Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Regaining discipline

My writing habit is the best skill I have. I've said that fairly often, and talked about how I have a two-hour block set aside each night for writing or working on projects. There was another two-hour block that I frequently added on, in the afternoon. Last year, I churned out a quarter million words using this system.

Because of publishing Disciple, personal life upheavals, and the reality that most people's free time is in the evening... my writing habit has taken a serious hit since July.

I've found myself falling prey to various forms of cat-vacuuming, aka cat-waxing and other amusing names. These are the semi-pointless things you do to avoid having to sit down at the computer and write. Not entirely pointless, of course, or you couldn't justify doing them at all. But they don't need to be done by any stretch of the imagination.

Checking email boxes. Wandering into Reddit, AW, or PersonalityCafe. Watching the year and a half of Law&Order SVU that I've got piled up in my Hulu queue. (Formulaic, rote, mental potato chips. Somebody stop me. Please.)

It's time to get my discipline back.

Eliminate distractions
Normally, I'd say "Quit out of the browser" but I really do need a Wikipedia page open for quick reference and I keep my photo pin boards at Linoit.com (check them out -- it's a real pin board unlike Pinterest, and it's private so fewer copyright worries.)

I need to toss all the other tabs, though. Log out of email accounts. Close other programs. Ignore the phone and the cats when they pester me for attention.

Focus on the rituals
These are the things I do just before sitting down to write. They tell my brain that we're going to write now. I pour myself a drink, take off my shoes, make a pit stop at the bathroom, and pick the music for today's writing. These have gotten a bit muddied, for various reasons, and I need to start doing them again.

Think outside the box
It may be that I need to move my writing block from after dinner to after lunch. I can write in the afternoon, but it will require juggling the things I've been doing then. It would free me up for social functions in the evening, though, and I'd still have the morning for errands and other daytime chores. Blogging and surfing the web would fill in the evenings that I don't go out (most of them.)

When do I start?
No time like the present. I've already put it off for too long.

How do you juggle your schedule to fit everything in?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cutting the story flab

I've talked about major reconstruction of story lines before (here) but this one's a little different. I was revising a short story recently and had the feeling that it was longer than it really needed to be. It was clocking in at just over 9k -- which is a hard sell in the market, too -- and writing it had been kinda fraught with insecurities for various reasons.

Being a world-builder, I'm always itching to do it. My gut kept insisting that the gender politics needed more explaining... but this is just a short story. You don't have to explain everything. (You don't have to explain everything in a novel, either, but that's a different post.)

It's been a while since I've used my revision avatar.
Anyhow, I singled out one scene that could definitely be cut. Why? Because it's mostly me caving in to the world-building itch. My MC is being shown around and explained to, rather than doing/realizing/progressing. Onto the chopping block the scene went.

But: that's not to say there was no useful information at all. I didn't want to make a hole or leave readers confused.

What to keep
Before cutting the scene, I looked through it for:
  • new characters met
  • first descriptions of people or places -- a subset of world-building, true
  • character arc moments -- questions raised, answered, realizations made
  • plot developments -- usually the scene's being cut for a lack of these, but check for them anyway
  • essential world-building -- see below
In my case, there were some detailed first descriptions and some minor character moments that needed to be salvaged. Then I tossed hundreds of words of tension-less world-building (read: infodumping.)

None of it was essential? Correct, because this is a short story. I was only introducing things that would be seen later, in my case. Were this a novel, that could be given a little leeway. This is a short story that's already on the too-big side, though. The reader can meet these details as they happen during a plot-relevant moment. Anything that doesn't happen during a plot-relevant moment isn't strictly necessary.

What to do with them
So I had a handful of scraps that I needed to work into someplace else. I went looking for:
  • relevant conversations, or ones that can be steered toward the topic
  • descriptions at more relevant moments that could be expanded a bit
  • if there'd been new characters to meet, a better place or possibly drop the character entirely
Overall, I cut 1500 words and worked about 300 back in. Net savings: 1200 words. It's still big for a short story, but we'll see if there's any use for it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Plotting scenes out: more recursion

Recursive plotting #3
Appropriately enough, this is a topic I keep coming back to. Original post here. Follow-up here. That makes this number three in the series.

Plot structure holds across a series of books, across a single book, and within the book too. I'd say it reaches down into scenes, but at this scale you're even less likely to actually see it from start to finish.

What do I mean by that? At any scale, the entire plot structure (inciting event, plot points building to a climax, resolution) needs to exist. That does not mean that the reader will see all of them. It's the literary equivalent of a photo of four paws being a photo of a cat -- you know the rest is there without seeing it. If the rest wasn't there, it would be apparent in something wrong about the paws.

Chapters and scenes have inciting incidents, points building to a climax, and resolution. Small ones, since they are themselves the building blocks of a larger plot structure. Maybe the reader doesn't see the structure start to finish, but the writer sees it.

An example
If it helps to look at an example, here's the entire first scene to Disciple, Part I. It's got pretty much the entire structure showing: inciting incident (Kate's teacher fetching her), points building (hints that something important is about to happen) to a climax (the king objecting to her presence) and a resolution (the king is overruled.)

End of scene. I could've continued into what happened next, but at that point the scene had done exactly what it needed to. Its structure had finished and it was a "complete thought." Therefore, the scene ends and we pick up again at the next scene.

That being said...
...all rules are, of course, made to be bent and twisted into balloon animals. (Don't break them. Broken balloon animals are no fun.) This is where voice, style, and pacing come into play.

Jacqueline Carey, author of the many Kushiel books, doesn't write scenes. Each chapter is a segment of the story cut off at a moderately comfortable point.

Stephen King has been known to write one-scene chapters -- where the scene is only a sentence or two long. (Salem's Lot, IIRC.)

There's a correlation between scene and chapter length and the perceived pace of the story. Carey's Kushiel novels are languid things, even in the middle of a war. King's older horror stories moved fast, even when not much was happening. Cutting a scene down to just the climax, if you can, totally changes its impact.

What if that first scene of Disciple had begun with the king identifying her and objecting? Starting with a confrontation puts a more violent spin on the story. It would raise questions about who Kate is and whether she's a victim or a danger. For some stories, that's a great place to start.

Conversely, if I'd started long before the inciting incident -- say, with Kate tossing and turning in bed, giving up on sleep, and dressing -- that would have been a quiet and slow beginning. It can be difficult to hook a reader with that sort of thing. That would require good language and very fast explaining of why she's too stressed out to sleep.

Do you pare your scenes down? Stretch them out? Juggle the structure?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Indie Life: Keep writing

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Moving on 
I don't know about you, but I had Disciple kicking around in my head for years and years before I had it fully figured out and my writing chops were on the level that it needed. I've only self-published the first three parts, so far, but all six have been written. For me, the story is finished.

And to be honest, we were all happy to be done -- the characters and I. But now they're taking a well-deserved break and I'm at loose ends.

Starting over from scratch 
When you had years to nibble at the world-building and character development, it didn't feel so big. You can eat an elephant, after all, if you do it one bite at a time. You had time to learn your characters' life histories, explore all the nooks and crannies of the world, and even develop all the second-tier characters.

But now you've got a few books on Amazon and you know how important backlist is when you're a self-publisher. You don't have five or ten years to write the next one.

That elephant starts looking kinda big.

Have you ever groused about how an author's characters are all essentially the same? Ever got tired of every story involving New Orleans somehow? How some writers keep going back to the same characters in the same universe and never let them have a "happily ever after"? (How many times can the same person save the universe, anyway?)

You can do that, of course. And if you love telling a certain kind of story -- traditional romances, for example -- there's no reason you shouldn't and there's even a gigantic market for it.

Personally, I think it's interesting to see patterns in your own writing. Lately, I've been reacquainting myself with one of my science fiction characters and realizing how much he has in common with one of Disciple's characters. They're the same MBTI type, if you've read my posts on that, but they are quite different in their execution.

But I don't want to tell the same thing over and over, with the same or only slightly different characters. I want to challenge myself. I have a writing bucket list. Do you?

Write everything down
You should already be doing this, actually. I use Scrivener (it rocks, buy it) and I have a file called the Brainstorm Zone where I write down all the scraps of ideas that seem substantial enough to work with -- a paragraph or two, at least. When I'm starting from scratch, I go over all those notes and see if anything might fit. Or, might fit after a little mashing up and re-tooling. You never know.

Never throw stuff away
I have dozens of trunked novels and novellas. Many of them have been lost to obsolete file formats and exist only as a tractor-feed, fanfold printout (I kid you not.) They are never going to be seen by anybody in their current state because they're clumsy, poorly written, and sloppy... but there are little interesting bits in there.

Don't throw your crummy old stuff away. Nobody will know you took a half-baked idea, finished baking it and added a few new gadgets.

Don't cut corners
I've built worlds from scratch, and I'll do it again. Just because I need to keep producing, as a self-publisher, does not mean that I should lower my standards or let things slide as "good enough." I am the only person holding me responsible for the quality of my work.

My readers deserve the best I can do. They're hard-won and priceless.

Have you started eating a new elephant recently?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

At the intersection of Voice and World-building: names

Names are wonderful, powerful things. Handle with care.

Baby name books are a must for any writer -- or at least they were before the internet came along. Personally, I find a book quicker than slogging through baby name sites hell-bent on clogging the page with banner ads. I have one that's organized by ethnicity and lists language origins and meanings for everything. That was great when I wanted German names that were pure German, not rooted in Latinate languages or the Bible/Hebrew.

Sometimes, you want to be that particular about the names in your story. Sometimes you don't want a name that sounds modern, familiar, or is easily traced to a particular ethnicity. Maybe you want something with a particular "sound" to it. Something smooth, something harsh, something with r'a'ndom punc'tu'ation. (Makes my eyes roll every time. Establish that it's a glottal stop, or that contracted names are culturally acceptable, or don't do it.)

It has long been noted that it's a good idea for names (human, geographical, etc,) in a story to be consistent -- as in, follow set patterns for each ethnic group represented. Names are, of course, a result of a group's language and traditions, and convey certain ideas to the reader even if it's on a subtle, subconscious level. Consider: John, Jean, Johannes, Ivan and Ian. All the same guy? Slightly different?

The master at this is, of course, Tolkein, but most of us don't have the chops to generate entire languages to back up our nomenclature. Still, since an author should do nothing accidentally there are easier ways to build this into your world.

Short of building whole languages, here are three ways to synch up your names: use an existing pattern (language) to generate names, use your own pattern, or play it by ear.

I've collected a fair number of links to fantasy name generators, over the years. Here's my list. If you know of more generators (not just name lists), post them in the comments!

Random or pattern-based:
Yafnag  •  Totro  •  Rinkworks

Lowchen  •  Behind the Name

Multiple generator sites:
Springhole.net  •  Donjon  •  GameDecor  •  Serendipity  •  Seventh Sanctum

Using existing languages
Existing languages do provide a fairly consistent "sound" for names. Google's translator covers an impressive number of languages, and you can use those words straight up as names or mash and mangle them as you please.

If you want something that's not on Google's list, there are online reference dictionaries out there. They aren't as easy to use as Translator, but they're better than nothing. For example, I used this Anglo-Saxon dictionary while I was writing Hawks & Rams.

Say the names aloud. Yell them like a mom who's just found her favorite vase broken (that will require a full name, the universal sign that you're in big trouble.) Cut them down to the shortest possible nickname. Or the rudest possible.

Unpronounceable names have their place. But if you're going to saddle a major character with one, recognize that there has to be something short, sweet and pronounceable that other characters can yell across a crowded room to get their attention.

That's my ultimate test for a name. In the real world, anything three syllables or more will get cut down to one or two. Heck, two-syllable names often get cut to one. If anybody knows of someone who acquired a nickname longer than their actual name, I'd love to hear about it.

Do you play it by ear?
Where does naming consistency fall on your priority list? For me, it's tied into voice and world-building -- and you know how I am about world-building. :) I've been doing some of that recently, so this has been on my mind.
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