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Month: October 2009

Writing fiction is mentally exhausting

I worked a bit more on my novelette this weekend, The Cliffs of Oakenrah.  The wordcount is now up to 5,600.  I’m still on scene 5 of 21 though, but it’s a rather long scene.  Perhaps it is because I am out of practice, and I haven’t been forcing myself to write everyday whether I feel like it or not (as some writers do), but I am finding the process to be mentally exhausting.  Some of it is because of the actual writing; trying to find the right words, trying to describe things as simply as possible, trying to make sentences flow easily together.  But some of it also has to do with the internal imagining of the world.  If I were just going to sit and daydream, it wouldn’t be very hard; I could probably go through scenes in my head as if they were parts of a movie.  But when I have to write down everything that happens, I have to always slow it down, play it over again and again (and of course it’s always a bit different each time), and pay attention to the details.  Not that my writing is overly detailed, but it’s easier to imagine travelling through a mysterious cave than it is to describe it in words.  It’s easy to imagine the look and movements of fantastical non-existent creatures than it is to describe them in words.  I find that process to be very mentally exhausting.

Dialogue can also be annoying, because as the author I know what I want the characters to talk about, but if they’re talking about something completely different, I have to find a way for them to flow into the desired topic, without it seeming completely forced.  And I have to continually change world-view perspectives in my mind.  The story might be from the point-of-view of one character, but I have to know the world-view and motivation for every character that says something important to write his or her dialogue believably.

And then of course there’s always the balance of info-giving.  Especially since this is a fantasy novelette, there’s a lot of other-worldly stuff I could spend time describing.  But I don’t want to “info-dump,” which might bore readers.  On the other hand, I don’t want to leave too much out, which would confuse readers.  Finding the balance is tricky, especially since it’s something I don’t really think about directly while writing; it’s more an element I just have to get a feel for through feedback I think, since my world is always completely clear to me, the writer.

OK, that’s enough blather isn’t it?

Ten thousand hours might mean nothing

At this point I’m fairly sure I will indeed do NaNoWriMo … sort of.  I’m going to start writing, that is, but I’m not really going to try to win, I’m not going to strive for 50,000 words in a month.  I’m just going to see how much I can get done, but I’m not going to push myself.  That way, I can’t lose!

I spent an hour today finally continuing work on my fantasy novelette, The Cliffs of Oakenrah.  I’m on scene 5 of 21, so there’s a ways to go.  If I finish, it might become longer than Dreamgiver, making it the longest work of fiction I’ve ever completed.  Which, I suppose, is pretty lame compared to most writers, but very superior compared to people who never write anything.

TEN THOUSAND HOURS

I was listening to a writing podcast the other day, and I heard the concept of the “ten thousand hours to expert” come up once again.  I think some writers and artists in general are interpreting the concept in a ridiculous way, taking it to mean that an artist’s art won’t be any good until the artist has ten thousand hours of experience, and that artists who do have ten thousand of experience are objectively better because of it.  But I think the arts are a bit too subjective for that, and I think people forget that there’s a difference between experience and practice, as I mention on the Book Quotes Blog.  Even I have used the terms synonymously, when they’re not exactly synonymous.  Getting more experience doing something you already know how to do well might not help you much, might not make you that much better.

Really, though, it just comes down to the subjectivity of an art like writing.  It’s hard to argue that you’re a better chess player if you keep losing games, or a better piano player when you can’t play anything by Chopin.  But there are no games or rules in writing.  And we don’t have “author’s experience hours” stamped on the back of books to help us decide whether or not it’s something we’ll like.

So please please just stop applying the ten thousand hour rule to something as subjective as writing fiction.  It actually doesn’t mean quite so much in such a context.  I’m sure there are plenty of inexperienced writers whose first works I would find brilliant, and plenty twenty-thousand-hours experienced writers who might make me want to jump of cliff to end the torture of knowing their work was deemed by someone else to be publishable.

Nor does the ten thousand hour concept apply to walking, eating, sleeping, daydreaming, etc.

I still think about this post by writer John Scalzi (especially since it was brought up in the podcast I mentioned as being a “painfully honest post”).

While I agree with a lot of what he says, I also think he is making the mistake of thinking his own experience counts for a bit too much.  Experience does not make your opinions more valid, not in the subjective art world, as he (and many others) seem to think.  I believe that that is a snobby way to think.  Sometimes people compare writing to fields in which opinions aren’t subjective, like medicine.  (“I want my doctor to have experience!”)  Well, duh.  There is right and wrong in medicine.  Writing, not so much.  Yes, there is some, but not nearly as much.  Writing is based on our desires, the rules come from our opinions.  Medicine doesn’t work that way.  Experience writing also does not automatically make you a better writer.  You have to practice … you have to work to understand the conventions of our time, understand how you as a reader respond to other people’s works, understand how the authors you enjoy write the way they do.  So, yes, I do agree that inexperienced authors (including me) tend to not be as good.  I still don’t have any sense of how a plot should arc over the course of something novel size, as I have never finished writing a novel.  But that opinion comes from me, not some scientific objective rule about novel plot arcs, and not from writers who are more experienced looking down upon me judging my work.  And I’m not going to get better (which is also subjective) without getting feedback from others, including publishers who reject my work.

It’s not science (well, technically it is; it’s psychology, but it’s nothing we can currently objectively study).  It’s definitely not medicine.  And authors are not doctors.

And that’s all I have to say today.

Read a book, write a book

READ A BOOK

Why Don't Students Like School? The other day I finished reading the book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom and I put up some quotes from the book on my Book Quotes blog.  It was a short read, only 165 pages.  It’s really meant for teachers, but as someone who is interested in our terrible American education system, I quite wanted to read it.  It takes a psychological perspective on education, which would probably interest anyone interested in the basic psychology of learning.

That’s only 8th book I’ve finished this year.  I probably could’ve read more by now, but I’m reading about 8 more books simultaneously at the moment, so finishing one takes a lot longer.  And of course sometimes I just give up on a book.  I realized yesterday that I only finished reading one fiction book this year, the other seven were all non-fiction.

WRITE A BOOK

I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll participate in NaNoWriMo next month.  I have some fun new ideas floating around in my head, so it’s quite tempting, but I do want to finish my album, obviously.  I keep going back and forth.  One day I’ll think to myself “oh, I’ve gotta at least try NaNoWriMo; this idea is just too exciting to resist,” and then the next day I’ll think, “I can’t do it, I’ve gotta finish this album.  I don’t want to have to worry about writing fiction too.”

So I still don’t know what I’ll do.  It will all depend on how I feel in November I guess.

Deadline failure and other such things

I was hoping to compose 5 minutes of music a week, starting last Tuesday, but unfortunately I was only able to compose 2 minutes and 46 seconds by this past Sunday.  So I fail!  Shocking, no?

I blame a few things:

deadlineclock1)  My job. It’s a part-time job, so I can’t blame it for taking up too much time, but it does take up time.  So I must blame it.

2)  Fatigue. This is also job related.  When I have to work at 9 AM, that means I am pretty much tired throughout the day.  Which isn’t a problem for doing most things.  But I think a lot while I’m composing; it’s a very mind-intensive activity; it takes a lot of focus for me.  And when I’m fatigued, music has a way of lulling me off to the land of pleasant dreams, especially the incredibly fantastic music I compose.  So it is extremely difficult to compose while fatigued.  I did try taking some caffeine tablets, but alas, no effect.  I must have high caffeine tolerance.  I could feel it make my heart beat faster, but nothing else.  Of course, caffeine really isn’t supposed to be used to counter sleep-deprivation, so maybe it has nothing to with tolerance.  But that’s what some people seem to use it for and they swear by it.  It doesn’t help me though.

3)  Not being able to stay up all night. Again, job related.  Since I have to be at work at certain hours, I am not free to simply stay up as late as I want composing and then just sleep until I am not tired anymore.  (Not that this problem doesn’t plague most people.)  I sometimes seem to think more actively at night, perhaps because there are fewer distractions; the TVs and radios are off, no one’s on the phone and no one calls, etc.  But I can’t use the time to my advantage if I need to get some sleep in before going to work.

4)  Perfectionism. Or pickiness.  I spent 2.5 hours a few nights ago composing and orchestrating 4 bars.  I think that’s the longest 4 bars ever took me.  But I’m very pleased with the result.  Though I suppose I could fiddle around and tweak orchestration for many many hours, it always eventually has to come to a point in which I am pleased enough and must move on.

5)  Other stuff. For example, on Tuesday, I had to spend time tidying the house for guests.  Chores are evil and must be blamed.

That said, I must say I’m extremely pleased with the progress I’ve been making with my latest piece so far.  I went to bed yesterday with the melodies I composed annoyingly humming through my mind uncontrollably.

A big disadvantage of giving myself a deadline has emerged: I get angry. And stressed.  And a bit depressed.  And what fun is that?  I blame all the other stuff I must do, like go to work, which just makes going to work that much more painful and annoying.  So I’m very much considering throwing away the deadline and just composing as often as I can.  I don’t want to be angry by having goals and then not reaching them due to things like having to go to work that I can do little about.  Or I could just blame my undisciplined self for not being more disciplined and getting more done when I do have chances, but that won’t make me any happier either.

FEDERATIONS

federationsSince I don’t have much time for composing, I have even less time to read, but in what short moments I can spare, I’ve been reading a collection of science fiction short stories in a book called Federations.  Here are my very short reviews of the few stories from the book I’ve read so far.  They are only my subjective opinions, and I am perhaps more picky than most (ratings are on a scale of 0-5 stars):

Mazer in Prison by Orson Scott Card:  4 stars.  I actually read this in another book before, so I skipped reading it again, but I almost always enjoy Orson Scott Card.  Very good story from the Ender’s Game universe.

Carthago Delenda Est by Genevieve Valentine:  2 stars.  Though the premise was very interesting, the author didn’t seem to do much with it.  It was more of an idea story, as nothing much really happened.  A world was presented, some unimportant things took place, and that was it.

Life-Suspension by L. E. Modesitt:  0 stars.  Interesting characters with interesting dynamics.  But nothing very interesting happened.  And there were these battle scenes that were too cryptic for me with all their pilot-in-battle speak.

Terra-Exulta by S. L. Gilbow:  3.5 stars.  Not really a story, but a very fun fictional letter.  I enjoyed it.

Aftermaths by Lois McMaster Bujold:  1.5 stars.  Again, an interesting premise, but an uninteresting story.

Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy by Harry Turtledove:  2 stars.  Had it’s funny moments, but most of it’s humor was just stale and annoying, as if the author just wrote the story off the top of his head, writing down every stupid joke he thought of.  Didn’t really work for me.

Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason:  3.5 stars.  Started off a bit confusing, but once the story started rolling, it was actually quite good.

Different Day by K. Tempest Bradford:  0 stars.  Yikes.  While I like the idea of not portraying an alien race as a clichéd “monoculture” (as we humans certainly aren’t), this not-really-a-story didn’t really do much with it.  It’s just a three page ramble.

And that’s all for today, methinks.