Category: How-To (page 2 of 8)

PT: Unplug, Dammit

Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann

I know SEPTA’s got issues. A little inclement weather throws entire train lines out of whack. Engineers desperate to keep on schedule will leave the platform a minute early. Buses plow into eateries. No system is perfect. But I relish my train rides. I don’t pollute, I don’t get bent out of shape over traffic and the jerkasses that come with it, and most importantly of all, I’m unplugged.

I take no laptop, no netbook, no glitzy overpriced unmodifiable gizmo with a lowercase “i” in front of its name. …Okay, I have an iShuffle, an old one in fact, but pipe down I’m making a point. The point is, I have a binder with fiction work in it, be it my manuscript or blank pages to fill with a shorter work, and I take my pen to it. I scribble out thoughts. I frame dialog and action in ball-point gel ink. I write.

Writers have a lot of tools at their disposal to make their lives easier. Dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?) and other reference materials fit on thumb drives. Word processing software saves trees in both the writing and editorial process. E-mail lets submissions get fired off to agents and periodicals in a snap. And if you need to research something obscure or find out what’s hot in your genre right now? The Internet is for that. And porn.

But these can also make a writer lazy. A crashing computer can be frustrating as hell and lose you hours of work. The Internet can distract you in various ways. An e-mail from someone to whom you submitted your work that says what you sent just isn’t good enough can be discouraging.

So turn ’em off.

There are times when typing out the words I want to express feels a bit like a disconnect between myself and the work. Like the electronics are getting in the way. Being a child of the electronic age and having grown up around this stuff – I’m still my parents’ go-to guy for tech support – it’s more of a niggling little annoyance than a real issue. However, the feeling still exists. There’s also the fact that my notes, snippets, edits and letters are not going to be obliterated by something as mundane as a power surge or a missed click.

When the zombie apocalypse happens, provided rampant fires don’t destroy everything, I’ll still have my notes. And hopefully some ammunition. I might hold on to my thumb drive full of manuscripts, short stories and ideas, but where am I going to plug it in? How is a computer going to get power? And why didn’t you barricade the door more effectively? I’m in the middle of a love scene here, I can’t stop to grab my shotgun and keep that zombie from helping itself to a mouthful of your brain! YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELF!

…Where was I? Right. Writing.

If you find yourself running out of time during the day for a variety of reasons – you saw a great tweet, you’ve been playing a game, you’re spending an hour every day in your sweltering car screaming obscenities at some douchebag in an Audi who’s yammering into their Bluetooth headset about the killing they’re making in the stock market – find ways to unplug. Disconnect yourself from the grid. Take up a pen or pencil, grab some wood pulp in sheet form, and get to scribbling.

If you have more suggestions on how & where to do this, or if you have experiences in this vein you’d like to share, go right ahead and share ’em. That’s why you’re here, after all.

Unless you were brought here by searching for ‘inception ariadne’ or ‘troll female.’

Which brings up a whole lot of interesting thoughts when you combine those two search strings.

The Home Stretch

Courtesy Corner Balance

Maybe it’s just me, as I amble towards the end of my current project, doing my utmost to follow my own tenth rule of writing fiction. There’s something that I’ve noticed over the past week. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting into ‘conference’ mode, or maybe this is a side effect of continuing to get everything squared away with the new flat.

The impression I get, however, is that the sooner we get to that finish line, the more things crop up to grab us by the ankles and trip us up before we cross it. Like hitting the wall only with the goal in site.

I mentioned this last week but I might have given the impression that I see a large portion of the entertainment industry through a somewhat cynical lens. I occasionally have to remind myself that the same industry that produces The Human Centipede or Jumper also produces Schindler’s List and District 9. For every Twilight, there’s A Song of Ice and Fire. You might hear a bit of Nickleback on the radio, but there’s bound to be a little Muse right around the corner. I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t hate the industry, and it’s unfair of me to paint it with a broad brush.

But there is mediocrity out there. There’s the kind of thinking that would have you subscribe to the notion that it’s okay just to get by. That being amazing is just wrapping up another client’s project, and exemplary work is the kind that brings in more business that’ll help maintain the Audi’s suspension for another six months. That’s the kind of thing I want to get away from. And as I get a bit closer to finishing a manuscript that feels like it’s got something behind it other than my hot air and swollen ego, a bit of fiction with a brain in its head and some characters that actually have a touch of depth to them, I can almost feel that mediocrity creeping up on me, trying to smother my enthusiasm and remind me that my place is not to shine among the stars but to look up at them and dream as I remain mired in the mud down in the foundations of somebody else’s palace.

It’s like spraining a toe in the last 5 meters of a 100 meter dash. Taking the last turn a bit too wide on a Formula 1 track. Being down at least one goal as the clock hits 90 minutes and there’s not a lot of stoppage time. The well-educated, reasonable, lazy, McDonalds-eating thing to do is stop. Quit. You’ve done a great deal, but now you’re just hurting yourself and you should be content in making a good effort. Pat yourself on the back, treat yourself to a rest, you’ve earned it.

Am I just beating a dead horse, here? Am I saying anything new? I’m not just talking about this post, either. What possible difference can my work make? Do I really have a shot at producing anything interesting, anything worth reading?

I’m certainly not going to find out if I quit.

This is the home stretch. The checkered flag is in sight. A few more steps, painful as they might be, and I’ll cross that finish line. And yes, my performance will get picked apart in post. There’ll be slow-motion replay of every little mistake. People with a lot more experience than me will be all too happy to point out what I could do better, what they’d have done differently and might even tell me that I should have quit long ago.

I know this is coming. I know it might not be comfortable for me, that it will feel like I’ve just caught my breath only to have somebody punch me in the gut. But I accept this. I have to. I need to be aware of the fact that what I’ve done is imperfect, that it needs help, that it’s a lump of carbon deep in the darkness of my imagination and to truly shine it needs to be placed under pressure from a lot of outside forces. It’s frightening, on a fundamental level, and potentially painful, which might be why the last couple of days have seen me putting very few words of any significance down.

I’m girding my loins. I’m seeing the Wave coming and I’m ready to catch it. I hope some of you will come along for the ride, even if it’s just to tell me how much I suck.

I’m not quitting. I’m pounding out those last 5 meters. I’m making that last turn. I’m staying ahead of the defenders and waiting to get that pass that’ll let me slip one past the keeper. And for right now, I’m done making lousy metaphors.

It would be a hell of a waste of a writer’s conference if I didn’t do any writing, after all.

Diving Right In

Jumping Ship, or Diving In

I’d really like to say, “This is a subject that requires no introduction.” It’d be a funny way to open up the subject of exposition, since a lot of stories start out with something expository. Especially in genre fiction, more often than not, the world or worlds in which the tale is set will be completely alien to the audience. While this isn’t always the case, it happens often enough that the ins and outs of good exposition are worth talking about.

There’s a method of storytelling out there called in medias res. It’s fancy Latin jargon for “diving right into the good stuff in the story.” Stories that begin this way spend little to no time on exposition. Sometimes this can be pulled off even in genre fiction. Take a look at the opening of the original Star Wars. We get a little text crawl that sets the scene a bit, telling us who the Empire & Rebellion are but not a great deal else, and then WHAMMO. The space equivelant of a beat-up cargo van is getting chased by the mighty, imposing, ball-shrinkingly intimidating hugeness of an Imperial Star Destroyer. The shot and scene are composed in such a way that, without saying another word beyond that opening text, we know just about everything we need to know about who these folks are and what they’re about.

This is an example of good exposition. As Chuck said over on Terribleminds, “[E]xposition is sometimes necessary, but it should never be a boat anchor.” Going on expository tangents is a surefire way to have people losing interest in your story. If you’re lucky, they’ll turn a few pages ahead to look for something exciting to happen, or hit the fast-forward button if it’s in a medium other than print. The classic writers of genre fiction, Tolkein and Lewis for example, could get away with long expository passages because that was the style of the day. However, even as a fan of their work, sometimes I just can’t stand reading another of JRR’s long descriptions of how Tom Bombadil’s hat looks.

Some of the best exposition out there is woven into other things that are going on. Sometimes the best way to do this is to have one character talk to another about something they don’t already know. For example you could have an human explain to an alien some odd human custom that’s become common in whatever year 20XX you’ve set your story. Then, the alien replies that the custom is strange to them because of how things are done on their homeworld. In a few lines of dialog, you’ve not only established a way in which the world has changed, but also how different the aliens are from us.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” or so we’re told. Or, as Mr. Plinkett puts it, “Don’t waste my time.” If you can find a way to get exposition out there that doesn’t feel like a chore to write, you can tell your audience more about the story without tempting them to reach for their smart phones or what have you. Because if it’s dry and boring to write, you can bet your ass it’ll be dry and boring to read.

Share some thoughts on exposition. What sort of expository passages or scenes stand out in your mind as good or bad examples? How do you get around the difficulty of creating stories in a new world? Help others help you help us all.

Or something like that.

PT: Bouncing Back

Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann

It’s been a while since I’ve put together a PT post, and this seems about the right time. Why? Because after the last week I’ve had, wallowing in self-loathing and lamenting my state of affairs, I realized there was something I desperately needed.

A swift kick in the ass.

Going through transitions in life can be taxing. Changing job descriptions, if not entire careers; moving from one domicile to another; cutting back on utilities or luxuries; getting by on basic foodstuffs as much as possible just to stretch out one’s currency. Any of these things can take a toll on a person, and having to deal with more than one at once can be harsh. A lot of negative feelings can arise from such a predicament, but those feelings are not all that different from others that you can use.

As a matter of fact, here’s a rehash of what I discussed previously in terms of using negative emotions.

Anger

I know I’ve covered using your anger previously, but invoking a Star Wars reference never gets old. Still, if something is making you furious, with fists and teeth clenched regardless of how other people are telling you how to react (doesn’t the words “Oh, you’re over-reacting” make you want to punch someone in the face?) you need to expend that energy, and preferably without damage to property or invoking personal injury lawsuits. If you’re a writer, what do you do?

Write a fight scene.

Get into the headspace of a person involved in a barroom brawl. Hell, write about someone starting said brawl. Did someone say something to a significant other you didn’t like? Is someone chatting up a friend of yours without permission? Not enough booze in your drink? Write about how it makes you feel, how the fury wells up inside you and how the sensation of wheeling around and letting someone have it right in the face touches off the kind of chair-breaking bottle-throwing grand melee unseen since the days of John Wayne.

You’ll probably feel a bit better, and nobody will be suing you.

Fear

Let’s face it. We’re all afraid of something. It could be bugs, rejection, alienation of friends, cars, bacteria, being laughed at, loneliness… I could go on. The bottom line is, sooner or later your fear is going to grab hold of you. Grab hold of it right back and go dancing.

Try a ghost story.

Something goes bump in the night. You catch an unfamiliar or unexpected motion in the corner of your eyes. The lights go out, and the shadows seem to grow to fill the empty space. Do you start sweating? Does your hand start to shake? How fast is your heart pounding? What voices do you hear? What do you imagine is lurking there in the darkness? It could just be the cat. It might be your spouse in the next room unaware that you’ve hit the light switch. Or it could be a phantasmal fiend from beyond the grave. Write it out and see where your fear takes you.

More than likely, it’s not a place as frightening as you thought it might be.

Despair

Despair, anxiety, paranoia… they’re all cut from the same cloth. “Should I have said that?” quickly becomes “I shouldn’t have said that,” which leads to “I’m an idiot for having said that.” Sure, sometimes you make a legitimate mistake and need to clean the egg from your face. Other times, something with good intentions turns out getting tossed under a steamroller paving the road to Hell. Whatever the cause, you’re left with this cloying feeling of inner doubt and depression, and you need to do something about it, otherwise it’s going to consume you.

Time to write a walk through the rain.

Rain is an evocative weather condition. The sky’s the color of gunmetal, the sun or stars hidden from view, the rain cold and relentless on the weary traveler and the wind makes sure that every surface of the body is wet. Yet people walk through it, alone with their thoughts. “What if I’m wrong? What could I have done to keep this from happening? How much have I lost, and can any of it be rescued? And what the hell am I going to do now?” Write through the thought process. Describe the rain drops, the thunder, the looks of people cozy in their warm homes or places of business, the way others are ignorant of your inner conflict. Work with the emotions. Coax them out of the shadows and into your hands where you can change them from a disability to an advantage.

Those, to me, seem to be the big three negative emotions that can come out of daily life’s trials and tribulations. My point is no less sapient now than it was then, at least in my humble opinion: When you’re wrestling with a negative emotion, the temptation can be to put off writing while you deal with ‘important’ stuff even if there’s no way you can further your cause. You’ve made phone calls, written checks and begged for ways to avoid filing for bankruptcy or shopping the local dumpsters for usable cardboard boxes that’d make fine apartments for you and your family. What are you going to do in the meantime, wallow in your self-loathing? Play more games you’ve already beaten? Pick your nose? It’s better to try and do something useful. Even if nobody else is going to see it, even if it’s just to get something off of your chest, if you are a writer then you need to write. Stay in practice. Put words on paper. Write.

It can be tough and this is advice that more often than not I need to follow myself. But it bears repeating which is why I’ve essentially repeated myself here.

But, really, what the hell else am I going to do?

Describing Description

Landscape - Odessa Crater, Courtesy David Byrne

I know a few people who don’t agree with Confused Matthew‘s opinions on movies, even if he has good points to make. But one thing that took me aback was how much I appreciated him pointing out that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t really do much in a narrative sense. Oh, it was masterfully shot and the attention to detail is peerless. This is Kubrick we’re talking about, after all. But the first ten minutes of the film have been described by Matthew as the following:

“…Landscape.”

He shows a shot from the film and says that no less than a dozen times. Kubrick is describing the Dawn of Man, but he goes to laborious lengths doing so. It’s a good way to illustrate how not to over-illustrate, especially when it comes to words. But can you get away with telling a story that has no description whatsoever?

Let’s find out.

Don’t Describe

Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is a legendary author for a good reason. He practically defined the high fantasy genre as we know it. And he did so with rather large novels. Most of his books are spent describing the people, places and events of Middle-Earth, and a lot of that description is drier than a Jacob’s Creme cracker in the middle of Death Valley. He got away with it because he was pretty much the first in his field.

Your story needs to move. Your characters need to speak, act, shoot bullets from their guns and knock boots. Events need to change history, shape nations and alter landscapes. How are these things going to happen if you stop to describe something? That’s right, they won’t.

It’s like one of those big, nasty sharks that prowl the deep waters. If the story stops moving, it’ll suffocate. It won’t happen quickly, either. It’ll creep up on you. Stop to describe someone or something, even for a moment, and the next thing you know the story’s belly-up. Dead in the water.

Don’t Not Describe

Orson Scott Card

Let’s talk about another relatively well-known author: Orson Scott Card. He doesn’t describe shit. His writing moves right along from one point to the next without stopping to even flesh out his characters in words other than the occasional mention of an ethnicity.

Can you get away with this? Maybe, if you’re dealing with a mainstream or even slightly known genre. If you’re trying to pioneer a concept, get something new off of the ground, chances are you’re going to be inventing something. And your readers won’t know what this invention is unless you describe it.

If you must describe something, be sparing in your description. Get the basics down and move on. Like everything else you write, the less you linger on something the better. You don’t want conversations or chase scenes or lovemaking to bang on and on for page after page. The same goes for your descriptions. Remember that whole “story belly-up in the water” image I conjured a couple paragraphs ago? Keep that in mind.

Description or Lack Thereof is Irrelevant

Remember that a good story is about something. You probably have a theme or purpose in mind for it. If you don’t, you probably should. Once you do there needs to be one cardinal question asked, not just about descriptions but also about dialog, action, even jokes. How does it serve the story as a whole?

Sure, your house made out of bread might be awesome. But what does it matter in the grand scheme of your tale? Why should the reader care? If they shouldn’t, leave it out. But if you want to try something new, and a reader may not have a frame of reference, use a sparing description. Illustrate the basics with a few choice words and then get the hell on with the good stuff.

The more focused you are on the important things in your narrative, the more focused your reader will be. And everybody will be happier as a result.

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