Skip to content

Posts by Margaret Ball

The secret mind

I think of myself as a squeamish person. I don’t read horror novels or thrillers that delve lovingly into deranged minds. Heck, I can’t even read the icky bits in Diana Gabaldon’s books.

So I was rather disturbed, the other day, to discover that some part of my mind has been lovingly detailing scenarios that I don’t ever want to read, much less write.  I’m not going to write the details, because I found them really upsetting and I want to bleach my brain now, but here’s what happened: We were watching a cop show and came to the obligatory scene where somebody is tied to a chair and somebody else is trying to get information out of him by hitting him in the face, and I turned to the First Reader and said, “You know, I can think of a lot more effective ways to torture somebody for information. Why don’t they…. Or they could try…. Or they wouldn’t even need a blowtorch, a little butane torch would….

At this point the First Reader, he who can read accounts of historical atrocities with no trouble, began turning green, and I shut up.

And spent the rest of the evening wondering just what part of my mind had been collecting ideas for truly stomach-turning tortures, and how I could divert it to another track.  Because I don’t like torture. I don’t like to read about it, I don’t write it, and I really, really hate that a part of the fiction writer’s mind inside me has been collecting this stuff.

But… it’s there. Even if I’m not going to inflict it on you, I know now that it’s there.

What surprising pathways does your writer’s mind wander down without conscious direction?

Paragraph as punctuation

For fiction writers, paragraphs are a form of punctuation. They break up large blocks of text, they signal a slight change of emphasis or subject, and sometimes they’re like the pause before a comic delivers the punch line. Let’s take an example – it’s not intended to be an example of good writing, it’s just something I threw together for demonstration purposes.

Blocks of text:

 The castle, beautiful and vulnerable, rose from a hill covered with juniper trees. Built of white stone that glowed almost golden, it was an impressive sight in the light of the setting sun. Elion deduced from the location and the light golden hue that it had been built of locally quarried limestone, not the best choice for defensive walls. Within those walls, he could see a profusion of towers, balconies, peaked roofs and aerial bridges from one tower to another. If one could erect a catapult on the sloping ground outside the walls, it would make short work of those bridges. High arched windows in the towers doubtless let in the natural daylight, but they could also let in besiegers who climbed the towers making full use of the decorative carvings covering the outside. As for the aerial bridges, a catapult would make short work of them. Still, the castle was beautiful in an overwrought Gothic way. It would be attractive to a traveler who was not concerned with defense. His companion, Zaleria, spurred her horse forward across the narrow bridge from the previous hill. She was eager to reach the imposing gateway that was currently closed by massive doors ornamented with evil-looking spikes. As if they were expecting an elephant to ram the doors, Elion thought.

And I think the reader will skim all this and not really take in most of it – which would be a pity, because you wouldn’t have written all this detail unless you meant to use it later, right?

Read more

The Price of Freedom

It’s happened before, of course. Three-quarters of the way into a book, it suddenly appears to me as a huge, lifeless pile of words. The ending is not credible. The characters won’t talk to me. I should probably give up even trying to write.

The difference is, in earlier times there were constraints that forced me to go on and finish the book anyway. I usually had a contract. A delivery date. An editor who was expecting a book bearing at least a passing resemblance to the synopsis she’d signed off on.

Not to mention a nice chunk of money to be paid on delivery of the completed manuscript, and a mortgage payment that the bank was going to expect to see no matter how I felt about the matter.

Writing indie has meant flying free of all these constraints, and for the most part I’ve loved it. I’ve been writing faster and more happily than I did back when every word had to be filtered through an editor’s belief about what readers would like.

But now?

Two weeks ago I wrote about being derailed and muscling the train back onto the tracks. Then I got sick again, and stopped writing again. And now I’m looking at the manuscript that’s been just lying there limply for nearly five weeks, and I’m seeing a huge lifeless pile of words. I look at my synopsis – my map of how to get to the end – and all I can see is a heap of rocks lying across the road. And the old motivators aren’t there any more. I haven’t promised this book to anyone, nobody’s going to be peeved with me if I throw it away, there’s no guaranteed financial reward for finishing, and thank goodness the mortgage is paid off.

Freedom. If I really believe this project is hopeless, there’s absolutely nothing to stop me from dumping this book and starting a new project? Except – as soon as I think that, the voices of despair switch from “This is a terrible book” to “You don’t have any good ideas.” So evidently they will not be satisfied with anything less than my total defeat. Well, good. At least I know where I am now. I’m not looking at a dispassionate critique of this partial book; I’m looking at the personal demons that want me to stop doing anything at all.

Time to start moving rocks.

 

On (Not) Writing Daily

They tell you to write every day, and that’s a very good habit to develop. However, since most of us live in this messy place called Real Life, it’s seldom possible to follow that advice literally. The babysitter just quit, the ten-year-old broke his arm, the nursing home has an emergency with your father, the kitchen caught fire, the garage roof fell in… Only someone completely without human connections and supplied with a large staff of perfect servants gets to be that rigid about rules.

I think most of the people who are sufficiently interested in writing to read a blog like this come as close as humanly possible to writing every day, even if Real Life does force them into some complicated detours. Read more

Comfort books

There are times when I don’t really want something new to read, times when I feel so beaten down that all I really want is to pass my eyes over a book I love so much I’ve all but memorized it already. The last couple of weeks have been like that, as what I thought was just a summer cold got nastier and lasted longer and left me too wiped out to write.

Most of the time I’ve even been too tired and shaky to make my way from the bedroom to the “library” at the other end of the house, where fiction and non-reference memoirs and humor live. In between actually reading, I’ve been visualizing those shelves and thinking about what I want to grab next time I venture all that distance. And thinking about what constitutes a “comfort book” for me.   Read more

Dangling the bait and fishing for readers

[Full disclosure: this is mostly an excuse to yak about the fact that the 4th Applied Topology book is live now. But who knows, maybe the topic will be of a little interest beyond that.]

Earlier this year, Pam pointed out that chapter headings may catch a browser’s eye on the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon, or in a downloaded sample, and I’ve taken that advice to heart in my last few indie books. I try to come up with a pithy line for each chapter, hopefully something that’ll make a reader want to know what the chapter’s about. Anything that lures them into the story is good, right?

Read more

Write What Somebody Knows

I ‘ve touched on this before: to supplement my own experience, I make shameless use of relatives, friends, friends of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. By now most of them are used to this and do not get (too) weirded out by questions such as:

“If you were going to (non-fatally) shoot the pilot of a plane to encourage his cooperation, what body part would you choose so as not to interfere with his ability to fly the plane? Or would it be better just to kill the co-pilot?”  Read more