Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

The “Vast” Method

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

So…I just finished a very rough draft of The Red: Trials, the follow up to The Red: First Light. There is A LOT of fixing up, figuring out, and filling in to do — and maybe there will be fatal flaws, I don’t know — but this was a very difficult book for me, so getting to this point is a triumph.

For those of you who are writers, I thought I’d share my experience of how I finally got those last pages done, in case you might find it helpful someday.

With many writers it’s common to write faster as you approach the end. That’s usually the case for me, but it didn’t happen this time. I was still slogging through it, even though I really didn’t have that far to go.

This has happened to me before. Long ago, when I was writing the first draft of my novel Vast, I was stuck. I was maybe 80% through and I couldn’t write anymore. I had a decision to make about how the end would work, and the uncertainty of what that decision would be worked to hold me back. I’m a very linear writer. I write chapter 1, then chapter 2, and so on, through to the end. I don’t jump around — until I got stuck writing Vast, that is. Eventually, out of desperation or despair, I jumped ahead and wrote the climactic end of the novel–and after that, writing the rest of the draft was relatively easy.

Every novel is different. With Trials I wasn’t facing a decision about the end. I knew how it would end — the generalities anyway, if not the details — but as with Vast, it turns out I needed to write the climactic ending scene before I could write all the scenes leading up to it. After a terrible writing day, I sat down on the evening of November 21, and skipped to the end. 1500 words later I felt far, far better about things. Over the next five days I added another 8500 words to create the missing scenes. I won’t say the writing was painless, but it was much less of a struggle than almost all the rest of the novel.

So this is the Vast method: when you’ve struggled close to the end but the story still isn’t writing itself, try writing the climactic scene first, and then drop back and fill in the rest.

Sometimes it works.

Creative Oxygen

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Brainstorming Story Ideas

It’s not unusual to hear a speculative fiction writer say something like “I have so many story ideas I could never use them all.”

That writer is not me. For me, it’s more like “I have only a few ideas, and I use them all.”

I don’t have a library of story ideas floating around in my head. At best, I might have vague concepts, or some intentionality, but I have to hunt down the actual story idea. For example, “Nightside on Callisto” exists because I wanted to write a story set among the moons of Jupiter. No other reason. I had no character, no story background, no conflict, no goal. I just wanted to write a story in that setting, so I did some research, narrowed down the setting to Callisto, and started brainstorming.

Fast forward to last November: nearly six months had passed since I’d last written a short story so, to generate more story ideas, I decided to initiate a new writing exercise. I made a folder on my laptop called “Creative Oxygen.” Then I opened up a Word doc, saved it with the day’s date (20121109.docx for example, if proper sort order is one of your obsessions), and started writing.

The goal is to come up with a story synopsis — any story at all, no genre limitations, but figure out all the pieces: character, setting, story problem, beginning, middle, end.

The rule is non-stop writing sessions of ten minutes, fifteen minutes, maybe even twenty minutes. It’s not quite Write-or-Die, but very similar. Being obsessive, I actually set the alarm on my phone to go off after ten minutes. If I feel like continuing after the alarm, of course I do. If I want to take a break because I’m not getting anywhere, I do that too, comforting myself with the thought that at least I’m trying.

I use the “directed brainstorming” method, asking and answering questions, making statements and requests, evaluating what I’ve come up with, reiterating it in a clearer form, and asking myself over and over again, “So where’s the story? Is this a story?” And if nothing is coming, I just start typing in random things.

Hey, it works for me. Not all the time, of course, but often enough that I’ve used directed-brainstorming almost from the beginning of my writing career, usually to figure out the next chapter.

So anyway, I managed to do the creative oxygen exercise for all of three days in November, but those three days produced two story synopses. Then I went back to work on the novel and forgot about creative oxygen…until the end of the year when I was challenged to write one more story before we moved into 2013. So I pulled out one of the two story ideas — the one with the most solid, detailed synopsis — and wrote it. That turned into “Halfway Home,” which just sold to Nightmare Magazine.

The wild-eyed ideal would be to brainstorm a story synopsis every day — although a synopsis every week is probably more reasonable – but at any rate, to keep hammering at it, knowing you don’t have to actually write every story you come up with. It’s just that by pushing yourself and practicing creativity your ideas are likely to get better and better, until you come up with a synopsis that simply demands to be written into a story.

It’s a theory anyway. If you’re looking to generate ideas and develop them into stories, it might be worth a try.

Revision Decisions

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

So the novel-in-progress — a near-future thriller — went out to beta readers in November, and by the end of the month I received four sets of comments. The overall reaction was pleasingly positive, and the two issues I’d been most concerned about turned out not to be issues at all. The comments I did receive are all helpful. Several have already been applied to the latest draft as I work through my list — but you know what? Except for one item, everyone focused their comments on different aspects of the story.

This isn’t a bad thing at all. What it means to me is that the overall story works pretty darn well, that there aren’t major issues, and that different people just want more detail on different things.

Of course it isn’t necessary to address every comment a beta reader makes. It’s the prerogative of the writer to leave things as they are, to change them a little or a lot, or to go in a completely different direction than the beta reader suggests.

But what to do if one reader has real problems with a critical part of the story that the other beta readers didn’t question at all? That’s the situation I found myself in. It was tempting to shrug off the criticism. After all, no novel gets glowing reviews from everyone who tries it. Some books just don’t work for certain people.

I let the critical comments sit for a few days, and then I made myself go over them again, while reconsidering the reader, the reader’s preferences, and his reaction to the rest of the novel.

In this case, my beta reader has been an enthusiastic supporter of my work for years, he’s critiqued me before, is a writer himself, was generous with praise for almost all of the manuscript, and gave solid reasons to back his opinions. He’s also a good stand-in for the most demanding corner of my target market.

So should I listen to him, even though my three other readers were okay with the scene? My answer to that was an emphatic “yes!”

Will I be able to address all of his concerns? That was more like a “maybe.”

The challenge with the problem scene is that the protagonist needs to hold onto some level of agency — that his actions and choices determine the outcome — but because of the situation, the element of agency is elusive. Stuff is happening, but the ability of the protagonist to affect it is minimal — kind of like being tumbled in the white water of a breaking wave, when all you can do is roll with the forces around you and hope you don’t get crushed. So in this scene the element of agency is primarily in the relationships between the protagonist and other characters: how he handles the stress, the choices he makes, and what he learns from them.

I wasn’t sure I could address these issues in a different way, but I decided it was worth experimenting with the scene, to see what I could come up with.

So yesterday I spent the entire day rewriting the target section. I was completely involved with it, even while I knew that the new material wasn’t really working out all that well. I’ve been at this game long enough to know that sometimes you have to toss a lot of words around before you find the right ones to use, especially in a situation like this, where the subtleties of dialogue, discovery, and realization are so important. At the end of the day, I’d addressed most of my friend’s concerns, but I was pretty sure that what I had was kind of a hash.

I re-read it after dinner, and yes, it was a mess. So I started in on it again, just as obsessed as I’d been during the day, but I’d had a new insight, a better understanding of the possible choices and the necessary sequence of events, and at that point I was able to drop some of the complications, which tends to be a good thing for me.

So is the scene better? Well, I haven’t actually re-read it since 2AM this morning, and I’m not sure I’ve had enough sleep to properly evaluate it. But I’m glad I ran the experiment. The simple fact that I was deeply involved in the revision effort tells me that it probably needed to be done.

Environmental Cues

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Environmental cues can condition the brain to easily engage in a specific task. People accustomed to working in an office can walk in the office door and be in “work mode,” because that’s what they do there.

For me, it’s a similar effect upon walking into the gym. My brain knows what’s up and even if I go in reluctantly, the environment quickly puts me into “workout mode” and things generally go well.

The same theory should hold for writing: show up at the same place everyday, sit down to the keyboard, and the brain should switch into “writing mode.” If only!

Personally, I usually have a very hard time settling into writing mode, and it can take me hours to immerse into the story. Maybe this is because I use my laptop for many things other than writing, i.e. webwork, social media, updating my books at the various vendors, etc. So the environmental cue — the presence of my laptop — is not specific to writing. There is always the possibility that I could or should be doing something other than working on my next book or story — and all of those things are easier to do than writing, and therefore tempting. As a rule, my mind starts off jumpy. I’m thinking of other tasks and am very distractible.

So lately I’ve tried a new tactic. I’ve adopted a particular song as a kind of ironic theme to the novel I’m currently working on. When I sit down for a writing session, I plug into my iPod, start the song, and start working. I replay the same song three or four or more times — as many as it takes to get me into the flow of the work at hand — and I don’t play it at any other time because for now at least, the purpose of this song is to cue my brain that it’s time to work on this particular book.

And it helps. It really does. I’m squandering a lot less time at the start of a writing session than in the past.

If you want to try this technique, a couple thoughts on making it work:

First, I started doing this during the brainstorming phase of the book, in sessions of nonstop, noncritical, stream-of-consciousness writing. So from the beginning I was actually writing as the music played, not contemplating writing.

Second — make sure you really like the song!

Let’s Try This Again

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Back in early May I sat down, determined to do a quick read-through of the sort-of finished first draft of the current novel-in-progress. I seem to have gotten distracted when I was halfway done.

Well, there was the soft-launch of Book View Café’s new ebook store–that took some of my attention. And there was a short vacation to the Big Island. Oh, and there was a new short story that needed to be written.

Three weeks later, there’s no point in continuing where I left off reading, because what I’m trying to achieve is a complete overview of the story. So it’s back to the beginning for me. Wish me luck!

Oh, and if you missed my prior post, there is a $2-off coupon for The Dread Hammer good at Book View Café. Please spread the word if you’re so inclined, and if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, well, now is a great time!

A Good Reason to Write Short Stories

Monday, June 13th, 2011

I’m a novelist by nature. I’ve only ever written a handful of short stories–and most of those are on the long end of a short story–plus a few novelettes and novellas.

Word count is the deciding factor on which category a piece of fiction falls into. According to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America:
Short story: under 7,500 words
Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella: 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novel: over 40,000 words

I’ve just published in ebook form a 7,000 word short. In the Tide was an Analog cover story back in the day, which was quite a coup for me at that stage of my career.

Here’s a tip for new writers: In the Tide was actually a “study” in much the same way that a painter will do sketches before tackling the big oil painting. I used this story to develop a feeling for the nanotech-drenched story world that later led to The Nanotech Succession books. I also used it to develop the type of evolved-human character that ultimately led to Nikko in The Bohr Maker. It’s a scheme I heartily recommend! Get paid developing the ideas for your novels. Where’s the downside of that?

In the Tide is a 99¢ short story. Here are the links:

Amazon USA
Amazon UK (£0.69)
Barnes & Noble

UPDATE: “In The Tide” is now available for free on my website, Look for the box labeled “FREE FICTION”