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Swirling/writing (1): time & beginnings

My thesis is that I have no thesis. I'm writing this in something like the manner that Stephen King employs with his novels: I'll whip up a starting-point and then just go with it.

I have to say, that works better with books. His beginning is a mental representation of one or more characters in a setting that interests him, and then he lets rip. (This is one of the things that varies most among writers, the degree of knowledge of the ending when still writing the beginning. That in turn is one factor in determining which readers will enjoy the books.)

The first C.J. Cherryh novel I read was Heavy Time. For some reason, the title struck me so much that I had a vivid image in my mind before reading the book - I envisioned space opera with weird time-related physics. I guess I was thinking of time dilation in a gravitational field. [If you'll allow me to call it a field rather than distortion. That suggests another side point that might be worth picking up later, to do with metaphors in science. Wow. Must be the cappuccino.]

Yer actual book, though, turned out differently. The beginning features two guys in a small (and as I re-imagine it, rather smelly) asteroid-mining ship. They're out there for the long term, doing their thing. They rescue another guy, who's initially unconscious, then flails around dangerously on awakening. (This might be wrong in detail; I'm writing from memory because I don't have the book to hand - it's in one of the fifty-six boxes of books we have yet to open up since moving house.) The two miners tie the guy up in the shower.

So here's the thing. I was expecting descriptions of vistas of deep space and astronomical wonders; what I was immersed in I was a dense, claustrophobic stream-of-consciousness experience. No vistas, but the shower-curtain was green and white. I mean, that is stuck in my memory. Nice one, C.J.

The other striking thing was that the first time I looked up from the book, I was over a hundred pages in and it felt as though I'd just started it. (Time distortion is common in hypnosis, too.)

So that's similar to the Stephen King, in that some of his best stuff features two people in a room, or one girl in a forest (give or take an imaginary person in her head). Excellent stuff.

Ian McEwan's lit'ry novel Saturday approaches time and character similarly. At the start, the protagonist stares out of his bedroom window, then walks back to the bed and stares down at his wife... over the course of twenty entire pages. For me, that pushed the slo-mo too far - or perhaps it lacked the internal mental dialogue that might have made me care about the character. But bearing in mind an earlier discussion on confusing subjectivity with objectivity, this means only that there was a mismatch between my personal taste and one particular book.

"Multikulti" is German slang for multi-culturalism, and was nearly my title for the post; but what I'm really meandering around is a swirling mixture of subtypes on various levels: different ways of writing - of the actual process as much as the finished book - and how they resonate with different readers; different genres and sub-genres; the various subcultures that writers and readers belong to. I'm interested in the mixing-together itself.

Swirling-in-the-head seems to be intimately related to where-ideas-come-from, as some kind of precondition; but that's the limit of my introspection today. Another fleeting thought on the edge of my field of concentration is the word "taste" along with the side-issue that in school, the books we were told to "read and inwardly digest" were often the lumpy ones that caused gut-ache.

So a side-project for anyone that's interested: what's the equivalent of "taste in books" in other languages? I'm writing this offline, or I'd make a start on that. (Or I could write an in-depth article with footnotes and references, but y'know, not for free. The joys of being self-employed: there's a lot to be said for actual salaries.) But the point is, our relationships with books are deep and sensual and personal.

Er, I'm assuming we're all avid readers here. Pretty safe assumption. I did have someone say to me, "I don't read. Could I write books?" My answer was a level: "No." A friend of mine in the States, published but still working in a bookstore, was asked for advice on writing by a customer. "Well, you need to be widely read in whatever genre you're writing in," she said. "I'm a writer, not a reader," was the reply.

The not-really-a-customer being a Hell's Angel, polite conversation ensued...

Part of a reader's taste in language relates to metaphors, like my lumpy text causing gut-ache, above. For some people, prolific use of metaphors (in non-fiction teaching-material) is the ideal way to learn; others want direct language without sensory-rich words. In computing, the Head First books are ideal introductions to new subjects - for some people, not all. I like them, Cory Doctorow likes them (at least he blurbed Head First Design Patterns with enthusiasm), but they won't work for everybody.

Which is just fine.

Here's where I find the distinction interesting. Fiction brings characters and imaginary situations to life. If you like, for imaginary read hallucinated. So we're already in a more sensory-rich mental environment, one with people in it. Yet given that, some of us respond more to metaphors embedded in prose, with sentences that contain palpable rhythm, with language that is fresh and crisp (and gustatory), and with synaesthetic descriptions that mix the senses to varying degrees.

Roger Zelazny had a note stuck to the wall in his writing room; it read: Engage all five senses on every page. (Or something like that. And in other contexts, it can be useful to categorize the senses to a finer degree; touch in particular is a whole bunch of sensory modalities. But you already knew that.) A lot of us here remain Roger's fans, but of course not everybody.

Apparently he wrote sitting in an armchair with his feet up and his typewriter in his lap. I don't know of anyone else who does that. Given that many factors govern neurochemistry, you could do worse than emulate his posture if you wanted to emulate his writing. As an experiment. (But don't expect me to join you; at least, not today.)

Hmm. I wonder how much of a difference this makes: writing with pen and paper notebook versus laptop versus desktop-with-massive-monitor. The key thing as a writer (as I slip briefly into advice mode) is to enter your writing state (a flow state) as a habit.

In the next post, I'll explore this further: how to get into the mindset for writing every day, with practical tips. (And whether you're comfortable with diversions is yet another aspect of personal tastes; at least you can feel comfortable that I always know when I'm diverting - I can do this realtime in conversation or presentation and nest topics six or seven layers deep - and always return to the original topic. If you think in terms of nested blocks or functions/methods on a stack, this whole thing is linear. If you're not a coder then, er, sorry!)

For now, I'll end with this... Harlan Ellison wrote a long time ago: "An unpublished writer is still a writer."

Engrave it on your heart.



I've pretty much given up reading novels of any kind these days. At one time, lasting for years, I would read a book a day. Now I find that there are so few ideas and literary techniques that are new I find it tedious and largely a waste of time. Only one story has impressed me recently, which I considered brilliant (ie I wish I could have written it):


That's... uncharacteristically generous of Harlan.


CJ Cherryh's work is interesting and engaging to me because of how human - and how alien - the characters and their experience of the world is. She has the ability to immerse me - everything from historical castles on an alien homeworld to human splinter cultures or even the underrated Fortress fantasy novels whose take on magic I greatly appreciated.

A number of writers I've met emphasize creating a 'work space' which you enter and become productive in by force of long habit. There is some disagreement as to whether one should allow this working space to be defined physically even by the tools, or if a less physical definition such as 'every morning before breakfast' or 'twice a day, without fail' is more desirable. Each has it's attractions - but I'm likely jumping the gun on your next segment. Looking forward to it.


One approach I used to ensure I wrote every day was to only allow myself to drink coffee after I started to write. If I didn't write, I didn't get any coffee that day. That got me into the writing mindset pretty darn quick, and I sure didn't miss any days. (I allowed myself free coffee on Sundays.)


The problem I have with conversational stack frames is that, dependant on how awake I am - and I seem to be continually sleep-deprived - I can only nest a couple of frames deep before historical contexts start going fuzzy.

But then I've always been primarily a spacial rather than literary thinker; perhaps those who reason differently have similar issues when the problem domain is switched?


Funny coincidence - "I'm a writer, not a reader" is actually the punchline of a vaguely racist Russian joke about an Inuit (I think?) man. On reflection, the racism is not that vague and the coincidence is not that funny. Oh well!


In the US, if you have a real workplace at home (nothing else happens there), you may get lower taxes.


It can be tricky, but it's not so different here in the UK. There's a long history of shared premises, homes and business, and an "office" ought to be pretty routine.


One of the virtues of things such as NaNoWriMo is that you get the chance to figure out a work pattern. "Write every day" is a good start. Doesn't do anything about quality.

Sometimes you come up with a good line.

It was a Wednesday, not the best day of the week to rob a bank.

I maybe shouldn't have explained that in detail.


One good thing about laptops and/or long keyboard cables is being able to put the keyboard in your lap and recline in a comfy chair.

I find myself eyeing up the deckchairs in the garden for similar reasons...


Good one... You get the psychological benefit of the trigger plus the caffeine boost.

Al Reynolds is another inveterate coffee drinker...


I think even a coder would have trouble following 6 or 7 nested blocks without proper indentation.


I find myself eyeing up the deckchairs in the garden for similar reasons...

When I first changed my day-job to part-time, it gave me a writing week every month. On the first day, it being summer, I thought I could do a little limber-up mini-workout, have a leisurely breakfast in the garden, write for two or three hours, go for a run followed by lunch, write for a few more hours, work out again in the evening... Total disaster.

Next day I just got up and wrote until I was done for the day, postponing everything else.


And that's... remarkably diplomatic!


In the US, if you have a real workplace at home (nothing else happens there), you may get lower taxes.

In the UK, if you've a room that's used 100% of the time for work, you risk having your home classed as business premises, which opens up a huge can of wriggling bureaucratic and legal worms.

If you use it for work, say, 90% of the time, then you can offset some of your home-related costs against tax, multiplied by the time ratio times the floor-space ratio.


In a long presentation, you just leave the outer "narrative" at a point where you appear to have told a reasonably coherent story - rather like an end of chapter. The listener doesn't need to follow the indentation... It's just when you resume the outer topic, they go, "I remember that," and drop back into the flow. Listening and reading are sequential activities.

Some people break at an obviously weird, incomplete point, in the belief that they're harnessing the Zeigarnik Effect (a subconscious need for completion) to keep the listeners alert. It's just as likely to alienate the listeners.

Then again in books, some people prefer chapters that provide mini-endings, so that finishing a chapter is an opportunity to break off reading. Others like the cliffhanger-straight-into-the-next-chapter approach.


Harlan Ellison in a mood to be generous is perhaps a rare thing. He is not exactly known for his generosity towards Sydney Sheldon or Judith Kratnz for example. In fact he said "If Sydney Sheldon can become a writer, then things that grow in a petri dish can become writers" and of course my all time favourite... "Judith Krantz is not a writer. She is a creative typist".

He did say a rather intriguing thing about being a writer. He said "The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is STAYING a writer".

Anyway, no matter what you may think of him as a human being, he is a hell of a writer. And one worth listening to in regard to being a writer, at least in my own humble opinion.


Former Planner speaking...

It isn't anything like the sort of problem people imagine to use a room at home for work. You can even employ people without needing to get planning permission. The issue comes if you try to offset part of the heating etc costs against the business use. You then become liable (potentially) for capital gains tax (or whatever it is currently called) on that part of the building when you sell the house.

So, if you local planning office is saying no, they are using what my old boss called the Bluff and Persuasion Act and not real legislation.

This applies to England and probably Wales. Scotland may be different.


Yes. If you set aside (say) 10% of your home as a place of business, you can claim against tax for it. HOWEVER - when you come to sell your house the tax man wants 10% of the appreciated worth of your house during the time you were claiming.


I write way too non-linearly to use pen and notebook for any great length of time. Occasionally a page or a paragraph will be jotted down on paper but usually it's fingers to keyboard. I write faster on a laptop but need the screen real estate of a desktop with a good-sized monitor for editing, as I do a lot of cutting and pasting and rearranging.

My process varies from project to project but I find I start as book by wriitng the first scene then i try and map out where it goes form there, outlining as I go. By the time I'm a third of the way in, I have a pretty solid outline. One day I may try the Tom Robbins method, where I start with a single sentence and go from there, one perfect sentence at a time.


Careful, Dirk, you're making a Tea Party sort of mistake.

Using your example, you're taxed on 10% of the gain. But the way you word it, you're suggesting the tax rate is 100%, and it isn't. (18%, more or less)


True, but I have actually done the calculations because for the past 20 years I have worked from home. It's not worth it given that my house has more than tripled in price during that time.


When he was at Minicon 41, he kept touching attractive women. Very few liked it.

(Karl, I see you were at the first Minicon I couldn't go to -- I'd had a big stroke and spent almost all of March in the hospital -- and I haven't been able to go to any since.)


Roger Zelazny wrote sitting in an armchair with his feet up and his typewriter in his lap. I don't know of anyone else who does that.

Well, he wasn't writing fiction, but John's just expalined a lot about one of my ex-colleague's program documentation and code! ;-)


It's interesting when you compare the works of people who write books without knowing where they are going with them versus people who write them with a plan in mind. I didn't know about Stephen King's habits, though I suppose that makes sense. Others who really 'wing' the plot include PKD and William Gibson, both of whom end up with extremely labyrinthine plots and fairly vivid language (PKD moreso with the plots, particularly during the amphetamine years for all the obvious reasons).

It's also interesting to look at the similar case with films... David Lynch films without a script, or in any case without much of a script. However, films (with the exception of Rope) are shot out of order and edited heavily anyway (probably significantly more heavily than books -- even fairly stable and structured films typically change significantly from script to shot to cut; Big Trouble In Little China in script form was a western, King Kong was originally planned as a documentary-style film about gorillas, and the macguffins in Repo Man and Pulp Fiction were famously last-minute additions either constructed or changed during filming), and so if you're willing to throw out a lot of film you can play fast and loose with plotting and construct a new story with out of context footage later, which is more difficult with the written word. When I write, I write sort of like the way David Lynch shoots a TV show: I get an idea, I write out the scene involving that idea, I release a collection of these scenes in some semblance of order, and I hope I can tie together the elements into a plot and work out continuity errors later on.


See Soviet Montage Theory for this taken to its logical conclusion in the movie business: when you're short on film, you cut, paste, fill, you edit in bits of previously unreleased film, and you somehow cobble together a movie that still gets five-star reviews.


OTOH, you can also get films. ;-)


Interesting stuff, and some things for me to keep in mind -- it's been gnawing at the back of my head that I should be exercising my creative talents instead of bouncing from one temp job to another.

I've always been a make-it-up-as-I-go-along type of writer and have been consistently told you're not supposed to do that; nice to hear it works for somebody of King's stature. (Oddly I've never actually read any of his books; I keep meaning to. I've quite liked many of the film adaptations...)

Apropos of the "20 pages to get up and walk around the room" bit: there's a chapter in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish that makes fun of this style, painstakingly describing Arthur Dent thumbing through a book and trying to find the place where he left off and then pointing out that readers don't want to read this type of thing. Knowing Adams's self-awareness, I have to assume he knew he was describing pretty much everything he'd written in the book up to that point; So Long is generally seen as the weakest of the Hitchhiker books and really does meander around a lot more than the rest. There was a radio adaptation a few years back where multiple-chapter sequences got successfully pared down to a minute or two of dialogue; I think it was superior to the book.

That's rather a long paragraph to spend singing the praises of brevity. Oh well!


it's been gnawing at the back of my head that I should be exercising my creative talents

That's a pretty compelling and vivid message from the subconscious!

Temp jobs and "proper" jobs have different advantages. Either way, enabling you to stay alive, that has to be a good thing. Meeting people, even if they're just pointy-haired managers... But to go beyond survival - how creatively can you identify ways to be creative?

Good luck...


Look up Doctor Johnson on being a writer. Still I'm glad people are.


Or this about the movie "At the Mountains of Madness"



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This page contains a single entry by John Meaney published on August 6, 2011 12:01 AM.

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