Ben Crowder

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Links #6


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Achievement unlocked: today I finished the first draft of my (as yet untitled) novel, weighing in at just over 260 pages (65,000 words).

It’s a good feeling, but the work is far from done. As mentioned, I’ll let it sit for a month or so to distance myself from the text, then it’ll be time to dive into editing.

In the meantime I’m still planning to write several short stories and outline my next novel and try to figure out ways to speed up this novel-writing process without sacrificing quality. Fall semester starts soon and will inevitably slow all of this down, but hopefully not to a halt.


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A mere two thousand words remain left to scribble down on the first draft of this novel. It seems a thing almost miraculous when I look back over the trail of desiccated novels I’ve abandoned over the last couple decades. I wasn’t sure I would ever reach this point, but I’m glad I kept at it.


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In Robin Sloan’s week four POTO diary I came across three important-to-me ideas about writing.

Worldbuilding

First, he quotes M. John Harrison on worldbuilding:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

John’s full post is good, if you’re of a similar mind (which I am). Back to Robin:

I find this formulation both cautionary and invigorating. The message, as I receive it, is that the words are all there is. You cannot substitute exhaustive backstory for language that crackles and conjures. That’s the cautionary part: don’t try to compensate for your cruddy sentences with an intricate magic system.

The invigorating part is: the words are all there is! And if that’s true, then words are all you need, and, my gosh, what LEVERAGE.

Invigorating indeed, and beautiful, too, for a minimalist like me. The words are all there is.

In my own experience, worldbuilding is fun and it does help generate ideas, but I’ve learned that I’d rather put most of that time into writing the actual story instead. Because then I have a finished story at the end of it.

How does this play in to my recently expressed plan to do more prep work and outlining on my next novel? No idea. Still figuring that out.

This, then that

Later in the post, Robin talks about getting bogged down in “this, then that.” Guilty as charged, here. Being conscious of it now, though, will help, as I strive to avoid thudding monotony locked into a single temporal resolution (as he calls it) and instead try to write more time-elastic prose.

Ladder of abstraction

A second but similar axis he mentions is Roy Peter Clark’s ladder of abstraction idea. From Roy’s book Writing Tools:

Good writers move up and down a ladder of language. At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk. Halfway up, teachers are referred to as full-time equivalents and school lessons are called instructional units.

I’ve long been aware of the need to use concrete words (at the bottom of the ladder), but I hadn’t thought much about the bouncing back and forth between concrete and abstract words. An intriguing idea. As for the middle rungs, to be honest I’m not entirely sure yet how to tell the difference between them and the top of the ladder, other than that the middle seems to show itself as a vague, bland malaise that greys out the sentence. Something to watch out for.


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Came across Marie Brennan’s AMA today and was struck by the bit about incubating story ideas. I write down ideas in Liszt all the time, but I never review that list…making it somewhat worthless. In a similar vein, something else I read recently (can’t remember where) talked about regularly reviewing cultivating your idea list.

To that end, I’m planning to start reviewing my list once or twice a week. I’ll also be pulling the most promising ideas out into their own documents where I can flesh them out further.

In concert with all this: writing a novel where I pretty much just made it all up as I went was fun, and it got me this far, but I’m very much itching to be more thoughtful about the ideas in my fiction going forward — more thorough exploration of the ideas in the book and their ramifications, more interesting combinations of ideas, etc. (And of course do this while also trying to serve up a riveting plot and lovable characters.)


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Storybook intro

Still another entry in the will-it-ever-end series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Storybook is my fiction writing app. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from, uh, books with stories in them.

Overview

First, the dashboard, which lists weekly writing stats and active stories at top and backburnered stories at bottom:

storybook-1.png

The writing view has a stats bar at top (showing how close I am to meeting my daily 1,000-word goal) and then the textbox for the actual writing:

storybook-2.png

The menu has some overall story stats and an outline (with somewhat vague and hopefully unspoilery scene titles), and some admin links:

storybook-3.png

Syntax

As you can see from the screenshots, it expects Markdown. I’ve put in a convention hack where h2 tags (##) delineate scenes. Also, scene titles that begin with “Chapter X” create chapter divisions. (Clarification: a story has a flat list of scenes. The chapter divisions are display-only.)

How I use Storybook

On my laptop, I have it open in Firefox as a pinned tab. On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA.

I mostly avoid using Storybook (cough) but somehow still manage to put in a thousand words a day, one word after another.

There’s a payload syntax so I can send writing from Gate or Quill to Storybook, but I never use it.

The future

Same old story: I’m planning to move it to FastAPI and start using plain text files for storage instead of a database.

At some point I want to refactor the outline UI and add search functionality.


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An update on the novel: I’m at around 226 pages on this first draft, which translates to roughly 87% done, based on my wholly arbitrary target goal. I also wrote out a brief sentence or paragraph about each of the remaining chapters, so that I have some semblance of a plan (which will almost certainly change).

Barring any serious life events, I should finish by the end of next week. Next week! After so, so many failed novel starts, it’s a wonderfully mind-blowing to finally approach this end of a full draft.

My current plan is to let the book sit for a month before I start editing. During that time, I’ll write short stories and plan my next novel (so that I have a rough outline when I start writing).

Also, once fall semester starts — the final semester of my master’s, here at last! — I’m planning to drop my daily word count goal from 1,000 to 200 or 300, to keep from overburdening myself. My hope, though, is that schoolwork ends up being manageable enough that I can still write more.


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From a Ted Chiang interview:

For me, it is about identifying the things that you find interesting that no one else finds interesting. That’s one way to view your job as a writer: It’s to tell stories that no one else is going to tell unless you do. I feel like there are a lot of stories that we read that anyone could have told. There are books that you read, or movies or TV you watch, and you feel almost anyone could have written them.

There’s also a good Annie Dillard quote that’s mentioned in the interview:

You (writers) have been sent here to give voice to your own astonishment.

I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but it seems to be a decent goal, I think. Write what only you can write. And I would broaden that to: Make what only you can make. I’m trying to figure out what that means for me, both for writing and for everything else.


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I have now passed 50,000 words on the novel, making this the longest piece I’ve ever written, period. It’s a good feeling. A few unsorted related thoughts:

One of the things I’ve reminded myself of over and over again is that no book is perfect. All novels have imperfections. This realization has been tremendously liberating.

Somewhere along the way I realized that (in my view) I’ll probably learn more from writing multiple novels than I would from toiling a lot longer on a single novel. My goal is to write something that is good enough, then move on to the next book so I can improve more rapidly. (Polishing one book for a long time can obviously create spectacular results. I guess what I’m saying is I’m impatient.)

At this point I’m figuring out how to pull threads together for the ending. The ending! I’ve never gotten this far before. It feels easier — so much downhill momentum, with the bulk of the book at my back — but also harder, since I’ve only ended short things before, and there are many more threads to work with. I’ve reread the first part of the book to remember what I wrote long ago, though, and that’s helping with getting the story to pay off its earlier promises.

There’s a China Miéville quote I came across a few months back (I need to find it again), basically saying that he only worldbuilds what’s in the story itself. I’m beginning to suspect that may be the kind of writer I am. Or at least the kind I am right now. I like the act of worldbuilding — and it’s a great source of ideas for the story — but I don’t think I’m patient enough to do it in any great detail before I start writing. (Sensing a theme here.)

Also: this novel-writing thing is insanely hard, but man is it fun.


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