Electric Blankets

A short note this time, but I want to say a word in favor of electric blankets. I own three: one on my bed, one at my writing desk, and one on the couch where I do most of my reading.

To save money, I keep my house’s central heating relatively low, and just get under a blanket whenever I need to. Unlike a space heater, an electric blanket heats me, not the room; it’s direct, and I’m pretty sure it uses less electricity. I do all my writing under an electric blanket from about October to April.

While some electric blankets are pricey, you can a decent one for under $50, especially if you’re just looking for something to cover yourself with when you’re writing or reading. And if you’re worried about the blanket getting too hot, every blanket I own turns itself off after two or three hours of operation.

There’s nothing so wonderful as turning on the blanket half an hour before bedtime so you can slip into a preheated bed. It’s virtually orgasmic on a cold night. I recommend it.

Strike At, Strike With

My first kung fu teacher used to say, “If you’re being attacked, ask two questions: what do I have to strike at, and what do I have to strike with?” In other words, what targets has your opponent left open, and what parts of your body can you use to hit those targets.

The same advice is surprisingly useful when dealing with choreography problems in writing.

I use the term choreography problems for those times when you know what has to happen but you don’t have specific ideas of how to make it so. A simple example is a fight scene: you know that character A fights B and A wins, but you have no specific plans for how the fight goes. Similar examples: A has to persuade B to do something, or A has to gain some crucial piece of information, or A has to change their mind about something.

Whether you write from an outline or by the seat of your pants, these situations come up all the time: you know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re going to end a few pages later, but you haven’t thought of exactly the steps that take you from one to the other.

So what do you have to strike at, and what do you have to strike with?

What do you know about the characters involved? What are their wants, needs, fears, points of stubborn pride, prejudices, gaps in their knowledge, etc.? In other words, what are their vulnerabilities? These can be exploited in order for one character to get the better of the other, whether that means physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

And what materials do you have to work with in the scene? What have you already established in the setting?

The thing is that every scene takes place somewhere; every time a viewpoint character walks into a room, you have to provide some description, even if you don’t go into a lot of detail. So you already know what props are surrounding the characters. You know what they can pick up, point to, play around with. Is there some way you can use the objects or the setting itself to do what you want to do?

Surprisingly often, you can find a solution to your problem. Trying to achieve something in a vacuum is often hard. (“How can A win the fight?”) But trying to achieve it by using specific objects is easier. (“How can A win the fight when the room contains a moose head, a jug of cold coffee, and fifteen bowling trophies?”)

Specifics give your imagination something to work with. Try it and see.

Reduction of Disbelief

Allow me to pontificate.

Recently, I’ve read a number of stories that take place in our contemporary world (more or less), wherein one or more characters come face to face with supernatural or science fictional elements. (Magic. Aliens. Etc.) The stories then spend a great deal of time during which the characters refuse to believe they’re confronting anything beyond the mundane; they prefer to think it’s an illusion, delusion, lie, hoax, etc.

This gets tiresome pretty damned quick. I soon end up yelling, “Get on to the good stuff! Quit wasting my time!”

I’m prepared to accept a short interval of doubt. If someone in our modern world walks up and says, “I’m an alien,” a character ought to have a few misgivings; otherwise, the character seems like a gullible fool, and that’s usually not what the writer wants.

On the other hand, I hate when a story spends any significant time in this phase. I want to read about cool stuff, not about someone who disbelieves in cool stuff! Disbelief is almost always boring and irritating. After all, I know the fantastic elements will turn out to be real eventually—I probably got the book from the Science Fiction & Fantasy section, and I’ve already read the cover blurb. Even if the blurb doesn’t have spoilers, it’s designed to give me a feel for the book and its general ambiance. I picked up the book it looked like it would give me magic or aliens…so writers, stop dragging your feet, and give me what I paid for!

Seriously, any more than a few paragraphs of disbelief are enough to make me skip ahead in search of something more promising. Either that, or I put the book down and never pick it up again. I strongly recommend that authors create characters who buy in quickly…or else make the encounter so clearly beyond the ordinary that even skeptical characters can’t deny what’s going on.

Please. Please.

Reading List

While I’m in Calgary for When Words Collide, I’ll be leading a writing workshop. In preparation for that workshop (and just as a useful reference), here are some books I think are useful for fiction writers. (Since the workshop is in Canada, all links will be to Amazon Canada…but by all means, order from your favourite bookseller, whoever that may be.)

On Writing by Stephen King
All kinds of good inspirational stuff from Stephen King
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
The best book I know for writers who are past the beginning stage and are ready to work on specific skills. I think I own three copies.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
My favourite book on grammar and punctuation…mostly because it’s funny, but it’s also quite useful.
About Writing by Samuel R. Delany
Writing advice by one of the most literary masters of science fiction

 
Also have a look at The Skill List Project, a series I wrote several years ago about all the skills I think are involved in writing fiction.

Quick and Brilliant Revision Trick

As I’ve commented before, I listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, and I’ve been going over some of their past episodes. (They’re now in their 14th year, and the show runs weekly; that means a lot of past episodes.)

The following brilliant tip came from Brandon Sanderson in Season 12. He said when he starts revising a manuscript, he does a global replace on words he tends to overuse, changing each occurrence to the same word in brackets. For example, he might change “very” into “[very]”.

This ensures he doesn’t just slide past the word when he’s reading through the text. The brackets force him to review every instance, and to decide whether it’s needed or just filler. Once in a while, such words add to the writing, but most of the time, they’re just cruft.

So now I intend to do the same thing with my latest manuscript; I may even write a macro to cover all the words I usually ought to delete:

very
quite
a little
a bit
a lot
just
suddenly
quickly
almost
probably
likely

I’m sure I’ll add more to that list in the next day or two. In the meantime, I was so impressed with this trick, I wanted to pass it on immediately.

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]