Sometimes New and Shiny is Dull and Shallow

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

I used to have a serious issue with sticking to ideas. I’d begin work on a new story idea and once I’d gotten past the honeymoon stage where things shift from fresh and exciting to actually being work, I’d start getting new ideas. Those ideas were always more interesting to me. While what I was working on had turned to a meandering swamp, the new always promised quick leaps and flashes of brilliance.

I knew I shouldn’t take the bait, but there was always that voice that said “If you change to that idea now, it’ll be the one you’ll be able to see through to the end.”

Whenever I did, it never worked out.

Eventually I learned to break the habit of breaking the habit. I even wrote about it last year! The point is somewhere along the line, I stopped abandoning ideas and began sticking with them. For most of this year, I’ve been working on a novel. For More Than Earthly Ends (which I admit will probably not stick as a title if a publisher ever gets involved, but you never know). More than that, I was conscientiously working on the second draft, which involved a whole lot of rewriting and not so much editing.

Enter NaNoWriMo.

My initial thoughts were to write something small. A game design document. Well, small compared to a full-blown novel. It’d have a story, a setting, and it’d be something I could switch off come December 1st. Then well, the idea grew. It’s a cool idea (at least I think so), but while it was continuing to form, something was off. It all felt a bit hollow. It felt as though it occupied a space somewhere between my first NaNo and my fourth, between light space-bending scifi and theological fantasy, and that’s probably an apt analogy for the concept. Nothing wrong with it, and well, I eventually went through my usual preparation process.

The process, brainstorm. Think up ideas. Write a plan. Put together a playlist. Write. That’s the things (yes, all of them).

Thing is, the plan didn’t represent where I felt compelled to start, and the playlist (when I eventually got around to it) just didn’t inspire.

In the lead-up to NaNo, I considered not doing it. Sure, I was an ML (spoilers: last time, for a few years anyway), but I was meant to finish this novel. All of the other scifi stories I wanted to tell came after it. Fantasy I could do, but I didn’t want to get into something BIG just yet. Then I came up with the idea I started with and bam, ridiculous something.

Part of it is moving. House moves are exhausting, and there’s still much to do, which all kills writing time at home. It’s also removed my ability to attend write-ins I might ordinarily go to, and then there’s just general tiredness. None of that was an excuse last time I went through similar events.

So yesterday, I tried something else. I put on a different playlist – the one I use for FMTEE. And I felt excited. So I took my notebook to a seat out on the street, during my lunchbreak, and started writing a new chapter (chapter seven), and I immediately felt it – this story was like home. At the moment, mid-move, it’s hard to feel like my literal home is home. A sense of belonging there isn’t, yet it’s there in this story.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t mean the one I was writing for NaNoWriMo on the first of November that’s still sitting at under 1000 words. I mean FMTEE.

Starting with this chapter seven, I’m going to go back to it. I don’t think my chances of hitting 50K will be any better with it, but I’ll be writing something that means more to me. Whatever this other one is, it can wait until FMTEE is proper done.

The Inner Turtle

November 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

tortoise

“Why aren’t you helping?”

I’m behind.

That’s not a general missive on the state of my being, but an expression of my state as it pertains to NaNoWriMo. I’m behind.

It’s only day three, but I’m sitting on around 1000 words. The on-track target for the end of the day is 5000 words. With luck I’ll have the chance to write at least 500 more today, which I’m considering a reasonable minimum, given that life itself is many kinds of busy. Moving house, moving jobs, three month old, writing work, being an ML and yeah, there’s more besides them.

Yet I’m not panicked.

I’m writing something that I came up with on a whim, and while I wasn’t taking this new world very seriously when I first threw concepts around, it is growing on me. So far there’s been two scenes – one with the intended protagonist and his kind-of antagonist, the other with a glimpse of the support characters. I’m not sure if this means I really have deuteragonists in the major support character and the original antagonist, but it’s possible. What’s more, even the small details present already inform a level of richness that seems improbably for a hastily formed setting.

In a scene I’ve established some semblance of technology, a form of government and political conflict. In a second, I’ve introduced Mars, given it a history (and in fact, physical ruins), and brought in the cast-offs. All of this is world-building or scene-setting. It’s introducing the world with gradual details, and giving it enough of an outline to present a shape, and then the smallest, most insignificant descriptions that set it apart.

It might not be great. Far too early to say. In some ways it feels similar to my first NaNo, what with a character from outside a setting being put into a world he’s not a part of. Sure, that’s a common one beyond my own writing, but I recognise that it’ll be leaning toward the ‘adopted outsider’ story (at least on the surface). Unlike the story I started last year, November 30 is the cut-off for this particular one. Not saying that I won’t jump back in to it later, but the rewrite of last year’s takes precedence.

In terms of the plan for what’s next, there’s a few things I need to do – vital parts of my routine. Firstly, I need to make a playlist. It’s not NaNo without a playlist. I’m lucky in that I’ve found a song that nails a pivotal scene, so it’s going to be the formative track. More will come. The next is revising my ten point plan. See, I neglected to do one. I have a half-finished plan, and I haven’t even reached the first point on it. Lastly, once all the moving is done, habit. Whether that means write-ins become more of a thing for me, or I set up an area in the new home to write in, it’s all needed to facilitate the habit.

Perhaps I’ll have to start warring. Well, of the wording kind.

The Plan Plan Worksheet

October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Minor one, this. I’ve reworked old NaNoWriMo worksheet I did of the long version of The Plan Plan, cutting the number of pages down to 9. It’s a little streamlined, but should hopefully be just as useful to those that liked the previous version. I’ll admit it’s not suited to everyone’s preferred planning style, but it’s helped some people before, and that’s what it’s intended to do.

Here’s the link: ThePlanPlanWorksheet

The original version had a lot of use – I even heard from schoolteachers that used it with their english classes! So if you do find it useful, I’d love to hear about it.

It should still do the trick if you’re thinking about NaNoWriMo, though I’m purposely not encroaching on their territory this time. Writing ain’t just for November!

Guest Post: Tension Tells The Tale

October 22, 2014 § 3 Comments

If you want to write a good story (or read a good story), there always has to be tension. Specifically, there needs to be tension between the main characters, not just tension in the plot. This frisson can morph, grow or shrink, but it remains until the end of the story. Without tension, of course, there is no story.

I know this to the marrow of my bones, and yet, my reader mind says this axiom is wrong. The novels I loved the best, and those with the most intense love stories, didn’t have a couple pitted against each other. They had couples that worked together toward common goals.

Isn’t memory a crafty thing? I skimmed back through my favorite novels and realized I’d fallen under the spell of the authors. The great love stories of Jacqueline Carey, Karen Marie Moning, William Goldman—every one of them hold true to the rule: The tension was a tight string between the protagonists throughout the entire novel/series until the final happily ever after moment.

Okay, so with romance novels, this made sense. Without the tension between the lead woman and man, what would be the point? Even when the lovers work together to solve another mystery, such as in Jayne Ann Krentz’s bestsellers, the characters still maintained a tension between them—a secret one can’t share with the other, a trust issue that needs time and experience to be dissolved, a guilt of expectations holding one or the other back from fully committing themselves. Until the third act, this tension rides the story, steers it, cuts short those happy moments and pushes the characters back into action.

But what of fantasy? In fantasy, there’s an outer villain that needs conquering. Two people, even those who are allies and not potential love interests, can battle side by side against this foe without needing tension between them. Can’t they? I sifted through my favorite novels. Ilona Andrews, Kim Harrison, Robert Jordan, Naomi Novik. The external foe is there, the quest is laid out before the main character, but the tension between the protagonists remains a driving force in them all, especially in those that I remember so fondly as binding tales of love. The happily ever after tricked my memory; the fantasy I created for these characters after the novel ended was as strong in my mind as all the struggles they overcame in the novels.

Many young writers fall in the same trap, their reader brain taking over their writer brain. They want to make the lives of their characters good ones. After all, these people you create become real to you, and you (typically) really like them. You want good things for them.

Forget that. Do nice things for strangers. Make life easier for your loved ones (and yourself). Learn how to communicate and diffuse tension among your various relationships. Live a long and bliss-filled life following your passion, and if you’re truly blessed, you’ll find a path that’s rewarding and devoid of demons and villains.

But for characters, make them work for it. Steal their moments of joy. Whittle away their hope. Push their dreams and goals to the farthest, most unattainable hidey-holes of their galaxy. Then give them indomitable spirits or irrefutable motivation, and make them sweat and bleed for their happily ever after.

Now that’s a tale people will want to read.


Rebecca Chastain is the author of A Fistful of Evil, an urban fantasy novel set in her home town in northern California but sold around the world, including at Amazon, Bookworld, and Angus & Robertson. She spends her days torturing people she creates (there’s some evil giggling involved), all while plotting to give them happy endings . . . eventually. To contact or chat with Rebecca, visit her website or Facebook page.

Writing Musts: Escalate The Conflict

October 9, 2014 § 2 Comments

Tuesday saw the first event of the NaNoWriMo 2014 Calendar take place in Sydney, and in keeping with the idea I generally have about how the course of everyone’s NaNoWriMo should run, the first event was a planning session. The planning sessions are not rigid guidelines intended to control how everyone’s organising their approach, but more as a general health-check to ensure nobody feels out of their depth – or at least, bringing them back to slightly shallower waters.

I have ideas on writing. On the craft, on organisation, and on what makes a good story. I think I know what I’m doing, though understand that beyond the blog, there’s nothing (yet) to demonstrate to others that I know what I’m doing – it’s all on faith. The way I approach these planning sessions is to treat them as workshops. Initially it’s a probing question – do you know what you’ll be writing this year?

It’s a hopefully non-threatening question. I save the in-your-face “justify why what you’re writing isn’t terrible” type things for the people I know better, since they’re already used to my general questions and NaNo requires a step-up. (in case one of you are reading this and wondering why that happened). How’s writing, what are you writing, and how do you feel about it? They’re the general ones I trot out on (at a minimum) a monthly basis for everyone in my writing group. The people new to me get the same on their first, and I don’t do it as an excuse to talk about what I’m writing, but because I genuinely care about them having a good time with their writing.

If people I know more are writing a specific genre, it’s hammer-them-with-cliches time, so they’re more inclined to tell what makes it different.

The most important any NaNoWriMo ML, writing group organiser, or other kind of mentor can do, is listen with intent. Hear what’s being said, and try to put your mind into their story. Let them tell it all before you jump in with ideas or questions, and again, hear it all. You’re not there waiting for your chance to talk about your things, but to help them with theirs.

There’s a few different approaches to planning on this blog, one of which is The Plan Plan, and there’s also the NaNoWriMo worksheet version of it. They were both written with the intent of being used as a way to organise planning, but it’s all my own ideas and may not work for everybody. Further to that, some of the structured aspects (as with the Elements method related association) are an attempt to create rules around something that was always an adhoc free association exercise, as demonstrated in some of the examples.

One commonality I see between story ideas is there’s a bunch of things that are objectively cool (and by this I mean they’re cool not by any outward observation, but because taken as a single element that isn’t built up by the rest of the story, it seems cool). Ideas tend to be like that, but no matter how cool an idea, there’s no guarantee of longevity. Even with the fact of it being somewhere between the length of a novella or novel (depending on your opinion), fifty-thousand words is still a piece of substance. You can’t sustain that with a few cool ideas, which means you need some kind of meat to what’s happening.

If you’re doing a milieu story, spanning one or many lives that inhabit a world, a unifying element is needed – the point of this world needs to be made. It may be comprised of a number of small stories, but without a coherent narrative running through them, the substance is missing.

If you’re about the characters, then it’s absolutely necessary to give them their teeth, or to take them away entirely. The trick with these moments, whether you’re empowering them or stripping them of their faculties, is to ensure that you’re making it a tumultuous ride. This means raising the stakes, flipping the balance of power, and escalating the urgency. A lie becomes a con, a robbery becomes a murder, a dance becomes an affair, and a naysayer becomes a nemesis.

One common approach in terms of narrative tension is that the climax of the story should be the most intense moment, and the second most intense should be the opening conflict. The opening conflict doesn’t necessarily refer to the first scene, but could be. It could also be the inciting incident, the altercation, something else. If the climax (whenever it occurs) isn’t the most intense, most brutal, most significant, most far-reaching point, then it’s not the climax.

Of course, you need to get there.

Escalate.

One of the likelihoods with this process is you will get stuck. You won’t know how you get from two friends having a minor disagreement, to their gunfight atop the Crystal Tower. That’s okay, because you have something that you can rely on. The characters, and the themes. The more you learn about the characters, the better. Their personality will open up avenues of in-between, and a good set of questions to have on hand is “why are they doing this?” and “if this doesn’t work, what would they do next?” and then of course “what if they’re wrong?”

Do let them be wrong, make mistakes and not merely fail. Let them fall short because of themselves, or succeed in ways that actually meets one goal yet creates a range of complications. Draw it out.

Also consider what you know about the character that they don’t know about themselves. Find their fears, and however founded, exploit them. Identify their goal and not only put obstacles in their way, but attempt to distract them. This is paramount in the planning stage. No matter how unsure you are, jot it down anyway. It mightn’t be useful now, but you have no way of knowing when an idea will be relevant to what you’re doing.

Said, Ever Unassailable

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

It's weird that Facebook always expects an image on a shared link. But I'll play their game this one time...

It’s weird that Facebook always expects an image on a shared link. But I’ll play their game this one time…

For a part of my writing that I’ve always put a lot of stock in, the absence of posts on dialogue rings peculiar. As it’s been so long since the last time I wrote about it, I feel a bit less wary about treading the same ground. The way we express ourselves, that special inner voice we all have when we’re not trying to be literary or profound, that’s a big part of it – yet that’s a matter of expression, and isn’t the same thing.

Words have their own power, but whatever descriptions or events you write, there’s a subtext at play. If a character swipes a loaf of bread, you might describe the event, or the manner in which it happens, or the smell of the freshly baked loaf as it breaks into two.

From there the reader has the projector – they take your descriptions and words and make them real, but through their own imagined versions. The exception is always in the dialogue. While the motivations can change or the nuances may vary, what you write as said by a character is precisely what they say. There’s no variance.

Well, maybe some.

Characterisation plays a major part of how a character’s dialogue comes across, and as it’s difficult to describe tone without sinking to ridiculous levels of verbosity, it’s a combination of diction and cadence that sets the baseline for how the words come across. Non-verbal signals influence the same, but also the grunts and coughs and pauses that frame the words, which in turn reinforces the character’s personality. We’ve all heard the show-don’t-tell maxim, yet it’s not merely about explaining what is happening – it’s also to show what’s normal.

A character may have a way of speaking that in one case leads to anger, and either withdrawal or lashing out. The next time the reader sees the character speak that way, reverting to cold, abrupt dagger-words? The risks of an altercation rise, and whoah there, we have some drama happening.

The personalities of characters develop over time. This is something set apart from character growth or character development, but more a truth of the writing process. You don’t know the characters nearly as well as you believe you might when you begin, but as the precise choices are made and their thoughts culminate into phrases and sentences, you learn who they are. Even those peeks into their thoughts are not always conveyed with the exact words they’d use, but a semblance of their intentions.

He thought about last Christmas, and how the dreaded Hayward cousins embarrassed him.

We get the intent, but not his words. Only what’s spoken is his.

She stared at the entrance, breaking contact with the door only for glances at the clock, which seemed to be stealing hours for every minute her date didn’t show.

We can imagine how she feels and guess at what she’s thinking, but it’s a projection that we relate to through our own empathy and experience. We don’t know her.

It’s what these characters say that is unequivocal. Yes, the meaning might vary, but the words are the words exactly.

On the off-chance you already knew all this (and some reading would have), there is a next stage or level – you need to strengthen the dialogue you have, or learn to separate the characters from each other so that they don’t sound alike. It’s conceivable we can take a line of dialogue from one character and give it to another. Sometimes it will fit. Other times it won’t. The same line may even taste different on each character’s tongue, whether “I’m going to help you” is spoken by a smooth-talking conman, a retired heroine, or a boisterous school kid.

Personally, I method-write a lot. I try and jump into my character’s head, think about the intent, then roll the words around until they start to feel right. Saying them out loud helps (especially vital for natural-sounding dialogue), but so does changing my posture and mannerisms to slip into the foolhardy knight-errant who isn’t all that sure of herself but doesn’t want others to see it.

Being well-read helps, because everything you read has come from the mind of someone else. Multiple someones in cases.

Another one is listening. Listen a lot. Don’t try and transcribe real conversations because they’re so laden with hesitations and half-spoken syllables, but listen to the cadence – the rhythm – the melodic pattern that can transform the recitation of a menu into a near-lyrical poem.

The most vital piece though is to separate yourself from… yourself. Write the dialogue as it comes to you, then try it out. Sometimes it’ll be too much like you, and with a whole cast of you, you may have to jump to the wording that isn’t automatic. I’m not saying go all-in with the thesaurus – in fact I’m telling you DO NOT DO THAT – but consider alternatives, pick something else, think about options, mull over the possibilities, run through what could be, and yes, I’m purposely repeating myself right there.

Oh and for the love of sanity, don’t write accents. It wears thin fast. Without exception.

Steady at Six

September 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

2014 is a funny sort of year. After having a few runs at the gauntlet that is NaNoWriMo, I’m about to embark on my sixth attempt. While I’ve suggested I know what I’m going to write about, the truth is that (like every other year), there’s a strong chance I’ll change what I’m going to write about before the month of November begins. There’s about six weeks left until it begins, and will be my second year as a Municipal Liaison. There’s also a chance it may be my last, so the few of you that both pay attention AND do NaNoWriMo, well, there’s a spoiler for your face.

Reasons? I love the event, but it’s a lot of work. It’s hard to wrangle an inordinate amount of people toward write-ins and parties and the like, even moreso to get them to RSVP. I also get torn between wanting to expand it to include AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE, and wanting to keep it manageable. I tend to get more feedback from the blog here, which should tell you a lot!

But hey, I recommend participating. I wouldn’t have come as far as I have without it, and while it’s easy to assume I’ve got the pattern down, it’s a lot of work just writing. I feel confident that I know what it takes to get a first draft out of my head, on to paper, and subsequently a scrivener project. Taking it further though? Ugh, yeah, no. I have no idea what I’m doing there.

The rewrite of For More Than Earthly Ends has stalled. Sleep is not what it used to be, and the time to focus on writing just isn’t there. I’m not even sure how NaNo is going to go, and I’m probably thinking too much about NaNo when I should be trying to finish FMTEE. I’m still on the rewrite of chapter six. WTF right? Seven is going to be interesting because it’s a new chapter that’s meant to bring two characters together that previously didn’t mean until almost-the-end. I want to get there. But hey, out of ten? My enthusiasm is… well, it’s not even AT six. It’s a two, maybe. Could be that I haven’t re-read the first draft recently enough and caught that “DUDE YOU HAVE TO FIX THIS RIGHT NOW” but I’m just in a haze.

In case you haven’t been following, FMTEE was last year’s nano project, which got to 52K words. I had to continue beyond November to complete the first draft, which hit 77K. I gave it a bit of time, then started working on a rewrite because I found I wanted to change/shuffle a lot of things to help (based on feedback) readers make sense of it, and to increase the level of causality that came out of characters doing different things.

It doesn’t help that a new project feels like it would be shiny. Kabling kablammo.

Anyway, today is a Writing Group Day! So that means I’ll be going to a place with the intent to write, and as much as it is tempting to work on the new idea that I’m really meant to be saving for November, maybe I need to get out of this blasted chapter six, so that FMTEE has a chance of being finished sometime next year.

Also out of the sake of explaining, I do want to publish it. I haven’t worked out what avenue I’ll go down, whether self or traditional. I may look at getting an agent. I’ll more than likely get it edited professionally once I’m happy with it myself. I could probably submit it somewhere in its original state and possibly get some feedback, but I’d rather wait till I was more sure of it.


 

In other news, I was asked to be a judge for a book award. I’ll reveal more on that once the shortlist for the award is announced. I’ll also be attending a games expo soon, which will potentially mean more writing on games (and I’ll soon have another article published on Save Game). I’m also trying to stop myself remarking on how bizarre it is that any of this is happening to me, and definitely not let myself belittle my efforts by calling the write-ups a thingy or a bunch of words. I should at least give myself as much respect as others give me.

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