Category Archives: Writing

Everything I Know About Writing Fiction, Kinda

Want to work all the time for almost no financial reward? Want to have some people refuse to take what you do seriously while other people seem compelled to tear you down every chance they get? Try being a speculative fiction author! (Everyone likes to complain about their jobs, including authors.)

I’ve only been a professional author for a couple years, though I wrote fiction seriously for a decade before that. I’ve also been an editor and a publisher and all that other nonsense. Wiser and more experienced minds than mine have put writing advice to paper before me, but I get asked about this shit often enough that I’ll go ahead and take a shot at it.

I’ve broken this down into three sections: how to write words, how to write stories, and how to be an author.

Very little of this is original, but of all the writing advice I’ve gathered over the years, this is stuff that works well for me. It’s geared towards genre fiction because that’s what I write. It’s geared towards trying to be commercially viable, because I like getting paid for my work.

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On Writing Interactive Fiction

What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower: Being An Adventure of Your Own Choosing

In this series I explore the writing and editing processes behind some of the books I’ve put out. Obviously, I am not really an expert on this process, but I’m learning as I go and am happy to share what I’ve figured out.

My first “novel,” What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower (Combustion Books, 2011) is what is known as interactive fiction. Commonly, these books are referred to as Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books, but that is a trademarked term and the company that owns that trademark does, indeed, defend it. So my book was an Adventure Of Your Own Choosing and I recommend that if you put one of these out you also avoid the CYOA label.

I get asked about the writing process behind that book fairly often. So I’ll lay out what I learned by writing it.

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Writing a utopia

A Country of Ghosts

In this series I explore the writing and editing processes behind some of the books I’ve put out. Obviously, I am not really an expert on this process, but I’m learning as I go and am happy to share what I’ve figured out.

Last month I finished my last edits on my first linear novel (since What Lies Beneath the Clock tower is non-linear), a utopian novel called A Country of Ghosts. The book is going to be released this March by Combustion Books, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to write a utopia (and a bit about my own process).

I remember the battered, moldy, hardcover copy of Aldous Huxley’s Island I got or borrowed or stole from my high school girlfriend, back when I was probably fifteen or sixteen. More than any book I’d read, it felt heavy with importance–even before I read the first page.

Dystopias are all the rage, these days. Dystopias are safe. You can teach a dystopia in high school because, hey, we all know that fascism is bad. It’s safe to be critical. What’s hard is to offer alternatives. Note that I mean this primarily in the realm of words, rather than action… obviously, it is not safe to act against oppressive systems, and those who do so are to be lauded. Being critical is safe–doing something about it, or even offering alternative proposals, that’s what draws ire.

I’d probably already read and been pretty indifferent to Brave New World by the time I picked up Island. Brave New World was full of bad things happening to people… it was like any book I’d read. But IslandIsland was different. It’s been half my life now since I read it, and maybe there wasn’t that much that stuck with me, besides the call to be “here and now,” the admonishment to really savor your meals and your life alike. But that book felt important, at least to me, at least then.

A few years later, I became an anarchist–because I found a group of people willing to articulate and work for a world without oppressive systems. Many years after that, I learned that Huxley too had been pretty excited about the whole anarchist thing–in the introduction to Island, apparently he’d talked about how the world needed decentralization of a Kropotkin-esque manner.

Then came a bit more than a decade of social struggle, fighting for the earth and for liberty and for a world where we don’t fuck one another over to survive. And when it came time to reflect on what it was I was fighting for, the answer seemed obvious: I should write a utopian novel.

A utopian novel–any book, actually–shouldn’t ever be understood as a blueprint, or a road map. Sure, I’d love to live in the San Francisco of Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, but if by some miracle we’re ever in the position to rewrite society, we’d be fools to follow her book over our own lived experiences. This is actually one of the many places in which anarchists have an advantage over other political philosophies: we know we shouldn’t adhere to rules or programs set out by anyone other than ourselves and our immediate communities.

So I didn’t write “A Country of Ghosts” to say “this is what society should look like. Exactly like this.” I don’t want us to ratify the accord of Hron and just assume that what works for 19th-century mountain villagers and exiled revolutionaries would work for us. This is one of the reasons why A Country of Ghosts is set in a fictional world, actually–to reduce any chance that anyone might confuse it for prescriptive.

While I have no interest in writing out a set of instructions for how we might live, however, I am interested in showcasing the ideas of my community. I’m interested in showing the world an example of how we could get along without government or capitalism. I’m interested in showing that anarchism is a viable political system, which, while probably not perfect, has an awful lot going for it when compared to the ecocidal, racist, classist system we live in today. I’m interested in creating work that might help inspire, not direct, revolutionary change.

The challenge left to me, in writing the thing, was to showcase a society without boring the reader to tears. Another reason dystopias are more common than utopias is that a dystopia has a built in sense of conflict, one that immediately resonates with the average reader: being in a totally screwed up situation and wanting to escape or change it. But I, and so many others, do have the experience of being part of defending something beautiful and functional from outside attack–which is a perfectly realistic source of conflict for utopian fiction.

Practically speaking, I had to balance plot with quite a bit of exposition, since I not only had to show the landscape and culture of Hron, I had to explore plenty of its inner workings. I hope that I succeeded–I’m cautiously optimistic.

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grammar punk

I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.
-Mark Twain, in his autobiography

I’m not a grammar nazi, I’m a grammar punk. English doesn’t have rules. That’s part of why it’s beautiful. But clarity in writing is something to be desired.

I grew up in a grammar-friendly environment. My dad is a technical writer with a keen eye for ambiguous sentences and my public school education got me into editing (yearbook and literary magazine) reasonably early.

Once, when I was eleven or twelve let’s guess, I was at a nearby school for my mom’s dance recital, and all of the printed-out signs were in both english and spanish. I wasn’t very bright, apparently, because I went to my mom the next day and said “don’t people have to learn english when they move to America?” My mom, bless her, got angry and told me that the US doesn’t have a national language, and that that is a good thing. I hadn’t realized that before. But goddam was she ever right.

Years later, I was learning to write, and I sent an article to the Earth First! Journal about an action we had done. (The action was pretty cool… we blockaded a company’s doors at lunch with thrown-out christmas trees to symbolize the forests they were responsible for clearcutting.) In my article, I used the serial comma. (The serial comma is the comma between the second-to-last item in a list and the last item in the list.) The Earth First! Journal edited the comma out. I wrote them a polite-but-firm-but-wrong email explaining that the serial comma was intentional. They wrote back to say that they edited their paper with the AP styleguide and thusly they did not use the serial comma. I hadn’t realized there wasn’t a right and wrong way to write english before that point.

I have to admit, I’ve spent some time as a grammar nazi. I was an advocate, nay a partisan, for the serial comma and for a certain set of rules to define comma use and the like. Sure, I had my indulgences–like the antiquated use of commas after an emdashed parenthetical aside–, but I was fighting for the rules.

Which made me a terrible anarchist.

By a regular grammar nazi’s guidelines, I was already unforgivably a grammar punk. I advocate they/their as a singular pronoun, eschewing s/he and his/hers. I have been consciously avoiding capitalizing the names of countries and languages for years. I kind of like “grey” better than “gray” but I want to keep using american rather than british punctuation standards. (And I tend to get along well with people who also have fierce opinions about such things.)

My progress away from grammar fascism has been slow, but today I think marks my final break from it. There is an excellent series of articles up about literary privilege that really made it clear I have been, largely, fighting the oppressor’s war for them. (read part 2 and part 3 as well).

But I’ll not put down my gun (red pen?) just yet. There’s still a war on. I’m not switching teams entirely, either. I’m not a grammar nazi, I’m a grammar punk. And like a proper punk, I will be fighting against the oppressors.

I used to think that I was too stupid to read the dense philosophical texts and translations that some of my more academically-minded anarchist friends bandied around. I had to fight my way through, sentence by sentence, to uncover meaning. And then, one day, I was copyediting Revolt and Crisis in Greece, an excellent collection of essays by the Greek group Occupied London. And I ran across an essay I expected to turn into the mire and gibberish insurrectionist/philosophical texts often become. But instead, it was… it was good. “Oh,” said the epiphany in my head, “this is what all of those other essays were trying but failed to do.”

If you believe your ideas are advancing human understandings of philosophy and politics, you’d better be damn sure your writing is up to it before you expect the rest of us to go along with it. Academic literature isn’t just dense. Density is necessary sometimes. Some ideas are fucking complex. I even understand the need for specialized vocabulary. Or the idea that in order to read book X, you might have to have read book Y (though if you ask me, the author of book X is being damn lazy). But a lot (not all) of academic literature is just plain badly-written, full of sentences that don’t express what they are intended to express. Ambiguous writing.

The point of grammar is clarity. If a sentence is understood, it is properly formed. If it is not, it has failed. I don’t care if your sentence is technically correct. What matters is whether or not it carries its meaning. Some guidelines exist to help us communicate, but they are not chains. Let no one wield them against us as such.

As Scroobius Pip says:
“thou shalt spell the word “Pheonix” p-h-e-o-n-i-x, and not p-h-o-e-n-i-x, regardless of what it says in the Oxford English Dictionary.”
May we all be so brave.

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