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.

Sequels

Usually I read things in chronological order. It makes more immediate sense to me to do so. In certain cases this isn’t what the author intended (The Chronicles of Narnia) and in some cases it isn’t what works best (the Star Wars movies). But usually the creators of the works are on the same page, that a linear progression of time is the most logical way to tell a story.

The second installment of a story has to do two things, and this can be tricky: it has to continue the story from where it left off, and it has to catch up the new listeners just tuning in. Some books try to do this with a little author’s note at the beginning — sort of a “previously on” like in tv shows. This might work or it might not, depending on the mood of the overall story; it’ll probably work better if it’s humorous, or maybe that’s just me. Some books try to do it with carefully rationed infodumps parceled throughout the beginning chapters, little “oh by the way”s and such. And other books just allude to the the goings-on of the first part of the story, and only make them plain as they become relevant to the next part of the story. I think I like the third option best, but I’m finding it a little tricky.

There were seven Harry Potter books, and six of them had to catch up new readers at the beginning. JKR did this with neat little infodumps. There were — are? — God knows how many Artemis Fowl books, and again, most of them had some sort of exposition near the beginning, if I remember correctly. Since I’m planning on the Iron Gentry series being kind of a big sprawling series, I should probably reread those books just to study their techniques. But there are two books in particular that I’ve reread that are, I think, probably the best examples of sequel handling I’ve ever come across.

The Oracle Betrayed series by Catherine Fisher consists of three books: The Oracle (formerly The Oracle Betrayed), The Archon (formerly The Sphere of Secrets), and The Scarab (formerly The Day of the Scarab). (I don’t know why the titles changed. The covers did too, but that’s a less mysterious thing.) I first encountered these books in the children’s section of my public library, I think when I was in middle school. But I started with The Archon, instead of The Oracle.

In a nutshell, public libraries: they had a copy of the first book, but someone else was borrowing it. I was too curious to wait — I read the blurb on the back and promptly checked out books two and three. And so I was introduced to the world of the Oracle. It felt seamless. I knew I wasn’t reading the first introduction of these characters, but Fisher’s writing displayed them like old friends getting reacquainted. It helped that time had passed in-universe, so that every reader had catching up to do and not just the newcomers. (A handy trick, and one that I’m using in my own work.) But more than that, it wasn’t a whole bucket of backstory being dumped into my head. It was gradual and subtle and dang, but it made me fall in love with the characters. The Jackal is still one of my favorite antihero/badguy mashups ever. So, a rousing success, and a great example that I’m trying to learn from. I’m off to reread it again.

Blank Page

Staring at the screen and watching the cursor blink seems to be the national author’s pastime. I would say “I guess that makes me a real writer,” but by all accounts and purposes I’ve been staring at a blank screen instead of writing for most of my free time since I was twelve and first had access to a desktop computer, and I only recently started actually selling my work. (We don’t have lift-off yet, but we don’t have a sequel yet either. It’s that long game I’m playing.) In any case, despite being a newbie professionally speaking, it feels like I’ve been at my apprenticeship for a good eleven years or so, if not longer. That blank screen with a blinking cursor is kind of a doozy.

And when there’s nothing on the page to prompt you where to go next, and you have a vague idea but you don’t know where to start, it can be frustrating, especially when writer’s block kicks in and you’d rather be anywhere but sitting in front of the computer. So what do you do?

You can start in the middle of the scene. Maybe what’s been bouncing around your head doesn’t have a start or an end, but it does have a middle, and writing that middle down — hammering it in place, as it were — gives the scene a definition, and gives you pointers on how it has to have started, and where it has to go next. That’s how I’ve been starting some of my writing sessions lately, and it certainly helps me, though YMMV. Sometimes fleshing out scenes can feel weird when you’re used to creating the beginnings from nothing. But whatever works for you, stick with it.

You can pick something else to write. No, seriously. Writing on something is better than writing on nothing, even if this project needs to be finished next week and the other project can wait a month. Any writing is another few hundred words of practice, and we all need practice. And when you’ve finished writing that other thing, then maybe the ideas (or motivation) for the first project will be back.

Last resort, when you can’t even bring yourself to do that, and you’re down to the dregs of your hot cocoa and any music you listen to is distracting and you could swear you’ve typed the word “the” three hundred times but nothing has followed? Get up. Move around. Look at NOT an empty screen. Talk to somebody, in person for preference, but hopping on Skype works too. Grab some more cocoa. Do some jumping jacks. Distract yourself a little, and then whe you come back, maybe that blank page won’t be so much of an enemy as an invitation.

Internal Programming

Human bodies are weird, and human brains are even weirder. Today’s party trick trivia of the day is that the human eyes see the world upside down — something to do with the ocular lenses — and that it’s the brain that flips these images right side up. It kind of makes you wonder how that kind of stuff came into being, evolution wise, I mean. Was there a period where whatever ancestral monkey was walking around seeing the whole world the wrong way up?

So brains are elastic, sure, but they’re also infinitely programmable. As people inhabiting these sponges driving around meatsuits, that can be a blessing or a curse. I can train myself to be able to play a song on the piano without even thinking about it. Or, I can accidentally train myself to not wake up when my alarm goes off in the morning, and allow my brain to go on its own internal clock.There are infinite possibilities, especially if you use that idea about how humans only use 10% of their brains. (It isn’t true, but think about all the B movies it’s spawned.)

As people writing stories, these weird sponges sloshing around in our skulls can count as antagonists, helpers to the protagonist, or anything in between. Take it literally like in It’s Kind of a Funny Story where the main character has depression. Take it metaphorically like in any Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Make it interesting, above all.

Myself, I’ve got half a mind to write a short story about how somebody sleeps in too late because they’re not as young as they used to beĀ and they wake up in the wrong world. (I told you, the plot bunnies strike from anywhere.) (Also, I’m only twenty three, how is my sleep cycle so much less elastic than it was just two years ago?) (See, there’s your verisimilitude. Some things you write because you think they’re interesting, and some things you write because you know them inside out and you want to know you’re not the only person who does.)

Whatever way you play with the concept, it’s always more interesting to see what happens when it goes wrong. The pianist who has played his favorite song “Moonlight Sonata” so many times that he accidentally starts playing it instead of the wedding march for a friend’s marriage ceremony. The famous detective who relies on his brain to solve his mysteries for him, who makes a fatal mistake by assuming something that’s been right a thousand times before but that isn’t right now. Et cetera, et cetera — go nuts.