Friday, 30 September 2011

Write to Find Yourself (seriously)

Remember when we thought about who we were? For some, I bet that was five minutes ago. For others, I refer to my post on thinking about whether you are a pantser or plotter, among other things. If you plot, you might sneer at pantsers, and if you (are a) pants(er), you might sneer at plotters.

The plotters among us say, how do you know where you are going? How do you sustain yourselves? Why do you think "Rocks fall, everybody dies" is a legitimate literary ending?

The pantsers will say, where is your spark? Where is your fire? If you color by the numbers, how do you splatter art onto your pages?

Here's the thing.

Plotters know even if they diagram every sentence before beginning, their work will at some point surprise and delight them, and that the greatest surprise will find them on the very last page.

Pantsers know even if they are surprised and delighted at every turn, the true machination of their work will reveal itself on the very last page.

We should all be surprised by our writing, and in order to be surprised, we should strive to ask questions to which we don't yet know the answer.

Above all else we write. Write to discover. Write to delight. Write to surprise. Write now.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

First Lines Are Not Your Antagonist

[It is hard to know whether war or peace makes the greater changes in our vocabularies, both of the tongue and of the spirit.
~ MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, Revised Edition
It was mid-April when I got home from the offshore rig and discovered my good friend Leonard Pine had lost his job bouncing drunks at the Hot Cat Club because, in a moment of anger, when he had a bad ass on the ground out back of the place, he'd flopped his tool and pissed on the rowdy's head. 
~ Joe R Lansdale, Bad Chili
If you're listening to this I'm dead. 
~ Charlie Huston, My Dead Body
Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around. 
~ Barry Hughart, The Story of the Stone

Have you heard this one before?

Hook your reader with the first line!
~ Darn near any writing teacher I have ever had

Sure, you can hook me with that first line, but then you have to reel me in. The thing about those first lines I quoted above is that they all display the voice of the novel they are in, they all (however delicately) take the foot off the brake and move it toward the accelerator, and they all make you ask.

The best first lines are the kind you actually see when you re-read the book. If the first line is so great, you won't even notice it on the first time through because it walks up behind you, wraps its arm around your shoulders and gently steers you downhill so convincingly you don't realize you're running until the last page.

We spend anywhere from 60-97% (math, not my strong suit) of our first writing session staring at the page, thinking up a brilliant first line. Unfortunately, if your book is 70,000 words long and your first sentence is 10 words, you have spent an insane amount of time on 0.00014% (I used a calculator) of your novel. Remember, your first line reels me in, so that remaining 99.99986% had better have a compelling voice, kick-ass characters, an epiphany or at least a red hot action scene and a plot that makes me turn the page.

Doesn't it make more sense to spend all that panic time developing your novel instead of trying to phrase the first handful of words so perfectly a certified saint would sin at first sight? (Also, alliteration? A little overrated.)

Let's go back to:

, and they all make you ask. 
~ Someone just discovered the blockquote button, seriously, how fun is this?
One of the most valuable pieces of information I have read from an editor is to keep the reader asking questions. (If you have read this too and actually remember the source material, please leave a comment. It's been years since I saw this but it obviously left a mark.) Make the reader ask a question with the first line - the reader has to keep reading to answer that question. Make the reader ask two questions on the first page, and every time you answer a question, make the reader ask another.


The reason we seek to satiate our curiosity is because of that marvelous feeling that satiety brings. If you don't satiate my curiosity in the first book of your series to a high enough degree, I'm not actually going to continue on to the second book. I have read number one volumes that felt like half a book. I have read closed series that answered every important hanging thread and guaranteed that I will come back for more. See My Dead Body above, and my purchase of Sleepless after I finished re-reading the entire Joe Pitt series (it's the kind of thing that requires re-enjoying).

Does that mean you need to spend 0.00014% of your time on the first line? No. You have to set up a question, establish a voice, and shift your heel off the pedal all in one sentence. On the other hand, that's what editing is for.

If you're really stuck on your first line and you can feel your writing time trickling through the blanks in your mind, start in the middle. Start in the end. Start somewhere. Just make sure you start writing now.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Do You Know What Your Protagonist Is Doing Right Now?

I wanted to talk about your hero but if you're like me, you may not know who that is yet. If you have a story and a character, you probably have a protagonist.

What's the difference between a protagonist and a hero?

 The hero solves the problem. The hero saves the day. The hero defeats the antagonist. The hero gets the girl or boy or saves a marriage or bonds with the kid or almost always walks off into the sunset (or um, dies trying).

 The protagonist tells the story.

 In order for this to happen, the protagonist must have a story to tell, a reason to be in the story, and most importantly, a voice.

But wait! you say. The antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist! I never said your hero and your protagonist couldn't be the same person. If you just so happen to have a protagonist and a hero who are not the same person in the same story, it helps tons if your antagonist stands in the way of both of them. That means either the protagonist and the hero want the same thing, or the antagonist stands in the way of two people or your story has an antagonist and an enemy of the hero.

Your protagonist has a unique voice, a strong background, witty dialogue, and an unavoidable connection to the hero. Does your protagonist have a story?

(Always remember that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.)

The story structure can be fulfilled by plot - plot being where things happen - but it can also be fulfilled by character development. Plot has a nasty tendency to happen to heroes (and anti-heroes which we'll get to later, when I can I finish rolling my eyes at them...still rolling); character development happens to protagonists. If your protagonist doesn't develop in some way throughout the story, then in the Cadillac of writing that is your story, your protagonist is the hood ornament.

Writer, please!

Your hood ornament should be the color of the walls in the den where the murder took place, not your freaking protagonist.

Ever see The Usual Suspects? It totally looks like Kevin Spacey is a protagonist, and one of the dull ones who sort of exists in a nebulous wordspace (or screenspace in this case) until the end when it's revealed that he's - I really have no idea if you've seen the movie or not. Basically, he's removed from the action. He tells the story, so he's the protagonist. Not even a very interesting one. The thing is, all is forgiven or better yet, ignored, because his story is just so damn compelling that we are sucked in to the plot. If ever you are tempted to use your protagonist as a story telling device rather than a character in her own right, just remember that The Usual Suspects did it first (or at the very least, before you) so don't rest on your laurels. Build your protagonist. Make him fight, make her choose, make him defeat the antagonist and make me cheer by the time he does it.

So what's your protagonist's story?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Making It Worthy Expansion Pack

Last time we talked about making it worthy. Actually, all I said was to make it worthy and why. Your ending needs to leave the reader not with a bang, a whimper, an oomph or an oops, but an exhalation. How do you do that? Remember, I'm still working on my ending. I'm going to direct you to a couple of guys who have experience with endings and endings that leave the audience feeling fulfilled in a medium famous for making you want your money back: movies.

Terry Rossio is one part of a hit making team that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean and Treasure Planet (and a dozen more) and has a column that is as entertaining as it is informative. Though only one (okay, more than one) of the steps listed deal with endings and what makes a story ensnare an audience, the whole column is worth a read. So's the backmatter.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Your Pen On This Page

We haven't begun yet.

I know, it's kind of a letdown.

Here's the thing. Last post, I asked who are you? I didn't ask who am I because I already know who I am. More importantly I know how I write. I am an architect to an almost extreme degree. I'm not as nuts as some, but I have written pieces that were less of a creative torrential river and more of a constructed aqueduct. Before I begin, I know where I'm going and before that first sentence lands on my word processor (or smartphone as the case may be, or even going old school, on that piece of once living organism) I know where I am going to stop. I even have a pretty good idea about how to get there, which at times seems like more an added bonus than a testament to my creative rigor.

I'm working on something right now. It is not, in fact, a semi autobiographical meta zombie piece, but more of a young adult western horror self help kind of thing. When I say working on, I don't mean actually writing. Not yet. I'm not ready for that first sentence yet. I don't know where I'm going.

The best way to maintain that locomotive like creative drive through an entire novel, short story, play, or conspiracy theory is to know where you are going. Make it good. Make it worthy.

If it's good, you'll want to see it so much that not only will you power through to the end but that passion and tension will tug the reader along making her think Just one more page. Remember, whatever you make yourself feel while writing your piece will transfer to the reader. Your passion, your fear, your grief, your surprise. You hold all the cards when writing, so whatever emotion you feel will be felt threefold by the reader, as long as you've done the groundwork. We'll talk about groundwork later.

Thinking of an ending that's good is halfway to making an ending that's worthy. Worthy means your hero has been tested. Worthy means your hero's reward was earned and your reader can finally let out the breathe he held on page one. Worthy means your reader says, "I have to read that again!" and more importantly, "I want more."

I'm still thinking on my ending. Have you found yours?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Whooooooooo are you?

Let me take off these sunglasses (so I can put them back on again in a minute).

One of the best parts about becoming a hardcore writer is the bit where you get to be every kind of writer all at once. You get to be a pantser, you get to be a plotter. You have days where you write by the seat of your pants, every next sentence a complete mystery until it falls from your fingertips. You have those days where you've plotted every nuance and every emotional subtlety, building your story like a home to welcome the reader if only he or she will open the door and step inside.

Becoming is about learning, and becoming a hardcore writer is about learning who you are as a writer. When you have a better grasp of how you write, you will have a better grasp of what tools help you write. For some of you, you will live and die by whether Post-it Notes have gone on sale before your next writing boom. Some of you will swear by colored pencils. Personally, you will take my brightly colored notebooks and Sarasa pens from my cold, dead, disembodied hands. Part of writing will become ritual, the hat, the gloves, the gin that makes your muse sit up and speak, and part will require ritual: turning off your internet, shutting your door, sitting quietly and clicking the pen or opening a blank document. Ordering a coffee before finding a seat. Spreading out your beach blanket before pulling a flask and netbook out of your tote. Like brushing your teeth before you go to bed or clicking your heels three times and saying the magic words, the rituals will put you in that mystical writer mindset. It doesn't mean it will always work.

Don't fall prey to the "grass is greener" mentality. I can heartily recommend following your own path because you will learn which styles work best for you. No one knows you better than you, not even your mother (hi, mom, it's true), and remember, you don't know anyone better than they know themselves. What works for you may not work for someone else. You can boggle and be jealous and be joyous and on occasion arrogant as you follow the common lifecycle of the writer which goes a little something like -

First you see another writer who is rich and famous and has a crap ton of titles under her belt.

Your friend completes nine stories in the time it takes you to complete one.

You finish a novel and sell it on the first try.

You know you are better than the award winner, even though your work wasn't nominated.

Hey, I never said the lifecycle rolled linearly. I did start a phrase with "first" but "last" can precede any of the other three statements. Maybe the phrase starting with "first" is more of an ongoing philosophy than a point on a lifecycle.

My point is, we are becoming and therefore we are learning what works for us and we are most importantly writing.

Haha, I lied. I don't even have sunglasses.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A Meditative Exercise

This blog is all about getting started. It's about that first roughest toughest draft, and it's about you and me becoming hardcore writers. Not about being, but becoming. And that's way more fun.

With that in mind, let's revisit the first post and the true meaning of Christmas. I mean, your butt being in this chair.

You may ask which chair, what chair, whose chair?

That's a straightforward line of questioning with a trick answer. You see, your chair is anywhere you are. Generally speaking, so is your butt. Your chair is where you write and to become a hardcore writer (or just a regular old writer in general) you must always have your butt in this chair. You are always a writer. It's like a crown you can't take off except that writers don't, as a general rule, make nearly as much as kings. Nor do they have to put up with as many assassination attempts, so it works out.

I assume you're reading this on your computer. Open a word document and write for five minutes. Your butt is in this chair, right?

Maybe you're reading this on your e-reader on your morning commute. Take a couple minutes to surreptitiously observe a fellow passenger. Try to pick one who doesn't look like he or she will shank you if you make eye contact. Memorize, not in images, but in words. When you get a chance, write down what you saw. Now make sense of it. Was she a punk rock artist? A nurse, a death-dealer, a dragon-slayer? Was he an accountant, a king-maker, a disowned son on his way to seek his inheritance from the family who tossed him out? Wherever you're going, your butt is in this chair.

If you are reading this on your smartphone in the grocery store, or next to your too loud neighbors (as I am writing this on my smartphone, next to my too loud neighbors) listen. That's dialogue you hear. When you get to a stopping point, write down what you remember. You're studying natural speech patterns and these lovely people are helping you for free.

Your butt. This chair.


Friday, 9 September 2011

Put Your Key in the Ignition

Let's talk about not writing.

I had the remarkable opportunity to take a promotion of sorts some time ago and I thought to myself that the extra cash would encourage me to write more, and to write the kinds of things I wanted to write - you know, those introspective meta science fiction exploratory zombie autobiography pieces that don't quite make as much on the open market as one would hope. I didn't contend with the days suddenly stretching from a reliable 8.5 hours to the new normal 9.5-10 and the occasional 12. This wasn't too different from my previous position as an hourly wage rockstar (it just sounds so much better than monkey) except that I now somehow made less, pay raise and all. Yes, I had joined the ranks of the disgruntled salaried types. Instead of spending my newfound wealth or lazing away my evenings typing madly and contemplating growing a beard as all respectable novelists do (although as a woman I was unsure how to about doing so and at times wished I had a lady writing mentor who could explain how I could radically change my appearance to signify my status as a serious writer without giving up either clean laundry or bathing) I found myself sitting at my kitchen table, staring at the wall. I was too exhausted to even move my eyeballs the four inches to the right in order to stare out the window instead.

I rapidly turned into a raging ball of sunshine so unfathomably furious that my parents stopped calling me. My friends only communicated through wall posts on Facebook and clerks would hand back my change without touching my flesh so as to avoid being sucked in to the miasma of despair that had overcome my aura. Also, I sucked pretty hard at my new position and failure tends to increase my stress. End result: no writing. I even dropped out of my writing group as I was no longer fit for human consumption.

A year before taking the new position, I lived in a different city with a different job and the same name. False aliases are a little harder to manage than you'd think. But I digress. My new year's resolution was to write every day and I made it to April before I got sucked into a toxic social situation that sucked out my will to write.

These two events, though a year apart, taught me something very valuable.

Stress is my nonstarter. When we stare at that blank page, we think of writer's block or too many tangled ideas as the culprits responsible for our inability to click the pen or do more than press the space bar. It's easier to blame these internal nonstarters. If it's internal, we can control it. We can bribe our muses. We can surf the Internet for inspiration. We can thumb through a dictionary or thesaurus. It's much more difficult to quit a stressful job or or ship your family to a friend's house for a week. And anyway, you want to stay on your friend's Christmas list and more importantly, off their hit list.

If our nonstarters are external, it doesn't mean we can't control them. At the very least we can mitigate their effects. My stepping down was an extreme move and an extremely necessary one. For those who can't step away from their position or their stressor, another method would have been working up to the thirty minutes I used to spend each night on writing. Five minutes isn't too much to ask and it nets me about 300 words. That's 300 more than I would have just staring at the wall. Yoga or pilates can be calming but if it's the anonymous group class experience you crave (as I discovered was more important than learning to breathe with my ankles next to my diaphram) you can take a group community college class to clear your mind of your stressor and give your overactive inner control freak a new focus.

What, besides stress, is your external nonstarter?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Totally Over Getting Started

While the hardest part of writing for some is getting started, eventually we catch hold of the knack to put one word down after the other. Then the quandry evolves into a different flavor of the same dilemma but one that has the same solution - putting one word down after the other, also known as the keep going issue.

The problem with writing is thinking "This is the the shit!" then about five seconds later thinking "This is shit!"

While livejournal user Synecdochic created this list for fanfiction (warning: mentions of sex), it works pretty well for any kind of fiction. By works pretty well, I mean that it is a neato list of prompts to keep in mind while you are writing and especially if you think you are heading from "the shit" to "shit". Next time you are writing - shortly after you've begun, or maybe around chapter five, try:

29. The use of negative space -- things that are clearly there (in the author's concept of the characters, their history, their backstory, events that have gone on, etc) but are built by showing the secondary influences and leaving the reader to slowly realize.

Or just examine your earlier bits and ask if you've shown the thing or all the pieces around the thing. Which one would keep you reading, looking for that next elusive clue?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Meaning of Your Butt in This Chair

The point of this blog is to write now.

One of the most important lectures I got in college took place during the first day of what I had assumed to be an otherwise forgettable sociology course, sitting between my roommate and a couple of friends. The lecturer drew this on the board:

And he said, "This is only a chair because we say so. We have agreed it is a chair. Even without me telling you this is a chair, we're all thinking: That's a chair."

He went on, "When I say chair, you're thinking of this chair." He then erased the chair. "Now when I say chair, what are you thinking?"

The societal agreement of the metaphorical concept of chair only works because of the sheer proliferation of chairs and our immediate recognition of the utter chairness of a simple line drawing. Armchair, lawn chair, folding chair, chair at the cafe, chair at the library, school chair, church pew, park bench, bus stop - we're getting a little far from "chair" but I think you can see where I'm going with this when I say - chair - and maybe some of you are thinking about the death of the author on a semiotic level and wondering what your readers are really seeing when you write "chair" - is it the one in their childhood bedroom or the one they sat on in the hospital waiting room or the one in your detective's office - just how much control do you have of your language from your pen to their eyes? But. I digress.

When I say chair and you read chair we only agree on the general concept of chair but in fact, I am saying your chair. I am also saying your butt and by your butt I refer, of course, to the general concept of you.

Your chair is where you are right now. You are in this chair. Not my chair, your chair. There is no chair. There is always a chair. Wherein you are X and your butt is subset Y and this chair is N and time is now - or to put it another way:

Or to put it another way:

Your butt + this chair = write now.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone