Jay Lake on titles

I’ve had a mixed experience with titles. For some stories, they come easily. For others, I can wrack my brain for hours and never come up with a title I’m happy with.

So, I was pleased to see Jay Lake’s note on titles, which has several useful ideas.

His last suggestion (Bible searches and Shakespeare searches) has the obvious extension of searching in other classic poetic works, but a quick search failed to turn up a really good site for that. Of course, you can search in any particular classic work by grabbing the whole text off Gutenberg, and then just searching in your web browser. But it would be handy if there were a good poetry search tool where you could target your search to a few broad category of poems, and I couldn’t quickly find one.

Cool Scrivener feature: show stamps

Tobias Buckell’s recent post on chapters was not only interesting in its own right. It also brought me to Scott Westerfeld’s valuable post on pace charts. Even more cool, though was a tidbit in a comment on that post, with details on a cool feature of Scrivener: You can show stamps on the note cards!

Scott’s example involved marking the note cards to indicate what sort of tension was driving each scene. With that information he could see if there were long stretches without an action scene (or if his action scenes started falling too much into a simple rhythm). That gave him useful information for adjusting the pacing—keeping things moving, mixing things up, etc.

I’m going to be using this all the time now. For example, the story I workshopped last month is both a heist story and a love story. This feature gives me a way to mark the scenes so that I can see which aspect of the story is being advanced and then view that aspect of all the scenes:

Screen capture of Scrivener corkboard
Scrivener corkboard

I was completely unaware of this feature, even though I use Scrivener all the time, so I thought I’d spell out how to do it.

  1. Make sure that the “Inspector” is being displayed.
  2. In the Inspector under “General” find the “Status” pop-up menu and select “Edit.”
  3. Add whatever status items you’ll need.
  4. Go through your scenes, setting each Status as appropriate.
  5. In the Menu select “View->Index Cards->Show Stamps.”

It was step 5 that I was completely unaware of. That’s what causes the diagonal overprinting of the status to be shown across the cards.

I can see using this a dozen different ways to illuminate the story structure.

First meeting of the incognito writers group

A few of us here in Champaign-Urbana are trying to get a local writers group going again. Caleb Wilson, Kelly Searsmith, Charlie Petit, and I got together last night at the Urbana Library for the new group’s first meeting.

I had suggested that we might want to talk about a name for the group, simply because I knew I would want to post about it and thought it would be handy to be able to call it something, but everybody else seemed to want to go straight to the critiquing. Kelly suggested that the group could remain incognito for the time being. That was good enough for me—I’ll just call it the incognito writers group until we decide we need a better name. [Update: I’ve created a page for the Incognito Writers Group.]

It’s really nice to have a local writers group again. The actual writing part of being a writer is such a solitary activity, it’s worth making the effort to generate some amount of actual interpersonal contact. And we’ve got an excellent selection of writers: three Clarion grads and an intellectual property lawyer. (I’ll resist making a James Watt joke.)

It’s a real boost to be around people who understand what it’s like to write fiction—people who understand the rush that comes from getting a bit of dialog just right (and the anguish from trying and failing), the absorbing intensity of world-building, the stoicism needed to keep persisting in the face of rejection. When those people also understand crafting a good story, writing vivid prose, and developing compelling characters, so much the better.

One other thing we didn’t talk about was opening the membership up to other people, but I suspect the group would be even better with a couple more people. If you live in Champaign-Urbana (or close enough to attend monthly meetings), write some variety of speculative fiction,  can demonstrate a seriousness of purpose (regularly submitting stories to markets, attending well-regarded workshops, etc.), and you’d be interested in joining, see the Incognito Writers Group page.

Open Source Fiction?

Frank Gilroy, a guy I used to work with at Motorola, has written a post called My Thoughts on Open Source Story Telling about why he’s putting his fiction up on the web. I had a few thoughts on the topic that I would have shared in a comment, except that he’s got comments turned off. So, instead here’s the long version.

To begin with, fiction was always “open source” in the sense that you can’t keep the text secret from the reader. In this way it is unlike software (where you can keep the source code secret from the people running the program). Because of this, in software “open source” was an important (and somewhat transgressive) notion. In fiction, though, it’s just the way things have always been.

Since fiction has always been open source, stories have always been pieces of a greater conversation. Some explicitly respond to other stories, but even the ones that don’t are informed by what the author has read. At least as important, the readers’ reactions are informed by what they’ve read, whether or not the writer has read the same things.

It’s rare in fiction for writers to do what’s common in open source software—use their access to the source to improve it (fix bugs, add functionality, improve standards compliance, and so on). But the reason has nothing to do with a lack of access to the text.

Putting that issue aside, the remaining issues seem to be money (how does the writer get paid) and access (how does the reader find the work).

Money

In software, the open source model offers a revenue stream for providing support. Is there an equivalent for open source fiction? Perhaps one could say that some professors of English and literature do, in a sense, get paid to support the readers of open-source literature. But I don’t see a business model forming around the idea that a writer would publish his stories free on the web and then charge a fee to explain them.

Why do people ever pay for fiction? They pay to be entertained, to be edified, to be amused, and so on, but I think the root value that they’re paying for is novelty. People will pay for access to new fiction (that they’re confident that they’ll enjoy) and there are revenue streams built around the fact that people will perceive access to new fiction (that they expect to enjoy) as being of value. (Advertising being the most obvious.)

Putting a story up on the web can only hurt its novelty value. It may be worth doing for other reasons (in particular, if you’re getting paid for it), but a piece of fiction is only new to a reader once.

Writers are as happy as anyone else to get paid, but they’re also motivated by other things. In particular, they want their work to be read: They want to be part of the great conversation that is literature—or at least part of some tiny piece of that conversation. This, I think, is the reason that so many writers are tempted to post their fiction: it means that the whole world has access.

Access

It might seem like putting your fiction up on the web would maximum the chance that it would be read, but that’s very much not true.

Fiction is different from nonfiction, where a brief glance can give the reader an pretty good sense as to whether or not a piece is worth reading. Fiction needs to be read from the beginning. Good fiction often produces temporary feelings of frustration or confusion and then resolves those feelings in a satisfying way. But there’s plenty of bad fiction that produces frustration or confusion and then fails utterly to produce a satisfying resolution.

Every reader has been repeatedly unsatisfied by bad fiction. Most of them have responded by choosing not to read random pieces of fiction. Instead, they only read fiction by writers that they trust to make it worth their while, or after someone they trust vouches for it as being worth the effort.

These pieces—fiction by writers they trust, or selected by editors they trust—they’re willing to pay money for. But fiction that lacks such credentials is not only not worth money, it generally doesn’t even get read. Just offering it for free does not make it worth investing the time to read it—in fact, just the opposite. Being available on the web for free doesn’t prove that it’s not worth reading, but in the absence of a recognized by-line or an endorsement by an editor, being offered for free is a negative.

Because of that, posting a story on the internet usually means that almost no one will read it except the writer’s friends and relations. In this way it’s very different from software, and from other things that have flourished on the internet, such as music.

[In the interest of full disclosure, let me mention that my story “An Education of Scars” is currently available to read for free on the internet at Futurismic, which paid me for the right to offer it.]

My Workspace

My Workspace, originally uploaded by bradipo.

I haven’t actually been writing at my desktop for the past couple of weeks. While Steve and Daniel were visiting, we were taking our laptops to the library and using one of their “study rooms” as an office.

I’m fixin’ to get back to working here, though.

What’s here:

  • HP laser printer
  • Yamaha speakers
  • Dancing Ganesh
  • iMac
  • Iomega 1T backup drive
  • My and Jackie’s iPods
  • Picture of Jackie taken in India
  • My Clarion mug

Creative Commons License
My Workspace by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Thinking about Clarion

It’s hot today. Writing when it’s hot always reminds me of Clarion—of the many sweaty hours sitting at my desk in Owen Hall, writing fiction. And I was already thinking of Clarion. In 2001, Clarion started on June 3rd, so I spent much of May getting ready to go. Since then I’ve found my thoughts turn to Clarion every May.

Thinking about Clarion reminds me how I’d been wrong about which activities would teach me the most. I’d imagined that the benefits would flow from writing a lot and getting critques on my stories. Those activities were beneficial, but what taught me the most was doing a critique of a classmate’s story and then hearing another 20 critiques on the same story. Especially when one of my fellows had a different take on the story from my own, I learned something. Some of those insights were pearls of great value that I secreted away and have used many, many times since then. Even when I disagreed, just the notion that the story could be viewed that way changed the way I thought about stories.

Sadly, I don’t have an active local critique group, so I’m not in a position to recreate that aspect—the most valuable aspect—of the Clarion experience this summer. But that’s okay. I can still write a lot. I can still read a lot. I can still think critically about the stories I read. And on hot days like today it will almost feel like I’m back there again.

Heinlein’s Rule Two: Finish What You Start?

I’ve never had a problem with Henlein’s rule one for writers (you must write). I enjoy the writing. I enjoy other stuff too, and want to be sure to get in my reading and exercise and Esperanto and playing of StarCraft, but of all the stages in writing a story, the step I most enjoy is putting the words down. So, I do write, and with enthusiasm.

On the topic of rule two, however, I go back and forth.

I certainly see that you can’t make a career (or even a sale) out of unfinished stories. But I’ve gradually come to see that many of my unfinished stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just a cool character or a cool situation or a cool idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “finish” these non-stories. Years of experience shows that I can fool myself for a long time that these particular cool characters, situations, and ideas add up to a story. But the result is days or weeks spent generating prose that never adds up to a story.

I think a much better version of rule two for me is “Finish the stories you start, but ruthless abandon any project as soon as you realize it isn’t a story.”

I could finish two or three stories in the time it takes me to “finish” a non-story.

Deciding what to skip

One weak point in my writing is that I sometimes forget to write in scenes. I’m prone to write continuous action, which leads to pages of people just going places and arranging things. Very dull. Very easy to avoid, though, as long as I remember to do so. Just add a scene break and begin a new scene with, “When they arrived at…”

The problem is, an excessive amount of that is just as bad. It’s not as often, but I sometimes find myself summarizing—writing the whole story as a series of brief descriptions of what happened.

I think that’s where I went awry most recently. As often happens when I’ve made a mistake, I found it very hard to write the next bit, leading to several zero word count days this week. So, today I backed up and replaced some of that summary with scenes.

I think that was the right choice. After all, this is a place where they’re going to be spending some time. So, some full-blown scenes of arriving and meeting people seem appropriate. Plus, I enjoyed writing them, which is usually a good sign.

So, that’s 800 words today. With three zeros, though, my moving average is just 216 words. Hopefully I’m over this rough patch and can start making headway again.

Five hundred words of calling for help

I’ve known right along that I didn’t really know where the novel was going.  On novel-length efforts I haven’t had much success writing to an outline, so I thought I’d try just writing.  (Another thing I’ve been doing differently this time is giving the chapters to Jackie as I go along, figuring that would give me a little extra push to make each one kind of exciting.)

I’ve been putting in little hints of underlying complexity, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what they mean.  I figure some of them will turn into something.  The others I can leave in if they work as texture or remove if they detract.

For some reason, though, the past couple of days it started bugging me that I didn’t know where I was going.  I was at an inflection point in the story and I thought had an idea for what I wanted to do next, but without an idea of where I was going, it just turned into nothing.  The result was two days with zero word counts.

That was bad, but today I figured out I could write another chunk.  I’d made the not-unusual decision to cut the hero off from most sources of help, but I realized today that I could let him call for help without him actually getting help anytime soon.  Plus, this gives me the chance to insert some exposition if necessary–the response to the call for help can fill in whatever background is needed to put his adventures in the context of the greater story.  (I haven’t written it yet, but I’ll write something, and if it isn’t right I can change it later.)

So, even though I still don’t know what the greater story is, I was able to write 500 words today of calling for help.

Although it daunted me for a couple of days, I think I’m past this cycle of worrying about what the greater story is.  The worst that can happen is that I never do, and I’ll have spent a couple of months writing sixty thousand words that never turns into a novel.  But the couple of months would have gone by whether I’d written sixty thousand words or not.

Word churn

My false starts last week left me with a bunch of words that probably belonged in the novel but not where I’d tried to put them.  The past three days I’ve been working on integrating some of them into the next chapter and moving the rest out of the manuscript.  The result is that I’ve made some forward progress, but without much in the way of net new words.  So, with word counts of 200, 300, and 600, my moving average has slipped under 500.  Still, I’m making forward progress.  In fact, I hit 15,000 words, which is one-quarter of my estimated final length, and I hit it with a neat transition in the story–after having been on the move so far, the characters have finally reached a place they’re going to be for a while.