Writing Advice, and a Little Bit of Hero Worship

This evening, I joined about 2,000 fellow geeks at Town Hall in Seattle to see Neil Gaiman do a reading and be interviewed by Maria Headley. I’ve been attending a lot of author signings recently, but this one was particularly special, because if there’s any author working today whom I actually idolize, it’s Neil Gaiman. (I wouldn’t just dress up as any author for Halloween, after all.) On top of that, he’s not just an excellent writer, he’s also a great public speaker and oral storyteller. For many authors, skill with the written word does not go hand-in-hand with public speaking (I suspect I’m one of them), but Neil Gaiman is superb in both arenas, and if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, I definitely recommend it.

Over the course of the ensuing discussion and Q&A session, he gave several tidbits of advice for writers, but one in particular stood out for me. Paraphrased, it was basically this:

There will always be better writers out there than you. But, there is no one else who can tell your stories. So the sooner you stop trying to tell other people’s stories, and start telling your own, the better off you’ll be.

And he’s right. New writers, myself included, do start out by trying (often unconsciously) to emulate our favorite authors. But with enough practice, you eventually find your own voice, and that’s when you really start writing stories that are truly your own. It’s good to remember, because as a new writer, it’s easy to read stuff by great authors (like Gaiman) and think, Oh, geez, he’s such a better writer than I am! I’ll never be able to write the kind of awesome stuff what he does! I’m doomed to failure! And it’s true. You’ll never be able to write like Neil Gaiman. But if you’re true to your own voice, if you write your own stories, and bring to them your own unique set of experiences and passions, then Neil Gaiman won’t be able to write like you, either. The thought made me smile– it’s not about being better, or best. It’s about being you.

So with that in mind, I took my newly acquired signed copies of Neverwhere and American Gods (pre-signed, because an author signing with 2,000 people would just be painful), and headed home to write.

Rumor has it Neil may be back in town in November with his wife, Amanda Palmer, for something involving both reading and music. If so, I’ll definitely be there.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

After blogging about Egypt, I felt like I needed something a little more light-hearted. So I decided to partake in the Romance Blogfest, put on by Jordan McCollum. Her instructions are as follows:

The theme is Love at first sight . . . or not so much. Post a first meeting between two characters who will fall for each other (even if it doesn’t look like they will at the time!).

You may write a new scene on the topic, OR you may post a scene from your WIP.

So for the first time ever, I shall post an excerpt from my 15-months-in-progress novel on the blog. It’s not strictly a meeting, but it’s the first time the female protagonist lays eyes on the male protagonist, and yes, they do eventually fall in love– it’s complicated, of course, but such is the nature of love.

But it’s definitely not love at first sight. The initial emotions are, shall we say, somewhat more acrimonious.

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Iliya stood on the roof of a building just outside the castle walls, blending into the crowd. She chuckled to herself. The Emissary would probably not be pleased that she was up here, even though several other people were sitting there casually, including two other women. A bunch of kids were sitting in a row across the front, dangling their feet off the edge, and yelling happily at the crowd that stretched out below them, lining the street. There were thousands of people here; she hadn’t known there were this many people in all of the Ama’s City, but they had come, seemingly out of nowhere, to be here today.

She had tied her hair back into a simple ponytail, so she looked more like one of the villagers instead of a servant of a high-ranking official. She also wore a pair of pants instead of her usual robe. Since there was no business in the castle for which she needed to follow the Emissary around today, she fully intended to enjoy her free time.

Someone taped on her shoulder, and Iliya turned and grinned. “‘Bout time you showed up.”

Erysa stood next to her. “Fahru said to blend in,” she whispered. “The roof is blending in?”

Iliya shrugged. “Hey, I’m blending in.” She gestured to the people surrounding her. “Besides, this is my day off. He can’t order me around today.”

Erysa had also dressed in pants and a shirt, and she chuckled. “Fair enough.” She sat down, leaning her elbow on the slanted roof. “We can blend in together, like a couple of Skylands peasants.”

Iliya sat down next to her. “The atmosphere here is quite a change from when we first got here, isn’t it?”

Erysa nodded. “I don’t see any signs of the Fatigue anywhere. Everyone’s healthy, and happy, smiling and laughing…” she grimaced. “If we were somewhere else, I might join them, instead of wishing for their kingdom to burn.”

Iliya nodded. The mood of the people reminded her of the Spring Rites back home in Elairyn, when the end of the winter storms and the bursting forth of new life was celebrated. Not only did the whole city celebrate, but many of the merchants from the Outer Reaches sailed in with their families to partake as well. The Spring Rites had been the last thing they did in Elairyn before leaving for the Skylands, and for a moment, a pang of homesickness gripped her.

“Look,” Erysa snapped Iliya out of her daydream, and stood up. “Is that them?”

Iliya stood and squinted in the direction her sister was pointing. Far beyond the village, near where the mountain slope turned more gradual as it joined the grassy steppes, she could see a cloud of dust being kicked up by a long line of horses. “Looks like it,” she said. “They’re a ways off. I’d say they’re still a couple miles away.”

One of the kids noticed where she was looking and followed her gaze. Both she and her sister had great eyesight, but the kids’ were almost as good, and the boy jumped up in excitement, barely preventing himself from sliding down the roof. “It’s Satoro!”

Excited murmurs ran across the crowd.

“Where?”

“Where are they?”

“I can see them, on the other side of the village!”

“Are they almost here?”

The excited yelling slowly died down to a steady murmur as people realized that the approaching soldiers were still a ways off. As the soldiers got closer, the path took a curve and she lost track of them, her view blocked by a grove of trees at the edge of the village. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the crowd had mostly grown silent but an excited, nervous energy ran through it that she could feel, and in the distance, she heard the crowd erupt in cheers. The cheering continued and got louder, and then she saw them. Rounding a corner was a procession of soldiers in full battle armor, banners flying tall from their polearms, which they hoisted high into the air. Their armor was painted in black and dark reds, with intricately detailed carvings and workmanship, as was the usual custom for Skylands mages. In front was a man riding a magnificent brown horse, which lifted its hooves high with every step and kept its head raised up, as if it knew it was carrying one of the most important people in the Skylands. The horse’s rider wore a helmet with large, fearsome horns and an ugly mask, and he nodded from side to side at the people he passed. He wielded a sword which he held high, waving it slowly over the heads of the crowd.

So this was the famed Satoro Kei. Iliya felt a fierce anger rise up within her at the sight. Maybe it was the casual arrogance as he rode on his horse and soaked in the cheers of the crowd; maybe it was the sight of the Skylands banners flying high in the air. In her mind, her memory flashed back to that night when her city burned, when another Skylands mage stood over her, sneering at her dismissively: “get out of Elairyn, girl.” She clenched her fist. She hadn’t gotten out of Elairyn; instead, Elairyn had won that battle, and now it had successfully placed assassins in the very beating heart of Sky.

She felt a strong grip on her hand, and looked down. Erysa was also staring at the procession, with the same dark look on her face. Iliya gripped her sister’s hand. She knew they would probably be conspicuous, as the only two people not cheering, but she didn’t care. She wanted to take her father’s sword and slam it through his face mask, the way she had done to the mage who killed her father.

Behind Satoro, armored warriors tromped down the path, two by two. There were sixteen of them in total, a surprisingly small force. Iliya wondered if she and her sister could take them all. Probably, given the element of surprise.

At the foot of the castle steps the procession stopped, and Iliya saw the stablemaster, Jiro, step forward and take the reins. Satoro bent his head and took off his helmet, revealing a young, smiling man with shaggy brown hair. He slapped Jiro on the shoulder and grinned, talking to him for several seconds as the rest of his soldiers rode up. Iliya was amazed at how young he looked; she had pictured Satoro as an older man, possibly with a goatee and an evil gleam in his eye. This didn’t fit her picture at all. As he handed off his helmet to a nearby servant, several kids from the crowd darted up to him, and he knelt down, gathering as many as he could up in a group hug. She spotted Kaena among them, and Satoro tussled her hair as he walked up the steps. He waved at a friend in the crowd, stopping several times to say hi, then at the top of the steps, he turned, and waved his arms one last time, causing the crowd to erupt with a massive cheer.

“For the Skylands!” he cried, and Iliya winced as the resounding cry echoed from the entire crowd.

“FOR THE SKYLANDS!”

The only thing keeping her from jumping off the balcony and killing Satoro right then was her death grip on Erysa’s hand. When Iliya finally released her fingers, it took her a few minutes to shake feeling back into them.

———————————————————–

Ahh, can’t you just feel the romance in the air?

Here’s hoping you have a happy Valentine’s Day, preferably uncontaminated by murderous rage.

Egypt Part III: Final Thoughts

As those of you who are not Amish hermits already know, on Friday Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak fell from power after thirty years. Like a lot of people, I’ve been glued to the news, and my two primary sources of news have been two places I’ve never turned for news before: (1)Twitter and (2)Al-Jazeera. Without a doubt, searching the #Egypt and #Jan25 hashtags on Twitter gave the fastest, most up-to-date picture of what was happening on the ground in Egypt. Often, things I saw on Twitter would then show up on the Al-Jazeera newsfeed fifteen or twenty minutes later. I occasionally checked CNN or Fox News, but mainly just to see what angles they were taking in their coverage.

I wanted to write one last post as a transition back to the normal content of the blog, where I prefer to talk about writing and science fiction conventions and post interesting pictures. I don’t want this blog to become about politics, or the philosophies of democracy, or the big news events of the day. But three of my past four blog entries have been about precisely those topics, because for the past few weeks, the people of Egypt have been telling some incredible stories.

The story that drew me in the most, as evidenced by my previous two blog posts, was the story of Mona Seif: a 24-year-old activist caught up in the midst of things in Tahrir Square, whose voice alternated between hope and terror as events unfolded. But there have been other stories as well:

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al-Jazeera’s on-the-ground correspondent, who made it into Tahrir Square almost every day and at one point was arrested by the Egyptian Army.
Wael Ghonim
, the Google executive whose arrest was caught on video (at about the 1:15 mark), and whose release several days later sparked new life into the protest movement.
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist living in America who posted almost nonstop through the whole thing, and whose reaction to the fall of Mubarak touched everyone who saw it.

Of course, towering above it all was the story of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian war hero who became a president, who became a dictator, who became a national disgrace.

Those are just some of the stories that I’ve been able to follow. There are hundreds of Egyptians dead, most brutally murdered by their own government, who have stories of their own. Most of those stories, the rest of the world will probably never hear, and that makes me sad.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: these types of stories fascinate me, and draw me in as a writer and a storyteller. Too often, we leap for the commentary, or the larger meaning, or the political implications, and we don’t listen to what the stories of the people themselves can teach us. I said this about the Afghan girl Aisha, back when her story made the cover of TIME. And I say it again now. The real truth of an event lies in the stories of the individuals, not in what some pundit or news anchor is interested in spinning. And thanks to Twitter, the Egyptian Revolution allowed more of us to see more of these people’s stories than ever before.

Another thing I’ve said before, but will keep repeating: stories humanize people. They teach us to have empathy for people who are different than we are; they let us see things through others’ eyes. Maybe that’s why the outpouring of stories from Egypt is so refreshing; Muslims and Arabs are so often de-humanized into stereotypes in the American media, that it’s nice to see confirmation of what I firmly believe: that across the world, people really aren’t so different from each other. And also, that people usually aren’t the stereotypes and simplistic images they’re portrayed as. Especially when there are 80 million of them, as there are in Egypt.

There’s one last thing I want to mention, and it’s on the subject of idealism versus realism. A lot of people have pointed out, correctly, that Egypt has a long way to go before it has a working democracy, and there is plenty of room yet for things to go wrong or even totally off-track. They fear that Islamic extremists will take power, or that a new military dictatorship will take hold, or that Egypt will renege on its peace treaty with Israel and plunge the region into chaos. To be honest, I feel like those people have been paying too much attention to what pundits have been saying and not enough to what Egyptians have been saying. But that aside, there is this deep-rooted scorn of idealism in certain parts of American (and, indeed, world) politics; the beliefs that things do not get better, or that fighting for change is asking for trouble.

But there are enough naysayers in the world, in my opinion. I’ll choose to be one of those people who does believe that things can get better, that the world can improve. Indeed, that it is improving. I’ll stand with Mona Seif and Wael Ghonim, not Matt Drudge and Glenn Beck. And I will usually choose to believe the best in people. It’s the lesson I glean from the stories I hear and read. And if that makes me a naive idealist, well, I can think of worse ways to go through life.

The story of Egypt’s fight for democracy is a long, long way from over; even as I wrote this entry, tensions are persisting, and the military and the protesters are at odds. No doubt there will be problems ahead. But on Friday, the people got to have their say. And I feel privileged that I got to watch it happen. Even it was from 7,000 miles away.

On Endings

I may never get used to having a sky. For my entire adult life, I looked up at the cold metal tiles and fluorescent lights of Persei Waystation, and that was fine with me. Even just staring out the window had been enough to give me vertigo before too long– a person could get lost in that view, her gaze drifting forever among the endless expanse of stars.

But now there’s no ceiling, only a white sky, and two yellow suns shining faintly through the haze.

Thus starts my current project, a science fiction short story which is currently running about 6,000 words long. I’m extremely pleased with this story– the writing is strong, the characters are stronger, and even the setting is feeling pretty good after a few revisions. At my writing group, it engendered comparisons to Arthur C. Clarke. That may be overstating it somewhat, but the point remains: I definitely feel good about this story.

Nevertheless, it’s still making me hit my head against a wall. Why? The ending sucks. This isn’t me being overly critical of myself; like I said, overall, the story is very strong. But the ending just doesn’t live up to the rest of it.

Part of my problem may simply be the nature of short stories. Short stories are expected to have extremely strong or surprising endings; this one doesn’t. Instead, the ending is essentially when the main character realizes that everything is okay– that her source of conflict doesn’t need to be a source of conflict after all. It’s about making peace with yourself, and your decisions. And I want the reader to feel a sense of peace after reading it.

Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time creating that aforementioned sense of peace, without either falling into one of two extremes: (1)either having the story peter out with a whimper, or (2)having an overly sappy ending. When I wrote fanfiction in college, there was a term for those stories: WAFFy. WAFF stands for Warm-And-Fuzzy-Feeling, and it’s a dangerous line to walk. If you push the happy ending too hard, it feels sappy, and the reader ends up feeling vaguely nauseated instead of “warm and fuzzy.”

I’ve pretty much been fighting to overcome this by writing new endings until I come up with one that feels right. Under other circumstances, I might set the story aside for a few weeks and come back to it, but I have a tight deadline on this one: I’m trying to finish it by the end of the month so I can submit it to the Writers of the Future contest.

I’m actually hoping that by blogging about it, I might shake something loose in my mind so I can finally put the story to bed.

If that doesn’t work, Plan B is overdosing on Christmas cookies. That may not help the story, but it should be fun anyway.

Europe Day 1- The Dark Side of Storytelling

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is a series of 2,711 gray monoliths, which all together take up an entire block near the center of the city. On the outskirts of the Memorial, each monolith is about waist high. As you walk toward the center, they get taller, and the ground begins to dip lower, as if the entire thing is built on the inside of a giant, shallow bowl. By the time you reach the middle, you’re lost in a forest of stone slabs, unable to see anything but slate gray and, if you look high enough, the sky above.

There are no words on the Memorial, so at first glance, you might wonder at its purpose. It seems an odd thing for a series of unmarked gray stones to take up such a large swath of land in one of Europe’s most bustling cities.

But if you look closer, you see that not all the slabs are the same. Some are crooked, leaning slightly in one direction or the other, and the top surfaces aren’t entirely flat. If you look across the top of the memorial, at the undulating field of stones, your mind wants to find a pattern, but it can’t. Is it just a group of stone blocks, slowly rising in the center, or is something deeper going on?

I’m an idealist when it comes to storytelling. I believe strongly in the power of stories to promote empathy among human beings: when a person shares his story with another, those two people can then relate in a way they couldn’t before. I believe that storytelling, whether through writing, or film, or some other medium, is the greatest unifying force in the world, and maybe, if enough people of different backgrounds are able to tell their stories to each other, maybe there really will come a day when things like wars can be relegated to the history books.

Good stories can bridge individuals, and cultures, and countries… stories remind us that people who are different from us are still people, with hopes and dreams and families and friends of their own, and that those people aren’t just abstractions, they aren’t just stereotypes, they’re full-fledged human beings. I think this is true for both fiction and nonfiction; any story where you have to relate to characters different from you, where you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, whether that “someone else” is real or not, helps us learn to empathize.

But in Berlin, the strange gray stones stand as a stark, disturbing reminder that stories can be twisted.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis weaved a story of their own. But it didn’t break down stereotypes, it reinforced them. It was a story which denigrated and demonized an entire group of people, taught that those people were not worthy of empathy, respect, or even the slightest shred of human decency– it taught that they were vermin, or lower than vermin. Mired in problems, economic and otherwise, the German people were looking for someone to blame for their plight, and the Nazis told a story that gave the Germans the villain they had been looking for: the Jews.

A story like that has many things in common with the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. It’s not something that hits you all at once. But if it’s told enough, over and over again, it builds into something sinister, and slowly it skews your perspective. The facts and details don’t line up, but you may not even notice, so lost are you in the greater overall mass of the structure.

And then, like the Germans of the late thirties, you get totally surrounded by the field of oppressive monoliths, losing sight of the real world for this alternate world of inescapable wrongness, looming over and consuming you. You completely lost sight of the real world, when all you thought you were doing was exploring a field of simple gray stones.

Even if you do manage to stay outside of the slabs, they still warp the landscape, corrupt the horizon. Whether you’re standing on the edge of the thing or right smack dab in the middle, they will affect your worldview, and not for the better. The Memorial is a wordless reminder that words have power, and like any great power they can be misused, sometimes to horrible, horrible effect.

I’m still an idealist. But as I leave the Memorial behind, heading back toward the Brandenburg Gate, I can’t help but feel chilled by the very real power of storytelling’s dark side.

“Memphis” Wins! Neener Neener!

This weekend, the Broadway musical “Memphis” won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was a triumph I was glad to see, because as I mentioned in this post from January, my brother Charlie is part of the ensemble. He was with the show while it was in La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and then at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and was able to stay with it when it graduated to Broadway.

So congratulations to Charlie and the rest of the Memphis cast! Even setting aside the fact that my brother is in it, it was a great musical, and from what I’ve seen and heard, the cast and crew seem like a really great group of people.

Because I have a keen appreciation of schadenfreude, I poked around various news sites to see what the reaction was. I was pleased to note that overall Memphis garnered a lot of praise, even from the media. But I did find a few critics whose tears I could savor, most notably Michael Reidel of the New York Post, who complained about musicals being created for “hick audiences around the country” by “cynical producers who want to make pots of money.” I found this particularly amusing, because hey, news flash Mike: you work for freaking RUPERT MURDOCH. I think you’d best get off that high horse there.

Seriously, though, I was intrigued by the articles which complained that the Tony voters went the safe choice in “Memphis”, instead of choosing the edgier “Fela!” or “American Idiot.” I realize it’s a debate that goes on in the media all the time (mainly after awards shows), but this time I had a stronger connection to it: first in my brother, and second, now that I’m actively working toward the goal of being a creative professional myself, this debate has a direct impact on my own work as well.

I didn’t see the other nominated shows, but if Memphis is more accessible to mass audiences, isn’t that a good thing? As an aspiring writer, my goal is tell a really good story that touches people’s emotions. Isn’t that the very definition of accessibility? What’s the point of producing something edgy if no one wants to see it? Art for art’s sake, I guess. To that I say bah humbug.

I don’t write this post because I take the criticisms of Memphis personally– after all, Memphis won the Tony no matter what certain critics think, and I don’t think a Broadway production the size of Memphis needs to be defended by me. No, I’m more interested in the larger debate on what makes good art (be it theater, writing, movies, painting, music, etc.)– is it edginess? Originality? Accessibility?

For me, this is what art is, and always will be, regardless of what either critics or the dictionaries say: it’s a creative work designed to evoke an emotional response in the viewer/reader/watcher/listener, and to hopefully make them think. Successful art, then, is art which evokes the response it was aiming for (which doesn’t have to be a specific emotion). All other things that we strive for in art, such as originality, are in service of that higher goal. Accessibility, then, is another factor in service of the art: if more people see it and are touched by it, the art, whatever medium it’s in, is stronger as a result.

Anyway, those were just a few thoughts that came to me as I celebrated Memphis’ win. And as I expressed in my earlier blog post about Memphis, I think it’s a great story, even from a writing perspective. Anyone who thinks it was solely about racism was not paying close enough attention: what made it good was that it wasn’t just an outdated morality play, it was a drama involving very real, very believable, and very flawed characters. The 1950’s were just the backdrop against which their personal stories played out.

Anyway, I hope no one interprets this post as sour grapes against the critics who blasted Memphis’ win (well, except Michael Reidel, at whose expense I will continue to enjoy a hearty laugh). Rather, this debate, on what makes creative works like musicals “good”, has a very real and very direct impact on me as a writer, and it’s interesting to contemplate. I don’t think there really is a right answer… I have my opinion of course, and some people will disagree with me, which is fine. But if I ever get a novel published, I just want to spin a good yarn that’s fun to read; to hell with what the critics say. Memphis was the Broadway equivalent of my favorite kind of novel.

Congrats again, Memphis!

Dances with Pocahontas in Space, Revisited

A few months ago I wrote a post criticizing the movie Avatar, which has become the most read (and most contentious) post in my otherwise quiet corner of the Interwebs. I didn’t even think of it as particularly critical; I liked the movie, I just wished it had stretched further with the story.

A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of this when Writing Excuses (a podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells) did an episode titled How to Steal for Fun and Profit, in which they elucidated many of the same points I had been trying to make, but better and much more thoroughly.

Basically, the point of the podcast was this: All writers (as well as all types of creative folk) are influenced and inspired by the works of people who have come before them. Where’s the line between influence and copying? What do you need to do to make an idea truly your own?

Several different works were mentioned, including Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”, which is an homage to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Avatar was also brought up. Here’s what the podcast had to say about it (the transcription is from A Word in Your Eye, which transcribes all the Writing Excuses podcasts):

[Brandon] Do you think that he was too close to other films, yes or no?
[Howard] I think that they took stories that they knew were safe, they took story elements that they knew were safe, because everything else they were doing with that film was so bleeding edge that they wanted to not take a risk on the story. I reviewed it as the best Fern Gulley remake ever.
[Dan] Avatar is a case where I think I may be more forgiving than a lot of the reviews and comments that I’ve read. Yes, it was a story we’d seen before, but it was the best version of that story that I think I’ve ever seen. So that’s a case where for me, he did enough to make it his own.
[Brandon] I saw the film and I really deeply enjoyed the film. And still walked out of it saying, “Gee, I wish there had been a really great different story, too.” It was a great film that felt… that left a little tiny hole in me that kept me from saying that was a fantastic film. But it’s hard to fault someone for making a really good film that works on so many levels and has made so much money.

I agree pretty much word-for-word with Brandon (or he agrees with me, either way). I really enjoyed the movie, but the lackluster story, particularly compared to everything else, nagged at me. And of course, I can’t help but be happy that some of my favorite authors covered the same themes I did a post about. I feel vindicated. Smart, even.

But seriously, if you fancy yourself a writer, particularly a sci-fi/fantasy writer, check out Writing Excuses. Short, funny podcasts, all with great writing advice, and all from authors who are succeeding professionally (and who made it there in different ways).