Posts Tagged ‘The Writer At Work

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?

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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.

26
Mar
10

Author Toolbox: The Knife Test

This is the first of what I hope will be an informative series on the author toolbox. The little mental story tricks I use when I write to help achieve desired effects.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The knife test is something I put to all my characters. Nerd that I am, the idea comes from an anime called One Piece, which is just about the greatest show ever. If you can get past its cartoony nature and corny humor there is an amazing story there.

So, in the show there’s a character named Zoro who wants to be the greatest swordsman in the world. Around the end of season one, he comes across the actual greatest swordsman in the world, a man named Mihawk. Now, Zoro KNOWS he is too short for this ride, but he knows he might never get this chance again, so he challenges Mihawk to a duel. (Because, of course, the only way to be the greatest swordsman in the world is to beat the guy who’s already at the top.)

Mihawk refuses at first, but then he sees how determined Zoro is, so he agrees to fight, but only with a small dagger. Zoro is insulted, you’re going to fight swords with a dagger? Mihawk says the dagger is all he needs. They fight, and Zoro goes all out, but is defeated in one stroke. Mihawk stops with his tiny dagger lodged in Zoro’s chest. After the strike, they stand there, Mihawk’s dagger in Zoro’s chest, and Mihawk says,  “This dagger is an inch from your heart. Why don’t you step back? Do you want to die?”

Zoro looks him straight in the eye and says, “If I were to take even one step back, I’d never be able to stand before you again.”

Mihawk says, “Yes, it’s called losing.”

And Zoro answers, “That’s why I can’t step back.”

That’s the knife test. When the knife is scraping your heart and you can either step back, give up, and live, or step forward, not give up, not turn away from your goals, and probably die, what do you do? It’s the ultimate test of conviction, and all my main characters have to pass it, and I have to understand (and more importantly, make the reader understand) why. I put my characters through this test in the initial world building stages, and then again over and over throughout the novel. I keep making them prove that they mean what they say. Because it’s not enough for Miranda to be dutiful, she has to prove that she will put herself on the line for her duty over and over in a dozen different ways. She has to face that dagger over and over again, and always give the same answer, always step forward.

I admire conviction, I think everyone does, and I love it in characters, both the ones I write and the ones I look for in other stories. The knife test gives me a vehicle to show off that conviction. I don’t just say “Character X cares about Y more than his life”,  I make him prove it over and over again.  Though, of course, I try not to actually kill the character, because then the story would be over! But it doesn’t really matter. We all know the hero isn’t going to actually die, but we love seeing how close he or she cuts it and, even better, how on earth they’re ever going to get out of this mess. The knife test is just a tool, a mental construct to help frame tension needed for character development.

Every writer has their own tricks, this is one of mine. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting!

06
Mar
10

Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel

So I am neck deep in untangling the final mess of my third book for its April 1 deadline (so very tempted to send a 1 page manuscript ending with “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” but I don’t think my editor would see the April Fools day humor in that), and I’ve been thinking about revelations. This book has me bringing out a lot of my big guns: world secrets, power players, secret histories, truths that could break up the primary relationships of the series, all that sort of good stuff! But revealing all of this to the reader in a way they can understand and care about has been something of a challenge.

The author is in a unique, omnipotent position when it comes to their work. They literally know everything. If they haven’t thought about it, then it doesn’t exist. If they made something one way and later change their minds, then the thing changes to suit whatever the author needs it to. It’s tempting to see this limitless power as limitless fun, but really it’s a constant liability. I have to think of literally everything, and not just what I care about, but stuff other people will notice is missing if I leave it out (like how my characters never seem to eat, which I mentioned in an earlier post and have taken steps to correct by adding 200% more food to book 3). But more important than crass details like daily caloric intake or the fact that no one poops in fantasy (don’t think about that one too hard) is the information you actually want your reader to know.

At a very simple level, books are the revelation of information over time. Stuff happens which causes other stuff to happen, and you keep reading to find out what. Revealing what happens next in a way that keeps the reader reading is the hallmark of good writing, and there are as many ways to do it as there are books. Great writers make it look so simple, but as with all things worth doing, it’s way harder than it looks. For example, in my first book I had these huge, deep world secrets that were SOO COOOL (to me), and I didn’t want to tip my hand too soon. I wanted the mystery to peek out of the background, tempting people to keep reading. So I dropped subtle hints, so subtle, in fact, that no one got them.  My editor/agent/readers kept telling me to make the book bigger, deeper. I was indignant! I was deep! Didn’t they see all this amazing stuff I was doing in the background? Well, no. I saw it, because I knew it was there. If other people were going to see it, I was going to have to make the writing on the wall a little larger.

Continue reading ‘Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel’

26
Jan
10

Writer’s block is a writer’s best friend

Today I’m going to talk about writer’s block.   For me it’s like the honesty of a friend telling you something you don’t want to hear.  You can always depend on your friends to tell you when you screwed up.  Right?  Writer’s block is like that for me.  I know some of you are probably thinking, “Huh?” Others are thinking I must be a glutton for punishment.

Any writer can tell you that writer’s block is not fun. Actually it’s about as far from fun as it gets. But for me writer’s block doesn’t mean I’ve run out of ideas, it means I’ve run down the wrong road. Writer’s block is my muse’s way of telling me, “The bridge is out! Go back, stupid!”

Forced plotting and putting words into your characters mouths is (at least for me) the surest way to contract a nasty case of writer’s block. Listen to your characters. If what’s coming out of their mouths sounds forced or out of character — watch out, you’re about to step into a whole mess of trouble.

Bugs Bunny knew what he was talking about when he said, “I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

When I get writer’s block, that means I didn’t take that left turn. It means I didn’t see the signs; or if I did, I ignored them. It means I didn’t listen to my characters. But most of all (and worst of all) it means my muse isn’t going to let me go one word further until I find out where and how I took that wrong turn (aka screwed up), and go back and fix it.

So sit back, be quiet, and listen to your characters. Most times they know the story better than you do.

15
Jan
10

the writerly life

First off, hooray for all our new posters! Makes me smile all over to read all this awesome.

Sorry for my absence, I can only offer the pathetic “things have been hectic” excuse. But life has been moving faster than I can catch it, lately. However, tomorrow things really ramp up, for tomorrow my baby comes home! After 24 days in the NICU, I am so pumped to finally get him home. This also comes at a time when I’m editing a book, trying to finish a book, doing some freelance CSS work for extra cash, AND trying to keep my house from falling down around my ears. Life! It’s up to my neck.

When I quit my job to be a writer full time, I had these lovely visions of long, quiet hours filled with the clatter of keys as ideas flew from my fingers unhindered by the mundane realities of the work-a-day world. As you can probably guess, it didn’t really turn out that way.  Moving writing from hobby to full time doesn’t make the words come any easier, or make the plot knots less sticky. It just gave me more time to fret about them, and less, because now I’m on a schedule. Don’t get me wrong, writing full time is a blessed, wonderful, luxurious thing. However, in my fantasies I forgot to account for the whole “life marching on” part of life marching on.

What I’m trying to say is that so far, after 6 months of working for myself as a writer, this is what I’ve learned about the writerly life:

  1. I spend about the same amount of time being distracted and off target as I did at my real job.
  2. I am no smarter, wittier, or more eloquent than I was before I dedicated my life to art.
  3. The internet is still interesting, chores still need to get done, and people still call at the absolute worst time.
  4. The first draft of any novel will still suck, whether I wrote it in the mornings before work or spent six hours a day on it.
  5. I do not necessarily get more words now, writing for 6 hours, than I did before I got my agent, when I wrote for 2.
  6. Despite all of the above, the flashes of awesome, of being able to really dig into a scene when you’re going strong without watching the clock, make everything worth it.

I imagine all of these will continue to be true after the kid comes home, only in shorter bursts punctuated by loud screaming. However, I am ready! Bring it on.