Introducing a New Recurring Blog Feature: Fast Fiction

July 12, 2017

fastfictionHello everyone!

It’s been a crazy few months. Since you last heard from me on this blog Vice Media commissioned me to write and narrate an animated short that aired on HBO; the New York Times and NPR interviewed me about it; I began collaborating on a film project, and I finished my fourth novel less than a year after publishing my last one. You will hear a lot more about that from me soon on that last one, I assure you.

With all that happy news being said, I do regret how rarely I post here. Since launching this blog back in 2009 I’ve joined Twitter, I’ve launched a Facebook page, and I published my novels through Amazon. I’ve also switched jobs six times and moved three or four times. A lot has happened, and somehow I have fallen away from regularly contributing to this site.

I have an idea that would change that.

Two and a half years ago I joined a monthly writers’ group, and I give them all the credit in the world for helping me develop my craft and motivating me to stick with a first draft all the way through to the finish. When people ask me about the writers’ group I say, “I wrote two novels in my twenties, and I’ve written two novels in the last two years since joining the group.” It really has been a terrific experience, and we begin each and every single meeting by picking a sentence at random out of a book, thinking about it for a couple of minutes, and then writing a piece of fast fiction –ten or fifteen minutes, no edits, and being required to use the prompt sentence at some point– that we then read to each other before moving on to talking about everyone’s projects in earnest.

Some of this fast fiction is not bad. Don’t get me wrong: Some of it is awful, and I will not be sharing anything I deem awful here, but some of it is actually pretty damned good for a first pass on very short notice,  and even the ones that failed to get where I wanted them to go might be worth discussing from a writer’s perspective of analyzing missed opportunities.  Whatever the case may be, I am sitting on easily a year’s worth of good content that I can queue up and forget about. Having that much stuff ready to publish whether I want it or not might even shame me into contributing more regularly for the sake of variety if nothing else.

So, with all that said, let.s have a few rules in place before I jump in headfirst. My friends will probably chortle that it has taken me this long to put some fences around this whole thing. Yes, I do have rules in mind:

Rule #1: I will repeat these rules at the top of every entry so readers who come across this blog at random do not need to seek out the original thread. I guess this first one doesn’t need to be mentioned every time, but let’s say moving forward I will link here for the sake of people who might want the preamble.

Rule #2: These pieces of fast fiction were generated from a prompt chosen at random, and that prompt will appear clearly labelled before the fiction and then clearly labelled again where it appears in the prose.

Rule #3: WordPress allows me a ‘click here to read the rest of the story’ break, and that will be used before the fast fiction begins in earnest so people browsing through this blog are not overwhelmed.

Rule #4: The prose of the fast fiction shall be transcribed from my handwriting accurately: Line breaks, grammar, punctuation, spelling, what-have-you. The point of showing a 10- or 15-minute first draft is saying what you tried to do in that time, so what does editing really get me? It’s more impressive showing how few mistakes I made and what I managed to do in the time allotted rather than correcting my errors or improving my first efforts for the sake of appearances. The very rare changes I really do deem necessary shall be noted with an asterisk and an apologetic explanation at the end.

Rule #5: After the fast fiction I will include a few sentences about my first thoughts of the prompt, what I was trying to do, what I am happy with, what I am unhappy with, and some other general thoughts. These entries are less about the actual prose and more about the exercise as a whole. Post-gaming that exercise will be a big part of the end result.

Rule #6: I have all my blog posts set up to automatically go out through Twitter. If I’m going to queue up twenty or so of them into the distant future, I will schedule them to go out at 3 am. I would not want to find myself in the midst of a happy moment or a sad moment tweeting some piece of irrelevant and therefore inappropriate short prose. Hopefully a 3 am posting time will keep me clear of that concern. I also reserve the right to reschedule these posts based on other things that should take priority on this blog.

And that’s it. Let’s begin! For the first one I’m going to wave Rule #6. I know when this is going out. I will also confess I am rather happy with this one. I am picking and choosing the order I post these writing exercises, so I will start off with one of my best feet forward. Here we go!

Prompt:

Even when we drew close, he remained utterly absorbed in his work.

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Epigrams

September 20, 2016

epigramHello everyone,

I believe I have mentioned several times both on this blog and via Twitter that I am active redditor. I don’t think I would be surprising anyone by saying one of the subreddits I frequent is /r/writing, which puts me in touch with other writers all over the world to talk about our craft. Yesterday someone asked, “Do you have a quote/song lyric/poem at the beginning of your book?” The general consensus seemed to be it usually does more harm than good, but I do include a couple of quotes at the start of each of my novels. I read and write historical fiction, and the little extras like epigraphs, maps, and end notes from the author are pretty common in that genre. I went on to list the quotes I used for each book and why I chose them, and within six hours I had received a message from someone who bought one of my books based on my post.

Well, that certainly got my attention!

Several times on this blog I have talked about why I wrote something or how I wrote something, so why not take that random post on reddit and expand upon it here?

Cover_ImprovedLet me begin by saying for each of my three novels to date I have made a point of sourcing two quotes that I believe reference my plot and help fit my book into a larger literary space. For Inca I went with:

“Explain your words so that I can understand them.
They are like a tangled skein.
You should put the threads in order for me.”

— Act 1, Scene I of the Quechua play Ollantay

and

“Tempus edax rerum.”
Time, the devourer of all things.

— Ovid

I chose them because the book’s premise is an Inca bureaucrat translating his memoirs into Spanish before his story is lost to time. The Inca had a record-keeping system of knotted string called quipus, so using a line from an old Peruvian play about putting the tangled threads in order is a direct reference to what the narrator is doing as he tells his story. For a long time I toyed with the idea of actually calling the book The Tangled Skein, but eventually I decided that would be a very poor choice from a marketing perspective. Still, I know these two quotes have resonated with my readers. A couple years back I even received an email from one man saying he planned to get, “Tempus edax rerum” tattooed on his arm.

That was not an eventuality I envisioned when I first starting writing the book!

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Why and How I Wrote Beginning

September 2, 2016

Cover - FinalHello again everyone,

Shortly after publishing Inca I wrote a blog post explaining what led me to write about that empire and its people. A year later when I published Zulu I blogged about what drew me to the story of that kingdom and its people. I suppose now that Beginning is in the process of going live across the various regional Amazon websites, the time has come to talk about why I wrote this book.

Unlike Inca and Zulu, where my interest was first sparked by looking for more information about a civilization I did not know much about, Beginning began with me being self-conscious about my work. I suspect most writers after they have written a couple of books start worrying their stuff is all of a type, and maybe not the type they would have chosen if they had to do it over again. I have written two lengthy novels about cultures that are relatively little-known to my friends and family. If I wanted to write something much shorter with a broader appeal, what would that look like?

Inca and Zulu, much as I love them, ask for a lot of a reader’s time and attention. You cannot do a deep dive into the history and culture of people who most people are unfamiliar with while worrying about word count. They are by necessity long and dense. If I was free to write something where I knew my readers would understand everything from page one, what would I write about?

I have come up with half a dozen answers to that question so far, and most of them exist as a hundred pages or so of abandoned first draft material. One of the primary hurdles about completing a novel –long or short—is that you have to be excited about the subject matter and the plot and the characters for months and probably years of research and writing before you have a finished first draft to start editing and polishing. There were a lot of false starts as I searched for something I was sure I would finish. For maybe two years I despaired of finishing a third novel for want of an idea I knew would hold my interest.

I firmly believe writers need to read widely and deeply to develop their own craft. One of the most flattering things I have seen in the reviews for Inca is when someone says they can see some of Gary Jennings’ Aztec in my own work. Zulu was very much inspired by the early few decades of Wilbur Smith’s work. So who should I take as my muse for my third novel? Who writes the shorter novels that I adore?

I cast about through a few options, but again and again I kept coming back to Kurt Vonnegut.

Let me say categorically that Beginning is not a Kurt Vonnegut-esque novel, much to my regret. I lack his brevity and his wit. I am just telling the story of how I got started, and I started with Vonnegut.

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Both of My Novels Are Now Available as Trade Paperbacks

December 30, 2012

BookCovers

Happy Holidays Everyone!

My office was closed this week, so to keep myself busy I set myself a goal: I’ve finally figured out how to get my e-published novels available as print-on-demand trade paperbacks. A copy of Inca and Zulu are in the mail to me as we speak. In the next week or so they’ll be available for sale through the various Amazon websites, but in the meantime they’re already available via CreateSpace directly:

Inca by Geoff Micks

Zulu by Geoff Micks

For any authors out there with e-books, I cannot say enough good things about the CreateSpace process. Formatting for print was a little time-consuming, of course, but if you have any kind of a graphic design background it is also relatively simple and totally free! That’s a far cry from the not-so-distant past.

Once upon a time, physical copies of self-published books were only available via vanity press: You bought a few hundred or thousand copies up front from a publisher, and it was up to you to sell them. There was a stigma to vanity presses, and the costs were prohibitive. Today, the stigma has been replaced with a spirit of entrepreneurialism, and making your books available costs nothing at all. When someone orders a book, CreateSpace prints off one copy and mails it to the reader. They deduct their costs from the price, and send me the rest as a royalty payment at regular intervals.

It’s a brave new world, and for the first time in a long time I feel lucky to live in an age where traditional publishing is gun shy of long works of historical fiction from new authors. This is better –so much better! I have total control over my novels in perpetuity, and I have the freedom to write what I like, format it as  I please, and publish on my own timeline. I even have the option of making the book available to bookstores and libraries, although that’s something I want to research further before taking that step.

This has been and will continue to be a journey, but I’m very happy with how far I’ve already come and the road still stretching out before me. I’d like to thank everyone who helped me set this course. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from a man who finds himself grinning ear to ear lately.

Cheers!


An Essay on Writing by Way of The Time Traveler’s Wife

November 25, 2012

I have just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Some months ago I co-founded a rather studious book club, and this one has been nominated a number of times without ever being selected for group discussion. I had a vague understanding of the premise, and it sounded appealing. I decided to pick up a copy and see what all the fuss was about.

My goodness, there is a lot to fuss about.

Just to emphasize my emphasis, I bought the book less than twenty-four hours ago. Fifty pages in I knew whatever else I planned to do with those twenty-four hours was going to have to be put on the back burner. I needed to see this thing through as quickly as possible.

The book was published in 2003 to rave reviews and was made into a movie I’m told I shouldn’t watch in 2009, so I imagine many of you reading this already know what it’s all about. For everyone else, the novel is about a man named Henry DeTamble with a rare genetic disorder that causes him under certain stimuli to become unstuck in time, flashing forwards or more usually backwards through a span of roughly a century to any number of places throughout the United States’ Midwest. He cannot control where or when he appears, naked and disoriented, but the journeys are guided in some way by his subconscious. More often than not he appears in the vicinity of people and places who have great importance in his life: His mother who dies in a car wreck; himself at a younger age; the Art Institute of Chicago, but most often –or at least it features most prominently in the novel– in the meadow behind the house where his future wife lives.

Clare Abshire first meets Henry at six years old, and over the next twelve years their friendship evolves from an almost imaginary friend through to a guardian angel, and then eventually and inevitably into a crush that moves through her teenage lust into something adult and mature. On her eighteenth birthday he tells her they will not see one another again for two years and two months, and the Henry she meets at that point will be the Henry in the here and now –a Henry only eight years older than her who lives in Chicago– and he begs her to have mercy on him. He isn’t the man Clare knows yet, but he will become that person with her help.

Clare does meet the contemporary Henry after beginning university in Chicago, and their life together begins in both an ordinary and extraordinary way. Throughout their lives together it is understood that at any point he might disappear almost without warning, leaving a puddle of clothes behind. Sometimes he’s gone minutes, and sometimes hours, and sometimes days. When he reappears, he often bears the scars of his misadventures. She likens the waiting to women of previous centuries who married men who went to sea and spent long periods waiting and worrying and watching the horizon for a distant sail.

More than that I will not say. Read the book. You will not regret it.

Now I entitled this blog post, “An Essay on Writing by Way of the Time Traveler’s Wife,” and I do want to talk about writing in some depth. Many of you know that I’ve written a couple of novels myself, and when I read a book now, I read it as an author admiring another author’s craft. There is a bit of armchair quarterbacking involved, of course, but there is also a deep appreciation for the process and the art. I once had a trumpet player tell me I couldn’t be a real Beatles fan because I wasn’t a musician. I find that a laughable claim, but I will admit in the same way musicians can enjoy music with a fuller understanding of the mechanics involved, so too do writers appreciate books in a different way than other readers. We ponder motive, pacing, plotting, character arcs, prose, perspective. We wonder why something was done this way and not another. We peer between the lines to look at the author on the other side and ask, ‘What are you really trying to say?’

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A note on my choice of spelling Quechua words in my e-book, Inca

August 8, 2011

Hello again everyone,

I thought I’d blog a little today about some of the choices I made when it comes to spelling the Quechua words, names, and places in my e-book, Inca.

Let me start off with a simple example: The holiest temple in Cuzco in the time of the Inca was called the Golden Enclosure or the Golden Courtyard; that can be spelled in Quechua as either Coricancha or Qorikancha. The first –which I use in my book– is how the Spanish Chroniclers spell the name; the second is how many modern Quechua speakers have chosen to spell it. Both are correct, of course, but I chose the first for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the premise of my novel is that the prose is being written in Spanish by a friar in roughly 1540, so I’d prefer the 16th Century spelling. For another, I find a Q without a U a jarring experience.

Before anyone jumps all over that anglophone phobia, let me give you another word: Accountant –literally ‘Quipu Master’– can be rendered Quipucamayoc or Khipukamayoq. One is the spelling preferred by Spaniards at the time of my novel’s events, and the other is a modern rendition that asks readers to use both k and q interchangeably when both are already a hard C.

To further muddy the waters of choosing a modern spelling, Quechua as a modern language is fragmented and still evolving. A standard alphabet was set in 1975 and then a major revision was made in 1985. This has been applied across a number of distinct dialects in an uneven way. If my work of fiction really had been composed in period-authentic vocabulary it would be in a language known today as Proto-Quechua. The Inca called it Runa Simi, The Language of the People, and they imposed it as a lingua franca over at least eighty tribes. With their fall, that language splintered and in many cases merged with the accents and vocabulary of earlier tribal tongues.

Look at the English language in 1500 versus today: Is Australian versus American versus British versus South African any more or less correct? Well, if I had chosen to forsake all original Spanish spellings in favour of their ‘correct’ modern option I would have had to further pick one dialect and vet all of my spelling decisions to conform to my favourite drift from the original. That would have been a lot of work for me with very little real benefit to my prose. To take a particularly glaring case as a reason to highlight and ignore a number of quibble-worthy examples, should I refer to Cuzco as Qusqu or Qozko? Isn’t that taking things at least a little too far for the sake of the good work being done to modernize the language?

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On Editing a Novel-Length Manuscript

August 1, 2011

As I mentioned yesterday, I am within days of e-publishing a novel. It’s about the decline and fall of the Inca Empire from 1470 to 1540, told from the perspective of one of the last survivors of the Inca nobility. I’ll be blogging about this quite a bit for the foreseeable future, and today I thought I’d talk about what it’s like to edit something of the length and complexity of a novel-length manuscript.

There’s an excellent quote by James Michener that I came across the other day. “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” For me, that’s the whole thing in a nutshell. People think finishing a manuscript means you have written a book, but nothing could be further from the truth. Completing a first draft is like having a baby, but you still need to bring that kid up right before you trust it to interact with the wider world outside of your supervision. If writing is procreation –with all the fun and pain that goes along with that– then editing is the long and tedious but ultimately rewarding process of parenting.

First, a Hard Truth

Let’s start with the complete first draft. You have hundreds of pages on a computer or on a stack on your desk, and there is a powerful temptation to call that ready to go. You are already so far ahead of the people who dabble and daydream about achieving what you have just accomplished. After all, it has characters, conflicts, memorable scenes of triumph and tragedy, and a satisfying heft to it. What more do you need? Well, for a start, I guarantee you it should be at least ten percent shorter. Twenty percent would be even better.

“Ouch!” I can hear you protest. “This is a finished work! Everything I’ve written is there for a reason, Geoff, and wait until you read this part about–”

Nonsense. The sooner you accept the fact that a first draft is an overwritten, meandering, amateurish piece of sputum –as Nabokov so graphically called it– the sooner you can roll up your sleeves and get ready to untangle the spaghetti-esque plotting and bleach out all that purple prose. You have to throw it into a pot and boil out all the sap. William Faulkner told you to, “Kill your darlings,” and it is going to be a long and bloody process. Somewhere buried under all that copy there is a story about people suffering, and it needs to be excavated out from under all that unnecessary dross you piled on top when you had to cover the blank page with all that ink so it would stop staring at you.

Okay, I’ll stop belabouring the point. Let’s get into specifics…

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