Thursday, June 24, 2010

Post #11 -- Genre

Note: Originally Post #11 was really angry and profane. I have since calmed down. However, that profanity-laced tirade may be heard next Monday at my writing group.

Writers love knowing genres, and they absolutely love understanding what genre they fit into. It gives them, I think, a sense of belonging, and lets them find a familiar ground or even models for their own work. There is nothing wrong with availing yourself of multiple genres, looking for your "best fit". It's a lot like trying on new shoes, try a few pairs at the store to see what holds your foot the best.

The problem I see is that once people find a pair of shoes, or a style of shoe that fits their feet, then every other shoe goes out the window. And....that's not necessarily bad, depending on the type of action you're taking, but just as with shoes, one is not enough.

I really mashed up those metaphors into a sweet pulpy mess, didn't I? Let's try again.

Just as you have different shoes for different outfits, so too do you have different genres available to you for different pieces of writing.

If you're writing the next great epic romance between a human and her.......glow-in-the-dark were-ostrich, you're probably not going to find a lot of help in iambic pentameter or haiku. And while those two types of poetry would completely make you marketably unique, it's difficult to produce the work you intend under those conditions. But you can try it....who knows, maybe haiku captures the essence of their spectral flightless bird romance.

Now as far as specifics go, I don't know exactly how many genres there are. If that somehow makes me a bad writer, then I don't care. But I'll list a few here: Western, Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Biography, Memoir, Mystery, Science under each of those there are sub-genres like Transgressive Fiction, Steampunk, Alternate History, Erotica, Supernatural Romance, Satire.....

See how diverse that list is? I start naming sub-genres, and you can argue that any of them are their own main genre. It's not about the quantity, it's about the classification.

There are specific elements that define the genre, and that are inherent in all works of the genre. (For instance, all mysteries contain an unknown element that needs to be solved and all thrillers contain pacing that encourages movement of characters and audience). Knowing what they are (which you can discover by reading work within the genre and some decent google-fu) is somewhat expected of you.

Now, either for reasons of great arrogance, caprice or accomplishment, let's say you can't find a genre that really speaks to you. The next logical step in the progression is to define your own...but before we get talking about that, let's make sure you're clear on what's going on:

1. You do understand that not every genre is for every story, right? No one story is exactly and only 100% one genre only, and that a lot of the best stories ever take handfuls of elements from multiple genres and appeal to broad audiences for a lot of reasons. You do know that no one (except maybe you) expects a story to be exactly and totally one genre, right?

2. You've done more investigating than just one genre, yes? You didn't just stop after looking at two romance novels and conclude there's not a genre on earth that can contain your wit, did you? Not doing your homework isn't going to make your writing suffer, but it will put some egg on your face when you get to marketing.

3. This isn't you trying to be better than other people, is it? You're not doing this to get attention or feel special or make your work standout because you feel you don't normally get a second look from people, right? You're clear as to why you're building your own genre, yes? Please don't be an obnoxious knob about this. What you're about to get into needs to be done for purely craft reasons, and should in no way support (nor will it) your monstrous and troubled psyche and ego. If you're not sure you're connecting with Planet Earth, I'd double-check all your fuses before you go down this road.

Now, having said all that, let's build you your own genre. Here's what you need.

  • A finished piece of work
  • An explanation of that work (a synopsis)
  • A list of themes/ideas/concepts found in the piece (I like to write these down)
Genre is defined by those themes, ideas and concepts. The presentation across genre may be similar (a lot of detective stories have a male lead detective or a younger junior partner, etc) but it is by those themes that you build the genre as a whole.

One piece does not a genre make! Although many snobbish hipsters and too-cool-for-the-room critics may say that a piece IS the genre, they're only saying that because there's more than one piece to evaluate and judge (and hipsters LOVE to judge).

So we take our concepts (which are not plot points or unique little bits of description, but those core elements that we want the audience to walk away with) and by listing them we see where our genre stands. Perhaps your genre speaks to the audience in a very damaged way, where the narrator always gets victimized and traumatized in the story. Maybe in your genre stories are dismissive about matters of class and social structure, blending everyone together into some bland association. Maybe in your genre you just love to have people engage in sex acts with food products --- what we're talking about your defining characteristics here, so fly that freak flag as needed. Get your ya-yas out. Live it up.

You may find that by listing your themes, you share a lot in common with other genres (this is a good sign). Now this mutual connection can serve a few purposes: (i) It can tell you that in fact you're part of that other genre (ii) It can give readers a starting point for their context.

Giving them a starting point is critical and hugely advantageous, because they're going to need a frame of reference (or comparison) to stick with your writing. Often, people will look for a kind of equation to describe things, so they know if they should plunk down the cash. An equation looks like this (totally made up on the spot)

Melville's symbolism + Butcher's fantasy + Kripke's dialogue + Rowling's length. (Don't get mad at me that I picked the dialogue from a TV show....)

See what I'm getting at? Based on my description of components, people know what to expect. Hopefully you'll forge a better equation out of your components that illustrate and earmark your work.

Your birthed creation, the monster to your Frankenstein, needs a name. I encourage you to pick an adjective that you can easily tack onto the word "fiction" (transgressive fiction, science fiction, feminist fiction), but you may also pick a title that speaks to your style (minimalism, trendy horseshit, etc). If the title does not match or clearly speak about the work (meaning it paints a poor picture of what lies ahead for the reader), consider a name change.

Yes it needs a name. Don't think for a minute that you can get by thinking that your work is so genius and so unique that it defies labels. If that's your thinking, two things will happen: (1) Critics will name it for you, most unflatteringly (2) Fewer people will read your work than you think, because people can sniff out arrogance a mile away.

There will be some genre discussion in my group on the 28th, but feel free to continue the discussion here.

Keep writing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Post #10 - Building characters through backstory

Below I've listed the "classic" 44 questions you can ask yourself to deepen any character and add depth to them. There are questions that go deeper than these, and maybe I'll put those together for a future post.

You need not use all 44, but I encourage you to skim them and use the ones that interest you.

  1. What do you know about this character now that s/he doesn’t yet know?
  2. What is this character’s greatest flaw?
  3. What do you know about this character that s/he would never admit?
  4. What is this character’s greatest asset?
  5. If this character could choose a different identity, who would s/he be?
  6. What music does this character sing to when no one else is around?
  7. In what or whom does this character have the greatest faith?
  8. What is this character’s favorite movie?
  9. Does this character have a favorite article of clothing? Favorite shoes?
  10. Does this character have a vice? Name it.
  11. Name this character’s favorite person (living or dead).
  12. What is this character’s secret wish?
  13. What is this character’s proudest achievement?
  14. Describe this character’s most embarrassing moment.
  15. What is this character’s deepest regret?
  16. What is this character’s greatest fear?
  17. Describe this character’s most devastating moment.
  18. What is this character’s greatest achievement?
  19. What is this character’s greatest hope?
  20. Does this character have an obsession? Name it.
  21. What is this character’s greatest disappointment?
  22. What is this character’s worst nightmare?
  23. Whom does this character most wish to please? Why?
  24. Describe this character’s mother.
  25. Describe this character’s father.
  26. If s/he had to choose, with whom would this character prefer to live?
  27. Where does this character fall in birth order? What effect does this have?
  28. Describe this character’s siblings or other close relatives.
  29. Describe this character’s bedroom. Include three cherished items.
  30. What is this character’s birth date? How does this character manifest traits of his/her astrological sign?
  31. If this character had to live in seclusion for six months, what six items would s/he bring?
  32. Why is this character angry?
  33. What calms this character?
  34. Describe a recurring dream or nightmare this character might have.
  35. List the choices (not circumstances) that led this character to his/her current predicament.
  36. List the circumstances over which this character has no control.
  37. What wakes this character in the middle of the night?
  38. How would a stranger describe this character?
  39. What does this character resolve to do differently every morning?
  40. Who depends on this character? Why?
  41. If this character knew s/he had exactly one month to live, what would s/he do?
  42. How would a dear friend or relative describe this character?
  43. What is this character’s most noticeable physical attribute?
  44. What is this character hiding from him/herself?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Post #12 -- What You Put On The Page Is What We Get

I remember the early days of web design, where I'd fire up Netscape Navigator and marvel at the WYSIWYG editor. There was a time, at least for me, when this was a go-to tool, and it set a standard for me. The idea that I can immediately create something and see the results really drove me forward, even if the things I created were pedestrian or simple. As a result of this very immediate sense of gratification, I got spoiled, and expected that when I typed, clicked or dragged something, I'd be able to know that the result was directly related to my action. This made me lazy, but I didn't see it as lazy. I just thought everyone was doing things this way, and that they'd understand my "genius" no matter what I did.

Along that bell-curve, people lost interest when I started taking shortcuts because the tools allowed me to do so. Subsequently, I wasn't involved in web design much longer after that. I had thought that my problems there were isolated to the world of JPEGs and image maps. They weren't.

I had started using that shortcut philosophy in everything I did, because I counted on people understanding whatever I did, because:

A) I did it, and I'm me and pretty smart and popular (and arrogant)
B) whatever I was doing was pretty obvious, and you had to be a blithering idiot not to understand.

Because of (A) I came to judge a lot of the world was (B).

I will admit that the bulk of this discovery didn't happen at all until a few years ago, and didn't happen in depth until some time last year, so there was over a decade of habits and philosophy built up where I thought I was Prometheus bringing fire to mortals and that the mortals were mentally two steps ahead of fruit flies on the scale of how-smart-things-are. In short, this whole mindset made me pretty much an asshole. How I ever found or held any job often boggles my mind. If then-me came to now-me for a job interview, I'd proudly, happily even, beat the snot out of myself. I deserved it.

This self-discovery was incredibly instructional, because I got a chance to see this same practice (not the arrogant attitude, not always, but definitely the shortcut practice of assumptions) done by other people. And I think because the arrogance was occasionally absent, it wasn't a matter of people being stupid and not realizing what's happening, it's just a matter of not thinking.

i. Not thinking that it matters to explain particular details or reasoning.
ii. Not thinking that other people wouldn't understand.
iii. Not thinking about the problem in stages or components, but rather as an end result to get achieved.

And all that build-up brings me to this blog today, with this to say, addressed to everyone writing something (fiction, non-fiction, whatever):

The reader(s) are going by what you put on the page, and if you introduce elements without explaining them, you create a lot of confusion.

I feel like this needs an example:

We set up a scene where a man is lost, wandering around with only the clothes on his back, and amnesia. He's staggering around for a few paragraphs, feeling quite angsty and confused, and we make it clear that he has nothing. Suddenly, about three paragraphs in, we mention that it's sunny so he puts his sunglasses on.

See the issue? He's got ONLY the clothes on his back...and then we see him in sunglasses. Isn't that convenient.

Now a lot of people will read great flexibility into the situation and they'll rationalize "only the clothes on his back" to mean that sunglasses are included. So maybe I am a purist in thinking that I take the author at their word (or lack thereof) when I compose a scene in my head based on what I read.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea that authors are inherently granted or gifted leeway in what they write. I think it's principally done because they went to all this trouble to write a book, and that's a lot more than what some members of the audience have done lately, so we can forgive the oversight.

That doesn't sit well with me. If the author went to all this trouble to write a book, the author could spend some time in the editing process making sure all the bits make sense.

Knowing many members of my writing group are reading this right now, several of them are translating this into: Now I have to detail EVERYTHING EVERYTIME.

Please, don't go overboard.

There must be space for the audience to squeeze into your story, alongside the numerous (and sometimes repetitious) descriptions of trees and cars and the world. The audience wants from you a certain level of description, but it's like snow:

A dusting of snow isn't enough to be pretty.
And six feet of snow is pain in the ass to shovel.
But in that two to three inch range, when they cancel school but it's not a blizzard and everyone can stay in and relax? That's magical.

On the flip side, don't over-trust them to fill in the details. Yes, they're going to in their own way, and you can't really stop them, but if you do let them go for it, don't complain that they're getting it wrong.

If all you create a tall character with brown hair, then you're open to many interpretations of "tall" and "brown". In your head you may have specifics (like six foot and honey brown) but you didn't say that, you left things wide open for the five foot ten oak colored man and the seven foot tall man with hair the color of burnt pancakes)

So what's the trick? Where's the sweet spot? Right here:

You must describe what you need to fill the scene, advance the story or present new information. All else is optional and at your discretion, but abuse of that chases away the reader.

How do you get there? Practice. Practice and feedback. Practice, feedback and experimentation.

I know you can do this.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Post #9 - How Roleplay Makes You Better

My practical experience in writing draws from a solid foundation of more than fifteen years experience being a gamer. I have played, written, edited and developed many RPGs out on the market now, and I use a lot of those skills to explain and illustrate my writing.

Roleplaying is more than the rolling of dice in a basement while a Zeppelin album blares in the background. It is essentially theater, as you take notes and material you've developed and bring a character to life. This is no different than what you're writing in your novels and short stories, only the material comes from different sources, and there's no dice dictating that you have a 16 Strength.

I have outlined here some points on what makes for good roleplay. Roleplay is essentially the expression of a developing character (as no character is truly finite and complete, because they're always gaining experience), so apply these rules to either your 7th-level outlaw or the protagonist of your man-versus-robot-snakes story...or whatever you happen to be working on.

I. Characters live because of conflict -- This is also called "motivation", and it can be summarized on micro and macro levels. The micro level deals with the immediate moments like what the character is doing now, in this second, in response to action X. The macro level deals with the larger overall goals and plans of the character, involving actions X Y and Z and long-term plans.

When you have a character, before you can give to them any sort of powers or nuances, you must find their conflicts. Why are they doing this? ("this" is whatever you have them doing) What do they want out of this?

It does not need to be so obviously stated, and to actually state it openly makes your character weak and transparent. But the audience should be able to follow along and understand the "why" based on the actions.

Example: Larry baits a trap in the forest.

We need say nothing else for the moment as to why Larry is baiting a trap, we can conclude that you bait a trap for the purposes of catching something. Any specification I give the character had better be more immediate in nature, otherwise the character will appear weakly designed. See here:

Bad Example: Larry baits a trap in the forest, because baiting traps is what orphan outlaws do when they've spent ten years on the run.

This is a bad example because the explanation that follows the action is macro in nature. Baiting a trap is just....baiting a trap, it is not a sufficient reason to explain being an outlaw or an orphan or spending a decade running. I have rushed this vital character knowledge, given it away too soon, and as a result the character looks weak.

Good example: Larry baits a trap in the forest, hoping that the seventh try is the charm. The rumbling of his stomach reminds him only of his previous failures.

This is the better example because the scene, the more immediate action is better described. The audience is brought next to Larry without delay, and the specific knowledge they gain about Larry is actually more sympathetic and connective. The audience may not understand the plight of the outlaw, but they'll easily understand being hungry and feeling possible frustration over failing to catch food.

The conflict the writer/actor brings to the character always has to be more immediate (because that's what the audience sees) rather than broader (because you want the audience to take the immediate actions as pieces of the greater whole).

The nature of the conflict does not have to be aggressive, against other characters. Sometimes, people act because of a lack of something, or because of a desire to change current circumstances...but that conflict arises and propels the character through the scene. Finding the conflict can help you ground a character when you get lost in a group of other characters or complex actions. When in doubt, come back to the conflict.

II. Characters have multiple levels -- No character is ever one-dimensional. If a character is coming across as flat, as if they're only focused in one direction, that's the fault of the writer/actor. Even if the written page only makes use of a certain set of adjectives and verbs, the writer/actor may take the inverse or opposite (essentially the unwritten set of facts) to help build the character.

If Larry the outlaw is escaping the sheriff, and he is afraid that he'll be hanged, we can reason that he wants to stay alive, even though the text does not say "Larry wants to stay alive". Because Larry engages in multiple actions, we see Larry in different contexts.

These shifting contexts are what deepen a character. We see Larry rob, flee and hunt and love and fail....all these actions generate responses in Larry that allow the audience to grow closer AND learn more about him.

Larry would die on the page if we only saw him hunt, and everything he did was lensed/displayed through the context of hunting. Yes, Larry may use hunting-language to illustrate his actions, but Larry does more than hunt. He also eats, and sleeps and does a ton of other actions.

The goal of all these actions is not to just fill up pages and take up time, the goal is to make Larry as close to alive as possible. It does not matter whether Larry is an American Indian, a fantasy creature, an accountant lost in the wild or a ghost. The idea of Larry is represented across multiple "channels".

Your character is not defined by one action, no matter how intense the action may be. There remains a total of all actions, combined over the course of actions and reactions that defines Larry. The individual actions Larry does (he may kill the wrong man, for example) only illustrates Larry's potential -- we know that Larry can do these things, but it is the RESPONSES to those actions that help us discover Larry. If he kills the wrong man, is he remorseful? Excited? Unsure?

Remember this: Actions show potential, Reactions show depth and generate feelings (for both character and audience)

III. Characters exist in a universe -- No character lives in a vacuum. There are always consequences, results and changes brought on by their actions. If Larry kills the wrong man, he may feel guilt, but his actions may also produce anger in the family of the murdered man. If Larry robs because the taxes are too high, the baron who levies the taxes may respond. This exchange between the character and the world around it (other characters included) is what solidifies the depth of the character as well as the existence of more or on-going conflicts.

The trick here is knowing the scope of that universe. If Larry kills a man, without a good reason, I should not see an increase in the number of zebras born. Even if Larry possessed godlike powers, there is still a framework that creates boundaries for the character.

The scope of the universe is relative to the position of the character at the time of action and consequence.

If Larry kills a guy, Larry's focus is on that act, and those ramifications. Even in absolute insanity, Larry won't be thinking about shoelaces intentionally as a response to the murder. (Too many times, insanity is developed as strange responses to actions. It isn't. Insanity is the inappropriate response to the action)

This is strange (not insane):
Man #1: "Larry, you just killed a man!"
Larry: "Shoelaces!"

If I have thus far established Larry as being something greater than a mentally damaged savant, then what I've written makes Larry either retarded or I've just cheapened Larry's impact on the audience. It is not credible.

This is insane:
Man #1: "Larry, you just killed a man!"
Larry: "He won't be laughing anymore. No more sunny days."

Note the difference here - Larry's response to the action is not ignorance of the action, he's not denying he did it...he is qualifying his response to the action as being out-of-place. This is unsettling, and therefore compelling for an audience.

But not all characters are insane, so let's return to normalcy.

Larry can impact that which is immediately around him, and can only impact those things as great as his abilities are at the time.

A great example of this is in Star Wars. In A New Hope, Luke is able to fly the X-Wing and launch two torpedoes via the Force. At the time of the story, as far as Luke has developed, this is the extent of his powers. Although in later stories and canon, he many be able to wield an array of powers, at the time he's in the Death Star trench, all he's got is flying.

Harry Potter is another series where this holds true. The knowledge of later books is not available for Harry, so while he slowly educated in magic, he will not come to see it's full scale use until later in the series.

Characters evolve over time, and that evolution is not limited to the acquisition of power or knowledge or material benefit. It is through the passage of experience that grows a character - the powers gained are not proof of experience, the character still has to use them and react to them in order to grow.

IV. The secret to characters is not their intensity or volume, it's how closely the characters act like the audience. Whether you've built a superhero, a vampire, a naughty schoolgirl or a drugged-up musician, your character will lose all sense of balance, credibility and understanding if they aren't in some way or another, like the audience.

The audience isn't full of heroes, vampires, or whatever you build. It's full of people projecting themselves into those characters. This is a sympathetic bond, because as they project themselves onto the characters, you (the writer/actor) bring the audience (the human, the non-hero, the translatable element) out in the character.

So you may have a great wizard, and the audience wants to live in that world of magic and spells, but you don't want them getting lost in the spells and trappings of the world, you want them to FEEL for the character, and we create feelings by sharing common experiences and reactions. This great wizard may be able to conjure gold with a wave of his wand, but perhaps he's lonely, pining for one woman from afar.

This returns us to the talk of conflicts. If we've selected conflicts that the audience can relate to, we are humanizing the character. The audience may have no idea what a Deodanth outlaw on Khaas is like, they may have zero understanding of a pirate sailing in outer space, but they can entirely relate to themes in their own lives: loneliness, anger, passion, etc.

Selecting the conflict is not difficult, although the number of potential conflicts is huge. Don't be discouraged. Pick two or three of the most emotionally-stirring, or the ones that you (writer/actor) feel you understand the best. (I always pick feelings of loneliness, misunderstood genius, rebellion and vengeance for example)

Roleplay isn't about the fancy character in fantasy, it's about having a new way, a new perspective, to illustrate what you think or feel.

Give it a try. Roleplay your way through characters and watch them fly better than if you objectively dispensed information through them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Post #8 - The Writer's Commitment

When a writer comes to me for help, no matter the simplicity or complexity of the help they need, the first thing I ask them is "What do you ultimately want to see happen?"

I ask them this because I need to know in what direction to travel along with them. If they hand me a draft and say, "Help me get this published." then I know how far we're going to walk together on this project. If they say, "I just need some tips on writing without adverbs, you know, for group." then I know it's a much shorter walk. There are a great number of people (I'd even say the majority of people) who drag their feet and dance around what it is they want to do. They aren't sure if they can get published, they're not sure if they're good enough, they're not sure if they want to be serious about it.

They're scared.

They're scared of the possible commitment that publication would ask of them. They examine their life in a heartbeat, look at their comfort levels and habits and gauge whether or not they want to have new experiences (some unpleasant) that although ultimately pay off would require change in the more immediate future.

Cowards, every single one of them.

I don't know specifically what they're afraid of. Maybe they're afraid the book won't sell, maybe they're afraid that people will ostracize them for writing. Maybe they're afraid that their seventh-grade teacher will track them down and red pen their book to death. Whatever the fear, it's keeping them from taking the writing seriously.

I've said that to a few groups before and people find me afterward to say, "I'm not afraid." and they're quite defiant about it, as though I've challenged them (which is sort of the point, actually). And when I inquire as why they haven't pursued publication then, they give me the answers of a person stuck in fear, "Well, I don't wanna." or "I could if I wanted to." I press them for more explanation, they don't have any to give me, and then they either vanish so that I don't hear from them again or they go tell their friends what kind of jerk of I am for not "understanding their process as artistes".

To make this point clear - If you come to me and say "I want to be published" there is a lot of hard work ahead of you. There are drafts and revisions and edits and submissions to do. You'll be spending a lot of time looking and dissecting something that you may have at one point considered just a hobby. If you want to keep things light, and treat it like a hobby, or (sometimes worse) something you do to pass time and sort out your life (you know, instead of actually sorting out your life), then you have considerably less writing to do, but a lot more living to do. I will treat you accordingly.

It's not that I dislike hobbyist writers, I know many of them, and many of them are quite talented who could be published easily in their respective genres. A lot of them have their reasons for not being published, and they're not afraid, they're just not interested. And that's fine. Good for them for having their heads on straight.

Do I dislike the writer who writes without purpose? Do I dislike the person who puts words together just to pass the time and sidestep their life and then hides behind the mask of "writing" when convenient? Yes. I have no patience for people who won't face their problems and effort to do something about them. If your life sucks because your parents still don't "understand you", or because "you still don't understand yourself" or because you boxed yourself into a dead-end job because you thought so little of yourself...then I have this to say:

Either do everything in your power to get your life (your actual life, not your writing life) together and moving forward or please do not slow the rest of us down. I do not entertain stupid people or stupid questions, and the people who wallow in their problems and who are addicted to their own negativity seem to be both stupid and loaded with stupid questions.

If you want to be published, if you want take the idea(s) out of Microsoft Word and put them onto paper that goes into book that goes onto a shelf so that someone can buy it, then commit to it 100% percent. It starts with a statement (that you can make aloud, and preferably in front of a mirror)

The statement -- I will be published. I will write this story, finish it, and do everything I can to get it published.

If this statement disinterests you, and you can clearly say, "I want to write, but not be published" then that's fine, and I encourage you to write your fingers off. But just know that if you ever want to turn the corner from hobby to profession, there is work involved. If you're scared of doing the work, remember that you'll never have to do it alone. There are resources and people you can turn to. If you're not scared of the workload and still don't want to be published then just go back to writing your stories and doing whatever you do.

I have talked before about decisions you make as an author. The first decision you make (and one of the biggest) is whether or not you're serious about this craft as a profession, that is, as a way to generate income. And I don't mean like passive Google-Ads income, I mean this: you write, they print, you get a check. If that process appeals to you, then please understand the following:

1. If you're going to do it, YOU are the only thing in the universe that can/will stop you.
2. In order to do this, YOU must write as though your life depended on it.
3. It will not be easy or quick but when has anything truly great in your life been either of those things?
4. A lot of habits are going to have to change and will change as a result of this process. The first of which is YOUR mind, as you will have to come to terms with the enormity of the task you're engaged in and the inherent brilliance of your own mind to perform it.
5. You must must must MUST know and believe that you're good enough to do this. People are going to try and stop you, hinder you or even discourage you. Do not let them. This is your life, your art and your work, let nothing stop you.

Take this seriously, it can only help you if you do.

Post #7 - Good = Unique and how you can't worry about it.

As mentioned in the previous post, there is a trap in thinking that a "good" story is a "unique" story, and that only "unique" stories do well.

In that line of thinking, the critical flaw is that you're discussing the story as though it's done, (when generally this thought is had by people still writing) and that you're confusing the line between conceptual or thematic reception with publication reception.

Yeah I just used a lot of big words. I'll boil that down -- The problem is that you're worried about how the book will sell while you're still writing it, and you're attempting to reverse engineer the process so that by the time you're done writing, publication is a breeze.

I think we should first define our terms.

"Good story" -- A story you enjoy.
"Unique story" -- A story containing elements you've never seen before, or never seen done in a certain way before
"Publishable story" -- A story that can be mass produced and sold to consumers

This comes down to a matter of perspective. If we're looking at a story by its elements, and we examine the dialogue, the characters, the plot and the pacing (to name a few)...then we can easily see if the story is unique in its presentation. Uniqueness is the most objective quality here, and it's very binary - either we have seen this story done this way before or not.

The next quality is subjective, and we appeal to our senses and tastes to see if we like the story. If we term it "good" then we associate with other good things and we smile when thinking about it. This, too, is a binary decision, but has more factors influencing it.

Lastly we blend the subjective and objective together to determine it's state of readiness for publication. The objective factors are it's completion, the level of spelling and grammar and the formatting. The subjective factors fall to editors, publishers and agents who make decisions regarding how to broadcast the story. This blend does not matter if the story is "good", and only slightly matters if the story is "unique".

We can dispense with the notion that the story is good (meaning we like it) because we can easily find published books we do not like (hello sparkly vampires, female detectives trying to be masculine, and long-winded period pieces that opine and whine before something happens). A book can be published regardless of whether or not I enjoy it. I may not purchase it, but it can be available for audiences to purchase.

Being "unique" is a selling point for publication, not a prerequisite. Many books share the same theme, plot or style of characters (how many series now make use of teenagers and magic?), but it is the specific twists applied to the stories that allow them to be distinguished from one another. Story #1 may use Norse gods, Story #2 may use psionics in algebra, Story #3 may use a boarding school of supernatural creatures...but the fantasy elements are a common thread.

When writing the story, the author needs to do everything possible to focus on the act of writing and completion of the piece. If particular parts of the story are unique, then that is a bonus for later steps in the writing/publication process, but if there are no distinctly unique elements, THE STORY CAN/SHOULD STILL BE WRITTEN. You need not shoehorn in elements to "make" the story unique. You cannot quickly tack in a magical fairy into your story about divorcing parents any easier than you can heighten the drama of a mythical hero slaying monsters by taking a chapter to describe how he pays his taxes.

As I tell many writers, "Your story is inherently unique because you wrote it." Any editor, publisher or agent who cannot work with that fact as a selling point is not an agent/editor/publisher you need to use. Find others, as so many exist. It may not be an easy find, you may have to hunt around, compare data and do some legwork, but you can find people or services to get your work published.

The last of the three terms mentioned is, for many people, the scariest, if only because they do not fully grasp the meaning, or they're unclear about it: A "publishable" story is one that will sell.

That's it. If you add any weight or thought to any part of that definition, you are projecting your fears, anxieties or expectations onto the process.

Any story can be sold and produced into a book. What it takes to make that story ready for that is different for every story and every author. Some authors need to work a page at a time with an editor and see how their sentences need to be improved. Some authors need to be locked in a room for a month and left alone to write. No matter the rigors taken, no matter the length of time spent, any story can be developed, polished and completed so that it ends up on a bookshelf.

What matters is your commitment to that time and those rigors. What matters is the foundation of habits you build for yourself so that you can produce the work. What matters is the help you receive along the way to make this process easier (note: not faster).

There are people like me who offer both paying and free services to writers to help them. My rates are reasonable, my free services are available. If you want to take your ideas and get them out onto bookshelves, come talk to me. I'm always around.

You can do this - it starts with commitment, which is the topic of my next post.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Post #6 - Your First Fork In The Road

If I had to define writing, but couldn't use technical terms, I would define writing as the use of choices to develop some problem(s) and the solution(s).

Choices abound in writing. And the reason choices exist is not because the author is indecisive, overwhelmed or under-prepared, but because they have control over EVERYTHING in their piece.

They control weather.
They control what a person looks like.
They control the forces of physics.

If it can exist in the story, the author has control over it. Also, the things not in the story they can also control by choosing to exclude them, but that's another discussion....

There can be an infinite number of decisions made in the course of story, no matter how long or short. Many decisions are contingent on other decisions, but the author retains a lot of variables should they need them.

Example: If you're writing a story set in 1920, there will not be DVDs or the Internet, unless you want to alter the technological and historical basis for your story.

Note the shift in color. The blue part of the sentence assumes a relative-Earth environment, following a timeline that parallels the author's existence. The red portion is the choice available to the author, as a demonstration of control. If the author wants to tweak things, they can.

Story generation, before words even fall onto pages, is a mental process. Thoughts come together first, and words follow. For me, those thoughts fall into two camps: Plot and Character.

A plot-based story establishes the conflict or problem-needing resolution as being greater than the characters. In Lord of The Rings, we open up with a historical perspective on ring creation and Sauron, and how the ring must be destroyed. This puts the problem to the front of the readers' minds and lets everything (characters, subplots, etc) be filtered through the question of "How are they going to solve the problem?"

A plot-driven story shifts the focus away from characters to do this. I do not mean that characters get no development, or that exposition outside of plot is missing, I mean that the bulk of focus is on the problem. There is a combination of elements at work here -- the problem is not just detailed to the Nth-degree but there exist implications and ramifications for the problem at multiple levels.

Example: Our story focuses on our car breaking down on the way to a job interview. From that summation we can see two potential focuses: The importance of the job interview (making the car a subplot) or the opposite - making the car more important (and the interview the subplot). Whichever I pick, I would not belabor the page with tons of description about the texture of the car components, nor would I detail the qualities of the shirt I'm wearing to the interview. To bloat the page with detail is NOT establishing plot. Instead, I narrate and craft the exposition to evoke the feelings of tension, anxiety and urgency.

Remember: Adding detail to the problem does not make the problem more "anything" other than detailed. It does not make it more urgent, more clear or more powerful. Only when you raise the stakes, heighten the emotional content and show the characters working towards a solution do you demonstrate that this problem is worth concern.

Character-driven (or character-based) story succeeds or fail based on the strength of the connection the audience has with the character(s). Plot is not necessarily missing here (as we need a plot to tie all these characters together) but the filter and lens for the reader becomes "How will this character grow/mature over the course of this work, as they go through all these problems?"

In HBO's new series Treme, the emphasis is the characters. The characters are encountered in scene after scene where the action is mundane but the emotional impact, the weight, is felt in every part of any scene. It does not matter if the character is sweeping a floor, dancing down the street or at a barbecue, the audience is led to sympathize and connect with the characters no matter what they're specifically doing. This connection is not built through big action scenes (no a whole lot of swordfights, car chases and explosions in post-Katrina New Orleans) but rather through the motions, expressive body language and dialogue of the characters. Granted, television is a visual medium, so there is a need for things to seen. In written work that expression is handled in narration and exposition, and that is where audiences connect.

Again, it is not a matter of quantity of detail. The story does not advance very far if I know our hero has blue eyes. The story advances further when I know what those blue eyes are doing. Have they teared up over the death of their father? Have they hardened as revenge is sworn?

Remember: When you're writing character-driven stories, the emphasis is on what they do and how they do it. (If you find yourself focusing on "why" they do it, you're looking at plot). Plot doesn't oppose character, it is a matter of focus.

No matter the path you take, whether you focus on characters or on plot, you must understand that both have to exist for your story to be functional. If you have pages of character detail and history, but you don't have them doing something for a reason we can deduce, you don't have a story, you have a character sketch. If you have pages and pages establishing a crisis, complete with history and consequences, you don't have a story, you have a prologue to a story.

A character sketch needs something to do, some problem whereupon it may be applied. A prologue needs characters to advance the story both chronologically and thematically.

Don't confuse "good story" with "unique story"....but that's for my next post.

Post #5 - Catharsis

A lot of writers (myself included) use the term "catharsis to regularly describe the process of writing or the nature of the pieces they write. I have often said that writing is my alternative to expensive therapists and medications.

There is nothing wrong with using the craft of writing to help sort out feelings and establish better mental organization. Quite a few therapeutic techniques include writing a letter to express feelings, and there is a level of release granted by putting all your thoughts down on paper. These are good things that I encourage.

What I do not encourage is that this process be half-assed because you haven't quite sorted out all your feelings and ideas. People experience trauma (death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a transition in the life) and they often get a grasp on the situation, enough to passably survive, but they do not go the necessary later steps to really sort things out and shore up their mind about the problem BEFORE they start writing.

Writing about the problem is a tool to help you find your answers. This sort of writing is deeply emotional and personal, and I would advise against turning the problem you haven't finished handling into blockbuster fiction.

Here's why.

There is a difference between writing ABOUT the problem, and writing THROUGH the problem.

Writing about the problem brings the unsorted, messy, sometimes painful feelings to the surface, allowing you to persist and exist in their chaos. You then add to these feelings all the memories that you may be surprised you stored away in your head (sensory memories, portions of conversations etc) and you get the "fun" of reliving that ache and pain and confusion.....for what purpose?

Being able to detail the trauma, essentially reliving it but now with the gift of adjectives and clauses, does NOT demonstrate that you've accepted the reality of the trauma and have moved past it.

Writing through the problem cares less about the details and more about asking yourself the progressive questions that suss out the nature of your feelings, consequences and allows you to develop any sort of plan (preferably a rational one) so that you can move forward in your life. Key here is the difference that you are not digging up the wound and not picking at the scabs.

Now this will often make someone say, "But my problems are the fuel for my writing! I'm writing about my life and what's happened in it!" To which I retort:

"What will you do when you've solved your problems? What's the next fuel?"

The issue is this -- you can keep using your problems to drive your writing, to tap into those emotional springs, and not resolve them....or you can solve your problems, get past them, stop bringing them up into your life and move forward, looking where you can take your writing with the problems behind you.

Your choice.