Stump the Marmot: Writing Answers (Part I)

Jeff VanderMeer • March 16th, 2009 @ 8:26 am • Uncategorized, Writing Tips

marmotTo catch the marmot-free up to speed: No 60-in-60 this week. Penguin Books turned me into stuffed marmot. Forced to answer writing questions, per previous post. To become human again, although I’m debating the worth of that re-transformation. Here are the first answers. Please ask more. I can feel my paw now, and move it slightly, but that is all…

Larry says:
Most fell and puissant marmot,
I am contemplating writing an autobiographical novel about the pitfalls, pratfalls, and other falls of teaching. How does one go about doing this without writing in numerous asides about how this principal was an asshat, while an assistant principal at another school was a jerkwad, while thinking all the while that the average student awareness was approaching that of a three-days dead vole?

Or in more serious language,

How can an aspiring writer who wants to write about something of an autobiographical nature learn best when to use a self-filter and when not to?

Your bitterness has not yet become a simmering stew. It is just a barrel of water with leaves and an old tire in it. Add Time and salt and the spice of your imagination before beginning this novel. When you can see some positive aspects of the “jerkwad” and the “asshat”, then you may start. As for setting a filter–assume everything you think is interesting…is not.

The Marmot

Xelgaex says:
Do you think that an aspiring writer should study English or something more marketable considering most writers have “day jobs”? Would an English BA or a writing MFA be likely to produce better quality writing than taking the “self-taught” path, as it were?

Your question sets up a false opposition. College for a writer is a smorgasbord of information. Study as much as possible in as many different disciplines as possible. The best advice I ever received about college came from the Puliter prize-winning poet Richard Wilbur, who recommended writers not get creative writing degrees, but instead study heavily in soft sciences, history, etc., while still taking several creative writing courses. You should plan on having a long gestation period at a day job, so choose a major you can live with…perhap even die with. This said, the best teachers are still dead writers. In the pages of their books. That is all. Go forth and prosper, young Xelgaex. (Are you a new experimental drug?)
The Marmot

Alan says:
Dear Marmot,
Is there a name for those mysterious creatures who, while I’m asleep, turn whatever I was working on before I went to bed into the utter tripe I always find when I get up the next morning? More importantly, how do I defeat them? I’ve tried changing my password and even resorted to writing everything in longhand, but they’re expert hackers and clearly blessed with opposable thumbs. Should I call an exterminator, or can you suggest a more humane and cost effective solution?

Dear Alan:
What you need to do is get rid of the sexy beasts who initially convinced you that whatever you were working on was brilliant. That will defeat the mysterious creatures who have the opposite position and you will exist in that place of perfect balance known as reality. (However, you and I both know: you are that mysterious creature, you are that sexy beast.)
The Marmot

GlenH says:
Most magnificent VanderMarmot,
The self-loathing deliverer of poor quality snark desires to receive your unique, sarcastic take on that most irritating and irrelevant frequently asked con question. From whence come thine fantabulous ideas? From a celestial post service? By capricious muse? In the musty pages of naturalist’s scribblings?

Dear GlenH:
It is indeed a con. I don’t know where your ideas comes from, but my ideas come from my brain (perhaps your brain is in some external loading device?) and I get ten or twenty per day, and lo! they are all most brilliant and alas I can only pick but two or three of these ripened, luscious fruit as they hang there succulent upon the tree of knowledge.
Evil Monkey
The Marmot

Sovay says:
O Marmot!
Do you write linearly? Or do you find that you start wherever in a story and build it around you as you go? Or is this not a broadly applicable question?

Dear Sovay:
I write linearly and I use wormholes. I sometimes build around a central nugget. I sometimes write all in one go, beginning to end. Sometimes it takes months. The logic behind this is to have no logic except to do whatever keeps me writing while still having some spark of inspiration. So if I start linearly and I’m stuck, I’ll write other scenes, out of order, and see if that jump-starts it, and so on and so forth. Nothing shows the mind more in a snit about your creativity than getting stuck because you haven’t been able to reframe the question.
The Marmot

jere7my says:
Hey, Mister Marmot! Questions:
1) In the post about writing sex scenes, you said you’d developed rules for yourself for dialogue. What were they?
2) What would a marmot sex scene be like, anyway?
3) Please do not answer 2).
4) Something I’ve been struggling with: For you, what’s the difference between a scene and some stuff that happens? Once you know what happens, how do you turn it into a scene?

Dear jere7my:
“Mister Marmot” is not a proper term of address, but I will let it pass.
1) Rules for dialogue included reading all dialogue aloud to weed out the stupidest bits, not developing verbal tics for particular characters, making sure to cut down on dialogue substantially after the first draft, etc. Remember, these were rules for dialogue when I thought I wasn’t good at it. They were rules to minimize weaknesses, not exploit strengths. Now I do try to achieve many more effects with dialogue.
2) This is also not a proper way to address the marmot. The sexy sweet love of the marmot is not a topic central to a question about writing.
3) You have become a victim of your own cleverness.
4) I don’t personally write many scenes that don’t make it into the finished work, even if those scenes change dramatically in the revision process. Scenes are “stuff that happens” chronologically or thematically arranged and edited/cut for maximum effect within the context of a particular type of story. If your scene feels loose or unnecessary, perhaps you haven’t cut it at the right places or you aren’t telling it from the right perspective, or perhaps indeed it isn’t necessary. In short, the question is too general. It must be applied to each story in a different way. The marmot is in the details.
The Marmot

Marty Stephenson says:
Do you outline your novels?
Do you outline short stories? If so, how strict do you keep to the outline?
Do you build up background notes on characters? Or say with a character like Dvorak, did his appearance just ‘introduce’ itself (like the river tattoos) while the scene was being written or was it pondered beforehand?
And peace unto you also.

Dear Marty:
I will ignore your inability to master the words, “O Most Excellent Marmot” as a salutation. Some novels are outlined. Some are not. Short stories are not outlined as a spine and ribcage created before internal organs and tissue would kill such delicate creatures. I do not keep to outlines; outlines simply give me a general direction and focus. I do build up background notes on characters–but only after I have written them into the rough draft. Looking then at that random accumulation of building blocks and palm trees, sand fleas and gold coins, I think about the characters and draw them out in back writing before proceeding to the second draft. Dvorak was always there.
The Marmot

Bob Lock says:
My dearest and most illustrious Marmot,
We’ve seen the fragmentation of SF into sub-genres over the years, Hard-SF, Epic-SF, Soft-SF, Military-SF, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Weird-SF, Pirates and Squids, etc etc.

As someone writing both a Hard-SF and a Steampunk novel at the moment I am wondering whether or not I am too late to get on the bus of these genres and perhaps should be looking elsewhere for a new, nascent SF genre and trying to get a foothold there whilst the idea is still young?

Therefore, oh prescient Marmot, being someone with their ear close to the ground (no offence meant) what would you say is the next SF sub-genre to be the ‘in thing’?

Marmot Martians?
Marmots V Squids?

None of the above? Thanking you in anticipation,
a fan of bushy-tailed, stocky rodents of the genus Marmota.

Dear Bob:
I am neither your dearest nor prescient, but I will let that pass. To you I say: only a fool follows trends. Only a madman sets them. If you are neither, write what you will write. Then submit it to the gatekeeper of your choosing. Let what will happen…happen. At least you will still have the courage of your convictions. And: marmots have no beef with squid, squid have no animosity toward marmots. Despite working on many a space vehicle, marmots have yet to reach Mars. Nor has marmot cybernetic science advanced to the point necessary to create the million dollar marmot.
The Marmot

12 Responses to “Stump the Marmot: Writing Answers (Part I)”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    Larry, don’t take a leaf out of Anthony Burgess’s book, viz. The Worm and the Ring. Which had to be withdrawn and pulped after certain people recognised themselves cast in a somewhat unflattering light in it.

  2. Alex Carnegie says:

    Marmot-sama: Some “nuts & bolts” writing questions here, of which I am aware there’s probably no one right answer:

    *Any tips on achieving and maintaining a higher level of pace in a novel?

    *Any tips on how to get the reader to ‘invest’ in the text – in terms of interest, emotion, etc?

    *Finally, what would you say is the most effective way of writing from the perspective (not necessarily using the first person though) of a non-human who doesn’t understand any human concepts, but without resorting to stupid descriptions (e.g. “the biped perched upon on a four-legged wooden object” for “he sat on a chair”)

    Thank you very much, your furryness

  3. Larry says:


    While I might consider writing a first draft that would include all the “real” people just to vent, there’s no way I would leave any scene unaltered, as I don’t care to lose money in libel lawsuits (even if I believe things to be true). In any case, it’ll be years from now, when I am not as bitter, before I even consider writing anything down. Besides, the Marmot is right about the filters and all. Long digressions on faculty meetings won’t excite anyone, not even a jaded teacher wanting cynical amusement.

  4. Bob Lock says:

    Quote: I am neither your dearest nor prescient, but I will let that pass.

    Oh, my heart! How can you stab me thus? I might not be dear to you, fine furred friend, but you are most dear to me!
    And as to prescient, was it not you who foresaw the rise of the squid, the inflatable penguin, the hastily drawn dirigibles, to mention just a few?
    Anyway, thank you, oh marvellous mountain mouse for your time and patience in responding to this mere human and always remember, you are more than a million dollar marmot to your worshippers…

    (phew, think I’ve grovelled enough, fellow posters, to ever get into one of is anthos?) *cough*

    Oh… and I just noticed you let illustrious pass, so you are that then?

  5. Marmot Stunned says:

    Marmot so stunned by news of SyFy that he may not answer further questions until tonight.

  6. Alan says:

    Sage words indeed, Marmot, sage words indeed.

    I confess I did have my suspicions (the similarities in handwriting was something of a giveaway), and while part of me hoped otherwise, it’s strangely comforting to have those suspicions confirmed. My quest for perfect balance starts today!

  7. Marmot Dancin' says:

    Marmot understands that Marmot may sometimes sound instead like Ass Monkey.

  8. Marty Stephenson says:

    Oh Great Marmot Who is Many to All, All at Once:

    Speaking of dead writers, which were (are?) your best teachers?

  9. Marty groveling says:

    The weight of the Holy Marmot’s stare is upon me for having posted a second question in the ‘answer’ zone. It burns! It burns!

  10. Larry says:

    I first read “Marmot Stunned” as “Marmot Stoned“. Perhaps that’ll be the Marmot after dinner and a smoke?

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Marmot has returned with answers from the great spirit world.

  12. jere7my says:

    “Mister Marmot” is not a proper term of address, but I will let it pass.

    Sorry, Ms. Marmot!

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