Tag Archive for Dancing Monkey Posts

A Call for Reader Questions: Dancing Monkey 2013

If you fire up the time-machine and travel back to August of 2012, you’ll notice that about this time of year my life gets increasingly hectic. Weekends that used to be free for writing and bloggery get siphoned up by Writers Festivals, Conferences, and other work-related things. I start spending more time in airports than usual. Projects that have been ignored for a little too long start lurching their way to the top of the to-do list.My brain, known to be unreliable at the best of time, starts misfiring like you wouldn’t believe.

I’ve discovered, from hard experience, that it’s best not to set my own topics in this period. No-one is particularly interested in reading an endless cycle of well, guess how I fucked up today and seriously, me and airports, it’s like I’m cursed; I’m not particularly interested those posts either, but I know I will if I find myself ready to blog and unable to think of something.

Which brings us to this post: the beginning of the second ever Dancing Monkey Post Extravaganza series. 

Once again I’m throwing open the doors of Man Versus Bear and crowd-sourcing topics you’d like to see me tackle in the coming weeks. Give me topics. Set me challenges. Fire away with single words that can be used as a writing prompt, if you want, and I’ll store them in a file and use them to fill the empty hours when the writer-brain is willing but the thinky-brain is weak.

If you’re interested in seeing the type of things we covered in last year’s series, you can find them archived here. I’ll note that the response to John’s question about plot is still among the most visited posts I’ve ever written; I may be brain-dead for these, but I do try not to half-arse things.

So, pitch away, people. Drop you questions, words, and ideas into the comments and I’ll get things rolling in the coming weeks.

I’m Far To Easily Amused By The Phrase “ENGAGE KRESS PROTOCOL”

So my friend Nic, who scribbles a bit but doesn’t have a website, snuck a final question in on the end of the dancing monkey series:

What do you do with an idea or story that just runs out of steam far too early?

(Say many thousands of words short of what it needs)

Well, much as I’d like to say I’ve experienced this one, I’m generally an up-against-the-word-limits-can-I-have-a-few-thousand-more-please-gov’ner kind of writer. I spend half my structural redrafts trying to cut things out of my manuscripts, so should a story come in several thousand words under my approach I’d probably sing hallelujahs and weep with goddamn joy. Writing shorter is one of my goals, not a problem.

Assuming for the sake of argument (and blog post) that I did suddenly run into such a problem – say for whatever unlikely reason an editor really needed a 10k gap in an anthology filled and my pinch-hitting story only came in at 7k – I can think of a handful of things I’d try.

1) ENGAGE KRESS PROTOCOL

Named for SF writer Nancy Kress, who first described this process on her blog back in 2011. Basically she was writing a story that didn’t quite work, so her method of coming up with an alternative ending went thusly:

1) Go back to the last place you’re excited about the story (in this case, 2/3 of the way through) and toss out everything after that.

2) Think of a different, but still logical, way for a secondary character to act. Secondary characters are, by definition, not as completely delineated as the point-of-view character and so the author has some wiggle room as to how they might behave. Change something major here.

3) Return to your protagonist — how does he react to this change of behaviour in someone important to him? If nothing sparks for you, try different behaviour from the secondary character, or perhaps a different character.

I figure this works because the loss of energy in a story usually has a lot to do with writers making character choices that are sub-optimal for reasons of originality, conflict-escalation, or simply not quite living up to the story the writer is imagining.

2) THREE ACT STRUCTURE FTW

It’s rather badly maligned by writers, but the narrative architecture of the three-act structure is actually a pretty bitching blue-print for figuring out where a story has run out of energy.  When a story doesn’t work (whether it’s mine or I’m critting) I generally break out a list of key beats in every structure and map out the story accordingly.

This’ll generally reveal one of the following problems:

  • One of the steps has been ignored (IE jumping straight from the end of the second act to the climax)
  • A beat is occurring out of sequence.
  • The story is trying to go back to an earlier narrative beat after hitting it.

After that, I re-sequence the narrative and patch as necessary.

3) SUB-PLOT AUDIT

If I’m really desperate for wordcount, I’d do a sub-plot audit. Which means I’d go through every character in my story, work out what their various sub-plots are, and map them onto the beats of the handy three-act structure I’ve still got kicking around from the last step. Then I go through the MS and make sure the audience has a very clear idea of how every character is changed by their arc over the course of the story, which will usually involve adding some extra scenes.

You can get a lot of mileage out of this because, realistically, the main difference between your protagonist and every other character is that you chose to tell the protagonist’s story. Conventional writing wisdom says that your villain should think they’re the hero of their own story – it’s how you justify their villainy – but the same applies to all the side-kicks, love-interests, best friends, parents, background characters, etc.

The movie Whip It is a near-perfect example of this – there’s not a character in the entire film who doesn’t have a narrative arc at some point. For some of the character’s that arc gets a lot of screen-time – the protag, the antags, the protags parents, etc – but even seemingly throw-away characters like the Bliss-the-protags arch-rival at Beauty Pageants has an arc that’s built up from exactly 4 damn scenes in the film.

For bonus points, each of those arcs is woven in so its key scenes coincide with another characters – the scene where Bliss-the-Protagonist’s mother comes to accept her daughter isn’t destined to be a pageant star largely coincides with Bliss’s and her arch-rival making peace through the loan of a gown (and the rival achieving a level of success on the circuit).

4) SUCK IT UP AND WRITE

This is, of course, the time-honoured means of getting more words. If your story has run out of steam and you absolutely must have additional words, put on your grown-up pants and add more words.

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And with that we’re done with the Dancing Monkey posts, as I’m out of questions and back into a steady run of free weekends that’ll allow me the free-time to write blog posts once more. Thanks to everyone who threw in their 2c and asked me stuff – with luck we’ll try this again next year when the day-job gets crazy (though, next time, I’ll prep it all a little bit earlier).

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PLOT IN 1,069 WORDS OR LESS

Crank up the organ grinder and gather around the popcorn, ’cause we’re almost at the end of the dancing monkey series. For our second-last entry, John Farrell asked:

I have awful problems constructing a plot. How do you do that?

Apparently you folks don’t want to go with the easy questions, huh? This is not a topic where I’m known to be *concise*, so I’m going to set myself a word-budget on this one and send you off into the wide world with some reading homework, ’cause really, plot is big.

Here we go:

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PLOT IN 1,069 WORDS OR LESS

1. PROTAGONIST, ANTAGONIST – FIGHT!

Most plots hang off a pretty simple dynamic designed drive a story forward. It goes something like this: your protagonist wants something really badly; your antagonist denies your protagonist the thing they really want; delicious, awesome conflict ensues. Take Lord of the Rings as an example – Frodo wants to live a nice, ordinary life in the shire; Sauron will destroy the world if he does that; therefore there is a whole lot of walking and fighting and stuff.

2. CHARACTERS HAVE LAYERS

If you’re reading this you’re probably an SF nerd, which means you read that last example and thought “now, wait, at the start of the story Frodo wants to go off and have adventures like his uncle?” Which is true, for what it’s worth; have yourself a reader cookie.

This is the tricky thing about a well-written character – they tell themselves they want something at the beginning the story, then discover they *really* want something else as a result of the god-awful trauma the narrative puts him through. Really smart writers seed all sorts of clues about “real” want early in the narrative too – for all Frodo’s rhetoric about wanting to be like Bilbo, it takes him *months* to get off his arse and actually go adventuring once the adventuring is required.

In many stories the thing the character *thinks* they want is actually the direct opposite of the thing they *actually* want. Frodo wants adventure, but truly craves peace and quiet in the shire; Luke Skywalker wants to become an imperial fighter pilot, but actually becomes a sword-wielding Jedi; characters in rom-coms think they hate each other, but secretly they’re destined to be all true-love-forever.

3. THE CLIMAX IS A CHOICE

Forget the action – the climax of any plot is when a character makes a choice, and the most powerful climaxes are generally the person making that choice is the protagonist and the choice is profoundly tied to the stories themes. More importantly, those choices are going to change the damn world forever, either metaphorically or literally.

Once again, Star Wars is a great example of this – the entire story builds to the moment that Luke chooses to turn off his damn computer and trust the force. Better yet, it’s accompanied by a particularly likeable secondary character choosing to come back and be a hero instead of a scruffy nerf-herding mercenary, saving Luke from certain death.

It’s that moment that gives the big Death Star explosion sequence that follows its real power and create the very real sense that the Galaxy is Never Going to Be The Same Again. Without them, you’ve essentially just got some special effects. Or, you know, the Prequel Trilogy.

4. YES, BUT WE WERE SPEAKING OF CONSTRUCTING PLOT, NOT CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT

Here’s the dirty secret: characters and conflict are you plot. In the classic three-act structure that’s so beloved of films, theatre, novels, television, and, well, me, getting the conflict and the character’s right pretty much fills in the major tent-poles that keep your plot upright.

For instance, that moment I’m talking about where what your protagonist thinks they want morphs into *what your protagonist really wants? In long-form narrative that’s essentially the middle of your story and represents what we call a mid-point reversal.

That moral choice climax? That’s the thing that takes place late in your third chapter, and once you’ve reached it your job is to get the damn hell out of your story asap ’cause there’s nothing less to be said.

That period where the character says they want something, but subconsciously resist it? That’s your first act, and it ends at the point where dark riders show up in the shire   Uncle Owen and Aunt Bereu are killed by storm-troopers  shit hits the fan and the protagonist can no longer ignore the antagonist and their forces.

Essentially, the classic plot structure is just a convenient pattern of events that can be arranged in such a way as they stretch out the resolution of conflict for as long as possible.

If you want a really detailed discussion of plot structure and you’re in Brisbane, I recommend signing up for one of the QWC’s Toolkit for Writers courses in October since they’ll cover this sort of thing. If you prefer something more book-based, try tracking down copies of things like Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist (preferably in its yellow-covered 1st edition, trust me) or Robert McKee’s Story, or even, god help you, Christopher Vogler’s The Writers’ Journey. Or, you know, hit the internet which is full of advice about this sort of thing. All of these will introduce you to the big default three-act structure, and while there are others, the three-acter is a good starting point due to its familiarity.

Really, though, you can get away with an awful lot if you get the conflict, reversal, climax pattern right, even without knowing the bits that go on in-between.

5. SHORT STORIES WILL MESS WITH YOUR MOJO

Short stories are tricky beasts, ’cause they look at the overall plot structure and throw out the bits at the beginning and the bits at the end and spend an awful lot of time *suggesting* the missing bits of the plot have actually taken place. Short Stories are, usually, all second-and-third act.

My advice for short stories: make sure you nail the moral choice part of the climax. Trust me when I tell you it will bring your editors joy, if only ’cause they can identify something that actually looks like an ending.

6. PLOT DOESN’T MEAN SPIT

My final advice about plot is this: stop stressing about it. Lots of writers get hung-up on plotting because they think it’s the most important thing about writing, and in reality it’s one of a handful of skills that make fiction work.

In fact, when you break plot down to its constituent parts, it’s actually kinda…dull. Which is why people telling you about a story is rarely as interesting as actually reading the damn story, where the conflict and the character and the voice are all working in unison. I’m actually a terrible plotter, but I can get by as a writer ’cause I’ve got a bunch of other skills that can be used to patch-up the unsightly holes in my skill-set.

Gaming is not Writing

Once again, I dance like a monkey for your amusement. This time around my friend Al asked via facebook:

Why should writers never write RPG campaigns as stories, why on earth did you do just that, why isn’t it finished yet?

Okay, we’re going to kick this one off with a list o’ reasons, some of which people are likely to disagree with.

1) EDITORS DON’T LIKE IT

Let’s kick this off with the obvious – the best reason to avoid writing up RPG campaigns as stories is the fact that places that give you money for writing aren’t a big fan of things that are based on RPG campaigns. This warning from Strange Horizon’s List of Stories They See Too Often isn’t exactly uncommon, where they pretty much tell you to avoid anything where:

Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.

a.       A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).

b.      Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.

c.       A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.

They’re not alone. I mean, I can think of at least one other well-paying fantasy magazine that has the same prohibition and I’m willing to bet that a bunch others are just as biased against campaign-oriented fiction without specifically calling it out. Call me crazy (or, you know, mercenary), but writing things you can’t get paid for is generally a bad idea when your goal is to write things for money.

Me, I write for money. Stories are one of those things I exchange for some form of payment. If you can find someone who’ll pay you money for your campaign notes, more power to you. Personally I’m planning on sticking to the things that don’t alienate editors.

2) YOUR CAMPAIGN IS A HORRIBLE STORY

Here’s the thing most people don’t like to admit about gaming – it’s a terrible format for complex storytelling. Instead, gaming is, to borrow a phrase from (I think) Robin Laws, a way of telling a simple story in a complex way.

This isn’t an argument about rules complexity, just a reality of the way RPG’s work. Characters tend to get painted in broad swathes, and even when they’re designed to replicate the kind of internal and external conflict you’ll find in a narrative story, those conflicts lack the depth you’d aim for in fiction. PCs are often defined by singular motivations and short-term goals. Session and campaign goals are externalised and often unrelated to the internal conflict.

More importantly, gaming doesn’t really need to *stretch* against the boundaries of its genre – a great deal of the joy of gaming, when you get down to it, comes from hitting genre sign-posts and inhabiting narrative moments that are recognisable as familiar sign-posts of the genre. GMs frequently look for familiarity because it makes their life easier.

The very nature of a campaign as a collaborative, ongoing thing works against creating a cohesive story as well. In narrative terms your standard gaming group represents an ensemble cast with no clear protagonist, your average campaign is a series of episodic stories connected together without any real clear sense of narrative arc, and the vicissitudes of dice and rules mean that you have no real control over the pace and climax of the action. Think of it like a very uneven TV series where, if you’re lucky, there’s a seasonal arc to hold things together but plenty of stand-alone episodes.

Worse, everything is filtered through multiple creators who may have slightly different ideas of what story you’re telling. A character who sees himself as the embodiment of a particular archetype (hardboiled PI, for example) may enjoy some friendly banter with a character he perceives to be playing the femme-fatale, but his long-term expectation of the two character’s arc can easily be thwarted if the femme-fatale’s player (or the GM) doesn’t recognise that’s what’s going on and agree to it. If you doubt me, try this as an exercise: sit down with your regular gaming group and get people to write down what they perceive to be a “happy ending” for all the other characters. Odds are, the expectations will be wildly different. I’ve never seen a game-group navigate this kind of disconnect perfectly (though some have gotten close).

So, yeah, RPGs are simple stories that are told using enormously complex methods (regardless of system). Once you strip the method out, what you’re left with often feels comparatively hollow and familiar.

3) GMs THINK ABOUT SETTING AND ANTAGONISTS, WRITERS THINK ABOUT CHARACTER

For a couple of years one of the local universities used to bring me in and get me to work with a handful of students from their writing program. It was part of a subject they ran where undergraduates wrote longer works – a suite of poems, a collection of stories, or a novella – and had a writer/editor type critique their work.

I encountered a lot of gamers-turned-writers in those days, primarily ’cause the lecturer in charge would team me with any students of a…well, let’s say geekish persuasion…simply ’cause I knew how to handle the conversations you’d have in the first critique session. Inevitably we’d sit down and talk about the students work, and two things would happen:

1)      The student would rant about the university not understanding their work and the obvious bias their instructors had against genre work.

2)      I’d nod a lot and ask the question “So you’re gamer, right?”, after which the student would express shock that I could tell that simply by reading their work. They were usually just as shocked when I pointed out that I didn’t like their work either, despite being a gamer and knowing where they were coming from.

There’s a bunch of reasons I could pick an GM-turned-Writer just from a handful of sample pages, but primarily it’s ’cause GMs are hardwired to think about stories in a slightly different way than other people. They have great settings, they tend to build towards cool moments in the narrative, and they develop cool antagonists.

What they failed at, generally, was creating a compelling protagonist (or, indeed, identifying a core protagonist among their ensemble), conveying the narrative rules of their world, and hiding the fact that their approach to magic/space-flight/aliens/what-have-you was severely influenced by a particular set of rules.

Also, their action scenes were generally…well, messy.

These aren’t criminal faults in writing. Plenty of GM-turned-writers have overcome them and learned how to make their GM skills interests a strength, and I’ll certainly cop to being a writer who favours “cool genre moments” and writes a particularly mess and ill-paced fight-scene every now and then. Hopefully I’m getting better at that, but odds are it’ll take time and conscious effort and I’ll spend years relying on my circle of beta-readers picking up on the things that are more “game” than “fiction.”

THE WORLD SAYS DON’T DO IT, BUT THEN, I’M AN IDIOT

And yet, despite all this, I started writing a short novel based off a roleplaying game campaign earlier this year. In my defence, it wasn’t my game – it was run by the inimitable Sleech – and it involved a group of people who’d been gaming together for a long time. Unfortunately half the group absconded to Melbourne, including Al, so we pretty much wound down our regular game and got used to doing other things.

I started the novel project for two reasons: I missed the game and the people I gamed with, and it occurred to me that my job at the writer’s centre meant that, for once, I could afford to do some goofy projects that weren’t necessarily about making money in the long-run.

The reason it isn’t finished yet is pretty simple – looming potential unemployment meant I turned my attention to short fiction again, and I ran into all the problems I’ve outlined above when it comes to transforming campaigns to fiction (particularly when it came to disguising the fact that the game we were basing it on has a very distinctive setting).

I haven’t abandoned the problem, and to be honest I think I know how to get around the setting problem, but fixing that sort of thing takes the kind of dedicated writing and research time I don’t really have now I’m working full-time.

Fortunately, working full-time is only a temporary thing, and working itself still up in the air until I get news about if/how my contract will be renewed next year. Should I find myself without a dayjob, odds are the Untitled Victorian Planetary Romance, Pt 1 will make a re-appearance in my writing to-do list. ‘Til then, unfortunately, it’s a project I attempted and failed, and it’ll remain such until I get a chance to take a better run-up.

I Do Believe in Syntax

And lo, it is Monday, and we continue the dancing monkey series wherein people ask me questions and I blog long, rambling answers in response. Once more into the breach and all that.

Today, Peter Kerby offered up the following:

Just to stir the pot; English is living language and all living things evolve, so how much licence should be tolerated when it comes to grammar and spelling, or does it depend on the intended audience.

Verily, I am the wrong person to ask this sort of question, ’cause my response is invariably something along the lines of “so long as you can be understood, rock the fucking Kasbah, lolz, peace out, peeps.” Except, you know, not in so many words, and potentially in ways that make me sound less like an idiot and more like I have some understanding of what da kidz are speaking like with their crazy slang these days. I mean, hipsters, man, who gets them? (Hipsters are still a thing, right?)

You want a license? No problem, I hereby give you a license to go forth and fuck up language’s shit as much as you want when it comes to the words themselves.

I’m not a purist when it comes to word. Call it the side-effect of spending years and years and years teaching in a creative writing degree where people were really fond of semiotics. The important part isn’t really the words themselves, it’s making sure there’s a cohesive framework around the words that allows you to understand what’s going on. Words are…well, lets just say they’re meaning is inherently situational, and their meaning is capable of being utterly borked by putting them in the wrong place in a sentence.

Grammar, though, that’s a different story.

I am, by no means, a grammar ninja. I’m fairly slipshod with all sorts of things like apostrophes and deploying the right version of their or there when they need to make an appearance in a sentence. It took my an embaressingly long time to develop the necessary pattern recognition to recognise the difference between a lowercase b and a d as a kid, and my understand of grammar constantly floats somewhere between English and American English conventions as a result of being an Australian who writes, primarily, to sell things into American markets. I developed strong opinions about the Oxford comma primarily to irritate my friend Laura Goodin (who is a grammarian ninja and thus becomes one of those people I consult when I do dumb-ass things like write an entire story where there is dialogue within dialogue every paragraph).

Despite all that, I’m a fucking nutter about learning grammar, ’cause grammar is the toolkit of syntax and syntax is the goddamn glue that keeps the English language together despite its inconsistencies and stupidities. The basic approach to the sentence – doer, doing, done to – is a pretty useful thing and when people start fucking around with syntax too much I find myself reaching for the nearest copy of Strunk and White that I can carve into a prison shiv and go a-hunting.

‘Cause it’s when you start fucking with Syntax – the basic framework wherein a sentence as a subject acting upon something – that language falls apart and I loose interest in trying to decode whatever it is you’ve thrown on the page. When it comes to syntax I lose any pretense of rationality and just start frothing at the mouth.

And, again, this is a side effect of many years working in universities and marking the creative writing assignments of first-year writing students whose approach to grammar and syntax was…well, lets just say that I spent a lot of time resisting the urge to write I WILL CUT YOU, YOU GODDAMN FUCKER in the comments of their essay and short story assignments.

Which is not to say that I’m militant about any of these things – once you know the rules of grammar and syntax, I’m happy enough for you to break them, so long as you know why you’re breaking them and what effect you’re going for. Fucking with the status quo of language, grammar and syntax from a position of knowledge is sexy as hell, and I’m sucker for any author who can do it well.

And you know what? I’m not alone in that. Get together a group of writers and editors, lob in the question “so what do you think of a well-deployed semi-colon?” and watch about half the room melt into a puddle of hormones and desire.

Just be warned that the other half of the room will, of course, turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs for even suggesting such a thing (semi-colons are divisive, man), but to each their own. Both sides are coming from the same position – know your shit – so we’re really all fighting on the same side in the end.

But I’m digressing – I know I’m digressing here – and I’ll get back to the original question. I have no problem with the evolution of language, or even the evolution of syntax, but my level of interest in decoding things evaporates much faster when you fuck around with the structure. I’ll spend days reading, say, A Clockwork Orange and working out what shit means ’cause it’s system is familiar, but if you expect me to learn a whole new system of syntax I’ll generally flail.

As in all things, it’s a pick your audience kind of thing, just as you suggest in the question. People who speak multiple languages probably have a much higher tolerance for syntax hi-jinx than I do, simply ’cause they’ve been forced to learn them as a result of the language studies (except German, maybe, ’cause my dim memory of studying German in high-school suggests its got a similar sentence structure to English). People who were born before the invention of mobile phones may have a much stronger objection to seeing the phrase “lolwt?” in fiction. We all get used to certain structures and accept them as normal, and so long as what we’re reading seems something akin to recognisable we’re generally willing to puzzle shit out.

5 Things I Know About Squid

1.

Squid are cephalopods of the order Teuthida, which comprises around 300 species. Like all other cephalopods, squid have a distinct head, bilateral symmetry, a mantle, and arms. Squid, like cuttlefish, have eight arms arranged in pairs and two, usually longer, tentacles. Squid are strong swimmers and certain species can ‘fly’ for short distances out of the water.

Admittedly, I didn’t know this, but in the age of the internet, it’s remarkably easy to find this stuff out.

2.

If you haven’t read Kraken, in which a giant squid is stolen and the end of the world begins, you really should. It currently wages war with The City and the City as my favourite China Meiville novel.

3.

I tried cooking with squid once. It didn’t go well.

4.

“In her old firm they called her The Squid.”

“The Squid?”

“The only thing that can kill a shark.”

Parker Posey’s run on Boston Legal was far too short.

Although that can be said of Parker Posey’s run on pretty much everything.

5.

Teuthida is a name I’m likely to steal for a D&D bad guy, one of these days.

 

A Few More Ideas About Ideas

You know what’s handy when you pre-write a bunch of blog posts and set them to post while you’re away? Actually remembering to set them to post. Seems I forgot to hit the all-important Publish button in my rush to get ready for the Adelaide trip last week, which means we’re starting the dancing monkey series a little later than expected. If there’s a topic you’d like to throw into the mix, you can still do so by pitching it here

A Few More Ideas About Ideas

A few years ago I wrote a blog post that looked at the often-maligned question of where do your ideas come from. I wrote it ’cause I didn’t like the way most writers behaved when they were asked that question, and ’cause I kind of like understanding my process. Plus, as a guy whose occasionally asked to teach people how to write, it’s a useful thing to be able to talk about process without pulling all that form a little shop in Schenectady bullshit on students who are paying good money to learn things.

I haven’t changed my approach much since I wrote that original post, but since then I’ve had a lot more opportunities to talk about process with some friends at the beginning of their writing careers. This is a slightly different experience to teaching classes, and I’ve found it changed the kind of advice I offered about ideas. So when Nathan Russel suggested where/how to find ideas to write about? as a dancing monkey topic, I figured it was as good an opportunity to build on my original post.

Here’s what you need to know about ideas: they don’t actually mean shit in the writing process.

Don’t get me a wrong, there are moments when story ideas do descend upon you like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to hit the keyboard and belt out a story. This is generally a shiny, happy moment and it’s generally good for all of about an hour of work before you hit the first major plot point of your story and have to actually think about shit.

The thing is, ideas aren’t actually hard to come up with all the time. People have them all the time. They just get used to ignoring them, or they don’t see the ways an idea can be developed into a story, so the idea goes by the wayside. I generally assume that the question being asked, when people ask where ideas come from, is either how do I develop an idea or how do I come up with the perfect story idea?

The latter question is easy to answer: you don’t. You just come up with ordinary, grubby, half-formed, everyday ideas and work like a sonofabitch to turn them into a story. Occasionally you get lucky and hit on an idea that speaks directly to the cultural zeitgeist and your story explodes with 50 Shades of Harry Potter in the Twilight Code-like popularity, but most of the time you’re just writing stories. Stop searching for the perfect idea and start writing. Learn how stories work so that when you’re zietgiest-busting idea does come along you’ve got the chops to make it work.

Developing a story is a trickier process, since it’s not easy to sum up in a sound-bite type answer. I mentioned it in my original triangle because it’s important, but over the years I’m coming to think of the triangle metaphor I originally used as something that’s less equilateral and more scalene-like, with knowledge of how a story works as the largest side. After all, once you’ve got that down, you can actually turn some fairly middling ideas into pretty cool stories.

One of my favourite pieces of writing advice ever comes from Samuel Delany, who breaks writing talent down into two parts: the first comes from absorbing a series of complex models regarding the construction of sentences, characters, plots, narrative. These become internalised rather than learnt, a part of the writer. The second part of writing talent comes from the ability to submit to these models, adjusting it to the idea at hand, until finally you’re forced to change it slightly.

The sad truth is there’s very little that’s creative in creativity. The vast majority is submission – submission to the laws of grammar, to the possibilities of rhetoric, to the grammar of narrative, to narrative’s various and possible structurings. (About Writing, p. 121)

This isn’t exactly a popular thing to explain to the crowd who really wants to believe there’s something magical about ideas. They get seriously fucking cranky when you try to point out that writing isn’t a magical playground where muses fire shit into your brainpan and allow you to make millions off the back of inspiration alone, and thus they ignore you and go on believing in the primacy of the idea as the most important thing in writing instead of the least.

Truth is, much of writing is about interrogating an idea, figuring out what model it’s going to fit into. If I start with an idea such as drag races are run with genetically engineered dragons*, it’s not actually a story. In fact, the story it naturally suggests is kind of uninteresting, since the only conflict comes from whether a protagonist will win or lose the race.

And so we go to town, looking for structures I can fit that idea into. Narrative structure suggest there should be internal and external conflict within the primary character, so as I fit characters into the idea, I look for archetype that can be adapted and altered. I pick a name – Jimmy Locke – and I give him James Dean’s look from Rebel Without a Cause, but I look for places I can twist it and ask questions. He’s a smart kid who desperately wants to belong in the street racing culture he’s found. Why? ‘Cause it’s an escape from things he doesn’t want to deal with at home.

What’s he escaping? I start a scene at his home, after a race, start throwing details at the story and let the structure of a scene guide me. My subconscious is more than willing to spit up details once I give it frameworks – Jimmy’s got a sick parent, a home-life he has no control over, and so racing becomes his escape because it offers the illusion of control. I come up with people who oppose him – parents, other racers, friends – and give them internal conflicts as well, looking for ways they can be brought into physical conflict with Jimmy and reflect his own internal conflict back at him…

It’s all patterns, structures, and as Delany suggests, many writers don’t even think about them. They just learn, internalise, and let the structure guide them through the process.

Or they learn, plan, and fit details in where they look useful.

Or they scribble, and keep scribbling, and apply the pattern once they’ve assembled a rough draft. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, the structure comes into things somewhere along the line. And you learn the structures the same way everyone else does – reading, engaging with narrative, talking to other writers, pulling other people’s stories apart.

Once you’ve got the structure down, ideas ‘cease being difficult. They’re just things that you sort through and discard as necessary, trusting in the process to deliver what you’re really looking for. You can get down to the business of actually writing, and shaking your head at the occasional asshole who says “I’ve got this great idea for a novel – you write it and we’ll split half the money.” Just make sure, when they try your for murder, it truly is a jury of your peers – no other writer is going to blame you for stabbing the guy.

*Where did this idea come from? Confluence and Other People’s Stories. I was watching Fast and the Furious, remembered reading about Vin Diesel being a D&D fan, and found myself thinking what this film really needs is dragons. And lo, there was an idea, and I started writing it.

Fear my Sartorial Splendor!

The dreaded paperbaghat is one of my many bad habits; I seriously end up wearing the damn things for a half-hour every time I leave one laying around the house, largely because it’s the only way I remember to throw them out. It’s one of those things that you can do when you live alone. Or that you end up doing when you live alone. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in this situation.

In any case, most days I remember to take the dreaded paperbaghat off and depositing it in the bin *before* I answer the door.

Unlike, say, today when I forget I was wearing the dreaded paperbaghat and answered the door to chat with the nice missionary types who were trying to convince me that I should fear the forthcoming apocalypse or something.

-facepalm-

Stupid paperbaghat.

Juvenalia Week

After realising that the last few years have been rather good to him on the writing front, Jason Fischer has decided to take a quick tour through the lands of the writer he used to be and declared this Juvenalia Week. And since he’s under the assumption that the embarrassing mistakes of yesteryear are something all writers share, he’s encouraging others to join him in his public display of work from our misbegotten pasts.

I’m nothing if not a joiner, but seeing as I can’t find my old book of short stories from when I was actually a jouvenile I set the way-back machine to the file on my computer marked “Poetry, 1998” and grabbed one of the hundreds at random. I wrote a lot of poetry over ’98 and ’99 – I’d decided that I’d write a poem a day while I worked on my honors thesis in place and white-space poetics – but this one seems to hit all the standard hallmarks of my work in terms of topics (girls and…well, really that was it), imagery (cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and hair), and awkward line syntax.

Which, if nothing else, just goes to point out the inherent problems in telling twenty-year-old middle class geek boys to “write what you know.” Especially if he thinks poetry *is* actually a way of impressing girls. I did write some good stuff that year, which eventually got published in journals, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s the stuff that strayed away from this them. As for the rest, well, you could basically remix the following and have a pretty good idea of what I wrote…

Balcony Scenes

Act One

Smoke trail from a cigarette
Her blue eyes
       (that drown the sky)
watch the grey
       drift into the clouds.

Act Two

She is fire and blood and sunset
henna hair and first crush simplicity

The coffee I make goes cold
ignored as she chain smokes
        and dreams

Act Three

A cigarette drowns in spilt coffee

She saves it for later
(A student’s pragmatism, since lost)

Act Four

Night washes the sky with stars
I shelter in the glow of the balcony

She hides behind a veil of hair
her smile afraid to come out of hiding

And if I can track down my old notebook from high school, from the days before I wrote directly onto a computer, I may even find some work that’s even more mortifying in its approach before the week is out…

TV Tropes (Not the Website)

I’m feeling a little out of sorts today, which means it’s time for another dancing monkey post. This time courtesy of deepfishy (aka JJ Irwin) over on LJ: This may veer too close to writing, but: tropes you’re drawn to in tv shows or films. (For instance, for myself I get a lot of joy out of variations on and subversions of the Defective or Exotic Detective – Life, Psych, Nero Wolfe, The Dresden Files, Foyle’s War…)

Originally I thought I was going to have trouble answering this – my inclination towards SF aside, there doesn’t always seem to be a lot of continuity to the types of shows I find myself watching. Naturally I went to TV Tropes and plugged in a few of my favourite shows to check this and quickly discovered it wasn’t the case. As such: I’m probably overly-drawn to the Bunny Ears Lawyer trope, but primarily in TV shows that stack their decks pretty heavily with examples of that type (Boston Legal, Scrubs, NCIS, Firefly). I can also be lured by specific examples of Crazy Awesome, and general eccentricity among the cast.

But, overall, I think that’s all a little misleading. I’m hard on TV, as a general rule. I demand a lot from it and I’m a cranky, unpleasant viewer. And hitting those tropes alone isn’t enough to drive me to watch a show – Six Feet Under is, by all accounts, a show full of quirk and eccentricity, but I’ve never really gotten a grip on it. CSI apparently has its share of crime-fighting bunny ears lawyer types in the same vein as NCIS, but again I’ve never managed to wrap my head around it.

A list of things that will sell me on a TV show regarldess of genre and trope:

  • Fast-paced, well-written dialogue: this is still one of the biggest selling points for the Gilmore Girls, and the thing that eventually lured me to Buffy after years of mocking it.
  • A consistent and engaging supporting cast, preferably built slowly and carefully (or a very strong ensemble cast, in the case of shows like How I Met Your Mother):I’ve never really jibbed with the reset-button approach to television and having the same extras/minor characters floating around gives a sense of narrative continuity.
  • Fringe-dwellers, punks, goths, geeks & weirdos: basically, if you find a social group/sub-culture that doesn’t usually get positive airplay, then give it to them, I may well be yours for life (this is, incidentally, the reason I still watch NCIS despite the horrible, horrible subtext of the show)
  • Do Future Imperfect SF: Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, even Dark Angel
  • Do something narratively/culturaly interesting: I dig How I Met Your Mother because of the non-linear structure; similarly, I dig Boston Legal because it has a kind of subversion of traditional masculinity going on in what’s traditionally been a hyper-masculine profession.