Interesting Writing Problem: Screen to Book

posted in: writing 0

Before I speak on-topic, let me just mention that there’s an interesting exchange of comments on creationism versus evolution going on under the Faith and Rationality piece, which you can scroll down to (or click on, in the right column). [Does anyone know if there’s a way to set this blog so that comments show up with the original posts? Some of your posts are more interesting than mine.]

That said, I want to talk about writing for a bit. The craft, not the business. As readers of this blog know, I’m currently working on a novelization of a big frakking science fiction TV miniseries, and I’ve been intrigued by some of the differences between writing my own stories and writing a story from the screen. There are the obvious things, of course—the plot and dialogue already exist, and while I can elaborate on them where it seems appropriate, I can’t do much to change what’s already up there on the screen. In some cases, this poses minor challenges, such as explaining away scenes that don’t make sense (or have elements that don’t make sense). Less obvious may be the difference in the voice that a novelist uses, compared to the filmmaker’s voice.

For example, take a scene in which the camera moves from one character to another to another, not just showing what is happening, but also revealing (as much as the camera can) the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Sometimes there’s a long tracking shot, in which the camera isn’t just moving among the members of a group, but actually passing
through what you might call mini-scenes, involving groups of characters who aren’t necessarily connected. It can be a very smooth and engaging effect in the film or video. But how do you translate that to narrative prose?

One could, of course, simply jump from viewpoint to viewpoint in quick succession, or adopt an omniscient narrator point of view, where you look into everyone’s thoughts. But I’m not generally a big fan of this kind of voice, which I often find jarring—and which jolts me out of that fine state of suspended disbelief, which is another way of saying it breaks the spell for me. (Tolkien got away with it sometimes, but only because his writing was so powerful in other ways.) I’m personally more comfortable writing, and reading, from one point of view at a time—sharing that one person’s thoughts and no one else’s, at least for the duration of the scene. For me, that lends an immediacy and intimacy to the narrative that the omniscient narrator doesn’t, because we feel that we’re sharing that time, whether it’s long or short, with one individual on stage.

So I’ve chosen that voice, mostly, as I write this story-from-screen. As a result, I’ve been finding myself facing, over and over, unexpected decision points as I start a new scene: whose viewpoint am I going to tell this one in? The answer isn’t always obvious, and I sometimes wonder—would I have written a better scene if I’d chosen a different character? Once in a while, it’s simply been impossible, such as scenes with a bunch of different spacecraft, and no one anchor point to tell it from. In those cases, I’ve tried to tell it the way the camera does—as a free-floating, all-seeing narrator, but limited in what I can tell about what anyone is thinking or feeling. Once or twice, I’ve briefly emulated the long tracking shot. It’s tricky. Very tricky. (Especially when you’re writing fast, under tight deadline!)

I hope you’ll all tell me, next year when the book is out, how well you think I did.

Blues Begone

posted in: writing 0

Strange as it may seem, I have a contribution in a new book by country singer Tanya Tucker, called 100 Ways to Beat the Blues. I was the first SF writer to contribute to the book, but not the last. She scored an entry from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, as well.

I haven’t actually seen a physical copy of the book yet, but I know it’s out and available wherever fine books are sold.

Here’s a link to it on Amazon. (If you buy it through my link, I actually get a nickel or two on the deal. Which is not by itself reason enough to buy it. But the strangeness of seeing me in the same book as George H.W. Bush might be.)

The other book you’ll see below is perhaps even odder in the sense of my being in it. Cows: a Rumination is a collection of photographs of…cows…each with a little story, poem, newspaper clipping, etc. One of them is mine. It’s a pretty cool book, I think.

What’s in a Title? (Writing Question #4)

posted in: writing 0

So I’m feeling a little grumpy today, and the reason is that, once again, one of my titles has been stolen. Stolen. Well…not stolen exactly, but used by another author before I could finish the book I was planning to use it on.

The first time was last fall, when I learned that Greg Benford had a new book coming out by the name of The Sunborn. My stomach flip-flopped when I heard this. Anyone who’s been following my work knows that I’ve been working, roughly forever, on the fourth book of The Chaos Chronicles—said volume to be titled, Sunborn. I often struggle to find titles for my books, but this was one of the rare ones that came to me like a gift from Heaven as I was outlining the story, about a century ago. And now here it is, on the cover of someone else’s book. (Benford’s novel The Sunborn has been published, to good reviews I believe—which is unsurprising, since Benford’s an excellent writer. My novel, Sunborn, remains in my office as a rough draft, with a great deal of heavy rewriting standing between it and publication.)

I suspect no foul play, I hasten to add. Writers come up with the same or similar titles all the time. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and some of them get recycled over and over. (In fact, it was only after my novel, Strange Attractors, was published that I learned the title had been used by young adult SF writer William Sleator, and by Australian SF writer Damien Broderick.) Still, I was plenty frustrated.

Today it happened again. I was reading some industry press, and what do I see but a new book from Robert Reed, called The Well of Stars—which just happens to be the title I’d already given to the not-yet-written sequel to Eternity’s End, or close to it. (Journey to the Well of Stars was how I’d put it in my notes. Another title that I knew was just right: Eternity’s End, er, ends with a distinct pointer toward a future journey to a place called…mm…the Well of Stars. You can read it—it’s right there in the book.) Augghhhh! How does this keep happening? I sent an exasperated note to my editor, who also is Reed’s editor, saying, roughly, “Gahh! Robber! Thief! Criminal activist!” I got back a note saying, “Gosh, sorry, I’m the one who gave him that title, didn’t know you were planning to use it. Next time, tell me.” Gaahhhhhhh!!! I know exactly where his subconscious got that title to pass on to his other author—from me, because I did tell him. Gahh!!! That was when I wrote back and promised to do terrible things to him for his sins.

Which, of course, I would never do, because we’re friends and we’ve worked together for years and he’s done plenty of good things for me. (But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a strong desire to wring his neck.)

So. What’s a title worth? Should I throw up my hands and concede the territory and think up new titles for both of my novels? Or dig in my heels and say, no, those titles are perfect for my books, and I’m going to use them no matter who else has used them first? Honestly, I don’t know, and I have a while before I have to decide. Legally, there’s no issue. Ethically, ditto. It’s more a matter of perception. Do I want it to look like I’ve copied someone else? By the time my books make it into print, will anyone even remember, or care? Will the titles evoke what I want in readers perusing the shelves? Will they sell copies? I dunno. I just dunno.

Writing Question #3: Will They Steal Your Work?

posted in: writing 0

Blog-reader Harry put the following question to me:

You mention that critiques are important and how you’ve used a writing group to get feedback from all your work, including what gets published. Are you ever worried that someone in the club will steal your work and publish it? It sounds crazy given the success rate of the business but is it a real worry? How do you deal with it? Hard copies only with watermarks or just the honor system?

Aspiring writers want to know…

I’ll give a short answer, then a long answer. The short answer is, no. I don’t worry about it in the least, because I trust the people in my writing group. They’re my friends, we’ve been together for years, and if I didn’t trust them with my work I wouldn’t trust them to critique it, either.

Okay (I can hear you thinking), easy for you to say. You’ve been with a group for years, but what about me? I’m just thinking of joining a group. How can I know whether to trust these new people?

Fair question. Clearly any writing support group, especially a new one, must set out guidelines for treating members and their work with respect, and clearly there is an element of trust involved. I can’t tell you who to trust; you have to use your own instincts for that. I guess I’d say that if your instincts are causing you unease about the group you’re in, maybe you should look for another group. But that’s true whether or not you are worried about them stealing your work.

So let’s look at whether it’s a realistic worry. Suppose some new member had you all bamboozled about being trustworthy and decided to steal your story. What are the chances that he or she would get away with it? Pretty damn small. You’ve got an entire group that saw the piece and knows you wrote it. If someone did take your work, submit it to a publisher, and get it published (a very long shot in itself), wouldn’t all hell break loose when someone (like one of your friends) noticed that your story had just appeared under the name of the other person in your group? Imagine what that would do to the thief’s future career when the publisher was informed.

Does it ever happen? Yes. (But not within a writers’ group, so far as I know.)

I’ll tell you about it, because it happened to me. One of my stories, a novelette called Reality School: In the Entropy Zone, was plagiarized after it was published. A student at a university took the story, changed a few words, and submitted it as her own work to an online student anthology, put up on the web by the English Department. I think it was there for about a year before someone came along, read it, and thought, I’ve seen that before. Thanks to the web and the SF community, word eventually reached me that I should take a look. I did–and within a week, the student was up before the deans for disciplinary action. (She also had stolen another writer’s work. Though I was never officially told the disposition of her case, due to confidentiality rules, I have good reason to believe she was expelled soon after.) A sad irony of this particular case is that the university decided to prohibit future web-publication of student work. The irony, which I guess escaped the administrators, was that if the story had not been published on the web, the plagiarism would never have been discovered.

So didn’t that change my feeling about showing my work to my group? Why would it? After all, this happened after publication, and the perpetrator was a complete stranger. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot more sense than stealing from someone you know. If you’re going to steal.

So basically, I’d say: read my short answer again.

Still Alive

Well, they haven’t killed me yet, and I guess they’d better not, because now they’re counting on me to get the book written in time. I’m a’crankin’ on it. It’s interesting to see the difference between writing something in someone else’s universe, and writing in your own. It’s a lot easier to do someone else’s story. For one thing, you don’t have to make everything up. (In this case, I’m taking a storyline that’s already set in celluloid and, er, binary digits, so the plot is already there.) When you want to know a technical or background detail, you can ask someone else. (That doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer, or at least a quick answer, but you can ask.)

The changes in technology have affected the process of doing this kind of writing, I’m guessing. Instead of just going by memory, and by a script that’s *way* out of date as far as the final show on screen is concerned, I can have the whole thing readily at hand. I’ve loaded the DVD right onto my hard drive–both on my desktop and my laptop–so I can simply toggle between my work and the video. I can get the dialogue right (for that matter, I can get the scenes right–you’d be amazed how much it all gets moved around and changed in final production and, I assume, the editing suite). I can look closely at the set, and the characters, and their mannerisms. I can also move on from that to add the layers of depth and texture that distinguish prose fiction from a visual production.

The trick may be to keep from getting too tied into that. I do, after all, have to write this book quickly. But you know something–I’m having fun.

A Hint

Okay, I’ll say this much. I’m writing the novelization of a really popular SF miniseries, one that has spun off a regular show.

That’s it. I can say no more. I’ve already said too much.

They’ll probably have to kill me now.

Blast. I’ll miss you all.

At Work, Never Fear

It’s hard to keep up a daily entry in a blog, when life is so busy! I wound up having to get a new laptop–a Winbook something-or-other, which I got marked down at Microcenter–and have gotten it wrestled into shape, all while getting a pretty good running start on the new writing project. I haven’t said what that is yet, have I? Well, unfortunately, I’m not free to say until I get an all-clear. But I can say this—I’m taking the next three months to work on something completely different, even as I read through the Sunborn first draft (700+ pages of it) and let it steep in my subconscious.

I hope this doesn’t alarm anyone who’s waiting for Sunborn to be finished. It was actually my editor who suggested it, and I thought it was a great idea. It’ll be fun, it’ll be different (and boy, do I need a change), and I will be forced to write it quickly.

More later.

(Yeah, yeah, I know I said that before. But I meant it. I mean it. Really.)

What’s Wrestling Got to Do with Writing, Anyway? (Writing Question #2)

I’m glad you asked. The answer is, more than you might think.
I wrestled all four years when I was in high school in Huron, Ohio, and during my first year of undergraduate school, at Brown University. During that time, I learned that wrestling requires enormous dedication, self-discipline, and conditioning. Also, that stepping out onto the mat as a young adult, to face an opponent one-on-one, calls on all your reserves of courage and poise. And that in the long run, the experience goes a long way toward developing self-confidence. (I was a pretty shy kid, really—kind of geeky, afraid of girls, and not terribly good at sports in general. This sport represented a major area of growth for me.) Coached properly, wrestling also develops a sense of good sportsmanship, respect for the opponent, and the ability to win and lose with equal grace.

Writing, for anyone who hopes to do it professionally, requires if anything even greater dedication and self-discipline. My wrestling experience probably did more to prepare me for the long, tough haul of making it as a writer than any other single thing I did as a student, including taking writing courses. As an aspiring writer, I put in endless hours of work with zero promise of reward, only hope and determination. Like just about all new writers, I met setback after setback, and had to choose between quitting or plugging ahead. (This process is ongoing, by the way. It doesn’t just happen to aspiring writers. There are lots of professional writers out there, including me, who are engaged in an ongoing struggle to keep their careers alive and healthy.)

Courage and poise? Well, for a lot of people, putting a manuscript in an envelope and sending it off, unsolicited, to a publisher takes about as much courage as stepping out onto a mat. And you have to learn to lose with grace if you’re going to make it in the writing business. The poise and the self-confidence come with time. And come in mighty handy the first time you step up to a podium to speak to an audience as a “guest author.”

(Momentary digression: if you’re unfamiliar with the sport of wrestling and think I’m talking about anything even remotely related to the stuff they show on TV under the name “professional wrestling,” no. Don’t. No resemblance. Don’t even talk to me about it.)

A surprising number of wrestlers turn out to be good students, as well. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising; the same self-discipline comes into play. Some pretty well-known writers were also wrestlers. And also some less-well-known writers.*

Here’s a short SF story I wrote about wrestling, originally published in the anthology Warriors of Blood and Dream, edited by Roger Zelazny. It’s called Shapeshifter Finals.

Here are some books by wrestlers-turned-writer:

*It pains me to acknowledge it, but a well-known thug who is also our current Secretary of Defense was also a wrestler and coach. Oh well, no sport’s perfect.

Sunborn–What Took So Freakin’ Long?

Ah. Yes. People have been emailing me for years, asking when the devil the fourth Chaos book is going to be out. Not to mention, my editor and publisher, who have been patiently checking in from time to time, hardly ever mentioning the fact that my deadline is so far in the past it’s nearly red-shifted out of sight. (Thanks, Jim. Thanks, Tom.) Guilt, guilt.

Well, it’s not because I meant to take so long, or haven’t been trying. The first thing that happened was that I had another book to do under a prior contract, which was going to take me a year or two to write—and then I’d get right back to the Chaos series. As it happened, that book was way harder to write than I ever imagined, and longer, and it took nearly five years to get finished. (That was Eternity’s End, and I’m happy to say that it’s met with a good response, and earned me my first and only Nebula Award nomination.) By the time I came back to the Chaos universe, the trail felt a little cold. I had to reread the first three books myself. (I’m rereading them again now, to keep the story clear in my head. You forget things, after a while.)

Basically, three things happened at once, as I worked on Sunborn:

  1. I undertook a book that was way, way harder to write than I thought when I outlined it. (Lots of really cosmic stuff, sentient stars and so on, but at the same time a deeply personal story, always told on a human scale.)
  2. My life as a parent was becoming increasingly full, with lots of activities and competing needs filling the days; and, as well, a need to do consulting work as a writer/editor to help pay the bills. (This is a good place to acknowledge the debt that I, and you my readers, too, owe my wife for bringing in a steady income through her work. Thanks, kiddo. I appreciate it.)
  3. Doing all this other work made it really hard to keep the novel centered in my mind, so that even when I had time to work on it, I couldn’t concentrate.
  4. I’ve been wandering in something of a creative desert for the last few years, trying to find the inspiration to turn this into the book I envisioned (and promised you, my readers) years ago.
  5. Like many of my writer friends, I was trying hard not to feel depressed about the state of my career, the state of the marketplace, the shrinking sales of our books compared to the way they sold 15 or 20 years ago, the loss of readers to competing forms of entertainment (movies, TV, mega-bestsellers, the internet, blogs [oops]). One always tries to appear upbeat in public, but it wasn’t always convincing on the inside.
  6. I began to lose my ability to count.

Somehow, though, I kept at it. The constant support and cajoling of my writing group was invaluable—as was other forms of support, from people who cared enough about my ability to keep writing to help in significant ways. And always at the back of it all, the feeling that God had given me a certain gift for writing, and I wanted to make good on that gift. (Plus, all those promises I’d made to you my readers over the years.)

And so, here I am at an important milestone in this project. As I said in the last post, I have a lot still to do. Probably two more complete drafts, anyway. But it should go faster now, and with much greater feeling of hope.

I’ll keep you posted on what’s happening.

But for now, I’m feeling pretty good.

Sunborn First Draft Finished!

Yes. At last. I have typed the ending words of the fourth book of The Chaos Chronicles! And they are:

“To be continued…”

Which isn’t a joke, of course, if you’ve been following the Chaos series. My faithful readers have been waiting a lonnnnng time for this fourth book in the series, the fourth of a planned six total. (I was shocked myself to look back at the header in the early chapters: I started this thing in the fall of the year 2000. Oy.)

Note the title of this entry, though. First draft finished. I’ve got a lot of rewriting to do. A lot of rewriting. It all came together and made sense (I think) in the end. But a lot of the 706 manuscript pages of this book are…well, I’ll be polite because this is a family publication…a godawful mess. But that’s okay. Really. Because getting that first draft down is the crucial thing. I can always work with it and straighten out the things that are wrong, once I have it down on paper (or phosphors, or LCD pixels) to look at. It’ll take me a while, and it’ll hurt, but I know I can do it.

Yes! Gimme a high-five, please!

1 23 24 25 26 27