Stabilization

Yesterday, I wrote about Destabilization: you can say that a story begins when one or more characters have their lives destabilized, and that the story ends when their lives are stable again. To add to this, let me talk about the forms that the final stability may take.

One possible type of stability is going back to the status quo that existed at the beginning of the story. You often see this in books for kids: all problems have been solved, all monsters are defeated, and everything is back to “normal”. This is fine for children—many kids haven’t learned to cope with change. Furthermore, it means the same story can be read multiple times, and a series of books can be read in any order.

But it doesn’t work well for adults. Adults know that things never stay the same, and they like to see people dealing with change. So even if a threat is defeated (or a puzzle is solved, or the protagonist manages to get home after a difficult journey), adults want to see characters develop. The experience should leave the characters stronger, or wiser, or more wary, or something. Otherwise, the whole experience meant nothing. (That’s perilously close to “It was all a dream”. Haha, everything was pointless!)

The newly established stability doesn’t have to be “nice”. If a character gives up hope, that’s still a form of stability. It may not be an enjoyable result, but it is an ending and may be suitable for some stories.

(You can get away with “downer” endings in short stories more than in novels. Consider horror stories, for example; plenty of them end with the protagonist dying in some gruesome way. However, ending a novel with everything awful may be too grim to satisfy readers who’ve spent hours of their lives on the book.)

Stability doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up. Stories that are part of a series almost always have loose ends; a dangling thread in Book 1 may start the plot in Book 2. But even stories that will never have a sequel may have loose ends. If so, I think it’s useful to acknowledge the loose ends in some way. Otherwise, readers may just think that the writer fumbled the ball. By acknowledging I mean something like, “George never did find out where the dagger came from,” or something like that. (Preferably something more elegantly phrased, but still.)

One way or another, a story begins when the first domino falls. At the end, readers should feel that there are no dominoes left, even if the dust hasn’t completely settled. If dominoes are still in motion, the story just isn’t over yet.

[Photo of dominoes by Peng [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Destabilization

The latest episode of the Writing Excuses podcast dealt with how to finish a character’s story. During the discussion, they described good plot structure as circling back on itself. I understand what they meant, but I worry about the concept being misinterpreted; beginning writers may think that you have to end up at the same place you started, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes this does happen (as in the classic Hero’s Journey), but plenty of good stories don’t make this kind of circle. So let me put my own spin on the point.

Stories begin with some kind of destabilization. Something pushes or tempts one or more characters to break their routine. For example:

  • The characters leave home, temporarily or permanently
  • A new person enters the characters’ lives (often summarized as “A Stranger Comes to Town”)
  • The characters encounter a puzzle and decide to solve it (this is the plot of most mystery stories)
  • An event occurs which makes it difficult or impossible to continue with the status quo
  • Some incident, large or small, induces the characters to make changes in their lives

Now it’s possible for things to occur without destabilizing the characters’ lives. Lots of people go on trips without being changed, and a typical police detective solves plenty of “mysteries” without being strongly affected by them. A situation only becomes “story-worthy” when characters truly are destabilized.

(And let me say as an aside, new writers are sometimes reluctant to destabilize characters. Few of us like being destabilized ourselves, and if you identify with your characters, you may be inclined to keep your characters cool and unaffected by whatever happens. This is a mistake—characters should never skate through plot situations. Even James Bond has to sweat.)

So if a story starts with destabilization, how does it end? When the characters’ lives are more or less stable again. You don’t have to resolve everything—life is seldom so neat. And “stable” doesn’t have to mean “happy”; characters may end up dead or in terrible circumstances. (See, for example, the ending of Hamlet.) But an ending will feel like an ending if there’s nothing that’s going to propel much further change in the situation.

In other words, you can look at story structure as starting with a state of stability, then getting destabilized, and eventually returning to stability again. The final state may or may not be similar to the initial one; it could be wildly different. But if the final state feels stable, the audience will understand and accept that the story is over.

[Photo of Leaning Tower of Pisa by Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

Financial Advice for Writers

Few writers make a lot of money. Many writers make a little money. But however much or little you make (or even if you haven’t made any money at all as yet), let me offer some advice.

TALK TO AN ACCOUNTANT!

and

WHATEVER THE ACCOUNTANT TELLS YOU TO DO, DO IT.

Seriously, accountants serve two extremely useful functions:

  1. They can save you money.
  2. They keep you out of trouble with the tax collectors.

For example, a good accountant will tell you what expenses you can and can’t deduct from any income you receive. Deducting valid expenses is good: you pay less tax on whatever is left over. Deducting non-valid expenses is bad: if the tax agency finds out, you could be in serious trouble. (See All Capone.)

Now it’s true that consulting an accountant may cost money. If you have no income from writing, maybe it’s too early for you to go to that expense. But it’s never too soon to start keeping track of your finances. Here’s what I’d recommend for anyone who hopes to make money from writing some day:

Starting right now, keep every scrap of paperwork that might possibly be relevant to your writing.
In particular, keep receipts for expenses. You don’t have to get fancy; I used to just have a plastic freezer bag labelled with the year, and I put every receipt inside. Also keep any paperwork from household expenses—eventually you’ll want to claim the expenses in connection with having a home office, so now is the time to get into the habit of keeping relevant records. If receipts are purely digital (e.g. charges emailed to you), consider printing them out so that you have a hardcopy record.
Keep a spreadsheet (e.g. in Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets) recording income and expenses.
When recording an expense, separate the cost of the item from any sales tax paid on top, and record both. Try to be consistent in the terms you use. For example, don’t use “Printer paper” for one purchase and “Paper for the printer” for another. You want to be able to sort your data so that lines for similar expenses are all collected together. By the way, you should also use a spreadsheet to record mileage and/or other car expenses related to your writing.

The point here is to develop good habits of record keeping sooner rather than later. The more you record, the more information you have. You can see how much you’re spending on your writing, and that knowledge may be useful.

BUT…eventually, talk to an accountant. They’ll tell you if your jurisdiction requires that you keep records in a particular format. They’ll tell you which of the expenses you’ve recorded are actually deductible. They’ll tell you how long you need to keep receipts. And much else beside.

So tl;dr: start keeping receipts and records now. It’s good practice. Consult an accountant as soon as you can justify the expense, and definitely as soon as you make any income.

(By the way, I have a friend who’s an accountant and she says she doesn’t charge for initial consultations. She’d rather help potential clients keep proper records right from the start than to go through the hassle of trying to clean things up later on. You may or may not find someone who’ll talk to you for free, but I suspect a lot of accountants won’t charge very much for an initial get-together. For them, it’s a good investment of their time to avoid headaches later on…and accountants love good investments.)

Sharing: November 23, 2018

More things I like:

Used first-year university textbooks
I live within fifteen minutes of two universities: the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Both have stores where you can buy used textbooks for under $10 each. The books that go for such low prices aren’t the latest editions—they may be around five years old. But even in 2018, the introductory principles of various disciplines don’t change much in five years. If you buy a slightly old textbook, you still have an amazing resource as a starting place for learning a subject.

So I’ve bought first-year textbooks in dozens of fields, from anatomy and economics to Italian and microbiology. Wikipedia is certainly great for quick-and-dirty fact finding, especially when I already know the basics of a subject…but when I want to learn something from scratch or in depth, I love textbooks. They’re designed to teach topics in some rational order, where one thing builds on another. So I strongly recommend that everyone should make a trip to the nearest university campus and see what gems you can get for a surprisingly low price.

By the way, let me add one way that I use such books: I keep one in my kitchen. Whenever I’m taking a break from writing and go for a snack, I can read a few paragraphs while I’m munching. Also, when I’m cooking and waiting for water to boil or something like that, I can also read a bit. I like having something to read that I can pick up and put down without too much angst.

 

The Comics trilogy by Scott McCloud
I’ve long been aware of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s 1993 book on how comic books work. (The book also covers comic strips, manga, graphic novels, etc.) If you haven’t read it, rush out to your library and grab a copy now.

I was also aware of the follow-up, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. It was McCloud’s attempt to nudge the creators of comics to aim higher and be more ambitious.

But I only recently discovered that he’d written a third book in 2006: Making Comics. I have no idea how I missed it…but I’m reading it now, and it’s full of great insights on how to create comic books that work. Highly recommended.

How I Write: Forays

After several past postings on how I write a novel, we’ve reached the point where I can actually start writing. At this point I have:

It’s now time to start some real writing.

I begin with forays into the story. Usually this means writing the first ten pages or so a bunch of times. I want something that has the right chemistry: specifically a tone of voice that will sustain my interest for the months it will take me to write the first draft.

After all, if I get bored, I’ll have trouble finishing…and of course, if I get bored, readers will too. So I need to find a voice that grabs my attention. If I’ll be writing from multiple points of view, I need to find multiple voices that catch my ear.

I’m not one of those writers who believes my characters actually exist. I know the characters are just inside my head. At the same time, when I write from a character’s viewpoint, I’m giving free rein to some specific part of my psyche. I’m putting myself into a particular frame of mind and seeing what comes out. I want the result to be organic, without other parts of my brain trying to horn in on the act.

So I need to find a voice that ignites emotional sparks. It has to be someone who can face what’s going to happen and react in engaging ways. The character will be affected by the needs of the story and the character arcs I’ve envisioned…but the arcs I’ve made at this point are all provisional. If a character goes in other directions, that’s great. That’s part of what “being organic” means. And hey, if it all goes off the rails, I can always rewrite the darn thing.

So I write the first few pages numerous times. Five? Ten? More? And I usually write it all longhand, because writing with a pen makes my brain go slow and feel around for what’s waiting to come out.

Eventually, something clicks. When that happens, I know it. I’ve found the spark: the way into the story.

Then all I have to do is write the first draft.

[Map of forays during the Age of Discovery by Universalis [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Going Somewhere with Characters

Recently, I’ve been discussing how I start a writing project: beginning with a seed and brainstorming, then establishing a keel, and generating a list of set-pieces.

The set-pieces give me externals: a varied group of settings and action elements. But I want my stories to have internal value too. In particular, I want the main protagonist and other characters to go through significant changes, inside as well as outside.

There’s an element of risk here. I’m talking about the starting stages of the project. If I’ve done any writing at all at this point, it will just be playing around with possible voices and with viewpoint options (first person, third person, past tense, present tense, that sort of thing). Usually I like to establish such choices as part of the keel—at the very least, the keel has to specify whether the book will be told from a single person’s point of view or from multiple viewpoints. So I may write a few sample pages, but nothing cast in stone.

This means that I don’t really know the characters yet (unless I’m writing a sequel to a previous book, and even then, there are bound to be new characters who play substantial roles in the story). As a result, I have to be cautious when it comes to dictating how characters will change throughout the book.

I can only start by tentatively deciding a few traits about each character, but I recognize (a) that these traits may change, and (b) that they may fade in significance as new traits arise during the actual writing.

As an example, take Kim Lam from All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. At the outset, I decided that Kim was a geology student and third-generation Chinese-Canadian. I also knew that Kim was withdrawn because of a high school relationship gone bad, and that her character arc throughout the book would be gradually tearing down the emotional walls she’s been hiding behind.

But I didn’t start out knowing that Kim was non-binary. When I first wrote the passage where she describes what kind of clothes she usually wears, I simply intended her standard outfit of overalls and a nondescript shirt to be an outgrowth of her emotional walls. She didn’t want to project any sexual image.

During the writing, that all changed. It surprised the heck out of me when Kim eventually came out as queer. I remember thinking, “Crap, am I really going to do this?” There are obvious risks when a cis-het white male writes a gender-queer Chinese person who started life as female. If I did a bad job, it would be awful.

Then again, I could feel the rightness of what I’d discovered. In the book, Kim talks about evolving into her non-binary identity: “I knew what didn’t work, but it took a while to find out what did.” That echoes what happened during the writing. But once I realized Kim had to be non-binary, that identity became such an essential part of the character that some traits devised while planning the book just faded into the background. (By the way, for those who care, Kim ends the book by taking new pronouns and shortening zir name to K.)

So before I begin a book, I decide on a few characters traits and provisional character arcs. But I expect those to change during the actual writing. I love when they change during writing. That means the characters are starting to come alive.

[Diagram showing an arc of a circle by Cburnett [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Set-Pieces II

One thing I forgot in my previous write-up on set-pieces: set-pieces are relatively modular. By this, I mean that you can swap them out and replace them without changing much else in the story.

For example, I mentioned the meet cute as a common set-piece in movies. All that’s necessary for a meet cute is that the two leads meet in some entertaining way. Also, at the end of the scene they usually have to have developed a certain attitude toward each other (often initially hostile).

For a good meet cute, your couple might meet at work, or in a gym, or at the dentist’s, or in a fender-bender. It doesn’t matter. All that the plot requires is that they meet and establish that starting attitude.

So let’s say your original plan is that the two will meet when their dogs get into a fight at the dog-park. But once you start actually writing the story, you might get a better idea. As you develop the characters into more rounded people, maybe you decide that one of the romantic leads likes to do science fiction cosplay…so maybe the meet cute will happen when that person is dressed as a Klingon. The Klingon locks their keys in the car, and is trying to break in when the other person (a cop) shows up.

So you try writing that scene. If the result isn’t as good as you want, then you can try something else. Plotwise, it doesn’t matter as long as the two meet.

You can replace a set-piece with something very different, if ever you come up with something that will serve the story better…especially if you think of something that better reflects other parts of the story (e.g. character traits that you discover as you write). Eventually, you’ll have to smooth everything out into a well-connected whole, but that’s what revision is for. When you’re just starting to write a story, your set-pieces are provisional and replaceable. You want them to be good, but you shouldn’t consider them cast in stone.