The more I write, the more I find that I prefer to write longhand instead of using the computer. (It’s worth noting that the computer RULES for editing, rewriting, rearranging, and otherwise molding a story into the right shape.)
I always start a story by hand. I scribble notes and write a page or two. Then, up until the last two it three months, I have always switched over to the word processor to type the following 90% of the story.
It’s fast as long as I know where the story is heading. And maybe you see where this is going if you happen to know that I hardly ever write a story outline, and even when I do it’s less than skeletal. More like a stick figure missing a stick or two.
The words are more likely to dry up after I switch to typing the story. I find myself stalling not just on what to type for the next sentence or paragraph, but on what the next scene is and where the plot is going.
Maybe it’s because when typing my fingers can travel as fast as I’m thinking. But writing by hand forces me to fix what’s coming next in my mind as I hurry to write down the words that bridge the gap.
Or maybe that’s not it at all and there’s a different reason baked into my brain.
Either way, lately I’ve been writing by hand more than I’ve been typing as I compose a story. The biggest challenge is deciphering my own handwriting and making sense of all the notes and additions I cram into the left hand column of the evidence pads I love to use. (Think steno pad, but full 8 1/2″ x 11″ size and with the vertical rule one-third of the way from the left instead of down the middle)
(Edit, an hour or so later: composed this with the voice-writing function on my mobile — it didn’t do too bad, but left me a couple of things to clean up. Technology: the solution to and cause of all of our problems, right? Anything that’s still wrong, I blame on my lovable but very loud and distracting little ones. Oh, and I also clarified a couple of things in the third and last paragraphs.)
…but you can, too! The first installment will be posted here as well as there. Subsequent installments of Broken Rice will be patron-exclusive on Patreon first, but will also appear in ebook form after a short delay! I explain it all over on my Patreon page — but before you click the link, please enjoy the cover art for Broken Rice below. I really enjoyed making it (even if some moments were kind of a pain in the butt) and I’m really pleased with how it came out. 🙂
(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 24 February. Patrons — even if all they can spare is one thin dollar per month — see my posts first. They also get to see the stories I publish 30 days in advance, plus a FREE .pdf copy, even if I charge for the ebook everywhere else! So you should totally pledge. Seriously. I’m not making a hell of a lot of money doing this (yet!) and the budget is thin, thin, thin — you can see all its ribs, the poor thing. Make my budget happier. Happy, financially secure writers write more writing. Word.)
…so I can put it together better.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m wrapping up an MA in English with a fiction writing concentration. I know, I know — what a huge surprise. It sort of made sense, and the bit of the financial aid that doesn’t go to paying for tuition and books goes toward keeping a roof over our (there are 5 of us stuffed into this little trailer) heads so we have a place to store the computer that I tend to school and work on.
So, in any event, it has been a good ride, and I think my writing is considerably better for the experience.
For my thesis, I am putting together a new collection, and I was working on a story that is part of it.
It was a good story. I liked it. My fellow students and professor liked it. And one of them suggested something (kicking myself — I should have thought of it! See the value of having someone to critique you? Not yet? Read on.) good.
Loosely paraphrased: “good story — but why not start where the action is?”
But how many times have I seen that very basic advice in the blogs and similar from writers and editors and readers?
Tons. (Lesson along the way: there’s a big difference between hearing or reading advice and actually taking it OMG I HAVE THE SUDDEN URGE TO CALL MYSELF NAMES) You probably have too. Now, not every story needs to start in the middle of the action. And “action” is a flexible concept. There’s no combat in my story, and we usually think “someone needs to be trying to kill someone” when we think action. There’s a big expedition to somewhere long-lost and mysterious in this story, and instead of having two scenes of lead-in with their own minor conflicts, I chopped them out and relocated them later in the story. So the “action” is just the characters departing from their origin and launching themselves into the unknown. But it’s more interesting than a slow lead-in, by a long shot. Then the structure cried out for another prelude scene buried later in the story, so I wrote one. And that made the characters, situations, the whole damn world of the story a richer and more interesting place.
The moral of this little story isn’t “always, always, always start in the middle of some form of action.” There are wonderful stories that don’t start that way, and maybe you’ve written and/or read some of them. Great.
The moral is, “don’t be afraid to chop up your story and rearrange the bits to see if it’s better off.” We have word processors. We can cut, copy, and paste. We can save multiple revisions in their own handy little folders. We can print if we want and rearrange pages, scribble all over the thing. Some of us (not me — spend money? I don’t have much of that stuff!) even have cool writer-in-mind software that lets us take a story apart digitally and rearrange it at will just to see how it looks.
Look, we’re creative people. Not just those of us that write fiction, but those of us who read it, too. Relatively few of us humans even read fiction. I think it takes a creative spark to read it and love it enough to come back for more without the whip of a teacher behind us and the carrot of a diploma in front of us. Something like a third of us humans never read a work of fiction again after the required reading of whatever level of education we have is behind us. Another third read “rarely.” That’s roughly what I recall, and I’m probably being optimistic about the numbers.
So being creative people, when we create something, we don’t want to change it. We want to think we have it right the first time, that our initial conception is the right one. We’re tempted to make small changes, not big ones. Not even just to see.
Make some big changes. Maybe you’ll waste some time, but you’ll be playing with something you like anyway — and that’s not a bad thing at all if you’re one to voluntarily sit down and write a story. No matter what you do with that story. Even if you write fiction only for yourself in a locked journal with instructions in your will to burn it after you die, even if you “just” write a little fanfic here and there to share with your friends or on a fan forum, even if you never mean to publish a damn thing.
Because sometimes those experiments with big changes pay off.
So is that all I learned? Nah. I learned a lesson I have to learn over and over again, each time a little better — I hope. I’m a hyperactive person, and I’m distractible. I may or may not meet the definition of ADD or ADHD — whatever I am, hyperactive is what they called it when I was a little tyke in rural Wisconsin in the ’70s. I’m impatient as all hell. I really want stories to come out great just the way I first conceive them. And it has taken practice and experience to get to the point where I’m willing to take my time, even sit on a story for days or weeks until I have fresh eyes to take it out and fiddle with it to see if I can make it better. To get to the point where I have found some balance between the humility it takes to listen to advice and/or consider writing a story a different way, and the ego it takes to say, “hey, this is my world, and I think it’s interesting. Come look at it.”
If I can do it, you probably can too.
Oh, he’s infodumping in public. He must be SO EMBARRASSED! Poor thing.
You’ve only just read the title, seen the image, read the caption, and you already know: I’m going to tell you (you writers out there) not to infodump on your readers. If you’re a reader, I’m going to tell you how you feel when you hit an infodump: ‘fine, fine, get on with the story already fer chrissakes.’
Before I go farther, let me tell you what prompted this post. From time to time, I poke through one of the ebook sellers’ websites and preview some of the novels and shorts that my fellow self-published writers come up with. The first one I looked at this afternoon started with a fat infodump in movie-intro style. It was labeled “Prologue,” which was a lie. It wasn’t a prologue. It was an infodump sketching out the author’s worldbuilding so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to bother your pretty little head with figuring out the background. And, possibly, so the author wouldn’t have to bother his pretty little head figuring out how to establish the important features of his world through things like dialogue and brief exposition and events.
Now that we’re past the digression: if you’re a contrary or exception-minded sort like me, you’ve taken issue with my hostility against the infodump, and have come up with a number of reasons that an infodump might be perfectly fine in a story. At least a little one. And it’s true, a little infodumping is less offensive than a lot of infodumping. The most inoffensive thing about the example I encountered today was that it was relatively short, less than two pages. Not too big to skip forward to the beginning of the first chapter, which is where the story should have begun. It should have begun with chapter one because that’s where it was interesting in a way the infodump ‘prologue’ definitely failed to be.
Which brings me to my major objection to the usage of the infodump: they’re boring. The worst of them (and the one I read was one of these) read like a transcript from a high school history class with the most uninspired and unhappy teacher you ever had the misfortune of having. Nobody wants to read that crap. I bet the writer didn’t even want to read that crap once it was written. He probably had trouble staying awake during editing.
There are ways to handle the infodump that aren’t terrible, and those are the ways you should use as a writer — because they’re not actually infodumps as I’m defining them here. They’re the ways you want to read as a reader. They’re not encyclopedic, they’re worked in with some sort of action. The characters are doing and thinking and saying things as the infodump develops. You still don’t want to overdo it. Even handled this way, if they’re prolonged the reader begins to wish for less information and more story-meat. But when done well, the reader is still enjoying what’s going on. If you’re the one doing the writing, doing it this way moves it from the realm of the infodump (EWWWW!) and into the realm of exposition (well, fine — so long as it stays interesting).
Technically, exposition and infodumping are the same thing. Exposition simply means ‘showing,’ which might be a bit confusing in light of the old and hoary advice, “show, don’t tell.” Exposition is a point at which the writer tells the reader something informative instead of showing or demonstrating it by other means. I think of the infodump as a distinct category of its own: Infodumping is the kind of exposition you do NOT want to write. It’s the kind that really sucks.
All exposition should be used sparingly. You should think about how and why you use it rather than conveying your information another way. And if you find yourself in the infodump neighborhood of exposition, do yourself a favor:
FIND ANOTHER WAY.
Right off the bat, let me put your worst suspicions to rest. I don’t hate Christmas. The kids are getting gifts and have been merrily eating from the jumbo box of candy canes I bought at the start of the month.
Santa’s not banned and I don’t harrumph a Bah Humbug at the mention of his name… though in the interests of full disclosure I will tell you that I do get a bit grumpy around this time of year. I like small, simple family occasions and big holidays give me the hives. Christmas is as big as it gets, holidaywise.
Back three and a half-ish years ago when my wife had little Victor, we had a small tiff over the issue of Santa Claus. My poor long-suffering wife was talking about the fun of telling a kid that Santa is coming and leaving gifts, and I spoiled her dream by saying, “no, I’m not telling a kid that Santa is real.”
She had, at first, those worst suspicions. She already knew that the holidays make me a grumpy-butt, so her suspicions, while not justified, were completely and totally understandable.
Here’s my issue with Santa: I’m an atheist-y sort of person. While I like and practice the principle of extending optimistic trust toward my fellow humans, I don’t much care for anything that involves believing in something without some sort of tangible reason to do so. I view faith as something that leads folks into trouble — trust and compassion, for me, is where the real good is at. So Santa isn’t going to be ‘real’ for my little ones.
Santa is a lot of fun. After my wife and I talked things through, she understood that I wasn’t against Santa. I was just against telling a child that something fictional is real. So I have told little 3 1/2 year old Victor that Santa is pretend, like Thomas the Train or the dinosaurs on Dinosaur Train. Santa’s fun, and the story of Santa is fun-pretend, a good story that we tell each other because it tells us what Christmas is all about.
Christmas, to 3 1/2 year old Victor, is not about Santa coming for real. It’s not about Santa bringing presents in the middle of the night. It’s a time when we share presents, and more importantly love, with our family and friends because we love them. It’s a special time of year when we take care to make sure that the people we love know that we love them.
It’s a time for family, and a time for hugs, and a time we do things like tell stories about Santa Clause because it reminds us of all the good things in our lives and the good people we share our lives with.
And if Santa is fiction to little Victor and his littler brother Cuinn, so what? We have a home full of books, their big brother Erik writes graphic novels and comic storylines, mom writes poetry, I write fiction.
We’re a family who knows the value of a good story, and knows that a story doesn’t have to be real to have a real meaning and a real, positive impact.
So, Santa: sorry I’m not playing along. If it’s any consolation, the kids still love you, even knowing you don’t exist.
A LATE ADDITION (about an hour after first publishing): ran across a relevant story: a woman whose seasonal depression apparently stems from the shock of being told Santa isn’t real at age 10.
My writing is going to be BIG!
I have heard, and seen in various forums for writers online, the same basic question posed dozens of times. “How do I write something that hasn’t been written before?” “How can I be sure nobody’s done this story before?” “How do I get a NEW idea?”
I have good news and bad news for the askers of those questions.
You’re not going to write something that hasn’t been written before. Somebody has done this story before. Your idea is not new. That’s the news, good and bad wrapped up together in it like yin and yang.
You might find something specific to add, a new element. With the advent of the personal computer, we began to see all the old stories made new again with the addition of computers, hackers, the internet, email. But that didn’t make them new stories. It made them old stories with a newly invented element. That’s part of the attraction of writing and reading science fiction and fantasy, by the way. We get to make up our own new elements and toss them in, and ask, “how does this change the old story?”
The bottom line in fiction writing, science fiction, fantasy, or whatever else, is that you are not telling a new story. Humans have been telling stories for untold thousands of years, and have been writing them down for about the most recent five thousand. You will not invent a new basic story.
What you bring to the table as a writer is your voice. Your way of telling the story, the details you make important to the story, the point of view you bring to the telling. As a writer, it is important to know your craft; know the grammar, always expand your vocabulary and general knowledge, know the structures of those old basic storylines you will retell. But your stock in trade will be yourself, what your voice as you tell the story adds. As a writer, the most important part of your story is you.
Think of it like knitting. It’s all the same old yarn, they’re all the same old garments and blankets and potholders. The important bit is, what colors and patterns will you create, and how pleasing will they be?
The upside of having an eclectic vision, or, put another way, of being a scatterbrain: variety! I love variety in just about everything. Music, food, my reading, my writing. The downside: lack of focus. Focus has its advantages. It’s easier to finish things when you’re focused. Finishing stories can be a struggle for me. I tend to get interested in something else and wander away. If I didn’t make myself go back and finish, I could easily have a couple of hundred story fragments and nothing done. As the hoary old chestnut goes, starting things is easy, but as time goes on… SQUIRREL! Look at the squirrel over there! Wait, there’s something shiny the other direction, wonder what it is… hey, I’m hungry, are you hungry? Wonder what sort of snacks are available…
Today’s thoughts of the ups and downs of eclecticism came to me while updating my ‘stories to either resubmit to markets or self-publish if I’m tired of sending them back out’ stack. Right now the stack stands at five; I don’t like it to get much larger than that. Stories sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing are, well, doing nothing. And that’s just not helpful. They’re an eclectic lot. Let’s take a look at what I have here, using 1-word shorthand for titles, since I haven’t sold or released any of them yet:
Kitty: Near-future. Speculative fiction, just barely. If it wasn’t set in the near future, it would be a mainstream story and it reads like one. A tale of a boy and his cat in an impoverished coastal North Carolina ravaged by severe sea-level rise and powerful climate-change-fueled storms.
Meow: Call this one contemporary fantasy. A Cat of Power awakes after a long sleep frozen in Siberian permafrost and tries to make sense of what the world has become. Two cat stories in the lot is as close as I come to a theme in this list. I do like a good cat story. I blame the internet’s bad influence.
Dawn: Definitely science fiction, there are spaceships and everything. The participants in a long-distance relationship meet via interstellar travel. As usual in a long-distance relationship story, there’s something unsaid that must be confronted once they meet.
Pornodroid: Science fiction, again with spaceships and everything. Not as sexy as it sounds. A pop music star under a very onerous contract discovers that stardom ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and finds a high-tech way to attempt an escape.
Fire: A 100-word western involving a lost Spaniard, a nasty bearded brigand, and a campfire.
Maybe it would be a little easier to attract readers if I stuck to one thing. On the other hand, I can’t be the only one who enjoys variety. And frankly, if I tried to compress myself into a branding-marketing straitjacket and keep everything focused, I have a feeling that the writing I produced would rapidly start to suck. I’m happy being a bit scatterbrained. My mind is a restless dog, sticking its nose into every corner and smelling after new and exciting smells. If I tried to chain it down it would rapidly become unhappy and you’d get tired of hearing it bark all the time.
So, yeah. As of now I have fifty-five short story and collection ebook titles out there for folks to read. This latest is a short tale of superheroes and fandom, and it’s a mere 99 cents. It’s available on Smashwords right now, and will appear with other ebook retailers shortly, most likely within two weeks.
Keep your eyes peeled: I still have plenty more stories to tell.
In the next few days, I’ll transcribe this one over to my ebook template and publish. It’s going to be free, and it weighs in at about 1200 words. There’s a little more about it over on my Patreon page — but the long and the short of it is, it’s science fiction, set in a very peaceful world where a naive man meets someone who is a bit more in touch with the ancient animalistic side of human nature. I think you’ll like it. Keep your eyes peeled.