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.

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.

This is what I’ve got

Bouncing ideas around with other people is really fun when you have a few plot bunnies but not much actually written down. You can take a shred of an idea and then, with the help of someone else, expand it into an entire short story — a novel — maybe even a series. It’s fun to do by yourself, and with someone on the same wavelength as you, it can be even more fun.

I’m learning that it’s a bit awkward when you already have a set idea and have written more than 10,000 words about it. Not because sharing ideas is bad, not because the other person is necessarily wrong, but because at this point it’s impossible to be on the same wavelength.

By the time I’ve put more than 10,000 words into a story, I have a pretty fleshed-out idea of where, plot point by plot point, the story is going to go. It’s the fiddly bits in the actual scenes that gets me stuck — but I know what the main story is. The person I’m bouncing ideas off has no idea of the movie that’s rolling behind my eyes. And unless you make it clear that you only need help with the fiddly bits, people are going to offer their opinions on everything from the foundation up. So while you already have a set story, they’re just creating material out of thin air, with none of the constraints you’ve already made for yourself.

It’s weird to tell someone the backstory for the main plot and then have them come up with something completely different from what you were already writing. Not bad, just weird.

What’s weirder is going away from that idea-bouncing session feeling like you have a resolution for the problem you initially had, but that you now have a bigger problem. Gentle readers, once I wrote an entire 50k words of a story that made no sense whatsoever. (A product of NaNoWriMo, by the way.) I’m certain it was good for me to write all that crap so I could get to the good stuff later, but it still makes me a little uneasy. Frankly, I need to practice my craft all the time, but I don’t want to have to scrap — or rewrite until it looks unrecognizable — another entire book. So looking at what I’ve already written, versus the idea that just popped into someone else’s head, well, hello Doubt my old friend.

Looking at the reasons I wrote what I wrote, and then saying “this is what I’ve got, let’s keep going” — this isn’t me trying to be inflexible. Other people make suggestions, and I can take them or leave them, because I’m the one who’s writing it; I’m the one who knows why the characters do what they do, and how different actions will affect the overall plot. But at this point, with the first draft unfinished, I’m not looking for critiques. That’s what the editing stage is for. If I went and rewrote the first draft while I was still writing it, I’d never finish the darn thing. And that’s the most important bit — that it’s finished.