Thursday, August 27, 2015

Q-n-A Bonanza Extravaganza

            Spectacular spectacular!
            What I’m going to do this week is run through a few questions and requests that have shown up here this summer.  A few of them I can do a full post on, but some of them are things I’ve touched on before (or, at least, I think I have) so I think I can answer them with a few paragraphs and links.
            So... let’s get to it.

How similar are your drafts in terms of character arcs and overall plot? 
            Tricky question that’s going to be a little different for every writer and for every project.  For me, once I get a pretty solid draft, it’s really rare for things to change that much.  It happens sometimes, but not often.  I think once the plot and story are solid, for most writers, there won’t be any real changes to them.
            Please note, though, that I didn’t say no changes.  Every draft is going to be a little different as I tweak and cut and make other adjustments.  But all of these adjustments serve the plot and the characters.  Things are just getting tighter and clearer.  Maybe it means omitting a few story beats or changing someone’s second language from French to Spanish.  But these changes aren’t changing the bigger picture, they’re enhancing it.
           It’s probably worth mentioning that if I’m making changes that do radically alter my plot or characters, what it really means is that I don’t have a solid draft yet.  Yeah, even if I’ve done six drafts before this.  If I suddenly realize Yakko should be my main character while Dot’s the supporting character who dies in the second act... that’s a big change.  That’s a lot of changes.  It means different interactions between different characters, new motivations, possibly a whole new linear structure.  And it also means I’m kind of going back to square one.  Now I need to tweak and cut and make adjustments to this plot and story.

            Do you have any thoughts on working on multiple projects at once? Like editing one, drafting another, plotting a third? Is that something you do?
            Yeah, I do this, but in a bit more limited sense.  When I’m working on a first draft of something, I focus pretty much exclusively on that.  Once I’m out of that, though, and into the editing, I’m always jotting down character ideas, lines, beats—all sorts of elements—for whatever I’m going to be working on next.  So while I’m doing drafts on one I’m setting all the groundwork for another.  I’ve also  found this helps me as far as any kind of block goes—being able to dip my toes into something else helps keep my brain from getting stuck on a project.
            Overall, though, this is one of those things that’s definitely more advice than rules, because it’s all going to come down to the individual.  Am I someone who can split their attention or not?  And to what extent?  Some folks can do it (to different degrees), some folks can’t.  Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to try it once or thrice.  I’m comfortable at the level I just described.  You might be able to do two or three  things side by side.  Someone else might need to focus on one thing at a time.   
            I do think it’s worth noting that “another project” can easily be a distraction, too.  Sort of like eating when you’re bored.  I’ve also seen some folks use multiple projects (consciously or not) as an excuse to never finish anything. Sooooo... something to keep in mind.

I'm still struggling with how writers develop an interesting narrative voice - character voice I think I'm getting the hang of, but the narrative bits still sound like me reading a grocery list. 
            Narrative voice can be tough.  Part of it depends on how much I want to insert myself as the author. Some folks do this extremely well, others... not so much.
            As far developing a narrative voice goes, think of it like a narrator. Who’s actually telling this story to the reader?  I’m not saying my book or short story has to be in first person, or that a narrator even has to exist, but in my perfect world, who’s reading this aloud?  Christopher Lee?  Felicia Day?  Doug, the guy down at the garage?  Ms. Phoebe, my college English professor?  Knowing the narrator tells me how they talk and what kind of words my narrative voice will use. 
            So, from a certain point of view, the narrative voice is another character. Even if it’s me, it’s the version of me I’m choosing to project through my writing (a friendly me who wants you to enjoy the story and is going to tell it in fun, simple terms, and who also has much better abs...).  So narrative voice is a lot like character voice, which is something I mentioned here just a few months back.  Well, okay, a year and a half ago...
            It’s probably worth mentioning that if there isn’t some kind of narrative voice in my head to start with, that might be a sign of a bigger problem.  If I have no sense of how my story should be told—how my audience should be hearing the words in their heads—I may need to stop and think about things some more.   Maybe the plot or the story aren’t as solid as I thought, and if they’re not clicking with me, there’s a good chance they won’t click with anyone else.

            Do you feel  an author should stick to one genre for the most part?  I want to go write something as far from my current genre as possible. Will that throw my fans for a loop?  I notice that you and most other authors pretty much stick to one thing.
            Well, I’d argue not much of my work falls in the same genre, unless we’re talking in broad, sweeping terms.  I’ve got a superheroes vs. zombies series (sci-fi fantasy with some soft horror), a suspense-mystery-horror novel, a sci-fi thriller, a classic mash-up where I share credit with Daniel Defoe, and I just started work on a historical time-travel road trip story.  I’ve also got some short stories out there that are straight horror, some that are straight sci-fi, and even a pulp action war story.
            And I’m not alone.  The majority of writers work in a bunch of genres.  They may be known for one thing, but they’ve usually got a lot of other stuff past that.  Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Craig DiLouie, Eloise Knapp, Timothy Long—and these are just the ones I know personally. All of them have written in at least two or three genres.
            Heck, look at Stephen King.  He’s known as a horror writer, but Firestarter and The Dead Zone, two of his earliest works, are pretty much straight sci-fi when you really look at them (there’s a post in that alone).  Under the Dome and 11/22/63 are both pretty solidly sci-fi, too.  The Dark Tower series is an epic fantasy.  Eyes of the Dragon is a young adult novel.  And then there’s “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” a  prison drama/character study that was adapted into a wildly popular film by Frank Darabont.
            So, no.  I don’t think an author needs to stick to one genre.  Yeah, there are some fans who might get upset I’ve moved away from their particular interest, but there’ll be just as many who’ll be intrigued to see how I deal with something else, and new ones who’ll come to me because of that something else.  And it’s my opinion that flexing those other muscles, so to speak, usually makes someone a better writer overall.
            I will say, though (there’s a “however...” on almost all of these, isn’t there?), that I don’t recommend chasing the popular trend.  It’s tempting to jump on the nymphomaniac-android-biker-school-romance bandwagon, I know.  But it rarely works out well in the long run.

            And I think that’s everything for now, yes?  Okay, I went over three or four paragraphs for some of them, but if you’re going to complain about that... Also, if I misread your question somehow, or if my answer just wasn’t complete enough, please say so down in the comments and I’ll try to answer there.  Or maybe bump it up to a full post.
            Next time, I’m going to answer one of those larger questions I mentioned up at the top. 
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Earlier In Our Story...

            Lots of requests from last week, thanks to you who've answered so far.  However. I’m still gathering my thoughts on how to answer some of them.  Plus, I’d already finished most of this, sooooo...
            I wanted to take this week to go back to something I’ve talked about before.  Flashbacks. I’ve encountered a few books recently that lean heavily on this device and... well, most of them weren’t good.  One of them was good to a point, but after that point it quickly tipped into frustrating, and from there to just plain bad.
            Well, let me bring up a more important question for us all to ponder while I babble on.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve within the story?
            Let me give an example.
            I read a novel recently about a Black Widow-esque assassin who’d gone through a nightmarish bout of training and indoctrination before being set loose on the world and her assorted targets.   Its chapters alternated between present day and the past.  The “now” of the story was her carrying out a series of missions while the “then” was how she was recruited and trained.
            The two plot lines didn’t make linear sense.  Y’see, for the first two-thirds of the book, our assassin (let’s call her Phoebe) was hunting down one target, finishing her assignment, and moving onto the next one.  It was kind of a Bond movie setup.  But she was paranoid-nervous the whole time. Was someone watching her?  Hunting her while she hunted down her targets?  She’d built up a lot of enemies over the years. Was one of them lining up on the base of her skull right now?
            Meanwhile, in the parallel past plotline (say that four times fast...), we saw how she was recruited out of the foster system after a series of schoolyard fights.  Her brutal apprenticeship.  Her first kill.  Her early missions.
            And then, the last third of the book rolled around...
            In the final “then” sections, Phoebe met Nadia, one of her peers (and, it’s vaguely hinted, maybe even a long-ago love interest or at least regular friend-with-benefits).  And it turns out Nadia is a traitor, a double agent who Phoebe exposes and they end up in a huge battle that rages through a shopping mall (again, really cool).  In the end Nadia gets away, but swears to return and kill Phoebe for exposing her. And from this page on, in the “now” sections, Phoebe wonders if it’s Nadia out there waiting to kill her.  Maybe Nadia has a rifle aimed at her head.  Nadia, the only one she ever let get away, could be right around that corner.
            See the problem here?
            As the “then” storyline progressed, it became clear that the “now” timeline was cheating and tweaking things to create dramatic moments that wouldn’t exist if the two lines were being honest.  The author forgot that all of “then” happens before every minute of “now”—the order they were telling the story in didn’t matter.  The author tried to set this up as paranoia in the “now” sections, except it turns out Phoebe was completely justified in feeling this way.  She knew all along someone was actually hunting her.  Hell, for the first two-thirds of the book she knew the name of the person hunting her, a person it’s strongly implied she’d been intimate with, and she never thought of Nadia once—even though most of the story is from her point of view. She just had vague thoughts about “a possible threat” or “maybe another operative” until this convenient point in the story.
            This is the type of thing people are talking about when they say flashbacks don’t work.  Well, okay, those people are kind of stupid.  Flashbacks do work and you should use them... if they make sense within the story’s structure.
            From a linear point of view, does my story still make sense with this flashback?  Or flashbacks, as the case may be.  What happens if I rearrange everything so all the chapters are in linear order?
            If a lot of my character motivations or behaviors become murky, it means I’ve got a problem.  I don’t have a good thread for my character, and their reactions are based off my narrative, not their linear experiences.
            If large parts of my story now drag, that’s a sign I’ve got a structure problem.  The flashbacks were the only thing creating tension.  It means my story is really either in the past or the present.  I’m just killing time and eating up word count in the other setting.
            If I put everything in order and my story works better—it reads smoother, its easier to follow, and the plot moves faster—then that takes me back to those early questions.  Why does my story use flashbacks?  What purpose do they serve?
            Don’t laugh at that last one.  I’ve seen people who turned their stories into a mess of non-linear flashbacks that served no purpose whatsoever, and they ruined an interesting story by doing it.  It happens more often than you’d think.
            Like any element in my story, I can’t be throwing in flashbacks for no reason. Just because something worked in that story doesn’t mean it’s going to work in my story—especially if I don’t understand why it worked.
            Do cool stuff in your stories.  But have a reason for doing it.  A real, honest reason that doesn’t cheat or frustrate your readers
            Next time...
            Well, I actually got a fair number of requests and questions last time, so here’s what I was thinking.  I’m going to pluck out the one or two that would work as full posts and we’ll probably see them in the next three or four weeks.  But next time I’m going to do a whole post of quick topics that I can address in four or five paragraphs (and maybe a link or three).  So if you have something writing-related you’d like me to address, mention it down in the comments and it’ll end up on one list or the other.
            And until then... go write.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Go Fish

            Wow.  If anyone’s still reading this, I’m amazed.  I’ve been absent for a long time, and I am very sorry for that.  There was a whirl of conventions, a bunch of rewrites, edits on the rewrites...
            It’s all kind of a blur, to be honest. 
            I wanted to dive right back into things with a quick talk about fish. Well characters as fish. A fish out of water, as the saying goes.
            If you don’t know the saying, it basically means someone’s unfamiliar (and usually a bit uncomfortable) with the situation they’ve ended up in.  When the small town girl moves to the big city and has to find her place, that’s a fish out of water story.  When the big city boy moves to a small town and has to figure out his place, that’s one, too.  And when the special ops veteran has to babysit three adorable little kids for a month. The idea has a pretty broad scope.  It can refer to feeling a bit awkward at a party where I don’t know anyone, or being dumped on the side of the road somewhere in eastern Europe and having to find my way home while dealing with ninja werewolves every night.
            If you’ve been following my rants here for any amount of time, this idea may sound kind of familiar.  It’s because I’ve talked about the flipside of this as a problem once or thrice before.  It’s when a character is so completely prepared for everything that nothing is a challenge for them.  They’re never worried about anything because they’ve got the skills and the tools and the weapons and the flares and the antibiotic ointment and the European voltage adaptor and so on.
            If my character is always prepared, that means they’re more or less in control of things. And if they’re in control... well, there isn’t going to be any conflict, is there?  He or she will just kind of amble around and face... well, no challenges.
            I don’t know about you, but that sounds dull as hell to me.
            Our characters thrive and grow when they’re forced to learn new things and deal with unexpected situations.  This is basic character arc stuff.  My character starts here and ends there.  And I shouldn’t be talking about his or her position on the couch when I say this.  Through the course of my story, my characters should grow and change.  Circumstances should make them reconsider choices.  Necessity should be the mother of invention.
            And it’s not a solid rule, but I’d bet in a good three-quarters of our favorite stories, this growth isn’t something the character chooses. It’s a sink or swim situation. Going home to my normal life isn’t an option.  I either need to make things better or they’re going to get a lot worse.
            What’s my point with all this?
            At some point in my story, my character should be a fish out of water.  Pretty much needs to be, really.  They should be gasping, floundering, unsure what’s going on and why, and how they’re going to get out of this situation.  Maybe not gasping and floundering in a strict literal sense, but on some level they need to be baffled and looking for solutions.  It doesn’t matter if my story’s about love, work, faith, personal discovery, computer simulations, alien invasions, terrorist attacks, or Lovecraftian horror.  Some part of this needs to be something my characters have never seen before, something they aren’t prepared to deal with.  
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s how my characters learn and change. Which is how they get an arc. Which is one of the key elements of great storytelling.
            If they’re never put in that unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation—or if it’s impossible for them to end up in one—what motivation do they have to move along that arc?
            So pull your characters out of their comfortable fish bowl and toss them up on dry land.  Or up a tree.  Or into the most awkward family reunion ever.  Especially if it’s not their family.
            Next time...
            Well, since I’ve been away for a bit, I wanted to toss the floor open to all of you.  Is there anything specific you’d like me to blab about?  A character or structure or dialogue issue that’s been gnawing at you?  Please let me know in the comments below and I’ll offer my best thoughts on it.
            And if no one says anything... I don’t know, I’ll go back and look at some earlier stuff.
            Until then, thanks once again for your patience.
            Now... go write.