Baby I like your Style — a blast from the past post January 2008

*I’m alive.  I have internet access at home.  It’s a new service, though, and it’s SO secure that I am having trouble doing things like pull mail.  I have my hotmail up, though, and would appreciate guest posts which I’d like to go heavy on for about two weeks, while we get house ready and books finished.  This post might be too writerly, but I find it fascinating that I was even back then suspicious of the Nebulas and other prizes.*

Unless life, death or the end of the world as we know it — and then only if I don’t feel fine! — intervenes, the next few weeks, months and possibly — intermittently — years will see me posting semi-coherently on my theory of writing and style.

Good writing is a lot like art. I know it when I see it and it’s highly personal. I’m sure it’s the same for most of us, except those people who take their directive from a higher source in the form of received wisdom. For those this whole thing is much easier — good writing is whatever the authority says.

I wish I could — in good conscience — bow down to the Nobel committee, the Nebula voters, the critics, the “people who know better” TM. But the fact is, ultimately, either as a writer or as a reader, I don’t like to be told what to think, and — to my clear and informed mind — with a few exceptions, most of the decisions of any award committee — yes, that does include the Oscars — seems like the entire group went into a room and smoked a truly gigantic bong possibly while sniffing glue. There are exceptions — there are always exceptions — but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

And as for going with “what sells” these days so many things influence the market, from distribution to hype, that I have trouble finding any solid thread of “good” in what tops the blockbuster lists. And these days when books are almost universally — Baen excepted — taken out of print in a year, there’s very little room for sleeping hits. You either get the push to be everywhere at once or… you don’t. This means bestsellers tend to be books that someone in NYC — and for mega bestsellers someone very big in NYC — put muscle behind. All that is required past a certain level of push is that they be halfway decent. In fact most of them do not command my attention for more than ten minutes. Possibly this is because I am an unabashed reader of genre literature.

Why should I even care what’s good or how to evaluate style? Good question. (The bright boy on row five gets a star!)

As a reader, the blunt answer is that I don’t. Why should I? Refer to the top for the fact that “I know what I like.” Meaning I buy what I like, I read it. If it’s really, really satisfying, I re-read it. And I move on to the next book, sometimes coming back to re-read things I enjoyed. Simple. No theory involved.

The problem comes in as a writer. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a bestseller. Heck, I don’t know if I’ll ever have an audience that I can’t count by removing my shoes. Don’t care. I do care about being GOOD.

Look, this writing thing is a compulsion. There is no sane reason why anyone should do this, and, despite occasional vehement denials to the contrary, I am sane. Pragmatic, even.

So why am I getting up early and going to bed late and spending my weekends researching the lives of long-dead people, or reading yet another depressing tome on how societies come unglued? I mean, I could be out, refinishing some furniture, going for walks with the boys and generally terrorizing the known world or at least the neighborhood.

I’ve now tried to give up writing DOZENS of times. About half of them before I was ever published. The rest… well… about twice a year. I confess that for health reasons, one of the more serious considerations I gave it was last year, while my hormones were acting up. But I was considering giving up on everything else, at that point, breathing included. Everything was too much effort.

Allergy meds will also stop me from writing. In fact, one four-hour dosage will damper the need for three or four days. And yes, I have considered becoming addicted to benedryl. But overall, it doesn’t seem to answer.

So, I’m writing. I’m writing blindly and without any expectations of ever reaching a significant enough audience for my writing to make any difference. I’m writing as an act of faith that yes, there is something beyond us, some grand plan, if you wish, or at least some loosely scripted outline, and that my writing fits in there somewhere. Perhaps a fragment of it will fall in the hands of someone at some point and that will trigger something. (How specific is that, uh?)

But for me, for my own peace of mind, if I’m going to spend this much time doing something and devoting myself to a craft, then by BOG I’m going to make it good. Which brings me to what is good.

This is where I should explain that, like most writers I know, I’m a serial and compulsive user of “how to” books. It did not help with my habit that the single most influential and important book of my career — Dwight Swain’s Writing To Sell — came my way at a library sale in a box of discarded books that I bought for $5.

I buy “how to write books” on the recommendation of friends; because I find them used atop a neat table at the local thrift store; at library sales; on the recommendation of total strangers at Amazon. Remember that scene in trainspotting where the guy said something about diving into a toilet in search of drug? Well… I wouldn’t go that far. But I would probably pick up the torn, walked-upon pages of a writing book off the sidewalk, in the hope that here — here at last — there would be something to make it all clear to me. SOMETHING that would tell me “GOOD” and “BAD” and separate the two widely. Something I could memorize or practice and learn, so I would never write anything bad again and all my stuff would be gold.

Yes, yes, the sane part of me is aware this is illusory. The sane part of me, that has favorite writers, knows very well that I wouldn’t cross the street to read some of Heinlein’s books, while I would walk across a knife-covered room for others. And Heinlein is, admittedly, my favorite author. The same could be said for all my favorites. Pratchett, Heyer, Christie — EVERYONE of them. Some books are gold and some are “uh. What was he/she thinking?” So it is inevitable that some — or most of mine — will be that way to my fifteen or sixteen devoted readers.

However, hope springs eternal (which is why most of human intellectual achievement is devoted to cutting it down like kudzu) so I keep searching. And sometimes, sometimes, I even convince myself I’ve found something. Rarely but it happens. Sometimes I can almost believe if I stand on my left foot and utter three times before writing “No bad description shall pass these fingers” the result will be pure, refined gold. And sometimes I believe if I go through my manuscript and strike out every use of the word “pool” the book will be wonderful.

Again, these moments of unalloyed credulity are rare in me. But in the middle of the night, alone in your head with the books to be written… well, to quote Leonard Cohen (Another of my bad habits) “It’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture.” So my mind turns on itself and searches for something to anchor to.

My last foray into attempting to do something about my writing is what brought me to this post and to the ones that will inevitably follow. It was actually several months ago. For reasons that were — after all — apparently physical, I found myself writing in a totally “joyless” way. I could write, and I knew what to do. I even knew what my characters were going through. And I sort of “liked” them. But it was like perceiving it all through a veil and none of it brought me any joy. For all the enjoyment I derived out of it, I might as well have been driving a truck.

Now, of course, sane people would have said “You’re just tired.” And that was part of the issue, though the tiredness had its roots in illness. But when writing is a compulsion, you can’t just walk away whistling and have a grand time. I take my alphasmart or at least a notepad — if I’m really forcing myself to relax — on any vacation of more than two days. And it’s fairly sure that I’ll wake up on the second or third morning, notepad in hand, scribbling an outline or the opening lines to a short story.

Right now, in addition to the books under contract — and two woefully late — I have notes for four that are still in the conception stage and about three more that are in that nebulous stage at the back of my mind, where I know they are waiting, but they haven’t yet given me more than a concept or a one-line pull. And an endless collection of bits that came to me on vacation.

So, “just tired” didn’t cut it. It was clear to me I was going to write for the rest of my life and, not knowing I needed meds, I wanted to figure out how to make it fun again. So I bought several books. One of those I bought was “From Where You Dream” — because I felt that’s what I needed. To make my writing more spontaneous again. To pull, literally, from my deep-dreams.

But the book, despite its lovely title, proved less than useful to my situation, at least. He’s all over “immediate writing” which anyone who has asked me for writing help knows I am as well. Immediate writing means removing as much of your “after thoughts” from it. As Pratchett would put it “The first sight and the second thoughts.” He stigmatized as wrong and bad every time you gave anything a character thought — rather than just what they felt or saw. At least he did by the middle of the book, which is when I gave up on reading it.

Now, this “human as a camera and collection of stimulus-reaction” might fit a behaviorist view of the world, but I was never a behaviorist. (“Every time a dog salivates, a Pavlovian rings a bell” — RAH) And this method of writing things concentrating mostly on direct sensations/events is DOUBTLESS the easiest way to draw a reader in and keep him focused.

But the key there is “mostly.” And how much “mostly” is depends on what you’re writing. I argued the other day with a friend who complained about David Weber’s long “infodumps” by pointing out that given the complexity of what Weber writes, and the history/sociology/science that he must bury in each book, the infodumps are, paradoxically, the least painful way of doing it. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone writing sf or other-world fantasy without resorting to some interior thoughts, some infodump, some tuck and pin to give the impression of the much larger canvas. (This is NOT a defense for belly-button gazing books! Things still must happen. And your character must be minimally competent in dealing with them, not just crying over them. One thing is being the underdog, the other the annoying b– well, you get it.)

Still, being a writer and therefore having the self-confidence of an overboiled noodle, at the point when it starts falling apart, I worried about this. And I worried about this for days. I worried that my books were what this man said every book by someone who reported “thoughts” and not primary impressions was: Very bad.

I knew he was wrong — intellectually — and I knew that a certain amount of thoughts and other facts needed to come in beyond stimulus-response. Unless all I wanted to write was about our very mundane, everyday life. For THAT this writing style is perfect. (And if you like reading that, what are you doing, reading my blog?)

But it wasn’t until today, while I was turning it over in my mind that I realized how wrong he was — not just wrong, but criminally, hideously wrong. It is true that for most situations you need an immediate style of narration, infodumps or not. BUT for some a deflected style of narration is BEST. Needed in fact.

Okay — say I have a character — Gulliver Bright — in a terrible situation. He’s in a room with no other door. The bad guys are closing in on him. There is nothing he can use to defend himself.

If I write it like this:
They’re coming for me. Gulliver looked around wildly, at the smooth walls of the room he was in. Nothing. No way out.
From down the hall came the footsteps of his approaching enemies. As soon as they rounded the corner, he would see them. And they’d have a clear shot at him. Sweat dripped into his eyes. His gut clenched in a tight knot. I must find a way to get out.

You KNOW that not only is Gulliver fully aware and in possession of his faculties, but that he WILL somehow find a way to get out. But now suppose I want to foreshadow something different. Suppose that before running into that room Gully was wounded or perhaps drugged, and I want to signal to you that distancing from reality, that sense that the world is, as it were, running away from him. He might not know it. And I’m in his head. So, how do I signal to the reader that the character is off his rocker, and that this “will not end well” TM?

How about this, (which in the opinion of that theorist ranks as very bad writing indeed) —

They were coming for him. Gulliver knew it. Around him, the walls rose smooth and unbroken. He realized that he had no way out. There was nothing he could do. In his mind’s eye, he could see them, even as he heard their footsteps starting to round the corner of the hallway. Once they turned the corner they would be able to shoot him and there was no way at all he could defend himself. He felt sweat drip into his eyes. He felt his gut clench in a tight knot. He thought that he had to find a way out.

(And the next sentence for that would be something like “And then time ran out and the world went black.” But you get my point.)

And this got me thinking that I might actually have a theory of how to write. And what’s good and what’s bad. And why. Whether that’s true or not… who knows? I will be doing these entries, to be honest mostly for me, to codify the stuff at the back of my brain. But I don’t mind if all fifteen of you listen in…

So… with that in mind, see you next time.


34 responses to “Baby I like your Style — a blast from the past post January 2008

  1. Arrrrgh! Cliffhanger!

  2. Krakatoa.

    Because I have the song stuck in my head thanks to the first or second paragraph now….

  3. Your audience has increased in moritude, and your writing is ever more engaging.

    And I experience deja vu when I read something like this, letting me know that I’m not so terribly alone in the (writing) world. I too have written blind, driven by compulsion and the constant stream of stories that demand to be heard, without feedback. Thanks for sharing and helping those of us who wonder if it would be better to stop writing, and then realize we can’t.

  4. After reading the two ‘adventures of Gulliver’, I am reminded why I usually consider movies inferior to the books they are derived from (ignoring that anything Hollywood actually makes is drek). Books, often like your second paragraph reveal the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters. Movies seldom do. They must be first person action.
    I also decided to ‘review’ a few of the more recent Hugo and Nebula winners works on Amazon. Drek that would become drekish drek if turned into a movie. Even many of their 5 star reviews contain phrases like ‘not for everyone’ or ‘long twisted plot’.
    Good novels often have a simple idea, adapted to a special circumstances where the reader knows what our reality is, and the interest of the plot is the twisting of that reality by that simple idea. For instance, consider a novel based on shape-shifting humans in modern Colorado. The richness of such a story is how the characters react and respond to that ‘difference’. Fantasy novels often rely on the human from our world somehow ‘translated’ into the fantasy environment.
    The wonder and appeal of such stories is in how the thoughts, ideas and morals of the characters are changed in this new and different environment. If we are limited to simple statements of action and fact, the story becomes very one-dimensional.
    Unfortunately, I, like many readers can not offer a lot ‘advice’ other than ‘I know what is good when I read it.’ One of my most scathing criticisms is of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. As I was illustrating the praise he received, my take was something like:
    You start the book… boy is it slow.
    You are about 1/4 through… lots of detail, it will certainly get better soon.
    You are 1/2 way through… all these complex subplots and threads certainly will soon merge into an exciting end story.
    You are 7/8th through… The last 100 pages will have to blow you away, considering how slow and convoluted it has been so far.
    You are done… What an absolute waste of my 2-days/2-weeks (adjust for your reading speed)… I am going to have to tell all my friends how GREAT it was, so they can waste part of their lives too.
    (I did like the movie on this one, probably because it was so much shorter).

  5. Professor Badness

    “I have trouble finding any solid thread of “good” in what tops the blockbuster lists”

    I work in a used book store, (the biggest one in Idaho) and will often be asked if a particular book is any good. I am an extremely honest salesman and will tell them my opinion. (Don’t even get me started on an older couple that wanted to know if Fifty Shades of Gray was any good.)
    Some bestsellers are good, others are all hype while yet more are simply salacious.
    Notoriety, or infamy, seems to be the biggest selling point. (At least when it comes to general fiction.)
    SF/F is another story altogether. Authors like Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson or Larry Correia won’t stay on the shelf. They have garnered followings due to simply good writing, (and I’m sure some others factors of which I am not aware…i.e. good publishers, proper advertising, etc.)
    I’m not sure if I have a point beyond to say that writing is for your own enjoyment, and everything else can go hang. Trying to figure it all out will just give you a migraine.
    Do what you love, and we will buy it.

    • A number of years back, while working in a movie theatre (multiplex) I would frequently hear the question: “What’s good?” or, from the brighter cinema-goers, “What do you recommend?”

      Given the esoteric tastes of most theatre employees, that is a very dangerous question. We see LOTS of movies and are jaded, so that what strikes us as novel and therefore interesting may be just plain too incoherent for the average film-goer, while what we deem trite, jejune and cliched may be just the comfort-cinema you need! Professional film reviewers have this problem in spades.

      I learned to ask a two-part quiz before answering such questions: What was the last film you really liked, and what was the last film you really hated. Given information I could usually offer an informed recommendation.

      You have no need to impress me with your taste in movies, books or beverages and — as it is your money and your time you are spending — you have every reason to say “all I want is an amusing little entertainment that won’t tax me brain over much.”

      • Gee, I miss Siskel and Ebert. They were so consistent. Two thumbs up, decent, probably a good date movie. Ebert likes it, Siskel doesn’t, get your hiney in a seat no matter what it takes. Siskel likes it, Ebert doesn’t, chick flick, don’t waste your money. Haven’t found anything as reliable since Siskel died.

    • My experience with used bookstores is that they are a negative indicator of book quality, because the most likely books to show up are the ones that a) were hyped so that everyone bought them and b) so incredibly bad that no one wanted to finish them let alone keep them for re-reading. YMMV.

      • Professor Badness

        This is true for most of the books. In our store, it does not hold for the writers that have successfully published in the millions. While the authors I mentioned can rarely be found on the shelf, you can find David Weber, John Ringo, Lois Bujold, R.A. Salvatore and Weiss and Hickman. (Though even then we generally don’t have a lot.)

  6. Josh Kruschke


  7. Sometimes I can almost believe if I stand on my left foot and utter three times before writing “No bad description shall pass these fingers” the result will be pure, refined gold.

    That’s silly. You can’t just stand there, you have to hop widdershins three times around your writing desk while saying it.

  8. The last time i paid attention to the Nebula awards, we were all waiting to see which Babylon 5 episode had won.

    Sarah, here’s a brainworm for you: a book on how to write a book on how to write. Does that work without causing some kind of infinite loop?

  9. The problem with professional awards is that they are often valuing things in which the reader has no interest. Writers look at a book as a technical achievement, to be evaluated according to the standards of the craft, the employment of technique and the handling of problems of which many readers are unaware. All the reader wants to know is whether there is a good story.

    In similar manner, women look at other women with attention to how make-up is employed to create an illusion of symmetrical features, how clothing, cosmetics and accessories are employed to draw the eye away from flaws and toward features the individual thinks deserve to be played up, and how other elements of costume are used to present the person as smart, attractive, stylish and fashionable. The average man is simply looking at her and thinking “Purty. Me want.”

  10. I went back to read on of the books I read while was in Junior High “Trouble on Titan” By Alan E. Nourse. It seemed so much more enjoyable than most of the YA books today. Maybe I have simple tastes.

  11. This pins down the problem I had with a successful indie book I just read–I realize it was nothing but “immediate” writing. There was great action and decent, if not particularly complex, world building. But I kept putting it down. Despite the action, it was boring, and I think it’s because the author never deviated from using primary impressions. It’s a useful technique, I think, but limited. You can’t make an entire novel out of it. It’s claustrophobic. When trapped in nothing but a character’s sensations, you can never get a sense of size, of grandeur, of how everything, character and setting and philosophy, fit together.

    • I’m not a writer, but I do read voraciously, especially science fiction and fantasy. Thanks for clarifying a puzzler for me. I’ve picked up books that should have been interesting. They had a good plot, lots of action, but I never got a sense of the characters as people. They acted but there was no real sense of why they did stuff or who they were. Very detached and sort of random. I could not tell if an action was in character because I had no sense of who the character was. I hit kali’s response and realized I felt exactly the same way about those books. The author gave very little information on what the characters were thinking or feeling. Just described what happened. Very dissatisfying.

      One thing I have noticed about authors that I like is they know their characters as if they were real persons. They know a lot about them and their histories that we, as readers, never see. I’ve listened to Lois McMaster Bujold talk about Miles Vorkosigan or read something Illona Andrews wrote in answer to a fan question and realized their fictional people have hugely rich histories. No wonder they seem so “real” to me.

      • Heh. When I put down the new book, I went back to Bujold and re-read Paladin of Souls for the umpteenth time. (I know we’re all Miles fans here, but IMNSHO, Ista is one of the great characters)

        • Ista is a favorite of mine too (and the Bastard, love his sense of humor) but I’ve never heard Bujold talk about Ista much, other than to say that she wanted to write a book with a middle-aged woman as the heroine.

        • Heartily endorsed. “They say he is very wise.” “Then for once they say right.” Bujold and Dorothy Sayers are #1 and #2 for writing believable male characters, too.

  12. Maybe the lack of internal dia-mono-logue is what is missing in Raising Steam. I am having difficulty finishing — continuing to read, actually — this one, which has never been true of a Pratchett book since the Carpet People.