If you’re interested in hearing what I’m up to regularly, here’s your chance to sign up.

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Distinct Style

It’s beautiful here in Boston, and after spending all morning writing (something I think is going to be awesome & I can’t wait to share with y’all) and all afternoon editing (another awesome thing I can’t wait to share) I’m about to take a walk and enjoy the remains of the day.  And I don’t mean the Kazuo Ishigo novel.  Or the film for that matter.

On Sunday, with a glass of lightly cut Aberlour and some very nice chocolate, I burned through the end of the Fionavar Tapestry, which was AMAZING and over the top in all the right ways, like the rest of the trilogy.  This series has sold me on Guy Gavriel Kay.  Then, yesterday, jonesing for fiction, I grabbed a copy of Pattern Recognition—I’m a little behind on Gibson.  The contrast is intense, like when you sprint into surf and trip due to how it’s different moving your feet through water vs. air, only in reverse.  I’m constantly impressed by the range of writing styles, even between people working with exactly the same toolset.  Lines, and words, and grammar, remain mostly constant if you don’t want to get all experimental and oulipo about it (not that there’s anything wrong with that)—yet you won’t find two people who use them in exactly the same way.

Not sure if there’s a point to that outside of vive le difference (la difference?).  Writing’s awesome, and so is the weather, and I’m headed out from enjoying one to enjoying the other.


Merry (belated) Christmas!

I’m still here in a metaphysical sense—visiting with family, and taking long walks in the woods, but far away from my desk and my usual routine.

I hope all of you are enjoying your respective holidays, and the coming new year.  In the interim, if you’re looking for something of mine to read, how about this little essay I wrote for the Book Smugglers, on the miraculous nature of finding the right book at the right moment?

Making Progress

Not much new to report today.  Lousy weather kept me more confined to quarters than usual.  Good writing and good coffee this morning, a slightly more strained editorial process this afternoon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations with friends about narrative energy in comedy, drama, and tragedy.  There’s a theory in dramatic criticism (I don’t know whose theory this is, this is just the kind of stuff I chat about on long walks to and from the gym) that developments in plot are ‘sold’ by the expenditure of narrative energy.  The more of a stretch the plot moment might be, the more narrative energy it requires.  Narrative energy is accumulated by the storyteller’s work—describing characters preparing to do things, or resolving emotional tensions, or creating new ones.  You can see this literally in scenes where the hero has to ‘believe in herself’ to jump across a chasm, or beat up a lion, or something like that.  Flashbacks, a swell of music, a sort of recap of the narrative energy accumulated so far—and then she jumps, and (if we’re in a drama) makes it.  Or (if we’re in a comedy or tragedy) something else happens–they fall, or get hit by a whale, or whatever.

This is similar to mechanics for story-driven games, as my friend Dan pointed out.  Think about the Spirit of the Century system, where you can spend points to use a character’s aspects (basically their story-handles) against them, or to their benefit.

I don’t know how useful this stuff could be to story writing.  At worst, seems like it could reduce some sensitive story architecture stuff to blunt calculus.  On the other hand, it could give us new questions to ask as we do our work…

A Very Nice Weekend

I don’t mean to boast, but…


If you’re one of those unlucky folks out there who hasn’t read Hogfather, you’re in for a treat when you finally do get around to it.  Hogfather’s so much fun to read.  Terry Pratchett writing at the height of his powers produces a book that skewers and exults Christmas at the same time.  (As the Death books tend to do with their subject matter.)  Pratchett can do something few other writers dare to try: gutpunch you while you’re laughing, without spoiling the laughter.  At his best, he makes me want to laugh and cry and start a revolution all at the same time.

Lagavulin 16 is quite a nice single malt.  A reliable source (basically my friend Dan, who looks stuff like this up on Wikipedia) informs me that “Happy Christmas” came about as a phrase because Victorians thought “Merry Christmas” was too intemperate and promoted drunkenness.  Be merry responsibly, I suppose?

For all my joking above, Scotch-and-Pratchett was just the easiest-to-photograph part of an excellent weekend, that included, among other things, a wonderful Messiah Pt 1 performed by my wife’s choir, and a showing of the Hobbit, which I liked.

Writing and editing proceed well, though not remarkably on either front.  I have dinner in the oven so I’m going to sign off and do some more work before the alarm bell rings. That should put me well over threshold for the day.  Rock on, you crazy people.

Trying This Again

Today was a good day.  Writing went smoothly, and I actually remembered to alternate between working and taking long walks rather than banging my head against the brick wall expecting it to soften.  Crema in Harvard Square makes a delicious bright espresso, so light it almost tastes bubbly.  I’m working with a secondary character who’s a lot of fun; my main is a complicated and powerful woman, but limited by her social position and psychology, while this supporting character has different avenues available to her.  I can already tell she needs a bigger part in the story, and I’m looking forward to writing those scenes.

The Dharma / Fantasy book I linked yesterday has me trying to appreciate embodied time—its descriptions of Dogen’s concept of uji (being-time, which I don’t quite understand but is something like awareness of time as an element of beings and events rather than a container for them) remind me of good martial arts instruction, no big surprise there, and of Venkatesh Rao’s notions of tempo and narrative-driven decision making and agenda planning, which is a bit more of a shock.  (His book Tempo is an enlightening read, as is his blog Ribbonfarm.)   I’m trying to pay attention to writing as a process, a gerund—keystrokes and language and posture—which is wonderfully liberating, especially considering the unusual anxiety I’ve felt while working on this book.

A bit of explanation: I don’t usually feel worried as I write a book.  This is the, what, eighth-and-a-hafth book I’ve written (counting the one I’ve tabled until I’m finished with Current Project, which is marinating comfortably in the back of my mind at an act break around 70,000 words or so), so I have a sort of sense of the process now.  But, probably because I’ve spent so much of the last two months talking about writing and Why I Write Such Excellent Books and Why I Am So Clever (as Neitzsche would have it), I’m feeling self-conscious, like the caterpillar that kept tripping over his feet.  Have I done this before?  Is this impressive enough?  The more I can live in the time of writing words, the less that other stuff troubles me.  This is something like Keats’ Negative Capability, I guess, only approached from another cultural direction.  ([That property]… which Shakespeare possessed so immensely… the capacity for being in mysteries, & doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.)

Similarly, when I’m walking around, I’m trying to be aware of the walking-ness of the moment, rather than of other factors, like destination.  (Moving body as a process, not, or not just, a vehicle.)  I’ve been checking my smartphone less, and I’ve been absent from Twitter.  On the one hand, Twitter is an excellent platform, and contains fun people.  On the other hand, I don’t think I have quite the level of attainment required to participate cheerfully in the datastream, rather than viewing it as a distraction…

Wow, that ended up being a long read, and with no real point, other than: time is strange, and we always experience it stuck in bodies.  And I’ve been writing all day, and I’ll be writing most of tomorrow.  Good progress, good fun.  Hope you’re all well, and don’t mind a few rambly thoughts about metaphysics and simple Buddhism.  Ask a Max who spends most of his day wandering the city to keep you abreast of his thoughts, and you see what you get.  It’s all of our faults, really.

(On other notes, WordPress fullscreen + Chrome / Mac Presentation Mode produces one of the sleekest text editors I’ve ever had the fun to play with.  Fullscreen mode, where were you for me years ago!)

Not All Parties

A reader sent me an email yesterday saying (in the nicest possible way and with a ton of good humor) ‘all well and good for you to be partying and having a wonderful time traveling about the world, but when do we see more of the next book?’  Two Serpents Rise is due out in July or June, I forget which, and hopefully we’ll have some juicy excerpt-like information to share before long, so there’s that.

The letter did point out that I don’t generally write about writing here.  Part of that’s because, while writing is wonderful, it’s also not all that exciting in a day-to-day sort of way, and especially not exciting in the way that makes for good blog posting.  Some days my characters feel like they’ve found themselves and the scenes flow. Some days I find myself lost and in a wood, and I write anyway.  Fingers hitting keys: this is the internet, you all know what it looks like.  But maybe you won’t mind a few notes on the course of my day, posted here.

Monday’s unseasonably wonderful weather receded today, leaving a morning cold and rainy and perfect for squirreling myself away in a cafe with word processor and book.  I keep discovering new scenes and threads as I write this novel–elements that should have been there all along, so that I have this strange sense of writing the book front to back to front.  The early stages of this draft were more halting and controlled, but I think I’m getting used to the freedom of this working arrangement.  The story feels more balanced, and the process flows.  I’m still using the stopwatch, but I’m more likely to write two sessions at a stretch now before taking a break or a walk.  I deleted almost an entire day’s work on Friday, but I reworked all that over the weekend, and I think it’s better now.  Hooray for accidents.

I finished an excellent book today called The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons, which is an exploration of Buddhist themes in modern fantasy.  Don’t go to this looking for an academic treatise—it’s more like an attempt to analyze fantasy classics through a modern Buddhist lens.  Chapter 2 is on Tolkein—yes, Tolkein!  Inspiring and fun criticism.  For me to say more would require many more paragraphs, so let’s just leave it at that.

Mountain View

Writing from scenic Mountain View, where I’ve just had a wonderful, productive day despite dealing with a rare cold. It’s been years since I was last in the Bay Area and I’d forgotten how amazing the weather is out here. I spent the day wandering around in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, carrying my Neo from writing spot to writing spot. I think I’ve been doing this writer thing a little wrong by working from home so much, Dear Readers—maybe once I’m back in Somerville I’ll try to ramble more. Plenty of good coffee shops in the Greater B Metro Area, and a body could get a decent walk moving between them.

To sum up: sick, yes, but having a great time. Remind me to tell y’all about Time Travel Jazz someday.

Six Days Until Three Parts Dead!

Three Parts Dead goes live on October 2!  At least one pre-orderer has already received it from his bookstore.  Those of you who pre-ordered from brick and mortar stores might well have a surprise in the next couple days.

As for me, I’m feeling the good version of this Johnny Cash song:

I’m incredibly excited, which presents new challenges to focus.  Jazz helps.  Coffee doesn’t, but when have you known  a writer willing to give up coffee?  For non-religious reasons, I mean.

(Interesting note: there’s a word in Chinese for giving something as part of a religious or personal vow – jie4.  This is a good verb to know if you’re a vegetarian traveling on the mainland–a phrase like “I don’t eat meat” wo3 bu4 chi1 rou4 doesn’t carry the same weight, or hasn’t in my experience, partly because sometimes people don’t think the word rou4 includes less obviously meaty substances like chicken stock, and partly because the sentence “I don’t eat meat” doesn’t carry a weight of finality.  You could just mean “I won’t eat meat on this occasion.”  The vow tells people you mean business. [Apologies for the pinyin – I need to fix wordpress to support chinese characters again.])

But anyway.  There’s still time to pre-order the book, and to get the word out.  And if you’re in the Boston area, and can make it, I’d love to see you at one of my two signings next week: at Harvard Book Store on October 3, and Pandemonium on October 4.  For more information, and links, see the events page.


Working with my friend the artist Melody Lu on Not-So-Seekret Project has been a fascinating lesson in the ways different storytellers cheat.  Most often I’m the one caught out, with exchanges like:

Mel: How many bandits are there in this camp?

Max: Some?

Mel: Can we get any more precise than that?  A hundred?  Twelve?

Max: More than zero?

Different details are important in different media–which allows different artists to cheat differently.

Prose tends to follow characters, with a few exceptions, like the barn scene in Of Mice and Men.  Anything that doesn’t directly affect a character can be fudged.   How many people are there in Union Square in Manhattan?  A writer doesn’t need to know, most of the time–since most of the time she wants to evoke her protagonist’s sense of the crowd, or of  empty space.  A visual artist has to know exactly, because she has to create every one.  (Unless she wants to blur them in the background, another kind of cheat…)  But the artist doesn’t need to know how Union Square sounds, or smells, or what the air tastes like, while a  writer who tries to convey the scene without that information will find her creation sterile.

The artist can help herself by thinking about smells and tastes, of course, just like it can help if the writer knows precisely how many courtiers are in the throne room when the King and Ambassador meet for the first time.  The more you know, the more freedom that knowledge gives you to play–if you want to play good jazz, you should probably learn about harmonics and cycles of fifths.  And some artists  spend their lives trying to evoke a taste with paint and pencil, so there’s that.

Cheating also invites a kind of freedom, though, by opening avenues of surprise within a work for the artist herself.  When I say the writer has cheated, I really mean there are some decisions she hasn’t made yet–decisions that can be made later, or even better, decisions that make themselves.  Oh!  There was another guard, hidden behind the tapestry!  Or maybe the engineer is actually infected with a nano-virus.  What if the king’s bedroom was actually connected to the duchess’s, only nobody knew?  Decisions not yet made are opportunities to expand the world of the story.

At the moment I’m only thinking of prose and visual art, because those two media happen to hover at the top of my mind.  But I wonder if and how cheating happens in other forms of creativity–what decisions are left unmade, either accidentally, or out of a need to leave room for expansion?  Does this kind of thing happen even in massive (and carefully planned) projects, like building an application or shooting a movie?  What would it even look like (sound like) in music?