Making Time

I’ve previously talked about how, if it’s important to you, you have to find the time to write, and if necessary you make the time to write — whether that’s by taking an abbreviated lunch break at the day job, or waking up early or staying up late, or some other way. You create the time you need to do the job you need to do.

Lofty words from someone who was comfortably in the post-production stage of a book, she said, grumbling at herself from the draft-writing stage.

But grumbling is just carbon dioxide. And the people who know and care about you will understand when you have to shut yourself in your Fortress of Solitude. So you grab your beverage of choice, and you put butt in chair, and you work.

There’s more to the job than banging out the draft — blogstuff is the next thing that comes to mind. Going indie means being your own advertising company, in addition to all that other stuff that involves paperwork. It’s funny; you’d think that there would be some people who’ve gone indie who will say “it’s easy to self-publish! easiest thing I ever did!” but the only people who actually say that are the ones who … you know … have never actually done it, and instead are clutching the traditional publishing industry to themselves like little kids with their favorite soft toy that’s coming apart at the seams.

*cough* Anyway.

Wanting to make indie writing into a career, means treating it like a career. So the hobbies that are fun but that don’t, you know, help make money, have to take a hike for a little while. Because you have to focus on the writing, and the blogging, and all the other stuff. You might have noticed that on my home page the description went from “updates weekdays” to “updates Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays” — that’s an attempt to keep myself sane, while I juggle everything. Posting regularly is part of my job (whether I post at home, or from the parking lot, or during lunch break), but I can’t burn myself out. Because then, whether I have the time or not, how am I going to have the energy to write?

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our empty coffee mugs.

But was it a good story?

It seems like most of the movies and books that I like include at least one minor (or major) character that I like, who bites the dust. Well, considering a book like Les Misérables, where only three major characters make it out alive, basically any character you attach yourself to is going to die horribly; the disclaimer is right there in the title. But even regular things like, well, like GotG2 or Wonder Woman, have cool characters that I really like that somehow manage to die. For a reason, yes! For a reason that is consistent with their previous characterization, yes! But still.

I can still remember the first time a character I liked died, because I pitched a fit in the Sears by the refrigerator section and my dad had to calm me down again. What can I say, I was a weirdly emotional seven year old. These days I don’t have melt-downs in public places, I just write fanfiction. A much better coping mechanism, if you ask me.

But when I tearfully described how Rose had been killed in Martin the Warrior, my dad asked a question that made me very reluctant and also very mutinous and also very, very confused: “But was it a good story?”

Uhh, sure, Dad, it was a good story, I guess. But the character died. And I didn’t want that character to die, I wanted the bad guys to die. Only the bad guys are allowed to die. (What can I say, I was seven. I still believed an evil alien was mind-controlling my third grade teacher.) And the fact of that character’s death hovered over everything else. I haven’t read any Redwall books in uh, probably about a decade, but off the top of my head I can tell you that the ones I reread included Taggerung (because it had an otter as a main character) and the ones I didn’t reread had Martin the Warrior at the top of the list.

But was it a good story? Well, that’s the kicker, because it depends on what you think of as the story.

To some people, it’s the plot and only the plot that constitutes the story. The swashbuckling pirates steal from the rich and escape the British Navy and ride away into the glittering sunset. The girl escapes from her evil stepfamily and sews a beautiful dress by hand and marries the handsome prince. Keanu Reeves kills a bunch of people as revenge for Theon Greyjoy killing his pet dog, and the Green Goblin, sorry Willem Defoe, helps his old buddy Keanu out.

To other people, it’s the characters that are the story, and the plot is nice and they enjoy it but it’s basically window dressing. Say what you like about Jane Austen, but Pride and Prejudice is about characters making decisions about themselves and each other. The plot isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have to be, because the characters are strong enough to propel the plot by themselves.

So when my dad asked, “Was it a good story?” and I sullenly answered “I guess,” we were working off different definitions of the word.

It’s pretty difficult to want to return to a story that includes part of the story dying off, unless (like in Les Mis, or Rogue One, or Romeo and Juliet — stop giving me that side-eye, they do have this one thing in common) there’s a big old disclaimer stamped everywhere and really what you’re reading is how and why they die. But meanwhile, people who focus on plot are just puzzled as to why you’re sobbing into your handkerchief in the theater.

“The movie was better”

“… and other sentences to irritate the heck out of nerds.”

When it comes to films like The Golden Compass, or the Harry Potter movies, then “the movie was better” becomes utter sacrilege. But for other films, sometimes it’s actually the truth. No, wait, hear me out.

Take Coraline for example. Yes, it added a character; yes, some of the scenes were completely rearranged, or even nixed; yes, the end result is very different from the original book. But having another person her age around made Coraline’s situation a little more stark. Having more scenes with the Other World enchanting her made more sense. And the end result, while different, was an enjoyable film with not only cool stop-motion animation but a story that had more than one lesson to take away from it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like Coraline the book. I just enjoy Coraline the movie as its own, separate, entity. And the same can be said for other book-film or book-musical adaptations. Does Les Mis the musical slightly butcher themes and character development in order to fit over 500,000 words into a three hour play? Yes. But, taken as a separate entity, it’s just as much fun as the book, and much more accessible. Fewer people are likely to run screaming from Hugh Jackman’s singing in the 2012 movie than they are from the Waterloo digression in the book.

What’s cool is when you have something like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, where the director lifted an obscure comic character, Yondu Udonta, and took the bare bones of his identity and then created a whole new personality for the films. Maybe comic nerds are tearing their hair out over this, but I think it’s pretty neat. Take a look at Yondu’s page on the Marvel wiki. He’s a big blue alien with a bow and arrow, and he’s one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Well, James Gunn sure expanded on that. An empathically controlled floating arrow, a space pirate crew, a tragic backstory, some truly hilarious dialogue, and a character arc that I think could make a pretty decent oneshot movie. I haven’t read the comics that feature the original Yondu, but dang if I didn’t enjoy the new Yondu.

And that’s what it’s all about, really. Pandering to the masses is what entertainment is for. There can’t be room for snobbery.

Pete and Repete were on a boat

I have a friend who can only watch a movie or read a book for enjoyment once every few months, and even then, it’s iffy. Over the years that we’ve known each other, we’ve had the following conversation more than five times:

“Do you want to watch x?”

“We already saw that.”

“Yeah, six months ago!”

“Yeah! We already saw that. Can we watch y?”

And sometimes, you know, once every six months is more than enough when it comes to a book or a movie. The Water Diviner with Russell Crowe, you know, I’m glad I saw that but I could happily never see it again in my life. And if I never see Repo!: The Genetic Opera again, well, I think that’ll be alright too.

But mostly the idea of not seeing a movie, or reading a book, just because I saw or read it a few months ago, drives me slightly bonkers.

I may be biased because one time my sister and I watched Pride and Prejudice (2005, the one with Keira Knightly) four times in a row and enjoyed it each time. But, well. That’s an extreme case.

The fact is that I can watch the same movie once a day every day for a solid week (or longer) and still enjoy it. I did it so many times in college that I can’t possibly count them. Movies like Kung Fu Panda, The Mummy 2: The Mummy Returns, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier … the list goes on for a while. And for each of these movies, I’ve now gotten to the point where I can comfortably recite lines of dialogue for an embarrassingly long amount of time. What can I say? Repetition is good for memorization.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Discworld books, or Good Omens, or the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner — to say nothing of the musical soundtracks that I listen to during the daily commute.

But the thing is, although repeating a word or a song often enough saps it of all meaning, I can experience the same book or movie a thousand times and still want to experience it again. I don’t know if that’s due to the greater amount of time it takes to experience those forms of media, versus a song that only takes up about three and a half minutes. But these movies and books are like old friends.

Some of them I only want to re-experience every so often. The Chronicles of Narnia are one such series, as is the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. But others, they’re like coming home after a long day.

Cursing in YA

On the one hand: You need a relatively good imagination to be able to insult people without using a curse word, and if you cram enough multisyllabic words in there it can be quite satisfying in and of itself. Shakespearean insults are nice for this sort of thing, but pull out a thesaurus and I guarantee that you’ll find something that not only came from one of the past two centuries but that sounds pretty impressive. SAT words! Yay!

On the other hand: There’s no substitute for the pure simplicity of saying a four-letter word. It gets across your meaning exactly.

On the other other hand: Characters who want to swear, but who can’t swear for one reason or another, are freaking hilarious. See Calhoun in the Pixar film Wreck-It Ralph. Now there’s a lady who wants to cuss a blue streak.

On the fourth hand: Characters (and people) who swear all the time, at the drop of a hat, can also be funny, but it’s a fine tightrope between “okay that was hilarious” and “dude, what the heck, you use these words so much that they’ve started to lose all meaning”. See the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, where every single scene contains at least three four-letter words.

And YA is a touchy subject because, you know, kids are involved. Teenagers. I shudder to think what teenagers would do with the knowledge of swear words! Swearing in their literature! They’d start swearing in real life!! Oh the uncouth youth!!!

Yeah, I went to public school, and I guarantee you, they already know all of those words. They just don’t say them in front of you.

So when it comes to YA — books written for and about teenagers — it doesn’t really make sense to cut out swearing altogether. Like I said, they already know the words; a lot of them use them like they’re going out of style; frankly it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And to quote from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day:

“I didn’t hear you swear.”

“Yes I did. I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell,’ and I meant them.”

“Oh, that’s not swearing. They came out of the sinful category an age ago!”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to swear. Sometimes coming up with alternatives can be way more fun, a way to flex your creative muscles. But let’s keep the pearl-clutching censorship to ourselves, shall we?

Dreaming

Dreams are probably the purest, sometimes very weirdest, type of fodder for stories. Some people foreshadow in dreams. Some people put flashbacks in dreams. Some people take the idea of a dream, the weird symbolism and the nonsense and the potential, and they turn it into a long-running graphic novel series. Hey, it works for them.

I went to a lecture about dreams in literature once while I was in college. Essentially, the lecturer’s points boiled down to: If it’s actually realistic and nonsensical, it won’t make sense, so either do it for style or plot or both, but for God’s sake don’t get heavy-handed with the symbolism.

Some people remember all of their dreams, apparently. I’m not certain whether that’s a gift or a curse. After all, nightmares fall under the dream category too. But dang, I’d say a good third of the dreams that I experience are lost when I actually wake up enough to go brush my teeth. (Now that’s a handy plot idea, isn’t it? Clairvoyant dreams remembered in scraps; clairvoyant, foreshadowing dreams that the protag forgets by breakfast the next day. Verisimilitude strikes again.) I’d like to be able to remember more of my dreams just so I could examine them.

Talking about the dreams you have is a no-no. It’s dead fun to talk about your own, and dead boring to have to listen to someone else’s. I remember in high school I had a “my dreams” blog for about two minutes before I got bored with it myself. But even if the only conversation you’re having is an internal monologue (which hey, aren’t dreams internal monologues anyway?), I still think it’s worth it to dissect dreams.

Not in a Freudian way, not in an “oh for the first act everything was red and for the third act everything was blue which symbolizes this” way. I mean in terms of the visceral way the dream feels.

Have you ever gotten to fly in a dream? Then use it! Oh my God, use it in your writing! Airplanes and hang gliders and bungee jumping aside, dreams about flying are the closest we’re going to get. Please take advantage of it. And the same goes for raw emotions. The sheer building horror or gut wrenching sadness that a nightmare gives you — the elation from one of those really good dreams, whether that was meeting a cute girl or eating a delicious cake — the half second when you’re waking up that you believe the dream was real — take it, save it, and write it. Look, writers are magpies. We take ideas from everything in our lives. Dreams are no exception.

Homebody

I really like to travel. I’ve been doing it longer than I can remember; apparently I’ve been to Canada before, but I was too small to actually have any recollection of it. (Gives me an excuse to go again.) Studying abroad in France for a semester in college gave me the opportunity to travel to a handful of countries by train. I really like visiting Europe; the food of course is good (praline hazelnut ice cream is The Best), and there’s a sense of age and history running through everything. Also, there are castles. I love me a good castle.

Funnily enough, I haven’t really traveled that much in the US. As a family we’ve traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and out to the Midwest for family. But my last trip, out to Utah in the beginning of June, is the farthest west I’ve been in America that I can remember. Altogether I’ve been in 17 states and was born in an 18th. (I was born there, but we left when I was two or three, so I don’t really count that one.) Seventeen sounds like a lot all by itself until you remember there’s fifty of them. I’ve just gotten started.

When I tell people I got a degree in French, sometimes they ask if I’m going to live there. Having stayed for five months, I guess I know my answer. Europe, and France in particular, is a nice place to visit. There’s a little restaurant in the northern part of Paris that does a mean salmon tagliatella, and it’s not too far from a cozy second-hand bookshop. The people there can be kind and patient, the architecture is lovely, and nostalgia puts a pretty shine on everything (even the time I got hopelessly lost in Toulon). Really, it’s amazing, and I’m so glad I went. If you read carefully, you can see the marketplace in Arras is very close to the marketplace in Tomelin City. Yes, I do miss Europe, and France in particular.

But it’s not home.

And home is vast.

I know there’s a lot of people, both abroad and at home, who talk about how horrible America is. Okay, bully for you, you’re allowed to speak your mind. That’s one of the inalienable rights those dead white men kept wittering on about. Yeah, America isn’t perfect (don’t get me started), but what country is? And if you want to fight about it, hey, we’re back-to-back world champs.

I love to travel. But my home is big enough for the world. We’ve got all the geography you could want; we’ve got history and breathtaking architecture of our own; and a thousand different cultures elbow to elbow. It’s amazing, and we made it ourselves. And yes, I’m proud to be an American.

I don’t need to leave home to travel.

Same Song, Second Verse

Nothing is original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Any story can be boiled down to about a sentence. If you condense the stories enough, pretty soon they all sound the same — to say nothing of all the retellings of fairy tales and myths. How many times has Cinderella lost her slipper?

But just because two stories have the same basic plot doesn’t mean they can’t both be enjoyed. And it’s not so much what the story is as how you execute it that matters. And because every storyteller is unique (“yes! we are all individuals!”), no two stories are going to end up being told the same way.

Take, for example, Cinderella. Specifically, the 2015 Disney live-action remake, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. They all have the same plot bones, but they end up being three very different stories.

Just Ella has Ella being her own fairy godmother. In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother is a hindrance. The 2015 movie features a helpful fairy godmother. JE has a prince who’s callous and didn’t care about getting to know Ella, just marrying the prettiest woman at the ball; EE has a prince who knew Ella for years beforehand, and the ball itself was just a traditional coming-of-age thing; the 2015 movie shows a brief acquaintance between Ella and the prince before she inspires him to open invitations to every eligible maiden. Without going into further spoilers for people who haven’t read the two books, you can already tell that those are going to be very different from the Disney retelling. So you don’t have to be completely original in order to tell a dang good story.

Not being original doesn’t mean plagiarism, of course. You can’t snag plot points and characterization, down to the dialogue, and dress it up with different names and pretend you did everything yourself, without at least one person calling it what it is: stealing. There’s a particular phrase that I absolutely love, but that I can’t use in my fiction because according to Google, Pratchett is the only writer to have written that phrase. Yes, I’m going to err on the side of caution and not use it. I love the man’s writing; I’m not going to disrespect him by stealing his exact words. Paraphrasing, or finding another dang literary technique, is the way to go.

Doesn’t mean we can’t be influenced by other people’s writing, though. And seeing, not an exact replica, but a shadow or a hint of someone else’s style is a good thing. We none of us live in a vacuum, and to try to strip our influences away from what we create is to leave a blank canvas, and none of that absurdist stuff either, but something dull and boring. Frankly, I’d rather that my work reminded the reader of someone else, than to not be read at all. “That reminds me of __” is a compliment. That means I’ve done something right.

Creating a Character, pt. 2

Okay, so you’ve got a capital P Problem to stick your character in. Excellent! Now what?

Here’s another stepping stone that I’ve tripped up on before: the problem can’t create the character by itself.

It’s a trap that I fell into because, from a beginner’s point of view, it sort of makes sense. You create this amazing, complex Problem, that requires heroism and deviousness and courage and politicking and all sorts of things! Brilliant! Surely this excellent Problem will show forth the excellence of the character! And then you stick the character in the middle of the Problem and you wait to see what she does … and then you make the plot move the character around, because that’s how the Problem gets solved based on the map in your head … but the character herself isn’t really reacting to it. She’s just kind of sitting there like a lump.

Because when you put a character in the middle of a Problem, you kind of have to have an idea of how she’s going to react beyond “anger!”. In my last post I said that characters can surprise you with their reactions, and that can definitely be true. But you still have to do most of the heavy lifting. It’s your head they’re living in, after all.

So that character is angry. So what? How does she get angry? Well, she swears revenge. Okay, what kind of revenge? Political revenge! Alright, does she have the means to carry out that revenge? Who taught her how to politick? How is she going to bring other people over to her cause? Et cetera. The basic reaction is only the shallowest level. Even if a lot of the underlying reasons never make it into the final draft, you still have to unpack everything that goes into that character.

And unpacking the character — or rather, allowing the reader to see the character’s development — means then that the character is the one driving the story. Which is more interesting than parading a puppet around a stage, anyway. The best plot in the world still leaves the readers going “meh” if the characters are inert, but a mediocre plot with well developed characters can, and does, win over the readers. Take a dip in the fandom pond — any fandom will do — and you’ll see what I mean.

Creating a Character

Eating pizza at my desk during the lunch break while the telephone keeps ringing. Glamorous. Tiny parts of life that make the rest just a little bit more believable.

People — I say people, but I really mean “aspiring writers” — try to do the same thing by filling out character sheets and questionnaires. Checklists containing likes and dislikes and favorite foods/songs/crayon colors — frankly I think they are ridiculous. Mostly because they fill in the minutia of daily life, but ONLY the minutia of daily life, and not the important bits.

It’s definitely fun to take a character and say, “I bet he likes ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ by ZZ Top and sings it at the karaoke bar every Tuesday.” I get it. But while a couple bits of trivia scattered through the story help to convince us that they’re people, a load of trivia (with no backstory, but more importantly no bearing on the plot) doesn’t do diddly squat. So that character likes ZZ Top — so what? What’s the point?

Now, if another character steals his song on karaoke night and he swears bloody vengeance, then it matters.

If that song reminds him of his dad, who was his role model during the horrible zombie attack ten years ago, then it matters.

Until then it’s just a fun thing to think about.

The reason I mention this is because I used to fall prey to it. Questionnaires and charts and checklists abound on Blogs On Writing, and it’s the same kind of mindless fun to fill them out as it is to scroll through Facebook. Spends time, doesn’t accomplish much. And yet they’re touted as this excellent resource for the beginning writer. It makes your characters so realistic!

Hmmm ….. don’t think so.

Because what the reader is actually going to care about, at the end of the day, is what kind of person your character is. And favorite soda or type of pet has very little to do with that. All the trivia in the world won’t matter if they don’t know whether your hero will find someone to help or run headfirst into danger himself.

So how do you figure out what kind of character he is? The same way anyone in real life does — put him in the middle of a capital P Problem, and watch what he does.

Maybe he’ll even surprise you.