For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Coherence

My 9000-word short story “Coherence” has been published in a new anthology from Dreamscape Press®. Nuclear Town U.S.A. is an anthology of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction now available at Amazon.com.

Nuclear Town USA - CoverThis short story is currently my longest, just slightly longer than many publishers’ maximum allowable word count, so I’m glad it found a home. “Coherence” is a story about a scientist who tries to prevent the apocalypse using time travel. Guess what, things don’t work out for him the way he expects. (#conflict)

Shortly after I finished writing the story I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and I found it really strange because all these little, weirdly specific details from my story were in his story. Is it possible that all the books and movies I’ve seen that were inspired by Childhood’s End somehow implied those details to me through context?

How am I supposed to know?

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Editing, Short and Long

Outside of blog posts and my novel, most of my writing these days turns into short stories. Usually the combination of two or more ideas—be they characters, situations, themes, etc.—will spark something I want to express, and my goal is to twist those ideas in a new, interesting way.

For speculative fiction, which is generally what I write, the short story is an essential form. With this format writers can wrap the kernel of some great idea in a tight little package, and do it quickly and efficiently enough that the reader doesn’t have time to get bored. Usually a short story is meant to be punchy enough and gripping enough that the reader will not put it down without finishing it.

Consequently when I edit short stories I find myself cinching everything down, stripping out all extraneous detail that doesn’t turn the story (the kernel) in crucial and compelling ways. The idea should roll out naturally and passionately and there should be no lulls in the story. So when it comes to economy of prose, I get ruthless.

The phrase “kill your darlings”, clichéd as it is, remains a good maxim. It’s easy to fall in love with little phrases, descriptions, or dialogue that were written spontaneously and turned out pleasing. But if these darlings are just aesthetically pleasing and they aren’t crucial to the unfolding of the story, they must be removed. People don’t generally read short stories for aesthetically pleasing descriptions; they want a story. If they just wanted pleasing sentences, they can read poetry.

Usually when I come up with a short story I will outline it thoroughly so that I know all the essential elements of the telling, then I will overwrite my first draft, including anything that comes to mind. But when it comes time to edit, I can usually strip away a substantial amount of what I’ve written. It is common for me to pare down the word count of my first draft by a third. I take out anything extraneous, condense scenes by making them more efficient, and tighten up the sentences because I want my idea expressed in short order.

For the past few months I’ve been slowly editing my first novel Residuum, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find that going from a rough first draft to a fine first draft, my word count expanded considerably. This has to do with the form. If people decide to take on a whole novel, they have decided to invest more of their time for a fuller expression of ideas, so I try to make each element as full and satisfying as possible.

While I think the reader of a novel will be more forgiving of a less terse style of prose, there is still no excuse for inefficiently rolling out the story for them. Many darlings have been killed in the making of my novel. I still want to tell the story in a relentless way while giving the ideas room to grow and fulfill themselves in a way that feels natural to me.

A novel is much more weighty, can deal with bigger issues in a more detailed way, and I think my first rough draft left many subplots and minor interests unresolved. Particularly in my third act, the seeds that were planted in the early parts of the book need to come to fruition in a more satisfying way. I find it hard to add to a draft. It’s much easier to take stuff out.

I found that I took short cuts, leaving out secondary ideas to emphasize the main, A-story. But in a novel of any length, a reader should be interested in more than just the central protagonist. I’ve taken the time to set up the world and flesh out the secondary and tertiary characters, so I owe it to myself to see their storylines through to completion.

When I was participating in NaNoWriMo last November, the goal was fifty thousand words in one month. It was a bit of a struggle to make that word count while working a day job, but that made it more satisfying when the end of the month came and I had made it. But I kept writing at that point because the story wasn’t finished.

In my hurry to write, I narrowed my focus to the main protagonist and the spine of the story while some of the supporting ideas and characters didn’t receive fair page-time. Looking back on how I treated those secondary parts of the novel, I feel like I was half-assing it. I kept writing after November and ended with a word count of around sixty-one thousand words. Then, because I had my head so far up my first pass, I handed it off to one trusted friend to read.

It’s not difficult to maintain objectivity when writing; it’s impossible. Having an outsider read it who is very familiar with science fiction and “novels of ideas” was absolutely crucial. He pointed out many of the gaps where I hurried through things and posed questions to me. A few conversations back and forth and some detailed notes (for which I owe him in a big way) highlighted the flaws in my first pass.

The second pass, which will bring me to what I refer to as my “first draft”, already sits at over seventy-seven thousand words. The whole book has expanded by about 25% so far, and I still have the last fifty pages to work through. These final pages are where many of the unresolved plot elements need to be, so I expect the word count to climb up as high as eighty-five thousand.

It surprised me to be putting in so much when I’m used to taking out. The editing process for the novel has involved a good deal of rewriting, plus brand new writing, even the addition of completely new chapters. I imagine this is a blunder because it’s my first novel. Next time I will outline more fully, considering the ideas underlying the story. I expect that the edit of my second novel will find me stripping away the fat, cutting flowery prose, and returning to the ruthlessness of my short story editing. We’ll see.

 

P.S. Next week will be my first week off from the blog. I will be without a computer for a couple days and doubt I will have time to prepare anything, so there will be no post. Enjoy your Canada Day weekend and try not to be too depressed when there is no new pretentious nonsense to read here. – ERS

Unconscious Dominoes

In 2010 Thomas Pynchon released Inherent Vice, one of his shortest, funniest novels. This was on the heels on his 1100-page sprawling masterwork Against The Day. Inherent Vice made me laugh out loud regularly, which is a feat novels rarely accomplish. It’s The Big Lebowski as written by Raymond Chandler. Lebowski, I know. It’s one of the funniest movies ever. But I realized that I had somehow never read Raymond Chandler.

I read The Big Sleep right away and was thoroughly impressed. Here was a guy who obviously discovered what he was meant to do.

Around that time I heard an interesting story about Freemasons. They had given some jewelry to one of their members, and when that member died, they asked for the jewelry back. I thought that was interesting. Who doesn’t love a good Freemason conspiracy-theory?

Shortly thereafter, I read a short story by Raymond Chandler called Pearls Are a Nuissance. It’s a classic Chandler first-person mystery. In the story a man tries to find a stolen string of pearls to impress his girlfriend. She asks him not to drink whiskey, but of course the case demands that he does. He gets more and more drunk as the story goes on and things get more and more hilarious. Chandler had me busting the proverbial gut, with gems like this:

 “A wise guy,” the fat man sneered again. “Down the hall, bud. Two-eighteen.” He waved a thumb the color and almost the size of a burnt baked potato.

A plan was forming in my mind even though I didn’t know it. When a few friends and I got together to experiment with a writing group, things aligned and I decided to write a short story based on these elements.

I decided I’d write a mystery in the first person about a piece of missing Masonic jewelry. This was intended as an experiment to get me writing in different styles, so I didn’t feel bad about loosely following the existing plot in Chandler’s story. But instead of whiskey, I went Lebowski’s route and had him smoking more and more cannabis.

Because I borrowed from Chandler’s original, I don’t intend to sell the story as my own. Instead I’m posting it here. Click below to download the PDF. Comments and criticisms welcome.

Freemasons Are a Drag

Enjoy.