Having taken some time off from the blog to focus on writing during an unfortunate period of unemployment, I will be continuing with regular updates soon; however, expect some turbulence while I adjust to a new job.
And during this unemployment, one thing has stood out: it's amazing how much time can get wasted. I began with the intent to write tons. What did I accomplish with nearly a month off? One damn good short story and the planning work on a novella. Not too bad, but I could have done better.
The problems? First, I let a contest distract me. I wanted to win, but the subject just didn't entice me. I had an idea, but it just wasn't solid. I spent a week futzing with the thing and finally realized it just wasn't going to happen. I just couldn't visualize it. Something is missing.
(There is still a couple weeks left; who knows if I'll find the missing ingredient or not.)
Next, common distractions. Little things. Some errands and dental work, but mostly just time-wasters.
The good? The short story worked well and helped restore some confidence. Other conversations during this time contributed to my confidence too.
The lesson overall is that writing takes shit-loads of discipline. It takes ideas, which need a quiet place to develop. It takes willpower to open up the editor and get to work, all while letting the next idea take seed in the mind.
Sadly, I tend to put writing last. It should be first.
Here's to hoping the lessons have been learned.
At this time, the novel is in a marinating stage while I work on the novella I have planned. I think I've found the critical obstacles that were blocking up the scenes in that work, so I'm hopeful it will see more progress when I return to it.
If we accept fiction as the exploration of ideas, theme is the central idea explored in a story. It often involves the intersection of conflicting ideas.
Most themes emerge organically as a story is written and are developed further in editing and revision. Good drama gives rise to a theme naturally--conflicting forces engaged in a struggle. Those characters and struggles often boil down to simple ideas: peace, violence, opportunity, revenge, tyranny, desire, arrogance, etc. Going back, a writer might start to notice these themes and do things--small or large--to enhance them.
Some writers start with the theme and build a story around it, selecting characters and conflicts that will investigate the theme from every angle. To do that, one needs to develop characters and conflicts that highlight that theme in the best way possible. They have a huge gallery in the beginning, so they need to be adept at narrowing the choices and focusing their ideas.
The theme of The Superhero Murders might be law vs. vigilantism but I've found it's really an exploration of violence in a lawful society. To explore that theme, I've developed a lawful character and a vigilante character--easy enough, right? But that hardly explores the theme, so I have a character that aspires to vigilantism but never engages in it, a character that has given up on justice and humanity altogether, a character that walks a line between the two because of the situation I've put her in--that's Kim, the main character--and lastly I have the antagonist, a fellow that uses violence to achieve a twisted goal. He preaches law, but it's his own version of law. He strives for a goal that is insane to everyone else.
I began with a character, as many stories do. The theme and ideas came later. As I reworked and reworked (and reworked) the story, the theme grew stronger. Along the way, I continually thought the theme was vigilantism. Only recently did I realize that the large theme is violence within society. (e.g., do the police enforce the law through respect or through fear of violence?)
My thoughts: to explore theme, the writer needs at a minimum:
SIDE NOTE: Symbolisms and Motifs are related. In On Writing, Stephen King mentions that he eventually noticed that blood was a recurring symbol in Carrie. It appears in each major plot point. He then built that motif up during revision. (Now, a motif, a recurring symbol isn't the same as a theme--but it's a cousin, and this illustrates how such things as tone, symbolism, motif and theme can all emerge in revision.)
There two basic kinds of story arcs: external and internal. Call them what you will. The external arc is visible and fully on-camera. This can be the must-save-the-world stuff, or it can be a mother planning the perfect birthday party. The internal arc is what happens inside a character. It often involves change, but it can also involve a refusal to change. It's thought and emotion.
(Note that traditionally an arc is a plotline that spans multiple episodes of something. I understand the word came into being in the '80s. My usage is more general. I don't use "storyline" because some writers associate that with the external plot only.)
However, the two kinds of arcs must affect each other, not run parallel to each other. I remember old Star Trek: the Next Generation episodes had this trend of running parallel arcs. In one, the ship is in peril or someone is going to die. The stakes are high. In the other arc, Lt. Commander Data tries to bond with his new kitten (and risks losing his humanity forever, or something.)
If an arc feels thin, light, or weak, fill it up with struggles and "trying." I've been doing this with The Superhero Murders outline lately (when time permits.) Once I have a grasp on a character's needs, wants, passions, social role and key relationships, I list their resources: that which they can call upon to achieve their goals. This helps me with the next step. I list their options. What can they try to achieve their goal? But I don't have them try just one thing, I have them try everything--so far as it makes sense for the character. I do this for everyone in the story, and soon I have so much material I have to begin making decisions about what can happen "on camera" and what stuff only I know about.
And since the characters often have conflicting goals and passions, this should naturally lead to rising pressure on each character. The actions of other character threaten that which they value. The cauldron boils until it explodes over the rim in a frothy climax (sorry, got a little excited there.) If that isn't happening, I've made some critical mistakes in the character development area and I need to step back.
So, to me, the middle should be the best part. It sounds like too many writers think of it as filler.
By way of example, let's consider Samantha, my main character's loyal best friend, a cheerleader. Even though she is Kim's best friend, she is terrified about the dangerous stuff her headstrong, reckless friend is getting into, so her goal is to get Kim back to doing more normal stuff--like shopping and dating. At the same time, she's also worried about pushing Kim further away and ruining a good friendship.
So while Kim is engaging in the external arc (and thus her own internal arc) Samantha runs through a list of options. Talk to Kim; express concern. That doesn't work. Try reverse sarcasm? Reverse psychology? Maybe, but they're likely to backfire. Talk to Kim's mother. Doesn't work. Talk to Kim's other friends. Talk to an authority figure. A serious talk with Kim. Plan an intervention. Plead with Kim. Pregnancy scare? Threaten suicide? Call the police and tell them everything!
The deeper Kim wades into her fight with the enemy, the more desperate Sam becomes. (If I've done my job, I've already established exactly why Sam feels this desperation and will go to extremes here.)
Some of these come out in the novel. Some she skips for her own reasons. But what about Sam's fear of losing Kim as a best friend? That's part of character development. She has fear as well as passion. That leads to dilemma and choice--crunchy stuff when it comes to internal arcs. She has to choose if she's willing to risk (key concept there) losing Kim if it means maybe keeping her off that dangerous quest. Is it worth it? Will it work? Is it her only option?
We'll see :)
I've noticed a poison that creeps into fiction. No matter how realistic or gritty the story, writers continually let it slip in. This week I noticed it watching an episode of Breaking Bad, season 4--one of the rare television shows worth watching if you can stomach it (though I've noticed I don't like it as much as some other writers.)
The poison is poison itself. Despite a wealth of information available in our world, I keep noticing the same trope--a toxin that reacts within seconds; is colorless, tasteless, and odorless; and has no side effects other than the victim falling unconscious or dead without more than a grimace or gasp. The details vary, but real toxins don't work like that.
In the Breaking Bad episode, several members of the cartel ingest poisoned drink all at once. Salud! Then, a few minutes later, it kills all of them at (almost) the same moment. They fall to the ground dead with barely a sound. The only exception to this was Gus, who purposely made himself vomit while everyone else was falling dead. Smart guy; he got away with just some stomach pain.
Breaking Bad generally portrays toxins realistically, such as its use of ricin, which is described incorrectly but is still better than fantasy poison. I was surprised to see such a ridiculous toxin on the show. There are toxins that act rapidly, but they have specific effects--not just an instant slumping to the ground--and no ingested toxin would affect all of its victims at exactly the same moment. Metabolism and stomach content would cause the results to vary quite a bit.
This is why writers are amazing. A writer that researches will know about a wider variety of topics than most other folks--especially when it comes to interesting ways of killing and disposing of bodies (just an observation.)
The lesson here is do research. I don't mean just a quick Google search. Talk to experts, read actual books, and dig deeper into how things work. This, to me, is what writers mean when they talk about honesty and truth in fiction. It's really just another way of saying fiction should be believable, realistic.
Doubt is expected, especially on a large project, but dealing with a gender I'm not familiar with, from a generation I'm too removed from, in a setting that I've never seen, feels not just overwhelming, but altogether wrong sometimes. Also, Issues like how to format text message conversations present surprising challenges, like balancing convention with readability and avoiding sounding gimmicky. (There's a balance to be struck there.) I've worked my way through every problem I've hit on this book so far, but this one keeps coming back to haunt me. It's hard to tell if it's legit or just normal doubt. (If not this, would I doubt something else?)
So let's break this down. There's two areas of concern.
So what if she's young? She's a human being. She has passions, needs, backstory and quirks--all the things that should make a character in a story work. As long as I make those things plausible and explain what is necessary in narrative, there shouldn't be a problem. (Also, beta readers can help iron out teen-girl quirks along the way--too bad I don't know more teen girls. Well, you know what I mean. Readers. Then again, if I'm too far off, the chore of making it all believable might not be worth the effort right now.)
If this were a fantasy or science fiction novel, I'd be spending hours on constructing a unique world. Using a real world location is different only in that I replace making things up with research. Of course, with real-world locations, readers can call me out if the details are off. With fantasy and science fiction, it just has to be plausible. Still, New York City is daunting, (if not over-used in fiction. I'm still not sure why I chose it.)
Okay, I need to put some thought into this one.
Work continues on The Superhero Murders, if slowed by a sprained ankle this weekend. Lying on the couch for a weekend doesn't mean I can't work out the problems. The second scene didn't feel right. I finally realized that I was simplifying by means of forgetting the perspective of different characters present. Not only that, but I was forgetting just how seriously injured the main character's father is supposed to be. He shouldn't be smiling and talking like his normal self just a few hours later. Lastly, my main character's objective in the scene changed, and not just because the person she wanted it from is still unconscious. The reader doesn't know her yet. They don't understand why she would want what she was asking for yet. Too much, too soon. So with new perspective on the scene, I wrote about a thousand words tonight.
So, let's talk about openings. Why not; everyone else does, right? I bring it up because I'm writing the opening to the book (The Superhero Murders), which makes it the natural topic on my mind today.
A quick Google search yields a library of advice on the topic: hook the reader, start with action, establish a voice, show character, start with an inciting incident, set tone, launch the plot, and so forth. Above all, make sure it grabs an agent or publisher by something important and doesn't let go. It's easy to find the advice. It's harder to make all that happen in roughly a hundred and fifty words or so. (If I remember correctly, that's about how many words end up on a title page after manuscript formatting.)
Examples are easy to find, too.
Yet, the one thing I do know is that nothing has been written so far. The page remains blank. If I agonize over the first sentence, paragraph, page, scene, chapter, or whatever, I still have nothing.
The trick I learned a short while ago, and I think it will work here too, is to write scenes more like screenplays and less like fiction. I don't mean in format, but in essence. I write dialogue. Actions look more like stage directions. Then, I can go back later to add in whatever I need to establish setting, mood, character, or whatever else. (That includes rewriting.)
So, instead of conjuring up some clever line about the sky looking like a dead television channel, I state what I know and keep going.
Text message. Kim checks it. A link to some news story. She tosses her phone back on the bed and returns to punching the bag in the corner of her bedroom. Another text message.
It's all wrong, right? You bet'cha. Not much of a hook, maybe a smidge of character, but certainly no mood or plot, yet. That's okay. I can work all that in later. The important part is I didn't wring my hands over the opening. With some work, it might be one of those great opening later, but
Update on The Superhero Murders: While transferring my notes from paper to digital, I found some poorly defined arcs, but I also managed to smooth out a couple turns that had bothered me. Still, I found that I trudged through the opening scenes even just copying the notes over, so something needs fixed there.
* * * * *
Description tends to be a hot topic among writers. Like so many other aspects of the craft, there are no global rules.Each writer needs to figure out their own rules based on what works and what doesn't work for them.
One group complains that the world has become all too fast, that readers don't want anything but the most critical, surgically relevant, descriptions weighing their reading experience down. Apparently, it's a very old complaint.
The other group consists of literary painters. Reading is a journey taken slowly and leisurely, like an old time Sunday drive down the fence-lined, dirt-and-gravel back roads of the literary country.
Me? Well, I've been giving it some thought and I tend to agree with both sides a little.
The personal rule I'm developing is this: don't describe; instead, establish, setting, mood and character (all with respect to the POV, of course.)
Achieving a sense of place in a scene can take nothing more than a word, like kitchen for example. Here, the reader's mind (probably) fills in a generic room with some common details like a sink, refrigerators, cabinets, and counters. And this may be all I need, but place is inevitably tied to time, so how about some morning rays streaming through the small window over the sink?
Mood is elusive. It is more than mere description, but it can be aided by description. So, if I want a dark and tense scene, I could filter those morning rays through a tattered, dirty curtain. Oh, and the light bulb is broken too. There is a big kitchen knife stuck point-first into the counter next to the cutting board and a couple beer bottles in the sink--one of them shattered into jagged pieces. Mood is usually subtle, so nothing more than these tiny cues are needed for now. Even a sprinkling of key words, if that is all the time I have, can add a smidgen of mood. I could be creative and literary--flyspeck--or just mundane and simple--dingy.
What about character? The beer bottles and knife say something about the occupants. I could reinforce those in a few ways. If I want to indicate that the occupant is a cop, he may have left a belt and gun sprawled on the center island. If the occupant is a working slob, muddy work-boot tracks could crisscross the faded linoleum and the scent of rotten garbage lingers from an overflowing trashcan in the corner. If he has a temper, the reader could discover fist holes in the drywall.
The last element I strive for in description is completeness, such that several senses are covered (I only hit two so far), and details that surprise the reader.
In all these cases, more or less could be done depending on how I want to craft the scene. If I'm aiming for a slower pace, more description might be a useful tool, as long as it serves a purpose (such as the ones I've mentioned.) What I want to avoid is empty description.
So far, nothing has happened, there's no action. Every bit of description is a balancing act. I'm trading forward movement for place, mood, and character. Some writers try to weave these things in with the action or dialogue.
Generally, I try to achieve a lot with a little. I use as little as possible while still achieving my goals. It could be nothing more than a word. Every writer has to decide how much description works for him or her.
Disagree? Did I forget something important? Comments are always welcome.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.