Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I don't do in my writing - autobiographical writing

In an attempt to figure out what's not working in my fiction I've decided to look at the things that are working . . . at least the things that I think are working in my fiction. If I can eliminate things I don't have to worry about maybe I can narrow things down to the things I should be worrying about.

The first thing is autobiographical writing. You know, that old "write what you know" advice all new writers get. I can't stand when a new writer who grew up on a small dairy farm, drops out of high school and moves to New York to make it as an actor writes a book about a someone who grew up on a small dairy farm, drops out of high school and travels to New York to make it as an actor. They're not writing this as a memoir or truth and real life stuff, they're writing it as fiction. Something made up and pretend. The characters are never engaging to me unless the story is told brilliantly and most new writer's can't do that yet in their writing, myself included. Besides I think it's very egotistical to think that your personal life would make a great story. It might be fascinating to you but to the rest of us we've got our own fascinating life. Besides, if you write your life as a fiction book first then you've got nothing left to write for your autobiography. And if you want to write another fiction book where are you going to turn for inspiration if you've exhausted all aspects of your life with your first book?

Now I wouldn't say my life has been a roller coaster ride but it's had it's moments. From the stories my mother told me of when, where and how I was born to the corneal transplant I had a few years ago I'm sure there's good stuff for a story. But I'm not going to use it that way. Not exactly anyway. The stories of living on an Air Force base in the middle of a war might prove interesting material if I decide to write a story about war or soldiers or what not. And my corneal transplant experience might make a good thriller but I'm not going to chronicle my whole life into one story.

If I want a character in one of my stories to be overwhelmed with the grief of soldiers dying in war I could write a scene with a mother washing dishes in the sink only to look out the window to see rows upon rows of pine boxes being unloaded from a transport plane. Heck I wouldn't even need to set it in a real world setting. Maybe she lives on a space ship and is picking up something at the supply depot (next to the loading bays) and sees dead soldiers caskets being loaded into ships to be given a space burial. Yes, it's a part of my life but I don't have to write it as such.

Too many new writers take that "write what you know" advice seriously and literally. I don't. Yes, you need to experience things in life so you know what it's like for your characters to experience things in your story but they don't have to be the same thing. I could take that mother on the spaceship and instead of seeing dead soldiers she could be looking at rows of children being taught and trained by the military from a young age to be soldiers. Maybe she feels the grief and loss of their childhood. Maybe she feels the grief and loss as her own son turns to look at her and there's no recognition in his eyes of who she is. That would certainly cause of mother to grieve. But that's not how it all happened and that's okay. New writer's need to learn that.

For me I'm much more fascinated by imaging different things that could be instead of reimagining my own life. Yes, I'll draw on my life for inspiration from time to time but I'm not going to write my first fiction novel thinly disguised as my life. When I write about my life it'll be my autobiography. And I think you should too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Getting things real enough

I went and saw the movie "The Other Boleyn Girl" a couple of days ago. I liked the movie but there was something about it that bugged me. It wasn't until I got home and had my mind on something else that I figured it out. It wasn't English enough.

I don't mean the actors had horrible English accents. They were serviceable. They certainly didn't stumble over the accents and it didn't interfere with the dialogue. But there was something about the whole film that made it feel like it wasn't really set in England at all. Just somewhere/some when that looked like England. There was an authenticity that was missing for me. It was real, but not real enough.

This made me think of a story I started to write a long time ago that I've since put aside because of some of the criticism I got for it. It's a retelling of the Pygmalion myth set in ancient Greece. I want the story to have the feel that it's actually happening there and then.

I wrote it while taking a community education class that a local agent was teaching. She liked the story but the class thought it was too formal. They suggested I tone down the dialogue and make it more modern. I certainly didn't want a Zena: Warrior Princess feel to the story. Yes, I want the reader to understand and relate but I don't to write a story that's set in another time and place but actually feels like it could be happening here and now.

About a year or two later I was taking a Creative Writing class at a community college and with a lot of work commitments I wasn't able to write something new for a deadline. I decided to pull this story out again and see what the class thought of it. They didn't particularly like it either. They said it sounded too British or formal. When I explained to them that I wanted to create the feel of ancient Greece so you would believe it actually happened then and there the class railed on me.

They said no one really knows exactly what everyday life was like during ancient Greek times. They said I shouldn't try to make it feel that way, but instead make it something that modern readers could relate to. And the whole "formal 'British' type" thing really bothered them. I tried to argue that how many movies have you seen that show "ancient Greece culture" but all the actors speak in a formal British accent? After getting raked over the coals they all seemed to think that the story would be better served and more palatable to readers if it had a Zena: Warrior Princess approach to it.

Enough with the warrior princess already. Needless to say this is not the kind of story I want to write. I put the story away and only briefly took it out again one month to see if I could work on it again. But every time I take it out or even think about it I wonder about the state of historical fiction has come to.

Are we a society that says "we'll read something set in an ancient world but we want the characters to talk and act like I do today?" Are we giving up on that little bit of ambiance that will give a story a real sense of time and place even if we don't know how things really were back then? For me there was something missing from the movie that made me think this was really taking place during the reign of Henry VIII. The costumes were gorgeous, the settings fantastic but there was little bit of atmosphere to the culture of the day that was lacking for me.

Now, I'm not saying I'm right about my story. Maybe I am, but maybe they have a point too. Trying too hard to be something you're not only makes it easier to see the faults. But now I'm left with writing the story my way regardless of what anyone else thinks even if it fails or changing how I approach the story to begin with. I haven't pick up the story since then and I'm not sure I can until I can figure out how I'm going to proceed. Even though I had that quibble about the movie I still enjoyed it. For my story I don't necessarily have to get things completely real, but I'd like to get them real enough.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Is blogging getting in the way?

I found an interesting rant from Robin Hobb about blogging. There's also John Scalzi's response to it. I have to say I agree with both of them. And I particularly liked Scalzi's comparison of blogging to "empty calories". I can't say I do to much blogging here about my writing (maybe because I'm not writing much), but I do tend to blog a bit more on my video gaming blog. Oh well.

I've read blogs by people that don't know how to capitalize words or use punctuation at all. Those people, I'm sure, just fire out whatever is on the top of their head when they sit down to write. For me I like to put some thought into it. I come up with ideas I might want to blog about and even think of how I'm going to structure whatever I'm posting. Blogging correctly (with proper punctuation and all) if just as important to me as if I was writing a story. I may not be perfect at it but hopefully it makes sense. You can be the judge of that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Are writer's paranoid?

Are writer's paranoid? Or I guess I should say are all "beginning" writer's paranoid? I'm a moderator on a writing website and I constantly hear beginning or new writers say they don't want to post their stuff on the website for several reasons: 1) they don't want it to be considered "published" already if they end up submitting it somewhere, and 2) they don't want someone else to steal their ideas. Even on a nonwriting forum someone had this to say:

Not only that but I am rather fond of my ideas and stories and don't look forward to having them ripped off or stolen by some passer through. It is not the main users of the site that I fear/don't trust. It is the public nature of any person being able to access my hard work and swiping it for their own purposes.

I can see the point of not wanting yourself "published" until you actually send it somewhere where it can be published in the official/traditional sense of the word. But we have one member on the site that regularly participates in our writing challenges, posts his stories and then turns around and sells them to someone where they will be published somewhere else. What he posts for the challenges is just a rough draft so he works on the stories until he gets it as close to perfect as he can before sending it out. There are some publishers that are sticklers for that "has anyone seen this yet" type of publishing and some who don't care. I say read their guidelines and know your markets if you have any doubts.

As for the second fear does it matter? If you post something online there is a posting stamp that gets attached to whatever you put up on the net (whether you can see it or not). People will know exactly when and where you put something out there. As far as someone stealing your ideas and claiming it as their own they'll have to prove that they came up with the idea before that date of your posting. Believe me that's a much harder thing to do.

As for someone taking your idea and being the first to get it out there in the traditional publishing world well, why aren't you doing that yourself? If you've got an idea that you think is so great and special why aren't you taking the time to get that idea out there? Write. Submit. Publish. Too many beginning writers have the egos that think they've written the next great American novel and the paranoia to think that everyone is out to steal it. I hate to tell you this but I'm pretty sure all the stories ideas and combinations of what could happen in a story have already been done before. You're not going to really write anything new. You'll just have a different spin on things. And when you think about it only you can put your unique spin on things. If someone else took the same basic idea their going to have a completely different story on their hands than what you might have done.

If you want to write and get feedback from some kind of writing group but don't have the means in your neck of the woods the internet is a good place. Just look around for websites for writers that offer private writing groups so that when you post something for people to look at the only ones who see it are those in the group. It would be no different than if you passed out a piece of paper to group that met in the library once a month.

Most of all know your markets. Know what publishers will accept and what they won't. If you have a story that has been "published" on the internet in some forum or another and a publisher won't take that type of writing, write something else for them that hasn't been published. Above all don't' be paranoid. Fear gives in to procrastination and writer's block. Don't put the cart in front of the horse to use a stale old cliche. If you spend your time worrying about if the horse is going to throw a shoe or if the cart is going to break a wheel instead of getting out and starting the journey you're never going to get there. Be brave. And keep writing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Expressing yourself?

You know, I'm sick and tired of people saying "all writer's have the need to express themselves". Or that "writing is the means to discover who you are".

Hog wash!

I don't write to "discover who I am" or to "express myself". I write to discover the story bumbling around in my head. It has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I'm the only one who can get this particular story out. My ego is not involved in my writing at all. And for these "people" it seems that's all there is to writing.

If I write a story about death and angels (which I am currently working on) that must mean I'm thinking about my mortality and what awaits me beyond the grave. Like I said: Hog wash! I'm writing this story because of the snow. Yep snow. It's a challenge up on WordTrip where you're asked to describe snow. I should know. I posted the challenge. As I thought about how I wanted to describe the snow, the story started to take shape but only because I needed some context for my description. I wasn't thinking about dying or angels or Little House on the Prairie style living. This is just the story that came out when I started to think about snow. And for me the snow is still the main focus of the story despite what those people might think.

For those "people" who think writing is done solely to express yourself or discover who you are, they are no different than elitists. They're like painters who think that anything they splash onto the canvas is art because they say it is and who are you to argue with them. They're writer's who think that only "literary fiction" is where the good writing is happening and that "genre fiction" is full of hacks and people who sold their souls to the devil. It doesn't matter what spices a chef puts on filet mignon or how they cook it . . . it's still going to be filet mignon. It doesn't matter where it's cook or buy whom. It's about how it tastes in the end. And it's ALL a matter of taste.

I'm not autobiographical in my writing and I have difficulty with anyone who is. Even Stephen King when he wrote himself into his Dark Tower series. When I sit down to write I leave my ego at the door. When I write it's for the story, whatever that may be, and just getting that out onto paper. Is my writing filet mignon caliber? Absolutely not! (See I can leave my ego out of that too.) Right now I hope I'm working with ground beef. Do I want to get up to filet mignon? Absolutely yes! But until then I'm happy cooking with what I've got.

And now if you'll excuse me, all this talk of food has made me hungry.