Thoughts on Gesture Writing, Scene Outlining, and the Essence of Things

gesture_02 by Patrick Grizzard

On Facebook, someone shared a year-old opinion piece titled “Gesture Writing” from the New York Times that I really love and saved to my Pocket account immediately. In it, author Rachel Howard talks about her early days as an artist model for introductory drawing classes.

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.”

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

As she struggled to write her novel, the words of these instructors came to her again.

Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?

I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook.

Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.

Realizing that writing is a lot like drawing gives us a deeper approach. Because really, before we put a word or a mark on the page, both writers and artists must first step back and see. …to see deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page, a writer must move her consciousness out of information organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing subtle organic connections and capturing them in bold strokes.

This essay reminded me of a post from the SFWA blog someone sent me years ago: the 10,000 words a day post. I know people have a ton of strong opinions about that post. I’ve found the part about scene outlining to be very useful, even if I still can’t write 10K per day.

…instead of trying to write the scene in the novel as I had been, I started scribbling a very short hand, truncated version the scene on the paper. I didn’t describe anything, I didn’t do transitions. I wasn’t writing, I was simply noting down what I would write when the time came. It took me about five minutes and three pages of notebook paper to untangle my seemingly unfixable scene, the one that had just eaten three days of my life before I tried this new approach. Better still, after I’d worked everything out in shorthand I was able to dive back into the scene and finish it in record time.

Looking back, it was so simple I feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. If you want to write faster, the first step is to know what you’re writing before you write it. I’m not even talking about macro plot stuff, I mean working out the back and forth exchanges of an argument between characters, blocking out fights, writing up fast descriptions. … If the scene you’re sketching out starts to go the wrong way, you see it immediately, and all you have to do is cross out the parts that went sour and start again at the beginning. That’s it. No words lost, no time wasted. It was god damn beautiful.

I have some success with this method, and after reading the NYT piece I can now identify why there are times it works better than others. When I sketch the scene in ways that focus on the “gestures” and the essence of the scene. Is it emotion? Or exposition?

A thing I’m actively working on in my writing now is visual description of people, environment, movement. Trying to find that balance between giving my reader enough detail so it’s not a white room but not so much detail that I bog the reader down. Too often I read books and short fiction where the author, in trying to be as descriptive as possible, burdens me with so much visual detail that I can no longer see the thing for myself. It’s like the art students trying so hard to render the fingers exactly when they should focus on what in the body has the most life and get that down on paper.

I’d love to know what techniques you employ to get at the essence of a scene as you write.

Getting More Writers of Color to Workshops: A Modest Proposal

Getting More Writers of Color to Workshops: A Modest Proposal

Taking a break from talking about the Hugos and Jonathan Ross for actual important stuff.

A few days ago I tweeted:

Writers of Color, raise hands if you want to attend writing workshops but can’t afford one financially.

And I got many responses. One of the reasons I asked is because I wanted to point out again why the Writing Excuses Carl Brandon Scholarship was important and encourage people to apply[1]. Then a couple of responses made me realize I needed to do something else as well.

@cafenowhere That’s me. With added complication of being main care giver to a child & living in the Midwest.

@LonAitewalker *raises hand* compound that with being disabled as well – double whammy.

Lack of funds isn’t the only barrier. There’s the inability to miss work for a week or weeks at a time, or not having anyone to leave a child with for that time, or other obligations that make going away to a workshop not possible.

As other responses point out, going to a workshop can be a life-changing experience. Not only do you gain valuable writing instruction, you also get valuable networking done and face time with authors who are generous with their advice and influence. Workshopping is an important element in developing a career. It’s not necessary, it’s just very helpful.

So how can we make workshops more widely available to writers who are more likely to miss out on these opportunities? A few good ideas I’ve seen lately:

One Day Workshops: Clarion West does these occasionally (and lately doing more of them). They usually involve tackling a particular subject, like how to research or how to create more immersive fiction, take place on a weekend day, and cost a fraction of what the 6 week workshop costs. The downside is that they only take place in Seattle for now. I hear that there are discussions to expand into…

Online Classes via Google Hangout: I’ve heard of several writers doing this, but the only class I’m at all familiar with is Mary Robinette Kowal’s. She does two types, a weekend intensive (Friday night to Sunday) and an 8-week course that meets one day a week. Since they take place online you don’t have to travel and it may be easier to structure your time even if you have caregiving obligations. Click here to see explanations for her workshops, which will give you a good idea of how most are run.

Neither of these solutions is absolutely perfect and will work for everyone. They go a long way toward helping, though. More one day workshops in other cities and towns mean more people can attend. Doing things online through Google Hangouts open it up even more–you don’t even need a webcam, just a mic[2]. Then we’re back to cost.

These workshops are far less expensive than the long 6-week ones like Clarion or even retreat-type workshops like Out Of Excuses. That doesn’t mean they’re that much more affordable since the cost is still in the hundreds for many. Scholarships are needed here as well.

I have a request for pro authors giving workshops and organizations coordinating workshops. Would you be willing to set aside one registration per workshop for a writer who cannot afford it but would greatly benefit from attending? Could you perhaps work with an organization willing to help coordinate some of the particulars, like matching writers who want to attend with appropriate workshops?

People involved in organizations and community groups that raise awareness around diversity in the genre, would you help out by doing some of that coordinating? Or even setting up scholarship funds so that the workshop runners still get paid?

This could end up being a major project for some non-profit, but major projects take time to build. As that happens, if that happens, I’d still like to see some smaller efforts to help build momentum. Such as workshops deciding to set aside that one registration. Or writers helping each other raise money individually. A larger project like Con or Bust would be great in the long term. I just don’t want people to think we have to wait for that to come together in order to get started.

So let’s discuss this! Here in the comments, on social media, at cons, wherever. This is just the spark of an idea. Help me grow it.

Oh, and apply for the Writing Excuses Carl Brandon Scholarship! Applications must be in by 3/15. If you can afford the time but can’t afford registration, hotel, and travel, the scholarship covers those things.

Footnotes

  1. BTW – People, apply! Deadline Is 3/15[]
  2. You do need a reliable high-speed connection, and not everyone has that, I know.[]

Another kind of backup

Viggo Mortensen's Journal

New post over on the tech blog that will be of interest to you writer types:

“As I was in the process of moving from one house to another… someone broke into the passenger side window of my car and grabbed the backpack containing several notebooks I’d filled, since early 2001, with handwritten stories and poems. The backpack also contained a couple of journals, two screenplays, my passport, and two half-read books. The hardest losses were the stories and poems in the notebooks. I had been looking forward, in particular, to reviewing and fine-tuning hundreds of pages of, for me, uncharacteristically long and unguarded poetry that had been written during a series of very quiet nights spent in the Sahara Desert in late 2002.  

“…I spent a lot of time and effort in the following weeks scouring my part of town, looking through trash cans and alleyways, offering no-questions-asked rewards, doing anything I could think of to find what was irreplaceable for me and probably completely useless to whoever had stolen it. Finally, I let most of it go…”

–Viggo Mortensen

The specific thing that made me recall that story was testing Evernote’s Page Capture feature. … The idea of scanning a paper journal to a digital file isn’t exactly new. But with smartphones being so wide-spread and the cameras in them getting better and better, I wonder if it’s now just convenient enough that writers would spend a couple of minutes every day adding their journals to Evernote and if that would end up being an effective backup system?

Click here for the full post & discussion.

Utopias In Literature (Scholar & Feminist Conference 2013)

Utopias In Literature (Scholar & Feminist Conference 2013)

This year’s Scholar & Feminist Conference theme is Utopia, and I’m honored to be leading a workshop about Utopia and Literature. I’m going to discuss mainly speculative fiction novels and short stories (thus the reading list below), explore how writers have handled the idea of utopia and dystopia, and discuss the ways writers can think about utopia going forward. I’m also going to get into how fiction handles utopia affects the reader and/or culture.

In preparation for this workshop I had some great conversations with other speculative fiction authors about utopia and dystopia so that I could incorporate their viewpoints into the discussion. I want to thank Justine Larbalestier, N. K. Jemisin, Rahul Kanakia, Nisi Shawl, Eileen Gunn, and Catherynne M. Valente for helping me expand and explore my own ideas about utopia by offering their own.

The ideas I will use as a jumping off point are:

  • Science fiction as a genre is well suited to utopias because it “explores our world by positing another one that works a bit differently.” (Eileen Gunn)
  • If utopia is an ideal, is there such a thing as an objective ideal? Can a utopia ever be a utopia for everyone? Or if you create a perfect society for one group, who then becomes dominant, does that mean the non-dominant group/s must be oppressed?
  • Utopia is relative. The utopias we see in fiction may work for one set of people but are dystopian for another set.
  • Many modern stories and novels are specifically dystopian in nature or are utopias that reveal themselves as dystopias. Why is this the modern mode of exploration?
  • What do the types of utopias we see in fiction reveal about the authors who write them and the society or culture they come from? The ideals they include and the ones they leave out speak to their point of view and what they value and don’t.
  • Is it possible to show a true utopia in fiction? One view is that fiction requires conflict, so the author must show the utopia to be flawed in some way. Another view is that the conflict doesn’t have to come from within the utopia itself but from outside. The point being not to show that the utopia is flawed, but that the outside forces are.
  • Utopia as positive text. Creating a positive text, be it a positive feminist text, positive womanist, positive toward the idea that people are equal and should be created with respect — can this be a form of utopian writing? What affect does this have on the reader, on culture?

The workshop begins at 12:25pm Eastern (3/2). You can follow what people are saying on Twitter about the workshop and the conference by checking out the hashtags #sfutopialit and #sfutopia. This post will evolve and grow as the workshop goes on and afterward as I incorporate what the workshop participants have to say. I’ve invited all of the people in the workshop to liveblog and Tweet as well as bring the discussion to the comments on this post. Even if you’re not in the workshop physically, I hope my regular readers will also offer their thoughts on utopia.

Very Selective Reading List

I will add links to all of these works later on. During the workshop I expect we will generate more stories and novels to include in this list.

  • Octavia Butler
    • Parable of the Sower
    • Parable of the Talents
  • Steven R. Boyett
    • Elegy Beach
      • N. K. Jemisin: Takes place 20 years after Ariel. The protagonist grew up in this world where magic works and science doesn’t, and he’s excited by the world’s magic. His father remembers the world as it was. It’s a utopia for the son, not for the father.
  • Suzy McKee Charnas
    • The Holdfast Chronicles (Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines, The Furies, The Conqueror’s Child)
  • John Crowley
    • In Blue” (short story)
      • Nisi Shawl: a future utopia, a socialist world. It’s hard to envision what a totally happy utopia can be. He does this, but from the point of view of someone who doesn’t get it. It’s not a perfect utopia for him but it is for everyone else.
  • L. Timmel Duchamp
    • The Marq’ssan Cycle (Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit, Stretto)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman
    • Herland
  • Kathleen Ann Goonan
    • This Shared Dream
      • Eileen Gunn: This book posits an attempt at creating a utopia. Here’s the blurb I wrote for it: “What if you could travel through time to fix what is wrong with the world? The world would resist, and the very act of trying would create parallel worlds with their own problems. This wondrous book, the story of a handful of people who seek to alter the twentieth century to create a better future, acknowledges the inhumanity of war and yet celebrates the joys of music, art, friendship, and family. And it reminds us that the future is made by the children of the present. I loved this book, and I heartily recommend it.”
  • N. K. Jemisin
    • “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” (short story)
      • Example of a relative utopia
  • Rahul Kanakia
    • Next Door” (short story)
      • Written from the point of view of a character who sees the world as dystopian, but when flipped to the antagonist’s POV could be utopian.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Kat Meads
    • Sleep
      • From the Tiptree Award website: This is a fierce, unrepentantly experimental, somewhat raw novel about motherhood in a highly gray utopia.
  • Marge Piercy
    • Woman on the Edge of Time
      • From the Tiptree Award website: Piercy not only creates a complex and intricate utopian vision, but tosses in a dystopia and an all too realistic real world as well. Connie Ramos is one of science fiction’s most genuine heroines. She has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into utopia. The rest of us, at the end of the book, have to be dragged out.
  • Joanna Russ
    • The Two Of Them
      • Nisi Shawl: Secret agents across time go to this planet that’s been settled by people who are trying to set up a religious utopia based on Islam.
    • The Female Man
    • “When it Changed” (short story)
      • Takes place in the same world as The Female Man
    • “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”
  • Starhawk
    • The Fifth Sacred Thing
      • A post-apocalyptic novel depicting two societies, one a sustainable economy based on social justice, and its neighbor, a militaristic and intolerant theocracy.
  • Catherynne M. Valente
    • The Orphan’s Tales cycle (In the Night Garden, In the Cities of Coin and Spice)
  • Connie Willis

Anthologies

NYC Group Writing Evenings?

NYC Group Writing Evenings?

I don’t get to have many group writing days, anymore, partially due to me not organizing them and the folks who used to do them with me don’t as much, anymore. Or they’ve moved away[1]. But now that I have a semi-regular schedule again that does not involve working into the night for no good reason, I’d like to try having them again.

During NaNoWriMo I organized a big write-in at Vagabond Cafe and really enjoyed it. Wondering if people in NYC would be interested in weekly write-ins. Perhaps not on such a large scale as NaNo ones, but groups of 5 – 10 folks all dedicated to writing for an hour or two together on a regular-ish basis. I’m sure we can accommodate more if more people are interested and show up.

Vagabond is a good location if we have a smaller group and want to do Tuesday since that’s the night they’re slowest and have no live music. For other days (Monday, maybe Thursday?) I suggest a new cafe called Irving Farm on the upper west side. They have a huge space in the back and are often very empty in the evenings. They serve beer and wine, which is always a bonus.

The kind of writing evening I envision is one where people trickle in for the first half hour, get drinks, food, etc. and chat a bit, then we get down to the SRS bizness of writing. No talking, the whole thing. Maybe we’d do a no talking, heads down sprint in 30 minute chunks then take breaks.

I’m open to ideas about how the writing evening should be structured and any other details. Discuss in the comments and let me know if you’re interested!

Footnotes

  1. Eugene![]

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Do any of you out there ever listen to RadioLab, a radio show that broadcasts on NPR stations? It’s a really fabulous show and podcast that’s best described as similar to This American Life but with stories about science and cool stuff instead of just about people’s inner lives. Except the explorations of science and geeky stuff often also includes stories of people’s inner lives. It’s a pretty sweet show.

The most recent episode is called Colors and is an exploration about a bunch of stuff about color. I know, what a surprise. My favorite section is the last one called “Why Isn’t The Sky Blue?” and delves into why the descriptions of color in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are so… off. The basic explanation is that ancient people saw fewer colors than we see even though they had the physical ability to see more[1].

When I first listened to this show I geeked out a bit because I remember hearing this same thing in class back at NYU. How it starts with a long-ago British prime minister noticing that Homer never describes the sky as blue and snowballs into an exploration of how colors come into the human consciousness. My teacher at the time, Scott McPartland, said that the ancient Greeks didn’t see all colors, even though they existed, because they didn’t yet have the imagination to see them. The scientists interviewed on RadioLab have different explanations, but I like Scott’s better.

Scott also stated that two of the traditional rainbow colors are completely made up. That would be Indigo and Orange. These in-between colors were invented to make 7 colors, as 7 is a more perfect or spiritual number.

Yes, this assertion is probably arguable. I remember we argued about it in class a lot. Especially about orange. Apparently before oranges were orange (which they’re bred to be), they were yellow. So we invented oranges to justify orange as a legit color. Fascinating.

Anyway, I bring all this up not just because you should listen to RadioLab or argue with me about the realness of Orange and Indigo, but because I think this is an interesting bit of knowledge to keep in mind if you’re writing about an ancient people. How does your writing change if you can’t use the entire rainbow of colors? Not being able to describe the sky as blue? Or a berry as red or purple? Or the grass and leaves as green? How does that change how your characters see the world and relate to it?

Another cool thing mentioned earlier in the show is that some animals and insects have the ability to see thousands and millions more colors than we can. I’m toying with the idea of an alien race that can see far more colors than we can and how that affects how they relate to us. There is always an assumption that humanoid races pretty much see how we see, but even on our own planet there is a wide range of color seeing ability, thus it’s less likely to be homogeneous across worlds.

Footnotes

  1. Listen to the entire show for an explanation of how our eyes see color.[]

Social Media Resources for Sipping From The Firehose #WisCon36

Social Media Resources for Sipping From The Firehose #WisCon36

Just about to head into my next panel, “Sipping From the Firehose: Managing Writing and Social Media,” and wanted to get this list of resources up for those attending and those who are following along via Twitter. The hashtag for this panel is: #SocialMediaSFF.

This post will change slightly as the discussion goes along, and hopefully there will be a panel report or two from the audience I’ll link to.

Social Networks That Are Useful For Writers

These are in a roughly most useful to least useful configuration, but the relative usefulness also depends on what kind of writing and promoting you do. This is not a prescriptive list — every writer does not need to be on every network. This is just a list to consider. After the panel I’ll try to add context for which networks are good for what kinds of activities.

  • Facebook
  • GoodReads
  • LibraryThing
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter
  • Dreamwidth
  • LinkedIn
  • LiveJournal
  • Delicious
  • Flickr
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • DeviantArt
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Vimeo
  • YouTube

Social Networking Tools

These are services, apps, and plugins that make dealing with social media a bit easier, especially if you have multiple accounts.

  • Hootsuite — A social media dashboard that puts several social networks in one place. See updates from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Ping.fm and FourSquare from one window. Update multiple accounts at once. Schedule updates for the future. Accessible from any browser and via apps for Android, iPhone and iPad.
  • Tweetchat — Tool that lets you focus on one hashtag at a time. Good for participating in Twitter chats.
  • TweetBot — The best iPhone/iPad Twitter client.
  • TweetCaster — One of the better Twitter clients for Android.
  • RSS Graffiti — Facebook app that posts a status update whenever you update your blog.
  • JournalPress — A WordPress plugin that crossposts to LiveJournal and DreamWidth.

Oh Hey, My Stories Finally Made It To The Big Booksellers

Oh Hey, My Stories Finally Made It To The Big Booksellers

As promised, I’m keeping everyone abreast of my dealings with SmashWords so as to give my impression of the process. Back in December I published a short story (actually, a novelette) through their site which was immediately available via SmashWords but took some time to make it through distribution channels. SW will send your eBook to Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Sony, iBooks and Diesel on their behalf as the publisher. It sometimes takes a while. Now my book is in all of those stores except for Amazon, as there’s some kind of renegotiation going on with them overall.

Anyway, I did a search and found the book in each place except iBooks (can’t get there from the web) and linked them above. So now phase 2 is over.

Thus far, 50 people have downloaded the except of the story (free) and only 3 have bought it. However, I haven’t done any promotion beyond this blog yet, mainly because I was waiting for the distribution thing to happen. However, I’ve learned a few things already:

  1. I suck at writing jacket copy.
  2. My cover is all right, but it’s not stunning, and thus probably not driving many sales.

These things I knew before, but seem particularly important now that I’m considering publishing more stories in this manner.I’m trying to take more time to work on these aspects in the next iteration so that when people do land on the page, they’re enticed to click. I recognize the limits in this area as I am not an artist or book designer or copy writer, cannot afford a decent artist or book designer or copy writer, and would have to consider very carefully employing their services if I did. After all, I’m not going to make much money off of these stories no matter what.

The next step is being a little more aggressive in the promotional area. But not overly so. I’m dipping toes in the water here to work out what’s best for this kind of fiction. I may even wait until I have all the stories I plan to release this way (for now) in the SmashWords catalog at least.

Any thoughts, Internets?

Keeping First Drafts

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, last week I was on a writing retreat with some awesome folks. I am finishing up my YA novel (finally, I know) and plowing through the revisions and edits I’ve settled on now that the new material is out of the way. At one point I realized that I needed a snippet of description from an earlier draft of the novel and didn’t have it in my current files. I think I may have overwritten it accidentally. Fie. So I went over to my first draft journal to see if it still lived there.

Having a first draft journal is awesome, can I just say. Not only is it good as an extra backup, but it’s interesting (at least for me) to see how my stories and novels change over time from the first stuff that comes out of my head to the version I eventually send out to editors. Looking back at the journal I see the insane struggle it was for me to write the beginning of this novel. I must have a dozen false starts. Makes me feel all the better for finally getting it out in a form I’m happy with.

I did eventually find my snipped of description and added to the new version which is now very nearly complete.

It’s nice to live in the future…

NonNaNoWriMo

NonNaNoWriMo

Several people have asked: nope, not doing NaNoWriMo. Not officially, anyway. What I am doing is continuing to write on my novel with the goal of having it done by the end of the year. This means I’m going to be doing a lot of writing this month, and if any NaNo people want to get together and do so with me, all the better.

My novel will likely be around 50K (actually I am aiming for between 60 and 75K) as it’s a YA. And I would enjoy motivation. This is why I have the Chapters for Chocolate program. Anyone who wants to see my chapters as I complete them (in 5 chapter chunks) must give me good chocolate in return for them. That’s all.

Also, Nina Kiriki Hoffman and I have this thing going on. A word race, if you will. Each week in November we will see who has more words for that given 7 day period. Whoever writes less will have to buy the other a Kindle book.

So, I have some great motivators. And a novel that is (finally) behaving itself. So November will be a good month.

Anyone interested in NonNaNoing with me?