Guest Blog

Great Inspiration with Andrew McKiernan

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October 7, 2013

Since I wrote this post about a moment of great inspiration I wasn’t even aware of at the time (when I met Neil Gaiman in 1989), I’ve been hosting some guest posts from other writer friends where they share their moments of equally great inspiration. You can read all the posts so far under the Great Inspiration category here. Today we have a tale of library magic from Andrew McKiernan:

It is impossible for me to separate my desire and inspiration for writing from my original desire and inspiration to read. They both stem from the same source.

When I was a kid, my grandmother was the cleaner for our local public library. I think I went with her a couple of times when I was really young, maybe five years old, but all I did then was make pretty patterns with date-stamps on blank loan cards. Our family moved away for a few years, then came back into the area when I was 9. By that time I’d moved on from mashing date-stamps to Little Golden Books and non-fiction about dinosaurs and space. I hadn’t really read much fiction.

So, I’m 9 yrs old, and two or three nights a week my grandmother would drop by to pick me up. She’d take me with her to the library and I could just hang around while she cleaned. To my 9yr old self, was very different to what I’d experienced 4 yrs before. Picture it. It’s night and the library is closed. Empty. The lights are all off but for a few dim security signs. And all around me, from wall to ceiling and row upon row, are books. So many books!

I wanted to read them all. I wanted to be the sort of person who wrote them.

The main pleasure for me — apart from the awe of being so small in such a large, dark place — was the freedom I had. I knew there was an ‘Adult’ section of the library that I was too young to borrow from. And the strange ‘Adult Reference’ section, whose books were so important that nobody could borrow them and they weren’t allowed to be taken from the library at all! On cleaning nights, these sections were mine and mine alone. My grandmother lay no restrictions upon me. She (with full knowledge of the librarians) allowed me to borrow any book I wanted. Any book!

It was in those years (between ages 9 and 12) that I discovered Charles Dickens and Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft. Most importantly, I discovered a copy of a book that I knew was ‘NOT FOR KIDS’. My mum had read it. My uncle and aunt and grandmother had read it. I’d seen them with it a few years before and the girl with the bloody face on the cover intrigued me like no other book. When I finally found a hardcover copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, the exact same bloody-girl was on the cover. I sat down in the dark between two aisles. Alone. Surrounded by books. I carried a small torch with me and I used it see the pages. I began to read.

I think it was there, at that moment, that I knew I wanted nothing more in life than to tell stories and to read the stories of others.

Libraries will always be a very special place for me. Every one I enter, I imagine what it would look like at night, in the dark. How the ambient light might illume a few feet in front of you. The lined-up spines of books moving past you in the darkness as you walk the aisles. How the lack of vision makes the books smell so much more pungent. So enticing.

And, just like when I was a kid, I imagine that one of the books on that library shelf just might be mine.

Andrew McKiernan is a writer and illustrator. You can read all about him on his wikipedia page here.

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Great inspiration with Jason Franks

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October 3, 2013

Since I wrote this post about a moment of great inspiration I wasn’t even aware of at the time (when I met Neil Gaiman in 1989), I’ve been hosting some guest posts from other writer friends where they share their moments of equally great inspiration. You can read all the posts so far under the Great Inspiration category here. Today we have a tale of discovery from Jason Franks:

A Writer of Earthsea

For my ninth birthday, some kind soul gave me a book called Over the Rainbow: Tales of Fantasy and Imagination. This was an anthology comprised of individual chapters taken from the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Alan Garner, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells, and others. I had been working through Enid Blyton’s catalogue over the preceding couple of years, so this gift was perfectly judged. I don’t remember who gave me the book, but I sure as hell remember the stories it contained. I still have my copy.

wizard of earthsea by ursula le guin 178x300 Great inspiration with Jason FranksOver the Rainbow was full of amazing work, but the piece that had the biggest and most immediate effect on me was “Warriors in the Mist”, from Ursula Le Guin’s novel A Wizard of Earthsea. It was a happy day when I found the complete book in my local library. I devoured it whole, and then immediately went on its first sequel, The Tombs of Atuan.

I’ve revisited the Earthsea books–the original trilogy and the newer volumes–a number of times throughout my life, and each time I have discovered new wisdom in them, for all their taut plotting and slender spines. These novels were written for children, but they are not in the least bit childish. Le Guin treats her readers as adults, never lecturing or sugar-coating, and her prose remains singularly beautiful. The Earthsea cycle stayed with me because it challenged me in ways that other children’s fiction did not. Once I was done with it I moved on to the general fiction area of the library and I have seldom looked back.

Not only do the stories Le Guin presents prefigure my own concerns as a writer, but they in many ways parallel my writer’s journey. In A Wizard of Earthsea, the hero, Ged, engages with many of the usual tropes of fantasy literature–defending the village, fighting the dragons, travelling off the map, and so on–but there’s never a sense of glory to his victories. This is not a book about good versus evil. Ged does not undertake a quest to stop some cosmic threat: Earthsea is built on Taoist principles and the narrative soon turns away from the expected progression of events. Despite his accomplishments, Ged is forever scarred by his early mistakes. This book is about the hero coming to terms with his own personal failings.

As I have started to meet my writing goals–first acceptance, first cheque, first time in print, first solo title–I have found little relish in the victories. By the time I have attained one goal I am already fixated on the next. This is the lesson of Earthsea: the shadow that pursues you does not care about what you have already achieved. Your story isn’t over until you turn and face it.

Jason Franks writes comics, prose and source code. His first novel, Bloody Waters, was short-listed for an Aurealis Award. He is the author of the Sixsmiths and McBlack graphic novels. Find him online at www.jasonfranks.com.

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Great Inspiration… or not – with Peter Watts

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September 30, 2013

Since I wrote this post about a moment of great inspiration I wasn’t even aware of at the time (when I met Neil Gaiman in 1989), I’ve been hosting some guest posts from other writer friends where they share their moments of equally great inspiration. You can read all the posts so far under the Great Inspiration category here. It’s really cool to have these people share inspiring moments with us. Or not, in the case of Peter Watts. And Peter’s response made me realise that some readers might be a bit concerned if they couldn’t put their finger on a moment of equal importance in their own lives. As you can see from his comments below, you really needed worry about that. After Peter responded to my email, making me realise this potential angle, I asked if I could post his comments anyway, as an example to others that a moment of great clarity (even realised much later) is not actually necessary. I mean, this is Hugo Award-winning Peter Watts. Author of the Rifters and Blindsight (the seminal first contact novel.) So take heart:

Your email got me thinking– and oddly, I can’t think of anything in my life that proved especially pivotal or inspirational. I wanted to be a writer ever since I plagiarized 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the age of seven; I wanted to be a marine biologist ever since I stumbled across a friend’s 10-gal aquarium the year before. Ever since then, y trajectory’s been relatively unwavering.

I discovered the three brands of author most relevant to my own development (1 – How can this bozo be selling so well when he can’t write his way out of a goddamn fortune cookie?; 2 – Oh, I see how you did that, that’s brilliant. Now I know how to do it too. Too bad I can’t because you already did it first; and 3 – You told me exactly what you were going to do before you did it, and I thought you were crazy, and then you went ahead and did it and I still have no idea how you pulled it off.)

I think I may have petted William Gibson’s cat once (at least, I’m pretty sure it was Gibson’s doorstep the cat was sitting on). But there was no one-on-one meeting, no life-changing experience that set my course. I’d like to say that some Monty Python cutout God appeared in the heavens and told me I’d have to get a day job as a marine biologist before I could break out and become a midlist SF writer, but really, it was just kinda steady-as-she-goes.

Sorry.

No apology needed, Peter. That’s actually quite inspiring in itself.

Peter Watts is an outstanding author and fascinating guy. I highly recommend you read his full bio here, on his site, rifters.com

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Jason Nahrung

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September 27, 2013

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post and Martin Livings wrote me this great post. Now I have a little something from Jason Nahrung:

When art and circumstance collide.

It was back in 2011 when I’d been to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria about the Secessionist movement — Gustav Klimt is probably the most famous of them. But it was a painting by Oskar Kokoschka, of a Count Verona, and the enigmatic personality of seamstress and muse Emilie Floge that really got under my skin.

Lo, the very next day, an email arrived announcing a new anthology, Tales from the Bell Club (KnightWatch Press, 2012), looking for stories set in a time period that included the Secessionists. A little more research about Verona and the group, and ‘The Kiss’ was born, incorporating Emilie and Gustav and Oskar, a tuberculosis clinic and a cult led by another enigmatic figure, the Comte de St Germain (under one of his nom de plumes).

One of those wonderful moments when arts and circumstances collided, and I got to be an Austrian suffragette of the early 1900s.

Thanks to Amazon’s Look Inside feature, you can read (and buy) the end product here.

This is the Verona painting:

verona web Great Inspiration   guest post from Jason Nahrung

And here’s Emilie:

emilie web 240x300 Great Inspiration   guest post from Jason Nahrung

Jason Nahrung is a Ballarat-based writer and editor. His latest novel is Blood and Dust, an outback vampire adventure melding Mad Max and Anne Rice. www.jasonnahrung.com

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Martin Livings

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September 25, 2013

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post, and today I have a post from Martin Livings:

The Year 1990

1990 was the year that made me. Or ruined me, depending on your point of view. I’d already been writing and submitting stories to the only local SF magazine I knew of, a trashy little beast called “Far Out”. They were amazing tales I sent them, like the one about the advanced civilisation being wiped out by a natural disaster, only to be revealed that it was actually an ants’ nest being stepped on by a small child. Or the one about the two armies fighting to the death that turned out to be a game of chess. Wow, incredible stuff. I wonder why they never accepted them?

Then in 1990 I attended Curtin University for less than a semester, my second unsuccessful foray into academic life. But during that semester, I joined the Curtin Imagination Association (CIA), as a high school friend of mine was already a member, and through them found out about the existence of Swancon, the annual Perth science fiction convention. So I thought, what the hell, sounds like it could be fun, and went along.

And that, as they say, was that.

The guest of honour was the brilliant Terry Dowling. I’d never heard of Terry before that, but hearing him talk, hearing him read, I was gone. Here was an Australian spec fic writer, doing things I’d never seen done in spec fic before. Rynosseros blew my tiny mind; I still have the copy I bought at the con, signed by Terry. I also met Nick Stathopolous for the first time there, artist extraordinaire. And it wasn’t just meeting them, either, but all of the people there, people like me, yet all different too. I wasn’t alone any more. It was energising and liberating to discover this.

These were huge inspirations, but the biggest inspiration that came out of Swancon 1990 was meeting the incredible team that were putting together what was at the time (and in my humble opinion still is) the finest Australian spec fic journal ever, Eidolon. Meeting the editors, Jeremy G. Byrne, Richard Scriven and Jonathan Strahan, plus of course the others involved in getting the magazine up and running, Keira McKenzie, Robin Pen and Chris Stronach, was like a lightbulb going off in my brain. Or maybe a nuclear explosion. These guys were locals, they were here in Perth, and they were doing incredible things with the genre.

I wanted in. I wanted in bad.

bjaheiff Great Inspiration   guest post from Martin Livings

(Martin in home-made Freddy Krueger makeup, Swancon 1990)

It took me two years to get a story accepted by them. That sounds like a long time, but considering the legendary slowness of the Eidolon reading process, it was actually pretty quick. At around the same time, I also had a story accepted by Aurealis, the other local powerhouse on the scene, which I’m so glad is still alive and well today. I ended up working for Eidolon in the end, first writing book reviews, then editing the book review column, and finally as an associate editor. I made so many great friends through this; Sean Williams and Kirstyn McDermott were two of my favourite go-to book reviewers, and of course the amazing (and Oscar-winning!) Shaun Tan was the art editor, to name only three of many. But more than that, I learned. I learned about the craft and the art. I learned what was good, what was bad, and, worse, what was ordinary and dull. I learned more than I ever could have in any university.

1990, Swancon and Eidolon teamed up and created the beginning of my writing career. And even though Eidolon may no longer be with us, it sits on my bookshelf and continues to inspire me, to make me want to do better, write better, be better. Hopefully it always will.

Perth-based writer Martin Livings has had nearly eighty short stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His first novel, Carnies, was published by Hachette Livre in 2006, and his first short story collection, Living With the Dead, was published in 2012 by Dark Prints Press. http://www.martinlivings.com

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Great Inspiration – guest post from Thoraiya Dyer

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September 23, 2013

Last week I posted about the time, back in 1989, when I met Neil Gaiman and got a signed copy of Sandman #1, with no idea at the time of the significance of the event. You can see that post here. At the end of the post I said I would put the call out to my writerly friends and see if any of them had similar inspirations in their lives they might like to share. The wonderful Thoraiya Dyer got back to me with this excellent post:

Inspirational things – The Empire Trilogy by Feist and Wurts

daughter 183x300 Great Inspiration   guest post from Thoraiya DyerDaughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts, was published in 1987.

I didn’t read it until 1992. That year, the third book in the series came out; I saw my mother actually go without food so that she could buy the book and find out the fate of Mara, Lady of the Acoma.

Meanwhile, I was just starting high school. Daughter of the Empire had a turreted, cathedral-looking castle and a blonde with a broadsword on the cover. Yet the first line was: “The priest struck the gong.” I’d sure never seen a gong in a cathedral.

I hadn’t heard of whitewashing in 1992 but soon lost myself in a story devoid of blondes. There were no turrets. There weren’t even any broadswords. The fascinating tale of a teenage girl inheriting the leadership of a once-mighty feudal family and battling with her wits to keep from being crushed by her rivals kept me absolutely riveted to the very last page.

Along the way there were honour-bound Tsurani warriors that sounded suspiciously like samurai. Grey warriors that might have been ronin. There were wood-framed palaces with paper screens instead of solid walls. There were spies who did not brawl like James Bond but infiltrated like ninjas.

Later, I discovered that Feist and Wurts had used Korea and Ancient Rome as their inspiration, but by then, barking up the wrong tree, I’d already delved into all things Japanese.

I took Japanese for my language elective that year. When Mum asked if I wanted to do netball or soccer, I told her I wanted to do karate. I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and The Book of Five Rings. I set my alarm for 3am to get up and watch inappropriately classified and poorly dubbed anime while drinking green tea. Pre-internet, I sent physical letters to the Japanese pen pal I later met on my first amazing trip to Japan.

I learned enough about this other culture that when older Australians with hangovers from World War II told me that the Japanese were a cruel and inhuman race, I could set them straight in no uncertain terms.

The cultural diversity to be found in today’s SFF is an absolute joy to me but I’ll never forget where I found it first. The vivid fantasy world of the fictional Empire was not Japan, not Korea and not Ancient Rome. Some might argue, today, that the borrowed elements of it were not Feist’s or Wurts’ to borrow, but what they did, while they were borrowing it, was wave it in my young, impressionable face and say, “Look! How incredibly cool is this? People can live lives that are completely different to yours, so different that you’ll never be able to look at your own culture the same way again, and yet just as rich, just as dangerous, just as colourful, just as gut-wrenching, just as meaningful and just as true.”

I’ll owe them a debt forever, because of that.

I’ve borrowed many places and people in my short fiction that didn’t belong to me. I’ve set stories in Nepal, Scotland, the Caribbean and New South Wales pre-colonisation. I’ve written Spaniards and South Americans, Quakers and Christian Saints.

When I make mistakes, I’m very sorry for it, I feel inadequacy and terrible remorse, but I hope that for every person offended by my ignorance, five more will be inspired to go to the source, to museums or the internet, to film, art, fiction or non-fiction made or written by people who are of that culture or to meet and speak with those people, and become immersed, drinking up all the detail I could not give them, because all I was really doing, all I was trying to do, was shout out to my readers, “Look! How incredibly cool is this?”

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian writer who lives online at http://www.thoraiyadyer.com . Her four-story collection, Asymmetry, is available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Asymmetry-Twelve-Planets-ebook/dp/B00BWWK94W ), Wizard’s Tower (http://www.wizardstowerbooks.com/products/asymmetry-thoraiya-dyer ) or direct from Twelfth Planet Press (http://www.twelfthplanetpress.com/products/paperbacks/asymmetry ). The naginata, or Japanese halberd, a women’s weapon of feudal times, features in one of the stories.

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Russell’s Rough Syllabus – Short Fiction from the 1980s and 1990s

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June 21, 2013

This is a guest post from editor extraordinaire and owner of Australian indie powerhouse press, Ticonderoga Publications, Russell B Farr. I’ll let Russ explain how this came about.

Russell’s Rough Syllabus

Short Fiction from the 1980s and 1990s

I was shooting my mouth off on Facebook about how it seemed that a bunch of Australians who came into the field seemed to have gaps when it came to recent classics. My second mistake was being very unclear as to what I meant by recent classics.

Alan Baxter called my bluff and told me to make a list, and in the spirit of put up or shut up, I have done so below.

What do we mean by classics anyway? Are they just the award winners – if that’s the case then I’d urge folks to go out and read all of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Ditmar, and Aurealis Award winners from 1980-1999. That’s not really a subjective list, though, it’s a research project. Same with suggesting that the various Year’s Bests of the period are recommended reading: they are but that’s not the point of the exercise.

So I thought, if I wanted to take a bunch of new readers through a crash course in two decades of the genre, unleashing all manner of themes, works that stood out for challenging the reader, for superlative writing, for a range of styles, which stories would I deem to be unmissable, compulsory reading? Like a syllabus, only I’m too lazy to group these in an order that would make sense. I’ve also skipped the boundaries of subgenres, as I’m not a huge one for labels.

A definitive list would run into hundreds of stories. I’ve tried to be restrained, picking no more than two stories from any writer (except Howard Waldrop, but we all know he’s an incredibly special case). And looking over the list I can see a number of glaring omissions, stories that could be added, and as a slight indulgence have tacked on an extra 6 at the end that I couldn’t squeeze in anywhere else.

If you want to learn to write a great story, I think this list is as good a place as any to start. In the 30 and 6 stories below are unforgettable characters, challenging ideas, stunning narrative twists, examples of the very best that the very best genre has to offer.

If you want to know how great the short story can be, I urge you to track these down, consume them, and let them blow your mind.

1980s

1. “Her Furry Face”, Leigh Kennedy
2. “All My Darling Daughters”, Connie Willis
3. “The Ugly Chickens”, Howard Waldrop
4. “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll”, Howard Waldrop
5. “Night of the Cooters”, Howard Waldrop
6. “My Lady Tongue”, Lucy Sussex
7. “Rachel in Love”, Pat Murphy
8. “Touring”, Michael Swanwick, Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann
9. “Till Human Voices Wake Us”, Lewis Shiner
10. “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything”, George Alec Effinger
11. “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter”, Lucius Shepard
12. “On the Turn”, Leanne Frahm
13. “Heavenly Flowers”, Pamela Sargent
14. “Kirinyaga”, Mike Resnick
15. “Slow Music”, James Tiptree Jr

1990s

1. “Beggars in Spain”, Nancy Kress
2. “Haiti”, Steven Utley
3. “The Country Doctor”, Steven Utley
4. “The Chop Girl” Ian R. MacLeod
5. “Reasons to be Cheerful”, Greg Egan
6. “Merlusine”, Lucy Sussex
7. “The Phoenix”, Isobelle Carmody
8. “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates”, Pat Murphy
9. “Foreign Devils”, Walter Jon Williams
10. “The Night We Buried Road Dog”, Jack Cady
11. “Bold As Love”, Gwyneth Jones
12. “Bears Discover Fire”, Terry Bisson
13. “Even The Queen”, Connie Willis
14. “Ursus Triad, Later”, Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg
15. “Niagara Falling”, Janeen Webb and Jack Dann

And for extra credit

1. “The Caress”, Greg Egan
2. “The Magi”, Damien Broderick
3. “Pretty Boy Crossover”, Pat Cadigan
4. “Rock On”, Pat Cadigan
5. “The Paladin of the Lost Hour”, Harlan Ellison
6. “Replacements”, Lisa Tuttle

I can’t thank Russell enough for this – it’s a fantastic effort. And there are several stories above that I haven’t read, so I’ll be tracking them down. And I should point out that Russ really knows his stuff, as evidenced by all the amazing books he and his partner in life and Ticonderoga, Liz Grzyb, have produced by seriously talented authors. Go to the Ticonderoga site and peruse the amazing anthologies and collections of short fiction available there. – Alan

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Don’t You Dare Write What You Know!

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May 2, 2013

I’m running my Write The Fight Right workshop at the Writer’s Centre in Adelaide on May 12th, and as part of the lead up to that, the SA Writers’ Centre asked me for a guest post for their blog. Here’s what I wrote:

You’ve heard the old adage, I’m sure. Write what you know. That’s all very well, but it’s actually a terrible piece of advice. After all, we all know some stuff, but not much in the grand scheme of things. And if we only write what we know, we’ll soon run out of things to write about. Besides that, one of the things I enjoy most about writing is the excuse it gives me to learn new stuff. For example, I’ve never been in a cult, but when I was writing MageSign I needed to understand how cults work as they were integral to the novel’s plot. So I went off to study all about them and learned a lot. Having a psychiatrist for a mother-in-law is generally about as much fun as it sounds, but in this instance it proved invaluable…

Read the rest at the SAWC Blog here.

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On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers by Ian McHugh

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April 15, 2013

Ian McHugh is a fellow member of the CSFG and we were having a discussing on the mailing list the other day about this strange thing Ian had discovered in terms of word frequency in fiction. So I asked him if he’d consider writing up his findings and guest posting here for me. After all, that saves me having to write up what he found and it’s his baby anyway. He was foolish kind enough to agree. So, many thanks to Ian and hopefully you guys might find some of this quite interesting.

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers

by Ian McHugh (ianmchugh.wordpress.com)

A few weeks ago, fellow CSFG member Phill Berrie wrote a post about word frequency analysis, a tool he uses in his work as an editor. In his post, Phill included a link to a free online word frequency analyser. Plug the text of your story in and it spits out:

  • the total word count of the story
  • how many different unique words you’ve used (a, few, weeks, ago, etc)
  • and how many times you’ve used them (a=36, few=5, weeks=2, ago=2)

Since I had set aside that weekend for working on the final draft of my novel, I decided instead (see “advanced procrastination”, above) to plug a few of my stories into the online analyser and see what the results were. After plugging all of my stories into the analyser, it told me a bunch of stuff that I already pretty well knew:

  • I’m using less adjectives and adverbs than I used to.
  • I have developed a habit of overusing the word as to join two clauses in a sentence.
  • I somehow don’t write stories between 3,000 and 4,000 words long. Like, ever.

What it also showed, that I hadn’t realised before, was that the number of different unique words that I use has fallen by about 20-25% since I first started writing. For stories over 6,000 words, my number of unique words per thousand has dropped from up near 300 to under 230.

So, why?

I had a couple of hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1
My vocabulary is shrinking. No, seriously. I had to look up synonyms for theory to find hypothesis. Then I had to look up like to find synonym. I was very hard on my brain in my late teens and early twenties – like, “I can’t really remember 1991 to 1994″ kind of hard on my brain. I flunked out of art school because I was too stoned and drunk. Art school. That’s like flunking out of rock’n'roll for doing too much cocaine, only less cool. These days when I’m speaking, I often lose my words in mid-sentence. Maybe I’m using less words because I’m losing my words?

Hypothesis #2
Or, given that I’m using less adjectives and adverbs in my stories, maybe I’m just cutting out the crap?

So I wondered what the unique word counts would be for writers operating at a higher level than me. I just happened to have a softcopy of Kaaron Warren’s first short story collection, The Grinding House, so I plugged a few of Kaaron’s old stories into the analyser. Casting about, I also had a softcopy of a longish Lucius Shepard story from Issue 1 of Crowded Magazine. In both cases, I found that the unique word counts were down around 200 per 1,000 words.

Interesting!

Then I went to Tor.com and grabbed a few stories by authors who I immediately recognised as famous, award-winners, working novelists etc, and plugged those in. There was a wider range, but most of the unique word counts were still at or below the low end of my own stories.

So, does this mean that better writers use less words, but use them better? It’s an appealing idea. Had I cracked the secret code to being a better writer?

Yeah, no.

Nice idea, but it holds water about as well as… as one of them thingies that you wash lettuce in… like a bowl, but with holes in it… eh, nevermind.

When I threw a wider net (this was still my novel-editing weekend, mind you – advanced procrastination, remember) and looked at a larger sample of stories from online SFWA pro-markets (including more stories from Tor.com and stories from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons) the unique word counts were all over the place. Including from some of the same authors I’d looked at in the first sample. So much so that it’s not even meaningful to talk about any kind of mean or median.

If anything, many of them were opposite to where my stories have been headed, with unique word counts above my high early average.

So where does this leave me? Back at Hypothesis #1? Was Kaaron also hard on her brain in her youth?

Is there maybe some superficial similarity between my writing style and Kaaron’s writing style? Or at least, Kaaron Warren circa 1994 to 2003? Hell, I’d take that, any day.

Colander!

In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that my writing style really is like Kaaron’s in any way you’d notice, but if I have lifted something from her work and incorporated it into my own, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. The Grinding House was a book that made a big impression on me in the early part of my writing career. (Kaaron still uses a quote from my review of it.)

Similarly, if there’s any single story that most influenced me as a new writer, it was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry Quiet War”. Because of that story, I wrote ““Bitter Dreams”, which is probably still my best story, and have kept on writing Westerns since then. “A Dry Quiet War” has a unique word count under 200 per thousand words.

Shepard was another early influence. While he does write elaborate fantasy stories (the Dragon Graiule tales, for example), he’s also written knuckle-dragging, hairy-backed manly stories for Playboy, with protagonists who are terse like the love-child of Clint Eastwood and Conan the Barbarian.

Maybe there’s a clue there. I tend to write in a close third-person or, occasionally, first-person point of view. A lot of my recent stories have featured protagonists who are in some way “simple” – mentally simple, children, from simple socio-cultural settings, or just plain terse. It follows that, with a close point-of-view, the narrative voice for a simple character should also be simple.

Simple character = simple language = lower unique word count.

And a lot of my more complex and elaborate stories are ones with higher unique word counts.

That seems like one of those revelations that’s bleeding obvious once you see it. “Well, of course I knew that!” I think there’s a lesson there, though, in terms of writing consciously for your character’s voice.

And another thing I found? One of the sweet spots for story length for (at least the) SFWA pro markets (I looked at) seems to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words long.

Sigh.

Another sweet spot seems to be between 5,000 and 6,000 words – in which range my stories have, overall, been noticeably less successful than they have over 6,000 words or under 3,000.

Well, I guess if nothing else I found out what I need to work on.

And I did also write/edit nearly 10,000 words of the final draft of my novel that weekend.

Advanced procrastination.

Speaking of which: You should be writing! So go find your character’s voice, and get back to work!

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Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

By
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February 12, 2013

I’m very happy today to be presenting a guest post by up and coming writer, Leife Shallcross. An online discussion a little while ago raised some very interesting points about gender roles in SF, and Leife’s observations were quite telling. So I asked her to write it up for a post here and she very graciously obliged.

Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated movies

I was having a discussion with some writerly friends a while ago about female leads in spec fic films. The conversation was started by an article that was arguing for a female protagonist in the next Star Wars movie, to be made by Disney some time soon. It was pretty interesting, and had some good points.

Star Wars Logo Art Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesNaturally, though, this broadened out to a discussion of the nature of female characters in spec fic films generally. Are there enough of them? Are there enough leads? And are they genuinely well-rounded, complex human beings?

I’ll put myself out there and say I’m in the camp that thinks the answer to those questions is no.

But I will qualify it, by saying that I’m the mother of an 8 year-old boy and a 10 year-old girl, and the vast majority of the movies I’ve seen in the last 10 years have been kid’s movies, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. (And, let’s face it, with Disney at the helm, this is what we are going to have to expect for Star Wars.)

And before you groan, and lose interest in what sounds like it’s going to be another feminist mummy rant, I’m also going to talk about why I think this comes down to one thing: lazy writing.

If you take the Pixar films, for example. A quick look on Wikipedia gives you a fairly comprehensive list of films they’ve produced, starting with Toy Story in 1995.

1995.

…And the first movie they produced with a female protagonist came out in…?

2012.

Now, I’m gonna pick on Pixar here, but boy they make it easy. It’s not that they can’t write good female characters. Dory (Finding Nemo), Jessie (Toy Story 2), Mrs Incredible and Violet Incredible (The Incredibles), to name just a handful. So why don’t they do more of it?

Why did Mike & Sully (Monsters Inc) both have to be male? Why would making one of them female not have worked? What about Up? It really would have made little difference to the story whether the kid, Russell, had been a boy or a girl. You could make arguments around Mike & Sully representing the classic blokes’ working relationship, or Carl (the old guy in Up) seeing himself in Russell, but I don’t think either of those examples could not have been managed by finding equally satisfying alternatives through good, clever scriptwriting, had they chosen to swap the gender of one of the characters.

This points to one of the things that the article on Star Wars argued, which is that film makers tend to view male characters as having generic appeal, and female characters as only appealing to women and girls.

In my opinion, this a view that needs to be challenged and proved false.

And in case you thought Monsters Inc and Up were the exceptions, here’s a random sample:

photo of buzz lightyear and woody from toy story Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesToy Story (the original): not a single girl in the gang. Every single female character could only be described as tertiary, at best. There’s a bunch of the supporting character toys that could have been presented as female – the money pig, the dinosaur, the slinky dog, the penguin. But no.

Finding Nemo: Dory, an awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters in the movie to female ones (19:6). Not even one fishaholic shark, and would that have been so hard?

Cars: Do I even need to start?

Ratatouille: This one’s great. One female role with a name (there’s also one female ‘dining patron’), out of a total of 19 roles.

Even Brave. Their flagship female protagonist film. Count the ratio of female to male characters (4 including a castle maid, to 14). You might also want to look at the female to male ‘extras’. It’s a wonder the human race has managed to survive.

And just to be fair, let’s look at Dreamworks:

How to Train Your Dragon: Astrid, awesome character. Now count the total ratio of male characters to female ones (10:3).

Rise of the Guardians: The tooth fairy. Cute and funny, but, oh look, all the rest of the guardians are… male. Token. There’s a couple of female kids (including the interesting, different and kinda awesome Cupcake), but the one the protagonist connects with in order to save the world is, you guessed it, a boy.

I could point to the Disney princesses and *wince* Barbie for a bunch of female protagonists, but these are movies marketed at girls, not generically, like the ones I’ve named above.

MV5BMzgwODk3ODA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU3NjQ0Nw@@. V1 SY317 CR00214317  Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesThe fact is, with a little, a VERY little, extra effort in character development, the ratio of male to female protagonists, supporting characters and extras could more closely reflect the fact the human race is approximately half-half. And when a movie studio is as influential as Pixar or Dreamworks, this is actually something they could reasonably achieve.

But, you might say, what about the thing you mentioned earlier? Mike and Sully representing the blokey working relationship trope, or about Carl in Up seeing himself in Russell? Well, these are movies for kids. They don’t know about blokey workmates, or that adults are often inspired by children they see themselves in.

The messages you give your kids repeatedly in childhood will shape their expectations of the world as adults.

I’ll go back to my core argument, though, which is that, in my opinion, stories which involve a disproportionate number of male characters and token females (or film studios that churn out an aggregate disproportionate number of male to female characters, including protagonists), are going to be the result of lazy character development.

Generally, having a diverse range of characters (including—hey!—even the genderqueer!) makes for increased interest in the dynamics between the characters. Which usually makes for more interesting stories.

And just might have the spin-off of making the world a more tolerant, egalitarian place.

20121102 132312 Guest post: Lazy writing and the survival of the human race… in animated moviesLeife Shallcross lives in Canberra with her husband and children. She fits in her writing around looking after the kids, an almost full-time job in the public service and playing the fiddle (badly). She is fascinated by fairy tales and folk tales and frequently weaves elements of these into her writing. She’s also the current secretary of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Her second published story will appear in Next, edited by Robert Porteous and Simon Petrie, to be launched at Conflux 9 in April 2013.
She blogs occasionally at leifeshallcross.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @leioss.

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