Imaginarium 2015

Last weekend, I attended Louisville’s second annual Imaginarium Convention for creative writers (and readers). I went last year, too, and have had a blast both times. Great programming, great networking, and great company. Plus, it’s held in the same hotel where the long-gone Rivercon Science Fiction Convention used to be held, which means it brings back great memories for me of attending my very first convention with my mom, 23 years ago. I’ve decided that I need a reversible hat to wear next year, with editor on one side and writer on the other, so people will know from which point of view I’m speaking.

This year, I was on 5 panels: one about the role of an editor; one about the writer-editor relationship (and how the editor is, in fact, your friend, even if they put enough red on your manuscript that it would never make it past Hollywood censorship); one about choosing and pulling off either a lone hero tale or a heroic group story (which, ironically, had neither a lone hero for a speaker nor a heroic group of speakers, but yet a third narrative choice: a dynamic duo of speakers); a panel about steampunk (which was lots of fun, and in which we discussed various other ‘punks, too, such as deiselpunk, clockpunk, etc.); and a panel about plotting, and how different writers do it (or don’t). So now you know the kinds of things writers sit around and talk about in secret.

I also attended a couple of panels as an audience member – one about balancing a day job and a writing schedule (because it ain’t easy getting back into a routine after four years away from creative writing), one about writing non-human characters (because the sequel to Erica Flynn includes some), and one about writing the zombie apocalypse (because two of my editing clients do). There were a bunch more I *wanted* to attend, but they were at the same times as the panels I was speaking on. These included, but weren’t limited to, panels on historical writing, unconventional fantasy, and comic books. As you can see, there’s a pretty good variety of topics at Imaginarium, which is one of the reasons I love it! Plus, they had a dragon this year. I mean, how can I not love it?

If I could change one thing about Imaginarium, it would be to add a tea/coffee room for the convention, so there would be a hangout spot to just shoot the shit with other writers. Because writers, myself included, love nothing better than to shoot the shit over caffeinated beverages!

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Mom, the dragon, and me

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Writing Troubles

I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but if I can’t visualize a scene, it’s like banging my head into a brick wall to get through it. I’ve hit that point in my current work in progress. I have a solid opening to the novel, and I know where I want to go with it. I have clear ideas about the themes, tone, characters, motifs, plot, and many of the settings. Now, usually, I just go from the last section I’ve written and see if things start to connect up. Usually, once I start writing, I start being able to picture the events unfolding, and it all goes fine. So what happens when, like now, the scene doesn’t start playing out on its own?

It’s not exactly writer’s block. I can write what the character is thinking just fine. It just isn’t going anywhere. Here are some steps I generally take to move forward:

  • Keep writing what the character is thinking – I can always trim it to a “scraps” file if it isn’t necessary to the book – until something clicks.
  • Work on the setting. Where is the scene taking place? Did I pick that setting for a reason, or was it just the first thing I thought of? If the former, then why is that setting important? What about that setting helps move the scene forward? Is there something the character notices in the setting that causes a reaction or a realization? If I picked the setting because it was just the first idea I had, then (a) Was there actually a purpose to the setting that I didn’t realize? and (b) if not, is brainstorm at least three alternative settings and try them out. For example, did I pick a coffee shop because that seemed like a “normal” setting? Do I even want a “normal” setting for this scene? What if I picked a library’s room for rare and antique volumes, an abandoned train station, or the alligator house at a zoo?
  • Work on the details. Going off the previous idea, if I want to picture a setting, I need to think about the details if they aren’t coming automatically. Usually the first place I start is making sure I have at least one detail per sense – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. And touch doesn’t have to be texture. It could be air pressure, humidity, temperature.
  • Find something external that inspires you. For me, music is often the key to getting my brain going. If I hear a song that fits the story or the character, everything can just click into place at once. Some of my favorite scenes from Erica Flynn came about entirely as the result of daydreaming while listening to music. Something I like to do these days is look around Pinterest for inspiration. Between the architecture, nature, art, and travel pins, there’s usually something that strikes me and gives me something to start with.
  • Writing exercises. There are plenty of writing exercises to get you going when you don’t have a story yet, but there are also plenty out there to help you once you’ve got a story going – and even for the revision process – and are having trouble getting it where you want it. My personal go-to when I’m struggling is Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction, which is chock-full of advice, examples, and exercises for character, plot, setting, tension, bad guys, good guys, and everything in between.
  • Back up. Instead of trying to force a scene that’s lying there like a miserable blob on the page, consider that it might not be working because you’re trying to do something wrong for the story. Are you ignoring a character’s reservations about something? If so, back up and use those reservations to create inner conflict – that’s prime stuff! Are you trying too hard to make something happen that doesn’t need to happen? Are you trying to put in a scene that isn’t necessary, that’s just padding in the end? Are you writing yourself into a corner? Sometimes you subconsciously know better, and it’s worth listening to the signals. For example, I just realized that I’m totally ignoring the fact that, even though my character has motivation to do something she’s been asked to do, she currently has no reason to be in a hurry about it. *facepalm* Maybe that’s why I’m stuck, d’ya think?
  • Talk to someone. Another writer, a friend who likes to read, a friend who hates reading but likes good movies….anyone you trust to give a damn if you need to vent about your writing frustrations. Sometimes, like anything in life, you’ll find the answer in talking about it. Sometimes, other people ask good questions and have good suggestions. And sometimes, you end up with a great brainstorming session.
  • Chill out and do something else for a while. It may not look or feel like you’re writing to anyone else, but some of your best work as a writer happens when you’re not typing or scribbling things in a notebook. Daydream for a while. Cook. Draw. Color. Go to work. Get groceries. Take a shower. Take the dog for a walk. Go to the park. Call your mom. Go out with friends. Sleep on it. Your brain will still work on your story. The best part of your brain – your subconscious – is always working on your story. Just make sure you sit down at that computer or scribble in that notebook again tomorrow.

Well, since blogging about my frustrations seems to have pinpointed a trouble spot, I think I’ll go do something else for a while and then try sitting back down at the laptop again later!

What Archaeology and Fiction Writing Have in Common

For anyone curious about why my two biggest interests are so “different” from one another…here’s why they’re not:

  1. All knowledge is useful knowledge. Taking interest in a wide variety of subjects gives you that much more material to work with when it comes to writing – you can get rich, specific detail and a broad spectrum of characters and settings just by being curious…and you never know what will pop up that might give you an idea. In archaeology, you never know what might come in handy, either. Obviously, you need a smattering of history and geology of the area you’re working in, but then there are things like being aware of what plant species are native, which were introduced and when and for what purpose (for example, Vinca minor – graveyard ivy – isn’t native to Kentucky, doesn’t spread much on its own, and was a common graveyard planting in the 19th century); things like the fact that tanneries used human urine as a chemical component of processing leather (and therefore might be located near a lavatory in a historic building); things like what parts of an animal have the highest caloric value…you get the idea. Anything might turn out to be useful.
  2. Everything is writing / Everything is archaeology.  This is kind of along the lines of the previous. Anything you know about, hear about, learn about, can potentially be applied to fiction writing, and the same goes for archaeology. When you think about it, since archaeology is essentially the study of the human past, then any human behavior, and any natural phenomenon or environment that humans have ever had a relationship to, well…that pretty much covers everything. When it comes to writing, everything you observe, think about, act upon, receive responses from, and interact with is story potential.
  3. Getting into a point of view. Unless you’re writing a fictionalized autobiography, fiction requires you to step out of your own worldview and into the worldview of somebody (or more than one somebody) else. Any branch of anthropology, including archaeology, requires the same thing…except you’re doing your best to step into the worldview of real people, living or dead (depending on what you’re working on).
  4. Beginning, Middle, and End (and sometimes Epilogue). Obviously, a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s a flash fiction story, something happens, something changes, someone’s mind opens or closes or shifts. In archaeology, we have Phase 1 projects (surveys, which might be done with ground penetrating radar or electromagnetometry or by walking the site or by shovel testing), Phase 2 projects (“Hey! We found stuff in Phase 1 and someone is willing to pay for us to find out more!!”) where you dig test units in areas that promise evidence of features or artifacts, and Phase 3 projects (when you excavate a site in detail). Not every site gets to Phase 2, and not all Phase 2 projects go on to a Phase 3. It depends on money, the site’s potential for adding to our knowledge of history/prehistory, and why the site was being excavated to begin with (Who funded it? Did they fund it voluntarily, or for compliance with the law before their development could move forward? How fast do they want the archaeologists out of their hair?) Or you could view the beginning, middle, and end of archaeology this way: Excavation, artifact processing, and report writing. Because those three steps happen on any project, at any level (unless you’re a lousy archaeologist). The epilogue, in that case, could be seen as public presentations, or in some cases the establishment of a historical center or local museum on site. 
  5. Drinking, Swearing, and Nerding Out. All three of these activities are near and dear to both archaeologists and writers. At least, 90% of all the archaeologists and writers I know. Preferably, do all three at the same time while in the company of other writers/archaeologists after a day of slaving away at the computer/with the trowel.

(Sort of) Guest Post

For years now, my mom (Marian Allen) and I have been obsessing over Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and specifically over the cat Behemoth (our favorite character in the novel).  My mom is also obsessed with Hello Kitty.  So yesterday, I spontaneously decided to draw Hello Behemoth for Mom.  Today, she posted the picture on her blog for Caturday, and I’m counting that as a guest post because it means I don’t have to write a real post.  Ha!  (By the way, dear Readers, something about all this does relate to the sequel….)

yWriter 5, and Why I Might Become an Outliner

Thorough outlining is not generally my thing.  My attitude is usually more like, “Well, this is a cool storyline, and I know where I want it to end up.  Here’s a couple cool things that could happen in the middle.  Let’s connect the dots!!!”  But.  It’s very hard to pace an entire novel with the by-the-seat-of-your-pants method.  It can be done (though probably not in a first draft, unless you’re the Mozart of novelists), if you’re willing to tear the entire thing apart and put it back together a bunch of times.  But.  I’d like to make it a little easier on myself for the second Underworld novel, especially since there will be multiple points of view involved.  It was hard enough keeping things on track with just Erica, let alone the crazy-ass hooligans who’ll show up in Book II!

So I’m using yWriter 5, a free program by Spacejock Software for novel outlining.  What, good ol’ pen and paper isn’t good enough anymore? you ask.  Index cards were good enough when your mother started HER second novel, you sneer.  But, dear reader, it was my mother who told me about the yWriter Project, so…dear reader, kindly shut yer gob.  (J/K, you know I love y’all!)  Point being, yWriter is pretty sweet.  It seemed a little complex and overly-detailed to me when I first started playing around with it, but now that I’m really trying to get this novel laid out, I’m seeing the usefulness of all of the program’s tools and reports.

Example 1:  You can rate each scene’s relevance to the main plot, as well as its humor and tension level.  Then you can look at a chart of all your scenes and see how the flow of your plot builds, the build-up and release of tension, and the ebb and flow of humor throughout the course of the novel.  If there’s no forward movement of the plot in the entire middle section of the book, you’ll see it visually right away.  If you have no tension in the first section of the book, you’ll see it in the chart.  And if the first half of the book is funny and the second half is pure tension and anguish, you’ll know you need to fix that before you plunge into full-on writing.  Example 2:  Characters, locations, & items.  Especially for a series, this is great.  You add characters to the file and then add them to whatever scenes they appear in (and which scenes are from their viewpoint).  Since your character descriptions, biographies, goals, alternate names, etc. (you can even load a photo or drawing into their  file) are clickable from the outline, it’s easy to keep everyone’s stories straight (no pun intended) and everyone’s hair/eye color in mind (don’t you hate when you mix them up?)  You can also put in specific locations and items, each in their own separate files within your project – again, helping you keep your details straight, or reminding you of settings that your characters might need to return to, avoid, etc.  Nifty!  You can also pull up a report to see how many scenes each character appears in, which is a great early-warning signal that somebody might be trying to hijack the book to be All About Them when it isn’t.

Of course, nothing ever goes as outlined – I know once I get started, a billion things will shift around and run off in different directions and go at a different pace than I wanted…but that’s the fun part!  I like writing best when my stories surprise me with being more awesome than I could ever have planned on purpose!

Writing Process

I’ve been tagged!  Marian Allen posted about her writing process over at her blog, and tagged me to write about mine.  So here goes:

First off, the process is a little different for every project.  Of course, everything starts with an idea, whether it’s for a character, a storyline, a scenario, a pivotal scene, a setting, or a conflict.  Generally, I’ve got a ton of random ideas floating around in my head at any given moment.  While I’m doing other stuff, my brain is constantly fiddling around with these ideas and trying to connect them in interesting ways.  At some point (seems like it’s usually when I’m either in the shower or about to fall asleep), my brain succeeds in coming up with something cool for me, and I know it’s time to start putting stuff on paper.

Generally, I don’t do a whole lot of planning, per se, but I do make notes of the pieces as they come together.  If anything particularly complicated comes up, I’ll outline as much as I need to in order to keep things straight while I’m working on that section of the story.  If nothing complicated comes up, I generally just write in the direction I want things to go, let the characters take the lead, and see how things turn out.  If I get stuck, I might outline, I might cut a scene (I have a “scrap” file for anything I cut, in case I need it later), I might use a subplot point to push things forward, or, if all else fails, I just do something awful to the main character and force them to deal with it.  (That’s partly a good way to move things forward, partly a good way to ramp up the conflict, and partly a sadistic way for me to take out my frustration on my character for not cooperating).

When writing short stories, I usually have a specific concept and/or conflict I want to explore, and the characters come about from thinking through what kinds of people that concept or conflict would involve.  Short stories also involve a lot of staring at the screen and cursing and fighting the urge to bang my head on a desk, because pacing and balancing enough/not too much conflict is brutal for me on a short story scale.  With a novel, I tend to have an easy time weaving plot and character together so that each drives the other forward in a way that’s unique to both those specific characters and that specific storyline.  Most of what makes that possible is establishing strong but flexible characters early on in the process – once I know what my characters’ first instincts would be, but also what they’re capable of doing that isn’t in line with their normal behavior, it’s easy to let them guide the action, but it’s also easy to throw in plot points that are beyond their control and have them respond in ways that are both true to the character and helpful in advancing the story.

How do I create strong characters that feel real enough to work with this way?  That’s a hard question, because the answers are vague and overly simplistic…  I could say, I make them up, and it would be true, but I’d sound like I was being snotty – even though I’m really not!  I could say, I try to look at them as people I’d have to figure out in real life, and that would be true, too, but it isn’t enough…it’s not just my attitude toward characters in general that makes a particular character really pop out in my imagination, or it would always be easy to do (and it isn’t, with 90% of all the characters that occur to me).  I could say, I come up with a character who has the right personality for the kind of story I want, and that’s definitely the case, but also not enough to flesh out a 3-dimensional character that a reader (or I) would be interested in knowing better.  For example, with The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a book about someone determined to come back from a really cool afterlife in spite of all obstacles (I did have specific scenes in mind for the Underworld, the mini-climaxes, and the final outcome before I was even sure who the main character would be), and I knew it was a book about someone who needed to get back to their partner.  I thought it would be too cliche to have the husband be in the wrong (let’s face it, ladies, sometimes we’re jerks, too) and have to do all kinds of feats and action-hero stuff to get home to apologize to his wife, so I went with a female narrator.  I knew I wanted someone skeptical and funny to keep the book feeling modern and upbeat in spite of the focus on death.  I wanted to keep myself from exploring a billion possible plot lines in a really cool setting, so in order to stay focused I wanted (a) first person narration and (b) a single-minded narrator. In order for anyone to willingly go through everything Erica would have to go through just to apologize – to leave behind the security of being invulnerable and having all her needs met, and go back to being mortal and vulnerable – and for her to be up to the task, I knew she needed to be (a) tough as nails, (b) fiercely loyal, (c) stubborn, and (d) clever.  Now, this gives you, as a writer, a list of traits: skeptical, funny, single-minded, tough, loyal, stubborn, clever, and (given the need to apologize) probably impulsive.

A list of traits does not a character make. But you think about this character – this person – the way you might wonder about a new acquaintance.  You know this person is tough and stubborn, and you wonder why.  What have they had to deal with, or who did they admire and look up to who was that way?  This person is impulsive, and you know that’s caused them trouble already – how are they going to deal with situations where they have to restrain themselves (or should restrain themselves) and what will happen if they can’t?  She’s single-minded – does she miss things that you’d expect her to notice (given that she’s clever)?  See, questions like this start to fill in the character’s background, family and friend influences, regrets, potential for making things worse on themselves, and how their traits play off of one another or augment each other.  More like a real person, less like a list.  And the process is the same for secondary and cameo characters, although generally not as in-depth or detailed as for the main character(s).

That’s about as organized an explanation of my process as I can come up with!  Oh, and WRITE YOUR ROUGH DRAFT AS A WRITER, NOT AS AN EDITOR!  You can edit once you’ve got the story on paper (or screen)!

A Story in Emoticons

What happens after you finish writing a book (at least, if you’re me):

I DID IT!  =D

Um.  But now it’s OVER.  :  (  And I miss my characters.  :~*(  And I don’t know what to work on now.  {:/  Oh NO!  Am I going to be one of those writers that only writes one novel they’re happy with and then can’t follow up with anything good ever again???  {:E

No.  That’s not me.  I won’t let it be.  I’m going to sit down and write something else RIGHT NOW to prove that I’m not one of those writers.  :/  Um.  I don’t know what to write about, though.  I don’t like any of my other ideas because they’re not as polished as the ones I just wrote about.  {:/  But those ideas weren’t polished, either, until I finished writing and refining and editing the book!  I can do that again.  : )

…I don’t like these characters as much as my characters from my last book.  They aren’t cooperating with me like the old ones did.  }:(  $#&@ you, new characters!  $#%& you for not being the characters from my last novel!!  You aren’t as good!  >:#  *throw notebooks in the corner*  *ignore writing for a month or two*  *do other stuff until your writing gets jealous because you’re not paying it enough attention*

Oh!  I have an idea!  And I really like it!!  {=D  Shhh!  Don’t spook it!  Sneak up on it quietly.  ; )  *sneak, sneak, sneak*  …aaaand POUNCE!  Gotcha!  =D

Order and Chaos

In my post last Wednesday, I mentioned that, leading up to the climax of a story, every choice closes one door and opens three more.  That’s another of the things that makes The Middle the hardest part of a book to write – for me, anyway.  There are so many variables, an infinite number of ways to get the characters from Point A in the storyline to Point Z, and of course, any writer worth his/her salt wants to find The Best Way.

There is your first mistake.  Go with your instincts and don’t worry about whether it’s The Best Way or not.  If it isn’t, guess what?  You can rewrite it!  But often, I’ve written things in on impulse and trusted that there was some reason my brain wanted it in the story, only to find that the whole solution hinged on it or that it was the one thing that tied everything together in the end.  Also, many times I’ve written in something entirely useless and had to cut it, but the point is, you can cut something you don’t need, but if you don’t try anything out for fear it isn’t the right thing, you’ll stare at a screen all day and have no progress to show for it.

The difficulty in the middle of a story is that everything is in flux – as I mentioned last Wednesday, the beginning is a status quo and the end is a status quo, even if they’re vastly different.  In the middle, you have to create the chaos that demands change.  Except it can’t really be chaos.

It should seem messy to the characters, because when life gets demanding and we’re in transition, we feel like everything is up in the air, like things are beyond our control, and we don’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out or how best to rise to meet our challenges.  During times of major change, real people are plagued by these kinds of doubts and this sense of the unsure future.  Naturally, then, you want your characters to wonder what will become of them, how best to move forward, what’s really going on, etc.

But your plot cannot be chaos to you, the writer, obviously.  To you, there must be a clear direction at all times, at least one purpose for each scene, a reason behind every choice every character makes, and an overall structure to the “chaos” of the plot.  Simultaneously, you have to keep your characters in the dark, never forgetting that they don’t know what you know, letting them reach the conclusions that are logical to them based on the information you’ve provided them with through revelation, other characters, personal interests, or twists of fate.  They have to find everything out on their own, though – they can’t just Know to go to such-and-such place at such-and-such time to find the person they’re looking for…and you can’t get away with very many fortunate coincidences, either.  They have to make their decisions because those are the decisions this person you’ve written would make.

Dostoevsky’s character Dmitri Karamazov is the kind of guy who would lose his temper and humiliate a man in public, and he’s also the kind of guy who is sorry for it later, when he finds out how badly it’s affected the man’s little boy.  Thomas Hardy’s character Tess is the kind of woman who would suffer for her principles, in spite of an easy out.  Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff could’ve chosen to find happiness somewhere other than with Catherine, but he’s not that kind of person – he’s the kind of person who’d rather live in bitterness and spite and hatred for the rest of his life, as long as it meant everyone around him had to suffer for it, too.

Choose your characters’ basic personalities carefully – because even if you plan to transform a character, the choices they make before they change are going to be based on who they are to begin with.  A lot of the time, you need a character who is a certain way to carry off a certain plot.  I needed a stubborn, authority-hating, single-minded person to narrate my Erica Flynn novel – nobody else would’ve made the same choices.

Friday Exercise – WHAT Did You Just Say To Me?

Oh, misunderstandings!  You are the curse of the social animal.  Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, from minor to life-changing, miscommunications happen all the time.  Write an exchange of dialogue in which 2 characters are completely missing what the other person is saying.

Maybe one is being completely straightforward and clear, and the other is assuming subliminal meanings or ulterior motives that aren’t there.  Maybe they’re both playing coy, but misunderstanding one another’s meaning because neither one is being clear.  Maybe one is taking what the other is saying the wrong way, or seeing a threat where none is intended.  Maybe one of them is flat hard of hearing, and literally can’t tell what in the world the other person is saying.  Maybe connotation is in the way – what’s offensive or insulting to one person isn’t always a bad thing at all to someone else.

There’s the prompt.  Now see where it takes you!

5 Tips on Dialogue

  1. If you haven’t heard yet, dialogue tags – he said’s and she said’s – are best kept minimal.  Use other methods of making it clear who’s talking:  distinct speech patterns, word choices, accents, etc.; gestures or actions; dialogue that only one character would say (you know the blunt one is the one who made the rude comment, the peacemaker character is the one apologizing for it, and the stranger is the one reacting, for example).
  2. Make it realistic.  I don’t care how dramatic it sounds, if it’s something no one would say in real life, don’t have someone say it in your book.  If it sounds like something out of a cheesy movie when you read it out loud to yourself, you need to rewrite it, unless you have a drama queen (or king) on your hands in the form of a character, in which case other characters need to roll their eyes so your readers don’t have to.
  3. Even in fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., bear the above in mind.  Yes, people speak differently at different time periods or imaginary representations of different time periods.  Regardless, stilted dialogue is a turn-off to most readers, and it’s all the more important to make it sound natural, even if the word choice is more formal or more slang-ridden than what you’d get in a mainstream novel.  Fantasy with cornball dialogue is a particular annoyance of mine, referred to as “forsoothly fantasy”, because it makes me embarrassed to associate any of my own work with the genre.  Don’t ruin it for me, okay?  I want to be proud of what I write.
  4. Always read your dialogue aloud to yourself at some point in your writing process.  Even if you have to mutter it under your breath because you write in a library or a coffee shop, you need to check out how your dialogue sounds.  You’ll catch phrases that no one would really say, sentences that are too long or complex for dialogue, dialogue that’s slipping into narration and needs to be broken up with interruptions or needs to be more conversationally phrased…all kinds of things that can slip by unnoticed if you’ve never read your dialogue aloud.
  5. Never forget that you can skim over the boring parts of an exchange between characters.  Yes, in real life, we greet and ask, “How are you,” back and forth a couple times and ask about basic stuff like the weather and so on to get a conversation started.  In a book, you can just say, They exchanged greetings, bantering about the heat of the summer before Bob finally said, “So, what’s the news on this ‘Rest Stop Killer?'” or whatever.  See, right to the point, and you got a little detail in there as well.