kurt vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

kurt_vonnegut__jr__by_siglarkEight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Source: Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

a post from someone who just finished a first draft then needed a cry…

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the granny square approach

Momentum, like Mr. Darcy’s good opinion, once lost is lost forever.

Or so it seems.

Something like a particularly nasty cold that lasts a week (especially when it is followed by Husband spending the whole next week sick with said cold) can wreak havoc on my momentum.

Like coming back from vacation, or from an illness, or from a mental rabbit hole of writing on one project, returning to the status quo is difficult. You feel like the Campbellian hero, returning to find the world the same but himself drastically different.

Only  your arc was a helluva lot more pathetic than the hero’s. You find yourself wondering just how the hell you did this day-in, day-out, once upon a time. What was I? Superhuman?

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Losing your momentum is like losing a little bit of yourself. What is all this yarn and how the hell will I ever make it anything?

I kept telling myself there has to be some technique for dealing with this… something I could fall back on when I find yourself in this situation… some easy trick to convince myself it’s all not as difficult as I thought.

I realized when crocheting once, that the idea of holding in my hands the tiny fragment of what will be a finished product is too overwhelming. How can I have this brief string of stitches and imagine it an entire blanket?

It’s so much easier to just… not  do it. I accepted the lack of momentum and gave up.

But obviously, if I kept doing this, I’d never accomplish anything.

So I tried this. I wasn’t going to make an entire blanket, I was going to make one granny square. That was easy. It just took an hour.

And then, when that was done, I made another.

Before I knew it, I had a bag of granny squares. I had a whole fucking blanket!

And, funnily enough, I didn’t even want a blanket anymore. I made pillows instead.

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My point is that everything can be broken down into manageable chunks. Don’t worry about writing that novel; write that chapter. Hell, write that one scene. Or even just two hundred words. Just focus on that.

Just that. And don’t worry about anything else until it’s time.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pillow that’s as sexy as hell.

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Or two. 

Aw, yeah.

state of the union

Since about 2010, I’ve been keeping writing notes in Blueline notebooks. I go through two or three a year. I’ve just started my fifteenth.

It’s remarkably arbitrary when I finish a notebook; I simply run out of pages. From there, I have to plan a trip to Staples, select a notebook. Sometimes they’re all out of my usual model, so I adapt.

blueline notebooks

About half-way through, say, 2013 or so, I realized I was carting around not just the current notebook, but also the previous one or two, just because they had notes I still needed to refer to.

So I force myself to take the time to sit down and go through the previous notebook and transcribe notes. Sometimes photocopies must do, stapled into place.

I add post-it flags, highlighting, all that Type A jazz.

And I also started doing a “state of the union” on the front page of every notebook. I list all the various projects and ideas that have been circling my mind like vultures, waiting to pick off some spare moment of creativity and actually be written.

I did all of this yesterday.

The last few months have been crazy. I had to go through the previous two notebooks to do this and I still have more to do.

In that craziness, I’ve had to sit on a few projects just to make room for new ones.

In my state of the unions, projects seem to shake down into two or three tiers.

Tier One includes on-going sagas and projects that have dominated my mental space. Basically, this is Pirates in Space and then anything else that momentarily takes over. It’s like these projects are my immediate family and Pirates in Space is my husband.

Tier Two is other projects that I am actually making decent headway on. They take up decent space in my creative life, but they will always be dropped if Tier One needs me. These are like my extended family and friends.

Tier Three includes brief ideas and things that are only ever half-baked. Maybe one day we’ll become good friends. Maybe one day I’ll even marry them. But right now, they’re just someone on the bus you talked to once, or that guy three cubicles down you know is also into Star Wars.

Let’s just say that Pirates in Space and I are in couples counselling because I’ve been spending a lot of time with other projects lately. A little too much time.

nothing in moderation

Perhaps you have noticed (or not noticed, I haven’t the wherewithal to keep tabs on these things, alas), but I’ve posted the full-text of “Working Title,” my short fiction piece that recently won the Quarter Castle Short Fiction context.

I think I’ve gone on about this before, but this is a piece I’d been sitting on for nearly five years. For me, sometimes I hit a wall with a project where I just don’t know what else to do on it, and so I set it aside. I think it still needs work, but I’ve lost perspective and can no longer look at it objectively. Other times, I finish something and know it’s perfect. I don’t want to change a thing. But then no one else will publish it.

David_Lloyd_George_-_Punch_cartoon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17654This piece was a little bit of both. I thought I was finished. No one would publish it. I did some more work. Then I hit a wall, sat on it. Eventually, I read it over again and went, “hey, it’s perfect the way it is.” And still no one wanted to publish it. I sent out several submissions, got back a lot of rejections and a lot of nothing.

I decided to sit on it for a while again. After another chunk of time, I looked at it again, still really liked it, but it was just sitting in a drawer, unpublishable. Perhaps it was the length, I told myself. 4500 words is typically just too long for most publications, but too short for a host of others. Funny, how so many things in the art world come down to mere practicalities.

I began to eye it like a scrap metal dealer. What could I salvage out of this work? Could I take the spine, fashion it into something else? Could I take the framing conceit? Cut out a passage or two here and there and work them into a smaller, more concise story?

No matter what, it felt like butchery. The story was what it was and even if I changed anything, it was as if I was taking it further from its Platonic ideal. Like Michelangelo said about the statue of David, he just cut away the stone that wasn’t David. This story was what it was supposed to be; it just felt right. If you’re a writer or an artist, do you ever feel that way? That there is some true version of your work and you just get a gut feeling of whether you’re there or not?

Perhaps this was what always frustrated me about film. I could find sublime little moments and aspects of the finished work, but I just could never hit that true version. Either the lighting was always just off, or the framing wrong, or the line reading a slightly different take.

Anyway, I digress. With “Working Title,” I was at this point where I was ready to throw my hands up.

But then I found out it won a contest. And another publication wanted to print it too. And I had to write some tough emails.

Nothing in moderation.


Side note: It’s been a busy and ridiculous time for me lately. I will update soon with details on the absurdities of life. As soon as things settle down a bit.

Quarter Castle Chronicles… chronicled

I am extremely thrilled and humbled to share that Quarter Castle Chronicles, Volume One, is now available in print and e-book!

Quarter Castle Chronicles ~ Volume One showcases 13 short stories by 12 Canadian authors. They take place in settings across the country, both in the present and the past. From the rugged coast of Newfoundland to the streets of Vancouver, we are flung to far off places like Romania and Swaffham Prior. The authors spin tales of life, survival, death and the realm beyond.

The Chronicles include the winners and honourable mentions of the 2014 Quarter Castle Short Story contest. My piece, Working Title, was the winning story, which humbles me so greatly I’m sitting on the ground as I write.*

Please, check it out and be still my pride.


*That’s a lie. It’s an office chair. But I’m on the setting closest to the ground. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

obligatory july post

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. I have no real excuse other than I have been writing, just not any blog posts. The body of one book is barely cold and I’ve already started on another.

This one is a comedy, which is a nice change. It certainly makes life lighter.

I am finding a slight frustration, however, in the fact that I seem to keep jumping all over the place in terms of genre and style. I find I switch modes for each project and sort of adopt a different voice for each piece. Perhaps the differences are only really apparent to me, but it makes me feel reluctant to pick one and run with it, lest I find myself tied to that genre or style.

But anyway. The current piece I’m working on is what I think of as my “Default Mode,” which is basically the same writing style I use writing my blog pieces. It’s how I write when I just write and I suppose there’s something refreshing in that.

It is also a genre piece but only in the sense it riffs explicitly on genre. Perhaps I have been implicitly working through my frustrations.

We’ll see how it goes. It’s a fun, fairly episodic project, so I’ve been toying with the idea of posting it online. Maybe when I’ve got a bit more of it under my belt.

Anyway. Writing aside, life goes ever on as it does. Husband and I are moving. AGAIN. We found out a few months ago that our landlord is selling the place, so we’ve been keeping an eye out for a nice condo, and we found one…. ACROSS THE STREET.

As this is our fourth place we’ve had in New West, I realized we’re perilously close to forming a golden spiral across the landscape.

Is this cause for concern?

Mildly concerning. If I were a character in a Dan Brown novel, perhaps.

Whatever. I love New West. Unabashedly. We have good craft beer, good food, and they just put in a rainbow crosswalk for Pride Week. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I dedicate a whole post to it.

writing and the importance of just getting it done

After extensive note-taking and a few false starts, just over two months ago, I actually sat down and starting writing that young adult subterranean fiction piece I first thought of more than half my life ago. (it is now best described as *bracing myself* a dystopian YA novel-meets-Jane Austen.)

I’ve learned through this project the importance of persistence.

I learned how to effectively deal with something that’s not working. Rather than just giving up or sitting around waiting for it to get better I learned to change my approach.

I started writing this story just for fun, just to write and see what happens.

That got me through two or three chapters and then I petered out. This is part of a larger pattern and is why I have so many unfinished projects. I lose steam. I lose my way. I don’t know where to take it from there.

So I tried something different this time. My message to myself was: Just finish it, goddamnit. Who cares how good it is? This is a first draft. Stop your worrying, Ashleigh.

The idea of writing a whole book is always daunting. So I tried something different. I decided to focus on smaller goals, smaller hurdles.

I told myself to just write one page. One page to outline what the story would be: beginning, middle, end.

One page was easy.

Then I took that one page and delineated the beginning, middle and end into three clear parts: First Act, Second Act, Third Act.*

And then I took the three acts and wrote one page for each.

Again, focusing on just doing one page is easy. And it’s okay if every sentence starts with “and then.” These are just notes. The “and thens” are what you want to figure out right now.

Sometime during all of this, I arbitrarily decided that 75,000 words was a good length for a YA fantasy novel. I also arbitrarily decided that 3000 words sounded like a good length for each chapter. So there I had it: twenty-five chapters.

Forgetting for the sake of maths, the first chapter that I’d already written as something of a prologue, I was left with eight chapters per act.

I took what I’d written for each act and a different colour pen and separated the page into eight sections, each section a sentence or two.

I then expanded each sentence or two into a one page. This might seem daunting because that immediately meant I had to write twenty-four pages, one per chapter, but this was the fun part. This is the part where I flushed out all those “and thens” and made sure they actually flowed.

You might bang your head on the desk a few times when you realize that you can’t find an adequate character motivation for a certain “and then” that you’d been banking on and then things change and evolve. But that is the beauty of this thing called writing. It’s just as much discovering the story and characters as it is making it up. If it doesn’t flow naturally, something is not working.

This part of the exercise I found invaluable because twenty-four pages might sound like a lot, but it is certainly better than having written 150 before you find out a key part you’d been banking on isn’t going to work. And you’re not worried about style or sentence structure, because you’re just making notes. It’s the best way to find out if the story sinks or swims. The stakes are still low and you will have identified any major problems before you’re already too far gone.

Anyway.

From there, I had roughly 300 words per page, which would then be expanded to 3000. For some chapters, this was as good enough a place to just sit down and start writing as any. For others, I hit a block and needed an even stricter approach.

For about half of the chapters (All the Act Two ones; I have a huge problem with second acts. I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald.), I actually broke it down further into scenes or subjects and applied word count goals to each. Then, it was as if I didn’t have to write a whole 3000-word chapter, I just had to write one 250-word scene where the main character rides a horse. Easy. Write a few of those and then you’ve got a chapter.

When stuck, break it down to a page at a time. Or even a paragraph at a time. Sometimes, the first couple sentences are the hardest and then it flows. Most times, it’s just getting going that’s the hard part. Once you’ve started, you’re golden. You just have to force yourself to write that first paragraph. Just get it done.

When I’m trying to write, I set myself word goals a day. The easy default is 1000 words a day.

I used to meet this goal adequately enough before, but once I really set this level of organization to this project, I slowly started writing more and more each day. By the time I got into Act Three, I was writing an entire chapter – all 3000 words – a day. For the last several chapters, I was writing two chapters a day.

Another bit of discipline that I forced on myself was to not go back and read over what I had written. Not until it was all done. I would finish a page – just one page – print it off, stick it with the others, and keep moving forward. One page at a time. I didn’t want to get into that cycle of editing while I write, constantly going back and then pushing forward.

I wanted to focus on the forest not the trees. I will edit it all together when the first draft is done.

So, here I am. Done.

The whole thing is 81,000 words right now. But 81,000 words in two months marks me as the most prolific I’ve ever been. That’s not even counting other stuff I wrote this month. It’s amazing how focusing on writing one thing makes you already ‘in the zone’ for writing other things.

And now I am prepared to read that first draft over again and just see how terrible or magnificent it actually is. But even if it is terrible, that’s okay, because the hard part is over. It is done.

All I have to do now is edit, and editing can polish a turd into a diamond, that’s for sure.

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*This is a good starting point for breaking down structure. It’s something I learned from working in film, but it gives you a spine and then you just have to fill in the blanks. It will either help you get over any humps in the brainstorming process or give you a placeholder to put in until you work out the finer points.

Unmasked with Crab Fat!

IMG_4382A short story of mine – a slightly awkward New Journalism-inspired piece – is up online at Crab Fat Literary Magazine.

Unmasked! is an expose of the long-since retired superhero as he at long last reveals his true identity to the world.

I’m quite pleased with this piece, but I’ve been sitting on it for a while. It’s such an odd little number that it’s been hard to place with a publication. (Naturally, a magazine called Crab Fat seemed the logical solution.)