Category Archives: Reesa Rambles About Writing

Want and Need

Here’s what I need to write:

Inside Job the sequel to The Slipstream Con. It’s coming. Eventually.

Jessup’s Run #2 which doesn’t have a title yet. Because it took me 3 years to come up with Afterdust, the title of the first book.

Shadowsmend because it’s going to be GLORIOUS, and it’s eating my brain.

 

Here’s what my brain has been stuck on, nonstop for the past two days:

Born Losers a prequel to In Discretion that I probably couldn’t even sell. I can picture every scene, I can feel the desperation of the characters. I can hear the music playing in the club, and smell the alcohol.

 

My brain doesn’t play fair.


Influence and Archetypes

3. Allow your influences to shape your voice, not drown it.

Creativity is borrowed. None of us formed our thoughts in a vacuum, and all of us were subject to a myriad of different models. Inspiration lives inside us, and our subconscious never forgets. We need not copy our heroes, their hand is always there to guide us.

(From 10 Ways to Avoid Writing Insecurity)

I am perpetually second-guessing my inspiration.  I make playlists for almost everything I write, then wonder if I’ve drawn too heavily on the musical themes.  I pick out people to provide a rough physical representation of a character, then worry that I’m borrowing too many mannerisms.  I’m inspired by archetypes and tropes almost endlessly, for the fun of twisting them to my own skewed vision of the world and setting them loose again.  I worry that my ideas aren’t new, that my pop culture filter isn’t of a fine enough mesh to weed out wholesale theft.

This kind of insecurity feeds a case of Faker Syndrome like fertilizer feeds a garden.  Beautiful things will grow, vegetables will flourish, and every time someone takes a bite, you will wait for them to voice what you secretly fear- that whatever you’ve handed them, as transformed and amazing as it may be, is still full of shit.

Here’s the truth: My ideas are just as new as yours, or anyone else’s.  Which is to say, they aren’t.  If it’s under the sun, it’s been written about, and that’s okay.

Write about your bad boys with a heart of gold, your competent, deadly women, your perpetual jokers.  Bring on the battered heroes, the reluctant revolutionaries, and yes, the girls next door, but for the love of little narwhals, please make them your own.  That’s why your idea is worth writing, after all.  It’s your spin on the same story everyone wants to tell that makes it new, and worth reading.

Being ashamed of your inspiration does nothing to build better writing.  Nobody can tell you’ve got Nickelback on your playlist if what you’ve made is better than what you borrowed.  Honestly, nobody can tell anyway, but you’ll probably convince yourself they can, if you’re looking for a way to hamstring your progress.  Filing the serial numbers off someone else’s work isn’t going to fly.  Finding your angle, creating layer upon layer of the things you love, your borrowed shiny parts of everything you find value in, every story you wish was a little different, that’s going to get you somewhere.  Maybe somewhere you never thought you’d wind up, telling the story your way.


Seeds

I’m a gardener, and this is the time of year where my seed porn starts pouring in through the mailbox.  You wouldn’t think there would be so many choices, given the lack of variety in store produce sections, but if you’re not a gardener, trust me- there are more kinds of carrot than you will likely ever want to ponder.  In my favourite catalogue, there’s a five page spread devoted entirely to different varieties of garlic.  It’s fantastic.

Things went downhill at the end of my season last year, and I couldn’t manage to save any seeds from my own garden.  If you’re a Damn Hippie (as I aspire to be), doing things like saving seeds from plants that have grown in your own garden, adapted to the soil and conditions there, is a great idea.  It saves you money the next year, and it’s great for the hardiness of your plants.  While it’s not quite the same thing, my best friend’s mom was kind enough to gift me with seeds from her garden, and I can’t wait to plant them.  You can’t get blood from a turnip, but let me tell you, you can get a damn fine soup from one.

When you save seeds from your garden, you’re reaping a secondary harvest, but you’re also ensuring that the garden lives on past that season.  You’re making the garden itself stronger, by adding a layer of familiarity and understanding for the ecosystem that exists within your beds.  Now that my tortured little metaphor has gotten to the point, we can talk about worldbuilding, and the seeds we plant in our own writing as we go.

Our next book, Peripheral People, mentions a certain profession somewhat unique to the Ylendrian universe.  It’s a toss-off line, something that adds flavour, but doesn’t get explored in any depth.  But during the edits, I caught on that scene, and found myself wondering how and why such a profession would exist, how they garnered the rarified social status they seemed to enjoy, and what would happen if it got one of them in trouble.  Presto- there was a story sprouting, from a seed nestled in the text of another book.

Did I mention the concept of volunteers?  In the garden, when a productive plant springs up somewhere you didn’t expect (say, a tomato in the eggplants, or, more likely, in the compost heap), it’s called a volunteer.  There to offer something of its own accord.  A lot of my writing volunteers itself, when I think I’m planting the seeds for something else entirely.  You might move a volunteer to a more convenient location, or you might let it do its thing where it feels like doing its thing.  The danger there, of course, is letting your volunteer overshadow what you actually planned to grow there.

Almost anyone who tells you that their garden is perfect – exactly to plan, hardy, no room for improvement- doesn’t understand that the garden they have this year contains the seeds of next year, and the chance for something even better.  If you don’t collect those seeds, prepare yourself for some volunteers.

Or, you know, find yourself writing about star-crossed lovers, space zombies, political intrigue, and a failing space station.  What the hell did I plant out there, anyway?

 


R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D: Find out what it means to me.

Please ignore the HORRIBLE scan on that title.

So, without sugar-coating it, the first “final” draft of our recent book was returned with a partial rejection.  The editor, one we’ve worked with twice before, was kind enough to include the reasons that it didn’t work for them.  That’s not something you can count on with a rejection, though I imagine that given our history, we stood a better shot of getting feedback than someone coming directly from the slush pile.

If you follow us on Twitter, you might have noticed that we did an all-out push to finish the book.  It basically consumed our lives for about three solid weeks, and when we were done, we felt like we’d won the lottery.  We made a book, and it was good!  We pushed our own boundaries, and loved it to death, and shoved it out the door as soon as we finished the third round of self-edits, because we were simultaneously proud as hell, and sick unto death of looking at it. We were happy little writers, and we both still love the book to bits.

But we weren’t readers.  And you know who tends to like books?  Readers.

I won’t bore you with the psychology of my writing process (at least, not today), but even with a partner, writing is a lonely sort of business.  Telling stories is amazing, but I think most people who tell them want someone else to hear them.  Part of writing, for me, is sinking myself into the movie and translating it.  (Oh, look, I lied about not veering into this topic.  You can read my previous post about it here.)  That means it’s all there for me- sight, sound, even smell a lot of times, and I know without a doubt who the character is on a level that might never make it to the page.  A lot of times, it doesn’t need to.  But when I’m being a writer, I am emphatically not being a reader.  As an engaged reader, I want to know what’s going to happen next, what happened before, and I want to poke into all the little cracks and find everything I possibly can in the story.  If I didn’t do my job as a writer, didn’t convey the right parts of the experience, or let them get lost as I took the long way around to the bones of the story, why should I expect a reader to settle in long enough for the story to enfold them?

And that’s where an editor catches you.  Obviously, we’ve sold to this editor before, and we like working with them. So when they came to us with these problems, and said it really hurt the book, why wouldn’t we listen?  I mean- it’s an editor’s job to know what’s going to work, and what’s going to sell, and what’s going to showcase our story in the best light.  Why would I get pissed at that? If I respect them enough to let them tinker with my book, why wouldn’t I respect their opinion on whether or not the book is working?

We’ve disagreed on a few things, and this editor has been respectful of our wishes.  At the end of the day, we wrote the book, not them.  Obviously, if an editor wades into a story with a hacksaw and hands you back the dismembered (or disgendered) head of your main character, you’ve got every right in the world to question that editorial advice, or even to take your work elsewhere, especially if it’s not an editor you trust.

As a writer, I see the work that went into my stories, the craft and hours and joy of writing them.  During the submission process, viewing my work as a writer can be a huge hindrance to the book, because at that point, I need to be looking at it almost as two people- writer and reader.  Being so caught up in the creating that you can’t judge the creation isn’t unique to writing, but if you’re submitting your writing somewhere, you’ve got a checkpoint that many other artists don’t: a good editor.

Down to brass tacks: an editor is a reader with a built-in vested interest.  They want your story to be the best it can be.  They want it to be engaging and solidly written.  An editor wants your book to succeed.  I’m not disregarding that they edit for a love of good stories, but good stories get talked about, and getting talked about gets sales.  Authors want to sell books.  Editors want to sell books.  And readers want to buy books that have been lovingly created, beautifully written- and read over by someone who knows what makes a good story better.

Rejection sucks, tiddlywinks.  It’s no lie that I’m really, really sad that our book didn’t make this editor jump up in their office and scream, “Everyone, stop writing- THIS is the best book I’ve ever read!  There can be no other!”  (What?  Like you don’t pretend you’ve written one of the Manuscripts of Power?  You’ll never cast my page proofs into the fires of Mordor!  ANYway…)

You know what would have sucked worse?  Publishing what I still believe is an incredible story, and losing most of our readers in the first three chapters, because we were too busy being pissed off that someone didn’t recognize our brilliance. Rejection, in this case, was a gift, and we intend to return the kindness by writing a better book and taking the editor’s advice into account.

Time to make it better.


It’s Not a Revolution Without a Manifesto

Dear Everyone:

Stop hating people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or, in fact, anyone with a permutation of sexuality that is practiced with other consenting adults.

Stop hating people who are transgender, or any other interpretation of gender that cannot be neatly divided into two very, very narrow categories.

Stop hating people who believe in a different god than you, or different gods than you, or who believe in no god at all.

Stop hating people who are women, whether they use birth control or have ten kids, whether they are fat or thin, whether they say yes or no.

Stop hating people because their skin doesn’t look like yours, or they speak a different language, or a different kind of the same language.

Stop hating people who don’t live up to your personal moral code.  Morals are the rules you set for yourself, not something you can force others to live by.

Stop hating people, because beyond any of those arbitrary words we’ve created to splinter humanity, to make sure that others know that they aren’t like us, for better or worse, we’re all still people.

Stop hating people.

Please.  Please stop hating people.

Just stop.

Sincerely,

Reesa Herberth

(Note: Today’s post is less about the mechanics of writing, and more about the acknowledgement that what you imbue in your writing matters.  Treat people, even your imaginary ones, with the respect due another sentient being.)

 


Dear Superior Person, and the Unexpected Apocalypse

I’d never read this person’s blog before yesterday.  (Cleaning out my google reader and filling it with relevant blogs is gonna happen Real Soon Now.) I don’t know how they respond to other questions, to other issues, but this post, this moment of time and words, is pretty much perfect to me.

The Rejectionist – Dear Superior Person

“I want us to be so loud and so angry and so visible and so terrifying that we cannot be mistaken for anything other than the future, a future that looks like us. In all our kinds of bodies, in all our kinds of love. Waiting for the time when none of us are angry anymore because the only thing left is the world we want to live in. When the hardest thing any of us will know is teaching ourselves how to live without anger altogether.”

Naturally, I’m stealing the best lines, but the entire post is well worth your time.  They’re talking about current events, about Jonathan Franzen, and  how ridiculous it is to tell someone else what they “should” be angry about.  I, being of a less profound bent, am using it as a jumping off point to talk about writing an unexpected apocalypse.

Part of the reason I’ve always staunchly believed I don’t enjoy the post-apocalyptic genre is that there is no happy ending.  Nothing good will happen that eclipses the very big bad that has already been.  When I started writing my current book, nobody was more surprised than me to find it set after a war and a plague, in the middle of a wasteland that used to be the United States.

The change for me was that I finally understood that the story I wanted to see wasn’t about fixing the world that had been, but making the new one better.  It was about creating a future when the past failed, and yes, anger.  Taking the kind of anger that could sustain someone through the death of family and friends, through the repeated assaults of the world around them, and turning that into fuel to keep going in the face of near-overwhelming odds.

There’s a certain conditioning, at least the way I was raised, to believe that anger is always bad.  A flare of temper is okay, but sustained anger weakens you.  I actually agree with that to a point;  I think sustained, long-term anger with no outlet tends to seek one, and will almost inevitably turn back on you if you can’t find one.  But I don’t think that’s the kind of anger the Rejectionist is talking about, and it’s not the kind of anger that DOES something.  That kind of anger makes you feel like there is no point in fighting, because you can’t win.  It’s impotent and ultimately defeating.

I think the anger in many post-apocalyptic and dystopian works, and one of the underlying reasons that we’re seeing more of them lately, is the kind of focused, productive anger that reminds us that the same people who want you to believe you’re powerless are the ones who are taking your power from you.  Particularly in dystopian fiction, that overwhelming, almost omniscient governor (be it fear, consequence, or actual government) is nearly as important a character as the protagonist.  What makes the protagonist fight?  What brings her to the point where “enough” is both not, and more than?  Anger.  Anger, and love, and many times, the realization that his anger is the only thing that will make the world into one where love can hope to exist.

Once I understood that what I wanted out of post-apocalyptic fiction wasn’t about unmaking the problems of the past, but taking what was left and using the fire of anger to forge something new, something better, the apocalypse wasn’t so unexpected anymore.  And maybe it wasn’t before, either. I think I looked at it, and mistook the power of a future created from anger for a future where only anger could survive.  There’s a balance between the two, and a reminder in there that anger is worth more to my characters if it’s fuel for a bomb that remakes the world into one where their struggle becomes the need to adapt to a life where it isn’t vital for survival.


Please Finish Your Sentence: Writing the Emotionally Constipated Character

Authors, I know what you’re doing.  You’re experimenting with styles.  You know your characters, and they aren’t the guys who have eloquent conversations about their feelings.  Hell, you’re lucky if you can get them to acknowledge that they have feelings, beyond pain, hunger, and a vague yearning for existential poetry and a glass of something cold.  And maybe only part of the last one.

I get that.  There’s something really disconcerting about a woman who can’t manage to talk to someone without tripping over her own words suddenly turning into the smooth-talking star of her own life.  It feels forced, and as a reader, I call shenanigans 9 times out of 10 when it happens.  I’m not saying that even the most reserved or awkward person can’t find a moment of eloquence now and then, but when it happens, it has to be their words, not yours.

I see a lot of people leave characters like this hanging.  They have entire conversations around their chosen topic.  Sentences never get finished, thoughts are implied, but never shared, even outside the dialogue.  While fine to a point, it’s a safe bet that if someone is doing their level best to avoid talking about something, they know what that something is.  Whoever they’re talking to either knows what they mean, or didn’t need or want to in the first place.  A little bit of deflection and misunderstanding builds the tension, but when every emotional scene reads like this, you lose people.

So if you can’t force it out of them, and they won’t actually say it themselves, where does that leave you?

In a pretty good position, actually.  Because the character might not know how to put what they want or feel into words, but you, as the writer, should know what your character is thinking, and be able to convey it even if they can’t.

If most of your conversations reads like this:

“I know.  It’s just… Well.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

then you should know that a) you’re making my dentist very happy, because my jaw is clenched again, and b) both of them may know, but your reader doesn’t.  No matter what you think you’re implying with vague, circular dialogue, unless you give some level of context, mostly what you’re doing is frustrating your reader.

If you tried something more like this:

“I know.  It’s just… Well.”  Tisha’s fingers clenched in her pocket.  Karen had seen the note, she was certain.

“Yeah.  I know.”  Karen sounded resigned, her gaze darting to Tisha’s face for a second before she looked away again.

your reader has some context for the emotional flailing.  Obviously, within a story, your audience is going to have more than two lines of dialogue to orient themselves, but those emotional markers make it easier to relate Tisha’s halting speech to something real.  You’re not giving away your emotional payoff too soon, but you are making sure that someone (other than Tisha and Karen) has a clear idea of what Tisha isn’t talking about, and the tension between Tisha and Karen is actually ratcheted up a little, because your reader can understand Tisha’s reluctance.

I enjoy emotionally constipated characters.  I write them all the time, and I love the knots they can twist themselves into, just to avoid accidentally having a feeling.  Your character can be as emotionally withdrawn as you want, but your story can’t be.  Even if they can’t finish a sentence, you, as the writer, have to.