27 March, 2012

Obligatory Mad Men post

Mad Men is less about story than it is about character. Or rather, it's less obviously about story. The characters drive the action; sometimes Things Happen from external, unpredictable sources, but most of the conflict and tension and drama in the show stems from how the characters respond to things.

Don seeks that creative problem-solving place, because it makes him feel like he has an identity; Peggy wants to be treated like an equal, and wavers between obedient conformity and tough aggression; Pete wants, above all else, respect, and views events through the lens of how much he respect they gain or lose him.

In this season's premiere double-sized episode, we also learned a great deal about where Lane's psyche currently sits. His racist reaction to the black cab driver's offer to return the lost wallet stands in stark contrast to his rebellious pride at having a black girlfriend in season 4. His desire for sexual liberty, demonstrated by the aforementioned black girlfriend (and encouraged by Don when they had that night on the town, complete with hookers), has been suppressed in favor of reconciling with his wife, but Lane still held out a (slightly creepy) hope that the mysterious Delores might be interested in him.

It is hard writing characters of this depth and complexity, and any great writer should, it seems obvious, focus on the immensely difficult task of creating characters. Story and plotting are easy by comparison; great characters drive their stories.

23 March, 2012

Focusing on the Easy Stuff

What is the focus of most discussions about writing fantasy fiction?

Frankly, it's the easy stuff: historical details, magic systems, horses, swords, clothes, government. The stuff you can go read a couple of books about and get a perfectly good handle on, and because you read a couple of books about it, you're way ahead of most of the people reading the book you write as a result.

What's missing? Character. Story structure. Narrative flow. Building tension over a novel-length story.

There are very few discussions of these topics. It's not hard to see why; these are the difficult parts of writing, the elusive parts that are at the core of every great book ever written, and nobody who hasn't been pretty successful is going to be considered much of an authority on those topics.

Should we be trying to encourage more discussions about these kinds of topics? Is there any point? Will we get anything out of it, or would that time be better spent actually writing our own work? Is it even possible to discuss these things in any meaningful way without some sort of formal scholarly framework behind it?

11 March, 2012

The Best Rejection

I'm up to six short story rejections—but the most recent one came with a (short) explanation!
Unfortunately, it's not quite right for us.  The details felt vivid, but the tone of the narrative felt to me more like an external camera, recounting the dialog and actions of the story from afar but not taking me inside a character's head to make me feel the story through their own eyes, through their personality and attitude and mood, such that I could empathize with their goals or fears.
Given the story in question, I can't argue; he's got a point. But the fact that the editor in question actually decided to give an explanation is incredibly encouraging.

I do realize that it might still be a "form" rejection—maybe "external camera" is on his prefab rejection list right between "I saw the twist coming a mile away that your main character turns out to be Jesus" and "Your prose reminds me of a Chick tract written by someone having an aneurysm"—but the very presence of that second sentence tells me that I'm possibly on the right track.

I've never been so happy to be rejected in my life.

For all I know, this will mark the apogee of my efforts, but I intend to keep at it until I do succeed (by a more conventional standard).

06 March, 2012

The Roundtable Podcast

So my good friend Dave Robison, along with his compatriot Brion Humphrey, have started a nifty new podcast called the Roundtable Podcast. Its primary focus is on bringing together an established writer as a guest host (like, say, for example, J. Daniel Sawyer) and a new, up-and-coming writer (like, say, ME!) to go over a story pitch and help flesh out some of the ideas.

And I was lucky enough to be the guest writer for the first episode, which is now available at the RTP's website. So go check it out! It's quite entertaining; I listened to it last night. I like to think that I didn't sound nearly as lame as I thought I did when we were recording it.

05 March, 2012


Four short story rejections and counting.

Nine months ago, when I started writing seriously, I had this vision that I would write my novel straight through, and then self-publish it. I figured I'd be done by the end of the year.

I was wrong. But I did learn a great many things along the way, including a lot about the worlds of e-publishing and self-publishing, and I ended up becoming motivated to start self-(e-)publishing short stories as a way to begin building a name for myself. It wasn't something I could have predicted, but it turns out to be an approach that, I think, works well for me.

It is, in fact, I think an ideal example of the four stages of competence. At first, I thought, "I'll write a novel! And it'll be great!" Not realizing, of course, that I had never written a novel before, and that there are a number of skills involved in it beyond the simple ability to put one word after another. This was the unconscious incompetence phase: I didn't recognize that I didn't know what I was doing.

I think now I'm in the conscious incompetence phase. I know that I don't know what I'm doing. And I'm doing my best to keep at it, hoping that some day I'll actually be reasonably good at this. That'll be the conscious competence phase, of course, followed, some day (I hope!) by the unconscious competence phase, where I am a master author and the world is my oyster. (Actually, I hate oysters. Why can't the world be my shrimp tempura roll?)