‘Writing’ Category Archives
by Joe in Writing
There’s a concept in topology called homeomorphism. Two items are said to be homeomorphic if you can continuously deform one into the other without tearing or puncturing or gluing bits together. The classic example is a donut and a coffee cup. If you had a clay donut, you could squish it until it formed a coffee cup — they are both solid objects with a single hole.
For whatever reason, my brain is wired to grasp homeomorphism in concepts almost automatically, whether I want it to or not (I suspect nearly everybody’s brain is). This can be incredibly useful. For the day job, that means I can generally spot, for example, how a mathematical construct I’m already familiar with can be deformed for use in a different application, and that’s really handy. As a writer, it also has its uses. Metaphor, after all, could be considered a class of homeomorphism in literature (does that mean metaphor is homeomorphic to homeomorphism?), so being able to spot and deform one concept into another is definitely a necessary skill. Better yet, if I can write a donut in such a way as to suggest to the reader that they can transform it into a coffee cup, then I’m really cooking with gas.
The problem comes in when dealing with issues of structure and plot. Long about the 50,000-word mark of anything I’m working on, the parallels between the work-in-progress and any number of other works start to become glaringly obvious. In many cases, this can suggest new avenues to explore or it can be used to shore up existing resonances. But in a lot of cases it’s simply crippling. Oh my god this has been written unto death already. Why bother?
The answer is that, homeomorphic or not, you can’t drink out of a donut.
But it sure is hard to keep that in mind sometimes.
by Joe in Writing
So, in a moment of utter randomness, I recently bought Sebastian Bach’s latest CD. It’s about what you’d expect — competently executed but eminently forgettable hair metal — so I pretty much got what I paid for (or deserved, depending how you look at it). I listened to it a few times in the car, and then shelved it, and I don’t expect it to resurface often.
There was, however, one item of interest — the guitar solo in the song TunnelVision. The guitarist for the band is a 20-year old guitar prodigy, and the first time I heard that solo, I laughed and laughed, thinking, “That guy totally robbed John 5 blind!” The second time I heard it, I revised my opinion. “Jesus Christ, he did more than rob the guy. He enrolled in a fourteen-month ‘How to Play Guitar Like John 5′ seminar, and graduated with flying colors.” And the third time I heard it, I thought, “You’re an idiot. That IS John 5.” And I went looking for the liner notes to verify it. Of course it was John 5.
So that all made me laugh, but it was a little later that I realized that’s what we mean by “voice” in the creative world. I can recognize a whole lot of guitarists on hearing them play for a bar or two, and some are so distinctive it literally takes only a couple of notes. Slash, David Gilmour, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Michael Kelsey, Neil Young, Billy Corgan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, and John 5 fall into this latter group. The combination of note choice, guitar tone, playing speed, attack, vibrato, and other expressive elements combine in a way that is utterly distinctive for these guys who have really developed their individuality on their instruments, and it’s what differentiates them from thousands of nameless session guys who can play literally anything, but seem to have no soul.
The same is true of the written word. If you handed me anything I hadn’t read before by Joseph Heller, Stephen King, Caitlin Kiernan, John Irving, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, or many others, it would take maybe a page — and maybe a paragraph — before I recognized the author. And again, that comes from a combination of a dozen things — word choice, rhythm, attitude, point of view, and sentence structure for starters. It is also, I believe, more than anything else, the single most important element that gets us to come back to a given author time and again.
A friend of mine once returned a draft of an early novel of mine with a comment very much along these lines: “The writing in here has two voices. Much of the time it’s your voice, but when you get into the straight-up horror stuff, you slip into something that reads a lot like a Stephen King imitation. It’s a pretty tolerable Stephen King imitation, but if I want to read Stephen King, I’ll go read Stephen King. Your voice is irreverent and profane and full of bizarre black humor, comic exaggeration, and wordplay, and that’s what I want to read here.” It was an important moment for me — the moment I realized I have a voice, and it is distinctive, and I don’t need to fall back on rote imitation of others to say what I want to say. It was an extremely liberating moment, much like when I realized I had reached a similar place with my guitar playing: I can say the things I want to say the way I want to say them. It’s like taking the training wheels off and riding faster than you ever have before.
I think that may be the hardest part — realizing you have a knife, and what kind of knife it is. The rest is just sharpening.
by Joe in Writing
Revision is a drag. No two ways about it. It’s usually a lot of tedious mop-up after the initial burst of creativity has worn off. That being said, my books would be shit without it. That mop-up is essential to making anything I write readable.
It can’t be made fun, but it can be made effective. Here’s the patented, time-tested, 5-step process that works for me (your mileage may vary):
1.) Eliminate 75% of the instances of the word “fuck” and its multifarious variations (fuck, fucking, fucker, motherfucker, dogfucker, everfucking, unfuckingbelievable, etc., etc., and so forth).
2.) Go back through and eliminate 75% of the instances of the word “fuck” that remain after Step 1. Upon completion of Step 2 in my case, there will still be too many f-bombs, I just can’t bear to denude my manuscripts any further. I mean, I know–Kill your darlings and all that, but there’s gotta be a line.
3.) Replace all the normal spaces in your twelve billion ellipses with non-breaking spaces. Doesn’t that make you feel better? It makes me feel better. I can’t adequately describe the amount of tension that drains from my spine when this is complete.
4.) Wipe the sweat from your brow and go get a drink. This has been hard
fucking goddamn work so far. One more step to go (don’t worry–it’s a super-easy step).
5.) Go back through the manuscript and repair all the plot holes, bad dialogue, screwed-up pacing, cardboard characters, excess description, insufficient description, infodumps, idiot lectures, clunky sentences, logical inconsistencies, outright bullshit, typos, and other shit that is fucking up your manuscript. Especially the typos.
And . . . you’re done! It’s just that easy!