Stretching Exercises

Both of the posts this week, Dave Freer’s and Amanda Green’s are about not fully being able to anticipate the future.  I thought about them both when we drove past our old neighborhood and I realized the college is expanding dorms massively, now within a block of our old house.

All well and good, and my kids’ college, which is different is doing the same.  Expanding the dorms, making them spiffier, adding to the on site facilities, etc.

At the same time, tech marches on, and as usual, marches in directions that makes these dorms and facilities a supremely stupid “investment.”

It reminds me of five years ago, when, in the first flush of selling ebooks, and frankly not accounting for them too well, all the NY publishers were expanding their quarters, and getting spiffier buildings.  Now they’re firing authors.

The truth is that Education might think it’s immune to the tech stick, because governmental loans have made them fat and sassy, and who will trust an internet educational certificate?

But you know, the change is already in the wind.  The same way that trad publishers made the indie revolution easier by having this idea they could push taste onto their readers, instead of treating them like customers to be wooed, the traditional educational system is cooperating in its own demise by pouring out totally useless graduates, or worse, those who have been actively poisoned against the culture that shelters them.

When things change, they will change rapidly and terribly, as they did for publishing.

Six years ago I thought I was too late to the indie revolution.  And nowadays I live in fear of not catching up to change fast enough.  Other indies and I discuss options all the time.  And sometimes things still blindside us.

In this environment it doesn’t do to be too confident, or to get set in a rut.  And not JUST on how to market.  How to write too.  It helps to scope out the competition and “spontaneous hits.”  (That means those that don’t have push and money behind them.)

Not that you should write what other people write, but you should be aware what is selling, and what style it is, so you know what to do.

One of the things that is important to do, as it’s been borne upon me in the course of my (argh) starting to be long career is to have what Kris Rusch called “as many tools in your toolbox as possible.”

All of us have restrictions, and some of them are internal.  Currently, for various reasons, I’m writing a book I’d never write on my own.  Its structure is not something I would ever conceive of on my own, though I’ve read and enjoyed books like it.  I think I can do it, and hope so, since other people are depending on me, but it’s so new that everything feels “odd”.

Because your first time at everything will feel odd, better to try everything before it’s crucial.  Er… everything in writing.  Step down from the ledge. You only die once.

A lot of your internal stopping points are false ones.  There was a time I couldn’t write female characters.  This wasn’t exactly true but I couldn’t write female characters that made sense to Americans.  (I could write other ethnicities fine.)  However, I wrote Athena, and then I figured out how to write other people.  Kyrie didn’t even feel hard to write.

I’m still working on writing action, but I can see the time coming when it’s natural.

A lot of our stopping points are lack of practice.  Others will always stop us cold.  For instance, I can’t write sex.  Not because I’m prudish, but because I’m not a voyeur.  Described sex holds me out and bores me, whether I’m reading it or writing it.

So, include some writing stretching exercises in your routine.  Take a day a week, say, to write something that “doesn’t count” like, say, a short story, or a chapter of a story you’re not sure you’ll ever write.

Try a pov you’ve never written.  Try a genre you’ve never written.  Try a style you’ve never written.

Give it a whirl.  You might discover it’s not your thing.  Or you might add it to your core competency and enlarge your toolbox, the better to face the future with.
















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66 responses to “Stretching Exercises

  1. Draven

    not just poisoned against the culture that shelters them, poisoned against the culture that make their education even possible… and apparently, not just here….

  2. paladin3001


  3. Sarah, please quit poking the Muse. I’ve been feeling this push to write a western of some kind for a while, and I don’t want to go there.

    In all seriousness, writing the steampunk novel was a challenge. When I started the Colplatschki books, they were a real challenge – how do I get by without telepathic asides and similar exchanges? With the RajWorld books it was (and is) how do I write a young protagonist (age 12 at first, now 19)?

    • aacid14

      Should I offer her a cattleprod and lasso too?

    • sabrinachase

      Dean Wesley Smith is going to be offering an online class on writing Westerns soon. I may have suggested this to him. 😀

      • One thing that gets in my way is that western history is my day job. I have serious concerns that a western, even under a pen name, is going to too many “tells” as to my academic identity.

        • Peter Tremayne was pretty open about his academic identity being Peter Berresford Ellis. His Fidelma books are his propaganda to the masses for his Ellis theories.

          But then, when you have been editor of the Irish tourist board’s magazine under your academic archaeologist name, you no longer have embarrassment. Just income. 🙂

        • snelson134

          Cedar, that cat is thoroughly out of the bag already. There are a number of “plagiarism detection” tools that can analyze samples of your prose and get roughly an 80%+ match on whether or not you wrote something else.

  4. Heh. Lately just about everything I’ve been coming up with has had a strong romantic element to it. I am utterly clueless when it comes to romance, both as a fictional category and in reality (let’s just say my own life is not a good example to be used for that okay?).

    Closest I’ve come is “The Hordes of Chanakra” where I still don’t know how my main characters got together and I wrote the thing, and “The Kinmar” with the same main characters after their relationship is well established and quite solid.

    But my muse is back there, slapping a riding crop into its palm, saying “you will write this”. And, no, it’s not that kind of “romance”.

  5. “For instance, I can’t write sex.”

    I tried, but it came out stupid. I always skip the sex parts in books too, I just don’t care.

    Romance, with the sex part off-screen, that turns out to be a thing I can do. This is surprising, in the extreme.

    • Count me in on that one too. There are very few sex scenes that don’t put me in skim mode (the wedding night scene in 1632 was a notable exception). My typical reaction to a sex scene, ok, so your characters are making the beast with two backs, got it. Let’s move on.

      Not to mention that for me, there’s a thin line between merely boring and TMI. And sometimes TMI goes to the point that, even while skimming, I can get stuff that leaves me wanting a bucket of brain bleach and a stiff wire brush.

      • Bujold is the only person who has ever written a sex scene that didn’t either bore me to tears or be the subject of vast hilarity. I figured out that it’s because she’s using the emotional side of things far more than the physical.

        There’s only so many ways you can say “tab A into slot B” before it gets really boring.

      • Zsuzsa

        And strangely enough, I’ve run into things that are both boring and TMI. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to make something that I’m pretty sure is illegal in all 50 states so unbelievably dull.

        For the vast majority of authors, unless you’re writing erotica, it’s probably better to get rid of sex scenes and replace them with a nice shot of the ceiling fan. We get the point; you’re doing no one any favors by belaboring it.

        • Oh, I can write them. Probably using way too much imagination and contortionists might find it problematical. _And_ it’ll never get published. Even when it’s needed for plot purposes, the sex gets toned _way_ down.

  6. “The truth is that Education might think it’s immune to the tech stick, because governmental loans have made them fat and sassy, and who will trust an internet educational certificate?”

    The time is coming very soon that possession of a Liberal Arts degree or a Social Sciences degree will be the kiss of death on any resume. When you train people to despise corporations and money, when you make them useless due to an ingrained reflex for virtue signaling over common sense, a guy who is trying to build a company will not hire them. They’re poison to what he’s trying to do.

    Example, Walmart.

    Soon, the only retail jobs left will be robot repair man and website maintainer.

    • TRX

      Many large colleges have their entire curricula available online for free. Some others will let people “audit” classes for free. You can get a CalTech or MIT education without spending a dime.

      What you don’t get, and what they’re selling, is their degree. Now that college is the new high school, a college degree in anything is increasingly a requirement to get a white-collar job.

    • snelson134

      Sure they will. Between affirmative action and government requirements for college degrees, there will always be a market under our current system of government.

  7. My college went through an incredible period of expansion about 15 years ago. However, that had a direct, easily attributable cause: it went from being a hardly-recognized regional college to a regional college with an incredible basketball team. They had to rent the wing of a local hotel for dorm space the first year after they stomped their way up the NCAA tournament. (All the way to the Elite Eight, and they only lost to the eventual champion.)

    It’s managed to maintain, primarily by carefully restricting enrollment to about 25% above what it had been before. (Sub-5000 undergrads now. *Small* regional college.) If they tried to become, say, the Notre Dame of the West, it would almost certainly fail, though not before killing everything that makes the college good.

  8. Zsuzsa

    The thing about the college puts me in mind of Keynes’ somewhat unfairly maligned quote, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Keynes wasn’t trying to dismiss the long run, necessarily, but he was pointing out that the short-term matters too. For your sons’ college, it may very well be that in the long run the dorms are a bad investment, but what do you do when you have students showing up in six months who are going to need a place to live? Good investment or not, there may not be a lot of choice but to build the dorms, then figure out what happens to them tomorrow when tomorrow comes around.

  9. TRX

    > scope out the competition

    …or pick a genre where there isn’t much competition. “Everyone knows” cyberpunk and Westerns are stone dead, for example.

    For values of “looks good on an NYC publisher’s profit sheet”, maybe. For values of “1000 True Fans”, maybe not so much.

    • Judging by the demand for Peter Grant’s westerns, I’d say the genre is far from dead. Obviously this is why I have never been picked up by a NYC publisher as a market consultant. 😉

      • TRX

        Westerns aren’t one of my preferred genres, but long ago I noticed that used book stores seldom had more than a few feet of them, usually right up front to the clerk could watch for shoplifters, priced at anywhere from $5 to $10 each, no matter how old and tatty they were.

        What that told me was that there are still readers out there who not only *want* Westerns, but who are willing to pay ripoff prices for them if they can, or simply steal them if they can’t.

        To me that looks like a “Shut up and take my money!” market, but hey, I’m not an Ivy Leage MBA, and obviously know nothing about publishing or customer demand…

        • snelson134

          Anyone else remember the movie Silverado (launched Kevin Costner)? All the critics predicted it would bomb; they almost couldn’t get it made…. and then it came out and pretty much singlehandedly re-launched the genre.

  10. Stretching… hm. Sometimes, there’s a stretch of imagination and disbelief that doesn’t work.

    While watching some videos of cake decorating in progress, there was an advertisement that popped up for a film called ‘The Trimming’ – the basic premise was that we were so overpopulated that the US had instituted a program where ‘the only people allowed to live’ were people who passed a high school exam; the ones who failed would be ‘trimmed’ from the population – herded into what’s implied to be on campus gas chambers, strapped to chairs and killed. Oh yeah, the children are put in there starting age 6 or 7.

    Naturally the whole thing depended on the rebellious President’s son trying to save his girlfriend, who failed the test, hints that the Test itself is rigged, and so on.

    My first reaction was “This would not work in the United States of America. You’d have to take away all the guns, and assume that the population would quietly SUBMIT to their children being killed because ‘not worthy’ as opposed to there being a bloody revolution. Who came up with this piece of shit?”

    • Draven

      I watched about half of the trailer on YT and hit refresh. I was then subjected to the trailer for some other film that had already bombed. it was better.


      Trying to tell us to submit our children for execution would not go well.

      The ‘America is so overpopulated’ meme is so late 1960s.

      The writers were probably very liberal and somehow think it would be conservatives that would enact something like this.

      • Yeah. The guy they used as President had a vague resemblance to Bush.

        • Draven

          yep, because they have it fixated in their brains that we’re the ones who exterminate people, when we are demonstrably not.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        Just like they do every time they’re elected, right?

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        And seriously, “The Trimming”? Could they have possibly picked a less ominous title?

        • That’s not what I meant by stretching your mind. That’s just the same old leftist rut including but not limited to Hunger Games, which suffered from the same “And who’d let you DO that?”

          • Draven

            Hunger games, which book and movie required careful editing to not make the ‘leaders’ look like progressive elitists.

            • KINDA. The author is CP USA.

              • Draven

                I didnt know, never watched/read the whole thing, just have encountered a lot of katniss wannabees out here

                  • Draven

                    Yeah, complete with the ‘I’ll learn to use a bow and assume i can use that because not evil gunz” o.o

                    • A bow is better than a gun in certain extremely specific situations. Most of them are not ones you are going to deal with any kind of civil war in America.

                    • Draven

                      Yep, but just like many preppers, they have their own dreams, and most of these assume there are no firearms in CA.

                      (I believe I have already voiced my version of Walking Dead L.A. here)

                • I did read through the whole thing. Did a panel on YA fiction back at the last InConJunction I did. One of the panelists was an actual high school student and, according to her “Hunger Games” was highly popular among her classmates so I wanted to see if I could figure that out and maybe write some popular YA fiction (being a believer that the young are the proper target if we want to sell our ideas).

                  Basically I came to the conclusion that if this is what appeals to young people, we are doomed.

                  • You forgot PUSH. Hunger games was pushed out the wazoo. Disregard those. Find books that do well without push.

                    • The panelist in question was very enthusiastic about the books and implied that her friends were likewise.

                      This, once I read the books, was very depressing.

                    • Again, particularly the young are very susceptible to “pushed” books, and “everyone loves this.”
                      Don’t despair.

                    • BobtheRegisterredFool

                      Consider also the dearth and obscurity of similar material that evokes a particular peculiar experience.

                      I grew up more or less that cohort. There is stuff you can sense about a society that few are willing to openly admit or discuss. Forex, there’s stuff in Japanese media that probably has something to do with behavior during WWII and the fact that the centralized historical curriculum does not discuss it.

                      I was very into Joan Aiken. I never read Lemony Snickett.

                      This niche of fiction let me reflect on the differences between text and subtext of ‘adults hurting children’ in ways that kept me safely distanced. I was not pondering my own situation.

                      Growing up observant and analytical with a disability that might be congenital and would have been a known risk given circumstances of conception might simply amplify such concerns.

                      If you have a drive to address something, and the first and apparently only means you have is objectively trash, you are probably going to like the trash more than you should.

                      So I can see the appeal of the obscene spectacle of Hunger Games, even if it leaves me cold and skeptical. (My sole experience is through a fanfic crossover with Buffy, where Buffy was very resistant. The fanfic was good, but I still have zero interest in Hunger Games canon.) After that baseball game Obama watched in Cuba, I felt I owed Hunger Games an apology for considering it entirely unrealistic.

                  • A friend of mine recommended it because she thought it entertaining, and that I’d enjoy it because of the survivalist aspect. I got it as a set, ‘coz it was on sale. That, and my daughter was keen on it and was asking for copies, and I vet stuff we hand to the kids, because what’s considered YA these days sometimes has me go “…NOPE.”

                • I have the books. I never got past book 1. One of the things I never quite understood was ‘why didn’t these people just go off into the wilderness, as far away as they could, and strike out on their own?’

          • Some of those dystopias get a bit more credibility in that they had the armed revolt and the “bad guys” won (Hunger Games, IIRC, fell under that category). Too many, however, don’t even bother with the question of “how did they get to that point” or they treat it cavalierly “Oh, of course Conservatives would do that if they got into power because evil”.

            Reminds me of one of the comments about the recent “Captain America is a Hydra Mole” storyline. “But…but…Conservatives should love this because they’re all Nazis anyway”. Hey, doofus, that conservatives are outraged is called a hint, a big one.

            But they write in their little bubble and have no idea why people find it objectionable.

            • BobtheRegisterredFool

              Everyone in the Marvel universe is a secret Hydra fanatic, and always has been. Down to Squirrel Girl.

              If you do a detailed search and crop, you can create the appearance of a fascist salute by every Marvel character of any significance. Down to Squirrel Girl in her first appearance.

              Steve Ditko has objectivist sympathies, so every character he ever worked on is necessarily affiliated with Hydra. Guess who worked on Squirrel Girl.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Of course its rigged. Only the first world left is the right sort of sheltered naive technocratic fanatic who could for a moment think it would not be rigged.

      Everyone else is going a) of course the ‘good families’ will coopt things, and make certain they have scapegoats without connections who have been raised for the purpose of failing the exams or b) No.

      That said, America does have an economically targeted eugenics program with fifty million arguments that Americans will in fact accept that sort of things.

  11. Mary

    When I was new to writing (and about 12), I discovered a great trick. If I sat down and read through a stack of half-finished stories, something would LEAP out at me as the problem.

  12. Murderous werewolves with demonic origins? Did I really need to stretch _this_ direction? Can’t I write a smutty romance? I can easily do a worse job at historical accuracy that anything you’ve read to date. Oh wait. There’s supposed to be smutty romance in werewolf stories, right?

    • Mary

      Supposed to? Only if you want it. When I give my werewolves the classic demonic origin, I skip their having romance.

      • TRX

        “I’ve been all wrongheaded about this – weeping, crawling, blaming everybody else.

        I want Dru back, I’ve just got to be the man I was. The man she loved. I’m going to do what I should have done in the first place.

        I’ll find her, wherever she is, tie her up, torture her until she likes me again.

        Love’s a funny thing.”

        • James Marsters loved playing that character, even though he thinks everybody who would like to *meet* the character as absolutely nuts, because the guy’s violent and unprincipled.