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.

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?

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.

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.

Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.

A Good Swift Kick in the Pants

In last Monday’s post, I talked about how sometimes characters and storylines can “decide” to go their own direction.  On the flip side for today’s post is:  writer’s block, when your characters and storyline refuse to go anywhere.  Sometimes I literally picture my character sitting in the middle of the road with his/her arms crossed like a petulant little kid, shaking his/her head at my every idea.  And that makes me wish my characters were real human beings so I could kick them good and hard for such behavior.

What I’ve found with writer’s block is, it’s usually a signal from some creative depth of my brain that doesn’t believe in communicating directly.  What it’s trying to tell me when I have writer’s block is that something I’ve either just written or something I’m just about to write isn’t right.  There wasn’t enough setup to pull off what I was going for, I dropped a thread somewhere and forgot about it, a character isn’t believably motivated to go where I want them to go yet, there’s actually a much more elegant way to tie the plot together than what I originally planned on…there are all kinds of things it might be.  But if I can just nail whatever it is that’s off, I get unstuck.

So if you have writer’s block (which, these days, I consider to be a thing that happens to Other People), check over the last few pages and see if you find a big inconsistency, a character acting out of character without good reason, or anything that just doesn’t feel right.  If not, think about the scene coming up.  What is it you were about to have happen?  Why doesn’t it work?  If you didn’t have a plan for your upcoming scene, then my advice is just to write something.  Think of it as a writing exercise instead of your actual work-in-progress.  Play with it instead of trying to have it come out The Perfect Thing first try.  Have something crazy and unexpected happen.  Your protagonist dies or his long-lost brother comes back to town or zombies attack or he wins the lottery.  Anything you write is a possible continuation of the story (whether you end up using it or not), and the process itself will help you feel out more about the character – plus, I’ve found that my brain won’t always tell me what it does want for my story unless I make it a little antsy by writing things it doesn’t want.  All of a sudden it pipes up, “No, I don’t want him to win the lottery!  That wasn’t what you were supposed to have happen.  It’s more like–”  Sort of like telling a bedtime story to a little kid who has to control every element of the damn story…Mom, I can see you looking this direction out of the corner of your eye…stop that!

And while you’re figuring out why you’re stuck, sometimes it’s good to get away and do something else.  So here are some movies about writing/writers/writer’s block that I like:

Forcing the Issue

Anyone who’s ever written a novel (or a solid number of short stories) knows that there are times when the story or the character(s) just won’t go the way you want them to.  I’m not talking about those times when you feel like you’re unable to pull off a scene, when you feel like your writing skills are simply not up to the task at hand.  I mean the times when the story or the characters or a single character start veering away from what you had in mind for them, when a story takes on its own direction, or when a character develops a mind of his/her own.

I realize this kind of thing probably has a psychological explanation rooted in the subconscious, but I still think of it as “the story taking over” or “[character’s name] refusing to cooperate”.  Sometimes, when I feel like I, as the writer, have lost control over the events and people I’m writing about, it’s exciting and fun, and I get much better results than my original plan would ever have yielded.  Other times, I fight tooth and nail to get my characters back under my thumb and do any number of awful things to them in order to make them do what they’re supposed to do for the story.

Some writers hate rampant character takeovers and the story not going as planned, arguing that it’s plain sloppy not to reign in your characters and stick to the plot you set out to write.  Other writers thrive on the anarchy of their characters and the chaos of possible plot turns that even they didn’t expect when they sat down to write a particular story, and the argument on that side of the question is that you leave room for a dynamic, exciting story and characters who are true to themselves rather than slaves to a pre-planned set of actions to move the plot along.

Now, I think both sides have a point.  Sticking too much to an outline or a plan can be boring and, worse, get you stuck.  Making a character do something whether it feels right when you’re writing it or not usually means that it doesn’t make sense, on some level, that he/she would do what you’re telling your readers he/she is doing.  That means you either need to give the character the reigns and do things his/her way, replanning your story accordingly, or you need to have external forces (events and other characters) push that character in the direction you need him/her to go.  Which of those do you pick?  Whichever one makes the story better.

Then there are times when a writer gives too much leeway to a character, and the character ruins the story.  Sometimes it’s because the character isn’t appealing to the reader.  Or the character is too obviously appealing to the writer (*cough* Lestat *cough*).  Or the character has no clear goals or direction, but is just running around doing stuff.  Or the character takes things too far off track to be in line with the overall plot.  Again, sometimes you have to force the issue and make the character want what you need him/her to want – and you don’t do that simply by having them do what you want when it feels wrong for them to be doing it.  You have to use the power at your disposal, as the writer, as the god of your story world, to affect your character in a way that will get the reaction you need from them.

There are so many external factors that can affect a character’s choices.  From weather conditions to family drama, physical danger to a touching observation of a stranger’s troubles, an unexpected break to the anguish of loss – there are so many ways to push and pull at a character, and by using those tools, you not only get your character where you need him/her to be, but you make him/her more accessible to the reader, too.  You reveal a lot about someone by showing what gets to him/her.  You might even make the reader fall in love with your character by doing so.

Friday Freakout Exercise

Friday is writing exercise day.  Here’s a good one for conflict, characterization, and character dynamics.  Inspired by my own lousy week:

Make three really crappy things happen to your character in the same week he or she has made a major life decision for the better.  See how he/she reacts.  More determined than ever for positive change, or ready to give up?  Murderous rage by the third incident, or laughing at it by that time?  Who’s around to help out, and who bolsters your character’s confidence when things look bad?

On Writing a Synopsis

It’s Wednesday – marketing day!  When you start sending query letters out to agents and publishers, you’ll find that you need to write at least one version of a synopsis to include either in the query itself, or as a follow-up to your introductory letter, if you’ve peaked anyone’s interest.

First off, I’ll explain why I wrote three versions of my synopsis.  I have one version (I call it the “blurb version”) that’s a one-paragraph summary of the setup, much like the “blurb” on the back of a book you’d read to decide if you want to buy it.  That’s what I put in the query letter itself, to (hopefully) catch the agent’s interest.  Then I have a full, straight-up point-for-point synopsis that summarizes the entire book and its ending, which I wrote mainly for reference, to keep myself straight on what order things happened in when I was writing my third synopsis.  The third synopsis is the one I give to agents who ask me for one – it’s in the style of the book itself, to give a taste of the voice, tone, and character of the novel.

What surprised me about writing the “blurb” synopsis was that I didn’t find it particularly difficult.  I expected it to be agony.  Instead, it was kind of fun and it flowed easily for me.  Yes, I chose my words carefully and considered the gravity of this being, most likely, my one and only paragraph with which to hook an agent, but it really didn’t seem that hard to write.  On reflection, I realized that my time working as a supervisor in a bookstore had served me well in this endeavor.

See, we used to write up a certain number of staff recommendations every week, with a little summary of what the book/movie/album we had picked was all about and why it was good.  I loved writing those summaries because it gave me a chance to share a little of my passion for good stories with anybody who took the time to read my recommendations – plus, it gave me a rare opportunity to work at my desk, but that’s beside the point.  Anyway, I think it stood me in good stead to write those blurbs for other people’s books.  It was great practise at making the most of a limited space in which to show and generate enthusiasm for a particular story.

So, although it’s Marketing Wednesday and not Exercise Friday, I give you Marketing Exercise Wednesday, and recommend that you practise writing exciting blurbs for your favorite books every now and then, as a warm-up to writing a synopsis for your very own novel.  It’s been a good tool for me!

Middles

Let’s talk about middles.  The middles of stories or novels, which I think is the most difficult part of any plot.

For me, I think part of the difficulty lies in having too many options.  There are too many directions to take things!  Too many choices about when this happens or what causes that or whether to add new characters or stick to just who I started with.  Another problem I face when moving the plot past the beginning and into the middle is, I get attached to the setup.  If I start a book or a story, chances are I’ve started out writing about a place, a person, a condition or emotion, and/or a situation I find interesting and want to explore.  Moving into the middle means shifting away from that, and often, I don’t want to at first – especially if it changes the tone.

I’ve learned that that attachment can be a benefit, as well as an obstacle, because it’s often a good instinct waving its arms at me and saying, “Hey!!  Don’t make this shift too abrupt for the reader!  Your pacing is going to SUCK if you don’t give ’em something to help them transition here along with the characters!”  Now, when I get the pangs of “I don’t wanna move on to the next part!” from my whiny little internal voice, I think, Hmmm.  What can I do to make this change feel smoother and more natural?  Why does it feel too abrupt?  What’s missing? and instead of a bang-head-on-keyboard session, I get to have a brainstorming session instead.  Much healthier for the forehead.

The “too many choices” problem, I don’t have a solution for yet – just keep writing and see what happens, or think out the possibilities logically and narrow them down until they’re at least manageable, if not carved in stone.  If your decisions for the plot don’t work, it’ll become apparent soon enough…and rewrites are going to be necessary no matter what you do.  I console myself by reading the notes of Dostoevsky (one of my writing heroes), who had some of the worst initial ideas for the endings of his books that I’ve ever encountered, and yet the end results of his labors are beautifully written, heart wrenching and heartwarming, and brilliant (although his final endings are still shaky sometimes, I admit (sorry, Dostoevsky)).  So my consolation to myself is knowing that if a writer that fantastic had plenty of bad ideas, it can’t be so bad to have bad ideas.

I guess the moral of this post is, write the middle even if you’re intimidated about it, figure out why you’re intimidated about it if you need to, and rewrite it if it doesn’t work out.  That’s all you can really do, unless you want to give up.  And you’re not a quitter, right?  RIGHT???  Good.  I thought not.