2017|Tags: fanfic, publishing, writing, xp|
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