JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

An Ambitious Work

Dec
22

I hope that my comments yesterday on Stephen King’s IT did not come off as hyper-critical. I know I tend to rant when the passion gets in me.

I could have easily continued rambling on about what is wrong with the book (one thing that really bugs me is the over-reliance on pop culture references, which I find to be a very lazy sort of writing…but I’ll have to save that for a future post).

In all honesty, I am enjoying the book. It is a story I have always enjoyed, since I first saw the TV miniseries in 1990. I enjoy this book much in the same way I have enjoyed the last two Star Wars films–having fun on the ride, but acknowledging the many bumps along the way.

Many critics, including VOX, have described the book as “one of King’s most ambitious works.” Is it?

 

It is all too common to associate ambition with length. The phrase “ambitious work” is often directly tied to, or at least associated with, the work’s length. This is the case with the VOX article, where the length of the book is given in the same sentence where it is described as ambitious.

But is length all that matters when considering a work ambitious?

My answer is no. In fact, I would argue the most ambitious novel you could write today would be 40,000 words. That’s the standard length given for the cutoff between novel and novella. I mean exactly 40,000 words, not one word more or less. To put things in perspective, IT is 444,414 words, more than ten times the length I am suggesting. And the book needs to be a complete, deep, and fulfilling novel in its own right.

Anyone can tick off all the boxes on the novel-writing checklist with enough pages. The test of a really good writer is doing more with less, efficiency and brevity. All the more difficult it is to hit an exact word count without either filler or holes.

But as I mentioned in the last post, we have a tendency to equate length with quality. Longer works are “ambitious” while shorter works are generic. It really bothers me how many speculative fiction publishers have minimum word count requirements of 75,000 words or more when the cutoff for a novel is 40. They often state outright “we will not even look at anything below this.” Why not? You cannot know what you will find unless you look.

The first fantasy book I wrote, In the Valley of Magic, clocked in at 66,000 words. This was after several revisions that added to the length. But the work itself, structurally, is really unlike anything else out right now that I have seen or heard of. That’s why I started with that project, thinking that a unique and novel approach to the fantasy novel (pun intended) would be an easy sell. It’s disheartening to see that it has been rejected several times without consideration just because it didn’t meet some arbitrary length requirement.

On a side note, Fiction Vortex, who is publishing my fantasy series Call of the Guardian, will be picking In the Valley of Magic up later in 2018, after they get their app (Fictionite) and core stories rolling. Good thing about this is that their contracts are dope. Bad part is the waiting, after already waiting an eternity (okay, only since March, but it feels like forever).

All this is because science fiction and fantasy readers have been led to believe that length is quality. Well, sorry it be the bearer of bad news, but length is more often indicative of weak, lazy, bloated writing. You get length when you refuse to cut what needs to be cut, when you do not take care with every word choice. And of course, there is that sentiment that with a longer work you are getting more product for your money. But in the arts, that is not necessarily the case.

This is why I enjoy writing flash and microfiction. These forms force you to consider the efficiency of your words. They train you to be a better writer.

IT is too long for it’s own good, having many sections and even full chapters that should have been cut in the editing process. I don’t find that ambitious at all.

All that being said, I still enjoy the story and find Pennywise to be a disturbing and compelling manifestation of evil. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it. I’m almost to the “apocalyptic rock fight.”

Here’s an important question, since if you are following this blog you probably read some sci-fi and fantasy: Would you be turned off of a fantasy book if it was “too short”? Would you open it to look at the writing, or just pass on sight alone?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments

~J.M.

What Makes a Classic?

Dec
21

This is something that has been brewing in my head for some time. Perhaps fermenting is a better word, because it’s begun to stink.

I ask you, what makes a book a classic? Besides that some stuffy old white men in an ivory tower say so. What makes a book or a story endure?

It’s well acknowledged that Moby Dick is terrible long winded, that Melville in his opus, had a tendency to go on long tangents.

The book Dune, by Frank Herbert, is often consider the best science fiction novel of all time. But it, too, suffers from some weak writing, and more critically, constant and almost nonsensical point-of-view jumps. Not only is the POV done in a way to reveal everything upfront, leaving no room for the reader to wonder or inquire about events or character motives, the POV even jumps heads after one or two paragraphs!

An interesting side note is the fact that the “best science fiction book of all time” is actually more fantasy than science fiction. Sure it’s set in space, in what seems to be the future, but little about how the world functions is explained, and explanation is what makes science fiction scientific. But I digress.

Both Moby Dick and Dune are considered by many to be classics. Both have been reprinted continuously and have had their stories told in other formats such as film, to this day. This is despite the fact that if someone were to have pitched either manuscript to a modern agent or publisher, it probably wouldn’t make the cut for the problems I have already mentioned.

What’s another famous book that has been reprinted and turned into film several times?

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Tim Curry will always be Pennywise to me.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that It is a literary masterwork. But Stephen King is one of the most popular writers of our time. And as noted in The Guardian, “It is one of King’s most enduring novels; it’s crossed over from just being read by his fans, and become a part of a wider cultural consciousness.”

But IT is far from a great book. In places, it is even outright bad. I am currently about sixty percent through the audiobook, but I know the story, I’ve seen the movies. And I am becoming more and more convinced that the movies are simply better.

Most people will tell you, about any film adaptation, that the book is better. This is primarily due to the book having more content, and being able to explain the characters better, cover more ground. In the case of IT, length is a bane not a boon.

Clocking in at 1100 pages or more, depending on the format, the book is a beast. Length is not, by itself, a problem. There are many long books that work just fine. But people seem to have a tendancy to equate length to quality, that a long epic must be some sort of masterpiece. Masterpiece IT is not.

It was Stephen King himself that famously said in his manual On Writing to “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” To this he was rehashing the age old writing rule of write once, cut twice. Writers today are expected to cut down their work, to make it efficient and concise.

It’s perhaps not surprising that On Writing was first published in 2000, almost 15 years after IT. And it shows.

In this book, King violates almost all of his writing rules. In regards to cutting and editing, the book has several sections and even chapters, that have no bearing on the central characters. They might be nice and scary chapters, they might illuminate the monster a bit, but they are far from essential. They would not survive a modern publishers red pen.

The structure of the book is all over the place, and relies on the main character having amnesia, an old cliche. There’s a reason why the films are more appealing. They are linear, and don’t really mention the amnesia bit. It is, in fact, wholly unnecessary for the characters to not remember the events of their past in order to bring the memories up in the narrative bit by bit. It is a a tired, and unnecessary narrative tool.

Then there is the writing itself. King said in On Writing, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created for the timid writer in mind.” Well, King must have been timid in his earlier days, because his book is just stuff with adverbs, bad adverbs. Things like “[the door] banged gustily” and “sitting miserably.”

These combinations of verbs and adverbs don’t even make sense. Adverbs are tied directly to the verb they are modifying. So in the case of “banged gustily”, while King surely meant to mean that the closing of the door caused a gust of wind, what it really means is the sound of the bang was like the wind, as in not loud or at all intimidating. And how does someone “sit miserably”? When I heard that one, the first thing that came to mind was sitting on thumb tacks or something. The miserableness must be related to the verb sitting, that’s how adverbs work. It does not relate to the state of the person sitting. To convey that, you should say something like “Richie was miserable, sitting by himself.”

King continues his assault on adverbs in On Writing, saying “I insist you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions.” Tell that to the guy who wrote IT. I would guess that more than a quarter of the dialogue tags in that book have adverbs. There are whole exchanges where each new dialogue tag has some cute adverb after it. Some are just bad, like “‘daddy… ‘ she whispered huskily.” How do you whisper huskily? A husky voice to me is one that is deep and resonant, the opposite of a whisper.

And of course there’s the problem with Beverly. King should be given credit for how socially conscious his book is. He addresses class, and racism. You even get the feeling that he tries to deal with sexism, too, but he fails. The book is horribly sexist. The only lead female character is constructed solely through her relationships to men. She is also the only character that is sexualized, and often. We are introduced to her in a chapter section that is in the POV of her abusive husband.

Moreover, I have trouble believing that Beverly, after being abused by her father, would fall in with another abuser. My understanding is that child abuse makes people hyper-vigilant, and turns them into future abusers, not victims. There is a time when, during that introductory section, I get the feeling that King might be leading us on, that Tom Rogan just thinks he is in charge and it’s Beverly abusing him. But no joy.  Tom Rogan turns out to be one of the most cliched, and unbelievable characters I have ever read (“I’m going to teach her a lesson”–does any man, even the most abusive chauvinist really think that? I feel like they probably don’t process what they are doing until it’s done).

So with all the problems in this book, and the others mentioned earlier, why are they considered classics?

It’s the story.

King’s book might have problems with it’s prose and structure, but the story is incredible. There’s a reason why Moby Dick is replicated in countless revenge stories. Most people know what Romeo and Juliet is about, but can’t recite more than a few lines from it and often mistake the meaning (wherefore art thou, Romeo?). But the stories are timeless.

The stories are classic.

Well, that’s all the time I have for right now. I think I’ve said my peace about IT. Now I need to finish it. The audiobook is 44 hours! What in the heck?

What do you guys think? Have you read any classics that probably wouldn’t cut it today?

~J.M.

My Writing Process, or Dirty Dancing with the Muses

May
23

Some people are plotters, some people leave their characters adrift in hopes they will do something interesting. Stephen King is in the latter camp, adamantly a member of the let-the-characters-do-their-thing party. I imagine Tolkien must have been a plotter, and a big one. He started out building a language and then wrote a story for it.

I’m neither of these. Or maybe I am both. Am I bi-procedural? I don’t often plot things out in detail, at least not for short stories. Though I am not averse to writing basic synopses and outlines, just so I don’t forget my great idea.

I did do a whole lot more planning for my novel/full-book-thingy, which included outlines for each chapter, characters lists, world and city maps, and sit downs with friends to discuss concepts. I feel like the planning helped a lot in that particular case.

For the novella I am currently writing, I wrote a basic two-page synopsis (which was actually required by the publisher as part of the pitch), but that just included a cast of characters and some basic chapter breakdowns. When I actually sit down and write the chapters, I don’t look at the synopsis, but rather let the story go where it wants to go. But I also don’t like to leave the story completely up to the characters. They don’t know what makes for a good read.

I just wrote a new short story today in a blaze of creative frenzy. I was struck by a muse and it would not be ignored. I knocked out 2000 words in the first two hours of the morning, took a short break to ingest some calories, and finished the final 1500 words in another hour or so. A complete draft of a 3500 word story in four hours is not to shabby!

Sometimes muses come, and I feel the writing is always better than when I have to force it. I imagine muses are different for everyone. Mine can be particularly strong. I usually find a muse in one of two ways: either listening to music, or reading about some intellectual topic such a science or mythology. The former are more common and usually give me fantasy stories, the latter usually offer science fiction tales based on the science I am reading about.

I started getting into writing when I was young because I was a daydreamer. I was always playing scenarios and stories through in my head. After watching medieval shows like The Tudors for example, I usually imagine myself traveling back in time. What would I do to advise the king? Of course, I’d start by teaching them about basic hygiene. No more armies crippled by dysentery. Then I could start my own unit of ninjas. Take old England by silent storm. Princess being held in the tower? Get her back ninjas! My own medieval special forces.

Daydreaming is what sends me muses. After getting an idea or a muse, I usually mull it over in my head, playing through the scenario like a movie. This is probably why my writing is more action centered and visual, since the story is visual to me. The more I daydream on a story, the more potent it becomes, the more motivated I become to write it, and in the end, the better the result.

In the case of this morning’s story, I have been thinking about it since yesterday evening, when a few lyrics from a song I’d heard a hundred times suddenly decided to catch my attention. At that point, the first thing I did was replay the song a dozen times to milk it dry. There were a few more lyrics that inspired bits of the story. I woke up this morning and drove to my morning class, playing the song again, repeatedly, in the car. The story concept was so full at that time, I decided to write down some chronological notes.

Now, I’m not going to give away what song inspired today’s story, I will tell you I wrote a story a couple weeks back under similar circumstances. That one was inspired by A Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran (So Far Away)”. I let you imagine where that took me.

While writing the story, I never looked at my notes, it was good enough that they were there and the idea was secure. I started with the initial scene that had been in my head the night before and let the story build itself, but keeping it close to the road I had paved through all my previous thinking. This morning’s muse was particularly strong and gifted, so I had little trouble getting it all down. I think I had to stop to think through a paragraph or look up a word less than ten times. It was a great writing session. I imagine this initial session like taking a lump of metal and hammering it into the rough shape of a blade.

Now, a couple hours have passed since I have seen my raw draft. I am about ready to go back to it. I have my blade, but now I need to fix any flaws in it, mend the cracks, heat-treat and sharpen it, and affix a fancy handle (If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Forged in Fire). I will look over my raw draft and do a basic proof, while at the same time checking for consistency and continuity in the narrative.

After than, I need to have a friend or two take a red pen to it. That’s a critical step before something is truly ready to be published, at least professionally. There’s a limit to how much an author can see of his own work, like a sort of tunnel-vision or color-blindness. An extra pair of eyes will always improve your writing (well, unless the author has an extra pair, which is weird, and still doesn’t solve author bias). Get some comments, write some revisions and maybe then it’s ready to be sent to someone in a stuffy office somewhere just waiting to ease their stress by trashing something violently. Even if I can only help to ease one soul, maybe it’s all worth it…

Nah. Gimme money! Well, that’s my short story writing process. Usually. Sometimes. It is the ideal, anyways.

That’s my spiel. I hope it helps you think through your process.

So how do you write?

3 Ways to Become a Better Writer

Jan
27

Most writers know two simple ways to get better at writing. They are the basic tips of any professional writing program or class. Stephen King summed it up quite well in his great treatise of the craft On Writing, suggesting “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The writing part is obvious. As with any skill, you get better the more you do it. Reading is less intuitive, but still relatively straight forward–getting better at language requires exposure to language, becoming a better storyteller requires exposure to stories. King goes on to suggest that “reading is the creative center of a writer’s life,” meaning the place you decide what you want to create. He even claims to read 70-80 books a year.

But there is a third thing you can do to help you become a better writer. In addition to reading and writing, writing about writing is extremely helpful in improving your skills. This is much the same as when professional athletes and coaches watch other teams play, examining their strengths and weaknesses. By identifying someone else’s strengths, you can adopt them and make them your own.

Much of what I do with this blog is writing about writing. And to be perfectly honest, I do it mostly for myself. I don’t really have enough followers to honestly believe that I have a large effect on the public. But I don’t need to. Every piece I write, every analysis I do, helps to make me a better writer. That’s why I do it.

I often share stories and articles I like, but I also add my own analysis or point of view. By interacting with other authors’ work, I can tease out what I like–or don’t like–and examine what makes it so. Then I can utilize the skills I like, and avoid the habits I don’t.

Also, discussing writing techniques reinforces them in your own mind. We all forget the basics from time to time. Taking them out of your head, or away from the story, allows you to focus on them more clearly.

You do not need to be a language or writing major to do this sort of textual analysis. All it requires is focus enough to decide what parts you like or dislike, and a little effort to examine why. If you like a piece of writing, there is certainly a technical reason for it. The better you grasp that reason, the better you can emulate it. And in the end, writing is mostly emulation.

I started this blog several months ago, intending primarily to post my own short stories here. Over time, I started sharing other writers’ work and articles on writing techniques. Once I started sharing other authors’ work and doing some analysis, I found myself becoming much better. Even in the few months, I can look back at my first stories and see how far I have come (Go on, compare “The Adventures of Iric” volume 1 to volume 12 and try to tell me I’m not the slightest bit better). I am sure that writing about writing has contributed to that significantly.

Becoming a better writer takes time and investment. King is pretty rough on the point when he suggests “If you feel you must have the news analyst blowhards on CNN while you exercise…it’s time for you to question how serious you really are about becoming a writer….Reading takes time and the glass teat takes too much of it.” It’s harsh, but true. You need to devote time and effort to improving your craft, otherwise you won’t.

In the end, it comes down to three basic methods: reading, writing, and writing about writing. The more you do those, the better you will become.

 

My Writing Space (Or How Not to Follow Stephen King’s Advice)

Dec
21

Fortune favors the bold, or so they say.

I have been reading Stephen King’s great treatise on the craft, On Writing. While I do intend to extract and discuss many key points of the book later, there is one bit that is likely not to make the cut for me: the discussion of proper writing spaces.

This is because my writing space, according to King’s advice, is wholly inadequate. I know this, my cats know this, but it is largely because of them that I am forced to work as I do.

King suggests, amongst other things, that a proper writing space should be a room with a door–a closed door. It should not have a telephone, TV or other distractions. Shades should be drawn and you should be sealed away from the world as best as possible. Closing the door not only insulates you from the chaos of the outside world, but it tells the other people in the house that you are hard at work–unless those people are cats, cats don’t give a damn about your work.

And thus I find myself unable to follow his rules, despite agreeing with them for the most part. I live in a small but reasonable apartment with my wife and a perhaps unreasonable number of feline cohabitants. Ten to be exact (that is a story in and of itself, the abridged version of which is that our most recent rescue came preloaded with six additional color schemes, so to speak). I have a computer room that doubles as a library, but it also triples as a storage area and litter box space. In all we have seven litter boxes, so finding a place where the air is relatively dust-free is difficult.

So I do my work sitting on the living room sofa, typing away on a laptop that rests on a wooden TV tray. I have to place two or three cushions behind me to give enough support to work for hours straight. And as is likely to evoke King’s chagrin, I sit right across from my widescreen TV. The PS4 cannot help itself but call to me. And when it does, I think just a couple rounds of Vermintide won’t hurt right? Then after several hours and many failed levels (Quit running off on your own and getting yourself killed elf! You’ve lost it for the rest of the team! Bastard! I mean how is it that the game is easier with AI teammates than real players?), I feel the pangs of guilt.

Honestly, I don’t know how I get by. I must have some incredible willpower to actually get 4+ hours of work in everyday in such conditions. But loving what I do surely doesn’t hurt.

I’m hoping to make my fortune soon, mostly so I can move into a bigger place and actually have a writing space with a door…and a proper desk. I suggest against trying to struggle through work like I do. Find yourself a nice King-approved space to work in and get it done.