Over on his blog, Sputnick's Orbit, fellow Writers of the Future contest winner C. Stuart Hardwick has been running an interview series with the other writers who'll be published in vol. 30 of the yearly anthology series.  (Visit his site to see the other interviews) I was interviewed a few weeks ago and, in the middle of answering Stuart's questions, it occurred to me that Stuart was putting all this effort into giving the rest of us some publicity, so it only seemed right that someone do the same for him.

I volunteered, and now we're here.

I left Stuart some of the same question pool that he'd been passing around to the rest of us, but I also threw in some other, random questions to see if I could stump him.  (Just kidding -- it's an interview, not a game show).

With no further ado, let's jump right in and get started.

.....

Me: Welcome, Stuart, and thanks again for helping introduce the rest of us to each other and to the readers of your blog.  Let's start with one of the more fundamental questions: What got you into writing in the first place?

Stuart:  Too much unsupervised time in the basement. When I was a kid, my sister and I were always sending stuffed animals down the amazon or injecting the art table into lunar orbit. I appropriated the family Smith Corona and banged out stories with hunt & peck typing. One even made it into the school magazine. But I guess it was one of those pipe dreams you leave behind as you grow up. I did technical writing at Softdisk and later for TechTarget, and I enjoyed it and worked on a few projects on and off. Then one day at lunch, I started writing a scene--really trying to write it the way I had it in my head. That start grew to 30,000 words and then into a novel. Then I threw it all out and started over. I was hooked.

Me:  I know what you mean.  Some people get an endorphin rush from running, but for me it's the thrill of completing a story. After you finished that first novel, what did you do to continue your forward progress?

Stuart:  After that first stab, I went back to school--literally. I enrolled at UC Berkeley and learned how to write lean and focus on telling details. I joined a critique group and started writing shorts and essays. Slowly, I honed my craft. Now I'm learning how to architect larger works. That's really hard, but it's the next logical step on my path.

Me: Very nice. There really is a learnable craft behind all of this storytelling, but it does take the work and effort to figure out what will work best for you.  What keeps you going? Which writers or books have inspired you the most?

Stuart: I grew up with only two TV channels and a house full of books, but the first story I remember reading was at my aunt's. She was a den mother, and clearing out three generation's worth of Boy's Life magazine. I found Heinlein's “A Tenderfoot in Space” about a boy and his dog starting the first scout troupe on Venus. This wasn't the vapid scifi of the old black & white movies, it was about love and loss and sacrifice. I loved that, and I strive for that in my own writing.

Me:  Ooo! I loved Heinlein's SF adventure stories, but I never read A Tenderfoot in Space.  Now I have to add that to my To Be Read pile (as if it wasn't already big enough).  Who do you read for fun? 


Stuart: I'm pretty eclectic. I loved Anna Karenina, Robinson Caruso, and The Hunger Games. I just read Andrew Weir's “The Martian,” and it's a hoot.

Me: You are a better man than I.  I couldn't get through the variations on everyone's Russian names in Anna Karenina  so you've already earned my respect.

One thing I've noticed from reading your interview series is that your personality really shines through in your questions and responses to the rest of us writers, but I'm always curious as to how well my impressions match up with reality.  Which fictional character would you say has a personality most like yours?

Stuart:  I don't know, maybe Woody from Toy Story. I don't worry as much as he does though.

Me:  Pantser or plotter?

Stuart:  I am, at my heart, a plotter. I just haven't quite figured out how to do it right. Some try to plan the work, some to wing it. I like to plan and then wing it.

Me: Whatever you're doing, it must be working pretty well for you.  Besides, I'm not convinced there really is a "right" or "wrong" to this whole writing thing--at least as far as the writer's approach to actually getting words on paper.

I've always been amazed by the number of writers and editors who seem to have cats; sometimes it almost seems disproportionate.  How about you? Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Stuart:  I used to like cats because they're crazy soft and cuddly and you never have to walk them. Then I got a miniature Australian Shepherd, and she's crazy soft and cuddly, and you have to walk her and play with her and teach her calculus or she starts stealing parts from the refrigerator to build a particle accelerator behind the couch or stuff like that. And by “stuff like that,” I mean she can do tricks and knows the names of all her toys.

Me:  Smart dog.  For your interviews with the rest of us, you always asked if we preferred Star Trek or Star Wars.  Let's riff on that for a sec:  Han Solo and Lieutenant Worf get into a fight. Who wins?

Stuart: Worf could easily rip Han's arms off. That's why Han would distract him with some sarcastic banter and blast him through the table. Han's real practical that way, and that's part of why we love him, just sayin.

Me:  In other words, Han shoots first?  Wait... what am I saying? Of course Han shoots first. <grin>  And speaking of movies, with the WotF workshop taking place in Tinsel Town, are there any Hollywood-types you'd like to accidentally bump into?

Stuart:  I'd probably rather go to the La Brea Tar Pits. Does Neil Degrasse Tyson count? Or Stephen Fry? Probably not. I'd love to meet the writers for “The Big Bang Theory.”  I know Jim Parson's cousin in real life, so I probably have a better shot of meeting him here.

Me:  Okay, let's pick on the Big Bang writers for a minute.  If you did bump into them, and they could give you a single hour of their time, what would you do or talk about with them?

Stuart: I'd make them crazy asking about how they write humor so well and how they crank out content fast enough to produce a hit TV show. That seems like elfin magic to me.

Me: Yeah, humor is one of those things that's really hard to pull of in writing.  I wouldn't mind hearing their answer, either.  How about if you ran into Jim Parsons himself?

Stuart:  I'd ask him if he knows that the Galileo VII is on display at Space Center Houston, and I'd totally spring for the tickets if he wants to go.

Me:  There you go.  Now we just have to get him to read this so that he knows there's a standing offer.  Tell me a little about your writing habits.  Where does the magic happen? 

Stuart: My writer's cave is out back behind the force field and the radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Well, it's not a cave so much as a swing, and the force field is actually a Mosquito Magnet on at the end of an extension cord. I actually write mostly at a treadmill desk in my home office. It's really cool and there are photos of it on my blog. I keep a trilobite nearby for inspiration and an antique Geiger counter on the shelf because, well, it's a Geiger counter! It's all yellow and retro and stuff.

Me:  Sounds like a wonderful environment for speculative fiction. How about inspiration? Are there any quotes or mantras that you use to keep pushing yourself?

Stuart: I was privileged to attend Christopher Hitchens's last public appearance, during which he related an oft-repeated remark that continually inspires me to stretch myself: 

     “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.”

Me:  Heh. I like it.  While we're back on the subject of writing, would you mind sharing a brief sample of your writing with us?

Stuart:  Certainly. This is the provisional opening from my current novel, a sort of Hunger Games meets City of Ember. I like it because it does everything an opening should: sets tone and mood, suggests the world, introduces the main character, and makes a promise the story must keep:

"The first morning of my sixteenth year, and it stinks of licorice and camphor. The living room rug is cold beside me. Loura's bedroll sits unused in its cubby. Light streams in from the kitchen nook, and the old saucepan--the one Momma uses for poultices--is belching fumes from the stove. Loura's taken a turn, and she can't go to the medics. She's already classified surplus."

Me: I like it; thanks for sharing that with us.  Is there any advice about writing you wish you'd been given 10 years ago?

Stuart:  Oh man. That's hard. My mistakes helped make me who I am and I wouldn't dare change them. But if I could go back...if I could share just one thing, it would be that it's not a pipe dream--this writing thing--but it's a long, long road, and I should get cracking!

Me: Well said. And with that, we should both probably get back to it.  Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to chat with you. I'll give you the final word, Stuart.  Any last thoughts before we close up for the night?

Stuart: That's a question I ask all my victims---er interviewees, and no one ever answers it. I think most people are probably thinking “whew, that's over!” So my final thought is this: It ain't over. I'm just getting started!

......

You can follow-up on Stuart's successes by visiting his website at http://www.cstuarthardwick.com

 
 
Last week I was interviewed by fellow Writers of the Future winner C. Stuart Hardwick (read the interview here).  One of the questions Stuart asked was: Pantser or Plotter? I glossed over the answer in the interview, but would like to jump in the deep-end for my answer here.

For any who may not know, Pantsing and Plotting are two ends of a spectrum that writers use to classify the way stories come together for them.  A Plotter outlines the entire story before beginning to tell it. They know the end of the story when they write the first words of the first draft. They've figured out all of the main plot points.  Some writers talk about having a character take over the story on them--this would never happen to a pure-plotter because they write exactly to the outline.

Conversely, a Pantser writes by the "seat of their pants." A pure pantser may not even know what the next sentence in their story needs to be until they've completed the sentence before it. Characters frequently do the unexpected to a Pantsing writer.

There are arguments for and against both of these, and looking at Stuart's interviews with the other WotF winners for the past year, it seems most of us vary back and forth between the two methods depending on the story we're trying to tell.

Admittedly, there are times when a story has popped into my head, fully formed.  When that happens, I take notes and then try to stick with the outline I jotted down as much as possible.  My story, Containing Patient Zero (to be published this summer in Fiction River) is one of these. I wrote Patient Zero for submission to an urban fantasy anthology.  When you read it, you'll probably realize pretty quickly that this is *not* an urban fantasy (that editor rejected it, but the next editor to see it, Kris Rusch, bought it as a crime-fantasy).  In the instructions I received from the original editor, she mentioned that she considers werewolves, vampires, and witches to be optional elements of an urban fantasy. So I figured, if those mythical creatures are urban fantasy, why not creatures from other mythologies, like banshees, golems, and so on? I brainstormed as many different mythical creatures as I could, writing each of them down on a post-it note and sticking them to the wall. By the time I'd finished brainstorming, the story was "done" in my head--except for actually writing it down.

In that case, I had to stick with the outline exactly as it had come. I didn't have wiggle-room at all.  In fact, I started writing one scene that threatened to twist a bit while I was writing it.  I restarted that scene two or three different times and couldn't find the way through it in the way the story had to go. 

So I wrote the scene backwards. I started with the situation at the end of the scene and then wrote what must have happened immediately before that. And then wrote the paragraph that had to lead to that. And so on, until I got back to the beginning of the scene.  

I've never done that before, and I don't know that I'll ever do it again

Generally, though, I tend toward pantsing my way through a story.  I think this comes largely from my training in improv theatre. 

Many people see an improvised scene and think, "That's brilliant! I could never do that!"  When a scene works well, it looks to the audience like a well-oiled machine--like the performers must have rehearsed it before the performance.  But really, it's a lot simpler to do that most folks think. (Not that it's easy--it's not--but the principles are simple enough that most people could pick it up given enough practice).  The key is this: You're not building the scene by yourself. You only contribute a piece of it and let the other performers contribute their share, too.

One of the first "rules" of improvisation is called "Yes, And."  Meaning, you always take what's been given to you, accept it, and build on it.  The other night, in an improv workshop, I started a scene with a pantomime of trying to start a fire with a bow-and-drill.  Now, it seemed to me like that action was pretty clear on its own, but my scene partner came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and, when I put the (imaginary) bow and drill down to blow an ember to life, he said, "Billy, I really don't think you're going to revive the dead beaver like that."

Well, he had seen my action--putting my hand on top of something and rubbing it vigorously with my other hand, followed by bending down and feeding it puffs of air--and until he delivered the first line of the scene that's all he had to work with.  So he used his line to name things: I was 'Billy' and the thing I was working on was a dead beaver.  


Now that he'd named what I was doing, insisting that I was really trying to build a fire would have stopped the motion of the scene.  It didn't matter that I thought I was starting a fire. My scene partner gave things a name--and that's what gives the opening lines of a scene their power.

So I picked up the pieces he had given me and added to them.  I gave my character a sense of desperation and, looking up at him, I said, "But I have to do something, Andy. I'm the one who hit it with the car."

Now we know my scene partner is named Andy and that we're most likely friends and we have a car, so we're outside. Unless one of us quickly specifies otherwise, we can assume we're old enough to legally drive.  But more than that, we now have a character with a problem.  In his next line my scene partner gives me something specific about the setting and just like that we've got the basis for a dramatic scene.

And that's how I begin all of my stories.  I put a character in a setting and give him a simple problem. Sometimes I know a little bit more than that.  Sometimes that's all I've got.

After years of reading novels, short stories, and stage plays, after lots of analysis and feedback of my own writing and several workshops on different elements of craft, and after performing in several improvised scenes, I now have a pretty good intuitive sense of when a scene needs something to happen--when a "tilt" (in the vernacular of improv) or a "value-shift" (from Robert McKee's excellent treatise on screenplays, Story) is needed.  

By trusting my intuition on those things I can write my way into a story. Once I'm there, the subconscious gets in gear and starts handing me all sorts of cool things that I don't think I'd ever come up with if I tried to outline my way through a story before I actually started writing.

When that happens, often what the subconscious hands me is still a long way away in the timeline of the story. If I then write toward that, I'm now following a loose outline rather than purely improvising one line after the next, but I got that loose outline by following the principles of the Pantsing writer. So which is it? Am I purely Pantsing, or am I then a Plotting writer, too?

Either way, it doesn't matter.  Because when that starts happening, that's when writing gets really, really fun.

 
 
Well, I didn't see THIS coming:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi?CMP=twt_gu

The article does give both sides -- it starts off with those who agree with Prof. Kureishi and closes with those who think he's nuts.  You can read it and decide which side you agree with for yourself.

For the record, I *do* believe storytelling can be taught. There's a whole toolkit of skills that can be learned and applied.  I'm still learning, and I hope I always will be.


Part of that education did come from an English degree (a minor) with emphasis in creative writing.  The question that must be asked is, do I think it--the college writing program--was worth it?

As in all things opinionated, YMMV. This is only my experience.  And it's my experience from more than a dozen years ago, now. Hopefully things have changed since then.  But for me--

No.  I don't think the creative writing degree was worth the time or the effort or the money I put into it.

I had a couple of profs. who were absolutely amazing. One of them was a fantastic mentor for me at that time in my life.  I was more interested in writing plays than prose back then and this professor actually had several plays produced in New York, off-Broadway.  He had the experience and the credentials to back up what he taught.

Most of my teachers in the creative writing program, though, were grad students.  The English and Lit classes were all professor-taught, but not the writing courses--not until the last one or two, anyway.  And those who were teaching us how to write--whether grad student or professor--had little-to-no publication experience outside of the university press.

The things we were learning, in hindsight, were perfect if the end-goal was to become a professor and publish within the university system.  But my goal, from the very beginning, was to try to (eventually) make a career out of writing genre stories and stage plays.  That's still the goal.

What did I learn from my English/Creative Writing education?

I learned how to deconstruct text.  I learned how to look for hidden meanings.  I learned about interpreting symbolism.  I learned how to rewrite and tweak and rewrite and tweak and rewrite again--all on a single story--until I was so sick of it that I didn't care about the story anymore.

At the risk of inflaming passions on the part of the "Writing is Rewriting" crowd, I have to say that NONE of those skills have been of much use in my attempts to write and become published in genre fiction (I find far more value in throwing a scene or even a whole story away and writing it over again from scratch than I ever did in tweaking words in sentences).  In fact, some of the habits and thought patterns I picked up from my college English classes actually hampered my ability to get to tell the story beneath the words I was putting on the page.

I had one professor who was friendly, personable, intelligent, entertaining--you name it.  He's the one who taught me the most about deconstructing sentences and interpreting symbolism.  I still consider him a friend. And for what he taught, he was one of the better instructors I've ever had.

It took me EIGHT YEARS to get his voice out of my head when I sat down to try to write a story.  For EIGHT YEARS I wrote--or TRIED to write, I should say--with my head all wrapped up in how the words would be deconstructed and how tropes would be analyzed.

It killed my ability to just focus on telling a story.

I'm told things are getting better. That there are now professors at my alma mater who have published outside of the University Press. That there are now professors who understand more about story than interpretation.

For the sake of the students in the creative writing program, I hope so.