Posts Tagged ‘nuts and bolts of storytelling

13
Aug
10

when it all comes back around

First off, my official website and blog are live! Yay! More Rachel than you could ever want, but hey, there’s free chapters of my books, so there’s compensation!

In the meanwhile, when I’m not wasting time making the links on my blog the right shade of orange, I’m slogging through novel 4. I’ve posted about middles before, but seriously, it’s the worst part of any novel for me. In the beginning everything is shiny. I always know how my novels start! And at the end, you’ve got climax fever and everything’s exploding, plenty of action to drive you along. But the middle is where you’ve got all those pesky details to nail down between point A and point Awesome-it’s-the-end. I’ve never really been a details person, and so middles are where I flounder. Lately, however, I’ve realized what I think may be a fundamental truth about series writing that’s making things easier. It goes like this: though I’m on book 4 of 5, there are several things I still don’t know about the series. I have some ideas about how things will go, but I don’t have scene by scene breakdowns or anything. Still, I’m not worried. You see, all though my books, through the 4 middles I’ve now written, I’ve been dropping threads for myself. Mentioning little things about the world that may have had no real bearing on the story that was happening right then, but they added flavor and, as I get closer and closer to the point where I have to tie everything together, they provide much needed spots for the knots to go.

To give an example, my husband watches a lot of Stargate SG1. Like, a lot a lot, I think he’s on season 11. One of the things he’s constantly raving to me about the show is how it will use things from waaay back, like season 1, as major plot points for later. When he first told me this, I was so impressed. What amazing foresight those writers had! Dropping hints so early about things that become important later! It’s genius! But, now that I’m managing the book equivalent of a five season show, I am slightly less dazzled, because I’m doing the same thing. See, I didn’t know I was going to be writing five books, and I’m pretty sure the SG1 writer team didn’t know they were going to be making 11 seasons of the show. I will bet cash money they didn’t sit around in the writing room in season 1 saying “Ok, be sure to lay out all these hints for season 6, 9, 10, and 12” any more than I looked at my draft for book 1 thinking “Ok, I’ve got to put down all these clues for book 4…” No, I was thinking (and I’m pretty sure the Stargate team was as well) “I will make this story interesting my world deep by throwing in all this cool shit!” And low and behold, when more story was requested, that cool shit, all the interesting asides and chance comments on the world, then became vital future plot points.

Once I realized this about my own fiction and Stargate, I started seeing it everywhere. That’s because it works both for the writer and the audience. People, especially fiction readers, loooove finding patterns. They love it when something mentioned in book 1 becomes the key plot turn in book 4. As a reader, it makes you feel smart, special, like you and the author are in on some awesome secret. Everyone likes feeling special. Even better, they remember that awesome thing you mentioned in book 1 as soon as it becomes important in book 3 and feel very clever for doing so, but they don’t remember the 5 other cool hints you dropped around the one you used. It’s like the opposite of the Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech. People remember the good bits, and the ones that never really took are interred with your bones.

From an ego standpoint, I would like to think that some alligator brain in the bottom of my subconscious had everything planned from the beginning. Maybe it did, but so far as my conscious mind is concerned, I’ve always tended to treat my novels like soup pots. Anything that could possibly make the soup better without ruining the flavor goes in. It is often sheer serendipity that later, when I’m stuck in a middle with no idea how I’m going to jump this plot hole, I look back and there’s my answer, danging from the loose ends of book 2. Sometimes you just have to throw it all in and see what sticks.

So, do you ever notice/participate in this phenomenon?

PS: Has anyone else encountered this monstrosity? (har har useewhutididthere) Seriously, though, you tell me. Is this a victory for the popularity of urban fantasy or the embarrassing, corporate cash-out tail end? I am both strangely attracted and utterly repelled.

04
Aug
10

if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory

I have not posted in a long time, and I offer a solid dogeza in apology (see below).

So my series, starting with The Spirit Thief, comes out on October 1, followed by The Spirit Rebellion in November and The Spirit Eater in December. So many books! But don’t they make such a lovely little set? Anyway, while all this is going on, I am busy at work on Book 4 in the Legend of Eli Monpress, and I am running into some interesting situations. See, back when I wrote the Spirit Thief, I knew it was the first in the series, but I didn’t actually know much about the series other than how it ended, which was very far from where it began. Over the course of three books I’ve had to get a lot more specific and detailed.  This has caused a few problems because I’ve never written a series before and I was wholly unprepared for the level and amount of detail I ended up having to keep track of. Thousands of little decisions made over years of writing that have to be kept in mind because, in the world of the books, they are now history, irrefutable, and completely un-fudge-able should I find them inconvenient later down the line.

Some of this was alleviated by my wiki, especially the dry, bookkeeping kind of detail, but more and more as I dig into book 4 I find myself face to face with decisions I made about my characters months or years ago, and worse, decisions I made and now don’t remember making. I remember hearing a story about J.K. Rowling writing her later HP books and having to go into bookstores to buy the earlier ones to check things because she didn’t remember what she’d written. At the time I first heard this, I thought it was stupid. What kind of author doesn’t remember what she writes? But I own Ms. Rowling an apology, because I’m now in the same boat (albeit a far smaller, less grand boat). I have an ARC of the Spirit Thief on my desk at all times that I use to constantly check things, and search is my favorite feature in Word. But as my story grows, the process of self checking gets trickier and trickier. But though I do check all the time, I often find that, especially for things like character decisions (who did what when), my first intuition is the right one. I’ve been wondering lately why this is. Does some deep part of me remember? Am I clairvoyant? That would be nice, but I think the actual reason if far simpler and, by extension, more reliable.

One of my favorite ladies ever, Judge Judy, always says that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory. Tuns out this is equally applicable whether you’re suing your neighbor over a fence on TV or writing fiction. My characters are the most interesting part of writing for me, and I put a great deal of thought and consideration into keeping them true to themselves. Sometimes this has the unfortunate side effect of characters bucking the plot when it asks them to do something they wouldn’t do, but while that can be annoying (read catastrophic while it’s happening), I think my books have always been better for it. But another lovely, unforeseen side effect of this is that, by staying true to my characters, telling the truth of my people, as it were, I don’t have to have a good memory about what they’ve done in the novels. I just think of the situation in question and I know how they would have reacted, even if I can’t remember exactly how I wrote it.

What have I learned from all this? That it’s worth the time to really know your characters for practical reasons as well as artistic ones. Because sometimes you end up writing a fourth book when you only really expected to write one, and you should always build on a firm foundation. Especially if you’re like me and Diet Coke has eaten your memory and you need all the help you can get.

Mmmmm… diet coke…

22
Jun
10

The Voices in My Head

I, too, have been lax in posting. However, I can now happily report that last week I finished the sequel to Blood Law, which is tentatively titled Blood Secrets. (As with all things in publishing, the title is subject to change.) I handed it over to my editor on Thursday and was looking forward to a nice relaxing vacation, at least a week, before breaking out the white board and Post-It Notes to plot the next project.

The voices in my head had other ideas.

Don’t misunderstand me. The voices were very nice. They actually slept in and waited a full twenty-four hours before demanding my attention like the demons they literally are.

I forced myself to ignore them for the weekend and take a little time to bask in the glory of having finished my second book. However, the more I ignored them, the louder they shouted. Now, instead of spending the week organizing my office after a massive relocation effort, I find myself standing in front of a white board with a dry-erase marker in one hand and a pad of Post-It Notes in the other.

It sounds crazy, and perhaps I am, but even though this new project will be written in first person POV, I “hear” the other characters interacting with the protagonist and all have distinctive voices. With Blood Law and Blood Secrets, which are written in third person with multiple POV characters, it seemed natural to “hear” these other characters and give them a view-point. For the new project, however, it seems really odd.

As a reader, I like both first and third person, as long as the characters are engaging, and have even seen second person POV used effectively in A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. As a writer, I think I like working in third a little better than first, but I’m comfortable writing in both. I try to pick the point of view that will carry the most impact for the story. Although, there are times when a central character simply steps forward and says, “This is my story and no one’s telling it but me.” That would be the scenario I’m facing with this new project.

So, my fellow writers, do you have a preferred POV from which to work? Do you switch them up depending on what best suits the story? Have you ever had a character dictate the POV of the story? Am I the only one who hears voices?

24
May
10

keeping the balls in the air

A few days late, but I was overwhelmed this weekend launching my website! www.rachelaaron.net! This is also why my first three blog entries are magic district cross posts, no time to write three new ones! But I promise there will be new and unique content forthcoming. In the meanwhile, enjoy the pretty rollovers!

Everyone knows the famous Checkov quote, “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third.” It’s one of the best bits of writing advice I’ve ever heard, but in my line of work, writing adventure fantasy, I’ve had to make a few adjustments… “If there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third, then fired again in the fifth. By act 9 they should have morphed into cannons, and by act 13 the main character will be dual wielding them as planet destroying deathstars with hilts.”

Ok, that’s a little over the top, but hopefully you get my point. Lots of times my stories start with a magical system, some new and interesting way for the world to work. As soon as I have this in mind, I start working on a way to break it (or letting my husband break it for me). I think of this as player character testing. You know in role playing games how players will exploit every tiny trick of the system to get more power? I think this is the natural human reaction to constraints, which is what all systems are at their roots – power limitations. So when I get my characters and sit them down in a new world, the first thing I do is try to think how they will break the system, or at least abuse it horribly. It’s the best sign they’re acting like people and not like cardboard.

The down side of this is that with every new book, things get a little more out of hand. Characters need progression — new challenges, bigger stakes. Those secret power dueling pistols you showed in book 1 are old hat by book 3. You have to go bigger, cleverer, and the threat has to get bigger as well. And if you start big, like I did, then when you reach book 4, where I am now, things are REALLY big. That’s why I thank any power who’s listening that I made a plan at the start of this. So while things will get up to universe altering changes by book 5, hopefully they won’t get stupid.

That’s my biggest fear, really. I’ve seen so many series that start off amazing and just get stupid at the end, mostly because the characters have outgrown their world. They’re simply too powerful, nothing’s a challenge anymore. So I deliberately set my power scale at the very beginning in the hopes of avoiding this problem. I wanted big, dangerous, flashy, interesting, but not unbelievable. The important thing is that I haven’t left my main set of powers, my dueling pistols. Sure they’ve gotten bigger and crazier, but I haven’t had to change the rules of my world to accommodate my now very powerful, late series characters, and I never intend to.

Of course, we’ve still got 1 more book to go…

30
Apr
10

Author Toolbox: the three hooks

One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my writing is excess flab.  I have a bad habit of putting in scenes that I like (important, wonderful, fantastically written scenes) just because I like them, and not because that’s where they should actually go (or be in the novel at all). This led to really big, unsellable books full of tension killing, scared cow scenes that went nowhere. It took me a lot of editing (and a lot of bad feedback) to finally learn my lesson: just because a scene is good does not mean it has a place in your novel. The good ship book is a small vessel. There’s no room for scenes that don’t pull their weight. But I’m an author. I generally like everything I write on some level (otherwise, why would I write it?) So how do I know what DOES belong?

To combat this problem, I created a checklist I call “the three hooks”. Whenever I am planning a novel, the first thing I do is write out everything that happens. If I don’t know what happens, this is when I figure it out. Some authors can just get an idea and go, and I do that a lot, too, but in the end novels always come back to their essence: a pile of scenes leading the reader from the beginning to the end. Once I have this pile of scenes, either in finished or outline form, I take each scene and I apply a set of standards. For the scene to pass, it must:

  • Advance the story
  • Reveal new information
  • Pull the reader forward

Without all three of these elements, a scene, no matter how good or beloved, is just wasted words. A scene that does not advance the story, like a flashback revealing character information that is not pertinent to the story, may be brilliantly written, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not reveal new information, say a talking head recap scene, may be chock full of snappy dialog, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not pull the reader forward, say a break in the narrative where everyone is happy and all their needs are met, may be very cathartic for the author, but it does less than nothing for the book. In fact, I’d say a scene like that would give you negative progress. Resolved tension leads to put down books, and that is not what we want!

These hooks don’t have to be obvious (in fact, the more creatively you can hide them, the better things get), but they do have to be there to keep the story rolling. These are the hooks that keep your reader reading, the tiny little claws of interest you constantly need to wiggle into the reader’s brain to keep them turning pages. If every scene in your novel moves the plot ahead, reveals new and important information, and gives the reader a reason to turn the page and move on to the next scene, then you’ve got a book that a reader can not put down, and that is what it’s all about.

19
Apr
10

100%, 100%

Today I thought I would talk about something it took me 3 novels to learn in the hopes that I can make other people’s lives easier.  I’m a pretty cautious person. I hate gambling, I hate using things if I only have a few left, I hate taking a risk with my money or time or valuables. This caution unfortunately transmits into writing. Say I’m writing a novel, and suddenly I have this great idea. Like, amazing idea, an idea that can carry a series. What do I do with this idea? Or say I had a fantastic world secret. I’d drop tiny hints, never show my hand. Used to be, whenever my brain tossed these gems my way, I would save them, play it safe. After all, I don’t want to put all my ideas in one basket, or tip my secrets too soon.

Back when I was first submitting The Spirit Thief, the criticism I got the most often was that I needed more. More secrets, more world, more cool stuff. This was very hard for me. I had so much cool stuff for the book, but I was holding onto it. After all, these were amazing ideas/secrets, I needed time to set them up properly, I couldn’t just waste them on the first book in a series! But as I got the same criticism over and over again, I finally realized that, if I wanted to WRITE all those books I was saving ideas for, I’d have to make THIS book a lot cooler. So I threw caution to the wind (or, more accurately, released my deathgrip on caution slowly and painfully before lightly placing it on the window sill) and went all in. I stuffed every cool idea I could into The Spirit Thief. I dropped big hints at the world secrets, laid everything out like a Sunday Las Vegas Buffet, lobster and all.

And it worked. Suddenly, everyone really liked my book. They wanted to read more, and so I got a chance to write a second book. And even better, despite all the ideas I crammed into the first book, I still had plenty of awesome secrets and ideas.

What I’m trying to say is that, unlike most everything else in the world, writing does not benefit from caution. Ideas are not a finite resource. In fact, the more secrets and ideas you use, the more you have. Readers read to be entertained, so give them everything. Give them fireworks and grand drama and lobster and the whole three ring circus. Don’t hold back with your novels, don’t save your ideas for later.  Spend them. Use everything you have like you’ll never write another book again. It doesn’t matter, you’ll have more ideas, better ideas. But to really write a book that will thrill and surprise, you can not be conservative or cautious. You have to give 100%, 100% of the time, because that’s what readers deserve. You are an entertainer, and whether you’re working a sidewalk or the Luxor, you have to give every performance everything you’ve got.

Break a leg!

30
Oct
09

a musical interlude

So this morning I was crusing my usual internet haunts and I saw this awesome video on Smart Bitches, which I will let speak for itself.

I promise this goes somewhere!

Continue reading ‘a musical interlude’