Monday, January 31, 2011

Note to Self: The Best Laid Plans o' Mice

Now, self, when you follow all those previous notes and have yourself a great chapter all outlined and thought out, when you know your characters and can predict their every move, when your plot is a shining jewel just waiting for a setting—things will still go awry.

It's okay. Just press delete and try again—and again. And again!

See, the truth is, nothing's written until it's written. A scene that feels like it makes perfect sense might come out all wrong because of one little thing—like it has too many characters, tries to do something it shouldn't, or on second thought, no, that character wouldn't actually say/do/ingest that no matter how much you need them to.

Writing novels is easy. Writing good novels—that's hard. Some chapters are simply harder to get right, and it never gets any easier. Does it mean they don't belong? Sometimes. But not necessarily. Some things require sustained effort and long periods of meditation in a hot shower.

Note to Self:  When your plans go wrong and nothing feels right, keep going. A small change might make all the difference. Other times a large change is required. In the end, you've got to keep going until you're satisfied—or there's nothing left to try and no new ideas at hand. Then you've got to try again, just to be sure. As your marching band director always said, "Leave nothing on the field."

(He may have been reminding us to jam our mouthpieces in really hard.)

(Yes! A dash in every paragraph.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Note to Self: Make it PAY!

You remember in The Hunger Games when the tributes all ride their chariots in a parade into--a stadium? Was that what it was? I don't even remember for sure. What I DO remember is how I felt about it.

"Yes! That's so awesome! There's hope for the heroes!"

That's what I call a payoff. It makes the reader feel something good, whether it be exciting, hopeful, poignant or whatever, it's a high point in the story. When you invest your time and emotional energy to read a novel, it's nice to get something back from it. In fact no one (masochists and academics excepted) will read a book that doesn't give them some sort of pleasure. (Forced reading in school excepted, as well.)

The same goes for music. The very best, most listenable songs and compositions follow a pattern veeeery similar to the classic story form.

We all know the story form, right? Well, it's not just a beginnning, middle, and end with a single climax. At least, not in my mind. You see, no one's going to get to the climax if there aren't smaller payoffs all along the way. They can be anything from little oh-that's-cools to full on stand-up-and-cheers.

And when they all tie into the mother-of-all-payoffs at the end in a way that the reader doesn't see coming but makes perfect sense when it hits—IT'S TOTALLY RADICAL!

Note to Self:  Give your readers several big climactic scenes throughout the book. (It works out nicely if they're at the end of each part.) Don't save it all for the end or no one will get there. Don't give it all up early! Save the very best for the end, but make them cheer for the hero all the way through the book, even if the hero is getting the snot beat out of herself.

Just as a series of novels each have their own climax, the parts of a novel need their own climaxes, and each chapter, too! It's a flaming fractal!

More about chapters to come.

(Oh, man. I've been dying to use the word "radical" again for like twenty years.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Note to Self: You Don't Understand Women

I started out Novel 2 with ten characters. Five were boys. When I thought of another character I wanted, I made her a girl. Six to five is still pretty close to even. But one of the boys was dead weight, and he was the first to go. That left six to four. One of those boys was the antagonist, one was the main protagonist. The other two ended up with very minor roles in the plot. Two of the girls also ended up with minor roles.

Are you keeping track? That means I had four girls with major roles and two boys. For reasons that are no longer true, the antagonist wasn't a point-of-view character. One of the girls became the point-of-view for the bad guys. And that eleventh character, the girl I added as an afterthought, has become a main protagonist, equal with the original one--the boy.

Now I have a book with four female POV characters, and one male POV character.

I'm not female.

Note to Self:  If you're going to write a book just to practice and learn by making mistakes, you might as well make it as difficult as possible.

Ha! Just kidding. That's not really the lesson here, though it is potentially useful advice. Except that I don't recommend sitting down to write a novel just for practice. Takes all the fun and motivation out of it.

No, the real lesson here is: No one can tell you how to really write male or female characters and do it right. At least, no one I've met. You can resort to stereotypes. You can just not worry about it. There are plenty of books where the boys act like girls and plenty where the girls act like boys. Maximum Ride, for example, has more testosterone that I've ever had. (And yet, somehow, no sex drive. Hmm.)

But who wants to do it wrong? Not me. So, when girls tell me something's not quite right, I listen, knowing that I'm not the expert. I've lived with girls and women my entire life. For a lot of those years, I much preferred the company of girls. I still have a hard time thinking like one.

Note to Self:  Pay special attention to how you write female characters. Close attention. You'll never get it exactly right, but you can fake it well enough that it won't distract. Most people. If you're careful. And edit a lot. Did I mention to pay close attention?

Coincidentally, Novel 3 will have a single POV character. A male.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Note to Self: I Think You Move Me

So, if you had superpowers, wouldn't your first inclination be to help make the world a better place by fighting crime, raising money for charity, or cleaning up the local government? If you were eighteen?

It would be mine.

Okay, no. It wouldn't. My first inclination would be to get rich and famous. What on earth possessed me to think anyone would do otherwise? I don't know. Early drafts of Novel 2 had impulsively good characters.

"Hey, what shall we do for fun?"
"I know. Let's start a non-profit to clean up and redevelop a blighted neighborhood!"
"No, let's run for city council!"
"Let's risk our lives to save strangers!"

Actually, risking their lives to save strangers is probably the most realistic of the three. People actually do that. People do the others, too, but they have some connection, some motive, something in their lives that leads them to those choices.

Note to Self:  Characters should have motives that are easily understood by the reader. They should act in ways that any normal person would act in their situation OR they should have realistic, compelling, and known reasons to act differently.

Alley risks her life to save her brother. Her friends risk theirs because they trust Alley. (And don't give proper weight to the dangers. Nice thing about young adults.) Esha gets paid to work for a non-profit. Peter runs for office because it's a good first step in a political career. Leah's been through hell, and doesn't want to go back. Brian's a teenage boy.

There are--or can be--understandable reasons for anyone to do almost anything. Find them or make them up, but make sure the reader knows them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Note to Self 2: There's Too Many Kids in this Tub

As I mentioned in the last post, dumping a dozen characters into a novel and trying to give them equal weight ain't such a good idea. True, I realized pretty early on that one of my unusually gifted teens wasn't contributing to the plot (which wasn't really a plot), and so I axed him. That left, let's see, NINE other unusually gifted teens to deal with. Plus a boyfriend, a mom, and a shrink.


I know, it seems pretty obvious. Even the inexperienced I knew it was probably too many. But I LOVED them! I loved them all! They were great people, y'know? I mean, we've all got that many friends that we easily keep track of, right? Why should it be a problem to keep track of that many imaginary friends?

For more information, see Note To Self 1. You can't build a good plot around an ensemble cast that large. At least I can't do it. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, and video is thirty frames a second, well, you need a whole lot 'o words to equal real life—or even television. Twelve main characters is too many for one book. It's not Heroes*, for cryin' out loud.

So, I relegated four teens to minor roles, cut the shrink, made the mom an extra, and shunted all but three characters into distinct sub-plots. Still convoluted and confusing, but nowhere near its former glory.

Note To Self:  There are an infinite number of interesting, lovable, fantastic characters you could put into any story. You can't keep them all! No. You just can't. I've already told you why. I said NO! Because!

*I've never seen Heroes, but I did read about it after someone told me my book sounded similar**.

**It's not.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Note to Self 1: Pick a Plot

So, when I was eighteen, I set out to write a novel. I had no qualifications aside from a good command of English grammar. I'd read a lot of science fiction novels, but as it turns out, writing a novel is a lot harder than reading one. I picked up a lot of what went into those books, but that didn't include structure, plot, characterization, sentence structure, or any useful storytelling techniques beyond coming up with a really freakin' awesome premise involving an entire civilization and/or a woman in a sexy spacesuit.

I promptly fell into world-building purgatory and stayed there for over ten years. In 2009, I finally finished that book, kicked it out the door, and started on novel number two.

And, as it turns out, I hadn't learned a whole lot in those intervening ten years, despite taking two creative writing classes. I guess one has to actually write to learn how to write. In the last two years, I've written nearly 500,000 words. (That's halfway done with my practice words!)

I remember clearly the day I sat down with Novel 2 (In Memory) and proceeded to begin from as wrong a starting point as I possibly could. It's a day I'll never forget, and it's put me through rewrites and hard lessons I don't ever want to forget.

First, I had a good premise. What if there really were some kind of magic in the world? It would be clearly visible, yet completely unnoticed or disregarded. It wouldn't involve hidden worlds, fantastic creatures, or magical talismans. Etc. etc. etc.

What I lacked was an actual plot. Common newbie mistake.

Note to Self:  Pick a single character who wants something, put something else in their way, and then give them a hard choice to make about how they're going to get what they want.

DO NOT:  Pick ten or twelve interesting characters, give them each a cool new power, and dump them in a box to see what shakes out.

Only after you've got that one, central character can you even begin to think about subplots. Subplots aren't always necessary and are frequently undesirable, but they can be good if they:  tie in to the main plot in a compelling way, have their own actual plot (see above), add to the story/theme/tone of the book.

I'm not an expert on subplots. For Novel 3 (Drivers), my first instinct was to have a main plot and a subplot, but I've already discarded that idea. There's something attractive about keeping things simple—especially after what I've gone through trying to get In Memory to a coherent form.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Memory

Latest query attempt:

Brian’s girlfriend Esha has always been sensitive to feelings, but now she can directly control them. It’s a logical extension of her natural charm, enhanced to something way beyond logical, and powered by the desires of other people—especially Brian. What he wants most though, is to stay with Esha, for nothing to change between them.

Leah can draw power from others too, but the way she does it has led her to the brink of suicide. Esha’s ability to alter emotions saves Leah. She’ll do anything to repay that kindness, even risk using her own talent for remembering not only her past, but also her future.

Leah remembers Esha lying dead, murdered by a desire-powered rival, Peter.

After changing the future she saw, Leah has no idea what’s going to happen next. Just as her misuse of power once destroyed her mind, Peter’s power will destroy his, leaving him unpredictable and dangerous. If Leah uses her power again, she’ll know exactly how to keep Esha safe, but she’ll also lose her sanity.

Brian will do anything to help save the girl he loves, but Leah’s advice seems destined to drive them apart. Is it really necessary to destroy their romance to save Esha’s life?

Brian wants to keep his girlfriend.

Leah wants to keep her sanity.

They both want Esha to live.

In the end they’ll both lose—unless they trust each other.

IN MEMORY is a 78,000 word YA urban fantasy.

Any suggestions? Does it work for you?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Author Interview: Spendlove

And today we have a special treat: another author interview! This time it's with a brilliant, up-and-coming author who apparently has identity issues. I may or may not be related to this person, who is frequently called Spendlove, and whom I shall refer to by the abbreviation "S".

Now, without further ado, I have a few questions for you, S.

S:  I shall answer the questions for you, however, I want it noted that I am The Shiz, and there shall be no other Shiz besides me.

IF:  Where do want it noted?

S:  My left tricep.

IF:  Alriiiight. Let's start with these basic questions. Never mind if they don't apply to you; answer them anyway. Are you still writing that novel?

S:  Yes. Explicitly.

IF:  Well, when will I be able to walk into Borders and buy it? What's taking so long?

S:  Two words; Munchkin Encounters. Simply put, you have literally no idea what that's like.

IF:  Are there vampires or zombies in it?

S:  What do you take me for? Some bandwagoner who's only care in life is to have angsty teens read his books?

IF:  What else is worth caring about? Are you famous?

S:  Well, among those who know me, I am quite well known.
IF:  But how many degrees are you from Kevin Bacon?

S:  All seven, baby. All seven.

IF: Are you rich?

S:  Define "rich"....

IF:  To be rich is to have the respect and gratitude of your siblings. How much is that worth to you?

S:  Roughly 17%. Give or take.

IF:  What's your book about?

S:  Seven inches by four inches by two inches.

IF:  Is it written on cheese slices?

S:  Slice, not slices. It's a miracle of modern engineering.

IF:  Am I in it?

S:  No. But for a sufficient amount of money, you could be.

IF: I can offer something better than money. I can make you rich. Can I be the hero?

S:  Okay, now who's definition of rich here? are you saying that by simply being the hero in my book you can guarentee me a post on the New York Times best sellers list? Or are you saying that I'll earn your respect by making you the hero in my book? I'm confused.

IF:  Obviously it's the NYT list, but we'll move on. You claim you're a writer, but what do you really do?

S:  I uh... What kind of a question is this? Are you questioning my validity as an artist or something? How dare you? What right do you have to profane the image I am striving to uphold of a conscientious author? And where do you suppose you got that right? And who do you think is responsible for protecting that right? So don't you think that the next time the topic comes up you should GIVE A LITTLE MORE RESPECT TO THE ARMED FORCES???? Yes. You should. I rest my case.

IF:  So, you joined the Marines? Does Mom know?

S:  Not joined. AM. Completely different situation there.

IF:  One final question: I have a great story idea that's sure to sell millions. You wanna ghost write it for me?

S:  If by "ghost write" you're implying that you'd have to kill me first, I say no. If, however, "ghost write" is to be interpreted as "you get all the royalties and I just get to put my name on the cover", I'm down. Fame has never been my drive. Fortune might enter into it, but fame certainly doesn't.

IF:  Actually, that's a really good idea. I'll publish my book with your name on it, and I'll take all the royalties. Sweet! (The offer to make you rich is still on the table. You can describe me as tall, muscular, with thick hair and a strong jaw.)

Thank you, Mr. The Shiz, for joining us today. As always, if you're an author and would like to advance your career by appearing in this exclusive space, email us at the address above right.

Several questions in this interview were taken from this great blog post by Elspeth Antonelli with tips for what to ask an author. Oh, wait. It was what NOT to ask an author. Oops.

Check out Spendlove's blog, My Valley. One final word from his email signature:
"Hear the tolling of the bells, Iron bells..."
-The Bells, Edgar Allen Poe