On Writing: Unexpected Ideas

puella magica homura
Homura Akemi from Madoka Magica

I’ll say this: pay attention when ideas pop up, even if they’re weird and unexpected.  Especially when they’re unexpected.

A few weeks back I was listening to the new live album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Wembley Or Bust — it’s quite excellent and contains a lot of ELO classics old and new) when their take on “Xanadu” came on.  I remember being a big fan of that movie as a nine-year-old kid.  It wasn’t just the music that captivated me — I was a fan of the band even then — but I was intrigued by its fantasy elements, of muses come alive.

Amusingly, it occurred to me that it would be quite fascinating to see an update/rewrite of Xanadu as a Magical Girl story.  And then I riffed on that a little: ELO’s next album after that was the cult classic Time, a time-travel concept album which also happens to contain the track “Twilight” (known in anime circles as the track used in the DAICON IV film).  Somehow that album would tie in as well.  I shared that as a tweet and didn’t think too much about it after that.

A few weeks later, and the idea is still stuck in my head, and I think I might be able to do something with it.

I thought about it some: a magical girl sent back in time (Time) to save the world somehow, or at least change someone’s fate (Xanadu).  She realizes she’s stuck in that time stream and can’t escape (Time) and has to come to terms with her own fate (Xanadu).  She changes the lives of a few certain people by teaming up with them (Xanadu) though she’s afraid she can’t completely connect with them (Xanadu, Time).  In the end she’s changed the world, or at least someone’s fate (Xanadu) and is finally able to transcend the time stream to return temporarily (Time).

Of course, I’m omitting the rollerskating and the musical interludes, but still…I’m a bit surprised at how easily this came together.  I’m still not sure if I’m going to follow through with it, but the temptation sure is great.

So yeah…pay attention to those ideas when they come up unexpectedly.  You just might have your next story!

Behind the Scenes

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria
Vienna Opera House pic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every now and again I think of how fans see their favorite writers or musicians or performers when they’re not center stage with a new project.  I get to thinking, this band has finished their tour, they’ve already released all the singles from their latest album, and they’re out of the limelight.  So what are they doing at that point?

Well, the 80s told us that all the bands were hanging out on the Sunset Strip and getting completely shitfaced and taking an apothecary full of drugs and partying until it was time to start the whole album-tour rollercoaster again.  Or something other ridiculous, overblown stereotype of some sort.

The era of social media shows it differently.  Nowadays, we find that artists are working at their day job or completing freelance projects and selling their own wares at conventions.  Musicians are bringing up a family or helping out a friend at a recording session.  Writers are slogging away, trying to make deadlines and heading out on book tours and conventions.  Any one of them might be taking a breather so they can just be regular non-famous people.

I think about something Paul McCartney once said about the length of time it took for the Beatles to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.'”

I sometimes also think about the time it takes from a writer saying ‘I’m working on a new project’, maybe giving out vague details about it, to the time they tweet ‘YAY!  It’s done!  Off to my agent/editor!’, to the time they announce that it’s being released.  Back in the internet age you were never sure how long it took, especially when some writers like Stephen King could have multiple books and stories out within the span of a year, while other writers might not see publication until a decade after their last release.  Nowadays you can follow your favorite author In Real Time.

I think this might be one of the reasons why some writers are always pleasantly surprised when their book gets a positive response.  They’ve lived with that book for anywhere from six months to a few years, and it’s all their own creation.  They wrote the score, they built the sets, they sang the arias endlessly to get them just right.  Perhaps maybe a few lucky backstage friends got to beta read.  They or their production crew (their agent and/or publisher) may have even done the artwork for the program.  They put it in the hands of their agent, in hopes that someone will be interested.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a one-person show almost all the way to the end.  And when they get there, they’re so immersed in their story that they’re really not entirely sure how the public will react.

It’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the creative arts; you create something for the public to enjoy, and yet you’re never completely certain if you’ve done it right until they see it.  But if you’re lucky, you have, and all that work will have been worth it.

Questionable Writing Advice

nathan fillion nope
Me too, Nathan.  Me too.

In a recent issue of one of the few writing magazines I subscribe to, they provide a multi-page article (in garish school-bus yellow, I should add) of “what agents hate.”  I only briefly skimmed it, having had the sense that this was going to be little more than a list of personal irritations that may or may not be helpful to the writers reading it.  I found it more annoying and self-important than helpful to be honest, but that’s just me.

One that did kind of rub me the wrong way was one in which said, and I quote:  If you don’t know how to write a compelling pitch for yourself, you probably should not pursue being a writer.

I mean, I get the context:  this agent has a personal issue with writers who fail at trying to sell themselves.

On the other hand, I personally know a hell of a lot of writers and artists out there who can write phenomenal prose or brilliant dialogue or draw beautiful sequences…yet doing something so compact and microscopic as a one-page advertisement for yourself is a fucking nightmare.  Trying to distill a hundred-thousand-word story that you’ve worked on for lord knows how many months into twenty sentences is a hell of a lot harder than it looks.  It’s two completely different types of creative thinking, and it’s hard as hell to switch easily from one to the other.   Some writers/artists just aren’t as good at the elevator pitch as they are at telling the story.  [Speaking from experience, I should add.]

If anything, I’m thinking they should have maybe rephrased that to be a little less, I don’t know…snobbish?  Soul-crushing?  I’m not sure what word to use here, other than they’re an agent I will most likely not submit to, just on attitude alone.  You’re an agent, you’re supposed to help the writer, not chase them away with Fame platitudes about ‘only the best survive’ and turn them away before they even start.  Yeah, I know, it’s a small field with a crapton of wannabes.  I’m still not a fan of that kind of thinking.

Anyway.  There were also your usual bingo-card points of advice:  kill the adverbs, kill the non-‘said’ dialogue tags, don’t self-edit, farm it out to your writing group, submit only your best work, follow submission directions on the website, don’t hassle the agent/publisher, etc.  Be gracious.  Be patient.  A lot of it does make sense, of course.  YMMV, as they say.

And as I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, some of these are reasons why I’m a self-published author.  I want to be able to successfully edit my own work.  I want to go against the grain.  I’ve gotten better with the pitch.  I don’t think I’m at pro-level yet, but I’ll get there eventually.  I like working on my terms instead of shoehorning myself into everyone else’s.

 

So.  Anyone else come across some questionable writing advice lately?

 

On Writing Advice

waynes world br

I’ll be honest, the first bit of writing advice I’ve always given to people, especially now that I’m making the occasional appearance on convention panels is this:

Have fun with it!

No, seriously, have fun with your writing!  I could give you stodgy advice like ‘write [x] words a day’ or ‘read so-and-so’s book on writing’ or ‘you should follow these certain rules to be successful’ or something like that, but I won’t.  And I certainly won’t provide pithy quotes you can Photoshop against a picture of your local picturesque creek bathed in sunlight.

I don’t necessarily dismiss those things; if they work for you, by all means, keep using them!  They may have worked for me in the past, but I realized they really didn’t do enough for me.  It was a bit of cheerleading, but didn’t necessarily give me the drive.

No, I realized my drive came from having fun with it.  This isn’t just about breaking grammar rules, though.  I’m talking about all the parts of it.  Go places you (and your readers) wouldn’t expect to go.  Write something a bit outside your comfort zone.  I’ve said it before, my default reaction to writing rules is often: well, why not?  And then I’ll see if I can pull it off.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ll have learned something out of it either way.

I’m not saying be a rebel for the sake of being a rebel; this is more about making the process of writing enjoyable for you, the writer.  Go for what excites you about the craft, no matter how big, small, epic or esoteric.  Whether it be fan fiction, memoir, expanded universe, or experimental, it’s all about whatever enthralls you while you’re writing it.  The canvas is a hell of a lot more welcoming than you might think.

Fan Service

cat fan
No, not that kind either.

What do we owe our fans, as creators?

In a perfect world, writers, artists and musicians would be thrilled to be able to put their creation out there into the world, and have a positive (or at least constructive) response.  It’s not a perfect world, so we’re reasonably okay with whatever we get, be it a bunch of lukewarm responses, very small but amazingly positive responses, or, if we’re really lucky, a snowball effect of growing positive responses.  So we at least owe them something they’ll enjoy.

Do we owe our fans perfection?  Well, that depends on who’s defining ‘perfection’ here.  In normal situations, the writer defines it as ‘the best damn version of my creation that I can give to you, to the best of my ability.’  In this case, yes: we owe our fans our best work.  Anything less than that, and we’re phoning it in.  And fans can see phoning it in a lot more clearly than we as creators can.  You don’t want to cut corners, say ‘fuck it, it’s done’ or ‘…oh HEY LOOK OVER THERE’ [whoosh of handwavium].  And if our creation is in an extended universe, the last things we want to do is kludge it with a bit of poorly applied spackle or reckless retconning, or worse, not even bother with the continuity.

However, we don’t owe our fans what they would consider a Perfect Story.

We do not owe them their perceived headcanon.  Yes, our fans have invested time and care in our creations, and that’s really cool!  But they’re not the ones driving this bus.  The creator is the one dedicating a hell of a lot of personal and creative time planning how each intricate bit of action is going to unfold.  If the creator decides to do or not do something in the story, I can pretty much guarantee that 99% of the time, the creators have a reason for it.  We especially don’t owe them an explanation when we go against their perceived headcanon.

*

So why do I bring this up?  Well, part of it is due to Sunday’s reaction to the unveiling of the thirteenth Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker — the first female to play the role.  It’s an awesome decision and for the most part everyone is thrilled by it.  It’s the usual small-yet-vocal male contingent that are having issues with it.  How dare they mess with an always-male institution?, they cry.

But it’s also partly due to frequent conversations I see between webcomic artists (frequently female) and their fans, where the reader (frequently male) has ragequit the series or released a Twitter tirade — or worse, harassed the creator through the comments sections of their work — due to their headcanon not actually being canon.  And I’ve also seen it in a lot of anime and manga fandoms; for example, the ending of the Naruto manga series (and in effect its anime) was faced with a bizarrely antagonistic American backlash due to certain characters ending up romantically linked and others not linked.  It was weird, a bit unsettling, and completely uncalled for.

I admit I haven’t had this kind of response to my books as of yet.  That’s partly due to my relative obscurity at this point in my career, but I would not be surprised if it was because I was a male writer, either.  That said, though, I still think about it.  I write knowing that I’m probably going to piss someone off for one reason or another.  I won’t let that stop me writing what I want to write, though.  I can deal with that if need be.  But it still baffles the hell out of me.  It’s fandom expanded to bizarre extremes.  It’s an extreme emotional reaction to something harmless and fictitious.  It’s reactions unchecked.

I don’t owe anything to fans with that kind of reaction.

I just owe them a damn good story that I hope they’ll enjoy reading.  That’s all.

 

Lazy

sleepy cat

It wasn’t as if I’d had an energy-draining day at the Day Job on Friday.  In fact, it was smooth sailing for most of the afternoon.  I kept myself busy by catching up on personal emails and listening to some new release tunage.  After work we went for a walk to the Legion of Honor Museum up on the hill (it’s just a little over a mile from our house by foot, uphill 98% of the way) for a sneak preview of their Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millenery Trade exhibit.  A bit tired from the walk but otherwise just fine.

Did I get any writing work done, though?  Not a word.

Nor did I get any work done Saturday, when we went to see a movie at the Opera Plaza (the documentary Letters from Baghdad) and afterwards stopped by Green Apple to buy a few books I’d been looking for.  I did turn on the PC to update a few drivers and software, but spent the rest of the day catching up on webcomics that I’d been backed up on.  [I’m a big fan of webcomics for multiple reasons and will most likely have a future post on them at some point!]

Sunday was shopping day, so hopefully some time tonight I’ll be able to squeeze in some Lidwells work.  If I’m not distracted by other things!  Heh.

It’s not all that often that I’ll take a day or two off without feeling some sort of guilt.  I’m at that point in my writing career where I’m once again comfortable with my processes, that I don’t feel the need to rush to get things done.  [I’ll still kick myself for procrastinating, but that’s more about getting my daily processes started in the first place.]  I can afford a few days off where I’m living a normal life, watching TV and going out into the world and whatnot.

It’s a struggle of many writers, considering many of them are like me, juggling their writing career with their Day Job.  You can’t really decide ‘I’m gonna play hooky from my Day Job, I deserve to do it now and again’, at least not without consequences and/or lost pay.  On the same token, you don’t want to do that with your writing either, because a) that’s admitting your writing is less important (which you do NOT want to admit), and b) that’s one less day you’re moving forward, one more day your story is just sitting there, doing nothing.  It’s also why, when writers do take a day off from writing AND their Day Job, it’s usually for vacation purposes and purposely doing nothing, and STILL feel guilty about it.

Still, it’s a struggle I’ve gotten under control.  I’ve been hitting over 2000 words daily, between blog posts, personal journalling and occasional poetry writing, the 750 practice words on Secret Next Project, and Lidwells.  My deadline stress is light.  My near-future plans are clear.  The docket is a hell of a lot clearer than it was just a few years earlier.  I can afford to take a writing day off…especially if that day is spent reading and watching other people’s creations with an eye on what their own processes were!  [See what I mean about Writer Brain never being completely turned off?]

I can afford to be lazy every now and again, and not feel the least bit guilty.  I just need to remember to enjoy it!

Characters and Their Stories

calvin-writing
When I’m pantsing my writing…which I’m trying not to do this time out.

I supposed you could call my preferred style of prose ‘character-driven’.  The way I often create stories is to put characters in a scene and try to figure out how they react — to the situation, as well as to those around them.  This reaction often drives where I’ll go with the plot next.

Noted: it’s not as if I let them run rampant in the scene to the point where I have no idea what comes next until I get there.  I just have them going from Plot Point A to Plot Point B and I pay attention to their movements and emotions.  There’s a few reasons I do it this way:

–The character is always evolving.  One of my worst errors in a lot of my early attempts at writing was that the characters had style, but they were static; they never changed.  And when they did, it felt forced.  I don’t always expect each one to change completely and irrevocably…more that I just want them to evolve in some way.

–I pay attention to how they interact with other characters and use that as part of their evolution.  A good example is Christine Gorecki from my trilogy: originally she was a one-off character, but her initial single walk-on part with Sheila and Nick worked so well that I had to expand her role considerably.  She was obviously well-loved by all the main characters that she needed an important role as well as her own personal story.

–Quite often, the interaction between the various characters gives me more background, more grist for the mill.  One character’s personality will irritate the hell out of his brother after a while, which in turn gives me a subplot dealing with the two brothers not talking to each other for a year, which in turn gives me a scene where they have to sit in the same room and talk to each other and behave.

In a way, my writing process is a mash-up of half-pantsing and half-outlining.  I have a solid (if vague) idea of where the story is supposed to head.  Lately I’ve been calling that the backbone or the spine of the story.  But I keep the movement of the story fluid, keeping it open for change and unexpected inspiration.

In the process, any major arcs in the story feel less action-driven and more personal.  The action moments end up being there for a reason; it’s less about playing plot point bingo or trying to Save the Cat and more about how life puts unexpected hurdles in our path, and how we respond to that.  Personally, I find that a MUCH more fulfilling story.

On being an SME

mr_smee_live_action
No, the other SME.

What is an SME?  It’s a business acronym (and companies loves them some acronyms something fierce) for Subject Matter Expert.  I’ve been labeled one at my Day Job thanks to my expertise regarding check printing and OFAC regulations (w/r/t checking accounts).  How did I get there?  Well, I’d originally been a Jack of All Trades in my position, but over the years I’d become more and more knowledgeable in this sort of stuff, to the point where I could write FAQs and easy to understand How-To’s for my coworkers and new hires.  I’ve had managers from other departments requesting my input on related things.  And to add to that, I can also go on vacation like I did this week and not have to worry about my team completely falling apart trying to do my job in my absence.

Granted, I didn’t learn all this over the course of a few weeks.  I started working specifically with checking around 2008 and OFAC around 2012.  Some of it was learned via outdated documentation, and a lot of it was learned on the fly.  In short, I decided that this was a narrow-focus subject I could pick up on and get to know in detail.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Good question!  Right about the same time I started learning more about OFAC, I’d made a conscious decision to become an SME on writing novels…at least to the level where I could feasibly do it myself instead of farming it out to someone else.  It was twofold: I really did want to know more about the process, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off.  So over the next five years, I dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about the writing and self-publishing process.

I wouldn’t say I’m an SME at all facets of the writing business, far from it.  My focus is deliberately narrow: I know a goodly amount about novel writing, self-publishing, self-editing, cover art production, and so on.  I’m still a n00b when it comes to the marketing and promotion side of it, though I’m making an effort to learn more about that as well.  And most importantly, I enjoy being at this level of knowledge.  Writing is one of the few creative avenues where I’m able to think multiple steps ahead and see all the moving parts of the whole.  Knowing what to do with all those parts makes me a better writer.

There’s also the fact that I’m a huge fan of Paying It Forward.  This is why I post entries like this…I like the idea of helping out other writers, clearing the path for them so they can see where they need to go.  If I can take what I’ve learned and make it easy for others to pick it up as well, so much the better.

Does an author have to be an SME?  Another good question; and I would answer that by saying ‘only to the level they need to be at.’  You want to know how to write in your specific genre, of course, and you want to be good enough at it so your readers won’t feel cheated by a poorly written story.  You may farm out the editing and the cover and the distribution (or that may be left to your publishing house), either because you’re not good at it or you’re simply not that interested in taking the time for it.  Nowadays you might want to have at least a moderate amount of knowledge about promotion, considering the current state of publishing.  [As an aside, it never hurts to know a bit about the various parts of the process anyway, so your conversations with editors/cover artists/etc won’t be as confusing and/or scary.]

Think of it this way:  when you bring your car into the shop, you can either trust the mechanic, or you can also understand what the mechanic has to do.  There’s no right or wrong here; it’s all about how much you want to know about the moving parts.  For some it’s advanced algebra, for others it’s utterly fascinating.  It’s completely up to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Not so) Great Starts

snoopygreatstart

The upside is that I’ve already gotten a good couple thousand words in on Meet the Lidwells!  Most of the text is coming straight from the very rough draft I wrote a few years back, of course, but it’s going in the right direction.

The downside is that I can already see where I’m going wrong.  Thankfully I know exactly what it is that’s wrong, and how to fix it.

I’ll be honest — the beginnings of my novels are always a mess.  I spend the first couple of chapters knowing what I want to write, but I haven’t quite grasped how I want it to play out.  The prose is all over the place as I try out all kinds of different styles on the fly.  I’ll plant the seeds of one or two minor plot points that may or may not survive the end result.  I may even get a few of the details mixed up.

But hey, that’s what revision and editing is for, right?  Once I do figure it all out (which is usually around two or three chapters in), then I have a solid platform for the rest of the novel, and I can clean everything up in those two or three sketchy first scenes.   A Division of Souls had at least three wildly different openings before I put all the pieces together and figured out which one works the best.  I had a hell of a time trying to figure out how to start The Balance of Light the way I wanted it.  Lidwells is no different; once I get into the groove, I’ll be able to build a more solid opening.

Do I wish I could write a perfect opening?  Nah.  Doing it the way I do is actually part of the fun!  It helps me connect with the story on an emotional level; once I’ve done that, then I can reshape the opening to fit that mood.  I don’t see it as wasting time and words; I see it as part of the whole exercise.  As long as I’m going in the right direction…that’s all that really matters.

Character Evolution

naruto-evolution

I was talking with A. earlier tonight about how often we see characters on American TV shows that don’t seem to evolve all that much.  Or if they do, it’s often on an external level instead of an internal one.  What I mean by that is that there are some characters who aren’t so much evolving as they’re reacting.  A lot of 80s shows fell prey to this, and in the process, when they did evolve for any reason, it was usually forced.  A character changed personality due to a death, or a lover leaving them; or on the positive side, they changed because they ‘saw the light’.  Sure, I’m super-generalizing here, but you get the point.  [And if they didn’t evolve, the show was usually a Perils-of-Pauline drama of the week.]

This has changed a bit over the years, and American TV has had characters evolve on different levels.  Spiritually, emotionally, and so on…they were changing and not just because of that episode’s actions.

We noticed this primarily because we don’t watch much network TV at all, preferring to watch British imports on Acorn or Netflix.  And I’ve read quite a few non-American novels over the years where character evolution is handled differently.  I sometimes think of animes like Ergo Proxy, where the female lead evolves from a stellar but snooty investigator (she’s the daughter of an extremely high-ranking leader and often thinks She’s All That) to a more empathetic hero who realizes her actions affect others.  Or AKIRA, where Tetsuo and Kaneda, both violent biker teens with death wishes, evolve to the point where they both achieve their own versions of spiritual enlightenment.

These are the kinds of characters that usually inspire me when I create my own.  I try to give them not just a background and a list of actions they must take, but a way for them to evolve somehow.  Alec Poe is a good example of this:  aloof, somewhat distant and often terse at the start of A Division of Souls to fiercely dedicated and understanding by the end of The Balance of Light.  His evolution is not just jumpstarted by the Awakening Ritual in the first book; it’s challenged numerous times throughout from those nearest to him, including friends, coworkers, and family.

It’s one of my favorite things to do when writing novels, to tell the truth.  This is a story that’s not part of the main plot, but it’s to be told anyway, through action and emotion.  It shows that the character isn’t just reacting to what’s going on, it’s affecting them to the point that they’re consciously aware they need to change in order to move forward.  It gives the novel a richer, more realistic life in the process.