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.

Back from When Words Collide

I’m finally back from When Words Collide in Calgary. I had such a great time there, it’s taken this long for me to recover, even though the con itself finished on Sunday. The weekend was a whole lot of fun, and I’d recommend the con to anyone. Afterward, I led a workshop on Monday, then spent Tuesday with Randy McCharles and Stacey Kondla of WWC, going out to see dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell Museum.

While I was out there in Calgary, several people told me they’d really liked a workshop I led several years ago. They said they particularly appreciated a handout I’d given them on writing…and at first, I couldn’t remember any such handout at all. However, I finally realized they were referring to my Seminar on Writing Prose. Since I haven’t mentioned that much in blog posts, I thought I’d link to it here. I’d like to revise some parts of it in light of my 2019 outlook and skills, but any readers who are interested in writing still might find it useful.

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.

Sharing: Booklife

For the past week, I’ve been reading Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been aware of this book for quite some time—it was published in 2009—but I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

I deeply wish I’d read it earlier. It’s full of so much valuable advice on managing a writing career, it would have helped me immensely with things like PR, career planning, time management, maintaining one’s sanity, and much more. It’s already spurred me to tweak my writing process in several useful ways, and it will certainly inform my future publicity activities.

Even though it’s now a decade old, the book is hardly dated at all. Partly that’s because the writing life hasn’t changed as much as you might think in the past ten years. Some of the balance has changed—MySpace has sunk while Twitter has risen—but the issues are still the same.

What’s a good use of your time and resources? What isn’t? How should you think about interacting with the public, no matter how you end up doing it? Those are the types of questions that Vandermeer looks at. They’re important and relevant to whatever media ecosystems exist now or in the future. Specific details will change, of course, but if you think things through systematically, you can cope with whatever comes along.

So I strongly recommend Booklife to anyone who’s thinking of a writing career. It’s not a how-to-write book, although it includes some useful tips and references. It’s a how-to-handle-a-writing-career book…and as I said, I wish I’d read it a whole lot sooner.

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]

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]