Good to know

by veilwar

I’ve happened across a lot of writing advice over the years.  Aside from the exhortation to “always write” most of the advice was about as helpful as some not very helpful thing.  But as I sat down to really, honest-to-god this time, with serious purpose now, actually write a story and bull through to the end – two bits of helpful advice fell into my lap.

The first is Six Days to Save the World, a distillation of fantasy author Michael Moorcock on writing from Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle.   I can’t say that I actually followed this exactly.  For one, I’d be done already.  Time constraints – work, family, the random UFO abduction, pretty much ensure that I don’t have six days in which to save the world, or anything at all.  (I am going to attempt this, though, right before Thanksgiving when a benevolent and loving HR department has decreed that I should have two weeks time off.)  Regardless of my failures to follow the complete program, there is some powerful good help here.

The cool thing about the advice here (beyond its utility) is that it is usefully vague.  For example, there’s this:

[I prepared] A complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it’s just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned.

Now, rather than telling you to either a) wing it and depend on your muse to make it all work out, or b) laboriously outline and plot every last jot and tittle of your story before daring to commence writing – this is simple and to the point. Have a clear idea of what you need to do, then start winging it. This is comfort inducing. You don’t need to know everything. Things will come to you. But on the other hand, you are not wandering off into the great unknown with no map and no compass.

And this:

Very often it’s something like: attack of the bandits — defeat of the bandits — nothing particularly complex, but it’s another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you’re dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction.

So you don’t have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it’s a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function.

Action, reaction, resolution. Rinse, repeat. Do this, and you will get into the flow of things, and ripping out long chunks of prose becomes quite a manageable process. I have certainly not achieved 60000 words in three days. But I have done 8000 in a day, including the 2000 you’ve hopefully just read, or are just about to read.

The next set of useful advices is A simple four-item formula for turning story into fiction, by Teresa Nielsen-Hayden. Where Moorcock’s advice is rather procedural – how to go about writing – this is more rules of thumb to observe while writing:

  1. Move and keep moving.
  2. Make it consequential.
  3. Recycle your characters.
  4. See if you already have one.

Sounds rather banal, doesn’t it?  But this is a wonderful set of rules to have in your head.  For example, #4:

4. See if you already have one.   Whenever you need something new — prop, plot thread, setting, minor character — go back through the parts of the story you’ve already written and see whether you can find it there. It’s surprising how often the exact thing you need is already sitting there in plain sight.

Don’t waste time re-reinventing the wheel.  You should only have to reinvent the wheel once.  If you’re just chugging along, you’re dropping in many things you are only barely conscious of.  Often, these things are exactly what you’ll need later.  And using them makes the whole thing feel connected, tight, coherent.  I know I see that in the writing I love best, and I hope that I’m managing to achieve that in my own.

Read both links if you are at all interested in writing the fiction. I’ve never seen better advice, and the two together are even more powerful than either by itself.

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