writing outside the comfort zone

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how writers tend to pick something they’re good at, and write the same type of story over and over again, until their readers expect a lack of diversity. We tend to narrow our focus, get comfortable, and run with things that work.

I won’t (and can’t) say this is a bad thing– people picking up a Song of Ice and Fire book want grit, sex, politics, and violence. That’s the allure of the series, isn’t it? But at the same time, I’m wondering if writing the same types of stories over and over again good for us as writers? Does it challenge us? Does it make us grow?

Or, conversely, if we do break out of our usual shell (mine is fantasy with atypical settings, heavy on characters and intrigue and usually with a dash of nobility or royalty), is that a good thing for us business-wise? Should, or even can we expect readers to grow with us? Isn’t this why authors wanting to try a new genre invent new pen names for their alternate persona?

It’s hard to even find examples of authors doing this. Off the top of my head, I can only name this guy:


I could talk about my love for Neil Gaiman’s work all day long, but let’s look at his diversity portfolio for a second. Holy cow. A retold Beowolf with a werewolf on a futuristic Miami beach, complete with a sing-song chant? Twisted fairy tales. Aliens at parties. Vampire studies done in a literary style. Non-speculative literary. Poetry. New things. Sequels. Offshoots. Novel format, comic format, screenplays. And is there any correlation between his ability to write so many different types of stories and the rather popular opinion that he’s one of the best?

Do we even think about trying new plots as we work?

I don’t really have a point or any conclusions from this yet. My current work is intended to shift sub-genres often, and it’s a roller coaster of having to learn new techniques and storytelling methods, so it’s been on my mind lately.

Does anyone have experience or thoughts on deliberately branching out beyond your established comfort zones?

writing and death, as taught by chickens

Finals are over at school– I’ve still got assignments to grade, but for now, the worst is over. Academically speaking. I almost feel like a kid again. Summer vacation! Energy for my own projects! A return to my blog!

But… that’s a far cry from what I wanted to talk about today.

I’m a firm believer that to be able to write, and write well, one must have a certain amount of life experience. Artists can’t learn to draw the human figure without having a model to practice from, and a live model is always better than a photo; I think that describing a life when you haven’t lived one is even worse. My early novels in my teens reflected this– difficult problems would be trivialized, aspects of the characters underdeveloped, because I wasn’t aware that someone older than myself would have grown further than I could imagine. I see this in published novels as well, a one-sidedness to stories and a flatness in some areas that make it so very clear what the author thinks, assumptions she’s made about all characters. Flavored stories, limited by author experience and maturity.

I’m sure that I do the same. Like not being able to smell yourself, it’s not apparent until you’re four years older, find a cache of your old work, and either laugh or cry at how trite it all seems now.

A few weeks ago, I bought my first chicken.

I’d ordered some from a hatchery before then, and the anticipation could only be cured by ogling other chickens that I couldn’t have. I’d go to farmer stores where chicks would be put into wire cages with a heat lamp overhead, plastic water dispensers and feeders that resembled UFOs. And then I’d sit and stare at them. They’d cheep and mill about and be adorable fluffy beasts, only the tips of their wings grown in with feathers. They’d be colored like chipmunks, black and white, gray with crazy black stripes all about, or the cliche yellow, as seen in every other representation of chicks scattered over Easter decorations. It’s not hard to hold them– the pros showed me how, cupping their hands over the chick’s body so that only their head could stick out.

Then one day, I came into the store and found that there was only one chick left. A small, yellow girl, sitting on an open feeder and peeping like a car alarm– I’ve since learned that they do that when they’re lonely. It’s bottom had been stripped of feathers. Pecked by the other chicks was the guess. I’m not a country girl. I don’t have the sense of the farmers that shook their head in pity at the poor creature when they bought the others. The employee at the co-op gave me the chick for free, put air holes in a little box, and I took it home. I had the box, the heat lamp, and the food and water all ready to go. As said, anticipation leads to gross over-preparedness.

She never stood up. She rested on her feet and legs, knees bent. We tried to feed her with water from an eyedropper, ground her food into a puree mixed with water and a bit of sugar. She ate nothing, refused to open her beak, and died in a homemade nest of cotton balls in her sleep.

My parents attended the unnamed chicks funeral (yes, I’m a sap). I buried her near a tree, wrapped in paper towels. My dad made a speech. “Chicken, born of egg. Your life was short, but meaningful. May you ascend to the great free-range farm in the sky.” He paused for a long moment, I sniffled and tried not to giggle, and he found the final words for the service. “Thanks for not pooping on me.” My mother made me swear not to bring home any more dying animals.

A week later, I found the Americauna chicks that I’d very much wanted, that everyone else was sold out of. That I hadn’t been able to order from the hatchery. The breed is very popular– these chickens lay blue eggs. It was ten days before my shipment of chicks were to arrive. I bought three, and named them. Piper was a brunet chipmunk that could not stand still– she raced around out of control, bowling over everything in her path; I was completely charmed. After the unnamed chick, I wanted one with energy. One that wouldn’t die. Rosamund (formally Rosemary, but after seeing that her real name was Death To Bugs, I felt that Rosamund fit better) was black, with just a hint of brown on her head. Anna reminded me of my little sister, Annie, just a bit. She was a blond chipmunk, and the first thing she did when she got home was to start grooming herself.

Anna and Rosamund did well. Piper stopped running around after the first day. She had the same symptoms: lethargy, a declining interest in food, then a noticeable difference in size. Anna and Rosamund outgrew her in days. Out come the eyedropper, the pureed food, the isolated nest. She lived three days ofter I bought her, and died on a sunny Monday morning.

Point one: Never, never treat healing magic as trivial in a fantasy world. The power to heal changes everything.

Point two: There is a good reason outliers are looked on as bad. A practical man will never take home anything with unusual traits. They’re the first to die.

The Monday after, last week, in fact, I had a box of day-old baby chicks, shipped from the hatchery through the postal service. Ten silver-spangled hamburgs, five blue andalusians, and ten silver phoenixes– a fluffy pure white chick with a single comb thrown in as my bonus for ordering them. They were put straight under the heat lamp, and they shivered for several minutes until they were warm again. Except for the wet chick that I found on the bottom of the box, stepped on by her litter-mates, barely moving and almost certainly near-dead. I did a count of the others, and decided that this was my tenth phoenix.

What do you do with dying birds? There’s really nothing to be done. Keep them warm, provide food and water, and hope for the best. I separated her from the others and held her close to the heat, and watched her brown and white feathers dry. She was noticeably smaller than the others– she barely weighed anything at all. I decided that she’d probably die, too, and kept her in a tuperware partition in the box.

… Except.

She dried out. She started pecking at the food. She yelled at me when I tried to dip her beak in the water. One week later, I can’t tell her from the rest. ‘Runt’ happens to be any phoenix that looks small and helpless.

One week later, one of my hamburgs has stopped eating. Once the same size of the others, she’s now much smaller. Her wings were different– mostly white with some black, as opposed to the standard black with a little white. Today she’s stopped eating and only wants to sleep. I’m guessing she’ll last until Wednesday– two days seems to be standard once the symptoms kick in. And I’m fairly happy that it’s just one out of the twenty-six. I’d expected to lose at least five.

I think my ultimate point is that I don’t think that I can treat character death the same way I did last month. The meaning has changed, and fairly quickly.

It only took a few chickens for me to catch on.

introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!

the battle of show or tell

I had an email after my last post, inquiring after the specifics of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. After reading it, I felt that I should clarify the difference between the two methods.

(Warning: Bad examples follow.)

The letter lay on the coffee table beside a crumb-laden placemat and a newspaper and a glossy orange piece of paper advertising oil changes partway across town. The address had been handwritten in pink ink, the smooth glossy swirl of gel-pens. He made himself a drink. He listened to music, Bach first, then Handel. Partway through the winding, disjointed verses of ‘We Like Sheep’ he stood up, picked up his keys, and slipped his wallet in his pocket. He moved partway to the door, stopped, turned, and returned to the table. His hand shook with fear as he opened the letter, the key chain still dangling on his little finger giving a metallic rattle as he tore the paper.

Showing only: this example uses nothing but visual clues as to what’s going on. There’s no blatant emotion given to the audience, it’s all imagery. It gives no explanations, no internal dialog.

He found the letter after he had arrived home, and the sight of it instilled a deep fear. Unopened responses could mean anything, the possibilities turning a once rational head to something panicked and imaginative, circumstances winding into other hypothetical circumstances born of the haunting words ‘what if’. The confidence in his first query crumbled and died, turned to salt as it looked back to the destroyed city where his hopes had once lain. Stalling didn’t help, nor did his evening drink, and he listened to classical music until finally he could take no more of the anticipation. He must face it, or he must leave, and for a moment leaving sounded like a better alternative before he forced himself back, gathered his courage, and approached the paper once more.

Telling only: This is telling. I described nothing, and gave only the barest hints of the elements in the scene, instead focusing on the cause of the shaking hands from the last paragraph. It includes details and feelings that were left out of the first one. But it also doesn’t set the scene.

Neither of these are right or wrong. They just focus on completely different ways of storytelling. One might be right and one very wrong for a particular project. But to dismiss the latter as ‘bad practice’? You can show this badly by losing the point in boring details. You can tell this badly by not explaining the fear, and subsequent courage, well enough to follow believably.

Add or remove detail as is needed.

three writing rules i loathe

Also known as: a brief list of the trends in prose that I refuse to take as my bible come hell or high water.

I should probably warn my readers that I despise hard-and-fast rules when it comes to creativity. These confines of art that are meant to guide beginners are a hindrance and put a false barrier between what is considered ‘good’ writing and writing that’s effective. The moment someone starts saying, ‘you should never do this’ I’m out the door and running. Or possibly beating them up, one of the two. Violence might not solve anything, but it sure makes me feel better. 😉

1. Show, Don’t Tell.
I don’t think you can get my hackles up faster than to quote this mantra at me. It is the speediest way to earn my undying hatred.

Showing involves imagery, in covering the things that are important by action and setting, in focusing the camera on some things and not others. Telling is information usually given in narration. Sometimes showing is better. And sometimes showing makes the most tedious, convoluted half-assed scenes that it’s been by displeasure to try to wade through. Please, just tell me, and get to the interesting parts. And who decided that narration was bad, anyway? Who said that showing and telling is inherently divorced from each other, that there is no showing in telling, or vice versa?

Try this instead. Put in the details that you need. Let the audience work a bit when you think that there’s enough in the scene to draw extra conclusions. Make your work interesting. Get test readers, and see if they have the right reactions to the right events.

2. Don’t use any narrative verbs but ‘said’.
This depends entirely on the style that you’re using and the tone of your story. There are times replied, answered, asked, repeated, and explained are perfectly valid, and more precise than ‘said’. Some people find these words obnoxious. It must be tough to be them.

3. Write for your genre, and don’t break the established conventions. It’ll make your book harder to sell.
Sometimes this is true, I suppose. I write fantasy, where the point of the genre is innovation. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write something new? I see this one as a cousin of the phrase ‘there are no new stories’. To those who are convinced that this is a good point, go read ‘House of Leaves’, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Go read ‘Bridge of Birds’, by Barry Hughart. Try ‘Grey’, by Jon Armstrong. I won’t read books that aren’t innovative in some way.

I think what I’m trying to get at is that these conventions are artificial. Think of writing as a craft that needs to be trained and honed, figure out what techniques work for what story. Write effectively, ignore what’s supposedly ‘good’.

Any other obnoxious ‘tips’ that I’ve missed?

by implication (the use of subtlety in prose)

The first post of a series, studying the writing techniques that I’m lacking.

Someday I’ll write about the similarities between the different forms of art. This is not that day, but I’d like to point out something. The premise of animation is that when a person is shown similar drawings quickly in sequence, their mind will connect the events and perceive movement. One could write a trip in the car from one place to another, and follow it by having the character get out of their vehicle, go to the door, let him/herself in, have a snack, watch the tv. Or you could cut from the car to the tv, and discover that by implication nothing is lost.

Possibly the best writer I know of to use subtlety is Patrick O’Brian, author of ‘Master and Commander’ and its sequels (also known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels). This is also one of the reasons I highly encourage people to read other genres– O’Brian wrote in historical fiction, and is one of the masters I greatly admire. His books are written in a very old-fashioned style that makes for heavy reading, but they’re rich in description, believability, characterization, world-building, and subtlety.

I first noticed this subtlety on entering and exiting doors. A character within a room will be speaking. Instead of narrating that they were interrupted by a knock on the door, the character will give permission to enter mid-paragraph, and finish his thought. By the end of the (almost poetic) speech, someone new will be in the room, ready to change the subject or inform the POV characters of something. In the same vein, the characters once were having a discussion while preparing to practice (one plays a violin, the other a cello), and in the middle of the cello player’s speech he says something along the lines of, ‘when you have finished with my rosin- my rosin, I say-‘ and I can just picture the other holding the rosin between his thick, square fingers, running it along his tightened bow and nodding to his prickly friend. Or there’s a dinner where a character will announce, ‘the wine stands before you’ to a dining companion, and the next thing you know, he’s refilling his own glass.

Of course, O’Brian has his own drawbacks. Sometimes it’s daunting to start his books, because in order to fully enjoy them, one needs a dictionary on one side and an atlas on the other. Some things he explains about the ships by informing the doctor, who can’t retain anything about sailing, and some things just aren’t mentioned. ‘Firing grape’, for instance, by which it is assumed that the reader knows about grape shot, or they are intellectual enough to go look it up. The target audience consists of educated, bright people, and he doesn’t lower standards.

This is coupled with a strong recommendation. Go read the Aubrey-Maturin series.

If O’Brian is the master of subtlety in logistics and world-building, I think that my next favorite is the infamous George R. R. Martin, not in setting or action, but in his characterization. Martin’s characters are incredible in their diversity and their depth, and I think that his secret is the depth in which he develops them, then proceeds to reveal only pieces relevant to the story at the time. We can see that there’s more that he’s not telling us, we can tell through the multiple narratives that things don’t quite line up with what we know, and the difference is intriguing.

Any other tricks that I’ve missed? Authors strong in this trait that I should read?

dancing in e-prime

I have a confession to make. E-prime fascinates me.

Some haven’t heard of the style before, so allow me to give a quick explanation. Those who write in e-prime eschew all forms of the verb ‘to be’, allowing the restrictiveness of the style to force them to find other, more interesting (and often more accurate) verbs. This list includes was, is, are, am, be, been. ‘The house was blue’ becomes ‘The blue house’ or ‘The house looked blue’, ‘I was angry’ transforms into ‘I felt angry’. While the style requires work, patience, and creativity, I find that it also challenges me to consider the language I use carefully. Often I remove entire passages, rewrite paragraphs to fit with the style, but the effort shows. Readers don’t typically notice the extra work, but sometimes they can see that something in the prose differs from what they have grown used to.

Try it. See if you can find independence from easy verbs.