Author Archives: Kate Paulk

Disconnected Ramblings of the Crazed Writer

I’m not sure if Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) loves me or hates me. I’m having a solid case of Murphy’s law for writers and most other beings right now.

  • I notice the typos and other issues only after I publish
  • I mention a topic and immediately things happen to make it impossible for me to follow up on said topic (yes, last week I posted about critical thinking and writers and this week I cannot brain. I think the damn thing is on vacation. It won’t send a postcard either. It never does. Selfish bitch, having cocktail thingies on some tropical beach without me).
  • None of the usual targets is active or even noticeable today
  • And I currently have no ability to remember.
  • Not to mention I’m damn near sleep-typing again.

Welcome to the life of the writer, those of you who aren’t actually writers yourselves. The rest of you are probably making little mental checkmarks and going “yep”, “yep”, “that one too”, and possibly “Holy crap, do we share a brain or what”.

There is a reason the teeny-tiny group chat of a few of us writer-types got called the group mind before long. The running joke became trying to figure out which of the members currently had custody of the shared brain. Although in my case, the answer was always “not me” because what passes for mine appears to have gone on semi-permanent hiatus.

Ah, well.

I shall have to content myself with warm fuzzy wish-fulfillment thoughts, like, oh, getting together with a group of friends to TP a certain trad publisher’s HQ. Just because it would be fun and make a statement about the quality of their offerings. Or maybe winning the lottery somewhere along the line and doing the whole “take this job and shove it” routine (I wouldn’t. Despite the evil that lurks within what passes for my soul, I’m actually cripplingly, horrifyingly… nice).

Or ordering these  for the bathroom (er… while there’s nothing really bad, it’s likely to hit all the work-safe filters, so follow with caution or even better, wait until you get home). They even have three colors – one of which is smurf, which says that somewhere out there there’s a smurf who modeled for these and is really an overachiever.

Okay. Maybe I should stop the mad ramblings for now and try to be more sensible next week.

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The Plight of the Thinking Writer

So, in my testing life, I ran across a forum piece the other day asking whether people could be taught critical thinking. Opinions are divided: some say it can be taught, others say not so much.

Me, I figure you can teach the skills, but you can’t make someone use them. And one thing that I’ve seen over and over again is that most people will do anything including lose it completely and scream at you in preference to thinking.

That means that those of us who think about what the hell we’re doing and try to reason out the worldviews and cultures we’re creating are actually doing it wrong, in a sense. We’re adding stuff that makes us happy (waves in Sarah’s direction – thanks for sending me off on this tangent) even though realistically most of our readers won’t care and won’t want to.

Now I’m the kind of person who will go and look up some odd tidbit I found in a novel somewhere – and if I find that the author got it right I’ll be even more impressed. But I’m an eensy minority, and I’d guarantee most people don’t do that kind of thing. I’d bet most people don’t even notice the things that send the likes of me or Sarah or Amanda or Dave on a tearing rant if we don’t just wall the book and look for something else.

I’ve seen enough of Sarah’s rants about highly ranked historical romance that is really costumed fantasy romance using historical place names and some historical people names. Hell, I’ve seen enough alleged science fiction where the science in question appears to be highly advanced bullshittium and the laws of physics bear no resemblance to the poor abused laws we know. And that’s not going near the festering swamp of undead porn, dino porn, space raptor porn, (whatever else Chuck Tingle does or did, that piece was actually decent science fiction with a lengthy sequence of one-handed typing) and all the other forms of porn masquerading as erotica or even romance.

Not that I have anything against any of this. I reserve the right to mock all of it without mercy should I ever be gulled into reading it, but I’m not against people writing it or publishing it. To some extent I wish I could. It sells a crapload better than my weird stuff does, and I have issues trying to write anything that I can’t trace through mentally and figure out the rules. Alas.

Which means that if I ever wind up appealing to the masses who don’t want to think for themselves about anything it’s likely to be a fluke.

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Confession Time

I have committed Literature. And sins against good writing, too. These are not the same thing, although there are places where they overlap.

If I am to enter the sacred halls of the Ultimate Author, I must confess my sins against good writing, repent, and sin no more. Hence I must warn those of a delicate disposition that they may find further reading to be deeply distressing, for surely no sin is greater and no soul blacker than those against the Author’s very nature as revealed in His ongoing saga.

Yea, I have committed infodump. And I deeply, sincerely repent of my infodumps and do penance daily by attempting to Heinlein my backstory seamlessly into the narrative. Forgive me Reader, for I have sinned.

I have Told Not Shown.

I have committed Mary Sue. And Marty Stu.

I have committed Talking Heads in Blank Rooms.

I have committed plot that goeth in ever-decreasing circles ere flying up its own fundamental orifice.

And literary onanism.

And Literature.

I was young, I admit, and I knew little, but still I sinned.

My offenses against good writing were never made public, so I did not commit public literary onanism, but that is truly a matter of sheer chance, and I still did these things.

Forgive me, Readers for I have sinned against you.

(interruption due to forcible kitteh-snuggle-fest where the four-legged fiends attacked and snuggled until I stopped being weird)

Um. Sorry. I think I broke my brain somewhere today.

So…

I beg the company of great writers, the blessed Heinlein, and Pratchett himself to forgive my sins and grant me inclusion in the pantheon, amen

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Emotional Matters

Most memorable fiction has a heavy emotional punch. The emotions can vary, although the best fiction is something of an emotional roller coaster and mixes some variety of “ohshitohshitohshit” with lighter emotions. The challenge is to have readers feeling those emotions along with your characters – that’s a skill that can take a while to build.

Building the ability to force empathy on your readers is why a lot of beginners lean to tragedy. It’s easier because grief is such a huge, terrible thing, and if you kill off the loved ones early it has the side benefit of leaving the protagonist damaged, unsupported, and without inconvenient connections (how often do you see authors do what Sarah did with Darkship Revenge and have their main character dealing with a newborn baby for the whole book? That’s not easy, not for the character and not for the author).

So how do you pull your readers into caring about your characters and feeling the emotions you want them to feel?

There are – as always – a variety of techniques that work. As the other here have mentioned many times, it works better to show the effects of the emotions than to just have the character crying, or smiling, or whatever. My preference is to describe the typical involuntary reactions to strong emotion, mixed with a train of thought indicating whether they’re welcoming said emotion or trying to fight it. Since I generally write in deep third or first person, this works for me. If I need readers to pick up on an emotional response for a character who isn’t the current point of view, I’ll show that character having the involuntary reactions – and depending on the needs of the story the point of view character will respond appropriately or not.

One thing I have found is that simple is usually better. In extreme situations, the ability to think complex thoughts tends to go the way of the dodo and be replaced with direct everything. I’ve learned to let my writing style reflect this by saving the love of wordplay and cute phrasing for the more relaxed times in the piece so the emotional punch of a story can be carried in simple, straightforward prose. Without the nested parentheses I inflict on y’all here.

Some of the best examples I can suggest are the climactic sequence of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Thud! – which had me somewhere between on the edge of my seat, laughing, and in tears, often within the same paragraph – Sarah’s Darkship Revenge, damn near anything of Dave’s (I’m particularly fond of Steam Mole for that), a goodly… oh, the heck with it. Pretty much all my fellow Mad Geniuses (Mad Genii?) do a damn good job of pulling readers into a story and dragging us through a powerful emotional ride. Pick your favorite, and reread it with an eye to how the emotional reactions are evoked. You’ll probably need several attempts before you can do that without getting sucked in because they’re just that good.

Then try to do similar things with your work. And practice. Lots. And give yourself permission to suck at it, because like anything it takes practice to get better.

 

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Did You Want Some Fiction With Your Message?

As several folks here have observed a few times, sermons thinly disguised as fiction suck. And not in the fun way, either.

Personally, I’ve never enjoyed a message tract with a thin veneer of fiction, regardless of whether or not I agreed with the message. These can work reasonably well in short form, if written well enough (very few authors meet that bar), but in novel-length works, not so much.

The end result emerges rather like the pizza the Husband and I once ordered from the local pizza joint, where we made the mistake of requesting extra garlic. What we got would have given any self-respecting vampire fits: we couldn’t taste anything except garlic. We took a bite, looked at each other. The rest of the pizza went in the trash. The words “I wanted a pizza with extra garlic, not garlic garnished with pizza” were used. Then we found something else to eat, and we never went near that place again. Even though at the time it was quite literally half a block away.

This is what message fiction usually does to the reader who isn’t reading it for the message (someone who’s reading for the message is likely to get irritated by the unnecessary plot and characterization the author has added, so it’s a no-win either way). It turns them off. Sometimes it turns them off reading altogether, especially when they’re force-fed a diet of the most dreary, dismal, and shitty message fiction imaginable (hello, school reading lists).

I’m sure the proponents of having fiction with the message would think this is not a bad thing, but I beg to differ. You see, readers of fiction tend to draw their own messages from that fiction. It was fiction that taught me it was possible to endure and emerge more or less intact despite years of vicious bullying. Fiction gave me hope, and it showed me there were ways to be who I was even if things were shitty at the time.

It wasn’t message fiction. It was a mix of things: any historical fiction I could get hold of in the school and town library (and that they’d let me borrow, since librarians tend to be kind of reluctant to let the 8 year old kid borrow from the grown-ups section), Doctor Who novelizations (which lead into my love of science fiction and fantasy), and pretty much anything else that took my fancy. I read so much that I didn’t have a library card, I had a set of them stapled together and I used the initials of the book title to write in what I was borrowing because I was getting them in job lots.

Along the way I picked up an extra serve of Heinleinian cussed independence, some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s self-sufficiency, an abiding loathing of bullying in any form, and many, many reminders that I could do good and sometimes heroic stuff too, even if I was scared.

If I’d been stuck with message fiction, I wouldn’t have gained any of that, not least because the characters in every message piece I’ve read are functionally ciphers standing in or sometimes embodying the virtues the author wants to showcase or the evils the author wants to decry. I preferred the heroes who were scared and did it anyway because they had to. Edmund Pevensie, confused and frightened, and realizing what he’d betrayed but still going after the White Witch and nearly dying in the process. Jill in a later Narnia book crying and trying to keep her bowstring from getting wet because she couldn’t afford to do that. Laura Ingalls and her battles with jealousy of her too-perfect older sister who she also loved dearly (Yes, I’m aware the Little House books are fictionalized autobiography. I didn’t know that when I read them as a child). Anne Shirley and her often disastrous romantic fantasies.

The messages came through without the sermon. Simple messages: it’s better to be honest than not. It’s better to be kind than cruel, but sometimes you have to be harsh and sometimes the wrong group wins. Life is harsh and life doesn’t care. Be true to yourself. Those messages.

Perhaps more to the point, I learned them for myself, without some Great Expert telling me how it was supposed to be. It’s because I learned them for myself that they stuck and they meant something to me. Being lectured is just like being stuck in a classroom waiting for the bell to go so you can be free again.

Since most people want to do things their way at some level, letting message emerge seamlessly from the interaction of your characters and plot for your readers to discover has much more impact. It also doesn’t make reader-puppies sad and desperate to escape you.

I know which way I choose.

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But where do you get your ideas?

Every writer gets this one: people wanting to know where those ideas come from. It’s led to snarky rejoinders about the idea of the month club (said to be operating from assorted odd locations around the world but never actually sighted in the wild), weary responses along the lines of “How do you keep them out?” and a whole lot of confusion.

For me, it’s not a direct line. I’ll have a thought related to something else, then I’ll read something else which will set off a different chain of thoughts which hook up to the first one, and so on over a period of months or years. Eventually something that works for a book emerges.

Of course this is the kind of subconscious-heavy process that makes people nervous. We don’t know what’s going on in there so how can we rely on it to deliver when we need it?

Which is why I trawl weird news sites and check out conspiracy theories every now and then.

You do need to be careful with these. They can suck you in and chew through what passes for sanity in record time. But for story fodder? Priceless.

Seriously.

How many conspiracy theories are there about alien abductions being hushed up? I grew up hearing them. They collided with a stray thought along the lines of “Wouldn’t it be awesome if an alien abduction accidentally got a bunch of trained knights instead of an average joe and the knights went on to form an interplanetary empire?” There may have been some interesting fan fiction mixed up in there as well. And maybe a little Humanity Fuck Yeah.

The con vampire books had a similarly mixed start. I’ve read vampire fiction for years and I know all the tropes, even the (ugh) sparkly ones. The stray thought that the SF con scene was perfect for vampires because there’s one damn near every weekend most of the year and as long as they can manage not to go killing dinner, nobody’s going to bad an eyelid at pale, avoids sunlight, and has bad teeth. That kind of mixed up with my sense of humor and led to Jim Hickey and his werewolf best buddy. Everything else in those books is a combination of “it seemed like fun”, “it wanted to be there”, “Make me a reformed succubus” and the like.

Hell, even Impaler started life with the combination of being fascinated by Vlad’s life and wondering what the world would be like if he hadn’t been murdered just as he’d reclaimed his throne. I made a few attempts at writing his story over the years, none of them going more than a few handwritten pages, then I tried writing him first person just to see if that would work better.

That’s what I mean by the subconscious process. Any kind of odd tidbit can set off a chain of thought that leads you to a working story. I usually have several bubbling around, although lately they haven’t been able to push past the damn narcolepsy that well (she says as she sleep-types – I’m still recovering from the medication interruption, alas). They’re still there, just not screaming at me to bloody write them. Although I could do without the infinitely spawning Harry Potter alternate universes. Those are just irritating.

So go and read all the weird shit, try to stay out of the black holes of conspiracy mania, and ask the magic question “What would happen if it were true?”, then you too shall never be without ideas again. Just don’t come crying to me when your mind won’t shut up and it’s too weird and scarring for words. I’ve been there. I have no sympathy.

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You Want To Stress Your Character?

It’s really easy. Trust me on this. I’ve had the kind of week which really illustrates how easy it is to stress someone to the level where they’re not thinking any more, just reacting and trying to hold together until things settle. You don’t even need to do anything drastic.

In my case, a combination of factors meant that I ran out of the medication I need to stay awake (Narcolepsy, for what it’s worth, sucks). That turned the last week into an exercise of watching the mail in a near-obsessive fashion when I wasn’t just trying to stay awake. The world could have ended and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Now, what does your character need? What would drop your character into survival mode where the only thing that they can focus on is making it past the next crisis? Once you’ve figured out what it is, do it.

You can play it for laughs, like Pratchett did with the caffeine-obsessed vampire in Monstrous Regiment. Or you can be serious. Either way, you’ve got a character who’s not at their best, and who’s desperate for that one thing they know is going to fix it.

That character is going to do everything in their power to try to get what they need, which is where the author comes in – stressing the character even more by making sure the timing isn’t quite right or things just don’t work and they don’t get what they need. Or – preferably – the character’s impaired state causes them to do things wrong which winds up taking them further from their goal instead of winning them what they’re after.

Eventually, of course, your character either gets what they’re chasing (sweet, sweet caffeine) or they discover they can live without it (oh, look! Character growth).

Or in my case, the medication finally arrives in the mail.

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