Reading Crap: Learning What Not To Do

English: Azerbaijanian girl Leman reading a book.

Christ, I could do better than this. Someone fetch me a crayon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The older I get, the less patience I have for crappy books.* I’m not sure if this is a product of lessened free time or just a symptom of my oncoming crotchety-old-lady-ness, but, either way, I’m far more likely to put down a book that’s not doing it for me now than I used to be. Once upon a time, I’d have to finish it, just to find out what happened, even if I didn’t really care what happened. I hated leaving things undone. Now I’ll drop it like a hot rock and find a better way to spend my time. I do take note of exactly when and why I stopped reading, though.

Not that I regret all that time I spent reading things that were questionable at best. If nothing else, I learned what not to do from them.

I remember the way it would go.:I’d be reading a book, and something would happen, and I’d find myself thinking, That’s not how that should have gone down.

And then: I can do better.

And I’d go on to make up an alternate story in my head.** One that I found more appealing. I never really did anything with those bits and pieces, but they were still useful. It was the early form of story awareness. Of knowing how things should go for the most impact. What I was really doing was building my own skills by using someone else’s failures. It was like watching a hundred YouTube videos of people attempting a skate jump until I thought: Right. I know what they’re doing wrong. I won’t do that.

And for the most part I didn’t. I made other, newer mistakes. Some of which were even more spectacular failures. But at least I wasn’t repeating someone else’s problems.

I’m not going to go back to finishing crappy books. My patience is just too limited. But I’ll always remember the lessons I learned back when I had to finish them all.

Because if I’m going to fuck up, it’s going to be my fuck up. And, man, it’s going to be epic.

*For crappy anything, really. Food, movies, games, people…the mental math of ‘is this worth my time?’ has grown ever more stringent.
**I’m aware that this is the basis for most fan fiction.

Monday Challenge: Pixar Mad-Libs

Mad-Libs

There are no words. (Photo credit: Aaron & Alli)

I am busy today. New story in the works. It needs attention lest it wither and die on the keys.

But I have not forgotten you. Today’s challenge will simply be presented without my erratic, sweary preamble*. All the swears are going into the story. I may need to edit.

Couple of weeks ago, I did a series of posts on outlining a story, in which I took something from initial idea to giant list of questions to finished outline. This was the in-depth sort of outline which I generally favour.

But there are other views as well, and this is one I’m a big fan of for getting focus on ideas. It’s the Pixar Story Formula, and god damn if it doesn’t work surprisingly well. The internet tells me it was tweeted by then-Pixar story artist Emma Coats as part of a series of Pixar story-telling rules. All the rules are here, but this is the one that concerns us.

Once upon a time there was ___.
Every day, ___.
One day ___.
Because of that, ___.
Because of that, ___.
Until finally ___.

Today’s Monday Challenge: fill in those blanks. You can use a story idea you’re working on or something you’ve already got written and want some clarification on. Or, if you just feel like doing mad-libs, you need a noun/occupation/person, activity, event, event, event, ending.

Have fun. I’ll be back when I finish this story.

*Well, less of my erratic, sweary preamble.

How To Prep A Novel, Part Two: Stepping Stones and Questions

STS-126 - An extravehicular activity (EVA) too...

I knew Zarka was trouble. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right. You’ve got some pieces—protagonist, antagonist, conflict, unicorn cavalry—and an Idea, and now you need an outline. You need a plan.

Three caveats before we begin:
1. Much like the Pirate Code, outlines should be treated as more of a guideline. Deviate as necessary for the story. Re-outline halfway through if you have to.
2. Try different methods. No one method will work for everybody, or even on person all the time. This is one method, but I use others.
3. Don’t get so caught up in the outline that you never get around to writing the damn thing.

Got that? Everyone holding on to their unmentionable bits? Then let’s carry on.

Step Four: You Are Here.

If you did the prep work, you’ve got some idea of where your story starts. You might have an idea of where it ends.* And you’ve probably got some ideas for things that happen in between. Start there. Write down all the things that you know happen. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fucking clue how one leads to another. This is a work in progress.
Some people use index cards for this, others notebooks. I shift between one of those hardcover composition books, the index card function on Scrivener, and real life index cards. Sometimes all three. Whatever’s at hand and whatever I feel like working with. For the sake of this example, I’ll assume index cards.
Got your things written down? Good. Now, lay them out somewhere and start figuring out the connections. Ask questions. For example, if your beginning card is ’space debris is stolen from Jane’s lab in Connecticut’ and the end card is ‘Jane flies her ship into a star to kill Zarka the Destroyer before she conquers Earth’, there are some pretty obvious questions. How did Jane get into space? Did she steal that ship? Or was the ISS aware of Zarka’s plan and needed a plucky scientist to figure out a solution? Where did Zarka come from? Did she steal the space debris? Why? Or was her consciousness trapped in the debris and once she escaped did she build herself a new body from the materials in Jane’s lab?
Ask your questions and start filling in the spaces between the events that you first created. You can try to cross over the main plot and the sub-plot—really, you should, sooner or later—but I’d worry less about that right now than just making a path from A to B. You’ll probably find that the plot lines cross themselves over as you write, because that’s the way the human brain works.

Step Five: The Devil In The Details

Right now you’ve probably got a chaotic mess of scenes and characters, all jumbled together in a writerly orgy. It’s okay. Consider this the zero draft outline.
Take all those bits that you have, the questions and the answers and the cool stuff you want to happen, and start laying it out. This is where I like Scrivener; I can colour-code the cards according to plot or subplot or viewpoint character or whatever organizational system I’m using so I can see the differences. But you could also use different colour index cards, or highlighters on different lines.
As you’re laying it out, looking for the gaps. Is there enough time between the big events? Is the mystery solved too quickly? Or does that subplot about the waiter and the egg timer drag out too long? Spending too much time with one character, too little with another? The antagonist doesn’t appear until two-thirds the way through? Shuffle things around until you like what you see. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect this time around. You’ll change things as you write, and in subsequent rewrites. That’s writing, like a virus that genetically reshuffles so it can’t be pinned down with a single cure. The point of this outline is to get an idea of where you’re going and how to get there. That’s all.
A gentle reminder: don’t fall in love with anything in this outline. It should all be open to change if the story demands it. You need the flexibility or you’re going to choke off any creativity. An outline is not a straight-jacket.

Step Six: The Big Questions

While you’re building that path discussed above, laying out your index cards like stepping stones, start thinking about the big ideas that will form the backbone of the story and how they fit into the events you’re planning.
For example, a couple of a years ago, I wrote a story that, aside from all the abductions and murders and threats, was ultimately about one character’s redemption. He started off the story just south of neutral—not evil by any stretch, but certainly self-centred, afraid, and weak. The point of the story was to put him in situations that would force him to choose between what was easy and what was right. All the other stuff allowed him to get there.
Think about big picture ideas like that. The term ‘theme’ gets bandied about a lot, but that brings back too many memories of high school lit class for some people. Try not to have a flashback. Just consider this: Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall and ultimate redemption. The war and the rebellion and all the other stuff is important, but that one thread runs through it all. Find the thread that runs through yours and yank it until you find the other end.
The biggest question you need to answer is the ever-present why should we give a fuck? How can you force the reader to care? Because you’re going to need them to.

Coming next: Part Three, which includes finalizing the map before writing.

*I always like to have an idea of this, otherwise I end up lost. See here for more details.

Risking It All

 

Risk

We must stop the advancing horde of Tiny Plastic or…something. (Photo credit: The Fayj)

Let’s talk stakes.

I watched the newest Die Hard* the other day, and, aside from the physics conundrums which are an inevitable part of any action movie**, I had a little trouble with the stakes. The US government wanted to stop Bad Russian Guy from getting more power*** because…

…Well, because he’s a Bad Guy, god damn it. That’s all we need to know. Undefinable Bad Things will happen if he’s allowed to continue being The Bad Guy. Chaos, riots, puppies being kicked in the streets…it’s going to be bad. We think.****

But it’s a little fuzzy. The stakes remain unclear. And if they’re unclear, then why should we care if they’re lost?

Something has to be at risk. It can be big—the fates of nations and worlds is a popular stake in epic fantasy and space opera—or small—romance as a whole is predicated on the risk to a single person’s emotional health—but it has to be there. Ideally, we can have big and small things at stake, but we’ll settle for one if it’s one we really care about. And we have to know what the hell it is.

This was one of the problems with my first horror novel. There was a Thing that was trying to get out of somewhere, and it was generally accepted that it would be bad if it did. But nowhere did I ever say why it would be bad. It was just a given. And, because of that, the motivations of all the characters became suspect. Because why in the name of Christ’s holy cock and balls would they risk life and limb and sanity to stop something that wasn’t a clear threat? I wouldn’t.

There have to be stakes, and they have to be real enough to the characters that they are willing to do whatever they have to. Epic fantasy heroes have to be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect their queen. Romance protagonists must be willing to do embarrassing or downright insane things to keep from losing their One True Love. Aliens have to be willing to lay their eggs inside the disgusting carcass of a hairless ape to ensure their offspring have the best chance of survival.

And they have to be willing to do those things because the alternative is unspeakable.

*Which I can’t be arsed to remember the name of, so I’ve taken to referring to it as Die Hard X: The Die-Hardening.
**And which should never get in the way of enjoying a properly done fight scene or explosion.
***Another problem, because it’s made clear from the outset that he’s got a lot of power already. Enough to imprison Other Russian Guy for a helluva long time. Maybe they missed the mark earlier.
****All right, I’ll admit that the Die Hard series in general is low-hanging fruit, but since I’ve barely left the house for the last week, I haven’t had much opportunity to do other research.

 

Biting Off Ideas: The Short Story

Larry Ward had the voice for Star Wars villain...

Bring me Solo and all the free time you have for the next three weeks. And a diet coke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As mentioned, I spent most of the last week or so working on short stories. Right now I’ve got a big ol’ ball of ideas that I need to sort. I think of it like a ball of yarn made up of different pieces of other, lesser, yarns, all knotted together into one immense piece of string. And there’s floor dirt caught up in there, and cat hair, and pieces of paper, and chewed-on bones.* From that, I have to unwind just enough to make a story.

The problem, of course, is that the ball of yarn wants to unravel. Ideas keep growing. One of them looks at another, and then before you know it, I’ve got a whole slew of other ideas. Or the first one just ate a bunch of smaller ones, so it’s now a huge, lumpy, Jabba the Hut idea.

My metaphors are all over the place. This is what happens when I’m working in Idea Brain.

Short stories are tricky territory. You need a good idea, but it has to be the right size. Under 5,000 words is a good general rule. And some stories just want to keep growing. They want to stretch. They want to eat the radioactive ooze and come ashore as giant, stomping novels, laying waste to all before them.

Which is great. Except when you’re trying to meet the submission guidelines for an anthology.

I have a solution: planning. Not just planning the story, but all the other shit that’s going on in the background. Because the problem is really that, in order to write a good story, you have to have good characters. And those characters should have some kind of life that preceded the story.** So they push the boundaries and the word count because they’re trying to become real.

Let ‘em. It’ll add to your final story, and you can keep it under the word count.

Here’s an example. This is the planning I’ve been doing for the short story that’s first on the list. You can click to make it bigger, if for some reason you want an in-depth look into my head.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 1.56.59 PM

Behold the awesome majesty that is my brain at work.

No, I did not colour-code everything just for you. I’m that anal-retentive on my own.

The only part of that map that’s the actual story is the little cluster of red ones in the top left corner. Yup. That’s it. Everything else is background, world building, character back stories, mythology…stuff that will only make it into the final project as whispers and shadows.

This is how I keep ideas manageable. And never think of all this shit as wasted work. One, it adds to the finished story in ways you can’t imagine. It makes it feel like a window into a world instead of a recursive loop of self-contained plot. And two, if you ever want to revisit the characters or the world, like in the old Sword and Sorcery stories, they’re right there waiting for you.

So let ’em become real. It’ll pay back in terms of realism. And, let us not fucking forget, it’s fun as hell.

(Update: in spite of my comment here, I did get an official rejection letter from Harper Collins Voyager this week. It came after the deadline, but I still appreciate the effort. So now they’re officially on the board. Score for this year is 0-1. Bring it on.)

*Not sure who did the chewing. Maybe one of the cats. Maybe me.
**Whether or not they had a life that extends past the story really depends on how the plot goes. My characters have about a 50-50 shot.

Monday Challenge: Save the World

Right Hand Rule - Day 139

Come with me if you want to live. And bring the stapler. (Photo credit: rutty)

(At 66,000 words today. The typing callouses on my fingers are gaining sentience. I can no longer feel my brain. Send coffee. Pray for us all.)

I was having a little trouble coming up with a Monday Challenge this week. Not because there’s nothing to write, but because my head is so full of the current story that it’s squeezing out everything else. Pretty soon I’ll start forgetting phone numbers and postal codes. All those cells will be busy creating weapons and idiosyncrasies and bedrooms and political structures. The good news is that the world is fleshing itself out around the story, filling in its own details.

The bad news is…I forget. Sorry. I told you this would happen.

Anyway.

So I started looking around for inspiration, and, oddly enough, found it. Today’s challenge is a found object challenge. Look to your immediate left. No, your other left. What object is closest to you? It can be anything: office supply, furniture, yoga mat, Nerf shotgun, family pet. Got it? Okay, that item is very important. It is the only thing that will stop an emergency which will occur in the next twenty four hours. You get to decide what the emergency is, but it has to be a real emergency, not a fucking fashion emergency or something. It is vital—vital—that you stop this event from happening, whatever it is. If you don’t, people will die.

But you must use the item at your left to do so. Only it can save the day. How? I don’t know. You’re the writer, you tell me.

Right. Go.

And before I get any complaints, my world saving object is a two-inch figure of Applejack from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. If I’d picked the right hand side, it would have been a pair of twenty-sided dice both showing 19. Think I should have gone right.

Gone But Not Forgotten: The Cut Scene

Star Trek TOS Cutting Room Floor Clippings

So many possibilities…wait, is that a single frame of porn? (Photo credit: The Rocketeer)

Back in the long ago, my mate Krys and I worked on a story together.* There were many chapters and iterations of said story**; it was probably the first time I really worked at writing, and consciously tried to make mine better. It helped define a lot of my style and habits in story-telling.

One of things that’s lasted the longest is the idea of the cut scene. They used to be little pieces and scenes that, for whatever reason, weren’t in the actual story. Some of them were things that hadn’t happened yet that one of us got a really amazing omg idea for that had to be written before it disappeared into the ether. Others were real cut scenes—things that had happened, but that for some reason had been left on the cutting room floor. Usually because, interesting though it might have been, it didn’t relate to the plot. Those scenes helped define relationships between characters, or make individual characters more well-rounded by giving them a backstory or a hobby or a favourite drink. Little shit, mostly. They were written entirely for fun, and for the most part they were never really intended to be a part of the larger story. Special feature stuff, maybe. Or appendices. It might make it into a revised and extended version, but even then, probably not.

But those were some of the best scenes, and some of the most interesting to write. And they also made the regular plot writing much easier. We already had a huge body of work to draw on to flesh out voices, relationships, emotional baggage, and all the other fun stuff that makes a character a person. Sometimes lines or partial scenes would work their way in, and that only made it better.

So when I started The New Novel, before I started the actual writing, I did a bunch of cut scenes. Mostly of the characters as children, because a few of them have known each other for a long time, and I wanted to build in that sense of history. But others are just…bits. The first time someone met their future husband. The aftermath of a risky yet profitable adventure. The first time someone killed. Important stuff to them, but not necessarily to the story.

All in all, it’s probably about ten to fifteen thousand words of cut scenes. Maybe more; I can’t be arsed to add them all up right now. This stuff will probably never make it into the story proper, but it’s great to have around. It makes the characters more real, and gives their history together a weight that I would have found hard to write otherwise.

And writing more of those is a great distraction from actually working on the novel. It’s kind of the same, right?

*Actually, we still work on this story together. But it’s more of a hobby now. Not that that stops it from eating huge swathes of our time.
**Many, many iterations.

Monday Challenge: Just One Line

Cocktail Party At The Imperial Hotel: March 13...

“I asked her what it was about, but she just muttered something about the essential terror of childhood and robots before bursting into tears.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October is rapidly drawing to a close. I always know the end is near when my wedding anniversary passes; it’s the 17th, so after that the month becomes an overladen truck rapidly accelerating down a steep hill. Soon it will be November, which means NaNo time for a lot of people. Those of you who are embarking on that journey, I hope you’ve been doing your pre-work. At least, I hope that you have if you have any plans of finishing. Not to say that I don’t know people who’ve just winged the whole goddamned thing and finished, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Anyway, if you’ve been a busy little writer bee*, you’ve been getting your literary ducks in a row**. You’ve been working on your characters and all the shit that’s going to happen to them. You’ve been laying up plot spackle against the days of the long dark word-storms. You’ve been getting prepared.

I respect that. So, I’m going to make this week’s challenge a short one. Just one sentence long, in fact.

…Those of you who are looking at the screen skeptically, well done. You passed your perception check. +2 to Spot Traps.

The sentence I want you to write for this Monday Challenge? Easy: write the high-concept tag line for your story.

Not sure what that is? It’s the single sentence that tells the reader, 1) what the story is about and 2) why the hell they should give a shit. It’s the line they put on a movie synopsis when it pops up on the TV guide. It’s the line you tell people when they ask what you’re working on.*** For example, the high-concept line for The Lord of the Rings might be: Frodo Baggins has one chance to destroy a terrible weapon before the world is plunged into war, but he must trade his comfortable life for a dangerous road from which he may not return. That’s three novels summed up, people. Sure, not all the detail makes it in, but it does represent the core conflict of the story: bravery versus cowardice, bold yet risky action versus safe but ultimately doomed inaction. All you want is enough plot to get it going, and enough of an emotional hook to get the audience hooked.

You might not think you’re ready for to write this  yet; after all, the story hasn’t been written. But I posit this: if you can’t write that high-concept line yet, then you don’t know what the story is really about. And that’s a great path to the Quagmire of Aimlessness around the 10,000 word mark.

So devote some brain power to this single sentence. It might change as the story changes; they tend to evolve with the writing. But it’s the first stepping stone across the river. In other words, it’s a start.

*Kind of like a worker bee, except instead of making honey they sit in a corner of the hive listing to Pitchfork’s Top 100 and using two of their six legs to tell the story of the colony.
**I just made the mistake of looking that expression up on the internet. I found no less than eight different explanations of the origins, along with the inevitable porn.
***You know, if you don’t want to take the traditional approach and give a rambling, twenty minute explanation that ends with a nervous laugh.

The Dick Move Method of Developing Plot

Luminos Dias

I move in mysterious ways. (Photo credit: atlebra)

I’ve been fleshing out the plot of my next novel lately.* And something has come to my attention.

Man, I am an asshole.

Seriously. If the characters I create are just analogues of real people in some alternate universe, then I am in serious trouble if inter-universe travel is ever discovered. Because not only am I an asshole to them, they’re not the kind of people inclined to take that well. We’re talking vengeful blades of destruction here. I mean, I know I have no one but myself to blame, but still

The only good news is that they’d probably refuse to believe in me as their god, because a lot of them tend toward atheism.  I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a fail-safe I built into them.

You want to know why I think they’ll be so mad? Here’s my super-secret plot development strategy:

1) Create a protagonist. Create them alongside the main conflict if you like, but create them good and hard.

2) Figure out what they want most in the world at that moment. Like, the thing that they will fucking die without.

3) Don’t let them have it.

Dick move, right? Welcome to the wonderful world of being an author.

Not to say that this is an original method or anything. This is just what I cobbled together from scads of writing advice and research.** I condensed all that into a couple of key points that fit easily onto a page or a cue card because I like simplicity.

Those three steps get me started. From there I can create other characters, ones who help and hinder the protagonist along the way. Or do both, because people are weird. And sometimes assholes. Before I know it, I’ve got a whole cast, or most of one.

And the key to keeping that story going? Every time it looks like my character is making some progress toward that goal they want, I make the situation worse. Simultaneously make it harder to get and that much more important that they get it. Or the consequences will be fucking dire. End of the world, or at least the protagonist’s world.

I really hope they never find me.

*Yeah, I’m an outliner. I like to have a map of where I’m going. Admittedly, most of the time the map ends up being about as accurate as those medieval ones with Here Bee Dragones scribbled in the margins. But still. I like the illusion of control before I start.

**Also known as reading. And watching movies. And TV. It’s a rough job, but someone has to do it.

The Slow Reveal

this is how i roll

This is how I roll. (Photo credit: jima)

Among my other hobbies, I play tabletop role-playing games.* Run them sometimes, too. If I want to be all responsible about it, I can tell you about how both playing and running RPGs is a great way to build writing skills; after all, you create stories and characters and events and then watch them play out. I play for fun, sure, but never overlook an opportunity to hone the skills, right?

Right now I’m playing a game run by a friend of mine, Spiderman Dave**. And, I have to tell you, Dave is the fucking master of the slow reveal.

When we made our characters, we made skill sets and character traits and personalities, but not backstories. We didn’t know enough about the world Dave had created to do so with any believability, so we left it to him. And in the months since we’ve started playing, he’s dropped in bits and pieces about our pasts here and there. Just enough to let us play the characters convincingly, but not enough to know the whole story. So we’re left with questions. A lot of them. Why are extremely high-ranked military officers searching so hard for a single deserter? Who put the exceptionally high price on the bar owner’s head? Why did an operative leave his loving fiancé and join a mission that will see him dead within five years? Why send a mission to an obscure corner of the universe with no hope of success?

All those questions. And, I don’t know about anyone else, but at least half the reason I’m playing is to find out the goddamned answers. The combat’s fun, and my character does have an awful lot of shiny toys, but the questions are what keep me coming back. Curiosity: I has it. In fucking spades.

Works in other fiction, too. Questions lead the reader on. Hell, look at Citizen Kane*** . Fucking ‘Rosebud’? However you feel about that movie, you have to admit that it poses a question early on which is not answered until the end, and that question digs at your brain.

That bit’s important, too; I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of keeping your promises. The answers have to fit. There has to be a pay-off. But ask those questions early and then let them dangle in the reader’s mind. This works especially well if it’s something the characters already know; people rarely need to talk about something that they know, so the long reveal makes sense. If you’re just hiding something for the sake of hiding it, then it doesn’t work and the reader feels like you’re being a cock.

But with the right questions asked at the right time, you can lead a reader right through the story you’ve written. Just make sure the answer’s not a goddamned sled.

*For the non-nerds among you, this includes things like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Rifts…all that stuff that requires character sheets and dice and spare time. Hell of a lot of fun if you’ve never tried it.

**Thus named to distinguish him from the other Daves I know: Uncle Dave, Tattoo Dave, Fur-Pants Dave, I-Nailed-His-Hat-To-My-Door-With-A-Pocket-Knife Dave…

***Apologies for using such a tired, over-used reference, but I didn’t want to spoil things for people by using a newer one. Frankly, if you don’t know the ending of Citizen Kane by now, you haven’t been paying attention.