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]

IWATH

Recently, the tor.com web site published a lovely article by Leah Schnelbach offering words of writing wisdom from David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and several other novels).

If you’re a writer (or want to be one), I strongly recommend reading the article itself. But let me highlight the concept of IWATH, short for “I was there.” An IWATH moment in a piece of writing is something that makes the reader believe that the writer/narrator had to have been there when the action took place. It makes a scene seem absolutely real.

In my mind, IWATH means a detail so distinctive that it doesn’t seem like something generic that a writer might just toss in without thinking. For example, imagine a suburban backyard. There are lots of “standard” things you immediately think of: a patio, a barbecue, a swing-set, a vegetable garden, and so on. Some backyards may not have all of these things, but the features are common enough in backyards (at least in North America) that in a piece of fiction, they won’t attract much attention.

In other words, such details aren’t memorable. They’re what you’d expect. They don’t make you feel as if the writer is describing a specific backyard at a specific time. They give you a backyard that’s vague and generalized: one that doesn’t feel truly real.

An IWATH detail stands out as something that isn’t the same-old same-old. It needn’t be aggressively weird, just non-generalized. For example, the teenagers of the house may have placards laid on the lawn and they’re painting protest signs because they’re going to picket their school the next day. At the moment, they’re debating the pros and cons of putting an asterisk in place of the U in FUCK.

Suddenly, the scene is specific: not just any backyard, but a backyard belonging to a specific family whose members do specific things, and this is a specific time on a specific day. Whatever happens in the yard may have nothing to do with the protest at all—the business with the signs may just be a background detail. But it’s a non-generic detail. It seems like a real thing, so it makes the rest of the scene seem real too.

My first writing teacher, W. O. Mitchell, called these impertinences: details that make a scene feel real because they aren’t what a writer would just trot out when writing on autopilot. The tor.com article says that Mitchell tries to put three IWATH moments into every scene. If you’re a developing writer, that’s a great goal to aim for.

[Picture of clouds from flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], from Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: August 16, 2018

More things I like:

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
I mentioned this in a previous post but I want to recommend it again…partly because I’ve now seen the whole series, and have started to watch it again from the beginning. So many little things in the series take on a completely different meaning once you understand what’s really going on. One particular character’s lines never mean what you originally thought they meant. Well worth watching and re-watching.
Casual Reading: The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
It’s big and expensive and frequently goes over my head even though I have a master’s degree in math…but I still had to own the book and don’t regret buying it. I’ve been working my way through it for several years now; I try to read a bit every day. It really is the best advanced-level introduction to the entire field of math that I know of. And here’s a cheat: if you think you might be interested, download the free sample of the book from Kindle. You’ll get lot of free reading so you can see if it’s your cup of tea.
Writing technique: Writing longhand
I do most of my writing at the computer, either in Scrivener or Microsoft Word. But if I really get stuck, I sit down at the dining room table and write longhand on loose-leaf paper. Writing longhand is a different experience than keyboarding. It happens at a different speed, and with a different mind-body orientation. If my brain is in a rut, or if I find myself inhibited when writing a particular scene, writing by hand almost always gets me out of the rut. Sometimes I write whole stories by hand. I think it gives them a different feel from the work I write by computer. Give it a try.

 

A Simple Exercise in Plotting

For those who want to work on creating plots, here’s a simple exercise I got from Impro by Keith Johnstone. It gives you practice at bringing things together into a (relatively) integrated whole.

Start with three sentences describing unconnected actions. For example:

The tree swayed as the wind increased. Two ships passed each other in the night. My brother got out the deck of cards.

(You can create these sentences yourself or have someone else do it for you.)

Once you have your three sentences, write three more sentences to tie all the actions together, as in

I got out my own deck, and as the ship where I was held captive sailed past my brother’s, we felt each other’s presences and simultaneously turned the top card. I could tell we had both turned over The Storm. The wind that had previously been scouring the land immediately veered seaward, heading directly toward us.

(I promise I had no idea that I’d go in that direction when I wrote the original three sentences.)

This is the sort of exercise can be used as a warm-up whenever you start writing. It takes less than two minutes, and can kick your imagination into gear. Note that you aren’t going for a finished story; you’re just bringing separate actions together into something more unified.

Don’t overthink the exercise, or try to do anything brilliant. As with most improvisation, it’s better to do what strikes you as obvious rather than straining for something clever. You’ll soon find out that your “obvious” often takes other people by surprise. They may even think it’s brilliant.

[Picture of ship Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Youngamericaclipperblackandwhite.jpg]

Writing Description and Exposition: Combo

Last week,I showed an example based on the principle that A descriptive passage is the story of a particular character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. I noted that things would be completely different if I wrote a description of the same thing but from a different person’s viewpoint. So today, let me do that.

It was the second time I’d ever been in a lawyer’s office.

The first time was in a flea-bitten fire-trap in a neighborhood where even the rats carried switchblades. The lawyer was a guy who smelled like he washed his clothes in cheap whisky…but to be fair, I smelled the same way at the time. (It was not a good period in my life.) But surprise, surprise, my “legal eagle” knew his way around a courtroom. Or maybe he just got lucky. Either way, he kept me for going down on a bogus count of B&E, manufactured by a cop who lost his temper because he couldn’t get me on thirty-some real B&E’s I’d committed around the city.

But my first lawyer died the very night he got me set free. I took him out for a celebration drink and he keeled over right beside me in a dirty little bar. It scared the piss out of me. Also the alcohol. I got into a program and came out embarrassingly sober.

Mind you, I didn’t give up being a thief—I just stopped stealing while drunk. Which is why I went for years without being caught, and why (when my luck finally had a hiccup) I could afford to hire the incomparable Bethany Pruitt.

Her office resembled the kind of place I now used my talents to burgle: up-scale, chic, but not matchy-matchy. I particularly liked the two paintings on the wall in the reception room. Both were dreamscapes full of stylized figures of naked people. I walked up to the receptionist and before she could even put on a professional smile, I said, “Those paintings are lovely. May I ask who’s the artist?”

“Nellie Chang,” the woman answered immediately. “She shows with a gallery just down the block. Ms. Pruitt greatly admires Nellie’s work.”

Useful information. I made a mental note to visit the gallery after hours and pilfer a few canvases. Art can be hard to fence, but I knew several buyers who’d be happy to acquire the work of an up-and-comer in the early stages of her career. Good investments, and all that.

The receptionist and I had a nice little chat about who I was and whether I had booked an appointment. I’d taken the liberty of hacking into the company’s computers to place myself on their appointment calendar, but apparently that didn’t count. To my astonishment, the office still operated on paper, and I wasn’t written down in the official appointment book. The situation took several minutes to sort out, after which I was escorted down to a room with an even greater quantity of paper shelved on the walls in the form of law books. It all seemed so twentieth century! Still, it’s harder to change words on paper than in The Cloud, so for all I knew, Bethany Pruitt ran the most secure legal firm in Manhattan.

Now notice all the things going on here. The first few paragraphs provide exposition in the form of a story: how the narrator nearly went to jail. We get a sense of the character’s voice, attitude, and profession. Then we return to the present to get on with the business at hand. We don’t know exactly what the narrator has done, but we can guess that (s)he stole something and got caught. The specifics will no doubt emerge in conversation with Pruitt.

By the way, the artist Nellie Chang should play some role in the ensuing story. I have nothing in mind—I’m just making this stuff up as I go along—but if Chang gets this much attention on Page 1 of a story, readers will expect to see more of her. The first few pages of a story always create expectations in the reader’s mind; you have to recognize that and deal with it. (You don’t have to fulfill reader expectations, but you have to address them. You can have Chang appear in all kinds of ways, some more predictable than others…but you have to use her somehow or readers will wonder why you mentioned her at all.)

I hope this helps illustrate some principles about description and exposition. If you have any questions about description or exposition, feel free to submit a comment!

[Photo of paint brushes by terri_bateman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Description: Examples

In the previous posting, I said that a descriptive passage is the *story* of a *particular character’s* *encounter* with a person, place or thing. Let’s look at an example of how to use this idea.

Jance always hated visiting his lawyer’s office. It was too quiet. It was too beige. It was too perfectly designed to look like what it was.

The receptionist at the front desk might well have been an actress hired for the part: not too young, not too old, very good-looking but always dressed with immaculate professionalism. She always said exactly the same thing when Jance entered. “Good morning, sir, how can I help you? Certainly, sir. If you’ll just take a seat? And who shall I say is waiting?” Then the woman would dial the phone and speak in a voice too low for Jance to hear.

Because Jance was who he was, he never had to wait. The receptionist would rise from her desk within a few seconds and say, “If you’ll follow me, please, Mr. Jance?” She’d open the inner office door (solid mahogany, not just mahogany veneer over a cheaper wooden core) and lead him down a thickly carpeted hall on which every side-door was shut. She’d always deposit him in a conference room lined with shelves holding austere looking law-books. She’d pull out a chair for him to sit at the conference table, then leave him alone in the windowless room. He’d then spend precisely three minutes contemplating the books, always wondering if they served any purpose except to look impressive. Surely everything was computerized now, even in the fusty old legal profession. Immediately afterward, Jance was always angry with himself for thinking the same thoughts every damned time he was forced to come here. But he never had time to shift his thoughts in other directions, because three minutes to the second after he arrived, Bethany Pruitt would come through the door.

This passage is told from the point of view of Jance. Jance is not a neutral observer; he has an opinion about everything he sees, or at least about everything he pays attention to. But notice all the things he ignores. For example, he doesn’t give any actual physical details about the receptionist (hair color, skin color, height, etc.). Instead, he regards her as part of the office decor, hardly a person at all. He acknowledges that she’s “very good-looking” but he’s more specific about the office door than he is about her.

The passage describes the office more or less in the order that Jance would see it on a typical visit: first the reception room, then the corridor, then the conference room. At every stage, Jance makes note of things that annoy him. Presumably, there are other things to see and hear and smell, but they don’t register with him. jance may be actively looking for things that he can view negatively. And he’s clearly the sort of person who cares very much about how long he’s kept waiting—on multiple occasions, he must have timed precisely how long he sits in the conference room before the lawyer arrives.

Putting this all together, we get a clear first impression of Jance’s personality, at the same time that we get a description of the office. What Jance sees and what he feels in response tell us a lot about who he is. It also gives us a clear first impression of the office, but presented in the form of a story: the story of Jance’s typical visit.

If a different character visited the same office, the description might well be completely different. Imagine, for example, a character who has never been to see a lawyer before, and is nervous about doing so now. That character would notice different details…or maybe the character would scarcely notice anything because he or she is so worried about his/her legal problems. Such a character might find the receptionist’s cool attitude reassuring rather than annoying. Probably too, the character would have a different set of experiences, perhaps being left to wait in the reception area much longer than Jance was.

If I wanted to show off, I might write a description of the same office from several different characters’ points of view. However, this post has gone on long enough, so perhaps I’ll do that later this week.

[Photo of law office by Berenice Abbott (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Description: Story

Recently, I’ve written a series of posts about exposition. Now I want to step back and talk about how to write descriptive passages. Description shares some features with exposition, but is much more common. Almost every page of a piece of fiction contains some description, unless you’re writing something very unusual.

For writing descriptions, I have a mantra: A descriptive passage is the *story* of a *particular character’s* *encounter* with a person, place or thing. Description is not a passive list of details that exists independent of any observer; it’s an active experience of someone perceiving and/or selecting what to tell about something.

Different characters perceive different things, they take note of different things, they have different ways of articulating what they perceive, and they have different reactions to what they perceive. All these factors enter into how you write any particular descriptive passage.

Someone looking at my desk might simply call it messy. A different someone might say it’s an old wooden desk with a modest-sized monitor screen and a well-used keyboard surrounded by a hodgepodge of paper. Someone who’s trying to hack my computer might ignore all the papers on top of the desk and even the screen; instead, they’d immediately open the desk drawers to see if I’ve written down passwords anywhere. Someone else might also ignore the papers, but go through all the tabs in my browser to see if there’s anything of note. Someone else might ignore my desk completely, and instead go through the bookshelves beside it.

The details you perceive about a person, place or thing depend on your thoughts and goals at the time of the encounter. Suppose you open a door and look into a room. If you’re searching for a friend, you may see that there’s no one in the room and immediately close the door without taking much note of anything the room contains. If, on the other hand, you’re just poking around to see what the building looks like, you may take your time and look around. You’ll probably make judgments about the decor. Maybe you’ll walk inside and pick things up to have a closer look.

If you were writing a description of the room, you’d probably state your perceptions (in the order that you perceived them), your emotional/intellectual reactions to what you see/hear/smell, and any actions you take in response. Typically, the experience unfolds very quickly—so quickly, you seldom pay attention to how one perception leads to another. Typically too, your emotional reactions are so small that they come and go without any conscious notice. Finally, your actions in response are typically small too: you close the door and leave, or you turn your head, or whatever. It may seem as if nothing has actually happened.

But it has. And next time, I’ll show some examples of how this plays out.

[Door picture from Wikimedia Commons by Sidheeq [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Writing Exposition: Anecdotes

This is the fourth in a series of posts about exposition. My purpose is to demonstrate ways that writers can make passages of exposition more engaging, so that readers want to read them rather than skipping past or skimming.

The technique today is one that gets used so often in journalism, it’s become formulaic: turn things into anecdotes. In the hands of mediocre journalists, this annoys the heck out of me—for example, every profile about an interesting person seems to start with some anecdote that supposedly symbolizes that person’s character or work. Often, such anecdotes strike me as mere random incidents that the journalist happened to see during the course of an interview, then tried to inflate into something profoundly meaningful. Harumph. But in fiction, you’re allowed to make stuff up, so you can devise anecdotes that are truly useful.

In particular, you can invent little stories that add life to background information. Let’s look at an example.

“This house,” said Maria, “was built over a hundred years ago by a right old bastard that everyone called Black John. He was famous in his day for…well, just about any crime you can name. Robbery, murder, rape, smuggling—there were folk who’d swear on a bible that they watched with their own two eyes while Black John did it. Then with all his ill-gotten gains, Black John built this huge mansion miles away from anywhere. Built the walls good and thick, in case one of his enemies showed up with a cannon. Concealed at least three secret hiding-places upstairs and down, plus maybe more that we’ve never discovered. And if ever worse came to worst, he dug an escape tunnel in the basement: it leads down into caves that’ll take you into the woods or down to the ocean.”

Billy asked, “How did you get the house, grandma?”

Maria smiled. “Black John may have been famous for being the county’s greatest criminal, but he was shamefully bad at poker.”

This simple story sets up that the house has secret hiding-places and an escape tunnel, all of which will likely get used eventually. I could have embellished the anecdote with more details if I thought more was needed, but this was enough.

Notice that Maria could have just said, “This house has hiding-places and an escape tunnel,” but that’s pretty bland and forgettable. By explaining the house’s features with a little story, I make things a bit more interesting.

You can make anecdotes about anything. For example, if you want to explain your starship’s faster-than-light drive, you can tell a little story about how FTL was discovered. If you want to explain why Country A is at war with Country B, you can tell the story of a character’s mother who experienced the outbreak of war first hand. By weaving a little story around the facts you want to convey, you can make them more engaging and memorable.

Writing Exposition: Visual Aids

In previous posts about exposition, I noted that before providing background information, you should try to make readers want that information. You should also present the information in an emotional context—instead of a dry recitation of facts, you should have one or more characters who view those facts with emotion. For example, if you’re going to give a history lesson, don’t have it given by a detached history professor. Have the lesson delivered by someone who loves or hates what happened, so they can inject some feeling into the facts.

Emotion is a big part of providing exposition with “sizzle”. Another part is arranging for an active presentation rather than a passive one. My mantra on this is, A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

At the low end of activeness, you can use visual aids. Let’s take a simple example.

Robin took me downstairs to a quiet room lit by a single candle. The walls were lost in shadow, but as I entered, I could see stray glints of metal all around me. Robin went to one wall and came back with a sword that he held for me to examine in the candlelight.

With a hushed and reverent voice, Robin said, “This sword belonged to my great-grandmother. She fought in the Ice Brigade during the First Mage War. See how the hilt is scorched? She slammed it into a Russian fire mage at the Battle of Berlin. She couldn’t stab the mage because all the enchantments on the blade had been exhausted in previous fighting. But she had a tiny bit of blessing left on the hilt: enough that she could hammer the mage in the head without getting the sword completely incinerated.

This passage packs in a lot of information. Since it mentions Russia and Berlin, the story clearly takes place on a version of our world. But it’s a world where magic exists, and where people with swords fight mages. Women can be part of military brigades. It’s possible for weapons to be enchanted, but those enchantments wear off.

Instead of just reciting these facts, I’ve created a scene where the facts arise in connection with showing off the sword. There isn’t a ton of drama in this scene, but even so, there’s some action. Characters are moving around, looking at things, and so on.

I could go on to have the narrator describe the sword in more detail, and I could use those details to reveal other facts about the world. I could also have Robin show the narrator other mementos from the room, perhaps dealing with later wars and other important events. In this way, I can convey a lot of background without much trouble.

Using objects is a simple way of turning exposition into an active scene rather mere passive statements. In future posts, I’ll look at other approaches.

[Sword diagrams from Nathan Robinson via the English language Wikipedia [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]

Writing Exposition: Timing and Emotion

In the previous post about exposition, I talked about what exposition is and why it’s inescapable. I also mentioned my basic principle on exposition: A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

I’ll say more about that principle eventually. First, however, let’s look at an important question: When/where do you have exposition appear in a story?

Ideally, you provide exposition at a point where the reader wants it. If the reader really really wants to know about a subject, then the reader will eagerly read what you have to say about it.

This means it’s a good idea to create the conditions in which a reader is keen to find out background information. As an example, consider the beginning of Hamlet.

In the first scene of the play, a ghost appears on the battlements of the royal castle. This isn’t the first night the ghost has been seen, so the guards have called in a young scholar named Horatio to see what he thinks the ghost is up to. Horatio tries to get the ghost to talk, but doesn’t succeed. He does, however, observe that the ghost looks like the late King Hamlet. So Horatio decides to go to the king’s son, Prince Hamlet, and tell the prince about the ghost.

This scene contains some of its own exposition. “Hey, that ghost looks like the king who died a few weeks ago!” is a lovely example of quick exposition. But more importantly, the scene sets up a situation in which the audience wants to know more about the late king and his death.

After all, seeing a ghost is dramatic stuff. Something juicy must have happened when the king died. The audience will be eager for details. Therefore, the next scene is a great time to do exposition.

So what happens in the next scene? The royal court is in session, with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude sitting on their thrones. Various things happen to set up events later in the play, but exposition is provided by Prince Hamlet—throughout the proceedings, he keeps firing off side comments and emotional outbursts.

Hamlet is basically pissed off at the world. He’s pissed off that his Uncle Claudius is now sitting on Dad’s old throne; he’s pissed off at Mom, Queen Gertrude, for marrying Claudius two seconds after Dad was buried. (“Gee, Mom, great idea! We saved money by serving the leftovers from the funeral feast at the wedding banquet.”) Hamlet is also pissed off at various other characters, making snide comments on their personalities and generally acting like a sullen teenager.

During the process, we learn a lot of background details about everyone. His complaints also give us personal info on everybody he bitches about. Hamlet’s complaints are also snarky enough to be entertaining and emotional enough to show that he’s a powder keg. They show how angry he is with Claudius and Gertrude. And in the process, we find out that Claudius and Gertrude got married suspiciously fast after the old king’s death.

In other words, we get lots of exposition, but it’s delivered with sizzling emotion. Hamlet isn’t lecturing us, he’s chewing out everyone around him. We’re entertained by the emotional fireworks…and in the process, we learn a lot of background facts.

This example highlights two important principles of exposition.

  1. Before you provide major bits of exposition, set up conditions that make readers want to know the facts.
  2. Then when you deliver the facts, do so with emotion. Don’t just lecture, give a speech. There’s a difference.

That’s it for today. More to come!

[Poster for Hamlet from Wikimedia Commons]