Here’s a new story from me up at AntipodeanSF—it’s called “The Headphones of Damocles” and is inspired by all my business trips from Oslo airport, seeing all the identically dressed men wearing wireless headphones.
It appeared late last year, and they did email me about it? But I thought only to let me know that some of my podcast narrations of other people’s stories were soon live—didn’t realise mine was also, haha!
Oh well. Here it is now. Enjoy!
As is so common in the writing world, nothing happens for a long time and then loads happens at once.
Here’s what I’ve been up to of late:
- I was on the Horror with Marchese & Buller podcast
- I woke up at 04:30 this morning to appear on the Deadman’s Tome podcast. Which explains why we talked about moon Jedis, Scandinavian hallucinogenic mushrooms and washing feet, among other things!
- (On both these podcasts, we discuss my upcoming release, Jesus of Scumburg [Hindered Souls Press, Dec 25th 2018])
- Steve Pool interviewed me on my own podcast, Losing the Plot! It was his much-appreciated suggestion, and we had an interesting chat thanks to his efforts and well-considered questions.
- Kendall Reviews will feature an interview with me some time this week (no sign yet, but I’ll post about it when there is. Do check out the site in the meantime!)
- Unnerving and Deadman’s Tome had sales recently, which I’ve tweeted about etc. before, though I think they’ve ended now. Still, as good a time as any to check out the content from these great publishers!
- The Anti-Austerity anthology, which I had a piece in with many other talented writers, reached #4 on Amazon for fiction anthologies. And Penguin-published author Kit de Waal bought a copy too.
I’m somewhat keen to reassure the writers reading this that news comes and goes in waves, and that I’ve been quietly writing and submitting and chatting to folk for months nay years to make this kinda stuff transpire. But the main point of the post is, 1) Check out all this great stuff and support these cool people, and 2) This is far from the last you’ll hear of me 😀
Exciting news today!
The Anti-Austerity Anthology is now available!
I’ve been waiting a long time for this one—I have a story in it, and it contains work from many other authors whom I admire, including M. J. Black, Andy Carrington, Rupert Dreyfus, Rebecca Gransden, Jay Spencer Green, Chris Harrison, Ruth F. Hunt, Mary Papastavrou, Riya Anne Polcastro, Mike Robbins, Harry Whitewolf—AND MORE!
With a foreword from superstar journalist Steve Topple!
Plus, proceeds from this book go to food bank charities. That’s pretty great, right?
Here’s the link to purchase—I’ve ordered my copies and can’t wait to see how the final product of this one has turned out 🙂
In this series of posts, I’ve invited the reader to see a story as a “meaning-generating system”, and story-writing akin to a simulation that requires good initial conditions to run properly. Now I have some more thoughts on this analogy, on reading other people’s writing, and some final messages.
Sometimes simulations are chains of smaller simulations. Simulations within simulations!
Example: Franzen said “The Corrections” is “five linked novellas.” So then we can break it down into five components, the input of novella 1 sent to novella 2 and so on. Those novellas have chapters, and those chapters have sections, each sub-systems running different sub-routines for some greater whole, generating meaning and passing it from one simulation to the next.
Dostoyevsky’s tomes are usually split into “Book the First”, “Book the Second” etc, and the same principle applies.
Short story writers attempting novels for the first time often refer to them as a series of short stories. And fair enough.
The analogy holds up no matter how big or small the system is! At one end, the story ideas you don’t pursue are the inert components that don’t do anything in the reactor. At the other end, 1000-page novels are factories, with systems and sub-systems that can be scrutinised and re-run to test the effect on the whole machine. Book series are like systems of factories in a production line.
So we’ve covered that most of writing is re-writing. Similarly, reading is re-reading.
Once you can see other people’s writing as a mixture of different components, you can “uncook the ingredients.” My first dumb analogy, but you get what I mean.
Very few stories don’t reveal their mechanisms on repeat readings. And, much like you read through your own story drafts collecting different errors, you can read through other people’s stories and focus on different aspects of storytelling: plot, setting, characterisation, structure etc.
Once you have the components, in your own writing you can say to yourself, “I think what we need here is to run program(Cormac McCarthy).” In William Gibson’s Paris Review interview, he referred to other authors as “pedals”: “revving Ballard” for example.
This may seem cynical—but applying an author’s style is just choosing a sub-system. The overall system will still be unique if the combination is different. And this combination is just one level on which you are making the decisions. It still represents your style.
When I read my stories back, I can feel in different paragraphs which real-life event, thing someone said, person I was thinking of, film I saw, story I read, thing that was happening to me at the time. All these are just a unique set of launching pads.
Okay, one final thought on the re-iteration process of redrafting: remember that whatever flaws are there are going to be most apparent to you, and that it’s impossible to read your own writing with the freshness of its first reader. You may get this way in the future, but it’s not worth considering. I’d advise focusing on the secondary joy of watching the thing get better, better, better—but never perfect.
Even if you’re less aware of the errors than an objective reader, only so much rigor can be expected of you. If you’ve seen the film “Annihilation”, check out this review of it, replete with error messages!
The complaints are valid, but the film suspended my disbelief enough to sweep me away. I loved it! And yet in many ways it is quite imperfect. Could do better. Who couldn’t?!
I think this is interesting: these errors meant that the film “didn’t work for that viewer.” But it still worked for me, either because I’m denser or more forgiving. I prefer the latter.
With more writing rigor, the film could’ve won over a larger audience. Those errors that I didn’t notice would’ve been corrected. That would hardly have impacted my viewing experience, but would’ve satisfied those more nitpicky folk.
There’s too much emphasis on subjectivity. It’s offered to easily appease people who didn’t do as good a job as they could have, and that review is a good example of what it means when a story “doesn’t work” for someone. Failure to resonate may be a question of rigor.
This also reveals how to interpret rejections. It’s rare that a story is a complete outright failure—but the more prestigious the publisher, the more rigor will be expected. And rigor can be approached systematically, using the method of these blog posts.
Writing is a skill you can learn like any other, and improving at it is tangible.
- You decide what works for you.
- Rigor is not the same as bullying yourself.
- Writing is always a light and inviting thing filled with the reward of meaning, requiring trust and curiosity.
- The easiest way to scare away trust and curiosity is to bully yourself and give up hope.
So believe in yourself, dirtbag!!
Hello lovely people,
Expanded Horizons is back from hiatus with a new story from me!
“Petronomicon” is about a process engineer in Norway who follows a cute guy to a haunted offshore platform. I will not be answering questions about where I get my ideas thank you 😉
It’s also available in HellBound Books’ Big Book of Bootleg Horror: Volume II which I enjoyed a whole lot!!
Story note: this one polarised af when I sent it out. Some people loved it, but I also received the meanest personalised rejection for it, by someone who didn’t understand why the protagonist was gay. If science can’t work that one out, I don’t see why I should have to 😛
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more inevitable Robertson publications! 😀
So far, I’ve discussed how I’ve started to look at writing stories, and a way to prepare to write a first draft and how to edit it once it’s in existence.
(As for how to make the first draft? Just type!)
Here’s how I’ve developed this way of writing, and why I think it works.
Last year, I started sending stories to the most prestigious mags I could find. This made me terrified of writing badly. Especially if I combined this with reading the magazines while writing a first draft. “Look at this garbage I’m writing compared to what these writers are capable of!” I thought.
Anyway, my fear of bad writing meant that when I’d written what I thought was a finalised story, I didn’t want to probe it too hard lest it fall apart.
I also came up with the idea that preparing as much as possible before starting a story made me a bad writer.
I was probably thinking of this quote: “[Chekhov’s] friend and fellow writer Vladimir Korolenko wrote in his memoirs that when asked how he wrote his stories, Chekhov laughed, snatched up the nearest object – an ashtray – and said that if Korolenko wanted a story called The Ashtray, he could have it the next morning.”
I’m willing to bet Chekhov spent most of that day taking notes though! Doing a bit of free association, thinking of the role of ashtrays in his life. Did anything curious happen to him involving an ashtray, or when one was in the room? What is his opinion of them, of smokers?
Ray Bradbury did the same thing. He started off writing stories starting from just the titles. So I thought, “This is how you’re supposed to find the good stories.”
I do think the best moments of my writing come straight from the subconscious. When I’m writing a first draft, they’re when the story seems to “take off”, writes itself without me. (I hope you’ve had this feeling! It’s the best.) They’re the parts of my writing that even I can’t explain. But when I look back on when those moments occurred, they were when I’d finally found the time to write a story I was super excited about, because I strongly suspected that it led somewhere interesting. I’d been thinking about the story, or the topic the story is about, for months—not consciously, just in the back of my mind along with all my other thoughts. All those cumulative fragments of thought poured out for those stories. However, conscious effort, in the form of preparation, can be done to increase the chance of a first draft “taking off.”
This emphasis on preparation is present in this blog post, which is one of the best things I read about writing last year.
His advice about the characters didn’t quite click for me, which is why I prefer to think of story preparation as a series of questions to answer, rather than real people to interrogate.
I even have another dry scientific analogy here!
Crystallisation is when solid crystals come out of a solution. This can be done “spontaneously”, just by waiting in hope that crystals will appear in the right conditions; or, by the introduction of “seed crystals.” Seed crystals are small crystals of whatever compound is in the solution, and they’re added so the crystallisation process has something to grab onto. This is a much faster process!
So, if you make a small version of “story stuff” before you begin the story creation process, you will create the story faster.
This isn’t the same as predetermining where the story should go. Having a planned trajectory, so you don’t go nuts in every direction, is placing a seed crystal in a solution. You might get there without it, but you’ll get there faster and with less effort if you have a good seed 😊
Back to these stories I sent out. If anyone was kind enough to give me a personal rejection, they suggested parts that didn’t work, that didn’t make sense, and the ways the story could be improved.
Very important: if those improvements resonate with you, if they were things you had half-suspected yourself or that make sense in retrospect, you can apply them. If they don’t, don’t bother with them.
The more comments you get, the higher chance that some of them won’t apply to what you were trying to do. Because the more comments there are, the likelier it is that you didn’t get as close as you thought you had—or that an enthusiastic editor is shaping your work in their vision.
Even better, if you train yourself to ask the right questions about your manuscript, you can answer them before anyone else has the chance to ask. Whatever you have in-house can be as bad as you like. Who cares?!
Much of the material I wrote in shaky deer-mode is still with me. No one yet wants it! And when I revisited it with my new “curiosity-exhausting” method, a whole string of questions popped up.
Revising is a weird sensation. You’re correcting what you saw the characters first do, and the world they did it in. Maybe even the outcome of their whole adventure. But as you do it, you can feel the meaning of the text expanding, resonating more deeply, becoming more what it was destined to be overall.
I’ve not yet found a weakness in a story of mine that wasn’t also a previously hidden opportunity to make it stronger than I had imagined.
When I started writing something new after developing this idea, I was more willing to change the components as I was writing it. The closer I got to the end, the more I could tell what was and wasn’t needed.
This openness to change has left me with a first draft that appears much closer to the end product. As I wrote, the changes I made got smaller, more specific, fewer. I was iterating towards a correct solution.
One of the stories I repaired this way, which was rejected a handful of times, has now been shortlisted by a fairly reputable mag. That at least means someone will take it as is—or someone else will after a few more passes through. It definitely means I did a good job! (And if you want to keep writing, you’ll have to start celebrating more than just those rare acceptances.)
In the last blog post in this series, I’ll offer some ways that you can expand this analogy and what to take away from reading other people’s writing. Thanks for reading this far!
So far, I’ve introduced an analogy for how to think about stories and the writing process. I then discussed in more detail how this helps to think about the writing process: initial conditions, running a simulation.
If simulations are set up improperly, the software returns error messages. What are error messages in the context of writing stories?
Here are some from the current draft of the story I’m writing:
- Rewrite opening scene once we know main character better.
- Not quite hitting the emotional beats properly overall. Verify on re-type.
- [Sub-character1] characterization?
- [Sub-character2] characterization?
- Send story to dad when done!
- More characterization of protagonist here. A little more about what she wanted to do.
- Ending isn’t quite right.
- Maybe [this idea] doesn’t work. Think more about [that idea] instead.
The reason I’m getting these “characterization” messages is that I’m revising a draft of something I wrote before coming up with my current method. I now have to go back and do work I should’ve done before starting, in order to rewrite what I have. It’s clear to me that I don’t know these characters as well as I have known other characters of mine in other stories (which is, of course, my best gauge of how good a job I can do.)
“Send to dad when done” is not really an error(!) but a great sign—a highly marketable story is clean enough that you would let your own parents read it. (I don’t see this as a compromise, though: I’ve had a great run of violent and disgusting writing—and may have many more!)
All the text in my drafts is now blue, by the way. That’s so I don’t see it as final. I like to type everything because it’s so easy—but it requires extra discipline not to see a story as complete for as long as possible.
Sometimes I’ll wake up and write notes in my phone of something I need to add to the story draft—and when I look at the draft, I see that same note already incorporated. That’s a great sign! The subconscious is almost nagging you to make sure the story is as it should be.
These messages also require me to take out ideas that I liked at the time because they no longer fit with the story’s new direction. I don’t ever feel a “click” when a story is done, but when I make these decisions, I feel the story getting better, better, better… what once was flat becomes alive. The characters feel more real, their decisions gaining weight, the settings more detailed. It’s a real joy.
There’s joy to be found in all parts of the writing process, from first draft to final edit. I think why authors think they dread writing so much is that it’s always tough to start. And you spend most of your day not starting, therefore you’re inclined to let the dread of not-yet-having-started mask the joy of creation.
These stories I’ve repaired recently—I had no faith in them at all. This was a great place to work to test this theory out, because these were the easiest to work on extensively. I didn’t have anything to ruin, or anything to lose. All to gain. And it’s not even like I changed all that much in the end.
When I read through, I typically collect these error messages at the top of the document. If they pertain to specific areas in the story, I’ll copy and paste them there. If, like “characterisation”, they require me to think a bit more about a particular aspect before I revisit the story, I’ll type them out where the error is. This is good enough for me. If you want, you can categorise these errors:
- Need for opening scene?
- Chapter 3 too long: split into two.
- Scene 3 and 4 can be combined.
- Is it “lay” or “lie”? I can never remember…
- Steve doesn’t serve a purpose significantly discernible from Joe. Combine.
- Add smell/colour to beginning section
Maybe you have more diffuse categories related to elements more specific to your story. Up to you 😊
How do you run the simulation again? After incorporating the error messages into the draft, and making as many edits as you can along the way, you read it through another time. I would recommend typing it out from the beginning, quite a literal re-running of the same simulation. If it’s in a worse state than that, this blog post explains how best to prioritise what to fix when.
How do you know when the story’s done? Firstly, you’re not getting any more error messages. And you will likely notice, with satisfaction, that you get less and less each time you go through it! You go through it again and can’t think of a single improvement—or, remaining improvements are so tiny and yet would require so much energy that they can be forgone. It’s then ready to send off when neither you nor a few close writer friends can think of anything worth pursuing.
As far as I can tell, this way of thinking about a story is similar to George Saunders’ method. You can see it at work in most of his stories, but I think “Pastoralia” is the best example. All characters have understandable motivations, which propel the story in the right direction, and the reasons for the setting are clear. And he is a notorious draft iterator!
Todd Solondz, when writing a screenplay, said he sometimes had to add more “gas to the tank” if the resulting screenplay didn’t hit feature length.
There are surely endless white men for whom this process has worked!! 😀
Next time, I write about how I developed this way of looking at writing, and what personal evidence I have that it works.
In my previous blog post on this topic, I explained how stories are analogous to computer simulations, in a way I thought might help people who think like me. In this post I explain how to set up the “initial conditions” for a new story.
I vividly remember trying to plot a full novel using different post-its for different characters. I wrote up drafts for the first scenes of each character, and they stayed on my wall for a month. I didn’t get any further with it, because I hadn’t written those scenes. I just had my initial conditions, but I hadn’t let the simulation run. Once I wrote up those scenes, the next steps became apparent.
What do good initial conditions look like? To me, it’s notes on plot, character, theme and setting.
(Research is often a big one for me, and a big competitive advantage: few people do the initial-condition due diligence required to start writing something heavily researched.)
What do I know about these characters? Who are they, were they, etc? Where will this story take place and why? What is going to happen? What do I think this story is about?
I answer as many of these questions as I can before I’ll get to typing out anything of the first draft.
I don’t see how someone can write a good story without knowing more about the characters than appears on the page. When it’s done, all a reader’s questions must be implicitly answered by the resulting text. Better to answer as many up front so as to minimise work later on.
And this isn’t a rigid, systematic approach: I don’t know if your story takes place on Earth, if your characters are human or a collection of bitter shoeboxes, or if the plot takes the path of a fractal. There is still infinite scope within this methodology. After all, there are many types of reactors: plug-flow, continuous stirred-tank, semibatch, catalytic. They’re different shapes, and mix different reagents, but they all contain reactions and operate on the same basic principles, which underpin the great machines and chains thereof that lead raw material to product, from beginning to end.
You may want to add “structure” notes, but nothing irks me more these days than cleverly structured stories: lists, FAQs, whatever. I try to avoid anything that reminds me that this thing didn’t really happen, and anything so calculated and transparent just never resonates as much as it could.
(Side note: I think list stories sell so well because readers know when the thing is going to end. I have to imagine they’re written for people who can’t wait to stop reading.)
And if you’re anything like me, you most certainly will not make any notes on genre or audience, what market you will send the story to when it’s done. I mean, you may wish to add certain definite components to the initial conditions if you’re writing for a specifically themed submission—but anything more specific and you can correct it later.
So, when you write a bit about the plot, or the setting, more characters appear. They need characterised. Details of backstory appear. They need added to the plot. They have settings. Those settings have characters. And so on and round and round.
How do you know when you’ve done enough? Because nothing more occurs to you. It sounds, through my outline above, like it will keep going indefinitely—but background characters don’t need as much work. Some scenes take place in the same setting, and so on. There are definite limits. A story itself, no matter how big, is finite.
Next time I’ll write about re-drafting 😊