winning by losing (row80)

Just a quick update on my novel, and ROW80.

My goal: 250 words/day, 5 days/week.

Thus far,
Monday: 742/250
Tuesday: 389/250
Wednesday: 416/250

It’s a tiny goal, yes, but it makes what I actually do look impressive.

I’ve noticed something about one of my characters. He’s perhaps the most brilliant badass character I’ve ever written. Huge, strong, smart, skilled, good coordination, good reflexes. … And he’s never yet won a fight in this story. I’m starting to think that he’s not going to. (For those of you who’ve seen pieces of my book, yes, I’m talking about Uriel.)

And yet, in each case he comes out ahead. I’m not sure why, or how, or what it is he does to manage this. He escapes at opportune times while pulling switches, lets himself get hit where he’s protected… he even lets himself get gunned down once.

How is it that his escapes, his deflections, his clever tricks and his patient ‘play dead’ schemes earn him more– and more reader admiration– than if he simply was a fighter to match his build? Why is this more effective?

We’ve seen this before. This is the story of the clever tailor who sewed ‘seven in one blow’ on his clothes and began ridding the land of giants. It’s purely a traditional protagonist trait… but my character being something of a noble trickster-villain, it’s taking a very odd turn.

(soon to be) looking to commission artists

I’ve had a crazy idea for a bit now, to hire commissions from a bunch of different artists for some characters for a young adult steampunk adventure novel I’m writing. (Yes, it’s The Artificer’s Angels.)

Here are the details.

  • There are seven major characters in all– five men, two women. They range from the ages of fifteen-ish to mid-fifties. Here’s a quick preview of the lot.
    • The farm girl. Merrily Soarin is cheerful, upright, and has a mean left hook. She’s nineteen years old, black, and her nappy hair’s getting clumpy.
    • The engineer. Paul Soarin is serious, often uncomfortable, and desperate to prove himself to the upper circles. He’s thirty-two, Merrily’s brother, also black, head nearly shaved, thin. He also becomes a bit wild by the end of the book.
    • The hacker. Polly Owens was a promising inventor before she was kicked out of the university. Now she smokes a lot of opium, she wears shocking clothes, gears and tools sewn to her skirts (in case she ever needs one), and does mechanical under-the-table deals. Mid-twenties, brown eyes, straight brown hair, and she dresses in ways specifically designed to make her victorian-esc neighbors uncomfortable (classic steampunk).
    • The mad scientist. Maxwell Gallows is in his mid-fifties, wears lots of black, and would probably have taken over the world had he cared for anything in it. He’s stick-thin, gaunt in the face, and his black hair stands out. Usually accompanied by a black hat and a heavy cane.
    • The boy. Leo Gallows is sweet, gentle, desperately shy, and part machine, though the only real indicator of this on the outside are his glowing, artificial teal eyes. His hair is platinum blond, but it’s the style to dye hair wild colors and saturate it with gel, and his ends are blue-green and stand up in spikes. Every so often, though, he does show signs of his father’s inventor-traits running through him.
    • The intellectual thief. Abraham Gennyson has the nasty habit of stealing invention ideas that don’t belong to him. Getting near sixty– he’s not horribly fat, but he has a gut, his hair is long and brown and silver, he wears nice clothes and looks the part of the overweight Victorian business man.
    • The trickster. Uriel is also a reworked dead man, and he very much intends to keep his life and his freedom, both of which are at risk. He will kill, steal, lie, and con his way out of his bad situation– anything to get himself free. And he’s pretty good at it. Six-five (two full meters) tall, broad shouldered, strong featured, tan, with artificial red eyes and a wild red-and-black haircut. He appears to be in his late-twenties.
  • I would write a more detailed description of each character, then two or three scenes with them in it, to give a better idea of what they’re like. I’ll also write a bit about the novel.
  • The commissions would go to a variety of artists– one character per commission. I’d love to see a range of skills, styles, and takes.
  • When I have a good collection of characters by a variety of people, I’ll make a collage for each character.

That’s the preliminary details. Anyone interested, and if so, in anyone in particular? And does anyone want to point to artists seeking commissions?

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 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.

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.

and i’ve lost my last villain

My very last villain, the most dangerous man in my cast, has moved himself neatly out of the ‘villain’ category. He’ll still carry out his part in the plot, and some of the things he’s going to try are pretty awful.

But after bidding his love interest, “I’m in trouble and I have to go. Have a wonderful life; I wish I could have been part of it. Don’t protect me,” … well. No one is going to keep him in the villain slot.

Perhaps that’s good… I’ve seen many authors declare with pride that they have no villains. I’ve always eyed them skeptically, imagining a contrived series of misunderstandings or stubborn, unbearable characters. You have to be a dang good writer to pull off an appealing villain-less story.

Why, Uriel? Why?

when the pov character can’t make it

Finishing this last chapter, I ran into a bit of a surprise. My villain is smarter than I’d planned. He has given my hero some false information to keep his attention focused elsewhere, and is trying to solve the problem of the rogue heroine on his own. … Without my pov character being present.

The hero doesn’t get to hear what’s going on, not yet, at least. Important things are going on, and they can’t be ‘filmed’. As pretty much the last obstacle in this book (and I still very much like my plot, even if it’s not to-code, as formulas go), this has been giving me some trouble. Worse, since it’s near the end, there’s no time for another subplot.

So, what do you do?

I came up with a few ideas to work around this, and I thought that I’d share.

Timeskip. Move to a place where the character can hear what’s going on. It might be a little late, in some cases, but there’s very little wrong with throwing a character into a developed situation that they’re not expecting. Shake them up and watch them stumble about a bit. So what if you couldn’t see things developing? Figure out what’s going on as new bombs explode on the poor guy. The downside? It’s hard to keep the character confused without doing the same to your audience.

Plot Device. This one’s a little hacky. Give the hero a spy for whatever reason. I don’t actually like this idea as much as the last, but it will work, especially if you want to carefully control what the character does and doesn’t know.

Rework It. So your hero is shut off? Change the situation– find a reason that they can get there, whether it’s reorganizing how things lay out or tweaking your other characters (in this case, my villain) so that the option of inviting the POV-guy is worth whatever downside.

Figure It Out. In this case, this isn’t an option for me. But in others, this is a nice alternative. Someone says something that reminds the character of something else. Put their ‘aha’ moment far away from the event. Spur them on that way. This isn’t always an option, but if so, you can motivate the character and get the pace increasing.

Just a few thoughts that I had on the situation. Feel free to add your own!

introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!