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Archive for the ‘Writing Experiences’ Category

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.

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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.


Unbinding the Stone

A Warrior Made

A Warrior Made

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St. Martin’s Moon

St. Martin's Moon

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Ghostkiller

Chasing His Own Tale

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Struck By Inspiration

Struck By Inspiration

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Steampunk Santa

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Bite Deep

Christmas among the vampires!

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Cyber-pirates. Sort of.

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Off the Map

Reality TV...without the Reality!

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