Archive for the 'voice and craft' Category

Jan 20 2010

Writer-as-protagonist in story

Steve and I were talking yesterday about his irritation at the “writer as protagonist” that often shows up in fiction. One of the most famous examples of this (and arguably the single biggest reason for the popularity of the trope) is Stephen King. It can be seen in his earlier works such as The Shining or Salem’s Lot, and continues to show up in several of his works throughout his bibliography (The Dark Half, Secret Windows, Lisey’s Story). Dean Koontz, another huge name in the horror genre, has also written stories (such as Lightning or Mr. Murder) which feature a writer in the main character role. Nor is this trend limited to horror; Kurt Vonnegut and Charles de Lint are two of several authors in the sff genre who have placed writer characters in starring story roles. I’m not as well-read in the more literary fiction end of the spectrum, but I’d be very surprised if a similar pattern wasn’t present there as well. (Feel free to mention and discuss other examples in the comments.)

I’m still a bit unclear on exactly why Steve gets so irritated by writer-protagonists — hopefully he’ll clarify his position a bit more in comments, hehe. I remember from our last chat that he feels like having a writer as a protagonist in a story you’re writing creates too many situations where you are tempted to be clever, or clever-seeming, possibly even superseding the priorities of the story. I think he said it’s the difference between an author being clever in how they tell a story, versus using a technique that says “hey, look at me being clever over here”.

I suppose I can see that point; certainly some of the more forgettable stories I’ve read with writers in the lead role felt rather like what Steve describes. On another hand, some of the more interesting examples of the trope do play around with some neat ideas. Koontz’s Odd Thomas books reference the unreliability of a writer narrator throughout the stories, making references to editing and eliding events even as he tells the tale. de Lint uses writer characters as he does other artists and musicians in his Newford stories, where the act of creative generation unlocks hidden magics in the surrounding world. Vonnegut’s writers don’t seem to be able to self-referentially change the story due to their own writing; I get the impression, reading some of his quasi-auto-biographical fiction works, that his characters are often writers because Vonnegut himself is one. However, Vonnegut didn’t always do the writer-character-as-avatar for himself. I’ve read several references to his famous Kilgore Trout being a poke at Theodore Sturgeon, which amuses me to consider.

Looking at King’s extensive bibliography and publishing history, I’m struck with another thought that’s occurred to me before. So many of his writer characters struggle with aspects of their craft–even to several of them blocked on writing, alcoholics, or otherwise engaged in unstable and self-damaging behaviors–which fascinates me when compared with the fact that, since 1974, there has only been one year that King didn’t publish one or more finished pieces. It doesn’t seem from his observable public output that King, the person, suffers from much in the way of writer’s blocks or dangerous instability preventing his writing. Did much of the potential for that self-destruction get sublimated and exorcised into the more troubled writer-protagonists of his stories?

What do you think about this trope of the writer-as-protagonist? Do you like it? Does it irritate you when you encounter it? Are there similar metaphoric parallels in other artistic disciplines, for you other creative types out there? Let’s discuss!

2 responses so far

Nov 01 2009


While I still disagree with NaNoWriMo as it’s structured, I don’t extend this attitude to disapproving of the people who try it out, as it’s a big undertaking and usually fraught with strong emotional states along the way. In past years I’ve simply ranted about NaNoWriMo, or ignored it, or created a counter project to it (that was the year we did InSoHaiMo on LiveJournal, International Haiku and Sonnet Month–because anyone can spit out a haiku a day for 30 days–and there were some really great poems featured there). Since I’m not focusing on my poetry as much this year, I feel like I need a new way to subvert or support the people trying NaNoWriMo into remembering to feel GOOD about their writing and their process while they’re slogging through. So…

Not sure I’ll post writing discussion snippets *every* day (daily is the goal!), but I’ll increase the frequency of them here on the blog significantly this month, to help create an online discussion area where you can figure out some of WHAT you’re doing as you try not to panic about your wordcount. Also, for those of you trying the deed and who are semi-local, our house is nearly always full of good food and smart writers who love to talk about craft and technique for hours! So when you’re needing extra support for this quixotic task this month, look me up for a question, discussion, or even an in-person visit and we’ll help you churn those words! Comment here or drop me an email, reesa at reesabrown dot com to get the communal juices flowing.

In addition to Reesa Brown, the writer making this offer, you get the special bonus writer prize of Steven Brust to help with the writer discussions for anyone wanting to do a workshop in person this month. He likes talking about writing as much as, if not more than, I do! He especially likes adoring fans (hehe) but any writer serious about their craft enough to want to talk about the processes involved is just fine.

2 responses so far

Oct 27 2009

Writing visit and deciphering cyphers

Steve just had a guest in, a writer friend from Montana, and we had an enjoyable week here at the Dreamcafe hanging out and having many writing conversations. I’ve had this next topic come up in writing talks with two different people just in the past week, and since it’s something I’ve been working on myself in the novel over the past couple of months–with some measure of success ongoing–I’m interested to hear other thoughts.

In the character creation phase, I’ve noticed a couple of different ways (so far) that they tend to show up for a story. A quite common way is to discern that a story needs a particular person or type of person for a plot-important role, and through various methods gradually increase your understanding of that character until they morph from flat into 3D “alive” people about whom you care and want to know what happens to them. (A different way, characters showing up Athena-like as fully formed personalities from when they first arrive on the scene, is very interesting but perhaps a subject for another post.) This post is more concerned with a pothole along the first path, when you either aren’t sure which tricks to use to bring your Frankensteinian creation to full life, or when you’ve tried all the tricks in your toolbox and they still lay inert, cyphers upon the page.

What are some of the tricks in your toolbox for solving such an issue? Advice I’ve personally given this week includes the classic actor question: for each character ask yourself “what is their motivation for being here and doing these things in this place and time”? If you’re a visualizer, then close your eyes and view the story world through the eyes of your POV character. How do they move through their environment? What traits about others do they observe or note when interacting? What do they observe, what are they likely to ignore as irrelevant? These questions and more can help focus your visualization and possibly give new insight into a character.

If you’ve done a slow build and already know a lot about the character but they are still motivationally mysterious, make sure you haven’t neglected developing their idiosyncrasies of behavior and attitude. Maybe they’re the sort of person to always wake up at 7:03 am each day, or they genuinely believe they’ve seen Elvis in the grocery store, or they always play the same sequence of “lucky” prime number lottery picks that are the combo of their first address and the anniversary of their first break-up for reasons known only to themselves. The more of these quirks you know, the more likely you’ll start seeing some indication that the character is taking on a “life of their own” in the story world.

There’s the interview approach, where you write both sides of you asking your character questions that you want to know the answers to, and their responses to those questions. And don’t forget Steve Brust’s classic advice (that’s obviously worked well for him for a while now), which is “don’t forget the cool”. If you make a character who YOU think is cool and are interested in following around to see what they do, there’s a good chance that at least some percentage of your audience will agree with you and want to follow along too.

So that’s some of what I’ve been saying; what are your thoughts on the matter?

4 responses so far

Jul 27 2009

writing process and trust

Had a great conversation with a friend the other day online, about when to let stories go and when to push through and finish them. Conventional writing wisdom I’ve encountered often describes the “wannabe” writer as someone perpetually working on that first novel (but never finishing). Given how many writers attach parts of their ego to their created works or their creative process, it’s not surprising that many feel a sense of failure from not finishing a particular work.

Good writing advice I’ve seen elsewhere does take the time to remind a budding writer that the hindbrain processes are strange and mysterious, you’ll have more ideas than you’ll ever have time to write, and you can often learn more from your writing “failures” than your blissful successes. Here are a few of my own current writing aphorisms I’ve found useful:

Along similar lines as “trust your process” recommended elsewhere, I’d say that “trusting your process is trusting yourself”. The more I let the story’s needs dictate how and when writing happens, the stronger the stories seem to become. When I try to impose external “shoulds” on a particular piece of work (such as, this should be done in this way, or I should be further along on this than I am), I’ve found that almost inevitably I will have a less pleasant and rougher road working on that piece than I do on the ones where I trust the process of creation, however quirky it looks viewed from out here. Sometimes things will take longer than they “should”; assuming you’re not working to a deadline, at this stage in the process you’re the only one passing judgment on you. Are you precognitive that you know the exact creation time-line of each work you envision?

One I have to repeat to myself regularly on the novel and occasionally on shorter works, is “it doesn’t matter if it’s good, it matters if it’s a draft. Drafts can be fixed.” This is a good one for quieting the internal editor that makes you want to go back and polish the beginning bits to perfection before, you know, actually getting to the end; or to barely write because your sentences must be award-winning quality the first time they hit the page. My first drafts are some cringe-worthy, cliched, one-dimensional things, more often than not. However, I’ve noticed that cliches can often be secret code or thought cues when later reviewing the draft, and my revising mind can come up with much better prose more clearly and quickly if I’m following my own hindbrain’s shorthand. My stepmom and first editor Mary Bass says that even a final work is never “done”, in that you always have the option to go back and change or improve your own work. (Whether or not you “should” is a different panel.)

A more recent realization that has been helpful is “just because it’s generally good to finish things doesn’t mean that everything started must be finished.” Just like a musician has scales, or a dancer has stretches, a writer will have bits and pieces of elusive stories lounging in the trunk. Some of those will eventually grow into finished works; many or even most will simply exist as snippets of almost-was. It might be helpful to view them as writing exercises, or brain warm-ups, rather than personal failures.

Similarly, “done doesn’t always mean finished,” whether you mean “I am so done with this POS!” or as another reminder that a finished product isn’t the only marker of success, just the one most obviously recognized as such. I like going back and looking at my writing idea one-liner posts to myself; I rarely find anything I want to use (yet) in a story, but I do enjoy seeing how clever (or sometimes so very not) I am even when just brainstorming or idea-churning. My hindbrain seems to insist on hiding them under half-a-dozen different tags, but that just makes finding them a bit of an adventure, which seems to be part of the fun.

What, if any, are your experiences with any of the above ideas in your own work? (Oh, and I’ll be away from net connection next monday so no writing post then, but feel free to comment in the menatime on this or any of the other ones, I should have phone and limited email access.)

One response so far

Jul 08 2009

Learning experience (or, revising really is fun!)

Back and recovering from the trip like a tired, aching thing. Still much work to be done, just doing what parts I can do while sitting around and resting for today. Now on to the interesting stuff…

I’m entering in the last round of edits for “…Elmer the Cat” today in preparation for sending it off. This has been a profound learning experience from start to finish. In the first draft, I had the voice of the narrator so clearly in my head that writing the story was quick and much more linear than many of my stories. It’s been through 6 readers and several revision rounds, including an awesome workshopping that I think I already mentioned, with Steve and Nathan (and Kendra sitting in) up at 4th Street. Had another deep session with Nathan on the plane back, and I think one of the biggest signs that I had to be done with working on it for now was that in some of my own editing suggestions, I’d moved far enough away from it that I was starting to lose the voice that had come through so clearly in draft 1. Happily, Nathan caught most of those and I do think the result is a tighter story. I certainly hope I can get this one published, and already have three or four places lined up to send it to, so we’ll see how it goes.

While I’m trying to remember to take the time to appreciate my accomplishments, there’s more writing to be done! Already a full to-do list today, with catching up on emails to be written at the top of the list. (Also, trolling the trunk for salvageable stories, and jumping the next hurdle of brainstorming so that I can move on with the novel work. And updating the to-do list, hehe.)

Another experience in learning my writing attitudes and routines recently has been quite nifty. I stopped working on the novel for a bit to focus on “…Elmer the Cat”, and thought (rather casually) that I was having a slack-off moment on the novel, being a lazier writer than I really want to be. However, since I’ve been working on letting my head move more at the pace it wants to go, I didn’t struggle too much to self-castigate and just enjoyed the short story work — and my, did I enjoy it! Even as much as it pushed my limits I loved every bit of this latest short story, from brainstorming to drafting to final-for-now revision. (Though I agree with my stepmom Mary, that there’s no such thing as a final draft, you can always go back and revise or rework a piece whenever you feel it needs it.)

And in the process, figured out that the reason I was hesitating on the novel work wasn’t slacking off at all, but a wall needing smashed in regards to a (very good) editing suggestion I received from the marvelous Ella, that I needed more definition of time/space/place. And I agreed with her thought, and realized that not having some of that defined was part of what was slowing me down in this second draft — and that the faster I got to codifying that, the less of this draft I’d have to go back and re-write from the ground up later. Saving future me work is definitely a goal of mine, so my other learning experience this week was a more subtle layer of trusting my writing process/hindbrain, that even apparent laziness might actually be a useful break to regroup and rethink. Also, knowing which hurdle it is that I’m jumping this time is invigorating to the desire to dive back into the work.

For anyone reading who wants to join in, feel free to comment on any of the above or jump into this discussion: What sort of experience have you had with your work or craft recently where your own process surprised you by working outside of your expectations?

2 responses so far

Jun 05 2009

Speaking of progress…short story draft done!

It’s unsatisfying at this time, but I have a done draft of “The Explainable and Entirely Expected Expiration of Elmer The Cat”. Done enough to start on the fun of revising it into something good enough for others to read, anyway. It was one of the easiest stories I’ve written recently, the protagonist’s voice was distinct and flowed well through the narrative. I felt rather bad at what all he had to go through by the end, poor kid.

This is a good story, and I still love the title even if it is a bit absurd. And now I revise and go back to working on the novel, where Chapter Three eagerly awaits me. Here’s hoping it writes as smoothly as the first two chapters did!

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Jan 18 2009

good writing experiment

Published by under CC,voice and craft,Writing

I was challenged to write something first thing upon waking up every morning, for the past week. (In the 500 or less wordcount range.) I decided to write a mini-serial (Continuous Coast) story in five parts, attempting to write one part each day. I then decided to experiment with some innovative revising/editing angles, since the CC project has definitely expanded the ways in which my writer and editor brains have to work together in real-time to produce quality story product. (I also practiced a couple of technical writer things I needed to work on; never let a story do one thing when it can do four, I say.)

I created a pipeline writing and editing production line, where I wrote the first few parts, then continued writing parts while I revised and started posting the first sections in our Back of House forum for review and further peer editing. Each day I continued to write, edit, and post; when I finished all five pieces (which took 6 days instead of 5, part 4 was written over two days) I went back and revised the first part based on received recommendations, and readied it for publishing on, where it will be within the next day or two. That process will continue until all five parts are published on CC.

This was really fun and feels quite successful, though I suspect the format would not work for all types of story. It works very well for the sort of quick-time story that is particularly well-suited for the immersive ARF that is the world of Continuous Coast. I’d definitely be up for trying it again, though I suspect that next I’ll be coming up with something else to experiment with.

Keep watch on the IRC chat, Twitter feed, and Voices blog for supplementary material around the story release. Enjoy!

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Jan 02 2009

website updates!

Published by under CC,voice and craft,Writing

It’s been far too long, but I realized that if I was going to keep working on Continuous Coast it was worth putting at least a tiny bit of maintenance into my personal site as well. So to start 2009 off right, I updated the “My Writing” section to include links to the various CC sites currently active (I also just had a CC story go up on the site, whee!), though Kit made a couple of suggestions for reorganizing the categories that I’ll probably re-do within the next day or two, so check back!

I thought it might be good to start putting up some of my own, non-CC work here as well, so I included links to two flash fiction pieces that I’ve had out circulating for over a year. I decided to retire them from circulation and just post them here. My writing has changed and improved enough over the past year that these pieces may not be exactly indicative of where I’m at now, but I still enjoy the heck out of both of them (at least in a writing sense; “Rorrim” in particular is a bit uncomfortable to actually read) and would rather share them and concentrate on writing and sending out more new pieces. Though, if I don’t get some more cheerful free fic up here soon, people might start to get a skewed notion of my style…

One response so far

Sep 13 2008

Writing growth happens in spirals

Published by under voice and craft,Writing

And I just realized that I want houseplants. I have desired them for years, but I’m rather a brown thumb sort (not all the way to black, but brown’s enough to kill most plants). But I’m sitting here in our lovely wooden farmhouse, and these rich brown walls are screaming “Put plants against me!!! Trail ivy over doorways, hang ferns in corners, maybe even on an end table one of those spirally bamboo plants they sell for way too much in stores!”

If the walls are talking to me, guess it’ll be an interesting day.

I’ve been learning a lot of very uncomfortable things lately about my writing, and my creativity, and how much I’ve compromised it, and how much of that I’ve done without realizing what I was doing. For someone who’s pretty much always working on understanding the internal landscape, finding out where you shoved whole skillsets that became inconvenient or complicated to maintain is fairly disconcerting.

So I’ve already learned this year (and I think mentioned previously) that though I’ve been writing since I was seven or so, the first creative calling–well, technically the second, but the first path I chose *on my own* to dedicate myself to learning–was acting. And furthermore, my development as an actor has heavily informed my writing development. But lately, I’ve learned just how much I’ve damaged my creative expression, my writing, and even myself, by walking away from acting.

I’m not at a place in my life where I can commute to acting jobs. I’ll look into the local community theatre options, but last time I checked those out I strongly disagreed with the local director’s opinions about Shakespeare, so he was pretty impossible to work with. But I have to, need to, figure out something that will substitute for or ameliorate enough of the acting urge that I will no longer feel I am ignoring that calling.

This year I have made tentative efforts toward picking back up that first creative skillset learned–music. Steve is (or was, I’d like to get back to it) teaching me guitar. I’m hoping to finally get some voice training sometime in the next year so I can do something other than intuitively with this crazy voice and natural resonance of mine.

And the pursuit of better body health is ongoing, though still not as consistent as I would prefer. The hot tub has now been non-functional for about as long as it was in our possession and functional. As soon as they fix it, I plan a scathing report on who to NOT buy a pool or hot tub from locally, but I’d rather wait on that on the off chance that someday they might screw up their delaying tactics and come fix it. But ye gods, unethical businesspeople drive me nuts.

I invented a not-entirely-safe but quite fun exercise routine involving a 5-foot-long staff and a trampoline. The recent rain makes it just a bit too unsafe to actually do until the trampoline dries off, but I’ve been told that it looks very cool to those watching from ground level.

Maybe I could take up bonsai gardening. Could I manage not to kill a tiny tree? Perhaps I’ll start with the ferns and ivy…

2 responses so far

Aug 02 2008

It’s going to be a strange day…

Published by under voice and craft,Writing

You know I have the brain-worms when I’m in the middle of updating my works-in-progress section of “My Writing” here on the ‘Net, and I hear the following conversation in my head:

“Really, it’s not *that* much to get done.”

“Have you been snorting kittens again? What?”

“Oh come on, look! It’s one novel with most half a good amount of work done on, two or three short stories, and one story of indeterminate size.”

“I am looking, and I see you forgot to mention the ongoing project and the ‘various sundry bits’ barely worth listing–but still taking up neural space and ‘time’.”

“Well, the short stories are only a couple of weeks time-use each.”

“And you’re lying out your ass on that “story of indeterminate size” thing, you know it’s at least a novella.”

“Maybe, but…”

“Plus that academic paper and accompanying presentation due in September you sort of forgot to mention.”

“But there’s already at least some work done on all of those! The short stories, the paper, the novel, and the other story thingy all at least have notes if not also written text.”

“So? You know who we are. Don’t forget that in order to cope with the “lists” and “deadlines”, there’ll need to be at least one or two short projects done concurrently with the official work that aren’t even *on* the list.”

“Oh, yeah.”


“Um…it could be worse?”

“Shh, don’t give anyone any bright ideas. Just get back to work, if you want to keep that kitten supply flowing and fresh.”

2 responses so far

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