Ask me anything about anything for my /r/books Author Spotlight AMA

Hey, y’all. I know already posted the new chapter this morning, but I also wanted to alert everyone who follows the blog here that I’ll be doing an Author Spotlight AMA on /r/books all day today and for however long it takes to answer whatever (likely few) questions I’m asked.

So please do click through this link and ask me any questions you have about writing, politics, memes, or anything you’re curious about. And thanks again for following along everyone. We do nothing alone.

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What Ira Glass Wishes Someone Would Have Told Him When He Was a Beginner

Hey y’all. This is the last /r/writing post on beginner tips that I have prepared, I’m afraid. So that means I’ll have to come up with a new one by next Thursday or put the feature on hiatus for a while. I’m not sure which I’ll do yet. But we’ll see.

Still, here it is. A short one today. And a link to the original post on reddit. Enjoy.

Here it is in Ira Glass’s own words.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

[For more advice for beginners click here.]

Virginia Woolf’s Advice on Creating Memorable Characters

The original post can be found on /r/writing here.

The other day I was reading an article by Ursula K. Le Guin about the books that changed her life, and in it she really emphasized the impact of Virginia Woolf, so I decided I would go to Woolf next to search for writing tips.

And did she ever have plenty, including this long infographic with ten general tips, created by the people at Essay Mama, but what I’d really like to talk about is her advice on building memorable characters.

In this article from the Airship, Freddie Moore discusses Woolf’s essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown [PDF], in which “she responds to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett, in which he argued that early 20th century authors were failing to write great novels because they failed to create tangible characters.”

You really should click through and read Moore’s intro on the Airship, but here’s the list of ten rules Moore extracted from Woolf’s essay. I hope they help:

1. Practice character-reading until you can “live a single year of life without disaster.”

This is perhaps the most gutsy advice Woolf offers. So many writers will advise you to live wildly, to fail, to suffer and bleed for your art — anything for a great life story that will give you the inspiration to write from. But Woolf makes a great point: finding inspiration doesn’t always have to be so hard on writers. It can be done simply, day by day, in trying to understand the people around you and having the courage to have a little empathy.

2. Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself.

When Woolf describes taking a seat across from Mrs. Brown, she describes her attire, her tidiness and her facial expression, but Woolf also lets her mind wander beyond what she sees. She lets traits serve as clues to what could be fictionalized:

There was something pinched about her — a look of suffering, of apprehension, and, in addition, she was extremely small. Her feet, in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor. I felt she had nobody to support her; that she had made up her mind for herself; that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad.

3. Eavesdrop. Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence.

Eavesdropping is the oldest trick in the book in terms of learning to craft believable dialogue, but it can be just as helpful in understanding how to create generally believable characters. Of course, Woolf doesn’t dismiss silence, especially as far as conversations are involved. Silence can lead to uneasiness, as it does in Mrs. Brown’s conversation, and be revealing not only about a relationship, but each individual’s ability — or inability — to deal with uncertainty. Do they fidget? Do they quiet their voice or try to make it brighter to stir up conversation again? Do they do as Mrs. Brown finds herself doing to break the silence with non-sequiturs? One should be so lucky to get a non-sequitur like Mrs. Brown’s: “Can you tell me if an oak-tree dies when the leaves have been eaten for two years in succession by caterpillars?”

4. Write characters who are both “very small and very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic.” Let them have contradictions.

As Woolf watches Mrs. Brown exit the train, she makes clear exactly what fascinates her about the woman: Mrs. Brown is full of contradictions. Initially, Mrs. Brown caught Woolf’s eye because of a tense conversation Woolf overheard between her and a younger man, but Woolf focuses most of her attention on Mrs. Brown, who speaks “quite brightly” and then begins to cry suddenly when the man tells her about his fruit farm in Kent. Woolf calls it a “very odd thing” to see Mrs. Brown respond by dabbing her eyes, but it leaves room for the author to imagine the story for herself.

5. Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you. Let yourself be obsessed.

“Here is a character imposing itself on another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her.” Woolf makes the point that sometimes you don’t even need to seek out interesting people to observe — sometimes your characters find you. There’s no telling who will captivate you or any explanation of the serendipity of crossing paths, but when you do, write it all down. Let yourself be that crazed person.

6. A believable character is never just a list of traits or biographical facts.

Imagine the most dry way possible in getting to know someone: “What’s your name? Occupation? Where are you from?” Sure, these things are informative, but Woolf argues that good characters aren’t conveyed by merely rattling off a few facts. This, of course, goes back to the limitations Woolf stresses about the Edwardian style of the time and argues to avoid constructing characters by simply researching what the character’s father did for a living, or ascertaining their cost of rent, or figuring out what year their mother died. Of course, some writers like to start with biographical facts and fictionalize from there, but it’s clear that, for Woolf, knowing those things dulled her sense of creativity and openness to imagine whatever she wanted of them. Either way, Woolf got it right when she argued that just thinking of someone as a list of physical traits or a pawn on a timeline isn’t enough to create a convincing character.

7. Illustrate your characters outside of the superficial standards of their time. Let them be complex.

Woolf admits that writing for other people — for a public — can be intimidating. Will they hate my character? Will they find them unbelievable? At one point, she even makes a remark about the British public sitting by the writer saying: “Old women have houses. They have fathers. They have incomes. They have servants. They have water bottles. That is how we know that they are old women.” But Woolf argues that if you write a fictional character with conviction, if you can convince the public of anything, even that “All woman have tails, and all men humps.”

8. Any captivating protagonist should be someone you can imagine in “the center of all sorts of scenes.”

Part of what Mrs. Brown’s “overwhelming and peculiar impression” does to Woolf is inspire her to try to fill in the mystery of her character. She starts to imagine Mrs. Brown outside the incident, “in a seaside house, among queer ornaments: sea-urchins, models of ships in glass cases. Her husband’s medals on the mantlepiece.” But Woolf can also imagine scenes of Mrs. Brown alone, the young man from the train “blowing in” to her secluded home. She could see her arriving at the train station at dawn. Readers spend an entire book alongside the protagonists, and it should be someone fascinating enough to keep you turning pages through every moment, big or small.

9. Find a common ground between you and your characters — “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Learn to empathize.

Sometimes the things we find most fascinating in choosing characters to write about is that they puzzle us. They’re captivating because there’s something so unlike you in that character, something you want to understand. Still, finding a common ground between you and your characters, no matter how unlike you they are, is necessary. Call it method-writing or what have you. Woolf explains it beautifully:

… to have got at what I meant I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible, and knowing that somehow I had to find a common ground between us, a convention which would not seem to you too odd, unreal, and far-fetched to believe in.

10. Describe your characters “beautifully if possible, and truthfully at any rate.”

How do you explain to people how to write about someone beautifully or truthfully? It’s something that seems near impossible — until you hear Woolf do it:

You should insist that [Mrs. Brown] is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.

That’s all for today. Thanks for joining us. And click here for further advice for beginning authors.

Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings and 10 Tips for Writing

Today I’d like to discuss Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. Here she is in video formattalking about why we tell stories. She thinks it’s in human nature to do so, much like Dan Harmon did in an earlier tip post .

Moving on to a short story she wrote, Happy Endings, we’ll find again some of Atwood’s thoughts on storytelling. With the odd structure of this “story” she seems to be saying, “It’s not the end of a tale that matters but the meaty bits in the middle.” Right here you can find a decent, if short, analysis of the story to serve as a jumping off point for conversation.

And finally, it seems that every author has their own list–this one taken from the Guardian article here–so here’s Atwood’s. Enjoy:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Octavia E. Butler’s Reasons for Becoming an Author and 10 Quotes About Writing

You can find the source of today’s writing advice post right here. One thing to note before going on is that I’m not posting these to the blog here in the same order as I did to reddit, so you may see references to posts I haven’t made yet. Those links will just take you to an /r/writing self post and a glimpse of the future of this blog. No worries.

Anyway, here it is, Octavia Butler’s advice about writing:

Today I’d like to move to another of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler. As you might be able to tell by some of the other authors I’ve been choosing (Atwood , Le Guin , etc.), I’m a little biased toward speculative fiction, and in this video (which I found on Feministing here), Butler accurately explains a major reason why by explaining why she enjoys writing science fiction. To quote the linked video:

It’s a wonderful way to think about possibilities. It’s a wonderful way to explore exotic politics. It’s a wonderful–it’s a freedom. It’s a way of doing anything you want. There are all sorts of walls around other genres. Romances, mysteries, westerns. There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.

And if that wasn’t a good enough reason for you, you can check out this video snippet of a panel discussion filmed at UCLA in 2002 in which she discusses, among other things, how a bad movie encouraged her to get into science fiction.

Bringing us to her ten “tips” for writing, which in this case comes from the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio website where they’ve collected some inspiring Butler Quotes for us. Here are, I think, the more useful ones for writers:

  1. On Habit : “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
  2. On Science Fiction: “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
  3. On College: “I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me.”
  4. On Persistence: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
  5. On Writers’ Workshops: “A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating. It’s so easy as a young writer to think you’re been very clear when in fact you haven’t.”
  6. On Being a Writer: “Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.”
  7. On Writing Everyday: “And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.”
  8. On Personal Experience: “I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.”
  9. On Research: “I talked to members of my family, and did some personal research that didn’t really have anything to do with the time and place I was writing about, but that gave me a feeling of the experience of being black in a time and place where it was very difficult to be black.”
  10. On Theory: “I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don’t worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It’s not very good for storytelling.”

There are a couple more quotes in there if you’re into Butler as much as I am, but I’m pretty sure these ones contain the only writing tips.

And in case you don’t try to avoid it, like Butler does, and want more theory, here’s a PDF by a couple of English professors in which they analyze and critically study the style and techniques of select Butler works. Enjoy until next time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

China Miéville on Novel Structure for Beginners

I spend a lot of time on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills (not writing yet, I’m afraid), and recently I’ve been posting the writing tips that helped get me started to the /r/writing subreddit. Starting today, and every Thursday until I run out of them, I’m going to share those writing tips here on the blog, as well.

You might recognize this first one from my personal note about The Asymptote’s Tail. I’m just going to go ahead and quote the self post directly from reddit, but you can find it here if you want to see the conversation it produced there. I hope it helps:

This was posted here more than a year ago by /u/toothsoup, but it helped me so much, I thought it deserved rehashing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. What follows is all from the linked post above:

I finally got around to transcribing an interview that Miéville gave at a writer’s festival earlier this year where he was talking about his new book (Railsea), writing comics, and his place in the fantastic genre. He also took questions from the crowd, and I found his answer to a rather broad question about structure really solid. It’s helped me out in how I’m thinking about structuring my first novel, so I thought I’d post it here in case it helps someone else.


I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen.

The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Pitch Your Favorite Novel

Someone on /r/writing yesterday posted a nice discussion thread by the title of Exercise: How would you have pitched your favourite novel if you were the author? and I thought it was a great idea. About 20 redditors enjoyed the query I posted enough to be signed in at the same time they pressed the upvote button, so I thought I’d share it here, too, and maybe 20 wordpressers will enjoy it enough to be signed in at the same time y’all press the like button. Here it is, and don’t forget to click through the link above to see some of the other redditors’ pitches for their favorite novels:

Dear Editor/Agent Person,

After surviving the bombing of Dresden in World War II, Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. As he uncontrollably slips between then and now, he must deal with the war, everyday family life, and even an abduction by aliens who can see all times at once.

I survived the bombing of Dresden in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker which the Germans were using as an ad hoc detention facility, and I believe my experiences have added a nice bit of realism to such an outlandish piece.

The first twenty pages of the manuscript are attached as requested in your submission guidelines. Thank you for taking the time to consider my query.

Sincerely,

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Now how would you pitch your favorite novel?