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A pumpkin is not a pie

I would be very surprised to meet a published author who has NOT been told some variation of this:  “I’ve got a great idea for a book!  All I need to do is write it down.”

Yeah, but no.

If you’re a writer, or if you’ve spent some time thinking about the process, you probably know where I’m going with this.  But, hey–pumpkins. If this post isn’t informative, at least it’s seasonal.

Without further ado, let’s proceed to the metaphor.

This is an idea: 

This is a story:

That pretty, orange pumpkin is bright and colorful and vastly appealing, but it is not a pie. It is the raw material for a pie. There’s a lot of peeling and chopping and roasting and pureeing and pumpkin-spicing and mixing and baking and maybe even cinnamon pie crust leaf-making that happens between pumpkin and pie. The first time you attempt pie, you might be less than happy with the outcome. A crisp, flaky crust takes practice. Technique matters. Great results come from knowing the basic rules of baking, then doing your own creative spin. Do all that, and do it often enough, and you’ll soon be helping pumpkins reach their glorious potential.

Ideas are wonderful and exciting. You can’t tell a great story without a good idea,  any more than you can bake a decent pumpkin pie from a Jack-o-Lantern variety gourd. But an idea, no matter how big and bright and shiny it might be, is not a story.  Yet.

Setting as character, Part 2: Unique knowledge

In his book The Old Ways, travelogue writer Robert Macfarlane suggests, “The question one should ask of any strong landscape is: what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?”

Not every location will inspire unique insights, but asking this question of your setting in general, as well as powerful sites within your setting, can be a useful world-building exercise.

If you’re not sure where to start, try recalling an experience of your own. Here’s an example:

About fifteen years back, I took my mother to Ireland for a week. One day we visited the Cliffs of Moher, which drop dramatically from green, rocky hills into the Irish Sea. Walking any distance was difficult for Mom, so we had a wheelchair handy and I pushed her up the hill to the overlook, a stone wall where tourists gather to gaze at the cliffs. She was happy to stay there for a bit, so I wandered off toward the tower. As I stood on the hill, looking out to sea, I got a powerful sense that the land not only welcomed, but claimed me. “These are my cliffs. They say to those who come by sea, ‘This far, and no further.’ If necessary, you will do the same.” And at that moment, I would have. The willingness to fight and die for a piece of real estate is a widely acknowledged notion, but I’d never actually felt it. Like many Americans, I’ve lived in many places, and I’ve liked some more than others, but picking up your life and moving it somewhere else is not only an option, it’s an expectation. I’d never encountered a place that demanded more of you. I’d never realized it was possible to experience no meaningful separation between who you are and where you stand. That was a very strange and profound moment.

Now, back to your setting. After you ask what unique thing your character learns from the setting, here’s a followup: How is the character changed by what he learned or experienced?

This change might be large or small, but it will occur. Every time we do or think something new, physical changes occur in our brains. Neural connections form or strengthen. Activity in certain areas increases. This process is profound, but it’s also invisible. Writers need to find tangible ways to demonstrate the impact knowledge has on a character. 

When I look for examples in fictious worlds, I keep returning to Darkover. The pollen of certain flowers had a halucinogetic effect that jumpstarted laran, a psychic ability similar to D&D psionics. The humans who settled there very literally knew things they could have known nowhere else. Initially, only a few people developed these powers. Since laran was hereditary, after a few generations, families who had it became Darkover’s ruling class. The world is like a strange and alien sorceress who, for reasons of her own, gave magic to a favored few.

When you’re thinking about the impact setting has on your characters, keep in mind that no two people are going to see the world in quite the same way, so your characters might learn very different things from the same location.

For example, let’s say your rogue and paladin walk into a busy summer faire. Your paladin feels profoundly uneasy, and she senses a flavor of evil she has never before encountered–banal, self-serving, grasping, a value system that glorifies vulgar display and useless material things above all else. Raised in a monastery, a veteran of holy wars, she knows how to deal with monsters and the armed forces of tyrants, but the inequity she sees at the faire–the wealthy gem merchant shoving his way past hungry children–is not something her sword can resolve. She might be struck with a sense of her own limitations, or perhaps by the realization that while she would gladly die to protect the people of this land, she doesn’t particularly like them. As she tells her companion, “There is nothing for me to fight here, and nothing worth fighting for.”  The rogue sees the same things the paladin does, but she realizes that she knows how to beat every one of these grifters, thieves, and lowlifes at their own games. For the rogue, the faire is like coming upon a mirror, suddenly and unexpected, and seeing something there she didn’t know existed. That might dismay or delight her. It might make her reassess her life, or it might raise her confidence level and prompt her to try something far more daring and ambitious than she’d ever before considered. Or both.

Again, this technique isn’t something you’ll apply to every new location, but it’s another tool for creating a settings with strong and distinctive personalities.

Constructing the iceburg

Last night, I had a very helpful Skype chat with my son Sean about the outline of my novel-in-progress. He asked a very important question about two of the characters:  “Why are they friends?”

This is one of those tip-of-the-iceburg moments in fiction. When two people from very different backgrounds are close friends who know each other’s secrets, the story of how they got to that place is important, even if it’s not the story currently being told.  So before I can go much further with the w-i-p, I need to sketch out that prequel story, if only in broad strokes.

I’m a history geek, and I believe in the value of knowing what happened and why. A knowledge of history lends insight and perspective to current culture and events. That’s equally true in fiction. Characters don’t simply appear on the page in chapter one. They lived full (if fictitious) lives before they got to this point in their stories.  The things they experienced will form the choices they make during the story-in-progress. I was reminded of this again this morning by a Twitter message from a Forgotten Realms reader. She wanted to know why Danilo Thann, in the novel Dream Spheres, felt such an immediate connection to Lilly, a tavern wench and his half-sister. This is the sort of question writers need to answer during the writing process. For those who are interested, here’s what that process looks like for me.

Family is important to Danilo, in no small part because his own family is so problematic. He’s the youngest of several siblings, most of whom are quite a bit older than he is. That’s isolating. To compound matters, he spent a large chunk of his childhood away from home for reasons that have not been (and will not be) disclosed. The archmage Khelben Arunsun, his purported uncle, played a big role in his life during this traumatic period. Their relationship, though close, has always been fraught. The frivolous facade Dan adopted as part of his role in the Harpers further distanced him from his business-oriented family. So did his interest in music. Musical study, to their way of thinking, was part of a nobleman’s well-rounded education, but there comes a point when a Waterdhavian merchant should pay other people to provide music so he can devote his time to the serious business of commerce and social maneuvering. For these and many other reasons, Dan feels like an outsider in his own family. That’s one of the things he shares with Arilyn. They are two socially and emotionally adrift people who found a harbor in each other.

When Danilo learned that he had a half-sister, he felt the personal impact of all those lost years, when he might have had a younger sister to protect and tease and love. But the more powerful emotion was that he was appalled his father could know of this girl’s existence for all those years, but never support or even acknowledge her. Waterdeep is a thriving, wealthy city, but the lives of the working poor are as difficult and tenuous as anywhere else in the Realms. A tavern wench works long hours. She’s viewed as a commodity and often treated like a whore, and there’s  little prospect of a better life.  Dan understands this, and feels responsible–no, he embraces the responsibility–for his newfound sister. The connection he feels with Lilly is immediate, personal, complex, and very powerful because of who is he, what he has experienced, and what he values.  The reader might not know all the particulars, and probably shouldn’t, but the writer must. Otherwise, the reader is unlikely to feel that a character’s choices flow from anything deeper and more profound than plot convenience.

I wish I could say that I’ve lavished this much thought on all my characters, but the fact is that Dan is one of my favorite fictitious people. He has been with me for over 25 years, and every now and then I still feel his presence, looking over my shoulder and commenting on a turn of phrase, wondering why on earth I sold my lute and never bought another, or critiquing the state of my wine cellar. (A conversation that usually begins with, “Why is it, precisely, that you don’t HAVE one?”)  I enjoy spending time with him.  What I find very encouraging and more than a little exciting is that I’m getting much the same feeling about my current novel-in-progress, and the new fictitious people whose lives are taking shape, both above and below the waterline.

The persistence habit

Over the years, I’ve written for several projects that, for various reasons, went off the rails before my story was published.  When  one such story reverted to me, I filed off the shared-world serial numbers and started sending it out in search of a new home.

I assumed this story was going to be difficult to place. It is a VERY odd little tale–a cyberpunk story set in a far-future abbey, the Order of St. Hildegard. The first-person narrator is what one Trusted Reader calls a “nunbot,” and the abbess is a biological computer based upon DNA taken from the relics of St. Hildegard of Bigen. Not my usual thing, but it does incorporate several familiar themes: music, history, and the complexity of human nature.

(NOTE: The image shows the shrine that holds the saint’s relics. In the story, the computer’s cabinet is a reproduction of this.)

 So far this year, “Synthetic Sanctity” has garnered five rejections. I do think it will find a home eventually. In the meanwhile, it’s a busy little ambassador, introducing editors to my work and, for the most part, garnering responses along the lines of “This one didn’t quite work for us, but send more.”
My point, and I do have one, is that rejections are not something to be feared, avoided, or mourned. To the contrary. Submitting a short story again and again helps build the “persistence habit,” and for me, at this point in time, that’s a valuable process.
The novel I’m working on is quite different from anything I’ve published. It’s bigger in both length and scope. Simply put, it’s a stretch. I’m determined (bordering on “obsessed”) but I’m finding that short story rejections form very useful calluses on the psyche. Anyone who has ever played any stringed instrument will know exactly what I mean. You can’t pick up the guitar or violin after months (or years!) away and play for hours the first time back. You’ve got to toughen up first. Every rejection leaves you a little bit tougher, a little better prepared to play longer and perform better.

Doorways and mirrors

This anthology is coming together and is scheduled for an August release, but that’s not the subject of this post. It’s about a moment of pure joy that reminded me why I read and tell stories.

Hath No Fury was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The editors encouraged the authors to offer rewards for higher levels of patronage, including Tuckerization, which allows a supporter to name a character after himself  or someone he knows. I’ve never encountered this practice before, and I had a hard time envisioning why anyone would plunk down $150 to name a character, but hey–why not. It’s important to be a team player. To my astonishment, someone bought the Tuckerization. When I learned who it was for, the motivation made perfect sense. The parents of an avid reader, a “dragon crazy” girl who just turned 13, are giving her a fictitious namesake.

This makes me ridiculously happy.

This dragon-crazy young girl will share a name with a dragon commander, a woman who possesses not only psychic power, but personal courage and a character arc that shows she can learn and grow.

I repeat: So ridiculously HAPPY!

It probably wouldn’t have hit me so strongly before the Wonder Woman movie. Viewer reaction to this movie demonstrates how much representation matters. A female superhero. A Jewish Wonder Woman. A few words spoken in the Blackfoot language. And from where I sit, a couple of badass fifty-something women doing just fine on the battlefield, thank you very much. Stories are doorways, but they are also mirrors. That moment of recognition can be very powerful.

When I started writing the story for this anthology, my goal was to tell an entertaining tale about a woman facing enormous challenges and temptations.  Social commentary or GO GIRL! cheerleading wasn’t part of the plan. But the thought that this story might mean something special, if only to one dragon-crazy girl, made me very happy.

Ridiculously so.

An elven roundup

It’s a good idea to have a basic author bio (more than one, actually, in different lengths and tones), but I always seem to end up customizing. The other day, it was pertinent to note in a bio that many, if not most, of my stories involved elves of some sort.

That got me thinking about the various sorts of elves. Turns out there are quite a few varieties:

  • The Tolkienesque elves of the Forgotten Realms
  • The drow, the Forgotten Realms dark elves
  • Criminally-inclined elves who live hidden lives in modern-day Providence, RI
  • Linchetto, the “night elves” of Tuscan folklore
  • There’s a short story in the works featuring the kijimunaa, a leprechaun-like elf specific to Okinawa
  • I’m currently working on a new novel that includes a version of the alfar, the elves of Nordic mythology.

No stories about Santa’s elves yet. That’s a serious oversight on my part.

Writing with my feet

Today I tried something new: Dictating scenes from my work-in-progress into Dragon Dictation, a free iPhone app,  while walking on the bike path.

This morning I walked 4 miles in a little over an hour, and when I came home and downloaded the transcriptions, I was stunned by the total: 2813 words.

Sure, it’s the roughest form of Draft Zero, but it’s a lot of raw material and more than I usually write in an entire day. Also, I find that the headspace inhabited when walking is different from that I experience at the keyboard. I’ve often observed that I “think with my fingers,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this morning I felt as if I was thinking on a different, less granular level. Not too surprising, I suppose. Why wouldn’t what your body is doing have an impact on how and what your brain processes?

I’ll be interested to see how this experiment goes. If it continues to yield productive session, I’m going to be getting a lot more exercise.

Cookies, anyone?

I’ve been baking cookies since I had to stand on a stool to reach the kitchen counter. It’s a thing I do. People like cookies, and I like baking cookies for them.

We all have our favorites and preferences. Some people have strong opinions on whether or not there should be nuts in brownies, but in general, no one feels the need to explain or justify the appeal of small, flat cakes.

No one says, “Well, I know it’s not exactly haute cuisine, but right now I could really go for a Snickerdoodle.” No one prefaces cookie-eating by making sure everyone knows that THEY know that chocolate chip cookies are omg SO FAR beneath them, and that they’re fully aware of the more sophisticated delights of croque-en-bouche and Poire à la Beaujolaise. And no sensible person expects a cookie to provide the Minimum Daily Requirement of any important nutrient. A cookie is not a spinach salad and grilled salmon. A cookie is a cookie.

If you don’t like cookies, I’m not going to argue that you should. But if you do, please allow yourself (and everyone else) to enjoy the experience.

There might be an analogy here to shared-world fiction. Or not.

Either way, here–have a cookie.

PS:  The photo is a batch of peanut butter cookies made with European style butter, good Madagascar vanilla, Guiardello 60% chocolate chips, and teeny Reese’s peanut butter cups.  I made them for an open gaming event at Rivendell Books & Games, our local game store. None of them survived the night. Just saying.

“Writing, rejection, and taking it like a pro”

That’s the tagline for author Aeryn Rudel’s blog Rejectomancy.com, which is one of the more helpful and inspiring author blogs out there. He’s extremely forthright about the writing process and the realities of the publishing industry. And one of those realities is rejection.

Just about everyone gets rejections, and they don’t stop once you have a publishing track record.

Take Jane Yolen, for example. She’s an incredibly prolific author with over 300 published books. She will frequently post on Facebook about what she wrote and submitted, what was accepted and what wasn’t. What strikes me about these posts is her ability to weigh each rejection for what it is, and act accordingly. Sometimes a book or poem just wasn’t a good match with a particular publisher, so she’ll try again elsewhere. Other times, she comments on plans to improve or rework something. The common element is that with each rejection, she’s learning something and moving on. That’s a great quality to emulate.

I’m working on that.

Last week, I had two rejections in two days. Neither one came as a surprise. One was a stretch, a market I never would have considered submitting to a year ago. But the story made it into the final round of consideration and the editor asked to see more stories, which is about as good as rejections get. The other was a reprint story which I submitted to a podcast magazine. Podcasts are a mystery to me, but since a lot of fiction is being consumed in audio format, it is past time for me to start learning about this part of the business. I liked this story, but I wasn’t sure it would work read aloud. In a way, it was helpful to have this suspicion confirmed. It’s a step forward in the process of writing for the ear as well as the mind’s eye.

Rejection isn’t something most people instinctively embrace, but on the other hand, it isn’t a thing to fear and avoid. It’s evidence that you’re working, stretching, risking. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s building necessary traits such as perseverance and flexibility. It takes you a step closer toward the stories you want to write, and getting them out to people who want to read them.

Write what you know, for people who don’t know it.

“Write what you know” is good advice, up to a point, but it also comes with its own set of perils and pitfalls. One of the big ones?  When you are passionate and knowledgable about a topic, it’s easy to forget that not everyone shares your particular obsession.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading notes from a Trusted Reader. The short story I sent him presupposed a knowledge of 16th century Scottish/English politics, the basic vocabulary of the Scotts dialect, fairy folklore in general, and the stolen child/changeling trope in particular. This Trusted Reader is exceedingly intelligent, but his knowledge base contains none of those things. Which, in a very important way, made him an ideal reader for this tale.

Which brings us to today’s writing tip.

If your story is deeply rooted in a particular field, be it forensic medicine or Major League baseball, it will need to make sense to someone who isn’t a pathologist or a pitcher. When you know a subject very, very well, you may not be the best judge of whether you’ve provided adequate background for someone who doesn’t.  A reader who isn’t familiar with one or more of the story’s key themes and elements comes at the story very differently than you do. If something is confusing or unclear to him, you need to expand or clarify. He’s also more likely to see how the story works apart from the knowledge-specific references. Someone who’s not distracted by the minutia of folklore or Star Wars or coin collecting may see big-picture plot holes and character inconsistencies that are less visible to people who live and love the details.

I’m fairly new to the practice of sharing with Trusted Readers. For years, the notion of anyone reading anything Before It Was Ready was the sort of thing I contemplated only during nightmares. The kind of dream where you forgot to study for an exam, or you have to perform a piece of music you’ve never practiced and can’t sight-read because the score is nothing but blank paper, or you’re in a shopping mall during the Christmas rush and suddenly your clothes disappear and oops, there you are.  Giving someone a first draft to read feels a lot like those dreams. It’s way, way outside my comfort zone, but it’s worth doing. I’m pretty sure that if I’d started earlier, I’d be a much better writer today.

If you’re a writer who’s not ready to take this step, or who has yet to find Trusted Readers, writing what you know for people who don’t can be a challenge. In the first draft, you can splash expertise onto the page or screen until it looks like a Jackson Pollack painting, but when you’re revising, here’s a tactic that might help:  Bring to mind a friend, family member, or acquaintance–or an imaginary Ideal Reader, for that matter–who knows very little about the topic or the setting or the magic system, and try to envision a passage as it would appear from his point of view. If it leaves him scratching his imaginary head, you’ve got more work to do.