Do what you can, when you can

Sorry for disappearing off the face of the earth, folks. The busy season at work started a couple weeks ago and we’ve been swamped, and we’ll probably stay swamped until Thanksgiving. Wading through ten times the usual amount of phone calls makes getting everything else done a little harder, and then coming home, well, sometimes a body just wants to veg out on the sofa and not think for a while.

A bad habit of mine is that when there’s something big I need to get done, I divide it into the fewest number of steps possible. On the one hand, simplifying things is good. On the other hand, within each big step are a zillion tiny steps, and my brain likes to gloss over the big parts and then obsess over all the tiny things I need to do. They’re all important, I insist. Every single small thing is important and I have to do all of them at once before I can move on to the next step, my God, how am I going to do this, let’s sit and stare at the tv for a while instead because just thinking about it is too stressful.

It’s not exactly the most productive way to go about things.

So I’m trying to get a little more laid back about my personal writing requirements. I don’t have to pound out 1000 words in twenty minutes, but I do have to write something. Because if I get too fixed on the word count to actually write anything, that defeats the purpose. (Yes, I know, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like hating regular sized tomatoes but loving cherry tomatoes. That’s just how I roll. Sorry.) (Not actually sorry. I’m serious about the tomato thing.)

Do what you can, when you can. You won’t be able to climb the whole mountain today, but you can get started on the foothills, and even if you don’t get halfway up, you’re still farther than you were when you started. Any progress is still progress.

We’re looking at end of September/beginning of October for Book 2. Stay tuned!

It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

Inspiration (2/?)

You know what inspires me? Money.

It sounds mercenary, but there you have it. I’ve mentioned before that when I dreamed of being a writer as a little kid, what I actually dreamed of was being rich without much effort. And yes, I still would like to be rich. Wouldn’t you?

The thing about money is that it’s a means to an end. As the saying goes, it’s more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes-Benz than on a bicycle.

I could have chosen any number of other ways to make money, but writing is what I picked, because I’d be doing it no matter what else I was working on, so I might as well try to make money off it. This is what is known in the business world as “freelancing”, and it can be fun, and it can also be a way for you to slam your head against the wall.

Because, whether you like it or not, whether you dress it up with a bathrobe and coffee mug or not, writing, like any other type of freelancing, is work.

Inspiration? The muse with a fluffy white dress and an enigmatic smile, who floats down from the clouds to play her harp at you? She’s a flaky piece of work that can’t be trusted. And plot bunnies can come from anywhere, but you have to corral them, or they’ll multiply and then you won’t be able to focus on anything.

If you’re going to wring a living from typing words on a screen, there has to be discipline involved. Whether the muse is there or not, you have to write. Whether the plot bunnies are multitudinous or not, you have to write. Whether you feel like slamming your head against the wall or not, you have to write.

Yeah, sometimes it feels like pulling teeth. But people who are trying to make a living, to be quite blunt, don’t have the time to get writer’s block. Because you still have to write.

And honestly, if you don’t feel like writing? If, in that miserable moment, you would rather do anything but write?

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you don’t keep at it.

Imagine what it’ll be like, ten years down the road, if you do.

Like I said, money’s a heck of an inspiration.

And the wonderful thing about writing is even though you’re sitting down, it’s still a muscle. If you exercise it enough it gets easier. The one thing I can say NaNoWriMo did for me, is that it gave me the confidence to know that I could write four thousand words in one sitting. Before that I’d had no idea. So practice, and it will get easier.

And then writer’s block, and inspiration, and the rest of it? Might feel a little bit less like slamming your head into the wall.

(Non)Sympathetic Characters, Revisited

So when you’ve got a protagonist who suddenly stops being, well, the pro- type of tagonist and moseys on over to the an- side of life, in media that you’re consuming you can basically do one of two things. You can give up in disgust, or you can hate-read/hate-watch it to see if they will get what’s coming to them.

As a writer, you want to have written the character well enough that the audience will choose the latter.

It is pretty risky to set out writing a non-sympathetic character in the first place. Sometimes villains are so bad, with only enough traces of humanity for us to recognize ourselves in them, that we ferociously cheer for their demises, and reading a good villain death can be quite cathartic. But your main character can, should be, different. After all, that character is the one the audience is supposed to identify with.

It’s kind of annoying to read about a jerk who just wanders around getting himself and other people into trouble.

Now, a sympathetic character who turns into a jerk? Again, if done well, with careful attention to the character arc, that can be a successful story that keeps the reader hooked. You can spin it as a tragedy, or as a slip in the road before the character becomes kinder/stronger/et cetera. Most of all, it has to be plausible.

The thing is, you have to be paying attention to your characters. If that development for the worse is on purpose, then you have to show the gradual — or sudden — progression of that descent. There has to be a reason behind it. If your heart-of-gold protagonist suddenly tortures a baddie into giving crucial information, I don’t care if it’s your character or not. You either have a solid reason for why, or you get jettisoned by the reader’s disbelief. Acting out of character (or OOC, as the fandom circles term it) is the number one way to lose your audience.

The Stopping Point of Sympathy

Warning: Here be spoilers for the latest Game of Thrones episode 7×04, for them as hasn’t seen it yet.

There seems to be a line that people draw in the sand when it comes to the amount of bull they will put up with from characters. Puppy kicking is usually the first one. As soon as you see a character harming an animal, that character has to die.

Different people draw different lines in the sand, of course. For some people, Cinderella saying that she stays with her awful step-family because she needs to keep living in her parents’ house that they lived in for hundreds of years, well, that’s a bit too stupid for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for her. (I am very much not one of those people. But that’s an opinion for a different post.)

For some people, the fact that Wesley threatens to strike Buttercup in the movie (and actually does strike her in the book) despite how much he claims to love her, well, that rings a billion alarm bells for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for him.

And for some people, the fact that Daenerys Targaryen refuses to help Jon Snow to the benefit of every life in Westeros Essos and beyond, purely because she wants him to bow and he won’t (because there’s no time for politics when literal ice zombies are coming)–

Well. You can imagine that some people might lose all sympathy for her.

It’s amazing how a formerly sympathetic character can become, well, former, in the space of a few short episodes. Daenerys had a complicated personality; most people on the show do; so it wasn’t like she was entirely pure and perfect before Season 7 started. But someone had to bring King’s Landing around Cersei’s ears, and Dany was the girl to do it.

But as Jon Snow points out, they’ve got bigger fish to fry these days. The problems that these characters face are literally life and death. And Daenerys is too focused on her personal goal of conquering Westeros to acknowledge that.

And even when Jon shows her a most convenient proof that White Walkers are real, she still insists that unless he swears fealty to him, she will not help.

This is the point when my BS indicator went into overload. Sorry, Daenerys, but for that last battle between the Dothraki and the Lannisters, I was actually rooting for Lannisters this time. Roasting people alive is an effective tactic, sure, and no one ever said war was nice. But the Casterly Rock plan was created specifically to avoid roasting people alive. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean your next step is to start roasting people! And I wouldn’t be surprised if her dragon Drogon died from this. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted an incredibly valuable resource for no reason whatsoever.

Try to divorce yourself from the Mad King’s reputation now, Dany. I dare you.

Mental Music Videos

Another short post, sorry folks. Life likes throwing spanners into the works. In this case, post-surgery siblings.

Apparently one way to create a character is to do like my Method Two, only with songs. Put on the radio, or a playlist on shuffle, and find a song that you like and try to create a character out of it. As usual, your mileage may vary; I prefer my usual two, though you may find a song-created character to be the bomb dot com.

What’s fun also, though not necessarily productive, is going through your day listening to music (for example, the daily commute) and hearing a song and thinking “Ah, Yes, this song matches the relationship between these two characters perfectly.”

Sometimes it is productive, though. If a song comes across as a montage, then you can take the feel and themes of the song and try to transmute that onto the page. Or if a song lays out a series of events — whether those events are exactly the ones described in the song or not — then you can put those events into your plot.

Is that plagiarism? Well, if you take song lyrics and write them down into your story without getting permission from the singer, the writer, the studio, and their great aunt Agatha, then yes, it’s plagiarism. But if you don’t write the lyrics? Look: people have been singing about the same things since the beginning of time when we first discovered we had a voicebox. It’s not the story that you tell, it’s how you tell it that matters.

So yes, go ahead and write your Jukebox Hero.

WIBBOW (Update)

Monday’s post was going to happen and then didn’t. Today’s post is why.

Working on draft and getting closer to the post-production stage means pedal to the metal, as it were. And sometimes even with carefully rationed time, it burns a body out. Even more so when life gets in the way.

Writing is my job, but I can’t write if I don’t take care of the writing machine. Sometimes that means grabbing an extra twenty minutes of sleep. Sometimes that means spending an evening with a sibling who’s recovering from a medical procedure, instead of shutting myself in the Writing Corner.

That can’t be all the time, of course. Writing is still my job, and you can’t spend hours on the clock watching Game of Thrones. But occasionally that work/life balance has to come out in favor of sitting down for half a second and resting.

Occasionally, the answer to WIBBOW — Would I Be Better Off Writing? — is no.

(Here’s the actual update: We’re nearly at the post-production stage, which means cover art shenanigans this weekend. Stay tuned!)

Accountability

Technically I’m in two lines of work right now: the writing job, and the day job. Sneer all you like at the concept of day jobs but right now this one is bringing in a lot more money than the book (singular, soon to become plural) — that old saying about beggars and choosers, et cetera et cetera. But I like my day job. I get a sense of accomplishment, and I get to help people out. It’s pretty nifty.

I’m also accountable to a solid handful of people. If I muck up, it isn’t just me on the line, it’s my manager, and her manager, etc. Turtles all the way down, as the saying goes. But the other thing is, my job hinges on other people doing their jobs, too. If I don’t know the answer to a problem, sometimes I can find it out on my own, but sometimes it isn’t up to me. Sometimes all I can do is ask the question and wait.

It’s not the most uncomfortable of situations, but still. One of the reasons indie publishing appealed to me so much is that I don’t have to rely on the decisions of some agent or publisher in order to get my work out there. As an indie, every aspect of the process is under my control. What the cover art looks like, which scenes get cut, when the final product gets released. And if something goes wrong, or I find a mistake, it’s on me — which also means, I have the ability to fix it. I am accountable to and for myself, and no one else.

Some people like to think that nothing is their fault, that they are the victims of circumstance and the machinations of others. It’s all one big conspiracy against me specifically, they cry. It’s not fair. I don’t deserve this!

Mm, sorry, since when did “deserve” enter into the equation at all? The whole concept of a free market means that if you work hard and often, and your product or service is good, you have a higher chance of succeeding. Notice the use of the word “chance”. There are no guarantees in life except death and taxes. And frankly, no one owes you anything, not their money, not their respect, not their patience. You have to earn it, no matter what line of business you’re in.

Even more so if you’re part of a team working together, with other people relying on you to do a specific job.

Is that harsh? Maybe. But personal accountability is something that everyone should have, and use, and examine. Playing the victim means giving up part of your power to affect the world around you, and it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. You can’t just wish for good things to happen. You have to work at it, and test it out, and work at it some more.

Now I’m off to go work at it.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

Creating a Character, pt 3

Pt 1 | Pt 2

So you need a Problem to stick your character with, and you need realistic ways for the character to respond to the Problem in order to flesh out who the character is. But how the heck do you come up with the idea for the character in the first place?

I myself have two ways of going about it. Other people have different ways of creating character concepts, that work best for them. As usual with Advice On Writing, your mileage may vary.

Route 1: I’m reading, or watching, some other piece of media and one of the characters strikes a chord with me. So I pick up the character, examine what makes him appealing to me, I dust off a few of the character traits and add some from other sources, and voilĂ . Frankencharacter. I’ve also heard this called “filing off the serial numbers”, though I’m pretty sure that filing off the serial numbers applies to taking one specific character instead of creating an amalgamation.

So for example — and this is a character that’s rumbling around in my head, though you won’t see him for another few years, I think — take the emotional rigidity and stubbornness and sarcasm of Javert, and the weird mix of brashness and gentleness of Oblek from the Oracle Betrayed trilogy, and throw in a Tragic Past, and there you go! Put him in a new environment, and dress him up in different clothes, and if you know those characters already, I hope you’ll be able to recognize the influences — but he’ll still be his own entity, separate from the original bits and bobs.

I should note, at this point, that I might have an idea of what the amalgam character looks like, but probably no set image.

Route 2: comes at this from the opposite direction. There’s an actor just doing their own thing, and I think to myself, “self, I want to have this actor play a character based on one of my books.” It’s pure self indulgence, but it’s fun, and that’s why it works for me.

And hey, if Cornelia Funke did it with her Inkheart books, then so can I.

Sometimes I can’t figure out the character beyond the basic archetype, and that’s when I go to my friend and toss over a picture of the artist, and we have a brainstorming session — what sort of villain is he? What world would he fit in? And usually while we’re puzzling out the answers to those questions, Inspiration bops me on the head, and then we’re off.

Now we go find a Problem to stick that character in …