Thursday, January 31, 2013

Quotes and Chapter Headings

Today I'm gonna wax on one of my favorite elements of fiction, fantasy especially. That is the ever-common "deep and inspiring quotes at the beginning of chapters" fad. I only call it a fad because not everyone does it, but many of the people who are doing it are only doing it because they read a book that did and it was really cool.

Let me make one thing clear: that is not a bad reason for doing something. Not everything has to have a super-duper deep reason for happening. That green light Gatsby's always pining over could actually just be a green light. Maybe green's just his favorite color! If your reason for putting something in your book is "because I think it is cool" that is not a bad reason. That is a totally acceptable reason. You just need to own that.

I say that because it is important to do things not just because they're cool. If you just took a bunch of cool things and throw them together, well, you probably won't have made anything very cool. If you like dragons, spaceships, robots and wizards, and want to throw all those things together into one book (hint hint my WIP)  that's awesome, but you have to recognize that you can't just throw them in and hope that they work. If there's no cohesiveness with all these drastically different elements, your story will feel inorganic and at best (or worst), people will think it is satire.

Let's bring this back to spooky quotes and chapter headings. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, maybe because you just happened to read books that didn't do this, a chapter heading is something like:



Red Star rises
Our day of doom
Too late to repent
Our lust for power
The Book of Armageddon, Songs of Sorrow, 4:17

The plot was all plotty with the characters doing something and some spookiness was totally drawing you in and making you ask questions about what would happen next and-


Okay, you get it. Now, the little "poem" is actually taken from my WIP. The text... not so much. This is a pretty standard chapter heading. Sometimes you'll see others that are just quotes from some historical figure in the world, or some mysterious actor somewhere else in the world you just haven't seen, there's a lot of variety.

They're all cool, and if you're writing these into your chapters, that's great, but I want to make sure that you do this right. Doing something just because it is cool is fine, but what's better is doing something cool and making it work. The Name of the Wind is a book filled with classic fantasy tropes, but Rothfuss didn't look at his book and say "im stealing X, Y, and Z because they are cool" he said "I'm stealing X,Y and Z because they are cool and I'm going to do this different thing with them!" He owned the fact that much of what he was working with had been seen before, and didn't let that slow him down. He didn't worry that someone might look at his book and say "this is just grown up harry potter" because you know what? Awesome. Grown up harry potter is awesome.

But lets get some specifics, and try to keep me from ranting. In my mind, there's a few real reasons to use chapter headings. If you can't fit yours into this list, don't worry, but do think about why you're writing in these cool quotes.

1) Adding to the world: Using your poems and quotes and whatever to give the reader a better feel for the mood of the world at large. The kind of songs people like to sing, the books they read, the important people in this world's history. This one is the most basic, IMO, and also one of the best. You can be pretty random with what you do, so long as you maintain the theme of adding to the world at large, and not to the plot directly.

2) Building the Plot: In Brandon Sanderson's the Way of Kings, each chapter starts with a quote and a semi-mysterious notation. You aren't sure what these have to do with anything, and they seem like just sort of cool visions, until you get to the end of the book. You aren't given any real answers, but you know the plot is deeper and you feel like you understand more because of what you've been reading up to, even if you didn't get what the quotes were talking about at that time. When you're using your headings to build up the plot, you can do some worldbuilding in this too, but once you start making plot related headings, the reader is going to expect that every heading relates to the plot.

3) Unrelated sayings: This is the most blase of the choices, but I've seen books where the authors just put cool quotes about basically nothing at the top of every chapter. Usually this is a lot of "deep thoughts" the writer themselves had, or less used quotes that they found and want to repurpose. Don't be afraid of being the person who does this, but remember that some people aren't going to enjoy "purposeless" quotes.

Those are the three uses I can think of for chapter headings, and there's only one rule that I live by with them: Be Consistent. If you are choosing to add to the world with your quotes, but not the plot, make sure you don't start throwing in plot hooks. Likewise, when you decide to use your headings to advance or introduce a background plot, don't just have one that's an advertisement for a tavern somewhere. If you do switch between these, make sure that you do it immediately. If your first chapter starts with a plot hook heading, and your second is a worldbuilding and your third an unrelated but cool in-world saying, your readers will be prepared to just accept whatever you give them. You just don't want to do five plot hooks in a row and then throw in a random saying -- the reader will have been expecting a plot hook and unlike many other places where it is a good thing to buck reader expectations, the chapter heading is a place where I believe consistency is key. Reading those headings is actually one of the most fun things about a book, and I'm a sucker for well written ones.

But maybe that's just me.

Chapter headings can be a great way to give your readers a greater sense of mystery or a greater sense of immersion, or just a quick laugh. They're powerful tools, if used properly. Just remember what it is you set out to do, and what purpose your headings serve. And whatever it is you're doing, own it. No matter how stolen or ridiculous or whatever. Own it. Make it yours. Even if that thing you're owning is a haiku about demon sex positions that start every chapter. It's all yours.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Knowing your characters, Inside and Out

How well do you know your characters? You created them, but there's a lot of discovery when it comes to your creations. I feel like writers, as artists, have their art "come alive" more than any other. We ascribe certain personalities and traits to these people, created or historically inspired. And the things they do sometimes surprise us.

Have you ever been writing a scene, write in some detail, and then your character reacted in a way you didn't anticipate? Just, in your head, you know in that moment that even though you planned these actions, they're wrong for who this character has turned out to be?

Congratulations! You've discovered something new about your characters that you didn't know before. But don't let it ruin your grand plans. You may just have to force your character to do something they don't want to do. But too many surprises and you may start to feel like you don't know this character at all, and if you can't wrangle your imagination into working properly, you may lose control of your story.

This is why I think it's important to get a good view of your character's basic motivations and history before getting to the inevitable surprises that will come when we later invent situations that these characters haven't yet experienced. Surprises are good, and can bring some fresh life into parts of your story where you think it's flagging, but you want to be sure you've got most of your character's paths set out.

To that end, I like to write questions for my characters to answer; just basic ones, like you would ask a teenager or a child. "What is your favorite color, and why? Who was your first crush? Have any of your relatives died? What is your favorite food?" Each one of these is a little gem of a story in itself, just not one you probably plan on telling. Favorite colors might have stories behind them - maybe it was the color of the first wierd alien pet or monster your character had (if sff). "Who was your first crush?" This story can give you information about your world like a deeper understanding of your character's hometown, or some other place and culture in the world. The deaths of relatives bring forth stories of their own, and you may find that the distant relatives of your characters become interesting features in the world. All these things serve to make your story more real, and the beauty of it is that they are all questions you can easily ask yourself, and see what happened to you, or you heard about. Real life almost always provides the best examples.

You wont (and definitely shouldn't) use all the stories that you come up with asking your characters these questions, but you'll have a much better idea of who they are. By asking questions that dredge up your character's more unimportant, not plot-related memories, you'll have a fuller understanding of who this person is, and that way the surprises you encounter will be less distracting and more meaningful. You'll have a fuller idea of who your characters are, which will play out on the page for the reader.

Remember, everyone is the main character of their own story, even the little villagers who you meet for just a second. Writing a piece of flash fiction from the point of view of an NPC will prepare you and the related scene will spring to life far quicker when you write it, because you'll already know something about what happens there when the heroes aren't around.

There's an iceberg metaphor that gets used a lot, and I'm going to throw it out here again. Your story is an iceberg. Only a tiny fraction of your world and your story gets told to the reader, but you have to know all of it for the whole thing to float. Make sure you know your characters and your world, and your story will flow like music.

Answering the right questions

Let's say you're writing a short story, like I recently was. Or you're writing your novel as usual. Inherent in every story are questions, like:

"Why is this character doing this?"

"Who is that guy?'

"What is that mysterious object?"

These are things you want to answer, but not always immediately. People want to know the answers to things, and so they will keep reading to find the answers, or at least see if the answers they thought of are correct. You want to put questions like these in the reader's mind. Some hidden motive or plot related element -- hell, even a red herring will do, though too many and your readers feel tricked.

Timing these questions can be tricky. You don't want to pose the question "who is this mysterious stranger, how did he save this guy" and then never answer it, unless that's the whole shtick of that character. There needs to be some sort of closure. The reader needs to be tugged along until just to the point of exasperation and then given that tasty morsel that rewards them for hanging on for so long, and then you hit them with a bigger question. I'm not going to dig too deeply into timing right now -- I'll save that for another blog post.

What I will dig deeper into is which questions do you answer? Which questions raised are the important ones to answer?

That, in itself, is a difficult question to answer. Something like "how does this mythical weapon return to its home after its owner dies" may seem like an important detail to you, but to someone else that's just something to handwave away. It's not plot-central, all that matters is that it does.

Writers can be a nit-picky folk, especially with their own works. We know our worlds inside and out, so when something doesn't quite make sense, we get the urge to explain it, to figure out how or why something occurs. Which is important to a broader sense of world-building, but it may not be necessarily important to the reader. Magic systems in fantasy are a great example of this. Some magic systems are very deliberate, with lots of rules and limitations, which for some readers gives a great sense of understanding, and helps to immerse them in the world.

Others might disagree, and prefer a less Brandon Sanderson style of scientific magic and more a Robert Jordan big handwavey magic where things just happen.

I realize I've strayed from the point of plot-related questions, but it's all parts of the same. When you're writing, you're crafting questions and answers, all to lead the reader to some sort of epiphany. But as many editors have said, the thing you think your book is about is probably the last thing anybody else will believe it to be. South Park makes fun of this with the episode the "Tales of Scrotie McBoogerballs," where people just read whatever they want out of a book of purely disgusting filth.

That isn't to say that you can't affect what people are going to get out of your book, but what I do mean to say is that you can't always predict what things are going to stand out to your readers. You aren't them, and they aren't you.

So my advice, overall, is not to worry about every question you raise. Some people aren't going to care what that mysterious guy in the shadow's motivation is. For them, it's enough that he's a spooky man in the shadows. But those same people might get incensed that you haven't properly explained how your gravity-defying zeppelins work. You can't decide what people are going to ultimately decide is important in your books. You can weight certain devices and plot elements but in the end your readers may just skip right over them and decide that the random homeless kid stealing an apple at the market is a much more interesting plot point and what ever happened to him?

Answer the questions that feel important to you. Then let other people read your work and see what they found was important. Ask them what they thought the plot hooks were. You may be surprised what questions you were really asking. Then smooth out the details. You may find that the subtle hints you were dropping over and over like bread crumbs, making a little plot-road for your readers to follow were totally ignored, while a bunch of random events you put in to sort of even out the story actually were more evocative for your readers. You can only learn from experience.

Sorry if this one was a little rambly, but I know that many of us obsess over what messages we're sending to our readers, and what questions we want them to be asking when they're reading. It's important to remember that none of us can fully predict that. We can try for certain things, but we're never guaranteed. It's all up to the individual reader to decide what our books mean to them, and why.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Finding your writing zone

There are many people who say they need very specific circumstances for them to write.

It has to be perfectly silent, or; it has to be just the right level of noisy, but no one can talk to you, or; you need to be hanging upside-down over a vat of boiling acid so you really feel like you have to write.

They're all good, bu which one is best for you?

For myself, I need music to really get the visions flowing, but sometimes music can be too emotive. When your soundtrack strays away from the mood you're trying to create (such as writing a love scene and then crazy action fight music comes on) that can be distracting. So a lot of times, I will just go for a walk, listen to my music, get the scene sort of situated right in my head, then come back and sit down with no music, close my eyes, and just type.

Here's one of my personal beliefs: the more obstacles between your brain and the page you can remove, the better. Sometimes that's outside noise, sometimes that's just looking at the actual words on your screen. Touch typing is not a skill everyone has, but when you can close your eyes and just let the words flow from  your brain to your fingers without having that extra step of reading them as well, I find that it really goes much quicker, and you don't lost what's in your head as easily. You just have to trust yourself when you're deleting things :P

Studies about as to how to make you more creative and productive, but the fact is that not everything is going to work the same for everyone else. So rather than looking at tips and tricks and stuff, (this article notwithstanding), think of the times that you had in your own life that you got the best writing done. When was that day that you slammed out 4000 words in an afternoon, each of them great? What were the circumstances for that? The likely fact is that they probably are recreatable - there's probably not anything that you can't come back up with. Well, maybe some of you got really inspired after your first child was born or something, but fine that's not recreatable. You just have to find something else.

Another key is, once you've found your writing zone, to not allow other things to get you out of your creative zone. Even when there are distractions (a friend calls, your kid needs help, people arrive unexpected, etc) you need to keep your head in writing-land. Don't think about the words, but do think about how some of your characters would deal with whatever distraction just came to hand. Don't just do it yourself, actually learn something about your characters when you have to deal with real life. You might learn something you didn't know about them. Maybe because of this learning you'll be able to craft more meaningful characters with more realistic personalities.

Remember, everything in life is something you can put into your writing, so don't think of everything you're doing as separate from writing. Look at life as research, and take everything that happens to you as a lesson that will make your writing better than it would have been before.

Alright, it was a short one today, so I'm out, and keep writing!

Friday, January 25, 2013

"Fun vs. Important"

Here's an interesting question:

What makes a "fun" book vs. an "important" book?

That is, what is the difference between a book that is pure entertainment and one that people say you "should" read because it will make you a better person or give you a new perspective on life.

Are they really two discrete entities or can an important book be fun as well? And perhaps more importantly is the opposite true - can a book described as "fluff," a title given to books such as Fifty Shades of Grey - be  given the title of "important?"

Let's examine a little bit of what we mean by whether a book is fun. I think a more sour-oriented soul would describe fun as meaningless escapism, something you read that caters almost directly to your preferences, and does not try to challenge you in any meaningful way. I feel that romance is the most frequently and off-handedly referred to genre in this way. Because there was a greater social stigma towards romance as a worthwhile genre. Recent YA romance novels and adult romance novels, like the very aptly named Twilight and additionally aptly named Fifty Shades of Grey (and sequels) have brought romance back into the public eye, and less away from what your mother secretly reads and you just grew up looking at the shelves wondering what are those? (that might've just been me)

These books are "fun" but they are also pretty fun. It's escapism. Sometimes, you don't want to think, but you don't want to just drain your brain and watch a movie or tv. You want to read something stimulating, but not necessarily challenging. There's nothing wrong with this - what do you think a massage is to your body? That's what reading fun for your brain is. It doesn't really make you stronger, or faster, or anything like that, but it relaxes you so you can go back to the gritty real world (or more important, depressing books)

It's not really this way anymore, but there's still some culture of "oh fantasy and science fiction is for losers" out there. In my experience, this is mostly in academia -- there's many a "creative" writing prof out there who derides genre fiction as pointless and worse, bad.

Search twitter and you'll find plenty of people sharing stories of their creative writing profs saying that they will fail someone for writing genre fiction, or that you shouldn't look up to or be impressed by Neil Gaiman because he's a genre writer. And *gasp* he writes comics, too! Truly, the man must be of the lowest calibre of author.

Yeah, right.

So we can agree that fun books can be important. But can important books be fun? You'd be surprised how many lit professors don't like hearing certain books referred to as "fun."

I'm not going to argue that there's no value in a purely "important" book, one that, like some grand, depressing Russian epic treatise on communism, will open my eyes to the darkness of our own world, and make me a better (or at least more thoughtful) person. There is great value in books like these. But even those dark books have to have some fun in them to be entertaining, otherwise no-one would have read the damn things. War and Peace might be one of the most "important" stories ever written, but if it wasn't fun at all to read, if it was just some high-school textbook that was like "war is bad" and "peace is good but it never turns out the way you think it will" "now feel sad for 800 years." No one would read it, and no one would recommend it, and it wouldn't be considered a great work of art.

After all, nobody refers textbooks to each other to read, even if they are "important" and textbooks clearly are. They are all "important" because they are all trying to teach you something, just like War and Peace. They just don't have a single ounce of "fun" in them (unless you're one of those people who likes math).

And, at the risk of upsetting everyone who read this far, it's all moot anyways. What your book means to you, the lessons you think you're trying to teach people, or the lessons you're NOT trying to teach people, all don't matter because no one that buys the book will be you. What I mean by that is that everyone has a different perspective on life, and whatever interpretation of your book that they have is valid.

If you write a book that is nothing but erotic sex in zero g (shh I totally don't have a collection like that) and someone decides after reading it that it's a treatise on the mistreatment of ants by scientists, well, that's a valid point of view. If that's what you got out of it, then great. But not everyone's going to get the same things out of the same book. I'm sure that somewhere out there is a person who read "War and Peace" and decided afterwards that War was pretty radical. There's probably someone who thinks that it's secretly foretelling 9/11.

So if someone says your book is just "fun" but they don't think it's going to change anybody's lives, they're wrong. It might not change their life, but they are only one of over seven billion people, probably at least one of which will find your book, however vapid, life-changing. There are books that I read when I was a child that changed the way I view the world and I would not read them again if you asked me to, because now they seem terribly written and just full of crap.

By the same token, when I read Great Gatsby in High School, as many Americans did, I didn't think it was fun OR important. I thought Gatsby was a huge loser and I don't remember learning anything from it. Rereading it as an adult gave me a lot more.

So if you ask yourself, "Am I writing a fun book, or an important one"...

Just don't ask that question. Because you don't decide what your book is or means. The people that read it do. (And not just because they are giving you the money so you just have to accept what they say.) If 90% of adults see your book as crap, but one teenager says it changed their lives? That is an important book.

So go write the next War and Peace. But please, make it a little more entertaining. For my sake. :D

Thursday, January 24, 2013

So your protagonist is an orphan

We've all been there before. You're daydreaming, thinking of that next big book and the awesome protagonist you're going to wow your readers with, and you think - "man, what would really get some drama?" Then you clap your hands together, point one finger in the air and go: "Eureka! Orphan!"

I can't blame you, or me, for thinking that way. Making your protagonist an orphan gives you a lot of things for free. You get some drama (MY PARENTS ARE DEAAAADDDDD) free agency (nobody to tell you what to do!) and the classic (but difficult to use because: Star Wars) dramatic return of dead parents!

Plus, lots of dream sequences with your character going "no! no!" as their dead parents tell them how disappointed they are, or the MC watches them get killed over and over. All good! Additionally, it allows you to have extra characters and different tensions: Step-parents or foster families, or in the case of Kvothe, random homeless thugs and crazy people who take care of orphans. Your character doesn't have to answer to anyone, and they get to ignore a lot of the common rules that affect kids of that age (if your orphan is a kid, otherwise it's just a bit of backstory)

There's another reason authors choose orphans: It's easy. You don't need to write parents or siblings or home-town rivalries or whatever. It's just your protagonist, and that dark past they carry with them.

But what are you losing? What are the cons of making your protagonist an orphan?

Well, for one, it's predictable. When you have an orphan character, you automatically have these tropes that people expect to see. There are people out there (not many, but they exist) who will actually just put down a novel once they see that the protagonist is an orphan. One of the panelists at ConFusion was like that - he said he managed to tolerate Name of the Wind for doing so.

Tolerated. Because it's Name of the godzilla-damned Wind. Wow. But let's look at why he said that, and why he was able to tolerate, and really probably actually like Name of the Wind. He said he doesn't like orphan MC books because the same emotional traumas are present in every single book. The arc of self-discovery is the same. The tropes with parents and poor relationships with authority figures.

Why was he able to like NotW? Because Rothfuss dealt away with a lot of those tropes. He didn't focus on the character moaning about his parents being gone, instead he focused on what Kvothe was doing at that moment to survive. It wasn't about a lot of existential angst, or using dead parents as props, but about the repercussions of actually being orphaned at a young age. There was rummaging for scraps, getting the crap beaten out of him, learning to live on the streets. Those are things you want in the foreground, not in backstory exposition.

Additionally, he makes up for the loss in family dynamics with new parental figures. The teachers at his school, the friends he makes, the mentors he finds throughout the world. But you could have parents in addition to these and you wouldn't lose any value to the replacements.

So how can you make your orphans more interesting? The panel I went to didn't have a lot of suggestions honestly. Most of the writers there had been invited because they wrote novels with orphan protagonists. They suggested just reading other orphan based books and seeing what they did and just doing something different.

But I have one for you - don't let your character be orphaned. Have your character orphan themselves. Make them an agent in the orphaning process, not a bystander. Make that part of their character more meaningful than just "I saw my parents killed/I didn't see my parents killed." Maybe your MC did it on purpse! Maybe it was an accident and they feel terribly guilty. Maybe they were forced to kill their own parents?!?!

Ultimately, the choice of making your protagonist an orphan is up to you. But it's an important decision to make. Look at what you're gaining from writing an orphan, and what you're losing. Decide what's best for you and for your story.

And don't worry - the panelist who said he would never read another orphan book also said this: "Don't listen to me. Don't worry about me. Write your book, and if you're passionate, it will do well. Don't stop because of a single person's pet peeve."

It all comes down to the passion you have for your work - if your story goes one way in your head, that's the best way to write it. Don't force something that isn't there. If your MC is an orphan, they're an orphan.

Own it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Too Epic?

So you've read a Song of Ice and Fire. You see George RR Martin with his million POVs and you say "Oh man that rules! I gotta do a big, huge, multi-POV story! It'll span a dozen books and be so super cool and epic and everyone's story will be awesome!"

It turns out, that is really really hard to make good. So hard that seriously experienced authors routinely let their stories get away from them. GRRM has even been trying to control his story's spread by slaughtering his characters left and right. He does this, and books 3 and 4 STILL had to be separated, even though they were essentially one gigantic novel, with all the events occurring at the same time. And this is a man with decades of experience writing. He is very familiar with the writer's tools. And he still has problems with spread.

Steven Erikson has a problem with this spread as well. His Malazan books are delightfully written, very vivid and full of gore, but by the time we got to book 6 in the series we're reading an entire novel that's just the backstory for a side character that we just met in book 5. I'm not Steven Erikson, but that sounds like an issue where his story got so gigantic and convoluted that he had to sit down and write something else to give him the time to actually settle his main plot. OR he just wanted to write this other story and it's in the same universe so why not call it book 6?

This is a pretty easy issue to visualize, if you look at your character's plotlines like colored strings. If you have  two or three, or even four, there'll be some places where they get knotted up, other places where one loops away and goes somewhere else but eventually returns, but you're always able to keep track of them. When you start your book with 9 POVs, then add interesting side characters as new POVs in later books, you're ending up with a titanic morass of jumbled strings where you have almost no ability to tell one from the other.

There's a lot of discussion as to "what makes a book." Like, the actual thing. Where does it start, and where does it end? Most authors would say that a book ends when you have a solid sense of resolution. Not cleaning up everything - that's for sequels, but there has to be a conflict that is either introduced or carried over, and it has to get resolved. It's what we refer to as "story arcs." When you have books with a million characters, you have to write a ten million word book just to get those characters to all move ten feet. Is that really a book? Was there conflict, and was it resolved? Or was this "novel" just a gigantic set-up for the actual novel.

There is an actual example of this, in a series I haven't mentioned yet but most will at least recognize: The Wheel of Time. If you haven't heard of it, it is a FOURTEEN BOOK series, with each of the novels being something like six hundred thousand words. They are HUGE. Book ten in the series is a book called Crossroads of Twilight. In it, the characters decide where to go and what to do. That is the book. It was far, far too difficult with that many characters (there are over a dozen at this point I think) to introduce a story element and have each of them react to it in a way that moved the story forward quickly that didn't seem disingenuous. These characters all had different ideas of what to do, how to do it, and different plots in the world moving to stop them. I'm going to spoil something for you here, but in the Crossroads of Twilight, everyone decides what to do. The actual novel is book eleven, Knife of Dreams. There, all the characters have set up what they're doing, gone to their various places and decided who to kill.

Epic stories are awesome. There's no feeling more amazing (to me) of seeing all these incredible characters and convoluted plots finally resolve into one epic climactic thing. But so often, that doesn't even happen. The plots have gotten so convoluted that you can't even find the end of your metaphorical strings. The characters have become so different and independent that they don't even want to deal with each other. There's so many characters and plots that even when you do slam everything together in a climactic finale, there's too many loose ends for it to actually feel resolved.

This is one of the reasons that when Brandon Sanderson came in to finish WoT, Jordan's notes for the final book were so extensive that there was literally no way to pin it down all in one book. SO HE MADE THREE. The finale of a series, in an epic trilogy. That's kind of awesome, but at the same time, insane that it's required.

It's not always multi-POV stories that get too epic and too crazy. Did anyone read Xenocide and Children of the Mind? Those were completely bonkers. That might just be Orson Scott Card being a little cuckoo, but it's what happens when your characters reach the apex of their skill and might and you still try to tell stories with them. If your MC is an uber-god that can't die and destroys planets with a thought, you are going to have to come up with some crazy ass shit to make conflict! Or, be lame and wipe their memories or something (lookin' at you, Heroes)

So it's important for you to decide. How epic can you be, realistically? With your own talents and your characters and your world, how epic can you actually be and keep the story tight and still spellbinding? When you have all these characters and plotlines, can you still write a book that someone can just come and pick up and read? Or do you need an army of assistants and a full wiki to keep everything straight for yourself, let alone a new reader.

I'm not telling you to not write an epic multi-POV story. That's what I'm writing! But I am suggesting that you keep the number of those POVs small, at least to start. Make sure you can actually write real books, not just a collected binding of chapters that had to be separated from the real story arc because booksellers wont publish 2000 page novels and also no one will buy those. Keep it tight. Keep it awesome. Keep it epic.

But not too epic.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gender Swap!

It's Immortal ConFusion recap week!

Today's musings: Gender swapping characters!

Have you ever considered what would happen if you made Voldemort or Darth Vader women? Besides the fact that we'd probably call them "Voldemom" and "Darth Mader." What expectations change? How do you see them acting nefariously? Do you imagine more seduction, more guile?

I'm going to argue that honestly, most of the male antagonists, and male characters, in fiction can be changed to women with little real difference to the story. You can make a believable woman who doesn't act in a hypersexual way. (Though, you might expect Hollywood to make these gender-swapped antagonists act that way) Instead, I'm going to talk about women turning into men.

I'm going to talk about Snow White. And basically every other Disney story. Because when you change the women in these stories to men, and vice versa, the story literally breaks. It changes from a "romance" to a comedy.

Imagine, if you will, the story of Snow White with two A-type men instead of women. Instead of the evil step-mother witch Queen, you have the evil step-father witch King. Instead of the princess singing and dancing with birds with beautiful black hair, you have a bro, muscled and toned, singing and dancing with birds.

And Evil Step-King just hates that Snow White the man is hotter than he is. That is radically unacceptable. So he plots to have Snow white killed, and so Snow White is whisked away, and finds a bunch of cartoonish female dwarves who embody a variety of emotional states. Meanwhile, Step-King rages because he's still not the hottest in the land.

Eventually, you have some foreign princess show up, see Snow White dancing and singing in baritone to birds and woodland critters, and say "okay now you're my bitch." Then she goes, beats the shit out of the Step-King, and rules the kingdom forever.

You have now created a comedy. (Also yes I am writing that book now. Nobody steal it!) It is too absurd to think that two A-Type Macho American Dudes could possibly get that much in a tizzy over which one of them was hotter. No one could take it seriously. The story is broken, and is now satire.

How many other stories break when you swap genders? Does your character's tale break if it's a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man? How much of your story would you have to change if you made your character swap genders? Or, more than just your MC, how about ALL the characters. Do some of your scenes feel weird and wrong now? If they do, why? Is it because your character is acting in what appears to be a different sexuality, or is it because you can't imagine a woman doing something (like being heroic) or a man doing something (like being domestic).

For another Disney example, how about the absolutely terrible story of Sleeping Beauty. Literally all sleeping Beauty does is sleep. But she's not the only female character in this tale. There's the fairies, and the evil witch-queen (Remember her? Man that seems like a theme. I wonder why Disney has such problems with women in positions of power). The Fairies have magic, true, which makes girls look and say "hey, I could be like them, with magic and wings and stuff!" But they have to give up their magic to help Sleeping Beauty. And as soon as they exercise their power, for anything (in the movie, it's sweeping and other household chores) shit falls apart and Sleeping Beauty gets captured and put to sleep because seriously she's useless. So, girls, I guess you're not supposed to use your power at all.

But wait, you say! They use their powers in the final epic fight against the dragon and the witch-queen! You're right, I say! But they're only using their powers to assist Prince Asshole -- every other time in the story they use their powers outside of directly helping a man, shit goes wrong. Mostly because they can't figure out how to use their own powers. Women, amirite?

Alright so the fairies are terrible role models too. There's one last one though -- the woman with all the power -- the evil witch queen!

Womp womp. So, for little girls watching this movie, they get the option of "Useless, beautiful and obedient" "powerless and motherly" or "total bitch."

Is it any wonder so many men think so many feminists act like bitches? They're literally taught from childhood that women with power are bitches. Just by association. There's not even any thought put into it. It's a gut reaction from media and the real-life subjugation of women. It doesn't matter if the woman explaining her position is the calmest, most unreactionary person there is, there are going to be people who just have that gut reaction that has been drilled into them for their entire lives that "women with power = bad."

Just turn the story of Sleeping Beauty around, gender-wise, and see how it feels to you.

If you're a man, it probably seems pretty lame.

If you're a woman, it's probably pretty pathetic. "Oh joy, I found this sleeping asshole in a glass box. Well, at least I get his kingdom."

So that's my advice to you, I guess. When your character is doing something, or has something happen to them, are you doing it because that is what that character would do, or that's something that the character's actions have made likely to happen to them? Or is it just because your character is female, or male. If you're basing a plot point purely on sex, it's probably not as strong of a plot point as you could make it. Don't take the easy route and stereotype actions based on sex. In a fantasy world where Orcs are twice as strong as humans, there's no reason they wouldn't rape men too. But I don't think there's one rape scene of a man in a single fantasy novel out there. Not one published, anyways.

Sorry if this one was a bit more heavy-hitting, but gender inequality, while improving steadily thanks to the vast army of female writers (the majority of panelists I saw were female) coming into the fore, is still a big issue that needs tackling. Make sure you know what kind of messages you're sending to men and women with your novels. You won't be able to catch all of them, but you can at least get the egregiously stereotypical ones out. And trust me, they're in there. No matter how educated and well-intentioned you are. It's not your fault, it's just the way we've all been raised. It's only your fault if you choose to ignore it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

ConFusion 2013

So this past weekend I had the good fortune to attend ConFusion, a SFF themed con held annually in Dearborn. There were a lot of authors there, many of whom I knew, many more of whom I had never heard of. There were authors that specialized in epic fantasy, authors specializing in short stories, in romance, and and blendings of genres. Many of these books I won't ever get around to reading, but talking with every author made me want to. Everyone was really polite, pretty positive and most of all funny. There were a lot of serious panels but they were never taken too seriously, and nothing ever felt like a lecture. I felt like I learned a lot, and asked a lot of good questions.

Oh, and I got to hang out with Patrick Rothfuss for two hours on friday night, just sitting with him and some other fans, chatting about... well, everything in the world but when the third book is coming out. (Don't push him! He'll get it done! As someone there said, "You can't rush perfection.") It was wonderful to meet and talk to the actual man, and I was impressed that I didn't make more of a fool of myself. He said something that I think might resonate with some of my fellow writers:

Revise, revise, revise. Pat's an OCD revisioner, so he doesn't just read over his book once or twice or even three times but literally hundreds of times. And he said that when you've read the same bit of dialogue two hundred times, you really, really get a feel for what you can say. He said "I want my dialogue to be fractal." That is, each line of dialogue is ten lines of exposition, or more! The key is to know your world, and the characters, well enough that you can just say one little flippant thing about, who cares, some local farm or a currency or whatever and it just gives you so much more of an understanding of the world than just straight up telling the reader that information.

There were a lot of great panels, and I'm not going to cover them all in depth here, but look forward to some articles this week about:

Sex Changing in Stories - specifically I'll be asking the question "Can you change a female villain to a man and maintain the exact same story, or does it actually break the story?" (The example of this is Snow White, where if you change SW to a macho-alpha male type 'dude' and the Queen to a King, but maintain the fact that the King hates SW because "hes too hot" that story is no longer a cutesy tale - it is a comedy)

Too Epic? - I'll explore some of the pitfalls in writing a million POVs and the problems that can result from building too many threads. I'll also discuss some of the benefits, if it's done well.

Inclusiveness in Fandom - not directly related to writing, but this panel really spoke to me, especially because of some problems in the panel itself that really illustrated the need to have a real conversation about what it means to be a fan, and what it means to deal with race, sex, gender and everything else in your art.

And one of my favorite panels, "So your protagonist is an orphan." - so many people choose to make their MCs orphans, even skilled authors with vast experience. I'll discuss what the panel decided were the pros and cons of having an orphan protagonist.

And probably some more! I've got a lot of notes, and a bunch of pictures. But my camera is far away (read, not right next to me) and I am tired, so they will come later.

Thanks for reading, and keep writing! Goooo #NaNoPals!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Knowing when to share (hint its almost always)

Ah, the feeling of that crashing high when a dozen people have told you that something you wrote or did rules, and you feel fabulous. And then you sit down and nothing comes out of your head the way you wanted, and that high drops to a new low. You think:

"I'm going to disappoint all those people! They experienced my art and thought it was great but this art I'm making now is stupid and poopy!"

Well, we all feel that way from time to time. The point is, struggle through! Fact is, you probably weren't feeling to great about that stuff you handed off to be experienced in the first place! You probably agonized over sending out your 1st draft to a beta reader or friend, thinking "Oh god this is so horrible how can I possibly allow another human being to read what I have written oh space godzilla please just put me out of my misery and evaporate me with your heavenly breath"

Okay, maybe you didn't think that last part. But Space Godzilla loves you anways.

There's something you need to remember about art. Especially bad art. It's meant to be shared. You can make something for yourself, and only yourself, but when someone else looks at that thing you created and says "wow, that's awesome!" you've just made a new connection, and even if you don't care about that other person's opinion at all, they've been changed by your art. That's the whole point of all this: to express yourself.

So why are you scared of other people seeing your art? It's not good enough? It's lame? Nobody wants to read about a boy cursed to be a unicorn in a land where sentient flowers rule over people and only a magical-boyicorn can possibly eat all the flowers in the land and save humanity?

TOO BAD. Share it!

I'm not saying there's no argument for keeping something hidden until it's ready to be shared. You don't necessarily want to put something out that has problems You know you are going to fix, or something that's literally half finished. Like this:

Made by r-kelleg from
This table is clearly unfinished. I can't even see all the pieces! This is not the time to share.
You want to share your WIP when you've reached the end of your creative juices, when you think you've conquered all the issues but you know there's something else. Tighten up your story, sure! Make sure the lines on your drawing are clean, why not!

When your story looks like this:

That's the time to share. All the pieces are there, but maybe not in quite the places they should be. Or maybe they just need a little polishing. That's when you need a pair of fresh eyes. So that your artwork (or table, to continue the analogy) can end up looking like this:

Yes this is the finished table from above! From:

The key is knowing when you're ready. And that really is up to you. Just think about it - is your story a bunch of jumbled pieces that will just confuse your reader, or is it put together, but something's still off? Is it a half-done WIP or is it a real first draft?

Don't confuse your first draft for being half done. Look at it, and know what it is. Don't be shy, share.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Welcome and Hello!

Hello Everyone,

Thanks for coming to the site, and I hope you'll stay!

I'm going to keep this first post short, half because it's almost midnight where I am and I'm quite sleepy, but I want to break down a few goals for this blog.

1. Make friends.

Who doesn't like friends? EVIL PEOPLE, THAT'S WHO. And we're only a little evil at times, I think. Writers are a fairly lonely bunch, but not because we don't want to be! It's just that writing takes a lot of imagining, which takes a lot of time staring at walls or cats or clouds, and since a lot of NaNoers don't write full-time, that imagination time cuts into your social schedule. Then there's the writing itself! So as you can imagine, there's not always time for parties. But whenever we DO come together, it's always a glamorous and fun-filled affair. (And maybe a little smelly at times depending on how long some of us have spent in our writing caves)

In short, NaNoPals is here to help you meet people like you.

2. Help writers.

Making friends is great, but we can do better! We can make PARTNERS. One thing a lot of writers share is SHAME. That is a bad word that we hate. But NaNoPals doesn't believe in shame. Shame is a word that makes people not believe in themselves, and see the gifts they have as bad because other people are sad inside and don't know how to deal with it in an adult, self-aware manner. (I promise I'm getting to something with this) There is an intrinsic fear of putting up your work, even finished work, before other people.

NaNoPals wants to help you with this. We want to help you solve the problems that you can't solve. When you've stared and stared and stared at a page for so long that the words are burned into your retinas, it's time for fresh eyes, and ones that won't lie to you.

That's where NaNoPals will come in. Taking snippets of WIPs and pieces of flash fiction you did for fun, or maybe practice, posting it up here, and helping you understand what you did well, and what you can do better. Think of it as one giant creative writing class with crowdfunded grades. This is a place where you will want to read the comments.

3. Be Awesome

Okay this one's a little lame, but hear me out. NaNoPals wants to celebrate what you've done, because art isn't a finished product - it's not some piece of IKEA furniture that's either finished or unfinished (though it can be as frustrating to make). Art is expression, and every time you write or draw or sing or just say something to express yourself, that is art, and we want to celebrate the awesomeness that is. Even if you never get published, or never get a record deal or whatever you're going for, the fact that you are expressing yourself, that you're making art, means that you are contributing to humanity as a whole understanding itself. Even if it just helps you understand yourself.

To quote the eminent Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer:

Keep making art.