novel-writing and controlling information

A random subject, I must admit, but this has been on my mind recently.

Part of my book involves… we’ll call it a mystery. Unclear motives, conspiracy, a bigger picture than the protagonist sees. I’m exactly three chapters from ending the book according to my recent chapter plans, and as more and more climax-heightening information comes through, I have to wonder… is the big reveal, aha-moment too obvious? The characters have every scrap of information they’d need now to put things together. A stressful chapter, a distracting goal, and a wrong take on one of the events ought to keep the characters busy… what about the reader?

This is probably the most agonizing part of writing fantasy. Fantasy is a setting-genre. It has a great deal in common with sci-fi, westerns, and even historical fiction for that reason. And yet the genre constantly overlaps with the event-genres… action, adventure, romance, mystery, thriller (suggest that fantasy is an event-genre by the necessity of a ‘quest’, and I will vaporize you with my scary teacher-stare). So in able to be able to fully command the genre, one must be at least adapt at the subtleties of romance and mystery, the chill of a suspense novel and the tension of a well-crafted fight, no matter the era of weapon.

Back to my original question: how do you know when you’ve made the reveal too transparent? Like spotting a scratch on a piece of furniture– when you know where to look, it jumps out at you. I have some ideas– only a survey of test-readers can be accurate, but there are a few tricks that I’ve noted.

One upon a time, I was an admirer of the Harry Potter series. (Hey, at least it’s not ‘Twilight’). One thing that I admired about Rowling’s work was how thoroughly she would foreshadow her endings. By the fourth book, I caught on to her style enough to see them coming ahead of time, but the first three books left me hitting myself, declaring “Stupid! Stupid!” at the end of each one. Rowling also has a lot of characters, each involved with their own activities, and lots of quirky detail, to hide what’s important with what’s not. So what if the pet rat has a missing toe? It’s an old, pathetic rat that’s had one too many encounters with a garden gnome or something, nestled right in a description of how haggard it looks. And there was that vacation it was hauled off to in Egypt over the summer. It might have caught something. Plenty of reasons not to think it has anything to do with plot.

Use of detail, amid lots of other detail. Logical rationalization, yet a point unique enough to stand out. Foreshadowing each element as its own separate island, as if they’re not connected. Mistaken assumptions that the reader is lead to agree with can be startling to overturn.

But then, my next example uses something entirely different. Gosford Park, a murder mystery film… which was more about the people and less about the murder.

I will warn you, I really, really loved this movie. Watch it five times, and you might have picked out all the subtle sub-plots. Everyone is guilty of something… some more than others. There’s bickering behind closed doors, affairs, blackmail… in fact, all the sub-plots can be so interesting that they take away focus of the murder entirely. The reveal isn’t dramatic. On the contrary, it’s quiet, and not exactly a ‘pursuit of justice’.

So… is detail the secret? I haven’t made a habit of reading mystery for some time– I think I need to go back to it. Does anyone have any great references that they’d like to point to?

writing names and groups

It’s been a heck of a week! Trying to get the hang of teaching has drained me pretty dry for the last two weeks. I’m glad to report that we’re now working with code (which to me is easier to teach than history), my students look to be a fun group, with the exception of one or two of the guys who seem to be far too ‘cool’ to be taught by a hyper nerd-ette.

Which means that after two weeks of delays, it’s back to my novel, and back to thoughts on writing craft.

I remember watching old bugs bunny cartoons, and knowing what’s going to happen next, because one plank of a fence board will be a slightly different color than the others. It always annoyed me, letting one prop stand out from the others. Lately, I’ve been having the same problem in writing.

If you have a group of characters show up, how do you handle them? Do you go through the entire process of developing them? Do you name one or two, and leave the rest as blank faces? Leave them all blank, and hope that they’re still important?

Option 1– develop them all. It’s realistic. It brings a lot of focus on the parts of the new force, maybe even too much, detracting from the main characters and whatever else would be going on. Name them, and the reader will feel obligated to remember their names. Another advantage is that if one is utterly unimportant and another will make a huge difference later on, the device isn’t just inobvious– it doesn’t exist at all. I think this can be a good choice if introduced early into the book, or if they’re a constant presence.

Option 2– name the important ones. … I feel awkward about this method. It always seems painfully obvious who the returning characters are. Like the joke from Order of the Stick, “They won’t survive! They don’t even have names!” (link). It’s less weird if the main character has a reason to note one out of the group, say they’re looking at a girl he likes, or if something they do stands out. But that’s interaction as an individual, not as a part of the group.

Option 3– name no one. Make them all faceless. Last summer, I attended a fantasy-sci-fi conference in Spokane. One of the panels I attended included Timothy Zahn, of Star Wars fame, discussing villains in stories, and we made a comment that a lack of familiarity with the villain, not understanding who he is or his motivation makes said character less of a villain and more of a force of nature. Of course, this might be easier when you’re working with stormtroopers.

These are the techniques that come immediately to mind… but here’s what I want.

I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.

Any thoughts on this?

mid-way blues– an adventure in writing

So, my last post about being slowed down at the end of writing a novel didn’t get the responses that I thought it would. I expected thoughts on procrastination and being a perfectionist. Instead, everyone else seems to hate middles.

They’re not alone. I remember that Steve Malley wrote a post about how much he hates middles (and preceding it, another post about how to get through that middle).

I remember once having trouble getting through the middle of my book. The first two drafts of Blue Crystal might have sunk the book if it weren’t for friends that talked me through the plot points. The middle of this draft gave me no trouble at all.

Personally, I think it’s because of the type of book that I’m writing. Even so, I thought I’d share what I’ve done, in case it helps anyone else out.

Halfway through Blue Crystal, a man is executed because of the heroine. Someone that she had decided not to trust because he was keeping secrets from her. The heroine is attacked, the hero goes out for revenge (not successful). A crooked judge is brought to light, and the king’s lenders are angry. There’s simply no time here to let the plot sag– there’s far too much going on. (And that’s less than half of the events in those middle pages.

When writing teachers diagram plot, they tend to use a rising mountain, a sharp climax, and then a drop off that curves to a nice resolution. It looks like this:

plot_traditionallayout

With no offense intended to creative writing teachers everywhere, this diagram really never did it for me. These were characters and situations that you cared about– not a graph of overall anxiety. And from a compositional standpoint, one has to wonder if this chart is even misleading.

Instead of thinking of the story as a mountain hike, I think it does better if seen as a series of beginnings and endings. One problem is resolved, and another rears its nasty head. One character takes an interest in one aspect of their troubles, another looks elsewhere. Perhaps both are aspects of the same source. Maybe they’re unrelated, but the conflict of interest between characters creates a new conflict.

Something more like this.
plot_mylayout

Try not having a middle. Try having little climaxes everywhere.

fear of tension

I once read somewhere that the last 20% of a book is harder to write than all the 80% before it. I’ve been opening my book lately, rereading the last lines (right before a minor fight scene, major discovery, and pre-discussed setting), and I promptly freeze up and try to think of something else that I could do.

It’s a little like drawing. I have sketchbooks filled with character sketches, half-finished, because I’m too afraid to draw the second eye. I’m terrified that they won’t match and that I’ll have indented and smudged the paper if I get it wrong. There’s nothing worse than a very cool character that comes out cross-eyed.

I always do this before important scenes. I do this in drawing… I even do this when I’m reading. Sometimes it’s so hard to open up a book and read that first page. And when I do work up the nerve, I sit down and gush it all out at once, like a tsunami when the tide was due to come in. My goal for today is to end that scene… be it five hundred words or five thousand.

Anybody else run into this problem? How do you get over it?

starting the 3rd draft

I’ve started the 3rd draft of Blue Crystal today.

I haven’t finished my plot-scrub. I’ve made some changes, questioned some motives, filled in several characters, but the detailed chapter-by-chapter plot lies incomplete on my notebook. I think it’s time to admit that I’m not much of a plotter. Which isn’t to say that I won’t be using all the ideas that I did come up with for those chapters.

I’m resetting the word count bar. I’m also putting up the first five hundred words in my excerpt page. Go take a look– I think this draft is already much better than the last.

third draft theories

First, it’s probably safe to say that I’m feeling better. Thanks for the get-well comments, guys!

I’ve been going through my plot recently, as part of my scheduled plot-scrub (which is turning out to in fact be a beastly, terrible creature that seems determined to pin me down and chop me up– fie to whoever decided to hand that thing a chainsaw). After some study, I’m adding in another plotline, because I noticed that one of my protagonists seems to be lounging around when other characters aren’t looking. Add in another plotline, carefully consider the implications and how this will change the story… typical revision stuff.

But it also had me thinking about the structure of chapters, and how individual pieces (because chapters are pretty good examples of broken-up chunks of story) contribute to the overarching plot. While I’ve been re-planning chapters, inserting new ones, thrashing others, I’ve also been wondering what the best way to structure each chapter might be.

Simplistic as the idea is, what is a chapter, and what should it accomplish?

I don’t have the answer for that, of course. I’m not sure that there is one. But I do have some ideas, theories, some possibly even worth discussing.

A chapter should be enticing. The audience should want more. This is a cardinal rule of writing: make things that other people want to read. This point is entirely subjective; possibly the reasons we group books by genre. Fantasy, science fiction, and westerns are premises and settings, if you think about it. Romance, action, drama, suspense, and horror are plot and theme elements. This is why you can have a fantasy-action story, a scifi romance, a western horror, and other fun combinations (keeping in mind that setting seems to supersede tone in bookstores). While the genre lines don’t make complete sense in the matter of content, it’s really all reader expectation, desires to be filled. I don’t really like genre categories, but I think it’s important to realize what they really are: pre-defined tastes, not too unlike calling something sweet, salty, or chewy. Unfortunately, this ‘season to taste’ rule doesn’t help with the composition of a chapter.

As an aside, my personal solution to the problem of interest is: Think of book ending that would make you (the author) bounce up and down with manic glee. Go write. Try to get there.

What else should a chapter be? Why do we use chapters? Why not some other paragraph breaks, also used in fiction to end scenes, ect? Adult novels don’t seem to include a ‘table of contents’ anymore. Some chapters are titled, some are numbered. Some are neither. Some people write long chapters, others end them after only a few pages. Some use length to determine their chapters, others are fond of POV shifts and scene changes, while some use significant plot events.

I have a theory right now that when chapters are long and based on plot events, elements of short story form might be a very good way to construct them. You have your basic elements of plot: set up, rising tension, crisis, and resolution. While this works for a story, this could also be applied to the individual elements of the conflict in their own right, and if a chapter is being based around chunks of conflict, it might be a smart way to structure a chapter, daisy-chaining conflicts and resolutions with each other from chapter to chapter, introducing new problems after the minor climaxes.

Note: there is a difference between ‘resolution’ and ‘problems go away’. I once read a book where a chapter ended with a character learning a terrible secret, then getting pushed down several stories, maiming himself if he did manage to survive. Building tension, conflict, and resolution– just not a happy one.

That style, of course, would create something of a rhythmic motion to it, a lapping of waves on a beach, so to speak. It could be good, or it might not work. But it would almost certainly focus the chapter on at least one big problem, which immediately inserts tension into a story.

Any other thoughts on the use of a chapter? I’m particularly interested in thoughts on structure right now.

background to plot

I’ve re-entered into a plotting stage with my novel. I do this between every draft– write, plot, write, plot. It’s a good way to correct problems with form in your story.

For an example, two of the things I’m dissatisfied in the second draft were the intrigue (far too few characters, relatively little court conflicts), and the state of the rebellious commoners, which is mentioned but never plays a tangible role until the end.

Now, either of these two things could be described. I can paint in the features– a few rumors, some sub-plots, some sparkly court background. I can mention grumbling, unhappy common people and the high price of food. I can even hint at narrowly escaped danger.

Yet neither of these elements will truly become part of the story unless they have not just an effect on the plot, but a plot in and of themselves. More specifically, both must hurt my hero and heroine in a real and tangible way. Their interference must change my main characters’ mind about how they handle things, and cost them something important. Elements mean change in a story. It is vital to its structure.

writing the second draft

I had a request to share how I went about writing the second draft of my novel. As a disclaimer, this is just how I did it; I’m certain that others try different methods that work well for them.

My first draft was written during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month— I highly recommend participating) last November, 50,000 words in one month. It took another week after November to finally finish it, which brought it up to approximately 52,000 words. As expected of a NaNo novel, it had several major problems.

First, there was the pacing. I was writing furiously for four weeks to produce volume, not good craftsmanship. My first test reader said that the book felt like it needed to be about twice as long, which I agreed with. The city was an undefined blur, the castle equally nondescript. My prose rambled, got distracted, changed ideas halfway through sentences.

Some of the characters were very fleshed out. Others were flat and uninteresting. My two protagonists, Rylan and Wyrren, were not very consistent. My villains showed up when inconvenient for my heroes, the characters were sidetracked at several points. Some characters I had decided would be important, but seemed to decline their part in my plot.

And speaking of plot… the entire middle of my story sagged terribly. I had the ending I wanted, the beginning I wanted, and I got to keep my tiger-fight… and yes, I could see what I was going for in that first draft. It was also an unholy mess.

Now, I’m a terrible critic. I’ve been spoiled by literature, and I’ve read too many good books to be impressed by mediocre work. This might even be the reason that I’m so hesitant to start reading something new… I have a fear of being let down by a book, as if they were a new friend that I was entrusting myself to. When I read a book or watch a movie, I ask myself things like, “If I had written this passage, would I be satisfied with it?”

I also have an excellent memory for words on paper. I can still quote poems that I memorized twelve years ago, regardless of length. So I don’t forget the things I write in a hurry.

In January, I read over a few pieces of my printed first draft, put it away, and began writing the second draft. From scratch. No references, no list of absolutely required scenes. After the second chapter, I felt that I needed to be reminded of where I was going. Instead of going back to the first draft, I wrote a detailed outline of the book and kept going.

To those of you who practice art, I compare the first draft to a thumbnail sketch. It’s enough to let you know what you’re going for. But if you draw from the sketch, you’re just going to get a bigger sketch. Best to have worked out your thoughts ahead of time and begin fresh, looking forward to other references other than old, and quick, work. I can say that my second draft is far superior to the first in every way, but still not perfect.

That’s what the third draft is for.

a precursor to world building month

Once upon a time, when I was trying to avoid defining a plot, a beginning, or an end to the vague story-idea I had in my mind (a few years ago– internet role play, of all things, taught me how to move a story along, but that’s another issue entirely), I used to build static characters that only had situations, not actions, and worlds with details but not events. I made maps. I drew terrain, and defined linguistic patterns so that I could have realistic naming conventions for the cities.

Saint Know-All brought up the point that world-building can be completely distracting from the writing process, and I thought that I’d address that. World building is done to enrich your story. It requires action, and relevance to the project. It needs to contribute. After all, there’s not much point detailing characters that won’t be mentioned in the story. And world-building is important in genres other than fantasy and sci-fi.

Building a planet, galaxy, alien races, and government are all world-building. But so is defining the layout of a character’s house, the kind of furniture in the front room, the name of the street that said character lives on, the gossip that is spread around, and the statue that was defaced in the local park. No one can completely define the place they’re writing… and when you start mapping out blades of grass, you’ve probably gone too far. So first, before we begin our world building project, we’ll need to define its scope.

Simply put, where does the story go, what topics does it consider or touch on, and what are we going to see most often? Detail that.

For instance, if your character is a member of the local nobility, you should have a very, very good idea of how their system works, what the local issues are, and what duties fall to whom in the government. Even if a king isn’t introduced, you should know what kind of man he is and what he will and will not involve himself with. What people eat halfway across the world from said character will not be considered important, unless the character has a penchant for foreign delicacies.

villain month: in closing…

Blue Crystal Today is the last day of June… and an end to the ‘Villain Month’ project.

It’s been great being able to see everyone’s project– the last villain month showcase will probably be up tomorrow, with big thanks to everyone who participated! I really needed to go through this project, and I think the extra effort will show in my writing.

Since today is our last project day, I thought I’d post about one last antagonist of a slightly different flavor. Purposefully underdeveloped; these characters show up very rarely and don’t reveal much of themselves when they do.

The Silver Mask

The king’s secret police all have silver masks. The pieces are all handcrafted, intricate, completely unique. Some have the sculpted faces of angels, some are monsters or dead men, some are dragons or tigers, deep sea fish, insect-like beasts. The shape doesn’t matter. They’re all silver masks, and they all mean the same thing.

You will not know who they are. You will not know if someone in the room might be one. They put on their masks in private, and only when they have work to do in the name of their station.

Every time a mask appears in the book, someone dies.