Writing rules are meant to be broken

Last week sci-fi blog and Gawker affiliate io9 put up a blog post about the 10 writing rules that they wished science fiction and fantasy authors would break more often.
Here are the abbreviated versions of the ‘rules’:

  1. No third-person omniscient
  2. No prologues
  3. Avoid infodumps
  4. Fantasy novels have to be a series rather than a standalone
  5. No portal fantasy
  6. No FTL (faster than light travel)
  7. Women can’t write ‘hard’ science fiction
  8. Magic has to be just a minor part of a fantasy world
  9. No present tense
  10. No ‘unsympathetic’ characters
Women in hard sci-fi
Some of these I’m not even going to spend time on, though I think the one that pops out the most for me is  number 7, that women can’t write hard sci-fi. The industry standard on this has made it hard to say that it’s patently false. I think there has historically been a gender bias in all of speculative fiction but especially in this particular field, as well as in the fields of the hard sciences themselves. I’m not a huge hard sci-fi fan in the first place though, I tend to side with the more myth-y magick-y end of things (which tends to be much more open), so I’m not even going to try to feign my creds in this area. Other writers and bloggers could do so much more adequately. The question I guess I would pose is this, does the bias exist on the part of publishers, readers or the publishers’ impressions of what (or rather, whom) hard sci-fi readers will read? I’d love to explore this issue in more detail in the future and hopefully will have a chance to… if you’d like to help me flesh out a post on this, I’d be grateful.
The rest of the list
As for the rest of the list, io9 offers their own rebuttals for each which I’ll let you read from their site. What I do think is that for the most part these are all very recent rules and at least some of them are the result of a deluge of a certain type of book. Think of the endless number of high fantasy books that have come out as a direct inspiration from Tolkien’s works. I’m an unabashed fan of this genre and could happily read the formulaic plot lines until the end of time (while also eating an endless amount of pizza). In some ways, these sorts of books are like comfort food for me, so I can understand where some publishers might be hesitant to buy up more of them… out of fear that readers are exhausted by the concept. 
On the other hand, what I don’t think is being addressed, is the fact that these things are cyclical or even work on a pendulum theory, swinging back and forth from first person to third person. Right now the first person story telling style has become popular, which has lead to a deluge of that type of narration. The reaction of some writers then will naturally be to swing back to third person in an attempt for freshness.
In fact, I think most of the list operates in this way, high magic versus low magic, characters who are total assholes (looking at you GRRM) to characters who are nothing but sympathetic.
The only ones that ring true to me are to avoid infodumps and the present tense, though naturally there are examples of both that have worked, those are just a couple of personal rules for myself.
As a reader or writer, what do you think? Do you agree with any points in this list?

Inspiration

What inspires you? Where do you get story ideas?

These questions always intrigue me about different authors and creative folks. Sources of inspiration are nearly as variable as styles of writing. It seems in some way, we all have our own voice when it comes to being inspired. Stephen King found his initial inspiration from the cover of an H.P. Lovecraft short story collection. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was inspired by the night life of Paris and by the grittier, bohemian and less polished parts of life. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created a collection of playing cards, called Oblique Strategies, each containing a phrase to be used in the effort to break through blocks or think roundly about a situation that was causing a lack of productivity.

I pull my own inspiration from all over, sometimes I document my ideas using different web apps, like Springpad or Tumblr. Moments of inspiration for me are triggered by an odd thought that bubbles up to the surface. I have a tendency to spend a lot of time lost in my thoughts, which is why I also have a tendency to be more quiet, I’m just mulling things over. Usually the thoughts I’m mulling over aren’t even all that interesting, they just keep popping up and I examine each one and then let it pass. Occasionally though something hits me at such a strange angle that I’m left scrambling to write it down as quickly as I can before it goes away. I think most people experience this but usually let it pass. An aside, Tom Waits told a pretty funny story to Elizabeth Gilbert in an interview once about the inopportune moments that the muse decides to strike us. He was driving on the freeway when a melody popped into his head. Without any way to capture it, he looked up at the sky and said, can’t you see I’m busy right now? Go bother Leonard Cohen. Read the full quote over here.

Photos are a great source for mining story ideas from also… you can capture so much in a photograph and I’m always left wondering about the subjects or the situation. How did this happen? Why are these people reacting in this way? Etc. Creating the backstory, filling in the details of that world, even using a photo to figure out how a person feels about themselves… are they confident? What led to their being so confident? Here’s an example, Juliette just posted this photo to Facebook:

Without having read the caption, my mind instantly started thinking that (from the distance I saw this) there were a series of explosions and that maybe the person standing in front was, I dunno, carrying an apple bucket or something to try to make it look like they were trees, sort of impromptu art. Then I looked a little closer and read the caption, apparently there were floods here that drove all the spiders up in the trees and the flooding was so long term that the trees became cocooned in spider webs. That’s an incredible story in itself. Suddenly I’m imagining a place that has been ruined financially by a natural disaster and seeing this kid in the foreground with a bucket. Maybe he’s just fetching water. Or maybe he’s collecting the spider webs to act as a sieve for purifying the muddy flood waters. Or maybe he’s going to take them to a witch or shaman to have them make a coat that allows him to breathe underwater so that he can recover the body of his father whom he lost in the flood. the possibilities really do feel infinite.

Off of this, I’m going to start sharing my Tumblog, which I update from time to time with photos, sometimes a quote or whatever. They’re mostly sci-fi, horror and fantasy related images, obviously, since that’s what I’m writing. Anyways, you can find it here or up in the navbar of my blog.

So that’s my take, what do you do to keep yourself inspired and writing, painting, composing, etc?

The Writer’s Tacklebox – 21 Days to a Novel

First, allow me to say that I enjoy the metaphor of the tacklebox much more than the toolbox when it comes to the process of writing as I’m experiencing it right now. In my mind I’m more fly fishing the streams of my subconscious, trying to use different techniques to tease out and catch the interesting tidbits. Maybe when I start up on the revisions stage I’ll start working on that fish with tools… turn it into a bionic amalgamation of flesh and machine (okay, the metaphor has taken an odd turn).

Anyways, one of the tools that I’m sharing today is something that I came upon while attending the gaming convention Gen Con this past year. I attended a workshop by a New York Times best selling author named Michael Stackpole. Stackpole is most famous for sci-fi novels, especially Star Wars and Battletech. I was originally introduced to him through a favorite podcast of mine, and one you should check out if you’re into genre fiction, The Dragon Page, several years ago.

The workshop I attended was called 21 Days to a Novel and it changed the way that I thought about the process of writing. In a brief, one hour lecture, he detailed the process that he has come up with and uses for developing his own stories. I took as many notes as I could during his presentation but enjoyed the straightforwardness of his style enough to purchase the pdf that it was based on (you can find it here). The funniest part about his approach is that it seems so simple afterwards that you’re sort of left smacking your head thinking, I should have thought of this.

The basics are that you sit down each of 21 days and write just a tiny little bit based around a prompting question. The prompts effectively lead you from characters to the conflicts and similarities they have all the way out to how they interact with the world that you construct around them. For me, being a frustrated writer for years and years, this was a nice breakthrough in that it showed me a process that an established author uses successfully. It also taught me that there are two schools of writing thought, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer and the planning writer. For so long I had thought, well, I’ll just sit down and write, inspiration will hit me every time I get in the zone. But the zone became this elusive beast that I’d spend hours trying to establish and then give up in frustration. I suddenly realized that even having a rough sketch propelled me forward and that there were plenty of gray areas for inspiration to fill in the blanks along the way. I also don’t strictly hold myself to the outlines I come up with very strictly. If a character decides to do something unexpected, I let it happen and see where they go with it.

I think that 21 Days kind of found me when I was at just the right mental spot, ready to take on a task that is daunting. If you feel like you’ve got a story to tell but are struggling with figuring out the writing process,  I recommend it. By the way, you probably won’t have a full novel after 21 days, but you’ll have a good number of the pieces that you need to create that novel.

What tools, lures, or other such things have you used on your writing excursions to drum up productivity or inspiration?

Achieving the 5000 word week

This past week I achieved the first landmark that I set for myself in trying to tackle writing a 100,000 word novel. In the span of a week, I managed to get down 5000 words. For me this was the first of several hurdles over the coming weeks to be able to write and meet goals even as work and my daily life happens around me.

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the next several months, I have set up daily, weekly and monthly goals to try to help keep myself on track. Each day, Monday through Thursday, I aim to write 750 words with a goal of 2000 words over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Getting to 750 words usually takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to write, depending on how motivated and in the zone I am, it is sometimes shorter. What this comes out to is 5000 words each week, which sets me up for 20,000 word months and 100,000 words by May 28th. Since I already started writing a little bit in December, I had about a 5000 word head start which I’m using as a little buffer in case I get behind for any reason.

I know, I know, all you NaNoWriMo marathon people are scoffing at my minuscule 20k per month goal. With work and everything else that goes on in life though, hitting that goal will be an achievement for me and hopefully give me enough of a break that I can succeed at the ultimate goal. So, wish me luck, I’ll keep you updated as I go along, you can follow my progress in the bar over in the right rail. As of this writing I’m at 12k words and am heading for 15k by this coming Sunday.