Friday, July 11, 2014

BLOCKS AND DISTRACTIONS

Try Miuex
The topic of "writer's block" comes up pretty regularly in any forum or discussion group about writing.  There are always some who claim its a fiction (even some very famous authors such as Terry Pratchett who quipped “There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write”).

Yet anyone who has written knows that there are times that arise when you have a hard time thinking of what to do next or even start working.  The reasons for this can be quite varied, and I've written about the topic of writer's block in the past, but there's an aspect of it I'd like you to consider.

I'm going to assume you're really a writer, not someone who pretends to be one but has written nothing, not someone who wants to write but has never finished a project, but one that actually writes and has completed works.

If you're sitting and looking at a sheet of blank paper or empty screen and nothing is coming to you, sit back a moment.  Writing isn't only about words on the page.  To write, you first have to know, to feel, to experience, and to think.  What comes out of you onto that page comes from within, and that stock of ideas and feelings has to be filled.

A writer is always writing.  There's never an hour that goes by for a true writer where they aren't at some level working.  That work can take a lot of forms, but often its considering ideas, shaping concepts, moving plots forward then rejecting the ideas, and so on.  When you aren't actually at the keyboard or with a pen in your hand, you're still working on your book.

I'm not looking forward to the scene with the leeches
And often, that work can be at a level below your consciousness.  C.S. Forester wrote many novels, including African Queen and the Horatio Hornblower series.  He wrote a little book called The Hornblower Companion which has maps and information on the series, but it also has essays and thoughts on writing and what he was going through as he worked on the books.

In the Companion, Forester compares his book ideas to a log thrown into a bay.  He wrote that he'll come up with a concept - say, Horatio Hornblower the incredibly competent but self-doubting captain - and then pushes it to the back of his head.  Then later on he'll dredge it out to see what has grown on that log thrown in the bay.

Weeds, barnacles, anemone, etc will latch on to it, and like those various things the raw idea of the story has grown and expanded in his mind without consciously focusing on it.  Ideas can be like that, and as an author, your ideas are doing that even as you do other things.  While you play with the kids or feed the cat or mow the lawn or work at your day job, all the things you do in your life, impressions and ideas are attaching themselves to your brain.

And as a writer, your brain will direct those impressions and ideas to stories and characters.  That image you saw in the forest as you drove by, the expression on that boy's face as he played with his toy, the smell from that restaurant, the story your grandmother told you when you visited.  All of those things combine to bring new life to old ideas.

So that "writer's block" may not be a block at all.  When you aren't writing, you're still writing.  You are just gathering energy and fuel to drive your creative process when you put the words on the page.  So don't be too overwhelmed when you come to a tough point and have to stop, or have to do other work in your life.  Distractions aren't necessarily bad for you.

In fact, the distractions you face can often bring new life and fresh perspectives to your work.  If all you ever did was type or scribble on paper, where on earth would you learn the experiences and impressions that you use to write your book?  Embrace life, and all it brings, and direct that to your craft.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SPEED KILLS

"Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."
-Elmore Leonard

Take in the scenery
One of the best things any writer can learn is patience in their writing.  Most of us have ideas, scenes, and plot points we want to get to, and sometimes getting there takes more time than we want to give it.

This haste can take a lot of forms.  One such example is rushing to get too much description of a character into the story at once, so you can move on to the parts you really want.  Its one thing to write a detective novel and give a block of text like this:
The old man's head was small and almost perfectly round under its close-cut crop of white hair. His ears were too small and plastered too flat to the sides of his head to spoil the spherical effect. His nose also was small, carrying down the curve of his bony forehead. Mouth and chin were straight lines chopping the sphere off. Below them a short thick neck ran down into white pajamas between square meaty shoulders. One of his arms was outside the covers, a short compact arm that ended in a thick-fingered blunt hand. His eyes were round, blue, small and watery. They looked as if they were hiding behind the watery film and under the bushy white brows only until the time came to jump out and grab something. He wasn't the sort of man whose pocket you'd try to pick unless you had a lot of  confidence in your fingers.
That's pretty standard for mystery writing, because specific details of appearance and clothing are critical to the plot and information a reader wants to try to solve the case.  And in the case of Red Harvest (the excellent Dashiell Hammett book that is an excerpt from) the writer is a detective, giving a detective's view of the scene.  This is what his character sees and thinks about.

However, if you're not writing a detective novel, this kind of descriptive block is not just unwelcome, but actually distracting.  Many readers will skim over it, which is the last thing you want as a writer - why put all that effort into things your customers ignore - but it has a deeper problem.  If your reader ignores part of what you've written, they have decided its not relevant or important to the story.  And it probably isn't.

Fifty Shades of what??
Another form of haste is to brush past scenes you don't care about as much to get to the "good parts" you really want to write.  Whether its the kissing scenes you run past to get to the action or the action you brush past to get to the kissy bits, or some other pattern (dialog, setting the scene, character development, etc), as a writer you want to slow down and think about this.

First off, if what you're writing is boring you... its going to bore your reader, too.  Trust Elmore Leonard on this: don't write the parts people skip.  If you can't even keep your own interest up, why would any reader pay attention?

Second, you need to find a way to make that part interesting or a way to work around it.  I know its hard sometimes to focus on the parts you aren't most fond of, but that's where the real challenge and skill of writing comes in.  See that description block of text up there?  Usually that kind of thing is called an "info dump" where the author just piles all the information needed on the reader like a bucket of lego and pieces go everywhere.

But Dahsiell Hammett was a master of language, and he found ways to make the descriptions engaging and fascinating.  Its technically a broken rule, but he broke it so skillfully and intriguingly, readers don't care.  He could have said the old man had a small round head and watery eyes, but the way he described the detective's client told you much about him and made him memorable.

Slow down, focus on what you're writing, and find a way to make it interesting to you and your reader, because if its a part that the book needs, you can't just push through it and hope for the best.

A third form of haste is related to the info dump mentioned above.  Sometimes people seem to think they are writing a text rather than a book.  You have hundreds of pages, tens of thousands of words to get the information you want to share to your reader.  They don't need it all at once.  You can slowly leak information like descriptions, personality, and character out to the reader over time.

Say you have a tall, dark, lovely character with striking blue eyes and toned, muscular form that moves like a dancer.  You can throw that at your reader all at once, and then hope they remember.  Or you can give them pieces through the story, illustrating the character as they develop and act.  

This makeup isn't working!
One of the most unfortunate devices writers often use is the mirror.  This trick comes from old pulp books, where they were writing short stories and had to get into the meat of the matter fast.  Louis L'Amour and Dean Cain didn't have time to slowly develop a story, so they'd have their main character look in a mirror and describe themselves.

Its always awkward.  Always.  It just doesn't work because there's nobody on earth that looks in a mirror and starts describing themselves in their thoughts.  Its so clearly a device used by a writer that it totally shocks you out of the book and reminds you that you're looking at black marks on white paper.

If you're not in a real hurry like a short story, you can drop bits of description all through the story.  Mention that she brushes her long black hair out of her eyes.  Have someone compliment her on the way she moves.  Note how the blouse clings to her toned arms.  Have her blue eyes flash with anger.  Have her reach for something other characters have a hard time getting.  You can give pieces of description all through the story so that by the end, the reader has a pretty clear picture of the character without needing it spooned to them in a single paragraph.

If you've spent hours, weeks, or even years worldbuilding, there's a real temptation to pile information about your setting onto your readers as if you're a bulldozer.  Let it go.  All that wonderful background and history, all those locations and people, all the world you built is there to act like a structure to support your story, not be the story.  You aren't writing Encyclopedia MyWorldia here, you are writing a story set in that world.

It may be fascinating that tall obelisks scattered around the world with glyphs on their sides can be used to jump from location to location - the secret of their use now long lost - but if its not part of the plot or a useful addition to the story, nobody needs to know that, yet.  Some time it might come up, sit on it and use it when its valuable, not just to share your nifty concept.

Particularly these days when writers tend to write series rather than single books, you have plenty of time to get to everything.  Tolkien didn't feel the need to explain the 9 rings, the wraiths, how Sauron was just a spirit now, where Gollum came from, the history of Gandalf's sword, and so on in his first book.  Some of it he never got to in the Lord of the Rings.  Some of it was in appendices, a lot was just in notes or showed up in the Silmarillion.

Take your time.  You have a whole book, a whole series of books, a whole career to get to all that stuff.  Be patient, and focus on telling the story well, developing characters, delivering compelling descriptions, and advancing your plot.  Don't feel pressured to get it all out at once.  You have time.

Monday, July 7, 2014

MAPPING YOUR WORLD

One of the jobs, and even joys, of writing fantasy or science fiction writing is the creation of worlds.  Worldbuilding is a tradition with inventive fiction from Jules Verne in the 19th century to the modern day, and most fantasy writers have developed their own world.

The true groundbreaker on this was J.R.R. Tolkien.  Before him, writers such as George MacDonald had created settings for stories and poems, but they were only as developed as the immediate text required.  A few sketched maps, a concept of the local area, and what sort of creatures are involved are as far as it went.

Tolkien took it much further, developing an entire world, with new races, animals, thousands of years of history, languages, cosmology, and much more.  Instead of just the setting he needed, Tolkien designed such a deep and vast world that he could refer to ancient events, locations, and peoples.  The book took on a sense of depth and weight beyond mere faerie tales and seemed almost real.

Its not necessary to build an entire world, solar system, or universe to tell a tale, but the more you create, the better you're able to make a plausible, immersive setting the reader can sink into.  Especially for fantasy, having maps can attract readers who like to think about the locations mentioned in the story and their relative locations.

But drawing a map can be intimidating, especially for a new writer.  Where do you start?  What should it look like?  Should it be done by hand?  Is there some computer program?

It takes a certain level of talent to be able to draw even a simple map but even a very crude one can be welcome in books.  Here are a few maps from some classic fantasy series:
Fafhrd & Gray Mouser's world: Fritz Lieber
The Map of Narnia: C.S. Lewis
The Young Kingdoms, home of Elric: Michael Moorcock
The Grandaddy map: Middle Earth
If you look at each of these maps, you can see some similarities that stand out.  They're all simple line art, most of them are black and white, they look hand-drawn, and are light on detail.  Even more modern maps such as these follow the same pattern: