Posts Tagged ‘writing’

A Writing Tip, from Building Model Tanks

Friday, May 4th, 2012

I built model tanks when I was a kid.  I had a How-To book of neat tips, including one that was actually about artistic intentions.

The German tanks in WWII had numbers on the turret.  The numbers were usually painted at the assembly plant using a stencil, but sometimes the crews painted them by hand in the field, which of course had a crude look.

My How-To book said, if you want your model tank to look like one that had the numbers hand-painted by the crew, don’t try to paint the numbers by hand yourself.  Because it won’t look intentional.  It won’t look like you deliberately wanted to have crude-looking numbers; it’ll look like you lost the sheet of stickers that came with your model and tried to fake it by painting the numbers on.

Instead, my book said, use the stickers and paint some tiny drips of paint on top of them. It won’t look exactly like the real thing, but it will show what your intentions are–numbers that weren’t done with a stencil. And in that context, it’ll look right.

Tank Numbers

The audience for your art–whether model Jagdpanther or short fiction–gets some of their context for interpreting the art from their perceptions of your intentions. They will assume standard intentions for normal things, like that a knight embarking on a quest must be seeking some goal.  But for non-standard things, they may not see your intentions. So they may not feel that context, and they may not be able to tell whether an oddity is intentional or a mistake.

I see this in stories I read for BCS.  Sometimes there are incidents of odd punctuation or strange verb tenses, or passages of odd voice.  If there’s no context for why the writer is doing that, it can seem like they had no reason, or that they’re not doing it intentionally at all; that it’s sloppy writing or a typo.

But if they do have a reason, the prose needs to indicate that. Not necessarily what the reason is; just that there is one. To “telegraph” to the reader that yes, there is method to my madness; this odd thing is intentional, not a typo.

So the reader doesn’t get jarred by the oddity, or bumped out of the story as they wonder whether it is intentional or just sloppy.  So they immediately know that it is deliberate, and they can get back to normal readerly things, like pondering what the oddity means within the rest of the story. Back to reading.

What Escapes Me

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

A writer buddy of mine recently noted how his escapist pleasures as far as books were diametrically opposite from the person he was chatting with about it.

I’ve thought a lot about what for me makes good escapism, in pondering what types of stories work for me as an editor and what types don’t.  I get most all my escapism from the world.  Stuff in the setting that’s cool or neat or odd; quirky, awe-inspiring, or amazing to think about.

But when I’m reading or watching TV/movies even just for escapism, I still need some complexity to the character for it to hold my interest.  I need a character in an acute situation facing some struggle in a way that will move me, or a puzzle or mystery to that situation that will intrigue me.  Without that, I’m not entertained.

So is that truly “escapist”?  I don’t know.  If say “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” novella and movie, moves me by saying something profound about the human condition, is that “escapist”?  I think most people would say no. :)  For me it’s not whether the story is dark or the ending to that struggle is happy or not (in “Shawshank Redeption,” the ending is ambiguous, and I love hard-fought happy endings as much as I love ambiguous ones).  It’s a level of engagement that such complexity or mystery provides for me, without which I’m not entertained enough to escape.

Which may explain why Hollywood movies rarely ever work for me. :)

Komet, and Impact

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Me163 Komet

That’s the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in the Smithsonian Air & Space annex, snapped on a recent visit with a fellow writer and history buff.

The Komet was one of the late-war German “wonder weapons.” It was a revolutionary and amazing design–a liquid-fueled rocket plane. But it was utterly impractical–it flew so fast it couldn’t shoot other planes down. And it had zero impact on the war.

By contrast, many if not most American, British, and Soviet designs were dull and plain, yet were inimitably practical and had huge impacts on the war.

Maybe there’s an analogy for genre novels in there.  The huge impact seems to come from novels that might be dull and plain but are also inimitably practical.  And the revolutionary and sometimes impractical often has little impact.  And maybe ends up ogled in museums.

“Demo Love,” Rewrites, and First Draft Spark

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

One of my music buddies years ago coined a neat term: “demo love.”

Sometimes the first version of a song you ever hear is not the original but some other band’s cover of it.  Then later you hear the original version, by the original artist.  But the cover version you heard first is so indelibly impressed on your mind that the original never sounds right.  Your lasting impression of that song is dominated by the other version that you heard first.

Sometimes for the better–Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” takes Dylan’s original to a new level. But sometimes for the worse (I pity all the kids in the late 80s who the first version of “Purple Haze” they ever heard was Winger’s cover…).

My buddy has a home studio and records lots of bands. He noticed this phenomenon with demo recordings.  Bands usually record a demo version of their songs first–to get the ideas on tape; to help plan their approach for when they record a real, fancy or polished version. That demo was the first version of those songs you ever heard, and sometimes it would stick so indelibly in your mind that you had “demo love”–you always liked the demo better, even compared to the later fancy polished recording.

I think there’s another reason that demo love happens, in both music and fiction.  First drafts often have some subconscious spark; some bit of raw inspiration or “quan” (cf. Jerry McGuire). There’s something very cool in there that’s more than the sum of the parts.

And sometimes when writers aren’t careful on a rewrite, that spark gets lost.

I see this happen in stories rewritten for BCS. One cause I think is writers rushing the rewrite. They spent months writing the story; then they spend thirty minutes on the rewrite.  The new insertions don’t have the same spark as the rest of the story–maybe they don’t match the story’s voice, or they’re inconsistent with the tone of the character, or any number of things.

Sometimes I see writers adding a lot of new stuff.  Bigger or longer changes to me means more risk of spoiling the original voice.

Another cause I think is writers not making a dedicated effort to match the voice that the previous draft has.  We writers often get into an odd “head space” when writing a story; a mental state colored not only by the character and the story but also by who we are on that day; what we’re thinking about or dealing with. I think it takes a deliberate effort to recapture that same “head space” when you’re making insertions into that story.

This is why I pretty much beg the writers I give rewrite requests to to take their time with the rewrite.  All the time they want.  However much time the story needs. And to make their changes or insertions as small as they can–the smallest possible tweak that will fix whatever the problem is. And to do all they can to match the same voice that the original had.

So for rewrites, demo love can be a good thing. To help you preserve whatever innate spark the demo had, that you (or the editor!) fell in love with.