Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Advice When it's Needed.

Bit of a cheat in this entry: the following is something a friend sent to me back in 2007, when she was participating in NaNoWriMo.  She was on a mailing list wherein she received pep talks from famous writers, and forwarded several of them my way.  This one's from Neil Gaiman.  I'm posting it now because, to be quite honest, I needed to read it and thought it deserved to be shared, because I know I'm not the only one.

Take it away, Mr. Gaiman:

By now you're probably ready to give up. You're past that first fine furious rapture when every character and idea is new and entertaining. You're not yet at the momentous downhill slide to the end, when words and images tumble out of your head sometimes faster than you can get them down on paper.  You're in the middle, a little past the half-way point. The glamour has faded, the magic has gone, your back hurts from all the typing, your family, friends and random email acquaintances have gone from being encouraging or at least accepting to now complaining that they never see you any more---and that even when they do you're preoccupied and no fun. You don't know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you're pretty sure that even if you finish it it won't have been worth the time or energy and every time you stop long enough to compare it to the thing that you had in your head when you began---a glittering, brilliant, wonderful novel, in which every word spits fire and burns, a book as good or better than the best book you ever read---it falls so painfully short that you're pretty sure that it would be a mercy simply to delete the whole thing.

Welcome to the club.

That's how novels get written.

You write. That's the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A dry-stone wall is a lovely thing when you see it bordering a field in the middle of nowhere but becomes more impressive when you realise that it was built without mortar, that the builder needed to choose each interlocking stone and fit it in. Writing is like building a wall. It's a continual search for the word that will fit in the text, in your mind, on the page. Plot and character and metaphor and style, all these become secondary to the words. The wall-builder erects her wall one rock at a time until she reaches the far end of the field. If she doesn't build it it won't be there. So she looks down at her pile of rocks, picks the one that looks like it will best suit her purpose, and puts it in.

The search for the word gets no easier but nobody else is going to write your novel for you.

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent.  I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm---or even arguing with me---she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, "Oh, you're at that part of the book, are you?"

I was shocked. "You mean I've done this before?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not really."

"Oh yes," she said. "You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients."

I didn't even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.

That's the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it's the only way to do it.

So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.

Pretty soon you'll be on the downward slide, and it's not impossible that soon you'll be at the end. Good luck...

Neil Gaiman

Monday, January 21, 2013

Things I Need to Know

There are hazards to writing something that takes place in the real world, things I didn't even think about when I started plotting my current book.  I'm used to being able to make up everything - to come up with the way the world works, how far away one place is from another, and anything else the story needs.

It's one thing to create a world.  It's something very different to have to get a pre-existing world right.

For instance, last week I bugged a co-worker who's an avid hunter about guns.  One of the book's characters decides dealing with demons up close is a bad idea, and learns how to use a rifle.  I kept the details deliberately vague, as I figured I could edit in what I needed later.  The info I got from my co-worker was interesting; he not only listed a good 'starter' rifle someone would learn with, but gave me a full description of the second gun the character ends up getting, complete with the fact that it has a 300-yard range and can take down an elk.

It's the little details that matter.

There are a ton of things I still have to look up, and much like the gun details, I expect to edit them in later.  Things like hotel floor plans, roads in major cities and small towns, and actual maps of those places so I can make sure Our Heroes' travels are accurate.  I plan to make full use of Google, maps and street views and all that, and hope I can find a place that actually fits what I've written.  Sure, anything can be fixed in editing, but still.

All in all, having to take all this into account has been an interesting experience.  This isn't something I worry about in most of my writing.  True, the book I wrote last year took place on Earth, but it was almost entirely at a college campus, which is its own kind of fictional.  And before that, it had been years since I wrote something that took place in the real world, and that was over half a century after a major change to the world so I had plenty of room to improvise.

As for fixing all of this in editing, that's another point.  I'm not as excited about writing this book as I thought I would be.  It feels a bit like it's all been done before - no real surprise, as this is my third time trying to tell this story.  I also might be suffering from Shiny New Project Syndrome; the things I still have in the plotting stages seem a lot more interesting.  But I'm going to finish this book, one way or another.

The last thing I need to know is if I can well and truly make this story work.  And I won't know that until it's done.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Kind of Magic

Music for tonight's blog entry, for obvious reasons.

One of the main things happening in the book I'm working on is the sudden influx of magic into the real world.  The results are largely unfortunate and the world is forever changed, but really, that's what happens when you introduce magic into a place where there isn't any.  Dealing with this change is one of the main challenges for the main characters, especially considering what happens to them.

But all this got me thinking.  There's a ridiculous number of ways to deal with magic in a story.  What I'm working with is blatant, showy, powerful, and hard to miss.  It's the kind of magic I enjoy writing about, as it lends itself to all kinds of interesting stories, especially when you have people who are just learning how to use it.  I've fully planned to have random effects occurring, thanks to the group's inexperience and the world's condition.  Yet some of the best uses of magic in fiction I've seen are a great deal more subtle, and a lot less wild.

In George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, magic is rare and subtle, and just slowly coming back into the world.  I've seen people ask him about his world's magic system, and if I remember right, he said there wasn't one.  He wanted the magic to feel like magic, not something with a set of rules.  (Apologies to all parties if I'm misremembering any of this, I read it quite a while ago.)  I like this approach for some types of stories; it keeps magic surprising and interesting, and also makes it something the characters can't rely on.

On the distinctly other hand, you have the works of Brandon Sanderson, who's a prime example of the trope Magic A is Magic A.  Basically, magic works in a consistent and predictable manner, with its own set of rules.  He's written a long essay on the subject, which I'm still trying to fully wrap my head around.  I like this approach as well, because it's creative and limiting at the same time.  If you come up with your own set of rules for this sort of thing, your readers will - and should! - call you on it if you break them to serve the plot.

In my book-in-progress, one of the characters is set on learning how the change that's affected the world works.  Everyone is currently ignorant of what's happening, but over time, they will learn.  And while people learning how to use magic is a theme I find myself working with quite often - it comes up in Skyborne as well, for very different reasons - it never gets old to me, because everyone has such a different reaction to suddenly having magic in their lives.

And I have to admit, I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do when they realize the ways their enemies use magic are also available to them, consumptive and repulsive as they are.  I've only been writing this book for nine days and it's already surprised me more than once.  So despite my best-laid plans, I can't help but wonder what kind of magic they'll eventually pursue.