writing stuff

“The City”

I grew up in a small town called Slave Lake. On the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, not Great Slave Lake, where by great fluke, I was born and spent my first five years. The point of the story is Edmonton was “the city”. It was a mythical, magical place. As any small towner could tell you going into “the city” was reason enough to skip school for the day. Hell, sometimes it was reason enough to skip several school days, and no teacher questioned it.

And now I live in Lethbridge. It’s a much bigger city when compared to Slave Lake, which didn’t get a traffic light until I was in grade 10. The traffic light made the front page. But it was a weekly paper, so it made the front page 8 days after the traffic light had actually gone up. Another triumph in investigative journalism, let me tell you. And “the city” is now Calgary, not Edmonton, and it’s only two hours away not three.

Growing up, the books I read all took place somewhere else. And I don’t just mean the fantasy novels. New York, Los Angeles, London. The British countryside. The British countryside a thousand years ago. Even small town America. It would have been easy to internalize the message that stories happened somewhere else, and writers came from anywhere but here.

When I started to get published, my vampire novels took place in New York. Some of my short stories happened in no town in particular, or a vaguely New York-ish metropolis. (I always got confused when I was younger. A metropolis was any large city. But then there was the Metropolis of Daily Planet and Superman fame…)

Somewhere along the way, I started setting my contemporary stories in Canada. Downtown Calgary, in and around Victoria, small town BC (with a trip to Edmonton at Christmas), along the highway outside of Canmore. I blame Rob Sawyer for the impetus, who is proudly unapologetic and vocal about telling Canadian stories. (You can read more about his thoughts on Canadian settings for SF in his advice for beginning writers.)

(You know what else is cool? Shaun Haunter’s The City We See blog, posting  book excerpts about Calgary through the eyes of writers.)

I could say it’s about writing what you know. And there’s no denying that knowing a place in person can affect how you write about it. But that’s not it–or at least not all of it. You don’t need to be in New York for your story to matter.  I think there’s room for so many voices out there that don’t always get heard. Tell the stories about where you’re from, and where you are, and where you want to be.

Failing to continue

When I got to about the 40k mark in Shark Punching (still the working title), I realized I had no idea how I was going to end the story. Worse, when I thought about it, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to end it, it was that I hadn’t started it to begin with.

In fantasy in particular, I find that the plot where characters walk to places and talk to people is very easy to recognize and very hard to realize you’re doing it, too. Shark Punching was the story of two guys who walked to a river, and one of them swam it, punching a shark on his way. The world was there, it’s just my character didn’t interact with it.

Start to finish, from first draft to the end of the second, Shark Punching took me thirteen months to write, but only three of those were active writing. The distance between the first draft and the second gave me the time and perspective I needed to see the failing in the first draft.

Marvellous mundanity

TheHeroWithAThousandFacesI was watching Extra Credits, because everything they say about the narrative of a story translates almost perfectly into writing, when a Joseph Campbell quote summed up perfectly a problem I’ve been having with most first drafts of most of the books I read. The mundane is too boring in what should be an exciting world.

Books in the speculative realm all too often focus on the boring mundane moments in the story. The bathing, the eating, the walking…even if it’s the person’s job to kill other people, quite often they are bored with it in the wrong way. Apathy is a hard emotion to write in a way that is engaging because if the character does not care, it is very hard to get the reader to care, either. Visual media is slightly different, but that too cool for school character that just cannot be assed has been used to the point where they’re a paper-thin representation of what the character could have been.

I think this can be fixed by starting at that moment where the story is new to the character and you see that wondrous world emerging from what the character has known all their life, and watching *other people* be blase about the magic or technology allows the reader to have that bridge between the readers who have never seen it before and the world where the tools are common.

Balancing awe vs. mundane is not a first draft issue though. Too many students have sat in too many classes talking about in media res that now we have a flood of stories that are starting after the character has already rubbed off all the awe, and they’re now just plodding along.

I don’t want to read characters plodding. I want them to bring me into their world with them. If scenes can be summed up in a few lines as to what happened but doesn’t change the plot itself, it should be nothing more than a bridging scene. No more chapters of characters doing everyday things unless that every day thing is a break from their new reality and even then, be brief.

Front-loading the beginning with awesome things, even if you don’t know why yet

Shark punching has become Hand, Tongue and Coin, all things relating to deadman magic in this world. I had hand and coin being shown as to why it would be important in the plot, but I just told the readers that what you can do with a hand, you can do with a tongue.

A perfectly decent scene in draft two became a perfect place to showcase what you can do with a deadman’s tongue for magic, and spelling that out made me realize that a completely separate thing that I had included just because it was important suddenly worked perfectly with the magic system.

I’ve really been noticing how much most of the fantasy I’ve been reading of late is perfectly flat. High detail can sell the big leaps; if you can show the reader that you can describe something you’re both familiar with in a way that feels right, when you tell me they can fly, I’m more likely to go along with it, but bogging the story down in boring activities described in excruciating detail is just excruciating. If you’re writing a fantasy, even in the opening scene but also, especially in the opening scene, I want to be sold on the wondrous. So I put stuff in the beginning that I don’t know why it belongs. I don’t have to know while I put it in. But the way it turns out that it’s important, to me, is the most interesting part of plot.

And what goes nowhere gets cut, so no one has to see all the times the bat and the ball do not make a solid, sweeping connection. Near misses in baseball are almost as exciting as the massive cracking ball-on-bat action. Intentional near misses in fiction work almost as well, too. Not connecting without a reason as to why? Cut.

Charting emotional highs and lows in writing

Donald Maass says there should be tension on every page. You should print the book out, scramble the pages so that you’re not reading in sequence, and then make sure that every page has some bit of tension on it. I don’t do the scrambling or printing out bit, but I’m always trying to twist the screwdriver embedded in the characters’ backs just a little more.

I found though that my writing picked up when I realized that beyond tension on the page, every scene had to have one moment with an emotional high or low point. I found that every day, I write at least one scene as a whole unit, with one point at which the characters have that moment of climax (sometimes literally, though sex is hard because it releases tension and the whole boint of writing is bottling it up, so writing sex *and* mantaining tension is a bit of a foxtrot).

I don’t diagram my stories, but This person did. I work on a “if they have time to lean, they have time to scream” plotting structure where if I notice the characters have been sitting around talking, I throw a grenade into the mix and let them scramble. The biggest problem I have with most stories is the fact that so little happens over so many words, and making sure there is always something happening can help keep the story going. Being aware of how the emotional flow of the story is the first step having that be just part of your natural writing flow.

On not killing characters…

I’m at a part in Shark Punching where I need to have the bad guy have an early brush with the main character to set him up as a character. The bad guy gets cornered in the room and attacks another character who is trying to stop him. Part of me wants to kill the other character so that the bridge is burned and the MC can never go back, but if I do that, the MC won’t believe the bad guy when he tries to sell himself as just misunderstood. If he leaves the other guy dead, that’s out the window.

I’m writing a gritty fantasy with not a lot of hope, and brutal short life expectancies, but rather than that making life or happiness cheap, it’s the most valued commodity in the world. The world is going to be harsh and brutal, buy people clinging together for whatever reason have more motivation to hold on than let go.

I know Game of Thrones is big on introducing a one use character that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…(a)nd then is heard no more because his head is now on a pole or is encased in melted gold, but I think death should still have a more important reason than to just shock the MC. A brutal death that means nothing just desensitizes me, and I want my reader to remain fully engaged.

The first story I ever realized that killing a character wasn’t something to take lightly was in the sequel to the original version of Misbegotten. The MC’s brother lived and died as an ass, and when it came to the point where the MC was going to do something against his moral code to solve the problem, it didn’t ring right. Why would he care? Going back and changing the MC’s brother though, caused a log jam. I spent six months not touching the story and then six months trying to figure out a way around not killing a character that I had rewritten because now I cared if he lived or died, but the plot couldn’t move forward if he was just severely inconvenienced. There are times when the death has to happen, and there are times when you can spare the character who lives a lifetime of suffering if your character never has to see them again.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say every death should matter greatly, and having a senseless death be senseless should be like using fennel seeds. There are a few recipes where that taste fits exactly, but it’s not something anyone wants to eat all the time.

“As you know, Bob”‘s first cousin “As you can clearly see, Becky.”

“As you can clearly see, Becky,” is to description and direct thought what “As you know, Bob” is to information dumps and backstory. Both are ways to tell the audience what is/has happened and in the days of radio broadcasts, the characters needed to describe what they saw to people who could not see what was going on due to a limitation on the medium.

Having two characters describe what’s going on as though trying to explain to a third person who is not standing there, looking at the same thing the characters are looking at is almost invisible in fiction. It’s taken as a given that the format works. But I’ve always had something trigger in stories that are 90% dialogue, and it wasn’t until I read a couple stories where it was very obvious that the dialogue was for the reader’s sake and not for the characters in the moment that I was able to name the problem.

Conversation isn’t dialogue and dialogue isn’t conversation. But I think putting more of what is told to the character to inform the reader through the point of view of the character and having the characters only discuss what would be naturally discussed in moments of awe or high tension can only make stories better. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where no one ever uses dialogue as a tell, and that’s okay. In the right moment, it can work.

Pipeline plots and dopamine

There isn’t a lot I know about writing that didn’t start from a seed or a cutting of something else someone had said. We all have our particular talents, and mine is if I hear someone say it, I do not forget it. This has gotten me through four years of university while I was writing my book instead of taking notes on the lecture itself, but I also have the brain where if something makes sense to me, I don’t need to study it, I get it the first time. Conversely, if I do not understand it the first time, it takes many, many, many hours trying to work out exactly what the issue is.

But listening to Rob Sawyer talk about writing is like a Ph.D. writing class, and he willingly just gives away everything anyone ever needs to know to make their writing and their career better. If you walk in thinking that you do not need to learn anything more than you already know then the points will fly over your head and splatter on the wall behind you, but if you listen, it makes sense. And unlike science communicators like Richard Feynman, it keeps making sense, even after the lecture stops.

Rob was explaining how humor works. How making connections between two different things and having the brain building that bridge between them creates dopamine that rewards the brain. It’s why hearing a joke and telling the joke, the first time, are just as funny. The brain rewards you for making and using a new bridge. Then, things get less funny the more you hear it because the bridge isn’t new anymore and now that you’ve learned how to use it, the reward system packs up its stuff and hangs out at only the most happening new bridges. … … he might not have phrased it that way exactly.

The same thing happens with non-humor though. I figured out about a decade ago that I did not have to know exactly what was going on. The freedom of not knowing why X happens or what Z meant was incredibly freeing because I could write anything. Either my subconscious would make a connection, and it would look like I had planted that little detail in chapter three to have it bursting with fruit in chapter 27 on purpose, or I’d cut the seedling off in the rewrite, and no one would ever have to know anything was ever there.

This is why I question books written off an outline. Making the connections that have always been there but weren’t noticed before is not something done by a conscious mind. It’s the subconscious trained to put a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are the same color together, trying each piece with every other piece in the back of your mind while you’re doing anything. Thos connections are the most brilliant. To sit down before you even start the book and think that every decision in the book is going to be planned out ahead leaves the entire hiding in plain site connections unobtainable. Not all these connections snap into place. Sometimes you have to shave off bits of the existing writing or sometimes it completely changes the outcome, and on an outline, that ruins everything that follows completely. Yes, you can reoutline the new version, but every single time you come to a new decision, it means redoing and replanning. And yes, outliners can rewrite the whole thing with the connections after the fact, but figuring out that rewriting a book from the beginning is the best and easiest way to create a second draft isn’t something a lot of people believe. Let’s be honest.

I figured out something in shark punching last night that just curls my toes. It was there, from the very beginning that this is what the entire book was about, but until my main character went to the ship’s throne because he didn’t want to be locked up with a full chamber pot all day, everything snapped into place, and without having to go back and rewrite. This isn’t a skill that happens automatically. I figured out that you do not have to know what the point is, you just have to lay the pipe through the existing story so that when the point appears, you can use it where you need it without having to dig up the prose to lay down the new plot.

It’s a learned skill, but again, between forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it or teaching yourself how to want to write even when you’re not feeling it, the latter is always better. How could it not? Gym memberships are a billion dollar industry making money off the back of what people know they ought to be doing but don’t actual do.


The importance of not knowing what this button does

So how do you not know what your story is going to be about, and still tell a story in the first half of the novel? I’m not suggesting just starting blind (though if that’s your thing, do that) or suggesting you plan a lot. But there is a middle ground where you dip your toe into the water of this new world.

There are lots of guides out there to walk you through how to plan your plot. What conflicts, or tension, or backstory or whatever, but this takes a step back from that. I don’t think preplanning what’s going to happen in your novel is the most important thing you need to figure out. I get my character first, then a few glimpses of future scenes that may or may not make it to the final version, and what the character wants, initially. But I also think that stories come in two parts, the story you want to tell, and why the story you want to tell is going to be different from all the other stories that follow the exact same path. No matter what path you’re going to start out on, it’s going to be a well marked at least in the beginning before you get into too many branched decisions off from the beginning.

I think, for me at least, the two pieces of information I need to know is what is the story I’m trying to tell going to be about, and how I plan on making that plan different from all the other stories written about the exact same thing. The most important part of that is the second part. While you can write until you figure out what the thing that makes your story different, but then you have to have the courage to cut all that comes before it. If you start out your story on the right hook that will show the reader that this X is different from all the other X’s out there, your story starts where it should, even if you have to redo it in the rewrite.

I’m not one to say planning is better than pantsing when they both have their drawbacks. A planned novel that has the characters sticking to the plan no matter what runs into the danger of having characters start acting out of character needlessly or doing stupid things that progress the plot because that was the best the author could think of before they started stomping around in the characters boots.

Pantsing, on the other hand, if not rewritten enough, can seem like plot points come out smelling of the author’s ass from whence it came. Nothing has any order and the episodic nature of the story tanks in the middle as the author does nothing to progress the tension from the cool idea to the neat ending, despite the 50k in the middle where shit needs to still happen.

There’s more, if you’re writing filthy commercial fiction, you should have an antagonist that has all the ability he needs to win, which means that you should start your book with the fail state in mind. And there’s more about traveling down from the infinite tree to the path of your finite plot. And then there’s the concrete how to front load your story with awesome, but that will have to wait.


Inside Out’s Deleted Scenes and writing the right characters with the wrong problems

We watched the deleted scenes of Inside Out after watching the movie, and man, that was that a full writing course in a nutshell. The first version of the story with the same characters was *terrible*. It would have missed out on the whole point of what it did say and it would have been a sadly expected near-miss.

But instead it was wonderful. The amount of effort and love you have to show for your project to get hundreds of man-hours to get to a point where you can look behind you and think oh, shit, what did we just do? The cut scenes were already voiced by the actual actors even if it wasn’t drawn out, which meant they would have had to call the actors to say “Oh, guys, what we did sucks we need to switch up the characters, change their personalities and while we’re at it, we’re going to change the entire plot.”

I’m not comparing myself to Pixar, but I remember vividly the first time I looked at a project and realized that if a character was an asshole, then no one would care if he died. And if no one cared if he died, everything that happened from that point on was tainted by the wrong characterization. Cutting 40k of “finished” work and going back to the beginning of a story was something I’d never done before. It seemed…criminal or medical to have to lop off the major trunk of the story already up out of the ground because I’d made a mistake in characterization and the rest of the plot was built on sand.

It hurt, but I cut it. And the writing block that had crippled me wasn’t even an issue as I whizzed past the scene that had made the non-asshole brother’s death so significant. Having an insignificant death (unless the *insignificant* aspect *is* the significant aspect…in which case that becomes “Having an insignificant death that doesn’t mean anything) is a missed opportunity. It’s why Fred’s death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was such a punch to the gut. Why did he have to die? It meant nothing, just one more listed on the butcher’s bill.

I can count on one fist the number of people who said, “You’re right, this book does need to be rewritten” and rewrote it three times. One of my comments was “I don’t care what’s happened for the past twenty thousand words, it should be cut” and he cut it. That was in the third draft. I thought I’d get some blowback at any point, but it was a great learning process for both of us. He landed his dream agent last year because of the work we did. I’m not on a soap box. I rewrite my stuff multiple times. Every single thing that I wrote part of stepped away for six months and then came back to and finished where a magnitude better than anything I just sat down and wrote start to finish. Even if I wasn’t thinking about the characters, the world still had a chance to be real. Jackson made the Hobbit town a year before he filmed so nothing would look freshly built, and the results were jaw dropping.

There will always be the occasional gem that need you to hit yourself on the head with a rock and they appear fully form and in body armor, but for the most part, you’re playing a game of Mastermind where there are dozens of potential right answers, but what you put on the first line is your best guess at who goes where. There’s no second player telling you which one is the right color in the right place, but that’s where muscle memory comes in.