Wednesday, February 26, 2014

In the End.

No, today's entry is not brought to you by Linkin Park. Unless you really want it to be.

Many years ago, I read a book that didn't end.  I don't mean that literally - it had a last page, there was a place where the story stopped.  But that's the problem.  The story didn't actually end, it just stopped.

I don't remember the book's title, but it started with this surreal dreamscape, and that's what drew me in.  Most of the story was the tale of one man's life, the man who lived in the surreal place, as told to the person who'd come to kill him.  (Why the assassin didn't just kill him, I don't remember.)  And most of that life story?  Sucked.  Seriously, this guy had a horrible life.  But it was interesting enough to keep reading, right up until the last page.

Because the last page cut things off without warning, without any closure, with nothing but an author's aside saying that the main character's story would continue in the next volume.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I don't believe the author owes the reader anything but the best damn story they can tell.  The reader is not entitled to have the story go their way, to see their favorite couple get together, to dictate the course of any sequels, to have any influence on the writing process at all.  To paraphrase Mr. Gaiman, the writer is not your bitch.

BUT.  I feel the writer owes it to their readers to not leave them hanging completely.

This is especially important when it's the first book of a series.  The first book's ending needs to bring things to a close.  It can promise all kinds of future stories, any number of adventures to come, any amount of trouble still remaining for the cast to get into.  But I don't think it's at all fair to leave the reader completely hanging, to not end (even temporarily) what was begun.

There's also the fact that sequels aren't guaranteed.  I read an anecdote from when Robert Jordan was writing the first book of what would become the Wheel of Time series, and his wife commented that one of the characters wasn't doing anything important.  When Mr. Jordan said that character would be important in the second book, she reminded him that there might not be a second book.  He removed the character.  I think this is the biggest problem with a first book not having a true ending - there's no way to know if the payoff will ever come, if there will ever be a conclusion.  Cliffhangers in an established series are fine, just not right from the beginning.

It's just not fair to actively refuse to finish what you start.  The reader has invested their time and money.  You don't owe them an ending they like.  But you do owe them an ending.

Next entry: IWSG, wherein I'll talk about getting all flustered over just some minor critique and how big of a fool I feel like because of it.  Yeesh.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Press Start.

If only it was that easy.

The thing is, though, this isn't really about finding it difficult to start writing a book.  I've started writing enough books (and finished sadly not enough, but that's another entry) to know a few things about it.  First, once I get a sentence or two rolling, I can keep going, so it's all about figuring out what that opening sentence should say.  Second, odds are good I'll rewrite at least the first chapter, so it might not matter much anyway.  Third, I'll know by the end of the first page if I've picked the right music for the book.

But like I said, this entry isn't about that.  It's about wondering whether or not I should start soon, due to what might or might not happen.

Here's the thing: I'm looking to quit my job here and move to Seattle.  I have family and friends there, and it's a beautiful place, especially from thousands of feet up - I was last there in 2009, when one of my best friends from college and I went skydiving to celebrate our 30th birthdays.  Finding a new job and moving has been one of my goals for a while now, and while the job hunt has proved fruitless so far, I'm keeping at it, because...  Let's just say I'm done here and leave it at that.

And now I'm asking myself this: should I start writing a new book when I might have to move in the middle of it?

I've written books where I had to deal with disruptions in my daily writing before, but I'd like to avoid that if I can.  I've moved enough to know it's kind of an arduous process, and I know it'll interrupt everything even after I've arrived.  I also know trying to write while I'm on the road will be problematic, because I have a very small backup computer and I don't relish the idea of trying to type a novel on keys the size of chiclets.

Yes, I know writing by hand is an option too.  But this is more about when to start.  I think things would go better if I waited until I was in a new place (on several levels) before starting, but I have no way to know when that could be.  I could hear back from a job I've applied to tomorrow, or it might not be for months.  But hey, at least now I get to deal with a different kind of writing uncertainty.  Lovely.

Of the two books I'm plotting, one is just about ready to go, the other still needs serious work, so I still have plenty to keep me occupied, not that that's ever an issue.  So.  This is me asking for advice. When do y'all think would be a better time to start, and why?

Next entry: now that I've talked about starts, I'll discuss endings, and the rare circumstance where I think the writer owes something to the reader.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

We've Got The Beat

Warning: long-ass post ahead.  Because it needs to be.

So two weeks ago, I was on another of my rambles about the plotting process being less than awesome.  Nothing new for this blog.  In the comments, Rena recommended the Beat Sheet by Blake Snyder, and in doing so, solved all my problems forever.

No, not really.  But using the sheet helped me more than I thought possible, and I honestly wouldn't have even looked at it if I hadn't been so damn frustrated.

Here's the thing: I used to read books about how to write, but I gave them up for a few reasons.  One was that one book straight-up said "Make your protagonist a male, and give him these traits.  Make your secondary protagonist a female, and give her these traits", and I figured if that was the sort of advice these books were giving, I was better off without them.  Second, I thought that I'd learn everything I needed to know about writing from both reading and writing stories.  Good books teach me what to do, bad books teach me what not to do.  Seemed simple enough.

The one major exception to my not wanting to use books about writing is Sin & Syntax.  Seriously, if you haven't read this, you're doing your prose a disfavor.  Anyway.

I'd had enough of being frustrated, and was willing to give anything a shot.  So I looked up the Beat Sheet, and found a page that explained it well.  It seemed simple enough - a set of story points to hit, and what's supposed to happen in each one.  I scoffed at first.  Was I really supposed to take a story - any story - and fit it into those narrow guidelines?  I've heard the theory that there are only seven plots, and now I'm supposed to believe that there's only one plot structure?

Then, I started thinking, because thinking too much is one of the things I do best.  (Ask anyone I work with.)  And I remembered talking about the book series 'The Dresden Files' with other people who've read it.  To those who don't know about it, the Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series about a wizard working as a detective in Chicago.  It's one of my favorite series, the 15th book comes out in three months, and yet, every single volume follows the exact same progression of events.  Harry Dresden gets involved in a problem, learns more and gets an idea of how bad it really is, gets the crap beaten out of him, finds out it's worse than he thought, gets a little help from his friends, confronts the source of the problem, and wins and/or loses at the end.  (Yes, both are possible, especially as the series has gone on.)  Dead serious here, that's every book.  And yet, I absolutely love them.

I finally realized something I should realized long ago: plot and story are not the same thing.

It seems strange and obvious at the same time.  But my favorite books, I love them for the story, the characters, the setting, not for the sequence of events that carries everything from beginning to end.  The story's the body and the soul, the plot's just the skeleton.

So, feeling more than a little naive that I hadn't come to that conclusion about fifteen years ago, I started working with the beat sheet.  I took a look at THE ACCIDENTAL WARLOCK and realized it fit nigh-perfectly into the beats.  So, of course, did the Dresden Files stories.  So did every single book I compared it to.  With that in mind and nothing to lose but time, I sat down and applied the beats to one of the plots that was frustrating me.

And wouldn't you know, it worked perfectly.

There's something about using the beat sheet that solves the main problem I have with plotting: knowing the start and the end, but having trouble with everything in between.  Using the sheet kept me moving forward, kept me asking myself "What happens next?" instead of getting stuck.  And the more I use it, the better it works.

I've applied the beat sheet to both of the plots I was struggling with two weeks ago.  One of them is now almost ready for turning into an actual book; I just need to flesh out the second half some more, since using the beat sheet led to some major changes.  The other I'm still putting together, but I know the main sequence of events, and that's a huge improvement.  Earlier this week, just to test it out, I applied the sheet to the sequel to TAW, and boom, it worked there, even when I had to make separate sections for some of the beats.  I'm still working out that one too, but again, I've got a structured plot that I can shape the story around.  That's all that matters.

Now I want to dig up all my old notes, stuff I've set aside and stuff I've abandoned in frustration, and apply the beats to those would-be stories.  I want to make them work, so I can get out all these things in my head.  I want to plot all the things.

Here's the image I've been using as a guide.  I ignore the word count, since I don't write with a total word count in mind, but it's a good quick reference.  If it works for even one person as well as it's worked for me, awesome.  If you're skeptical, trust me, give it a shot.

Next entry: on when to start, or, the paralyzing 'maybe'.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

IWSG: Let's Talk About Fear.

That phrase is from the opening to Stephen King's short story collection "Night Shift".  While Mr. King is certainly a master of fear and what causes it, I'm here today to talk about fears a bit less traditional and a great deal more personal.  I'm here to talk about being so damn scared to seek out critique partners.

I mentioned a while back that I was seeking CPs, as only two people had read THE ACCIDENTAL WARLOCK and that wasn't enough, especially with all the revisions.  But I was hesitating like crazy in finding some more people to read the thing.  I'm no stranger to having my stuff critiqued, but it's always been by people I know.  The thought of handing the book to someone I didn't know and waiting to see what they thought turned my guts into knots.  Yes, I know that in theory a whole bunch of people I don't know will read this someday, but that's a long way off, and that will be different, because it'll be a finished product.

Even though I knew I was being irrational, and even though I knew my fear made no sense, I was still scared.  No matter how stupid I knew it was.  And I knew there was no way I'd get TAW into publishable shape without getting more feedback from more people. 

I found the answer I needed to get past this in the best possible place for such things: 80s movies.

Amazing how relevant that is, eh?  I don't know why I remembered that scene last week, but I took it to heart, and headed out to CPseek this weekend.  A few days later, I have two new critique partners.  Not only am I going to make my book better, I'm helping others to make theirs better.  I'm not sure which of those makes me smile more.  It's bizarre how easy it was once I just went ahead and did it, and if that's not how to handle just about anything scary, I don't know what is.

Next entry: holy sheet!