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.

Characters in Real Life

Sometimes people you meet are really good at being antagonists, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes people you meet are wise mentors. You find a cliché, and you can probably find someone you’ve known who will fit the basic requirements. After all, those clichés and stereotypes have to come from somewhere, right?

It’s a little more complicated, a little more interesting than that. Of course it is. Real people are all sorts of tangled contradictions — and characters in books should be complicated too, unless you’re writing a ten-page picture book. So you can take certain aspects from people you know and put them in your characters. And even if you’re not writing new characters, you can still recognize aspects of old friends in new ones, the same mannerism between two people who probably have never and will never meet, or find that two people in two completely different situations irritate you in almost exactly the same way. Or, even if they have absolutely nothing else in common, sometimes a new person you meet will look almost exactly like someone you already know. (It’s weird. It’s uncanny. It’s cheating when you put it in fiction, I’m afraid, because coincidence tends not to exist in fiction, where the world actually makes sense.)

What sort of people do you meet again and again? Antagonists, friends, mentors, that weird person in the corner? What kind of stories would those types of people be suited for? Tell me in the comments!

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 be 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.

Inspiration (1/?)

I’ve mentioned before about how inspiration can come, lo, in a burst of light, with much singing of angelic choirs, etc etc, but that it comes inconsistently and that you can’t rely on it. That’s still very much true. If you sit around and wait for it, then the world will go past without you having written more than a few hundred words. (Trust me, I tried writing that way for a while. It really doesn’t work.)

So inspiration, or the muse, or whatever, it’s a fickle thing. Long dry spells are par for the course, and you have to sit down and write no matter what. But sometimes inspiration decides to go nuts and see new story ideas in everything. Including car commercials.

In fandom space, this concept is called a “plot bunny.” Some idea tugs at your brain and you have to write it down, follow it, see which Wonderland it leads you to. Maybe the Cheshire cat has needle-sharp teeth this time, or maybe he’s a goofy thing that sounds like Winnie the Pooh. It’s a toss-up! But it’s just the bare bones of an idea, an inkling that has potential but that needs to be properly fleshed out. And the problem is that it won’t leave you alone until you do.

On the one hand, if you’re hurting for ideas, plot bunnies are really, really nice. For example, the project I’m working on now: I had ideas for the beginning and the end, but nothing for the middle bits. And then here came plot bunny #8465, with a fun little mental image of somebody with a frying pan walking through the forest. Oh Yes. And suddenly I knew how the middle would work out.

On the other hand, if you already have a fleshed-out project you’re working on, getting ideas from new landscapes or car commercials or Hulu commercials or whatever … yeah, it’s a little silly, but inspiration comes from anywhere, right? Still. Getting a lot of ideas when I’m already working on a project is a little overwhelming. I’m kind of a one-person-dog when it comes to stories. I can’t work on four different things at once, or I’ll lose my mind.

The solution is one that I read about in a Book On Writing – Managing Your Inner Artist/Writer: Strategies for Success by M.L. Buchman(s). You give the plot bunny a few pages, and then you stick it in a folder, so that the next time you’re hurting for ideas you can find one that has already occurred to you and that you know you like.

Oh yeah, as for that car commercial plot bunny … I’ve got four words for you: Sentient crash-test robots.

Have fun.

Favorite Books

Picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite food. Some people know what it is immediately, and other people agonize over the decision because there are so many wonderful options to choose from. I’m definitely one of the latter.

And people pick their favorite books for many different reasons, too. I’ll expand more later about mine, and the reasons for them, but I’d like you to share yours. What are your favorite books? Why are they your favorite books? And when did you first realize they were your favorite?

Tell me in the comments!

First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.

Wonder Woman

Warning: spoilers ahead for the movie.

When practically the first piece of exposition is a tale about how all the Greek gods were killed except Ares, I was pretty skeptical that this would turn out better than another Wrath of the Titans movie (or that awful Gods of Egypt thing). Having extensively read Greek mythology as a child, movies like that tend to make me cringe. The Greek gods can’t, don’t, die. That’s kind of the whole point. So the first few minutes I was just a little bit waiting to see how bad it was going to be.

The interactions between Steve and Diana were everything I could have hoped for. The culture clash was interesting and sometimes quite funny. Walking away from the movie, I was glad we finally got a superhero movie where the female character is the main focus and not the sidekick; and especially where the female character is just as well developed as any male protagonist. But mostly I thought about the antagonists in the story.

On the one hand, Hades was refreshingly absent as the bad guy; on the other hand, Ares was the bad guy, and Ares in the original myths is actually a pretty chill dude for being the god of war. Okay, substitute one stereotype for another. War is bad, rah rah, men are all good hearted if it weren’t for the devil’s sorry I mean Ares’ influence, rah rah. You know the drill.

The movie set out to fool you. Clearly David Thewlis and his mustache were not the bad guy. Clearly the fellow with the German accent was the bad guy, especially when he breathed the weird blue fumes. See? Evil comes in a little glass vial, or behind an unsettling mask. I do have to admit I was a little disconcerted when he revealed himself and went full armor mode but still had the signature Thewlis mustache. I’m sorry, dude. I can’t take you seriously anymore. All I can see is Creepy Remus Lupin in a metal suit.

It’s a study in assumptions. Diana makes a lot of them through the movie — part of that previously mentioned culture clash. The part where she declares that the Germans are all good people when out from under Ares’ influence made a lot of people in the theater cringe, and made Steve cringe too. The world is messy and imperfect and you can’t always win. And even when you do win, there are losses. I’ll admit that on a storytelling level I appreciated why Steve didn’t make it, even if on the audience level I was disgruntled.

It was an interesting movie with good characterizations, an interesting premise, and a lot of explosions. All in all, not darn bad, even with the skewed Greek mythos.

Keep Making Progress

The number one best marketing tool for new writers is to write the next book. Every single Book or Article On Writing (for indies, that is) stresses that quantity is nearly as important as quality: the more books you have out, the more opportunities there are for people to discover your work, and the more likely you are to actually be successful in the business. You still have to be good — or at least, good enough to sell — but the backlist sells the frontlist sells the backlist, and it accumulates sales like a snowball.

It’s something of a science by now. I’ve heard varying accounts, but the big break for indies seems to be somewhere around the tenth book. I look at that figure, and I look at the publishing schedule I have worked out, and that’s not going to be for another two years. I can only imagine how much my writing techniques, and the length of my books, will improve during that time. Ten books. Yes, I’m a novice in this business; I have so long to go before I even reach journeyman status. It’s a little daunting.

But as they say, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which is why this evening when I come home from the day job I’m going to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up the first draft of book two. And which is why I have a publishing schedule worked out of ideas to turn into books. I’ve got a whole series or two basically mapped out. Nothing that emerges in the skull actually turns out exactly the same way on the page; that doesn’t make the end product bad, it just makes it different. So probably things will end up differently than I anticipate. But having a map for those ten books, and beyond, helps that ten-book-goal seem a little less daunting.

I don’t know for sure that I’m going to take off as an indie writer. The week between publishing the last one and starting the next one has thoughts (mostly worries) rattling around in my head. If I sell x number of copies in a month then I’ll be making y in royalties and that means z after taxes, etc etc etc … Shh, self, stop. Of course if I only have one book out it’s not going to sell that well. Who are we, some kind of one-hit-wonder? That might have worked for the childhood daydream, but not for real life. Just focus on the next book, and stop worrying. Well, all that means is that I need to make the gap between finishing and starting smaller next time!

Made progress — good. Now continue making progress.