Friday, October 9, 2015

I Want to Write What I Don't Write Well

Allen Steele: Credit: Wikipedia
So I just finished reading a collection of short stories called Tales of Time and Space written by Allen Steele and I discovered I've been bitten by the bug again.

Don't get me wrong, I've been a published author for over a decade and at my "day job" I'm a technical writer for a software company, so I'm writing every day. And although I don't contribute to this blog very often, I'm frequently seen or at least read at My Morning Meditations and The Old Man's Gym, so again, I write very frequently.

But the one thing all of the works I've ever produced (or almost all, but I'll get to that in a minute) have in common is that none of it is fiction.

The first writer who ever made me want to write fiction was Harlan Ellison. I don't know what it was, but something about his style and how easy it was to believe his characters were real human beings you could talk to, touch, and connect with, made me want to create people and worlds, too.

The first (of two) creative writing classes I took was in high school. I think I was a senior. It was for an English credit. We were assigned to write all sorts of poetry, trying to learn the styles associated with, among other things, Shakespearean and Spenserian sonnets. We even got to try our hand at haiku.

But when it came to writing fiction, my big problem was that the characters and the situations I created were too derivative. They were always some variation of something I'd read or seen on TV.

My second creative writing class, the one I took because I'd been reading Ellison, was a UC Berkeley extension class which, interestingly enough, was held in San Francisco. I was living in Berkeley at the time, little income, and few friends, and consequently, I had a lot of time on my hands. You'd think that in my early 20s, being more mature than I was in high school, would make a difference.

So I took this class. I don't remember very much about it except that I had the same problem I encountered in High School. I didn't even believe my own characters were real. How could I expect anyone else to?

I should say at this point that I took another UC extension class from cartoonist Dan O'Neill at about the same time, and this class also addressed fiction writing, but from a very different perspective. I still have an unused copy of The Big Yellow Drawing Book which was the "textbook" for the class (I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn how to draw or for teaching your kids to draw).

But while I drew cartoons for family and friends over the next several decades (I only do so occasionally now), I never was successful at professionally writing or cartooning or being published in any sense whatsoever.

The bug that originally bit me in the 1970s buzzed off and only rarely visits its old haunts, probably because it knows it won't overcome my inertia, not for long anyway.

A few years back, reading a self-published online comic strip called Westward resulted in me coming up with a plot line and drawing a series of comic strips I planned to put online. In the end, I realized my story idea and drawings weren't very good and I abandoned the project (and unfortunately, Westward's creator eventually discontinued producing new material for the strip).

I've read two science fiction anthologies before Steele's, one about robots/artificial intelligence, and the other on Mars, but science fiction about Mars that could have been written before the mid-1960s, before we knew that there were no canals, no atmosphere that could sustain animal life, and no hope of finding a "lost civilization" on the Red Planet.

Only these stories were written in the past several years by science fiction writers working in the 21st century.

I could hear the bug buzzing around my ears.

So I finished Allen Steele's collection of short stories earlier today and returned it to the library.

It wasn't just reading Steele's stories that got to me, it was the paragraph or two he wrote to introduce each one. Steele presented the background of each tale, what inspired it, and what (if any) portion of his actual lived experience he injected into his creations. He gave me a taste of how a science fiction writer writes and where it all comes from (at least for  him).

Since I was at the library anyway, I decided to look up "how to write fiction" in their catalog system. The catalog number for books of that nature is 808.3, so, being quite familiar with the layout of the Boise Public Library, I took myself over to the northwest corner of the second floor, found that section, and looked around.

Sadly, books like Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy weren't immediately available, but the first edition of Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop caught my eye (not literally, of course). On an impulse, I checked it out (as well as a copy of Steele's novel The Jericho Iteration which, now that I look it up on Amazon, may not be his finest novel, but I didn't want to wade into his "Near-Space" or "Coyote" series just yet).

I may or may not use this blogspot as the platform for trying out some of the writing exercises in the Novakovich book, but just publicly (to the limited number of followers of this blog) declaring my intentions may push me a little bit farther along this path than I might otherwise go.

I've started and quit a lot of projects over the years, and as far as I know, this is just one more of them. After all, just because I'm reading a book about fiction writing and practicing writing exercises is no guarantee that I have any actual talent at writing fiction.

I'm a writer. I want people to like my writing. I like it when what I write is deemed "good" or otherwise appreciated (I get paid). I've probably got too much on my plate right now to take on anything more, but the bug has once again bitten and until the venom wears off (or it doesn't), I'll go where my low-grade fever takes me.

I just wanted to let someone know.

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