Archive for May, 2018

Writing with a purpose

One of very few blogs on writing I have read and consistently gotten value from is fantasy writer Patricia C. Wrede’s blog “Wrede on Writing.” Her advice is practical, well-considered, and based on years of experience writing and being published in the genre world.

One thing she shares more than once is her dislike of writing exercises. Rather than practice writing so-many words of description, or so-many pages of dialogue, she prefers to hone her skills in the field: learning new things by doing them, in “pay copy,” as she puts it, rather than in an ultimately futile exercise.

This made me think of a couple of things I have done in my work, not necessarily because it served the story or was critical to the character, but to see if I could. We like to think our stories are their own purpose, pure and free of ulterior motives – but sometimes it’s just too fun to squeeze something else in too.

For example:

In “The Way Home,” * David loses his glasses almost immediately after being transported against his will and all known science into an alternate world. On some level this serves story and character: emphasizing his alienation, highlighting his helplessness in this unfamiliar and potentially deadly situation. Really though, it was great practice using other senses in descriptive passages.

In “The Edge,” Marta and Doc encounter a person of indeterminate gender. I had sometime in the past read a passage by Laurie R. King (whom I admire greatly), in one of her Kate Martinelli novels, in which the author aims coyly to conceal the sex of Kate’s partner. King’s passage comes across as clunky and awkward, sentences tripping over themselves in an effort to avoid pronouns or other obvious indicators. As a reader I found it annoying, not only because of the sacrifice of smooth prose, but also because it attempted to play up the main character’s sexuality – as if being a lesbian somehow made her strange or special. (It was written in the mid-90s and was at least a decade old by the time I read it – maybe it worked better in its own time.)

The passage stuck in my mind for years. Ultimately, the time came for Marta and Doc to meet up with Marta’s old friend Dell, and I could not decide for the life of me whether Dell was a man or a woman. Each rewrite I went back and forth, but neither seemed to entirely fit. Finally it occurred to me to take King’s work as a challenge. It was not necessary to the story that Dell’s sex be concealed, but it was interesting to write the scene – a mercifully brief one – without using pronouns, and without being obvious about not using pronouns. I think I did pretty well; you can judge for yourself below.**

(Now, as trans, intersex, and non-binary people have become more visible in everyday interactions, I wonder if Dell wasn’t trying to tell me something back then.)

I’ve taken writing classes, and I’ve tried out some writing exercises, and overall I think I agree with Pat Wrede: it’s more fun to do it her way.


* “The Way Home” is currently free on Smashwords with coupon code DB73P.

**Excerpt from “The Edge,” c2015:

The terraforming project was in chaos.

Soil preparation was well underway, kicking up great clouds of dust that swirled in the orange-tinted sunlight like smoke from a raging forest fire. Nutrient-injection machines thundered and growled, and people in burgundy Explorer Corps uniforms scurried to and fro like ants at a picnic. A ground crew swarmed aboard to unload supplies as Marta and Doc made their way down the ramp. Marta’s eyes watered in the thick air, and she squinted blindly up at the towering figure who stopped before them.

“This way,” said a voice muffled by a heavy dust filter. Marta and Doc followed the giant away from the landing strip into a low building nearby. They shut the door on the pandemonium outside and breathed in the cleaner indoor air with relief.

“Thank you for coming, Doc,” said their host, unfastening the dust filter. “Sorry about the mess. And you know, you really should have told me whose skinny black ass you’ve been hauling all over the Edge.”

Marta gaped as the mask fell away, revealing the twinkling eyes and round, olive-toned face of an old friend. “Dell Bier,” she said with a delighted smile. “They let you out of the inner systems? What were they thinking?”

They embraced, Dell engulfing her in a crushing hug. “Explorer Corps,” the giant explained to Doc. “They’ll let anybody in who’s got the coin for training.”

“You would know,” said Marta as they settled around a much-abused conference table. “How the hell are you? And how did you score a functioning project when all I got was a dead hunk of rock?”

“Didn’t mean to.” Dell glanced at Doc. “My commanding officer vanished into thin air.”

Doc paled. “They’ve been here?”

“About a week ago. I suppose we were lucky; no bodies this time.”

“What happened?”

Dell sat back, the chair creaking protest. “Commander Meyers went out with the irrigation supervisor to have a look at the spread beyond the ridge. They didn’t come back. Next morning all we found was the gear. No trace of them.”

“Will you show us?”

The broad shoulders lifted and fell in an immense shrug. “I can show you. But the area’s been planted since. We couldn’t wait.”

“That doesn’t matter. I’d like to see it.”

Dell reached for the radio set in the middle of the table. “I’ll order a car.”


The three of them stood in a sweet-scented grove, gangling young trees stretching thin branches overhead. The high ridge to the north hid all sight and sound of the work in progress. Spacious orchards filled the low valley, stretching east and west as far as the eye could see; to the south was nothing but unformed orange desert. A bright yellow butterfly flitted among the tiny flowers at their feet. Marta drew the tablet from her belt and booted the program, as Dell watched with bemusement.

“Trace sensor?”

“Supposedly,” Marta answered. “It’s not finding anything.”

“Too much time has passed,” said Doc. “There’s nothing left.”

Marta returned the tablet to her belt. “I’m sorry, Doc. We’ll find them.”

“She will, too,” said Dell with a grin. “Best tracker in the Corps. Once found a water-bearing comet by – well, I’ll let her tell the stories.”

“Thanks, Dell,” said Marta with a smile. “Thanks for everything.”


Read Full Post »