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.

(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.

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!)

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 …

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.

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.

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.