Plottin’ & Schemin’

Sorry, that just put the Beastie Boys song “Rhymin’ & Stealin'” in my head.  Anywayyyy, I had a mini writer’s retreat with Marian Allen last week to do some work on our respective upcoming NaNoWriMo projects this November.  I’m using NaNo to write the first book in a trilogy I’ve had in mind for ages now, so naturally our shop talk got around to plotting techniques.  I’m normally not much of an outliner, and if I do outline, it’s usually not in much detail, but (a) the plot of this trilogy is extremely complex, (b) there are a lot of characters, and their stories interweave and affect each other, even those who don’t know one another personally, and (c) it’s a trilogy, which means I want continuity between the three books, and I don’t want to get to book three and say, “Crap!  I wish I’d mentioned THIS THING I NEED FOR THE PLOT TO WORK back in book one!  Now I’m going to have to shoehorn it in and treat it like it’s been the case all along!”  Of course, that would only be a problem if books one and two were published by the time I was writing book three, but let’s give me some credit here and say that’s a possibility.

I know quite a lot of events that need to happen for the main plot and for the subplots (and there are times when my subplots directly affect the main plot, too), but the order of many of the events is up in the air.  At the suggestion of my writing buddy, I tried a more visual structuring technique:  Take a piece of paper and mark it off into rectangles – 9 columns and 3 rows.  In the fifth column of each row, write “Turning Point”, in the next-to-last rectangle write “Climax”.  Your first box is your setup, the last box is your conclusion.  Start filling stuff in.

Now, I modified this somewhat to accommodate a 3-book storyline.  For the trilogy, each book gets its own row, so there are 9 rectangles per book.  That means less nitty-gritty plot detail can go into it, but the general shape of all of it comes together in one place.  I have 18″ by 24″ paper (for painting, usually) and many colored pencils (for coloring books, usually), so I color-coded important characters and got busy.

While I don’t think this will be a solve-all for my plotting problems in this series, I think the combination of a list-form, all-just-text plot file  with this visual structure layout will be highly useful.  Already, there are times when my brain gets stuck with one format, and just switching to the other type of outline unsticks it.  The more tools you, as a writer, have, the better, because every single project is different, and a tool you never needed before may suddenly be really useful for your next story!

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Random Inspirations

Inspiration can turn up in the funniest places.  Whether it’s a spark of an idea or the reassurance that no story comes out perfect on the first try, writing can jump out at you from almost anywhere.  As Marian Allen recently wrote in an excellent post on her blog, “Everything is writing.”  I heartily concur.

Some of the odd places I’ve found inspiration in the past few months:

  • The special features on the Pixar movies A Bug’s Life, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2.  The Blu-Ray releases of these films have a whole lot about the team’s writing and design process, with the writers and artists talking about how the story and characters evolved and changed in the process of working on it.  My husband and I are both Pixar buffs, both love the characters and the storytelling, and were interested partly because of that, and partly because, as writers, it’s always nice to know that work you admire didn’t work perfectly to begin with…that they, too, had to cut characters, scrap ideas, change stuff around, alter the tone, and all the stuff that we have to do, too.
  • Cookbooks.  I have recently been trying out new recipes, and as a result, noticed that a set of my cookbooks has highly useful information about the history of each cuisine in the introduction, followed up by a two-page spread about individual ingredients, their source, history, flavor, etc.  This is an awesome little tool for use in building my fantasy world up.  No, I won’t put all that history in, but the more you know, the better you can put yourself into the world you write about – and that authority comes through on the page, making it more believable to your readers.
  • My day job.  Working at a locally-owned coffee shop with a roastery here in town, I’ve found out a heck of a lot about coffee and how it goes from a little white bean to a cup of liquid life-force.  Since my NaNoWriMo project for this November involves a semi-Italian world, and coffee is Kind of a Big Deal in Italy, this is all grist for the mill (or should that be beans for the roaster?)
  • Just being present for real-life moments and experiences.  Paying attention to what the world around me looks like, smells like, how the air feels, who’s around, what they’re doing, how they’re interacting with other people, how someone I’m talking to thinks about things, what’s important to them, where their dichotomies are.  It doesn’t hurt that I went on a vacation to a beautiful place recently and had every reason to be paying wholehearted attention to the world around me!
  • Superhero movies.  For some reason, these always get me thinking about writing.  I don’t know why – the ideas I have while watching one have nothing to do with the movie itself, or heroes or villains, either.  But for some reason, superhero movies get my brain in gear to write.  Possibly because they’re exciting and usually beautifully shot, or the fact that the heroes and villains are generally parallels of one another, and I enjoy that in a protagonist/antagonist team.  Whatever the reason, I’m well aware that if I’m feeling blah about working on a project, I can watch a Batman movie or a Spiderman movie or a Fantastic Four movie (whether it’s a good movie or not) and I’ll be bouncing off the walls, ready to write.  Superhero movies may not do this for you, but be on the lookout for anything that does have this effect on you, whether it makes sense or not!  And then use it to your advantage when you find it.

Pet Peeves: “Bad Species” Fantasy

One of the great things about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can write all kinds of characters of all kinds of “races” or “species” and show how different ones are different ways even within the same race.  It drives me bonkers when a writer makes a species all one way – they all act alike, think alike, there’s no variation to their characters within that, and they’re all evil or all good (usually depending on how pretty they are).  Oh, and elves are always slender – that bugs me too.  Who says there isn’t a single fat elf out there???  Let’s have a chunky elven chick with a few vices, because I’m tired of reading about pure, slender ones.

I find that fantasy is much worse about species stereotyping than science fiction (on the whole – ha, sorry for the generalization!)  Even the original Star Trek, which relied more on personality traits to define the alien races than prosthetics and makeup (for obvious reasons), often focused on the crew finding their own generalizations about other alien races weren’t accurate on an individual level.  And don’t get me started on how incredible the Babylon 5 series is from a writing standpoint, particularly in making each species distinctive, but showing how different the individuals are at the same time.

One explanation that comes to mind for me as to why fantasy is guiltier than science fiction of demonizing or idealizing entire species is this:  fantasy is usually based in the past (or in a culture technologically or sociologically less modernized than our own time), and science fiction is usually based in the future (or, again, in a society that is technologically or sociologically “ahead” of us, even if Star Wars does claim to be a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away).  Well, we all know how well people dealt with other countries, cultures, races, philosophers – anyone different was scary, in most histories of most cultures.  People were very superstitious about each other.  I think that ends up reflected in fantasy, as something that is past-esque, whereas science fiction looks to the future, where many writers hope things will be better and people will be less divided by their differences.

End broad generalizations of writers of these two genres.  On to addressing the issue!

Now, I know you’re thinking, “But Tolkien had evil races in his books, and everybody reads him!”  I have two answers to you:  (1) Everybody, please stop trying to write Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien already did it once, and so far I haven’t read anyone who did it better.  Write your own world already! and (2) While Tolkien is guilty of the slender elven maiden thing, and the orcs are all evil, and yeah he did some of that stuff, there is at least some deviation between the elves (and you never know which way they’ll go on an issue – they’re pretty unpredictable in that regard).  The orcs were also explained as having been made by Sauron (big bad guy, if you live under a rock don’t know LOTR) by messing up elves somehow (sorry, I’m not so nerdy that I remember all the details of that) and killing off any that didn’t turn out vicious enough.  That’s a pretty solid basis for making a whole species evil, in my estimation.  So do follow Tolkien’s example on that score:  if you make a whole race evil, have a damn good reason why they’re all evil.  And a difficult history is not an acceptable reason – Ghandi came from a country with a difficult history.

It’s far more interesting, to me, to read fantasy with a varied landscape of characters, where individuals may be shaped by their racial heritage, but aren’t ruled by it.  If you take the pointy ears off your elf and he’s no longer interesting, he was never interesting to start with.  Sorry – harsh but true.

The world you build will also suffer from generalizing your races.  Fantasy is all about suspension of disbelief.  Amazingly, you can get people to suspend disbelief when it comes to dragons and magic and shapeshifters, but you have to write those things realistically – funny as that sounds.  If your world is rich and full and varied and fascinating, people will go along with almost anything.  Generalizations are like a badly-done background at a play – they make it obvious that your world is just a one-color wash on plywood.  Make your characters so different and so intriguing that people want to slip into your world and meet them.  (Babylon 5, curse you for making me wish I could go hang out with G’Kar!  It is an unfulfillable dream!)

If for no other reason, don’t make your species “Bad Species” or “Good Species” because it kills hundreds of opportunities for unpredictability.  If all your goblins are vicious, throat-slitting thieves, it’s going to be pretty obvious when one shows up that something will get stolen, and someone might get their throat slit.  If your goblins tend to be vicious and, culturally, they have very little understanding of “mine” and “yours”, but your readers have seen that some understand more than others, and some are peaceful and maybe even spiritual or something, they don’t know what will happen next!  Interest!  Worry!  Will this goblin steal something, or will the “good guys” treat him badly because they are stereotyping him, and will they turn out to be wrong, and the reader will be ashamed of them for their bad behavior when this goblin was trying to help them?  That’s the kind of stuff you want your reader to wonder about.  Don’t take that away from yourself by plugging in lame, stereotypical fantasy races where every individual member of that race is interchangeable with the others.

Okay, end rant.

Show & Tell

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.

It is good advice, on the whole.  It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.”  Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.

On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling.  It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).

To write, you must tell.  The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them.  It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write.  You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.

One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully.  There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this:  Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son.  Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son.  I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.

As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down.  Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event.  At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!

And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over.  You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg.  Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing!  You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story.  If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc.  Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.

Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often.  Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.

NaNoWriMo

This November will be my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month – and I’m very excited about it!  Other than last fall, I’ve been working full-time every November for the last several years, and this past year I was well into the process of revising the rough draft of my novel during NaNo – didn’t seem like a good idea to switch gears and start something new right then.

So this year, I get to do it, and I’m trying to think ahead and prepare for it so I can get the most out of it that I can.

If you don’t know about NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and November 30th by writing 1500 words per day (at least!)  Correct me if I’m wrong about that word count, because I had trouble double-checking it on the NaNo website.  Of course, it’s going to be very rough, but that’s what I’ve been preachin’ about lately, right?  Write it down and THEN fix it.  NaNo has a strong online presence, too, and it’s a great way to connect with other writers and swap story talk.

I’m planning on writing the first book of a trilogy that I’ve been planning, plotting, fiddling with, rewriting, changing, doing research for, and generally screwing around with for the past 13 years.  I WANT this book to be written, dang it, and it’s time it was.  What better way to stop all the hemming and hawing and actually plunge into this story than NaNoWriMo?  That’s my plan, anyway.

In preparation for my month of glorious and frantic writing, here’s some stuff I want to do ahead of time:

  • get all my notes together and re-organize them, taking out all the discarded and altered ideas and putting those in a separate binder, so I’ll have a cohesive set of details to work from
  • finish my rough plotline for the various characters’ story arcs, leaving plenty of room for the story to change if need be
  • do more architectural drawings of the setting, to help keep my visuals consistent as I work on writing it
  • take care of as much mundane, real-world stuff ahead of time as possible to keep that month focused on writing
  • possibly do some writing exercises to draw out my ideas for the characters and the storyline – sort of a pre-emptive inspiration process
  • get some appropriate music together and make some work playlists for my writing time

Maybe it’s crazy to prep for something that’s all about keeping a sense of spontaneity, but hey, what Boy Scout doesn’t come prepared, right?

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On a side note, I have just returned from vacation, which is why I haven’t updated this week, and hopefully someday I’ll post more consistently on this blog!

Drafts

While I haven’t yet started the hopefully-final draft of my current novel, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in the process of writing this book.  The last novel I finished (six years ago) is a big wad of mistakes tangled around some good ideas, and it’s beyond me still how to extract the good stuff from the mess.  So when I started the first draft of my new book – The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn – I took a very different approach.

In the past, I’ve agonized over rough drafts, trying to make them as close to final drafts as is humanly possible, the idea being to eliminate as much of the rewrite process as I could.  Truth to tell, that’s worked great with short stories, but a novel is a whole different animal.  The trouble with trying to write a perfect first draft is, it takes forever, and the content is not always as pertinent to the story as you thought it was at the time.  You get too focused on the details, and lose sight of the big story.  The details are much easier to go back in your rewrites and fix, though – mess up the big story, and you may never figure out how to untangle the good from the bad.

In addition to writing, I also dabble in graphite drawing.  One thing I learned from drawing is, if you get the whole picture sketched out and make sure that everything is proportionate and that the composition is strong, then when you add the shading, you’ll end up with an excellent picture.  If you start filling in shading before you’ve finished your outline, however, you’ll usually notice (eventually) that your perspective, proportion, and/or composition is off, and trust me, you will never get the picture to look right if you’ve already started the shading on a badly-done sketch.

So when I started my rough draft of The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I applied what I learned from visual art to written art – I thought of the first draft as a sketch.  I did it quickly and stayed loose with it, making adjustments but not getting too attached to any one line, removed what didn’t work and didn’t fill in all the empty space (subplot) until I’d finished the main storyline.

My first round of rewrites was heavy work, but, for me, it’s much easier to add material than to cut it.  I had lots of ideas for subplots, and tons of notes about the secondary characters and their backgrounds that I didn’t know whether to include in the manuscript or not during my whirlwind first draft.  When I sat down to work on the second draft, I looked over what I had and made notes about what was needed, what felt like it was missing, where the characters came off flat, etc. and coordinated that information with what I had made notes about.  All I had to do was expand on ideas that had already occurred to me, figure out where it made sense within the story and how it would affect the larger plot, and shape the story accordingly with the new material.  Almost everything “missing” was accounted for in my notes, and although it was hard to come up with the stuff that wasn’t accounted for, it was muuuuch easier than cutting out the “extra” notes that I’d made for things that really wouldn’t have worked.

The third draft, which I just finished last week (weeee!), I had some beta readers’ feedback to work from.  The majority of the rewrites on that round were for clarity, consistency, maintaining the readers’ suspension of disbelief, pacing, and improving scenes that weren’t working or weren’t working well enough.  There were still a couple areas of major expansion, but for the most part, it was troubleshooting.  I imagine the next draft will be no expansion and all troubleshooting (though that may be wishful thinking – haha!) but I’ll have to hear what my theta readers (is that a term?) have to say about that!  *grin*