Knight at the Crossroads

The new header image on my site, in case you’re wondering, is part of a photo (of an oil painting) I took in the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg in 2013. The painting is Knight at the Crossroads by Victor Vasnetsov, completed in 1878. Here is the full painting, pulled from Wikimedia:

TheKnightAtTheCrossroads

Crossroads are a big thing in many folk tales, including Russian folk tales, but in Russia, crossroads are frequently used as a metaphor for the pull between East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernization. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Vasnetsov’s imagery would’ve been even more striking than it is for me to look at, today, as a non-Russian – and it is striking, even out of its context.

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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!

Some Thoughts on Descriptions

Descriptions generally get a bad rap.  When you say something has a lot of description, people assume you mean it’s boring.  And to some people, maybe it’s true that any description is a boring description.  But since it’s a necessary part of any story, we writers can only hope that there are ways to make description interesting to our readers.

There are a few things that really draw me in when it comes to descriptive passages:

  • A character’s voice if it’s first person – how they perceive the environment gives me clues, not only about their environment, but about the characters themselves, about their psychology, and about what they may do next based on that perception.  I want to know if my guesses about them are right or not, so I read on.
  • If it’s third person, a character’s thoughts and feelings and reactions, as they’re revealed throughout the passage, for the same reasons listed above, will also keep me hooked.
  • Truly evocative language – avoidance of clichés, avoidance of overly flowery prose, metaphors that really help me place myself in the scene, and not forgetting that there are senses other than sight.
  • Description that mingles with hints about conflict or change.  A fleeting  sense of the past or a glimpse of tension that might mean trouble in the future.

An Oft-Neglected Element

It’s funny how easy it is to forget to mention certain sensory details, whereas others come out automatically.  Most of us go for visual description as our primary focus, with auditory details as a close second, touch being prominent mostly during scenes of sex or violence, with smell barely mentioned and taste almost forgotten.  Granted, it’s hard to separate taste and smell, since if one is mentioned the other is generally implied.

But even within the confines of visual and auditory elements, there is, in fiction in general, a woeful disregard for the atmospherics of weather.  It’s so much a part of our daily setting.  It can color our mood, affect our decisions for what to do with our day, change the dynamics of a conversation.  It changes the feel and flavor of the air, the smells that carry or get washed away, whether we listen to birdsong or rainfall all afternoon.  It can be soothing, frightening, frustrating, or blissful.

How the weather affects people can be anything from a home destroyed by a tornado or a flood to road rage from not having AC in the car, from draught affecting crops to seasonal depression.  A sudden thunderstorm could interrupt a lover’s spat, reuniting the couple as they run for cover together, forgetting their differences just long enough to realize the whole argument is unimportant compared to their mutual affection and respect for one another.  A hot summer day can sizzle away at a frustration until it festers into murderous rage.  A cool rain can bring relief and cleansing on a dusty, dry garden.  A snowstorm can trap a group of travelers, blocking their progress.  Torrential storms can force someone to pull off the highway, giving him time that maybe he’d rather not have to think about what he just said to his mother.  A clear, starry night can make a character feel small and insignificant and lost – or like she belongs to a larger whole, freeing her from the worries of the moment.

People talk about the weather, gripe about it, relish it, go out in it, stay in because of it, take shelter from it, survive it.  Writers, take note, and USE IT!

Action!

Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write.  I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them.  When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters.  Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences.  I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.

So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?

Some of the things I try to do –

  • Keep your sentences simple and on the short side.  It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
  • Make your details count.  In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat.  It’s built into our systems.  So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife?  Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
  • Make your details COUNT.  Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers.  They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times.  So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding.  Great.  You get a freebie.  Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
  • If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing.  Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment.  You can explain what happened later.
  • Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow.  Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight.  Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat.  Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table.  Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.

5 Details

One thing I’ve started doing when I know I have an important scene on my hands and I’m nervous about how it’s going to come across is, I write down five sensory details I want to include within the scene before I actually start it.  I try to pick at least three things that aren’t the “obvious thing” to point out – the obvious stuff will generally fall into place by itself, anyway.  Sometimes I don’t even end up putting one of my details in the text, but it’s implied by other details or dialogue or character reactions.

Why does this help me write difficult scenes?  I think there are a number of reasons it bolsters my confidence in what I’m about to set down in type.   (1) It helps me visualize/feel the setting and how it will affect the action and the characters involved.  (2) It helps me stay consistent on my details…like not saying it’s a sweltering day and then dressing a character in winter clothes.  (3) I know I won’t have to stop to think up details if the scene is coming out flat.  (4) It gives me a focus for thinking through the scene a little ahead of time, solidifying the action and interactions in my head before I start slinging words around.  (5) It puts me there.  I’m not at my desk or my laptop anymore; I’m in the story world.

This whole thing originally started with some of Donald Maass’ exercises in The Fire in Fiction, but I’m using it in a different context than he originally suggests in the book, and it’s helping me keep plugging away at my wordsmithing.

I cheated.  This is more a writing exercise post than a regular “writing and rewriting Monday” post.

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 – Evidence of Others

Take a walk somewhere.  Anywhere.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  If you’re anywhere urban, suburban, or otherwise sometimes populated by other humans, look for one sign of another person having been there (who isn’t there now).  Graffiti.  A cross next to a bad turn on a country road.  A hand print on a toy store window.  Anything.  Brainstorm about this person – were they here alone, or with someone?  How were they feeling?  What was their purpose?  What is the rest of their life like?  Free write about it, or if a story just comes to you, start writing it.

If your walk is out in the woods, away from people, turn your attention to evidence of animals.  Prints, scraped bark, old nests from prior years, burrows.  See what’s around.  Write from the animal’s point of view, or if that’s not your cup of tea, think about what kind of character would pay attention to the details you’ve noticed.  A hunter?  A bird-watcher?  A conservation expert?  Someone from the past, who needs to pay attention to the environment around him/her in order to survive?

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?

Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.