A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (Violent Causes) (2018?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Writing: from Idea to Page

From 13th to 17th April, 2017, I visited Perth for the first time and attended SwanCon 42. SwanCon is Australia's longest running speculative fiction convention, and this was its 42nd year, with a theme of honouring the work of Douglas Adams. They had wonderful guests of honour, and a huge range of panels and activities — generally about four talks on at the same time across the day from 10am 11pm or later, along with four or more activities running in parallel, from board games, to live action role-playing to console gaming to children's and other activities.

(Michael Troughton and Sean Williams holding up the SwanCon costume party sign, with Alan Baxter keeping an eye on the effervescent crowd.)

SwanCon 42 was held at the Metro Hotel, Perth, doing a heroic job supporting the convention (and feeding a large crowd several times a day). The hotel strained at the seams, but in my view they can be proud of the job they did.

I must say I was also impressed by the dedication of the organising committee, and their ability to fix things and cope when things unexpectedly went wrong.

This is just a short piece to record and share some notes I made as homework for one of the two planned panels I was on. It's a companion piece to a related panel focussed on publishing (and hence, is over on A Toe in the Ocean of Books). (I just intended to type up my notes, but saw they'd be a bit too cryptic if I did literally just that.)

The topic of the panel discussion (organised by Michael Cogan), was "Writing: from Idea to Page":

"Have you had a story in your head for ages you want to tell the world but not sure where to begin? Join our panellists who have been there and done that. Gain some tips and ideas on how to get your story idea down onto paper."

My most excellent fellow panellists were Satima Flavell, Glenda Larke, and Meg Caddy.

I think that collectively we provided good information. Please understand this is not a record of what we all said, but merely some notes I made beforehand as a memory jogger. Some of these points were made by other panellists independently, in their own words. Because we had only an hour and there was a lot of ground to cover, only some of these notes were covered in the talk.

So, in no particular order, these are my notes:

Look for the heart of your story — what is the key thing that is the essence that's driving you to write the story? What is it that is special and unique about your story that's pushing you to bring it to life in other people's minds?

For the above navel-gazing, there are a few ways of looking at your story, through the lens of words, that may help you. They'll help you most if you do it once you've got a good feel for what you want to do; but you can do it at any stage of the writing process. And it's simply to try writing the blurb (the short description designed to tell them readers just enough to intrigue them — maybe 100-200 words); and/or to write down "the elevator pitch" for the story (what you could say in one breath while to someone who asks "What's your story about?"); and the theme of the story (what is it exploring?). I'd add you can also try to create the "tag line" for your story (what might appear on the front cover if it was produced as a book).

People often talk about plotters vs "pantsers", or people who outline and meticulously plan vs those who fly by the seat of their pants and just write and see what happens. Use whatever works for you. You can also mix and match. I'm mostly a "pantser", but I've found that a sketchy outline (just bullet points) often provides a useful anchoring framework that I can work within or ignore as I see fit. You can use one method for the whole story, or different methods for different parts or at different times. E.g. I tend to use outlines when I need to solve some complex plot issue, or work out how on Earth the character could get into, or out of, some tricky situation.

That kind of leads me to the beautiful piece of luck that writing can help you write… When we create stories, we use three parts of our minds: the rational part, the unconscious, and our memory. Now, imagine trying to construct an entire novel in your head: working it all out and then just sitting down and start typing it up. Crazy, right? But you can paralyse your creative writing by trying to do that same kind of thing for much shorter things than a novel. It might be just a scene, or even just a piece of description.

Sure, spend some thought and try to work things out in your head: it's far faster and less effort than writing it down. But if you find you're not getting anywhere, or going around in loops, then just sit down and start writing.

You write stuff down so you don't spend 90% or 99% of your mental capacity just remembering everything. The blank page is not your enemy, it's your friend. It's an external part of your memory that can hold your thoughts and ideas effortlessly to free the rest of your mind to work on everything else that will go into your story. So, write stuff down that will be or may be useful: ideas of all sorts, bits of the story, sections of dialogue, possible bits of plot, a cool situation or setting… whatever you like. Once it's written down on your "external memory surface", it won't be distracting you at inopportune times saying "Don't forget me!"

And here's a related secret: once an idea is written down, you've basically put some very well-behaved modelling clay down that's ready and willing for you to shape it and improve it. It doesn't have to be anywhere near perfect when you write it down. There's an excellent quote from Terry Pratchett: "The first draft is just you telling yourself the story."

Read a lot. Write.

Always be looking for ways to improve what you write. Read about writing; read advice from others (Google searches will tend to find you stuff that is popular with other people); get reviews from other writers. But most of all, write.

Writing is a very learnable skill: you learn it by writing, while consciously trying to improve. (I don't mind literally all the time: that would be distracting and unhelpful when you're "in the flow" and creating!) But be open to learning new stuff, and finding weaknesses in your own work. It's very learnable, but it's also one of those skills that requires thousands of hours of practice.

Know your characters. Know your world. You can learn about them by writing down whatever you dream up for them! Don't write this stuff down thinking it needs to go into your story: it doesn't. It's so that you, the author, gains a deeper understanding of some of the key things in your story. For your characters, the personality is more important than their appearance. So make sure you pose yourself some fun questions about them that will give you a deeper understanding of what drives them. What music do they like? What food? What clothes do they love or hate? What do they spend money on? What piece of clothing would they put on first in the morning? What thing did they love most as a child?

Likewise, pose yourself some suitable (and helpful) questions regarding the setting.

Write these things down in some kind of background notes file. Use enough organisation so that you don't lose them, so you can find them if you need to remind yourself of them later. Write them down: it will help you remember, and it's more practice in writing.

Look for a writer's group and participate. But bail out and find another or form your own if you're not getting what you need from the group. I highly recommend the

Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror — reviews by other writers are the DNA of the site/community, and the site itself is wonderfully powerful and helpful in sharing and reviewing among the members. It costs US$50/year, which is super cheap for what you'll get from it (because 99% of the value comes from the members themselves writing and receiving reviews), and you can even try it for a month for free. I feel sorry for other genres that they don't have a site as good as this available to them.

Accept criticism and try to learn from it — if you sense it's been given honestly, i.e. with good intentions. But keep in mind that no piece of writing will please everybody. Just because one person doesn't like or ‘get' what you're saying, is not a reason to change it. But if two people tell you that a specific thing didn't work for them, it probably means there's something odd there. But if they tell you how to fix it, they're probably wrong: only you can know how to alter that piece to avoid that reaction. (Paraphrasing Neil Gaiman, I think.)

On the subject of improving your writing, go back to some of the stories you love. Actively study them and try to work out why. The consider whether something like that would be something you'd like to do, and start practising doing it.

Look for your own writing style — every writer has their own distinct style. ‘Different' can be good. But to get a feel for how other writers work, and the range of literary devices that are available for you to use as you see fit, try some exercises of writing a something in the style of an author you admire. Something reasonably short, just so you get a feel for how that technique works. Stretch your writing muscles.

Less is often more. If you can express something in fewer words, without changing the feeling or the meaning, then those words will have greater impact. (I think of poetry as like distilled alcohol: it's strings of words that have been super-concentrated so they pack a powerful punch.) Pretend you have a word budget: you kind of do. The reader will appreciate you using only the words you need to achieve the effect you want. Omit details which the reader can fill in for themselves.

Trust your readers' intelligence. You don't need to spell everything out for them. They will enjoy figuring stuff out and piecing things together for themselves. Don't spoon feed them, or lead them buy the nose. Leave them room to exercise their own imagination, too.

If you write something odd, readers (especially if you're little known), are likely to think "Oh, look, there's a mistake." and be thrown out of the story. So, when you are doing something deliberately odd, make sure you also provide some subtle hint, some indication, that lets the reader know that you know it was odd. Then they won't think "Mistake", they'll think "Ooh, weird, what's going on here, I must read on."

It's less effort to learn the writing craft by writing short stories, simply because when you find problems in your writing style and go back to fix them, there's proportionately less to fix. But if you are not interested in writing short stories, or don't like them, then don't!

Do have a go at writing poetry. It's hard! But valuable. Learn about poetic devices, too. Sometimes they're useful to use in prose, a little.

Keep a pen and pencil beside your bed in case you have a great idea as you're falling asleep or waking up. Write it down. Ideally, with some light on, even if it's just enough to make sure your sentences don't run over the top of each other.

Think about flow. I see books as made from lots of interleaving flows operating across a range of levels. At the bottom level are the words of a sentence, which give you both the flow of the sounds but also a flow of meaning, and emotion. The rise and fall of these flows lead to a rhythm in each. Very similarly, when the sentences are showing a dialogue, or just letting us see the flow of ideas inside someone's head, the ideas should usually flow smoothly, each one connecting somehow to the next. Until, of course, you signal that that thread has stopped. Mostly, these flows will connect smoothly: but you can get a lot of impact from jarring or breaking the flow, provided you have done it consciously for that purpose.

The next level up are paragraphs, and then pages, and scenes, and chapters, and the whole book, or books. There are flows in pace, in density of writing, in emotion, in intensity, … any sort of quality you want to imbue in your story. Gradually learn to be aware of these flows.

You do need to vary the rhythm. Monotony gets boring pretty quickly. But don't just vary the rhythm randomly: be aware of the flows, and build and release the rhythms to create the effects you want in your story. This applies across all the levels.

Unlike literary fiction, other stories must have a plot, not just a story. (A story = "this happens, then this, and this". A plot = "this happens, and because of that, this happens, and that leads to this.)

Trust your unconscious. You can set it working on a creative problem by thinking about your problem, feeding in or refreshing your mind by consciously going over the information relevant, that may include all the requirements that the solution must satisfy. Consciously be aware that you're doling this to feed the raw data to your unconscious so it can get to work on the problem. Then do something else that will distract your conscious mind. And every now and then, do a little revisit to the problem so to keep things bubbling along. Sooner or later, the solution will pop into your head.

None of these are rules. Even if they are, if you know you're breaking a rule, but you're doing so for a good reason, then that's almost always going to be fine.

So there are lots of things to learn about writing, but it is a very learnable skill. But the work you put into learning about writing should be small compared to just writing your stories. You learn writing mainly by doing it. Don't think that you have to learn everything before you can "start to write". Just write.