Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Writer's Resolution 5 - Story logic and tension

As you are rushing along, building the story without taking breaks to rewrite or research (and using the suggestions in this series), it can be easy to lose track of where you are headed. With something like a novel or a screenplay, there are so many scenes between the blank page and "the end" that it's easy to get lost or create inconsistencies.

If you are a plotter, this will be less of a problem. As long as you stick to the outline, you are unlikely to become too confused. A few notes along the way when you complete a scene that diverges or slip in a new character can usually be enough. (But you DO have to take the time to make those notes.)

If you are less of a plotter, or even a full-fledged seat-of-the-pants storyteller, you can do yourself a favor by creating an outline along the way. If you follow the advice I gave in the first entry in this series (Be ready for tomorrow), you'll find you are building your list of scenes with valuable references on content along the way. Annotating these, the way plotters do, will save you time and effort later on.

The point of these notes is to help you to:
  • Be consistent. When you make decisions as simple as the color of a character's eyes or as complex as an allusion to the REAL reason the antagonist is taking an action (say, buying a wrench or sending flowers to the heroine), you'll need to remember these later on. If you change the decision later, you'll create headaches for yourself.
  • Be logical. When the scenes are summarized simply, the way one leads into or causes the next is easier to pick out.
  • Build tension. It's all too easy to plateau, with things happening that are not increasing jeopardy for the protagonist. A list of scenes can make this visible. It also will show you when you have lower tension scenes later in the story or when you have a scene that is, essentially, a repeat of an earlier scene. (Repeats happen with amazing regularity in the unpublished work I read, and they can take the whole story down.)
  • Get oriented. Not sure where you are in the story? A good list can be a to-date summary that can propel you into the next section.
Now, some scrambling and mistakes are okay as the story is being drafted. Everything can be fixed in revision. But, especially for pantsers, a good map of where you've been can be a nudge to better writing without forcing compliance with a plan.

My online "How To Write Fast" course begins Feb. 1
Face-to-face romance (love scene) is set for Feb 13; SF (plot) on March 5 at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
My online "Novel in a Month" class begins March 2.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Writer's Resolution 4 - Things get messy

So, after committing yourself to the discipline of writing productively, carefully choosing which story you'll write to the end, and exploring your subject enough to have plenty to say, you're finally putting together sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. And it feels weird, maybe a little off. Especially if you are a perfectionist, used to rewriting as you go along. You've filled pages that, by any standard, aren't your best.

This is probably fine. It takes a while to get used to just telling the story and worrying a good deal less about the quality of the prose. Continuing to move forward may feel like building on sand. It takes a great deal of trust to keep composing as the editor in your head is shouting dire warnings.

In most cases, you can ignore the editor (for now). For all the rewriting that is in your future, it generally is more efficient to compose first and revise once the manuscript is done than it is to try to do both at once. And you'll avoid the real story killer, looping. Having pages full of cliches, wrong turns, on-the-nose dialogue, and grammatical errors is a small price to pay for getting a fresh story written and completed. Gaping holes can be filled later and, chances are, there will be whole chapters that will need to be cut. But you'll know better what is needed and what can be improved and what must be removed once you see a version of beginning, middle, and end in its entirety.

It is possible to get too sloppy. There is a difference between having the words flow because you are caught up in the scenes and having them fill up pages because you are making easy, shopworn choices. I ask myself these questions:

  • Am I being specific and true to my characters, or have they slipped into something familiar and generalized?
  • Am I truly immersed and emotionally involved in the scene (or at least keeping true to an outline I believe in)?
  • Within the last ten pages, have I surprised myself?
  • Within the scene, have I raised any new questions?
  • Does the overall tone of the scene fit the whole of the story I'm writing, or has a different voice emerged?

If the answers to any of these questions disturb me, I will look toward writing a scene that is important to the story and so challenging that I'm reluctant to write it. Usually, this is a scene further on in the story, but it can also be a prequel scene. I don't write it immediately. Instead, I prepare to write it on the following day.

What I'm looking for is a return to something that is authentic to the novel I'm working on. This will, almost always, snap me back to full attention and make me more present to the story.

An easier way to do this job is to write a completed scene from the point of view of a different character. This verges on rewriting -- in that the setting and beats of the scene are available --without turning on the editor in my head.

The hardest thing to do to fix things when they are falling apart is to branch away from the story, but sometimes a turn is so disastrous that is the only way to move forward. I've had, on occasion, to reach back several chapters to a place where the story (though not necessarily the prose) is working well, find an alternative choice and move off in a new direction. This is daring and requires a new outline, but worth the effort. 

Here's the good news: I've found that, the more I write, the less often I need to take action to revive the composition phase. In fact, the occasions when the prose feels dreadful (not a true problem) are fewer. Fast writing increasingly means fresher and more exciting writing.

It also is more audacious for two reasons. First, the words are less precious when I'm more productive. I worry less about losing them. Second, my imagination runs faster than my concerns about extreme choices and material that might disturb people (including me). I think of this as running through the yellow lights. I keep the storytelling in gear and find myself in dangerous neighborhoods. And that's a good thing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Writer's Resolution 3 - Research in service of the story

Once you choose your project, content becomes an issue. Authorship, according to Robert McKee, requires a mastery of the story world.

You need to have a lot of details to draw from and a much fuller knowledge of the context of your story than the reader. On the other hand, knowing too much can sap enthusiasm and make it difficult for you to surprise yourself. In storytelling, there is a natural tension between knowing so much about your subject that it is difficult to decide what to include and knowing so little you can't put yourself into the story.

Of course, your own comfort level comes into play. Plotters usually do exhaustive research before they feel they are ready to begin composing the work. Those who write by the seat of the pants (pantsers) may be happy to jump right in, drawing from a well of experiences and facts, without doing any specific research at all.

When I wonder about whether I have enough information to write, I keep this in mind:

Research exists to inspire and contain.

For any project, I need to find enough about relevant subjects to want to share some of the fun, unexpected facts and to want to explore what the locations, concepts, and conclusions might mean to people and how it might change their lives. I need to feel there is enough there so I will not exhaust the subject before my story is completed. And I need to be excited.

Also, since a blank page presents infinite possibilities, I need to know where the borders are. In worldbuilding, this means I can delineate the important rules -- whether for a fantasy world or a real-world niche, like a hospital or a racetrack. For historical fiction, it might mean having a few events clear in my mind that can be used as anchors for the plot. A few elements that must be included will suggest key scenes, whether I choose to plot, pants, or proceed by a mixture of each.

Since I have an unquenchable curiosity, I put time limits on my research, based on the size of the project and my knowledge. It is too easy to lose myself in the research equivalent of cat videos. On the other hand, I do more than answer top-of-mind questions with my research. I allow myself to follow investigate some topics that intrigue me even though they don't seem necessary.

I avoid over-researching. I like having some loose ends and unanswered questions. I like unexplained discontinuities. A bit of intrigue and risk can add spice to the composition process.

Some of my research is not literal. I explicitly look for models and systems that are not obvious but are either analogous to my topic or in sharp contrast. Sometimes this is as simple as looking closely at a historical event and mapping it into a science fiction story. But I also may play with a concept like how memory is stored in the brain by getting a deeper understanding of how the immune system recognizes a pathogen it has been exposed to before. 

I also keep a lookout for collisions of ideas. In fact, many of my stories are based on unlikely combinations, such as putting zombies to work at a health spa.

Once I am in the composition phase, I avoid research as much as possible. This includes inserting explanations that are good enough and searchable words (bagel is my favorite) for names and terms that don't come readily to mind. Any fact or word I know I can grab during revision is simply marked for that step so that the flow of writing will not be impeded.

There is one exception: emotional research. My scenes only come alive when I feel the same sadness, joy, terror, etc. that the protagonist feels. I may, in the course of composition, need to step aside and write something biographical that forces me to re-experience strong emotions. (I can do this before composition and insert words that suggest my feelings as I create an outline -- and I prefer this. But this is more likely to happen in the moment of creation.)

At times, I've found my estimates on research being complete to be wrong, in terms of key topics exposed about which I know little or waning enthusiasm. I approach these the same way I do in prep research, with directed assignments and time limits. And I never replace scheduled composition time with research.

For readers, verisimilitude is essential. By the time you turn in the manuscript, there should be enough true and clear information to immerse the readers in your story. This does not mean sharing all you know or showing off, but the world and sequences of events must be grounded in reality (even in a fantasy). Naturally, you'll lose big if you get something wrong. One reason I never tried to write a Western (a big genre when I started writing) is because its fans were famous for knowing all the details. Putting the wrong pistol in the hero's hands would shatter the illusion for them. You don't need to have everything right when you compose, but you have to be alert to factual errors during revision. Take fact-checking as seriously as a reporter would.

Today, doing research is easier, thanks to the Internet. When, in pre-Web days, I wrote a novel with scenes set in Singapore, I had to gather travel brochures, dig through history books, and page through National Geographic magazines. I even called in a favor and had a bundle of newspapers sent from a friend who was living there.

I was quite happy with the results. When, years later, I had the chance to visit Singapore, I didn't find anything that made me feel as if I'd messed up the facts or gotten the feeling wrong. In fact, I had a strange sense of deja vu as I walked the city's streets.

With that in mind, consider going to a library, interviewing people, and visiting locations where your story takes place. If you've never shot a gun and your character will fire one, take a course at a gun range and talk to the owner and the patrons. Most people love to help you in your research. Take advantage of that.

Ultimately, whatever you do in terms of research is done in service of the story. You do need to know more that the reader does by the time you are finished. You need to pin your interest to enough facts to make it real to you and to maintain your enthusiasm. And you need to make it real with details that you find directly. If all you know about the mob comes from movies and novels, don't try to write about organized crime. We do not need another Godfather knockoff. 

Oh, and have fun with research without allowing it to take up your writing time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Writer's Resolution 2 - Choose your story

Not every idea makes a good story. Even fewer make good novels or screenplays. Yet, it's easy to be lured by a concept that excites us into plunging into a long-form work that doesn't have a chance of success.

Last time, I covered some starting points to making writing a habit that leads to completed stories. But what should those stories be about?

If you are a beginner, anything is possible, but I recommend creating smaller forms, even flash fiction. These can work with even slight ideas, they give you the reward of completion, and they represent minimal investment in time and effort (which will make disasters less disastrous). Writing short works also helps to give you a sense of where you strengths are, what truly interests you, and what a complete story feels like. So experiment. Have fun. Test your boundaries.

Experienced writers need to experiment, have fun, and test boundaries, and short stories can be good for them, too. But a novel or screenplay based on an idea that is unworkable? That can be dreary. Before you are fifty pages into a long-form work test your idea.

Without a doubt, the idea has to be something you have a passion for. Unfortunately, that tingly feeling is not enough. What appears to be true love often turns out to be infatuation. One protection is writing out the reasons why you must write this work. By articulating these, I can more easily assess and understand my interest. And if I can't say much, I set the idea (written out is a full sentence) aside for a few weeks. With time, I often can't figure out what the attraction was.

Practical concerns often come up next. What can I, through my experiences, knowledge, and skills, bring to this concept that is unique? How can I make it special? Often this leads me into early research that adds to the idea or drives me away. A specific consideration is whether the idea has been done successfully before or is saturating the zeitgeist. I have dropped ideas when I've discovered I'd need to compete against established works or fierce competition. I'd already begun done research and begun writing a work on bringing back extinct species when I got word Crichton was coming out with Jurassic Park. And I redirected my work when I saw, in a Twitter pitch party, that lots of writers were exploring a key element of my work in progress.

Writing a pitch, back cover copy, or even a query letter, can better define what you have in mind and reveal if it is big enough for your ambition (or not). Chuck Wendig (in language that may be offensive to some people) recommends something like this (along with other good advice on choosing a topic). I like to imagine titles, and I look these up online. Often, I find books that have these titles and some handling the same topic I had in mind.

I don't always stop working, even when there is a famous work that explores the same territory as my idea. In fact, many of my short stories have had their origins in a sense that what I've read by another author didn't go far enough or missed the most interesting possibilities in a concept. (It is always a good idea to push things as far as you can, even when your idea seems to be unique. Go crazy, you can always pull back.)

Genre is another consideration. If you are trying to build a career in commercial fiction and you are already beyond the beginning stage, finding a genre that suits you -- where you know the key works, the "rules," and the audience -- is essential. You are likely to stick to one genre for a long time, so choosing your ideas accordingly will help you build a fan base. 

Finally, you want your story to stand out. "The same, but different," is guidance I've heard from various sources. In other words, your concept needs to be set in an idea space that is familiar enough to orient editors, agents, and readers (one function of genre), but it needs to have something fresh and intriguing that sets it apart. Whether it's your pitch or your first page, there should be enough there to build anticipation. It's true that beautiful execution of something that is modest in concept can hold readers, but choosing to go this way makes success harder to achieve.

These are suggestions. Ultimately, you need to create your own criteria for choosing projects and use and develop these over time. One guide for me is remembering that what I choose to write answers the question of why I am writing stories.

I'll continue this series next time with a deeper dive on research and knowing what to write.