Writing Musts: Escalate The Conflict

October 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

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.

The Inevitable Quiet

September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I don’t think I’ve had a blog that hasn’t fallen off into inactivity at some point or another, and this is probably the worst that’s hit Fictioner’s Net since I began. While I hope to get back into a routine over the next few weeks, I thought I’d at least address what’s been happening.

First of the big things, is I have a newborn! Mentioned earlier, but yep. She’s almost two months old and starting to get into a decent routine (as well as all the fun stuff like smiling and giggling and yeah, a lot of poop). With that, chores are on the higher side, which limits free time at the moment. 

Second is writing. I’ve been continuing to rewrite For More Than Earthly Ends, and am definitely making progress on it, though it’s a slow thing. I want it right over ready, which means spending more time on it (rather than a quick edit and send to an agent), but it means I’m much more sure of how it’s going than I was before. I’ve also been doing some additional writing, on Games. In August I did my first write-up about an event for a bonafide Gaming news site, and capped off the month with a developer interview on The Sims 4. My first paid writing gig! 

Third, NaNoWriMo. Right, so it’s not November yet, but it’s coming. I’ve met with my new co-coordinator, and started planning out exactly what we’ll do, event-wise. It’s not the busy period yet, but it’s coming. 

In the meantime, I’ll see what I can drum up in terms of actual writing advice for here, however if there’s a topic you want addressed, I’m more than happy to write a targeted piece. 

Why I Had A Breakdown Over My Novel

August 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

I won’t try to relate this to a theoretical writer today.

Many of these posts are aimed at the readers. Well, whoever those are that might benefit from reading them. Sometimes they’re sounding boards – I’ll speak to the unspecified collection of writers, but in truth I’m writing it at myself, and often about whatever stage I’m at. Today is different.

It’s not that people won’t relate. While I’m convinced the vast majority will read this post and think “Dude, really?“, there’s a possibility some might go through and think “Wow. I had a moment like that.

The Thing with Writing

Writing is fraught with its own things, and one of the common situations is that you’ll find someone that’s written, loves what they’ve written, but wouldn’t ever dream of sharing it with someone. I was like that for a long time, but it’s hard to reconcile that mentality when the aspiration always leads to letting others enter your world, seeing it in print, and doing it until you’ve no more words or breath left in you.

Whether it’s self-publishing, traditional, or just circulating print-outs and pdfs amongst friends, eventually you have to lay it out on the table. It might be bad. There might be mistakes. It’s not enough to just guess that they’re there and attempt to hide from them. You can’t overcome them if they’re never recognised, or never given light. I still struggle with this aspect. My first reaction after getting critical feedback is “No… but I thought I was good. Isn’t this what I want to produce with my life? It can’t be crap.

Boo fricking hoo. Everything’s crap until it’s not. It takes me some time to see where things fall through because I’m too close to the fire, but when I do, it’s as clear to me as it was to the people who said so. There’s some mental and emotional gymnastics required, because you need to accept that your particular arrangement of words is not as good as you originally thought, but still believe in it enough that you try to salvage it.

Same old story, no news here.

A Critical Point

As yesterday’s post said, I’m working on the rewrite of my current novel, For More Than Earthly Ends. It’s approaching a critical point in the story. The underlying structure of the story is that there’s an event that happens in the story’s past, which has a profound effect on a half-dozen characters. Those characters go off to live their separate lives, each in one of three story threads. The critical point is because one of those story-threads is about to veer off and bump into the other two threads, and change the course of each.

The draft I shared with a few people had issues, and in working on ways to resolve them, I found lots more I wanted to change. Whether or not the things I’m changing would be seen as broken or not, I really can’t say, however I do believe everything is better because of it. I mean, really, really believe it. And believe in it.

There’s a few stereotypes when it comes to writers, particularly with choice of beverage. Coffee has been a very common one, but I’ve not really had much in the way of alcohol in a long time. Exceptions were made last night. Lots. Maybe that’s the contributing factor, but I’ve always thought I get around the buffers in my head when inebriated. If I’ve been down on myself, the buffer of thought that demands perfection withers away, and I get glimpses of a thought that says “hey, I’m not so bad.

Just glimpses, mind you.

The Actual Incident

One thing I have to say is that you shouldn’t feel sorry for me. What followed was a very emotional experience for me, but one that was also cathartic.

It was a little after 11:30pm. Might have been cold, but owing to a certain liquid, my limbs were numb to any concerns over temperatures. I’d gotten off the train and started my walk home, all while listening to bits and pieces of my writing playlist. There’s a lot of songs in the playlist, but the core theme always comes back to an amalgamation of four – this is a weird thing where in my imagination, the three very different songs blur together at different parts, forming some special theme song. If I had an ounce of musical talent I’d consider trying to mix them proper, but the mind does well enough. The main piece to take from that is I was listening to one of the most emotionally laden tunes that relates to my novel. And yep, drunk. And thinking about my novel.

I thought about the progress I’d made. The improvements. I thought about how I was walking past a building I’d already pictured as the central point of one of the story threads, while listening to a song. I wasn’t quite there in the story, but I was traipsing along its borders.

It was too much for me to hold inside, but once you know it’s coming, what else can you do? My throat was already pulsing, and I knew that sharp ache beneath my eyes was just a warning that tears were on their way.

I didn’t understand it at first. Was it just the song, the place, and the drink? Stupid me, get it together. I could’ve skipped to a different song. I considered it, but didn’t. Whatever was happening, I needed it to happen. I needed to dig into this raw torrent and let it unsettle me, ravage my composure, and serve whatever had to be given.

I ran through the possible causes. Was it insecurity? Maybe. I thought about what I’m writing, and pulled out a thought. What if I’m wasting my time? What if it’s not good at all? There was an easy out for this fractured emotional state; the one I’d been telling myself over 20+ years of concerted efforts to write, the one I’d clung to whenever someone told me it was good, even while I balanced a belief that I had sufficient talent with regard to writing. I’ll be the first to tell someone I’m confident in my ability to write, and the first again to tell them how terrible my writing actually is. If you go for the astrology thing, no surprises I’m a gemini, but I think it’s just a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

It wasn’t the easy answer. The “I’m bad and everything I do is bad” response didn’t have the grounds. I could think the words, but it wasn’t belief.

A thought came back to me. This thing that I’m writing? It’s not terrible. It’s not even average.

It

Is

Good

Huh?

It is good. My novel, the one I started planning a year ago. The one I began writing in November. The one I’m rewriting. It is good.

It was one of the most terrifying thoughts I’ve ever had. That is the ridiculous truth. When I go to my core, when I shake away the halfway words and modesty and doubt, the novel that I’m working on is good and it scares me. I’m not even halfway through my current rewrite, still a long way from being finished, but I recognise now that I’m working on something I’ve been dreaming of for so long. There is accomplishment in it.

I’m closer to a finish line than I’ve ever been, but I know it’s not a waste and that is scary. The potential of success, scary.

It’s not like I’ve only one story in me. There’s more than I could ever write. I’m won’t finish this and say “Well, life mission accomplished. I can go die now”

Others have told me I can do this. Others have told me I write well or that my ideas are good or that they love my characters. I still had a part of me that suspected they were either being nice or plain wrong, but now, no. My world-view has shattered and instead of this dream of mine being this impossible thing, it is something I am capable of. I’m actually doing it.

What matters more is that I believe I’m doing it well, and I can’t wait to take you all through it. Even more so now that it feels like it will do justice to what I imagined.

For a long time, I’ve said that writing was my passion. I’ve hoped that it was what I was meant to do. I’ve defined myself by it. The difference now is knowing. If the same or a comparable situation came to you, after years of doubt and uncertainty and untenable hope, you had this moment, wouldn’t you cry too?

Fifteen

August 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

That's somewhere around chapter five

What a beautiful neat number.

It’s right there. A number that makes me want to punch the air with elation.

Overall, it’s not a big improvement. I’m not even halfway done with the rewrite, but it is continuing. Rewrites are strange. I guess it’s not really editing if you’re moving bits and around and rewriting almost everything. The scenes are more or less true to their original versions, though the outcomes are different. A solid example of that would be the chapter I’m currently on, number five.

There was no stated history between two of the major characters in my original draft. RE and MW were due to meet later, but there was no visible reason for RE to a) know to look for MW, and b) where to find MW. With the additions brought about by the new prologue introduction, point A has been settled, while point B now has avenues. It’s important to me that whatever the surprises thrown before the reader might be, they’re shown to be as they are for good reason. I think it’s a complicated ride that I take people on with this novel, and I want to make sure that every reader is right there with me when I get to the end.

I don’t mean that I want them to keep reading. That can be assumed.

I don’t want them to be lost.

I may want to drop the floor beneath them and make them question what the hell has been going on throughout the entire sequence but I want them to see what’s going on and understand it’s all been leading, possibly foreshadowed, and most of all, hopefully not happened in a predictable manner. Maybe it will be, but it’s all about balance.

It’s for that reason that I’m going through such a widespread rewrite process, and yep, killing darlings all over the place. There’s sequences I liked in the original draft that haven’t had a place this time around. Little details, like a character scrunching up a ball of paper and throwing it past the head of another the way reasonable adults don’t. There’s fine-tuning of characters. One of the characters is also now more emotional, more affected by something that happened in the past, resulting in a kind of plot-blindness to him.

While I’m only at the 15% mark of what the previous draft was, chapter five itself is an important one. It represents the first moment when the three concurrent stories begin to converge. This didn’t really happen until much later in the previous draft, which led to the emergence of a villain being fraught with confusion, and a revelation in the ending that was understated and obscure.

The feedback I have so far on the rewrite (the limited bits I’ve shared) are that it explains things better and more gradually, the relationships between characters are better, and there is more balance to the characters besides.

All that said, I’m keen to finish this chapter. Getting through this one lets me return to the next storythread that has had a bit of a shakedown, plus once I finish chapter five I’ll type up what I have written so far and send it through to my alpha reader, and get all excited to be able to discuss it.

The biggest struggle is not getting impatient. Need to take the time to get it all as good as I can for this draft, so that there’s less chance of structural changes in any drafts that follow, and I’ll be in a position where I might consider it good enough to submit to an agent or publisher or whoever else handles that kind of thing.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from all this is that I need to plan more. I’ve gone from overplanning to negligible levels of plandom, and balance is needed. The main area that needs planning? Structure. Pacing. The WHAT HAPPENS IN THE FINAL THIRD. Sometime soon I’ll start planning for my November (which will also represent a break from FMTEE), but hope to get it solid enough that any rewrites of the next novel do not involve shuffling things around.

But yeah, greatly looking forward to ending chapter five, hitting 20%, and then anticipating the next round of milestones.

The First Village (poem)

August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Going back to an older piece of something, this is a poem from 2009. It’s based on a fantasy story that I used to work on, and that has its roots in a separate story I started in my teenhood. I haven’t touched that particular story in a long time, though through working on another fantasy story, realised they take place in the same land, separated by a great many years.

I tried attacking the poem source in more recent years. Back when Script Frenzy was still a thing, I made plans to rewrite the entire thing as a script, and hopefully use it as a jumping point into a full-blown novel. Didn’t happen.

I have no idea if I’ll ever write the attached story, though do have plans on that more recent story. Regardless, this is mine.

The First Village

The steely roar of shiny spears

thrust skyward, up into the air
cry over brazen shouts of brave men’s fears
and beckon death’s dark dead stare.

A man at the front calls out words of instruction,
“Hold your weapon, be steady, be cautious.
I have no desire for blatant destruction
there is no lamb to slaughter before us.”

He holds his blade up, thrusted into the sky,
and gives the final word to begin.
He knows not who, nor how many will die,
which faces will fall for his master’s sin.

The lieutenant rides first, on an ill-tempered steed,
“You heard the General! Onward to the village!”
The sense of restraint was not in his creed,
but instead a desire to murder and pillage.

It was the flames that came first, rained down from above
filling the air with screams and with smoke.
Encircling the village like a well-tailored glove,
ready for all the blood it would soak.

The second the March, like the clatter of coins.
Their spears finding those not yet dead from the fire.
Even the children, the last of past loins
had no escape from this murky quagmire.

The General came last, through the scorched rubble.
His eyes reddened by soot and despair.
The stench of burnt flesh wrought by the trouble,
suffocating each single breath he drew there.

Then quickly a figure lifts from a pile of ashes
A dagger in hand and eyes darting knives
Faster toward the general he dashes
ready to take his, for all the lost lives.

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