Monday, November 28, 2016

The Sequence of Events

There are a lot of people out there who think all a writer needs is an idea, and then they're good to go.  They believe once a writer has that idea, the hard part's done, and then they can settle in and write the story since clearly they've got the most important thing.

None of these people are writers.

A lot of this comes from what I talked about two weeks ago.  The idea is what starts you off, and you need to make sure you put the parts of the idea that made you want to write it into the story itself.  But what gets you there?  What takes you from a disparate mishmash of scenes and characters and bits of dialogue floating about in your head to an actual story?

Ask a dozen different writers this question, and you'll probably get at least forty-two different answers.  What's been working for me lately is something I figured out when I was attempting to plot STARWIND.  I call it the sequence of events.

Just like its name, the sequence of events is boring and practical.  But it's very effective.

When I was trying to plan STARWIND, I knew mostly what I wanted to happen.  (Mostly.)  I knew it was a race/scavenger hunt covering half a dozen different worlds.  I knew where the crew was going and what they were going to find there.  I knew someone would betray them along the way.  But I didn't know how it was all going to fit together.  My usual plotting method was to just start writing an outline, paragraph by paragraph, figuring it out along the way.  It wasn't working - I couldn't even figure out how the story started.

So, instead of after agonizing over it for a bit a few months, I decided to write out the order in which everything happened.  No paragraphs, no details, no description; just a sentence or two saying "They go here and this happens."  It was the most minimalist plotting I'd ever done.  But with so many places to go and so many things happening along the way, I needed to fit the the story into those very basic steps to get it to go anywhere at all.

It worked.

"Story starts here.  Crew flies here.  They try this, it fails, they try something crazier and more dangerous and it works.  Crew flies here.  Thing happens.  Crew flies here.  Crew runs from fight.  Crew flies here.  Someone gets set on fire.  Horrible betrayal ensues.  Crew flies here.  Crew attacks other crew with giant monster.  Crew goes here.  Unexpected thing happens.  Crew flies to finish line.  End."

That is, of course, a very simple version of what I did (yet it's longer than the sequence I typed up last week), but it did what it needed to do.  Once I'd figured out the order of things, I could hash out the real plot and fill in all the details that made the story what I wanted it to be.  And I never would have gotten that far if I hadn't set aside my usual process and tried something new.

I've applied the sequence of events to everything I've tried to plot since, with a reasonable amount of success.  And I have more hope for STARWIND than I have for anything I've written in a long time.  Time will tell if this change was exactly what I needed.

Next week: IWSG: People Need Your Stories.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Back in the Pilot's Seat

I haven't tried to write a sequel for two and a half years.  That was three books ago.  A lot's happened since then.

When I was working on STARWIND, I knew there was more to the story.  The plot itself was self-contained and easy to fit into one book, as I try for with anything that could be a first published book.  But I had ideas for where things would go afterward.  The story's events aren't limited to just the race between worlds, and while the ending is designed to be a good moment of closure, it's also blatantly made to lead into further adventures.

In query letters, they refer to this as "series potential", and it's what you say so you don't scare off an agent with "I have a seven-book series planned for this thing."  Because yes, I have a seven-book series planned for this thing.

Do I think I'll ever get to write all those books?  I have no idea.  I'll be happy if I ever have reason to write the second one.

Anyway, yes, I'm currently deep into plotting the sequel to STARWIND.  I made an official document for it a few days ago, and it's now up to twelve pages long.  No, I haven't typed up twelve pages of material in a few days; I've been keeping plans for the entire series at the end of my original plotting document, but that got too messy when it became time to plot a separate book.  But it's going well so far.  I have character arcs planned for all the returning crew, and a lot of work to do on some new people so they all get reasonable arcs of their own.  I have new worlds to create, and I'm already having a lot of fun with that.  And I have a plot that has some of the same basic story structure while not feeling repetitive, with a lot more going on than just "we have a race to win."

It's been interesting to build on what's come before.  I feel like a lot of the heavy lifting is done, all the establishment of setting and locations and main characters, so I can do more delving into new stuff and not worry about if some things are going to work.  Some things already have worked, which is a tremendous help.  It feels oddly comfortable to go back to working with these people, planning out their next adventure now that I know them so well.  And yet I have to avoid repeating myself, or making the story seem like too much of a rehash of the first book.

If I ever write this, I'm sure someone somewhere will give me crap for writing another story where the heroes have to go visit different worlds and gather what they find there while dealing with all kinds of exotic hazards.  But if all goes according to plan, the next three books will have three distinctly different structures.

Yes, I'm talking about it like it's going to happen, because even I sometimes get tired of my own self-depreciation.  I know this plot is just like any other I've written - there's no way to know if it'll ever actually become a book.  But I feel really good about STARWIND.  I'm hoping this one will do well, and actually looking forward to querying it and seeing what happens.

And because of that, working on a sequel doesn't feel like a waste of time, which is tremendously gratifying in and of itself.

Next week: the SEQUENCE OF EVENTS.  It's in caps for a reason.  :P

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Boom and Break

No, neither the boom nor the break are about bad things happening, not really.  Neither is this about everything that happened last Tuesday; I'll cover that in next month's IWSG.  This is yet another entry about a part of the creative process that I've finally figured out well enough to make it work for me.

If you're treating my blog as a drinking game, and you're not taking a drink for "Mason figures out something about the creative process" entries, you're doing it wrong.

I think we're all familiar with the concept of the shiny new idea.  When I start getting ideas for a new project, I see a lot of the big things and important events that happen in the story like I'm watching a movie trailer, flashes of awesome that are going to happen in what will surely be the greatest thing I've ever written.  A ship flies through an endless mass of raw magic.  A mountain picks a fight with a golem the size of a city.  A young deity's hair changes into something that is distinctly not hair.  It's all one big boom of ideas, bits and pieces that I somehow know must happen in this story-to-be.  Sometimes they're more about new characters suddenly being born in my head, or about the way a world works, but there's always this knowledge that there's a story in there somewhere and I'm only seeing the beginning of it.

It's easy to get really, really excited about these bursts of idea.  What's not always easy is figuring out the rest of the story.  This is where the break part comes in, as it's far too common that I scribble down all of the new ideas and can't figure out how they're supposed to work.

And so, I get frustrated.  I look at all the cool things that are supposed to happen and see no way to connect them, or worse, I start thinking that they're not how the story is supposed to go.  This is what leads to my endless series of plot revisions and restarts, to fifty-page planning documents that still manage to not have a complete story anywhere in them.

Somewhere along the way, I forget that those awesome moments are the basis of the story, and I need to build everything around them.  I need to keep them in the plot, to make sure the parts that got me wanting to work on the story in the first place are still there when I finally do start writing the book.  I need to make it so every other thing that happens, every part of the world, every facet of the characters' past and present, works toward those moments.  Whether they're action set pieces or crucial character pieces or mind-blowing lore pieces, everything should build to include that story's first big boom.

Like everything else about the creative process, this seems like something I should have figured out long ago.  Maybe I did, but just couldn't put it into words.  But it's easy to forget.  It's easy to lose sight of the awesome when you're trying to figure out the everything else.  I've seen writers talk about just putting one word down after another, even when it's not thrilling or exciting.  It seems that applies to plotting as well.  There are long sequences of just getting it done.

A story can't be just the movie trailer, at least not the sort of stuff I want to write.  The story has to be the entire movie and then some.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Recommended Reading: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

If the title alone doesn't make you want to read this book, I don't know what to tell you.

For a long time, I avoided sci-fi because I expected it to be too heavy on the science side of things to really hold my interest.  Give me fantasy, I said, because anything involving magic has to be more interesting.  I've been making an effort to branch out more over the years, and I've found some sci-fi books that I've enjoyed along the way.

And then along comes a book like this, which makes me wonder how much I've been missing all this time.

Planet (no, I'm not typing out the whole title every time) is about the crew of a spaceship called the Wayfarer, which is a borer ship - it makes wormholes through the universe, essentially creating hyperspace paths for other ships to follow.  The book is, sort of, the story of what happens when the crew gets a big job to tunnel to a place near the galactic core, to open up an massive new route.

I say "sort of" because while that's the story, that's not what the book is about.  The book is about the Wayfarer's crew, a diverse and interesting and often hilarious mixed group of humans and members of other species.  We meet most of the crew in the first thirty pages, and by then, I knew I was going to love this book.  I wanted to spend time getting to know every single one of these people.

And thanks to the book's structure, I got that.  Each chapter or two feels more like an episode of a TV series, focusing on a smaller story or situation, rather than part of a standard ongoing storyline.  This works perfectly.  All of the crew members have a part in the larger story, but it's the smaller things that happen over the course of their journey that really matter.  We get to learn so much about all of them, and it's written in a way that makes it feel like we're in the ship along with these people, like when we close the book we could go hang out with all of them.

It's been a while since I was genuinely sad that a book was over when it was done, because there wasn't any more.  But it happened with this one.  Though I did just learn that there's a sequel on the way next year, which makes me happy.

Planet contains a whole lot of things I love in a story - diverse characters, fascinating places, excellent dialogue, interspecies relationships, non-human characters that are utterly relateable, and a world and setting that feels like it could actually exist.  It also has the distinction of being the book with the longest title I've read this year, barely beating out Patrick Rothfuss's The Slow Regard of Silent Things.  Planet is well-worthy of the quirks and oddities of its title, though, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a better thing to call this book.

Unless that thing is "on your bookshelf".  :P  It has a place on mine now, and I'll continue recommending the hell out of it to anyone who likes sci-fi.  Or who likes books, really.  I'm sure it's not the first book to do what it does, but it's all the little things scattered through the story's pages that make it so good and so worth reading.

Next week: Boom and Break.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

IWSG: "Make Good Art"

There's not a word worth reading coming out of me today, not with the day/week/October I've had.  So instead of more of my whining, for this month's IWSG, you get wise words from someone who's better at this writing thing than I'll ever be.




I'll try to do/be better next time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Well, That Didn't Work.

This week's blog entry being a day late is brought to you by me spending most of Tuesday night running dungeons with my World of Warcraft guildmates.  Totally worth it.

The title says everything, and the comments on last week's entry were all correct: my experiment with working just on one thing for a month didn't work out, and the best thing was to set it aside and do other things.  Thanks to everyone who commented, by the way; it's a lot easier for me to realize I've made a mistake when every single person who comments suggests I stop what I'm doing.  :P

I don't mean any of that in a bad way, though, and I'm not upset, despite how dismal that opening paragraph sounds.  (It's my usual self-deprecating humor, I swear.)  In retrospect, I really should have known it would turn out this way - many of my problems with writing come from wanting to work on something that I just can't figure out.  When I say I'm only going to work on one thing for a month, that one thing needs to be in something better than the early plotting stages.

Hell, that one thing needs to be a novel that I'm ready to start writing.

I'm not entirely sure why I feel the need to jump between projects so often.  There are times when it feels like I'm not doing much of any real development on anything, but I know that's likely my constant feeling that I'm never doing enough.  These things take time to develop, and while I might have days where all I do is take down a few character notes and add in a new thing or two about the setting, I know it all adds up.  And some of the plots I've taken the longest to fully develop are the ones that turned into the best stories.

...now that I think about it, I've blogged before about having to let ideas sit for a while before getting anything good out of them.  I'd really like to have the writing process involve a little less of me having to re-learn things over and over again, but surely remembering that I've learned this before counts for something.

So, yes.  I've set aside the project known as T3F, and things have been going better since then.  I've been spending some time with one of my crazier ideas, abbreviated as TPoN, and while I'm not even at the point where I can start to hash out the plot, I'm getting glimpses and discovering new things about it along the way, and I hope that I can capture the madness I see in this thing and properly get it on the page.  I've also been working on the sequel to STARWIND (tentatively titled TEMPLE; that will change), which is its own weird thing and deserves a blog entry someday.

I also got my first beta reader feedback on STARWIND, which has opened up some new ideas and led to about two pages' worth of notes for me.  Soon I'll be diving back into that book, cackling with glee at getting these people into even more trouble.

Thus concludes the progress (or lack thereof) report from the experiment I started at the beginning of this month.  I wish it had gone better, but at least I've learned one more thing that doesn't work.  And that'll save me time in the future, unless I forget it and try it again a few years from now and end up writing another blog entry remarkably similar to this one.

Next week: IWSG.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Back to the Beginning

I wanted to start with a clip of Inigo from "The Princess Bride" delivering his drunken line about Vizzini telling him to go back to the beginning, but I couldn't find one.  But I'm pretty sure most of my readers have seen "The Princess Bride", so y'all can imagine it.

Anyway.

I'm a bit over two weeks into my experiment for this month and it's been a giant pain in the ass.  The entire thing has proven to be a study in one step forward, two steps back, and I'm lucky if it's only two steps.  I spent most of the first week trying to hammer things out only to realize that everything I had planned came to a screeching halt at the end of Act 1.

Simply put, the story's meant to be about the three main characters dealing with what pulls them together whether they like it or not, and I didn't have a single damn idea how it was supposed to play out after they realize what's happened to them.

I also thought I'd done well by creating a three-part magic system, which led to an over-arching villain who seemed like they'd be a really interesting character.  However, that led to a new problem.  When the magic system works in a way that means everyone's born with control over one aspect of magic, and the main villain was born with control over magic, well....  It's hard to plot when every realistic scenario ends with "And then the bad guy has Our Heroes brought to them and takes away their magic."

While I don't know where the story's going, I do know it's not meant to have such a downer ending.

So I set aside most of what I'd done, and went back to my original notes, thinking that going back to my first idea would help me figure it all out.  I developed the original ideas and came up with some new stuff, some of which I really liked.  I spent a lot of time this past Saturday hashing out how the changes would affect the characters and the world, and managed to patch a major plot hole along the way.

And then I stopped when I was in the middle of defining some new kingdoms, because it didn't feel like it mattered.

Two weeks in, and I feel like this is going to turn out just like so many other things I try to plot.  I'll come up with revision upon revision, yanking everything apart and trying to reassemble it in a different way, hoping I somehow find one that works.  I'm running into the exact same problems I always have - no good villain, stakes either too high or too low, everything turning into a there-and-back-again journey.  I keep coming up with new ways to have the story play out, but they all sound stupid, and I still can't get past Act 1.  And I'm starting to feel like I don't care enough about these characters to tell their story.

I don't know if this is depression, or if I'm putting too much pressure on myself to make this work, or if forcing myself to work on one thing for a month was just a bad idea.  But I am starting to feel like this whole thing was a mistake, which I probably should have figured, since I always described the story as an excuse for something.  And I found a quote tonight that speaks a little too well to that:

"Don't cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it."  --Unknown