As promised, here’s a little tour through my notebook — stuff that I wrote down while listening to panels at the World Fantasy Convention 2008 in Calgary.
David Morrell, one of this year’s Guests of Honor, the creator of Rambo in his novel First Blood (1972), has a book out on writing that I’d love to read: The Successful Novelist (2008).
He says the keys to writing success are talent, discipline, hard work, and luck. (No real surprises there, but I thought it was worth writing down, because it’s true. Or rather, mostly true: it depends on your own interpretation of the “luck” part. As Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.” Again and again in my own writer’s path, things have happened that, to many, would seem like sheer dumb luck. The right thing is written on the silliest whim at the right time, sent to the right editor at precisely the right time, etc. — my own interpretation is that there’s an overarching plan — yes, it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want. I believe that God works things out, opening doors at just the right moments. But certainly the parts about talent, hard work, and discipline are indisputable.)
David Morrell says that, because of who we are and the life experiences we’ve had, we all have a dominant emotion. He compares it to a ferret — a ferret that lives inside us, trying to get out. Our task as writers is to identify the ferret. Figure out what it is you’re supposed to be writing. It may take a lot of trial and error, but keep listening, keep trying to sight the ferret, so that you know what it is.
It’s the daydreams that lead us. Your ferret will likely identify himself most readily when you’re not thinking about him. Be aware of your daydreams — of the things that come up and come out again and again in your writing. In a sense, your body knows what it should be writing.
David Morrell: “Be a first-rate version of the person you are, instead of a second-rate version of someone you’re not.” That one’s good. We should all think hard about that one. I spent a few years stewing over how I could be “like J.K. Rowling.” But I’m not like her, and I shouldn’t be. There are other stories that I’m meant to tell. I’ve got a ferret of my own. [This analogy is particularly funny to me because there is an actual ferret living in my house in the U.S. — an old ferret that sleeps most of the time, kept by my cousin, who’s renting that house from me. I hope my inner ferret is more active than that one! But at least I know what a ferret looks like. . . .]
Morrell again: “Serve the story. It will tell us what’s important.”
Morrell: “It’s the journey that’s important. All we have is the moment. Enjoy every day that you’re doing what you’re doing.” That’s profound, isn’t it? My dad used to say, “Having is never as good as wanting.” I’ve had some heady, wonderful moments as a writer, for sure. But I’ve come far enough on the path to feel the truth of this quote. If I didn’t enjoy the creation of the story — the daily setting of words on paper, of shaping a tale where one didn’t exist before — of striving to make it better through revision — then there would be no point to this. There are far more efficient ways to make money. The wonderful thing about being a writer is that I get to be a writer. And sometimes people like what I write, and that’s icing on the cake! And sometimes people pay me for writing, and that’s icing on the icing. But it’s the journey . . . that’s what it’s all about. “How can I solve this plot problem?” . . . ” Wouldn’t it be cool if. . . .?”
Frank Sinatra reportedly had this sign on his door: “If you’re going to knock on this door, be sure you have a damn good reason.” Yay, Frank! I didn’t realize we had so much in common! I thought it was just the blue eyes.
Morrell recommends these writers, important in the history of horror: Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Ira Levin, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Harvest Home. He says Dracula is one of the best novels ever (Bram Stoker).
A ballet dancer on one of the panels used a ballet model of writing: a story is like the High 5th Position in ballet (arms arched high over your head, fingers of your two hands pointing toward each other): the story starts at your left elbow. Your head is at the center, between your arms. The story goes up one arm and comes down the other, ending at the other elbow. That is to say, you don’t want to dump too much into the story at the beginning. Let it start small and build — let it climb — the main stuff happens in the middle (your head) — and also there shouldn’t be too much overwhelming stuff at the end. Let the story diminish to its graceful conclusion at your other elbow. The dancer didn’t say this, but remember the “lady” on the Monty Python episode who had the theory about the brontosaurus? “The brontosaurus is thin on one end, gets very thick in the middle, and is thin again on the other end.” Take your pick: ballet or brontosauri.
From (I think) a young-adult fiction panel: If something is done extremely well, it doesn’t have to be startlingly new. As Fujiwara no Teika said long, long ago: “Don’t strain for novelty.” Stories that have been done a thousand times have been done a thousand times for a reason: the pattern works. But characters and the details you bring to the story are infinite and unique. You alone see the world through your own filter. The book you write will be different from the book anyone else writes, even if the plot, examined on a lab table, isn’t anything Earth-shakingly original.
People reread and reread Tolkien. Write books that people will reread. I’m never happier than when a fan tells me s/he rereads Dragonfly every October. And one of my favorite fan letters for “The Star Shard” in Cricket was one saying this was a story the reader would curl up with on a rainy day no matter how many times she’d read it before.
Today, there’s a huge focus on plot at the expense of the characters and the richness & atmosphere that makes people reread a book. We’ve all seen this, right? Many movies nowadays are made with about three or four different surprise plot twists at the end — I suspect many books are the same — writers are clawing desperately to find “surprising” plots. But if plot is all you’ve got going on, people will read the book once. If you build a rich world, people will come back again and again, because they’ll want to live there.
You have to nail the pacing. Keep it moving, especially young-adult fiction. Keep things happening.
Terry Pratchett says writing/plotting a novel is like looking down into a valley full of mist. You can see a treetop here and there, and maybe you can see the exit to the valley, but you can’t see all the stuff in between, down below the shroud of the mist. You have to discover that as you go along. I have certainly experienced that! Things become clear at the time they’re supposed to. Writing is a journey of discovery.
My agent says January is a good time to submit manuscripts. So is “back-to-school” time in September. The worst times are December and August, when people are out of their offices.
“The French language is of critical and sometimes disproportionate importance to the French.” — Barbara Hambly
Dave Grossman has two books titled On Combat and On Killing. David Morrell and David Drake made the point that one mistake frequently made in thriller fiction is that an ordinary person, when faced with a life-threatening situation, is suddenly able to kill like a soldier. In fact, humans have a kind of shield in their minds that prevents them from killing. Our instinct and tendency is to preserve life. It’s wired into us for the preservation of our species. Long ago, the Army used to train soldiers in marksmanship. But they found that even soldiers who could consistently peg the bullseye of a target wouldn’t fire their weapons in combat. [I’ve heard findings about how owning a gun for self-defense doesn’t usually work out. What happens most often is that a criminal, breaking into a person’s house, uses the defensive homeowner’s gun against him/her.] Now the Army trains soldiers to kill — to kill instinctively. It uses video games — you see an enemy, and you react. People who haven’t been trained in that way have an awfully hard time shooting or stabbing another human being. Our instinct is to preserve life. Our brains sabotage our deadly force. The chilling flip-side of that coin is: What about the generation of kids who are being trained by video games to see enemies and react?
Sharyn November makes the point that writers have an internal age they gravitate towards. “It’s interesting to see what people’s internal age is.”
Garth Nix says it’s all about an emotional connection. That’s why some books are successful. Readers make an easy emotional connection with the characters. That is quite profound — don’t gloss over this idea. How can we create that connection in our writing? That’s worth thinking long and hard about.
Peter Pan is a beautiful book, says David Morrell. So is The Prestige.
Emotional honesty. Dickens’s Bleak House. “The man could write,” says Morrell.
He also says, “God rewards the brave.”
Hollywood: “Against a backdrop of war, they fell in love.” Fantasy fiction: “They fell in love, but in the meantime, they had the dark lord to defeat.” Characters in fantasy are revealed through how they deal with some external thing.
A character who’s a stranger to the fantastic context allows you to describe it. An indigenous character doesn’t give the fantastic context a second thought. Boy, do I wish I’d thought of that before all those drafts of The Fires of the Deep!
Argument is manipulation.
Lovecraft’s stories are all: “A certain family are probably descended from monsters.” Heh, heh, heh! But look back up there to a point made earlier: Lovecraft could do that plot again and again, because his ominous atmospheres are so much fun to experience: all those sagging gambrel roofs and narrow alleyways, those tombstones thrusting up through the soil like the bleached claws of some enormous buried hand, those weird swamps with preternatural glows, that non-Euclidian geometry. . . .
I want to track down a poem about two corbies (ravens) talking about going to feast upon a dead knight in a field: “Where shall we go and dine today?” It sounds wonderful.
Someone asked Stephen King, “Why do you write horror?” He replied, “What makes you think I have a choice?”
“Horror is a genre of tone.” — Barbara Hambly
I was SO RELIEVED to hear Barbara Hambly say that when she’s writing, she doesn’t have the time or the emotional energy to read fiction. Thank you, Barbara! People act like reading fiction is easy. I love it, but for me, it takes focus and energy. I’ve always felt like a cretin for not reading more. Hambly says what she’s working with is the memory of those genres before she started writing professionally. There may be hope for me yet! That’s so refreshing and inspiring to hear, after hearing so many writers who say, “Oh, yes (yawn): I read ten novels a day. I just can’t help it.”
Let a book be what it wants to be. Don’t try to force a particular genre on it. Write it, and then worry about where it fits in.
Vampire fiction: now that the religious aspects are essentially gone, vampire novels are romances. That’s pretty much all that’s left.
And cycling back to David Morrell: “The destination is not nearly as important as the voyage.” It’s worth saying twice!