Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts

This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.

Yes and Dragons: Gaming/Improv Podcast!

Yes AND I’ve got green fire, too!

Hello, friends!

I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.

Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.

Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.

Advertisements

Writing From a Place of Anger

I’ve been pissed off at the world lately. Each day brings a new outrage, a new soul-crushing horror, and while I wouldn’t say it’s directly harming my capacity to write, it is having an effect on how I want to write. Emotions – the writer’s emotions – transfer onto the page. They kind of have to, right? If we’re to be writing in a genuine voice, then some aspect of our emotional sphere is going to show up in what we write.

(grumble grumble)

Now, typically, I have written from a relatively calm emotional state. If I’m too upset, I can’t concentrate on the words. But the flares of anger of late have dulled into glowing hot coals that just simmer there, deep inside me. I should note that none of this anger is directed towards my friends or family or coworkers or students – this is a broader kind of rage, targeted at the political sphere more than anywhere else. Venting my rage, then, at the people around me could never be justified – they have done nothing and do not deserve it. Also, of course, venting into the Void (i.e. Twitter) is hardly cathartic and certainly not constructive.

The outlet remaining to me is my writing.

I am no fan of angry political screeds thinly veiled as fiction. I find those things generally tedious. But, of course, I am nevertheless tempted to vent my frustrations at the world in some kind of story, anyway. This story would be ugly and unkind, I have no doubt. It wouldn’t really be the kind of story I want to be a part of. But it’s still there, gnawing at the edge of my imagination. Write me, it growls, let me out.

I don’t, though. Because I’m not ready yet. Anger, you see, isn’t enough. You can’t write a story that’s nothing but anger and expect it to work. Not enough range for a novel, too crass for a screenplay, and too on the nose for a short. I need something else. I need the hope that tempers the anger, I need the calm rational voice to make the story more than just a primal scream of rage. I need the voice of civilization.

I’m still trying to find it. I guess that means I’m still too angry.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should just let loose.

Hmmm…

Obsessive Canonization: World Building Vs Wonder

I am 100% seeing this movie, though, if only for this scene alone.

Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.

The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.

Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.

Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).

I don’t know what I expected, but I expected the Clone Wars to be cooler than this. Which is kinda my point.

Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.

 

Nebula Award Eligibility Post (and Writing Update)

Just re-posting this, as the Nebula deadline looms.
Additional writing update: Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed has a complete draft in the hands of my agent and beta readers. It’s now just a matter of making final revisions before it is submitted!

Auston Habershaw

Hello, friends!

So, it’s Nebula Award season again. This year, I am eligible for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” in the July/August issue of F&SF! If you’re in the SFWA and eligible to nominate works, I’d appreciate the nod – I’m very proud of the story, it got good reviews, and I’m told a copy of it is available to read on the SFWA forums (for members only). Go and check it out!

Additionally, the copy-edits of Book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed, DEAD BUT ONCE, are done! Done! The book is off and set to release in March April. April is the release date, the 17th to be precise. You can pre-order a copy through this link. Go and check it out!

Well, that’s it for me, for now. I’ve got the fourth (and final) book of the series to finish, and so off…

View original post 2 more words

Me on Stage! Tomorrow at ImprovBoston!

Tomorrow, if you live in the Boston area and have a free evening, you should really come on down to Improv Boston in Cambridge to see me interviewed on stage for their Spotlight Series, after which I gather there will be comedy improv based upon the things that I say. IB has a talented

Don’t worry – my henchmen aren’t very bright.

bunch of performers and it should be a hilarious, good time. You can also say hi to me afterwards, no doubt, as I will be there in the flesh and what-not. I mean, assuming you want to talk to me. You can also duck out the back door and dodge the goons I’ll have there waiting for you. That’s an option, too. But, you know, sooner or later you’re going to have to pay me that money you owe me, sooooo…

But I digress.

This will be the first time I will be on stage in this kind of performance setting since I left Improv Boston as a performer in 2005. In my five years with the theater, I performed in 12 different shows of varying sizes, directed and assistant directed a few shows, and was one of the architects of Quest – IB’s super-popular fantasy serial show. It was a great, great time and I made a lot of friends and learned a lot of things.

As the years have passed, I find my improv training comes in handy just about all the time. I am delightfully devoid of anything resembling stage fright – I will get up on stage in front of any number of people wearing anything and say whatever without really breaking a sweat (just don’t ask me to dance). I am a champion of doing things by the seat of my pants. It is very hard to knock me off-kilter when I’m teaching a class – I can work the class clown right back into the lesson without breaking stride. All of these things are life skills I either learned or honed through improv theater and have served me very well in my day-job as a lecturer and teacher.

It also helps my writing. Improv, in a lot of ways, is like the antithesis of writing a novel or story – what you do on an improv stage is collaborative, frequently aimless, and usually ephemeral. Writing a story is solitary, firmly directed, and intended to last. However, one of the biggest questions every writer fields is “where do you get your ideas” and nothing gives you a better answer than the skills you develop in improvisation. See, improv comes from everywhere and can be inspired by anything. There are stories and jokes and moments all around you, waiting to be observed. The improvisor sees these bits of inspiration, seizes upon them, and lets their imagination run rampant, free-associating and inhabiting the story they are weaving on the fly until some kind of pattern emerges to ground it. Writers basically do the same thing, just not out loud and not as quickly and not

Pictured: the writer’s mind.
Improv training can help you sort through this.

quite so randomly. Basically, improv is accelerated storytelling, preferring spur-of-the-moment inspiration to meticulous plotting. Now, this does mean that improv rarely rises to the dramatic heights that the plotted, well-considered, well-planned, well-crafted story can, but it manages to capture the excitement of creation and the feeling of wonder that eludes authors so often in an almost effortless way. And it is absolutely perfect for brainstorming new ideas, making new connections, and approaching your outlines loosely, giving your story the permission to breathe and change organically. Improv, in short, teaches you how to be loose without being out-of-control. It teaches you to work with chaos and make something rational out of it, and there are few more apt skills you can learn to become a writer.

So, this is basically a very long and involved way of saying: why don’t you come out Thursday evening, see me in a show, and maybe get exposed to a whole new way of storytelling. I think, in the end, you’ll really enjoy it.

 

The 3-Star Read

I’m reading a book right now. It is not good.

It is also not bad.

This is infuriating.

Bad books are easy to discard. Long, long ago I shed that absurd “completist” affliction where I felt the need to finish any book I started (and for that, I thank you, Doctor Zhivago). Now, if I am not feeling a book within 50 pages/20% (whichever comes first), I drop it and move on with my life. This has saved me oh so many hours of pain. If you don’t do this yourself, do it. Your life will improve.

On the other hand, of course, good books are pure pleasure. They fly right by. I can’t wait to read them, I regret having to put them down, and I finish them within a week, no matter how long they are.

The ones in the middle suck. They suck worse than the bad ones. See, they have the audacity to be interesting enough to keep me reading, but the

This is a low bar, book. Be ashamed.

temerity not to be any good so that I actually want to keep reading. These books are eminently put-down-able. At every chapter break, I quickly set the book down and look for something better to do. It is notable that I mostly read on the train these days and frequently I can, in fact, find something better to do than read the book in question.

I will remind you that I am on a train underground.

Of course, the natural impulse should be to jettison said snooze-fest of a book and move on to bigger, better titles. But wait! There’s still potential there! Maybe it will get good in the next 50 pages? It had such good reviews! The concept is so interesting!

So I keep reading, page by torturous page, as the book plods and stumbles towards its lackluster conclusion. These stupid books eat whole months of my life. I hate them.

Very often, the thing that causes the book to fall into this category is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the rest of the book. It really doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, the characters and my capacity to identify with them and care about their plight is essential. This means that the characters need a plight, for one thing. They also need to be sufficiently real and interesting that I can connect with them. They also need to do things about their situation. A lot of books (a surprising number, actually) don’t really do this. They have this wizbang cool idea behind them, but the book isn’t really populated with “people” as much as “placeholders for people.”

I could name a lot of names, here, but I don’t like ragging on fellow authors and, honestly, my tastes are not necessarily your tastes. Suffice to say that I’m reading a book right now with one of those super cool high-concept science fiction worlds, but the characters seem to be shoehorned in. It seems as though somebody told the author that they needed actual people in their futuristic techno-thriller and the author sighed and say “Oh, okay – here’s a guy with job and a girl with a katana – that good enough?” The answer is “yes,” but only barely.

One butterscotch sundae coming up, kid! WOOOOO!

Now there are plenty of books that go the other way – really interesting characters in drab, low-concept, predictable conflicts in mundane settings. Those, however, are way more palatable. I could watch Han and Chewie doing anything, you know? Even if it’s a book about Han and Chewie making ice cream for 75 pages, I bet I’d still like it. Character, to me, is everything.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll probably ought to read more about…this crap I’m reading. How far am I through? (checks Kindle). 54%? That’s it?

But I’m more than halfway now…so…(sobs)

Nebula Award Eligibility Post (and Writing Update)

Hello, friends!

So, it’s Nebula Award season again. This year, I am eligible for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” in the July/August issue of F&SF! If you’re in the SFWA and eligible to nominate works, I’d appreciate the nod – I’m very proud of the story, it got good reviews, and I’m told a copy of it is available to read on the SFWA forums (for members only). Go and check it out!

Additionally, the copy-edits of Book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed, DEAD BUT ONCE, are done! Done! The book is off and set to release in March AprilApril is the release date, the 17th to be precise. You can pre-order a copy through this link. Go and check it out!

Well, that’s it for me, for now. I’ve got the fourth (and final) book of the series to finish, and so off I go!

On Deadlines…

I have never missed a deadline in my professional life. Indeed, I get obsessive about meeting deadlines. I am freakishly punctual and am afflicted with that old-fashioned notion that my word is my bond. If I tell you I will meet you at 6pm, I will be there at 6pm, no matter how many old ladies I need to run over on the way. If I tell you I will do a thing by a certain time, I will do it, no matter the cost to my personal sanity.

I like to think this makes me a reliable person. Somebody who is easy to work with, somebody who is trustworthy. I suppose on some level it does. But I am beginning to think my slavish devotion to meeting my scheduled deadlines and appointments is going to make my work suffer.

We pause now for a quote from Douglass Adams (please rise, doff your hats):

Though whimsical, I have long felt this quote to be not a little bit obnoxious. Then again, the quote also offers a degree of freedom that is terrifying to me. I need deadlines – I crave them. They are my best defense against procrastination and, in a world where they do not exist, writing novels seems truly daunting. I love deadlines, but for the opposite reasons that Adams seems to.

I’ve got a problem, though – a very immediate problem. I’ve got a book (book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed, in case you’re interested) that’s due in January. It seems somewhat unlikely I’ll have it polished to the usual shine by that time. I mean, I’ll probably have a draft of some kind, but it will be a mess – storylines not fully managed, the length a bit unwieldy, etc.. I’ll be basically rewriting this entire novel (standing at about 123,000 words right now) in a matter of three weeks (over Christmas, no less!). That is, well…that’s crazy.

Did I mention my computer is just about dead?

And just to throw more on top, I only just got the copyedits for Book 3 this past week. I’m teaching 4 university courses this semester, and we’re getting towards semester endgame – I’ve got papers to grade up to my eyeballs, and zero leeway on when I can get them back to students. How in blazes can I be expected to copyedit one 116,000 word novel, revise another 123,000 word novel, and get all my dayjob work done AND have all of it meet my standards?

Oh, and there’s a new baby in the house, too. No small amount of stress there, either.

Oh, and I’m designing a new curriculum for a course I’m teaching next semester. (Good God, what is wrong with me?)

If you want to know why I haven’t been posting here that much lately, this is why. I’ve managed to paralyze myself with obligations and have trebled my usual battery of deadlines. I don’t know that I can do it, at least not well. That worries me. I wonder what my publisher will think. I am, though, reminded of what Tim Powers once told me about deadlines:

Ask an editor which they will rather have: a book that’s on time, or a better book. They all would rather have the better book.

Then again, he’s Tim Powers. I’m not.

Then again, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. In every previous instance when I’ve been terrified of not making a deadline, I’ve made it and with time to spare. Maybe it will all be okay. Even more importantly, I need to realize that even if I don’t make the deadline, I’ll be okay, too. Especially if I communicate with my agent and editor well ahead of time (which I have so far), it will probably be okay. We’re all in this together; they all want me to succeed. I’ll be able to do this.

For those of you struggling through NaNoWriMo, I know that terror – that beat of the drum that says you might not make it. But you’ve got to remember – just like I need to remember – that a deadline is ultimately an arbitrary thing. Assuming you aren’t a journalist or somebody trying to defuse a bomb, it’s a tool more than a natural fact of life. There is writing after deadlines. It can be done. Sometimes it has to be done.

But that whooshing sound, man. Gives me the creeps.

Novel Revision in Three Metaphors

Your Novel is Like a House of Cards…

Each piece supports another, each card an integral part of a larger whole. How do you proceed? Can you remove cards from the middle and not have it all fall down? Carefully, carefully slip the offending Joker or deuce from its place. Start at the end and deconstruct backwards – this stupid scene at the end, where did it come from? Trace it back, dig out the rot. Make yourself a smaller tower, a sleeker manse – yes.

But then…wait. No! Not that one…

And then it’s all gone. Your edifice, flawed at its heart, lies flat on the table. Time to start anew. Marshal your strength, steel your resolve. You’re going to have to do it over again.

This is not the first time it has fallen.

 

Your Novel is Like a Wild Stallion…

It breathes, living and beautiful. It is strong, vital. You made it – with sorcery and wiles you yourself cannot recall the knack of – and yet it cannot stay this way. It must be tamed, somehow. It must be made suitable for others, not just for your own special touch.

And yet, is it not alive? How can you change it without killing what it is? You grasp the mane tightly as it bucks. You try to soothe, but this is not something it will submit to. It loves itself. It loves the free way it tramples prose. The meandering paths of plot and pacing are its familiar paths, wild though they are.

So you build fences and walls. You wield the whip, so terrible the crack, so that it learns respect. And all this while you bleed inside. This is not what you wanted. Not what you intended.

Why cannot the wild thing live free and alone?

But no. That is not what you intended either. It must be broken. The stallion must be broken if a steed it will make. And break it you shall, come what may.

 

Your Novel is Like a Tree

This thing was not of your doing, you know it. You merely planted the seeds, you watered, and you waited. Day after day, tending the shoots, it has grown into something pretty, but also imperfect.

But how to fix it? Pruning here and pruning there – a careful snip. There is no going back now. The old tree will never return, and you know you cannot grow the same tree twice. And still it grows in ways unexpected. How can you keep a living thing from growing? How dare you?

And what if it dies? No one has use for dead trees, except as fuel, or perhaps sanded down into boards and dull furniture. Stacked in a lumber yard, forgotten.

So you are careful. Respectful. Debating over every cut – how deep an injury will this cause? Because there is no going back, no more seeds to plant. This is the tree, one way or another. And yet it’s still not right.

Perhaps another little cut.

No, still not right.

And so it goes.

The Folly of Self-Rejection

Fear of rejection is a real, palpable thing. It keeps people from doing all kinds of things. Hell, it kept me from asking a girl out on a date until I was 18. Everybody fears having their hopes dashed.

In the writing biz, this fear is especially pronounced. You pour so much of yourself into your work, you dream of its potential success, but when it comes time to push it out the door, you hesitate. What if nobody wants it? What if they hate it? The pain at having to face the fact that your stories aren’t as wonderful as you hoped is so terrifying, some people never take their stuff out of their drawer/hard drive.

Learn to cope with this. You can do it.

To be a published writer at all, you have to push past this. After a while, you grow accustomed to rejection. It always stings, it’s always a disappointment, but you understand that a rejection is not necessarily a reflection of your self-worth or talent or potential. There are lots and lots of reasons editors reject stories and manuscripts, and not all of them have to do with the quality of said manuscript. Sometimes they just bought something very similar to what you just wrote. Sometimes they can’t accommodate a story of that length. Sometimes they just don’t personally get it, even though some other editor might. And sometimes the story in question, wonderful though it is, is “just not right for this market.”

This is where we fall into the rabbit hole of self-rejection.

Self-rejection is what happens when you assume a market won’t buy a story and so you never send it at all. You look at the kind of stuff they publish, you don’t see how you’d fit (it’s too good, it’s not like your stuff, it’s not the kind of thing you do, etc.), and so you don’t even bother. The thing is, though, that this is routinely a mistake. So long as your story adheres to the submission guidelines (i.e. don’t send a graphic horror piece to a YA scifi market) and it is the best you can do, just send it. I’ve talked to a lot of editors over the years, and all of them tell me one thing: Just send it. Let us do the rejecting. Let us decide if it’s right for us or not.

Now, I know what you’re saying: “You’re kidding me. They want more submissions? Don’t they get, like, hundred and hundreds?”

Well yeah, they do, but they also want good stories. Right now I am assuming that you’re pretty good at this writing thing. You’ve done your homework, you’ve taken your craft seriously, you’ve revised and revised again. You are of professional caliber – you know it in your bones. Put your Impostor Syndrome aside for a second and remind yourself that you’re good enough for this. Assuming this is all true, then you are already stepping ahead of literally thousands of people who have not done their homework and don’t take their craft seriously and who haven’t bothered to revise and revise again. You’re already near the top.

So send it! Go ahead! The worst that you get is a “no.” And a “no” there doesn’t mean a “no” everywhere. Keep submitting. Keep going.

I’m going to tell you a little story here to conclude: About 4 or 5 years ago, when I had only a few semipro sales and not much to show for it, I wrote a short story called “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams.” It’s a post-apocalyptic piece, but an optimistic one. I submitted it to The Writers of the Future Award and it was one of the finalists, but it didn’t win and was never published. Disappointed, but certain that it would sell soon, I started subbing it out.

It was rejected again and again and again and, honestly, I eventually gave up. The only place I hadn’t sent it was Analog Science Fiction and Fact and they seem partial to hard scifi and more classic stuff than this was. I figured they wouldn’t want it.

Fast-foward to this past February, I was going through old stories that hadn’t sold but that I thought were good, just to see if there were any submissions I didn’t make. I came across this one and figured “what the hell” and subbed it to Analog. I guessed it would be a reject – the story just seemed wrong for them – but guess what? It sold! I just signed the contract today, marking my second sale to Analog and my sixth pro-story sale overall. Just goes to show what I know!

And what I didn’t know, you don’t either. Submit!