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Posts Tagged ‘the writing process’

I haven’t touched Steel Butterfly: Part One since I sent it off to the Awesome Team Beta a couple of months ago (in fact I haven’t written a word of fiction since I typed The End), but that was the plan. I wanted to let it sit and not do too much conscious thinking about it until I was ready to dig into revisions–and I knew (or felt, or vaguely apprehended–more likely, given my usual MO) it would need revisions a-plenty.

My feeling or vague apprehension is borne out by initial reports from the betas: the beginning is rough, the world-building sketchy, and the main character not as likeable as I had fondly imagined. So, that’s okay; now I know what I need to fix. But I’m not going to dive in just yet (for one thing, a couple members of the expeditionary force have yet to report back), for another I’ve got art deadlines, and for a third I want to give it time to cook in my subconscious before I bring it back to the fore.

I don’t know how other authors work, but for me a lot of the thinking about my stories goes on in the background while I’m doing other stuff. It’s like soup: you chuck in the ingredients, turn on the fire, and then let everything simmer and meld. Sometimes you might chuck in a couple extra things while it’s cooking, to make sure you’ve got the balance of flavors right, but mostly you just leave it alone.

What that means in practical writing terms is working on other stuff entirely, taking notes when a concrete idea bubbles to the top of my brain, and just generally being on the alert for neat ideas I can toss into the soup. I’m reading a book called Samurai Sketches (tales of samurai from the end of the Edo period) that is happily congruent with some of my needs (plus it’s just interesting!), and a blog post about Final Fantasy IX helped bring some of my world-building thoughts into better focus. That doesn’t mean my soup is going to be Final Fantasy-flavored*, or have big chunks of samurai in it (how far can we take this metaphor?), but storytellers are omnivoracious, and every thought, word, experience, goes into the soup one way or another.

The omnivoracious author on the hunt for more ingredients...

The omnivoracious author on the hunt for more ingredients…


 

*It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be Final Fantasy-flavored either, given what a tight grip FF4 still has on my imagination.

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Stephen King’s On Writing is fifteen years old this year (fifteen! the mind wobbles!), but still an engaging read on its own merits, especially for the overlapping middle section in the Venn diagram of Writers and Stephen King Fans.  It came to mind last night because, you see, I’ve been noticing this trend.

An aspiring writer (or rather, folks who write and aspire to make careers of it) can have a wonderful grasp of characters and how stories flow, a bright and new and incisive way of looking at the world, the best and most creative ideas–but none of it matters, because their grammar and spelling are terrible.

And if someone points out the problem, they respond airily, “That’s what editors are for.”  Whereupon one has no choice but to grind one’s teeth and turn the subject.

Because, guys, I hope you realize that is not what editors are for.

If we must have a toolbox, let it look like this one, please!

If we must have a toolbox, let it look like this one, please!

The middle section of On Writing is called “Toolbox,” and in it King details all the things you’ll need to have with you in order to write successfully.  (I just used an adverb, which he would decry, but you know what? “No adverbs” is less of a rule than a guideline, anyway.)  Vocabulary and grammar go on the top level of the tool box, accesible at need–and guess what? You always need them.

Now, I admit, I’m a bit of a grammar nerd.  I love all of the bits and pieces of English and how they fit together, like the nuts and bolts and cogs and gears and bellows and pumps and little spinny things that make up some wonderful, vast Steampunk machine.  We can debate the merits and uses of the Oxford comma or the split infinitive or God help us the passive voice all day long, and I will not sigh or check my phone nor excuse myself from the discussion, not once.

But you don’t have to be a grammar nerd to recognize that grammar, good grammar, is what carries the freight of your ideas from your brain to the brain of your reader.  If that train of thought is rickety, or ill-constructed, or just plain can’t roll out of the station, the idea transfer will be imperfect at best (and since what happens in the reader’s brain never 100% matches what happened in the writer’s brain, “imperfect” is already the best one can hope for), and at worst, impossible.

Take another metaphor.  My son, the Viking Prince, has decided he wants to be an artist.  I may have mentioned this before.  And he practices, and he tries, and he draws pretty damn well for a four-and-two-thirds-year-old.  Now, a drawing, like a story, is meant to convey an idea, and if the viewer can’t tell what he’s looking at, then the drawing has failed in its purpose.  (Old-fashioned, I know.)  What a four-year-old can convey, with the tools available to him, is going to be different from what a fourteen-year-old, or a forty-year-old, or a four-hundred-year-old (shout-out to all the immortals in the audience) can (or should be able to) convey.

Voltron, reposted with the artist's permission.

Voltron, reposted with the artist’s permission.

But if the grownup spurns the basic, the most basic, fundamental, necessary tools of grammar and spelling, then he is crippling himself.  Because you cannot, you can not convey ideas of any complexity without a proper understanding of how the language works.  You are an adult trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with stick figures.  The four-year-old is doing the best he can.  The forty-year-old must do better.

An editor can’t read your mind, and he can’t tell your story for you.  If the editor wanted to tell that story, he would write it himself.  It is not his job to turn your childish scribbles into the Sistine Chapel.

So please, if you have true aspirations towards being a writer, do not neglect the basics.  (Never neglect the basics, in anything–but that’s a post for another day, maybe.)  You can’t build a glorious cathedral without humble things, boards and stones and chisels and planes.  These things are not beneath your notice; they are necessary.  Fundamentals are called that for a reason; they are the basis, the foundation, for all the wonderful things you can build on top of them.  So fill your toolbox well.

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Now that I am at last, at last approaching the end of The WIP That Would Not Die, I find myself strangely reluctant to push forward. Daily word counts have been in the tens instead of the hundreds since I embarked on Chapter 32 (of 33) (I think). Part of the problem is of course the unsettled state of the house, rugs pulled out, furniture where it should not be, no furniture where it should be, books and towels and papers all higgeldy-piggeldy … but the other part is … me. Why should this be? Why should finishing be scary?

It’s a great thumping big word, though, “finished,” and I’ve been unsteadily hacking my way towards the end of this maze for more years than I care to admit. How can you ever do this professionally, I chide myself, if it takes you this long to write one thing … and then you balk at the end?

image

A cookie if you can read my scribbles, because I sure can’t!

 

But I am moving forward, if slowly and with inexplicable reluctance. Ten words a day is still better than no words, right? Even if at this rate it’ll take another [really long time] to finish.

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Before a story (a novel, a movie, a play, a comic book) begins, your main character has lived at least a little, experienced the world, seen and done and felt things that shape who he* is when the action begins. (Unless you want to go the Tristram Shandy route, I suppose, in which case more power to you.) Further, he lives in a world that did not come into being the moment he did (or at least, you have to make the reader believe he does, and that you’re not making it all up as you go along, if making it up as you go is your style), and that world works in a certain way. And you are going to have to convey all of this information to your readers without boring them to tears.

How?

Two much-maligned techniques in fantastic fiction are the prologue and the info-dump, and they’re maligned for good reason: if done badly, they are boring as hell (if hell is boring? But nobody says “boring as Limbo” or “boring as the Greek Underworld”) and make impatient readers** put down your book and move on to something more entertaining. Now, how to make a prologue or an info-dump entertaining might be a good topic for another day (especially as I am not sure how, myself!), but today I’d like to look at a third way, one I don’t see used too often anymore, alas.

Poster-SaranceThe other day I was moved to pick up and reread Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic (an excellent fantasy based on the Byzantine Empire, and one I think everybody should read). Now, this book has a lot of backstory and worldbuilding information that the reader needs quickly, to follow the action of the plot: there’s Imperial politics, chariot racing, religion, a cast of just-about thousands; it truly is epic. Then there’s the main character, Caius Crispus, weighted down with grief and rage springing from recent experiences.

Yet Kay never assaults the reader with the long historical document-style prologue (I think this can work, but you have to be an amazing craftsman to catch both the style of a historical document and the reader’s attention), but cunningly works the needed information into the action of the story. You need to be up to speed on the politics of the Empire? Here, let’s watch a political assassination in progress, and establish the relationship of two main characters while we’re at it. Chariot racing is important, so here’s a young chariot racer observing the fallout of said assassination when all he wants is to be racing. Why is Crispin so angry and sad? How about a conversation with his mentor to establish the facts?

That old saw, “Show, don’t tell,” is key here. Readers’ mileage varies, of course, on how much work they’re willing to put into a story in order to get out needed information; I suppose readers probably exist who would rather just be told, “Crispin is angry and sad because–” But an excellent rule of writing (espoused by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, screenwriters of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) is, “Give your audience 2+2 and make them work out 4 on their own.”

If you are not quite sure how to do that, then you must study! Read books by past masters of their craft and try to puzzle out how they achieved that effect. (Plus reading more books is always good.) It isn’t even necessary, I think, to consciously bend one’s thoughts to the effort; simply absorbing lots and lots of good books may be enough. (I suppose it depends on how analytical a turn of mind you have, or how much you write by instinct and grace.)

What books are good? The books you love, of course. Find them and learn from them.


*Or she, yes, obviously; it’s not misogyny, it’s grammar.

 **Like me. Sorry, guys. Life is too short, and time is too limited, to read boring books.

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The experience of writing Steel Butterfly has been one of brief, intense periods of activity (and progress) followed by long stretches of nothing at all.  My computer tells me that the last time I edited the latest chapter was February of this year: ten months.  More than enough time to bring an infant to term.  (I don’t know if other mothers think of time in this way; certainly I never did, pre-motherhood, but now I find it a useful measure.  If it ain’t long enough to have a baby in, it ain’t that long.  And of course the converse is also true.)  So, you know, a not-insignificant amount of time.  My memory, when consulted, adds the helpful rider that, when I accessed the file this February past, I fiddled around for half an hour or so, played a few hands of solitaire (probably), then felt too tired or sad or disgusted or whatever to continue, and closed the file again.

For when you're stuck...

For when you’re stuck…

I don’t believe in writer’s block per se.  I do believe that 90% or so of story-creation is instinctual and unconscious, and that whatever process governs the writer’s (or at least, my) ability to get words onto paper (screen, wax tablet, whatever) will halt unless the conditions are, like the littlest bear’s porridge, just right.  (You, hypothetical reader, may be different.  You may exert such masterful control over your unconscious processes that you can muscle through these … cessations.  There’s no right way or wrong way, so long as the words are getting written and you, the writer, are pleased with the end result.  But most of my best thinking happens when I’m not paying attention to it.)

So what are some wrong conditions?

1. The writer’s emotional state.  Seems pretty obvious.  If you are distracted by real-world problems–or even real-world joys–you probably will not be able to write effectively.

2. The writer’s physical state.  Ditto.  It doesn’t even have to be pain that distracts you.  When I was pregnant, I was unable to sit comfortably in a chair for the long stretches required to concentrate on writing.  I probably should have found an alternate solution: a standing desk (ugh, with swollen ankles and feet? Maybe not) or dictation or something.

3. The story is wrong.  Either something you’ve already written contradicts where the story wants to be going, or something you’re about to write is not going to work.  It is best not to force the story into the shape you want it to be.  If the problem happened earlier in the story, it is kind of like a dropped stitch in knitting: you will have to tear out everything you’ve done since the mistake, fix the mistake, and then do it all again.  Tedious?  Well, maybe, but presumably you enjoy knitting, or you wouldn’t have started the project in the first place.  If the problem is about to happen … well, unless a future version of yourself appears before you and gasps out, “No–not that plot development!” how can you know?

This is more challenging.  If a 3 corresponds with a 1 or 2, the time necessary to regain your equilibrium may also help to shake loose the right plot development.  If you don’t have that kind of time (maybe you are a published writer with deadlines, and not a dilettante like me), you can always do something else, something physical and repetitive and boring, to help your subconscious produce the right answer.  Taking a walk is good, or a shower.  Washing dishes, or folding laundry, or some other tedious, necessary chore, can also help.

4. You just don’t have the right words.  Everything else is fine.  You feel okay (or you are writing to purge those feelings of not-okay-ness), you have had adequate sleep and/or are adequately caffeinated, you know what happens next … and still nothing.  You sit and stare at a sterile white screen with a blinking cursor mocking you.

What do you do?  You have no idea how to go on.

Sometimes … you can just say so.

In Voyage to Ruin, I got stuck in just such a way.  Fortunately, I was writing with an omniscient narrator who liked, now and then, to interject his own opinions into the goings-on, so I wrote:

I must pause here and confess, dear readers, that I am puzzled as to how I should continue.  In fact, a part of me wishes I did not have to continue at all.  I would much prefer to leave you here, with the charming image of Captain Flynn at the helm of his beloved ship: a man in the prime of his life, rather good-looking, made handsomer still by his evident happiness—a man, it must be admitted, of no particular virtue, but in whom a certain dash and ebullience of spirit might almost have obviated the need for virtue.  I would like that of all things, because the events to come are unpleasant in the extreme, and will no doubt be as disagreeable for you to read as they are for me to relate.  However, to leave you with the impression that Captain Flynn’s story ends here would be iniquitous, vile, false.  We must remember that the service of truth sometimes requires the endurance of suffering, and if things become too frightening, we will hold each other’s hands for comfort, like children lost in a dark wood.

Wow.  That narrator had one heck of an orotund style.  But however over-the-top the words, the idea was straight-up truth.  I was puzzled as to how to continue.  I didn’t want to keep writing.  The narrator expressed them, but those were my thoughts and feelings.  And, expressing them in the story’s style helped unstick my brain and get the words flowing.

What about a story with a more limited POV? I hear you asking, assuming there is a you and I am not just yapping into a void.  After all, omniscient POV is really not popular right now.

It can still work!

In fact, the reason I am writing this now is because I used this technique, or trick, this morning, to get Steel Butterfly unstuck.  Now, Steel Butterfly is told in third-person limited with no narratorial intrusions, so instead of describing how I felt, I had to describe what the POV character was feeling.  (To make picking up the story more difficult, I had stopped right before what I thought was going to be an action sequence with a particular plot development, only to realize that the story needed a different, much more emotionally-charged development.  So I had to dive in to that without having a chance to warm up on some dialogue or scenery description or something easier.)  So I chose to describe the tension I felt, that I couldn’t just make the story get on with it already!

The moment stretched on and on and on.  Move, Aine thought at it.  Break.  End.  But it did not move, and it did not break, and it did not end.

Not a lot to it, but that little paragraph helped get the story going again.

And a little bonus tip: learn and use rhetorical devices to make your prose stronger.  The technique in the final sentence is Anaphora, the repetition of words or phrases.  It is helpful for emphasis, and also for slowing down the pace, making the moment seem even longer.

I don’t know if this technique would work for everybody, but it works for me every time.  If it works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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This Thanksgiving past, I did something I have never done before, something I didn’t think possible.  I wrote in a room full of people.

Not just a blog post or a Facebook status, but actual semi-coherent words of fiction, a scene appearing in a s.f. retelling of Rapunzel, co-written with my longtime friend and fellow scribbler Joanne Renaud.  (I’ll let you know when and where you can read the story as soon as more details become available.)  So there I was, in the living room at my grandma’s house, surrounded by family talk-talk-talking away, and I sat at the coffee table with my laptop and formed thoughts and words and images out of the ether (but not the Aether, because if I had that I would probably not be writing science fiction), or the raw material of creation, whichever you will.

Not this Aether

Not this Aether

Jane Austen famously wrote her classic novels in the sitting room, laboring away while the busy family chattered around her, and because of her industry we have Emma and Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.  Six novels of pure genius.  Virginia Woolf famously wondered what else Jane Austen might have achieved, if she had been less constrained by her circumstances.

I can’t speak for Jane Austen; maybe she had powers of concentration and focus that I lack.  It took me all afternoon to write an 800-word scene.  Some of my slowness came from not knowing what exactly needed to happen until I was writing it, which can lead to a lot of “Hmmmtypey typey typey … ponder … delete.”  (And in those cases it really is often better to get up and go do something else, washing dishes or folding laundry or just taking a walk, something to shake the appropriate neurons loose and get them working again.  But then again, other times stubbornly plugging away can also work.)  But even when one is focusing one’s best, trying to think of the words you need is hard when snatches of relatives’ conversation keeps catching your ear.

Still, I did it.  I finished the scene, and I emailed it to my writing partner so that she could do the next bit, and I felt triumphant and smug.  Take that, Virginia Woolf! I thought.  It can be done!

Yes it can.  But it adds an extra dimension of challenge to a process that is already challenging.  And I wouldn’t recommend trying it with a noisy toddler: the advantage of the chatty family is that they chatter around you, leaving you in an isolated little bubble–not of silence, but of separate-ness, giving you the space to concentrate.  The toddler is 1000% guaranteed not to do that.

So, pace Jane Austen, unparalleled quiet genius, I think I’ll take that isolated room after all.

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aine_10-07A writer acquaintance of mine likes to talk about “filing off the serial numbers,” by which she means taking the elements of a thing you like, something that sparks your imagination, and removing the specific bits that make it unique (and copywritten! plagiarism is bad, kiddos!) and replacing them with some other new bits of your own creation.  It’s a useful metaphor if your brain works that way, but mine doesn’t.  For one thing, imagining hunching over someone else’s beautifully crafted work and painstakingly rubbing away the stamped letters with a file–how tedious!

I prefer to imagine a cauldron, or maybe a compost heap.  Everything you read, watch, encounter, experience, gets tossed in the soup or on the pile, and out of that multifarious stew arises–well, who knows what?  Stories germinate in there, and pull up through their roots all manner of influences.  The final result is something new, something that grows out of your own brain, but it also partakes of those influences.

It’s fun sometimes to examine our own works and identify the specific influences that went into a specific aspect of the work.  This weekend past I was reading the new Dark Tower book from Stephen King, and one of Roland’s behaviors reminded me of my own heroine, Aine.  So I thought I’d sit down here and blather a bit about some of my favorite fictional characters who influenced her creation.

Innocent, pink-haired, good with a sword

Innocent, pink-haired, good with a sword

Utena Tenjou – Shoujo Kakumei Utena
Back in college (way back when) anime was just starting to be a big deal in the States and you could find more shows than just Vampire Hunter D, Akira and Fist of the North Star, and one of my new favorites was Utena.  (It’s still a favorite, actually, despite its bizarre ending.)  Our heroine is idealistic to the point of naiveté, defending her loved ones and her values in the face of a concerted attack by the forces of evil to destroy her.  Besides her delightful tomboyishness, it’s her purity of soul that inspires me.  Even when it seems that evil has succeeded in breaking her heart and her spirit, she rallies and fights on, even unto the ultimate sacrifice.  In the end, she is victorious.

FFXIII-2-Lightning-final-fantasy-xiii-18792693-438-700

Serious, unrelenting, pink-haired.

Lightning – Final Fantasy XIII
Truth: I haven’t actually played Final Fantasy XIII, or any other video games since Kingdom Hearts II (the life of a freelance-artist-cum-writer-cum-mommy, le sigh), but Lightning is exactly the sort of character who appeals to me … it’s possible, on a subconscious level, that seeing the artwork for FF13 is part of what made me want to pick up Steel Butterfly again.  Lightning is taciturn, troubled, passionate–sort of a female version of Cloud from FF7.  Oh, and she’s good with a sword too.

You know how hard it is to find a pic of Cameron that's not ridiculously sexy?

You know how hard it is to find a pic of Cameron that’s not ridiculously sexy?

Cameron – Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Not Sarah Connor, although Sarah as played by Lena Heady may be my favorite character ever.  (Okay, TV character.  Because have you read Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold?  Cordelia is the. Best. Character. Ever.  Every book, movie, TV show, stage play, video game, you name it, needs More Cordelia.  But I digress.)  Cameron is a strange machine, broken and malfunctional, a danger to the people she loves.  Wait, loves?  Can a Terminator feel love?  (Well, Terminator 3 implies that the machines have something in them that can help them overcome their programming–call it a soul, or will, or something else.  But I digress again.)  Cameron’s combination of vulnerability and relentlessness really resonate in my imagination.

Note the lack of pink hair, however.

Note the lack of pink hair, however.

Roland – The Dark Tower
Stephen King’s Gunslinger is kind of a human Terminator: the only thing that matters to him is the mission (quest. thing).  He may get hurt, even maimed; all his comrades may be killed or left behind; all hope of success may be lost; but he will stagger on until his dying breath.  Unrelenting pursuit of the quest is a strong common thread in the characters that have inspired me (that, and pink hair and badass weapons mastery.  Sorry, Roland, but two out of three ain’t bad); Roland’s single-mindedness is perhaps more disturbing than Cameron’s because he’s still human.  He may drop you off a cliff or feed you to zombies if that’s what it takes to get him one step closer to the Tower, but he’ll feel bad about it afterwards.  But guilt–even less than zombies, werewolves, cyborg Doctor Doom robot things, mutant lobsters, giant spiders, witches, marauders, lawyers, etc–will not slow him down for long.

Red hair, doesn't give up, teaches herself how to kill dragons. Original badass.

Red hair, doesn’t give up, teaches herself how to kill dragons. Original badass.

Aerin – The Hero and the Crown
Saving the earliest for last–and, honestly, is there a fantasy or YA author (published or would-be) alive who hasn’t been influenced by Robin McKinley?  She is a giant in the field.  But I digress yet again.  Aerin is the kind of person I wanted to be when I was 12; recuperating from an illness, she teaches herself to make a magic flame-repelling ointment that will let her go out and kill dragons.  She is methodical, patient, scientific, undaunted by failure (the ointment recipe lacks measurements, and the ingredients are some of them hard to come by–and she still figures it out), unwavering even when the task at hand is bigger than she thought it would be: not just exterminating little pesty dragons, but taking on a big one–not just killing a Great Dragon, but saving the kingdom.

It’s important (for me, anyway) to add that I didn’t think about this influences in advance.  I made up a character, and I wrote about the things she did, and only looking back at what I’d written afterward did it become clear what specific influences went into her making.

How about you guys?  What characters inspire you?  Who are some of your all-time favorites?

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