Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Dwarves.

I tend to go through several different versions of an idea as I try to make it work.  This past year being what it's been, I've been doing this more than usual; when nothing works, it's easy to try throwing everything away and starting anew.  One story I've been trying to do has its origins in the classic Snow White fairy tale, so when I first tried to figure it out and it didn't work, I thought there was one major thing I'd done wrong:

I hadn't included any dwarves.

Looking back, I'm not sure how I ever thought I could tell a Snow White story without dwarves.  I mean, they're right there in the name.  So when I started to plot a new version of my story, the dwarves were front and center from the beginning.  There would, of course, be seven of them, because that's just how it's supposed to be.  However, the farther along in development I got, the less I liked what I was working with.  It took me months, but I eventually realized that I'd fallen into a trope's trap.

That trope?  Our Dwarves Are All the Same.

Much as I hate to say it, this one's really true.  I'd bet that, when you read this entry's title, you got a mental image of a dwarf that would be about 90% similar to anyone else's mental image.  And I found that, when I tried to develop seven distinct dwarven characters for the story, I had some real trouble getting them to be different from each other.

This is not an issue I've ever had.  I've written a bunch of humans, some elves, some dragons, several cat-people, quite a few demons, so on and so forth.  STARWIND alone contains wargolems, a gnome, a lamia, and a handful of different species I didn't even give names.  Yet somehow it's easier for me to write a small furry creature as the ship's pilot than it is for me to imagine a dwarf who steps outside of the usual dwarven traits.

The weird thing is, this took me out of the story entirely, and I stopped wanting to write it.  The idea of having so many characters who just blended together in my mind had me wondering if it was worth working on or not.  I genuinely don't get it.  What is it about dwarves that makes so many people want to only write them one way?  There are always stereotypes about fantasy races, but for every magical, forest-dwelling, utterly stuck-up elf out there, there are dozens of variations on the race.  So what was wrong with me that I couldn't get this right?

Eventually, I accepted that it wasn't going to work out - I couldn't find an answer that led to me writing the characters as the individuals they should be, not just plain dwarves.  I delved back into my notes for the initial version of the story, and looked up the characters who'd originally played the roles of seven specific people.  Then, I put the two plots into a blender and started mixing.

The result has been overwhelmingly positive so far.  Part classic fairy tale (I even worked in the evil stepmother), part classic movie plot.  I'm starting to think this one's going to work out, and hoping I can get the plot done this year and write it next year.

Because if I'm finally going to do "Snow White and the Seven Samurai", I'm going to get it right.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

IWSG: Something from Nothing


This isn't the entry I was going to write.

I had it planned, I really did.  I was going to leave the entire thing blank, except for the IWSG logo, for the length of my usual entry, with a sentence at the end saying the above text consisted of all the writing work I'd gotten done in November.  I might have left it up for all of December, if things continued to go so badly.  Some part of me called it melodramatic, but I thought it would be a good way to show what it felt like to look back at an entire month and see that I'd done nothing.

It was also kind of a riff on John Cage's 4'33", but that's neither here nor there.

Things didn't seem to be shaping up last week either; I thought I had an idea that would work out, but once I wrote it down, I realized that I didn't want to write it at all.  That was Tuesday.  On Wednesday, I accepted that I didn't feel like trying to get anything done, and pulled up an old e-mail from a friend.  The e-mail is something she copy-pasted and sent to me, titled "falling in love with your story", but that's not really what it's about.  It's a writer talking about finding out what's wrong with your story and figuring out how to fix it.

Something about that must have sunk in, because on Thursday, I started thinking about a project I hadn't worked on since August.  I remembered what the e-mail said, and came to realize what was wrong with the main character that was keeping me from wanting to write her.  I scribbled down notes at work for the first time in I don't know how long.  And later that day, when I was out on my second break, I started having ideas.

No, let me rephrase that: I started having IDEAS.

Do you know that moment, when you put something together in your head for the first time, and it sparks a character and setting, a place and a reason for them to be, and you know you've got something worth pursuing?  I got that.  For the first time in I don't even know how long, I got that.

So, I went home and got to work.  And to my great surprise and relief, everything I worked on actually worked.  I leaned back from my keyboard, thrilled but exhausted, and felt like I'd just woken up after spending most of this year in one long nightmare.

It's been a busy few days since then.  The new idea is still going strong; I've been developing it a little bit at a time and seeing how things play out, letting the actual plot work its way into my head as I develop the world.  As for the project I'm getting back to, it still needs work, as I have the entire thing plotted but something about it still doesn't seem right.  But I have ways to try to fix that.  And even if I can't, then at least I have something that is working.

We'll see where it goes from here.  I know it'll only take another story crashing and burning for me to feel like it was all for nothing.  But I have a place to start from and one to build on.  And it feels good to have hope for my own work again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Combined Problem, Part 2: Love, Suddenly

So this is building on what I talked about in last week's entry, which was based on the two entries before it.  Next week's entry will be about the entirety of five and a half years of blogging here.

No, probably not.

Today I'm talking about what seems like the next level up from arranged marriages: plot devices that give two (or more) characters some sort of unbreakable bond, including but not limited to them falling in love with each other.  This can be instant or build over time, it can be subtle or ridiculously blatant, so on and so forth - there are dozens of variations I can think of right now and I'm sure the rest of you could come up with hundreds more.  This sort of thing has been around since the early days of storytelling and anyone who's heard more than a few fairy tales is surely familiar with it.

And, like arranged marriages, it's a trope I like but have no idea if I actually want to work with it.  Some of my reasoning is the same, largely the part about not forcing characters together.  Yet this concept can lead to so much conflict, meaning it can fuel a great many stories.

It also can make things ridiculously uncomfortable, especially if the bond involves attraction and/or love.  I can see it being played for laughs, but being attracted to someone not because you want to be, but because you're somehow compelled to be?  Up to and including being in love with that person?  Something about that just rubs me wrong.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my last attempt at this didn't go well.  Last year, in an attempt to make one of the too-damn-many things I was working on actually work, I decided to spend a month on one story idea.  The basic idea was that people in that world who bonded with familiars (magical animals) gained additional abilities, so it was a desirable thing.  The plot started with three characters accidentally bonding with each other as familiars.  There are a lot of reasons why it didn't work out, and one of them was that I started feeling more than a little iffy about the relationship between the three main characters.

I thought that bringing the three of them together would lead to interesting conflict and character development, ultimately ending with something fulfilling for them that made their lives better.  Instead, it felt like a glorified plot device that only made them all mad and uncomfortable.

So, yeah.  I'm still not sold on this one, and I doubt I'll use it again, at least not as a driving thing.  But Tonja brought up a good point on last week's entry: if something's important to the story, then it needs to be in the story.  It's one of those things that seems so simple, but it's easy to forget.  While there are things I won't write, just being iffy about an idea shouldn't be why I decide not to put it into a story, especially if the story absolutely needs to have that thing.

This has been a bit more of a ramble than I expected, and I'm not sure if I actually made the point I was hoping for, so I'll cut this off here.  See y'all next week for IWSG.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Combined Problem

This one stems from my last two entries.  It's about something I think I'd like to write but don't know if I really want to, and it's theoretically about romance - okay, it'll be about romance if I write it, but it doesn't have to be.

I'm talking about arranged marriages.  (In fiction.  In real life it's something I have trouble with, but that's neither here nor there.)

This is a trope I've worked with before, in two different books.  I wanted to make it part of the main characters' pasts in a way that would get them to realize they wanted it to happen, despite the issues it had caused way back when.  It was . . . kind of awkward in both stories, and looking back, it seems out of place.  When I started to consider an idea I dug out of my file that also has this element, I gave it some heavy thought and wondered:

Is this really something I want to do?

I don't like the idea of forcing characters together.  Despite joking about the idea in my last entry, I think that sort of thing is both bad for the story and has far too many unfortunate implications.  But at the same time, an arranged marriage is a remarkable plot device for all kinds of shenanigans, romantic and otherwise.  There's a lot you can do with it.  As I write this, I'm considering using it to fuel an escape plot.  So, like most story tropes, it's not something we writers should dismiss out of hand.

One of the main issues I'm having with the arranged marriage thing is that it can come off as contrived.  I realized this when I was trying to see how the story idea could form a plot - everything I came up with, there were ways to make it happen without the arranged marriage, and those ways often made more sense and were less likely to make the people involved seem like enormous jerks.  To make it work, I think it would need to be a cultural or legal thing, something with precedence, rather than just a clause someone puts into a contract to fuel later romantic tension.

Of course, someone could throw it into the contract just because they're manipulative and/or evil.  I did think of that.  I don't know if I'd go with it, unless the main antagonist was in for some serious mustache-twirling.

I think the main thing to ensure with this trope is that the characters involved in the potential marriage are the ones who determine how things play out.  Whether they find a way to break the arrangement, decide that they'll go through with it for one good reason or another, or find a third option, the result should come from them.  A favorite line of mine from Writing Excuses is "your protagonist must protag", and that's especially true with this trope.  If there's an arranged marriage involved, no one who's part of it should go passively along with it.

Unless it's part of their own greater and more devious plot.  I'm okay with that.

Next week: A Combined Problem, Part 2.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

NOW KISS

When I first get an idea, it's most often a Character doing a Thing.  Said Character will also usually be in a Situation where they can Do That Thing, and said Situation usually involves a Place for the story to happen.  Once I have those crucial elements set in my head, I can start building on them (and often end up with something completely different), but there's something that always comes up in these early stages:

Who is the Character going to Kiss?

Gratuitous Capitalization aside, this is something that comes up in nearly everything I try to write.  It's rare for me to come up with a cast of characters without wondering who should end up together, if they'll have chemistry, and what will or won't develop between them.  I'd love to say that I let this happen organically as the characters develop, but I can't even type that with a straight face.  Most often I'm shipping my own half-formed characters together before I even know how the story ends.

...that's not entirely true.  Most often, I know that the story ends with them together in some way, because I can't stand tragic romances.  Anyway.

For me, a lot of this probably comes from writing the same couple over and over again.  When it's inevitable that two characters will get together, it gets easy to make that part of the planning process for every story.  In one of my plots-in-progress, I realized that there was no romance, and immediately started wondering if the main character should get together with someone.  When I determined there was no one suitable, I thought about changing one of the other significant characters to make them a better romantic foil.

I don't think that's how it's supposed to work.  The characters should define the romance, not the other way around.  Otherwise it ends up feeling forced or problematic.  And I'd really like to avoid that kind of thing.

Realizing that this is how I approach romance has me reconsidering a lot of things.  I had some romantic threads to pull in another plot-in-progress, but as I (struggle to) develop that one, the more I work on it the more I wonder if that's how it's actually going to turn out.  What seemed natural for the characters now seems contrived, and I can't tell if it'll turn out the way I imagined.  I'm a little disappointed, as losing this romance means I wouldn't get to write a sex scene that's both very touching and rather unconventional, but I've sent enough of this story to the cutting room floor, what's one more bit.

(No, I'm not going into detail on the sex scene.  It comes purely from the characters, and without knowing them and what they've had to deal with, it would just seem strange.)

Anyway.  I am absolutely certain that I'm not the only one here who's dealt with this sort of thing.  So how do you deal with it?  Do you ship your characters before you've even written them?  And have your characters ever refused to get together?

Next week: problematic plot elements.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What Aren't You Writing?

No, this isn't just a cheap excuse for me to say "EVERYTHING" and have another really short blog entry.  :P  This is something I've been thinking about for a while.

I do a lot of plotting, when things are going well.  (When they're not, well... look back over about 70% of this year's entries.)  There are common threads that show up in a lot of my plots, mostly in the form of a few favorite tropes - things and themes I like to return to, whether I've really worked with them or not.  Sometimes they work with what I have planned for the story, while other times, I have to either strip them out or not add them in the first place.

After seeing this pattern, I asked myself: these themes are clearly what I want to write, yet I keep putting them in as part of the background.  Why am I not writing a story that focuses on them?

Since I'll need an example for this, a big one for me is the Cosmic Horror Story.  There's something about the overwhelming darkness of the universe and the horrors that dwell within it that appeals to me, and I've never been sure why.  Themes from that show up in a lot of my plots, but I haven't put any real work into a story that makes them the focus.  The closest I've come was way back in my second book, which dealt with a dark, corruptive god as the big bad behind the actual antagonists.

I've never gone back to that story because I pantsed that book and ye gods, it was a mess.  But something about that darkness has stuck with me ever since.

I know that "write what you want to write" is one of the big pieces of advice we writers get; I think we've all been hearing it for years.  But when I started thinking about this, it struck me as interesting to have something that I clearly want to write but never have.  There are, of course, bits and pieces in my idea file that could count as this type of story.  One is a seriously warped take on an old fairy tale that is entirely Loni's fault.  :P  And yet, I never do much work on these ideas, even the ones that intrigue me the most.

After spending some time thinking on it, I think I figured it out: I like happy endings.  And stories like this are largely meant to end in pain, despair, insanity, and/or death.  Most cosmic horror stories I've read are like that, and while it works for the genre, it's hard for me to think of stories that don't end without at least a little happiness.  So I suppose it's easier for me to work with some of the themes and ideas from the trope, rather than going full doom and gloom.

Though I might have to try that someday, just to see if I can do it.

So, what about the rest of you?  Are there themes that pop up in a significant amount of what you write?  Is there a genre or something like that in which you'd like to write but don't?  And do you know why there are things that you aren't writing?

Next week: NOW KISS

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

IWSG: One Good Thing


I had one good thing happen this week:
Naturally, it didn't last; I haven't done a thing since then.  But it's the one thing I've got, and I'm sticking to it, since everything else lately has been the same shit as the rest of this year.  I'm overworked and exhausted and I feel like hell when I don't get any writing done but I damn sure don't feel like doing anything after yet another ten-hour workday.

Hope everyone else out there is doing better than me.