ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
Druidry HandbookI gather that word has spread fairly widely in the online magical scene about a working I've done relating to my books. The working was one I did originally just after the publication of Paths of Wisdom, my first book, and has been done repeatedly since that time. Its intention is that nobody who steals any of my books -- physically or electronically -- will get any benefit from what they've stolen. 

The reasoning here is pretty straightforward. I can afford to write full time because enough of my readers are honest, and buy my books (new or used) or check them out from the library (which buys them), rather than downloading pirated editions from the internet or shoplifting them from bookstores. Without my royalty income, most of my books would never be written, because I'd have to do something else to pay the rent. If people are going to steal books and deprive me of the income that lets me keep writing, I'm going to do what I can to deprive them of any benefit from their thefts. 

Since word got out, I've received a steady trickle of emails from people who stole books of mine, usually but not only online, and then thought better of it. They want to know what they have to do in order to make it up to me. I appreciate the second thoughts, and fortunately, I built into the working a very simple way out. 

All you have to do is buy one copy of each book that you stole, get rid of your stolen copies, and use the ones you got honestly. It's that easy. Once you own and use a copy you got by honest means, you're free of the working, and can get as much benefit out of my books as your own hard work, patience, and discipline permit.

So there you are. I hold no grudges; I've also done dumb things in my life, learned the lesson, and picked up the pieces later. 

Oh, and if you really feel bad about it, consider buying one of my books and giving it to someone as a birthday or holiday present. While you're at it, if you stole books by anyone else, you might want to consider buying copies of their books too...
ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
Snoopy typing...so let's begin. 

One of the questions most authors field all the time is "Where do you get your ideas?" Harlan Ellison, if I recall correctly, had a snappy comeback for this one; he used to insist with a straight face that there was a little old lady in Poughkeepsie, NY who would mail him a manila envelope full of story ideas on alternate Thursdays, or something like that. 

The fact of the matter is that getting ideas is the easy part of writing. it takes a little practice, that's all. If you have a facility for daydreaming -- something any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- and omnivorous tastes in reading -- something else any would-be writer needs to cultivate -- once you get the habit of thinking about potential stories, you'll have more of them than you know what to do with. 

May I insert a parenthetical comment here? If you ever want to give a writer something to chuckle about in private, or in conversations with other writers, come bustling up to him or her and insist that you've got a really great idea for a story and you're looking for someone to turn it into a book, and you want to split the profits 50/50. This happens to most authors all the time, too. One writer of my acquaintance likes to respond to it by saying, "Tell you what -- instead, we'll split the profits on an hourly basis; your share will be based on how long you took to come up with the idea, compared to how long it takes me to write the book." That ends the conversation neatly, which is of course the point. 

Story ideas are easy. Every writer I know has more ideas for stories than he or she will ever find time to write. If you have a good story idea, great; you've taken your first step toward writing a novel. If you don't have one -- why, that's easy to fix. 

Get some paper and a pen, or open a file in your word processing program of choice, or what have you.

***No, really. Stop reading and go do this, right now. The whole point of an exercise like this is to do it, and learn from the experience.***

Ready? Okay, now as quickly as you can -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write a brief (twelve words or less) description of a random character in the kind of fiction you like. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village.") Now, just as quickly, write nine more of them. 

Turn the page (or scroll down a ways, or what have you). Now in the same way -- without stopping to think or edit or critique what you've written -- write an active verb in the third person singular, with whatever follow-on words English usage requires. (Examples: "discovers." "goes in search of." "escapes from.") Okay? Now write nine more. 

Turn another page (etc.,) and now write down a brief description of something interesting that relates to the kind of fiction you like. Do it, again, without stopping to think or edit or critique. (Examples: "a map of pirate treasure." "a city at the edge of the world." "an army on the march." Now write nine more. 

***Have you done this? Don't read any further until you have.***

Okay, now combine one character with one verb and one interesting thing. Repeat until you've got ten characters with ten verbs and ten interesting things. (Examples" "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest discovers a map of pirate treasure." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron goes in search of a city at the edge of the world." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village escapes from an army on the march." Got it?) You now have ten story ideas -- or, more precisely, you've got the seeds from which ten story ideas can grow. 

Okay. Now go back through them again, and assign different verbs and interesting things to different characters. (Examples: "An orphan boy living in a tree in the forest goes in search of an army on the march." "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." "A blacksmith in a deindustrial dark age village discovers a city at the edge of the world.") You now have ten more story ideas. 

Note the second example in this latter set:  "The illegitimate daughter of a medieval baron escapes from a map of pirate treasure." Your first reaction was probably something like "That's silly -- why would someone want to escape from a map of pirate treasure?" Answer that question and you've got a really original story idea. Here's the baron's illegitimate daughter -- we'll call her Sylvie. Here's a map of pirate treasure. She sees it -- we can fill in the details later -- and immediately up and runs away from home to get away from it. Why? What could be written on a map of pirate treasure, or what could be implied by such a map, or what might other people intend with that map, that would make Sylvie stuff a few prized possessions in a satchel, slip out the window into the night, and hurry away into the darkness with no intention of ever coming back? As you think up answers to these questions, you turn the seed into a full-blown story idea. 

Every novel involves at least one character who does something (thus the active third person singular verb) about something interesting. Of course you can have more than one active character -- in a novel, normally much more than one! -- and they'll probably all be doing things about a variety of interesting objects. The basic situation that drives a novel, though, can usually be summed up in exactly the form I've sketched out. "A hobbit sets out to destroy the accursed Ring of Power." That's the basic situation that drives The Lord of the Rings. "The heir of an interplanetary dukedom flees from his father's killers." That's the basic situation that drives Dune. I could go on.

Of course there's more to it, but the rest evolves from the situation as you ask yourself questions, like the ones I asked about Sylvie. How did the hobbit get the Ring of Power? Why does it have to be destroyed? Who made it? etc., etc., etc. 

*************************
There are three ground rules I want to introduce here, before we get to the exercise. We're going to return to them over and over again, so get used to them. 

Rule #1: Give your writing permission to suck. Your initial attempts to come up with ideas, write initial scenes, assemble them into a story and then into a first draft, will suck. Mine always do, and so do everyone else's. (Your library can probably get you a copy of The Return of the Shadow, the volume of The History of Middle-Earth that includes Tolkien's very first drafts for The Fellowship of the Ring. They suck. In fact, they suck, bite, chew, and spit out what's left. Read that if you have any doubts about Rule #1.) Quality comes into writing as you revise. Don't worry about it now. 

Rule #2: Your first thought is probably a cliché. We've all got imaginations stocked with other people's stories, and that's what comes to mind the moment we start trying to imagine our own stories. There's a simple way around this: write down your first idea, and then do something else. Your first thought about why Sylvie is fleeing from that map of pirate treasure probably comes from somebody else's book; note it down, and then come up with some other reason. Better still, come up with half a dozen other reasons, and choose the one that makes you blink with surprise. 

Rule #3: Nothing's set in stone until the first copies come back from the printers. You can change anything and everything as you go. Aragorn son of Arathorn, the last heir of the Kings of Numenor, first appeared in the early drafts of The Fellowship of the Ring as a hobbit named Trotter. Sauron the Dark Lord started out in Tolkien's writings as an evil magical cat named Tevildo. Don't worry about getting it right the first time around. Start, and make changes as you get a clearer idea of where you're headed. 

*******************
Okay, now here's your assignment. Come up with a character who interests you, an action that looks like it'll kickstart a story into motion, and an interesting object for the action to be about. To keep it lively, make it an unexpected character doing an unexpected action about something you don't usually see in the kind of novel you like to read. Once you've got your character doing whatever it is about whatever it is, start asking those questions; why is the character doing it? Where did the thing come from, and where is it going? What else is going on in the world where the story is taking place? There are no right answers and no wrong ones. Give it a try, and write everything down; you may discard it all as you proceed with the story, or you may not. 

Give it a try, and see where you end up. In a couple of days, I'll post what I've done along these lines -- and no, it won't be about Sylvie and the pirate map. Stay tuned!

ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)
crumpled paperLast night we had dinner out with friends, followed by a very pleasant evening sitting around the apartment with snacks and drinks. Delightful all around, but one bit of conversation has me brooding this morning. 

One of our guests mentioned a relative who wrote several chapters of a very fine young adult novel. (The guest in question is a retired university professor with a crisp and highly readable prose style, so his judgment on the subject is tolerably reliable.) The aspiring author took this to a writing workshop, where -- inevitably -- the other participants tore it to shreds, and did so in such a way that by the time she got back from the writing workshop, she'd lost all confidence in the project and has never been able to finish it. 

This isn't the first time I've heard this kind of story. It's not even the hundred and first. I know, and know of, way too many people who could have become successful writers, but fell victim to one or another of the bloodstained traps that lie in wait for aspiring authors these days, and will probably never manage to haul themselves out again, bind their wounds, and find their way into print. Some of those traps are internal, personal issues -- but some of them are not. 

I suppose in theory that it's possible to benefit from the kind of writing workshops where a circle of aspiring writers sit around and critique each other's work. I've never met anyone who did. My takeaway from my few personal encounters with such things, and a vast number of tales of woe I've heard, is that your fellow participants in such a writing workshop aren't your friends -- they're your competitors, and they will gladly trample you into the bloody muck in order to clamber over your corpse toward the same goal you're seeking. 

Part of why I'm brooding over this is because my coeditor and I just announced the list of stories that will be appearing in Vintage Worlds, an anthology of science fiction set in the imaginary solar system of mid-20th century space opera -- think canals on Mars, jungles on Venus, humanoid aliens all over the place, and so on. We got a lot of good stories, a lot of so-so stories, and a lot of stories by people who want to write but haven't had the opportunity to learn how. And of course I also got a flurry of requests from people whose stories didn't get picked, asking me for personal critiques of their work. 

I'm never sure what to say in response. It's fairly easy to figure out whether a story works or doesn't work -- you just read the thing -- but to explain to an aspiring author why a failed story failed is hard work, involving a lot of time and personal attention, and far more often than not, all that happens is that the aspiring author either melts down on you, or tries to argue you into changing your mind. Thus I tend to back away nervously from the whole subject. 

There are two very common and equally straightforward reasons why stories don't get picked, by the way. The first is that the author didn't pay attention to the call for story submissions, and sent something in that isn't what the editors are looking for. The second is that the author hasn't learned the basic elements of English prose style. The first can be solved by reading the call for submissions and taking every word seriously, remembering that playing rebel without a clue is the fastest way to have your story chucked into the dumpster. The second can be solved just as easily by picking up a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, reading it, and going through your story with an editor's blue pen, marking every place where your prose doesn't follow the Strunk and White principles. (Can you break the rules? Sure, but first know what the rules are, and break them deliberately for effect, not just because you don't know any better.) 

I've seen people go from unpublished to published by the simple application of those two fixes. That said, there's much more to the craft of writing, and it would be helpful to have some constructive way to pass it on. The common or garden variety writing workshop, in my experience, is very nearly the worst possible way to do the thing -- but what would work? That's what I'm brooding about now. 

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ecosophia: JMG in lecture mode (Default)John Michael Greer

February 2019

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