Trusting Your Reader

As I go through Sleight of Spirit (again.  oof, editing!) I am again getting ideas of topics for blogs, letting you all learn from my early writing flubs.  Today I’m going to talk about trusting your reader.

It’s a hard thing, writing your story and knowing where you cross the line between ‘too little information’ and ‘too much information’.  And the trouble is that sometimes, information that is neutral is often, too much.

You see, as readers, we’re lazy.  We assume an awful lot.  We get ideas in our head and stick with them because it’s easy.  To some extent, this is a good thing.  Once you plant the idea that this character is mean-spirited, you don’t have to say it over and over, one good proof is enough.  Once you tell someone a person has blue eyes, you can usually assume the reader is going to remember that.  But sometimes we insist on telling the reader things that they already know, and this has a tendency to gum up prose.

For example.

“He opened the door and left.”

Ok, yes.  You could make an argument that  perhaps it was important that the door was closed.  But much more likely is that we’ve already assumed the door is closed based on the nature of the meeting, or the parties involved, or what you wrote when we started this scene or walking in the door.  This is what I mean by neutral information.  It’s true that to get out he had to open the door.  But it’s also true that if we just said “He left.”  the reader wouldn’t have any trouble figuring out that our character is not an idiot, and did not decide to walk through a solid wooden door.

I’m finding myself doing this a lot.  Still.  Mostly with people walking in and out of scenes but sometimes even in dialogue, which really hurts, because that’s something I pride myself on.  Sometimes, readers don’t even notice these things – but some people (like me, lately) get picky.  If you redundantize on me too much, that won’t be the reason I click away from the book on my trusty kindle.  But if there’s another flaw or two there, it could be the tipping point, the moment I sort of sigh and go “augh, really!?  Nope, not worth it.”

And I’ll move on.

So.  Don’t make me do that, and don’t tempt your other readers to do it either.  Say one thing, one time, and make it snappy.  And yes, this post is probably going to come back to bite me because I probably won’t catch all the instances this is happening.  But hey!  If it helps you, oh well!

Soonish, since I finally finished the last contest, we’ll have another, much smaller one for a pretty hand written note card.  That’ll be around June 10th, because that’s when we get paid and I feel rich and generous. >.>  (In case you couldn’t tell, that’s my sarcasm face.)

Cheers and see you on Tidbit Tuesday!

On Kicking Characters Out of the House.

I am an avid Cracked.com reader.  I find their articles relentlessly silly and full of amusing moments.  This one, especially, draws many laughs from me, simply because it’s just so goofy and true.  For those of you too lazy to click the link, the long and short of it is that the author of the article is trying to give the bright side to another voice, who has just discovered that they are a fictional character.

Sounds pretty traumatizing to me, but that’s because I torture my fictional characters.  Blessedly, I will not be placing Morgan in an interview room with myself, because she’s a smart cookie, and the moment she figured out that all of the nonsense in her life is actually my fault, I would be sliced and toasty in moments.

One thing that caught my eye as a bright side is when the author points out that the character is the hero, and thus, will only get better as the writing and editing goes on.   For the most part, this is true of most stories.  As a culture (perhaps a species?), we really like advancement of character to be (harder) better, faster, stronger.  In general, it gives us hope and motivation for our own journeys of self-discovery and betterment.  Hey, who can argue against that?

Only trouble is that, for a good story, a hero should not be getting progressively better the whole time.  It should not be a straight up 1:1 correlation graph.  (I’m sorry gentle bloggers, I just really like graphs and math jokes.  Bear with me.)   In fact, straight lines should probably be avoided altogether.  You know who uses perfectly straight lines?  Scooby Doo.  The classic ones.  Don’t get me wrong!  I loves me some scooby doo – I could probably still sing you the theme song (oh no… now it’s in my head…) but if we’re all honest with ourselves, our favorite teenaged sleuths had a pretty predictable plot line:

  1. Bad things happens.
  2. Teen sleuths stumble upon the bad thing.  To the Mystery Machine!
  3. Oh no!  The monster who perpetrated the crime is here!
  4. Chase scene to funky scooby music!
  5. Gasp!  The criminal has been caught in a happy accident!
  6. Velma unmasks the monster – Gasp!  It was Col. Mustard… and the gold was all a hoax!
Very clean, easy line of logic to follow – which is perfect for its audience (this is me, thumbing towards my ten year old self).  Nice straight lines.  There’s no problem with this if you’re looking to write a story that is, well, easy to digest.  Straight lines can be followed with a minimum amount of effort.  The trouble with them though, is that when they are applied to a character, that character pretty much instantly loses its connection to the audience, a secondary character.  We know where that one’s going, who cares how they’re getting there?
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No, if you want a story that’s going to stick in people’s heads, the hero line can’t be straight.  It shouldn’t even be in the realm of straight-ish.  I’d say we’re talking Adam Lambert here, but I’m honestly not sure how one would graph that.
So how should the hero line look?  Human.  When we do something great, do we do it in a steadily climbing straight line?  No!  We sort of meander around the fact, stutter up a little, have a set back, then a sudden leap of understanding, a slight descent of confusion, then stutter back up to awesomeness and come out above but still shaky on the polls.  It should look like someone tried to draw a straight line in a open-door jeep on the most pot-holed road in San Francisco during an earthquake.  With a monkey on their back.  The only requirements are that it ends somewhere above where it starts – even if that above is only by a hair.
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Sometimes your character will fail.  This is ok.  Like a child, a character has to be allowed to fail – in fact you can’t do much worse than magically fix their mistakes and troubles with a sudden influx of power, knowledge, or beauty.  It’s called a deus ex machina and a lot of people dislike them, for good reason.  This means that the author is still pretty protective of their characters.  They’re still coddling them.
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Let me be clear.  This doesn’t give you licence to go out and torture your characters, because I don’t want to be responsible for the revolt that happens when they trace that little idea in your brain back to this blog.  It does give you licence to kick your characters out of the house and tell them that their deadbeat selves better get a job or it’s gonna be a cold winter… so to speak.  Give ‘em a few falls, a few chance to prove they aren’t awesome, even a few to screw up royally and then fix their mistakes and genuinely regret them.  Break your character – take life and toss it in their face and see what they do.  I meant it about kicking them out of the house, though.  Don’t lead your characters where they’re going, let them find it themselves.  They might get into trouble – let ‘em get out of it – but be sure to document.  This is some important stuff right here – the moment the hero line is broken, scrambled, erased and re-drawn into something much more relatable.
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As a hero-line, I am very proud of Morgan, from Sleight of Spirit.  Her hero-line is all kinds of mixed up, and occasionally gets a little tangled with the villain line (which, for reference, should be just as kooky as the Hero-line with the notable difference of having no set ending parameters), and what’s more it stays crazy all throughout The Athele Series.  Right now, I’m doing my best to make sure that all the characters have believable looking hero-lines, as Michael and I gear up for Nanowrimo, an event near and dear to my heart which I will have a post about soon(ish).
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Do your characters have believable hero-lines?  Have you kicked them out of the house yet?  How do you keep your characters human?

Writing, K-pop, and Rainbows

Today, I wrote.  I didn’t write a whole bunch, but it was writing, and it was in the spot I wanted it to be.

Between editing Sleight of Spirit I am also working on the second cycle in The Athele Series.  I’m at the end of the first book in said cycle, and it’s a big battle scene, in which everyone’s going at it, moving quickly, darting around, and generally lots of heck is being raised.  I’ve got my headphones up and I’m choosing my music for the scene, and I think, what do I want to hear?

Is is the angry-man band Slipknot?

Is it epic-man band 30 Seconds to Mars?

Is it awesome-emoish woman band Evanescence?

No, no, no.

Turns out for my knock down, drag out fight scene, I’m craving me some peppy Korean boy bands.  Even I had to pause and laugh a little at this, it was so off of the scene I was writing.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t want to write this scene at all.  I’ve been having trouble with the end of this book, because there’s a lot of stuff happening, it’s a fight scene, and it’s dealing with some characters that are more Michael’s than mine.  Choosing this music may have been an indication that really, I shouldn’t have had all that coffee, and I really shouldn’t have about six tabs open on my browser, nor should I be daydreaming about skipping this bit and going on to the next book where we get back into things I’m good at.

But, with the discipline learned from years of Nanowrimo, I carried on, with the we-are-way-pretty-and-cool SHINee singing their way-catchy tunes in the background.  The scene happened, but I’m afraid to even look at it, much less read it over, for fear I’ll try and tear my eyes out gnashing my teeth and wailing about what a terrible writer I am.  (I’m kidding.  I don’t gnash my teeth and wail, I whine plaintively at Michael, who rolls his eyes and patiently tells me I’m full of it.)

This thought brings up an interesting question.  Do I need to stop writing fight scenes when I’m hyped up on caffeine and really not feeling them?  Maybe.  I’ve yet to decide if it’s worth it to write them understanding that this is a first darn draft and it’s ok if they suck, or if I need to at least feel the scene a little in the rough draft.  In general, I prefer to just get the scene out of the way and figure it out later.  It puts my work into small bite-sized pieces that I’m better equipped to deal with.  At the same time though, I feel kind of bad.  I mean, is it going to be obvious to the reader that I wasn’t into the scene on the first write through?

Well, no.  At least, not if Michael and I do our jobs correctly.  That’s why we call them rough drafts, after all.  They’re rough.  Sometimes they’re just a little more rough than others… like, jagged rocks, broken glass, and cactus needles rough as opposed to sand paper, but you get the idea.  It’s like drawing a rainbow in three (to infinity) steps.

Bottom image from http://www.create-a-mural.com/catalog/item/1724567/1939334.htmWe aren’t going for a perfect rainbow the first time, just a sort of rainbow shaped thing with all the colors in there.  Somewhere.  And it doesn’t have to all fit together, just sorta all has to be there and kind of in the right order.  I mean, if you look at it, it’s a rainbow, right?

In the first edit (and subsequent edits) you smooth out the edges, put all your ducks in a row, and straighten out your color order.  Hey!  It is a rainbow!  And it’s actually kind of pretty!  I feel like an artist now!  Am I done yet?

No… you have to continue to polish until it’s evenly paced, spread those colors out and make them gel together, and add an appropriate base plus a little extra sparkle and then you’re done.  Or at least, you’re ready to reveal your masterpiece to your adoring public.

The conclusion?  If I could smack myself at six o’clock in the evening regretting putting my fingers to the keyboard, I would.  One should never regret a single word written in the name of a first draft.  Second, third, forth, fifth…etc, etc, yes, you may regret away.  But the first draft the goal is words + screen + some semblance of story line.  If those three criteria have been met, you may consider it a success and call it a day.  Thankfully, it is ten in the morning and I am prepared to kick this climax’s booty.

What kind of music do you listen to while writing?  Does it often have pertinence to the scene?

Essence de la novelle

Not too long ago, I got the chance to read over a very good post right here on WordPress that was talking about some of the travails of the creative writing process.  It was quite thorough, comparing some of the more organized ways to prepare for the major effort of that critical first draft.  The most extensively talked about of these techniques was the ever needed outline.  Not just a skimpy one, either – I’m not talking the rather bare version that marks off the top ten events that happen in the novel.  I’m talking about a highly detailed one, one that’s so filled out that you can compare the room colors in the only four rooms that the book even takes place in.  Not to mention, attached to this are very filled out character notes about their personalities, backstories, etc. – as usual, filled in down to their favorite color and how many cavities they got in middle school before they figured out that it was easier to eat the carrots rather than pay for the denistry and the chocolate.

Not that this was the only way to do things.  The author went out of their way to make that perfectly clear: if you can pull off that perfect outline, that’s all well and great.  Some of us can’t.  Either we don’t have the patience or we don’t actually have the organizational skills to pull that off or we get lost in too many details or our significant other nags us when we look like we’re doing something for work in our free time and we need to take a break because wouldn’t that third heart attack just put a crimp in everyone’s plans or… you get the idea.  The author pointed out that while it’s wonderful if you’re able to pull off the great outline, you’re not in terrible trouble if you can’t.  It just means that instead of thinking your novel out from beginning to end, you need to ‘feel’ it out.

Well, that’s all well and great, but what New Age word jockey nonsense is ‘feeling’ your novel out?  Does that mean that you pull out your Ouiji boards and pray to the Muses of Novels-of-the-Centuries-Past to spell out the hidden secret to our book (don’t forget to sacrifice that goat – the MoNotCP get very cranky when they haven’t had dinner)?  Not in the least.  Feeling out your book simply means that you get through the first draft (and further revisions) more on intuition rather than cognition.  You might not know your character intimately based on a huge amount of reference material, but you can guess pretty well what they’ll do in a given situation.

I’m one of those types of writers who actually does both – I write out advanced and very detailed plot and character notes and I ‘feel’ out my characters’ nuances.  I usually find that it works pretty well.  If I don’t have one working for me, then I usually have the other, so the actual amount of writer’s block that I run into is probably a bit less than normal.  Case in point, I’ve often run into situations that I literally have no idea what my character (especially if the character is new) would do in the given situation, I can sometimes scan back through my notes on the character’s race and world to get an idea of their perspective on matters.  Likewise, there are plenty of times where my notes leave me stumped as to a scene, but a little flash of inspiration coming from one character not only gets the ball rolling on the scene, but sets up half the book from there on in.

Sometimes, I’ll have my characters do or say something completely random, just so that I can ask, “Why the hell did they do that?”  The answer is pretty obvious, every single time.  Because they had a reason to.  Finding out the exact reason is the fun part.

That’s the exploration of character, the real character development.  The ten novels that you write worth of material, when you know that you’re only going to put out one.  And that’s good.  I’d rather one write out one good novel rather than ten exceedingly draggy, drippy ones (after all, while we as authors might be interested in the fact that the protagonist’s boyfriend bought a pair of tailored boots for a single silver piece, you might be more concerned about the fact that he dies in the next scene… for whatever reason).  This is essence de la novelle – concentrated plot and character development, laced together and lain into the sinew of the story.  Season it with the right editting and serve… it’ll feed however many you need it to.

On Editing

As the title suggests, Michael and I are currently working on editing Sleight of Spirit.  Editing is, as many writers will tell you, the most difficult part.  Editing is about more than grammar and spelling, for sure.  Every little thing has to be questioned and it’s pretty much exhausting.  But everyone talks about how hard it is to hack and slash your way through the novel you lovingly wrote.     No one talks about the limes.

Sorry, I think I lost some of you.  What I mean is that there are fun parts to editing too.  Take for example this conversation, had while Michael was going over a middle part of Sleight of Spirit:

“It says ‘intensely green backpack’, can I just change it to ‘lime green’?”

“Well… I don’t know if Morgan knows what a lime is, though.”

“She knows what a lemon is.  Wouldn’t she know what a lime is?”

“Um…”

Editing is still a time to be deciding quirks, I’ve discovered, little bits and pieces that don’t quite make it into your first writing of the novel.  Just when you think you know everything about your character there is to know, something like this comes up.  Does Morgan know what a lime is?  We finally decided that yes, she did know, but the backpack wasn’t that color anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Next time, we’ll start going over some of the themes of Sleight of Spirit.

And now I will leave you free to speculate on why Morgan was looking at a green backpack anyway.