Monday, May 31, 2010

No Internet Makes for Bad Blogging

As the title suggests I've been without internet for close to a week now. Which has meant no blog updates. I'm going to try and get the next few done so I can post next time I find a connection, but if I'm not around do not worry. I'm just waiting to find the internet.

I hope everyone in the U.S. had a lovely holiday weekend. It rained buckets here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's All You, Baby - The Creative Process: Part 3

I'm sure you were expecting me to talk about outlines or The Story next. Quite frankly, that was my plan. But I touched on something last post I thought should be expanded.

As writers we like to talk about the creative process as if it's something that happens to us. The characters "act in ways I didn't expect". The story "goes off on a tangent I never saw coming". (If this hasn't happened to you yet, trust me - it will.) We say these things because that is usually how it feels. But the reality is different.

For better or worse every aspect of our stories/books/novels are all in our heads. The characters, setting, plot, story, all the twists and turns and reveals; they're all in there. There is no outside entity whispering in our ear, no muse gracing us with inspiration.

There's just us talking to ourselves.

Here's the tricky thing. Our brains our complex and teasing something out of our subconscious (where our stories like to sleep) can be difficult. I have offered the one method that works really well for me: asking questions. But for various reasons that method might not work so well for you.

You might get stuck in "I don't know what questions to ask"-ville. Or you might ask a lot of questions and just get silence in return. This is because training your subconscious to let go of the ideas percolating in the depths takes time. And not everyone has the same triggers.

With that in mind let me mention a few other things that may help with the creative process.

1) Music

This one can be tricky because it's easy to get sucked into finding "inspirational" music and ignoring the actual work of writing. However, music is powerful. Finding a track that reflects a character or a scene or the story in general may be just the thing to get the gears turning. (I tend to find this tends to work best when it happens spontaneously. When I hear something on the radio and think "OMG!!11! That would be the perfect theme song for so-and-so!!1!" When I spend writing time searching for music I'm not nearly as successful at finding something appropriate.)

2) The Interview

This goes back to asking questions of your character. But sometimes the formality of it is enough to shake things up. I will say this method doesn't work too well with strong silent types. Or anti-heroes. They tend to not give answers that are easily interpreted.

3) Free-writing

There are different ways to go about this. One is to just start writing at what you think is the beginning of your character's story and see what happens. Or you can write about the characters childhood. Or take a character and put them in a situation where they have to do something they wouldn't normally. For instance, tell your villain he has a save a child. Or tell your hero they have to kill a child/family member. These things may have nothing to do with the actual story but writing the scene can give you insight into why and how your characters do what they do. (Does the villain have a soft spot? Or maybe he only saves a child because he thinks it has some future use.)

4) Journaling

This is a little different than free-writing because it's less narrative oriented. I started developing a space-opera idea a few years back and I wrote extensive journals trying to figure out what all the moving parts were. I had a main character. I had the inciting incident, but I didn't know what happened after that. So I wrote page after page of journals, talking about Cecily and her background and motivation and where she was and what she might do from there. Some days I kept going from where I'd left off the day before. Some days I started over from the beginning. Eventually a story began to emerge. The difference between journaling and free-writing (for me) is that journaling is mostly me having a conversation with myself about what I have to work with. Free-writing is more like flash fiction - hammering out a little scene/story with only a basic prompt.

Now we come back to my main point: everything you need to know about your story is in your head. You don't have to have the wind blowing from the east or your desk arranged in perfect Feng Shui balance or the precise balance of sugar and caffeine coursing through your bloodstream. It's all there.

I know, all too well, that it doesn't always feel that way. But it is. And once you know that, the rest is simple. (Not easy, just simple.) Get the idea onto paper.

What methods work well for you?

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's All About the Characters - The Creative Process: Part 2

Probably once a week over on Absolute Write there's a thread in the Novels or Basic Writing forum asking "Characters or Story First?" As a result there is a heated debate about plot-driven vs. character driven and after a while the thread balloons to fifty billion posts and either slinks off and dies or gets so hot it gets locked. But as interesting as the plot vs. characters debate is (running a close second to the ever popular Outline vs. Pantsing debate) it doesn't answer the original question.

Should you come up with characters first or the story? And the fact of the matter is (I'll bet you can see this one coming) it doesn't matter. "But," you say. "There should be an order to things! A pattern that I can follow to become the next Stephen King." First let me say that if you find that pattern, please let me know what it is. Secondly, let me repeat: it doesn't matter whether the story or the characters come first.

Here's why.

Sometimes my Shiny Idea is a bit of dialogue. Sometimes it's an image of a character or scene. Sometimes it's a concept for a story. (And by concept I mean something like "Ooh, steampunk zombie apocalypse." Yes. I am writing a novella/novel that hit me in that form. Guys aren't the only ones who write about zombies.) The point being, the creative process is not always predictable. Your Shiny Idea may not come at you the same way every time.

"Oh noes," you say. "That sounds like chaos."

Well, chickadee. It kind of is.

Here's the good news. Whether you're writing plot driven or character driven novels (and no, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive) your characters and story are connected. You will not be able to effectively develop one without the other. (You can develop characters outside of a story and vice versa but the result is frequently a big mess.)

"But this blog is clearly titled "It's All About the Characters," you point out.

Yup. That's partly me being snarky. (Imagine.) And partly because sometimes the Shiny Idea is a character. No story, just a character. Which means you have to know how to develop the character in order to know their story.

Last time I said that developing an idea was all about asking questions. That advice is still the same. But here are some specific questions you should consider when developing characters.

First, an important principle. (Insert standard disclaimer about how this is not an absolute rule.) Books are not about things happening to people. Books are about people who do things. This doesn't mean your character has to know it all or be a superhero. It does mean that good protagonists are active, not reactive.

Now. On to our questions.

The basics:
What is your character's name?
How old is he/she?
What gender/sex?
What socioeconomic niche?
What kind of demeanor does he have?
What kind of grooming/appearance?

These are things you need to know. Me telling you to ask yourself these questions does not give you permission to info-dump the answers when you first introduce the character. But those answers should help you, the author, answer the following set of questions.

What is the character for? What does he do in the story?
How will he grow? Change? Heal old wounds? Defeat his demons?
What are his flaws?
What are his strengths?
What does he know about himself?

"Wait just a flaming minute," you sputter. "How can I know what my character does in the story if I don't know what the story is?"

Let's look at that first set of questions again. When I started developing the character from the little excerpt I posted last time I started with those basic questions. Here are the answers I got.

Name: Jonas Green
Age: Late 30s
Sex: Male
Socioeconomic status: Joined the military because he was dirt poor and wanted to get out of Alabama and see the world.

Bing! Let's stop right there. See that last answer? It's got a bit of story in it. It tells me that the military was better than Jonas' prospects at home. It also told me that there was something going on that would pretty much guarantee that he left the United States.

"Well," you say. "That's just lucky. You happened to ask the right question and think of the right answer."

No. And yes. Here's the really sweet part about writing. We call this process "developing" an idea, but in reality it's more like digging for it. When you get an idea, the rest of it - the characters, the setting, the story, the conflict - is already there, buried in your subconscious. All you have to do is dig it out. And you do that by asking questions. Your brain will supply the answer. (Now, sometimes the information comes out in little chunks that you have to piece together. But that's why we call it "the creative process" and not "the easy process.")

Having a good set of questions makes a difference. But the more questions you ask the more answers you get. And I know you're thinking "This can't work all the time," but it can. Take your character and start grilling them. Find out what their fears are, if they're superstitious, if they believe in God or ghosts or aliens.

Jonas turned out to be so afraid of death (because he's a pretty horrible bastard) that he agreed to let the military reanimate his body after he died. And that right there was my story.

So. There it is. My current answer to everything is: ask freakin' questions.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Look at Me and My Shiny Ideas! - The Creative Process: Part One

I don't know exactly what it is about writers that makes us all a little narcissistic. But I have yet to run into a writer who doesn't like to talk about how they write. I am no exception. I love to talk about not just what I write but how I get there. All the little tricks and motivators that keep me moving forward on a project.

I haven't yet gone through the whole creative process beginning to end. So, I figured now was as good a time as any and what better place to start than at the beginning or The Shiny Idea.

There are two main questions that beginning writers ask about ideas. 1) How/where do I get an idea from? 2) How do I turn my idea into a story?

The simple answer to the first question is: you get ideas from everything. And I mean everything. Every piece of music you listen to, every TV show or movie you watch, every book you read, every billboard you see, it all goes into your brain and gets stirred around by your creative self. Eventually something will spit itself out. Maybe it's an image or a piece of dialogue or a setting or a concept. These are all ideas and they are all formed when you absorb "stuff" from the world around you.

Some beginners fall into the trap of thinking that they must cut themselves off from outside influence in order to have "original" ideas. Here's the skinny on that concept: there are no "original" ideas. Every story has already been told a thousand times over. It's all about how it's told that makes one story unique compared to the next. Unless you want to shut yourself in a blank room with nothing to look at and nothing to listen to for the rest of your life then the world will impress "stuff" on your subconscious and you will eventually process that into an idea. Get over it and move on.

"But," you say. "Surely I should avoid anything that might be like the story I'm trying to write right now."

Wrong, cupcake. Avoiding similar material will only mean you don't understand the genre you're writing for, the strengths of the type of story you're writing, or the weaknesses and overdone elements.

"But I might absorb someone elses story and mine will just be a ripoff of theirs!"

No. Because your brain doesn't work the same way as any other persons. Period. You are unique. They are unique. Even if you latch on to something someone else has written by the time you filter that through your creative process and work it into your story it will be something different. (Not "new" or "original" because there isn't any such thing when it comes to telling stories, but certainly different.)

"All right," you say. "But how do I turn my idea into a story?"

This has a simple answer too. Ask questions. Last year I had an idea. Just a single line that popped into my head. First person POV, an opening line to what I thought might be a short story. It was this: The real drawback to being dead is the smell.

Right away I was interested. I don't know where the idea came from, why that line popped into my head but I was promptly hooked. So I started writing, trying to figure out what came next. And that meant asking questions. Who is thinking this? Why are they dead? How are they able to talk about it? The more I asked questions the more the idea grew. And grew. And grew. Until finally I had an idea for an entire novel.

"It can't be that simple. How do I know what questions to ask?" you splutter.

Ask questions about whatever you don't know about your idea. What time period is it in? Is the MC wealthy? Poor? An outcast? Is there magic? Are there gods? Is there a war going on? General conflict over a political movement? What does your MC want? What is preventing them from getting what they want? And so on.

Sometimes it takes asking questions, writing a bit, asking more questions, writing a bit before you really start to see the whole picture. With the example above I eventually wound up scrapping the line that started the idea in the first place. I replaced it with this one: They say dying's a bitch.

I then followed it with these:I can tell you right now they don't know what the hell they're talkin' about. In my experience dying is easy, even when you die messy like I did; the smell of gunpowder and hot dry dust in my nose as I tried to breathe through a chestful of blood. Painful? Fuck yeah. But easy. Like falling down.
It's the coming back that's the bitch.

Which brings me to my third point. No idea is so wonderful that it can't be better.

I liked my first idea, my first line. But once I really worked through all my questions, all the "What ifs?" implied by the initial idea, I came up with something better. (And yes, in my case "better" usually means darker, more violent and filled with swearing.) Ideas are wonderful things, but just like any other part of the creative process (rough draft, second draft, outline, whatever) they can almost always be made better.

Don't be afraid to kill off stuff that doesn't work. Even in the very beginning stages. Cut out the dead stuff and the rest will grow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Killer Logline...

...makes a great query letter.

The trick, naturally, is writing a logline. And, yes, even if you're preparing a query for a novel, spending the time to develop a logline (essentially a one or two sentence summary of your story) will be worth the effort.

I cannot guarantee I can tell you how to write the best logline. But I can give you some pointers on what you need to look for.

Approach number one. Break it down by components. (NOTE: this method I only have partial notes regarding the example given by the speaker. It's a wee bit rocky in transition but should give you the basic idea.)

Title: The Matrix is an...
Genre: action-thriller about...
Character/Protagonist: a computer programmer by day, hacker by night...
Storyline/Setup: who discovers reality is just an elaborate deception...
Complications: and when pursued by agents of the the machines who control humanity...
Theme: he must find the courage to become the hero he was destined to be.

So, that's pretty straight forward. Of course figuring out your own logline is the real bitch. But trust me. Breaking it down into the individual components like that is not quite as hard as you think. The real trick is to focus on each element individually. Find the phrase that really sums up the protagonist. Figure out the essence of the complications facing him/her. Then, once you have all the parts laid out, work on fitting them together into a cohesive whole.

Remember, you want to have one or two sentences total when you're finished. And when you're finished you should have the core of your story right there. Which makes writing the rest of the query letter (I'm unpublished and seeking representation for my 80k book, etc, etc.) not nearly as difficult. At least, that's the idea.

All right. On to approach number two.

(NOTE: This info is taken from the brilliant book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. The genius in this approach is entirely his. Go buy his book.)

Snyder believes there are four must have elements for a killer logline.

1) Irony. This is the hook in a really good logline. Look at the example in approach number one. Neo is a computer programmer living in cubicle-ville who turns out to be a bad-ass superhero. Ironic, yes? That's the idea.

2) A compelling mental picture. The logline needs to give the reader a strong visual. Again, it's all about finding the hook. Give them something they can see. You might also think about this as giving them something to identify with, a common ground with your protagonist.

3) Audience and cost. Again, this really boils down to giving the agent/editor something to identify with. You want them to recognize your protagonist and know that he/she will appeal to a specific readership. This means finding the right details to communicate who your protagonist is and what they're about. "Cost" - which is really about location - in this case can help you pin down genre/setting. Is it a drama taking place in a small town? A thriller that covers all five continents? An action-adventure in space? Pin it down and fit it into your logline.

4) A killer title. You need to include the title in the logline and it needs to say something about the project in question. A good title will really make the logline. Why? Because a good title will likely include/accent one of the other parts of the logline.

Finally, you'll need to test your logline. Snyder tested his loglines on strangers. Seriously. Anytime they would start to lose interest, start checking their watch he'd make a mental note that was an area he needed to work on. Not all of us are that bold (although it sure beats testing them on family) but the principle is sound. Find someone and ask them if this would make them want to read the book. If they say no, ask why not.

If you can get your story wrapped up in a single sentence or two that's all you'll need for the query. (I know they say you can do a small paragraph, but remember, less is usually more when it comes to a query.) Fill in the other information, insert the logline where appropriate and there you go.

Simple, yes? Let me know how it works out.