Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Leveling up

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Writing Excuses retreat in the Western Caribbean. Lovely, lovely time--wonderful people, fantastic instruction. I loved all of it.

Now I'm trying to write again. It's hard. I've been surrounded by other writers, many of whom are better than I am in one way or another. Some of them are better at characterization or plotting; many are better at finishing things.

We were warned that after an experience like this we'd find it hard to write because our tastes have improved but our skills haven't yet. We were encouraged to keep writing through that with the expectation that our skills will catch up eventually. So, even though I'm not writing fiction I'm writing this to remind myself that I need to keep writing, even if it's going to sound like crap to my own ears for a while.

I often feel like what I write doesn't sound good when I first write it, but like many people I've talked to if I put it away and come back to it later I find that there's something electric about it, even if I can see how I want to change things. I love that experience of digging through my writing looking for the lines that just light up on the page for me, or the scenes that make me shiver because I feel them.

Of course, all of this will be easier when I'm caught up on sleep! Staying up until two or three in the morning playing games and then getting up before 8 for breakfast left me just a tad sleep deprived (though might also jump start my returning to Adelaide time).

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Because I know so much

One of the reasons I don't write on this blog very often is because I feel like there's not much for me to say. I'm not a very good writer--I don't write consistently, and much of what I produce is just okay.

(Alright, I self-reject a lot. I've only actually entered two real contests ever and I did win one of them.)

Still, I think to have a blog you have to feel like you have something to say, something to teach others, and I'm not in a position yet to feel like I do have something to say.

Except, you know I do have things to say. I'm part of a critique group and you know, one of the things I see my fellow writers not doing is putting enough of their character onto the page. I read a lot of physical responses but so little of the thoughts, and especially the thought processes of characters. I want to see how a character is considering a problem or a conflict, how their world-view shapes what they think is appropriate or allowable.

I think as a beginning writer I should be better about including that myself. It's much easier to cut it out if it's too much than put it in later. And, if I'm doing it right it'll help me avoid the dreaded fate of indistinguishable characters. So, here's a goal for my next chapter: really drill down into what my character is thinking. Let her mull about her problems for a few hundred words, then go back and condense it down to something that's actually readable!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Writers are crazy people

Yes, indeed. Joining a writing group, especially an open one, is an invitation to sit with the crazy and marinate for a bit.

As much as I like writing, as much as I want to become a writer myself and better my craft, and as much as I need other people to help me get there I'm thinking writing groups that meet in real life may not be worth it.

I know, I should show, not tell.

Imagine, if you will, me showing up at the library for a meeting that's supposed to start at 11. I'm a bit early because, hey, kids and either early or late and I'd rather be early. A few other people, all men, trickle in. At about quarter past the guy who has organized the meeting hasn't shown, so a couple of us get things started. I'm about the only one who's been to a meeting before and I have a short presentation to give so I kinda take over, at least as much as I ever do. We start introductions, then the leader-guy shows up, but since he's a pretty laid back guy anyway, he lets me continue to be 'in charge.' Because I'm not a really take charge person either it takes like 40 minutes to get through intros for nine people, two of whom might as well be mute. There's one guy in particular who likes to hear his own voice and has a lot to say about the power of language and how it's used to hypnotize and control. Oh goodie.

So, to recap, two hour meeting, the first hour of which is waiting to get started and introducing ourselves. I take five minutes to go through my hand-out on the business end of writing, then we go to reading our stuff.

The first guy reads a couple of pages of his published novel. Published. The next guy (one of the near mutes) passes, then his friend reads a piece of My Little Pony/Dr Who fanfic. It's cute. The next guy--a working writer--passes, but offers to bring in a script next time for us to do a table read. Among his other credits he does rom-coms, which pretty much everyone in the room pans, but he takes it well. I read a couple of pages of my first chapter, which gets one comment before everyone else starts talking about books they love.

Then it's 'hypnotize and control's' turn. He prefaces his piece with a lecture on how humans should really be hermaphroditic and how wrong it is that we murder hermaphrodites with gender reassignment surgeries. His piece is a poem titled something like 'Hermaphrodite honeymoon' and is about a hermaphrodite having sex with itself (never mind the biological impossibility of such an act).

Once he's done with that he immediately launches into another piece, this one a graphic and expletive-laden depiction of prostitution. I'm uncomfortable with it and unhappy that he's reading two pieces, but it's not my meeting so I don't feel like I can really stop it. After about ten minutes someone else says, "isn't that five minutes? And can we please not use the f-word?"

HnC launches into 5 minutes, so I back up 5 minutes, agreeing that what he's reading is inappropriate. He calls me the 'moral arbiter' for the group and appeals to the leader guy for back up since I've usurped his position. I'm like, the meeting time is over, I have to meed my kids and there are three people who didn't have an opportunity to share anything because HnC monopolized so much time. Then I go.

My writing time is precious. If I'm going to waste it on crap, it'd better be crap I enjoy and with people I like.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Storytelling in Science

By day I'm a scientist. Really, I'm a facilitator/force multiplier for the scientists around me, but I have a scientific background and I do enjoy the field. Most of the time my job is to make sure people know what they're doing, make sure all the necessary materials are available, and to help out where I can, especially on some of the more onerous, time-consuming tasks. Sometimes as part of my job I get to go to lectures/talks where people present their research, which is usually a bit of a treat and usually something that gets me excited about the science I do.

Yesterday I went to a talk that failed to excite me and I've spent a bit of time thinking about what was wrong and how it could have been better. Not that I'm likely to ever give a talk again, but I do think there are some basic storytelling ideas that are applicable to other projects I'm working on. I'll talk about those at the end.

First, only present questions you're going to answer. A talk should consist of the presentation of a problem (big question) followed by how you're going to address that problem (data you're going to collect). Basic, huh? I think it's very important to draw a connection between the question you're asking and the measurements you're making. Otherwise it just feels like you're throwing a bunch of measurements at the problem and seeing what sticks. There should be some mechanism that connects the problem with the proxy.

It's also a good idea to limit the number of questions you present in a given talk. Setting up a problem and setting up an interpretation take a bit of time. If you try to cram too many ideas into the talk your audience isn't going to be able to follow because, more than likely, you won't have time to tell us what we need to know. That doesn't mean you can't have questions come up through your data--realistically you should have some number of unanswered questions at the end that are suggested by the data. But the big question at the beginning should have been addressed in some way and those additional questions should be "tantalizing questions we hope to address in the future."

Second, the data should be presented in an easy to read way. Plots should be legible to the audience--fonts big enough, colors neither garish or so subtle they can't be read, everything labeled so the audience can understand the figure without the presenter guiding us through.

Also, talk about all the data you put up! As a scientist I am well aware that we measure far more stuff than is ever seen by anyone outside the lab. I know how much work goes into some of these measurements that may never actually see the light of publication. Still, if it doesn't help you tell your story it's a distraction. I start wondering why it's there and what it tells me.

Anyway, I know this is supposed to be my fiction blog so I'll try to make a connection to fiction here.

The first connection is, I think, pretty obvious. By the end of a story the major plot line should be resolved. That's one I've had a few issues with myself. It's been much more interesting to me to create new problems than to resolve any of them, and that's lead to some pretty unsatisfying stories. My most successful stories haven't actually been stories as much as they've been character sketches of a moment of decision, which is a resolution of a sort, but it's kind a limiting plot-wise. 

The second connection I'd make is between making nice graphs and making nice prose. The prose needs to be clear and correct enough for people to understand what's going on. There needs to be enough detail that a reader can follow what's happening and can picture it in their mind.

People always talk about the narrative of a talk, or how you tell a story in a talk and, as a reader of fiction, that's never quite made sense to me. I'm glad that only like half-way through my not so illustrious career I've finally figured out what's meant by that!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Start in the right spot

Yesterday when I dropped my daughter off at school one of the office staff was waiting to talk to me. She asked if I'd gotten the note when I picked up my daughter.

" no," I said. "I didn't pick up my daughter yesterday. My husband did."

The woman continued talking about the note and how it was supposed to be delivered, and said something about a lunch order, and then the bell rang.

Impatient, wanting to get out of the way of the beginning of class, I asked what I needed to do. I assumed Sylvia needed money to pay for a lunch.

"No, no. You don't need to do anything. We sent home the money with the note."

Now totally confused I waited as she finally explained the whole story. My daughter took some money from our car (the keeping of money in the car scandalized them, but that's a different matter) and wanted to put in a lunch order. I had to explain to her she can't just take money and buy lunch, it has to be placed in a paper bag and I have to write on it.

The experience made me think about hooks in story telling. When telling a story it's essential the story starts with the right information to get me to pay attention--tell me what the conflict is. Then I'll pay attention to the boring but necessary backstory so I can figure out how to address the conflict. Amazing how understanding storytelling shows up everywhere.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Idea book

So, Writing Excuses, which I listen to semi regularly, is structured as a 'master class' this year. I'm going to follow along and do (and post!) at least some of my exercises. As I said, I'm only a semi-regular listener. I listen to them all, but sometimes I'll go a few weeks without listening and then binge on three or four episodes at once. This being January, and summer, I'm just getting started.

The first episode focuses on coming up with ideas. I have lots of ideas, most of which I think of and promptly forget. Not so useful. I'll try to be better here. These were the prompts we were supplied for the exercise:

From an interview or conversation you've had:
*Pigs, baby cows, chickens, and other farm animals destined for slaughter are kept in deplorable conditions that cause them to go crazy. What would happen if they were released suddenly? What would happen if their craziness was somehow transmitted to whoever ate the meat?
*Pests evolve ways around pesticides and herbicides. Overuse of pesticides and herbicides brings about the demise of said chemical.
From research you've done (reading science news, military history, etc): *Hackable pacemaker.
*Man who lies (stealing identities, going into debt and walking away from it) in order to get an education because he's otherwise too poor to get education he wants. Succeeds in getting an education but is later pulled down by revelation of his past.

From observation (go for a walk!):
*Man in a pink helmet, climbing off the side of a bridge toward something I can't see. What is he going toward? What if he falls?

From a piece of media (watch a movie):
*Morality of the TV show Grimm--it's okay to steal a baby from a woman to keep that baby away from a group in leadership. Also okay to kill a bunch of people who are enforcing a racist rule. Why are rules so flexible and what will the consequences of that moral flexibility be?

From a piece of music (with or without lyrics):
*Sylvia is a girl being pestered by an ex boyfriend. She's leaving on a train with her new boyfriend and the old one just wants to say goodbye, but her mother won't let him. How does Sylvia feel? Is she grateful to her mother, or annoyed, disappointed to not have some closure with the guy?

Other random ideas:
*A woman who relishes swearing because she's been in a situation where she can't swear for a long time. Enjoys the feel of the swear words in her mouth.
*Polygamist wives who are steampunk engineers