Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Inner Monologue

What kind of inner monologue is represented in your book? Are you a first-person writer, where the narrative essentially is the inner monologue of the protagonist, or are you third person, where we are outside, with only the occasional glimpse in?

There's varying degrees to which you want to represent your character's inner monologue. You don't really want to bore people with all the random, constant crap that goes through each of our brains on a daily basis, but you do want to represent them realistically.

So how much do you show?

For me, it's all about the nature of that character. If you're writing some crazy-go-nuts person who's distracted by everything around them, popping up bits and pieces of inner monologue can be a great way to express that kind of insanity without just repeating ad nauseum "they twitched crazily." If you've got a stoic hero who doesn't let any of his emotions out, you want to cut a lot of the random chatter. Their inner monologue should be crisp and clean, decisive and short.

If you have a character that constantly talks down to themselves, you're likely to show a lot more of their inner monologue than the driven, no-time-for-doubt problem solver. That doesn't mean that the thoughts of the driven problem solver are less important or illuminating, just that the way that character represents itself isn't with a lot of thinking - it's action.

Too much internal dialogue can slow down a scene where you're trying to describe everyone at the dinner table and the food and the wine, but it can also make that scene more real when the descriptions are accompanied by the thoughts of the person who is experiencing them. Gives the reader another level of immersion.

But the reader is still a reader, not a character, and especially in third person books, you're not asked to get completely inside that character's head. You're viewing them from the outside, learning things about them as you go, and you don't want to give away all your secrets. Too much inner monologue can make things boring, or if the character is particularly nasty, you might make them hate the character so much that they stop reading. And while that might be the point for some novels, in general you probably don't want your main characters to be hate-worthy.

Because this is a blog and not a one-on-one internet counselling session between cyberbrains, I can't tailor make my advice (damn you pre-singularity future!) but my generic advice is to search through your novel and see where a little blurb from your character's thoughts might make it pop, or where you need to pull the camera back. Decide how much of that character is thoughtful and introspective, and how much is derived from action and forward progress. But give us a chance to see inside everyone's heads, if just for a little.

So how much of your character's inner minds do you show? How deep do you let the reader go? How do you mix thought with action and observation?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Editing sprints!

I'd like to introduce you to the model of the editing sprints that I'm going to do on occasion for the future until I come up with new ones. You should absolutely do these on  your own -- they're what I do and I think it works really well. I don't entirely suggest editing your whole novel in sprints, but I do suggest you use this method, ignoring the time constraints.

Times listed are suggested but obviously not mandatory.

1. PREPARE: Select your scene; I suggest choosing something of the 2000-3000 words variety, depending on how fast of a speaker/reader you are. Print it out or get your mouse on highlight, because we are going to mark things.

2. TALK IT UP: (15 Minutes) Read your scene aloud. When you are reading, your brain will try to autocorrect what you are reading to a more comfortable grammar. Notice where you slow down to read or where you say something different from what you wrote. Mark, but do not change, the places where you had difficulty. When you are writing, often your attempts to construct grand-sounding and magnificent sentences will end up actually being kind of hard to say, even though they seem fine at the time you created them.

3. GO PSYCHO: (30 minutes) Slash your scene. Take 20% off your word count. Well, first ensure that you are working on a copy. But cut a fifth of your words. Cut redundant sentences and extra adjectives. Clarify your work, and make it smaller, but maintain the same story and information as before. Don't say that's impossible. Choooooppppp!

4. WHICH HUNT: (20 minutes) Now that you've randomly hacked and slashed your way through your scene, it's time for the Which Hunt! Find the whiches the thats and the other adjuncts that keep your sentences long and wandering. We're all guilty of these, me especially. But if you can just burn your whiches, you can have a much cleaner, more evocative narrative.

After that it's rinse and repeat for the whole novel, then return and go over the whole thing for style and flow. Since I'm afraid of deleting anything, I just make copies and put version numbers on them :P

I look forward to running more of these sprints with you guys, and I hope you do some of your own!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sheepish and other anachronisms


This one word in particular illustrates a whole panoply of inherently cultural terms - you might know them from the word anachronism. I pick sheepishly, or sheepish, not because it is something that I think you need to stop using, but because it is a perfect example of how real language works.

If you're crafting a world from scratch, or just using another culture, you can improve the realism of your world by altering and effecting the casual points of reference. You might notice that someone who lives in a world without sheep wouldn't say sheepishly, and just go with related terms like intimidated or meek instead. But that's not an accurate translation -- sheepish evokes a particular cultural narrative built on the stories we tell about sheep. Timidness, weakness, a general lack of bravery and will, all based around the animal we know, and stories related about them.

When you're writing your novel, do you take care to check your points of reference? Do they fit the locale, the culture of the people you're writing?

Here's a particular fun fact not everyone knows: In Quebecois, normal curses are parts of churches or other references to Catholicism. One of my favorites is Tabernacle, which is pronounced Ta-bar-nak. It's the same basically as saying shit or fuck as an ejective curse.

Creating or adapting local cultural references will make your story more believable and offer a convenient way to censor your book, as censors don't identify cursing by syntactic position. It's really just a list. Outside of the seven dirty words, you can curse your way to kingdom come and maintain a PG rating. Or, in the case of Battlestar Galactica, just get to say an F word that wasn't fudge.

I'm not advocating for the disuse of fuck and shit, and other dirty words, (though I do wish writers would choose a wider variety of words for penises than "cocks." No one seems to want to call them penises in sexy scenes. It's only cocks. And that word really gives me a whole assholey vibe. Not sexy either.) my original world fantasy includes fuck and shit when appropriate. But you should look for opportunities to worldbuild a little when it comes to points of reference and curses. Sure, your people might have one God same as many in the real world, but is it the same one? What's your God's name? Is it something that gives you a vibe for who that god is, and what they stand for? Is it something you can make interesting curses with?

As example, in my current major WIP there are a group of people who worship the Ancients, the mythical ancestors of all people as gods. In their culture, they believe the Ancients ascended to a massive superstructure that circles the planet called the Ring, and that if they are faithful enough, they will go up too.

So instead of "My God!" It's "Ancients above!" There are others as well, that help give some historical perspective, hints to the past and the truth of the world. "Nine stars not fallen!" a curse for a serious occasion, gives you a clue as to why the sky described in my world has very few stars (nine to be exact, hurr hurr). Given the proper context and background, made up curses can provide an equal, if not greater power of invective than natural curses.

For those writing our-world fiction, you're obviously going to appropriate real world references. But the lesson of modifying your narration to match the time and place is applicable to all. If you're from Brooklyn and you're writing a story set in France, you probably wouldn't (unless it was to hilarious effect) have your characters and narration use Brooklyn slang and references. And vice versa.

So read through yours - does your narration and language reflect the world you are using? If not, do your characters recognize the anachronisms, or is it something you just ignore?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Off-stage, or on?

When do you cut away from the action and fade to black? What sorts of action do you put off-screen, or cover in a short recollection?

Deciding what to show and what not to show is a difficult and important choice. So important, and so difficult, that many book-to-movie adaptations fail because of it. The Lord of the Rings is an interesting book to bring up in this context, as most of the battles occurred off-screen in the book (or were simply very short) and the slow, personal dialogue and character building occurred completely on screen. Likely there wasn't a meal in the LOTR that wasn't fully covered (sorry, I'm not going back to check) but the battles, when they were on screen, were often short, with details glossed over.

Deciding what kind of action you want to maintain is something you should think about. Does all your romance happen off-stage? All your battles? How about meals? You should have at least one instance of these on-stage, but the rest of these incidences are yours to deal with as you see fit. You're going to have to put something off-stage eventually -- not every second of your character's life is exciting (which is why we rarely if ever see protagonists' poop) -- so you need you decide: What is the focus of your book?

Books aren't movies, and often adaptions of books to the screen infuriate people, and there's myriad reasons why that is, but there's one in particular that has to do with what action happens on-stage (or screen, by this point). And that is the sheer fact that there are going to be less scenes in a movie then there are in a book. You can read a 1000 page novel over the course of weeks or months (or a weekend in my case) but the movie for such a thing, including every page and scene, would be insufferably long. Even if you released like ten movies, no one would likely sit through them. When a book gets adapted for the screen, the director has to sit down and decide what scenes are the most important. It's the same thing you do when you're editing your book, or getting it edited. Scenes will disappear, change order, or even appear brand new because a void you didn't notice before has now become apparent.

Making a movie just requires less scenes. You have to pare down further, condense, merge. Nuances have to be removed or modified otherwise you might spend 45 of your 90 minutes of movietime explaining why your MC feels a certain way about strawberries because of that thing that happened.

When you're deciding on what scenes to put off-stage, think of the movie your book would make. Ask yourself if one of four things would happen if you took a certain scene off-stage.

1. Nothing - this is the worst one because it says your scene isn't necessary. If the message and plot and character development all stay on course and strong with this scene missing, cut it. Move it off-stage. It's not necessary.

2. You'd miss it - This is close to nothing - you'd miss it because you like it and it has some stuff that you think is pretty important or cool or interesting, but when removed the plot is mostly unchanged and the characters are still 98% recognizable. In this case, try cutting it completely, but see if you can fit that thing you liked from the scene in somewhere else. When writing a book, your brain has a way of building a puzzle with missing pieces that you later put in with stuff you already made. Picking something up and putting it somewhere else can sometimes improve your novel.

3. It's worse - Great! That's what we want. Scenes that are essential and moving and powerful. Without them, the book is nothing. If everything's worse with this scene gone - keep it!

4. It's better - Also great. If you remove something and it turns out that your book flows better without that scene in there, don't take it as a disappointment. The following scenes would never have happened the same way without this one that you're about to cut, and that means that even though your book is better off without this trashy scene you'll never want to look at again, it was absolutely worth writing.

This may have gone further into editing than staging, but I think they're intimately connected. Deciding what to show and when matters.

To sum: Decide the theme of your book, and what kind of scenes you want to focus on, and have make the most impact. It could be that your book is all dinners instead of all battles. Once you've decided what kind of scenes you want to show the most of, figure out which ones actually matter. Remember, we live in computer land now, so you don't actually have to delete anything anymore - you can just Copy and Paste it away into some folder of hell that you will never actually look again.

Good luck out there!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sex and Romance

Just a quick tidbit here for those of you who don't know:

Romance is 40% of the fiction market. By sales.

This is one of those things that makes me laugh at genres. How is romance a genre? Romance is a thing that happens in stories. People fall in love, fall out of love, etc. Obviously the romance "genre" specifies things a little, and you're always supposed to get your happy ending. They follow a formula, but then again so does most high fantasy.

Romance may once have been a strictly non-genre affair, but that has changed. especially since Twilight. There were plenty of paranormal and fantasy romances before Twilight, but it was Twilight that pushed paranormal romance into the heights it is experiencing today. Right now it's harder to find a show that doesn't have a paranormal fantasy bent to it. Vampires are being thrown into every possible form of entertainment possible, and vampires have always meant sex. Remember Dracula? The Bram Stoker one? That was a paranormal romance in a way -- it certainly had more sex in it than many other books at the time

Now though, we're getting incredible books like Cinder, about a cyborg Cinderella which is what kind of genre? It's not cyberpunk, really, because it's the story of Cinderella, modified. It's not really focused on the "against the man" attitude that the cyberpunk genre encapsulates. It's a fairy tale romance that has been turned sci-fi. And it is awesome. Steampunk romance books are nothing new, but are gaining further traction in the industry, and they rule too! Having trysts and dates and romance isn't the no-no that it once was -- that is to say, the market has realized that not only are there more than just straight white male readers of genre fiction but that straight white males also enjoy romance. Not as much as the ladies for now, but I'm willing to bet that that's just because of the dearth of male protagonists in non-gay romance novels.

Romance is not only something that should be in your books because real life has romance but additionally because romance is selling like hotcakes! The old ways are changing, and with moms everywhere falling back in love with erotica thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey (which actually isn't that erotic, it's just some standard BDSM), sex is something that I think we will start seeing much more of in genre books (scifi is long past this one). Which is great, because sex is something everyone has. How insane is it that something we all do, something we all love to do, is something we're so ashamed to talk about, and actually not allowed to talk about in some situations, by federal law!

"Little children might hear it"

Look, they're gonna hear it from the Discovery Channel anyways, so just let it happen, okay?

There's no reason you need to add sex and romance to your book like HBO and Showtime: unorganically and in great quantities. If your story doesn't include sex, or doesn't have room for romance, that is fine. But you shouldn't be scared of where your story goes if you find it going down hotter roads. If you set out writing an epic fantasy and it turns into a hot near-erotica romance with high fantasy trappings that is awesome. I was informed by a romance author at a recent con when I asked about an anthology of erotic sci-fi stories called Zero-G Sex that erotica is a fabulous way to get into the market right now.

But don't take my word for it, go out and see for yourself! If appropriate, put a little sex scene in your story where you would have left it blank. See what happens, and see who likes it. You may be surprised.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is your book a song?

[Warning: this one is a big longer and... maybe ranty. There's a TL;DR at the bottom.]

How do you pace your novel? How do you differentiate your scenes? Do you pay attention to high points and low points? Can you imagine drawing your novel out in a graph line, or some media visualizer? Do you think your book would make a good song? Does it have a beat? Are there notes and chords?

Music writing and storytelling are in many ways, the same. Both can evoke strong emotions, thoughtfulness and provoke socialisation. Music and books create shared experiences, which makes people come together. These can be real ones or false ones, I would argue that the difference is negligible. When someone writes a non-fiction account of a person dead two thousand years, it is almost entirely fiction. Events can be derived but the exact experiences are lost. We have a story that someone told about the incident, and anything could have really happened.

Music can have an advantage over writing in that when you are composing your story, you only need to (in the case of instrumental music) find the chord that inspires the emotion you feel inside you. You are using a limited set of notes that can exist on a certain instrument or instruments. You find the right ones, and string them together in sequence that responds to you -- therefore hopefully other people as well. The other advantage that music has is that people are all animals and we respond to many sounds in the same way, regardless of personal taste in music. The worldwide spread of dance music is a testament to this. It is cross-cultural and focused primarily on beats, which apparently evoke a very positive response in many, if not most humans. And while music is great at evoking fundamental emotions, to really cut to the core, you need language. The evolved version of music.

Okay. Brief aside. Skip to the bold if you don't want to hear a language rant. Language is not just a way to communicate, but a way to define a worldview. A classic example of this is that much of the world, we view time as forward-moving. Your future is ahead of you; you are moving into it. And your past is behind you. But for the Tuva people of Siberia the past is ahead of them, and the future behind them. Because you know your past, and you can see what's ahead of you. But you don't know your future, and you can't see behind you. Makes sense, doesn't it?

A different language carries all sorts of extra cargo. I'm not telling you this because I think you need to worry about translating your book while you're writing it -- worry about that after it's published and selling in your native tongue. But I am saying that you should identify your language's inherent norms, and see if they match the society you have crafted. Things that evoke automatic responses are often cultural artifacts -- anecdotes and similes that rely on shared cultural experiences. Like any reference to football in the US vs nearly anywhere else in the world.

So how do I make a song out of my book?

It's all about know what your notes are. For writing, it's your scenes. And the language you use to describe them. But broadly it is more important to focus on scenes. What emotions are you evoking? What scenes draw out in a response in every person? What, regardless of culture, does everyone share? If you want to make someone hungry, write about delicious food. If you want to make them sad, kill a friend. If you want to bring them up, give them success. Paint broad strokes; make chords. Using these basic shared experiences, like a primal beat on a dance jam, you can set your reader up for your message, and the emotional content you want to convey in more specific terms.

Besides having a vast array of emotions, you also need to have flat proper pacing. Again, the length of scenes and the intensity of the action should be viewed in the same way as movement of a song. Are they uptempo scenes or slow? Rising or falling action? If you just want a simple emotional punch, a single note can do the work of an entire book. For an expert example of what I'm talking about, read Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a book that it is "written" by a man living in an attic writing on every scrap of paper he can find, of any size. Sometimes that is only large enough for one word. And that one word, properly set up, can be the most powerful note in the whole tale. You could make a song out of Hocus Pocus.

This might have gone too deep, but the TL;DR is that you should read through your story, and draw it out like a visualized song. Is it all the same? Is it all up and then straight down? Just highs and lows or is there a flow, a cadence within your rising tension?  Think of a great song you just love, one that just hits you and you can't forget. See if you can write your novel like a song. Or, for the bigger nerd, could you Audiosurf your book?

Monday, February 11, 2013

How much humour?

How much humour is too much? Is your book too serious for a talking sword? (answer: no. nothing is too serious for a talking sword)  Do like having ludicrous things happen to your characters, and your NPCs spout witticisms 24/7? Doing so can bring out a good laugh, but might take away from the drama if done improperly.

I'm not going to tell you how to properly balance humor and drama. The balance is all up to you. What I do want to do is realize how much of each you can and should add in. You can't have a book that's all seriousness and expect to entertain. People are going to be so depressed reading your book that they'll never read it again, even if it is really good. Lighten things up a little bit and your readers will feel refreshed, and you can go darker and deeper.

Have you ever used the pre-programmed routines on a treadmill/ The ones that increase your speed, then decrease it, and go back and forth, following some supposedly beneficial pattern? Well, if it's done right, it is beneficial. And swapping between comedy and seriousness is the same thing. You need to work out the muscles -- limber up your reader's brain so that they can accept the maximum amount of emotional trauma possible. A little sadness, a little humour, a lot of sadness, a terrible ridiculous joke, and even more terrible thing... you get the idea.

There's no reason your Noir can't be jocular, or your medieval characters flippant and even risque. Just read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and you'll see just how shallow our standard representation of medieval life is.

The same applies in reverse, honestly. If you have a book that is all slapstick comedy and nothing heavier, meatier, you'll find that your book is treated no more seriously than your gags. But add in a little darkness, a little seriousness every so often, and the jokes will be much more meaningful when you make them.

Obviously, I'm not telling you to put crass jokes in every paragraph, and there's no doubt that a misplaced bit can ruin a dramatic scene, but if done properly, and placed tastefully, a good joke can make a dramatic scene all the better. On the other side of the coin, the morbid threat of death can make a good joke great.

So how do you use humour in your book? Do you have a "comic relief?" What kind of tone does your book set? Do you think about placing jokes?

Happy writing!


For those of you crafting new worlds, or just modifying our own, I want to talk about believability. Google is telling me that isn't a word, but I got a Linguistics degree instead of an English one. Anything you need to be a word, that you can make understandable, is a word. If it carries meaning and works within your grammar? It's a word.

Back to believability. Your new world, how does it work? I'm not really talking about your mystic cosmoses and Gods -- you can do whatever you want with that. But the basics of your world, how people get their food, their wood, their cloth. Where does all that come from?

If you've written a story about a remote location with a local hero, does everything in their story match what a place like that could really have? Look at the resources in your world. See what's available to the people where they are. Then compare that to what you have in your tale. Maybe you've discovered that in the place you've put your story, sheep do not exist. What are the clothes made out of? How is that resource farmed?

Do you have a huge city surrounded by forest? Where do they get all their wood? Do your people use metal? If so, where are the mines? If there aren't any, where do they get it from?

These details won't make or break a plot, but they will enhance your storytelling. Answering small questions about the origin and value of normal resources from our world that you have transplanted into this new one, or new resources you yourself have created, will give you new stories all on their own. Farmers in the region, miners, workers of all kinds will fill your marketplaces and shops and homes. Answering questions about scarcity and resource management will create jobs, and jobs create NPCs, and NPCs make stories great. You are following the protagonist, of course, but often you are asked to be the protagonist, which means that your story revolves around the people around you.

Never neglect your NPCs. I'm going to quote it again, because it makes me happy.

Everyone is their own main character.

That said: Don't focus on these other people you create. Know who they are, and how they talk, what they care about. Doing this will give you believable dialogue, and fill voids in your world's maps that you didn't even know were there. But you are writing a story with a protagonist, an the story should be focused on them. They're where all the action's at. But these other players are important in their own right. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon is an amazing example of this kind of detailed worldbuilding. Everyone is real, no matter who they are or how little you see of them. And they don't all just exist to die. (Hint hint GRR Martin cough cough)

Er. Yes. Now this next part might be a little too specific for some stories, but it's something that bothers me about GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, and some others. That's right. I'm going to whine to you about...


Not for long, I assure you, but just think about why you've chosen to base your world off of ours so readily. It's easy, absolutely. If that is your reason, that is fine. But I believe in crafting unique worlds. It takes more effort to build your own personal De Rerum Naturis, (or Monster Manual), it will make your story more vibrant and alive. Miyazaki's Nausicaa is an astounding example of this, but the plants in Nausicaa are basically the point.

You say okay, but if it doesn't have to do with the plot, why should I bother?

Let me ask you this. Do you know anyone who saw the movie Avatar*? That movie was a carbon copy of Fern Gulley with more different plants and dinosaurs instead of fairies. No one went to that movie for the plot!

And before you call me out on it, yes, Unobtanium is a terrible name for a mystery resource. That is just terrible.

But you didn't go to that movie for the dialogue, either. You went for the monsters, and the plants in the vibrant 3D.

When you're reading a book, you are crafting a mental movie. When you're writing a book, why not make it a visual Avatar, with a real plot? Not just Pocahontas (or Fern Gulley) but with... this?

I dare you to go out and create something new.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Purpose of the Scene

Hey guys, today I'm going to talk about the purpose of a scene. Many authors (myself included) simply write down what they see in their heads, and that's the scene. This is a good basis for a scene, since the human brain is a fairly advanced organ, and I trust what it gives me. That said, there's always room for improvement. Once you've got the vision and the action all jotted down, it's time to look at what your scene actually does, if anything.

One rule I wish I could break here that I am going to give you: Don't write scenes just because they are cool.

We love cool scenes! Awesome fights and witty banter and epic magicks and such. But if the scene is just "coolness" like some Dragonball Z fight, and does nothing else, then you aren't doing very good storytelling. A scene needs to convey multiple kinds of information, on multiple levels.

From my perspective, there are three things you should look for your scene to do. I would say that for a scene to be wortwhile, it needs to have at least one of these purposes, but it is best to have two, and really, three.

Advancing the Plot: This is arguably the most important type of scene - one that advances the plot. Your book is nothing without a plot and a journey that your characters go on, discovering themselves and improving. Almost every scene in a novel should advance the plot at least in some way. You might feel tempted to write a weeks worth of farming scenes for your book where you intricately describe the species of insects that are scattered around the fields, just so the reader knows exactly how the character spends her day and what creatures there are in your world, but seriously that is boring. Unless you've just had a massive climactic point, you probably don't want to have too many scenes that don't advance the plot in at least some way.

Expanding a Character: This is the second-best purpose for a scene, and the one that occurs most naturally. Whenever something happens, your characters grow and become more real, but sometimes you really want to dig into one particular change and really expand a character, and you should feel free to do that. I find that the label of "expansion" can fit a lot of things: solidifying a newly acquired viewpoint, exploring a character's past mistakes, even just showcasing their skills so that the reader knows what to expect later.

Filling the World: Scenes like this include days out of your character's life, little experiences with the world around him that don't directly relate to the plot but help make your world more real. Meals are often a good example of this. They often don't push the plot forward in an epic fashion, but they allow a respite where your characters can learn about each other and in so talking and eating, showcase new things about your world.

Ideally, you want your scenes to do all three. You want to move the plot forward, expand on your characters, and fill your world. And you can, and should. But there's going to be one of these three that is a priority in your scene. And you shouldn't be afraid to have it be not moving the plot forward. If you've just had a ton of massive action, your readers need to relax a little bit, and some worldbuilding and character depth is a great way to do that. The plot wont move forwards as quickly, but your readers will be able to more fully appreciate the effects of the plot now that they've spent this time learning more about the world and your characters. Additionally, your plot scenes should always contain some extra bit of worldbuilding and character expansion. Your characters aren't unchanging statues, even if they are robots. There's always something new to learn about them, and your world. I mentioned this in an earlier post when I spoke about  Patrick Rothfuss wanting his dialogue to be "fractal." So that every line of his dialogue gave you an insight into his world, and how things in that world work. I think he did majestically, and if you haven't read Name of the Wind, go do it now.

So look through your scenes, and see what they do. Note where and how you're advancing the plot, deepening your characters and filling your world. Mix it up! Learn to use your author's tools! Write!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

God and Religion

I want to take a moment to talk about religion in fiction. Do your characters believe in God or Gods? Are there multiple religions in your world, or only one? Do your characters thank God with some frequency, and mean it, or are they agnostic or atheist? How much of your personal faith (if any) do you project onto your characters?

I rarely read books that identify strongly with monotheism, unless they take the form of something like the Golden Compass. I'm an acting atheist, personal agnostic. I adhere to the literal function of the term "agnostic" in that we cannot know. Until we're dead, we won't know if what we can see and detect with all our current instrumentation is all there is. But until I'm dead, I'm just gonna keep acting with what we do know.

That being the case, I'm unused to "getting into the character" of someone who genuinely and preferentially believes in a god. And not the fantasy gods that show up and actually do stuff, but the sort of mostly absent christian God that most westerners are accustomed to. For me, it draws me out of the character a bit, but I imagine that for many people who do believe, it draws them deeper in, since that's how they usually think.

Do your characters thank God for things routinely? Do they have faith? Do they pray?

I like to play with the religions in my worlds, but most of my characters fall into the agnostic-atheist club. Those that do believe usually do so fervently and wrongly, in faiths that are proven later to be false. I view religions as something to play with and use, to modify and identify why someone would or could believe in something, and what sorts of absurd things religions can make people believe and do. (Most of Leviticus, anyone?)

How does religion play into your worlds? Do you allow your personal beliefs to flavour your work? Wha do your characters believe? What kind of book do you prefer to read - one that heavily includes personal faith or one that shies away from a characters viewpoints. Do pious characters bother you if they stray too far from what you personally believe?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ands, Buts and Therefores

If you haven't watched it, "Six Days to Air," the South Park documentary, is a must-see for any artist. What these guys accomplish in six days is incredible, and their processes are not magical or fantastic - anyone can work as hard as they do. Thankfully, we just don't have to. Not quite as thankfully, we don't make nearly as much, at least not yet.

There's one specific line that really struck me, and it seems so simple now that I have heard it. Trey Parker, if you don't know, is the sole real scriptwriter for South Park. The other "writers" on the crew are basically just idea-men (and women) who whip up funny ideas and help make a generic structure, and then Trey sits down and writes the full script himself. And he says at one point, while writing a script to "go through your story, find all the ands and change them to buts and therefores. If all your ands are buts and therefores, you'll have a much better story."

What does he mean by saying this? Simply, make things happen for reasons. Don't just have your story be "Mary was captured and then she escaped and then she went to Kamchatka."

Instead, have it be "Mary was captured, but one of her captors turned out to be a longtime fan of her slam poetry, therefore he helped her escape, but they were caught escaping therefore Mary had to find the nearest way to escape which was a barge headed for Kamchatka."

Buts and Therefores require action. But needs something to oppose your intended action, and therefore needs a reason to exist. They're automatically deeper than "and," and will bring more to your story than the humble conjunction.

Read through your story. Mark down the "ands." Find the areas where things just happen, not happen for a reason. This doesn't mean coincidences are bad - not everything has to have a specific reason to occur, but more is better. And remember that golden rule of coincidences in writing: It's great for your characters to get into trouble because of a coincidence, it is bad for them to get out of trouble because of a coincidence.

When you've found your ands, see what you can do to make them buts or therefores. What clues have you given in your story that you could tie in? What side character's backstory would apply to this scenario? How can you use that oblique reference you forgot to mention again later? (we've all been there before)

Remember, as the author, you're a god. You are omniscient and omnipotent. The smallest things can come together to cause the strangest events to occur to your characters. Don't be afraid to be crazily imaginative. The worst you can do is be boring, and just say X happens, then Y, then Z.

Do you know of any Ands you would have liked changed to Buts and Therefores in movies or books? Any leaps of faith that just felt a little too far? What would you have done differently to make the sequence have a reason or more solid grounding in the backstory?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Systems and specifics

Sorry there was no update yesterday - I'm just getting back to my dayjob after my car accident, so there's a little bit of adjusting I need to do.

Today I want to talk about systems and specifics. I'm going to talk about magic systems in particular, but there should (hopefully) be some lessons in here that you can apply to other systems in your books.

So. Magic. In most fantasy, magic systems fall into one of two categories: Grand and mystical, where things happen often for no apparent reason and the specifics of how and why things work are left unknown, and detailed and rule-based, like something from a D&D manual. Spells per day, different levels of ability, numbered things, stuff you the reader can learn and understand.

There's two authors I'm going to use as examples here, and I'm sorry if you haven't read them. The first is Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. In these books, magic is gigantic and strange. Most of the characters have very little understanding of how it all works, and you the reader are generally left guessing as to how magic works and why it works the way it does. That's on purpose. Robert Jordan wants the magic to be mystical. He wants it to be something beyond comprehension. He wants it to be... magic. You're never quite sure what the extent of his magic's powers are. For all the reader knows, someone could literally cast a spell and create a new star and slam it down into the earth. Why not? You don't know!

The other author is Brandon Sanderson. His Mistborn series is full of specifics. Reading his novels you feel as though you could personally perform the magics involved. In the Way of Kings, the first character (in the prologue, no less!) you see spends probably 1500 words explaining his three basic magical abilities in particular detail. You know the extent of what he can do, to the letter of the law. It takes a way a little bit of the mystery, but at the same time, allows you to fall into the flow of the action more readily. You're not expecting any surprises, and you look at the scenes as a "how will he use X to solve this?" By creating laws, Sanderson is creating a structure, a skeleton, for the reader to latch onto, and thus more deeply immerse themselves in the book.

So what are the pros and cons of each?

Really, this could take forever, so I'm just going to list a couple thoughts.

The grand magic is great for throwing something new things at your reader. There's never something you cant do. The downside to this is that your readers will often question why some great magic wasn't used to solve a particular problem, or if you do something really out of whack with what your normal magics have been, it could ruin immersion. It's a problem of scale - you need to maintain a proper power scale or else your story will get thrown apart. If your characters are only doing cantrips and then suddenly perform a great sorcery that saves a kingdom, that will make people question how and why. And if you can't answer that to their satisfaction, they'll lose immersion and might actually stop reading, depending on how much they care. That won't be everyone, but it will definitely be more than a few people.

The specific magic is different. There, you know all the rules. You know as well as the characters what is possible, and how, and how much it costs. The game for the reader now is not guessing what might come next and what cool new ability will be shown, but how the characters will use the suite of abilities they have to solve problems. You know their limits, so when they are given a situation that you know is beyond their means, it provides automatic tension. With grand magic, you're never quite sure what is beyond the character's means. Which is its own kind of tension, and has its own merits.

The problem with specific systems is that if explained poorly, can literally shut you off immediately. I read a blog post (again, can't quite remember where) where the writer said that if within the first five pages of a book she was given a long description of how the magic in the world works, she would just put it down. (much like the orphan post I wrote) But if that was the case, she would have put down Way of Kings, which I have to tell you, would be a serious mistake.

Sometimes though you just hit people's pet peeves. You can't control that. Some people need to know the specifics of your magic. Some people don't want to know any specifics. It's all up to you to what you prefer. No matter what you do you'll push away some writers, and draw in others.

Or, you can just be Patrick Rothfuss, and put in multiple magic systems, and use both the grand and the specific. Then you'll either push everyone away, or draw everyone in. You just never know.

Which do you prefer? What strengths or weaknesses do you think each has? Do you prefer leaving things up to mystery, or showing the reader all the cards and still wowing them?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Getting those words on the page

There's a lot of times where it's hard to write. This morning, in fact, I was staring at my computer unwilling to click on my document tab to continue working on my WIP. I was thinking of the scope of the work ahead of me and how it was just so impossible and how I would never be able to wrangle the titanic mass of my novel together in a coherent fashion.

That, right there, was my problem. When you're sitting down to write, or really, do anything on a large scale, you can't think about the scope of your task. Know that it's big, but you can't focus on that. You have to focus on the small things that you can do right then to make it all come together. Take small pieces. You know the saying that I'm about to butcher: To move a mountain you must start with very small stones.

Your book is a mountain, and it comes together with stones.

So, here are some tips that get me moving when I'm just staring at the screen, wondering how I ever got myself into this situation and oh god it'll never happen I just can't blauuurgghhhhh...

  • Number one! Just open your work, scroll to the bottom, and start reading where you left off the last time. 90% of the time this gets me moving. I either start editing things or I remember what I wanted to do or I realize that I have a better idea now than last time. 
  • Two! Write a scene you know will never be in your book. Just write the shittiest piece of crap you can. Take your character and throw them into a situation that they absolutely would never be in. If your novel is a high-fantasy epic, take your stout warrior who never breaks his vows and throw him into a movie theatre or the red-light district of Hanoi. Just let it run wild for a thousand words. You'll be so amused by what happens that I promise you will learn something about your character that you didn't know before.
  • Three! Find an object in the room. Preferably one whose history you don't completely know. Maybe it's a lamp you picked up at a yardsale. Maybe it's a gift you got from a friend. Maybe it's some old bric-a-brac from your grandparents. Find it, and write a 200 word story about it. Keep it short. This will get the writing part of your brain pumping. This is stretching for your brain. After one or even a few of these shorts, you will be ready to pound out the words.
  • Four. If you don't already, write a scene from the POV of your villain. Don't let them become a character unless they already are, or mess with your story structure too much -- I know a lot of authors have trouble when they write a POV for a character that usually doesn't have one; they just want to keep writing more and more and more about them! Just remember, this is an exercise, not a marathon. Just write the POV scene and get the villain's motivations really in your head. Prep yourself for that final confrontation. Get the villain's voice really cemented. In writing this POV you will likely come up with new ways to torture your protagonist, or at least think of creepy things for the villain to whisper in your MC's dreams.
  • Five. If none of these things are working. Go get some exercise. Go move. Research shows that being in motion improves creativity. The current theory is that your visual cortex becomes more active as you take in and process your moving surroundings, and this jump-starts the daydream machine. (yeah we don't know a lot about that part of the brain yet :P) But seriously, it works. You see Neil Gaiman tweeting constantly about "well gotta figure out how to finish this scene, time to go for a run." or "just got back from a run, figured out how to end the book." Just go for a walk, you don't need to run (I don't. I ride, though). The key point is DONT STAY IN YOUR HOME. See something new, be in motion.
  • If none of these work for you, TOO BAD. Stop being so stubborn you whiney baby! Go write and stop feeling sorry for yourself! :D Seriously though -- you're only going to get better at this when you do it, and I promise that once you're at that page and start typing those words, you will feel much better.
  • Oh I suppose there's a 6. If nothing else works, go write a blog post about how to make yourself write. It works for me!
Good luck guys, and happy writing!