Monthly Archives: February 2012

It’s Alive!

In response to my introductory post about planning last week, Ivan commented that as a reader he couldn’t understand writers who say that characters take over – surely those characters are our own creations and will do anything we want – no more or less?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a satisfactory explanation of this, which makes me wonder if it’s possible. But I am going to try my best here, and I welcome the comments, thoughts or disagreement of other writers and of readers too.

Of course, on a basic level, we control what the characters do in the stories we write. We can choose to write something down any way we please – even at its smoothest and most inspired, writing is not automatic writing. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say that the characters take over.

Sometimes, writing is like transcribing the movie in your head. The story flows as naturally as a dream, and the writer merely watches it and describes it on paper (or keyboard). Of course, it’s a waking dream, so we could step in and change the events, but how often do you feel in control of your daydreams? If you picture yourself lying on a beach, watching the waves lap on the shore, you certainly could consciously decide to have a waiter appear at your arm with a pina colada, but it’s more likely that this will happen unconsciously as your mind builds its image of escape.

But a lot of writing isn’t like that. it’s more conscious. The art of writing is not precise. Even a writer with a detailed plan will be filling in details as he or she goes along. You might have planned that your main character (MC) goes to a high school reunion and meets an old flame there, but when you write the reunion scene you will be adding other characters – teachers and students from her past – and having to flesh out their history. In doing so, you might “discover” (by which I mean create, more on this in a moment) that your MC got a detention from her Science teacher for something she didn’t do. This new information feeds into your picture of your MC, so that suddenly the argument she had with her teenage son three chapters ago about doing his Science homework takes on a new significance. When you wrote it, it was just an excuse to get the son to storm out of the house so that you could have her home alone when her lover phoned. Now, out of nowhere, Science is a feature and you will want to return to it later. Her experiences will also influence how she goes on to deal with her son’s problems in school for the rest of the novel. You might even have to go back and change how she dealt with her daughter getting a detention in Chapter 1.

What I am trying to show here, is that while we do control what we write, we don’t make all the minor decisions in advance, and we don’t necessarily even make them with a great deal of awareness. In the planning stage, we knew that MC was going to meet her old flame at the reunion. We knew that she would have to go through a bit of mindless small talk with the other people at the reunion to build the tension and suspense before she caught up with him. But what that small-talk was going to be didn’t seem to matter until we started writing it. We just threw a few bodies between MC and the ex-boyfriend. Those bodies needed form and something to say and, being a reunion, they needed history. So we created one, but really, we looked into our minds (or muses or our own memories or wherever else we search for extras in the cast of our novels) and discovered something at random.

These apparently minor decisions about something that happens to our MC or about something our MC thinks or feels can have a profound effect on how we view her. And then, when we come to the part of the story where the MC makes a life-changing decision, we come to realise that she wouldn’t go the way we’d planned all along at all. She would pull the trigger, or say yes or whatever it is. And bam, you’ve got a completely different story on your hands from the one you planned.

Sometimes, the extras (whether they are people, events, places or whatever) in a novel as just that, extras. They float in, pad the scenery, and then they float out again without ever really having done anything. But other times, they sneakily become pivotal. They get ideas above their station and they flap their wings like a butterfly in an English meadow. And before you know it, there’s an earthquake out in California and you’re wondering how it got there.

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Friday Fiction #14

Thanks as ever to Madison Woods for the inspiration for this week’s story, which you can find here: http://madisonwoods.wordpress.com/flash-fiction/grave-digger-100-words/

I say thanks, but knowing I had promised to give a positive, death-free story this week, I think she is teasing me with a picture which she entitled “Grave Digger”! Still, I hope you’ll agree that childish innocence and determination is positive and hopeful. See what you think – I’d love to hear your comments, good or bad.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

“What are those, Daddy?” Lucy shuddered. “They look like fairy bones!”

“Fairies don’t die! They are pieces of rock. Remember the pebble you found yesterday?” Lucy had been amazed by how shiny it was; how she could almost see her own face in it. “Well, sometimes rocks get smashed up by the weather instead of polished by the river. They are powerful forces in the rock’s life and depending on what the rock’s like and how it behaves, it either shines or crumbles.”

Lucy thought for a moment. “I think I’d like to be a pebble, not a fairy bone.”

 

 

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Planning By The Seat Of Your Pants

We all know the saying, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”. But in writing, there are as many views on this as there are writers – successful or otherwise. Some claim that an outline hampers the flow of the writing and is tantamount to trying to turn a novel into a mathematical equation; while others are equally adamant that navigating the plot, character development and themes of a novel without a plan is like trying to cross a continent without a map.

Well, there’s a lot more to writing a novel than just planning out a few chapters, and Lewis & Clark (or since I’m in Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie) will tell you it’s perfectly possible to cross a continent without a map, so I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

I’ve planned both my nano novels, but in both cases I found myself wandering off the plan at various points. And that’s when it gets interesting. Following the characters and events that arise in the story can provide some of the best material, but it can also take you down dead-ends and tiresome tangents. Personally, I believe in going with the flow – cutting out the chaff is for editing – and if it’s the way the characters want to behave, it’s probably a more reasonable storyline than the one you had planned anyway. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you have two choices: 1) Stop, go back to the turning and take a different path (then cut out the bit that went wrong later) or 2) follow the dead-end, then work your way back to the plot through a new and interesting connector.

For example, let’s say you’ve planned a simple love story. Girl meets Boy. Girl falls in love with Boy. Boy falls in Love with Girl. The End. That’s your plan. Then, somewhere in chapter 4, Girl meets Boy2. Boy2 wasn’t even in the plan, but here he is and now that you’ve started writing,he seems like exactly the sort of guy Girl would like. So, follow the path the characters choose. Girl and Boy2 fall in love. Then, if things work out, it’s fine, stick with it. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you can either cut everything since Chapter 4 and cut Boy2 out completely, or have Girl have a massive row with Boy2 and fall into Boy’s arms, bringing you neatly back onto your plan.

All of which is a tangent of my own, to say that having a plan doesn’t mean being a slave to it, but it does help to make sure the story is balanced (Spending 15 chapters on Girl and just having Boy wander in for the epilogue might upset your readers), has a plot at all (What if you just rambled about Girl and never mentioned Boy at all? Not much of a romance!), and helps to alleviate the dreaded writer’s block (Because you always know what’s coming next).

So having declared myself to be a fan of planning and then going with the flow, I’m going to run a series of posts on just that subject. They’ll be interspersed with other posts, but keep an eye out if you’re interested. Even if you’ve never planned before and prefer to be a pioneer, you might find something that works for you. Even Mackenzie followed a river!

 

 

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Friday Fiction #13

Thanks to Madison Woods, as ever, for a challenging picture inspriation this week. Please do take a look at the over stories linked in the comments section of her blog. http://madisonwoods.wordpress.com/flash-fiction/lorelei-100-words-audio/

As always, I welcome comments and critique on my story below. I found this a hard one, and in particular difficult to get everything into 100 words, so I’ve had to leave a lot open to interpretation. Let me know if it does, or doesn’t, work for you in the comments and / or please join in my poll as to who the narrator is hoping to find!

The third step

There were three steps up to the house. The first felt like the highest, dragging my feet and heart out of the wet forest floor. The second was tiny, a stumble. Having made the commitment to go ahead, it got lost in momentum. She might have come home.

But the third step was the hardest. She might not. I was stuck there on that second ledge for an eternity of doubt. The last chance to sink back into the leaf litter of not knowing. If I went forward, I could find elation, or the final certainty that she was gone.

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Booker’s Seven: Progress Report

Way back in October, I introduced the plan for my 2011 NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org) project, which I refer to as Booker’s Seven. Christopher Booker suggested that there are “Seven Basic Plots” from which all stories are built. So, with a group of 6 other writers, I have embarked on a project to write seven stories each, each story following one of the plots and with a few connecting features between our versions. So my “Robin Hood” story is a Quest, someone else will be writing it as comedy, someone else as a tragedy, etc. To further link us, everyone’s Robin Hood story will have a main character called Robin and a first line of “It was a dark and stormy night.” The other story ideas have a set main character and first line too.

Here’s my list of stories, along with their progress so far.

Story Idea

Booker Plot

Progress

Colonisation Overcoming the monster To be Edited
Wild West Voyage / Return In Editing
Concert Tragedy Awaiting Beta Readers
Road Trip Comedy Awaiting Beta Readers
Stargazing Rebirth Awaiting Beta Readers
Robin Hood Quest With Stage 2 Beta readers
Phoenix Rags to Riches With Stage 2 Beta readers

Which brings me to a more general point about writing. Leonardo Da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Paul Valery said the same about poems a few centuries later. I am far from the first to apply it to writing stories.

Colonisation is about as raw as my writing gets. In spite of the admonishment of nano HQ, I can’t write blind – if I make a mistake while writing, I’ll got back and correct it. If I turn up a load of complete nonsense in a word war, I’ll delete it there and then and rewrite that paragraph. But I don’t go back and proof read until after the fact, so I haven’t touched Colonisation since November.

Wild West I have read through once and dealt with the typos and the silly spacing and a few bits of glaringly bad wording, but I still want to go through it at least once more before before anyone else sees it. I want to balance out the plot better, flesh out a few characters and deal with the fact that the POV is all over the place.

Then it can become like Concert, Road Trip and Stargazing, ready for a first few critical and conscious readers to look over it. These three are waiting because my first beta readers tend to be my amazing writing group, and I can only take so much of their attention! They are 100% worth waiting for. They don’t pull the punches, they are not afraid to tell me something is dreadful, that they didn’t understand it, or that huge chunks need to be ripped out and pissed all over! And to me, that’s exactly what Betas are for.

Once they’ve done that, my editing process starts again. I have to go back over the piece and really hone it before sending it out to slightly gentler Stage 2 beta readers. Hopefully these guys won’t find anything to hate, or if they do, it will be something I’ve decided it’s worth having readers hate. But they still have a crucial role in critiquing, because they are my last line of defence before I abandon the story and send it out into the world.

In reality, of course, they hopefully will find something(s) to fiddle with, and there are a few ideas in my head I’m still working through. Phoenix, for example, still doesn’t sit quite right with me, so when I get it back from my Stage 2’s, I’ll probably tweak it again and find some Stage 3’s to send it to. But that’s my right as the author, NOT to abandon it!

Those of you who’ve stuck around for a while are probably wondering about my previous NaNo projects, the novels: Phoenix Fire and Eric. PF has in theory gone through Betas and is ready to abandon, but actually I think it needs me to pick it up as if it’s a first draft, and start editing from scratch. I certainly aim to do so before I try to publish it. Eric is not as far along, I’ve finished the phase 1 editing, but now I need to start moving chapters around and filling out plot points. He’s at the same stage as the Wild West, but whereas a 7,000 word story can go through the whole process in just over a week, a novel takes disproportionately longer, and Eric is more than 10 times the length of Wild West!

When I’ve finally abandoned Booker’s Seven though, I’ll be right back on his tail. I love Eric, and I really want to get him to the stage where I can share him, first with the trusted few, and then one day, I hope, with the world.

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Friday Fiction #12

Here is today’s Friday Fiction piece, inspired by Madison Woods’ photo below. As ever, I love feedback and welcome critique. I can’t wait to see what others have done with this one.

Broken

I wasn’t even thinking about you. I don’t now, not all the time. Entire hours can go by. Last Thursday I didn’t think about you until 3pm, unless you count ten minutes staring into the bathroom mirror trying to remember that look you get when you shave.

Got. Shaved.

It was lying on the ground, its stem pointing upwards and broken. It looked a little like the Olympic Stadium in miniature and I got to thinking about your stories of pixies making their homes from plants.

Now I’m crying over a broken mushroom.

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Flag-Raising

The more writing blogs I read, the more writing goals I come across. Like New Year’s Resolutions, they pick up on all the things the writer wants to achieve in a set timeframe, usually the next year. By pinning our colours to the mast, we hope that we’ll be more likely to stand by them.

So I thought, why not? Here’s my flag. I am Standard Bearer, General and Frontline Soldier. I will salute it every morning and evening, and defend it with my dying breath. Unless, of course, life gets in the way, because on the other flag pole is a non-writing flag, which has got a couple of big life-eating pictures on it, like getting back into my career.

ERIC

1. I will edit and redraft Eric into a polished “Second draft” format for sending out to readers by 1st July 2012.

2. I will endeavour to have Eric “finished” and ready for submission by 31st December 2012.

REGULAR COMMITMENTS

1. Barring lack of internet connection or another fine excuse, I will post at least twice a week to this blog – on a variety of topics on Mondays and with Flash Fiction on Fridays.

2. I will continue to submit at least one piece in at least one place each month.

EXTRA THINGS

1. I will continue to edit and polish last year’s NaNo stories and miscellaneous other short pieces already in my collection.

2. I will write new shorts when they come to me, or when I have spare time. And in particular, at least one in July 2012 once Eric is with readers.

3. I will win NaNo 2012, whilst also being coML for the Toronto region. How hard can that be?

4. I’ll crit any piece I’m asked to.

5. I’ll look into writing or related jobs / careers, including editing.

 

There. It’s up. Hoisting it was the easy part, protecting it will take work, motivation and determination. If you’d like to raise your own flag, either in the comments or by posting a link below, please go ahead. This is one of those battles where we’re all on the same side.

Please join me in the first salute.

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