Ten Imagination-Building Exercises

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Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

NaNoWriMo: Biting the Bullet

NaNoWriMo: Biting the Bullet

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Writers tend to fall into two camps, this time of year: pro-NaNo, anti-NaNo. Everybody writes blogs about it (including me, apparently, hmm.). People who are doing NaNo write posts about how exhausted they are already, and how rude it is to not like something they like, and they’re totally writers omg. People who don’t do NaNo write about how irritating it is to see their pastime/profession turned into a sort of writerly social media feed one month out of twelve, how it encourages you to write crap, how they’re the ones who are totally writers, no really.

I roll my eyes and, like most years, decide to take a pass. I don’t know what makes someone a writer, but I’m pretty certain it isn’t arguing vociferously that, yes, you’re a writer. (Actually, on an aside–I’m pretty sure it’s writing that makes you a writer.)

But a few days ago, I thought again. I had a novel I’d started on the second, with a decent NaNo word count. Why not? If writing makes you a writer, I’m failing pretty hard at being a writer at the moment. I could use the boost and the competitive excuse to write. I’ve done NaNo before, when I was a kid–2003 and 2004, I think–and I won once. It was fun. I got all caught up in it. I talked to other people who wrote things. I was thoroughly proud of myself.

Of course, I was also like fifteen. I had no job, no car, nothing to do but sit around at my parents’ houses, splorting my daydreams out onto a keyboard while hoping, hoping, my boyfriend would get on AIM so we could talk even though he was grounded. Those were pretty prime conditions for writing–prime in a way that November could never be for me, as an adult.

Allison Maruska wrote this post about NaNo that sums up a lot of rock-solid reasons not to do NaNo. Chief among them, of course, being why November, why, why, why. November is a busy month. There’s stuff to do, people to see, houses to clean. If NaNoWriMo happened in, say, March, it’d be easier to deal with.

But here’s what made me stop and decide to do it.

I need to make writing a commitment. And I need to make good on that commitment.

I’m pretty prolific. Always have been, always will be. The recommended 1,667 words per day is probably about what I write anyways. But I’ve always had trouble finishing stories. I get distracted, I lose the plot, I lose interest. I come up with another idea that’s so much better.

The first real novel-length work of fiction I ever finished was that 2003 NaNo novel. And it was crap–I mean, total crap–but I was also fifteen. I had no idea how to edit anything. And rough drafts are always crap, especially if you leave ’em rough.

I was super proud. I told all my friends and family members. They said, “that’s nice”. I didn’t make anybody read it, because I think even at fifteen I recognized what total crap it was, but I sure did carry a printed out version of it around for a while, wrapped in writerly twine, and made red marks on it judiciously whenever I thought anyone was looking.

And, in that paragraph, you can see the reasons I posit for doing (and not doing) NaNo.

For Doing It:
–A greater commitment to your craft. Specifically, to finishing what you stared.
–Fun chance to meet other writers in your area
–Possibility, with months of editing afterwards, of producing a novel someone might actually want to read.

For Not Doing It:
–#NaNoWriMo twitter feed updates incredibly annoying
–Not particularly sure I understand what doing NaNo has to do with being a writer or not, or that I care if it does,
–Might make young writers a little too dependent on head pats and trophies, and not dependent enough on their own ability to keep a story going,
–There IS a lot of other stuff going on in November.

This year, I’ll do it. Some years I have, some years I haven’t. I’m not particularly interested in the rah-rah-lookit-you-you’re-writing aspects of NaNo, but it’s a good exercise, and it’s one I could stand to take part in again. The hard truth of the matter is, to make it writing, you need to be able to churn out a finished story sometimes, and it doesn’t hurt to do it fast. Do I think it needs to be your entire reason for living during the month of November? No. That’s sad. But that 1,667 words per day is, roughly, two hours of writing. Two hours a day. If it’s something you love to do, you can and should make that kind of time.

Much as the miniature NaNoSplosions all over my twitter feed might annoy me, it’s good to see people get excited about writing, even if I feel like it’s more the word count than, you know, the actual story. I guess as long as folks are happy, I’ve got no cause to complain.

This has been your account of an anti-NaNo writer doing NaNo, because putting your money where your mouth is is fun.

14,000 words and some change so far. Wish me luck.

Fright Week Flash Fiction VI: Out of the Eater

You know how I told you not to let your kids read these? Especially not this one. Really.

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This gentleman is probably a very nice person.

OUT OF THE EATER

I see her getting pizza at the New York joint across from the bus station, and she’s beautiful, juicy as a ripe fruit. Blonde hair, big round titties, schoolgirl dress just short enough to make you think about everything under the dress for a good long time. She pays in cash, counting quarters for the tip. I think about stepping over, gallantly offering a dollar or two, but it’s too soon and I know it. They run from you, if you approach too soon.

They run from you, if you approach without purpose.

She’s not heading anywhere in a hurry. She stops out front for a few minutes, searching for her phone and her ear buds in her see-thru plastic tote. I watch her, watch her head bend, watch those bleached curls fall down, down, down. I think about the deer hunts I’d go on with Daddy at dawn, me twelve or thirteen, mist rising off the fields, just the two of us crouched together in the blind above the world. The deer flashing their asses at us. White tails, not too different from the color of her hair.

I’m not a monster. Nothing like.

I’m just a man who knows what he wants.

She turns left and walks out of my line of sight. I leave a ten for my bill and take up the hunt. Twenty percent tip: good, but not memorable. In an hour they will have forgotten I was ever there.

Daddy always said, women don’t know how to act. You have to teach them, show them. You have to not take no for an answer. A woman like that, short skirt, long legs. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what she wants. You just have to show her.

She clips down the cobblestoned street in those tall black heels, legs pumping. Sinew and skin and flesh, a promise of honey, a taste of milk and sweetness. Other men are looking, and hot jealousy floods me–eyes elsewhere, you scum. My honey, my taste. Marked as mine, by the force of my gaze.

I think of the way her skin will goose-pimple, on such a crisp evening. I imagine reading her like Braille in the dark. I imagine the warmth in her secret place. I imagine the loosening of limbs, that warmth seeping out into the ground. Stickiness. Smell of copper, primal.

She turns into a side street. A single old woman on the corner, pushing a shopping cart, her hair full of shit and leaf fragments, muttering ceaselessly under her breath. Boarded shop windows. A crosswalk sign, its light busted.

I steal closer.

I think of the weight of the hunting rifle on my arm. Daddy’s beery breath. The resistance in the trigger–young fingers have to pull, and pull. And squeeze. And pull.

She’s off guard. She didn’t even know I was following her, phone volume jacked up to full bar. Her weight is soft under my weight, yielding, forgiving. I trip her up and send her flying into a close alley. Her breath streaming in the air, like mist over the fields. The soft aureole of bleached hair around her. Angelic. Divine.

She tries to scream, so I save some time and crush her windpipe. I won’t have long this way, but these moments are better when brief. Sweeter. Rarer.

I push up her dress. I’m here to teach. Here to admonish. Here to inflict. Here to guide.

She’s making a funny noise. I lean in, wanting to catch every grace note of her death, but that isn’t what I hear.

She’s laughing.

Somehow, the bitch is laughing.

Her body is cold. Too cold–ice cold. And when I look up at her face her eyes are reflectionless, dark as two polished stones.

“Mmm,” she murmurs. “Hello, handsome.”

She opens her legs farther, farther. Wide-wide. There’s a cosmos in there, the black brief tickling dotted by distant stars, howling with the loneliness of time. Darkness, death-dark. A wave of terror crests inside my skull–against the void there are monsters moving, silhouettes blotting out all light.

I try to run.

Something–something–grabs me.

Fright Week Flash Fiction IV: The Last Bus

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Image by Joao Guilherme Del Valle, on freeimages.com.

THE LAST BUS

I barely–barely–catch the last bus of the night.

It’s nine thirty, and I’m already out of breath from tuba lessons. I know I cut a pretty sad figure. Huffing and puffing, my heart hammering, cheeks flushed, wheezing: an asthmatic whippet, was my gym teacher’s description.

I plunk my tuba down on the nearest seat and search in my pockets for change.

“We ain’t got all night, now,” the bus driver says. She cracks her gum and turns back to the windshield.

I drop my money. Of course I do.

“Just sit down,” the bus driver says.

I hurry to do so, and she shifts into gear as soon as my butt hits the seat. I don’t even pick the quarters up off the floor of the bus–what would happen if I did? Would she have taken off with me bending over?

I grab the ones I can reach without leaving my seat. A dollar. I can maybe get a burger on the way home from chess club tomorrow.

I hear snickers from the back of the bus. Oh, god–that sounds like Gavin. Multiple snickers–probably Gavin and Steve.

Of course they’re out this late. Why wouldn’t they be? Probably smoking and drinking cheap beer and doing drugs, or whatever it is the kids in remedial English do. I heard Gavin knocked a girl in Mrs. Holsen’s home room up last semester. Laura Brinkley, really pretty, one of the drama club kids. Nobody’s seen her since April, and her friends won’t say where she went–Katie Levarr said she’s staying home with the baby, but Katie makes things up sometimes.

I heard the ominous creaking of leather in the seat across from mine.

“Hey, Terrence,” says Gavin. He’s got a big stupid grin on his face, and you can see the gap in his teeth from where Mark Mackey punched him in the mouth last year.

“Hey,” I mutter.

“You doin’ okay? We were hearin’ a lot of wheezing back there.” Gavin pokes out his lower lip. “Does poor baby Dickles need his inhaler?”

“It’s pronounced DickLAY,” I mutter. I can barely hear my own voice. Please, please, please, let them not be getting off at my stop.

Gavin guffaws. “DickLAY,” he says. “Holy shit. That’s even better. Terrence DickLAY. Ain’t you fancy. Fuck. Hey, Steve. How d’you think Terry here was conceived?”

Steve Arlen moves up to sit beside me. He smells of cigarettes and cheap beer and not brushing his teeth. “I dunno, Gav. How?”

“In a DICKLAY,” Gavin says.

They both laugh like it’s the funniest thing in the world. The bus rockets on, bumping and crashing and clashing along over cracks in the road. The bus driver keeps her eyes glued on the road.

And me? I can’t think of anything to say back. I’m not good around people. And Gavin and Steve–they block up my mouth like nobody else.

Gavin punches me in the arm, much harder than he has to. “Hey, DickLAY,” he says. “Whatcha got in that case?”

“Tuba,” I mutter, and this time I can’t even hear myself.

Gavin reaches across me for the case. He flips open the catches, peeks inside.

“Owee,” he says. “That’s worth some money. Whaddya say to me borrowin’ this, you little freak? You can tell your mama you lost it.” He punches me again, in the same spot. I can already feel the bruises forming.

“No,” I say. And it’s weird–I can hear myself. The bus must’ve hit some better pavement.

Unfortunately, if I can hear myself, so can Gavin and Steve.

“Oh, now,” Gavin says. “Don’t be like that, Terry. It would be real stupid to be like that.”

For just a moment, I catch the bus driver’s eye in the rearview mirror. It’s funny–it’s like she was looking at me already.
“That’s my tuba,” I say. “I bought it with my summer money. You guys can’t have it.”

And there it is again–the guffawing. Gavin puts a hand over his chest, like it hurts him how funny my defiance is.

“Listen, you little shit,” he says, almost kindly. “We’re taking that thing. And if you try and stop us, I’m going to hold you, and Steve here is going to break both your arms. All right?”

“No,” I say again.

“You kids settle down,” the driver calls.

I know it’s stupid. I know all the stuff they tell you in school–that bullies are cowards, that you just have to stand up to them–isn’t true. I know I’m probably about to get seriously beaten. I know the bus driver is driving. I know there isn’t a thing she can do to stop them.

But it’s my tuba. I bought it with my money. I saved up for it, and I got a Holton, and it’s mine.

Two things happen at once:

Gavin and Steve launch themselves at me.

The bus driver, scowling into the rearview, pulls a slender red cord hanging right beside the seat.

The floor in front of me opens up, two doors sliding out to reveal open space, the asphalt whizzing by beneath in a grey blur. Gavin and Steve weren’t expecting it–they didn’t see her pull the cord–and they tumble through. Their screams are a lot higher-pitched than their laughter.

The back wheels of the bus roll over something squishy, and large, and hard and soft at the same time. There are two bumps, and there is no more screaming.

I look out the back window, my mouth suddenly dry. On the asphalt, trailing behind us, are two perfectly even parallel scarlet lines.

I can’t swallow, I can’t move. I can feel my tongue in my mouth, sticky and dry.

“Thanks,” I croak out at last. “I think.”

“Don’t thank me,” the bus driver says. She shifts gears, spits her gum out into the trash can by the driver’s seat. “I was planning to use it on you.”

How and When to Fail

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As promised.

How (And When) to Fail

I know. You’re looking at the title of this post, and and the noble glitter of self-sacrificing patience has come into your eye. “Emily,” you say gently. “I don’t think I need help failing. It’s the succeeding I could use some help with.”

Well, surprise surprise. I think you’re wrong. (I always think you’re wrong. Haven’t you been reading my blog? Don’t you know that?)

Every writer, my dears, has a slush pile, and every slush pile exists because every writer isn’t churning out Nobel Prize for Literature winning palimpsests every palimpsesting second. If you continued writing every story in your slush pile until completion, you would

A) Have wasted a shocking amount of time, and
B) Have produced a shocking amount of things to start fires with.

And I note that ‘produced your masterwork’ is nowhere in that description.

For real, though, let’s talk about this. Some stories–well, they’re failures. You started them, something went wrong, the magic went somewhere else, you got distracted. The question is, should you let them rot in the wastes of Slushpilia? When–and why–is it okay to fail? The answer is simple:

When the Magic is Gone.

I want you to note: I am NOT talking about ‘when it gets a teensy eensy bit hard to write it for a day or two’. When this happens, slog on.

I’m talking about that moment you realize you’ve patched fatal holes in your plot so often your story is more plothole correction than story. When you read a few pages out loud to somebody, and they nod and smile and ask you “so what happened, again?” If you’re juggling so many corrections your outline looks like a football play, it’s time to consider giving it up and starting from scratch. You don’t need to edit, again. The damage is too great for a mere edit. You need to rewrite. Whether the story is worth rewriting, I can’t tell you–only you can decide that.

Being a writer is a little like being a magician in some regards: you put a lot of work into something, a whole hell of a lot, but the last thing you want is for someone to see where you’ve been working. Your story has to look as effortless and instantaneous as a big stage illusion–when people can see where you’ve had to work for something, it loses credibility as a world of its own. If you can’t patch it seamlessly, don’t patch it. Rewrite it, or leave it to moulder.

Speaking of rewrites:

If You Like It, Don’t Be Afraid to Write It Again.

Rewriting is tough. It sucks. You start to question your own usefulness on this planet, whether you’re going to be writing the same story, over and over again, until you finally die, and whether or not hell is going to be a sad Sisyphean endlessness of the same goddamn story from here to Ragnarok. (Do you like mixing mythologies? I sure do.)

But rewriting is useful. I actually like to do it, on some things–when my first draft, for instance, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting in the first few pages. A rewrite brings everything together–you’re writing, after all, in full knowledge of what’s going to eventually happen (I’m a pantser. No outlines for moi. Have I mentioned that?). When you rewrite, you automatically have more control over the story. And, oftentimes, a story you were unable to complete the first time winds up being a VERY good story the second time around, when you’ve had a chance to iron out the plot or what have you.

Again, though, I’ve got to tell you:

I don’t know when you’ve failed.

Only you know that, Skipper. But you can feel it in your bones–trust me on that one. And what you do after that is up to you. Trick is,

Failing is Always a Learning Experience.

There are some times when you’ve had a terrible idea, and your execution was terrible, and you’re just going to leave those five or ten pages to molder on your hard drive until the kingdom comes, and that’s just fine, kthxbye.

But even those shitty ten pages happened because you had an idea. And you’ll have that idea, should you need it, forever.

That failed novel idea about the laudanum-guzzling sailor with a speech impediment who solves petty crimes? It might not’ve worked out, me matey, but perhaps you could use him as a supporting character somewhere else. Perhaps, in your steampunk adventure novel, your main character needs to be told the airship’s moving hard to thtarboard at least once. My main trilogy character, Jin, was actually a supporting character in a failed novel I wrote about ten years ago–and part of the reason it failed, I realized when I looked back on it, was because Jin (then named Jinnever) and her unlikely husband were actually far too interesting to be side characters. They stole the show whenever they came onto the scene.

So they got their own story. A much better story than the one I abandoned, all those years ago. I stopped working on the old story and moved on. I’m glad I did.

Because failure isn’t the shitty thing it’s painted to be. It’s a learning experience, and a damned good one. Even when you’ve failed utterly, you’ve still created something, and there’ll come a day–maybe a week from now, maybe twenty years from now–when that something will come in handy.

And if you keep trying to hash out your failures forever–if you buy in to the whole ‘never give up’ mentality–you’ll write glossy, completed failures. And nobody wants that.

Only you can tell when something is working, once more: but trust me. You can tell. And it’s worth rewriting a few thousand (possibly tens of thousands) of words just to make that happen. No one likes failing–certainly not I–but if it has to happen a few times to make your successes possible, then that’s just how it is. Failure is a part of the writing process. A big one.

My New Blog Feature: Writerly Advice Column!

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Photo by Klaus Post at freeimages.com, uglified by moi.

I received an anonymous comment a few post back, and dad GUM if it didn’t give me the best fricking idea EVER.

We’re going to do an advice column. Because…well, why the hell not? It’s super fun. My advice is occasionally good. And this tickled me to tears. So.

If you have any questions you’d like me to answer in a post, feel free to add an anonymous comment to any post, or send me an email at efrussel@gmail.com. I prefer writerly questions, but hell, I’ll take your day-to-day too. Do I have credentials? No. Aw, hell no. But I have opinions in spades.

Dear Emily,

A writer friend told me I could count on you for advice about a sticky writerly situation. I’m up a creek; I’m dancing in the frying pan contemplating the fire; I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (not that I’m particularly religious). I’m… well… wordless!

When I named my lead, I gave him a common name anyone would recognize. But then I gave him a shortened nickname that he prefers to be called–and no one knows how to pronounce it! Not only do my beta readers get it wrong when they talk to me, someone posted a review on AMAZON with INCORRECT PHONETIC PRONUNCIATION!!! Now EVERYONE says it wrong! (Okay… at least the ten people who bought the book get it wrong.)

What should I do?? Slap my beta readers around? Send a pipe bomb to the reviewer? Add a pronunciation guide to the start of each book? (Ew, he’s the lead in a SERIES! On the other hand, now that Amazon pays for lends by the word…)

Could you please reply on your blog, maybe dedicate a column to the care and feeding of readers? (I wouldn’t want friends or family to see the mail in my account while they’re violating my privacy.)

Thanks,
Embarrassed in Edenton

Dear Embarrassed in Edenton, (Changed your location, in case of beloved close-to-home privacy violators. Hope that’s okay!)

There may be questions in life to which pipe bombs are not the answer. However–they’re questions I never want to ask.
Pipe bombs aside–after all, internet stalking an Amazon reviewer can get tricky and downright tiresome, once you’re over the initial gonna-get-you thrill–I’d say you have a few choices.

First off–if people you know are mispronouncing the name, kindly and politely correct them. They won’t mind–after all, how would they know? This way, you at least don’t have to hear it all the time. That’s probably the worst part of it–just hearing it. Trust me, I just wrote a story called The King’s Might, and the main character, Jalith–his name is pronounced Hay-LEETHE. Of course, no one other than me really knows that, so, you know. I walk around all day, EVERY day, with the heavy knowledge of that (doubtless global) mispronunciation, JAYlith, like the burden of Atlas on my shoulders.

But Jalith is how I see it.

So, Atlaslike, I wander the earth.

That’s the thing, though. After those inital few people you talk to have been slapped into sensibility, you have to decide: just how important is the correct pronunciation of this nickname to you?

Because, even if you put a giant bold note in the front of the book, people are still going to mispronounce it. It’s just one of the failures of written communication. I didn’t understand that the name Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in the Odyssey, wasn’t pronounced ‘telly-machus’ until I was about sixteen, and happened to hear the name pronounced for the first time in high school English. In SPITE of the fact that my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology had a glossary (with phonetic pronunciations!) in the back. In SPITE of the fact (and this one is amazing, I know) that I took Greek. At least, I’m pretty sure I’d taken Greek by that point. But you get it, anyway.

If it bothers you deeply, check and see if there’s somewhere you could write in a scene in which the pronunciation of the character’s name matters. Maybe a barista calls his name to get a coffee and he has to correct her, someone makes up a rhyme about him, he’s picking up an order left under his name, something similar–I don’t know your story, so it’s hard to say exactly what this might be, but you get the idea. People are far more likely to notice something IN the actual story than a note or aside. People tend to skip those.

Of course, you should only do this if you can do it without forcing it too terribly. But if you can, it’s probably the best way.

If you can’t, and you want to at least stake a claim on the right pronunciation, a glossary or a forward note does sound like your only other option. Of course, it sounds like you’ve already published, so precisely how much work you’re willing to go through for this is up to you. It wouldn’t affect your novel negatively, I don’t think, so there’s no harm in adding it. After all, it didn’t ruin Tolkien.

My point is, though–in the long run, people will mispronounce. They’re just going to do it. And you’re right, probably more now that someone had laid the turds of mispronunciation all over your Amazon page (pipe bombs and a reply are both, sadly, not a recommended solution). But, if I were you, I wouldn’t let it keep me up too late at night–these folks still enjoyed your story. And, if they check out your blog or twitter or whatnot as well, you might have some side opportunities to school them on it as well.

Yours,
Emily

WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

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WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

Item one: if you’re calling it prose, my bet is on it being neither clear nor uncluttered.

Anyway.

We’re going to do this one by example, because I think it’s the best way to get the point across. So here goes.

Somewhere in the sky over Dallas, a blue red-breasted bird chirped from time to time.

1) In the sky. This is a bird. When we picture birds, they’re in the sky. No need to specify that here.

2) A blue red-breasted bird. There are a few ways of dealing with this. One would be to scrap adjectives altogether and just call a bird a bird. However–does the reader need to know that this bird is blue and red-breasted? If they do, do a little research. Google ‘blue-red breasted bird’. Oh, hey, look at those results–a bluebird is blue and red-breasted. Most people know that. You can just call it a bluebird, and provide absolutely as much description in a much smaller wordcount.

A note here–this is why it’s crucial for a writer to have a good working vocabulary. Why say ‘he walked to the store in a loose and blubbery fashion’ when you can say ‘he walked to the store, jiggling’? Or, even better– ‘he wobbled to the store’?

Now, mind you. There are times, especially in humor, where ‘a loose and blubbery fashion’ fits perfectly. But if you’re not going for special writerly effects, and you just need to provide information, the fewer words you do it in, the better it sinks in.

3) From time to time. Okay. I ask, again–is this need-to-know information? Basically–is it important that the reader understands, in this very sentence, that this bird not only chirps once, but repeatedly, at unspecified and probably not regular times?

If it is–take a deep breath here–I’d recommend an adverb.

What? You ask, monocle askew. But adverbs are the great Satan! They’re the devil standing in the way of a peaceful society! They murdered my mother!

Well, I’ll ask you how that happened later, for sure. That ly combination is pretty pointy, but rarely ends in death for those involved. However, let me take a moment to broadcast some unavoidable truth in your general vicinity, like a homeless guy passing gas on a city bus:

Adverbs exist for a reason.

Should you use a ton of them? No. Moderation in all things. But when you have a situation like this, where you have a piece of information that needs to be imparted and the alternative is a long and overused modifying phrase, reach for intermittently, or periodically.

Have some care, of course, in how you deploy them. Some of these little parachuters have been on one too many drops, and we’re so sick of them we’d be more than happy to blow them out of the sky. ‘Occasionally’, which it might occur to you to use here, is one of them.

So, when faced with the unavoidable adverb, go fancy. Intermittently or periodically say the same damn thing, with a little less common wear. I might even take a stab at using ‘infrequently’, but I don’t think I would here–infrequently, after all, puts the emphasis on the bird not chirping more often than otherwise, and therefore doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

Our fixed up sentence is, therefore,

Somewhere over Dallas, a bluebird chirped intermittently.

Which is a lot shorter, more direct, and better. And, yes, I itch to strike that ‘intermittently’ too, but you need to know what you need to know. So. You’re welcome.

But here’s the thing, kiddos. You’ve all heard this before. Practically every craft blog on the interwebs has a section on prose clarity, and many of them are much more comprehensive than mine.

What I want to do is, actually, call attention to a phrase I used throughout this little experiment: what does the reader need to know?

People are remarkably imaginative. They’re more than willing to fill informational gaps with information of their own choosing. For instance, if you asked ten different people to draw you a picture of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, you’d get ten very different portraits, even though he’s well-described in the course of the novel. You’d probably get messy clothes and shining crazy eyes in every one–well, an attempt at them, at least–because these things are vital elements of the man’s character. But the little details, well. People are happy enough to imagine.
This is because they don’t really matter.

Whether your character is blonde or brunette, green eyed or brown, tall or short, lanky or plump–unless these things are also a part of this character’s personality, their page presence (like that one?), they aren’t important.

So if you’ve been indulging yourself in the little things, it’s time to diet. See how much you can convey through simple nouns and verbs, scene setting and character interaction. A call for minimalism should never be a call for lost detail, but a call for detail more carefully sown. After all:

Why waste time describing every map section of Hogwarts when you can describe the teachers and students, and the things they do and interact with? JK Rowling told you more about Hogwarts with her moving portraits and magical candies than she ever did actually talking about Hogwarts. Take a lesson from her.

Leaving you now with a list of modifiers I’m sick of seeing, and ways to say the same thing more prettily:

1) Often. I’m sick of often. Instead, try frequently or commonly, if you must at all.
2) Nearly. This is a hard one, along with its evil twin, almost. The best thing I can say here is just try not to use them. If you’re nearly blind, then what the hell are you? Nearsighted or farsighted, maybe. Purblind. Just like if you’re nearly asleep, you’re probably dozing or snoozing. Flex those vocabulary muscles, boys n’ girls.
3) Rarely. Again–if you rarely participate, what are you actually doing? Lurking, possibly? Skulking?

Remember–the more modifiers you use, the more modified your writing is. And nobody likes modified. We paid for the good stuff, don’t water it the fuck down.

Much love.

EXCERPT: Balancer, Pt. II

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Soooo hey, you guys. The Antidote comes out tomorrow, and I am, of course, losing my shit trying to get stuff ready. As a result, I’m here telling you to fricking buy it if you liked Aurian and Jin. I’d say something more entertaining, but I’m a little tired. So: buy my book.

Also, to distract you from how tired and boring I am today, here’s more Balancer. Poor Habbi. It’s tough when the High Mother of the village is actually your mother. You get held to a higher standard.

Here’s the first part of Habbi’s story, if you didn’t catch it. The Balancer, Pt I.

*****

Habbi spent as many days as he could in his wada on the foremost peak of Mount Farsight, fiddling with the arrangement of his dreamstones and trimming the goat. The goat proved rather resistant to the concept of trimming: every time Habbi got near him with the shears he would bleat piteously, lower his horns, and threaten a last-stand charge. Habbi was not a herder–was, in fact, one of only four boys in the village whom the Mother had decreed unfit for a future with livestock.

Chasing Stew from one end of the yard to the other with the shears and a horsehair brush, Habbi reflected that the Mother, as in all things, had been entirely correct.

But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the goat. Yes, it would mean stew for weeks–and, at the end of those weeks, another trip to the ur-village, another sight of Mikki and her clever red beads. But he rather liked the goat, cursed though it was. He’d been destined for a life of Balancing from his tenth birthday, cut off from the day-to-day activities of the Stone Nation. This goat was the only goat he’d ever really gotten to know. He liked its ugly chipped horns and its monotone bleat.

He liked its company.

The life of a Balancer, he reflected, was a life of loneliness. It was the life of the fulcrum point, lived in this little stone shack on a mountain peak not so different in appearance from a fulcrum point itself. But there were different types of loneliness, and just because this path had been chosen for him did not mean he had to live its most extreme manifestation.

He could keep a goat. Even Ostil, the Balancer Before, had kept his hawks.

He just couldn’t keep a woman.

He couldn’t keep Mikki.

“No,” Habbi told himself, scowling. “Stop that.”

The goat, who had been watching him trim up his cooking herbs from the pen, baaaed at him.

Habbit made a new path through the herbs, laying smooth stones from the village stream in between their rows. He scrubbed the soot from his wada walls and hung bunches of herb trimmings from the rafters to sweeten the place’s smell. He rearranged his dream stones around the shallow hole by the campfire in which he slept, wrapped some of them up in the curly yak skin under which he slept at night. He consulted the stars at night, Balanced his mind and listened to their singing. He placed the dreamstones around himself, chose locations analagous to those stars that spoke to him most sweetly in the sky. It did not increase his harvest particularly, and most mornings he woke with only one stone filled, two if he was lucky. He weighed each one, decanted it carefully into a crystal storage vial of proper warding strength.

His was an important job, he reminded himself. If it were not for the Balancer–if it were not for The One Whose Dreams Are Communal, whose nightly wanderings were the best currency in the Nations–the stones would not hold the dreams of his people. The dreams would wander the world and cause mischief, as they had in the beginning of things. And the Stone Nations would have nothing of value to trade with at the Great Gathering–only tough mountain goats and yak’s milk, shards of obsidian found deep in the mountain caves. Like they had, indeed, before the First Balancer. Before the dreams had been captured, and the world had been righted.

Habbi had not forgotten the anger dream, its mewling and its distended little belly. And there were worse things. There were much, much worse.

Unfortunately, he had also not forgotten Mikki.

Habbi lasted, in the contemplative solitude prescribed for him, for precisely three days. After three days, he was out of corn–and that, he told himself, was a perfectly logical reason to go to the ur-village. Without corn, he couldn’t make his morning mush. And it was coincidental–entirely coincidental–that Algar Farmer’s booth at market was only three booths away from Wolef Herdsman’s.

He wouldn’t even look to see if she was there.

That was the proper way of things.

Yes.

Habbi had, with the force of will that came only to the truly Balanced, managed to entirely forget about the half-sack of corn he kept in the loft.

On the third day, he took up his staff and his traveling sack, tied on his warm fur boots and the cloak of skins his mother had sewed him before his going-away. He selected three crystal vials, full of the green glow of harmless laughing-dreams. He told the goat he was going away for the day: the goat, being a goat and therefore unconcerned, threw up its cud and ate some of it.

Habbi took the sloping twisted path down the mountainside to the ur-village. He nodded, with proper ceremonial sternness, to the guards at the wooden gate.

He wound his way through the market, which was small but lively. He basked in the sound of other human voices, the sight of maidens almost as pretty as Mikki on stone benches in the Great School for Women, dutifully repeating the lessons of their teachers. He waved hello to the folk who waved at him.

He was displeased, but not entirely surprised, to find the Mother standing in front of the Farmer’s booth, arms crossed, face severe under the tattoos of leadership that covered it. She was carrying her carved ivory staff, which she only carried when she was out to teach someone a lesson. Habbi had the rather unfortunate idea this lesson might be taught to him.

“Hello, High Mother,” he said, covering his eyes and bowing in the traditional greeting for a High Mother of the Nations.

“Hello yourself,” the Mother said, scowling most untraditionally. “Habbi. You and I need to talk.”

Habbi had thought of this situation, back in his wada while he decanted the dreams. He had debated what he would say, what he would do, if caught by the Mother.

Of course, he reflected wryly. The very fact that he considered it being caught said something about his state of mind. The phrase he had prepared: “hello, High Mother, I was just picking up some corn for my morning mush”–died on his lips as he looked at her.

It made a child out of you, being caught with your hand in the honey-pot by the Mother. It was even worse when Habbi’s particular set of circumstances applied: when you were the Balancer of your ur-village, responsible for the flow of its dreams. Longing was an imbalance, lust and love more specific than a warm detached glow were imbalances. It led you to do things like leave dreams in dreamstones.

And, of course, it didn’t help when the High Mother was your mother.

“Habbi,” Mother said. “I’ve let this go on long enough. I’ve let you cast eyes on Mikki for long enough. I’ve let Mikki cast eyes on you for long enough. It ends now.”

“I was, um,” said the Balancer. “Corn.”

“You’ve half a sack left in your wada,” Mother said, scowling. “You think I don’t keep track of what you buy? Onegod, it’s not like you’ve been eating anything but goat stew lately anyways.”

“Erm,” said the Balancer. The Mother whacked her ivory staff against poor Algar Farmer’s  booth in a manner that suggested, very plainly, that she would rather be whacking Habbi.

“This is difficult for me,” the Mother said. “I hope you know that, Habbi. The Rule of the Nations says I should treat you one way, my heart as your mother says something entirely different. You’re lucky: nothing’s come of it so far. The Balance hasn’t been upset, no laws have been broken. But should there be one sign–one single physical sign–that all is not right with you, and your little fastness up on Mount Farsight is less than perfectly Balanced, I’ll be forced to take measures. And that’ll hurt me, Habbi. That’ll hurt me very much.”

And Habbi, who never had known when enough was enough, said: “hurt you? Imagine how I’ll feel about it.”

And his reward for this statement was a single admonitory whack from the ivory staff. Which wasn’t too bad–the punishment for his crime was, by strictest interpretation of the painted caves, ten whacks and one night in the wilderness. And a man of Habbi’s slight build and poor wilderness skills would last precisely thirty minutes in the wilderness after ten whacks from that staff.

So it was a kindness the Mother did him. He tried very hard to remind himself of this as the stinging of his cheek turned into a steady burn. As he explored the bruised flesh with his fingers, touched the impressions the staff carvings had made on his face, he told himself: you had this coming. You are lucky it wasn’t anything more.

“I blame myself, really,” the Mother said. She sighed. “It was foolish, maybe, to put you up on the mountain so young. Onegod knows, I’ve coddled you and let you get away with far too much for far too long. But what were we to do? Ostil died so quickly, and you were the only one in the village who showed proper talent for Balancing. Great talent, shining in the depths of your mind like a white lamp. And please believe me, my son. I felt sorry for you. Few Balancers ascend Farsight before their fiftieth year is out–they have lived among people, had women and sired children. They have been prepared for the contemplative life for years.” She touched his cheek, tears brimming in her kohl-painted eyes.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Habbi said uncomfortably. For a moment, tattoos and war paint and ivory staff and all, she was just his mother again, just the squat plump woman who had herded goats and hunted yaks and cooked stew for her brood in the family wada before Onegod had called her to the position of leadership she now inhabited.

Mother was young, too, he realized suddenly. Young, for the High Mother position. He was her eldest, and he was only nineteen–though it was forbidden for a male to know his mother’s precise age, she couldn’t have been more than forty. There was no white in her hair, and only recently had he begun to notice wrinkles under the circular tattoos that covered her face.

They would have to help each other. Their positions, after all, were related–a young Balancer balanced by a young Mother. Habbi kissed his mother’s cheek, surprised, as he always was when he saw her these days, by how far down he had to bend to do so.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “You’re right, of course. You always are. I’ll stay away from Mikki–I’ll try and come to market when the women are all at the Great School. I’ll try not to come so often.”

He pressed one of his crystal vials into his mother’s palm. “For you,” he said. “I was going to spend them on corn, but I suppose that’s immaterial now. Laughing dreams. Good ones. May they help you find a little laughter.”

His mother smiled, tucked the vial into her kirtle. “A balanced gift,” she said. “Perhaps all isn’t lost with you yet, my son. I’ll use them tonight. I’ll think of you laughing.”

As he climbed the twisting path back to his own wada, he tried not to think about the fact that, from here on out, there would be very little laughter left in the world for him.

It was not so bad. He enjoyed the Balancing, didn’t he? Enjoyed the sense of floating it gave him, the sense of suspension. He enjoyed looking up to the pinprick quilt of the stars, enjoyed mining them for answers.

He just wished he could experience his own dreams, sometimes. Even that–even the turnings of his subconscious mind–would be company of a sort. Better company than a stupid goat. Better company than the dreams he had to destroy, their twisting shapes making a sickness in his heart.

He knew what the Mother would say he could almost hear it: you are young, Habbi. Your training was incomplete. These longings will pass.

But it was not the High Mother’s face he saw when he imagined this, that visage made impersonal and mythical with tattoos and paint, but his own mother’s, her eyes worried and her lips turned down at the corners.

This train of thought was why, upon returning to his quiet wada on top of Mount Farsight, he did not immediately notice the cloaked figure hunched by the goat pen, petting the goat. He only became aware, in fact, because Stew let out a particularly pleased bleat–the cloaked figure had apparently found the spot behind his left ear which, Habbi had found through trial and error, it liked to have scratched best.

“I’m glad to see you’ve kept at least one of them,” the cloaked figure said, straightening. “I mean, I suppose even you would get tired of stewed goat after a while. You and I need to talk, Habbi. It’s urgent.”

The figure pushed back its hood.

“Stones and nightmares,” Habbi swore. “Black dreams and a turned knife, I can’t catch a break today, can I?”

It was Mikki.

EXCERPT: Night Shift

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I just started writing this. It’s fun, and it’s very weird. Don’t ask me where I’m going with it because I’m not sure. Just tell me: d’you think it’s worth me going on and finding out?

Good. I love an audience.

ONE

As Riley approached, the sound grew louder.

Schlorp. Schlorp. Thwk. Schlorp.

It was a terrible sound. Half squishy and wet, half metallic and hard. It was, in fact, precisely the sort of sound Riley had grown used to, issuing as it did from Tinker Tonkin’s third story balcony.

Schlorp. Shhwk. Schlorp.

“Tinker,” Riley called. Then, when there was no response from the open French doors: “TINK.”

The schlorping paused. As she edged through the moldy gloom of Tinker’s apartment, Riley could only imagine the sight that awaited her on the other side of the French doors–what would it be today? Year old beefaroni? Liquidized vienna sausage?

Schlorp. Thwk. Thw-w-w-wkkkk.

And the cry, proud and primal over the half-empty parking lot:

“I AM AN ARTIST. I AM A MOTHERFUCKING ARTIST.”

Schhhthump.

From below, a car alarm went off.

“Jesus,” Riley muttered, stepping in and freeing herself from an unidentifiable pile of brown goo on the linoleum. “Hang on, Tink,” she called. “I’m coming.”

She picked up speed, moving at a half-jog through the islands of dirty laundry and regretworthy former comestibles that covered the floor. She edged through the doors with care, however–Tinker wasn’t violent, not really at least, but it still paid to move slowly around her. There was always the danger, when one came up on Tinker Tonkin unaware, of catching salmonella, botulism, or that one with a T that came from raw pork (which Riley couldn’t for the life of her remember the name of, even though, knowing Tinker, she should have them all memorized by now, as well as their symptoms and treatments).

Tinker Tonkin, clad only in a pair of acid green underpants, was leaning over the balcony, predatory grin etched into her sunken cheeks. She was holding a child’s plastic bucket in one arm. Her other arm, clad in a rubber kitchen glove, was buried up to the elbow in the substance inside, which was simply the nastiest fucking mess Riley had ever seen, or smelled, or heard. As Riley watched, she scooped up a fistful of it and dropped it neatly on the BMW in the parking lot below.

Schlorp.

Tinker’s abstract-line chest tattoo, all too visible in the sere complex lighting, heaved with her laughter.

“Um,” Riley said. “Tink, I think it’s about time you came inside.”

“Oh,” said Tinker, waving. “Hey, Riley.”

She dumped the rest of the bucket over the railing. The sound it made–hell, the smell–was so awful Riley instantly blacked it out.

The car alarm below was a frenzied screeching.

“I’m doing an installation piece,” Tinker continued conversationally, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to be on your balcony in your underpants at one in the morning, dumping rotten meat products on someone’s BMW. “Mobile installation. Transistor Decay IV. It’ll go with the moving truck you helped me do last month.”

“That’s nice,” Riley lied. She tried to forget about the moving truck. “We should go back inside now.”

“It’s so nice out here, though!” Tinker said, wriggling her bottom in what, had she been something other than a human toothpick covered in skin, would have been a lasvicious fashion. “C’mon, Ri-Ri. You never want to just hang out any more. We can make mimosas, drop SPAM on convertibles…it’ll be like old times.”

“I never dropped SPAM on anything,” Riley said, taking one of Tinker’s wasted arms and tugging. For someone who must’ve weighed about ninety pounds, she was difficult to move. “C’mon. Hup. Before somebody calls the cops.”

Tinker waved an airy gloved hand. “Nobody’ll do that,” she said. “I’m the local artist. Who’s going to call the cops on artistry?”

To punctuate this concept, she threw the bucket over the ledge as well. There was a loud crunch, and the tinkle of shattered glass.

It was only then, when a dog started barking and lights came on in the first floor apartment, that Tinker deigned to stroll back inside.

“Have it your way,” she said, as though she’d simply decided to retreat. “Let me take down the camera and I’ll grab you a beer.”