Another Champaign-Urbana writers group!

I just discovered another Champaign-Urbana area writers group for writers of speculative fiction, calling themselves All Writes Reserved. How did I not know this? In any case, it’s great to know that there’s another group of serious writers of speculative fiction in town.

Anyway, I’ve added five blogs to my feed reader—the individual blogs of the group’s members, plus that group blog, which I also added to the list of local writers groups on my Incognitos Writers Group page.

I’ll also try and get in touch with them and raise the possibility that we might do an occasional joint critique session or something. (Getting in touch with a group of people on the net is not as easy as it used to be, now that so many people insist on trying to hide their email address in a futile effort to stave off spammers. And, practicing what I preach, my email address is right there on my Contact page.)

Daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna

I’m a student of daily routines. I like to imagine that I’m looking for good models for my own behavior, but that’s only true in an oblique way. By now I understand pretty well the structure of a productive routine; no new routine will be enough better than the routines I’ve already studied to justify the effort of examining them. The value in studying daily routines, for me, is as a reminder to follow my own routine.

For a while there was a great blog called Daily Routines that was very nearly pornography for this inclination of mine to ponder new models. It was there that I found the daily routine for Charles Darwin, which is probably the best model I’ve found so far.

And it is in part because of its similarity to Darwin’s model, that the daily routine of Vestricius Spurinna caught my eye:

At the second hour [after waking] he calls for his shoes and walks three miles, exercising mind as well as body. If he has friends with him the time is passed in conversation on the noblest of themes, otherwise a book is read aloud….

Then he sits down, and there is more reading aloud or more talk for preference; afterwards he enters his carriage [for more private conversation].

After riding seven miles he walks another mile, then he again resumes his seat or betakes himself to his room and his pen. For he composes, both in Latin and Greek, the most scholarly lyrics. They have a wonderful grace, wonderful sweetness, and wonderful humour, and the chastity of the writer enhances its charm.

When he is told that the bathing hour has come—which is the ninth hour in winter and the eighth in summer—he takes a walk naked in the sun, if there is no wind.

Then he plays at ball for a long spell, throwing himself heartily into the game, for it is by means of this kind of active exercise that he battles with old age.

After his bath he lies down and waits a little while before taking food, listening in the meantime to the reading of some light and pleasant book. All this time his friends are at perfect liberty to imitate his example or do anything else they prefer.

Then dinner is served…. The dinner is often relieved by actors of comedy, so that the pleasures of the table may have a seasoning of letters. Even in the summer the meal lasts well into the night, but no one finds it long, for it is kept up with such good humour and charm.

The consequence is that, though he has passed his seventy-seventh year, his hearing and eyesight are as good as ever, his body is still active and alert, and the only symptom of his age is his wisdom.

– (From a public-domain translation of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Of course, Spurinna was retired, so one writing session of just an hour or two is probably enough for him. His work when he was younger was as a magistrate and governor, and so probably took place in those conversation sessions that are now just for pleasure.

I think there’s a lot to emulate there. Three walks per day adding up to five miles seems just about right—as long as you include another hour or two of vigorous sport. Of course, he’s in his late seventies. Us younger folk should probably get in a little more than that.

Another view on frugal living

One of my fellow Wise Bread writers, Nora Dunn, has been posting some of the financial details of her travel-heavy lifestyle, including this post on her 2011 Income. (It’s got a link to her earlier post on her 2011 spending, and promises a forthcoming post on why she chooses to earn this much money and not more.)

It’s pretty interesting for anyone who’s thinking about the sort of issues that I write about in my Wise Bread articles—how and why to spend less, and how and why to earn the money to support that frugal lifestyle (and not some other lifestyle).

Entering flow state

I use a trick for getting into flow state.

Anybody who does creative work knows about flow state, where your surroundings vanish and for a timeless period you’re creating whatever is you create. If you’re a writer, the words just, well, flow.

Many writers have some sort of process for achieving flow state, such as a pre-writing ritual, or a specific place or specific set of tools that they reserve for their creative work.

I’ve seen working writers mock these techniques—making fun of the writer who needs the right kind of tea in the right special cup and the right ink in the right fountain pen before they can write. And I do see the mocking potential. But I find having such a process is highly effective in speeding the process of getting into flow state.

The key here is speeding. If your pre-writing ritual takes twenty minutes, it’s not likely to be faster than just starting to write. (Which is, after all, the only essential step.)

But some very short ritual, or some special place or object, if you start using it when you’re working, will become associated with entering flow state. And once it has become associated, just following it or having it or using it makes it easier and quicker to enter flow state.

In my case, it’s a vest that Jackie made me. I reserve it just for fiction writing. Having written a lot of fiction wearing that vest, just putting it on puts me in the frame of mind that I’m going to write fiction.

I can write without it. I probably write more without it than I do with it. But especially when I have only a short period of time to write, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to put my vest on when I sit down to write.

[Update: I just remembered that I’ve mentioned my writing vest before, in my Clarion journal, in reference to Steven Barnes talking about learning to enter flow state.]

SLF Older Writers Grant

My first impulse, when I see something like the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant, is to share it with everybody. Then I immediately have a counter impulse: I should keep it to myself! Why go out of my way to encourage competition? And then I have a counter-counter impulse: I’d rather be a member of a supportive community of writers.

At that point, I usually go ahead and share the opportunity with everyone that I think might be interested, with any slight feeling of foolishness balanced by a slight feeling of virtuousness.

In this case, I got over my selfish impulse extra quickly, because I don’t know that many speculative fiction writers over 50 anyway.

They also do an annual travel grant, so that’s a reason to click on over, even if you’re under 50.

Drew Breunig on “Content” Creep

I think of myself as a writer, not a “content creator,” so I find Drew Breunig’s warnings of doom to anyone whose business is built around “content” to be hopeful. Those same warnings ought to terrify the owners and managers of those businesses.

My writing for Wise Bread has given me a particular perspective on this. The Wise Bread admins have done a pretty good job of seeking out and paying for high-quality writing. They have fallen prey to the idea that winning in this niche is all about SEO and monetizing, but that’s not so bad.

The SEO thing tends tends to work in favor of a writer who wants his work to be read. A Google search for budget categories finds my article Refactor Your Budget Categories, despite a lot of other articles on budgeting. (I was going to say that I wouldn’t do so well if I just posted the article on my own blog, but when I tested that theory, I found a Google search for rich country finds my article How to Have a Rich Country just fine. Maybe I could do as well on my own site.) In any case, there’s nothing wrong with SEO, as long as it’s in service of good content—good writing.

The monetizing thing is more of a slippery slope. If you let your browser do so, it’ll run scripts from at least 15 other domains every time you load a page on Wise Bread. I haven’t looked at what they’re all for, but most of them either serve ads or provide some sort of analytics or tracking of who’s viewing what. As a reader, I don’t care about any of that stuff, so I generally don’t let my browser run those scripts. As a writer, I tolerate it as a way to make more money, but I don’t think it makes my posts look better. (Wise Bread does at least avoid the very worst of the interstitials and floating boxes that cover the page and so on.)

So, as I say, I hope Drew Breunig is right. I’d very much like to see the revenue potential of a content farm article fall to zero. Or, at least, low enough that there’s no point in paying some semi-literate buffoon a nickle to cobble together a few paragraphs that look like prose and are stuffed with keywords. Not that I begrudge the semi-literate buffoons their nickles; I’d just like to see the incentives in the system shift so as to make it pointless to hire writers who can’t write.

It would take a lot of those nickles to add up to a reasonable wage, but there are a lot of those nickels. A world in which we swapped 10,000 worthless articles for one worthwhile article—and paid one writer $500 instead of a thousand buffoons 50¢ each would be a better world.

Ten years since my Clarion

Ten years ago today was the first day of class at the 2001 Clarion. Steve Barnes talked about plot. (The stuff he talked about that day, together with some some ideas I got a few weeks later from Geoff Landis and some earlier instruction from Bruce Holland Rogers at his Flatiron Fiction Workshop, served as the basis for the article on story structure that I sold later that year to Speculations.)

Those six weeks at Clarion were great—only a handful of times in my life have I had that much fun. Clarion also had a huge impact on my life—everything I’ve done since then has been colored by the things I learned there.

I wouldn’t want to do Clarion again—it only works that way one time—but I would like to do another intensive workshop. Probably one aimed at novels, if I can get a novel written.

That’s for the future, though. Right now I need to write one more short story for my local writers group, then start revising some of the stories that they’ve already critiqued.

Characters who learn

I want to talk about something that Patrick Rothfuss does very well. It’s really a small piece of his vast array of skills—the lyrical language, the masterful worldbuilding, the high adventure, the compelling characters—but I think it’s integral to the way he manages to hit those powerful emotional high points over and over again.

His characters learn. They learn all the time.

Most stories are about characters who learn. Not all: James Bond doesn’t grow and change; a lot of older episodic fiction was structured so that characters returned to the status quo ante by the end of every episode. But most stories are about a character who needs to learn better. The story leads the character through a series of events that somehow provide the needed education, and at the end the character behaves in such a way that we understand that the necessary lesson has been learned.

A very short story can be not much more than this. In a longer story, though, the result is often quite unsatisfactory, especially if the cycle—flaw leading to wrong action leading to suffering—is repeated. By the time we get to the end of a story like that, I no longer care much whether the hero will learn to care about other people or overcome his addiction or stop blaming himself for some long-ago mistake.

One way for the novelist to handle this is to have other problems for the hero to overcome. If the hero is busy saving the world, it’s easier to accept that he’s not overcoming his personal problems as quickly as we’d like. When, in the end, he does overcome his personal problems—especially when doing so is also key to saving the world—it can be very satisfying. But to make that work, the reader has to be kept aware of the flaw, which means once again we have repeated cycles of flaw, wrong action, suffering. Cycles that I find tedious and frustrating.

The other, better, way for the novelist to handle this is to have the hero make incremental progress in learning what he needs to learn. It’s both more realistic and more interesting. The problem is that it tends not to lead to the sort of rising action that makes for a satisfying climax. Partial learning leads to less wrong action which leads to less suffering—this is not stuff from which it is easy to form a compelling climax.

This is where Patrick Rothfuss displays incredible virtuosity. His characters (not just the hero, but also all the characters around him) learn stuff all the time. Because they learn stuff, they make fewer mistakes, they cause less suffering for themselves and the people around them. And yet, tension continues to rise. How does he do that?

Part of it is that, as they learn, their capabilities grow, and as their capabilities grow, their mistakes have larger consequences.

More important, as their capabilities grow, they choose to take on greater challenges. That’s realistic and interesting, but in less capable hands it often leads to stores that are too episodic. (Rothfuss overcomes that through the structure of a wrapping story, that lets us see early on that all the episodes are leading somewhere.)

I really want to learn to understand this better, because this feature—characters learning— creates repeated mini-climaxes. And here is where the virtuosity becomes manifest.

In inferior stories, the reader can plainly see what the hero needs to do—quit running away from his problems, quit being so full of himself, quit acting like a jerk, whatever—but has to wait to the end of the story for the hero to figure it out. In The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, by the time the reader understands what the character needs to do, the character is well on his way to understanding it as well. And when the character does learn (and demonstrates that learning by making better choices, and the better choices lead to better results), the reader feels the same glow produced by the climax of a great story. Over and over again.

And yet, tension continues to rise. Virtuosity. I want to learn it.

(Oh, and just as an aside: I once won a free book by writing the winning caption for this picture of Patrick Rothfuss.)

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.