So…Freaking…Tired

I moved back to Utah today. Got about two hours of sleep before leaving for the airport at 4:30 (I tried, but I couldn’t help it! I couldn’t sleep!), then basically slept, listened to podcasts, and talked with this lady from Tennessee all the way to SLC. Then, busy busy busy busy busy…holy cow! I’m pooped.

But I did get some writing in while I was in the airplane. And, surprise, surprise, it wasn’t on my novel. You see, last night, while I was writing on the novel, I had this idea for a story flash into my mind. It could make for a very good short story. I decided today to run with it.

The idea is this: what if there was a guy who could tell who was and wasn’t going to hell? And if this same person could give people a vision of hell? What would happen? How would individuals and society react to him? Would they accept him or reject him? And what if he wasn’t even a religious guy? Just because he knows about hell doesn’t mean that he knows anything about everything else. He could deduce some presuppositions to the existence of hell, but logic doesn’t translate into faith. What basically would be his story?

I started today by basically brainfarting on the subject. I put it in the first person and just started writing anything that the idea brought to mind. When I realized that I had to describe what hell looked like, it became a little bit tougher (and I’ll probably edit that section a lot), but mostly it just flowed out. However, the stuff that’s flowing out of my mind is DEFINITELY not anywhere close to a finished product. It doesn’t have a whole lot of structure, and where it does, it’s too lengthy. I’ll definitely have to cut it down. But that comes later. I figure it’s better to get it out now.

This is a lot different than Decision LZ150207 that I wrote a while ago. That story basically sprouted from my head fully formed. I’ve since edited the beginning quite a bit, and some of the descriptions, but the basic story hasn’t changed.

Also with Decision LZ150207, I had a great idea that I didn’t act on for a long time. It just sat in my brain and played itself over and over again until its demands to be written were greater than all of the other demands on my time. It was probably some of the least painful writing I’ve done, but that idea had a lot of time to die. It surprised me that it stayed alive.

What I’m wondering is this: if, in a flash of the mind, you get this idea that you think is really good for a story, is it better to focus on that idea right away, to at least start the story before the idea fades and is forgotten, or is it better to wait and not write until something just comes to you?

So…Freaking…Tired…my knee jerk reaction is to say that you should run with what you’ve got. And that’s why work on the novel is going to take the backseat until I figure out if the idea works or not.

So…tired…night!

3,000 Words Today

Yeah, I did about 3,000 words in The Lost Colony today.  I’m just about caught up to the place where I was before I decided to rewrite the first chapter.  About a third of that was cut and pasting from the previous part, but I did have to substantially edit it.

The funny thing is that it was a struggle to get myself settled down and actually writing, but once I did, the time flew by like nothing and so did the words.  Last night, I didn’t write anything because it was late and I was very tired, and I figured that it would be better to make it up today.  I figure that goals are only useful if they push you to the best possible end.  They’re not there to make you feel guilty or satisfied, they’re there to get you to do something.  If I get overly swamped with schoolwork, or a family death happens, or I’m in desperate need of sleep, I’m not going to make myself spit out 500 words of forced prose.  Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking or saying this.  (I highly recommend Mur Lafferty’s podcast, by the way.)

All day today, I had it in the back of my mind to sit down and write, but whenever I tried, I always distracted myself.  It was weird.  I need to get past this, but I’m not sure how.  I figure it will happen naturally as I get deeper in the story.  I think that writing is most enjoyable when you really believe passionately in the story itself.  I think that that’s also one of the best motivators for writing.  I’m sure there are others–like, for example, starvation–but when I really have a good story idea, I almost CAN’T keep from writing.  This past winter, I had this awesome story idea of a bunch of guys in someone’s brain piloting him like some kind of spaceship and helping him to overcome his fears and ask a girl out on a date.  I kept poring over the story in my mind until one day I just sat down for three hours–and voila! an entire rough draft came out beautifully!  One major edit and a few cosmetic changes later, it actually won a writing contest.  So yeah, it really helps if you’re passionate about your story!

The question is, how do you get yourself more excited about the story you’re trying to tell?

School is coming up, and I’m about to discover if I’ve got too much on my plate.  18 credit hours, advanced Arabic plus living in the Arabic house, working part time, no car (not yet–I just sold my old one), and other craziness.  Despite all this, I am very much looking forward to going back to school.  It will be exciting!  It will also be exciting to get involved in Quark again.  We’ve had some good online meetings, but only a handful of people have shown up to those (mostly just Reigheena and Aneeka).  A lot of people in the writing group have graduated, so I really hope we can bring in some new blood this semester.

Writing Advice From Seven Years Ago

One of the nice things about being at home is that I can go through all the old stuff that I didn’t take with me to college. You know, all that stuff from high school that got thrown into a box when I left on my mission and has been gathering dust for a few years.

As I was looking through the stuff, I found a bunch of little slips of paper and notes in various well-worn pocket sized notebooks. They contain little bits of philosophical thoughts and writing advice that I jotted down back when I was a high school freshman. THAT was a long time ago!

At first, I didn’t want to read it, but when I did, I found out that a lot of the stuff is actually pretty good. Here is some of it:

Before writing, one must know that one’s satisfaction in the writing comes not from external sources, such as popularity, acceptance by a publisher, or remarks made about the finished product. One’s satisfaction in one’s writing must come FROM the writing.

Perhaps we need stories so that we can look at things and treat them as suggestions instead of absolute truth; to read things as fiction may help us pull out the facts.

The essence of a question is not in the pursuit of its answer, but in the curiosity and imagination of the one who pursues the question.

It’s propositions and ideas that make up how we see and act, and imagination is the single most important faculty in conceptualizing [developing] these.

List of Wants and Desires:

  • I want to learn how to write clearly and articulately
  • I want to express my thoughts
  • I want to learn how to write better than I can walk
  • I want to write as if it’s play, not work
  • I want to shake off my perfectionist foundation of myself like an old, wet coat
  • I want to be able to open up peoples minds to new realms of thought and imagination with a single statement
  • I want to be present

You see all the ways things can go wrong. Now, broaden your vision and see all the ways things can go right.

How can you possibly doubt that which you understand not if the truth is what you seek for?

Either you know what you’re talking about, or you say it so easily that you end up finding out.

It seems that there must be some sort of law that says you can never know exactly why you do some of the things you do; the more light I shed on myself the more is hid in its shadow.

Cynicism never increases understanding.

Always leave something for the reader to “marvel at,” with every bit revealed. The last bit should capture the essence of virtue and humanity, and make a bold statement of them.

Never lose eagerness, never be discouraged, never be slave to perfection.

Don’t conclude; expose.

It can always be better, but better is relative.

Are you a writer or a critic? or even a cynic? Change! You can’t critique something that hasn’t been written. The best is not always perfect.

Here’s a funny one:

Sometimes in order to be able to “not do” you have to “do,” but you can’t do that which you must “do” if you’re “doing” that which you “must not do.”

“I don’t like half of you half as much as I should like…”

Moving on:

Don’t write about what you are unsure about, but make things flexible so that they may bend with the developing plan.

It’s much more important to make a mistake than to not. We learn from mistakes.

Do all to let creativity loose while you write; be relaxed and inventive!

In response to the quote: Everything in Fiction is False: If you can feel it, it exists.

Don’t be afraid of losing something you haven’t got yet, and you’ll be quite alright.

There you go. What happened to these little slips of paper, you may ask? Well, the next year, while I was right in the middle of the awkward teenage years, I got really self conscious about my writing, threw everything I’d been working on in eighth and ninth grade out the window (including two novels that had reached 100+ pages), stuffed all these little slips of paper into a folder somewhere and tried to forget about them. I haven’t read them ever since–until now.

It’s surprising to realize that they aren’t full of crap like I thought they were. Some of them are probably more accurate (or more well-written) than others, and there are some embarrassing ones that I didn’t put up here, but yeah, these ones aren’t all that bad.

Hope you liked them!

What Makes Good Science Fiction?

I wrote this a while ago on my other blog and thought I’d put it up here, since it’s pertinent to writing and fiction in general. It’s basically my thoughts on what science fiction is and what makes for good sci fi. Everyone’s personal definition of science fiction varies, and this is mine.

I originally wrote this in defense of a critique of Firefly I wrote that sparked a lot of controversy in many sci fi circles, so I’ll edit out the rebuttals and other stuff that doesn’t really pertain to the main point.

What Makes Good Science Fiction?

First of all, I think that good sci fi should have the qualities of good fiction in general. That is, it should be written well and be strong in the basic story elements, such as characterization, point of view, dialogue, etc. In particular, the story should have good conflict and character development.

I sometimes help out the people at The Leading Edge with their slushpile, and I’ll often read stories that are well written but just don’t have anything compelling or interesting about them. They basically seem to go like this: “stuff happens, the end.” The characters are flat and the conflict is boring. The story is forgettable, and it’s hard to find something in it that you can really care about. Usually, this can be fixed by developing the characters better and making sure that the reader can relate to both the characters and the conflict. This is important in any fiction.

Moving on to something that a lot of people find controversial, good science fiction (as well as good fiction in general) shouldn’t be obsessed with sex or treat sex as synonymous with love. In the last several decades, there’s been a deliberate and concerted effort in the mainstream American media to get society to abandon most of its traditional moral values concerning sexuality, and I’m personally in the camp that sees this as a bad thing.

Not that I think that fiction has to follow all my morals to be good; I’ve read some good sci fi that is also quite explicit (eg Veil of Ignorance by David Barr Kirtley). It has more to do with pushing the line for the sake of a social agenda, or pushing the sex just to get an arousal out of the readers. These kinds of stories seem to send the message that “true love = sex” and “anything is ok if you’re ‘in love.’ ” It’s not just that I disagree with these ideas on a moral basis, it’s that I think that they’re erroneous in the first place. Yes, you can have sex and love at the same time, and you can even have sincere love and extramarital sex at the same time (eg Braveheart), but you can also have strong romantic love without the sex (eg Cyrano de Bergerac) and sex that really isn’t about love at all, even between consenting adults.

Love, including romantic love, is really about much more than just the sex. To focus disproportionately on the sex while neglecting other aspects of the relationship lessens the quality of any fiction.

Now, to get onto the stuff that distinguishes science fiction from other genres, and specifically makes for good science fiction.

I’m more into the social sciences (eg political science) than the hard sciences, but the fundamental principles that guide both are the same. Science uses empirical methods to make generalizations about the universe we live in. It is a method of asking questions, advancing theories, conducting experiments, making observations, and, based on the observable implications of the experiments and observations, making applicable generalizations that help us to better understand our universe.

Good science fiction, whether it’s hard or soft, follows a similar pattern. It takes something that isn’t currently part of our world (maybe a technological advancement, contact with an alien race, or a significant event in the near or far future), explores the observable implications of that thing (maybe the technology leads to unforeseen social upheaval, or we end up going to war with the aliens), and through those observable implications helps us to better understand the real world which we do live in. The hard sci fi focuses more on scientific plausibility and accuracy, whereas the softer sci fi tends to focus more on the story itself, but both are basically the same in that they try to tell us something meaningful or interesting about the universe we live in.

It takes more than just a spaceship to turn a story into science fiction. In fact, a story can be science fiction and not have any spaceships in it at all. It can even take place entirely on Earth and still be excellent science fiction. One of my favorite pieces of science fiction is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and most people would categorize that as a romantic comedy, not science fiction.

I subscribe to the sci fi podcast Escape Pod, which produces excellent quality sci fi short stories every week, and I’ve listened to many excellent sci fi stories that don’t have the stereotypical spaceships or aliens in them. I would highly recommend Escape Pod to anyone interested in sci fi, and as an introduction to the genre for those who aren’t. In case you do like spaceships and aliens, don’t worry, they have lots of those too.

The first story I listened to was Shadowboxer by Paul Di Filippo, which was about a man who could kill people by looking at them. He was discovered by the government and used as a kind of hit man; they put him in a very comfortable but completely isolated hotel/prison, and gave him pictures of the people (mostly terrorists) that they wanted him to take out. If a man had the ability to kill people by looking at them, I could definitely see the government doing something like that. The government’s reaction to the man would be one of the observable implications. Eventually, the government gave him a picture which only later he recognized as the prime minister of a country allied with the US. Right after that, they gave the him a picture of the President and a mirror.

The message of the story was sort of a different angle on the old theme “power corrupts,” and one of the generalizations I took from the story was that humans and human organizations can’t responsibly handle the power to kill whomever they desire. Other people may take different generalizations; just as the scientific method is as objective as possible, the writer of sci fi lets the reader come to his/her own conclusions, rather than spoon feed a message.

Ursula LeGuin, in an excellent introduction she wrote to The Left Hand of Darkness, made the point that science fiction is not so much about predicting the future as it is about conducting a thought experiment. In a thought experiment, you basically say “what if?” and trace what happens as a result of the way that you’ve set things up. At the same time, science fiction is fiction; it’s not rigorous like science, and it shouldn’t have to be. I don’t believe the science fiction I read in the same way that I believe in science, but I do believe in it the same way that I believe in art or in other fiction. Basically, I don’t believe in science fiction literally; I look to it as a sort of mirror in which I can better understand things that are in the world around me. If the story doesn’t operationalize everything, or is written more for entertainment value, that’s fine. It’s just that science fiction, to be good, should still explore meaningful questions about the universe on some level.

The best sci fi goes beyond many of the outward manifestations of this world and gets right to the heart of the patterns, laws, and systems that determine how the universe works. There are patterns of truth all over the place, but we usually don’t see them because the stuff on surface obscures them. Have you ever noticed how cirrus clouds make the same pattern as ridges of sand on the ocean just behind the line where the waves break? Or that piles of snow on the side of the road start to look like miniature mountains after they’ve melted for a couple of days? I might not be entirely correct to say this, but I think that the two different systems demonstrate similar patterns. In the same way, there are patterns in the ways that we as humans interact with each other. Recognizing and understanding those patterns can lead to some of the most fascinating personal discoveries. The reason that I thought Ender’s Game was such an excellent piece of sci fi was that it helped me get right to the heart of these patterns and begin to understand them.

This is what really attracts me to sci fi; the fact that it really gets me thinking, or really gets my imagination to start working (since, as LeGuin pointed out, truth is a matter of the imagination). I think that good sci fi should not only feature sci fi elements, such as spaceships or space travel technology, but that it should explore the implications of these things in such a way that they’re meaningful and interesting to us as 21st century Earthlings. That is, for me, what distinguishes science fiction from any other genre, and good science fiction from weak science fiction.

Hey, 500 words per day isn’t that tough!

I’m surprised how easy it is, in fact! About half an hour of writing. When I know what I want to do, it flows out nice and easy. Almost like I’m reading my story as I write it. It might just be as easy as updating my photoblog each night. At this rate, it won’t be hard at all to get into a daily habit! Just gotta knuckle down and do it for a while, until it becomes second nature.

I’m at 3,851 words right now for chapter one, rewriting it from scratch. Not bad at all. And I think it works a lot better than what I had before. The first attempt just didn’t get into the action fast enough. Reigheena made the keen observation that there wasn’t anything in the first page to intrigue the reader and make him (or her) want to read further. The first sentence of the rewrite goes like this: The Avion-45 was more than a hundred parsecs from inhabited space, and that fact alone was enough to scare Sayed.

It seems to work better. Right away, you know that something is wrong and that the character is struggling with it. I might end up working on it some more (in fact, I know I will, since beginnings are so freaking difficult to get right), but for now, I think it works.

I noticed something interesting as I was writing. A couple of days ago, I was focusing most of my attention on descriptions of the technology on the spaceship, and describing how it worked. After all, I think that that kind of stuff is really interesting. But I seemed to be getting stuck. So then, the next day I looked at it again, and decided that I’d cut down the descriptions a little bit and focus on what Sayed (the protagonist) was thinking and feeling. Voila! I got unstuck and the story just seemed to flow!

Aneeka told me that she didn’t like the dialogue between the captain and the crew in the first chapter–all the “lieutenant so and so, do such and such,” “yes, sir!” “lieutenant so and so, what is our weapons status?” “everything running optimally, sir,” etc. However, I think it’s good to keep it in. I’ve modified it a bit, so that it’s not just a bunch of yes, sir!’s, but I think it’s important because when the ship gets hit by an unknown weapon and all the systems go dead, the abrupt change in the way the characters interact gives a good sense of the anxiety and chaos that I want to get across. Things seem to be going smoothly, officially, almost monotonously, and then something unexpected happens and everyone becomes unbalanced. Instead of describing it all, it comes across in the dialogue and the action.