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Because I couldn't find this when I wanted it, I am now posting it here (and bookmarking it everywhere I thought it ought to be).

Oblique strategies was originally a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt used to break deadlocks in creative situations, and is now a website. Each "card" contains a (sometimes cryptic) remark, the pondering of which may help you resolve a creative dilemma.

Word Wear

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 01:00 pm
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I think I need to get this cartoon on a t-shirt, so I can wear it to next 4th Street.

ETA: Though I'm not sure it doesn't need a comma between "Yes" and "well". Opinions?

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Over at Book View Cafe today, Ursula K. Le Guin is concerned that a lot of on-line critiquers are "just parrot-squawking some useless “rule” they read somewhere." (She's soliciting opinions on the matter, so if you have views on how and whether to select critiquers and how to evaluate what they provide, head on over.)

Since I've always referred to such people as "rules-parrots", this amuses me.
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Ever wondered what 4th Street Fantasy is like? Imagine a three-day version of this Jo Walton article crossed with a really raucous game of Cards Against Humanity, with occasional breaks for very good food.
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Patricia Wrede is a very sensible person, and today's post on getting back on the writing horse after a crisis is a prime example.

Yeah. Like that.

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 10:06 pm
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My process is weird. I get that. (Okay, no, I don't; why wouldn't everybody write in this obviously superior way? ;-) But I acknowledge it.) Which means when I run across any other writer talking about their process, it's pretty well guaranteed to sound like a foreign language to me.

So I was all the more pleased to run across this post on Make Mine Mystery today. Which sounds so much like my process that I can just point and say "That! There! Like that!"

(Okay, not so much with the outlining. I don't outline, but that's not why.

And I don't usually have four projects on the burner at one time. Three, however, is not unheard of.)

But the bits where she's talking about characters, and about keeping the story straight -- yes, that. Exactly. How else would one do it?
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Progress is being made, and as is so often the case, Pat Wrede had the solution. Or, at least, the right question.

Because I asked myself that... and wham! An entire level of emotion opened up that had previously been sadly lacking. The answer wasn't something that I didn't already know, but asking it that way, it came with an immediacy and force that may just have knocked something loose for me.

I still have no idea if I'm horribly info-dumping or presenting interesting bits of setting and background sprinkled judiciously through the story, but that's what alpha-readers are for.
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So in trying yet again to hack my synopsis down to one page, I went browsing through my substantial collection of how-to links. By far the most useful in this case was Susan Dennard's How To Write A 1-Page Synopsis. It uses a property that might just be familiar for an example, and applies a standard set of questions to reduce it to a pithy and short synopsis.

The questions per se didn't work for me, as such questions never do, because one of the first ones is always "Who is the main character and what does she want?" And for HoM, the "what does she want" part pulls the capstone off the Pit of Backstory, which cannot be explained in one sentence in any way that doesn't sound moronic. And without the backstory, there's no story, so a substantial part of my available wordcount always gets eaten by the stuff that happens before the novel actually starts.

However, the link is still an excellent example in general, and of a particular principle in specific: You don't have to tell the truth in a synopsis. Oh, you need to be somewhere in general alignment with the truth; you don't, for example, want an explosion-packed action-adventure synopsis for a gentle romance novel. But it's entirely okay to fudge some details, even to the point of outright inaccuracy.

To wit:
Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it – a message from a princess begging for help. She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver these plans to a distant planet. Luke goes to his friend and mentor, the loner Ben Kenobi, for help.

Note the bit about Ben being his friend and mentor -- which is not true at that point in the movie. It's been a while since I've watched the source, but if I recall correctly, they'd never even met before then; they certainly didn't have an established trust relationship. (And come to think of it, the princess doesn't ask anyone to deliver the plans; the robot's supposed to do that itself. Double inaccuracy!)

However, the way it's written works fine in the synopsis. It conveys a sequence of events that functions the same way as the actual events; it serves the same dramatic purpose, in a way that's close enough that anyone reading the synopsis is unlikely to be heartbroken when a particular detail turns out to be different. And because Ben does become Luke's friend and mentor in the course of the story, the technically-inaccurate description doesn't set the synopsis-reader up for disappointment when they get to the real thing. It's not a bait-and-switch.

And that's the key. As long as the synopsis sets the reader up to expect the kind of things the story provides, it's okay if some of the details don't match up. It is in fact perfectly okay to leave out major secondary-arc developments, and even some primary-arc, as long as you can stitch the other side of the hole together in a coherent manner. And if that means, for example, that the SC decides to embrace a plan instead of being gung-ho for it all along, well, as long as it doesn't cascade-change too much else, that's just fine.

(I noted, in my passionate fit of rewriting, that that last bit could be recast as She has plans to defeat the Empire, and she begs someone to deliver them to the mysterious hermit, Ben Kenobi. -- which would be both more accurate and shorter. However, the principle still stands: You can lie in a synopsis.)

So my key phrase for the next time I go synopsizing is his friend and mentor, Ben. Because that's not the story that's told, but nobody who bought the story based on that would be upset if what they got was Star Wars.

Go read this

Monday, July 21st, 2014 11:58 am
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Found via Bujold's blog, this lovely little story by Ursula Vernon.

How did she take something so ridiculous and make it heartbreaking?
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One of the things I'm very leery of when looking for critique is what I call rules-parrots: those people who chant whatever writing "rules" they've adopted, and try to force every story to conform to them by rote at the expense of judging the story on its own merits.

As usual, Patricia Wrede says it better than I do:

"There are always folks around who have memorized a list of no-nos without understanding the reasons behind them, and they will complain bitterly if they notice you using anything on their list, regardless of what you’ve done with it or why."

I don't know whether the drive to parrot rules comes from insecurity about one's own judgment or a desire to boss others around (though I suppose they're not mutually incompatible). I do know it's profoundly unhelpful. Perhaps rules-parroting is a cop-out for a beta-reader in much the same way as using an unexamined cliche is a cop-out for a writer?
lizvogel: Run and find out, with cute kitten. (Run and Find Out)
Soho Press has a blog, as I have just learned from Gary Corby's blog. And top of the blog-list today is this surprisingly excellent piece on The Dead Scene and what to do about it. I have had that scene, and I've tried those tricks and sometimes they've worked, so naturally I think the writer is an insightful fellow.

Posted here mostly so I can remember to go back and read more later. That article is number 26 in a series, and I don't need to fall down that rabbit hole right now; I've got a con to get ready for.

Also, they do spy fiction. Must have a proper read-through later.
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Haven't been posting much here lately, which generally means the writing's been going either really well, or really poorly. Yeah, I wish.

So Wendig had a post yesterday on The Varied Emotional Stages of Writing A Book, and as usual with such lists, half of it doesn't apply to me at all. But of the things which do apply, several are stuck on with industrial-grade adhesive, so much so that I'm going to quote the most applicable (and the shortest, which is only appropriate) in its entirety:

12. I Wrote Four Words Today (“The Trickled Pee”)

Every word is like extracting a rotten tooth with a pair of rusty needle-nose pliers. It is a day of great effort that yields nearly no result. A rich, full fruit tree with one fucking apple dangling.

That was yesterday. I had the whole afternoon and evening, and a super mocha... and I got something like 108 words. All day, for about 108 words.

This is the bottom of the trend so far this month, but the high points weren't all that impressive, either. (Though pleasingly, if I can choke out a mere 250 words two days out of three, that's still on track for quota. Such as it is.) I am stuck. Stuck, stuck, stuck, increasingly stuck, and I don't know why. I have things for the characters to do (they're in the midst of a high-speed escape at this very moment), I've wedged in the orphaned bit in the best place for it to be, I know roughly where things are headed next... and it just won't go.

I am now going to go out and shovel expletive-deleted snow, in hopes that doing something physical will give my back-brain the leeway it needs to sort this out.

I can see!

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 02:00 pm
lizvogel: cute cat in 'yoga' position (Cat Yoga)
Useful post on maintaining the writer here. Scroll down for his stretching regimen.

If you're prone to tight neck muscles, try the first two neck stretches (upper trapezius and levelator scapula; the full-size diagram is here), and the third one's not bad, either. The lying knee rollovers are a nice quick hit for a stiff lower back, as well.

I may add these to my should-be-daily stretching regimen; wouldn't hurt to just throw them in periodically during the day, either. (My neck muscles tend to knot up so badly it affects my vision, hence the post title.)
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One of the things that discourages me about most writing discussions, podcasts, forum advice, and so on, especially when the dual topics of writing speed and quality come up, is the insistence that "writing is rewriting", i.e., just get something down no matter how bad it is and plan on several nuclear-level revision passes to fix it later.* This just does not work for me. (I hate that phrase, "writing is rewriting". No, it's not; writing is writing. Rewriting is just doing it over because you didn't do it right the first time.) Not only does the spew-word-vomit approach make my writing brain completely lock up -- literally, I've tried it, if I take off-line the part of my brain that makes sure the words I'm making are the right words, I can't make any words at all -- but I've never seen the merit of producing crap at high speeds only to take just as long going back and fixing it as it would have taken to do it right the first time.

Of course, any time I attempt to present this position to someone, I can see them immediately slotting me into the category of prima-donna-who-thinks-her-every-comma-is-golden. (This is probably why I rarely see the do-it-right-the-first-time approach championed elsewhere; any other writers who write that way are doubtless tired of being tarred with that particular brush, too.) Which is just not true; I'm willing enough to revise when necessary. I just don't enjoy it, so it makes sense to get as much right the first time as possible. And since that's the approach that comes naturally to me anyway, why wouldn't I do it that way?

So it made me happy to come across this post on The Secret to Writing Faster by Karen Dionne. She's advocating writing longhand, which I don't entirely agree with -- unlike her, I'm just as capable of making write-os as typos, if not more so -- but I was particularly struck by this bit:

My sentences are also cleaner. Because I write more slowly by hand than I can type, I give more thought to what I’m writing, and am thus more careful about what I put on page.

And that’s the corollary to writing faster. Slow down. Think about the words before you put them to paper, and the words you write are more likely to be ones that will stay.

Now, I don't approach her speed of output, either on computer or on paper. I'm not advocating do-it-right-the-first-time as a speed issue (though I can't help but wonder if it's not faster in the long run, given equal quality of final result). But I certainly do think it's more efficient to produce, as she says, "Good words [...] that didn’t require so much tweaking and polishing." And I like efficiency.

So I'm tucking that article into my little folder of evidence for my side, to be pulled out the next time someone tells me I "have to" spew word-vomit and embrace revision like a religious ritual. I'll just be over here, smiling at my pretty damn good first draft and tweaking as few commas as possible. ;-)

*If the word-vomit method works for you, great, fine, have at it. What matters is the end product, not how you get there. But if it doesn't work for you, or if you're only doing it that way because everybody and their dog keeps insisting that it's the only way to go, consider that there are other approaches.

Titling Tips

Monday, January 13th, 2014 09:52 am
lizvogel: What is this work of which you speak? (Cat on briefcase.) (Work)
I find myself with not one, but three stories in need of titles. My favorite way of doing titles, as the Writing Excuses folks say, is when they just come to me on their own. But then there's the rest of the time....

If a story deals with a particular field that has its own lingo, I'll sometimes browse jargon files, looking for something that rings true or has a potential double meaning. "Windy Van Hooten's Was Never Like This" came that way, and the more time passes the more I like it.

In theory, song lyrics should be a good source, but in practice I find that they depend too much on knowing the rest of the song. Or on having the same idiosyncratic interpretation of the song as I do, which, well, idiosyncratic.

Quote databases seem like they ought to be useful; I'm not sure how true this is in practice, but they're at least entertaining. I'm playing with right now, which has the merit of offering groupings by theme.

Random title generators don't usually hit the mark, but sometimes they can inspire something else that proves useful. Here's a couple I've had fun with:

How about you? Any tricks for coming up with titles? Any resources to share?
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I'm not doing NaNo, but I am taking November (and a bit of December) as an opportunity to write up some observations from doing it last year. Any verb-tense weirdness is due to this sitting half-written on my laptop since they were current; I did mention I write slow. This is the third and probably final installment.

NaNoWriMo is a bit of a Thing in the writing world. You do it, or you don't do it, and you proselytize the doing/not doing... or maybe you are one of the quiet voices who says that it's fine if that sort of thing works for you, but it doesn't work for everybody and could we all just stop trying to declare the One True Way for everybody to write.

NaNo last year worked for me in the sense that I got my 50,000 words (and finished the book shortly thereafter). It did not work for me in several other ways, and that's what this post is about. Fair warning: if you are sailing happily along in the "NaNo is awesome!" glow, you might not want to Read on )

I am damn proud of the book I got out of NaNo. Not just that it's done; it's also good, IMNSHO. I'm glad that I did NaNo last year, both for ...And The Kitchen Sink's existence and for the NaNo experiment itself. I may even do it again some year, if the right project comes along. But you won't catch me proselytizing NaNoWriMo, and I think NaNoWriMo could benefit from a lot less proselytizing itself.
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I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I considered it; not necessarily starting a whole new project from scratch -- I only just got back into the WIP, I don't want to drop it again -- but perhaps some modified multi-K push to get the current WIP closer to finished. I decided against it for a number of reasons, not least that a book where I'm constantly running up against plot-walls is perhaps not a good choice for NaNo-ing.

But the thing that clinched it for me, that put the full-stop on my decision not to play this year, was NaNo's own pep talks and supposedly-motivational postings, specifically this. And specifically one line: Slow writers find they can write about 800 words of novel per hour. So a "slow" writer might hit a productivity rate that's so wildly in excess of my output levels on even a good day that I'd be dancing in the freakin' aisles to achieve "slow"? Thanks so much, Chris Baty. Screw that and the horse it galloped past on.

That casual assumption and line-drawing encapsulates a lot of what I dislike about NaNo. I get that my process is unusual; I'm fine with my approach not being held up or talked about a lot on how-to-write forums. But I get damned tired of being told that writers like me don't exist. And NaNo, for all its supposed inclusiveness, is pretty much a month-long exercise in being told I don't exist. (And on the rare occasions that I am acknowledged as existing, it's only to be told I shouldn't.)

This, I do not need. So, no NaNo for me this year.
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Meant to post this a while ago. Oh well, it'll likely be relevant again, more's the pity.

A little while ago, Chuck Wendig posted one of his lists, this one about How To Be Outraged On The Internet. And it's Wendig, so it's a pretty good list, and I even agree with parts of it (though only parts), but he did miss one thing.

Here, I fixed that for him.


Because seriously? Most internet kerfluffles are like watching highlights from The Holy Grail. "Help, help, I'm being oppressed! Did you see him there, oppressin' me?" Yes, once in a great while, there's actually an offence being committed, but most of the time? There's no "there" there. It's a lot of sound and fury, but it signifies a great deal more about the person being FURIOUS ON THE INTERNET!!!1!! than it does about whatever it is they're sounding off about. The only difference is, the Pythons were being over-the-top and ridiculous on purpose -- and they were funny about it.

So the next time you're about to be outraged about something on the internet, stop and think a moment: Are you about to sound like a Monty Python skit? And then stop and think a moment more: Do you really want to?
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A recent post over at Nelson Literary Agency mentioned that "what just-about-to-be-published writers need to do is analyze what they like and what is fun for them to do and see if that can’t be turned into an interesting or unique promo opportunity."

Now that's an interesting thing to think about.* What is fun for me to do? What do I enjoy enough that I'd do it entirely for its own sake, even if there wasn't a publicity angle? And how can that be angled into something useful for publicity purposes?

I'm not overly keen on blogging (as is fairly obvious from this journal's fallow times), which is one of the things that makes the above such a refreshing change from the all-social-media-all-the-time approach to publicity. (Also, for me social media-ing taps the same resources as writing, and those resources are limited; I've long realized I can do one or the other, but not both.) Book trailers leave me 'meh' even as a reader, never mind doing one of my own. I've never been clever at getting others to jump on my bandwagon, so trying to make something go viral would be an act of futility for me -- not that it isn't a crap-shoot at best for anyone.

I do kind of like making hand-painted t-shirts, though it's time-consuming and rather hard on the hands and back. I also make decorated cookies that people have been pretty wow about, though again, time-consuming and physically taxing in quantity. Those are both things with publicity potential, but probably best saved for certain rare occasions. I'm not sure how one might turn DIY home improvement into a publicity opportunity; win this contest and the author will come paint your bathroom? Maybe not. ;-) Surrealist art makes me happy. So do bright colors and shiny things, and I have a wild appreciation for both the cute-but-useful novelty item and the atrociously tacky.

There we go: Run a contest, and the winner gets a hand-crafted useful novelty item in the most atrociously tacky taste I can devise. ;-)


*Yes, it's wildly premature for me to be worrying about this now. Which is why I'm not worrying about it; I'm just tossing some ideas around. And marking a reference for future, er, reference.

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I am what Patricia Wrede calls an intuitive writer -- that is, I write by instinct and whatever sounds good at the time, and any planning or deliberate decision-making that may go on is done by my back-brain, without reference to my conscious mind. ;-) This works very well for me for the actual writing, but when it comes to feedback time, it can sometimes take me a while to parse for myself, never mind articulate to others, why I did a thing a certain way.

This has been a particular problem for the short story I've been struggling to revise. It starts with a couple of characters driving along; there's mention of the traffic and their GPS-type unit, but nothing about what they're driving past or anything else about their surroundings. Very nearly every person who's critiqued it has said there should be more description of the setting at the beginning. Now, I don't know how much of that is because they're embedded in that particular "rule", and how much is because they can't quite pin down what's wrong with the story and so they're suggesting the most obvious (if not necessarily the most appropriate) change they can see. I do know that that suggestion felt wrong the first time I heard it, and it hasn't gotten any more palatable with repetition. It wasn't until quite recently, however, that I figured out why: The lack of scenic description is a vital piece of characterization, and an integral part of the world-building. These are characters who aren't going to be looking out the window and noticing the businesses and whatnot that they're driving by; they're going to be looking at their navigation device. Why would they look out the windows? If there's anything they want to go to, they'll tell the navigation device, and it will tell them when to turn and stop. And they live in a world where that's the standard behavior; nobody looks around, they just look at their little screen and it tells them what they need to know. Noticing that they're driving past a Starbucks or whatever would be wildly out of character for these people, and would break the whole in-story reality that makes the ending make any sense at all.

Nobody, of course, gets that. (Well, except for the housemate, who's coming at this story from almost exactly the same formative influences as I am, and a very few others.) And, frustratingly, readers don't tend to give the writer the benefit of the doubt -- especially readers who are also editors or critiquers or other people who are trained to look for flaws -- they just assume that it's a mistake on the author's part. In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, they discuss how to make it clear that the weird aspects of your world are like that on purpose rather than just being bad science, and this is very much the same thing.

The answer, of course, is that you have to hang a lantern on it. Which should have been obvious to me, but I was too busy shouting "No no NO, why doesn't anybody get this?" to properly stop and think about it.

On the other hand....

There are a very few people who've "gotten" the story, and none of them have suggested more setting description. Conversely, the few people who haven't said to add description are also the few people who've gotten what I was trying to say with the end. IOW, there seems to be a direct correlation between my "target audience" and the people for whom the lack of setting description is just fine. Whether that's because they're understanding why the initial setting isn't described, or they're just paying attention to other things, I don't know, but the correlation is there.

So now I find myself with a double dilemma. Should I signpost "I meant to do that" for the reader, where the lack of setting description is concerned? The accepted writing wisdom is that you should reveal your worldbuilding through your characters' behavior, not by spelling it out in so many words -- my experience is that that trick never works, and a part of me wants to leave the lantern unhung just to throw it in the gurus' faces. More importantly, I don't want to clunk things up for the people who do get what I'm driving at. At what point are you being non-obscure, and at what point are you just catering to the readers who aren't going to get it anyway?

And if I do decide to signpost "I meant to do that" for the reader... how? How do I make it clear that I'm not telling them about the scenery, not because I don't know how to write, but because these characters wouldn't notice the scenery? How do I insert information about the blind spots of the point-of-view, without breaking the point-of-view?




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