Friday Exercise – Special Occasion

There’s an occasion or event of some kind – a holiday, a city-wide celebration, a party, etc.  Write an interaction between at least one character who’s excited about it and at least one character who’s dreading it.  No matter what they say aloud to one another about it, what are the real reasons they feel the way they do?  What’s under the surface for these people?  What associations do they each have with this occasion?

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Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Friday Exercise – We’re All Mad Here

I’ve had a series of interesting discussions (based around quantum mechanics) this week which have touched on the orderly/chaotic nature of the universe, the nature of consciousness and/or linear time, probability and the multiverse, and, well, to be Douglas Adams about it, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

This in itself is good fuel for the fiction fire, especially if you lean toward speculative fiction (as I do).  Gets the gears of imagination turning (yes, I know I just mixed metaphors, but it was in two separate sentences and this is an informal blog post, not high literature, okay?) and sparks all kinds of ideas (maybe the gears of imagination have little metal shavings rattling around which are fire hazards, which would make all three of the metaphors I’ve now mixed in these two sentences tie together into one cohesive and acceptable metaphor).

Anyway, there is plenty of inspiration to be had from reading/discussing quantum theory, but even without getting into the complex and confusing scientific end of things, I love a good long look at different perceptions of reality.  Are events random and coincidences meaningless, or are they shaped somehow?  If they’re shaped, what shapes them?  A divine being, a sub-cellular connection of some sort, the influence of a conscious universe trying to work through an identity crisis?  Is there predestiny?  Is it easy to alter the course of events, with one tiny decision changing the whole world through a ripple effect?  Or does reality re-align itself, pulling in other little coincidences to re-stablize what was thrown off?

For that matter, concepts as simple as pessimism and optimism are realities that we live in or fight against.  In the same world, we have people who function from a reality in which all good things are possible with a little kindness and effort, and others who function from a reality in which all things have an ulterior motive and the best you can hope for is to avoid falling into traps by being naive about how devious the world in general really is.  Sounds like two different worlds entirely – and yet, it’s just two different perceptions of the same thing.  And neither is entirely right nor entirely wrong.

So with all this kind of thing in mind, pick two viewpoints on reality which, at least on the surface, completely contradict each other.  Now, assume that both these viewpoints are entirely correct, and that they’re both entirely incorrect.  Free write about it, just mulling it over to yourself.  Or if characters come to you – one conflicted character who is faltering between these two viewpoints, or has a simultaneous belief in both; two characters at odds with each other because they have opposing viewpoints, or two characters who have opposing perspectives but still get along, balancing each other – then give your characters a scene to play out.  Or if it gives you an idea for an entire plot, start writing it and let this clash of ideas be the theme behind the story.

Pet Peeve: Your Shiny Little Self

It’s a pet peeve of mine when a character is clearly just a vessel for the author’s little fantasy of themselves and their life – as they wish they looked, acted, felt, lived, etc.  If you want to have an alternate reality life of yourself, then go play The Sims 3, do your best to make the Sims in your household look like you and Johnny Depp or Catherine Zeta Jones (depending on your gender preference and all), and give those little folks some fantastic goals and life fulfillment.

Please do not write a polished-up version of how you wish you looked, fawning over the waves of scarlet tresses that your spunky little self is always fighting not to make frizzy (thus making you super-cute to the hunky guy), or, if you’re a male writer, fawning over the badassery of your jawline or the sharp looks of your suit and sunglass combination.  Don’t give me a protagonist full of your own best qualities, who always does the “cool” thing, if not the right thing, and always makes the predictable, plain-vanilla, obvious decision at every turn.  Don’t give me a protagonist with all the bad bits cut off, because you’re more interested in “playing pretend” than writing good fiction.

Good fiction requires ugliness.  Ugly truths, flaws, mistakes, accidents, injuries, pain, suffering, and existential crisis.  The dark pit full of stuff we don’t like to face – about ourselves, about other people, about life.  Not that it’s all bad.  It’s just that, to make characters real, they must have an awareness of the ugly stuff, even if they glaze over it, even if they deal with it well, even if they deny it so well you’d never know (if you met them in real life) that they felt anything that wasn’t superficial.  Why?  Because real people are aware of these things.  The constant struggle to meet all of your needs, to maintain a tolerable (if not healthy) internal life and a tolerable (if not healthy) external life, to present yourself a certain way in public, to hide things you hate about yourself, to have the life you want, to find meaning, to LIVE before you DIE….even people who don’t directly, consciously think through the dilemmas involved in being a mortal creature that’s incessantly struggling to properly identify itself, still feel the effects and, on some level, battle with it every day.

So it’s fine if you want to give me a tough guy narrator that’s the coolest thing you could ever wish to be, as long as you give me some hint that you, the writer, know that there’s a reason he presents himself as a tough guy.  That you understand what lies under that surface presentation, that you understand that he, the character, not you, the writer, chose to present himself that way and that he reaps the benefits and suffers the consequences of that self-created image.  Or maybe he doesn’t mean to be a tough guy, and others perceive him that way no matter what he does – now that’s interesting, too.  How does he feel about that, and does he fight against it, or has he given up trying and just embraced it?  Or did he grow into it naturally?  This is where your character stops being a stereotype and a wish-fulfillment, and starts to be a real person – when you start running off questions like this in your head and get excited because the answers start to get more and more interesting.

Sometimes I think writers are afraid to let their protagonists be realistically flawed because they’re afraid people will read it and know how deeply flawed the writer himself/herself is.  And I’m not saying your protagonist has to be the antichrist.  But let’s be honest:  we’re all coping with life as best we can, and none of us do it perfectly…and none of us do it without some struggle, even folks who take it lying down and have no ambition or drive.  There’s still a struggle there.  None of us are perky, spunky, self-assured heroes who just so happen find the perfect mate in the midst of a major catastrophe and live happily ever after.

We’re all screwed up one way or another, and frankly, I find it somewhat reassuring to read about people more messed up than me.  Another point:  most readers aren’t thinking about how messed up the writer must be (or if they do, it’s with a certain admiration) – they’re too busy looking for themselves in the characters.  Don’t ever assume, dear writer, that, to your readers, your book is anything to do with you.  Once it’s published, it’s a game between your readers and your story.  You’re not even in the arena anymore.

Mapping a Novel

I don’t know of anything more difficult about novel-writing than pulling off multiple story arcs.  I don’t mean a main plot plus a subplot or three, which can be a little tricky – I mean when you have an ensemble cast of major characters, for all of whom you have to shape a transformative change worthy of a novel-length storyline.

Personally, this is one thing I can’t do without an outline – at least a rough one – to guide me and help me keep track of the big picture.  It’s easier to keep everything in mind with a concise reference to help solidify it.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to color-code everything, which means I get to use markers or colored pencils, which is always a plus, IMHO.

In a way, it’s easiest if I think of it as a map of the book, rather than an outline, and I have to plan a route for each character to reach the destination of the climax, whether that’s the same place for two or more of them, or totally separate towns.  Then it’s just a matter of travel planning so I know what they’ll encounter on their journey.  Physical battles?  Confrontation with someone they thought was an ally?  An abrupt and ugly revelation about him/her self?  What do I want each person’s story to be about?  How can I bring them to their finest moment within that?  How can I bring them to their worst impasse or their ultimate failure within it?  And of course, where do the different characters’ paths cross?  Do they trip each other up, or spur each other on?  In what ways, and why?

Friday Exercise – Nightmare

The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade.  Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character.  Yes, you read that right.  I cut the main character.  The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist.  She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.

Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit.  See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both.  And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying.  No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons.  Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly.  Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.

I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise.  I’m just verbose today.  Or loquacious.  Either word is a good one.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability.  NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces.  This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.

The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years.  And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had.  I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character).  The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.

So the exercise, finally, is this:  Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist.  Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them).  Just see what comes out of it.  Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare.  What underlying fears does this expose?  Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)?  What do the other people in the dream represent to your character?  The places?  What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc?  Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?

Raising the Stakes

The trickiest part of writing a novel, IMHO, is structuring the story arc over such a long span.  Although there are exceptions, a lot of novels cover a course of months or years (centuries, if you’re Edward Rutherford), for the characters.  Readers will take days, weeks, or months (depending on their reading pace and how dense the material of your book is) to finish it.  And of course, you, as the writer, will spend months, if not a few years, writing and polishing it.  It can be hard to keep perspective from within all those thousands of words and hundreds of hours of work!  It isn’t always easy to tell, in the process, if you’re going on too much with one section and rushing through another.  Pacing isn’t something you can always judge on the first draft, or even the second.

But pacing is the least of a writer’s worries with structure – pacing is easy to fix.  What’s hard to fix is the scenes that don’t have a clear direction – especially when you have a lot of them – and the storylines that don’t fit together the way you want, and the plot holes that will take massive amounts of lead-up that you didn’t put in because you didn’t realize you’d need it.  My first finished novel, The Kind That Hurts the Most, which will hopefully never see the light of day, suffered from a hideous lack of plot structure and far too many directionless scenes in the middle.  To this day, I can’t see any way to fix it, short of throwing in some werewolves or zombies or possibly Godzilla, and I’d have to pay royalties for him.  Anyway, one of the tools I’ve picked up since that novel, which would really have saved it as I was drafting it, is raising the stakes.

If you’re meandering, unfocused, or directionless with your plot, one of the surest cures is to increase the pressure on your characters.  That doesn’t always mean changing the events of the storyline, either – you can make the events mean more to the characters, affect them more profoundly, as long as you have a basis established for why, for this person, is this event momentous?

There’s such a wide range of ways to approach the idea of “raising the stakes”, too.  In a comedy/adventure style of story, you can heap things on until it’s ridiculous (Indiana Jones’ “Snakes…why did it have to be SNAKES?” moment comes to mind).  In a literary novel, one character’s mindset can shift just a little too late, and the resulting regret can drive them to overcompensate, lash out, or strive to change.  In a mystery, the killer can come after the sleuth.  Loved ones can be threatened, or can threaten to withdraw or leave.  Loyalties can split at a crucial time.  Fortunes can be squandered, jobs can be lost, antagonists can attack in unforseen ways, storms can strike, wars can be declared.  There are a zillion options for making life hard in your story world.

One thing you can do is think about bad timing in your own life.  Everyone has had those times when bad news seems to come in like a tide – wave upon wave of bad news, pounding in on you.  What did you really need right then that fell through or went wrong, or what was the last straw?  And when you got to the last straw, no matter how you reacted, what would your characters have done, in the same position?  How would they have solved the problem, or made it worse?

See, you’re getting a free exercise here, even though it’s not Friday.  And writing therapy, sort of.

Anyway, as crazy as this sounds, I’m going to recommend Adam Sandler movies as prime examples of raising the stakes.  They’re formulaic in many ways, and obviously silly, but re-watching Happy Gilmore a couple weeks ago, I thought, “Damn!  If I ever teach a creative writing class in my lifetime, I’m using this to show my students how to raise the stakes.”  Several of Sandler’s movies would work as examples (formulaic, as I said) but Happy Gilmore has an element that underlines that the stakes are being raised – the sports commentators, who throw in lines like, “And things just keep getting worse for Happy Gilmore!  If he doesn’t calm down, he’s going to lose this round!” when the audience knows, of course, that he must win this round to save his grandmother’s house from repossession.  So thank you, Adam Sandler, for helping me with this blog entry.