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.

How I Write: Set-Pieces

Once I have the keel of a book, it’s time to build the story around it. I do that with a sequence of set-pieces.

In Hollywood, a set-piece is a block of action: a car chase perhaps, or a meet cute (where two people who will eventually become lovers meet in an unusual way, often leading to an initial clash of personalities). But when I’m writing, I use the term more loosely. I think of a set-piece as a sequence of one or more scenes that all take place in the same general setting.

For example, the initial set-piece for They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is a block of scenes all taking place at Waterloo Regional Airport. In the final version of the book, the lead character (named Jools) moves between various places in the airport—from a plane to the tarmac, to a luxury lounge, to a baggage handling area, then back to the lounge—but my initial plan for the book just said AIRPORT.

My plan also had a list of things that should take place at the airport. I wanted to introduce Jools and her world for people who hadn’t read Book 1, and to demonstrate various aspects of her character and her abilities. I also wanted to introduce several new characters, re-introduce old ones, and hint at major players in the action to come. I definitely wanted to show the super-weapon that everyone will be fighting over throughout the book (as specified in the keel). Finally, I wanted a superpowered fight that would cause mega-damage, because what’s the point of writing about superheroes without mass destruction?

My initial plan didn’t have a lot of detail or a through-line of the action. It was just a list, pretty much unsorted, of people and points that should be covered before Jools left the airport. The list included a lot of cool stuff I might throw in (as generated during brainstorming). However, I didn’t cast anything in stone, and there was quite a lot of hand-waving.

For example, the book features a modern day Robin Hood and his gang: they may be villains or not, but they want their hands on the super-weapon. So my plan called for one of Robin’s gang to appear at the airport and try to steal the weapon. However, I didn’t bother deciding what the would-be thief was like. I could come up with that later. Maybe some other set-piece would require a particular type of “Merry Man” and I could backfill the same character into the airport action. Or I could leave things undecided and dream up someone entertaining during the actual writing.

I like to leave openings like that in my plans. If I nail down too much in advance, writing the book becomes boring and forced.

So the first set-piece was AIRPORT. I continued on with the other set-pieces of the book, each placed in a different setting, to ensure an appropriate degree of variety during the course of the novel. (Other set-pieces included UNIVERSITY LAB, MEMORIAL SERVICE, and several different blocks of action in SHERWOOD FOREST. Read the book and find out how it all goes together!)

But let me point out that my initial plans for set-pieces are mainly external. For each set-piece I want a setting, a few plot elements, and which characters may be present. But I don’t think about the internal aspects of characters. I leave that for the next phase of planning: establishing character development arcs. I’ll talk about those next time.

[The photo of the airport and airplane is of RGIA Airport in Hyderabad, India. It was taken by Abhinay6597 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, from Wikimedia Commons. It is definitely not Waterloo Regional Airport.]

How I Write: The Keel

Continuing my series on How I Write

Brainstorming gives me a long list of stuff that I could put into a particular book: possible ideas, images, characters, plot elements, etc. but all just written down scattershot, without any effort to turn them into anything coherent. Once I have that, it’s time to come up with a keel. (By the way, this is my own terminology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else came up with it before I did.)

In a boat, the keel is something heavy attached to the bottom of the hull. It’s the heaviest part of the boat; in rough seas, the keel is heavy enough that it keeps sinking downward, and that’s what keeps the ship upright. (In the picture above, the keel is #5.)

In a story, the keel is what gives the story weight and keeps the narrative from flopping over whenever the going gets rough. The keel is related to theme (i.e. what makes your story matter). It’s also related to plot: it lies at the heart of the story’s actions. It’s the part of the story you consider indispensable. As you write the story, everything else is subject to change, but the keel is going to stay. It’s what makes your story what it is.

(At this point, contrarians may ask, “But what if you decide that the keel really needs to change?” Since you’re the writer, you can do anything you want…but if you change the keel, you simply aren’t writing the same story anymore. The keel of Romeo & Juliet is “star-crossed lovers who die”. You can write a version where one or both lovers survive, but at that point, it’s stopped being Shakespeare’s story.)

The purpose of a keel is to provide stability and a sense of purpose. If and when I lose sight of what the heck I’m doing in a book, I come back to the keel. “This is what the book is about. This is what holds the book together. This is what I don’t want to lose.” The keel should be weighty enough and engaging enough to make writing the book worth my time.

So let’s talk about my forthcoming book, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. It’s a sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and I wanted GUN to take place shortly after EXPLOSIONS. I brainstormed a lot of cool things I could do in the world I’d created, including superhero hi-jinks, new things to do with the Darkling monsters who run everything, buildings I could smash in the Waterloo Region, and so on. I also brainstormed ways in which the characters could develop, themes I might explore, tropes to use or avoid, etc., etc.

After two days of idea generation, I had a huge list of possibilities. Then it was time to come up with a keel. Here’s what it was.

  • The new book would center on Jools, who was a central character in the previous book, but not the main protagonist.
  • It would deal with her drinking problem, which would be matched by a growing tendency to go into uncontrollable bouts of inventing weird devices.
    In other words, her alcohol addiction would start running in parallel with the possibility of becoming an out-of-control supervillain inventor.
  • Finally, the action would center around a weapon created by a serious supervillain, as Darklings and various super-types all tried to claim the weapon for their own.

I’m hiding some things here since I don’t want to give major spoilers for the book—for example, my real keel contained stuff about the book’s ending. But the points above give you the idea. They were my “rules” for the book: the keel that wouldn’t change, no matter what. Dealing with addiction made the book more than lightweight fluff…but dealing with everyone chasing a superweapon guaranteed plenty of opportunities for action.

Whether or not you write with an outline or by the seat of your pants, having some kind of keel is crucial. Next time, I’ll talk about what you do once you have a keel in place.

[Ship diagram by Jimmy P. Renzi (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

How I Write: Brainstorming

How do I start a book or a short story? Let me share a little.

Every story starts with a seed: something that catches my attention and won’t let go. It may be an image, a character idea, a plot concept, or something else. The main requirement is that it seems fertile enough to dig into in more detail.

How do I dig? I get some paper and I scribble down anything that I might be able to connect to the seed. For example, let’s say I get a cool idea about aliens showing up on Earth. I’d start scribbling down images, plot tricks, characters, etc. about alien arrivals: probably all the things I’d like to see in such a book, but that other books haven’t done (or at least haven’t done well).

This is similar to a mind map except that I’m not a very visual person, and at this stage, I don’t care about connections between concepts. Basically, I’m just making a huge list of elements I might throw in. This process has elements of a Rorschach test, since it’s “This makes me think of that” but I don’t care. All I want is several pages of stuff that I can draw upon as needed.

Eventually I transcribe this list into Evernote, which is where I keep most of my writing notes. (I’ll talk about note-keeping in some future post.) I’ll also sit down with a plain old word processor and write about the ideas. This is essentially talking to myself about the ideas, except that I write them down. The notes tend to be on the order of, “I could do this…and maybe there’d be a character like this…” Et cetera.

This is all just wrestling with possibilities, not actual concrete planning. What I could do, not what I will do. I’m getting a feel for the territory. And I don’t want to censor myself at all. Good ideas, bad ideas, who cares? Get them out of my head and down on paper. Later on, I can be choosy, but not yet.

Inevitably, some of this stuff will be cliché, but no problem. I want to get the clichés out of my system, so I write them all down too. Now is not the time to be critical.

So that’s how I start creating a story. In some future post, I’ll talk about the next phase: deciding whether I’ll actually write the story and if so, what will be its heart.

[Photo of pen and paper by Mushki Brichta [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: October 9, 2018

More things I like:

Events: The Norfolk County Fair
I dropped the ball on this because I should have made the recommendation a week ago when the fair was actually open. Or perhaps I should have made the recommendation a month ago when you could have decided, “Hey, that looks like fun!” and then picked a date to go. Sorry about that. But the Norfolk County Fair is exactly what a county fair should be: a midway full of rides, booths full of junk food, and barns full of cows, horses, rabbits, chickens, etc. You can see giant pumpkins, try to win a stuffed animal at games that are probably rigged, and buy apple cider straight from the farmer. I’ve been going to the fair for decades; I wouldn’t miss it.
Book Series: The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
This series comes to mind because I spent last weekend at VCON in Vancouver, where I got to hang out with Charlie a fair bit. The Laundry Files series is funny, and icky, and full of surprises. It’s also a shining example of a long-running series that has never fallen into a rut—every book brings something fresh to the table and keeps events moving forward. The series never flinches from doing the next thing, even if that means…well, having the world taken over by Lovecraftian horrors. (Quick summary of the series: a British intelligence agency fights the apocalypse. Spoiler: eventually, they lose.) The next book in the series, The Labyrinth Index, comes out October 30 and the advance material I’ve seen looks great.
Podcast: Writing Excuses
Writing Excuses is a long-running podcast about writing, jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler…plus a number of guest contributors, almost all of whom are also writers. The podcast is in its 13th year, running like clockwork every week. It’s full of good talk about writing: an excellent resource for writers of all levels of experience, from beginners to professionals. If you’re a writer, it will teach you things and get your juices flowing. Well worth listening.

Blood

Lately I’ve been on an anime kick, and it’s heightened my awareness of the idea that blood type affects your personality. More precisely, it’s made me aware of my own prejudices and socialization.

Some background: as noted in the above link, many people (especially in Japan) believe that your blood type has an effect on your behavior. The Wikipedia article compares this to the Western belief in astrology. And the first time I heard about the blood type belief, I immediately dismissed it as bullshit.

Now here’s my question: did you feel the same way? Did you say, “That’s a ridiculous superstition”? If so, why?

After all, blood types like A-positive and O-negative are based on substances in your blood…and we know that substances in our blood can affect mood and behavior. (See alcohol and other drugs.) So why would we immediately think it’s nonsense that a particular blood type might slant our personality in a specific direction? The chemicals involved in blood type pass through our brain and all other tissues. Why is it ridiculous to think they might have an effect? The possible chain of cause-and-effect is obvious (unlike, say, astrology where a cause-and-effect mechanism is difficult to imagine).

There’s only one reason I can see why I immediately rejected the idea: because I wasn’t brought up with it. Therefore it felt weird to me. And perhaps I have an unconscious bias against unfamiliar notions from different cultures.

Now as it turns out, there’s no evidence to support the blood type personality theory. If the theory were true, it would be relatively easy to detect: just give personality tests to a bunch of people and see if there’s any correlation between blood type and personality scores. No such correlation has ever been found.

So the model isn’t true. But I still contend that the idea isn’t ridiculous, it’s just incorrect. I shouldn’t have rejected it until I saw actual data. The fact that I did say, “That’s bullshit,” makes me wonder how many other ideas I’ve rejected reflexively: not because they had to be wrong, but purely from my socialization.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

Recently, I started keeping track of how I spend my time. I don’t use a fancy app—I had a look at a few and quickly knew that I’d never use them. They required way too much work to set up. Besides, I don’t always carry around electronics. Life is better without being tethered to a phone or a tablet.

Instead, I keep my time records on index cards. I write a line every time I start something new, as in:

4:12—writing blog on time tracking

That’s all I need…because the point of this isn’t to come up with any sophisticated analysis of exactly how long it takes me to write 1000 words or edit 10 pages of someone else’s manuscript. The point is to understand what I’m doing.

First, how do I really spend my day? Am I putting in a reasonable number of hours? Or are there huge gaps when I’m not doing much of anything? I don’t begrudge myself relaxation time, but if hours at a time are disappearing and I can’t say where they went, that’s not good.

So now I’m keeping track. As I’ve said, I use index cards to record when I start new activities. One index card is usually enough for a whole day, and that gives me a picture of what I do. How long do I spend getting ready to work in the morning? How long do I take on breaks? How much time do I actually spend when I walk to the library and back?

Then, every morning, while I’m planning my day, I transcribe my times into a notebook. Really, this is just copying the times from the index card; it takes three minutes at most. But if I see that I frittered away a lot of time on the previous day, it orients me to use my time better today: less time spent disappearing down the many rabbit holes available on the internet.

It’s simple, but so far it’s working. I’m spending less and less time in black holes, and more time on things I actually choose to do. Let me emphasize that I’m not using this to beat myself up or to eliminate stuff like playing video games. Taking time for fun is important. The point is to notice if I’m spinning my wheels on stuff I wouldn’t actually choose to do if I thought things through.

So I’m reading more, and playing less computer solitaire. Go me! Less black hole time is good.