I eat cannibals: original fiction project

My fourth week of writing got off to slow start after my Sunday stomach bug segued into a still-not-100-percent Monday. I did manage to do some more “big picture” stuff–mostly myth-building–that, since it was in the form of dialogue, technically counted as fiction rather than meta. But writing it, I found myself skirting the edges of a problem that has been making me increasingly uncomfortable over the past few weeks.

The problem is this: urban fantasy generally centers on the premise that some kind of fantastical species–be it vampires or faeries or witches/wizards–is living amongst us in what is otherwise presented as the real world. Sometimes, as with the Dresden Files or Buffy, etc, there is even more than one kind of supernatural species in the story. But the successful urban fantasy writer finds some way of making said creatures accessible to the reader, “humanizing” them so to speak, so they can be characters in the story and not too larger than life.

I am still working on exactly what my creatures are. At first, I thought of them as “demons” or “spirits,” and imagined them being “the factual basis behind the various world legends.” But then, as I started doing research on demons and spirits in actual legend, I realized that over hundreds of cultures and thousands of years, those words have meant Very Different Things to different people. The idea that there could be one type of creature that inspired the diversity of human legends about “spirits” and/or “demons” was a stretch, and such creatures would have to be so removed from human society (to account for why we had such diverse stories about them) that any characters based on them would be difficult to humanize.

Suffice it say, I still haven’t figured out exactly who or what my supernatural creatures are yet, and it stymied my progress this week.

On Tuesday, I got my feedback from my writing coach for my week 3 check-in. I had been angsting a bit about whether or not to count research notes as part of my “word count”, and she assured me that since research that inspired new writing was progress, it was OK to count it. Of course, I still think that policy needs to be enacted in moderation, otherwise, I could win NaNoWriMo in the space of one evening just by downloading a bunch of Wikipedia articles into their word counter and calling it a day. One alternative to word counts my coach suggested was giving myself a time goal rather than a word count goal. That way, whatever I was doing–writing fictional prose, doing story meta, engaging in research–would all count unambiguously as “progress” if it helped me fill, say, ten hours a week or whatever.

OMG, a world of No. The idea of a time goal makes me cringe. I have no problem whittling away entire days writing. Granted, half my “writing time” is spent piddling around in ways that seem counterproductive, even to me, but I’ve found that piddling necessary in order to get myself into full writing gear. If I start clocking my writing time, I’ll either fuss over that piddling time, wondering whether it counts or not, or start watching the clock. I don’t ever want to watch the clock when I’m writing. Takes all the joy out of it.

Word counts may be an absurd measure of progress, but since I am well aware of their limitations and can find creative ways around it, I think I’ll stick with them for the time being.

Back to the being stymied. Around Wednesday, my mind turned to what I’ve been calling my “1999 novel.” I’ve been avoiding looking at the thing this month, mostly because I’ve been trying to make this story different from that one, after discovering, to my dismay, that my initial story concept this time around looked suspiciously just like that one. But I had three weeks under my belt now of myth-building and character-building with a mind to making this story different from that one, and I thought, “You know, I’ll never get past that story until I salvage from it what I can, and leave the rest behind.”

So I hauled that story out of electronic mothballs and went through it. Like most of my stories, it was an ensemble-cast piece in a soap-opera format, meaning each new scene picked up one of the many story threads going on and continued it from the point of view of a different character in the ensemble. I took that long, rambly story and chopped it up into individual scenes that I labeled according to the character pov it was written in. Then I read each scene in no particular order.

Oooh, boy. I had a number of reactions to revisiting this story. Years before Charles Gunn coined the phrase “turgid supernatural soap opera”, I was writing them. Which means, yeah, a lot of it just seemed like a geeky excuse to write porn. But other parts of it involved politics and intrigue and secret societies and this cool group of supernatural characters who, while they were ostensibly “spirits” from another dimension, had a clearly defined history on planet Earth that tied to them to one specific region, and were a relatively small population of unique individuals that a reader could get a grasp on as characters. Plus, this being a soap opera, they were really All Too Human most of the time.

I also realized why I stopped writing it, and didn’t want to start writing it again. A lot of the politics and espionage in the story was poorly-researched and kind of silly. Plus, I tried to blend that with Queer As Folk/The L Word/Sex in the City-style relationship stuff that reflects a time in my life I was much more obsessed with who-was-dating-who romance and friendship plot-lines. Suffice it to say a big reason that story fizzled out is it was just personal self-indulgence. Big fun, but nothing I wanted to show another living human being, ever.

And yet, the story had its moments. I found snippets of prose that were evocative and interesting, and, if I could see them in the story I am writing now, I clipped those out and added them to my growing list of “fiction blurbs.” I also clipped out and saved whole scenes or parts of scenes I could conceivably imagine using at some future point, even though I wasn’t sure I would. Those I tucked away for safe-keeping, but didn’t add to this week’s word count. The rest I eliminated from consideration. If I ever change my mind, I can dig out the disc it’s all saved on.

One of the more amusing things about revisiting this story, something I had forgotten, was that I had actually cannibalized stories I’d written earlier than 1999 and wove them into the 1999 story. I had decided back then, much as I am doing now, that I had this interesting bit of writing that was never going to see the light of day, I might as well salvage it and use it in my current project. Which means in essence, I’m borrowing from an old story I wrote that borrowed from even older stories I wrote.

Between the new writing I did this week, and the cannibalized nuggets from the 1999 story, my word count comes in at 2,488. And now November is almost over, and I have four weeks worth of outline notes, blurbs from writing prompts, mythological world-building meta, down-loaded research files, and cannibalized story bits, none of it organized in any fashion I can move ahead with. So that’s the first task for this coming week: sort it all out and see what I’ve got, and continue from there.

34 thoughts on “I eat cannibals: original fiction project

  1. I’m borrowing from an old story I wrote that borrowed from even older stories I wrote.
    Keep the good stuff. I think that is important, especially since it has been so long since you looked at it, that you can see it with a clearer eye than you would have back in ’99. If you see parts you liked, that is excellent. Winnowing the chaff I call it. Plus, all the writing rules that say put it away for 6 months, or 10 years….
    And the cringing just shows how much you have grown as a writer. Don’t be embarrassed by the cringe-worthy bits. You can’t be.

  2. Oh, I pretty much cringed back then, too. I knew it was cheesy crap. The difference was, I was writing it for fun, and figured I could make it more serious in draft two. This time around, I want to be a bit more serious even in draft one. I’m hoping that way I don’t give up on it before I even *get* to draft two.

  3. My biggest problem with cringeworthy stories that I’ve written is the realization as I’m re-reading it, that uh, someone else read it or attempted to. Then I think, well, at least it never got published.
    Identify with your difficulties writing urban fantasy. It’s difficult to come up with a believable “supernatural” entity that fits within our world. Interestingly enough, the stories people used to tell about demon possession or abduction by fairies, elves, witches, gremlins, vampires or werewolves – has to some extent been replaced by “aliens abductions”. We no longer believe in fairies, elves, etc – but we do believe in monsters created by science or aliens. Which may explain why zombies are always a hit, but fairies not so much.
    Not sure when this switch occurred. My guess is sometime around the 1950s – when science really took off, although it could have been earlier – considering HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds long before that.
    I think for the urban fantasy that I wrote ten years ago, and tried to sell – I used Celtic and Irish folklore to create my supernatural entities. Was also to some extent inspired by a couple of books: Jonathan Carroll’s The Marriage of Twigs ( a story about immortal vampires who steal not the blood or life force of others, so much as their dreams and aspirations, their happiness making it their own happiness and dreams), Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – about a group of college students who fall into a Bacchae trance while recreating a ritual and end up killing a man, Tom Tryon’s Harvest Home, and Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon (which is sort of a romantic version of Harvest Home.) I used the Celtic mythology, because it was what I was most comfortable with. Didn’t quite work the way I wanted to partly because I got a tad self-indulgent and made the story more complicated than it needed to be. Also as I stated above, it’s really hard to meld the entities from that folklore into a realistic world. Not that can’t be done of course – Butcher certainly managed it. I just struggled with it – maybe because the story I was telling came too much from my “research” and not enough from “me”. So felt a bit cold and distancing, not real.

  4. I am trying to stay away from the books I know inspired me, because I have a bad habit of writing stuff I think is cool and original and then realizing I lifted it right out of some book I really liked. For example, this story was inspired to a great extent by Camile Bacon-Smith’s Daemon novels, which really pushed a lot of my story kink buttons.
    I tried to get inspired by older legends and folktales that are easier to rip off without being obvious that that is what you’re doing, but folk tales as a rule leave me cold. I like urban fantasy precisely because it happens in contemporary times. And I like it precisely because it brings the supernatural back into the modern world. One of the themes of the story I want to tell is that some things just plain *aren’t* explainable by science as we know it.
    However, I think vampires, faeries, and witches/wizards have been totally overdone in the genre, and I want to find something a bit less trodden on.

  5. One of the things that Butcher did, and Whedon as well, was re-envision “hell” or the “netherworld” where faeries, demons, etc, originate from as just “another dimension” rather than some super-natural realm, bringing it squarely into a modern “scientific” conception that contemporary readers can wrap their brains around. And by positing them as “other-worldly” in this way, they become the post-modern version of aliens from outer space, rather than the pre-modern conception of faeries, jinn, and nature spirits being as Earthly as we are, where Earth is understood as quite a different place from the way science now conceives it. After all, in most folk tales, faeries and other creatures co-exist with humans, and that’s something the modern mind naturally dismisses.

  6. Not a bad idea to stay away from novels that you know will inspire, if you have tendency to plagarize without realizing it. (This actually happened to a well-established romance author who unwittingly began plagarizing Nora Roberts of all people.)
    And I have to admit, reading those novels hurt my own writing, and took me off course.
    Also I agree about the folktales, outside of urban legends, they tend to leave me cold as well. I liked the more urban/modern oral narratives, the ancient ones got on my nerves – which may explain why I didn’t stay in the field. Lots of evil mother goddesses.
    Have you seen Sancturary? It’s not great, the dialogue is a bit cheesy and the acting, slightly wooden, but…it is entertaining and does provide creatures outside of the vampires, werewolves, fairies and witches/wizards that seem to populate every urban fantasy genre out there. For example – the episode I watched on Thanksgiving referenced the Morgwyn, a trio of women, who when brought together will kill every man within a five mile radius. An ancient Cabal group, with ties to every political organization on the planet and dating back to well before the Crusades has taken control of these women and uses them as a weapon. Their power is difficult to explain and only possible when all three are together and united. It’s an idea taken from Celtic Folklore and the goddess of war, Morgan, or from Arthurian Legend, Morgan La Fay. But they’ve given it a modern twist.
    In the story I was writing, the immortals were humanoid, with power but it was more manipulative and under the surface. They made others immortal like themselves through a ritual with human sacrifice, once every so many years. They were not vampires. They could handle the light. If they had a weakness, it was that while they were immortal, they weren’t superpowered. Someone could “kill” them by external means more or less. But they had the ability to possess others and take them over, once they lost their mortal bodies, and were able to extend their life. The idea wasn’t fully formed – a major problem with my novel. And I eventually abandoned it completely – since I don’t have the patience for the amount of “detail” nor am I anal enough to build a fantasy world. You really have to be into detail to do it well and know everything there is to know about your world and creatures, no unanswered questions, or you will inadvertently contradict yourself and confuse your reader. Butcher clearly knows everything about his world, but to be fair, he’s picked a fairly simple one to create with well-known and well-established creatures: fairies, trolls, vampires, etc. Creating new unestablished ones is a lot harder to pull off. I tried and couldn’t accomplish it. I think this new show Sancturary (which was a webseries first) is trying to pull it off, not sure they are accomplishing it or not. If you want to try it – it’s on Sci-Fi and will most likely make it to DVD by the summer.

  7. I think you may have nailed why I liked Butcher and Whedon so much. Kim Harrison sort of did the same thing, in a way. Her creatures came from another world called the Ever-After, which up until a certain point was sealed off from Earth. Then the barrier walls broke down, there was a war in the Ever-After, and several of the inhabitants fled when the demons took over and killed off the group in power, the elves. Her novels are interesting because they take the supernatural creatures and make them sort of like aliens.
    It’s tough to do well. A lot of people have tried, I know I’ve tried to read them. I’m picky. I need the world to make logical sense. And I don’t have a lot of patience for romantic meanderings – which you see in L.A Banks novels and Charlain Harris. I think part of the reason I gave trying to do it – is those two requirements, I kept falling into both traps – the world didn’t seem real to me and I got romantically self-indulgent.

  8. One reason I picked “spirits” as a place to start is that you can develop your own mythology while grounding it in existing legend. I just have an overwhelming embarassment of riches at the moment that I have to weed through so I can clearly define what my spirits are like. My biggest stumbling block is conceptualizing them as incorporeal. My very scientific mind can’t wrap itself around the concept of pure incorporeality. It just doesn’t make any sense. Dig into any “incorporeal” creature in modern myth and legend and you’ll find a way in which they are *really actually* physical in some way, just fluid.
    ::goes off to ponder this::

  9. This is precisely why my mind rebels against concepts like “Middle Earth” or “Earthsea” or some of these other stories that take place in…where, precisely? Not another planet. Not another “dimension”. Certainly nowhere on Earth I’ve ever heard of. If I can’t *locate* a mythological land as being in one of those three places (vague as they are), it ruins my suspension of disbelief and I can’t engage the story on its own terms.

  10. There’s only so much writing you can do before you need to do a bit of research in order to continue, and there’s only so much research you can do before you need to write a little on the research ideas that make sense. It’s pretty back-and-forth, really.

  11. Thinking aloud..I wonder if you could incorporate a scientific explanation for the incorporality, so that you can buy it. If you can’t wrap your mind around it and you don’t believe it – you won’t be able to sell it to the reader. I know I suffer from the same problem. If I don’t buy it, I can’t sell it.
    Sometimes spirits aren’t really spirits, they just appear to be due to our “perception” of them. We may be as incorporable to them as they are to us? OR maybe that’s just their natural state – a fluid one, sort of similar to say dust mites, which only become visible to the human eye with their waste.
    The thing I always disliked about research – was the embarrassment of riches and having to choose which bits to use and which to discard.
    I struggled with that when I did it. I got overwhelmed with my own research. I think the best way to get around it, in hindsight – was to focus on what I wanted to say, what I was most interested in and only use whatever supported that or built on it, discarding the rest.
    Easier said than done of course.

  12. I can get distracted by research. One of the things I used to love about doing my ATPo site was that each week something in the episode sent me spinning off to the internet to look up some philosophical concept or supernatural creature that I could learn something about. Research is an end in itself for me, just fun learning something new. I have to stay focused when I research, and since my story is so open-ended at the moment, I can get really lost out there reading about stuff and not writing.
    Comes from a mind that is as analytical and left-brained as it is creative and right-brained. Or really more of the former than the latter, alas.

  13. I am definitely going to have to make my spirits only *seem* incorporeal, because I think the notion of true incorporeality is incoherent. Maybe that’s a failing on my part, but I’m still a philosopher at heart and as you say, you can’t sell what you can’t buy.

  14. You need it to take place in our world, then? Makes sense. One of my closest friends is like that, although even more so – she can’t handle musicals or a lot of fantasy/sci-fi tales, because she can’t see how that is possible.
    Zombies, vampires – sure. Even aliens, to some extent. But fairies? No way.
    And makebelieve worlds like Middle Earth or Earthsea or places like that?
    She finds a little silly.
    I’m a little more flexible. I don’t need the world to be real per se. But I need the story or plotline to track logically and I need the bits and pieces in the world to work. If they contradict each other, I’m yanked out of the story. I am struggling with the tv series Heroes right now, because it is contradicting itself. I tend to be more forgiving of this in tv shows for some reason than books – possibly because tv is a harder medium to write for?

  15. I hear you. Balance between right and left brain is tough. One of my close friends, Wales, told me that part of the reason I was struggling with my writing lately was that I was spending so much time using my left-brain. Work is very left-brain. I do guantitative analysis and my writing is very left-brain at work. As a result, my right brain is feeling a tad neglected.
    Online – I was more left-brain than right-brain, which I found odd, because I think of myself as the opposite. But I was more comfortable doing psychological analysis and philosophical analysis of the stories and characters, than writing fanfic about them – although I did do it, but not quite in the way everyone else did or desired. Just not an romance or an erotica writer. Love to read it, hate to write it.
    With research – it distracts me as well. I’m very good at finding things and fast. Also have gotten great at scan reading. When I got obsessed with the election and the economy, an obsession that has finally faded, I grabbed everything I could find – and it ate up hours of my free time to very little purpose. But I’m also impatient with research, because it is difficult with so much information at our fingertips to know what is true and what is fabricated.
    At any rate, I think why I loved/preferred the ATPO site over the other fanboards devoted to Buffy, including Whedonesque, was it focused more on in depth and scholary/fun analysis, yet in a fun way – unlike slayage.com, which felt at times a bit on the snooty side. Other fansites focused more on plot spoilers, celebrity sightings/Q&A, and fanfiction/fanart.

  16. ATPo was different that way, finding the fun in left-brained fandom activities.
    But I wanted to be a fiction writer before I ever became a philosopher and a computer programmer and all that other left-brained rot. So the struggle for me is finding a way to let that right side of ye ol’ brain do its thing without the left side getting bored and wanting to go off and catalog all the writing blurbs from this week or something equally analytical.

  17. Not to mention the fact that true incorporeality is somewhat limiting. You have to remember that they can’t touch anything, etc, which can be sort of boring to the writer after a while.

  18. LOL! Have somewhat the same problem. I wanted to be a fiction writer before I become a lawyer/contract manager/analyst. My love is writing stories.
    And I want to get back to that, dang-it. Been struggling with it ever since
    2004. Hired a life-coach to get me back on track in 2005, which sort of worked because I got the book I’m currently editing written. But alas, I appear to be stuck again – lots of ideas, that’s not the problem, have an embarrassment of riches on that score, it’s finding the time to write them – without letting myself get distracted by the internet or tv or the like that seems to be the problem.

  19. Exactly why it would never work in a story! If I had truly incorporeal characters, they would have to obey the rules of incorporeality, which would stop the story before it started.

  20. My biggest problem is *finding* an idea. There are a bazillion story ideas out there in ether, but I need to find one that ignites my passion, that will keep me interested for as long as it takes to write a novel. Part of the reason I hired a “writing coach”. You shell out bucks, you have a source of external motivation to keep you working until you find the idea or ideas that’s going to kick the internal motivation in.

  21. I think Joss Whedon and Company learned this lesson the hard way in Buffy S7 with the First Evil and again in Angel S5 with Ghost!Spike.
    Ghosts are great in theory, but limiting in practice. You can only do so much. Apparently they still haven’t learned, since we now have Ghost!Wesely in the Angel S6 comics.

  22. Everyone wanted Wesley back, and Joss had to go and kill him.
    He brings them back from the dead all the time. You think he’d be a bit more creative about it.

  23. You bring up a great point – it’s not the idea or coming up with an idea that’s the problem, it’s coming up with one that you get passionate enough about – you’ll stick with it and write a story, without going off on unrelated tangents to keep yourself entertained.
    Easier said than done, in my opinion. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I’ve written five chapters to, then dropped, or the number of stories in which I ended up going off on an unrelated tangent.
    Finding an idea that keeps my interest and is not so convoluted that I can’t explain it to anyone else including my reader – has often been a dilemma. When it comes to storytelling – I don’t do simple well. The book I’m currently editing is a bit of an accomplishment in that it is actually fairly simple in plot structure and doesn’t careen all over the place.

  24. Yep. Also – there’s a small problem with bringing back characters from the dead, after a while the audience/reader stops believing they are actually dead or will stay dead. The death starts to lack any true impact. There was a rather funny line in Angel After the Fall. When Spike meets Ghost!Wesley, he states something to the effect: “Apparently no one can stay dead in this universe. Makes it difficult to take death all that seriously.” In fact, when it appears Angel is going to die, Spike says, “Don’t worry, he’ll come back to life, everyone does here.” Got to give the writer credit for writing those lines.
    The only people who seem to stay dead in Whedon’s universe for some bizarre reason are significant others/loves of Xander and Willow, who happen to be female. Not quite sure why.

  25. “I don’t do simple well”
    This could be my life motto. In order to keep my interest, a story, a story-world, needs to be complicated. It needs to bring in varied elements. But of course, that means finding a way to get them working together coherently.
    This is necessary to keep interest, and I can’t do things any other way, but it’s not easy at all. It’s way too easy for things to go off on tangents and to become unfocused.
    I’m in the early stage where I don’t dare restrain my complication tendencies for the sake of coherency. I call this stage the “expansive” stage of the story-writing process, because you want ideas pouring in from left field so you can pick and choose the best of them. At some point, I will have to cut that off and reign things in.

  26. i suppose that’s true. I’m infamous for doing both nigh simultaneous if it’s something i just need a little detail for but yeah if it’s playing a big role then i do a lot of work before hand

  27. LOL- me either.
    Yep, that sounds like what I do. The novel I just finished is far from simple. Yet, admittedly simpler than anything else I’ve written, in that it is actually coherent and doesn’t careen off into five different directions. ( I have three points of view, it’s in third person close, and each point of view has it’s own voice. The plot? A little complicated. Because, sigh, I get bored if it is too simple.)
    I got the same criticism all the way through college – you need to simplify, this is too complicated. Or? This is really ambitious.
    The way I managed to keep myself on track while writing my current novel – was through a little tip I picked up from one of the professional writers who used to be on my flist. They suggested listing each chapter in an excel spreadsheet, with a brief title or heading description for what happened in the chapter, where the action in the chapter was taking place, what day or time or month it was in the story, whose point of view you were in, and finally word count per chapter.
    I was able to do everything but the word count – word count is tricky to do by chapter. You have to do it as you are writing, not afterwards.
    At any rate – the tatic worked. It kept me from losing the story’s main focus, made me aware of exactly where I was in my story, who was supposed to be talking to the reader (or whose pov I was in) and where my characters were physically placed in the world of the story.
    But at the same time – it was not an outline, so I didn’t feel constricted. I can’t do outlines – without complicating them. Outlines are supposed to be simple. Mine turn into treatises. This excel spreadsheet managed to keep me from doing that – which rather surprised me. I don’t know if would work for you – but might be worth a try.

  28. Re: LOL- me either.
    I don’t do outlines for the most part because once I start writing, I always get much better, different ideas than I did up front during the “outlining” stage. Outlines come after the first draft is over and I’m trying to organize what I’ve written. But not before, for the most part.

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