The Path, Part 1- be a buff.

24 12 2009

It’s time to deliver what I promised: a coherent path to story writing/selling. My recent interview with Maggie Jamison gave us some great insights into the process and now I want to go step by step through the process of creating, organizing, editing, and finally selling your story.

Part 1, be a buff. I am a buff of several things. I am a fourteenth century French and English history buff. I am a geology and paleontology buff. I am reading a century old study on the feudal development of  the Angevin and Capetian monarchies. I spent my last vacation in the Mojave above death valley crawling around old uranium mines. I can identify nearly two dozen species of trilobite. These are my hobbies, and they provide me with endless dross for my stories to refine (to quote the Baptist liturgy).  The old adage, “write what you know” is tricky for science fiction writers, and genre writers in general. If you want to write about a far flung space empire and your background is in file clerkery, then that adage may seem a cruel roadblock to your work. It isn’t, and there are two reasons it isn’t.

1: knowing is not being.

2: profound things happen to everyone.

So knowing is not being. That means that you can know a thing and not be a thing. Actors do this all the time and they have methods for achieving realism. There are the mimics and there are the method actors. Even though the example is now cliche’ I will use it for it’s universal recognition. Robert De Niro physically and intellectually became boxer Jake LaMotta, and followed that trajectory all the way through self destruction. De Niro was not a boxer, he just played one on T.V.. You get to do the same. You must think your way through your main characters, become them as best you can, and the writing will follow. If you are having trouble populating your dramatis persona with believable supporting roles then mimicry is the tool. Need a gas station clerk? There are a million of them out there waiting for you to chat. Need a starpilot? Well that isn’t as easy, but think about the essentials of the character’s personality and look for those. Is this character a nerves of steel, spartan that despises the ephemera of popular culture and it’s adherents? Your uncle Steve is like that. Much like building a back log of stories will help you keep your submissions up, being ever observant of human behavior will keep a stable of characters in your head. They don’t need names, or faces, just know types and patterns. You can mix and match these as setting and motivation require. Of course you still have a star empire to build no matter how well you populate it. Do your research. The world has had no shortage of empires. Understand them, understand the motivations of the people that built them. If you want something new then the best way to get there is to completely know the conventions of the past so that you can completely break them. Write what you know, not what you are. That means hit the books.

Profound things happen to everyone. There are no normal lives. Not much ‘eventful’ happened to Emily Dickinson over the course of her life, unless you consider a woman who lives for a decade in an upstairs room without coming out and spying on people that she creates imaginary relationships with eventful… which I do. That’s craziness, and it happened not just to Emily Dickinson, but also her family, her neighbors, servants, everyone that came into contact with the house. They all experienced a profound thing.

Another example of the profound: “I couldn’t get the smell of burning flesh out of my nose.” That statement was made by a music teacher I had regarding his experience in the first Iraq war. He was just a normal, country high-school music teacher. He was in the national guard and was guarding a convoy that came upon a heavily bombed road. “The dead were everywhere. They looked like scarecrows covered in black and red paint.” Dammit that’s powerful! You have to be vigilant as a writer when dealing with people. Observe and report. A high school music teacher came upon the fallout of  a technologically overmighty enemy losing touch with mercy. You great aunt spent four months wondering if the thalidomide  she took for morning sickness was going to cause her to give birth to a monster (already wrote it, don’t try). There are epics all around you. Find them. Remember them.

That’s the science of fiction my babies. Merry squid, happy cephalus.

Check out a new ‘story of the week‘- perfect for squid.

Part 2, the idea, up next.



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