Archive for the 'Margaret Ronald' Category


Technobabble can be your friend

We’ve all read it.  We’ve all seen it.  And I’m guessing a lot of us have written it, probably not on purpose.

“Oh, Professor, how does this reticulating infundibulator work?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked, Little Timmy.  You see, the wave manifold interface is tangential to the antiprotonic Q-stream, which as you know is what runs our stardrive, but in this case…”

…and garble garble garble, ten pages of reticulating infundibulators and science that would make any follower of the discipline in question weep quietly into their coffee.

Because I write fantasy, I don’t add so much in the way of technobabble, but I do have quite a bit of arcanababble: the myths that I’ve used to underpin the story and that need to be understood for the story to make any sense.  Which means if I’m not careful, I end up with something along the lines of:

“Oh, Great Sage, how may we use this Crepuscular Artifact of Vorpallitation?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked, Little Grignr.  You see, the Artifact’s power draws from the deposed Demon Lord Khar’tryuse, who as you know was friend to all living things before the Woven Corruption…”

…and garble garble garble, ten pages of Demon Lords and lost weapons and theomachies to shake the heavens.  Now, some people read for the technobabble, and I confess I like reading for the arcanababble, particularly when it’s based on actual myth.  Heck, I’ll sit through several pages of tenuous connections between obscure philosophers and alchemical symbols and ancient cults, if I have the sense there’s something to it (which, frankly, depends more on the writer than on the theory in question).  If it turns out to match what I know, then I’m likely to love the book even more.

But a lot of readers don’t like techno/arcanababble, and for good reason: it’s exposition, and like all exposition can become an indigestible lump if handled poorly.  Even when the myths are well-researched and accurate (inasmuch as myth can approach accuracy) or when the science is spot-on and peer-reviewed, if it’s presented as a lump of exposition then the technobabble filter will kick in for a lot of readers, and they’ll skim past it like a freshman English student skipping the whaling chapters of Moby Dick.

Leave it out entirely, though, and you’re missing the vital information that your story is built around, the scientific key or mythic reference that holds the whole thing together.  And, very possibly, you’ll have left out the Cool Idea that got this story started in the first place.  And, let’s face it, technobabble and arcanababble can be such fun to write.

So what are some ways technobabble can be more than just a lump of exposition? Continue reading ‘Technobabble can be your friend’


Workshop paralysis

Sorry for the long hiatus.  I have excuses, but that’s all they are, and after a while all excuses sound the same.

At the beginning of the month, I spent the better part of a week at Viable Paradise, a one-week writers’ workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d originally attended in 2004, at VP 8, and this time I was back for my second year as staff.  It’s a fun, if intense, experience, and it’s always strange to see the workshop from the other side.  One of the best parts of being staff is meeting all these new writers, some just starting out, some with a few stories under their belt, all trying for the same goal: to write something really good.

Of course, because it’s a workshop, all of these fresh-faced shiny new writers are there to meet the same fate: a crushing, soul-wrenching critique not unlike the mighty stompy foot of a stompy guy.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an overstatement; crits vary, and reactions vary with them.  But one thing I remember well, not just from my time at VP8 but from discussions with other alumni (and Clarion alumni as well) is the feeling of paralysis after a workshop.  It doesn’t happen to everyone.  Nor should it; since all writers are different, there’s a wide range of reaction to an intensive workshop.  But there’s a certain range of responses that many people have, and for me it was one of the hardest parts of a workshop — and it didn’t even take place until I was off the island and away.

When I emerged from Viable Paradise, I had a brain that was fizzing like Diet Coke with Mentos dropped in.   (Slightly less messy, but you get the idea.)  Lots of new ideas, new skills, new resources for work and revision and chasing down that elusive great idea.  And that wasn’t even touching the work I’d had critiqued!  (For the reaction to that, see here.)  I had a whole new toolbox with which to assemble a story!

And I sat down to write and…nope.  All of a sudden, every time I started to write something out, I could see not only the stylistic flaws — which I had trained myself to overlook, knowing that I’d fix them next time through — but the plot issues, the pacing problems, the characters who swung wildly between flat and cliche.  Hell, I’d spent so much time concerned with how a story should begin that I couldn’t for the life of me begin one — every beginning seemed too slow, or too didactic, or not nearly the right place to start!  I’d spent so much time learning that for my process, the most important thing was getting that first draft down, and now I couldn’t even start that first draft.

I had a bad case of Workshop Paralysis.  And I suspect I’m not the only one to have gone through it.  There’s even a learning model that explains some of it: moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence (with conscious competence just barely and perpetually out of reach).   Now that I knew all the errors I was prone to, I could not for the life of me unsee them.  Every story I started had them, and had them to a crippling degree.

There are many ways of getting through this.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting the data settle in one’s head.  Sometimes there are other factors in your life affecting your creativity.  Sometimes you need to work around the problems — write something silly, or useless, or just to remind yourself what you can do.  I’ve got a notebook full of vignettes that will never go anywhere, but are the result of “lunch break and either I write something stupid or I combust…or I check the internet again, but what’s the point?” moments.

For me, some of the solution was time.  Some of it was remembering my strengths and how I wanted to use them — plot, and the intricacies of it, and thus the need to be more rigorous in how I revealed a story.  And some of it was sheer mind-trickery.  I still have trouble beginning a story, and so if I’m just trying to get that first draft on paper, often I’ll either write a few lines for the beginning and then jump ahead, or I’ll just not write the beginning until I’m well into the rest.  By then I have a better idea of where the story’s going, after all.

But that sudden task of having all these new methods of critique, that moment of realizing that your work is a lot more difficult than you’d thought…that can be paralyzing, and worse still if you turn those delicate tools for critique into blunt instruments for beating yourself up.

Writers, did you have this workshop paralysis as well?  How did you get over it?   (Did you?)

Next time: technobabble can be your friend!



Exposition on a need-to-know basis

Exposition can be one of those things that drives me bananas, especially in the last few stages of revision, when I know everything about the story and can’t understand why no one else sees it. (This is also the part where I usually inform my husband that they called me mad, mad I tell you, but he’s used to that.)  It’s also a problem that’s particularly thorny for science fiction and fantasy writers, since we’ve got to introduce an entire world to the reader without bringing the story screeching to a halt.

It’s possible for large lumps of exposition to work — the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy runs on this, and it wouldn’t be the same without those asides — but writers are usually told to stay away from the infodump. For good reason; nothing kicks me out of a story faster than two pages of dry history before the action even happens. But dropping a reader in medias res can also backfire, especially if so much is going on that the reader’s left in the dust. I don’t often put down books that frustrate me in this way, but there have been a few that left a very bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the book.

The crux of it, for me at least, is balancing what the reader needs to know, what the reader already knows, and what will slow down the story. The first part’s easy to stumble over, especially in first drafts, because usually by that point I’ve come up with so much backstory and worldbuilding details that I just really want to share them all! I worked so much on it, why not add that twelve-page summary of Character X’s family history? (Well, because twelve pages will not make anyone care more about Character X, but will probably make anyone who did care stop.) I’ve poked fun at myself about this, such as in “A Serpent in the Gears,” where Charles stops himself from giving “the full explanation of merged versus autonomous citizenry and the Aaris monarchic system.” And yes, I’d actually written the full explanation in the first draft, changing it to that little jab when I realized what I was doing.

But this also works the other way (and this is often something I have to go back and fix in revisions, particularly in the Evie novels); there are certain things the reader needs to know early on, so that later events will have the significance needed. Building a mystery, particularly from a tight first-person perspective, involves a lot of this sort of information seeding, especially the kind where the reader doesn’t notice that they’ve got a vital piece of information yet.

On the other side of the equation is deciding what the reader already knows. Some of this is easy — if I’ve just made up the entire town of Thanapont and its rituals concerning the dead, then no reader is going to know a damned thing about it, and I can elaborate as much as I like (within reason; see below). But stories that are partly set in a recognizable world, or that draw on established mythology, are more difficult. This is where I often have trouble, especially if I’m playing off of a folktale as in “Goosegirl” or “Sparking Anger.” I tend to write my first drafts as if all of my readers will be familiar with my source material, and only later realize that I’ve made it completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t familiar with that source. The temptation to pause for a lecture is strong here as well, because at this point I’m usually so enamored with what I’ve learned that I want to show all my research.

This can also trip me up with some cultural expectations; if making a reference to “the happiest place on earth” is important to discovering the mystery, then I’m assuming everyone knows I’m talking about Disney World. Or, for another example, that everyone will know what the Curse of the Bambino was supposed to be. I often have to go back and decide what assumptions I’m making about my readers and what information I’ll need to provide. (In terms of serials, it’s another matter entirely — how much does the reader need to know about Evie from book to book? I’m still learning my way around this problem, and as I start in on revisions to Soul Hunt I’ll see how well I’ve tackled it.)

When I’m trying to write exposition, these are the two factors that come into play — but neither is as important as whether it will slow the story down. I try to do a lot of weaving exposition in around everything else (in the worst case, this can result in pausing a fight scene to discuss technique, which aaaargh drives me crazy and is why I don’t watch a lot of shonen anime.) And when working from a tight first-person perspective, if my narrator doesn’t know something, then I either have to show her learning it or use her ignorance as something for the reader to notice. For that matter, if she does know an important piece of exposition, then finding an excuse for her to remark on it becomes a new problem. There’s less of the “as you know, Bob” issue here and more of a “as I know, reader,” neither of which works well.

What exposition works for you? What knocks you out of the story, or makes you start skimming through in hopes of getting back to the action? Are there stories where the lack of exposition frustrated you? And, most importantly, what kind of exposition will make you stop reading?


Serial narratives

I’ve been working on some short fiction lately, taking advantage of the gap between manuscript submission and incoming edits to explore a few smaller ideas.  And, as is usually the case, when I’m working on something short I start trying to figure out how to handle a much longer story.  Something about the restrictions of the form automatically makes me look outside it at other models.

I’m not talking about novels.  Novels give you a lot more freedom in some ways: you have breathing space to add a few digressions or asides, you can develop more characters than the few who surface in a short story, and yet there’s an expectation that the main plot threads will at least be tied off by the end of it, the heroes riding off into the sunset/nuclear explosion or however you end it.

What I’m talking about is serial fiction, in any number of formats.  Think TV shows with season-spanning story arcs.  Long-running comics or manga.  And yes, multi-volume series of novels as well, though those tend to add another level of complexity.

There are certain stories that just don’t seem to fit in the mental space I’ve laid out for novels.  Sometimes it’s a matter of time — events over decades, or centuries, particularly if the generation of characters changes with it — sometimes it’s space, sometimes it’s just scope.  Serial fiction seems to offer a way around that: you build the world and the work piece by piece, each story separate but creating a larger picture.  There’s something about that that both intrigues and worries me, since it seems like matters could go off the rails at any moment.

(I admit part of the reason I’m thinking about this is that I’m watching the last season of Lost (wtf?  just wtf?  more wtf!) and, as a friend pointed out, this is a pretty singular experiment.  Lost is an incredibly expensive show, and the odds of seeing something like it again are unlikely even without knowing whether it’ll pull off the multi-season arc.  Yes, we’ll probably see more shows with season-long arcs, but something on this scale may be a one-time thing.  (Of course, I’m saying that after HBO’s given the green light to A Song of Ice and Fire, and yeah, that’s even more complex, so we’ll see whether that keeps going.  Hope so.)  But part of the reason Lost worked so well is that for every question it answered, it added three more.  That’s something you can’t do easily in a short story form, or even in novel form (unless you’re very, very good at balancing reader expectations).  )

When working on the Evie books, I didn’t think of them as a long serial, though I’d tossed around the possibility of writing more after the third.  But I still found myself dropping in ideas — sometimes without really noticing them the first time through — that would be useful if I decided to pick them up later on.  The Unbound Book, for example, or Woodfin’s traveling ministry, or the shadowcatchers.  But I still found myself worrying that these would be more of a distraction than anything else.  (One of my early readers used to pick up on throwaway lines I’d added to a story for verisimilitude and demand to know more about them.  At first I got irritated with her for focusing on the wrong thing; later I realized that if one line was more interesting than the rest of the story, I was doing something wrong.)

What is it about long-running serial fiction that’s such a draw?  (Or is it a draw at all, for you?)  Are there ways in which the depth of detail in such a work can be off-putting, rather than immersive?  Is it better just to follow a world through standalone pieces, or does there need to be some underlying connection?  And, just for the hell of it, what are some of your favorite serial works?


How much would you pay?

Sorry for the lack of a post earlier this month — I was, at the time, scrambling to finish a draft and send it away before the approaching deadline made my head explode.  (Funny, how internally-set deadlines are worse for me than external ones.)  But now that’s off and away, I can step away from one fictional world (and immediately start tinkering in a new one), and, having sent the manuscript off at the end of last week, I can finally relax . . .

. . . just in time for the whole Macmillan/Amazon debacle.

A lot of people have already written more cogent and informed posts on the subject, and at the moment it appears that the wrangling stage has passed.  But because some of this centered on what the two different companies wanted to charge for eBooks, it’s got me thinking about a side tangent.  (Yes, I do this a lot — grab a marginally-relevant idea and run with it, maybe knitting it back into the original problem later on.)

Specifically: what makes you willing to spend more money on a book?

For a long time I refused to buy hardcovers — not because of the price, but because I was moving a lot, and every large heavy book I bought would be one more large heavy book that I’d have to pack, carry, and unpack.  Not to mention the everpresent problem of shelf space.

Even then, though, I’d shell out money for certain hardcovers when they came out.  Usually it was for one of two reasons: I’d been craving the next in a series and didn’t have the patience to wait at the library (or beg whatever friend had bought the book and then emailed me to gloat), or I’d fallen for an author’s style and trusted this new book to be worth price and weight both.

Now that I’m a little more settled and have more discretionary income, I’m more likely to pay more for a book regardless of whether it’ll fit in another box (or even on the shelves…again).  But there’s a weird sort of mental calculus that comes into play when deciding whether to buy the hardcover/paperback/trade paperback, and I’m not entirely sure what feeds into it.

For example, I’ll buy manga even after I’ve read the entire series online, so the excuse of  “must know what happens next!” that feeds my series-buying doesn’t enter into it.  I could say that it’s a desire to give my business to this author in gratitude for her work, but somehow I doubt that sort of noble impulse is more than a later rationalization.

Some of it has to do with how familiar I am with the author’s work, how likely I am to reread this book (very likely, most of the time) and whether I’ve been wanting more in this series.  For books by an author whose work I love and whose style I know I’ll come back to repeatedly, I’ll shell out full hardcover price — and it’s possible I’d even pay more.  For books that I loan out again and again, I’ll buy more than one copy, just so when I get the urge to read it I won’t have to figure out which of my friends currently has it. (I’ll only do this with paperbacks, though.)

What about you?  What makes you wait for the paperback, purchase the hardcover, go for the deluxe foil-stamped limited edition?  Hell, what makes you more likely to wait at the library or pick it up used?  And if you’ve started at the library or used book store, what will make you buy a new copy?


On resolutions and new errors

Over New Year’s, I got to talking about resolutions with a few of my friends. I’m not in the habit of making resolutions, because I inevitably fail at them. But one person pointed out that it’s better not to make the same resolutions every year, especially if you’ve gotten stuck in a cycle of falling short every time. Instead, let each year be a chance to make new mistakes, rather than rehashing the old ones.

One thing I’m really good at, though, is rehashing old mistakes. I suspect some of you know the feeling: you go over the same errors over and over, not letting them go, to the point that you’ve convinced yourself that they’re the natural result of your endeavors. It’s a common spiral, and not one that helps anything. With stories it’s even easier: I know there are certain flaws that I’m susceptible to, and even though I’m alert to them, that doesn’t keep them from showing up.  So it’s very easy to run into something when I’m revising and say “oh, hell, it’s that again, I always screw that up” and then get stuck on that point.

So here’s a simple resolution for the new year, as a writer and as a reader: I want to screw up in different ways this time around. I’m going to screw up somehow — no story is perfect, no approach will solve everything — but I’d much rather do so in a different manner each time. I’m fully confident that the errors in Wild Hunt are much different from the errors in Spiral Hunt, and I can already tell that the current draft has different flaws. Of course, this means that I’m on unfamiliar ground every time I confront these flaws, but I think I’d rather deal with new problems than the same damn lost cause.

Judging by my experiences on New Year’s Eve, I’m well on my way to making new mistakes already. (Although I think I can do without the “raving about plot points in between periods of barfing” part of it.) And given that I’m writing this in my PJs while home sick with a nasty head cold, I’ve already avoided one of my usual mistakes, which is denying that I’m sick until I have to be bundled up and carried out the door.

Happy Epiphany, all. Here’s to new errors, better mistakes, and a whole new year of making our way through stories.


In the dead of winter

Darn you, Tim!  The one day I manage to get a post written while I’m stuck at the day job for more overtime, and you go and write it for me!  Of course, this could have been avoided had I checked the blog before writing but that’s not the point now is it?

Anyway.  Consider this post an extended comment on Tim’s post of yesterday.  In revenge the spirit of fellowship and goodwill, I’m going to switch off comments here and send any commenters to his post.

Onward.  Most of these aren’t strictly Christmas stories, but books that I find myself rereading in this season, for a number of reasons. Continue reading ‘In the dead of winter’


Tales from the Gray Cubicle

Warning: Probably some whining ahead.

I’m still trying to figure out this whole day job thing. I work 10-6 M-F in a cubicle job for a large financial company (hereafter referred to as ConHugeCo). It’s not a job that has any connection to my writing (unless I want to start a new branch of Financial Fantasy), and it’s a fairly reliable one. When asked about it, I usually say that it brings in the groceries and pays for insurance, and that’s about the extent of it.

Realistically, something that takes up that much of my time has to have more of an impact than that. And at times like these — when the revisions are just not coming together and the deadline is starting to loom — the tension between time spent writing and time spent earning money becomes a lot more worrying. And, of course, now is when we’re hitting the end-of-the-year crunch at ConHugeCo.

Over the summer, I’ve been lucky enough to swing some flextime, which made the difference when it came to getting Wild Hunt together (and certainly made a difference for this particular book). But that’s not possible at this time of year, so I’m suddenly balancing a lot more work on a lot less time. When the workload at ConHugeCo increases to the point of overtime for everyone, the writing takes on two new aspects. If, as now, I write before I go in to work, then no matter what else happens I’ve got that on my internal record of Worthwhile Things I’ve Done Today. (And after dealing with small frustrations all day, knowing that I’ve finished a chapter really does help.) However, it also means that by the end of the day, I don’t have much brain left.

In a purely intellectual sense, I know that the solution is to pick myself up and get the damn work done anyway, no matter how I feel. After all, I still have the mental space to work out plots and notes during the day (and over lunch, and when I have two free minutes plus a blank sheet of paper), so therefore the potential is there. But (and here’s where the whining really comes in) after a week or two of this, all I want to do is curl up somewhere and read popcorn fiction until I fall asleep in my chair.

Not only is this not the right response if I want to get any work done, it’s also a very spoiled response. I have a day job, after all, and one that has not done me irreparable harm; why am I balking at a little more work? The whole thing seems to be a matter of getting my mind right.

So for writers or artists or musicians out there who are juggling their work with a day job: how do you get your mind right? Is it all a matter of time management — writing during breaks or on your commute, finding time where there was none before? Is there a particular outlook or approach that helps you? I’d also like to know how stay-at-home parents manage to balance that and creative work, because goddamn that’s a job and a half. (From an outsider’s perspective, it seems the only thing that has any room to budge would be sleep.)  Is it all just a matter of not enough hours in the day?


A new way to procrastinate on revision

You are in a WRITER’S ROOM.
There is a desk here.
There is a chair here.
Exits are W and E.
What do you do?

> revise

How do you want to do that? Continue reading ‘A new way to procrastinate on revision’


Navel-gazing and turkey. Except turkeys don’t have navels.

At a mock-Thanksgiving dinner a couple of weeks ago, someone brought up how people in the city where he’d recently moved tend to introduce themselves based on their creative work, instead of their day jobs, as opposed to the other way around here in greater Boston.  I don’t know how much of this was just his impression or if it actually is widespread,  but it did get me thinking about how we construct identity.  It took me a very long time to be able to introduce myself first as a writer, even though I’ve thought of myself that way for years.

But with family, it’s different.  And with Thanksgiving coming up, it’s on my mind again.

For one thing, you’re not introducing yourself in most family situations; maybe Uncle Edith doesn’t really remember what it is you do for a living these days, but what you did at the reunion in ’94 has cemented your identity in his mind as “the one with the macaroni.”  And it’s really hard sometimes to ask the same people who saw you throw a tantrum over Lego bricks to take you seriously as a creative artist.

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I get this weird defensiveness about my writing in family situations that is completely out of proportion to everything else.  It’s as if I feel I have to justify my work by bringing up the practicalities, the business side of things, rather than the more fun parts of it.  Even though I’m very lucky in that my family enthusiastically supports what I do, there’s still part of me that expects to be asked “so how is your real work?”  Call it my own insecurities poking through.

In the past few years I think I’ve mellowed a bit on this point, or at least have stopped automatically defending my work.  Some of it is probably because of the books, but I think more has to do with me accepting that yes, this is my real work.

I’ll be spending this Thanksgiving with my in-laws, which means I’ll probably miss the story about the gnomes (or whatever strangeness comes out of this year’s dinner).  But for all other writers and musicians and poets dreading family dinners, here’s to you and your real work.  Enjoy the turkey, even if the ham’s a little dry, and remember that no amount of questions over dinner can make your work more or less real.


(Also, best thing about Thanksgiving?  Pie for breakfast on Friday.)