Well, not really moving, because I should still be posting here, and who knows, maybe even selling books through this website? But I’ve decided to serial-publish my two draft novels on Substack, starting (I hope!) in the next couple of months. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll also be available as ebooks and print books, so you’ll have your options. But in the meantime, I’d truly appreciate it if you followed me over there (i.e., sign up for a free subscription). You can see what I’m posting and sign up here. (So far just notes, not any actual posts yet.)
What you can expect: Once I begin publishing chapters from Ada’s Children, the first three chapters will be free, then if you want to read the rest it will be $5/month. It will probably take about four months to publish all of Ada at a rate of two chapters each week. So the ebook would be cheaper. Don’t know yet what the print version would cost, so I can’t give a comparison there. I’ve found that it’s very easy to start and stop paid subscriptions, so you don’t need to worry about getting roped into something and not being able to turn it off.
I’ll also be publishing various free pieces about my writing process and the background to the novels (similar to what you’ve seen me post here). If there’s interest, I might do a free how-to series, something like Fiction 101. Not sure whether that part would be paid or not.
(I know, I know! Another platform! But many of you may already subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson or other journalists on Substack. I think you can turn off email alerts and stuff like that.)
Thanks, and looking forward to seeing some of you over at Substack!
Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.
The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)
At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.
So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)
I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.
Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.
A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children,a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.
Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:
These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?
My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools,emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)
All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.
Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.
PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.
SPOILERS IF YOU’RE ONE OF THE TWO PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN AVENGERS: ENDGAME!
Last week, an alternate version of Natasha Romanoff’s death scene in Avengers: Endgame surfaced on Twitter. Cue the debate over which version is better. (And also a revival of the debate over which character should have sacrificed themselves. I don’t want to get into that here, but I do sympathize with Team Black Widow.)
This article cherry-picked a few tweets to claim that Marvel fans prefer the alternate version. But a quick survey of the replies and likes on @MCUPerfectClips’ post of the clip shows the opposite: most fans found the original to be more emotional and impactful.
It’s easy to understand why, if you take into account the first rule of storytelling: stories are about people. People who want something. Who meet other people who want different or opposing things. Which creates conflict to drive the story forward.
This conflict could lead to people shooting each other and blowing things up — or it could lead to acerbic comments over cups of tea, as in Happy Hogan’s favorite show, Downton Abbey. Either way, the action starts in the characters’ motives and goals. The more the story focuses in on that conflict and the relationship between those characters, the more compelling it’s going to be. All the sword fights and shootouts and other activities that pass for “action” are just offshoots of this internal drama.
So let’s look at how this plays out in both versions. First, the setup: Natasha, aka Black Widow, and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, are after the Soul Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that are key to beating the series’ super-villain, Thanos. And not just beat him, but reverse the events of Avengers: Infinity War in which he wiped out half of all living beings in the universe. To get the stone, they have to trade a soul for a soul by sacrificing someone they love, specifically by throwing them off a cliff. That means one of them has to die, or the timeline in which Thanos destroyed half the universe will remain the same.
Of course, these are heroes who are also good friends, so neither is going to sacrifice the other. They’re going to race to see who gets to go over the cliff in a glorious act of self-sacrifice.
Here’s the original:
And here’s the alternate version that didn’t make it into the movie. You have to watch it in two chunks, which overlap by about a minute. The important thing to know is that in this version, they end up racing Thanos for the Soul Stone.
For me, the original is far better. It focuses in on the sacrifice each character is ready to make. The dialogue and the skilled performances pull us right into the moment. The conflict between them grows for over a minute, through several beats of rising tension, before Clint tries to physically prevent Nat from making the sacrifice.
During that conversation, they reveal a lot about their motives. We see how much each character has grown over the course of the series of Avengers movies when Clint says, “Don’t go getting all decent on me now,” making a reference to Nat’s assassin past, and when he says, “You know what I’ve done.” They both have stuff to atone for. The stakes for Clint are also revealed in a natural way when he says, “Tell my family I love them.”
Nat especially makes it clear that this is her choice, a sacrifice she’s been willing to make since Thanos turned her friends to dust in the existing timeline. It also refers back to her statement in an earlier movie about wanting to erase the red in her ledger. If there’s any way to do that, this is it. It doesn’t really have anything (or much) to do with the fact that she has no family or children to mourn for her, whereas Clint does.
When the action starts, it seems much more impactful because of the depth of the preceding exchange. Everything they’re doing grows out of who they are as characters and what their immediate goals are. They’re both tough and can take hard hits, so each has to disable the other in a nonlethal way, and this shapes the short fight scene. (Some found it gimmicky and silly, but I thought it was much more interesting than a standard fight.) It also seems in character that Nat is able to outsmart Clint by trapping him at the end of the dangling wire once they go over the cliff’s edge. He can’t release himself from the wire without letting her go.
The long moments when he’s trying to hang onto her and she’s pleading with him to let her go are like knives to the heart. But in the end it’s still her choice, as she kicks off from the cliff, overwhelming the strength of his grip. The scene doesn’t have a lot of shooting and knife-fighting, but it’s filled with tension and pathos. From the realization of what they need to do to get the Soul Stone right up to the climax, the scene has a perfect narrative arc, providing both edge-of-your-seat adrenaline and raw emotion.
For me, the weakest part of the MCU has always been its cartoonish villains (go figure, it’s a cartoon!), while its strongest points are exactly these moments where the action slows down and characters and their relationships get room to breathe. So by that measure, the version without Thanos is automatically better for me.
The scene with Thanos, on the other hand, goes mostly for a big action sequence, with much less of the character development of the original release. And the briefer verbal interaction is far less compelling. Nat shouldn’t need to remind Clint that “If this works, you know what you get back.” He already knows that his family will still be alive if the Avengers change the timeline and beat Thanos. Not only is this bald exposition unnecessary, but it also makes explicit what was only hinted at in the original: that people, especially women, who don’t have families are worthless. The original was criticised for that implied perspective on women (for instance, in this Vanity Fair article), but this version is worse.
The whole conflict between Nat and Clint is cut short when Thanos appears. Now they have to beat him to the cliff’s edge, and they need to battle their way through a bunch of his minions to do it. This provides them both an opportunity for much more standard heroics, but for me, Thanos’s appearance only waters down the conflict, rather than strengthening it. The goals and the stakes become muddled and confused.
In this version’s ending, Nat also makes the choice to sacrifice herself, after having also saved Clint from a sword-wielding minion, but it seems much more rushed, and much less dramatic than in the original. There’s far more dramatic action in her one whispered line from the original, “It’s okay,” than in an hour of sword skills and futuristic weapon blasts.
Which goes to show, you don’t need to go out in a blaze of energy pulses or light saber thrusts to have a heroic death. And in writing, you can throw in all the event and spectacle you want, but it won’t mean much if that action doesn’t emerge from character.
“Mill the gig with a betty, then we’ll strip the ken and backslang it out of here. I’ll lumber the swag at the stalling crib and we’ll be up in the stirrups.”*
One of the fun parts of writing a story set in the underworld of 18th-century London is getting to use Thieves’ Cant, or flash speech. What is Thieves’ Cant? It was a secret language attributed to criminals, mostly in Great Britain, beginning in the 1500s. Whether thieves actually used this language to disguise their activities, or whether it was invented by writers of pamphlets about thieves’ culture and dictionaries of their language, there seems no telling; probably there was a little of both. The speech became popular in Elizabethan theatre, and in the 18th century the Bow Street runners (early police) were said to be familiar with it.
Many of the terms are still used today: crib, crack, fence, gams, and grub all meant roughly what they do in today’s slang (or maybe the slang of old Hollywood gangster movies). Now we call an alcoholic a lush; back then the word meant either an alcoholic drink or the state of being intoxicated, and a drunken man was a lushy-cove.
Yesterday I talked about how to get just the right amount of “cowbell” in your story: no more than 10 or 20 percent should be exposition or “telling.” I also broke down three different types of writing: exposition, narrative summary, and scene. Now let’s look at some examples to see how writers, from novelists to songwriters, have handled this mix.
First up, chapter one of Pride and Prejudice. It opens with one of the most famous (and famously abstract) opening passages in literature:
I’m going to say a couple of blasphemous things here. First, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” could use more cowbell. And second, in writing it’s sometimes okay to tell rather than show.
A friend posted this article by Chuck Palahniuk in our writing group a few weeks back, and somehow it got under my skin.
In six seconds, you’ll hate me.
But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward – at least for the next half-year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
He was right, I did hate him. Or rather, I felt a pressure around my temples as I hovered the cursor over the Facebook “anger” emoticon. Really, Chuck (I thought!), no thinking at all? Sounds extreme. My novel is in first person, and my narrator naturally thinks a bit, so maybe I felt somewhat sensitive on this issue.
Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.
Snarking at each other — or perhaps politely teasing each other — over tea is about all my characters do (when they’re not being robbed by cross-dressing highwaymen or dueling with swords). In some novels, it’s literally all they do (see Rachel Cusk’s Outline). Jane Austen was criticized for exactly this. Even her publisher said that Emma“wants incident and romance, does it not?”
(So I only waited nine months to write my first post of the year — long story for another time.)
I was writing an article for KCET.org recently when I realized that my brain doesn’t work quite the way it used to. This should have been a return to familiar ground, since the article was about the ways California’s indigenous peoples affected their environment before Europeans invaded, which is the topic of my first book (and thanks to my friend and former conservation colleague, Chris Clarke, for asking me to write the article).
But in the middle of it I realized I was having trouble getting the ideas in the most sensible order. I was taking a compare-and-contrast approach, which should be simple. And yet my brain kept bouncing from one idea to another and then back, the differences and the similarities running into each other like bumper cars driven by three-year-olds. It was a godawful mess in the beginning of the process, and even in the middle, though I did get it straightened out in the end.
This never used to happen to me. And then it hit me, maybe writing fiction uses my brain in a whole different way.
When I’m working on a novel, I want that state of cacophony. As I’m writing a scene, I want the characters and their actions to bounce off each other, conflicting, forming new possibilities. I can’t just focus on one character and then move on to the next. I have to know what all the characters want, all at once. I also have to know where they are, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. At any given moment, I have to be ready to draw from all of the fiction writer’s tools: action, dialogue, description, internal monologue, idea.
Of course, this can’t just come out as a random spew. Fiction is still linear, so actions have to follow each other in a logical order. Descriptions of setting need to be structured and selective. Dialogue has to have an order to it as well, even when it’s non-directive. But to get that magical thing that happens with fiction — to make it immersive — I have to have that cacophony going in my brain first. Maybe writing fiction is like making a stew (or a gumbo or a salad) while writing nonfiction is like creating an intricate five-layer cake. (Or something.)
Sometimes, if I’ve done enough work in advance on a scene, it feels like it’s writing itself. But most often it’s like I’m picking bits out of the air as my mind skips around among the possibilities. I might go from “What does Character X say next?” to “What does Character X do five chapters later?” and then back again by way of “Exactly what shade of green is the meadow where she’s standing?” or “Wait, is there really a street lamp here in 18th-century Bath?” So I spend a lot of time musing, writing a sentence or two, more musing. It may not be the quickest way to write (I’ve never won one of those word count writing challenges) but it all feels productive.
I actually had to train my brain to write this way. When I first tried writing fiction seriously, way back as a sophomore in college, I would get frustrated not automatically knowing what the next sentence should be. (This was so long ago that I don’t think “pre-writing” was even a thing yet.) I should know what comes next just as easily as I know which idea comes next when writing a term paper or an article, right?
Even when I was writing “narrative nonfiction,” the narrative was drawn from my own experience. I’d narrate what happened, with a big focus on where it happened, and then link that to whatever idea I was exploring. It wasn’t completely linear — sometimes those links were metaphorical — but it required me to keep my thoughts in order much more as I wrote. When I dabbled in fiction during these years, the requirements of building a whole fictional world from scratch were daunting. My linear, nonfiction brain just wasn’t up to the task. I’d begin a story, but everything felt flat, the characters seemed like cartoons, nothing moved.
Ironically (or perhaps understandably), it wasn’t attempts at “serious fiction” that helped me retrain my brain; it was writing completely frivolous fanfiction based on a video game. (You can check out the results here.) This was low-stakes and fun to write, plus there was the crutch of using the setting and the scenarios developed by Bethesda Softworks, allowing me to focus on characters and dialogue and action — all the things that had proved so difficult for me when creating something completely new. (Even the first novel in my current series isn’t completely invented, but a mashup of Jane Austen and a famous Alfred Noyes poem. You’ve heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This might be called Sense and Sensibility and Cross-Dressing Highwaymen. But few works of fiction are completely new, especially in this post-post-modern age.)
The main thing I learned in writing that fantasy fanfiction was the patience to let my brain work itself into a productively cacophonous state. And now, four years and 400,000 words later, maybe that’s the only way my brain works anymore (or maybe I’m just getting old!). But since I just crossed the 50,000-word mark in the second of my Highwayman novels, maybe I shouldn’t be too worried.
No, don’t tuck your laptop under your pillow. Or print out your novel and sprinkle the pages between the sheets. And certainly don’t sleep on a typewriter, like the young woman at right. (Ouch, my neck hurts just looking at that.)
But if you’re a writer short on time for writing, and especially if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, putting your subconscious to work while you sleep can be the key to making progress on your novel (or memoir, short story, or whatever).
It’s no secret that the subconscious is where a lot of creative work gets done. It’s the source of those “Aha!” moments, the creative breakthroughs that come seemingly out of nowhere. The cliché of the writer keeping a notepad and pen on the night table exists for this reason: it works. Sci Fi writer William Gibson takes a power nap in the middle of his writing day, and says it’s the key to keeping his work flowing.
But wait, you say, your subconscious is busy with other stuff: obsessing about work, rehashing a mean thing a friend said, or replaying scenes from the latest mega action thriller. If you dream, those are the things you dream about, and when you wake up at three a.m., that’s what’s going through your head.
The trick is to make your Work in Progress (WIP) the main thing your brain obsesses over. Here are some tips to put your subconscious to work for you:
Read your WIP right before shutting off the light. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your novel, whether it’s an outline, character sketches, or the first few chapters. If you read your notes or most recent scenes right before going to sleep, chances are your mind will continue working on them overnight. If you wake up at three a.m., you’ll be thinking about how to get your heroine out of that tight spot (or, if you’re really lucky, she’ll present the solution to you).
Be that clichéd writer who keeps a notepad by the bed. Or tablet, smart phone, whatever, just as long as you can capture whatever burst of inspiration you have in the middle of the night or as you wake up. (But don’t stress if you fall back asleep before getting it down. I find that the good ideas stick, so I’ve never developed this habit. As with anything in writing, YMMV.)
Carry your manuscript with you. Remember the potato baby or sack-of-sugar baby the sex ed teacher made you carry around? Be like that with your manuscript, whether you print out a few pages, or view it on your tablet or smart phone. You don’t even need to add to it, but just review it on your coffee break, train commute, or whatever scraps of time you have. You may not be able to increase your word count much in ten or fifteen minutes, but you can keep your novel at the forefront of your mind.
Clear the decks. Avoid other media that tend to occupy a lot of imaginative space. A gripping novel. A spine-tingling movie. Or, if you’re like me, that really involving video game. Whatever it is, if you find you’re dreaming about it or waking up in the middle of the night thinking about it, then you should avoid it like last month’s leftovers in the back of the fridge.
Read for inspiration. It’s often said that writers should spend half their writing time reading. But when you’re cranking out a manuscript, whatever reading you do should keep your head in the world of your novel, not distract you from it. Nonfictional background material is great. Maybe books on police procedure if you’re writing a crime novel. History, if you’re working on a historical. If you have to read fiction, try novels you’ve already read and find inspiring. Since you already know the plot, you can focus on techniques without getting too involved.
If you practice these tips every day, soon your co-workers will wonder about that faraway gaze you wear during meetings. And if it really works, you’ll feel like you can’t wait to sit down to write, rather than staring at a blank screen when you finally have the time.
Oh, and if you still want to put that laptop under your pillow, go right ahead.
What tricks do you use to keep your brain focused on your manuscript? Share them in the comments below!
Today’s distraction chain:
Sit down to make notes for next project
Turn on Pandora to drown out distracting radio
Pandora not working because of Flash issue
Research Flash issue —
my Chromebook not affected but need to turn off auto-play videos
Go to Facebook to do that
Notice a confederate flag profile pic liking one of my posts –grrr. Post about that.
Check email, reply to several.
Follow several suggested Twitter people.
Notice that one of my friends on Twitter isn’t in lists, so I’ve been ignoring her.
Fix that, read some of her tweets, retweet.
Remember another friend has just joined Twitter.
Search her name, but another person pops up in the auto-fill.
She’s tweeting about my fave author Ellen Kushner, so I have to join in.
Back to searching for friend, welcome her to Twitter.
Check Feedly, notice nice essay from Nicola Griffith about Alice Sheldon.
Bookmark for later, but notice link to her essay about the meaning of ‘wife.’
Post about that.
Hear recycling truck, rush to take out trash and recycling.
Reauthorize flash plugin
Start up Pandora (Loreena McKennitt mix)
Back to work
(oops, have to post about all these distractions)
Now, back to work