Friday, December 31, 2010

Interviewing characters? Interview yourself!

I'm sure you've heard about this technique, often used by writers, of conducting impromptu interviews with characters in order to get to know them better. I've written posts suggesting questions for such interviews myself (like here).

Answering questions like these will often provide you with useful information about your character. If you've asked the right questions, this information can help your story a lot. However, a simple interview format has one large disadvantage:

It isn't good at capturing how the character would think and talk about him/herself.

I've tried to alter the questions I use to improve my results in this regard, but the real problem isn't the questions. The problem is the questioner. Think about it this way: would you talk about your life and your concerns in the same way to yourself, or your spouse/best friend, as you would to someone who came from a foreign country? Of course not.

However, when you ask questions of a character who resides in a world not our own, the answers you are likely to get are those you might give to someone from a foreign country or another world. You'll discover that all kinds of distance markers start creeping in - names that you'd never use, ways of defining oneself that we never think about unless dealing with outsiders.

How can you defeat that tendency so that you'll learn more about what your character should sound like on the inside? It's definitely a challenge. In the post I linked to above, I have a list of eleven questions that I've deliberately tried to phrase in a way that encourages you to use your character's voice to answer. Another thing I'd suggest is interviewing yourself, or having a spouse or close friend interview you. If you find yourselves laughing at the questions because you both know the answers, that's a good indicator of shared knowledge that insiders wouldn't bother to mention. If you don't feel you can do an interview without becoming more distant than you should, try looking into a diary that you've written, or letters that you've composed to someone you know well. Look at how you describe your setting and social situation. Look at what you label (group membership) and don't label. How much of it would an alien or outsider really understand? I'll bet you any money that you don't find anything resembling the phrase "Americans do this/believe this because..."

After your interview or research is over and after you have a draft of your narrative voice, try to edit it with an eye for distance markers. These include "Americans" or "Californians" or "noblemen" or anything people use to describe themselves to outsiders. Look for places when you've used "there" instead of "here," "they" instead of "we." Think about what information is normal and what stands out, what is important to your character and what is beneath notice. Make sure you've used "the" to refer to objects or concepts the character knows or has perceived before, and "a" for new information.

Getting into a character's head is a very valuable point of view technique, but the interviews that you conduct are limited by the fact that your character lives in the world you've created, and you don't. Since your subconscious knows that you don't live in this place, I'd encourage you to experiment with an "insider interview" approach or a diary approach to see how you talk about your own world - and then see if you can apply what you've learned to the worlds you're creating.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Okay, you have to see this...

I put the news up on my website, but I want to share it here too! I got the coolest gift this Christmas eve, from my husband, and my brother and his wife. There was an entire conspiracy for months that I had no idea about! Here it is:

This is me with the original painting Bob Eggleton made to illustrate "At Cross Purposes" for the cover of Analog. I was totally overwhelmed. It's beautiful down to its tiniest details, and I'll cherish it forever.

When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?

These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.

So let's say you've invested a large amount of worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed, and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery and doesn't feel right.

Walk away.

Don't just leave it alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.

Yes, it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this! How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's something you haven't done before.

When I walked away from my first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels, and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another. Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections started getting better.

Then I picked up a new novel. Totally new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time. Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!

Because it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.

For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.

I wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to them.

1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along, and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.

2. The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.

3. The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact that Tagret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot, why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary). The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of the entire novel when I get back to it.

When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.

How do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste. They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest. They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I loved, I can go back.

Here's the reward. Even before I've finished For Love, For Power, I can tell it won't die in the middle this time. I write a chapter in the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I can feel it's better. I handle everything more confidently and more subtly because I'm a better writer now. I can even feel ideas coming together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to draft something worth sticking with this time.

It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A new story for early humans

Here is a very interesting article about a new species of early humans, the Denisovans, who appear to have been widespread in Asia and to have contributed 4-6% of their genome to modern Melanesians. One of the conclusions drawn by the article is that the story of early hominids is more complex than originally thought.

A human story, complex?

Somehow, I'm not at all surprised.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Too cool to be normal

I've known a lot of people who've endured the stress of a parent or friend asking why they can't be more "normal." When the topic came up with my kids the other day we started asking, "What is normal?" Of course, with an opportunity like that, the anthropologist in me can't resist speaking out.

Normal, even in statistics, is defined relative to a particular group. Collect the data from this group, then calculate the mean and figure out a bell curve. That's how it's done when you can precisely identify the members of the group in question. In the social sense, though, the group is much harder to define. Asking someone to be "normal" implies that they don't belong to the "normal" group. Usually, but not always, it implies that the speaker does belong to that group.

So the first thing I'm going to ask is why we use this term at all? I found myself using it a few days ago to talk about people who do violent acts - "they're not normal." I'm pretty okay with that, I guess since the group I'm defining is good citizens of the world. But believe me, I know my kids are going to run across "not normal" comments about their love of school, and their intelligence, and their love of good stories, and on that one I'm going to be ready to go into battle.

"Not normal" isn't always a bad thing. I definitely consider myself "too cool to be normal" - something I definitely associate with being a lover of science fiction and fantasy - and I hope my kids will feel the same.

If you have ever been a victim of the phrase, "not normal," use your writing as your chance for revenge. First of all, take pride in the fact that you're above average. And second, redefine normal in your writing. Use the word shamelessly in whatever world you've created, and think it through, making sure it means something utterly different there from what it means here in our world. In Cochee-coco society, it's not normal to seek privacy. In Aurrel society, it's not normal to cook vegetables (and only your pets would eat them anyway). In the Realm of Words, not saying what you mean isn't only "not normal," but against the law.

We all know people who use "normal" as a sword. It's time for us to give that sword a second edge.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your dialogue can do more

I've just spent a week working on one conversation.

This is not because I had no time (not that I had a lot, but I did write consistently). It's because for me, conversations are very important. Particularly if the conversation features a character who hasn't had much "screen time" previously, and particularly if that character is one who influences the course of the main story as it goes forward, it's worth giving people a good look - and listen - to her. So each time I came back to work, I started by reading through the conversation so far. Each time, I found places where the dialogue I'd written could accomplish more.

I know many of you write in layers. By this I mean writing one type of thing to get started and then going back to flesh out other elements later. Often, that first thing is dialogue - but just because it's the thing you feel comfortable enough with to write your dialogue first, you shouldn't necessarily leave it. It may be able to do more.

When people speak, we don't ever really say one thing at a time. Think about the conversations you participate in. Everything you say gives extra hints about social context, your intentions, etc., but because in reality you're engulfed in that context, and you hold those intentions, what you notice about what you say is the language that imparts new information. That is to say, the social and other contextual information is evident when we speak in person, so we typically don't notice it unless we are actively trying to determine where another person is "coming from."

In writing, this process can be reversed. Certainly in most cases, dialogue isn't enough to carry a narrative all on its own (plays are different, of course) - I usually add internalizations, actions, body language, and other kinds of cues to any kind of dialogue situation, even if it's just a conversation. However, if you think about it, when you write the subconscious cues that would ordinarily reflect the social context can actually imply the social context. They can imply the character's motives. This is particularly useful if you have a non-point-of-view character on your hands.

Since this may sound vague, and since a lot of it is subconscious anyway, I'll give some before-and-after examples of how I went about adding an extra layer to dialogue.

Tamelera, Version 1
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but since she joined the Cabinet, I'm not sure I can trust her."

This isn't bad. Captures Tamelera's emotional reaction to Selemei, the reason for it, and the proper chronology. Also shows a glimpse of the political structure (Cabinet).

Tamelera, Version2
"Maybe I should try to speak with her [Selemei], but when she took a Cabinet seat she joined the men's side. I'm not sure I can trust her now."

Better. Why? It keeps the earlier details, but also makes clear that Tamelera is aware the Cabinet is dominated by men (which has been pointed out earlier; Selemei is the only woman on the Cabinet). Furthermore, it shows that she thinks of the world as divided into men's and women's sides, which are opposed to one another. This is a major characteristic of hers that I can build on later.

Here's another example.

Recited message, Version 1
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] I expect to see you there."

Recited message, Version 2
"I extend my invitation to you to attend an informal tea and concert at the Club Diamond [...] See you there!"

Here the difference is very small, but important. You may notice that neither one says "please let me know if you're able to come." The message sender wants the recipient to show up at this tea, and in fact has information that could potentially be used to blackmail the recipient into coming. I tried to reflect the attitude of "I could blackmail you" when I first wrote the invitation, but it seemed too dark. It also seemed a bit heavy-handed for the message sender, who is a bit more subtle and refined than that. Thus I decided to change it to "see you there!" which conveys a certain charming excitement, but also relies on the underlying assumption that the recipient will be attending the event.

The next example I think shows how a slight change can give a clearer idea of a character's assumptions and social expectations. It comes from a section where Tamelera's son has told her he's met a girl, but he hasn't told her under what kind of circumstances they met. Here is her comment:

Comment, Version 1
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to meet you."

This is certainly true, as her son is quite handsome and a pretty nice kid, too.

Comment, Version 2
"I'm sure any girl would feel lucky to be approached by someone like you."

I decided to use "be approached" to show that Tamelera assumes her son decided to approach the girl - when in fact she was the one who approached him. I decided to use "someone like you" because Tamelera doesn't want to engage emotionally with the idea of her son meeting a girl. Thus she speaks of him as a member of a group of people (people like him). Given that people in this society are primarily defined on the basis of their social standing, it means that girls like to meet boys who are in a good social position, and implies that Tamelera is trying not to imagine the actual people involved.

Here's another example:

Household Keeper, Version 1
"Yes, sir. She will join you as soon as I have your breakfast ready."

Household Keeper, Version 2
"Oh, yes, sir. Join you she will indeed, as soon as I've your breakfast ready."

In this case, the Household Keeper's voice was turning out to be too similar to that of another servant, also in the room at the time. Since he's a recurring character who will be seen more closely in other chapters, I decided to give him a different speech rhythm. This differentiates his speech from that of the other servant, and it also helps me give a sense of the scope of my world, because he sounds like he has a dialect (and later when it's relevant I'll mention that he's from a provincial city).

And one final example:

Surface, Version 1
"Let me tell you about the surface."

Surface, Version 2
"Do you remember what I told you about the surface?"

This sentence is one character bringing up a topic that she's about to discuss with someone else. As you can see, the dialogue will turn out differently depending on whether the characters have met before, and whether they have spoken previously about a particular topic. I realized that the way I phrased this topic opener needed to reflect these characters' shared history - and that it could thereby help me handle backstory. Anyone who sees version two will immediately know that these two people have discussed the surface before, which gives me the opportunity to say a few words about what the content of that communication was. The advantage for me in my revision was that if I hadn't placed their previous conversation as backstory, then their current conversation would have had a lot of ground to cover before I could get to what they really needed to discuss. So not only did the dialogue sound more natural, but this segment of the conversation become significantly shorter and less clunky.

To summarize, dialogue can help you reveal:
  • character attitudes (Tamelera example)
  • character intent (Recited message example)
  • character assumptions and social expectations (Comment example)
  • character differentiation, background and world characteristics (Keeper example)
  • character backstory and personal history (Surface example)
These aren't the only things that dialogue can help you do, but they're the examples that I was working with this week. Your choice of words in dialogue can leave other kinds of clues, like indicating what kind of information is known and which is new, or whether your character feels comfortable or uncomfortable with the situation. It can also help you strengthen the theme of your story. When handled well, it can often help you take some of the information burden off the main portions of the narrative.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fantastic article about metaphor and the brain

This is a really cool one, talking about the relationship between metaphor and reality in the brain, and some studies related to this. Turns out feeling one's own pain and empathizing for others' pain happens in some of the same brain regions. And moral disgust resides in the same place as literal disgust. Check it out here!

Break down your goals!

I don't have a lot of time to write, so I'm always very cautious about setting writing goals. I don't even track my word counts. Why? Because it depresses me every time I see friends on Facebook or on the forums talk about how they wrote 1000 words today, or 3000, or however many. If I counted, I'd probably end up with 100, or some number that merely indicates I redid a scene with hardly any wordcount change. And of course there are always days when I get zero words. But zero words might mean I was too sick or busy - or it might mean that I got a lot of fruitful thinking done, just no typing.

My number one rule of goal-setting is "be compassionate with yourself." I focus on saying "I did a bit of work today," and on keeping a sense of momentum.

That said, there are times when setting a goal can be motivating. Don't set one that's too big, like "I have to write a novel as soon as possible." Ouch! If you're writing a novel, and it's a big project, it's a good idea to find ways to keep your eyes on the prize, but break it down. I made some good progress yesterday (unexpectedly) and now I'm thinking, "Can I get Chapter 5 done by Monday?"

For me, goals come in several categories.

1. Write every day. For this one, thinking/plotting/outlining count. This is maintaining momentum.
2. When you sense a potential goal close, try giving yourself a timeline to reach it. I'd call this one opportunistic goal-setting. It can help you get a boost of motivation over a short time period.
3. When you have a big project, set smaller goals. Set a chapter writing-rate goal, realizing that it will vary longer/shorter depending on the demands of your life. Set a chunk goal, too. My current chunk goal is to get to Chapter 10 - the end of a major arc. My sense of when I'll finish the whole novel will depend on how long it takes me to get to Chapter 10, and how I feel at that point.

I speculate about how I'd like to finish writing this novel by next October or so. It's a good thing to imagine, but at the moment I have no idea how realistic it is. It depends on too many factors. If you find your larger goals are overwhelming you, be compassionate with yourself. Break down your goals to make them more manageable. Then as the smaller ones are achieved, you can get a better sense of what to expect with the larger ones.

Above all, don't punish yourself for underperformance. It will only make things worse.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture isn't uniform!

Way back in the very early life of this blog (in 2008!) I wrote a post about making sure your characters aren't all the same. Not surprisingly, the post was called "Don't make them all the same," and I encourage you to go back and look at it.

Today's post deals with culture, but it has the same message. Not only aren't different cultures the same as one another (on a very fundamental level), even cultures that are spoken of as if they were uniform aren't really uniform.

American culture. Which one? From the point of view of Australians or Japanese, our culture is what they see on the television and in the movies. I remember having to explain over and over when I was living as an exchange student in Japan that just because they hear stories about Americans who own guns doesn't mean that every American owns a gun. Just because they hear Americans talk about Christianity doesn't mean every American is a Christian. As my Aussie husband has remarked, "America has Utah, and it has Nevada, and the two are side by side."

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Japanese culture varies a lot also. There are a myriad dialects across the Japanese islands (as should be expected given the length of time that the population has lived there). The Japanese are particularly proud of their regional delicacies, but the differences go beyond just that.

In fact, culture isn't necessarily uniform even in a single location. In a tiny town dominated by a printing plant, you might have a microculture for the people who work at the plant which distinguishes itself from the people who work in service positions for the plant workers. In a major US university you'll have African American groups and Asian American groups as well as groups based on religious affiliation, hobbies, etc. People align themselves based on professions, religions, neighborhoods - almost anything can become the basis for alignment, or realignment. When I was an undergraduate one of the major issues that came up was that the Asian American group was splintering into subcomponents - the Filipinos and the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese were starting to want their own groups. In the US we often talk about the culture of a company, or the culture of sports, etc.

So let's say you're creating a fictional culture. It could be aliens, or elves, or humans in a secondary world - that part doesn't matter. The characters that you create will differ enormously based on the culture they are a part of, but also upon the subcultures they belong to. And here's another thing - different subcultures aren't necessarily even aware of one another's existence, even when they interact all the time. Let's say that you have one group that works as servants to another group - the master group will know a lot about the servant group as pertains to their interaction with the master group, and the expectations for intergroup relations. However, they may not know much if anything about the norms for relations inside the servant group, when the master group is not present. People can live side by side and interact constantly but have no idea how members of another cultural group think.

I encourage you to think this through as you build a world. A character doesn't behave the way he/she does because he/she is a member of X labelled group. That character is a product of his/her own experience and has layers of cultural awareness. That character will also have ideas about how other groups work - and those ideas probably overlap with other groups' views of themselves, but they probably miss a lot too.

I have a big trilogy in my future (something I wrote before when I wasn't as good a writer!) and I'm having ideas for it on and off continually (which is why I'm sure I'll go back to it). One of the things that's developing is the social structure and the intra-cultural contrasts. It's a Varin trilogy, so it's set in a society with seven caste levels. I used to have three point of view characters, but now I have four planned, and contrast is the reason for this. It's going to look like:
  1. Imbati #1
  2. Imbati #2
  3. Akrabitti #1
  4. Akrabitti #2
Each of the two members of the Imbati caste have very different ideas about what it means to be Imbati, which grow out of very different sets of experiences - and as you can imagine, the same is true for the Akrabitti characters. There's also going to be an important contrast between the noblemen that Imbati #1 and Imbati #2 work for. These contrasts give the portrayal of the castes and the world far more depth than they could have if I used only a single character from each group. In my reading of science fiction and fantasy I've met a lot of quest groups, and other groups, with different races and cultures - but usually only one representative of each. It's not a problem, per se, but when you want to create a truly three-dimensional society, it can really help to get a stereoscopic view of the cultural groups from which it is formed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An artifact example: we're not just making up random stuff!

I had an epiphany yesterday, about a suit. Yes, a suit - one that my protagonist's mother gives him for his birthday. If you think about it, if you use those words alone, it's pretty generic. Could be the real world, or a fantasy world, or a science fiction world. The epiphany came to me because I found myself spending a lot of time describing the details of this suit, and wondering why I was doing so. After all, I'm not writing Regency romance where the fashions are much of the point. I don't want random stuff in my book that isn't relevant in some important way.

Let me tell you, it irks me when someone says, "But you're writing fantasy. You can make up anything you want."

Grrrr.

I'm not going to waste words describing a suit if it's not important. And it is - in much the same way that the sun armor was important in "Let the Word Take Me" (discussed in my post "Focus your Worldbuilding Efforts").

But wait, there's more to it even than worldbuilding. That's why I thought it would be worth breaking it down here. First, an excerpt:

"Inside the box [Tagret] found a cutaway coat of mottled blue and green with touches of white. Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers. Underneath were two glowing white silk shirts and a pair of trousers in matte slate-green. [...] The new shirts had long cuffs that buttoned with pearls up to the elbow, clearly intended to match the coat's short, flaring sleeves, and to echo the darker pearl buttons that fronted the trousers. This was a style the Pelismara society had never seen - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."

Even though it occurs in two locations in the scene, this is a lot of words to spend on the details. I asked myself why all these details were important. There were lots of answers.

Worldbuilding
The idea of a cutaway coat is familiar from our world, and the term is important to suggest the shape of the coat, but other details like spider-silk, the long shirt cuffs and the short coat-sleeves are there to make clear this isn't your typical Earthly fashion. Furthermore, the coat is woven in an ocean pattern (ocean is also evoked by the pearls) - but in this world of underground cities, nobody sees the ocean unless they travel, and travel is very dangerous. Thus my protagonist has to describe the pattern as he understands it, one detail at a time. "A style the Pelismara society has never seen" also implies world, because it shows some of the social significance a fashion like this might have. In fact, the Pelismara society ladies and gentlemen are accustomed to wearing jewel colors or earth/stone colors, and the ocean design causes a minor fashion scandal later in the story!

Character
" - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."
The presentation of the suit precedes Mother's entrance into the scene, and though she's been seen before in the story, this is the first time we see her through the eyes of someone who knows her well and cares about her (Tagret). Essentially, this is when we first see who she really is: a noblewoman of considerable intelligence, with a penchant for humor and subversion, who is trapped in an extremely restrictive social role. How do I get all that in, when the two of them will be talking mostly about the social issues that my protagonist is currently dealing with? Well, I can't tell readers about her (her son would never think about her that way), so I use the suit to imply it. The suit has been specially commissioned, so she's noblewoman with a great deal of money at her disposal. It's a very unusual fashion, so she doesn't follow trends. It also brings an image of the surface world down into the underground city where such things are never seen, suggesting that she doesn't think like everyone else. The rest of her outfits for herself are also going to use surface motifs, so once I had this piece in place I got inspired to expand its scope.

Theme
One of the major ideas that recurs in this novel is that of being trapped and wanting freedom, but having real freedom and the search for it be full of risks. The underground city/dangerous surface travel situation parallels Tagret's inability to escape from the political situation his father thrusts him into, and also the awful marriage situation that Mother suffers. When Mother brings images of the surface down into the city, in this suit and in her own clothing, it shows her struggling against her situation in the limited way she can - a struggle and a tendency for subversion that she's passing on to her son.

Foreshadowing
"Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers."
This was an artistic choice by the artisan who created the suit to try to represent light on the ocean water by mixing spider-silk and other fibers. It's also more than that, linking back to an earlier scene when the protagonist takes his friends (all dressed in silk) to a concert hall attended by members of Lower castes (who dress in matte fibers). Tagret remarks that "Tillik-spider silk might be an unregulated commodity, but evidently it was expensive enough to sift Higher from Lower all on its own." The mixing of the fibers in the coat given to him by his mother thus gains an extra meaning of subversion, and hints at Tagret's future, where he'll see that the separation of the castes is another kind of trap and work to break the barriers down.

That's why I described the suit - but I did it before I realized any of these connections. Sometimes you don't know precisely what you're doing - and you don't have to - but your subconscious says this is how it has to be. The exciting part for me about seeing these larger patterns was knowing that I could extend them further across the book. It gave me insight into Variner fashion, and into Mother's character as well. I didn't have to "make up" the rest of the clothes she wore, because I knew what kind of thought had gone into the design of Tagret's suit, and thus the same kind of thought could be applied to her choices for her own clothing. And I also knew that she'd be brave enough to be the only one wearing clothes like this, strong enough to set off a scandal and eventually a new fashion trend in the claustrophobic, decadent Pelismara society.

Because of a single suit, I know so much more about my novel now.

Yesterday was a good day.

Friday, December 10, 2010

An interactive list of the most common English words

This will blow your mind. They have 86,800 of them. Check it out here!

The is number 1.
Gentle is number 3270, just ahead of precise and encouraging.
Pickle is number 24469.

Number 100 is got.
Number 1000 is James
Number 10,000 is sewing.

You know, I figure this has to be useful for writers. Very often the commonest words are the ones that sound most generic - so this might be a good way to measure whether you're being too generic, or too specific, for the context you're working in.

An interesting post about story

This is fun, coming on the heels of Janice's and my discussions of the rules of writing and story. Kay Kenyon shares her thoughts on what keeps her reading: story.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A useful outline format

I've come to the point in my outlining process where I don't feel I can progress any further on For Love, For Power without doing the writing that will take me further in. This in itself is interesting, because I'm sure there are people out there who think that outliners must know everything in advance and count on their outlines not to change much. On the contrary. I'd feel rather more comfortable with this novel if my outline were a bit more solid, but I expect it to change, and in fact I expect it to become more fully fleshed as I start writing and discover the various new elements, character alterations, etc. that will help me see more about what needs to happen. The part of my outline that has the least information is actually the middle of the story - the beginning is pretty solid through chapter 13, and I have a pretty good sequence going for the final eleven chapters (yes, it has lots of chapters!). In any case, the thing that has let me get this far is creating a particular outline format in Excel, so I thought I'd share how I've been doing it in case any of my readers might find it useful.

Here's an example from the start of the novel:
CHAPTERS EVENTS DAY # CALENDAR
1 Tagret meets Della in the panic 1
1 Tagret kisses Reyn 1
2 Aloran interviews with Eyli 2
2 Indal institutes the Kartunnen ban/health checks 2
3 Tagret sees Della at the concert and speaks to her 2
3 Tagret speaks to Lady Selemei 2
4 Nekantor tries to break Tagret's door 2
4 Garr and Tamelera return home 2
5 Tagret receives an invitation to tea from Lady Selemei 7 Tagret's birthday

As you can see, the main content is in the second column, labeled "events." I write down what needs to happen in varying levels of detail, depending on how much I can envision. In this case, this section is rather minimal because I'm summarizing something I've already written. When I have a clear idea of whose point of view the event must fall in, I give the event a color code showing who it belongs to. I also have the names included, but the color coding helps me to see the balance of the points of view at a glance. If I don't have enough chapters in someone's point of view, it will jump right out at me because there won't be enough of their color in that section of the outline.

In the far left column I make sure to note which chapter each event falls in. That helps me gauge the length of the book. For this book, each switch of point of view is a new chapter.

Then to the right of each event I number the days that pass. This is important for me because I need to make sure that people have enough time to change their minds, fall in love, etc. and everything has to happen pretty quickly, but it shouldn't be totally unrealistic. I also need to track whether people have had enough sleep/food/activity/healing time over certain periods of the novel (to see how worn out they would be), and the day counter makes this much easier.

Finally on the far right is the calendar. I haven't actually filled in the dates (most of the book occurs in the month of Soremor), but this is where I put important events like Tagret's birthday, his mother's birthday, the Eminence's death, the Accession Ball, and the different rounds of voting in Heir selection - which, by the way, need to occur on a fixed schedule every three days.

I think you can probably see how this was tangling up my head before I worked out this outline format. There was a time when each point of view character had his own column, but that was more confusing for me and made it harder to track which events caused one another and how the characters interacted.

In any case, I hope a glimpse at this will give you ideas for organizing your own projects - it's pretty easy to set up.

Happy outlining!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Should writers "follow the rules"?

I've been following a discussion recently on the Absolute Write forum about point of view and the idea of head-hopping (there are now two threads! 1/2). At the root of that discussion was the question of whether readers notice an author's use of point of view, and whether it's done consistently, etc. One of the issues that came up was the question of rules, since point of view (POV) follows "rules" that people say you should follow. There are also rules about not using adverbs, rules about show don't tell, rules about three-act structures, etc., etc., all through writing. One of the common exchanges that I often see coming up in discussions of rules looks like this (and let me remark that I'm not specifically referencing the AW discussion/participants here, but all the different instances of rule discussions I've seen):

Person A: "But really good writers get to break the rules all the time."
Person B: "You're just saying that because you don't know how to write."

This saddens me every time I see it. Usually person A isn't actually saying that because they're trying to cut corners, but because they've heard this refrain about breaking rules. If you've been writing for any significant length of time, you've heard this - just as you've heard the rules about adverbs and "show don't tell," etc. At the same time, person B is often not trying to attack person A, but to defend the idea behind the rules.

So why are the rules there? Can they be broken?

When these questions come up, I'm extra glad of my experience in Pragmatics - because this is be a perfect time to talk about H. P. Grice's Cooperative Principle. This principle says, "make your contribution to the conversation optimally relevant and appropriate." As I've remarked before, this may seem terribly obvious. However, it is quite powerful, because the assumption of cooperativeness allows us to draw conclusions about other speakers (and in our case, other writers).

When you assume that the writer is being maximally cooperative, you're essentially relying on two things (both of which we assume about people in speech all the time):
1. The writer knows the rules
2. When the writer breaks the rules, he/she breaks them intentionally.

This is to say that following grammatical rules establishes a default value for language - a way of using language in which everything flows and nothing stands out or gets noticed. Consequently, breaking those rules causes a marked state, a state in which things stand out as having possible hidden/additional meaning.

Compare the workings of grammar, point of view and story structure to a room with which you're very familiar. You leave the room in a particular (default) state, and have a basic memory of that state when you return to the room. When you return, if something has been moved in the room, a. you notice it and b. you draw the conclusion that someone or something has moved that thing. Depending on what has been moved and how, you can easily conclude that someone opened the window and the wind blew some papers, that your husband picked up the envelope you left for him, that your cat knocked over the plant, or that you've been robbed.

To quote from my 2006 IROSF article on Point of View:

"The voice of a narrator is usually so transparent that we feel it without needing to analyze it. [...] But then, every so often, we run across a sentence like the opening of Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (Science Fiction 101, p.100, emphasis added):

He doesn't know which one of us I am these days, but they know one truth.

Suddenly, the words used for point of view are not only visible but provocative. "What is he doing?" we ask. "Four different pronouns in the same sentence?" Then quickly we move on from our initial surprise to ask, "What special situation or alternate reality can this signify?""

Readers - and I'd think, particularly readers of science fiction and fantasy - will be willing to do a lot of deduction to figure out precisely what special situation is being described. Personal taste is involved, of course. Some readers find certain departures from the norm bothersome, while some don't notice those much and object to others. However, to keep reading, readers must feel a level of trust for the writer. If a departure from the rules violates that trust, perhaps through making some change that the reader finds particularly irksome, or by using language loosely so that some grammatical changes don't paint a consistent picture of an alternate situation, then the reader will stop reading.

All right, so what about those famous folks we all know about who violate all kinds of rules (grammar, point of view, structure, etc.) in inconsistent ways - yet people read their books voraciously anyway?

I'd say there are a few core elements that have to be in place grammatically - like, say, that it's really convenient to be able to identify who your characters are and keep track of who is doing what, etc. Beyond those really fundamental confusion-inducing principles, though, the kinds of rule violations that are a matter of taste can potentially be outweighed by the content of the story. Usually that has something to do with the situation, the characters in the situation, who they are and what is at stake. When the story content is exceptional, a lot of readers will ignore faults of the writing. But not all of them - take my husband, who is not a writer but is a voracious reader and was absolutely furious by the time he finished The DaVinci Code. Okay, yes, he finished it, but he's unlikely to pick up another book by Dan Brown. I personally picked up Twilight to see what it was all about (because something about the story had to be exceptional) and couldn't stand it long enough to get past page 3.

The fact is, I love a good story. But I love a good story well written even more.

If you're a writer out there wondering about rules and whether to follow them, you're asking the wrong question. The question should instead be what it means to follow them, and what it means when you break them for specific effect.

Language is a marvel. Its patterns are complex, and multilayered. I discover things constantly that put me in awe of its beauty and complexity, as well as its flexibility as a tool. If writing is your passion, and you want to make it your life, it's worth the time and effort to explore what it can really do.

P.S. Since I wrote this post, Janice Hardy has put up a companion piece dealing with story, that other critical aspect of writing - and the part that tends to make people ignore problems of grammar etc. Go here to check it out!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sequence Outlining

How many of you outline? Now, how many of you learned how to make an outline in school but don't actually outline the stories you write?

I'm here today to say that the school-style outline and the writer's outline are often very different things.

I outline fanatically. I always have an outline of some sort, even for a long book. Outlines help me because I often write puzzle-like stories where the required outcome is known, but I don't know how to get there. Once I figure out intermediate events I have to make sure they all fit - relevantly and somewhat neatly - into the space between point A and point B. However, my outlines don't look like

I. Blah Blah
A. Blah
1. blah blah
a. blah

Which is to say that I don't organize my thoughts into concepts and sub-concepts. That's a pretty natural organization for a persuasive paper, where you have to build and support a particular argument. For a story it's not necessarily of any help at all.

I've tried two main strategies for outlining and I believe most firmly in something I'd call "organic outlining." This is opposed in my mind to chronological outlining.

In chronological outlining, you take a look at the book's calendar of events and you write down what logistically has to happen at what time, and then use that as a scaffold for placing plot- and character-related events. Whenever I do chronological outlining, I find I end up with something that has lots of events in it, but is lacking in the larger dynamics the story needs. Things don't converge to form the big highs and lows that make a story exciting. I also end up with big gaps that say "something has to happen here," and I often can't figure out what to put in those gaps, which makes the story feel both long (too many words, yikes!) and diluted.

In sequence outlining, you start with events first and worry about calendar later. Often I start with a list of questions or suggestions that come directly from my sense of the demands of the story. Such as:
  • Someone has to be the target of an assassination attempt.
  • Sorn has to be part of some nefarious plan to influence the voting.
  • Tagret has to learn that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye.
  • Tagret has to do something bad in order to save his girl from the candidate Innis.
Then I put my mind on how these things can be ordered relative to one another, and relative to other events I have in mind. I ask myself, "what would be the worst time for this thing to happen?" So for example, the worst time to learn that Selemei wants to bring attention to his mother would be just when Tagret realizes his mother is up to something that would put her in serious danger if she were to be exposed to scrutiny. That gives me a hint for another event, "Tagret realizes his mother is up to something," which I can then look for a place to add. Of course, I know that it must happen right before "Tagret learns that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye." The two events now have a required relative sequence.

I try to find as many required relative sequences as possible, and then I see how closely I can place them to one another. The other thing I do is I try to take related events, which happen to different characters, and pile them up into the same time period so that the story intensity will go way up. I'll think to myself, "This is basically Tagret's point of greatest despair. How can I make it so that his ally also experiences despair at this point, and his enemy elation, so that it all lines up and the dynamics are stronger?" Or, "What can I line up with this so it provides the climax?"

Once I have those relative chronologies in place, then I worry about schedules. Schedules provide the scaffold only after I have all of the relative pieces in place. Nobody will try to assassinate any candidates except between their initial nomination and the voting round where it gets down to two candidates, because if one of two gets killed they'll have to start over. Tagret won't do a bad thing unless he absolutely has to, which means it's going to happen after he's determined candidate Innis can't be ruled out any other way, and before Innis gets enough power to act on the girl directly. This chronologically confines the timing of that particular event.

What I end up with (as will you, if you try this) is clumps of densely packed event sequences (a bt like Cheerios in a bowl!). Gluing those sequences together in a logical way can be tricky, but if I can do it, that gets me to an initial sense of how the story flow has to work - with the added advantage that I don't feel like a slave to the calendar, and I don't feel like the story is either wordy or diluted.

In a story as complex as the one I'm working with, this technique is proving to be extremely helpful. Indeed, the more complex you want your story to be, the more outlining can make the difference between getting through it and petering out in the middle.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Working with no text

Having successfully recovered the very latest version of four out of six-and-a-half chapters of my novel, For Love, For Power, I'm feeling good and lucky - if also frustrated because of the two and a half I have to redo. This gives me a great excuse, though, to talk about working with no text.

Working with no text is actually something I enjoy. I think that every story can benefit from it (though I don't recommend flushing the chapters in question!). For me, this takes three different forms:
  1. Talking about principles. This is when I try to hone aspects of my story by walking away from it and talking about it with friends.
  2. Echo listening. This is when I identify the strongest lines of my story by seeing which ones pop up in my head when I'm not looking at the text.
  3. Constructing a structure scaffold. This is when I try to rethink my story on a structural level without getting bogged down in the text which is already there, as an aid to revisions.
I'll take these one at a time. I can't recommend number one highly enough. My friends know that I like to talk story with them (sometimes incessantly!), but the fact is that getting away from the words that create your story can help you put your mind on underlying issues more easily. You can talk about characters as though they were a real people, talk about their growth and progress and what you think they'd do or what they wouldn't do. You can also brainstorm small elements to change here and there without being limited to one single instance in the text. This is where I do most of my work on "story," that intangible thing that lies behind the words. My friends and I talk about what matters in the story - and that usually isn't a question of the words themselves.

Echo listening is a different kind of tool. I use it for the most part as a guide to editing, to show me what kind of things I should try to keep no matter what (even if, for example, they need to be moved to another location). It's also a good test for poetic meter (which I don't usually bother to count out explicitly) and what sounds good.

Building a structure scaffold is enormously useful. Some of you out there may simply sit down with a blank page and start to write, but I almost never do that. I generally have an outline - and by that I don't mean something that is numbered with Roman numerals and indents. Sometimes it's just "this has to happen here," "X goes to this place," or "Y realizes A." Especially when you have a large unwieldy chapter with lots of words that need organizing, walking away from those words can help you identify the most logical progression, which elements are core elements of the story drive, and which are peripheral. This then makes it much easier to go back to the chapter and reconstitute it without getting caught up in the flow of the existing words - to see which ones are truly necessary to core drive, and which are not.

All of these are useful for reconstructing lost text. Because of all my talks with friends, I retain a lot of the information that we've discussed about the way the story is supposed to work. I bring this to my blank page and then use echo listening and the structure scaffold that I remember to put things back together. Currently my reconstruction file is up to ten pages worth of good lines interspersed with notes on scene and structure elements that I remember coming up with. And now that I have those, I'm much less scared about regaining my lost chapters than I was when I was staring at a blank "Document 1."

I hope they can also give you ideas for dealing with text loss, or with revisions.