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Welcome to my blog!


This blog was my online wordsmith workshop, where you'll find notes on my writing experiences, excerpts from my fantasy and science fiction novels, and essays of a more homeworld flavor.  Some of the advice therein may still be of interest to new writers so I have left it here but due to technical difficulties, I no longer post here regularly.  You can look me up on Dreamwidth, although I do not post frequently. 

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Friday, May 27, 2011

One of the other things that's usually a mess my first drafts is the POV. I usually have third person intimate point of view that changes scene to scene, but I usually draft several versions of each scene and sometimes from different points of view. When I merge them, it starts piecemeal and I might waffle between points of view a bit.

Eventually I pick one, but its not always easy to fix all the things that are associated with the point of view: knowledge, opinions, terms of reference. Sometimes the differences are subtle. For awhile, I had a character consider some activity or a decision "appropriate" and left it that way when I changed POV. After all, the appropriateness hadn't changed. It took severa reviews before I realized that the new POV wouldn't actually know or care what was appropriate: he cared whether the original POV character, who knew what was appropriate, was satisfied or not, arguing or not. It was fixed with a word, but recognizing that it needed fixing... that came slow.

Deciding which point of view to use isn't exactly difficult, but picking one and picking the right one aren't the same thing and I'm not always sure which is the right one. I wrote one piece where there wasn't a scene in the book where th protagonist was the point of view character. It was very effective at conveying not only how the character was perceived, but also her own uncertainty about who she was or should be (literally as well as philosophically: she didn't knew her parents or bloodlines), and many books have been written from an observer POV with good, even famous effect. However, a primary observer can seem an awful lot like the protagonist, distorting the intended story, and readers are impatient. They may assume that the first POV character is the main character and are slow to realize that the observed personality is the real one. Even if they realize that the first one isn't necessarily the protagonist, they may get frustrated if they don't "get" who it is quickly or don't appreciate the more distant POV (more common in literary fiction than science fiction and fantasy). If the person not "getting" it is an agent or publisher, it doesn't get published. I haven't changed my mind about that particular novel, but I did decide it made a better prequel than a first novel in the series, one of those books that a publisher might concede to just because the series is successful and readers appreciate more about the character.

I've also encountered books where the author thinks they are doing an observer, but in reality, it's just that the protagonist is not a leader within the setting, such as a servant or aide, but that doesn't mean they aren't the protagonist in the story, the one who has a story to tell, the one whose life changes (or changes themselves to keep their life the same), and everything else that separates protagonist from side characters, even important ones.

I guess POV is a lot like that, not always easy to tell, hard to define rules (can you tell from the last sentence of the previous paragraph that I was having trouble finding words to define a protagonist?). A few I've heard and try to follow are: don't hide what the POV character knows: mislead about how it impacts the story. Use POV to reveal, not to hide. Be true to the character: the story will take care of itself. Not everything has to be explained; some things the reader can figure out if the framework, hints, and proper results are there. And of course, pick interesting characters to follow.

Writer's challenge: write an event in your own life from the POV from someone else who was there.
27 may 11 @ 10:09 pm

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

distancing and editing
I look back at my blog posts and wonder how in the world I managed to let them go out that way! Sometimes I know they are rather more stream-of-thought than I like, but when I'm sick or my emotions are running high, I know it's just going to have to go our rather badly written. Other times, I think I've polished it a bit, and look back a couple of days later to find a mess.

My blogs are mostly first drafts in themselves, and as with most things that I compose on the computer, they tend to be a lot of ideas poured out and barely sorted into something coherent, so that they come across, when I reread them, as very rushed. Many of my story first drafts are like that, though in hand writing they come across more like rough summaries and outlines than rushed scenes. Both of them need lots of work. Dialogs might be only the dialog, nothing of the gestures and tones and action that accompany them. Narrative descriptions are usually more brief and generic than I will want in the end (or else far too flowery, when it comes down to it, though I'll keep a good metaphor or two as well as a few interesting adjectives), and action will take me many rewrites to flesh out with appropriate detail.

In general, I find that I have to distance myself pretty far to do a thorough edit/revision on my own work. I distance myself by changing modes (printing off what I've been working on in the computer or typing into the computer what I've drafted with pen and paper), with time (days or years or times in between), and by working on other things between working on the piece and reviewing/editing it. I've also tried things like going through a piece backwards from end to beginning. It's very effective for checking spelling (those things that spell check won't catch at grammar checks might not pinpoint as the real problem, like their, they're, there, the year, etc). It can help with grammar and sentence structure to a degree, but mostly things like overly long sentences and mismatched punctuation rather than clauses and phrases. I don't know how people trying to meet a deadline handle it. The change of mode probably allows the quickest "distance" but if I do it too soon, I start being unsure whether something is repetitive or whether I'm just remembering having worked on it recently.

If I feel the need to revise right away, I'll skim though the piece looking for specific things, like places I've bolded, meaning I need to expand a scene but didn't want to work on it at the time I noted the need, dialog by a particular character to check speech patterns, scene starts, scene endings, or other features that I may have noticed were weak along the way. Those things will lead me into other more general revisions but will help me focus on local details independent of the story line or anything else I've been working on recently.

I don't exactly recommend waiting years if you are trying to get published any time soon, but I drafted a lot of novels before i figured out how to really write what I considered anything worth submitting, and I get bored and frustrated with lots of generic response letters, so I try for awhile, then go back to working on an inwork novel, and by the time I need a break from that, I've distanced myself from earlier novels and might see something that will make them more sellable, try a new beginning, especially, since I can't seem to get agents or others to read past the beginning, strengthen a story line, apply a technique that seemed to work in whatever I've worked on since then. Over time, my early horrors have improved, even if they don't seem to fit the market. Eventually, tastes will cycle through, or maybe I'll find one that fits the current market and the others will get more consideration just based on success. I can hope anyway.

Writer's challenge: pick one thing that might need work, and check it out. What else do you find yourself fixing?
25 may 11 @ 7:19 pm

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What a season finale week!
My schedule has been so far off! But the work the house (round 1) is done, the finales are done, my cold is nearly gone, and my climax has been turned inside out and upside down but is finally going in the right direction.

What had been a minor complication was becoming a major part of the climax, but it was landing my heroine as too much of a victem needing rescuing. That can happen plenty, especially if the rescuers are bad guys she's won to her side, but in the end, the heroine should be doing the rescueing so I swapped character roles, plot-wise.

Of course it doesn't work to just change out names (try it: if you can do it without more changes than that, you need to work on your character development: everyone acts different in a crisis and different to each other). In this case, the guy needing rescue is a big laisez faire rogue, so his first response is very different from that of my trusting heroine, and her role in the rescue is shifted over from his due to strength and experience differences. It does, however, make more sense and flows more readily into the part of the climax defined by my goal ending so once I revamped all the sequencing, it's starting to feel more like a proper climax. My main problem with it right now is I have all these great lead-in-scenes, and everything is crashing together literally as well as figuratively, and that scene is always a mess to write.

Right now, I'm working on it in fragments: arrivals of different actors. They can be followed or just approach and then a POV characters notices they have somehow arrived and getting into the action but I usually write an arrival from their own POV first, to help me figure out what the POV character is in a position to see and to get the timing of their involvement right. (They can conceptually all arrive at the same time, but when the scene is in a contained space, they can't actually all cram through a single hatchway at the same time and mid-climax, the pace is fast enough for the order to change what they are seeing besides more bodies in the room.)

My fragments can be pretty small by the time I'm done but as many are likely to be long due to explaining things, as well as for the POV character. The characters are allowed to think mid climax, but as many of the explanations as possible need to come before then, because they are by definition narration and slow the action down. In my case, they are often redundant as well by the time that part of the book comes around but I diligently check to make sure that things that really need explaining are explained--once--prior to the battle as much as possible. Occasionally a post-battle explanation is also in order (a little confusion by the reader mid climax is allowed as the characters will all be experiencing some, too, though mostly the confusion should be very selective and purposeful, and the writer should never be confused).

Anyway, so that's where I am now. I'll finish drafting and redrafting the pieces, see if the sequencing of the rest still works, then print the whole thing off to do a proper edit. I do plenty of editing along the way, but mostly only enough to tell me what to look for, which global replace spellings are needed (I typically type the British "grey" rather than the American "gray", "in the" usually comes out "int he", and there are several other things I do repeatedly as I type), and what words I'm overusing. Some of the fixes are easier to make on the computer, but for me they are always easier to catch on paper. If I have gaps, i can usually fill them better by doing a rough on the back of the previous sheet, and then typing the proper scene when I input the changes. I can also check sequencing easier on paper because I type the pages on the sheets but can shuffle them however I need to and try it out easier than by cutting and pasting scenes and sections of scenes. But that's all coming up yet.

Writer's challenge: take two characters and swap their roles in a scene. See what happens. If the scene doesn't change (action, reaction, dialog, thoughts), take a side-by-side look at the characters and make a change in one that makes a difference.
22 may 11 @ 8:08 am

Thursday, May 19, 2011

foreshadowing is fun
Ahead of my usual schedule for posting, but Ive been running behind too often lately so I figured I'd make up for it. Besides, I've been going through my various "notes to add" files - literally documents on which I've typed up bunches of short little notes from my notebooks in no paticular order. i get them into my story by sequencing them (roughly), then going through the novel to which they belong (each novel I'm working with gets one to half a dozen such collections over time but I only mix within a trilogy, not across trilogies in my files) to decide whether the note is worth adding to the novel, already there, or worth considering again later fro some problematic bit that I haven't settled on yet.

Because this includes everything from character names to fun quotes to whole new scenes or story line changes, it incorporates a lot of different writing elements. The last couple of days, a few of them have involved foreshadowing, so here's some notes on foreshadowing:

Roreshadowing is fun and challenging to write, and usually missed by the first-time reader of the book (at least consciously if sometimes absorbed subconsciously), so it becomes something the writer can include

I haven’t found any good way to plan for it and structure it into the story, but in word smithing, i can often find places to slide it in, often merely as an apt simili or metaphor that references events, plot elements, and moods yet to come. For example:

“The wild colors were more like a delirium than art” on the surface is just an interesting way to describe a piece of abstract art or decor or flower bed, yet it offers the most subtle hint that madness might be part of the flavor of the story or an event to come.

Bad weather is a somewhat overused portend of trouble, but weather in general is always a useful bit of realism and appropriate descriptions within it can add to the subtle message in concert with or contrary to the typical use of the weather at hand: shiny, slick streets to hint at slippery characters and sneak attacks in contrast to the open attack of thunder, bright sparkles in the snow to allow hope for a good ending...

Foreshadowing can also be done more thoroughly. A classic is a painting that reflects not just one but many aspects of a story's core, including an event yet to come. Another is a small event that echoes the larger scale climax.

The meaning of foreshadowing starts to get lost in character building and other parts of the story, too, but whether a character's nature is hinted at before it is fully revealed is done for character building or foreshadowing doesn't really matter: it helps the story either way.

Newer writers and some modern writers seem reluctant to use such purposeful "tricks" in their writing, but they are part of the art and craft of writing. To not use them when we see the opportunity to do so is about like choosing not to use a brush or a particular appropriate color for painting. It's doable, but only a few painters find substitutes that are sufficiently functional to allow them to succeed.

Writer's challenge: take any paragraph and change out one description or adjective for a description or simili that has as much to do with the story as a whole as the thing at hand.
19 may 11 @ 4:28 pm

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

building the story and fevers
A really good story should be as hard to shake off and put aside as my current cold, and the climax should be like a fever, holding the reader in place unable to do anything else. That's the goal. Getting there not so easy. I came across a new writer's post saying she was looking for plot help and since that has been much of the recent focus of my current revision, I thought I'd share.

I think my best plots come about when I have no idea where the story is going, I play with scenes, add characters, play with character interaction, and have a stack of things I'd like to happen, many of which seem on the surface to be contradictory, because contradiction leads to conflict leads to meaty plots. That being said, before I try to merge them into the story and stack the conflicts into a meaty climax, I have to have the ending well in mind and half written.

I have a very weak climax with my current one because I only had a few ideas for the ending: who wins, who escapes or is released, who plays in the conclusion of the final battle and the nature of the battle(s) that need to be fought to get there. But the tone, the messages, to what degree certain romances needed to be wrapped up in the conclusion... all of those effect how to get to the ending, and therefor the flow of the climax. For example, if the romantic wrap up is to be in-person, the players have to be on the same ship at the time. In the end I decided that I want one of them involved in the battle, and she can't go back to the paramour afterwards, so the romance has to wrap up mid-climax, classically a rescue or a choice that sends a final message. I want a couple of the questionable characters to make their stand and show their true colors, so they, too, have to be part of the climax. I still have a few options to sort through there, but if I want the battle to be part of the climax rather than an aftermath, then their choice has to be part of the battle. If on the other hand the battle is mostly a brief mop up/chase off, then their choice has to come before the battle, perhaps in a fisticuffs as part of the rescue, preferably a different part than the romantic bit but not necessarily by much.

Once I've decided all those things that need to happen, and which minor threads can be left hanging for the sequel, then the necessary parts of the climax start to become clear.

By the time I get to that point, I've already got lots of early plot developments for several characters so writing the story is merely a matter of putting them together in an appropriate series of scenes, and there are no rules there except that characters should be true, scenes should have change, often through disagreements and conflict, and eventually they all need to push from different directions toward the climax. The tricky bit is sometimes getting from there to the key points of the conflict, but once the set up is in place and the conclusion is in place, I usually find that it is a matter of adjusting sequencing, adding a few transitional scenes, and if I've been having too much fun, beating up on my characters by making the bad ones turn worse and the good ones make mistakes. Beat on them enough and the transitional scenes will take the story in the right direction to close the gap.

In traditional science fiction and fantasy, I would note, the climax must include the science or magic or other element that puts the story into the genre. else all of your readers will be disappointed, no matter how great the tale is otherwise.

Writer's challenge: figure out what would push your favorite characters over the edge, would break them, would make them scream or cry, and give them a bad day.
18 may 11 @ 9:16 am

Friday, May 13, 2011

Building from an ending
Looking back at my last post, I see it didn't quite go where I aimed, but it was more coherent than I expected which is a good sign since I'm still not back to par. While I was revising, I came across a scene ending that left me wondering why I had left off there. Considering how to end the scene better, I realized that the younger character would NOT have allowed the matter to end there, being a kind of argumentative, feisty guy in a bad mood, so I gave him more of a reaction, kind of "I'm going to find out what's really going on" (but a whole paragraph plus). His plan included a few specifics on how he could get more, which gives me another scene or two with him and related characters. I knew I needed some such, but this is the first time I've had an idea what those scenes could accomplish.

That kind of accidental story building is one of the reasons I drafted the whole trilogies before even trying to get the first book published: Scenes are enriched by references to the past, are impacted by past events, and to get scenes going in the right direction, I tend to invent the past as I build the present: in order for that to work with a series, comments have to at least not be contradicted by the previous book, and it often helps if they support the new present.

Also, when characters change settings, I realize that a supporting cast may need adjustment. For example, once I got Planetary Chancellor in place, I realized that it was unlikely for him to travel without aides or security, especially as I had set up that he was a likely candidate for kidnapping attempts. In the second book, I added an aide who knew the details of managing the chancellor's calendar and guest lists, and a vague troop of security. I need to at least consider and perhaps comment on the elements of the staff traveling with, and perhaps have the aide play a role in the later events of the first book. That, too, will provide substance and direction for the scenes I know are "missing" and the forces that help build to a proper climax, currently more ideas than proper scenes.

Writer's Challenge: Take a character out of the story and have him or her say things that express his or her characteristics effectively, irregardless of whether they fit the story. Do the words give you ideas for things the character could DO to show those characteristics? Could a scene where the character would say similar words or perform such actions be used in the backstory/backflash or a scene not yet built?
13 may 11 @ 7:45 pm

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Colds leave you even more tired
Especially colds with fever and chills. They laid me flat but I'm managing to function in short bursts, alternating between quilting, writing/revising, and sleeping. The quilting has lead me to another analogy for an aide in developing the story. The quilt I'm trying to finish is one long in work, mostly crazy quilt with a butterfly theme. to bring the disparate butterfly fabrics together, i intermixed a solid blue that I'm embroidering with flowers and butterflies in echo of the printed fabrics. But like a story that flows without quite attaining the "meat" I'd like, I've decided it needs something more, more depth, more texture, another layer reflective of the theme yet different, so I"m fussy cutting some of the butterflies from the leftover (and accumulated) fabric and appliqueing some of them on the blue as well as doing the embroidery. In the end, it also saves me some effort, as embroidery takes longer than applique.

In stories, adding texture and layers has the same effect of strengthening the story, giving it variety, and ultimately making it easier to build the climax, where I have the most difficulty. Texture and variety can be added by giving side characters a bigger part, not always as helpful as they want to be, not always in the direction of their visible role as good minion or bad minion. A "type" can be used to good effect but be careful to give such characters a unique style or flavor of their own, a twist in their impact or choices from the "traditional". In one story I have the traditional nurse's role, but made her chatty and opinionated but ready to back off at an instant if her opinion offends strangers around her. The clumsy evil minion should have a skill at something and not merely thwart his boss else he will seem an out-of-place parody in a serious adventure.

Adding such characters, putting them in appropriate scenes, and adjusting the scenes accordingly, will almost inevitably add complexity and conflict, and a climax is often merely all the conflicts and complexities stacked one on top of another until a crisis forms, a blow is struck, efforts to make sense of all before it come crashing down.

Layers and textures can also be added, like the embroidery, with a little more effort and subtle impact, through appropriate metaphors, speech patterns, and word choices. I always try to find expressions, slang, and curses that are appropriate for the culture at hand. A bunch of spacers aren't going to use the same vocabulary as farmers or city dwellers. They refer to what surrounds them, what thwarts them: farmers might liken trouble makers to bad weather, city dwellers to cracked sidewalks and dark alleys, and spacers to space phenomenon that are troublesome to navigate or ship makers who are blamed for everything that goes wrong with equipment. The use of such words and phrases makes it easier to tell characters apart, tells something of the culture that scenes may not have occasion to reveal, and makes the world more complete all at once. Or add them to a stereotypical side character to give him a unique flavor all his or her own.
11 may 11 @ 8:41 am

Friday, May 6, 2011

adrenaline leaves you tired
It's been a weird week all around, with swapped worked days, canceled meetings, a road trip to pick up spindles, and random bits of writing to get me "back on track." I still managed to edit a bit every night, not necessarily the story I was supposed to be working on, but not always much before I was dosing off. Being half asleep dossn't hurt editing as much as writing, in my experience, mostly just means I have to go over it again to catch obvious spelling errors and other problems that I missed. Writing half asleep mostly means I write crap that seemed really good at the time. Writing fully asleep usually means a scribbled thing that might be a word or might be a scribble, no matter how important it seemed to write it at the time.

Scenes I'm writing perfectly awake and in much detail sometimes also have the same problem, of seeming important and value at the time but ultimately adding nothing to the story. the more work I put into a fun scene, the harder it is to recognize that the real problem is that it doesn't belong there, that it might not belong in the story at all. And even harder is figuring out what to replace it with. I'm pretty good at word smithing, but the story... that doesn't come so naturally.

The best "trick" I've found for making a story better is to revamp a key character or two and then stand back to watch them act accordingly. If you can stop and ask yourself how the character, with this or that character trait, fobia, personal goal, view of the world, would really act in the given situation, and can corret the scenes (and build the resultant new ones) accordingly, the characters will help write the story.

If you can get antagonists and side characters pushing in other directions such that they intersect and conflict, all the better. The temptation is to push them together into conflict, but it will never be as strong as when the nature of the character is clearly the driving force. Once you've set them in motion, exaggerate the measure of every conflict (but not its nature and direction), then the story will start to have some meat.

Writer's challenge: take each character and consider what sort of disagreement, insult, behavior, or attitude would drive them losing their temper. (If you can't think of something, consider when you have really lost your cool. Often the trigger isn't the honest (if unpleasant) thing said, but the lie that preceded it. Often it isn't someone you knew was nasty and unfriendly, but someone you thought was better than that.) Take the same character and consider what would make them worry (and, exaggerated, would make them do something foolish or brave out of fear).
6 may 11 @ 9:09 pm

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

life's too busy to be noticing
Adrenaline scatters the brain cells and removes all ability to concentrate. The mini crisis at work was this morning and I'm still having to stop and rethink where I was going and edit the mess I've made of this post. Likewise, lives of story characters, especially science fiction, are typically fast-paced without all that much time for analyzing, thinking, or discussing implications at length, even if on rare occasion life allows such luxuries.

There's a need to keep dialog going at a quick clip too, balancing against the need to make speakers clear, discuss something worth saying, and avoid the talking heads effect of being independent of body motion, setting, etc. In early drafts, I tend to add small comments to remind myself of the mood that was desired, to give characters something to do, for other reasons or for no reason. I'll add phrazes that include "he noticed...", "She paused to consider", "he looked out the hatch as he said..." "...he noted, amused".

In later drafts, I might leave in the objects of those verbs, but I turn most into active voice about the object and take out most of these sort of indirect references. A chat's okay without a lot of action, but noticing and considering aren't really actions at all, at least not the sort that add substance to the story, even if they seemed to serve a purpose on the first or first few go-rounds.

A step better is to have them room clean to convey a tidy (or obsessed, or nervous) state. Have them talk as they head somewhere. Have other people come and go, or events unrealted to the dialog at hand progress and cut the discussion short. Deciding on the best action is always tricky and often part of the resequencing that I inevitably do much later. Meanwhile, I cut the weak stuff along with shortening and changing the dialog to be more meaningful and less chit chat.

I also get off track even when I don't have adrenaline surges messing up my brain. I started to go through the novel I was working on (back to the beginning but not as slowly toward where I'd reached) looking for hand gestures and other details for a key character that I noticed late in to be missing until too late in the story, and somehow got off onto editing dialog for other problems.

Sometimes I think I'm getting a piece polished, and then I stop and look for specifics and find out that I really only have a polished first draft, and need to write the second draft with massive revisions. Here we go again...

Writer's Challenge: take a dialog scene and look at everything except the dialog. Does it work? Does it add anything? Make it do so.
3 may 11 @ 8:19 pm

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Every word should be an experience