EnE: Elemental Novel Experiences
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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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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More on characters
I don't usually do character sketches so I don't know if there's some recommended way to do them, but for my follow-up to exploring the possibilities for new/better side characters I started last post, character sketches of s sort seemed a descent way to capture a lot of ideas quickly. (Usually, i would be creating fewer characters through individual scenes.) For this story, I noted their occupation or some other key element of their backgound (criminal, religious focus) that would provide the defining feature, sometimes a name, and several notes on the implications/sub-elements of the main element: does the religious person preach or just refer to key morel principles as part of his normal speech? Does the business profession talk in terms of cost and benefit instead of good and bad or is everything about process and production? How can I portray a criminal and would they still be a criminal in some sense or tough or a thug expressing anger with every breath?

With side characters, they aren't on stage very long so I aim for exxaggerated clear characteristics and often still find that it is too subtle. Still, the subtle as well as the obvious add together to give the character his or her own flavor for the reader: speech patterns, a memorable physical feature if they are recurring, their interests and chosen discussion topics and actions: I imagine a criminal to have a lot of energy with a need for release, a business person more dignified (but dignified is harder to show quickly, maybe formal speech patterns, or maybe a quirk of checking for/reaching to straighten a tie he know longer has with his flight suit, or a tendency to turn discussions into negotiations...

It gets both harder and easier for more alien backgrounds/occupations/cultural elements: harder because they will be unfamiliar to thr reader, lacking common referants, and easier because almost anything goes, so long as it is handled consistently, preferably with some basic logic and reasoning behind it even if the logic of it is never explained.

Writer's challenge: take a character from a story and write them up as a character sketch: do it for a character in another story: Were the elements you captured the same or different for each story? Is there anything you can fold back into the story to strengthen the character?

27 sep 11 @ 10:00 pm

Friday, September 23, 2011

Imagination try 2
i did write a post Tuesday late but the web site crashed and burned and took my lovely prose with it (okay, probably my usual babbling, but there you are, a blog is inevitably a first draft). So this is try 2.

On facebook, I got into a very brief discussion on imagination with someone from a new online publishing company. Their response was typically generic to the effect that the geniuses of any craft are the ones who have the imagination of a child, only better. Well, maybe, but most of the true geniuses never lose it in the first place and most of us actually have to work past the repressive tendencies of life to tap back into it.

I was reminded of one of the ways I tap into it in the process of figuring out what was wrong with my current problematical novel and realized that my side characters were all pretty lame, especially considering the premise on which the universe is created - that the side characters could have been drafted from any number of planets in the galaxy and any walk of life. So why are all the characters so typical mainstream Earth?

As soon as I realized how I was repressing myself, I was able to break past that particular barrier and consider the realm of possibilities: why not criminals, religious fanatics from alien cultures, priestesses and lawyers, primitives who think their worlds are the center of the universe and advanced civilizations who consider the technology around them no more than the norm of daily life.

The draft/brainwashing process would repress some of the beliefs not in alignment with the local belief system but not entirely and wouldn't change who they were, their backgrounds, their characters, their speech patterns to the degree that the local language allows, etc. Side characters are fun - extremes recommended as they are usually on stage too briefly to allow a lot of subtle character building - and now my imagination can run for awhile.

I think it's not that adults lack any imagination, it's that we've developed categories and standard sequences of expectation and finding the hidden side roads where the imagination can still run free can be a trick, often a trick of merely asking ourselves the right question.

Writer's challenge: Look at some foreign or alien aspect of your world. Ask yourself if the responses of the characters to it are appropriate or too normal. What are the other options that you've ignored? What would be the most extreme action or reaction? And the most extreme in another direction? And another? Keep at until you come up with at least five or six. Which ones would make the story better? If possible, have two characters take or try to take different courses, have different reactions.
23 sep 11 @ 10:45 am

Friday, September 16, 2011

theme and consequences
One of those things that books and stories generally have is a theme or three. I kind of get it, and sometimes I could sort of tell you what it was: as I see it, Clancy typically had a political issue theme (terrorism, drugs, spies, etc.) and at least one human theme (well, human isn't the right word but neither are the other words I came up with) such as trust, honor, health-in-leadership, killing, treachery...

I've tried to choose one. I suppose some authors consciously have one in mind from the start, especially authors writing Christian fiction, I assume: lots of writings reflect Christian values but to be labeled as such a book it generally seems to require a specific lesson, sometimes an obvious one (if they are too obvious, I don't like them as books even if I agree with the lesson: I don't know anyone who likes being lectured AT), sometimes a very subtle one (I like the ones where I have to read the book a couple of times before I can put words to the lesson).

Sometimes I just decide what it is/they are after the fact, after the first good solid draft. The nature of a world or science generally defines at least the topical one such as the political themes of Clancy, and they often lend themselves to a particular human/value/emotional motif sort of theme. In the story I have been writing on recently, I knew going in it would probably be taken as an anti-war or at least anti-draft because the main point of the background of the characters is that they have been conscripted into service for aliens and are essentially prisoners with benefits, but that wasn't really where the focus was beyond the generic prisoner desire for freedom. Eventually I realized the setting meant it would be about fighting the system or fighting repression and about the question of who people fight and kill under what circumstances. (I'm thinking of Saving Private Ryan and their discussion of what they were before the war and of the German soldier they decide not to kill and such).

Anyway, obviously not something I'm managing to put into words tonight but the end point was that it is useful to decide what your theme)s) is eventually, whether you put it there on purpose or it just came out that way, and to do two things with it: decide if it i a good theme for the story; and make sure that the themes that are at the beginning of the novel are hanging around the ending, influncing the ending even, and especially that they haven't switched too far around at the end. There is nothing worse than a B-movie ending where the movie starts by pointing out that the invaders are evil invaders whose sole purpose is to kill us and take over the planet, and ends by trying to convey the lesson that humans are evil to have killed the invaders that didn't mean any harm. Glory and honor to defend ourselves and prevail to start, too fearful of strangers to end. Both are useful and potentially useful themes, but they probably need to be used in separate stories. Something to look for in revision.

Writer's challenge: Take a story already written or jot several notes down to rough out a future story: what themes does the written story convey? Rewrite the beginning to hint at one or more of the themes. Make sure the ending reflects the same theme. What are some potential themes that fit the notes? Make a list of activities, emotions, choices, and dialog topics that the theme suggests. Write some scenes that use them.
16 sep 11 @ 10:01 pm

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Life Impacts
Life regularly impacts how I write. In this case, the local chaos of deadlines, projects, work on the house, etc. etc. seems to have pushed me to just keep working through my story in sequence if only to bring a little sanity to my life, but the result is still on the chaotic side, like my collage.

As a 9-11 memorial, my quilt group did a challenge for patriotic and memorial wall hangings and I was still finishing up my quilted memory collage this weekend. I don't think it's much for art. The colors and shapes are everywhere, just a lot of symbols subtle and obvious with a pretense of looking like a city scape, albeit one with no scale.

Some of my story has the some of the same distortion of scale, the disconnect and vague sequencing of a collage. As with art, that's not ALWAYS a bad thing. The hard part is telling from the perspective of writer whether it will work for the raeder.

Sometimes it works. This story I think can never have the sense of continuity that many stories have. For one thing, the characters are prisoners of a sort (conscripts squared, and there is only so much of the boredom and constraint of a prison that can be conveyed before readers feel a need to escape the story. As a result, it is a series of scenes with moments magnified and months hinted at, emotions as chaotic as my life and a struggle to make them fit together with enough contrast in the right places that the important things aren't lost in the flow and that an overall story is conveyed.

In a visual collage, colors are allowed to belnd around the edges but certain features may need to stand out and contrast in key places is key. In collage-like stories, then, maybe in all stories, gradual climbs and shifts are often less valuable than a break and a clear sharp presentation of a new mood and pace followed by clarifying the cause of the change (shaping the symbol, as it were, and giving it its place in the whole). That can provide the change, mood, and conflict right there and all that's needed is the setting and characters to make a good, complete scene.

If altogether a series of such well-developed scenes tell a story with an overarching change, conflict, climax, and resolution, I'm not sure the discontinuity of time line will matter to most readers, (and Zelaznyy was pretty good at messing up the time sequence, too, and still making the story progress clearly in the end). On the other hand, I'm not sure it's what agents and publishers will take on easily, especially with a new author, so it will likely not be among the first books I manage to publish.

Writer's challenge: take a series of scenes and a stack of index cards to represent them. With a marker or a selection of markers, use a different texture or color line across the top for each emotion/mood that dominates a scene (red for anger, green for cheer, blue for mellow, perhaps, use a different color dash or symbol in the center of the cards for each character with a major role in the scene, use a use a different direction or type of (large) arrow to show if the scene results in an improvement. Compare the cards. What oes a collage of them look like? How much variety do they give the reader? Put them in sequence: are there any sharp changes in the direction of progress?
14 sep 11 @ 7:36 pm

Friday, September 9, 2011

pieces and parts
I seem to write and crochet about the same, at least in the middle stages. In piecing my afghan of granny squares together, I started in the middle and attach the pieces as I work outward. I'm sewing with yarn and am interested in developing the layout more than anchoring everything properly, so many pieces are only sewn in on one side or the other, maybe two adjacent sides with no more than a stitch at the corner to complete the layout, or three sides.

My story building follows the same pattern: first a bunch of individual pieces, then start piecing them together to form the story, with a lot of the connections weak or barely hinted at. A story being ultimately linear, the connections and sequencing are less permanent than the crochet blocks (I might adjust a piece here or there but once I've continued on to further rings, I won't change the positions of the inner ones) and the sequencing might be considered some of the gaps in the stitching. Other gaps are setting details, the roles of recurring (or not) side characters, lead-ins to indicate that time has passed and things have changed (or not) but that the story has gone on, leaving the gap either to the imagination of the reader or to a backflash to explain the new conditions (when those new conditions pertain to the story).

As with the crochet, where I will need to go back and tuck in end threads and knots, or finish sewing in the detached sides of the squares, I will need to go back to the story sections again and make decisions, flesh out scenes that are loosely defined (my first version may no more than a sentence refering to the event or a paragraph describing what the scene should contain or a description that needs o shift from show to tell and then fleshed into a proper scene with all the elements (I often create a scene with no more than dialog, but while dialog is active, contains conflict and change, and portrays much about the characters (if done well), it is not a complete scene, yet, and needs setting and physical action and presence to some minimal degree (stage direction as it were, and the rest of the senses; dialog only offers sound). Sometimes those other things are only a few sentences and I am left fearing that I have achieved little more than talking heads, but a token interaction with the setting may be all that is needed for a given scene. It's when scene after scene is talking heads that the science fiction and fantasy readers especially are likely to start looking for more.

Writer's challenge: take a sentence (yours or from the newspaper or something) and add all the elements that turn it into a scene: character, setting, conflict, change, action, senses
9 sep 11 @ 11:24 am

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

fighting temptation
I've been warned any number of ways and times against having too many backflashes too early in the story but never understood until now why it was so tempting to do so. In doing a "step back" to figure out in a general way what waa wrong with my current story (a bogged down beginning among other things), I realized that I was trying to explain the back story through backflashes, rather than just showing the story as it is NOW and letting the reader work it out for awhile. That working it out, afterall, is part of the fun of reading, the thing that draws the reader into the world and the book. The reader id interested in the current story and the backflash can wait until the current story will directly benefit by the backflash, for example, to show that something is important by its contrast to a past norm (which can be particularly hard for the reader to determine in science fiction and fantasy worlds where even "normal" is different from the reader's idea of normal).

The temptation to explain is something I'm more familiar with in nonfiction writing, where the natural first draft is to share everything the writer knows about the subject, to explain the process of how the analyst came up with their conclusion. Writer's initially write for themselves. It's useful, but not the end point, and a long way from a final draft.

The final has to be written for the reader. Conveying knowledge is not the point for the reader, nor the methodology of the analysis: the message is the point, as conveyed by selective information to help in understanding; the conclusion of the analysis is the point, as conveyed by evidence found or developed during the process of analysis. Likewise, the story, built in stages through the whole of the book, is always the point, not understanding of everything from the start, which defeats the concept of story. An active backflash used as an explanation is still an explanation and counts as telling instead of showing. Identifying when and where and how much to reveal: the true hardest part of story telling.

Writer's challenge: Look at the first chapter and pull out everything that offers any form of explanation for the core events of the story, anything that is not the immediate ongoing plot. Have someone else read the results aloud to you.
6 sep 11 @ 9:28 pm

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Building temperatures and growing plots
I've been working on giving a plot to my world and characters and was ournaling when i came up with some things to work on. The thought flow included a bunch of old shows that I liked and didn't like, and consideration of why i did or didn't like them, and whether I would still like them now, years later.

Among the outcomes was the notion that stories need to build as they progress and one way to do so is to work up the chain of command as it were, the evil guys from underlings to bosses, the impact from individuals to large numbers of people, the conflict from individual to battles, to key individuals within the battles that can change the course of the war. It's a common pattern, that one that I hadn't really thought about as to how it could apply to my story, and all of them more or less apply together and to varying degrees in the story I am currently struggling with.

As I see it, the increased conflict raises with rank because higher up s are assumed to be better at something, and have more authority or power as well as more people to help them out than those in the lower ranks, even if we question the value of the leadership (how they got their position can be a key element in the character development and the culture, such as by inheritance and such).

The conflict doesn't exactly grow or necessarily grow with the number of people impacted by the results, but it arises the stakes, the imperitive, the urgency, and the dismay if a solution turns out not to work, so it has a less direct impact on the individual scenes but a potentially significant one on the overall story.

The reference to heat in the title, besides a metaphor for tension and all, pertains to another sort of conflict though I'm not sure it can keep growing in the same way unless the story is about weather phenomenon (Lots of post apocalypses are set in deserts, it seems to me, even though they were before a lot of the talk about global warming; now it seems the climate change in the interim could be good candidates for story material, with all the yo yo weather and record breaking in both directions and all) but it can still be a source of conflict and tension in individual scenes, complicate the problems of the main story line, keep things interesting, and also be part of the world building. I have a well-defined culture in this one, but not so well developed alien words geography and biology and ecology-wise, and weather should play a role there, too.

Writer's challenge: Think about the most memorable stories you know. Do they have anything in common, a pattern that you could use?
3 sep 11 @ 10:11 pm

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Be sure to get in touch so I know you're out there! See contacts page or e-mail wyverns(at)earthlink(dot)net.

Every word should be an experience