30 December, 2011

Exploratory writing is fun and evil

When I'm first constructing a story, I have a general idea of where it will go, but the details are not initially nailed down. So I end up doing a lot of exploratory writing, where I improvise on the spur of the moment what the characters do, where they go, what kinds of things happen. This gives me ideas about how they can develop, what kinds of plot elements will occur, and so on.

The mistake I consistently make is to then assume that the exploratory elements generated by this process should remain in the final product, when what I really need to do is take the character progressions that I develop later, and apply them to the story elements to see if they make sense. If they don't, those elements need to be rewritten.

Last night I rewrote a chapter after realizing that the first half of it was totally unnecessary, and in fact nonsensical. Character K would never end up in location X; that would require character E to have made a decision that, in retrospect, makes no sense. (It seemed reasonable at the time, but I didn't spend more than five seconds coming up with it.) Now that I've done a bunch of other work, I have a much more thorough and developed understanding of the characters and story, and the plot element of K-at-X would never happen.

So I killed it. The last half of the chapter was rearranged and expanded a bit, but overall the chapter is now more than a thousand words shorter. Which is fine; there was quite a lot of irrelevant background detail and minor beats that really had no impact on K's story. Most of those beats were generated during the exploratory process, and so it makes sense that they just weren't important.

The lesson I'm hoping to internalize is that exploratory writing is fine -- it's fun to create scenes on the spur of the moment -- but it needs to be analyzed in detail at a later date, to determine if it actually makes sense. This can cause tectonic upheavals in the story, requiring a great deal of work, and to me this can be literally gut-wrenching.

(For a bit of fun detail: I first started work on this chapter on 2011 Aug 24. I finished the first draft of the chapter on Aug 29. From Nov 04 to Nov 07 I did an editing pass on it, which in retrospect was a waste of time; the core story elements had not been worked out properly as they have now.)

27 December, 2011


Katin, Katin, Katin... I've just nailed down how she develops through the end of the novel. And in doing so, I realized something about how I wrote this novel, that I will hopefully rectify going forward:

I really, really enjoy writing prose. I do not, so much, enjoy structuring story and character development. It's difficult and painful, and I spend a lot of time feeling slightly nauseous and wondering how I'm going to get myself out of this jam. A lot of times, the way out means destroying what you've created and starting over. After doing that for the last couple of hours, I've gotten a solid sense of where the character of Katin should go, and how she should develop, and how her dramatic flaws should manifest.

The tricky part is, when tomorrow I reread the notes I wrote today, there's a chance that I will spot obvious glaring problems. Then I will feel nauseous again as I have to wade through figuring out, once more, exactly how Katin is going to progress as a character.

I spent a lot of the last six months writing prose and doing world-building. What I did not do nearly enough of was nailing down the characters. It can help to write an exploratory draft, to get some ideas about things that can happen; but nothing in there should be gospel. Break it apart, and save those ideas to reuse later somewhere that they fit. Meanwhile, go nail down the characters, who are (and should be) what drive the story.

I had a long phone call with a friend the other day. He's read the entire second draft of the novel, and he made a lot of very good points, a lot of which boiled down to me realizing that I hadn't really done my due diligence of nailing down the story and character progression. I kept telling myself the novel was pretty good as-is, which is probably the case (people seem to like my prose), but good prose doesn't make a good story.

And that brings me to another danger of, specifically, handing out sample chapters to people: A sample chapter does not contain enough material for people to judge your character and story skills, only your prose. I've posted versions of chapter 2 and chapter 5 on Mythic Scribes, and in both cases everyone has praised the prose, but looking at the story as a whole, there's a lot more work to be done. At least at this point, I'm confident that my writing is an easy read, even if it doesn't quite add up to what it should.

24 December, 2011

23 December, 2011

Character analysis

So here's something else I'm really bad at: Analyzing the state of my characters and determining if their progression actually makes any sense, or is any good.

I just rewrote a chapter yesterday that involved one character taking a trek through a city, in order to return home after escaping a dire event. The first thousand words of the chapter detailed her trek home, and not a single damn one of them talked about her state of mind, feelings about the traumatic event that had happened to her, what she wanted, or what she felt. I rewrote that section, shortening 1,008 words to 716, by removing and combining several redundant, superfluous descriptions (no, I did not need to say three different ways that people looked at her oddly because her dress was filthy), as well as adding a few character moments, where she expresses new emotions that are a result of her recent trauma.

I'm very proud of myself for realizing this on my own; I've been getting great feedback from a friend, and he's pointed out a number of places where characters (especially this one) have had some traumatic event occur and yet they appear to have no emotional reaction to it. (They do change later on, but the tipping-point moment of change isn't supported by earlier events.) So it was kind of nice to recognize this problem on my own.

Nonetheless, I tend to assume that what I've written characters doing has to be in there. It's difficult to look at an existing action and analyze it objectively: Is this what that character would really do? Is this conflicting with or contradictory to something else they did earlier? Does this action move them toward their goal?

What I really need, I think, is a checklist sorta dealie to help me go through character moments and identify whether they're working properly. Not because a checklist will never miss anything, but because I find that I don't even ask these basic questions when I'm rereading my work. If I can get in the habit of doing this kind of analysis instinctively (and man, it's tedious), it'll end up making my work that much better.

21 December, 2011

Everyone's Too Nice

Yet another in the long line of problems that are likely to crop up in my writing is that Everyone Is Too Damn Nice. Characters who are friends never get in arguments, or if they do, it's a minor quibble that lasts three lines and then they're best buds again.

In real life, good friends don't get in fierce arguments a lot, but in a story, they've got to. Their friendship needs to be tested just as much as they individually need to be tested by the trials thrown at them by the story. I had a chapter that features something astonishing happen, and at the end, the main character said, "Well, that was exciting. I'm going to bed now."

Yeah. Dumb. Now, she and her best friend get in a huge argument and it doesn't end with them reconciling; the chapter ends with them being pissed off at each other. (Doesn't help that one of them is the servant of the other.) Tension! Drama! Character development! It was a missed opportunity, and thanks to some excellent feedback, it was identified and made better. I'm just hoping that some day I get to the point where I can always identify weak spots like that myself, instead of being so close to the material that I assume that because I wrote it that way once, it always has to be that way.

20 December, 2011

Reintegration and Details

I finished the second draft. Now I'm working on the prologue and first four chapters again, integrating some backstory changes and trying to make sure other details are present.

This is a pain in the ass.

Scattered across these five chapters are various pieces of information, some of which are important, some of which turn out not to be so. I put them in early on, thinking they'd be relevant later, but that's not how it turned out. And while interesting world details are, er, interesting, if they don't inform the story, they can actually harm it by being present.

The barbaric tribal nation to the north is something I find interesting, but it doesn't actually come up much during the story, and so it's a bad idea to present details about that nation that are not relevant to the plot or the characters. It's just distracting. Readers will think it's important, and it never turns out to be important, and it's not clearly part of a scene-setting.

For example, a character arrives in a new city, and is passing through an open-air market. You have a scene like this (off the top of my head):
Ralyn gazed out across the bazaar. She saw shaven-headed Irtoks, in their polished black mail; there was a trio of Grendul, arguing fiercely and slapping each other on the chests. Vendors kept their heads down whenever a Thorn Caller passed by, singing his terrible dirge.
Irtoks, Grendul, and Thorn Callers don't ever need to come up again in the story, because this is just giving a sense of the place where Ralyn (who is presumably a main character) currently is.

Compare with this passage:
Ralyn listened to the lords debating. They spoke of the Ashkadar, the barbarians in the northern mountains, and whether they might try to invade the green lands to the south again. Ashkadar were fierce fighters; growing up in a frozen wasteland meant only the strongest survived.
Unless these "Ashkadar" show up later, that last sentence is irrelevant padding. Ralyn is not in the frozen north, she is not going to run into any Ashkadar. Even if she knows this detail about the Ashkadar, relating it to the reader is not really a good idea.

Yes, there are some readers who don't mind plowing through loads of extra, irrelevant details, because they're fascinated by the details per se. But it doesn't make for a stronger story. And it's not the way I want to write. And yet I find myself writing that way a lot, because I'm pretty much making it all up as I go along. An interesting detail will occur to me, and I'll just put it in on the fly.

The hard part isn't recognizing these irrelevant details later on; the hard part is making myself delete them.

Another problem is being too vague about important details. I tend to be too oblique; I don't like stating facts outright, even if important. I prefer to integrate them organically.  But what happens is that the details end up sounding like elaborations on things that were stated earlier. The reader ends up thinking "Did I miss something?"

The hardest part about all this is keeping track of which details are where. Did I mention and reinforce the idea that Ashkadar raiders are incredibly fierce and brutal? Mentioning it once in chapter 1, when the raiders don't show up until chapter 15, means that some readers will have completely forgotten that detail by the time the Ashkadar show up.

But at the same time, overdoing it is a problem. Readers will notice, and say, "Geez, we get it, the Ashkadar are fierce warriors."

(This isn't even a "show, don't tell" problem. If the characters have heard all their lives that the Ashkadar are fierce, then having the characters think about how fierce the Ashkadar are is fine, as long as it gets shown at some point.)

19 December, 2011


I am an hour or two's worth of work from finishing Draft #2. I already know some tweaks I need to make for Draft #3; I'm really hoping I can get that all done inside of a week (I have some time off from my day job coming up) and then it's onto the polish/artwork/design phase.

Then it'll be time to put this sucker live, and start marketing the hell out of it.

16 December, 2011

Elves have left the building

The novel I'm writing doesn't feature any sentient races besides humans. Nonetheless, I have future plans for a series that would involve demi-human races like elves and dwarves.

So on Mythic Scribes lately, there's been discussion of elves in particular and how to make them "unique" or "different." Reading through that thread, it occurred to me: Do we have to make elves unique and different?

It's all too common to see an author accused of using "generic" races that have the same characteristics as the ones Tolkien laid out half a century ago. Dwarves are short, broad, and hairy; they love gold, live underground, etc. Elves are tall, fair, slim, graceful, reclusive, live a very long time, etc. But so what? They're good tropes, and I don't think there's a problem with using them more or less as-is. Obviously other authors' elves need to have a different history, and different realms/names. But if the characters you create are interesting and have personality, then why is it a problem for them to be "stock" elves?

Creating a fictional human culture based on e.g. medieval England would never receive the same kind of disdain that using Tolkien-standard elves does. Why is it a problem to use Tolkien-standard elves, but not use Tolkien-standard humans? Is it critical that a fantasy world be a completely original setting? Are there any major permutations of the possible attributes elves can have that haven't been written in the decades since Lord of the Rings was published? You could give them all sorts of attributes that would make them into something that nobody would call an "elf," I suppose -- give them scaly skin, make them short-lived, ugly, etc.

Is it better to avoid using the word "elf" altogether and just come up with another, more "original" race? There's really only so many variations on sentient races that you can do, and I'm sure they've all pretty much been done by now. Humanoid races based on animals (wolf-men! cat-people!), vegetables (sentient trees! fungus men!), or minerals (rock golems! crystalline... things!). Humanoid races with various exaggerated characteristics (very short, very tall, very thin, very fat). Undead races, etc. Good luck thinking of a characteristic that's never been used before.

And even if you do, so what? It still has to fit into a good story, with good characters. Perhaps too much time is spent on worrying about the details of fantasy worlds, and not enough on the details of character and story. Maybe because it's easier to do so. I'm starting to think that when I get to the point of writing the novels that have elves and dwarves, I'm deliberately going to use Tolkien-standard races.

In Defense of Mediocrity

I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows last night. It was entertaining, with plenty of twists and turns and complicated scheming and Holmes deducing nonsense from the scantiest of clues.

After I got home, I went and read A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times. He didn't like it much; his main complaint seemed to be that Robert Downey Jr. didn't look like he was having enough fun. Well, there's no accounting for taste.

That got me thinking about the role of mediocre entertainment. No matter what, not all produced entertainment can be of the highest caliber, not even if we put Michael Bay to death and gave all the money spent on his films instead to Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Terrence Malick. For one thing, humans can grow accustomed to anything. Take films; if all you ever watch are the greatest, most revered films, it'll probably get to be a bit stale. Seeing something less than stellar once in a while confirms the quality of the better films, to give you a basis for comparison.

But it's more basic than that. Every meal you eat cannot be filet mignon and white asparagus tips. (Well, it can if you're the 1%.) But even if it was, the sameness of it would grow tedious after a while. We need food to nourish our bodies, and we need entertainment to nourish our minds. Sometimes a good solid grilled cheese sandwich of a movie is just the thing called for, between the lobster and caviar.

This is not meant to defend deliberate decisions toward mediocrity. Artists should always aim high, and never say "I know this could be better, but, meh." ("I know this could be better, but I don't know how, and anyway I'm on a deadline" is an acceptable excuse.) But not even great artists always succeed. Picasso has plenty of paintings that no one gives a rat's ass about; Hitchcock and Bergman and Spielberg and Scorsese have all made bad films. This doesn't mean those attempts should be ignored; the mediocre output of great artists can help inform our understanding of their great works, and even keep us entertained, even if we know it wasn't their best effort.

I wonder some times if film critics in particular are too harsh on some films. If a film intends to be a mindless escape, should it be criticized for that? Should we discourage directors, through the mechanism of critical analysis, from making anything but the most sublime, profound statements? Is a movie bad because it doesn't aim for greatness, even if it captures the zeitgeist and influences culture?

12 December, 2011

Sudden clarity

So I was thinking about the novel this morning, and I realized out of the blue that I almost certainly need to rewrite the first four chapters. Not only that, but I think I also realized how to do it.

It was weird, because I've gotten some feedback about the early part of the book that made me think about whether it needed rewriting, or just tightening up. But no, I think I need to start over with them.

Well, shit.

03 December, 2011

The rewriting continues

As much as I'd love to post here frequently, what time I have to spend writing, I'm working on the novel. Which means I can't spend time writing here. Alas.

Things will improve eventually...