10 Questions About My Writing, Answered

I saw this series of questions going around Twitter, but rather than answer them individually in under 140 characters, behold! A blog post.

1. What kind of writer are you?

I am the sort of writer who writes everything (nonfiction, fiction, essays, articles, literary stories and every other genre marketers have come up with to date), has more story ideas than time, and who genuinely loves everything about the writing process except the fact that it doesn’t pay the bills.

I am the sort of writer who can’t afford to be a writer full-time, not yet, and I miss writing when I’m not, but I feel incredibly guilty when I write for myself instead of the forty other things on my To-Do list at that moment.

I am the sort of writer who’s comfortable being known as a short story writer, or a novelist, or a journalist, or any other flavor of writer, as long as at the end of my life, I’ve completed enough good, solid, work that it can be accumulated into a collection worth reading.

I’m the sort of writer who’s in no particular rush to be famous, but I love hearing when my writing made you feel or see something new, or remember something forgotten, or reconsider yourself. I want to know that at least one other person has gotten out of my words what I put into it. That, and eventually being able to write my way into a decent paycheck and a saving account, are all I want from my writing life.

2. What was it that made you become a writer?

As far as I know, I’ve always been one. When I was very small, before preschool, I was writing stories and drawing pictures, like most little kids do. The first story I clearly remember: I was 4 years old. It was about the life of a unicorn named Fred, who was of course a girl; I wrote it in pencil, on pages and pages of that cheap wide-ruled paper you’re supposed to practice your handwriting on. I illustrated it, too.

I remember being told that my writing was very good, but my art wasn’t, and deciding that okay, I wouldn’t be an artist, but I could keep writing. Up until that point, I’d struggled to make people care about or hear what I had to say, but this story, written down on paper instead of words coming out of my mouth, my mom liked. For a minute, we had connected. I felt understood.

I wanted that feeling forever.

3. Are you super critical of your own work?

It depends on the piece. When I know it’s good writing, it tends to be easier to write; I’m not self-editing every other word, and I enjoy the process of getting the story out onto the page. I write quickly, revise only a little, and am happy with the finished product.

Other times, it takes me years to finish a story, because I know it’s not quite right before I’ve even written it. I’m going to turn it around in my head, let my lizard brain grapple with it, for as long as it takes to figure out what’s wrong. Sometimes, I don’t ever figure it out, and I’m not comfortable sharing those “broken” stories with the world.

4. What do you do to combat writers block?

For me, “writers block” means “I don’t want to write the thing I’m trying to force myself to write”, so I stop trying to write it. I either recognize that there’s something else I want to write more, and jump onto that, or I can see that the piece I’m struggling with isn’t working because I don’t know enough. I have a great setting but I don’t have the plot, or I haven’t done enough research, so I go back to the drawing board and hammer out the missing pieces.

After I’ve written the other thing, or fixed the problem with the thing I’m balking about, it tends to be a lot easier for me to write what I’d intended to do first.

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A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

Writing Advice Clearly Followed by the Writers Writing Last Night’s Episode of The X-Files

Fear not – no (or maybe a few very vague/mild) spoilers below.

Gillian Anderson (left) and David DuchovnyThe X-Files

Want to write like the folks who created last night’s premier episode of The X-Files reboot? Follow these 10 steps, and your readers will be “true believers” in no time…

  1. Your female protagonist/love interest should be clean, neat, well dressed, thin, beautiful, and slightly embarrassed at being seen even a little less than put together, in a refined sort of way. Your male protagonist should wear pants. At least for now. Shaving is optional. Actually, no, leave him scruffy. Scruffy is sexy, right? That’s how you show your male lead is still sexy after all these years. A failure to shave more than once a week.
  2. You’ll need a side kick. Someone eager to win over the protagonists. Someone with vast resources, all the answers, and a desire to share that with only your heroes. Someone to get them back into the game quickly, so you don’t have to do any complicated plotting or character introspection or anything. Oh, and the sidekick should be weirdly perky, in all situations. For fun, let’s have everyone else in the cast pretend not to notice how oddly perky the sidekick is. That’s called “acting”.
  3. Monologues are okay if the hero is doing them. Maybe even the sidekick. But only men can monologue. And, um, let’s say only the white ones. Otherwise it looks too villan-y, and you don’t want that.
  4. Oh, speaking of which, don’t write too many minorities into the story. Your reader will just get confused.
  5. If you do include minorities, make them “safe” ethnicities, like Eastern European, light skinned dark person with no name, or Asian. The normal kind of Asian that you always see on TV: ambiguously Japanese (probably). Don’t confuse anyone by using specifics like “Vietnamese” or “Filipino”. Your reader or viewer only knows the samurai scientist kind and the dim sum waiter kind of Asian.
  6. Oh, and if you do include minorities, they should be the only targets of violence. You have to ease the audience into the idea of violence by starting with the less important characters, so when Important White People are injured later, it will have greater impact.
  7. The female lead should be in the same room as other women only briefly, and only if she can be professionally dismissive, or slightly jealous of the other’s youth and beauty. But don’t make it too obvious, because feminism.
  8. Talk about the past a few times, to establish that yes, you watched or read every single episode/movie/tie in novel. Don’t show anything or anyone you reference, though. Just a few, repetitive, comments will be enough.
  9. Heterosexual men and women should not have too much chemistry together. Heterosexual men should have a lot more chemistry with other heterosexual men. Because bros.
  10. Save the female doctor’s science reveal for the very end, because women shouldn’t science much. Oh, and while she’s had access to the tools, technology, and samples for years, make it never occur to her to have checked these things until there’s a man around to suggest it. We wouldn’t want the story to be that unrealistic.

10 Things You Should Never Say Before Your First Book Is Actually Written, and 3 Things You Should

I get it. I really do. Writing your very first* novel, travel guide, collection of short stories**, how-to text, or any other long form work is exciting. You think ahead to how it will be received, how much money you’ll make, and it’s tempting to jump forward to the good parts… especially when the act of writing it can sometimes be slow. Or painful. Or, impossible, at that particular moment.

So much more fun to talk about it as if it’s a real thing, with potential!

But there are 10 things you should never let yourself say out loud, online, or to other humans, before at least a solid first draft of the project is complete. Some are cardinal sins, some are merely pointless, but all should be avoided (caveats noted):

1. How do I get my book published?

Variations include: Do you have any advice on how to make my book sell? What do think I need to do to make my book popular?

The shortest, truest, answer is: “How would I know?”

Authors, editors, agents — none of us can tell you the “secret” to getting published because there isn’t one. “Write the best book you can” is standard advice, because it’s true, and because each book is different. If you’re writing exactly the same novel as I did, sure, maybe I can tell you who loved mine and wanted to buy it, but why would you want to write a book that’s already been published? Unless it’s the same all the way down into its bones, I couldn’t tell you for certain who would buy it. Acquiring editors base their decisions on the quality of the work, but also on marketing trends, what’s selling now, what’s already been bought but isn’t yet published, how long it will take to get your book out compared to how current/trendy it is, and so on. Generally, a book takes a year or more to see the light of day, and if you’re offering a work “just like that new book that’s selling so well!” by the time a buyer accepts it, gets it edited, laid out, proofed, printed, and distributed, you’re too late. Readers will have moved on.

Once a book is finished, edited, revised, and ready to be shopped around, then you can ask for advice. Once you have a tangible item that your mentor can actually read, it’s so much easier for them to say, “I think XYZ House would love a book like this because their editor was just telling me she wanted the [specific bits] I see here” or “I’ve seen two or three of these exact books out last year, but none of them had your chapter 11 — I’d expand that section to make your work stand out”.

Until then, you’re basically saying: “I’m going to make cookies with lemon juice and ginger in them. Can you tell me if they’ll be delicious? How many people will buy them? I don’t have any for you to taste, but can you tell me what I need to do to make them better?”

Exception: Certain types of non-fiction publishers will hire writers to create books that fit a pre-established line (like the “For Dummies” series). If you want to write specifically for them, you need to first contact them and pitch your idea. This isn’t true for most types of publishing, and if you’re planning to write the book your way, and find a publisher who won’t want to have strict control over every single aspect of it, you need to write it before you worry about publishing.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

2. How do I get an agent?

Variations include: Will your agent read my book? Hey, agent, my book isn’t finished yet but do you want to read it?

You get an agent by submitting a cover letter about your book. Sometimes they’ll want a sample as well, but mostly it’s the cover letter. Sure, you can write that before your book is finished, but if the agent likes the letter, they’ll want to see a sample. If they like the sample (often a complete outline and the first 3 chapters), they’ll want to read the whole book. This process could take months, giving you time to finish the project — or it could take a week. What do you think will happen when the agent finds out you don’t even have a first draft done yet?

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