Writing Tips

VanderMeer Critique Service: Open for December

Jeff VanderMeer • November 15th, 2011 • News, Writing Tips

I’ll be freed up for taking on more fiction critiques to commence December 1st. If you’re interested, contact me at vanderworld at hotmail.com for rates and more information. I’m equally at home with stories as with novels, and I also am experienced with all types of fiction except Westerns, so…

The full critique service provides you with handwritten specific comments on the manuscript itself and an email of comments that apply not only to your story or novel but also your writing in general. Usually, I provide a summation and then also a break-down into elements like Characterization, Dialogue, Setting, etc. My goal is not to get repeat business because I give you something comprehensive that carries forward into your future fiction.

For those coming here for the first time, I’m a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and writer who has edited several critically acclaimed anthologies and made the year’s best lists of Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and more. I’ve taught several times at the Clarion Writers Workshops, once at Odyssey and at the Hugo House, Brisbane Writers Festival and other international events, and done mainstream literary workshops as well as focused on fantastical fiction.

The Booker Prize, “Fantasy,” and “Mainstream”

Jeff VanderMeer • October 19th, 2011 • Writing Tips

An interesting discussion here, based on this quote from China Mieville. I understand why this is a new concept to the interviewer—referencing “those utterly fascinating texts which contain not a single impossible element, and yet which read as if they were, somehow, fantastic”—but it’s not a new concept in the larger scheme of things (nor do I think China’s presenting it as such).

As I commented:

“It’s an important point China is making, but while it may be new to the interviewer, it’s not a new concept. It’s an argument I’ve been making, along with several other writers, for decades. It’s also something John Clute has explored to some extent in his criticism, and I think literary journals like Conjunctions have also explored it. The fact is, there are fantasy novelists who read like realists and supposedly mimetic novelists whose world view and approach make them read like fabulists. The importance of stressing this similarity/difference is that it gets us away from using the terminology of commodificaition of fiction and what are often just marketing terms that reflect “accidents of birth.” If you’re a Kafkaesque writer from Eastern Europe, you’re likely to be published in the mainstream. If you’re a US writer like Michael Cisco, you’re likely to be published through genre imprints. These arbitrary issues and contexts don’t really tell us much about the works themselves, or their complexities and contradictions…which is why “genre” vs “mainstream” is so pointless.”

I recognize I may be riffing off of only part of China’s quote, but it’s the part that most interests me and is most irritating in terms of how people tend to compartmentalize literature.

I was just revisiting this, taking a piece of the fantasy lecture I’ve been delivering since the late 1990s, and expanding on it for the Inspiration chapter in the writing book I’m working on for Abrams Image:

“But, conversely, does it really matter if the imaginative impulse results in the ‘fantastical’ in the sense of ‘containing an explicit fantastical event?’ Is it something a writer should worry about definitionally or practically? No. For a certain kind of writer a sense of fantastical play will always exist on the page. This is often what we really mean by the voice of the writer. Talking bears have moved in next door. Does the reality of whether they actually have matter more than the quality of the metaphor? Perhaps not. Consider Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and his World War I novel A Soldier of the Great War. A Winter’s Tale includes a winged horse and other fantastical flourishes. A Soldier of the Great War contains no fantastical elements, and yet in its descriptions, its voice, Helprin’s animating imagination behind the story, this novel also reads as invested in the fantastical. The writer Rikki Ducornet can write as lyrically phantasmagorical a novel as Phosphor in Dreamland and an as intense yet fiercely realistic story collection as The Word Desire…and yet they exist in the same country, perhaps even come from the same area of that country. This is the power of one type of unusual imagination.”

The writing book is still in rough draft form, but it’s forcing me to close in on more precise terminology and an expansion of the idea, so we’ll see where it ends up in a couple of months…

The Structures of My Next Three Novels

Jeff VanderMeer • September 27th, 2011 • Writing Tips

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Writers: What’s the Stupidest Story Idea You Ever Had?

Jeff VanderMeer • September 18th, 2011 • News, Writing Tips

This one is just for fun…and to show readers just how many bullets they may have dodged…

What’s the stupidest story idea you ever came up with? Or the stupidest story you wrote, possibly without at first realizing it was stupid? (And if so, how did you find out it was stupid? Did someone have to tell you?)

My stupidest story is probably one in which FBI agents afraid of wiretaps communicate via a secret language composed of farts…I also once wrote a poem that was an ode to my beard. In my defense…I was fairly young.

Now it’s your turn…

Liking Characters: Not Necessary

Jeff VanderMeer • September 14th, 2011 • Writing Tips

Good post here by T.N. Tobias about likeable/unlikeable characters. I commented there, with this:

I would add that HH is trying in writing to make himself seem likeable and that Nabokov further does the seemingly impossible in the novel by making Lolita a real person despite HH’s distortion, which is an act of deep characterization. I don’t need or entirely want likeable characters, nor do I need them to share my belief systems. I do not need them to be an echo chamber and I am suspicious of readers who do need this because I think such readers tend to misread books—sometimes very badly misreading books…Readers who place value judgments on writers based on their characters—generally a huge mistake—are also more likely to be the ones who require likeable characters as well.

What Are Your Favorite SF/Fantasy Story or Novel Beginnings?

Jeff VanderMeer • September 12th, 2011 • Writing Tips

I’m currently working on a creative writing book for Abrams and writing the Beginnings chapter. I’ve got my own ideas about some of the best story or novel openings in the history of SF/Fantasy, but I’m curious about yours—and to make sure I don’t miss anything great.

So: opening sentence or sentences to a story or novel that you found particularly effective? Please include the quote and also tell us why you found it effective.

I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in the book if you comment.

Editing Fiction Anthologies

Jeff VanderMeer • August 24th, 2011 • Writing Tips

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Cat Rambo recently conducted a three-part interview with my wife Ann VanderMeer and me about editing anthologies and periodicals—for the SFWA website. Together, in our current editing phase, we have co-edited ten anthologies since 2007 and Ann acquired/edited fiction for Weird Tales magazine for five years. (This doesn’t include a myriad of projects dating back to the 1980s, for both of us.)

Here are the links:

Part I: “You also have to be very detailed oriented. You need patience and a belief not only in yourself but in your writers and your reading audience. Give the readers the opportunity to join you on the adventure when you discover the fiction that you love.”

Part II: ” The truth is working on an anthology is like an obsession to me, and the more difficult the execution of the idea or focus, the more I become locked in on it to the exclusion of all else. This is good on one level and fairly scarring on others. I don’t necessarily recommend it as an approach, but it does teach you a lot.”

Part III: “You have to have diversity in every project, even ones with a narrow scope, otherwise it just becomes the boring same old same old. By diversity, I am not just talking about the writer, but the story itself–the type of story and how each writer approaches their fiction. The key to balance in anthologies is being widely read and also knowing as many writers as possible so when making solicitations you don’t just go to the same old names.”

Added to that I’d point to my blog entries about anthology editing, which can be found here:

What Do You Look For in an Anthology?

Editing Fiction Anthologies

Anthologies: A Reader’s POV

Anthologies: A Writer’s POV

(Also see: Maurice Broaddus’s guest post on the subject)

I don’t have much to add to all of this except to re-emphasize that editing anthologies isn’t something anybody can do well or immediately become good at—it requires practice and a specific skillset, and it requires a different skillset to select reprints as opposed to originals. Even the skillset required to select new fiction from a slushpile or open reading period is different than that for soliciting new fiction from established writers. Not to mention the intestinal fortitude seeking out permissions can require. I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from editing an anthology, but if you’re going to do it…really think it through and ask yourself why you’re doing it and what you hope readers will get out of experiencing the finished book.

There is also an element of continual learning involved, because anthologies can be so different from one another if you do a variety of them. So it’s hard to say that we’re “experts”—it’s simply that having had these experiences we are presenting information and analysis of the various processes, which we hope might be of use to others. As ever, cross-ref this info to other sources of info for best results.

Below find the table of contents for three of our recent or forthcoming anthologies, with a few notes.

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Writer, Confess Thy Eccentricities!

Jeff VanderMeer • June 29th, 2011 • Writing Tips

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Just about all writers have some kind of eccentricity to their work habits, I believe—some quirk that works for them. Mine is that I have to more or less fill up every surface of the folder holding the print-out of my novel-in-progress with words. In the photo above, it’s the folder for Borne, bowed under the weight and confusion of notes. There’s no logic to writing them down on the folder, except that there’s this mental construct in my mind. The work must be surrounded by related thoughts and ideas scrawled in a kind of protective spell. These words keep the work safe—keep bad influences out and let the work marinate and reach maturity under that protection of that binding. It makes no sense at all, but it’s the only magic I engage in, and a blank folder surface fills me with a feeling of unease.

So, tell me, writers reading this…what’re your eccentricities?

Interview Questions I Never Want to Be Asked Again

Jeff VanderMeer • June 9th, 2011 • Writing Tips

What is Steampunk?

Why do you write about squid?

Why do you write about mushrooms?

Why aren’t there airplanes in Ambergris?

Why are you so anti-fungi?

Why is your writing so weird?

Why are you so mean to your characters?

What are you wearing?

Overlays: The Value of Temporary Structures

Jeff VanderMeer • June 8th, 2011 • Uncategorized, Writing Tips

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(Critics who use in-progress process posts as proof of anything in finished books are jerks and will not be tolerated.)

Avast! When you return to a novel you last looked at a few months before and you’re like me—which is to say, there might be three typewritten alternative drafts and two explorations in handwriting—it takes a bit to get up to speed. Is this me complaining about my own work habits? Hell no. The whole point of my process is inefficiency. Getting too quickly to where you want to go, getting there too smoothly, is antithetical to thinking through complex issues. You want roadblocks, confusion, chaos, and doubt. Unexpected, wonderful things come out of this approach, too.

But I have indeed spent the whole day sorting through variations and looking at the structure of the 25,000 words I’ve got on the page. One thing that just kept annoying me beyond belief was the amount of really cool exposition I needed to cut to keep the foregrounded story moving forward. This is pretty basic stuff, but sometimes your description is doing a lot of other things, like deepening character. Other stuff just needs to go or be rearranged.

What I did find is that rethinking the structure of Borne helped a lot. I had thought of the book as being in two parts, and the sort of book where you get a lot of context up front. As I was looking over scenes with the title character, I realized I should experiment with a three-part structure, and suddenly the whole idea of what scenes had to go where changed drastically, as well as what kind of approach this novel needs in terms of context and divulging certain kinds of information.

First off, thinking of the novel in three parts, roughly corresponding to stages in Borne’s development, meant that scenes involving other characters could now be spread out across all three sections. Before, I’d been thinking in terms of the narrator’s story arc, but that’s not going to be the structural determinant for the novel, as it turns out. Unspooling Borne-related stuff also allows this other spreading-out noted above. It also, for some reason, now means setting context will be situated more node-like at regular intervals along the way. This means the first place I go into extended description is much shorter, and the space created fills up with more of the emotional lives of the characters. And I can relax into that knowing the rest of what I need is coming later, and isn’t needed for reader understanding due to the new pacing and the new ways in which the past and present communicate with one another in the text.

It doesn’t even really matter if I wind up actually dividing the book into three sections, or I just hold that in my head as a construct and do chapters 1 through 20 without any section breaks. The point is, the re-think has allowed for better, more useful ways to distribute scenes and info, while also revealing what material isn’t needed at all. Something about visualizing the novel as a two-parter was also obscuring unintended repetition and wastefulness in what was on the page.

This is all a very dry way of saying that structure isn’t actually an abstract thing. It’s also not always an organic thing, in that you try out different approaches mechanically in aid of getting to a place where everything in the text becomes effortless and organic.

As a kind of side note, I’ve also had a great time on more of a sentence level applying lessons learned from Steve Erickson’s (author of Zeroville) edits to the excerpt of Borne appearing in Black Clock magazine. In the context of finalizing the piece for his mag, I thought of the edits as regular copy-edits, but in the context of revising and moving forward on new sections of Borne at novel-length, I now interpret them as character-related instead. Which is to say, most of the deletions and changes affect how the reader perceives the main character. What is understated by the cuts emphasizes different elements. What is now brought to the front also creates different emphasis. This in effect makes subtle but important changes to the character…and in charting why I think these changes were made, I have gained a much better understanding about the person I’m writing about, and this also now radiates out into my editing of the rest of the draft as it stands.

The good news, from my standpoint, is that because several scenes now bleed into part two, I am much farther along on the novel than I thought. It means I have new scenes to write in part one, but that’s preferable to being more adrift in the middle. This, too, is the advantage of thinking about the structure differently: I no longer have concerns about sag in the middle because of the redistribution of previously front-loaded scenes into that section. The third act is crystal clear in my head, so that was really the last challenge in terms of how to present the material.

Especially in a short novel, like Borne will no doubt be, getting it all right on this kind of technical level is key to the emotional resonance for readers. Pacing, correct development, managing progression aren’t issues of craft—they’re issues intrinsic to success at deeper, more psychological levels. Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a perfect example—if Joyce’s craft weren’t brilliant, his insight into human relationships would be useless, because it would be deployed within a malformed novel.

And so instead of a post on the movie Carlos or another Doctor Mormeck entry, you have this, my little weirdlings. I hope you find it interesting. Or maybe I don’t hope anything. Mostly, I’m just happy to be writing.