Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Trip Through the Idea File.

"Who'd follow us to a grave-robbing?"

That's the first line in my file of story ideas.  It's for a short story I came up with over a decade ago, about a human thief and a minotaur monk-type who are out robbing graves in search of something.  I no longer remember what they're looking for, which is why I wrote it down.  But every time I open that file, I see that line, first thing.

I'd like to think it represents something significant and spend the rest of this blog entry developing that metaphor, but really, it just reminds me that I'm not much good at short stories.  :P

It's weird to look through the idea file, though.  There's all kinds of stuff in there that I've forgotten about, things I started on in one form or another that crashed and burned, notes on what's basically the same plotline and setting done three or four different ways, so on and so forth.  There might actually be notes for the one story I wrote that got published; I'm not sure because I haven't dug through that section of the file for years.

I don't know if everyone has a file like this, but I think everyone should.  There's a ton of weirdness and "What the hell does that even mean?" in here, but it's interesting to read through and see all the things I've forgotten, things I've remembered, things I'm still trying to find a way to make work.

For example, not long after I learned about New Adult, I plotted out a college-age story involving fae.  This is one of the more involved ideas, as my notes stretch for nearly two pages.  It deals with a guy who doesn't believe his new-age hippie-ish mom when she tells him not to take off the crystal she's made him wear since he was a little kid, and finds that there's an old family bond with the fae that comes into play when he takes the crystal off and the fae can find him.  The whole thing ends with an epic human-vs.-fae rap battle, which I swear makes perfect sense with the rest of the plot.

It's also only the second plot I've written with sex as a plot device, so there's that.

That's not the only college-age story in my file either.  College was easily the best years of my life so far (screw you, high school), so I like writing stuff set in that era and area.  I've had a lot of trouble getting any of those stories to work, so maybe you really can't go back.  Someday, I tell myself.

Looking through my notes also shows some themes I seem to be stuck on.  Lots of stuff about people usurping their gods or gods otherwise dying.  Lots of stuff about people gaining extraordinary powers.  And at least one would-be plot that combines the two.  Not sure where the ending-gods stuff comes from, but the gaining-powers thing I'm pretty sure comes from being exposed to the X-Men right as I became a teenager when that idea would most appeal to me.

It's sometimes depressing to look through the file, though, because it's full of things I haven't done.  I try to counter that by thinking it's only things I haven't done yet, though I'd have to live to be three hundred or so to get all these stories written.  But I think I've blogged before about how some of my best ideas come from putting two unrelated story ideas together.  And that's what this file is best for.

It would be pretty redundant to say "I'm working on something new" in this blog.  I mean, I'm a plotter.  I'm always working on something new, trying to find ways to make a story out of disparate ideas and settings and random facets of character.  And this is why I keep everything, why I write everything down.

Because sometimes, I glance through the idea file and find something I'd forgotten, or something I'd abandoned long ago.  And sometimes, I get that flash of inspiration, of connection, and that's the beginning of something awesome.  Or at least something I hope will be awesome, if I can figure out how to make it work.

Does anyone else have a file like this?  Long text document, massive stack of note cards, notebook filled with enough scribbles to make it look like a madperson's diary?  You don't have to share what's in it, but I'd like to know if I'm not the only one.  ^_^

Next week: IWSG.  What will it cover?  IDEK.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Talk about Death.

No, not real death, don't panic.  :P  Real death is worthy of far more thought, discussion, and introspection than I can cover in a blog entry.  All I'll say about it is I hope that when my time comes, I get to choose who escorts me to whatever happens after this life, and if that's the case, I'm taking that trip with Death as created by Neil Gaiman.


Today, I'd like to talk about character death.  I've recently been traumatized by a work of fiction, so this seemed like a good time.

I've seen a lot of people talk about fiction wherein it's made very clear that anyone can die.  "Game of Thrones" and the book series it's based on are famous for this; it's the only series I know of where saying that a character lives is just as much of a spoiler as saying that they die.  Once, I saw someone genuinely upset that a character they didn't like was still alive at the end of the third book.

There's something to be said for this kind of storytelling.  I do like the idea that there's no such thing as a "main character halo" - there's nothing that ensures someone will survive the story just because they're playing a lead part.  It keeps the reader/viewer on their toes and keeps them from making assumptions about how things are going to turn out.

However, after thinking on it for a while, I don't know if that's the best way to orchestrate character death.

I think death works best in a story when it comes as a surprise, not an inevitability.  I mean, we know death's inevitable, whether we want to think of it or not.  So we know that all characters are going to die eventually, though we might not see it within the course of the story.  If we like the story, we want to see these people live.

No, not all of them; I know I've enjoyed watching a despised character get their final reward.  There's no schadenfreude quite like laughing at the moment when they realize their end has come.

But when I look back on all the fictional deaths I've read and seen, it's always the ones I didn't see coming that hit me harder.  The ones where yes, I've seen people die in the story, but I never expected it would happen to the main characters.  The ones where I had to stop and reread a paragraph or rewatch a scene to make sure I saw what I think I just saw.  The ones where the "main character halo" is fully intact right up until it shatters.

And this effect is at its best, or perhaps its worst, when it happens far enough into a series that I thought everyone was going to reach the end alive.

This, I believe, is the best way to handle character death.  Give the character time in the spotlight.  Let them change and learn and grow.  Hurt them, traumatize them, but see to it that they endure.  Do all you can to make it seem like they're going to have a "happily ever after", or at least a "made it through alive".

Then pull the rug out from under your reader in the worst way possible with that character's untimely and unpredictable end.

And then, cake.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Plot Black Hole

File this one under #WriterProblems, because damn if I can think of anyone else who'd have this issue.

In keeping with what usually happens when I plot, with my second idea being the better one, I've been working on plot changes for the new Shiloh & Alexi story this past week.  This started when I sat down to review the plot, in hopes of getting started on writing it soon, and realized that it had a slow, weak beginning.

I swear, going over my own notes is like deliberately looking for trouble sometimes.  But at least it leads to stuff that's worth reading, as opposed to what happens when I try to write a book without notes.  Anyway.

I've put the story through some significant changes already.  Nothing quite like changing the main location from a magic-heavy college town to a merchants' city on the edge of an over-enchanted desert wasteland to shake up just about everything.  The beginning is considerably stronger, and has the main characters sneaking around and getting into trouble before the end of the first chapter, which is a great improvement.  The antagonists' roles are largely unchanged, because I thought I could still make all their plots work in the new setting.

I don't have a suitable video for this, but please imagine a minutes-long clip collection of your favorite TV and/or movie characters saying "Wrong!" over and over and over again.

Much of the plot revolves around the antagonists engineering a shady deal involving ancient artifacts, and our heroes' attempts to both keep the artifacts safe and get revenge on the merchant house that screwed over both their families a decade ago.  But changing the setting to a less urban area got me thinking: what's there to stop the antagonists from simply doing their deals out somewhere in the middle of the wasteland, where there's no one to witness them and no one to interfere?  (Aside from some kind of magic-warped creature, maybe, but these people can handle that.)

I'd like to think I've gotten better at finding my own plot holes, and I'm quite glad that I found this one before I started writing the book.  It's far better to find these things after writing forty-something pages in a plot document than after writing forty-thousand-something words in a novel.  (Did that once.  It sucked.)  But it's not a huge deal to find a plot hole that requires some plot spackle in the form of a little bit of background story or a loophole in how things work.

As opposed to a plot hole so big it sucks the entire story into it, never to be seen again.

And so, I need to figure this out.  I've already gone through the entire plot to make all the alterations for the new setting, and now I'm wondering just how much more I'm going to have to do to make this all work.  I've already come up with quite a few ridiculous hoops for the characters to jump through to justify some of the shady dealings, and I'm starting to think the book needs more than a setting change.  The fact that I can use the phrase "quite a few ridiculous hoops" to describe my own plot is probably a sign that I need to do some serious reworking.

So: anyone else ever been through this?  I don't doubt we've all edited our own stuff and found issues that had us making forehead-shaped dents in our desks.  How did you get through it?  How much did you have to change?  And most importantly, did it work?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Ever feel like the voices in your head need to speak up?

This past weekend, I was working on a short story, because I'm a writer and that's what I do with my Saturday nights.  (Okay, not all of them, but still.  Writer.)  This was another of the "short story as would-be prologue" things, as I've talked about and posted here before.  The story took place about a year before the planned book, and I wanted it to be the origin of the two human characters, showing how they left Earth to travel the multiverse.

It's seven pages and I couldn't get a damn word of it to sound right.

Granted, these were characters I had never written before.  I wanted to write the quasi-prologue to get a feel for who they were before their lives changed.  So I had these two people who'd known each other for a few years, working as security guards at a massive telescope*, who see what appears to be some sort of alien ship that's there to steal the telescope's lens/mirror.  Nothing like dealing with something completely unexpected to figure out who someone really is, right?

I did learn a little bit about the characters.  One pauses more often in her speech than I thought she would, a trait that won't stick around when she's effectively first mate on an interplanar vessel.  The other character had nowhere near as much personality on the page as I saw in my head, which is a significant problem, as the story was from his point of view and he came off as pretty boring.

Yes, I know these are issues I can fix in editing.  And I've been working on that.  But there's nothing quite like sitting down with characters you think you know and having them be just . . . blah, despite being in a highly unusual situation.

I think part of it is that these versions of the characters aren't the people I've been working with since January or so during the plotting process.  The book starts with them having a year of interplanar travel under their belts, so they've been through a great deal (note to self: add scars to at least one person's backstory).  I had to take two characters who are pretty new to me and extrapolate backward into a part of their lives that I never intended to be all that significant to their story.

Funny . . . now I'm starting to see why this didn't work.

I've said before that I know I'm really getting set on who the characters are supposed to be when I start to hear their dialogue when I'm plotting.  Seeing a character in a situation and knowing exactly what they would say?  It's awesome, always will be.  That hasn't happened with these two.  Looking back through the book's plot, I see the only dialogue I've already written is for a very different character.  I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, since these characters are new to me, but all the same, this was quite the wake-up call.

While I don't plan to write this book next, I clearly need to spend more time with these people before I do.  Knowing a character's actions is all well and good - and I do think I have them set for that, at least - but if their dialogue doesn't sound right, the character just won't seem real.  I've always loved writing dialogue, and I will not subject a reader to less than my best in that area.

While I'm not happy with the would-be prologue, it's given me a jumping-off point, and I can see where things go from there.  I've done some new plot work, taking notes on what's happened to these characters in the year since they joined the crew.  I'm still not hearing them speak to me, but I think I'm getting closer.  Just need to keep at it.  As always.

And at least I learned about this before I started to write the actual book.  O_o

*I'm not entirely sure if the giant telescopes have security guards.  I did a bit of research when I found a suitable telescope for the story, and couldn't find anything definite.  But I can research it more before I write the actual book.  It doesn't have to be a telescope - these characters just have to be near something interesting that can be stolen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

IWSG: You'll Get Better.

I was going to do an April Fool's Day entry and say I was quitting writing forever, but I didn't think anyone would believe it.

The truth is, things have been going really well for me in the writing world.  I have two plots as close to done as they can get, and I'm more than a little happy to say that, considering how many things I've tried to plot that just haven't worked out.  The third plot is something I once thought might be too damn strange to actually write.  To my utter surprise, sitting down and just writing what I saw happening without worrying about whether or not it made sense worked, and when I went back to the finished plot a few days later, I found that it made as much sense as it needed to.

What?  It's a story based in dream logic.  That's what I was aiming for.

To say the absolute least, I'm glad to be able to say all this.  I don't think there's a writer out there who doesn't know the struggle and self-doubt that comes with the job.  It's far, far too easy to look at everything you've done, summarize it all with "I suck at this", select everything and hit the delete button.


Good stories seem like magic and wonder when we're reading, so we tend to forget how much work goes into making them.  Most people don't talk about that when you first start writing, do they?  I wish someone had told me.  If someone had said, when I hammered out my first book after working on it for three years back in college, that nothing would ever come of that story and it would take many more years until I actually had something that was worth publishing...

Okay, I wouldn't have believed them.  I was twenty-one and still young enough to think I knew everything and was destined for awesomeness.  But at least I'd be able to look back, see that person was right, and adjust my dreams accordingly.

I've been writing regularly since I was thirteen.  I have a baker's dozen of trunked novels.  And now, four months away from turning thirty-six, I feel like I'm finally getting good at this writing thing.  It seems like a long time.  I've always thought I was good, and often been told I was good.  But maybe I needed all that time to actually get good.

This is why I say, don't stop.  Don't delete everything.  Hell, don't delete anything, even if it means shoving all your old stories into a folder labeled "THE HORROR, THE HORROR" and never looking at them again.  Because that's another thing most people don't tell you: writing is, in fact, like any other skill.  There's magic in what we do, yes, but there's blood and sweat and hard work in it too.  And like any other skill, the only way to get better at it is to keep doing it.

So no matter where you are, no matter how you feel about what you're doing, keep going.  Keep practicing.  Keep writing.

You'll get better.