Good writing doesn’t exist before the 1950s?

I’m reading this writing craft-book.  Pretty good book.  It ventures into some non-traditional territory and I’m learning things from it.

Only one problem…

The writer only uses literary book examples that were published before the 1950s, plus his writing, of course.

As if nothing good was published after 1950 (except his writing).

When I was using critique as a form of learning, I would read a modern book and think, “This is terrible.”  In fact, I’d started to come to the conclusion that book writing had gone downhill since I started reading.

One day, someone left some free books on the break tables at work.  They were from the time when I thought books were a lot better.   Not only that, it was a writer I remembered reading, so I grabbed the books.

Was surprisingly disappointed.  The books weren’t that good, compared to today.  We’d evolved, and in some really good ways.

I realized that I was reading so critically that I was destroying the pleasure of my reading experience.  Last week, I was enjoying Lee Child’s new book, Make Me.  Wish the writer had included best sellers from today.  Lee Child’s pretty good at the skills the book was teaching.

Research when something doesn’t exist

This was an interesting question that came over one of the writing lists I’m on. I write fantasy and science, so some of the elements don’t actually exist, or isn’t possible for me to see it. How to do research then?

What I do is take other similar things and make the connection from that.

For a fantasy that was set in an abandoned town, I used the ghost town of Bodie as a basis. I’d never been there, but I had grown up in California, so I was already familiar with the landscape. I looked at photos of Bodie, which are eerie and scary.

Then, for the place the character lived, I went to Fort Ward. That’s a local historical site. It’s an intact Civil War fort. There’s also a mock up of an officer’s hut. I saw things like how the officers strung rope across corners and then hung clothes from them. I also stood next to a barrel and compared my height to it.

For a science fiction story with a UFO, the problem, of course, is that I’ve never seen a UFO, except in the movies. I don’t want to use movies as a basis for any kind of research, because this is my story, not someone else’s movie.

The connection became jets.

A few weeks ago, the Blue Angels were doing a photo shoot, so we had several flyovers. The first time they flew over, I heard the sounds of the jets roaring in my direction. By the time I realized what it was and got to the window, the sound was moving away. No sign of them!

The second time I heard it, I got to the window just in time to see them flying off. That’s how fast they were, so a UFO would be that fast.

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt Island. That’s a park in a tributary of the Potomac River. A lot of joggers like to go there because it has a lot of paths, trees, water. Really pretty.

Theodore Roosevelt Island surrounded by the Potomac River
The green stuff on the water looked like it was some kind of algae. We don’t usually get that growing unless there’s been no rain for a while, which has been the case.

It’s also on the flight path at Reagan Airport, about 7 miles away. That’s spitting distance for a plane. So when the planes are overhead, they are low.

So that experience becomes the UFO.

And think about writers like Robert Heinlein, who wrote about space travel before we had actually traveled in space.

Picking names for story characters

When I first started writing, I used to labor over finding just the “right” character name. What defined “right”?

Not a clue.

I’d geta baby name book — you know how hard it is buying one of those? Everyone thinks you’re having a baby, not a writer trying to find a name. I’d go through the book and identify about six or so names caught my attention. Didn’t pay any attention to what the name meant.

Then I’d go through my list and scratch out this one and that one because maybe I liked it a little less than the others.

Today …

For an urban fantasy short story I’m working on (Green Magic in Washington DC — the Cherry Blossoms are coming, you know), I was hunting through the Washington Post for last names of writers of the articles. Honestly, after doing a novel which had 30 characters because of the type of story it was, a name just isn’t that big of a deal.

Some writers say that the name makes the character, but I find that’s not true. I make the character. If I don’t do that right, a name isn’t going to change that.

Cheerleaders of the Writing Group Think

A lot of writers don’t think. That’s partially because writing has a huge learning curve and the internet teaches us that everything can be faster. So everyone looks for shortcuts, for the things to make it easier.

Sometimes it isn’t going to be easier.

I’m still trying to get setting into my stories (a problem that has cropped up yet again in my short story workshop). It’s not as easy as adding what a place looks like.

Anne Allen talks about the complainers who get offended at the most ridiculous things. Probably because they like to complain.

But there are also what I call the “cheerleaders.” They come out of the group think, or the Writing Collective. Important Writer posts a how-to topic on something. Everyone jumps in and exclaims, “This is just what I was looking for!” They all fall over themselves agreeing.

I cringe every time I see one of these because it makes it seem like writing is a checklist. If you do X, Y, and Z magic will happen.

Get rid of adverbs and your story will be publishable. Check.

Outline your story and you will have a publishable story. Check.

And it goes on, always with that second part. The problem, of course, is that what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Worse is that if you disagree for legitimate reasons, you often get jumped on. On one of those cheerleading blogs, I was told in not so many words that it worked for everyone so the problem must be me (it was an outlining vs. pantser issue and she was a “everyone has to outline” writer).

Granted, I’m particularly sensitive, because it’s hard when you’re not outliner. I would look at all this stuff that was being put out — often with great authority — and it wouldn’t work for me. But according to the Writing Collective, the problem was that I “wasn’t doing it right” or it was just me. The problem was never the advice because everyone was praising it.

The worst thing for writers is the group think. It makes us think we’re not doing it right when it may just the right thing for us.

Writing Novels and Schedules

This one comes from a Daily Post prompt:

What’s your next, most pressing deadline? Are you excited, stressed, or ambivalent about it? What’s the first thing you’d like to do once you’re done with it?

My next deadline, which isn’t really a pressing one, is to write and finish Murder on Morro Strand, a mystery.  This will be my third book for eventual indie publication, and I think about my ninth book I’ve written.  I’d like to do it in thirty days.

Is it doable?  Maybe.  Finishing it later than that still isn’t a failure.  My first six books took years to finish, and Rogue God (#7) and Soldier, Storyteller (non-fiction about Desert Storm) took 6 months at the same time.  That’s a big improvement.  If I finished Morro Strand in less than that, I would be happy, and I would have a third book on tap.

What would I do once I finished it?  Start the next one.

When Fiction Writers Blog

When I first started blogging, I was somewhat late into it.  I was cowriting then, but wrote most of the blogs then.  Everything we saw online said “You have to be an expert” and “you have to have a platform.”  I was a fiction writer.  Exactly what was I supposed to do with it?

I could see how the advice related to a non-fiction book writer because they came with those parts as a function of what they were doing in their business.  But fiction writing?

Ah ha!  Writing!

* Sigh * Yeah, I fell into doing writing how-tos for a while.  Surprisingly, it’s a rather boring subject.  There just isn’t a lot of versatility in it.  I’d write on them for about a year and then run out of topics.

Plus, all we got were other writers, not potential readers.

After I broke up with the cowriter, I moved the blog to where you’re reading it now.  Still continued the how to posts, but it was often a struggle.  I did the A to Z Challenge one year using writing as a topic.  I tried to stay away from how-tos, but it was still hard to come up with enough topics, and I didn’t finish.

I took a blogging writing course that was for writers, thinking that would help.  The emphasis of of the course was to find your own voice — but not do how-tos.  The other writers eagerly flocked to everyone’s blog at first, posting comments and eagerly cheering people on.

Mine was the first one they dropped.

It took about two weeks.

At the time I was very frustrated.  What was I doing wrong?

In hindsight, it was probably because I did stop doing the how-tos.  Everyone else still did writing topics in addition to other topics.

But the one thing I did do was use it to figure out how to manage writing time.  Even then, I wanted to write full time, so it would be training.  I tend to write at the same time most days, so I picked a time when I normally wouldn’t do any writing to do posts.

It also cheered me on to writing fiction faster.  I could put out a post almost as fast as I typed.  Why was it so much harder on fiction?  But writing posts helped reinforce in my head that I could write faster.

I also had an additional problem that was a bit of a challenge:  My name.  It’s kind of ordinary, and a lot of other people have it.  At the time, there was another writer with my name who turned up on searches.  But if I kept producing new posts, I would turn up higher in the search.

So I kept writing and trying to reinvent myself.  But I kept writing the posts, kept them mostly to a schedule.  The sheer act of doing the writing and trying to find other topics besides how-tos is how I found my blogging voice.

But the process to get there was really hard.  I kept watching how low the numbers were for a long time and despaired at one point that maybe it wasn’t a good time investment.  I debated giving up the blog several times.  But I kept returning to the problem of my name and that a blog was probably the easiest way to keep my name showing up.

I think that’s a lot like writing fiction.  A lot of writers expect to write one book and have it turn into a best seller so they can kick back and never work again.  The more I’ve written, the more I can see what else I can write.

The most important thing is to write.

Inspired by a blog prompt from The Daily Prompt

What’s the most important (or interesting, or unexpected) thing about blogging you know today that you didn’t know a month ago?

How I get my story ideas

At Capclave, Bud Sparhawk said that he’d been asked “Where do you get ideas?” on a past panel.  He jokingly said that he paid a guy $5 a week and was sent a postcard with an idea on it.  Three writers came up afterward to ask him for the idea guy address!

From the outside, ideas look like this really hard thing.  When I was working on my first novel, I was desperate.  The novel was not working (I was hitting the 1/3 point and didn’t understand why I couldn’t get past it), and yet I couldn’t abandon the story because I didn’t have any other ideas.

At the time, I believed that an idea had to turn into a whole story, so I was looking for something that suggested an entire story — and nothing lived up to it.  As a result, ideas always seemed to be a struggle for me.  Yet, I’d always said that an idea was a starting point for a story, or just a seed. Sometimes I don’t even listen to myself!

Pretty much, I had to stop trying so hard to come up with great ideas and just come up with ideas.  If I’m starting out with a theme, like for an anthology call, I first think of all the things that everyone else will come up with for the theme.  We’ll make one up:  Toys.  That’ll probably get a lot of Christmas stories, toys coming to life, toys being magical, evil killer toys.  Anything that might be one of those I toss aside because what I write will be just like what everyone else is doing.  Then I start thinking about what I can do with what’s left.

Getting there is different for each story.  I’ve started with a theme and a character and NO idea until I started writing, and another I’m working on now that’s come from doing Google fu on the theme subject.  I just have to think “What can I do with this?”  Some ideas don’t go anywhere or need more seasoning.

A few of where the ideas came from:

Fantasy Short Story:  This one’s in submission now.  I had gone to a 911 ceremony at work, and there were these two candles sitting out on a table on the stage.  I imagined the candles burning in a window, a signal to troops that it was time to attack.  The story that I wrote ended up with no candles and no signal of troops.

Science Fiction Novel: I took a workshop on Think Like a Science Fiction Writer (worth it if you want to write science fiction and think you don’t have the science background).  During the workshop, it hit me that I’ve always liked undersea.  When I was in grade school, Sea Hunt was airing on TV, and I watched the adventures of Mike Nelson every day and drew pictures of scuba divers.  Then it was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Primus and the new version of Sea Hunt with Ron Ely.  I also lived in California and enjoyed oceanography in college.  Why not an undersea station?  Research will be next to continue developing this one.

Mystery Novel/Romance Novel: These ideas both came off a curtain.  The curtain was in an auditorium, dark blue with gold stars.  I went up to touch it, and it was soft, but not naturally soft.  I thought about it for a while:  Twilight.  Then:  What’s the emotion associated with twlight?  I was surprised when it turned into two different ideas, based on what the genre was.  The part about connecting the object to an emotion that it reminded me of was so powerful, I will have to try that one again.

I think it’s hard because the prospect of writing a story or novel can seem so daunting.  It always seems like there’s a magic in it, and the magic seems like it comes from the just the right idea or just the perfect idea.  That kind of leaves the writer out of the equation, and the writer is that magic.