Academic and creative

Earlier this week I got great news: I’ve been accepted into the doctoral programme at the University of Turku. I’m incredibly happy I’m getting to do a PhD, as continuing in academia has been my goal ever since I got my MA two years ago. Now it’s going to happen for real: I get to work on Middle English, concentrating on contemporaneous evidence in the form of manuscripts. A fizz of academic creativity is building up in me as I think about all the interesting stuff I’m going to study and do!

I hope that concentrating on academia will also help me with my creative writing. Quite a lot of my poems/stories are inspired by the stuff I come across in my research: history just has so much weird and wonderful detail begging to be elaborated on or twisted into fantasy worlds. And of course, compared to a 9-to-5 job, the self-made schedules of academia will leave a lot more leeway for integrating creative writing with the rest of my life. Yay!

On the other hand, it’s going to be busy. Things always are (with me, at least). So, I’m going to have to teach myself new ways of self-discipline and how to balance academic work with my creative writing. Both are important to me, but I don’t want to become overwhelmed.

Brandi Schillace wrote a really inspiring post related to this topic over at Magical Words. I read this post back in April when it was published, but it’s even more useful now that I know I’ll actually be doing this PhD thing. Brandi has some sound advice for overachievers regardless of whether you’re working in academia or not – a really good read. Being “good enough” is so hard for people like me who tend towards perfectionism, but it’s essential to learn (and re-learn).

This is something I especially want to keep in mind (from the blog post):

Balancing academic, work, and writing life isn’t about roguish daring and a willingness to burn the candle at both ends. It requires re-seeing, a new vision of what balance means.

Starting this autumn, I’ll have to find out what that balance is for me.

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Short stories: the challenges of brevity

I edited and sent off a short story today. Exciting! I should really write more shorts. The trouble is, I often tend to go for expansive stuff rather than the knife-sharp and short stuff…

I’ve been thinking I should practise writing flash fiction to hone my short-writing skills. Was inspired by this piece in The Guardian; I love the notion of “stories in your pocket”.

Related to short stories, a while ago I read David B. Coe’s post on Magical Words comparing novels vs short fiction in terms of the writing process. I wish I could learn to do this well:

This is the essence of writing a compelling short story: taking a situation, a moment in time, and giving it narrative structure so that it becomes something greater and more meaningful, something that feels complete. It is what I strive to do with my short fiction. When writing a short piece, I know that I can’t explain everything about my world or my characters or even my magic system. So I tell my readers the bare minimum of what they need to know and I try to allow my story to exist on its own terms.

Today I also wrote a poem draft during my walk to work and did some daydreaming for a potential fantasy trilogy (shhhh), so it’s been a surprisingly good writing day, all in all.

Beginnings and endings

Today I read two blog posts on writing, and the topics fit so nicely around one another, ouroboros-like, that I thought I’d post my own thoughts inspired by them. The first post, by Terri Windling, is on beginnings. The second, by Carrie Ryan (blogging at the awesome Magical Words), is on endings.

Windling’s post is not so much about actual story beginnings as it is about the act of beginning. It’s a love song for head-over-heels story-exploring! It really resonated with me because (see below), I’m all about the headlong rush into story. Windling’s quoted some really lovely stuff that I utterly agree with. Just go for it: don’t be afraid of beginning! I found the whole post really inspiring. (Also, pictures of trees and a lovely dog!)

Ryan’s post is a more general discussion on endings and their difficulty. It’s rather validating to know that published authors also struggle with the matter of endings! :) Good points about how endings should resolve aspects of the story.

Which is easier?
Beginnings, endings: two essential features of any story. No matter how non-plot-driven, every story has a beginning and end. Beginnings affect endings, vice versa too. And like in all aspects of writing, every writer has their own ways of dealing with both beginnings and endings. So what are mine?

I’ve always found beginnings far easier than endings. I can come up with a bunch of beginnings for stories in half an hour, but struggle for months with finding endings that feel right. Oh, the number of unfinished stories languishing (possibly forever) in my writing folder, lamenting their want of a proper ending! (Well, in truth, the stories that never get an ending probably weren’t worth the trouble in the first place: had ideas that didn’t take wing, were clumsily done, etc.)

Note: I’m talking first drafts here. In the editing process, beginning and ending alike pose their own problems. What felt like the perfect scene to start a story can end up being cut, or changed entirely.

Sometimes I’ll know the ending of a story the moment I start writing it, but mostly I’m a pantser. Or at least, more of a pantser than a planner. I guess I’m a percolator, really (to quote from the link: “I let the drips of a story filter through my mind over a long period of time, letting it steam and swirl about without determining it”). So, yeah. I’ll plan a bit before starting a story – unless sudden, unexpected inspiration hits.

I think mostly it’s about the attitude to beginning. Even if I’ve planned something in advance, the ending is rarely entirely clear. So I jump into a new project with mind open and a blind faith that eventually I’ll find my way through the maze to the ending. I love hurtling into a new story (or longer poem) without quite knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Only once I’m past the initial rush do I start giving serious thought to how the story’s going to end.

My problem with endings is something that’s plagued my writing my whole life. It’s not like every story is problematic with regard to its ending, but like I said: beginnings are definitely easier than endings. I think one of my main problems with endings is that they are what resonate (or not!) with the reader once the story’s done, so there’s a lot of pressure to make the ending Matter, and be Brilliant. Of course, beginnings should also be Brilliant, and hook the reader and so forth. But I can forgive a book a lacklustre beginning if it has a breathtaking ending, because the ending is often what lingers with the reader.

Case study
I’ve been trying to plan a story for a competition organised by a Finnish sf/f con (named… wait for it… Finncon!). In Finnish, naturally. It’s nice to flex my Finnish-writing muscles again, but what’s been difficult so far has been the ideas and planning, not even the writing. Since the deadline is in around a month, I thought I’d plan the story first. Efficient, organised, all that.

Well, yesterday I came home from work with the snow falling briskly around me: the city all white again, daylight gone. And suddenly, bam, an idea (only vaguely based on my previous plans) and words tumbling out so fast that I had to type the first sentences into my mobile phone so I wouldn’t forget them. So now I have a typical me-situation: a first page of prose with the initial scenario, plus a few notes for the future. No actual plot yet, and definitely no ending in sight. But a strong atmosphere and a love for the words and characters.

I wish I knew the ending for this story. But I think I’ll have fun finding it out even as I write! It’ll require more editing, but I hope I come up with a satisfying end… erm… in the end.

What’s more difficult for you, dear readers? Beginning a story or coming up with an ending?