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A few weeks I mentioned on Twitter that a child in my son’s fourth-grade class wanted me to read his novel. He had a first chapter, he knew what his story was about, and he wanted to know if – based on that – it was publishable. (Sound familiar?)
Since then he’s emailed me the chapter, and he and I had a meeting about where he was, and what he should do next. I can’t excerpt the story for you, but I can share some of what I told him:
- It’s not ready to be published now, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it isn’t done yet. Just like homework and sports and games have a lot of steps, writing has a lot of steps, too. Chapter 1 is just the beginning.
- You can’t* publish something until after it’s been edited, and you can’t edit until it’s been written, so the fact that you’ve written something – anything – is a good first step.
- In your story, you have a lot of things that you’re making up. You have a world that doesn’t exist, you have a main character flying through space (you’ve never been to space), and your character is 15 years old… so he’s going through experiences that you haven’t had yet. Your reader needs to have something real in the story to hold on to. Like when a story has a cat-like alien in it – even though it looks green and scaly, it acts just like a cat would, so you can identify with the animal and the creature who owns him if you’ve ever had a cat. The reader has to be able to find what’s familiar to them, and that’s going to be something that you know so well you can describe it clearly. It’s okay to have a made-up world, or a made-up person, but you should have at least one part of the story be based on what’s real in your life.**
- Now that you’ve written the first draft of your story, go through and re-read it as if everything were questions. Then, answer those questions. For example, if you say he’s wearing a space suit, what does that look like? If he ate breakfast, what did he eat? How did he cook it? What color is his hair, the walls of his ship, his toothbrush? If you know the answers to those questions, you don’t have to put all of the information into your story, but you can choose to give us a few more details that will help us see the scene in our heads.
- When you go through to re-write it, read your story out loud. If the words the character says don’t feel right when you say then, change it to something that sounds like what the character should say. If you write a really long sentence and have to stop to take a breath, consider stopping it at that point and making two sentences, or at least adding a comma. If you have two different things going on in the same paragraph, or someone else starts speaking, that should be a new paragraph. At the same time, if you have one thought broken up into two different paragraphs, and neither one is more than a few sentences long, make it all one paragraph and see how that reads.
- The best thing that you can do to become a better writer is to read as much as possible. Check out books from the library! Read other books that have characters the same age as yours, or that are set in space, or Steampunk books. Read every night if you can, even a few pages. Read so that you know what you like, and what you don’t.
- Keep writing! Anything you write, you can make better, except a blank page.
- And, lastly, thank you for letting me read your work.
Anything else I should have told him?
Oh, and my favorite part of the meeting – he never asked if he was a writer. He didn’t say he was an “aspiring” writer. His friends, who wanted to know what his story was about and how long it was and if things blew up, never asked if I thought he was a writer. As soon as he had written, he was a writer, and he knew that in the black-and-white way in which kids know things.
The truth is that the only time you’re an aspiring writer is if you’ve thought about writing but haven’t actually done it yet. After that you can aspire to be a better writer, to be published, to sell a certain number of copies or be picked up by a certain publishing house or agent, but you’re past aspiring to be an author. Write, or don’t, those are your two choices. And please, stop calling yourself “an aspiring writer”.
Even a 10-year old knows better than that.
* Yes, I said “can’t publish”. I’m aware that many people interpret that as “shouldn’t publish, unless you’re certain it’s brilliant, in which case, go ahead”. I’d like to start the kid off on the right path by encouraging him to edit his work before he considers it finished.
** He decided to make the main character 10 years old, so that he could put a “real” person into his “fake” setting, and keep all of the Steampunk/space aspects he was having fun with.
Last week I wrote a guest post for BookLifeNow where I talked about being aware of your language choices when writing stories set in the future. It’s a first step kind of post, covering a few different points, and encouraging writers to think more about the topic. One of the issues I brought up was writing a multi-cultural future:
It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.
I gave two examples of this – Firefly, the popular but short-lived scifi television show, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American reboot of Gojira (the Japanese-language production of the classic rubber suit monster movie). In one, the characters used two languages mixed together in the dialogue, and the other used the original Japanese footage cut together with scenes of a white guy, speaking English, asking “What did he say?” It was my way to help people visualize the difference between having “phrases your readers don’t understand”, or having to “find a way to explain everything in context”.
In that sense, I felt, it worked. But one of the readers rightly argued that Firefly was problematic in its portrayal of Asians (and, I agreed, its treatment of women). What “worked” as an example for my blog post didn’t work for the reader, who said:
I, the viewer, was very confused because I kept trying to parse the Mandarin they were speaking. Their diction was, on the whole, terrible. So, no, for me, I did not know what the inserted language meant. (And what’s so wrong with subtitles? If we had subtitles, we could have had a more realistic portrayal of the integration of English and Mandarin rather than the derogatory portrayal of Mandarin as being “that language you swear with.”) …. to me, the way it used Mandarin is symptomatic of those problems, not separate from them.
In that sense, no, Firefly doesn’t work at all. I meant it in a different way than it was taken, but there are times when intention doesn’t matter as much as what actually got said, and this is one of them. My motivation for writing the post was to get people thinking about their language choices, particularly as it pertains to race, and this is all part of that conversation. It’s a conversation we should be having, not just about a show that was cancelled a decade ago, but about how we write fiction now. A few places to start:
You can download and read Jennie Fong’s paper “Stuck in a Blender: Genre and Racial Hybridity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly“, which suggests that:
Instead of a completely blended East-West culture, Firefly only persisted in detaching Asian cultural signifiers from their cultural significance. By blurring distinctions among the different Asian ethnicities and borrowing from Asian cultures without acknowledging the population, Firefly fell into the trap of cultural appropriation rather than cultural blending.
and that this actually influenced the network’s decision to cancel the show.
Thea Lim points out Whedon’s tendency to put Asian characters in the background in her essay for Racialicious.
And someone put together a brilliant Firefly recast showing the characters portrayed by Asian actors (found on tumblr). Very fine actors on that list.
Look, it’s easy to get defensive when our words get taken in a different way than we’d like, but do you want to be right, or do you want to be better? I’m going to keep working on my writing, and the way I talk about writing, which means getting a few things right and acknowledging when I don’t. Hopefully you’ll all stick around, and we can work on these issues together.
I reread The Stand again this week. I’ve read it twice a year or so for the last twenty years or so. I’ve got the extended edition, with bits that weren’t in the original paperback I read as a teen. It’s better, the long version, because it adds more to the story, and you can see more of King’s ideas at work. I loved this book for more than half of my life. You can read my review of it here.
I don’t know if I’m going to read it again.
It’s strange to say I’ve loved it for so long and yet I’m done. This book changed my life – it made me consider the world in terms of who was a survivor and who wasn’t. That viewpoint didn’t just come from the book but the story solidified that idea for me, that some of us were strong and some of us were weak. It’s still true, by the way, that there are those who soldier on and those who can’t move until someone helps them up. There are those who keep climbing that hill, pushing that boulder up the mountain, no matter how hard it gets – and there are those who spend their energy complaining bitterly that no one has come along to relieve them of their burden yet.
Well. True, but when you’re young you sometimes mistake selfishness for strength and that happened to me. I spent decades surrounded by people who were selfish to the point of single-mindedness. I mistook that hard core of need for something better – the ability to act when necessary, to make hard choices, and to get through rough times. I’ve figured out what real strength is, finally.
But King’s story wasn’t my problem back then and it isn’t the problem now. The story is good, it’s moving, and it connects. The problem is that King is an idea man. He has a great idea and he tells you what it is and there’s not much in the way of writing technique. In fact, the last few years what jumps out at me from the page isn’t (for example) the character of Stu Redmond, who I loved, but the lack of King’s technique. He’s so busy telling you the story that there’s no room left in for you to live it for yourself.
A quick thought to start the (writing) day:
To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel
In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.
The key to understanding the similarity is this line:
Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody
How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.
Just like in jazz.