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Archive for November, 2010

I’ve reached the first milestone along my writer’s journey – a published short story!  I feel like Frodo, just making it out of the Shire 🙂

The story, “The New Arrival,” is live at Electric Spec!  Follow this link to read it.

The editors write: “for those who like a dark story to fit the dark days of winter, we’d like to recommend Miranda Suri’s “The New Arrival,” a macabre story that will leave you satisfyingly chilled.”

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A YouTube video about the common (but absurd) assumptions non-writers have about writers is making the rounds on Twitter.  It’s both hilarious and depressing.  And it makes me think about the importance of practice.

As in any profession, innate talent will get you only so far.  If you want to become a good writer, you’ve got to practice.  As the characters in the YouTube video so aptly explain:

“I assume you have used a steak knife before?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think that qualifies you to perform neurosurgery?”

Just because you know the English language doesn’t mean you’re qualified to write a novel.  You have to actively learn and mindfully practice the craft of writing.  It’s said that, if you’re lucky, your third or fourth novel might finally sell.

For many of us, “practice” means writing every day.  And that’s about it.   But awhile back, Victoria Strauss posted an article by Barbara Baig on the SWFA blog discussing the role of deliberate practice in developing one’s writing skills.

As defined by Baig, deliberate practice included (and I’m paraphrasing here):

1. thinking about the specific skills involved in writing a novel or short story (ranging from proper grammar and writing dialogue to being creative, developing characters, and world building, among many others).

2. making a list of the skills you’re good at AND a list of the skills you need to work on (for many of us, just assessing this can be difficult; Baig suggests studying the type of feedback we get from our writing groups).

3. coming up with a series of exercises designed to practice weak skills and, therefore, improve them.

I printed out the blog post about a month ago.  Approximately a week later I made a list of the skills I felt I needed to work on.  I even started to identify possible exercises.  Have I practiced them even ONCE since then?  No, I have not.

Why?  I know deliberately practicing would improve my writing.  It would make me more mindful of my weaknesses and help me develop the habits to turn them into strengths.  The problem for me (and, I suspect, for many of us), is intentionally setting aside time to work on exercises when I could be making forward progress on a novel or short story.  Most writers have day jobs, families, and social lives that claim 90% of their time.  The remaining 10% is precious.  It’s hard to carve it up any further.

Even 30 minutes of deliberate practice a day would probably reap more benefits than an hour of drafting and revising on a project where my bad habits are already ingrained.  Summoning the resolve to engage that practice daily is about as hard for me as not weaseling out of trips to the gym (in other words: it’s hard).

So – I’m calling in backup.  Every day for the next week I will practice writing shorter, clearer, more active sentences (thanks to my academic background, a weakness of mine – as some of you readers may have noticed – is looooooong, multi-clause, wordy, passive sentences).  To practice clearer and more active writing, I’ll make a list of 7 topics and spend 20 minutes each morning writing about one of them.  No sentence will contain more than two clauses.  The use of the word “that” and all instances of “to be” verbs will be kept to an absolute minimum.  Adverbs will be forbidden.  In exactly 7 days, I’ll report in on how well I lived up to my commitment and on how effective the practice was.

Anyone else willing to pony up and commit to practicing a specific writing skill over the next seven days?  Come on.  I double dog dare you.

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Confession: at heart, I’m awfully bloody minded.  I love writing action and fight scenes.  After all, violence is a deep-rooted component of the human animal.  Culture just can’t beat it out of us and, instead, has itself become permeated with justifications for violent behavior (from the galling – things like FGM – to the “acceptable” – like American football).

Unfortunately, crafting compelling action scenes — especially battles — is one of my writing weaknesses.  In doing research to address this shortcoming, I’ve come across several good sources.  Being someone who likes to share her toys, I’ll pass what I’ve found on to you.

First, Marie Brennan has started a series of blog entries on writing fight scenes over on LJ – and from what I’ve read so far, they are going to be awesome.  One thing she points out is the importance of bringing story and character development into your fight scenes.  The unfolding and outcome of fights drives plot.  How someone fights, what they will and won’t do, reveals a lot about their character.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never really thought about it quite this way–although in hindsight it seems perfectly obvious that character development should be central to any fight scene.  Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here…after all, we’ve all read novels where we skip the action scenes because “nothing happens” — meaning they neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters.

Another issue I struggle with is developing the strategy aspects of larger battles.  My writing group rightly pointed out that some of the big battles in the first draft of my novel had a sort of “line up and charge” flavor to them.  I don’t have a military background to draw upon (nor do I know anyone who does), so I’ve had to turn to research.  For this, I’ve found a variety of sources really useful.

I started in the obvious place and read Sun Tzu’s the Art of War.  A series of maxims and advice (asserted by Sun Tzu and elaborated upon/interpreted by historic Chinese military types) the Art of War takes a Taoist approach to strategy–basically applying knowledge to deal with disharmony.  This was useful because it made me think outside the individual battle scene I was trying to write and look at the larger picture, asking myself:  is this battle really necessary or wise?  Will fighting and winning or losing it show my protagonist to be skilled, inexperienced, rash, measured, merciful, or foolish?

In a way, the ideas in the Art of War are all about character.  The kind of military leader you are is revealed through the ways knowledge is acquired (through strategic assessment of your opponent, the terrain, the weather, and so forth) and applied (through careful planning).  There are also, of course, a lot of useful insights about the best use of tactics like retreats, ambushes, sieges, and so forth.

A member of my reading group (thanks, Eric!) also suggested Rome: Total War as a source of inspiration about battle strategy and combat (and there are many iterations of this game, including more recent ones).  To avid gamers, this is going to seem obvious, but for me it was a bit of a revelation:  exposure to the visual (and directorial) elements of a battle on your computer screen is AWESOME.  It’s also helpful from a writing point of view in that it improves your birds-eye view understanding of troop placement and movement, use of terrain, and how different sorts of strategies play themselves out under different conditions.  Through trial and error, you can find out which strategies are stupid and which are genius.  Plus, now I have a fun new procrastination tool in my arsenal 😉

There will always be elements of fight scenes (be they one-on-one tussles or huge battles) that are hard to recreate just through research.  The smells and sights, the chaos, the sensation of fear or adrenaline (or, probably, both)–I’ll never understand those first-hand unless I pick a fight with someone, which is about as likely as me walking on the moon.  But still, just using the few tools discussed in this post, my action writing has improved ten-fold.

Of course, as always, I welcome advice or suggestions from you all.  What are your tips for researching and writing fight scenes?

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With the upcoming holiday celebrating gorging ourselves silly giving thanks for our blessings, I’m taking a wee blog vacation.  Thankfully (yes, see, I’m giving thanks already!) my husband and I don’t have to travel this year; I’ll be cooking for family right here in our tiny Brooklyn apartment.  The mess promises to be epic.

As much as I love to cook (and eat), I can think of one or two things I’d rather do with the time off.  Like this:

...maybe next year?

...maybe next year?

 

But, what I’ll really be doing is a lot of this:

prepping the turkey-lurkey

Happy Turkey Day, dear readers!  See you on the other side of the food coma.

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Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

Today’s installment of Writer’s Workspace is brought to you from the sofa, as The Overseer has commandeered my office chair and is using it as his personal tanning bed.  Thanks buddy.

 

The Overseer takes his rest

What I’m working on: I’m way behind on all my projects, so whatever I chose to do this morning was six of one, half dozen of the other.  I dreamed about Blood Red Sun last night, so that’s what I’m inspired to work on today.  That means revisions, editing, and redrafting troublesome chapters from the first draft.

Snippet from the screen: “Kara’s expression was unreadable, flat and strange.  She swung her legs over the side of the sleeping bench and stood.  Her hair hung in ropes, thick with dried mud, and black patches of blood crusted her cheeks and neck.  Her tunic was torn.”

What’s on the iTunes: “Evenstar” from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack

What’s in my mug: English breakfast tea, half gone and mostly cold.

What’s out the window: Sunny and 65 degrees, my dears! (Sorry, friends stuck in Seattle’s snowstorm…)

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: A few links for those in need of a wee break…here’s Jeff VanderMeer on rejuvenating your imagination, Scalzi gives us a tour of his new office, and a thimble full of funny from Slush Pile Hell.  Enjoy!

That’s all from here!

What are YOU working on today?

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Today I wanted to share some book recommendations.  Between the time I spend on the subway (thank you, MTA, for my 2 hour commute) and at the gym, I generally plow through a book every week or so.  Some are mind candy, fluff enjoyed and forgotten.  Some are interesting, if not entirely successful.  Some prove a slog and lie abandoned on my bedside table.  Some are awesome.

Here are three that I found interesting or awesome enough to want to share:

Acacia by David Anthony Durham. Genre: fantasy. 753 pages (and the first in a series).

It should be said upfront that I’m a fan of epic fantasy, especially the kind that dwells in rich, believable worlds where “good” and “evil” are relative, complex concepts and elves and dwarves have little place.  Acacia hits all these marks, and then some.  Following the struggles of four royal children scattered and in hiding after their father’s kingdom is conquered, Acacia is (in my view) about the relationship between compromise and power.  The characters are all sketched with deft lines and are both sympathetic and unsympathetic, strong and weak.  The “villains” are frequently humanized and the “heroes” sometimes make cruel or foolish choices.  Best of all, Durham’s background as an historian grounds the epic sweep of this tale in details that feel real.  You almost believe the kingdom of Acacia existed and the wars waged over it truly happened.  More please.

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane. Genre: Urban Fantasy. 346 pages (and the first in a series)

I haven’t read much Urban Fantasy until lately.  Frankly, I thought it was all werewolf or vampire porn.  But, it seems I was wrongly conflating Urban Fantasy with Paranormal Romance, and the ghost-infested world of Downside in Stacia’s Kane’s books has made me a convert.  Unholy Ghosts (and the follow-up novels) are urgent, gritty, ugly, and addictive.  There was some controversy about the book when it first came out, largely because Kane’s protagonist, Chess, is a drug addict.  Here’s a good summary of the controversy.  As others have pointed out, the flawed protagonist is one of the novel’s great strengths.  Chess’s addiction isn’t a side feature of her character, but (as it would in real life) steers her choices (usually bad ones) as she tries to balance her job debunking haunting claims for the Church of Real Truth with her life in the gangland underbelly of Downside.  Awesome characters abound and Chess herself is as often frustrating as she is heroic.

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer. Genre: Steampunk? Urban Fantasy? Fantasy thriller? I really have no idea.  334 pages, (and a stand alone novel).

This is probably one of the weirdest, most compelling books I’ve read in a long time.  I’m not sure how to describe it, or if I even liked it.  But the world Vandermeer created is unforgettable.  The story takes place in the ruins of the city of Ambergris after it has slowly been consumed by the invasion of a fungal species.  These “gray caps” have taken control, colonizing not only the streets and buildings with new fungal structures, but also the city’s human inhabitants.  Revolution smolders, despair blankets everything.  Our hero is John Finch, a Detective grudgingly working for the gray caps.  As he tries to solve a murder, he is drawn further into the conspiracies and mysteries surrounding the city’s past and future, as well as his own.  The complex threads of the plot didn’t ultimately cohere for me, but the world and characters were so fantastic that it really didn’t matter.

Okay, that’s three from me.  How about you?  What books have you read lately and loved?  Share!

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**Warning: this post contains spoilers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows**

Like much of America, I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this weekend, and, despite my grim determination not to, I got choked up at the death of Dobby.  I’d read the books, so I knew it was coming, but I just couldn’t help myself.  In addition to clearing out my tear ducts, Dobby’s death also got me thinking about the cost of the hero’s victory.

In real life our achievements always come with a cost.  You can’t become a marathon runner without putting in the time and enduring injury.  You wouldn’t expect to win a war without loss of life or resources.  If you want to walk on the moon, you have to accept the risk that your space shuttle might explode and kill you on take-off.  If your dream is to become a writer, you have to endure a fair amount of rejection and self-loathing along the way.  Nothing worth doing or having comes for free.

As in life, so in art.  Whatever it is our characters are trying to achieve, we as authors must make them pay a price to get it.  The tricky bit, though, is figuring out the appropriate cost.  Over the course of her seven book journey with Harry and friends, J.K. Rowling kills off several major characters close to Harry, including (among others) Cedric Diggory, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad Eye Moody, Hedwig, Dobby, Remus Lupin, Colin Creevey, and Fred Weasley.  George Weasley has his ear cursed off and Harry himself “dies” in order to destroy the Horcrux inside him.

All in all, a pretty hefty toll, I think–enough to reflect the dangerous nature of the war against Voldemort but not so much as to feel that Harry ultimately failed by not ending the reign of the Death Eaters sooner.  Some of the deaths had more impact than others (and reactions to them vary from reader to reader), but because it’s freshest in my mind – thanks to movie magic – I want to reflect briefly on Dobby’s death.

I think making Dobby’s life one of the costs of Harry’s fight against Voldemort was clever (and even a bit manipulative).  Dobby was beloved by many readers but wasn’t a main character, and because his character was child-like, his death felt especially cruel.  At the same time, Rowling had established that it was Dobby’s greatest wish to protect Harry.  Thus, because Dobby died protecting Harry–and in so doing thwarted the plans of the Death Eaters–the reader can find meaning in Dobby’s death.  It’s a cost, yes, and one that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and amplifies the villainous nature of Bellatrix (as if we need more of that). But it’s not the kind of cost that will profoundly effect Harry for the rest of his life or create a serious setback along his road to success.  It motivates Harry without making him bitter or vindictive.  The same can be said for many of the other deaths in the books (with the possible exception of Dumbledore).

This is clearly one route to go.  Kill off beloved but non-essential characters (extra points if they die making a sacrifice for the hero or his/her quest).  Another commonly tread route is to open the story with the death of someone close to the protagonist and set the narrative up as a revenge plot.  Think of every Jean Claude van Damme movie ever made: “they killed my wife and child/brother/father/best friend and I will hunt them down!”  The Harry Potter books incorporate this device (to an extent) with the death of his parents.  Another example that comes to mind is Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, which focuses on a particularly brutal revenge story following the death of the protagonist’s brother.

The hero’s cost, however, need not come in the form of lives lost.  It could be some part of their principles or morals they must abandon in order to achieve their goal, a dream they turn away from in favor of pursuing the villain, or the dreams and principles their friends might sacrifice in order to help them.  The cost could also come in the form of unintended consequences the hero’s actions have on those not directly involved in the central conflict.  Whatever damage you leverage against your hero, the price paid needs to reflect both the mood and message of the story and the protagonist’s character arc.

Just because Dobby’s death got me thinking about costs doesn’t mean I’ve figured out all the answers.  What are your thoughts on striking the right balance between costs and achievements?  What factors go into determining how high a price the protagonist should pay for his/her victory to feel earned?

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