Research

Research is a constant writerly debate in my household.  My husband will go to incredible lengths to avoid doing research for his writing.  I love research, although I have an odd relationship with it.  I research heavily for fantasy, but I’m horribly intimidated by the idea of researching for any kind of mystery or historical fiction, which is why I don’t write either of those genres, although I read both (preferably combined!)

That contradiction aside, why the heck would I do research for fantasy?  To my husband, especially, this is incomprehensible – fantasy is the perfect setup, as far as he’s concerned, because he can just make everything up and not worry about how things work in the real world.  I understand that sentiment, since I write (and read) partly as escapism from reality.

But it’s so exciting to do research for fantasy novels and stories!  It’s not that I can’t come up with ideas and inspiration just off the top of my head for fantasy, but finding out things I don’t know about history, food, inventions, other cultures, religious rituals, animals, etc. gets me thinking about things I might otherwise overlook.  Sometimes I’ll come across an idea and reverse it entirely, but even that reversal wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t found the idea to contradict in the first place.

Some of the things I’ve learned more about while doing research, I would probably never have thought to read up on if it hadn’t related to my story, but I’m always glad to have found out new information.  As a writer, the more you know about anything, the richer, more varied, and more interesting your basis for stories and characters becomes.  It’s like you’re collecting resources that are then, literally, right at your fingertips.

Because of my writing, I read up on a lot of psychology theory – especially Carl Jung and William James, both of whom were also passionately interested in literature and philosophy.  Some of their writings on those subjects have, in turn, expanded my views on fiction, both as a reader and as a writer.  I’ve read up on the historical impact of technology on society, the history of various inventions, traditional foods and drinks of places I wanted to inspire my settings, mythology and legends that cross all over the globe – and now all of that information is at the back of my mind every time I sit down to write.  If you want to be inspired, keep your brain well-stocked with ideas it can put together, pull apart, reverse, or just plain use.

That’s my philosophy on research, anyway.  Oh, and I’ve also become addicted to olives thanks to research, but that’s a side effect you may have to watch out for if you’re reading up on the Mediterranean.  Hah!  That’s one reason to write what you love – if you’re interested in something to begin with, “research” is a great excuse to obsessively read about it, and if you’re researching a place’s cuisine, it’s a great excuse to eat a lot of tasty food (and drink coffee spiked with brandy, if your subject of study is Italy).

Pet Peeves – Amnesia Openings

All readers have pet peeves about storytelling.  There are some things that just irritate you when you see them in a story or a movie.  I think writers are even more prone to these kinds of tics than other readers, partly because we’re used to watching out for what does and doesn’t work in our own stories.

One of my own personal annoyances is with books that start out with a main character having amnesia.  Why does it bug me?  Well, partly because it strikes me as lazy writing, most of the time – like the character who always asks obvious questions for the sake of exposition via dialogue (*cough* Tasha Yar *cough* Next Generation Star Trek *cough*).  I don’t mind if the character develops amnesia later in the story, but to start out with it just seems like such a cheap way to get away with a long setup for your world and your characters, with an oh-so-obvious element of mystery.  The trouble is, it leaves me cold, and here’s the main reason:

99% of the amnesia beginnings I’ve read treat “amnesia” like it means “lack of personality”.  I’m sure that, without our memories, we’d all act somewhat different than usual, but we wouldn’t lose our personalities altogether.  You’d still think like yourself, you just wouldn’t know why you thought the way you did.  Aside from the fact that it makes no sense to equate loss of memory with loss of personality, there’s nothing duller, to me, than a book without good characters.  I latch onto characters quicker than any other story element, and so do many, many other readers.  Give me a lousy anchor, and I’m getting on a different boat, thanks all the same.

One thing I love, though, is finding stories that break my personal rules of reading and writing.  I’m delighted when a writer can do something I detest, and make me fall in love with his/her book anyway.  For one thing, it impresses me, and for another thing, I like to figure out why their book was different.  Why did this work, when dozens of other books didn’t (or at least, didn’t work for me)?

For my Amnesia Openings pet peeve, the book that shatters the rule is Nine Princes in Amber, the first book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series.  Why does Zelazny get a free pass when the very first page of his series starts with the main character having no memory?  Because, also on the first page, he shows me his narrator has a great deal of personality.  Within half a page, the reader knows he’s suspicious, calculating, tricky, and funny.  The narrative voice, the questions and doubts that cross his mind, the decisions he makes, and the way he handles his lack of knowledge about himself or what happened to him, work together beautifully to establish what type of person he is and how he thinks, and to simultaneously set up the first inklings of conflict and danger.  There’s nothing lazy about writing that can do all that with half a page.

The best writing makes the most of each and every scene – not just because it makes the book richer, although it does, but also because that’s the kind of writing that grabs people.  It’s exciting to open a book and be in another place, but more exciting to open a book and be in another place with interesting questions to be answered, mysterious events on the horizon, and a fascinating main character to anchor you in the world of the story.  A narrative hook, by itself, isn’t enough.  You need some bait, too – if I may mix my nautical metaphors here in my blog (I would avoid doing so at all costs in a story!)  😉

Getting Your Groove

For me, it was a long, hard road learning to be self-disciplined about doing writing regularly.  I’m at the point, now, where I write or revise almost every day – and the days I don’t, I’m usually doing some kind of exercise or think-through for my current writing project.  I do give myself breaks on days when it just isn’t gonna happen because of the day job, chores, social occasions, and, you know, all that real life stuff.

Some of the stuff I’ve learned helps keep me focused may seem obvious, but I’ll tell it to you anyway, just in case it’s as useful to someone else as it has been for me.

One of the biggest steps toward daily writing, for me, was having a separate space JUST for writing.  I was lucky enough to get a laptop for my birthday (thanks, fam!), which meant I could get away from my distracting desktop with its high-speed internet connection and loads of computer games (yes, I’m a nerd, I know).  My laptop has no internet connection and absolutely no games.  It has Word, Notepad, and WinAmp.  That’s pretty much it.  All I ever do at the laptop is write and make notes for my current project.  It’s like a little psych test I’ve done on myself – I automatically click into writing mode when I sit down with the laptop.

Now, if you can’t get a laptop or don’t want one, the same idea can be applied using either a notebook (like, the kind you actually write on, not that itty bitty new kind of laptop), or just having something different about your workspace when you’re working on your writing.  Light a candle, sit in a different chair, have a writing jacket, listen to different music.  Something that separates your time and space as a writer from the rest of your daily tasks or entertainments in your computer area.
 
Another thing I’ve learned to do is to have a word count goal every day while I’m writing, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – I have a low word count so that, even on days when real life looms large, I can still make my goal and feel good about my progress.  250 words per day was my self-imposed guideline for my current novel.  The thing is, a lot of the time, by the time I’ve written 250 words, I’m in the groove and I can write way over that goal.
 
Having a time of day when you routinely work can be great, although hard to do unless you have a set schedule or can set your own hours.  Having a fellow writer you’re close enough to to brainstorm with when you’re stuck is fantastic.  Having a critique group that meets regularly can help keep you on task, especially if it’s a small enough group that everybody knows what everyone else is working on.
 
I do think it’s important to take a day off now and then, or give yourself weekends off from writing (or a Wednesday and Thursday, if your weekends are your best shot at writing time).  It takes a lot of energy and thought to write a story!  Sometimes your brain needs some recuperation time – and some time for your subconscious to cleverly link things together for you.  If you write habitually, then a day or two off once a week is more likely to spark your brain than make you lose your thread, especially if you keep good notes.
 
I’m lucky enough to have a husband who understands that my writing is important, and that the time I spend on it is time well-spent.  He’s a writer, himself, so he understands when I say, “Not now!  Writing!” and he lets me get on with it.  If your family doesn’t understand that writing time is work time, explain it.  And believe it – when you’re writing, you are doing something important.  Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.
 
The most important part of forming the habit of writing is don’t make excuses not to write.  Yes, coddle yourself a little.  Reward yourself when you’re good and do your word count.  It’s fine to say, “I want hot chocolate before I sit down to work…and a special pen…and a cookie,” but if you get your chocolate, pen, and cookie, and then think of more and more things you “need” before you can settle into work, you’re just being naughty.  Do your word count!  Then you can have another cookie!  Not inspired?  Too bad – do your word count.  If you write crap, it’s only 250 words’ worth of crap, and easy enough to delete tomorrow.  Not sure where to take the story?  Well, write 250 words in one direction and see if that’s where you want to go.  If it isn’t, you’ve only lost 250 words’ worth of time, and you can write the story in a different direction tomorrow.
 
Like most habits, it gets easier the more used to it you get.  If you write every day, it’ll become instinctive.  You won’t feel right if you miss a day.  Maybe that’s a little maladjusted, but…
 
Too bad!  Do your word count!
 
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P.S. I’ve started a Resources page, although I’m not far along with it yet.  So far it’s got some good books about writing that I’ve discovered in the last few years, but I’ll be adding more, as well as websites and books that I’ve found helpful for researching for stories, websites with good writing exercises, and good places to find publishers.
 
Later this week, hopefully, I’ll also be getting the start of a page up of reading recommendations – books and authors I love, and why.

Shadow Characters – Part I

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, like Freud, defined the subconscious by breaking it down into separate “parts”.  In Jung’s breakdown, the Shadow self is the part of ourselves that we hide (or hope to hide) from others – things we’re ashamed of about ourselves, flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – things we may not even want to admit to ourselves are the case.

In literature, it’s common to find characters who represent the shadow self of the protagonist, even when the author wasn’t consciously writing with that intent.  In high school, I took an awesome elective class on Shadow Literature, in which, essentially, we spent a semester psychoanalyzing books – not authors, books.  Ever since then, I’ve been finding shadow characters everywhere, and I notice the parallels and contrasts in my own characters and their experiences in a way I never did prior to that class.  At times, it’s just been fun to note, but sometimes it’s been extremely helpful in fleshing out characters, drawing out interesting dynamics between the characters, and/or providing intriguing role reversals in the storyline.

I’ve written here before about the importance of giving character traits a little balance – making it clear that your good guys aren’t perfect, bad guys aren’t pure evil, and keeping in mind that we’ve all got a little of our opposite within us.  It’s essential to making interesting characters.

What makes shadow so fun to play with is, you can externalize some of that opposite within and let it out.  Let me illustrate using Batman (hah!  I KNEW I’d get Batman into my blog somehow, someday!) and the Joker.  The thing that makes Batman my favorite superhero ever is the fact that he walks a razor’s edge between complete diabolical insanity and self-sacrificing heroism.  He’s a hero, but he’s always struggling to hold back his own demons, as well as the various super villains he comes up against in Gotham City.  Toward the innocent, he’s compassionate and philanthropic, but he’s a vigilante, using his own judgement as to who deserves punishment – and man, if Batman thinks somebody needs punishing, there is no compassion about him anymore.  He may manage to force himself to play by the rules of justice most of the time, but it’s often a struggle for him not to deal out retribution as he sees fit.  So you see, as a character, he already has an internal shadow clearly laid out (particularly in the graphic novels and the most recent wave of movies).

Now, where does the Joker come in?  The Joker’s favorite game to play with Batman is to point out how much alike he and Batman are, which, of course, Batman hates.  But in a way, the Joker’s right.  Batman is crazy.  He’s maladjusted, incapable of resolving his issues with the world, prefers to strive for his goals in an unconventional and unsanctioned way to actually working with the system that we “normal” people have to deal with….  Depending on what version of the Joker’s background you read (every graphic novel writer seems to have his own), there are often parallels or intersections of Batman’s back story and the Joker’s back story.  The Joker is a clear-cut shadow character – he represents everything Batman is afraid he might be, or might become, and everything Batman doesn’t want to admit about himself.  The thing is, Batman chooses not to become his shadow self, and the Joker revels in being what he is.  That choice is what makes them different.

It’s also important to note that Batman is also the Joker‘s shadow self.  The Joker mocks Batman’s heroism, and (again, depending whose version of the Joker’s back story you read) has spent so long ignoring his better instincts that they’ve essentially vanished.  The Joker does not want to be Batman, any more than Batman wants to be the Joker.  That’s why he loves to mess with Batman’s head every chance he gets.

Okay, I promise I’m done talking about Batman now.

There are lots of storylines in which the protagonist’s shadow character is his/her adversary (or at least is the antagonist).  There are others in which the shadow character is a friend or ally, or the relationship between the two shadow characters changes.  It’s crucial that shadow characters are connected through important similarities, such as strategic thinking, a parallel grief, a core tendency toward anger – deeply ingrained elements of personality.  If they have nothing in common, they aren’t shadow characters – they’re just opposites.  Anytime a character says, “No!  I’m not like you!” to his/her adversary, you probably have a case of shadow on your hands.

Long story short, there is a lot to be said about shadow characters, which is why I’m breaking this topic up into multiple posts.  More about shadow characters, and with different dynamics, next time!

For now, I’ll leave you with some pretty clear examples of shadow antagonist/protagonist teams:

  • Batman and the Joker, particularly in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight, and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Probably the easiest and most clear-cut example of the shadow in all of literature
  • Gollum and Frodo in The Two Towers, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – I say The Two Towers in particular because that’s where the two characters interact directly for the first time
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books
  • FBI agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the film of Red Dragon (based on Thomas Harris’s novel, which is too gory and graphic for me to be able to read it, although I’ve tried)

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On Tuesday, June 15th (this coming Tuesday), I’ll be guest blogging at Marian Allen’s Weblahg.  Marian Allen has three novels published for electronic format through Echelon Press, many short stories published in magazines and anthologies – some of which are available at Amazon.  She is also, I’m proud to say, my mom.  I’ll be posting about giving and getting critiques, and how to get the most out of your feedback, on her blog this Tuesday, so be there or be square!

Fixing Flat Characters

While there are some fine examples of books/stories in which an “everyman” character can be interesting, there are many more examples in which an “everyman” type is…well, boring.  That’s not to say that stories about “normal” people can’t be awesome, but there’s no such thing as a perfectly neutral person, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Don’t you risk pushing away some readers if you make a characters’ quirks, beliefs, attitudes, or lifestyles different from those readers’?  Yeah, but, just like in real life, not everybody is gonna like everybody else.  There are people who don’t like YOU, but you’re still yourself, right?  And a lot more readers will be intrigued by and endeared to a strong character (even one of questionable morals) than a flat, boring character.  Look at Han Solo.  He’s kind of a rake, self-centered, and smart-mouthed.  But that’s why he’s an entertaining character – that juxtaposition of “not a NICE GUY, but a GOOD GUY nonetheless” keeps you curious about his next line, whether he’ll do the right thing or not, etc.

Now, there’s another way to make a character flat and boring, at the other end of the scale.  There is nothing more intensely BLAH than a character that’s overdone – he/she is a stereotype, relies entirely on a single central trait, or is so over-the-top that he/she leaves readers rolling their eyes and sighing in moments that are meant to be powerful or gripping.  This happens a lot with the all-good hero or all-evil villain, but it’s not a problem confined to good guys vs. bad guys.

The core of the issue, really, is when the writer himself/herself doesn’t know enough about the character.  Sometimes, characters just come out three-dimensional without any effort on my part.  I love it when that happens.  Other times, they develop depth and back story during the writing process (I also love that, although it usually means I have to tweak the first scenes or chapters that character appears in, to account for things I’ve “learned” about them along the way).  And then, some characters take momentous effort to make them come alive.  Actually, I love that process, too, although it can be frustrating when the characters just won’t work with me.

For particularly troublesome characters, here are some things to try:

  • Break up stereotypes.  If you’re writing a character who is one, reverse a few expectations, throw in some additional interests, or give us some reason that your character him/herself is TRYING to be a stereotype.
  • Ask your character any 10 questions, like it’s an interview.  Write down your questions and their answers, and see what new information you can uncover about them.  What was his favorite birthday present as a kid?  What’s her ideal vacation?  What STILL bothers him, even though it happened 16 years ago?  What’s the ability she’s most confident about in herself?
  • Write down 3 things your character is aware of about himself/herself (pick some good and some bad), and 3 things that OTHER characters would readily notice about his/her personality (some good, some bad) that he/she isn’t aware of about himself/herself.  Think about the things you’ve listed – are they things that would factor into events and reactions within your storyline?  Are they things that will change, or things your character will realize, within the storyline?  Are they things your character will have to call upon or overcome in order to make it to his/her goal(s) in the story?
  • Strengths and weaknesses are sometimes one and the same.  It’s often the balance of a trait that makes it a “flaw” or a “merit” in a personality.  Being stubborn is bad, right?  The flip side of stubbornness, though, is persistance, determination, tenacity, and/or constancy.  Many of the best characters are ones whose flaws and strengths are a double-edged sword, and the interplay of positive and negative side effects of their traits gives the narrative plenty of potential intrigue and tension.
  • Don’t make a character all anything – good, bad, cruel, confident, indifferent, whatever.  Even if it’s just a smidgen of contradiction, and even if it isn’t written on the page, you should have it in mind that no one is all one way or another.  The ultra-confident jerk at the office who always gets the promotions and the girls may be exactly that to your main character, but YOU, the writer, can know better.  Maybe the guy is secretly horribly insecure and is overcompensating, or has something to prove to his overly critical father, whatever.  But, whether that’s specified in the story or not isn’t as important as the fact that, as a writer, you’ve got to know all your characters, heart and soul, as if they were real people.  They’ll never be real people to your readers unless they’re real to YOU first.

You can probably tell by now that I’m a very character-focused writer, so you know I’ll be rambling about characters and character development again.  You haven’t heard the last of it yet!  Muahahaha!  😉

Unsticking Stuck Scenes

I know things are really “clicking” with a project when my ideas converge so that the scene I’m writing (or rewriting) does multiple jobs.  Notes I’ve scribbled to myself about needing to fit this idea in or that line of dialogue (and I’ve been agonizing over where the heck I can fit it in), problems with pacing, a character having it too easy when I need the stakes high for them, etc. suddenly snap together in my brain to make everything work.  It’s an awesome feeling when it happens.

How does it come about, when it does, and how does a writer make it happen, when it doesn’t?  Usually, if I’m stuck or have writer’s block about a certain scene, it’s because there’s something that hasn’t clicked into place yet.  The basic elements are there, but something is missing, and I can’t always put my finger on it.

Some things that I’ve found helpful for getting myself unstuck and making my brain epiphanize faster:

  • Keep detailed notes on what you know you need to work into the story, and about problem areas that just aren’t working (even if you aren’t sure WHAT doesn’t work yet).  So often, looking over my notes about this kind of thing will suddenly spark a solution that knocks out three or four problems at once.
  • If you can’t put your finger on exactly why a scene isn’t working, start with the characters.  How is the storyline affecting them at this exact point in the narrative?  How are the characters affecting each other?  Are they feeling just one emotion, or are there mixed feelings about what’s going on?  People have a lot going on, psychologically, and the most obvious actions and dialogue are not always the most realistic, the most accurate for character consistency, or the most useful for the story.  The more in-depth you know your characters, the easier it is to tap into secondary or conflicting emotions to get what you need out of them.
  • Take a little time away from the story.  If you’ve been staring at the screen trying to puzzle it out for three hours and still don’t know what to do with it, take a break!  Let your subconscious mull it over while you relax, do something fun, do some chores, whatever.  It’s sneaky, and gets your subconscious to do the work for you.  I’m often surprised when, in the middle of playing a video game, I’m suddenly hit with the solution to everything that’s been wrong with my story for the past week.
  • Change the tension level.  Either make things waaaay worse for your characters, ramp up the obstacles they’re facing, etc., or give ’em an unexpected ray of hope, moment of calm, or unlooked-for ally.  I like to do this in a separate file so that I don’t have to worry whether it works or not–if it doesn’t, I can just go back to my original scene and try something else to fix it!