Thursday, June 26, 2014

Answer Me These Questions Three

I'll admit it, I've been known to get so caught up reading articles about writing that I don't get around to actually writing anything. Though this doesn't put words on the page, I've learned some amazing tips and techniques this way.

Recently I read a great article for pantsers by the great Nathan Bransford, How to Plan a Novel Without Actually Outlining. He proposes three simple questions that will get your brain going without being crushed under the weight of outlines and beat sheets.

And, because every writer is different, I started thinking on which three questions I *need* to know before I feel ready to write a story.

Who are my characters?

Best to figure this out first, because you're going to be spending a lot of time in their company. And I'm a character-person anyway - my stories always start with characters, long before a plot or even a story makes an appearance.

Beyond the basics of male or female, young or old, worldly or naive, I need to delve deep into my characters' inner workings - their greatest fears, hopes, vulnerabilities. In short, what are their biggest issues? How can I ensure they face said issues as much as possible? For instance, Dev in LAST NIGHT IN GHOSTTOWN fights a combination of anger, denial, and regret. Naturally he gets mixed up with Rishi, who challenges every single one of these demons, forcing Dev to face what he's spent years ignoring or bottling up.

What kind of world do they live in?

This question undoubtedly carries more weight for SFF writers than most. What makes this world different from the "normal" world? Even urban fantasies and modern-day settings have something that sets them apart from the world we ourselves inhabit.

For more far-flung settings (second world fantasy, distant futures, so on and so forth) what are the key features of this world? Because I dislike writing (and reading) what has been done a million times before, I always look for a different take on things. LAST NIGHT is set in a distant future where Earth is a footnote in the history books. Nothing new there. So I went for an Indian-inspired setting, and tried to build the worldview, history, and technology from there.

And most importantly, how does this world affect the characters? I'm always drawn to stories where the world is so real that it's practically its own character, which allows for more dramatic interaction with the main characters than a flat, passive backdrop of a setting.

What kind of story do I want to tell?

Perhaps even more than the others, this question is the kicker. Because no matter how real your characters or believable your world, a story that you're not interested in telling is a story that won't be written.

I knew from the beginning that LAST NIGHT would be a love story. Other ideas, however, aren't so easy. One of the ideas currently bouncing around in my brain is about an empath. He has a tragic past, and his present isn't too great either. He meets people - people from his past, mysterious people, people with Special Abilities like him - and struggles to learn who he can trust as he makes his way in the world. His world is modern-day, or relatively close, and set in the US southwest.

And I have no idea what kind of story it is.

Does it want to be a mystery, as he discovers his place in the world and figures out who he can trust? A thriller, as he struggles against a shadowy force which would harm People Like Him? A romance, as he learns to control his ability and decide which emotions are he feels are real, and which are just reflected back?

Honestly, this idea could become any one of these things, or perhaps all of them. I'm not sure yet. But until I know, this will keep simmering on the back burner.

Because a story can't come together if it's having an identity crisis.


What questions do you need to ask yourself before you're ready to write? Do they change from story to story or are there certain answers you need every time?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Link Soup: Trees, Plots, and Being Normal

watercolor painting tree dryad
 watercolor painting tree dryad
Trees in Fantasy (part 1) ~ Fantasy Faction
I've always been fascinated by trees, and in the best fantasy stories there is usually no shortage of them. My fourth grade teacher read several of the Chronicles of Narnia aloud in class, ending with The Magician's Nephew. The idea of the Woods Between the Worlds enthralls me to this day. This article is the first of a series, and examines tree mythology from around the world - as varied as many creation myths are, it's notable how many of them include trees in some way.

Are YOU the Writer's Block? ~ Donna Cummings
Essential reading for any writer. My answer (and I doubt I'm alone in this) is a resounding YES! Though I find my type of writer's block tends to be of the "I'm not good enough and everything I write is crap anyway so why bother doing it because my time would clearly be better spent alphabetizing my sock drawer" variety. Which is even less helpful than it sounds.

Too Much of a Good Thing: Over Plotting Your Novel ~ Janice Hardy
I generally struggle to come up with the main plot for any given story, so over plotting has never been a big concern. But this excellent article from Janice Hardy is still very interesting. I found her over plotting symptoms extremely helpful in a reverse engineering kind of way. And her final checklist of what a novel needs is essential for any kind of writer.

But I Just Want to Be Normal! ~ Fantasy Faction
I admit it, when I saw the title, I immediately thought of Charmed. If you saw any of the later seasons, you know exactly what I mean (this was practically the show's motto). Confessions aside, this post is a must-read for anyone writing urban fantasy or any modern-day SFF.

Novel Diagnostics ~ Kristen Lamb
More wisdom from the always-helpful Kristen Lamb. This breaks down the most common (and easy-to-miss on your own) problems that show up in the first ten pages, and gives excellent ideas on how to remedy them.

"Dryad's Dance" and "Dryad's Dance II" courtesy my alter ego

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Letting Your Story Simmer

I recently came across a wonderful post by Sangu Mandanna on Janice Hardy's blog, Give it Time, about the importance of letting a manuscript rest so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. It really resonated with me because it's exactly how LAST NIGHT IN GHOSTTOWN was written.

Not through planning or foresight, mind you, but simply through sheer dumb luck. Or more accurately, writer's block and a short attention span.

Requisite writing analogy: A story is like soup. If we don't give it time to simmer, it ends up bland and tasteless.

Writing LAST NIGHT spanned about three and half years, during which there were several gaps when I didn't write at all. Chaos in real life, a troublesome scene or section, or a new painting would distract me, and the manuscript would languish, sometimes for months at a time.

The longest gap was the last half of 2012. I'd been writing pretty steadily before that, but got stumped when the ending I'd planned for years fell flat on its face. Time for a break, I decided, with an art project that I expected to take about three months.

It took seven.

When I finally, finally looked at the manuscript again in early 2013 I discovered, much to my surprise, that it wasn't as bad as I thought. In fact, I actually liked it. Enjoyed rereading it, even.

This was far more than I'd ever expected.

And after a prolonged break, my mind was finally fresh enough to tackle that ending dispassionately. To see what the story needed, not what I thought it needed, and find a way to deliver.

So if there's anyone that's ever wondered if that "let it rest" advice is really all that important, I can vouch for it. Yes, it is important. Vital, even.

Do your story a favor, and let it simmer on its own for awhile. You'll be glad you did.

Just don't let it boil dry.