Craft

Words for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right

So today, I want to talk a bit about tough choices.

I’m sure you’ve heard the metaphor before, but writing a book is a lot like giving birth. Things gestate, come together, split apart, subdivide in your mind from concepts to characters, from outlines into plots into scenes. You must go through the neck-wrist-back-ache of several thousand hours of keyboard-assisted labour.  And then, after months of carrying this writhing, living, wonderful thing around inside of you, suddenly there is a tiny, perfect creature in your hands, staring at the world with wide-eyed wonder and enchanting everyone you show it to.

Only this little thing, as much as you love it, as much as you think it’s incredible, is totally dependent on you raising it up right. Editing, revising, considering critique – this is like teaching your baby manuscript how to eat solid food, to sleep through the night, how to walk on its own.  When it can stand alone, when it can answer any question put to it intelligently and listen to it when you tell it to do something, then it’s time to pack your MS off to college to succeed or fail with agents in the query process on its own merit. As much as you want to stand behind your baby’s shoulder and take the pop quizzes for it, it has to make the grade alone.

And when your MS has graduated, when it’s off in the real world on submission to publishers, it is job seeking. Its marks from college, the letter of support from its professors and its slick pitch are a CV that has to stand in for the candidate before the publisher ever sees the book. And when the book gets the job, when it gets picked up, it enters the publisher’s editing process, the job training. When it’s ready, when it’s mature and representing it’s employer in the work force, published and on the shelves, you can be proud. You raised your little manuscript right and it is out there right now, courting the perfect reader, curling up with him or her in a cozy coffee shop, spawning adorable little thought-lings in his or her minds, seeding the next generation of book-parents, happily going about the gloriously intimate business of making you a grandparent.

Sometimes, though, your manuscript might have a terrible twos, or a teenaged rebellion. It might drop out of college, tell you it hates you, and resist all attempts at corrective behavior. And what do you do when your manuscript just isn’t cooperating?

Several years ago, when I was in university, my grandfather was quite ill, I’d had a horrible row with my friends, I was being emotionally bullied by someone in my program, and I was feeling cripplingly insecure, I did the one thing I never thought I would have to do – I went to see a shrink.

My family was all quite well adjusted, there was no history of mental illness in my immediate gene pool, and I had a good support network at school. Why, I always wondered, would I ever need to see a psychotherapist?

I am glad I did though. She helped me get my head back on straight, was a neutral party when I told her about my problems who didn’t leap to defend other friends when I complained, and taught me how to grieve – something I don’t think we’re very good at in this century.

But the most important thing she ever taught me was how to “unhook”.

Imagine, she said, that your body is covered with fishhooks. Some only dig into your skin a little – those are the people you know from work, the acquaintances that you don’t mind seeing at the pub but would never call to hang out otherwise. The little people dangling like charms off the end of the hook are quite light. Then there are medium sized hooks – these are your closer friends, your pie-in-the-sky fantasies, your distant family, yoru career aspirations.  They’re a bit heavier, but that’s okay, you can bear them easily. Now imagine big hooks, fat hooks, dug far into your flesh.  Some of them are light, they don’t hurt you… in fact, their pull and tug is reassuring, pleasureable. Those are your family, your best friends, the creative project you adore, the dreams you cherish. But there are other giant hooks, and they’re too heavy. They rip your skin. They hurt. They make you bleed. Those are the people who exhaust and frustrate you, the ones who cling and demand and want you to fix all their problems FOR them, the ones who don’t care how much pain they’re causing. Those are the dead dreams and the dead-end job.

Now, she said. Close your eyes. Pick up the biggest, most painful hook that is dragging at you, ripping into your core. Carefully wriggle it out of your skin. Drop it to the floor. Let it go. Let that person go. Let that annoyance, that aggravation vanish. And here, my dear, is the most important thing for you to remember – don’t ever add more hooks to your skin than you can bare. Adding more hooks will never make the heavy ones feel light.  It is better to strip away than to add.

Better to strip away than to add.

This is important advice that I have held on to. That therapist was a lifeline in a hellish part of my youth, and her advice remains with me today. I am very cautious about who and what I let hook into my skin, who I let pull and who I cherish when I see the charm dangling from the line. And I’ve learned to be ruthless about who and what I unhook.

I nearly unhooked this whole manuscript.  I had worked so hard at raising it up right, but it was being obstinate, loud and angry. My manuscript had become an obese, screaming teenager.  It was behaving a lot like this:

And I’ve tried everything. Bribes. More scenes, more character development, more conflict. I made my main character’s best friend turn bitchy, added an entire new race of beings, layered urban legends and fairy tales onto the world. I paid attention to it and lavished love on it, and it slapped me. I did everything I could, and while it was making the manuscript rounder, thicker, plumper… it wasn’t  making it grow up.

I was indulging it instead of fixing it.

Filled with worry, I had a long conversation with Evan, my agent, and every piece of advice, every suggestion he offered made me more miserable. It was all good, it was all right advice, and if my manuscript had been inclined towards corrective behavior, it might have worked.  But even applying these edits, I couldn’t seem to get my fat, lazy manuscript to start playing outdoors and eating his vegetables. It was all Moreness advice.

I was really ready to unhook it and let go. Evan convinced me not to with a very nice list of what he did like in the book, what was working, and it helped me see the positive, wonderful side of my manuscript, made me remember the chubby, laughing baby under the churlish teen.

And, a few days later, I realized that what the manuscript needed was not More, but Less.

I remembered my therapist’s advice – unhook.

But what had to go? Or worse, who? What wasn’t so vital to the story that the story wouldn’t suffer when it was taken away?

I couldn’t choose. Which element? Which character? Which chapter and all the  following scenes connected to it? My heart broke.

Then I remembered that Evan had confessed that he was less than enamored of one of my characters, especially with his role and dialogue patterns in this book.

I liked this character. He was smart-mouthed, a good shot, and trying to explain his existance was the impetus for a lot of the worldbuilding I’d done.  He was fun to write and great to make the reader mistrust. But, in the end, I realized, he was an indulgence.

He was taking the role of hero away from my MC, doing the things that she should be doing. He was taking the role of the villain away, too, being threatening when fear of the villain should have been paramount, instead of worry about him.

He was, in every sense, in the way of the plot.

Nothing could happen around him because he would prevent/solve the problem before my MC could or my villain arrived. He was a black hole – he sucked up the momentum, the motivation, adn the reasoning in my world, and he was sucking up my time and energy and focus, too.

I still like this character. But, for the MS to thrive and mature, he had to be unhooked.

And that was one of the toughest choices I have had to make. It feels a little bit like killing a kitten. It feels a lot like betraying the friend on whom this character was based. It is terrifying and it hurts.  I mean, what if the whole plot disintegrates without him there to hold up part of the frame? What if cutting him out destroys the fun in the novel, and it becomes too serious for itself? What if taking him away makes the whole novel crumble?

But unhooking the burden of this character and his motivations from the manuscript has made both the MS and I stand a little straighter, walk a little lighter, smile a little more. Because, even though it took hours and hours of talking through motivations and action points and scenes with an author friend… the plot is better. The characters’ motivations are clearer. My hero is a hero.

It’s like… a pyramid that had one too many sides. The structure was actually made weaker by having too many supporting struts, sharing out the weight between them, allowing for cracks.

Now, the villain has matured and grown into his own, spreading like squid-ink into the places that this character has vacated – an honest, ever-present threat, now. The heroine has something tangible to fight against.  The stakes have been raised, and all the Moreness that I added to complicate/explain/fill out the manuscript can be pared back, turned around, and slimmed down. My best friend character doesn’t have to be bitchy anymore, because with this extra character gone, my MC has reason to stay her friend. My MC will have to do the stalking, fighting, and shooting for herself. She will have to defend her choices, and angst over the hard ones, instead of someone letting her do it all for her.

In short, my baby manuscript is growing up.

And the character that I cut? He’s hanging out in the wings, waiting for his turn to take the stage. Because the truth is, he was getting just a little cramped, all jammed into that manuscript, cheek-by-jowl and doing very little. He strolled on out of there happy as you please.  He’s got breathing room now. He’s pushing his shoulders back and grinning his white grin at me, glittering tarnished-penny eyes saying, silently, Oh yes. You and I both know that I was meant for the sequel, anyway.  There wasn’t enough room to maneuver over there. Let me have my space here.

His hooks are still in my skin, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, because he’s finally hanging in the right place. And he is watching, plotting, planning, as another baby manuscript starts to gestate in my mind, waiting for the right moment for that world to be complete enough for him to step inside and become a part of it.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right
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The Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero

Yesterday, unable to get my brain to calm down before heading out to a rehearsal, I was looking at fan art pictures of SailorMoon. I will admit I still love that series, love that love is the greatest weapon in the universe, love the adorable outfits that no living human being will ever be able to carry off (physics says “no!”) simply for their beauty and frivolity.

Going back and looking at the things that had inspired me in my childhood helps me to reconnect with the emotional, visceral feelings I had when I first loved them. I rewatch Forever Knight, and SailorMoon, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek to remind myself why I love story telling and what it meant to be a kid enamored with a narrative for the first time, not just the pretty bright colours on the television and the flashbang of distraction. I reread Peter and Wendy, The Tale of the Body Thief, and the Howl’s Moving Castle books for the same reason. It wasn’t reading a story because the teacher told me I had to read a book, but because I loved the story and wanted to feel that same surge of connection over and over again.

When my writer brain won’t shut off, I go and watch music videos or clips on YouTube, or peruse fanfiction and fan art of childhood shows, in order to unplug and just revel in comfort consumption.

(I sound like an addict going back to her drug of choice. I guess I am.)

The image that really struck me was this one, by SpaceWeaver:

 

SailorMoon FanArt by SpaceWeaver (found on DeviantArt)

As I often do, I paused to tweet about it. I said:

@scifrey: I think what I liked best about #SailorMoon was this: the more powerful Usagi/Serena got, the less human she looked. Emphasized her alienness

 

Now, I was talking about how inhuman Usagi/Serena got – the emphasis of the fact that she is, actually, not from Earth. She was reborn after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom into a human vessel, they all were, but the human flesh that she wears seems to barely be able to contain the power of her Star Seed, the Silver Crystal, and the vast powers she possesses as the Princess of the Moon.

 

At the start of the series she is happy go lucky, oblivious to what is hibernating inside of her, and totally human. As the series progresses and she unlocks more and more of her “true” self, i.e. her powers, she becomes more wraith-like, less intimately connected to her friends and family, less of a human and more of an abstract concept of compassion and love.

 

The “Serena-ness” of her was burned away and replaced by a serene, human-shaped creature who loved passionately but who forgot how much she enjoyed teasing her little brother.

 

I actually always felt sorry for her human family – how would they deal with the fact that their sister/daughter was not really human at all, had this double life replete with so much sorrow, and that in the end everyone knew that she was destined to die, to give up all that she is, with no thanks for it from the world she has sacrificed so much to protect? That she engages so fully with a life that is past – a melencoly thing in itself because she is living with the dead – and all but divorces herself from her human friends and family. 

 

Anything that is not “Sailor Business” or people who are not heroes/villains eventually fall away, cease to be a motivating factor in Serena/Usagi’s life and that, I think, is the saddest thing about the show of all. That she becomes alienated from the very people she has sworn to protect.

 

Though, by the end, she’s not SailorMoon to be a superhero and save the people of Tokyo/the Earth, is she? She’s become the lynchpin in a struggle for power encompassing the whole galaxy, and Earth becomes little more than a staging ground for their wars, humans not much more than cannon fodder and energy sources. That’s sad, too.

 

And that is some damn gorgeous storytelling.

 

And then this happened:

@AdamShaftoe: Same sort of thing happened in Tekkaman Blade – The more D-Boy/Tekkaman tapped his power, the more of his sense of self was lost

 

@scifrey: Never thought of that. You’re right. Same thing again in Eva – the more the kids around Shinji succumbed the less human they became

 

@scifrey: Is this a predominant theme in anime? Correlation between tapping into a supernatural power, sometimes bestowed scientifically…

 

@scifrey:…and the loss of humanity? Are there any Japanese myths or legends where this is the moral/theme? Theme of fear of power?

 

@scifrey: Lots of examples springing to mind – “X”, “Tokyo Babylon”, “Inu Yasha”, “Naruto”, “Bleach” Power is a force for good, or evil.

 

@scifrey: Seems the pattern says it doesn’t matter that the one gaining power is good or bad. Humanity is in jeopardy regardless.

 

@scifrey:  Even the loss of humanity isn’t positioned as good or evil. It just it. However, it does come tinged with melancholy.

 

@scifrey: Like it’s sad that the person has evolved away from more intimate emotion and a vibrant personality, only has abstract emotion.

 

@scifrey: Sure EternalSailorMoon has compassion for humankind and love for her family/friends, but she seems dimished in her “real” life.

 

@scifrey: And we’re positioned to hate Seichirou in “Tokyo Babylon”, but can’t help pity him his inability to feel beyond lust and hate.

 

@Adamshaftoe: Anime writers don’t seem content to let people do good but to show that heroism requires more and more self-sacrifice

@Adamshaftoe: I think it’s an interesting take on Superhero mythology, skipping the Uncle Ben BS for something more tangible.

@scifrey: YES

@AdamShaftoe: D-Boy/Tekkaman is left in a lobotomised cripple not from the combat of his final battle but from his final transformation.

 

@AdamShaftoe: Of course in his case this ultimate sacrifice comes after watching his brother and mentor murder his twin sister and…

 

@scifrey: Same thing happens in both “Tokyo Babylon” and “X” – mentor/brother/lover kills sister/lover to emotionally cripple the hero.

 

@AdamShaftoe: … eventually fighting them to the death to save the Earth. First he gives up his family, then his sanity, then his body.

 

@AdamShaftoe: And I’m not even touching the biopolitcal aspect of the Radamians colonizing child D-Boy via the TekSet system.

 

@AdamShaftoe: If we really wanted to melt our brains we could chart this phenomenon through Neon Genesis Evangelion.

 

@scifrey: It’s def. there.

 

@AdamShaftoe: Wow, impromptu twitter discussion of the heroic sacrifice in anime with @scifrey #awesome

 

@scifrey: Yes, I love this stuff…!

 

@AdamShaftoe: Though I think NGE takes it a step farther with Shinji/Gendo’s transhuman agenda.

 

@scifrey: I think one of the more fascinating visual cues that this process is happening is the removal of pupil in the character design

 

@AdamShaftoe: In the sense that the hero is fully formed without a “Yoda” to guide them through their powers? #animechat

 

@scifrey: And in having no mentor, they somehow fail to retain their humanity and become little more than an abstract emotion embodied?

The conversation petered out there, but feel free to continue in the comments!

(Dude, I am an aca-geek and proud of it!)

JM FreyThe Power of Sacrifice and the Price of Being the Hero
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Words for Writers: The Balance Between Science-telling and Story-telling

The first of a series of guest posts I will be doing over at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, is up.

In this post, I talk about the division among fans between Hard and Soft SF and ask why we all can’t just get along.

Read it here.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: The Balance Between Science-telling and Story-telling
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Words for Writers: Why Pirating Hurts Art

Okay, I’m going to get a bit preachy here. I have been working in copyright for a few months now at my job, and I just wanted to post some thoughts on why pirating is bad for art.

Yes, it’s bad for the artist. But it’s also bad for art.

Therefore, if you like quality programming, intriguing movies, original bands, thoughtful novels, and ground-breaking comics, then pirating is also bad for you.

One of the largest problems with pirating is that the artist at the end of the line – the screenplay writer, for example – gets screwed out of their residuals/royalties. Sure, Brad Pitt can afford to eat the loss of profit if you pirate his movie; but the guy who wrote the movie, the guy who has to support his family, and probably spent three years on that movie and couldn’t work on anything else during that time… he’s can’t afford to eat the profit loss.

Pirating hurts the little guy in the arts, and when the little guy can’t afford to make art any more, we’ll be left with the shallow, stale, and pre-packaged crap made by corporations, marketing departments, and conglomarates.

Everyone in the world profits from their labour – burger-flippers to CEOs, construction workers to sex trade workers, factory personnel to telemarketers.

Artists (painters/dancers/singers/musicions/writers/actors/etc.) are the only workers who are EXPECTED to work for nothing, and to be pleased to make no profit (if they even pay off what they had to invest to make the art in the first place).

Singing and dance lessons, paint materials, instruments, studio time and producer fees, computers and software, travel and location rental – that all costs money and much of it is dead required to create art. And the artists doing so ALSO do not have the time to work a “real” job to make money.

So, for anyone who isn’t at the superstar level, if they make enough money back on their book/album/film to pay for their costs to MAKE their book/album/film, then they can consider it a win.

But if someone enjoys their book/album/film without paying, then they are asking the artist to work for free, and the middle-class artist just can’t afford to do that.

So they have to go get jobs to sustain their lives and have to put aside art.

Can you imagine – what would have happened to the world of SF/F if Isaac Asimov’s books had been pirated and placed in torrents all over the internet? And Mrs. Asimov made him go down to McDonalds and start flipping burgers to pay the rent?

I’m not advocating for everyone to go out and spend every single paycheque they have on albums/gallery paintings/hardcover novels. But I am suggesting that people consider before they hit that “download” button.

If you don’t want to buy the whole CD, why not just buy the track you want on iTunes? Wait until the book is in paperback. Or go in with a friend and buy the book together and share it. Download the ebook legally from Amazon for less than a grande latte at Starbucks, and read it on your computer (just as you would if you DLed it illegally) if you have no eReader/iPad/Kobo/Kindle. There are lots of cost effective ways to get at what you want that are also legal.

And if you love it enough to DL it, then love the artist enough to support them.  And if you support them, then they can work on making more amazing things.

And this is all to support my main point: Legitimatly buying art means that the art will be GOOD.

Think about it.  How much more expensive is it to make an amazing show like Life on Mars or Doctor Who than Survivor. Even with the cash prize, Surviver is tens of thousands of dollars less expensive to make.  But what would you rather watch?

Another fifty seasons of Survivor? Or another ten of Doctor Who?

If you don’t support Doctor Who, legally, by watching it on the air when it airs on the BBC (either with PVR, time-delay device, TiVo, or in-the-moment, or by buying box sets), or waiting all of a few days or weeks to watch it in it’s second run countries like BBC America or on SPACE here in Canada, then you are helping the show regain the debt it incurred to make it. In the black, the show can afford to go on to make another season. Now, I do understand that there is massive profit from merchandising and the like, so perhaps Doctor Who wasn’t the best example, but bear with me; even the profits from selling plastic sonic screwdrivers isn’t really enough to affect the BBC’s choice to renew the series if the ratings say no one is watching it.

And when the ratings say no one is watching it, it gets cancelled. And they make a cheaper show to replace it, because they have less to lose if it tanks, and less money to put into it because they’re still in debt from the good program.

See what I mean? Let’s try this on a smaller scale:

I write a book. It takes me four years to do so. Let’s calculate what I put into that.

Laptop: $1 200
Software: $600
Mailing Manuscripts to agents: $200
Getting promo materials made up: $200
Travel to conventions, convention costs: $500 per.
Hours: Say 10/week on average for four years= 2080 hours. At minimum wage ($10 in Ontario) = $20 800

Total=$23 500

That’s about what your standard minimum wage crappy job makes in a whole year’s worth of take-home.

Let’s say I make back $2 for every book sold. To make $23 500, I need to sell 11 750 books.  Okay, easy for J.K. Rowling to do, less so for me. And yeah, I would have bought the laptop and software anyway, so we can drop that value down to say, $20 000, which means I need to sell 10 000 books to see any return on my investment.

I can’t do that if people are copying my book for free, or putting up advanced digital copies online for download, or anything else.  And if I can’t make that money back, then I will be understandably reluctant to spend any time at all doing a second book. Or I won’t be able to because I have to get a higher-paying and higher-time-investment job so I can affor rent and sudent debt. Or possibly, if I write anything, it will be something I am garunteed a profit on – say, some romance harlequin dreck.

“But I don’t want you to write dreck! I want you to write a good book like your last one!” you might say. Well, then prove to me that it’s worth it. Prove to me that my time won’t be wasted. Don’t DL my book illegally.

You pay for quality when you buy a DVD player, a lawnmower, a meal at a starred restaurant. Why not pay to ensure quality in your entertainment, as well?

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Why Pirating Hurts Art
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Words for Writers: Why Do I Write Sci-Fi?

I had an interesting question during an interview, and the reporter has agreed that I can share my (rather long winded) answer here. As I said to him before, it’s a question that I’ve been asked a lot, and I have thought about the answer a lot, so it’s wonderful that he’s allowed me to share this answer in advance of the article being published.

It was recently noted to me that sci-fi seems like a strange topic for a young woman to want to write about. If was asked what got me interested in sci-fi and, if I wanted to write, why I didn’t write things like National Velvet or a book about the human condition, instead?

For the answer, check out the blog of Gabrielle Harbowy, my editor on Triptych, who wanted to post it.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Why Do I Write Sci-Fi?
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