Thursday, November 29, 2012

Subtle things #2: Using adverbs correctly

Correctly? Never use adverbs!

In general, yes. Saying "never!" is certainly simpler than trying to explain all the situations where they could be used correctly, if the conditions are right. Plus, English is a great language with tons of specific words and it will let you make stuff up on the fly -- you can cut down on your adverbs just by taking advantage of that. So do that.

But. Adverbs can be used to convey information that doesn't easily go anyplace else. It's a judgement call on the writer's part, so it's difficult to argue about without being either very situation-specific or very macro-level non-specific (as in, "never!"). I'm going to be very situation-specific, to try to illustrate a pattern.

Some of my transgressions in the raw draft of Disciple, Part VI, with adverbs highlighted:
  1. His one short, melancholy letter was tucked safely away at home.
  2. The pavilion cleared quickly; even the steward and the pages left, once they’d cleared the trenchers.
  3. At bow range, Arcea would surely return fire, and my widest shield… “I won’t be able to protect them all,” I had to admit.
  4. The armsman in front skidded in surprise and nearly fell.
  5. I could feel his pulse, faintly.
(Searching for "ly" in my manuscript points out two words I'm guilty of over-using: only, and nearly. That's a whole 'nother post, on quirky habits, though.)
  1. This adverb is 95% redundant. Things that are tucked away can be reasonably assumed to be safe, IMO. Delete.
  2. This one, I would keep. Pavilions can clear slowly, so quickly is carrying important information. Clear is not a terribly specific verb, but I'm summarizing a nonspecific group of actions. What might be more specific? Emptied, but it's also not very specific. Evacuated and deserted have the wrong connotations, and indicate that the pavilion did the action. I could go into more detail about people lingering to chat, or who left right away, but I need to get to the important stuff. Short sentence, adverb, extra detail to specify how empty the pavilion is, keep moving. 
  3. Surely here is... 75% redundant, because the enemy will return fire. There's no question of it. This one is a voice issue, my gut says. I'll probably delete it, but it bears some thought. 
  4. Why not almost fell? Voice. But does this adverb convey important information? Skidded indicates loss of control. It's close to falling already. I could be more specific, here -- did the armsman fall to one knee? Manage to keep his balance? Run into a wall and catch himself on that? I'll have to look at the surrounding sentences to make a final call on this. 
  5. Faintly does bring important information about the patient's health, but what I have to reconsider here is whether the feeling is what's faint or the pulse. And, actually, it's the pulse that's faint. This should be an adjective, not an adverb: I could feel his faint pulse.
So out of five adverbs, I would keep one. Maybe two.

Given those five adverbs, you would probably do something different. That's the nature of these "subtle things" I've been ruminating on. (See Subtle Things #1, explanation's at the bottom.)

And looking at it now, I have to invoke another Subtle Thing: "Arcea would surely return fire." No, they won't, because they're using bows. Fire came mean shoot only after guns were invented and fire got involved in the process (cannons, matchlocks, flintlocks, etc.) Ha! I've been fighting to keep the language period-accurate, but one snuck through. That's a whole 'nother post to do... 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Meme: a story I haven't written

Picking this up from a favorite author of mine: Martha Wells. This meme requires audience participation, though, so let's see what happens...

Tell me about a story I haven’t written, and I’ll give you one sentence from that story.

You post the gist of the story in comments, and I'm supposed to come up with something snappy. Looking at other memers (kateelliot, kristine_smith) they sound like catchy first lines. I bet it would be fun if other readers posted their own first lines, too.

Challenging? Fun? I finished Disciple last night, and my head is strangely empty. Random thoughts are banging around loose in there. Anybody want to get some creative exercise with me?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subtle Things #1: Character innocence

I was watching The Cabin in the Woods -- I'm not much of a horror fan, but I am a Joss Whedon fan, so it had to be done. Joss's commentaries are always thought-provoking, too, which was part of why I wanted to see it. And one particular scene jumped out at me because 1. it's a reliable hallmark of good writing, 2. it's something I'm wrestling with in writing Disciple, Part VI and, 3. it's a subtle thing and I've been compiling a list of those lately.

The scene was an excellent example of character innocence.

We're all going to die, aren't we...
What do I mean by "character innocence"? (It's just the term I came up with.) Joss's characters don't act according to knowledge they don't have. They're completely innocent of "authorial knowledge" -- those things the author knows about the story, which can leak into the characters' behavior in subtle ways. The scene that so nicely illustrates this is when one of the characters in Cabin is going to try to go for help. He takes a moment to say good-bye and sketch out some plans in case various, quite reasonable, things go wrong. None of which are what actually goes wrong, of course -- and that's the entire point.

The character doesn't know he's in a horror movie. As far as he knows, he's out in a cabin with his friends -- who he treats as friends, because he doesn't know they're going to die -- and weird, bad things are happening. He acts like the reasonable, stand-up guy that he is, in response to that.

The observant viewer of the movie knew what was going to happen. It creates either dread, for the observant, or a gut-punch for those who forgot about the set-up and got this nasty reminder.

"Well, of course the character wouldn't know he's about to die." Yes. But keeping characters in the dark can be easier said than done.

Disciple is told from a first-person perspective. Mostly. Because of that "mostly," the readers know some things, going into Part VI, that my narrator does not. My narrator is trying to deduce what those things are, and it's difficult to write because I hate for her to be wrong -- and because I know the truth in great detail. I wrote it. It happened.

Why can't she just come to the right conclusions? Because -- like what happened to the guy in Cabin -- the truth is something she has no reason to expect. Letting her make that kind of intuitive leap, without sufficient clues, would ring false. It would take away her "innocence."

Authorial knowledge creeps in very subtly. It can be very difficult to put your finger on. In a lot of situations -- genre movies in particular -- the audience is more than complicit. They expect it, to a degree. And yet the story is always better when the characters are completely innocent.

A lesser writer, to go back to Cabin, would've had the guy just announce "I'll go get help!" and head off to his doom. Because it doesn't matter what he says or thinks -- he's going to die. This is a horror movie and characters are expected to die. The fact that a character didn't say or think, in such a situation, is a form of admission that he knows it doesn't matter what he says or thinks.

But in Cabin, the characters gathered round for a moment to give meaning to this one character's departure. It validated that this was real and serious, to them, which is what real people would do.

No real person wants to be the redshirt. So no "real" character should act like one.

Subtle things
I've been collecting a list of "subtle things" as I've been thinking about that vast, foggy land between "serviceable writing" and "excellent writing." We've all heard the standard writing advice maxims: Show, don't tell. Characters need to be sympathetic. The story needs to progress toward a goal. Don't forget to add a backdrop for the action. Etc.

All of those are guaranteed to improve one's writing. But they won't win you a Hugo. At a certain level of writing skill, personal tastes, audience expectations and artistry come into play -- and it's no longer a matter of whether you did something right, it's whether you sold it to the reader. The elements of good writing that can be pinned down become -- subtle. Small. Argue-able. A sentence here, a few words there. Which, if taken out of context, may not look particularly good in and of themselves.

So you will see these posts pop up, as they come to me and as I find examples. What are some subtle hallmarks of good writing that you've noticed? I've got seven more on my list...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks, 2012 edition

It's Thanksgiving Day, here in the US, and I am thankful for the amazing, empowering year it has been.

I'm thankful for my Kickstarter supporters and the opportunity to self-publish. I'm thankful for all the reviews I've gotten and overwhelmed by how positive they have been. I'm thankful that the first draft of Disciple, Part VI is so close to being finished -- only a few more days of writing left. Including today, since obsession doesn't take holidays.

I hope everyone is enjoying a peaceful day, good food and good company.

Today Disciple is featured over at Cup of Porn! I wrote a character interview -- it is safe for all audiences, but if you go clicking around over there, make sure there are no stray eyeballs looking over your shoulder. I threw this interview past my betas and they told me it was amusing, so if you'd like to hear a bit of Prince Kiefan's side of the story, check it out.

And speaking of Kiefan...
I've been working on materials for my second Kickstarter campaign, which is coming in January and wherein you will be able to pre-order Disciple, Part II. Below is the first draft of the banner for the project page, which will be the basis for the blog tour button and more.

It's also a sneak peek of the cover for Part II. There's more to the cover, but this's the important part. The pretty boy. Feedback is welcome!

So, on my to-do list for the next year:
  • run the Kickstarter campaign in January, pre-selling Part II to pay for its production,
  • blog tour in January to promote that,
  • publish Part II by April 1st, 
  • publish Part III sometime late in the summer, 
  • I'd like to try my hand at convention panels, 
  • and oh, maybe write something different. I've got all that hard science fiction lying around, still.
Yes, I'm a little odd. I make resolutions in May and write yearly to-do lists in November. What's on your to-do list for next year?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Controlling the plot bunny population

Spay and neuter your plot bunnies!

Good luck with that. Now that I'm reaching the end of Disciple, I've been suffering an explosion of plot bunnies. In case you didn't know, "plot bunnies" are story ideas that pop out spontaneously -- usually branching off an existing story. Good stories tend to inspire a lot of plot bunnies. Plot bunnies interbreed freely and can lead to some wild stuff, especially on the porny side of things.

I picked up the term from the fanfic community. I wasn't a writer of it, but I did read a fair amount.

Since Disciple's my own story, these aren't fanfic ideas so much as potential future stories -- but not all of them are going to work, necessarily. Some are quite vague. Some would set precedents that I don't necessarily want in this universe. Some are openly non-canon and I'm not going to go there at all. Some are more or less porn, and... well, okay, I've written some of those already but nobody needs to know about that.

Plot bunnies are a good thing, in the long run. The headline is a joke -- don't try to control their population. Let 'em breed. I write them down once they're at least a sentence long. I check on them every so often. They mutate when you're not looking. Cannibalize each other. I've been working on Disciple for a long time, and facing its completion... and knowing I'll soon be tending my plot bunnies... it's bittersweet. A bit disconcerting. But I thought I had it under control.

And then I was assaulted by a completely unrelated tribe of plot bunnies. After starting to write this post, I watched this episode of NOVA (there's a link to the video there) and had to beat the plot bunnies off with a stick. The strongest absorbed the others, got his teeth into me, and I had to add him to the Brainstorm Zone -- which is a whole Scrivener file I created for ideas.

It brought to mind a recurring writer-interview question, since I've had to write a lot of those recently: where do you get your ideas? Good Lord, where don't you get ideas? And I've never quite understood why people are so protective of ideas. They're a dime a dozen. It's execution of the idea that takes work, talent, and ought to be protected. And charged for access to.

So watch the episode. Your plot bunnies will be different from my plot bunnies. Your final story, if you write one, will be different from mine, if I write it. No worries.

How do you manage your plot bunnies?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising expectations vs. becoming ridiculous

Continued from this post. So I need to write a series of kick-ass magical duels for Disciple, Part VI.

I'd like to do something more nuanced than: Blast! BLAST! BIGGER BLAST! DESTROY EVERYTHING ... it's not easy. Defining a character's ability to kick ass always runs the danger of not impressing anybody. Therefore, the temptation is to go straight over the top -- but that will create its own challenges the next time you need a magical duel. How is this one more dangerous/exciting than the last one? Constant one-upmanship is its own problem.

Sure, Kenshin, you can do that with just a sword...
Which you will see if you watch enough anime. Case in point: the Ruruoni Kenshin TV series (which involved no magic.) After a ridiculously long and ever-one-upping series of katana duels with the enemy's pack of cronies, Kenshin was having to conjure miniature black holes through force of will and swordsmanship in order to create any sort of wow factor. It was falling pretty flat at that point, though.

Conventional wisdom is that tension must always increase as we approach the climax, and that subsequent stories (or scenes) must have higher stakes than the previous. We've all seen this happen: first the characters have to defeat a particular bad guy, then an organization of them, then an evil deity, then we have to save the entire universe and then... You've got to take a step back, at some point -- or pass the story to new characters.

But let's get back to kicking ass; so you want that emotional satisfaction of the good guys winning. You want all of your characters' hard work and sacrifice to pay of in a suitably -- within the parameters set by your world-building -- spectacular way. And maybe you need more than one of these scenes.

Raising the stakes works, up to a point. Survival is always a good goal. Saving loved ones. Working with handicaps. I need to keep realism in sight, though. I brought this up a while back -- don't stack the deck against your characters so badly that their success becomes implausible. Relying on luck or reinforcements arriving in the nick of time isn't as satisfying for the reader as a character overcoming personal fears, limitations, what-have-you, to succeed.

And yes, I'm having to fight the urge to make these a cakewalk for my characters. Maybe it seems like I'm tough on them, but I've got my squishy side too. So I'm thinking of these duels as graphs charting increasing power, increasing complications, and increasing risk. That's three dimensions, already.

I tend to think of stories as being a walk through a three-dimensional web, anyway, so that fits right in.

What examples of stories losing touch with realistic conflicts come to your mind?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The importance of kicking ass

Back in high school when I was writing piles (and piles) of crap, I gave them all to a dear friend to read and he critiqued them (though I didn't know about critting at the time -- we're talking late 80's here). We also read a lot of books and analyzed them at great length together. Through both of these things, my friend taught me two important things (though I didn't know that at the time either):
  1. The fickleness of reader sympathy, and
  2. The importance of letting kick-ass characters kick ass. On stage. In full view. 
I am currently up against this in Disciple, Part VI. I need to write not just a kick-ass magical duel, but more than one of them. There was some magical dueling back in Part III and a little in Part IV, but now it's time for the gloves to come off. Time to kick ass.

I've been looking for reference visuals, and I've been struck by how rarely you get an onscreen, kick-ass magical duel. There are, of course:
  1. Harry Potter vs. Voldemort et al. (which had its good moments, but overall... eh.)
  2. Gandalf vs. Saruman (excellent duel)
  3. Gandalf vs. the Balrog (powerful, though it was shorter than you think)
  4. and the magical duel in Willow (was interspersed with other things going on)
Psychic dueling, a still from Akira
but I've been looking for new visuals and longer scenes would be better. This tends to steer me toward anime. Anime can do a lot of ass-kicking, when it puts its mind to it, though you may have to sift out the martial arts aspects. I find my mind wandering back to one anime in particular that I watched with my high-school friend: Akira. Which isn't fantasy, but if you've seen it you know why I'm thinking of it. Onscreen, kick-ass duel.

The literary example that my dear friend always held up as the yardstick was the magical smack-down at the end of the first Thomas Covenant series -- which I read about a thousand years ago and have only dim memories of. But it was kick-ass. I think.

Stay tuned, I've got more thoughts on this. One-upmanship is a problem in these sorts of situations. If you've got a favorite kick-ass magical duel, recommend it!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Unicorn Bell week: characters

It's my turn to blog over at Unicorn Bell, so things will be quiet here this week. I am also blog touring, this week, for Disciple, Part I so there will be some updates over at Disciple of the Fount.

Did you miss the big announcement? Disciple, Part II will arrive by April 1, 2013.

I'll be talking about how I develop my characters, over at Unicorn Bell. Index of posts, for later reference:

Those strange beasts
Grass roots
Getting to know them
What's on the page
Two more thoughts

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNo: Cheering you on

Confession: I don't do NaNoWriMo. I can't keep up that kind of pace. So you NaNoers are all braver than me.

If you follow my Twitter feed @LBlankenship_sf maybe that sounds silly. I post Tonight's Word Count (TWC) every night, with #amwriting, and if I'm not writing, I report on what writing-related things I did -- net gain/loss in revision with #amrevising, 500 words of notes or whatever.

I post my TWC because I know some people out there feel like they need a kick in the pants, sometimes. Personally, I don't worry about my output and I don't set goals for myself. But yes, I'm fairly reliable and it makes for a nice data stream that might help somebody reach their own goals.

Because with discipline ingrained into habit, you can be a steady writer. That's what NaNo is about, too. I have the habit, and I think my data stream is proof that it works.

Why don't I do NaNo? My spread is 750 to, oh... I break 2k now and then, but that's when I'm on a real tear. NaNo needs a consistent 1600+ per day and to be honest, my average is more like 1200. No, I  haven't done the math but I know how many days it's taken me to write each part of Disciple, and falls  short of NaNo's 50k/30days.

Could I do it? Just devote a little more time? Bear in mind that I have no life, already. Seriously. My day is maximized toward writing, and has been for some time now.

But I hope my Twitter feed encourages people about the cumulative effect of regular writing. In 2011 I wrote about a quarter million words. I'll be doing better than that by the time I finish Disciple, Part VI. What will happen in 2013? Who knows?

Writing on a regular schedule is a powerful thing, over time. Habits are powerful things. I like to think my Twitter feed proves that, and I hope it's encouraging rather than intimidating.
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