More Middle Muddle (aka What’s this? A writing post?)

You would think this was a cooking channel for how little writing I’ve been doing, but I actually finished a major rewrite to a book that I’m sending off to Loose Id and I have writerly thoughts again.

In one of my subreddits I like, middles were discussed. It’s impossible to talk about everything, but I think he missed a major point. Middles fail not because the character isn’t allowed to fail, though that is a common beginner’s mistake. I think in all the books I’ve critiqued, middles fail far more often because the character arrives into the world with the plot having already happened, and all that changes from the beginning to the end is their completed knowledge of the problem.

This leads to the walking and talking plot, where all the characters do is walk (fly, swim, drive) from point to point, talking to people who have just survived the thing they’re chasing, and then go off in that direction. There may be a couple scenes where the character lands in the thick of it and some scenes where the antagonist shows up and stops them, temporarily from getting the info, but for the most part it’s walking and talking.

And if you ask the writer, they’ll tell you the book is about what the character’s talk about not what actually is happening on the page. And for some writers, that can really work. Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer is predominately about two “people” talking (until the car chase scene). But what Rob can pull off in the middle of his stellar career is at a completely different plane than what most people starting out can pull off. It doesn’t prove it can be done, it sets the bar as to what has to happen for someone else to do the same.

Show don’t tell is one of those rules that writers somehow know or understand early on. Shifting what is being told from the author’s voice to dialogue doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the information is being told to the reader. Thinking about the story as the first half establishing the plot as the characters hard-win or have an impact on every bit of knowledge that they would have just been told and the second half as tying up all the loose strings of the first half.

In debate, there’s a point at which you are not allowed to introduce any new information. I think book endings are basically the same thing. I say basically because the end is where you introduce the strings that will tie the sequel together to the first book, but for the most part, everything in the second half of the story should be introduced, no matter how fleetingly, in the first half. The reader shouldn’t have to depend on the author to tell them how bad the consequences are going to be. By the time the character and the reader get to the second half things-fall-apart, at least the reader should know why everything is terrible.

Middles are usually the worst part to any book, but they don’t have to be. Your character should be introduced to the plot at a point in which they think that they can change the outcome. If the entire plot is out of the story in the first chapter, a sane character will look at the enormous problem and think this is the job for gods and kings. The plot could be just as huge, but by the time the reader realizes that, they should be at a position where they can’t quit, even if they want to. Any rule can be broken, but it is hard enough to show a story as it is happening on the page in an engaging fashion. Trying to tell a story that has already happened and the only change the character has is how much they know about it is multiple times harder.

I used to be a firm believer that what happened in the story has happened and is immutable. Even if the book isn’t written yet, I can’t change the story as it occurred. And that’s utter nonsense. Timelines can be condensed. Deadlines can be given. Anything that is important to the story should happen on the page. And if you look at the middle with that in mind, getting everything that has to happen in within the 100k deadline is far more work than just filling up the pages between the pre-planned beginning and end.

Best Steak. Ever

It’s been a while since we got the immersion cooker, and all we’ve done with it to this point was cook onsen eggs. But before school quit for the year we went out to a local farm that sells organic beef from their small herd. We got two kansas steaks (Like NY strips, but with the bone still in them). We finally had time to cook them. Since Elisabeth likes her medium well and I like mine barely warm and the beef can sit in the hot water for hours before it mattering, I cooked hers at 66 degrees for an hour before lowering the temperature and cooking mine at 49 for the same, with Elisabeth’s still in the pot. Then I grilled them in a screaming hot cast iron pan to give them a crust. The bone and the fat meant a lot of trimming, but what was left was melt in the mouth delicious as well as extra flavourful for having cooked with the bone in.

 

Smoked hamburgers

Last year Rona had a BBQ for sale that was half charcoal grill, half propane. The grill can get up to 1000 degrees, but the charcoal side when the air is choked can maintain 300 degrees for hours. Last year we didn’t do much cooking outside, but this year I hope to make up for it.

When dad came up last weekend for my birthday and we went to the smokehouse. The waitress there talked about smoking a burger for customers, so I wanted to try it. I made large patties 8 ounces pre-cooked. I made up four patties to make the effort worth it.

I don’t do much to my burgers; just shape them roughly like a red blood cell and salt and pepper them. They stayed out at room temperature while the chimney of hardwood charcoal caught and the wood chips soaked. Everything was ready to go in 15 minutes.

You put the charcoal on one side and the burgers on the other and the smoke box full of wet chips on the coals. I closed the chimney and the air intake, which kept the grill at 300 degrees like an oven. The smoke box lasted for about 45 minutes so I threw on a handful of chips and a couple more lumps of charcoal at the 1/2 way point.

When the smoke box stopped producing smoke, I let it cook the rest of the way, having been smoked for more than an hour at that point. It took about 2 hours to get the internal temp up to 155 and it coasted the rest of the way. I like my steaks blue rare and my burgers cooked all the way, but the indirect method is such a gentle heat there would have been plenty of time to take it off at the right temperature for someone who likes their burgers medium rare.

While the meat was resting, Elisabeth chopped up a sweet onion fairly thickly, which got a drizzle of olive oil and some salt to use the residual heat after I toasted our buns over it. The meat was cooked through, still juicy and there wasn’t a smoke ring; the meat was so loosely packed the whole thing was the pink of a smoke ring.

That brined pork loin chops recipe for future use

Dear future self: When you’re looking for that awesome pork chop recipe, here it is.

Boil 3 cups of water. Add 2/3rds cup coarse salt (nothing iodized) and 1/3 cup of sweet thing. You used sugar, but try molasses next time. I added 2 frozen popsicle molds of frozen decaffeinated strong coffee and a tray of ice, but two tablespoons of instant decaf would do the same. The frozen ice and coffee brought it down to cool to the touch. Then Add the meat and let brine for 2 hours. Then it cooked on 6 for 5 minutes, then on three for four more.

Let rest 5 minutes.

Next time I’ll crisp the fat up on the edge. Don’t be alarmed the meat inside is pinkish. The internet said pork should be cooked to 145, but I liked it at 150. It didn’t need to finish cooking in the oven. It was like Char-siu on the top of ramen. Sprinkle liberally with green onions.

How to pants a novel part two: the pantsing part

So, you have your two ideas. The high concept, and the aspect of the story that is going to make the first reader sit up from her usual slush reader slump and actually start caring about what’s going on the page. You don’t need to know the exact beginning until you get to the end and rewrite it, but as far as you know the story as it is, you start at the Carmichael startling point.

Leslie Carmichael was a writer friend, lost to cancer, and an amazing person, if you pardoned the dreadful puns. But calling the beginning of the story the startling point was brilliant. It’s the moment before your character’s path changes dramatically and your character who was going about on their daily life suddenly can do something much bigger. When I get to this point, I usually have no frelling idea as to what the “thing” is, but I lay the pipework in the story for there to be the thing in the story that is worth your character pushing on so that they will continue with the problem longer than anyone who is just being paid, or coerced or just going along for the lulz would pull up their stakes and go home.

And for that you need a reason as to why this character is the one who is called. They have to want something more than anything else. In the beginning of the book, what the character thinks they want doesn’t have to be what they will want at the end, and actually it’s better if it isn’t. There are going to be barriers to the character getting that thing (and at least one of them has to be internal) and the first half of the novel is your character finding out what the problem and the need is.

The worst thing you can do is have the big problem happen before the book even begins and have your character as a clean up crew going along and sweeping up what has already happened. I know it can feel like it’s impossible to change the timeline in your story even before you write a word. What happens just seems to need to have happened. But if the most important thing happened before the book you want to write is going on, you’ve probably got the wrong startling point.

In media res is like Odysseus’s sirens, seductive but will kill your momentum, and you have to strap yourself to the mast to avoid it when you’re pantsing.  The forward motion of your plot is what pushes the story forward. If you start in the middle you have to tell what’s happened before, and you can kiss away any of the tension or momentum you’ve built up. It can be done, but if you take that moment that makes or breaks the character that most people start their book with and plant it at the end of chapter three when your character and your reader get to the moment where everything falls apart but this time the audience is up to speed as to what is at stake, what’s happening, why it’s happening, what’s going to happen if everything goes wrong, who are these people, and why should they be cared about will all have been answered if instead of starting with the ah, shit explosion, the book starts with the first warning tremor.

Done right, it sets up the rest of the story for success. Now that everything has gone wrong (but in a way the main character can feel as though they can make it right) it’s just a dance of successes and failures to the two thirds point, where everything goes wrong in a way the character doesn’t feel it can be made right. That’s about it for today. Writing is all about controlling disasters no matter what your genre in a way that airplanes descending down to the runway is just a controlled fall.

 

My recipe for pantsing novels part 1

How to set out to pants a novel for a newbie pantser came up as a forum question I frequent. I would have answered there, but it felt like more of a blog post-length problem. I do a lot of reality checks with first draft/first novel wannabe self-published authors, I don’t want to link my username with this blog.

Pantsing a novel without an outline gets easier with practice, and any of the complications that you add that do not go anywhere will get caught in the rewrite (and there MUST be a rewrite with this method.) First tip: Do not release your first draft of a pantsed novel to anyone who doesn’t love you for you.

Imagine plot as an iceberg. If your main character is given a small enough tip of the iceberg and a blowtorch and told to go melt that thing down, the problem of your novel should seem doable to an intelligent main character. If you pull your whole plot problem out of the water and tell your main character to melt it with the tiny blowtorch, a smart character would realize that was waaaaay out of their pay grade and wisely leave it to the works of kings and gods.

What, your character is a king or a god? Well, that’s a problem. A king or a god has a lot more resources than the average character so the problem has to be so epic that even they would wish for a bigger king, or a bigger god will swoop down and fix it. If the problem is something money, men, or king/god-like powers can be thrown at it to fix it, you got yourself a (boring) short story there. Not a novel.

So, your character only needs to be interesting. They should have an interesting problem in an interesting world. Your first reader later on up the chain will have seen every version of every typical subgenre out there, so you want something in that first page that screams “this one is different”. But where do you get such a rare thing?

You wait for it. All plots come in two parts. The first one is the really cool what if a main character turns into a painted cat every second day and it accidentally eats a fairie. Now, everyone and their dog can come up with most plot ideas. They’re all reading the same books, watching the same TV shows, and live in the same society. Most ideas that you can think of will have enough books like it out there to make you never want to write again.

So what does a good pantser do? You wait with that half-idea. Write it down if you’re a lot older than you were and someone somehow drilled holes in your skull pan without you knowing and now suddenly all your ideas drain out of your head. Wait for the idea from that idea that only you can write. A twist that is not the exact opposite of what most people would write (the fairie family will come and wage war on the poor cat/main character) or the opposite of what most people will write, because you want to be smarter than the people who are a little smarter than most people. So the cat and the fairie can’t get along famously, either. You want what’s behind door #3.

So when you have that, you begin your pantsing novel. Unlike this blog post, which has gotten too long to continue. You knew from the beginning thanks to the title that this is going to be in two parts, but I just figured that out. See you tomorrow!

 

Barb, going off on rules again? You don’t say.

I’ve been getting into painting for a couple of months now. I got through school and while I loved both art and stories, I chose to pour all my energy into writing so as not to be a jack of all trades. I started taking an art therapy class and boom, there goes all my pocket money. Painting is expensive, yo.

But it also introduces you to a whole bunch of other masters in their field to learn from. I watched a video about perspectives in landscaping, and the painter said something to the effect of Rules are there to give you control over your environment, not to tell you what to do, and that’s exactly what the structural rules of writing are there for.

Not that I think young writers should try to break the rules, but I do feel as though trying to break the rules successfully without understanding what the rules are there for to begin with is kind of like trying to teach yourself to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. At least with writing, there is an off chance that the story will work despite itself whereas gravity is a cruel mistress.