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Writing hacks: what you don’t get for free

Lots of my friends talk about skills that each writer gets “for free”–things they’re naturally good at. Well, what I am not naturally good at is describing setting. For quite some time, everything I wrote at any longish length had among its first critiques “needs more setting,” “describe more setting!,” etc. Well, if every time you make stew, everybody says, “needs more salt,” at some point you really have to think of adding salt to your stew earlier in the process.

(Exception is if you disagree and think salt would make it worse. But just as food is cooked to be eaten, stories are written to be read, so–you at least think about the salt.)

Problem: there is not a shaker labeled “setting descriptors” sitting by my desk. The first thing I tried, a couple of books ago, was to set things in a location that was very vivid for me. This did not work at all–I still heard the same crits and still had to go back and fix setting stuff in revisions. The second thing is how most advice gets ladled out in fiction writing: the “just do it” method. Just–be better at this! (Seriously, this is how writers give advice 90% of the time. “Do this! Make it come out this way! Do not make it come out this other way!” Most common version: “Just put your butt in the chair and write!” Timprov has often commented that if standard writing advice was applied to running, no one would ever have developed Couch-to-5K, they’d just stand over the couch shouting, “Run a marathon! Run a marathon now! Just put your shoes on and run a marathon!”) And that worked…about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not at all.

So with The Spy from Atlantis I tried an actual plan. You will be amazed to hear that this worked better. Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like. (And smell like and those other setting things. But I have noticed that if I put in what things smell like, people gloss over it and still tell me I need more setting, rather than extrapolating all the important stuff from scent like sensible people.)

Bottom line: this worked. Nobody started raving about my lush setting descriptions and how they were the most amazing setting that ever had set. This was not the goal. The goal was to get the setting stuff to the point where it would get other people where they needed to be with the story. I will probably never be a setting-focused writer (sorry, Kev), but actively putting off settingy people is also not my goal. So: putting the thing I’m working on first, before the stuff that’s more natural. That actually worked. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more ingrained that way or whether I always find that I need to sit down and Do Setting Stuff Dammit.

I don’t know if this would work for other areas of weakness, but it’s worth thinking about. More to the point, I like it when other people talk about improving their writing in specific concrete terms, because overcoming the “just–do that thing! do it well!” culture is important. So I thought I’d share it with you.

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Sick reading

I have been shuffling and snozzling around the house this week with the cold my sister-in-law’s family had at Christmas, and I’m also at a point of increasing vertigo, with which the head congestion is not helping in the least. So naturally it seemed like the perfect time to talk about what I want to read when I’m different kinds of sick.

With a cold like this, when my head feels thick and stupid, I do not want a big chewy piece of nonfiction–in fact, I set aside the one I was reading when I came down with it and will go back to it later, because if there is ever a time for not trying to keep track of the Soviet takeover of various Polish community groups, it’s when you’re blowing your nose every five seconds. In contrast, when the vertigo is moderately bad, there is nothing for it like trying to keep track of things like that. Thick chewy nonfiction (that will last and not make me get up to get more) is just the thing for that kind of sick.

Moderately high fever sick calls for very vivid books. I read Sean Stewart’s Galveston with a moderately high fever, and honestly I recommend this course of action. It was quite good that way. (I checked later. It’s also good healthy.)

When the vertigo is catastrophically bad–when my work-arounds are not enough to work and I can’t do anythingreally–the right kind of books are rereads, because Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and Mervyn Bunter hold still when the world will not.

But this kind of miserable dragging-on cold, with some vertigo, the best thing for this kind of sick is books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed, and not highly complicated ones, either. Much though I was enchanted by Aurorarama, I am leaving Luminous Chaos for when I feel better and will apprehend it properly. One of you lovely people sent me some Dodie Smith novels, and they have been just perfect. Mystery series would do beautifully, which reminds me of an email I should send, but things for which I have to go to the library are not really useful at the moment. So: rereads and known authors, not too horribly complicated but enough to be engaging. That’s where I am now.

What do you want to read when you’re sick?

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End of year state of the Mris: the writing version

2013: it was full of stuff. Good stuff, it turns out. Quite a bit of good stuff. Go team.

In the “clear signs of progress” category, I passed my hundredth short story sale mark, which was cool and weird. I cannot really make reflexive Minnesotan noises about how really it’s not so many, because it is: so many. So. Major thing there. Also in the same category, I now have an agent, and she is awesome, and I am pleased and hopeful about what this means for the future.

I sold nine stories this year. I have four stories sold and still yet to come out (one from 2012, the rest from this year). New stories that came out this year included:
“The Radioactive Etiquette Book” in Analog
“Armistice Day” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Milk Run” in Analog (co-written with Alec Austin)
“The Troll (A Tale Told Collectively)” in Daily SF
“On the Weaponization of Flora and Fauna” in BCS
“Ask Citizen Etiquette” in Asimov’s (technically a 2014 publication date)
“The Ministry of Changes” in
“Things We Have in the House for No Reason” in Analog
“Unsolved Logical Problems in Time Travel (Spring Semester)” in Nature

There were also some lovely reprints, in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction and Year’s Best SF and Fantasy 2013 and anthologies of Clarkesworld and Daily SF sales from previous years.

And the writing. I really hit my stride on new stuff, writing twenty stories, one novel, and serious parts of other novels and stories. All the short stories are revised, and I have a plan for revising the novel. In addition to that, I’m kind of hoping to hit the new project hard once I’ve done the revisions. It’s pretty clear after twice going through it that when I have to be on the vertigo meds, I can still write–I can still write things people like, even–even including myself–but it’s harder. So there’s a balance to find (sorry, had to) between keeping myself safe and getting good work done. Ideally I’ll be able to get enough momentum on the novel to carry me through the last horrible phase before going on the meds and the first horrible phase on them. We’ll see. If not, I will dig my heels in and just make it work. I’ve done it before and can do it again. But gosh, these last six months when I didn’t have to dig my heels in and could just write happily have sure been nice. Hoping to use it as a running start on next year, because this year has been awfully good.

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The things we like best

Every job has things you like better and things you don’t like so much in it, no matter how much you like the job on the whole. There is no job that is all the good bits, start to finish.

Me, I’m happiest when I’m writing a novel. I know there are people who enjoy having written rather than enjoying writing, but I am not them, and sometimes I marvel that they can do this job at all, because it contains a lot of writing for people who don’t enjoy writing. More power to them for making it work, and we are all a beautiful rainbow and that. But what I like best in an ordinary day is to wake up and have unwritten bits of novel spread out like a quilt before me, being able to work on whatever bit I like and having it come together into something big and wonderful.

Next to that I like drafting short stories. And next to that I like trying to draft short stories and novels simultaneously–it’s really best to separate them out when I can.

Then there is a giant step down to revision and marketing.

The thing is, I am not actually doing this just for personal fulfillment. While I am comfortable with the idea that some of my work will be trunked at some point, I am not actually writing it for the purpose of trunking it. I believe in revision! I believe in it fervently, in the idea of being able to make things wonderful that did not come out quite as wonderful as I’d hoped. Revision is a gift we are given by the universe: the fact that we, we lucky ones, we have chosen an art that is, thank God, not a performance art, and therefore we can improve it after the first rush of creation.


However, waking up and saying to myself, “Today I will improve upon the thing that is suboptimal now!” is an intellectual pleasure. It is not like writing the thing in draft, which for me is an intellectual and a visceral pleasure all at once. I never wallow in revision; I can’t. That’s not how it works for me. And the drafts, sometimes I really do wallow in those.

At the moment, I have just finished one large and one small project in revision, and I have large ones ahead of me. There is the previous thing I ran past the writers’ group, which I don’t want to let languish indefinitely half-revised. And then in December the writers’ group will meet again, and I’ll get more revision ideas there. Revision will be with me for awhile; ideally it will be with me always. But it will be with me intensely for awhile even without adding to the revision queue, which I seem to be doing pretty constantly right now.

The spigot is still attempting to gush forth new story upon me. The spigot is undeterred by revision. The spigot also does not feel revision as work, though the rest of me does. This is how I managed to finish novel revisions Saturday morning and then turn to a new story with Alec without batting an eye.

I’m trying to find the balance here, between getting done useful things that really want getting done and letting myself do the really fun wonderful things–that will also, long-term, be useful. This last week, I’ve been feeling like I “earn” my time with new stuff by doing revisions on old stuff. But I don’t want to hedge things around with so many rules that I miss the really good moments. It’s not just a matter of a player on a streak having to respect the streak, because they don’t happen very often, although you can generally do worse for platitude-mining than Bull Durham. It’s also a matter of why we do this. Why I do this. And honestly, I do this so I can write scenes about a gigantic jeweled magical orrery, and also political upheaval, and also teenagers feeling confused about pretty much everything.

So I’m going to go do that. And tomorrow, I will try to do some more revisions. But also probably more of that. Because it’s what I like best.

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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Maybe It’s Sunspots

I’m going to talk with names on this, because it was a very personal panel, and there was a lot of “this works for x but not for y.” It featured Jo, Greer, and me, since we are all having very productive years. One of the important points Jo made was that productivity is personal–Greer is having a very productive year for Greer, and while that meant she was a little startled by the word counts Jo and I were discussing, it didn’t make her productivity less real or less important. Jo talked about how we are improving on ourselves, not reproducing others.

I quoted Alec as saying, “Thinking is the most important part of writing,” and it sounded like we had been substantially thinking in advance on these books, so that they were more ready when we got to them. Someone–I didn’t note who–described chunks of book falling on them with flaming swords through a blizzard. For me it’s more that everything I’m writing is much closer. It’s like I would usually have to stretch a little to reach it on the shelf, and now it’s all just sitting on the desk within reach.

One of the notable points of commonality is that these bouts of productivity did not, contra suffering artist cliches, come from times of great suffering. Greer was coming out of the first flush of a great grief, and Jo and I had less physical interference than we sometimes do with writing. (I should note that the plane ride home was through a thunderstorm and has kicked up my vertigo–and that this has not turned the spigot off. Which is in some ways a relief and in some ways pretty alarming.)

Greer apparently had her book fall on her head while eating strawberries with creme fraiche and brown sugar. And to this I say: this is excellent advice for young writers. Those who have strawberry or dairy allergies can modify it slightly. But think of all the things we tell young writers as advice! Some of these things are potentially harmful! Eating strawberries, on the other hand, might not help them with their stories but is highly unlikely to do any harm. The next time someone tells you to outline or freewriter or talk it out with a friend or keep it bottled up inside or whatever else they tell you as writing advice, feel free to substitute, “Or strawberries. I could eat strawberries and think of my story. It might work, and if it didn’t work, at least there would be strawberries.”

I bet this works for other art forms, too, at least as well as it works for writing.

Anyway. I talked about the three rules I was following (discussed in this post, and Jenett and I had a good laugh about how well they map to the 4H pledge), but that’s by no means universal. A lot of people don’t try to keep up with doing everything else while they’re having an unusually productive period, or else can’t even if they do try, and that’s okay; the unusually productive periods do not last forever. One of the audience members once wrote a contract novel in 56 hours, playing Richard Thompson on repeat the whole time. This audience member still appears to be on speaking terms with their family.

Honestly, folks, I expected this panel to be a retrospective. Gosh, I had a productive month! 2/3 of a novel and 8 short stories! Wasn’t that productive! But so far it’s still going. I have one or possibly two short stories to finish up this week, and then it’s straight into the next book, for which I have [counting] five pages of notes on paper sitting on my desk. It’s doing that thing where if I don’t actively think of something else, the book says, “Helllooooo, book here, you wanted this plot point, didn’t you? I could tell you did. Also here is some worldbuilding! You’re welcome!” I think it was during the process panel (more on which anon) that Jo talked about if she didn’t want to do the laundry, getting a character in her head who thought the washing machine was awesome modern technology, so much better than having to drag it down to the river and pound on it and etc. And I do that too. Except, for example, if an opening act at a concert is no good and it would be rude to snark out loud about it, if a novel is going well, there’s usually at least one character in the novel who would snark about it too. And then the snark starts telling me worldbuilding things about the character’s assumptions about education or art or whatever else. And then there it all is. Which is a lot more diverting than a bad opening act, don’t get me wrong! It’s just that it’s there all the time.

And this is part of why I’m writing another novel: because the fire hose is still turned on, and sticking short story shot glasses under it to catch the water is only partly useful. And then there’s this novel! So who knows how long the fire hose will keep going, but…there’s this novel! So here we are. Still. Okay then.

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The Spy From Atlantis: draft done, surprise!

Two weeks ago I wrote this post about brain momentum and my hope that I could bleed off some of that momentum into a novel.

That…didn’t entirely happen. I mean, I channeled that momentum into a novel. That much is clear. But…okay, look. I finished the draft of that novel, The Spy from Atlantis today. First draft, all done, there we go, book. That means that in the last month I’ve written five short stories and 2/3 of a book. This…is a personal record. (I still have two days left in that month, and the thought scares me a little.)

Early this year I got completely stuck and bogged down on this book. And I eventually wrote, “MORE BOOK GOES HERE” in the manuscript (in the place where more book went! and I was right, more book did go there!). And then I reminded myself that I was not on deadline, that there was no reason to make myself miserable writing that book right then, that I could just write something else.

So I did.

And then two weeks ago, more or less, I opened the file and wrote a thousand words like it was nothing. And I knew what other words went in it. It was just a matter of letting them out. Elise says Mike called this “finding the spigot.” I can’t explain it, but that spigot got found.

The thing is, I’m not yet sure it’s off. On Friday, when I was assessing what was left, I was pretty sure I was going to finish today. And there is a part of my brain that chimed in, “Oh good! Then we can work on [three other story ideas] on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, before things get really going for Farthing Party.”


Seriously, there is stuff to do, and my wrists and back could really use a break. So…maybe an average of less than 4K a day is something to shoot for. Just a thought. The three rules I made, once it became clear that I was going to be writing this book NOW NOW NOW were:
No ruining my hands.
No ruining my health.
No ruining my relationships.

So I have done things like continuing to eat the same reasonable-or-better levels of food, continuing to work out and sleep, continuing to get together with friends and family, etc. They are good rules.

I just. It will be nice if I don’t need quite such a reminder that they are the rules for awhile here.

Still! Book! I am pleased, and I had fun. All the fun that was missing on this book earlier this year was back in abundance. Yay go book. I will revise it when I’m not in Montreal. I will let it marinate for a bit. But in the meantime: book! Yay go book!