Just an update on my own writing progress. Part of this blog is supposed to be exactly that, watching another writer work through the process of writing from concept to publication. As of late I haven't done much in the way of writing towards publication. I stalled out on rewriting Spark's ending, Deviner's Eye has been sitting stagnant, and the only real writing I've been getting done has been the blog.
As I noted earlier this week (maybe it was last week) I’ve been working on coming up with other writing avenues not necessarily based in Fantasy and Science Fiction. This past week I’ve done a lot of work towards that goal and have had a great time doing it.
I’ve read through and made notes on approximately 135 pages of flash fiction stories (500-1000 words in length). With the guise of my pseudonym I sat down and wrote two stories, one yesterday and another today. I need to edit them for length now, but so far I’m very pleased with what I was able to produce when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
I also wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper where I live in regards to a columnist who continues to berate all environmentalists with his pseudoscience. It turned out very well, chalk full of snarky attitude and facts that I hope to share with you once it’s published. I’ll link to both the inciting article and then my response in hopes that if you come across anyone spouting the mythos of S. Fred Singer, the SEPP, or NIPCC, you’ll be able to hit them over the head with the cold, hard mallet of reality. The letter leads me to an idea for an article.
I’ve shied away from trying to write any articles for larger magazines, but I think it’s finally time for me to embrace the challenge and step out onto that public stage. And now that I think about it, that’s probably where my hang up has always been, putting myself out there for others to criticize. Small things like blogs and comments on message boards are one thing, but taking that same research and spinning it off into an article or story that could possibly be read by thousands is a far more daunting possibility. There will be people who disagree, no matter what I write, and that’s scary, but it’s time to finally face that fear.
All in all, even in spite of not getting anything done with my current projects, it’s been a very productive and fulfilling week. I need to up the bar next week with even more writing and submitting of my flash fiction stories. I also need to get the small, non queried articles written, the photos for them taken, and sent off.
Wish me luck. Remember, the sooner we can get paid for our writing, the sooner we can turn to those who would like us to stop and say, “I’m sorry, but I’m working.”
Challenge: Over the weekend, spend some time thinking about whether you have any fears tied to being successful and about whether or not those fears keep you from completing any of your projects. All artists deal with fear, it’s facing that fear that leads to success.
Alright, so maybe I don’t necessarily play out that script, but you get the drift. It’s something I’ve always done. Even way back in junior high. I used to lie in bed and act out scenes from my own life. You know, those “what if” scenes. That one where you finally muster the courage to talk to the girl you’ve been crushing on for what seems like an eternity.
I wouldn’t just go over the Twilight scene where I say all the right Edward lines and my sweetheart swooned with the telling of each one. No, I’d go over the “It worked, I fooled her” scene, the “Uhm, I don’t think so, dork boy” scene, and everything in between. I wanted to be prepared for any circumstance. Of course I never actually performed my lines, just rehearsed them.
I find myself doing that with writing a lot. Especially if I’m trying to describe how something is said, not just what is said. Obviously, speaking them aloud helps you to hear the intonation and whether or not the words flow. But acting it out helps you to note that your lip is curling up just a bit towards the right. I’ll even move around about, moving my hands to punctuate really tense lines like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
So that’s my thought for today. Do you act out lines? If not, give it a shot and report back. But make sure no one is home when you do it. Getting caught confessing your love for your cylon/angel/ghost/bad actress self can lead to some pretty awkward situations.
I was trying to come up with my alter ego. You know, the one we were talking about a week or so ago. The one where you give yourself the right to put anything you want down on the page without fear of being judged because it’s not your name you’re writing under.
For some reason, coming up with that post created a block for me. I let it create an obstacle to writing. I sat down to write an article and found that I couldn’t because I didn’t have an alias. That’s when I broke out my trusty name book.
I think that just about every writer has one of these lying around somewhere. It seems as though a lot of people get hung up on creating names for their characters. For writing set in modern times it’s not that difficult, simply flip open the phone book, pick a few names at random and put them together.
For writing that deals with different eras or cultures that can get a little tricky. That’s when I turn to a book that I happened upon several years ago: Names through the Ages , by Teresa Norman. Not sure if it is still in print yet or not, but it is a good reference tool.
The book breaks up names into categories: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, and the United States. Those categories are then broken down into time periods. Take England for example, they go through: The Dark Ages, The Norman Period, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, The Reformation, The Early Modern World, and The Modern World. Each time period comes with a brief description about what was going on in that culture at the time and then it gets into the names. Male and Female with meanings, as well as surnames common for the time period.
It’s great for coming up with those odd sounding English names for fantasy, or for setting cultures apart via names. But as I’m sure you’ve already noted, it only has rather anglo names. No Italians, Spaniards, Africans, Chinese, Egyptians, Aborigine or any other shade not white. So I’m curious if anyone out there has any suggestions on other good name books that might cover these other cultures of the world. If so, please post them in a comment because I and I’m sure others would love to hear about them, (I’ve got a father’s day gift card to Borders that’s burning a hole in my pocket).
Yesterday’s writerly thought really got me thinking. Writing out my rock bottom/doomsday story gave me a nice, swift kick in the pants. So much so that on Saturday night I dedicated a lot of time to market research for things other than just fantasy and science fiction. I looked up markets for handyman articles, environmental essays, a writing contest and even renewed my membership to writers market online (once again vowing that THIS time I’ll make the membership pay for itself by landing some writing gigs).
What usually happens when I get all worked up like this is that I do a bunch of research, find potential outlets for my writing, and then stop and think “but I don’t really know how to do that.” Then I let myself get distracted, move on to other things, and never get any paid writing done. But, my little horror story scared me so much that I decided to actually treat writing as though it were a job.
I dusted off the printer, grabbed reams of paper and new ink cartridges and started printing. I gathered information from a couple of my prospective writing outlets, stuff that they’ve published that I think I can replicate, collected it all in a couple different word documents and then started printing. On Monday I made time to sit around with a couple of highlighters and started reading through what I had printed out.
With one highlighter I noted descriptions that were specific to the genre I was dealing with. There are some parts of writing that are just good writing, and if you follow the general rules about plot, character development, conflict and the like, then you’re ninety percent there. Beyond that you have telling details that work within each genre and style of writing.
I tend to read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, so when I read another genre, the areas where the two are dissimilar tend to stand out. That’s when I break out that highlighter. I make note of those differences because that’s obviously the telling detail that sets this genre apart from others.
The second highlighter was used for editor specific details. These were things that seemed to be important to that particular publication. Key words or phrases tend to jump out at you when you can collect a large quantity of writing and read it all in one go. Tastes that the editors might not even be aware of suddenly jump out at you when you can look over a year’s worth or writing that they had to look at broken up over twelve months. It’s almost like looking at someone’s subconscious desires.
I’ve also got a little movie viewing scheduled because one of the potential avenues that I researched was a writing contest. The judge for said contest happens to have written the scripts for two movies and has a couple of books under his belt. As writers we write what we like and therefore we appreciate those things that are similar to what we do. By analyzing what he produces I’m hoping to get a better feel for what he will lean towards during his judging.
Both movies appear to be very character driven with a strong tie to solitude and nature. If memory serves, he also edits an environmental magazine. His short stories sound like (from the reviews I read) they also follow the vein of strong character development and the connections made between people with a fond look back to the way things used to be. After a bit of research I’ll be ready to formulate my story.
Now the fluffy bunnies out there might be saying, “But David, what about your MUSE, what about ARTISTIC INTEGRITY?” And to you I say, “What about getting paid? What about getting published? What about my doomsday scenario?”
We all have to sell out a little in life if we want to find a way to enjoy it. Remember, as a writer you may be running a small business but as anyone who has ever run one knows, you aren’t your own boss. That’s a myth. Your boss is your client, the person paying you. You may have a say in how the work gets done but you definitely don’t have control over what the product is or even when it gets done.
As a graphic designer I used to try and steer clients towards the correct choice all the time, but sometimes people want what they want and it doesn’t matter if you know more than they do about a topic or not. So in the end you design their sign with a beautiful script font with all sorts of flowing, flowery lines . . . THAT NO ONE CAN READ. But that’s what they wanted and that’s what they’re paying for, what they want, not what your artistic heart is crying for. Because you know what, something else is crying too, your stomach and it can’t be fed on artistic integrity.
This can be seen in drug rehab, political revolutions, weight loss, just about every bad or destructive trait seems to have a breaking point. The same can be said for writing. I suppose this blog could be considered my own rehab journal with regards to writing. Anyone paying attention can tell when I fall off the wagon. Posts grow sparse. Those little word count bars to the right don’t move. I make no references to a recent revelation attained while writing.
For me, bottom is realizing that I’m running out of time. Don’t worry; I don’t have a terminal illness or anything. As some of you know, I’ve been a stay at home dad for the last nine or so months. I love it, who wouldn’t, but with all of the wonderful budget cuts in California I could be back in the work force sooner than expected. That’s a worst case scenario but one that I’ve had in the back of my mind as of late.
In the doomsday scenario, there are two options that I see played out by the ghost of finance future. The first finds me doing any number of my past jobs, sign making, design, construction, waiting tables, whatever the job market will provide. Along with that comes a touch of misery and dreaming of “what if.” The second option has me sitting at home in front of my computer or perhaps at a café somewhere with my laptop writing away.
Yeah, that’s it, just writing. “But how does that solve the financial problem? You’re just going to bet it all on a pipe dream?”
That’s the thing, I can’t bet on pipe dreams in this scenario. There are hungry mouths to be fed, bills to be paid. But in the first option I ended up there because I squandered the time that I have right now. In the second option I capitalized on my free time, got into the world of writing in all of its veins, not just escapism. By the time doomsday arrived, I simply needed to ramp up the work I was already doing.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m projecting rock bottom. The real bottom would be waking up at 3:30 every morning to be at the shop by 4:00 so that we could load up the work truck and be on the road by 4:30, my head leaning against a cold window as my coworker drove us to our destination some two to three hours away (maybe more) slipping in and out of sleep as we drove by city after city, cutting off car after car until finally we arrived, groggy and cranky and ready to start the day’s work of “skilled” manual labor, “supers” harping about things out of our control, a boss calling because he’s staring at his computer screen that has the bottom line blazing in red, and us breaking ourselves, not for the super or our boss or even because we’re good workers that try not to drain the clock, but because we just want to be done and gone, in hopes that we can on the road in another eight to ten hours at which point I’d drive, eyes red and waning while my coworker slept only to get home too tired to do anything, with another day of the same crap doing something else in a different city, waiting for me hours before the horizon, and the best part would be that I’d never know what was next because there is no schedule, no vacations, no warning, no planning, not for us anyway, “Next week you guys will be staying in Red Bluff,” “Where’s Red Bluff?” “About four hours away. You’re putting up tack wall.” “I hate tack wall.” “Well you’ll be there for two weeks.” “What?” “It’s the whole school. We’ve rented you a room in a crumby motel.” “But my wife is eight months pregnant.” “You’ll be home on the weekend. Sorry.” “Me too.”
A picture of what our hotel looked like (in the 70's), and
what they're still using as a promotion.
What the hotel actually looks like care of Google Maps. Our rooms
were the ones straight ahead on the bottom floor of that two story
building in the back. The crackheads that lived there were in the
adjacent building behind the country diner to the left. Ah, memories.
That just gave me the chills. But that’s what I need to think about the next time I say to myself, “I can look at markets for stories later, Facebook is calling my name.” That’s what we all need to do.
So if you haven’t hit rock bottom yet, imagine it. You are a writer after all. If writing is something that you really want to do, then you have to figure out how to make money at it. More importantly, you have to figure out how to keep yourself on task. There’s no boss poking his greasy head in, beady little eyes filled with dollar signs scrutinizing your productivity. There’s just you. And if you let yourself take vacations whenever you want, then the business fails and everyone gets a pink slip. But that pink slip might lead to a crumby motel in Red Bluff, a sore back, sleep deprivation, and an aching heart.
And on that uplifting note! That’s today’s exercise, write your doomsday and post it in the comments, or post it on your blog if you have one and post a link to it down in the comments so that we can all share in a collective catharsis of sorts.
Do I really need to know that?
The other night I was getting some counseling from my wonderful cross country crit partner via Google Talk. I was running over all the plot holes that I thought were letting the entire meaning leak out of my story. I explained how I needed to include all of this character motivation and back story in order to make it work. Finally, my partner said, “I don’t need to know that.”
“As the reader, I don’t need to know that.” She had already guessed at one historic detail just by way of character interaction and the rest of it she thought was just pouring it on a little too thick.
After I thought about it for a moment, I realized that she was right (good crit partners, it seems, are always right). I was being too heavy handed with what I was trying to say. I was insulting my reader. I confused what I needed to know for what the reader needed to know.
You see, I needed to understand all of that backstory to make it work for me, to help make the story come alive, to breathe life into my character’s. And that’s the thing that caught me, I don’t need to explain, I simply need to know. If I understand who the character is and where they are coming from, that sense of reality will work its way into the story without me having to force it.
Now that I understand that, let’s see if I can make it work.
Back before Battle Star Galactica started in on its downward decent towards mediocrity, I can recall an evening in which I watched an episode that my wife commented on. “It’s like watching a soap opera,” she said. To which I responded, “Whatever.”
But on reflection, I realized that she was right. It was pretty much a soap opera, just one set in the future/distant past, and in space. Lee loved Kara, who used to love his brother, but she got stranded and fell in love with a jock, but a cylon fell in love with her, and maybe she does love Lee, but Lee is with Dee and then Kara and Lee get a bit too close for comfort so Dee leaves and Lee’s alone and Kara’s crazy but she does love her jock who turns out to be a cylon but not the cylon that loved her but that’s okay because she’s an angel and . . . . yeah, total soap opera.
Just the other night I was sitting and watching Netflix with my wife. She was watching a Master Piece Theatre collection. Midway through the first episode I said, “So it’s basically a soap opera set in the 1800’s?” “Yeah, basically,” she said. (She’s much more mature about these sorts of things than I am).
So there’s my thought. All storytelling is a soap opera in some form or another. Life is a soap opera. That’s why romance novel’s sell like hotcakes, and teenage angsty stories like Twilight capture the hearts of the young. What’s Pride and Prejudice if not a soap opera from a different era? Greek tragedies? Soap operas. All stories are some form of emotional conflict wrapped up in the messiness that is the human condition.
Here’s your license to go out and write a soap opera. It’s just the degree of how obvious you make it that sets it apart from other works of art. Use too many clichés and you wander down the path of teenage melodrama, be inventive and you’ve got the next The Kite Runner. The choice is yours in so far as the degree, but not in the act placing drama in the story, for without it there is no story.
The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There was a knock on the door.
Jacob shifted in his chair. He tried squeezing the blood down the length of his right thigh, in an attempt to do the work his circulatory system seemed no longer willing to do. The prickling numbness in his foot did not go away, nor did the nock.
He looked from the window to the large set of drapes at the other side of the room. “How many times do we have to go through this?” he said to himself.
With a grunt that he used to try to conceal, he pushed his mass up from the recliner. Springs snapped back into place as he rose, hinges groaned their relief to be rid of him.
It took another series of knocks for Jacob to cross the room and reach the drapes. He dipped his hands between the folds of the dusty greens and spread them wide. “Yes, yes, what is it?”
Little Sophie looked up at him, her deep eyes as clear as ever even in spite of the inch of glass that separated them. Behind her huddled the other children, all trying to nudge their way to the front of the pack. Tiny elbows thrusting this way and that. Sophie turned to look at them, shooting scorn from one discontent to the next. Once settled, she turned back to Jacob.
“Mr. Jacob Sir, it’s the first of the month,” Sophie said.
“I’m well aware of what day it is. I need not be reminded by a child.”
Sophie’s head dipped, her gaze falling to the floor as she patted down the front of her worn jumper.
Jacob’s lip trembled with an apology but that was as far as he let it go. He pulled his lips up into a tight line and cast as cold a stare as he could muster out onto the wading children. “I suppose you’d like to know who gets to leave for vacation this month.”
Thirty heads all bobbed in agreement. Eager eyes peaked around the heads in front of them, everyone trying to be seen without displeasing old Jacob. He often wondered how they thought he chose. Did they think it by looks? Perhaps by manners?
“Get on with it then,” called a knotted haired boy from the back. He pushed and pulled those children that did not yield to his presence until he reached the front. He glowered at the others.
“Now you listen here, Cole,” Sophie said to him with pointed finger, “stop pushing everyone around. Just because you grew a little faster than the rest of us this past year is no reason for you to go bossing everyone around. Besides, no one with your manners ever gets to go on vacation, anyway. So you might as well go back to your grumbling in the corner.”
Cole’s palms slammed into Sophie’s chest, knocking her to the floor. “Keep yer grubby finger out of my face. I’ll do what I please. Aint no one here to stop me.” He shot a look across the others, then stared flatly at Jacob, “Is there?”
Jacob’s nostrils flared.
“So who is it then?” Cole asked. He walked over and grabbed one of the children by the hand and held it up. “Tommy? He’s been oh so good about keeping his fingernails clean. Or maybe Sue,” he grabbed the little blonde by the arm and pulled her forward, “she stacks up her toys oh so nice like.”
A twisted smile deformed his lips as he let the two children go and sauntered over to where Sophie sat on the ground. His fingers plunged into curly hair and he hauled her up by it. “Or what about little miss perfect? She’s the most deserving of us all, aint she?”
The collective gasps of the children crackled through the speakers as Jacob reached for the lock on the door. Their eyes, even those cold orbs of Cole’s, watched his fingers hesitate in mid air. All was still. Not even Sophie, with her hair tugging at the roots, dared move. He stayed himself.
That wicked smile of Cole’s, that for a moment had weakened, sprung back to life as Jacob’s hand fell to his side.
“No,” Jacob said. “We have a new system. Vacations are no longer granted on merit.”
The collective shock left even Cole speechless.
“There are far too few of you now, and it has become quite the task to choose between you. So it is that I must introduce a lottery.”
Hushed whispers flitted through the stale air within the children’s chamber. They pressed closer to the glass as Jacob produced a small sack, holding it out for all to see.
“Each of your names has been written on a bit of paper. I will choose a name at random. This will give you all an equal chance as we near the end.” He swallowed hard.
He placed his hand into the bag, swirled his fingers around to give a good show of it, then pulled out a scrap. Their eyes, so transfixed on the paper, did not notice that Jacob did not bother looking at it before he called out the name written there, “Connie.”
There were the usual tears and celebrations. Some children sulked, others helped in packing. Most of the children wished her farewell at the special door at the other side of the room as she waited for Jacob to press the right sequence of buttons that opened it remotely. It slid open with a hiss, she stepped inside, her face all alit with expectation. The door closed, and with it Jacob pulled the drapes shut.
He crossed the room back to his chair and eased himself down. He pulled out a sheet of paper and began ripping it into pieces. “Computer,” he called. “Open ongoing journal, current date and time.” A beep acknowledged his request.
“Today is the tenth anniversary of the plague. I have just sent the one-hundred-and-twentieth test subject into the outside world.” He watched through the window as a light flashed above a door at the other end of the facility.
“Their immune systems continue to adapt with the increase of poison into their atmosphere, but I fear that they do so too slowly.”
The light stopped flashing and the door slid open. Connie, carrying a small case in one hand and a doll by its arm in the other, stepped out into the lush spring day.
“It used to be easy. Like picking guppies from a tank. There were so many that you couldn’t tell who was who. Not anymore.”
Connie dropped her things. She ran out into the thick grass, arms spread like a bird as she circled about.
“Now they all have names, personalities. I’ve tried my best to find reasons to test the troublesome ones without making it look like I’m rewarding bad behavior. It’s so important that they remain pleasant, that they go willingly. But with each one that goes, another one crops up. I’m afraid that no matter what I do, the world will end up being left to the kind of person who brought all of this about.”
He organized the twenty-nine pieces of paper and pulled out a pen, but had to brush away a tear before he could continue. Connie’s flight had slowed. Her head tilted oddly to one side as she tried to comprehend what she was looking at.
A familiar pain struck Jacob in his chest. He reached up and tried to rub it away.
She turned back towards the lab, eyes falling on the window that he watched through. When the tests first started he watched with scientific intrigue, noting every detail, but that grew more difficult over time. Eventually, he could not bear it, and stared at vital statistics on a monitor instead. Now he forced himself to watch. He owed them that much.
“Test subject number one-hundred-and-twenty has fared much better than those before her. She lasted ten minutes and thirty-seven seconds before her lungs gave way to the poison.”
A mechanical arm reached out from the lab and removed her still form from the field, placing it alongside the remains of her brothers and sisters.
“Her name was Connie,” he said as he set pen to paper and started in on writing next month’s name.
I was just about to skip posting a writerly thought for Thursday when inspiration struck. I got into bed around 3:30 in the morning, (why, I don’t know, because I wasn’t getting any writing done). At around a quarter to 8:00 my spidey senses started to tingle. I leapt up out of bed, threw on some track pants, tracked down my sandals and headed for the front door.
As I came around the back of the house yelling out “Mikha” in spite of my wife and son still snoozing away behind the bedroom window next to me, I found our dear, sweet dog out of her pen, a rag doll chicken in her maw. The wallop I gave her across snout made her reconsider her proximity to both the chicken and me. She ended up on a tether, the now traumatized and half naked chicken was escorted back into her coop, and I ended up back in the office, blood pumping too fast to consider going back to bed, especially with chicken number two still missing.
That’s where internet wandering came into the equation and a happy accident on YouTube. I stumbled across a video called “Confessions of an Erotica Writer.” (Don’t worry, the confessions aren’t nearly as titillating as one might expect/hope.) But as is often the case, something was said that made me think of writing in a different way.
The highlighted author, Rachel Kramer Bussel, mentioned that her writing tends to be a bit more daring when she writes under a male pseudonym. It didn’t sound like it was something that she intended on doing, that’s just how it turned out. So the question is: could we use that little mental trick to help us be more productive?
Superheroes fight crime under an alias. Both we and our characters act differently when we play dress up and head to a costume party. Could that same trick work for the heroic task of writing?
The question then becomes: when would we use it? It is important as writers to develop a platform and our name should be firmly cemented to that platform. Using a pseudonym would only weaken your platform, unless of course you are writing for a genre that is not a part of your niche. And what’s wrong with that? I think we all have other writing of some form or another.
David Farland, the creator of the Runelords series, started out in Science Fiction as himself, Dave Wolverton. When he wanted to cross over to Fantasy he had to do so via the pseudonym Farland. So you see, pseudonyms aren’t just for making sure your dear old granny doesn’t find out that all of those steamy love scenes she’s been reading were written by her little angel. You can use a pseudonym for anything, article writing, essays, commentary, moving from genre to genre. We all have a lot of other writing that we would like to get done and I’m wondering if sitting down and saying to ourselves, “Alright, I am Davina Steele, romance writer, it’s time to get to work,” might help us to not just get the writing done, but to let loose and have some fun with it.
What other avenues of writing could you consider coming up with a pseudonym for?
Me? Science Fiction, Political Essays, Construction and Farm How To articles, and maybe even a bit of the Erotica (though don’t ask me to share my pseudonym for it). And for those of you about to knock Romance or Erotica, keep in mind, those are writers who can feed themselves . . . via their writing.
“You have to know the people in the car before you see the car crash.” - Sol Stein Stein on Writing
What an interesting thought. Stein mentions this in passing when talking about flashbacks, but it got me to thinking. Project that into real life. What happens when most of us see an accident on the side of the road? “Oh, that sucks, wish everyone would stop rubbernecking so that I can get to where I’m going.”
But what happens the moment you catch a glimpse of a familiar tail light? You notice the same off blue color as a loved one’s Ford Explorer, the vehicle sitting upside down in the middle of the road. Then you spot a two year old college parking. Your stomach churns, heart starts pounding. Suddenly all of those people rubbernecking are in your way for an entirely different reason.
You have to get to that ambulance. You need to see inside, prove to yourself that you’re wrong. Suddenly, you care.
Our characters not only have to be real before we put them in peril, we have to have a reason to care about them too. If not, we don’t really give a damn what happens to them.
This advice comes in most handy at the very beginning of your story. We’re all told to start things off with a bang, to get our characters into action as quickly as possible, but make sure you’ve got your reader caring about your character before you put them in peril; otherwise, you’ll leave your reader strangling their steering wheel and cursing the cars in front of them until later that night when they get the call that the accident they passed was dear Aunt May.
For those of you that caught yesterday’s “Monday Funny,” I have to say, I really did come away from this latest installment of the Terminator franchise with an “eh” feeling. Aside from it being another restart, just like the Star Trek block buster, the obvious qualms with poor character motivation, scripting, acting and the like, the point of departure for me had to do with the science in their science fiction.
My snarky comment about the combustion engines is my techy side coming out and it’s a good lesson for writers of sci-fi and fantasy. When you are postulating what might be, be sure you really explore possibilities to the point of practicality and believability.
We are asked by the writers to believe that artificial intelligence grows to the point of becoming self aware. They continue to develop and advance technology to the point of creating life-like cylons (oops, wrong sci-fi). They have huge transformer style robots, gravity defying hover robots, they even develop the ability for time travel in the not too distant future of the current movie timeline. But, and this is where my tree hugger side comes in, they are still using outdated technology when it comes to their sport bike chasers.
Sure, those bikes were pretty cool, but come on. Am I to believe that these advanced robots think that it is practical to continue to harvest and refine fossil fuels, a limited resource, so that they can then pump petrol into combustion engines that need oil changes, engine maintenance and all of the other headaches that go along with the combustion engine design? Is it so off base to assume that they might have been able to make the advancements in battery technology that we supposedly lack? How did the old robots work? If I remember correctly, the nuclear power was something new, and I sure as heck don’t remember seeing any exhaust pipes coming out of the old Terminator’s butts.
So there you go, explode your science, whether it be pseudoscience of the future or magic in mystical realms. If guys can walk around saying “Shirack” and have light appear, why bother making candles? This merits a much closer look, and eventually it will, but for now I think this is a good writerly thought to keep in the back of your mind while you’re going about your process.
Well, it’s Friday, and I’m late with my post. Sigh. But I have a good excuse this time … an example from one of my stories! You see, the post actually inspired me to do some work on Spark and that led to me creating a flashback scene where I did not think about using one before. So, for those of you who haven’t read my writing yet, there’s a taste of it at the end. For those of you who have, and more importantly, those that have read Spark, this is brand new stuff for the ending which is heading in a totally new direction. So, while I’m late, you do get some writing with explanations of my thought process that I hope will help, and I get some work done. It’s a win win.
Now then, FLASHBACKS!
If you have a well developed character, one who is rich and entertaining, one that drives the plot forward with his mere presence and force of being … CONGRATULATIONS, how the heck did you do it? I and thousands if not millions more would like to know. But aside from your new found fame, you’ve likely got a little problem on your hands, a problem that stretches back years, maybe even decades, your character’s past.
At any given moment our existence is the culmination of layers upon layers of dried paint on a canvas, and no matter how many times we try to blot out what came before, we cannot get rid of the rolling textures that make up the layers beneath. If we try too hard to cover up the past, the surface cracks, betraying the truth of the sedimentary layers that lie under our carefully conceived surface.
When we meet someone new, we slowly become aware of what those layers of paint peaking through the surface are. We ask the painter why the whites seem a little washed out and he tells of how the sky was once a rich purple skyline under which two lovers sat. We note that the trees don’t quite fit the tropical scene and he tells us about how the trees were adapted from the ones he started as a child in the Deep South before he understood the kinds of lazy, crooked trees that grow on the shores.
Just as good friendships develop only when we are willing to reveal our pasts, so too does a good relationship between the reader and your character only begin when you can find a way to let your reader into the past of your character without hitting them over the head with telling. It’s achieved on many different levels, mannerisms, dialect, pet peeves, everything your character does, but those are only surface level reveals. At times we have to sit down and really have a heart to heart with our newfound friend. We have to open up and show them what we might be afraid to share because of our fears of how that new information will color their perception.
Flashbacks can be a peak into those intimate moments that the character might not otherwise reveal. We’re not just looking into the character’s thoughts, we’re looking into their past. Since we are going backwards in time, we run the risk of stopping the momentum of the story. The trick to keeping the story moving forward while reflecting on the past is to make the flashback reveal something about the current situation creating a deeper meaning than would have otherwise been impossible.
Items of note:
- The flashback should work as a rich, clearly defined scene set in the past, but presented in the present. This is not an info dump; it is a scene just like any other. At least, it is if you want your reader to enjoy it.
- Spring your flashback on the reader, quickly and smoothly. To do otherwise might send some readers skipping ahead so that they can get back to the action.
- Avoid had. If you must use it, do so only when you are entering your scene and then never again. Had likes to crop up in flashbacks and is the tell tale sign that you’re not writing and immediate scene.
- Also avoid then. “And then this happened.” Not so immediate, is it?
- Remember to have a clear and powerful trigger to incite this flashback. The memory your character is calling up is likely not one that they want to think about, so the trigger must be a strong one.
- Don’t forget the reveal. Your flashback should shed light on something that could not have otherwise been done through the present storyline.
- Your flashback should be clearly related to the present story, matching up seamlessly at the beginning and end. This way your reader is not removed from the text or the flow of the story. A seamless fit keeps the story moving forward.
- Dialogue is a nice way to quickly bring your flashback into the immediate. “Joe remembered what Bob said to him the first time they met. ‘You ain’t so bright, is ya?’ Joe shook his head at him, ‘what? Is that even English?’
- Above all else, you have to be sure that you cannot communicate your flashback information in another way. What are other ways? In dialogue: “Hey, aren’t you that guy who did that one thing?” Thoughts: Joe was hoping that Bob would not recognize him from the article they ran in the paper when he did that one thing.
Now then, I thought I might share an example from my own work. It just so happens that in the rewrite of Spark’s ending I came up with the idea of using a flashback rather than a scene jump. In the previous version Silas’ ability flares, a man falls, and then I section break and head into Act III which is staged elsewhere later in the evening. This time I wanted to carry over more of the emotion I had been building towards the end of Act II. I still section break, but this time I have Silas open his eyes and:
Silas opened his eyes and found the broken remains of Victor lying at his feet. The man coughed. Blood spattered to his lips like the sputtering of a volcano at the end of its life. With each nearly imperceptible fall of his chest came a slow wheeze that clawed its way up Victor’s throat. The sound called up memories that Silas tried to shake away, older memories than Victor was looking for.
He was back home driving a sputtering tractor held together by rust and too much axel grease. The air, thick with humidity, hung low to the ground that day, held in place by a warm shift in the air pressure that forecasted a coming storm. He turned the hauler back toward the barn and caught sight of a familiar black and white blur crossing over to the south. Skip darted back and forth in front of the tractor, chasing anything that moved. A covey of quail burst into the air, their whooping protests barely audible over the steady pop pop of the diesel engine. They swung around to the west towards a low hanging sun, their wings just missing the tips of cornstalks leading to the house. He followed their flight until the machine lurched with a yelp.
Gears ground in his panicked attempt to stop the stubborn machine. If father had seen it he would have caught hell but he was not thinking of father. Even if the old man was standing over him instead of halfway back to the house in the combine, Silas’ reaction would have been the same. The tractor hiccupped to a stop that probably led to the hours of wrench work in the weeks that followed.
Silas was on the ground by the time the tire tread settled into place. He knelt down next to a still lump of fur, too afraid to touch it for fear it might lash out in pain. A cool blue eye looked up at him sideways, doing the turning that the dog’s neck seemed unable to. He saw a kind of permission there, an invitation to help him. Silas slipped his hands beneath the limp form and hoisted it up.
Father’s combine was too far away to call out to, the farm even further. He headed towards the road. No sooner did he cross through the ditch water and onto the road than an old Ford eased to a stop, the wooden slats of its bed rattling in time with the engine.
“Need some help?” called a tar choked voice from the cab. Silas nodded and the man told him to get in. Silas started to climb up on the bed when the passenger door swung open letting out a waft of sweet tobacco. A leathered hand waved him in, wet jeans and all.
Silas did not know old Mr. Slone. Nor did he want to. If he was anything like his children or his grandkids, then he was just another self-absorbed old codger who cared for nothing more than the next farm he was about to buy up. “Keep the pup up front with us, son,” he said as Silas started to lay Skip down on the bed.
He didn’t take Silas home. They drove over ten miles to the home of the local vet. Halfway there, Skip nuzzled into Silas and let out a clipped sigh that his lungs never rose from. Silas did not say anything at first but mother’s proprieties eventually won out. No sense in having a stranger go even further out of his way because he did not want to accept the truth.
“I think he’s –”
“Almost there, just a couple more miles,” the man said without looking at him, eyes fixed on a road that anyone in town could have driven blindfolded.
“That’s what I’m trying to say, I don’t think he’ll be able to do anything.” Silas paused for a deep breath. “It’s too late.”
“All of God’s creatures deserve every chance they can get. He was willing to make it this far, it’s the least we can do to take him the rest of the way.”
The Mr. Slone was waiting for him after the vet was done. They wrapped skip in an old blanket so that he could be buried back on the farm under his favorite shade tree. “My house is just down the road. It’s supper time and I’m sure both of our families are getting worried. Why don’t you have dinner with us and we’ll phone your folks from there?”
That was the night he met Mr. Slone’s granddaughter, a determined girl a few years behind him in school but years his senior when it came to maturity save for one thing. All through dinner she stared at him like she was trying to figure out a puzzle tattooed on his forehead. She insisted on riding back with them after the last of the gravy had been sopped up. When they got to Silas’ she walked with him to the front door as he carried Skip.
There was no one with him now, to knock on doors. No one willing to stop their car for a grown man carrying another grown man as grizzled as Victor down the street in his arms. Passersby ignored him even as the rain began to fall. Silas watched through shop windows as a vender raced from his counter to the door, latching it just before he could get there. “Sorry, we closed. No, no, you go away. Closed now. Come back tomorrow.”
Admittedly, this probably still needs work, but it gives you an idea of what I have in mind. I’m trying to do several things with this flashback:
First, identity: I wanted to help the reader identify with Silas a little bit more. In various incarnations of the story I had tried to reveal Silas’ upbringing and his life pre-city but failed to do so appropriately. I also wanted the reader to get the sense that he has character.
Second, past: I have an antagonist who is not fleshed out and who also needed a hint of back-story, something that allowed the reader to believe in the bond Silas has with her without spending a great deal of time on it.
Third, emotion: I wanted to draw that pain and suspense out, and it was going to be difficult to do that with two grown men, one of whom is a hit man. However, if you insert cute family dog into that scenario, you not only explain how it is that Silas can be so empathetic, but you can also allow him to feed on emotions that the reader might not otherwise be aware of.
Fourth, foreshadowing: The past is relating to the present in a clearly and possibly hinting at something in the future.
Fifth, comparison: I seem to have a theme that runs through my contemporary fantasy that has to do with comparing city life to rural life. It probably stems from my time living in San Francisco during my art school years. While I love visiting the city, I’d never want to live there. On the other hand, I’m a bit too much of a culture snob to fully appreciate the country experience. It lends itself well for writing because I experience everything, but when it comes to real life it leaves me as an outsider because I just don’t fit in. Le sigh.
Now, go forth and flashback. Oh, and comment ... and add ... and spred the word.
Edit 090802: I should note that this flashback has since been cut from the story. Upon further reflection and consultation with my crit partner, I realized that I was trying to tell the reader too much. When I explained to my crit partner what I was trying to do with the romance bit and how convoluted the relationships were, she said, "Yeah, I kind of already got that," meaning she understood the relationship without having to be told about it. I never told her all of the backstory, she picked it up from the way the characters interacted.
While I was very much looking forward to adding all that extra writing in, I had to take a long hard look at the story and decide if my flashback was necessary or something I was adding in to make myself feel better. Turned out I was adding it in to make myself feel better. So this serves as an object lesson in not being afraid to pull out the hatchet and whack away when it is called for.
It is worth noting that as the writer, I needed to work through this segment for myself. That flashback had to be written so that I could understand my characters better. Without it, I might still be wondering around in my head unsure as to why characters were doing things. So if you feel compelled to write your flashback, by all means, do so, just be sure to pay extra attention to it when you come back through with your red pen of death.
I’ve got a fun one. I was wracking my brain trying to come up with a Thursday writerly thought because I’ve done so well at posting each day this week and didn’t want to fail right towards the end. The idea of the writerly thoughts is just to pose an idea rather than go into a lengthy discussion (so someone tell my why these still come out so long) but there were no thoughts to be had. Then my wife and I went and visited our favorite Chiropractor, Dr. Brown. While we were not having our bones cracked (Dr. Brown does gentle chiropractics) the good doctor told us about how he was going to a 70’s themed dress up party in a couple of weeks. Melody mentioned how much fun dress up parties are and that got me to thinking. This all led to a creative accident as I referred back to something one of my writing group partners has mentioned about the Renaissance Faire and how much more fun people have when they can hide behind a mask even if it is just an outfit.
Here was my thought: we’re staging a masquerade of some sort, you decide what kind whether it be All Hollow’s Eve, a themed 70’s party, or a Faire of some sort. The character of the piece you are working on is invited. What do they go as? More importantly, how do they act?
This is meant as a window into your Pro’s inner thinking. You see, we all try to project who we are to the outside world, that socially acceptable version of ourselves, but we can’t help but let a little bit of what we really want to be shine through during those moments of play. The same holds true for our very real characters. What inner truth hidden from everyone else would be revealed in a setting like this? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
I’d love to hear what people come up with for this. Again, I just made this up today. If it is a part of some writing book somewhere I was not aware of it. This reminds me, if this concept is a part of a book somewhere, let me know, because obviously that is one smart cat and I need to be reading that book. :) So, post your party theme, costume, and character’s liberation in the comments, or post the name of the book I need to be reading.
And a great big thank you to all of you who have suggested the blog to others. You can pay a writer no better compliment than recommending their work, no matter what form it comes in.
Today’s writerly thought comes straight from my own self limiting behaviors: Perfectionism. This is how it works,
“I’ve really got to get the rewrite done on this story but the only time that I have available to work on it is late at night when everyone is asleep. Then, just when I start to write, the baby wakes up and needs to be rocked back to sleep. When I finally get back to the computer I’ve managed to lull myself into a state of near sleep as well. The words don’t flow the way I want them to, they don’t sing, they’re not perfect. I’ll just see what’s up on FaceBook, and MySpace, and in G-Mail, … and maybe I’ll catch that last episode of ‘Legend of the Seeker,’ and now I’ve got an hour before bed and what can I really get done in an hour that will come out good? I should just put off writing until tomorrow. Hopefully life will be ideal then.”
Of course, it doesn’t stop there; it crops up in just about everything. Creating a website, drawing, working in the vegetable garden, or even putting together the blog finds me fighting my own inner critic to the point where I often don’t get things done. Or at least, that’s the way it was. (Keeping fingers crossed).
You see, perfectionism is great because what it allows you to do is say, “I won’t do anything unless I can put forward my best effort.” So when you don’t have the time, energy, money, materials or any other of a long list of limiters, you allow yourself to not do anything at all. By not doing anything you always have the chance to say, “I could be great, but because I refuse to try, you can’t say that I don’t have that potential.” It’s a sort of catch twenty-two. In reality, the reason we perfectionists don’t try is because we are afraid both of failure and also of success.
Yes, I said success. Has to do with that whole lowered expectations thing. If you succeed and do a good job, people might expect more out of you. And what if you can’t deliver? What if you can’t string the right words together next time? What will they say?
I think that a lot of writers are like this. We want everything to be perfect, so we wait and wait and wait, and never get anything done. We outline things to death, we start first draft after first draft, or edit over and over, never submitting, never finishing, and why? Because we’re afraid.
Today, I invite you to face your fears with me and put aside the quest for perfection. Allow yourself to write towards something. I’m starting by putting up this far from perfect post. What are you going to work on?
As the blog develops I am going to make small tweaks and changes. We’ve already set up the rule about Friday’s with regards to a long, thought provoking post. Monday’s are apparently going to be humorous days in one way or another. This comes from all of those “Friday Funnies” things you see. Even though the alliteration doesn’t work quite as well with Monday and Funny (okay, so it doesn’t work at all) but I figured, who needs help getting through a Friday, it’s Mondays when we really drag our butts.
This brought up a suggestion that a reader suggested via email. He wanted me to address finding the energy to get the work done. While that topic is one or more Friday posts, the idea that we could all use a “Kick in the pants” was not lost on me. And so, I think that I’ll try to offer up short writerly thoughts on some if not all of the in between days. I’ll offer them merely as something to keep in mind or hopefully spur a new line of thinking in your writing. Our first one is ….
Who Have You Killed Lately?
All stories that keep us turning pages are wrought with conflict. The amount of conflict is directly proportional to the amount of risk involved. And what’s the ultimate risk … well, that depends on what you’re writing. It could be death, the end of the world, the end of several worlds, the end of all life everywhere, or maybe even the death of God (see His Dark Materials). But whatever that risk is, it needs to not only be seen by your Pro, but felt by them as well.
George R. R. Martin is legendary for this. Although this pisses some of his readers off, he makes his worlds as realistic as possible by exempting no one from ultimate risk. You could be happily playing along in the head of your new favorite character when wham they’re dead. Sorry folks, that’s life. Sometimes you get to stick around for a while, sometimes not.
So, that’s our question for the day, Who have you killed lately? Mind you, you don’t actually have to kill someone … in your story (for those of you thinking in real life, please see a therapist, NOW). But seriously, how have you reinforced in the mind of both your reader and your character that there is a threat to your protagonist’s happily ever after moment?
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