writer link – the writer’s database

So, I’m back to (slowly) working on The Artificer’s Angels again (huzzah!).

And I thought to myself tonight, “You know what I really need while I’m avoiding this paragraph? A nifty online word-per-day word count tool that’s available online. But not a word count widget. More of a graph-thing… that remembers your project…”

So I waste yet more time searching the internet for a writer-toy. Yes, I’m a very focused person. But I did find a small website dedicated to managing your projects’ word count, the markets you write to, and where you’ve submitted your work.

Alright, sure, you could use Excel, too, but I thought this was highly nifty.

http://www.writersdb.com/

the hero’s journey – meeting the mentor

The fourth step of the anatomy of plot: Meeting the Mentor.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Galdalf. Albus Dumbledore. Obi Wan Kenobi. Wise old men, war veterans, teachers, parents, older brothers or sisters. People who have lived through enough to cast some information on the path ahead.

This step is another often minimized or left out. Cliche mentors often get killed to provide the hero with the will to leap at enemies they used to shy away from, but not always. And in some ways, killing the mentor is a rather weak character development tree. It strikes of the reluctant, and in some ways, weak-spirited persona following the emotional path of least resistance, though physical dangers present themselves. How much stronger is the character who comes to a decision and gets to his feet on his own, after the ‘mentor’ figure has brought something to his attention?

How the personalities of the characters react to these obstacles placed in their path– and the nature of what will motivate them– determines the shape of the mentor. The mentor could even be the villain by the story’s end. Or maybe something as simple as a passage in a book, or the map guiding the character through his journey.

Or there may not be a mentor at all. That depends if you want the hero wandering around, blind and alone. It’s a hard thing to pull off– the audience empathizes with the protagonist, and they need guidance, too. Even ‘The Princess Bride’ (movie) had a mentor in The Dread Pirate Roberts, though we never saw him, and his involvement was summarized briefly enough.

Any good plots out there that come to mind without a mentor? What was the effect? And how did the writers get around that?

the six writing ‘rules’

Copied from the piece of lined paper taped beside my computer. They help me.

1. Let bad stuff happen.

2. If it sucks, write it anyway.

3. Make every scene go somewhere.
3.1. Surprises are a good thing. Don’t make your outline a Bible.
3.2. No, you don’t need to know where you’re going.
3.3. The enemy’s gate is down.

4. Rediculous is fine.
4.1. “You were once pushed headfirst through someone’s vagina. Why are you acting so dignified?” (Shamelessly lifted from XKCD.)

5. When painted into a corner, break a window.

6. Rules are evil. Pay them no attention.

the hero’s journey – refusal of the call

Be not afraid of greatness:
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


The third ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot: Refusal of the Call.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

The refusal of the call. The reluctant hero. The glance back. The lingering doubt that leaves a peculiar letter sitting on the kitchen counter.

This is an odd step in the list because it can be easily omitted. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, two chapters. Or it can last most of the story. (As said, Campbell’s ‘list’ is squishy.) The reason, though, that this is an important step and belongs in the list with the rest is that we expect people to be reluctant to pursue herculean tasks. It humanizes them, for one, and it puts the road ahead in better perspective. People who charge up mountains make the mountains look small.

Tolkien used the Refusal of the Call in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins wanted nothing to do with this mad ‘adventure’ that Gandalf had invaded his home with until the dwarves started wondering if Bilbo was too pathetic to do the job (and his regrets echoed for a long while after when things got hard). Later on, Frodo tried to make Gandalf take the ring from him– surely, such a great wizard would be able to handle such a quest better than he.

On the other hand, in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Jon Snow recruits himself for his quest, as part of the Night’s Watch. He even has to talk his family into letting him leave. Yet there is still a Refusal in his story line– first as he rides North with the watch, and wonders what the hell he’s doing. Then later his refusal is personified not as an escape home, but by clinging to the attitudes he was raised with through his training. Not all refusals directly counter the call to adventure.

Omitting the Refusal of the Call colors the tone of the story. Take ‘The Princess Bride’, for instance. The eagerness of Westley to rescue Buttercup would not be denied. He would not falter. He would not change his mind. Death itself can not stop him– all it can do is delay him for awhile.

Incidentally, The Princess Bride is a strange story that doesn’t follow the pattern exactly. No mentor, no refusal of the call, no First Threshold. The Call to Adventure is behind the scenes; there must be a call to adventure, because Westley is not with Buttercup. This in itself is a fundamental flaw in the universe, and there is no more to be said on the matter. It is as if the story begins halfway through the formula. This is a good example of a very good story that breaks and stretches out Campbell’s theory, yet still has identifiable parts to it.

After I visit each of the twelve points, I’m going to go through several stories to analyze how their plots are structured. So far this list includes The Princess Bride, A Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit– something that runs with the formula well (The Hobbit), something that breaks and stretches the formula (The Princess Bride), and something amazingly complicated (A Game of Thrones). If anyone has any suggestions about a good foil, feel free to make suggestions.

Next up: Meeting the Mentor.

the hero’s journey – the call to adventure

Onto the second ‘step’ of the anatomy of plot– what Joseph Campbell called ‘the call to adventure’.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Once we have a good feel for the character, the character’s circumstances, the way the world works, it’s time to break it a little.

Cue the eccentric billionaire with a suicide mission to the man with the brain tumor: “Live like a king! Die like a man! You’re on your way out anyway. You know that!”

Cue the cliche reveal of ‘The Chosen One’. Cue the call to explore the south pole– bad living, bad pay, bad food, horrid weather, honor and glory on return. Cue the messenger with news of unknown connections to royal blood. The twins’ dream that calls them to vigilantism. We know these forms. The rise of something new and looming on the horizon, the approach of something that cracks open the life the characters previously had known.

This can be the sudden crash of something new into a character’s life. Or perhaps it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. The run-down sister whose abusive boyfriend has hit her one too many times, for instance. Or maybe it’s even a temptation, or an escape from the ordinary world, a flight from life as it’s previously known.

The difference, though, between “The Ordinary World” and “The Call to Adventure” isn’t the magnitude of the event, by any means. The Ordinary World certainly builds events up, provides motive and setting, leading on to the Call in one way or the other, whether the Call unexpectedly smacks the character in the face or appears well in the distance. The trick to identifying the Call is simply the effect on the protagonist, a turning point that clearly stands out from the rest.

I think The Call to Adventure is probably one of the more obvious points of The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, so I’ll leave my thoughts there. The next point is something that I’ve had to study more thoroughly, because at first glance, it’s one I didn’t like: The Refusal of the Call.

More soon!

the hero’s journey – the ordinary world

Lately I’ve been studying The Hero’s Journey, or, in its original form, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The simplified form of this goes through twelve ‘steps’ to define a story.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Supreme Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the ‘Elixir’

Alright, now, I know naturally stories are much, much more complicated, and normally I’m the first on beating down formulas and writing rules and such fluff. But on the other hand… people would look pretty awful without a skeleton, and it’s certainly not what you see when you look at them. There’s also a ton of variance to the formula– steps can be rearranged, added to, deleted altogether. But probably most of all, having seen it appear naturally in my own work, I think this bears a closer study. Think of it as a way of studying story elements.

So, act one, part one. The beginning– The ordinary world.

The ordinary world, supposedly, in the starting point– the native setting before thrusting the character into something unfamiliar and alien, so as to better contrast the difference between the two. Which makes sense. If something changes in the story (and it would be pretty dull if nothing ever happened), you need to show what it changed from. The shire before Bilbo’s road East in The Hobbit. Grace’s reckless, lonely character in the movie Miss Congeniality, fighting with the microwave in her empty apartment. The Secret of Nimh’s Mrs. Brisby seeking help for her ill son.

What strikes me, though, is that none of these worlds are really ordinary, and they’re not necessarily comfortable. Bilbo Baggins may have been a comfortable bachelor who somehow needed to do nothing but eat tea and cakes and blow smoke rings (I’m not sure how, as he wasn’t filthy rich before the end of The Hobbit– how rich was his Took/Baggins inheritance?), but the other two examples begin the story with problems.

That’s how the world works, after all. Problems everywhere. I very much doubt, in that sense, that there ever is an ordinary world– just, the world currently untouched by the larger adventure that’s in the midst of approaching. Ned Stark, in A Game of Thrones, had enough work to do before the King sent word that he was coming to Winterfell, and as much of a fuss of hosting the royal family went, we never left that stage until Ned admitted that the king had asked him to be his Hand. The prologue, the executed deserter, the direwolf puppies in the snow, the arrival of the royal family, Jon’s issues with his stepmother (I loathe that woman– if you want to hear my anti-Catelyn Tully-Stark rant, I’ll be happy to supply it), Arya’s problems with her perfect sister Sansa, the grim warnings that ‘Winter Is Coming’… ordinary. Business as usual. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems.

I wonder if that’s the first element to The Ordinary World. To begin your story with a metaphorical warning. Winter is coming, in one way or another. The introduction of problems provide reason, and sometimes motive, for the launch of the story, but they aren’t the story in and of itself. It’s stepping around rubble before the character stops, looks up, sees a mountain towering over him, and begins to wonder if this was really the way they even ought to be headed.

Furthermore, I think if you have a multiple character story, this ‘formula’ can occur for each character, in different ways. Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone has their initial ups and downs– a relationship, a housing situation, a romantic let-down, a lost job. In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow called himself to adventure to escape his stepmother (bypassing the ‘Refusal of the Call’ altogether) at a pace related to, but ultimately independent of Ned Stark’s adventure. Tyrion Lannister’s and Daenerys Targaryen’s didn’t start until much, much later, despite being some of the most important characters to the series, and they receive their calls in such different ways that we never much notice that it is a ‘call’ element. Furthermore, because their viewpoint builds up the story before they’re fully involved, their ‘ordinary world’ is much better established for it.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I’ll get to the Call to Adventure later.

one thing to another

So, how is NaNo going for everyone?

I’m behind– probably as far behind as I’ve ever been at 14k/18.3k par– but I’m also taking some time off of work to rest and not get sick. I’m hoping that I can catch up.

Also, while I love this book, sometimes it takes me to very strange places. Has this ever happened to anyone?

My paladin and my amateur inventor (both young ladies) need to get to a city down south. They took a train, so I began my scene in the train. To show them heading off.

The weapon that they brought wasn’t hidden well enough. It was confiscated. The paladin worried for the train worker’s safety, as that weapon is dangerous in a wholly unusual way (an electric spear). She decided that they needed to break into the luggage car and reclaim it. So now I’m not writing a travel scene. It’s now a steampunk train robbery.

Then the attendant who’d taken the spear in the first place showed up with a buddy in the back and started going through the passengers’ bags, looking for things to take. I hear so many stories of people losing things on airlines that I have it in my head that everyone in the luggage rooms must be a thief. The sliding luggage with the momentum of the train pressed against the paladin’s injury, she got caught by the fellow who lingered… he had a pistol…

Long story short, she has a pair of thieves to turn in, an embalmed body she found stuffed into a trunk (being smuggled to the remote country), and all they really want is that spear.

How on earth did I get here?

I love it when the middle writes itself, but… I’m bewildered.

a little bit victorian

I received this morning a thoughtful critique on the prologue of ‘The Artificer’s Angels’, my steampunk novel. The gentleman in question had several good things to point out: a contradictory description, some wayward sentences breaking the flow, and imagery problems, all of which I was very grateful for.

But at the end he wrote this:

I also wonder if you are trying to emulate Victorian-style prose. If so, I think you might want to reconsider. The reason is that Victorian prose is really difficult for modern Americans to slog through, unless they are reading a book that was actually written in the Victorian era – then they recognize that they have no choice. The only other time I believe American readers would tolerate flowery prose and long, long sentences is if the writer were depicting the action from the first-person POV of a Victorian.

Now, I understand that this is an opinion, and should be weighed like all critiques. But it’s also a projectory opinion. “Other people won’t like it”, and that bothers me, especially since he said nothing at all whether he thought it distracting.

I’m not even a particularly flowery writer.

Ironically, a few minutes later I read a blog post by Mister Dave Kellet, writer and artist of the Sheldon webcomic. It included this:

One of my favorite things that Victorian writers figured out was how the inclusion of scraps of letters, telegraphs, and diary entries within their larger novels could help enhance a story and fill out a world.

Call me crazy, but I wonder if I would rather err on the side of more Victorian. Unrelated short steampunk stories between parts of the novel. Nano-fiction sprinkled here and there, to go with my pen-and-ink illustrations, my omniscient camera, and my insistence on spelling out titles like ‘Mister’. I’d not considered adding more material to flesh out the setting prior, but now I find the thought exciting.

Am I just being contrary? How does that sound, slogging modern American readers?

it’s begining to feel a lot like nanowrimo

Because I’m a hopeless addict, I’ll again be participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what that is, and you want to write a book, go check it out. If you are participating, buddy me!

Since I’m only halfway through The Artificer’s Angels, I’ll be finishing that this year. I have a badass ending in mind, and a fuzzy idea about the middle, and too many main characters. I hope I can juggle them all.

writing children, part i

This is a topic I’ve meant to tackle for a while now, mostly because children are so often so badly written in stories, and partly because I’ve failed to find any good advice on the matter online. Anyone with any tips, tricks, or thoughts on the topic, please, post them in the comments.

Children are… difficult.

Unapologetically selfish. Sweet. Generous. Silly. Mean. Serious. Awkward. Energetic. Lazy. Tough. Fragile. Careless. Intelligent. Foolish. Mirrors of what they see about them. Parroting, grass-stained, stuffed-animal toting, messy children. Frustrated by the difference between what they mean to say and what everyone around them understands.

Children are characters. But they’re also one-person fantasies, and it’s important to keep in mind that they do not, will not, can not have the same perspective as adults. Talk to a little kid some time. They have entire worlds buzzing around their head, and they don’t always seem to realize that these things they’ve collected from movies, from games, from dreams, from things they’ve been told are not always part of real life.

The Little Mermaid will have a girl spending her baths with her legs crossed, kicking and splashing water everywhere, and how exactly do you explain to Mom that you had to rescue the prince from the evil McDonald’s toy when she starts asking things like ‘what were you thinking?’ and ‘Molly, you know better!’?

(Because the answer, of course, was that there was simply no choice in the matter. Doesn’t mom understand that the prince was in trouble? “I had to!”. Then, maybe to get out of trouble later, “Sorry…”)

It goes on. My cousin Sean (age six) informed me that he was actually part of a secret alien race who simultaneously lives on three planets at once and that he was a spy meant to blow up the earth, but that he loves his mommy and daddy too much to finish his mission. He also informed me that his power level was a thousand million, and that he was the strongest ever. I replied that I was actually the Queen Jadis, and I was an immortal necromancer even higher than that for my royal blood. Sean became incredibly indignant, and began to tell me about his secret unlockable levels. It sounded like a bad anime.

Human thoughts. The human wish to be regarded, twisted into a completely new form. None of these are new character traits. They’re just stuck in a form of almost surrealist fantasy, brought into the real world into what would appear to be a random jumble of emotions and raw dialogue. Still difficult to understand, maybe, but along with base personality, I think anyone who want to write children characters needs to take the time to understand where they’re coming from.

Anyone with thoughts on the matter, please, add a comment. I meant to write some more thoughts on this topic, and I’d like to see what people think.