Tag Archives: writers

Ode to the MacGuffin, or, moving the plot and subplots along

“McGuffin: noun, The MacGuffin is an object or device in a film, TV show, or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot.”
Heh, the text spells it both McGuffin and MacGuffin… (click to embiggen)
I didn’t quite mean to go so long before continuing my series of blog posts about subplots; additionally I have also been meaning for years to do a post on some 3rd of June1 about the 1967 hit song, “Ode to Billie Joe” and its unusual singer/songwriter, Bobbie Gentry. Then, because another blogger who did remember on June three to write about the song and they linked to an excellent podcast about the singer, I realized there is a connection between the subjects of plotting and the song. So I’m a couple of days late, but let’s talk about a narrative device which is often intimately related to subplots: the MacGuffin!

First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:

The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.

Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?

Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.

The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.

You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:

  • A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
  • Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
  • The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.

One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.

For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.

I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.

A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.

This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.

A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.

The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”

We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.

The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.


1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”

2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.

3. Which it wasn’t4.

4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.

5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.

6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!

7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!

8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.

Subplots, plots, and resolutions — but what about the denouement!

“My subplot... has no resolution”
(Click to embiggen)

When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.

Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.

Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.

But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.

However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!

The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.

I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.

I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!

Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”

And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.

If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.

So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.

Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.

For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots

A writer writes — where do characters come from?

“Yes I am writing you into my book! You're gruesomely butchered on page 76. You're welcome!”
“Yes I am writing you into my book! You’re gruesomely butchered on page 76. You’re welcome!”
I have written more than once about my annoyance with an oft-used trope when portraying writers as characters in movies, TV shows, on the like: specifically, that the only reason a particular novel or series of novels has so enraptured the readers is because the author has secretly based the story on real life and real characters. My annoyance with that is multi-fold, not the least because I truly believe the old adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You can’t tell a compelling story by slavishly recreating something that you experienced in real life. You weave an illusion that feels real from a combination of observation, interpellation, and omission. For example, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk—we omit parts that don’t move the story forward, or don’t flow easily off the tongue, or that will confuse the reader without the context of nonverbal cues.

Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.

I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.

Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.

My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.

One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.

As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.

There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.

And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.

Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.

A writer writes!

“Write some letters make a word. Write some words make a sentence. Write some sentences make a page. Write some pages make a chapter. Write some chapters make a book.”
(Click to embiggen)
In the old days, when reading usually meant you were holding a physical book or magazine or manuscript in your hand, if something you read so infuriated you or was simply awfully written, you could literally throw it against the wall (or into the trashcan) in disgust. On Sunday this last weekend I really, really wanted to do that after reading a particular blog post. I’m not going to link to it or identify the author, because that would just be harassment—even though the author of the blog post is a professional who uses their blog to give advice and has (self) published books offering advice on writing. Instead, I need to follow the advice I give all the time: if you want more good things in the world for people to read, don’t complain about what’s out there, make something yourself.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with aspiring writers. This happened especially a lot when I was the publisher of a small zine and attending sf/f conventions where I appeared on writing and publishing panels and usually had a table selling copies of the zine. A significant fraction of these random aspiring writers would talk about stories that they were working on but couldn’t quite figure out how to finish. And once I got into the details with them, it would eventually emerge that they hadn’t actually written any of the story. It was an idea they had and which they had talked about at length with friends. In many cases they would talk about the files they had full of descriptions of characters and an outline of the history of the world, but when pressed, they would admit that they hadn’t actually written a single word of the story itself.

Planning and thinking and even doodling about a story, gathering research and writing up background information are important tasks which are often necessary to the writing process, but none of that is the actual story. So I would tell these writers a few of rules:

  1. Stop talking about the story to other people, because that just makes the storytelling part of your brain think you’ve already written the tale. Sit down and start writing it.
  2. You don’t have to do world building before you start writing. Recently I saw a lot of people online passing around an excerpt from on old interview with one of Tolkein’s kids where the kid asserts that dad didn’t start writing the story itself down until the children started catching him in contradictions. I don’t know if the anecdote is true, but you can tell a lot of story before you have to stop and start making notes about the world building.
  3. Just sit down and put one word after the other. Don’t worry about whether you’ve started the story at the correct place. Don’t worry about the perfect opening line. You can figure that out later. Don’t get hung up (in the first draft) worrying about if people will understand the story or will like the story. Just start writing. The first draft is you telling the story to yourself. Worry about everything else after you have finished the first draft.
  4. Don’t stop and go back and re-write scenes again and again. Force yourself to leave things in the story until you reach an ending. Yes, you may scrap a ton of what you wrote later, but don’t fall into the trap of rewriting one scene for eternity.
  5. Write. A writer writes. Do it!

If you are writing a story, you’re writing. If you’re doing something else, you aren’t writing. Obviously, sometimes you have to take a break, or do some plotting, or jot down background information, or update a timeline, and so forth in order to know what to write next, none of that is actually writing. So if you’re spending more time on that than actually writing the tale, you need to stop, sit down at your favorite word processor or writing notebook, and start writing.

The blog post that angered me this weekend asserted that if you haven’t been published you aren’t a writer. I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to gatekeeping, but even discounting that, I have problems with that distinction. I understand that the author was trying to address the issue of people who are merely daydreaming about writing. And I agree that we do a disservice to aspiring writers if we enable their mistaken notions that writing is easy or that it’s a sort of magic process of ideas coming to us from the ether.

But getting published is a very arbitrary and classist hurdle. And particularly in this age of self-publishing, it’s not a terribly useful distinction.

Are you writing? Not background notes, but an actual story with dialogue and a narrative moving forward? Then you are a writer. Maybe you’re still in the early stages of learning your craft. Maybe what you wrote this morning was completely awful. Maybe you’re still afraid to show it to other people. Maybe you showed it to someone and they didn’t like it.

That’s not important.

Are you writing? Are you doing the work of putting one word after the other striving to get to the end of the tale?

If you are writing a story, even if you don’t know what you’re doing yet, you’re a writer.

Go! Write! Finish that story!

But it made perfect sense when I was reading it to myself…

A cat peering at a Macbook Pro.
Sometimes there’s a lot more staring at the screen than pressing of the keys.
There have been stories I struggled with for years. There was this one story where I had this very interesting character whose voice just flowed from the fingertips at the speed of lightning when I wrote the opening scene for her story. I knew the trouble she was in and how she would eventually get out of it. She was a new character in an existing setting where I had a lot of great established character who could play the supporting roles. It just felt like magic every time I re-read the half dozen scenes I’d written. It was taking me longer to get to the resolution than I had originally thought when I had the story idea, but I figured that once I ironed a couple of plot issues out, I could probably trim a few of the scenes so far.

Then I read the story aloud to my monthly writers’ group.

I honestly don’t remember much of the critique I got from the group that night. And truth be told, I didn’t read everything I’d written. I only read the opening scene, and by the time I reached the end of the scene, I already knew that the story was a disaster. Part of it was the nonverbal reaction of the group, yes, but that wasn’t what killed the story for me. No, just hearing it aloud in my own voice revealed that it was an awful opening to an unpleasant story.

The character was in a very unpleasant situation, but that’s not what I mean when I say it was an unpleasant story. I mean that it was unpleasant to read the scene that I’d written. And I knew the rest of them suffered the same problem. I had picked the wrong place to start the story, and I was fairly certain that while my new character was interesting, she shouldn’t be the viewpoint character for this particular story. She might still be the protagonist, but she wasn’t the person who should narrate this particular tale.

And I learned all of that before any of the other writers in the group said a word. Just from the act of reading it aloud.

It’s advice I have received for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a grade-school student haunting the library’s magazine collection reading back issues of The Writer and Writer’s Digest I saw the advice again and again: read the story aloud to yourself before you show it to other people. It’s advice I’ve given many times. But I don’t always follow it. That particular story I really should have.

Reading it aloud, either to yourself or an audience, will expose awkward sentences at a minimum. There are all sorts of sentences you can write that make perfect sense, follow the rules of grammar and so forth, but when you try to say them out loud, your tongue trips on them. That’s why I always have a pencil or other writing implement in my hand when I read aloud, so I can circle the places I stumble over awkward phrasing.

But that isn’t the only thing you learn reading it aloud. There are numerous studies that show, for instance, the act of simply speaking about a problem you’ve been worrying about makes you think of it in a new light. Neurologically, they say, that’s because different parts of the brain interact differently. It’s not just the act of putting a problem into words, it appears to also be the fact that as you listen to yourself speak, different areas of the brain react differently than when you contemplate a problem in silence.

That process doesn’t just apply to solving real world problems, obviously. Listening to your story aloud makes you process it differently than reading it silently.

Reading it aloud to someone else brings in a different level of information, much of it non-verbal as I alluded to above. Your listeners may fidget, or become distracted, for instance. You’re not holding their attention. You’ll get other cues, as well.

That particular tale was re-written substantially several times, though I didn’t bring each draft back to the group. I tried telling the story from the points of view of three different supporting characters before I found the right viewpoint character and the right starting point. The fourth version, when it was read, got very positive responses. And eventually was published, and I got a few compliments from readers of the ‘zine.

The key to realizing my approach was wrong was to simply read the opening scene aloud–advice I have tried to follow much more faithfully ever since.

A writer writes, always

“Dear Writer, Please do me right now. On the kitchen table. In your bed. On the couch. Hell, I'll even take the floor in front of the TV. I don't care. I just need you to do me like I've never been done before. Sincerely, Your Writing”
“Dear Writer, Please do me right now. On the kitchen table. In your bed. On the couch. Hell, I’ll even take the floor in front of the TV. I don’t care. I just need you to do me like I’ve never been done before. Sincerely, Your Writing”
One of my favorite movies about writing is Throw Mama from the Train, even though at the end it employs one of my least favorite tropes about the depiction of writers, it does it in a very minor way and to set up a joke. And since the movie isn’t just a comedy, it swerves into full-blown farce at many points, a joke is more important than being realistic.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie, Billy Crystal plays Larry, a writer who has been in a slump for some years because of an acrimonious divorce which included his ex-wife stealing a manuscript and becoming a bestselling author with it. Larry pays his bills by teaching creative writing at a community college, where one of his students Owen (played by Danny DeVito) might be the worst writer. Owen misinterprets some writing advice from Larry as a proposal for Owen to murder Larry’s ex-wife, in exchange for which Larry will murder Owen’s domineering mother. Trouble ensues, as they say.

Among the many fun bits in the movie are some of the scenes with Larry’s class. Several of the ridiculously bad writing ideas, personality idiosyncrasies, and other shortcomings embodied in his students and their work aren’t just hilarious, they’re all too real. Anyone who has ever interacted with aspiring writers has encountered some of those folks. Regardless of how unsuited some of them seem to be to writing, at the end of every class session Larry exhorts them all, “Remember, a writer writes, always!”

On one level that advice is a caution against falling into various procrastination traps. As tempting as it might be to spend a little more time researching for a particular piece, you need to actually sit down and write eventually. Or it may be fun to shop for pens or the perfect notebook (or if you’re me, a new word processing app), but that shopping doesn’t increase your word count. And as nice as finding just the perfect spot in your favorite coffee shop to set up with your laptop or other writing implement, you need to actually crank out some dialogue.

All of those non-writing activities may indeed help you, but at some point you need to stop prepping and get to the job of writing your story down.

One of the things that absolutely does not help you write a story is telling other people your ideas. I cannot count the number of aspiring writers I have met who spend all of their time telling anyone that will sit still long enough, their idea for their epic novel (or series of novels), or the fabulous character they have imagined and all the wonderful adventures she will have—in exquisite detail.

Sometimes I’ve met them again and again and again at sci fi conventions. They show up at writing panels or workshops or room parties, telling me the same fabulous idea that they told me at the last 20 times I ran into them. And not once in all those years have they yet sat down at a keyboard or with a notebook and actually written a single scene.

They might have notebooks full of notes and doodles and plot diagrams. They may have computer files filled with notes. But they haven’t written any of the actual story. The sad truth is, they never will. I’m not saying that to besmirch their character. I’m saying it because they have spent so much time verbally telling other people about their story, that they don’t realize they have already used up all of their motivation to tell that story. They have effectively told it, already.

I have occasionally attempted to explain this phenomenon bluntly to one of these folks. In at least one case I know it didn’t work. But I keep hoping.

So the first lesson to take from that exhortation, “A writer writes!” is to stop doing whatever it is that you keep doing which prevents you from actually writing.

There’s another lesson to be learned from it. “A writer writes, always” also means that often even when we aren’t actually writing, we are working on our story. I realize that superficially this sounds like a contradiction of the first lesson, but often the opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth.

Sometimes you do need to recharge the batteries. Sometimes you need to take a break from writing and revising to go soak in a tub, or dig in the garden, or read a good book, or walk in the rain, or sing a song, or paint a house. The raw material of stories comes from life and from the thinking and feeling and wondering we do while we’re doing other things.

So the second lesson of “A writer writes, always” is not to beat yourself up—or let other people beat you up—for living your life, taking care of yourself, taking care of loved ones, and so on.

The difficulty comes in trying to balance those two opposing truths. Ultimately, you have to figure it out. Only you can make yourself sit down and write. Only you can know when you’re banging your head against a metaphorical wall and need a break.

It’s your story. Only you can tell it.

Confessions of a Re-blogger, part 2

I know a lot of people I follow on Tumblr have already reblogged this post Seanan McGuire put up this morning, but it hits on topics I have talked about, so:

Responding to this question: kerrykhat asked: What do you do when there’s an author you absolutely adore in a short story anthology, but there’s also an author that you don’t want to give money to under any circumstances?

Well, first, I remind myself that all the authors in that anthology have already been paid, and that the majority of anthologies never earn out or make any additional revenue for the authors inside. It’s a small thing, but it salves my conscience. Beyond that…

Let’s say there are three authors whose careers I monitor. Jan, who is an absolute favorite, whom I would follow to the ends of the earth. Pat, who stepped on my foot once at a con and didn’t say sorry, and who I consequentially avoid whenever it doesn’t inconvenience me. And Robin, who actively lobbies for causes I find repugnant, and flat-out says that my friends and family are perverts and freaks of nature for loving the people that we love. Now let’s say that there’s a new anthology containing all three people.

This is a problem for me, obviously. I want to read Jan’s story. More, I know Jan makes a lot of money from anthologies, and since I want Jan to keep getting those invitations, I don’t want to pirate the story. I’m okay with giving a little money to Pat; there’s no hatred there, just mild annoyance. But what about Robin? Robin’s an asshole and a bigot and I am really uncomfortable with the idea of forking over a penny.

This is my solution, which obviously is not perfect:

I buy the anthology. And then I take an exacto knife, and excise as much of Robin’s story as I can, slicing carefully one page at a time to prevent damaging the spine. If I’m lucky, Robin’s story doesn’t share any pages with the stories around it, and I can get the damn thing completely out. And then I mail that story to the publisher of the anthology, with a letter explaining that they almost lost my money because of Robin’s presence.

I am not advocating censorship. Authors are people too, and they’re going to live their lives as they see fit. But I am saying that you have a right to live your life as you see fit, too, and that if people are going to put an author who says your life is wrong in an anthology, you have a right to comment on it.

Also: please don’t yell at authors who share an anthology with Robin, because odds are they had no input at all on who got invited. We’re all just trying to put food on the table however we can.

I think this is a great idea. I may have to go find some anthologies to buy paper copies of just for this purpose, now…

Note: I can’t take credit for the above idea. Neither should anyone conclude from my re-blogging this that she agrees or endorses anything I may have previously blogged about authors who I refuse to give money to and that I discourage other people from giving money to because of their decades of advocacy against gay rights.

My endorsement of her suggestion is simple that, an endorsement of her idea of one way to support writers you like, while still commenting on those who contribute to oppression.

(I endorse her other writing, too. You can follow Seanan McGuire’s blog here, learn about her books here and buy them here.)

An Alternate NaNoWriMo

Image of typewriter keys and the words The Alternate NaNoWriMo.
The Alternate NaNoWriMo, as proposed by Cafe Aphra.
I frequently encourage people to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and occasionally get asked why I don’t participate myself.

Several years ago, I explained it this way: “…because I do more writing than that every month already. Examples: a few years ago I had a month, at work, to produce a 75,000 word installation manual, most of it completely new material. And I didn’t actually have the whole month, because half my work time for the month was allocated for designing covers, disc art, etc, editing all of the other documentation for the product (including the 150,000 word administration guide), updating a document in another project, and doing all the pre-press work on all the docs being written by the entire department for all the products going to press for that month. And I didn’t get most of the information I needed for the main guide until four days before the deadline. I wrote about 45,000 words in four of those days.”

Plus I’ve participated many times in Writers’ Round Robins where we work on old manual typewriters, where erasing and revising is very difficult, and you just have to keep going, keep the story moving until it reaches an end.

I have several times used the month as an excuse to do something I called GeneStoFinMo (Gene’s Story Finishing Month) instead, and was only moderately successful. This year I’m participating in The Alternate NaNoWriMo as proposed by the bloggers at Cafe Aphra. Each writer participating is setting their own goal and going for it.

My goal is to write a minimum of 1000 words every day on my current novel in progress, The Trickster Entanglement, and finish the first draft by the end of the month! I had 35,000 words done before November. If I only do 1000 words a day this month, and actually reach the end in that time, it will be only 2/3 the length of the novel to which it is a sequel. If it is to come in at the same word count as the previous book, I’ll need to write 60,000 words this month, or twice the total if I only meet my daily goal each day.

So I am going to try to exceed my daily goal as often as possible.

As of midnight of November 1, the first day of Alternate NaNoWriMo, I had completed 1305 words. Not a bad start.

Wish me luck!

Put one scene after another…

Cat looking at a Macbook.
This may or may not be an accurate representation of me writing.
I’ve met several writers who are proud of the fact that they seldom write out of order. They begin at the beginning and keep moving forward until the end. Yes, they go back and edit, but they seem to consider it a failing if they realize they have to go back and add an entire scene.

Back when I first started writing seriously, personal computers didn’t exist, so I was writing on a typewriter. Typewriters don’t have copy-and-paste (for that, you needed scissors and actual paste!), delete (white-out and erasers have limits), and so on. So you sit down, start at the beginning, and keep going until the end. Revising meant re-typing (you could do minor revisions by marking up the pages, of course, but for your final manuscript you’d need to retype everything—in order).

Word processors make it a lot easier to write things out of order, then arrange and re-arrange to your liking afterward. That’s a good thing. But as I’ve said whenever I have explained why I occasionally host writer’s round robins with manual typewriters, there is a value to a situation that forces you to keep moving until you reach the end of a tale. When revision is difficult and messy, you learn not to let minor things distract you from the goal of finishing the story.

And some people really need that. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many reviews and articles out there with titles such as “20+ Distraction-Free Minimal Writing Apps to Help You Focus,” or “10 apps for distraction-free, productive writing,” or “(Even More) Distraction-Free Writing Tools” (let alone so many applications that do that to make the reviews necessary!).

But even when I was working on a typewriter, it wasn’t true that I wrote stories strictly in order. Before I ever sat down at the typewriter, I thought about the story I wanted to write. I might have jotted down some lines of dialogue or a few paragraphs of description in a notebook. Sometimes it would be several pages of description, with odd notes scribbled in the margins, words crossed out, or whole sentences written in between two lines of text.

Other times I would sit down, start writing a story, maybe get several pages done, then decide it was all wrong. I’d go back to pencil or pen and paper and try to sort out what was wrong with the story. Eventually I might pick up the story where I’d left off and continue it, but more often I started with a new blank page.

And back then I hated doing that, if for no other reasons that I hated wasting paper. Typing paper wasn’t a minor expense, and in some of the small towns we lived, getting a replacement ribbon when the ink started running out meant waiting until the next time someone was driving to a bigger town some distance away.

And don’t get me started on carbon paper and the expense of extra paper when you’ve decided it’s time for a final draft!

I do think that there’s a great deal of good that comes from sitting down and plowing forward. It’s too easy to get stuck in an endless loop of re-doing the earlier scenes so that a story never gets finished. But I think the writers who make a big deal of the fact that they almost never back up or write out of order are deluding themselves.

I’m basing this not just on my own experience, but my observations of their offices. Most of the writers I have known well enough to see their workspaces who make that claim have far, far, far more notebooks and sketchbooks that they work in before they start “writing.” All those outlines, notes, character sketches, et cetera in those notebooks are part of the writing process.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think they do the aspiring writers who ask them about their process a disservice with this delusion.

Now, I need to stop working on this and get back to my novel. I’ve been hung up in chapter 15 for far too long…

Abyss gazing

It was 1986 and I was twenty-six years old, attending a regional science fiction convention with a bunch of my friends. One of the guests of honor was an author (we’ll call him Mr. C) that two of my friends were very fond of. I had read a couple of his short stories and thought they were good, but he hadn’t really wowed me.

But hearing Mr. C talk about the writing process, his influences, and so forth, made me much more intrigued. It didn’t hurt that when another panelist made a disparaging joke about my favorite science fiction author (who was not in attendance), Mr. C rather emphatically jumped to the defense of my favorite author.

After that panel, one of my friends commented that Mr. C’s takedown of the other panelist had been mean. It was true. Mr. C had ended the rebuttal with something along the lines, “…and it infuriates me when writers who don’t have a fraction of his understanding of how to write or a sliver of his talent make thoughtless critiques.” But, she had called my favorite author a fossil, I pointed out. Once one makes an ad hominem attack, you invite something similar in return. Since it was my favorite author being defended, I was more than a bit prejudiced.

So I wound up standing in line with one of my friends, clutching a pair of just-purchased books of Mr. C’s work, waiting for his autograph. That is the one and only time I have met Mr. C in person. He was pleasant enough, despite having had to smile, listen, and sign however hundreds of times.

After the convention, I tried to read one of the books. It was a collection of his short stories, which included the couple I had read before. They weren’t bad by any means, but after reading a few in a row, an unsatisfying feeling was developing. I sat the book down, not quite sure why I wasn’t enjoying the reading.

A few weeks later, I picked it up again and started on the next story. Again, the story itself was well written and interesting. I read another, then started on the next after that and, well, a few paragraphs in I realized that same feeling of wrongness was building up.

I did eventually finish the collection, but it took a few months, reading only a few stories at a time. And by the end I couldn’t really say that I’d enjoyed them all, but I also couldn’t put my finger on their shortcomings.

The other book was a novel. A novel for which he had won a lot of awards. It was based on one of the short stories in the previous collection. And the short story in question had been one of those I had enjoyed more than the others. Plus, I had friends who swore this book was a masterpiece. And it had garnered all those awards, so it had to be good, right?

I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’d even gotten a quarter of the way through before I found myself intensely disliking it.

I tried explaining what I didn’t like about it to one of my friends who loved it. As we were talking, I kept finding myself talking about abstract concepts, rather than actual events in the story. My friend said it sounded more like my baggage than the story. So I started explaining how a similar philosophical assumption underpinned one of the short stories. And that’s when I finally managed to connect the dots and say what was bothering me about all of the stories.

There was a fundamental notion forming the foundation of all the tales: if you don’t know your place and stay in it, horrible things will happen to you. A corrollary was that if you prevented someone else from achieving what was “rightfully” theirs, even more horrible things would happen to you.

When I articulated that, my friend began to argue. That wasn’t what was going on at all, he said. So then I made a guess at how the book I hadn’t finished would end. Specifically what would happen to certain characters.

My friend blinked. “How did you know?”

“Because, if you don’t know your place and stay there, forces, whether they be social, cultural, or fate, will strike you down. And if you stand in the way of someone else’s destiny—”

My friend grinned and interrupted. “Oh, wow! You’re right! That’s so messed up, because it’s like the opposite of what the main character says, but it’s really what happens!”

“Mr. C believes in hierarchical, patriarchic societies in which you behave according to societal expectations, and people who have the temerity to want to choose their own way of living are evil,” I said.

My friend shrugged and said, “You’re probably right. But I still love the stories.”

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Just a few years later, a controversy erupted in a forum dedicated to Mr C on the (now long defunct) Prodigy network. The controversy was about a protagonist in another of Mr. C’s novels who experimented with gay sex midway through the book. Some people were angry Mr. C had included an “abomination” as a sympathetic character. Others thought people who thought gay people were abominations were bigots.

As the arguments raged, Mr. C waded in with a rather long discussion about the sin of homosexuality, why he felt he had to include it in the book (his reasoning, as I recall, was that in any community where people amass power there will be people who must dominate, possess, and destroy others, and of course homosexuality is all about dominating and destroying each other), and then had the gall to claim that anyone who called him homophobic were themselves bigots. Because he didn’t hate any gay people. They were just sinners, and if they refused to repent and stop being gay, well, they would face consequences.

His comments were quoted far and wide. And he got angrier and angrier as people “mischaracterized” his comments. He repeated, again and again, that he didn’t hate gay people. He wound up writing (in 1990) a long essay and getting it published in a magazine that catered to the members of the church Mr. C had been raised in, in order to explain his side in context.

While the essay repeatedly said that he did not condone violence against sinful people, it talked about how just as children must be punished in order to learn right from wrong, then adults will face greater penalties when they continue to act outside the bounds of propriety. He talked abstractly about the “day of grief” that each homosexual would eventually experience if they did not repent. He talked about the horrible consequences homosexuals face if they refuse to adhere to propriety. But he was not advocating violence even then, he said. If the faithful, such as himself, had been compassionate but firm in condemning the sin, they would “keep ourselves unspotted by the blood of this generation.”

It’s an old lie that bigots of a religious persuasion tell themselves all the time. They don’t advocate or condone violence, it’s just that god’s law causes these things. And when it happens, they pretend that the people who did resort to violence never took all the words of condemnation as permission to commit violence.

Think about it: if it’s god’s will that homosexuals should experience a “day of grief”; if god’s law demands that “blood of this generation” must be shed, then the person who inflicts the violence is doing god’s will. They are a special tool of god!

Heck, it isn’t just permission to commit violence: it’s encouragement!

I had already guessed most of this about Mr. C before he began writing publicly about his reasons for opposing the decriminalization of gay sex and other topics back in 1990. And so I had already made my decision not to buy any more of his books. I didn’t post rants about him, nor try to organize boycotts of his work. If I was asked, I would say that I disagreed with what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy espoused by his work.

Once he did make his very public statements, I felt it was appropriate to go a step further and point out that Mr. C was a hypocrite and a bigot who advocated against the rights of myself and others. I would suggest that perhaps there were other writers whose works were more deserving of people’s money, but wouldn’t go further.

In the years since, he has continued to write and speak out against gay rights of all sorts, eventually becoming an officer for a large organization that says it is out to protect “traditional marriage.” They try to portray themselves as narrowly focused on marriage, but anyone paying attention to their rhetoric and some of the other causes they support, can see that they want to roll back the few rights gay people have won. He donates his own money to the cause, he has organized efforts that have raised millions of dollars for the cause. He has claimed victory for every anti-gay amendment, law, proposition, or initiative that has been passed in the last ten years.

He has, now, gone far beyond the point of simply stating his opinion and trying to persuade others to it. He has gone beyond that disingenuous tactic of saying he was opposed to violence while providing double-speak that actually encouraged it. He has helped spread distortions and outright lies about all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. His organization has refused to obey public disclosure laws regarding their election activities in several states. He continues to fight to prevent gays, lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals full equality before the law. He continues to put forward arguments to take away what rights have been extended.

So, for that reason, yes, I agree with the people who have been disappointed that DC Comics hired him to write a prominent new Superman series. Yes, I support the comic book shop owners who have said they will not sell comics written by him. I support the artist who decided not to illustrate his stories after learning of Mr C’s views and activities. I urge everyone I know not to buy things he writes, not to go see the movie that is being made of his most famous novel.

I re-iterate: this isn’t just about a difference of opinion regarding marriage equality. For over 20 years he has advocated for restoring laws that made it a crime for consenting adults to have gay sex in the privacy of their own homes, and against laws that protect people from being fired, evicted, or denied medical care just because they are gay. And he has done more than just advocate those things, he has taken action to make them happen. It is not hypocritical of us to advocate a voluntary boycott of his work, it is hypocritical of him and his apologists to decry a voluntary boycott while they are campaigning for laws that will take away jobs, housing, health care, and more from entire classes of people.

Orson Scott Card is a hypocrite and a bigot who uses distortions and outright lies to hurt innocent people. Those are the facts.