Authorguy's Blog

Archive for the ‘Writing Experiences’ Category

I was just reading one of my more favorite fan fictions and came across a scene where the female lead realizes she was betrayed and set up to die by her trusted boss. The author spends a bit of time telling the reader how furious she was. This is a case where the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ should have been followed.

The stronger the emotion, the harder it is to put it into words and the more phony it sounds when you do. ‘Joe was enraged’ doesn’t carry nearly the impact of something like ‘Joe attacked the punching bag. It lost.’ This version does sort of require the reader to know what punching bags are and the sorts of abuse they’re designed to take, so it’s not the best option. Those would be highly dependent on the genre of the story (the above example would work in a sports or boxing story, since it would be expected that the likely reader would know the necessary background), the context and the character.

This is one of the reasons I like dream sequences. They’re really good for showing the character’s internal mental state without all those pesky words getting in the way.

I have to say it was strange to find out that for a lot of people, their internal experience of the world is mostly cast into some form of interior monologue. In my case it is not, and I find books where the character’s internal states are put into pages of (usually italicized) text to be incredibly phony and off-putting. One, I hate reading pages of italics. Two, pages of the character going on about his internal state just reads like the author being lazy, telling me what the character is thinking and feeling rather than showing it.

In my experience only the most important things are worth the effort of putting them into words, and words are a way of keeping things distant. As I said recently in a comment on a youtube video about using the 5 senses in writing, “The goals of immersion and description oppose each other.”

Showing what a character is thinking isn’t all that hard, if you ask me. I developed my technique of what I call ‘experiential prose’ mostly to avoid having to describe the setting the character is in, but it works by focusing on what the character would notice in that setting, and uses only the concepts the character knows to understand it. If he’s walking through the forest I don’t want to describe every damn tree and shrub, just the ones he cares about. So I don’t. This makes the book more dynamic, since every piece if description is the product of some act of perception.

In a dream sequence we get the reverse, in which the entire environment is only the things he cares about, cast into some alternative form. Consider this, for example, from a story about a woman who has lost her memory and wants it back:

“She awoke on a cold, hard surface, one of the benches in one of the holding cells in [the base]. The entire facility was dark, and quiet, and she didn’t know what roused her. It wasn’t until she pressed the panel by the door that it occurred to her to think she may be a prisoner, that it might not open, but the notion hadn’t fully formed before it opened. She walked alone, into cold darkness. Down the hall she could hear whispers in the dark, a play of light in the shadows, and she walked that way.”

and contrast it with this, set later on and she’s much more desperate:

“She awoke in Castle, lying on a bench. When she pressed the button, the door moved but terribly slowly, and she yanked it back into its slot. The halls were dark, neither lights nor sounds to give her a direction. The cell block seemed much longer as she ran through it, but eventually she reached the end, and another slow door. This time she cut herself pulling it open.”

She knows she’s getting herself into trouble, and doing what she can to prevent it, but what she wants is stronger than what she knows. This is made clear later on, when she discovers a memory she’d lost on purpose:

“The blackness that had obscured the last image had crumbled to dust, although it still obscured the light glowing from beneath. She just had to…brush it off. She raised her hand and–

She bent and blew gently, unwilling to touch the thing.

-A room. A bed. A woman and a man, naked and coupling and the woman was-

[Her]body went from zero to sixty in no time at all. Her…her…the woman was…her, and the man, the man…[he]was…Oh God, he was…so perfect, waited so long…

She exploded in memory, she exploded in dream.”

You’d think that would be a good thing.

“Light played across the chamber, memories blazed across her mind, emotions seared her very soul, searching for channels that were no more. She had forgotten how to feel this strongly. Only [her later self] had ever learned, and she was not [her later self].

This was a mistake. She had to get away, and struggled to rise.

Her hand landed in the dust and she recoiled. Rage! Betrayal! Soul deep hatred stabbed through the vulnerable place he had made over her heart.

The [last]image burst into flames. The other images followed suit. The explosion caught her before she could reach the door.”

If I had to write this scene over, I’d do it a little differently, not for these parts but for the dialog. At the time I cast it as regular speech, but now I’d put most of it into the dreaded italics.

Dream sequences are, in my view, a great way to combine description and immersion. They present the character’s thoughts and goals into a visual form, showing what she wants, why she wants it, and sometimes the cost of getting it. Consider the classic movie Forbidden Planet, and its monsters of the Id made real.

Do you like dream sequences? Why, or why not?

I don’t know who said it, but the usual wisdom in writing is that you have to write a million words before you’ll come up with anything worth reading, or getting published. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, so far everything I’ve written has been published, but I will agree that the book I wrote after that million words was a significant level-up from the stuff I wrote before it.

When I started I had no real training in writing or being an author, nothing but a lot of books read, with attention paid to how they were written. I knew what I didn’t like, first among them being descriptive prose, and I created my own writing techniques so I wouldn’t end up writing the sort of stuff I hated to read. I ended up developing a technique for creating techniques, as every novel I’ve written is structurally different from the novels that have come before.

I was in the middle, well, not quite the middle, of my third novel when I hit a snag. I thought I was doing a story about my MC’s nephew Jasec, telling stories about his uncle in the town square, embedded somehow in a larger story. As I was writing it that larger story turned out involve a war, and after the war came a refugee priest, and…

I had to seriously consider the priest’s backstory. So I stopped writing that novel. And then a contest wanted a new short story, so I started writing that. And then I finished St. Martin’s Moon, and that turned out to be my third published novel. And then I met Ginjer Buchanon at Lunacon and she seemed vaguely interested in the story that would become Ghostkiller (her assistant didn’t take it, and Ghostkiller became my first self-pubbed title). At the same time I discovered fanfiction, and after a few short pieces I threw myself into an epic story, rewriting the last three seasons of my favorite show.

622K words later, I was able to get back to that third sequel, having written a story with a much stronger plot than any I’d ever written before. More characters doing more things, and a grasp of how to pace the things they were doing so they all came out where they were supposed to. I rewrote the text I already had for Tales of Uncle, rearranging it rather than writing a lot of new stuff.

The priest’s tale took over, with a much larger audience to hear it, and they spread that story to others, and the novel expanded to include a cast of dozens where my earlier works had never topped more than a handful.  Side characters threw themselves in my way, and were allowed to take center stage. One of them told me he was gay, the first time that’s ever happened. I put the book together in an entirely new style, one chapter of real time, followed by a chapter of story, alternating and slowly drawing nearer to each other until they meet and switch places, as the teller becomes a character in someone else’s story.

I can’t wait to see what will come to me after the next million words.

By far the most difficult and complicated story structure I’ve managed to develop so far is the VbP. Like a Hero by Proxy structure, the other characters play a significant role, lending their individual plotlines to the resolution of the story as a whole. There is also the same two-tier structure, which I called the inner and outer stories. The inner story is the actual plot of the book, while the outer is the overall setup of the world that makes the inner story possible.

The difference between the two is simple, but the effects of it are huge. In a HbP story, the outer story, such as the werewolf curse in the case of St. Martin’s Moon, doesn’t play an actual role in the story. Although it is affected by the actions taken by the proxies in the inner story, it’s not an actor. In a VbP story it is. In an HbP story, the characters know they’re in a situation, in a VbP story they don’t. The outer story is the proxy, and it’s only when the proxy acts in the story, that any of the other characters realize that they’re in a situation at all.

The example I came up with for this type of story, other than Ghostkiller, that is, is the Lord of the Rings, only an alternate version where Sauron doesn’t exist. The ring is the proxy, acting subtly on all the other characters to do its evil work, trying to get back to a Master that doesn’t exist. No one has thought about Sauron for 3000 years. Gandalf is a weird fireworks maker, and Frodo is busy dealing with all sorts of unpleasantness cropping up all over the Shire. Only when the Ring finally acts does anyone realize that there’s a subtle causation to all the stuff they’ve been dealing with, and then they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is, so they can put an end to it.

The problem with this structure is that all of the characters, including the hero, are reacting to the situation. In LOTR Frodo may have delayed, but he took action before the Nazgul came looking. In a VbP situation, he is at best dealing with symptoms while unaware of the disease. This makes it very difficult to write a query, since there is no goal being pursued by the hero that carries him to the end of the story. I was never able to come up such a hook, and that’s one of the reasons why Ghostkiller has been self-published. The best I could come up with was to get my hero right to the top of that slippery slope, that moment just before the proxy struck, and just…let it go.

This being the second story structure I created, in this case for my novel St. Martin’s Moon. Again, it wasn’t planned or anything. None of my books ever are, but this one less so than most. I came up with the idea for St. Martin’s Moon while browsing the shelves of a used book store, where I saw a book titled Blood Moon. My immediate thought was, “Wow! A werewolf novel set on a lunar colony, great idea!” It wasn’t such a book, but the idea stayed with me.

The main problem with the story was that I had no idea how to write a mystery of a horror novel. By the time I discovered this, I was two chapters into the book. To keep going, I followed the characters around, and let them make the story, which resulted in the story structure named above. Much of what I’ll say about HbP is based on the one story that I know of. I haven’t really developed the theory of it. I do know that trying to summarize a story like this is next to impossible.

There are at least two situations (states of affairs, whatever you want to call it), one inside the other, and the plots of the story are contained by the inner situation. For SMM, the outer situation was the curse of lycanthropy itself, and the inner was a werewolf attack that took place on a lunar colony.

In a HbP story, the hero catalyses a number of other characters (the proxies) into motion of their own (another name for an HbP story is a catalyst story), motion which is otherwise independent of the hero. No one story line, not even the hero’s, is sufficient to bring about the resolution of the whole story, but all are necessary.

The one character who does not play a direct role in the resolution of the plots is the hero himself (or herself, if the hero is female, but being male my default pronoun is male too). The role of the proxies is to do what the hero would normally do in a more linear story. The role of the hero is to get all the proxies in the same place to do that.

Which doesn’t sound very heroic on the face of it, but remember there are two situations at play here. Not only is the hero at ground zero of a whole bunch of equal and opposite reactions all centered around him (ouch!), his character development throughout the book is what allows him to become the link which unites the inner and outer situations (double ouch!), allowing them both to be resolved, preferably  at the same time, in the same set of actions.

He might even live.

A little while ago a lady on the Writer Unboxed Facebook group asked about stories with multiple protagonists, without any particular lead. This is not the standard model, which calls for a single lead, or a group all possessing the same ultimate goal, usually following a single lead. Books that do not follow the single-lead model are harder to categorize, and therefore to sell.

But there are other story structures, for more complex stories. Ensemble stories, for example, have no central lead, but follow several characters, whose individual plot lines are only tangentially connected, if at all. I know of several films like this (Love Actually and American Graffiti, for example), but no books come to mind (a cursory search on Goodreads turns up a list of such books, none of which I have read or would categorize in this way), and so obviously I haven’t written any either.

Another story model is one I call the Braided Story, also fairly common and one I have seen elsewhere. Jurassic Park is such a story, to some extent, with a group of characters brought together, then when disaster strikes, split up into smaller groups to pursue their own paths until they regroup, and complete their objective to escape the park.

The characters in a braided story do not all have to come from the same place, in fact it’s better if they don’t. (In that respect JP is not exactly a braided story.) I created a braided story in my novel A Warrior Made, although I did not think of it as such or plan it that way.

As one might expect, the basic idea behind a braided story is separation and reconnection. The story starts with the separation, of course, a group of people who already have some degree of connection, sundered by some unexpected and perhaps inexplicable event. The sundering should continue until there are at least three groups, since that’s how many you need to make a decent braid.

The story from there will be more about the reconnection, and that’s where the character growth takes place. Since the normal and expected methods of connection have been severed, some of the people involved must discover and develop some other means of connecting with some of the others.

In A Warrior Made, I handled the braiding by having all the separate plots run in parallel in each chapter. In a couple of places I even characters from one strand shift into a different strand. The reconnection was shown as each section impinged somehow on the section that came after it, even though no one knew the connection was taking place. Janosec would tell a story about Tarkas in one section, and in the next Tarkas would find himself thinking about the subject of that story for no obvious reason.

Like a braid, the separate strands of the story must eventually come together for the resolution of the plot, not necessarily all at once. The rejoining of sundered groups should also be due to some of the changes that have taken place while they were sundered, not simply timing, luck, or coincidence. The group that comes together at the end should not be the same group that was separated. If it is, you’ve done something wrong.

 

That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.

This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)

I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)

The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.

Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.

On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.

I’m writing a scene in my story, in which a vagabond priest is speaking with the MC about his visions, and the tales he makes out of them (the book is called Tales of Uncle, so a large number of tales can be expected to figure into it). At this point, I became aware of a subtle sort of trap raising its ugly head, and moved to steer clear.

The trap is what I call the Echo Chamber, not that I claim any originality in the name. I first heard of it in a political context, referring to a group of apparently independent organizations that are in fact working together to repeat the same arguments, making them sound more plausible by the repetition.

In a literary context, the trap is framed as a set of characters who end up agreeing with each other on various topics. Character A says X, and character B nods his head and praises A for his wisdom. Then B starts talking and A is the one nodding his head. In a polemic, the role of B is to simply nod his head, and A gets to do all the talking. The echoes here are not spoken comments so much as the universal success enjoyed by everyone who agrees with A. Character C, who is opposed to A, is of course a venal boob, a callow fool, and easily outwitted.

I’m clearly not a fan of this technique, so I took great care to avoid it myself. It’s not hard to do, if you the author have made your characters correctly. A character will be a hunk of the author’s own soul, of course (unless you’re one of those authors who uses ‘characterization’ to construct a character to be the robot you need for your story to work), but not all of it by any means, and different characters will be different hunks. Since they will have in common about as much as your thoughts on Shakespeare and lemon pudding, it isn’t hard to have them agree on the basics but disagree on the details.

If you’re really schizophrenic you can have them disagree about the basics too, but an author who’s been paying any attention to his life at all (and they all should), would have a solider foundation than that. Writing a book ought not be an Echo Chamber so much as an Argument Clinic, with the author coming out of the experience of writing it a new and larger person. Writing a book that isn’t a piece of self-analysis on some level seems a great waste of time and energy to me.

Back when I was writing my many stories in the Chuck fanfiction realm, I often thought of it as great practice for any future writing I would end up doing. Having already written St.Martin’s Moon at that point, I knew that there were certain types of writing which I was not very good at, such as mystery, with its focus on pacing and plotting, and horror, with its focus on pacing and setting/ambiance. Chuck was a great mixture of light and dark, romance and comedy combined with spy action and some darker drama. My own strengths were in the romance and comedy areas, I thought at the time, where my ability to write strong dialog and characters was most important. The slow and methodical pacing of a spy story, mixed with the occasional burst of action, was what I needed work on.

I was mainly thinking of my more normal stories when I thought this, such as the stories of my Nine2five series, in which I rewrote the last three seasons of Chuck to be more of a piece with the first two. The third season, usually abbreviated as S3, was a very dramatic turn for the show, which the producers thought of as a Hero’s Journey type of story. Which may have been their vision, but if so, they were very poor story-tellers, since the first two seasons weren’t so strong on the Hero’s Journey and they were very strong on the romantic comedy spy adventure. (In fact, the show never did become a Hero’s Journey type of show, as nearly every step along that Journey was erased and forgotten by the end of the episode.) S4 and S5 were far worse, in terms of story-telling failures, so fixing the whole series was quite a lesson plan for a practicing writer. (I added the links to my stories in case anyone wants to read them, but they do assume you know the show, so a great deal of exposition is left out. You have been warned.)

That said, however, the story that is coming to my aid at this moment is not Nine2five but a much less ambitious and more experimental piece called ‘Not This Time‘. This story came between my more typical stories, such as ‘Hannah HISHE‘ and ‘Chuck vs the Epilog’, and Nine2five, and may have contributed to my development of the ideas for the latter story. What made ‘Not This Time’ (hold on while I save that title on my clipboard, just in case I need to write it a lot) experimental was the problem it was written to solve, as regards the finale.

In addition to the will-they-won’t-they trope that makes so many shows so painful to watch, the finale for some reason included the amnesia trope for one of the most popular characters, so all of the development that character had undergone over 5 years of show-time was completely erased. (The producers for some reason thought this was a good thing. I have my own theories on the matter, which I have written elsewhere.) As part of the ‘drama’ of the whole thing, she had occasional slight flashes of memory, to give us faithful viewers hope that our beloved character was not irretrievably lost, I guess.

‘Not This Time’ was written in that context. I wanted to do a story showing how the woman had been changed over the last five years and stayed changed, in spite of the loss of memory. I would do this by using several characters who were known to her before the show started, and show how her memories of those people had not changed, but her feelings about them had. I can’t say it was my most successful story, but it did take me to some very dark places, in addition to practicing different types of story, such as my first song-fic, which I don’t think I did quite right.

This is all coming out with my current novel, a story that is a compendium of stories being told about the main character, Tarkas, in the context of a real-time adventure that is slowly unfolding. The original idea was to have these stories told by Tarkas’ son Janosec, which they were, in the beginning. As the story went on, I found myself in a situation where Janosec had to go away for a bit, and I could either follow him and listen to a repeat of a story I’d already written, which I didn’t want to do, or find someone else to follow. Fortunately I’d already introduced such a fellow, so I followed him to a variety of places, where I was able to continue the story-telling motif, with different characters as the teller, sort of the inverse of the style I’d used in ‘Not This Time’. Rather than one person remembering several people, and seeing how she’d been changed, I had several people remembering one man, to show how he looked to their different perceptions.

It’s a very experimental idea for a novel, I think. Certainly if anyone trips across this post as they traverse the inter-web and can think of stories like this one, I’d love a heads-up about it.

I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?

I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.

What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.

Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.

They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)

It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.


Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

Click here to BUY NOW!

St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

Click cover to Buy Now!

Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

Click Here to Buy Now!

Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

Click here to Buy Now!

Steampunk Santa

Click here to Buy Now!

Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

Click Here to BUY NOW!

Click here to buy NOW!

Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

Click here to BUY NOW!

Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

Author Guy’s Tweets

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 583 other followers

What has gone before

Blog Stats

  • 9,212 hits