Meme time! As suggested by csinman, here’s a brief rundown of the way that I write.

I usually start with something so small that it can’t even be called an idea. Sometimes it’s a title. (My most recent short story, The Typographer’s Dream began that way.) Sometimes it’s an image (“an old woman weeping over a river”), or a theme (“something about forgiveness”), or a more typical what-if (“what if someone stole your ability to sleep?”). These kernels by themselves are never enough for a story. I have a file where I sometimes write down my kernels, but honestly I rarely use it. Usually the kernels just sit in my head and wait to germinate.

Kernels germinate either by combining with each other, or by latching on to some snippet of plot, something I read in the news, another story I read, etc. Here I’m helped by the fact that I have a Giant Fantasy World which is vast in imagined geography and history, and which almost any kernel can find a place in. (For example, my unpublished novel An Inheritance of Stars and my recent short story The Last Free Bear are both set in the Giant Fantasy World, despite the fact that they’re very different stories with no visible connections between them.)

Once the kernel has sprouted a plot, I’m ready to think about starting to prepare to consider what I’m going to anticipate writing. This takes a long time. Even after the plot has sprouted, I’m not ready to start cultivating a story in earnest. I have to let the plot stretch and unfurl and grow some more detail. I need to know at least 75% of what happens before I sit down to write; the last 25% can come in as I’m writing. If I have less than that, the story tends wither as I get stuck not knowing what to do. (This was the fate of the last novel I started, now trunked.)

Once all of that’s in place, it’s time to sit down and write. I write my stories in plain text. Yes, the kind you can read with Notepad. Once I wrote in WordPerfect, but then I lost my WordPerfect install CD, moved to a different computer, and found I couldn’t open any of my stories. Never Again. Text is universal and eternal. However, it’s not exactly “plain” text: I actually write everything as LaTeX, with the help of the sffms LaTeX package. LaTeX and sffms are both open-source, which means that even if they did go away someday, I’m free to use and modify the versions that I have squirreled away all over my hard drives. Oh, and my text editor is Vim. I use a makefile to generate txt, rtf, html, and pdf versions from the LaTeX source, and I have Vim set up to do all that with just two keystrokes.

(This is by far the nerdiest writing setup I’ve ever heard of, but I like it.)

I usually write on the bus to and from work. My goal is 1000 words a day, but I’m happy as long as I get more than 500. I would like to write more, but my time on the bus is the only writing time I can count on getting, and that’s less than two hours per day. I figure that at 500-1000 words per day, in 6 months I can finish a novel. (That hasn’t worked out in practice, so far, but we’ll see how things go in the future.)

Once a first draft is done, I wait a little while then make a first editing pass. This is just looking for mechanical errors or really egregious writing sins. After that, I put it up on OWW and/or send it to my flesh-and-blood readers. Then I start working on something else. A few weeks (for a short story) or a few months (for a novel) later, I’ll take all the comments I got and do a really thorough edit. This is when I’ll make serious changes like removing characters, changing the order of scenes, or reworking the plot. After this, I may send it out to one or two people that I know and trust for final comments. I brush up any last issues they see—then it’s off to the cruel world.

What have I been doing? Not blogging, that’s what. Here’s some snippets:

  • Women are amazing. First, they have the ability to keep tiny people alive inside themselves for months at a time. Then they endure incredible amounts of pain to bring those people out to where they can breathe on their own. When that’s done, they shrug it off and start feeding the creatures with food they make from their own bodies. I have never been more in awe of my wife than in the past few weeks.
  • Ciprian is wonderful. He sleeps plenty, eats pretty well, and is extremely cute. The only problem is that he doesn’t always nurse as much as he needs to and has remained pretty small. But we’re addressing that as best we can.
  • I stopped writing the previous WIP, and moved on to a new one. Despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t get excited about what I was writing, which is pretty much a death knell for any creative work. I took a while off to write two short stories (which turned out very well), thinking that I would get my muse back for the novel afterwards. That was a failure: the further I got from the novel, the more I dreaded going back to it. When I got started on the thing I’m working on now, I admitted the obvious. The project is dead.
  • But I have a new project! It involves prison and vampires and zombies. And I am LOVING it. This is the most fun I’ve had writing something in a long time.
  • Today was the first day I biked to work. Well, not all the way to work. That’s like eight miles, man. I’m not about to do that every day. I’ll probably talk about this more in the future.

I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing for four bucks the other day at the bookstore. This has to be one of the funnest writing books I’ve ever read, full of interesting digressions and snappy prescriptions. Even when writing about grammar, King’s writing is taut and yummy.

But then there’s this:

With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

The advice is fine, but: passive tense? Passive TENSE? This error occurs not once, but twice on the same page, yet the correct “passive voice” occurs twice on the next page. The only conclusion is that King doesn’t know the difference between tense and voice, or doesn’t consider the difference important enough to bother with. And neither did any of his copy editors.

Dear Mr. King and Editors: if you are going to lecture me about grammar, you should at least understand the difference between tense, and voice. Furthermore, this difference should be so basic to you that errors of this sort leap off the page like angry toads. And while you’re at it, you might add the words mood and aspect to your vocabulary, so that you can intelligently talk about sentences like She would have been shot without flopping around like a wet fish.

This proves: most people don’t know anything about grammar, and most of the ones who claim to know something about grammar don’t know very much. They should all just read Language Log.

This is a reaction of a sort to this story by Lisa Mantchev. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so, then briefly peruse the comments.

The comments section is the really interesting thing. (Unlike most of the commenters there, I didn’t like the story itself that much–it was cute but not all that memorable, and I couldn’t figure out what the point was of making the horrible, spiteful little girl grow up into a horrible, spiteful adult.) The entire argument in the comment thread revolved around whether the story was racist for including the idea of “peddlers” (i.e. gypsies or Romani) buying a child. There were a few commenters of Romani ancestry complaining that it was, along with a group of like-minded supporters. Across the aisle were others that thought the story was fine and leapt to its defense with a variety of arguments. Some of these arguments were pretty stupid (“it’s a free country!”), while some were legitimate (“nothing in the story suggests that the peddlers are gypsies”).

It’s this last argument that I’m interested in pursuing. Nothing identifies the peddlers as gypsies except for the fact that they’re peddlers, and the child-buying is not what the story was about. The author herself appears in the comments and explains the explicit efforts she made to dissociate the peddlers from the stereotypes about Romani. This seems like a good-faith attempt to avoid perpetuating destructive stereotypes without gutting the story, so my sympathies lie with the author. What else is she supposed to do?

“Don’t write stories about selling children,” one commenter suggested with a straight face. This makes an extraordinary claim about the responsibilities of an author when dealing with racial stereotypes: the author can never mention them or even use things that resemble them at all unless specifically to repudiate them. The appearance of any character or situation that smacks of stereotype is automatically disallowed.

I find this alarming, and not just because it limits the sorts of stories that authors are “allowed” to tell. The real problem is that this discourages authors from using non-mainstream non-privileged characters at all. In this case the author explicitly tried to remove the racial implications, and still fell under the opprobrium of the offended. What option is there but to avoid the non-mainstream entirely? I don’t just say this hypothetically: I’ve had stories that I wanted to write, but hesitated because I was afraid of potentially racist interpretations. The solution is often to make the character white, or male, or mainstream, because at least no one can then accuse you of stereotype.

This hardly seems like a victory. For anyone.

Progress has been poky lately, for a variety of reasons. And it’s time for a short break: I’ve got at least two short stories that I want to break out, and the current WIP will benefit from more time percolating.

35000 / 80000 words. 44% done!

Metafictional progress: Had a minor crisis upon reaching the plot-wise halfway point at only 30,000 words. Reconsidered the plot, decided that there was actually more in the second “half” than I thought, plus I had skipped a chapter. Decided that my original estimate of 80K words for the whole thing was probably correct.

Fictional progress: Barbarian warlord came home to discover that his wife was dead. The Heroine convinced her comrades to do something other than cower in fear. Their first excursion against the barbarians almost ended in disaster, except for the Old Woman using some henceforth unsuspected powers.

And that’s all for a while!

Although I don’t often comment on them, I really love the novel-progress updates that I get over at San’s and Cherie Priest’s blogs. Monkey see, monkey do:

The Sacred Mute is churning along nicely. My progress is not as quick or as consistent as I would like, but it’s greater than zero, which is the important thing. This is what it looks like:

24750 / 80000 words. 31% done!

Metafictional progress: Reworked the first six chapters to include the new Plucky Heroine. Kept the original protag as a minor character, then decided he should just die. Retroactively killed him. Fixed some niggling technical problems that made it hard for me to build my manuscript. (I am a geek: I write my novel in LaTeX using Vim.)

Fictional progress: Brought the Plucky Heroine into a (literally) smoke-filled room to talk to powerful people. Introduced her to a man with one of his eyes plucked out. Barbarian Warlord got into a fight with his wife. The Heroine’s city fortified itself, but the Barbarian Warlord proved to be smarter than he looks and found another way.

Tender Morsel of the Time Period:

The furs shifted a little and the light fell on the acã’s face. He was a man of tremendous age. His hair was thinned to white, airy wisps that clung to the fringes of his scalp. Creased jowls hung over his jaws, and his lip drooped, letting a strand of spittle dribble out. His brows were heavy and drooped over her eyes. Reze couldn’t tell if he looked at her, or if he saw at all.

So here I am, writing a scene where two people chat while making a fishing net. And I thinks to myself, “How do you make a fishing net? How can I describe their actions in a convincing fashion? I know! I’ll ask the Internet!”

And what does the Internet show me but this:

Thanks, Internet! You’re the best!

Last night was a night of great and portentious (not to mention pretentious) moment. Four of we who met at Potlatch, gathered at my house. The celebrants were myself, Jessie Kwak, Natasha Oliver, and Brian LeBlanc, all denizens of Seattle and ambitious neophyte writers. We had agreed to a get-together shortly after Potlatch, and this was the day it got together.

Food was had, and in delicious quantities. Natasha supplied fantastic ham quiche squares, Brian blessed us with alcohol, and Jessie took up the rear with a kind of Mexican cookie whose name I have forgotten. The entree was supplied by me and my wife: ciorbă rădăuţeană, a traditional Romanian soup made with chicken and sour cream. I requested that the revelers learn to pronounce the word before they started eating, which they did with admirable aplomb. Well, at least Jessie and Natasha did. I think that Brian got away with not saying the name of the dish the entire night.

Food meant discussion, which eventually led to reading and critting. Jessie agreed to be the first victim with a short story about… Actually, I won’t say what the story was about. It’s her prerogative to divulge details of her own WIP. In any case, everyone agreed that the format was enjoyable and useful, so others will provide further grist for the crit mill in the future.

We all agreed to an encore, with the exact date to be established in the future. The last order of business was to agree on a name for our cadre. After heated discussion, we agreed on the Shining Creamsicles, for reasons to ridiculous to explain. Note that the name is only temporarily plural: when the Creamsicle Singularity occurs (like the Technological Singularity, but with Creamsicles), we will merge and become The Shining Creamsicle. And I know we’re all looking forward to that.