Slogging the Mire: 4/13/15 Update

Slogging the Mire: 4/13/15 Update

A good amount of what goes into writing is discipline and focus; the actual act of pulling an idea out into reality and getting it onto a page. In a lot of ways, that’s the hardest part. Lots of people have great ideas, wild imaginations, and can have elaborate worlds just swirling around inside their skulls. The real difficulty, the hardest part, is managing to get that content to appear on a page, hammering it into an acceptable shape, and making it something that others can see as clearly within their own heads. That’s the work part. The daydream part is, usually, easier.

But it isn’t always the case. You see, anyone can daydream free-form. It’s no task at all to let your mind wander and follow where it leads. A lot of authors do this. They just daydream and go from there, following their own heads. If that gets them a story, excellent. A random story appears. It may well be fantastic.

That’s not how I work. Thing is, there’s a failing in that method. It’s tremendously difficult to write to a target. If I, as a creator, want to write a story about dealing with loss in the wrong ways, or the triumph of intellect over irrationality, or the human capacity to empathize beyond our species, or any number of concepts, then straight up free-form daydreaming is going to be less than helpful. It will actually hinder my process. When you write to a target idea you need a sort of intentional daydreaming. You have to break your creativity, just like you would a wild horse, and it’s equally difficult. Too much, and it won’t take you to the new ideas you need. Too little, and you can’t stay on target. It is a difficult balance, but one, I find, is the hallmark difference between professional and amateur authors. The ability to write something specific, on command, is vastly more marketable than trying to sell your own ideas.

I practice this. I write for Griot. Not my characters, not my world, but I treat them with the same care. I am translating Jiba Molei Anderson’s dreams when I write the Horsemen, not mine. Sure, I taint them, infuse them, and expand on them, but at their core, I’m an interpreter. When I write my image inspired stories I’m practicing writing within the boundaries set by the illustration. Even when I write stories of my own, I’m adhering to a goal I set before starting and I measure the success or failings of any given work by my original intention. How close to the mark did I come?

I have been working on writing a story set in the Satanic Panic of the Eighties for the past month. I’m several thousand words in and, as I was simply ‘following my nose’ in daydream style to see how that turned out for me. I discovered that while I was writing a very interesting story, it was significantly off goal for what I’d been hoping to accomplish and the spirit I’d intended to convey. I grew up in a church during the panic. I was an avid Dungeons and Dragons player while simultaneously being an active member in a church that declared such activity as communion with demons. Literal demons. I spent years, and thousands of hours of effort, trying to reconcile these two things on account of what I was taught by my church group. It was a harrowing part of my life that I’m tremendously glad is over.

In my current story, I’d decided I wanted to use my past as a setting, but not to make it the theme. I didn’t want to talk specifically or provide direct commentary about how churches all across the country railed against an imaginary foe for nearly a decade and their effort and devotion had all been a paranoid response to some very talented con men. I just wanted to dip my toe in. To tell an engaging horror story within that setting and to expand on the false mythology into something interesting.

As I approached the ending of the story I kept having trouble with coming up with something that would work to make the point I wanted. I had a theme, a tone, a setting, a character arc, and the first third of my word count. Now was not the time for idle daydreams. This horse was on a narrow trail and I had a specific destination to get to. I refuse to let the story dictate my direction. For two and a half weeks it’s been bucking me. Just do this. Just change that. Just add another character. Just drop that element. It said. Two and a half weeks of ideas, over and over, in my head. Many of them excellent. Just not what I want. I was starting to think the story might be broken.

And then, Saturday night, at three in the morning, it stopped bucking. My creativity surrendered to my will and offered up the exact thing I needed to make the plot work, to jibe with the character arc, to compliment the tone, and to make this story work exactly how I want, without cutting any corners.

I’m aware that, as a reader, it’s not possible to ever know if a story is what the author intended or not. Readers just know if they like it or not. But that hardly matters to me at this point. It’s about training, and discipline, and making my mind do exactly what I want, when I want it.

The daydream phase isn’t always easy. I’ve caught this one, after a very specific hunt, and am holding it tight. Now comes the next hard part; dragging it onto a page.

I’ll keep you posted.

Block Busters #1

Block Busters #1

Chapter Three of the Mark of the Cloven gave me some trouble.  It decided to drop a writer’s block on me with, no doubt, lethal intent. Fortunately, I’m well versed at  not only surviving such dangerous author-ly perils, but attacking them back with DeathScribe ferocity.  I conquered the chapter despite it’s foul attempt.  But the whole process of being stuck and then powering through got me thinking about the very first time I got writers block. Back then, I did not fare so well.

I was seventeen years old when I started writing an appropriately terrible book I called “The Tons of Airtala”.  Yep.  It had a magical island, tyrannical overlords, an enchanted sword, and, despite being very, very amateur and cliche’ had a few shining concepts buried in some horrible, god-awful, prose.  I was working on what I was certain was a “masterpiece” when the block dropped.  I was done with chapter five (these are teenager chapters mind you, chapter five ended on page twenty) and I hit a wall.  I couldn’t think of what to do next.  I came up with what I thought was a very clever solution; I added it to the story and put a wall in front of the main character.  I figured I’d let them (the character, which is part of my mind) work it out and that process would cure my block.  But my character couldn’t figure out how to overcome it any better than I could (wouldn’t that have been neat if he had managed it? Explain that) and once I’d added it I stubbornly refused to remove it and try alternatives. I threw in a gaggle of bad guys in pursuit, to up the pressure, force the character to solve it (and by extension) my block. It didn’t work.

I was in a jewelery and sculpting class at the time.  We had an assignment to create a sculpture using lost wax casting technique.  You carve something out of hard wax, stick it in plaster, throw it in a kiln and melt out the wax, then pour molten metal into the mold.  Crack away the plaster and, viola!, a metal sculpture.  I carved an open book with a big rock sitting on it, a pencil leaning up against it, and the words “Writer’s Block” on the pages.  I thought maybe giving my demon physical form would help exorcise it.  Nope.  It didn’t work either.  I’ve still got the thing laying around somewhere.

It took me years to finally figure out how to crack through a solid case of writer’s block. By the time I’d learned how to deal with it ‘The Tons of Airtala’ was a long discarded project and my poor character is still there, to this day, trying to get over that wall before a group of mo-bearded thugs catch him (if you don’t know a mo-beard is allow me to explain; it’s when your beard is shaved and spiked out to match your mohawk, usually neon colored. Yeah, in my seventeen year old imagination punks were hardcore fashionistas baby!). So, let’s not make his eternal imprisonment beneath the block be in vain and I’ll share a couple of my best tricks.

Trick #1:  Bad Bookery

Buy a book in the genre you write (several if you write more genres) that you consider terrible. Some awful example of what you want to do.  Something you consider straight schlock.  DO NOT READ IT.  Just put it on your shelf.  Maybe mark it with a skull sticker or something.  The next time you’re blocked, go get it.  Just look at that cover for a few minutes.  It’s awful. Your cover will be way better than that when you’re done.  Now open it up, somewhere near the middle.  Start reading.  Don’t go back and look for the scene break, just start at the top, mid-sentence even.  Read four pages, then close the book.  Mid-sentence even.  If luck has it that you happen to end in a good spot, screw that!  Read until you’re halfway through a paragraph and close it.  The goal is to cut yourself short.

The odds are that A.) the writing was so bad you’ll think “Egad! (you will, in fact, think Egad) I’m not nearly as bad as this author! I need to relax and just keep going!” And it’s true. You can’t write when you’re not relaxed. You’re better than some who’ve made it, you just need to relax and keep at it.  OR, B.) you’ll feel an itch.  Half sentences bug authors. Incomplete paragraphs bug authors. Unfinished scenes bug authors.  Don’t belie

Exactly.  You want to finish it. Grab that drive and roll with it.

Trick #2: The Importance Illusion

This one has a chance to turn on you and bite you in the ass, but I use it anyway.  I look up Guy N. Smith. If you don’t know, and you likely don’t, Guy N.Smith has been writing for over fifty years. He’s got dozens and dozens of books out. His most popular series came out in the early eighties and is about an invasion of giant crab monsters. He got a movie deal.  Odds are, you’ve never heard of him.  Even if you have, chances are good that you’ve not read a significant portion of his work.  Almost a hundred books and he’s still virtually anonymous.  And he’s still alive.

History is replete with authors who were great, successful, and inventive only to be forgotten a few years later. Don’t believe me? Check out THIS LIST. Click on any of the authors you don’t know.  Hundreds, no thousands, of books lost in time.  This is the “bite you in the ass” part.  Don’t let that discourage you!  Sure, odds are our work will crumble to dust someday.  We’ll make a splash now, it’ll fade to a ripple later, then someday it’s gone.  That’s not bad!  It’s just reality.  But building up the importance of your story, focusing on being perfect, over-thinking a project… it’s pointless.  Again, relax.  We are not performing brain surgery on an entire population.  We’re not responsible for solving global issues.  We’re authors.  We rise, we tell stories, we fade.  It’s simple, awesome, and not something to worry about.  Just tell yours.  If you’re very lucky, your ripple will last longer.

Personally, I like to think about all the thousands of storytellers who never even had pen and paper.  They didn’t worry it would last forever, or be perfect.  They just told it.  Nothing we do is too important to stop doing it.

Trick #3: Cheating

There’s one sure fire way to beat the block. It comes with a drawback, but if you’re desperate, it’s not so bad of a drawback. Here’s what you do; First, put a few post it notes of the scene ideas you have in numerical order on your desk.  Write them out in big clear font.  Then type the following into your story in all caps

I AM GETTING DRUNK NOW

You need that to know where you’ll start your corrections later because now you’re going to go have enough booze to get you somewhere between tipsy and sloshed.  Then you keep writing.  Don’t worry about typo’s, obviously, they’re going to be out of control.  You’ll ramble.  You’ll go off target.  You’ll probably come up with stuff you don’t remember.  Rush it. Do your best to stick to the post-it notes.  Work fast and don’t stop until you have at least something written for each note.  Then go dance, argue, eat nachos, whatever it is you do when you’re drunk. Eventually, you’ll pass out.

Next day, you’ll discover what you did and it’ll be far from perfect.  But here’s the thing; you can edit it.  And you can’t edit a blank page now, can you?  Block defeated.  It’ll take a hell of a time to fix a drunken prose session, but if you weren’t doing anything otherwise… consider it a success.

 ___________________________

There’s three.  I’ve got more, but this is running long and I think I’ll stop while I’m ahead.  Besides, after that last tip, now I want a drink!

Oh, and if you’ve got things that help you “break the block” I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

Show and Tell

Show and Tell

If you’ve been writing for any length of time you’ve probably heard the following advice; ‘Show. Don’t Tell.

It’s good advice.  It’s the difference between reading –

~When he got the news, Tom was angry.~

and

~When he got the news, Tom walked over to the liquor cabinet and got a glass.  He poured a drink, downed it, and filled another. As he raised it to his lips, he stopped, scowled, and hurled it across the room.  He slammed the bottle down and stormed out.~

Now, on the surface, it’s pretty clear to see why one technique is better.  Instead of just being told Tom is angry, we see the result of the anger, his actions. It’s more information, it’s more visually evocative, it’s much more personal.  It allows for expansion into setting and all the senses that go with it. The advantages of show over tell are well documented, hence the phrase.  But, like most rules of writing, it’s not set in stone.

The thing to remember about ‘Show.  Don’t Tell.’ is that its a scale, with Show on one end, and Tell on the other.  It’s virtually impossible to parse down all the way to Tell.  “He mad.” is the smallest interpretation of “Tom was angry” I can come up with.  Conversely, it’s tedious and impractical to go all the way into Show.  I could look at my above example of Show and say that it doesn’t show enough, like this…

~When the sound waves reached his ears his brain processed the information and Tom understood the news.  He engaged his leg muscles and walked with forceful steps across the shag carpet until he got to the antique liquor cabinet that had been in his family since his Dutch colonial uncle had built it back in the 1700,’s, and removed a faceted crystal tumbler with his right hand.  After letting go of the glass, he reached down and removed a  fifteen year old bottle of bourbon that had a browning label with an ink drawing of an eagle on it, unstopped the stained cork, and poured some liqui….~

Okay, enough of that.  You see my point.  It’s possible to expand upon everything and show more.  Even the above could be extended upon in a near never-ending process of tedium.

It’s good advice, but it’s incomplete.  The trick to ‘Show. Don’t Tell.” is more than just doing one over the other.  It’s about balancing the two.  Sometimes, telling is the quickest, most economic way of filling a reader in on things they need to know, but aren’t central enough to the story to immerse them in entirely.  Sometimes, tell can be a fantastic way to move the story ahead to the parts of plot that actually matter.  I’ve read plenty of authors who “show” throughout the entire story and the narrative  follows every time the characters go to sleep and wake up, or travel somewhere, or wait while something else happens.  When this occurs I always wonder if I’m about to read a bathroom break.   While it may add an element of realism, it’s too much.

Not only is it acceptable to skip and tell, sometimes it can be advantageous.  It allows you to tell things that hint at a more broad story, without flushing them out.  Let the readers imagination fill in the gaps.  They’ll do it. It also solves a slew of problems when dealing with strange and surreal settings.  If you want floating mountains in the background, you don’t need to climb them.  Just say they’re there.  It’s okay.  No need to bend over backwards to work them into the story when all they are is a bit of creative backdrop intended for just a touch of flavor.

The main thing is remembering that all tell is horrible.  You can’t go all tell.  You can’t even go half tell.  As a rule, I find that somewhere around  80% show and 20% tell will still keep you close to the action, but not tied to minutiae and tedium.

But like I said, there are no rules set in stone.

Shaped from Settings

Shaped from Settings

One of the things I enjoy the most about writing is the unlimited special effects budget. When you’re staring at that blank page you can, in less than a hundred keystrokes, write something that would cost Hollywood a hundred thousand dollars.  In this regard, we authors have got Hollywood beat.  But settings… not so much.  Even the most simple locale in a movie is scouted, checked, propped, designed, lighted, and treated with the same care as any other element of the film.  It’s a visual medium, they have to.  Some movies go so far as to including visual cues, color cues, tonal shifts to enhance mood, thematic patterns, all in the backgrounds of their settings.  Movie settings are stylized, vibrant, and alive.  Authors could take a lesson from it.

I’ve heard professional authors say that “it’s all about the characters, setting doesn’t matter”.   This is unfiltered bullshit.  There never was, nor will there ever be, a character that exists outside of the context of setting (I know some of you will take that as a challenge to create one.  Good luck.).  More importantly, it’s vital to understand that characters emerge from setting.  Astrophysicists don’t walk out of ancient Egypt.  French peasants don’t emerge from Eskimo communities.  Lovesick farmers’ daughters aren’t born into the families of Wall Street millionaires.  Generally speaking, unless you’re writing something wildly genre bending, you’re gonna get Egyptians out of ancient Egypt, Bankers out of Wall Street, etc…  The environment produces the characters.  Sure, once they’re produced, you can move them around.  Nothing wrong with your scientist getting stuck in the past and dealing with primordial dangers, but the character didn’t come from that setting.  Let’s say, if in that example our scientist has a kid, and it’s raised by the scientist in a primordial world.  That kid is going to be entirely different than the scientist and be shaped by the setting.  Wherever the story takes you, the kid is still “kid raised in a primordial world” and will have the mark of it all over their behavior.  Remember the formal Lord Greystoke from England, raised in wealth and privileged?  Oh wait, someone changed his setting as a baby and you might know the guy as Tarzan.  Of the apes.

So, characters walk out of their settings.  Got it.  But what does this have to do with Hollywood being all stylized and slick with their set pieces?  Here’s the thing, those set pieces allow you to attach personality traits, beliefs, and thematic elements to your character.  Once you’ve done this, you can now contrast them with any other environment they come into contact with.  A character raised in a dull, grey, foggy moor is going to have a different reaction at a circus on a bright sunny day than a man who was raised near a Middle Eastern marketplace.  Does the guy from the moor love the color?  Find it invasive?  Dislike the bustle and show and long for simplicity?  Does he long to be a part of it, or see it as wasteful?  This is where “It’s all about characters, setting doesn’t matter” really starts to stink, because, these sorts of things, what the character thinks and how they respond is exactly where you get to understand the character.  Knowing a character is more than how they react with others, it’s how they react with their environment.

And the big beauty of this is when you apply that free special effects budget to your writing.  What sort of person do you get when you have a planet full of people with constant rain and no sunlight?  Or a culture with dozens of different species?  Or a world where everything is clean, polished, and pain free?  Or a city in the sky?  In the same way as the wild west formed cowboys, and the open seas formed pirates,  your fantasy and sci-fi settings should be producing new types of heroes.  C’mon people!  I wanna hear some stories about Bizringers and Tumbucks!

The trick is this; filter your character through your setting.  Make a setting, any setting, and then think about how it would feel to live in it, how it would change you.  How would it change the community, and how would that change you too.  Here’s an easy one.  Imagine suburbia.  Easy, normal, strip malls, cookie cutter houses, etc…  Now, for this setting, the main character grew up living next to a man who’d built a fifteen foot wall around his property.  How would that change him?  Would he be annoyed?  Curious?  Sick of people asking if he knew what was on the other side?  Frustrated by the lack of sunlight?  Glad for it blocking the morning light so he can sleep in?  Did friends avoid it or come over and play wall-ball?  In this example you get a community of normal kids, and one who grows up just a little different, with a strange perspective.  The wall is a tool to explain them, to get into their head, later as the story progresses.

Now, if you really want to have fun, ask yourself this; what would happen if everyone lived behind a fifteen foot wall?  What would those people be like?

Let’s Fight!

Let’s Fight!

So I was talking to Eric about the fantasy story he’s (still) working on and the topic comes up about fight scenes.  He tells me he’s been having issues working through them because, in general, he finds fight scenes to be dull affairs.  At first, this would seem not to make sense.  After all, if you’ve ever been in a fight, or close proximity to one, they’re anything but dull.  Fantasy, Sci-fi, Action, even Horror all have a pretty big dose of fighting to add drama and excitement to a story.  But that’s just the first impression.

When I actually stop to think about it, most of the fight scenes I’m recalling were things I’ve seen on a screen, not read in a book.  A blow by blow martial arts fight, with details, is incredibly tedious and, at the end of the day, it’s much more exciting to watch someone do a back-flip face kick than to read about one.  I frequently hear this complaint from people that they don’t like particular action movies because “it was just a bunch of fighting”.  So if a fight scene on screen, where it only takes moments and you actually get to see the physicality, is boring, how do you make writing one interesting?  I’ve got a couple of ideas.

First of all, I think its important to only actually describe a fight when it matters.  Fighting guard #6 on your way to the top of the evil wizard tower?  Perhaps you gloss over that as quickly as possible.  There is no significant difference between guard #1 and guard #10.  They all have equivalent meaning.  Now, when your protag gets to the top of the tower and meets up with the wizard, we expect a fight.  Why?  Well, there’s the assumption that the wizard and the hero are proportionately matched so the outcome might be in doubt.  Unlike the guards.  There is little chance guard #8 will luck out and defeat the hero.  Sorry guards, you are just there as an example of the hero’s proficiency.  Generally, we know what the villain can do.  Somebody’s gotta be a punching bag to show that the hero also has chops.  This is why guard is a bad career choice.

Now, I’m aware that I’m talking in very simplistic hero vs. villain terms and good stories aren’t that simple.  But that’s up to plot, character development, etc… to solve.  I’m just talking about the straight up fighting side of things.  For that, all you really need is two people (or groups) in opposition.

We also expect a fight when the hero comes into conflict with the main villain because that’s where plot turns happen.  If the hero wins, the villain has to alter their course.  If the villain does, the hero must change plans.  Moments when these main characters come into conflict divert the story direction.  Guards are speedbumps.  They might slow a hero down, but they’re not going to alter the course of the story.  We don’t care about serious details on speedbumps, but when we change direction, the whole thing moves somewhere else, well, that’s worth some detail.

So, rule one of writing fighting; Only bother with serious detail when it’s significant characters involved and the results move the story into a new direction.

So that’s when to detail, but it still doesn’t tell us how to make a bunch of traded blows exciting.  I’ve gotten several compliments on my fight scenes so it seems I’m doing something right, intentionally or not.  So went back and looked at every fight scene I’ve ever written to see how I’ve handled them.  I discovered something really interesting.  I have, never, ever, written a fight scene under normal conditions.  I have land bound guys fighting opponents who can fly.  I have people fighting someone invisible.  I have someone fighting someone poisonous, super fast, invulnerable, blind, or multi-limbed.  I have fights in knee deep mud, on cliffs, or ice.  In every single scene I’ve ever done, the protagonist has to deal with something else in addition to the opponent.  Something that makes it more than just two guys hitting each other.  Something that makes them think or have to behave differently.  I immediately started looking for examples of this in movies and other writing and, lo and behold, this happens a lot.  From Errol Flynn fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham on a staircase all the way up to a ridiculously outnumbered guy fighting with only a hammer in Oldboy, it generally improves a fight scene.

So, rule two of writing fighting; Add something else to the fight to make it abnormal.

I’m sure there are plenty of other things that can jazz up a fight scene, but these two should be sufficient to, at very least, keep your reader from nodding off or skipping past your fight scenes.