Of Books and Beer

My first home made beer

My first home made beer

We’re going to do something fun today. As I’ve maintained this blog over the past several months, I’ve thought about what it means to be Indie. Indie publishing; Indie music; Indie film…they all have to do with not moving beyond consumption of a product toward developing it yourself. Putting your own stamp on it, as it were, outside the regulations, cultural mores, or “supposed-to-haves” of the traditional model.

And as I thought about this, it occurred to me that I’m doing something similar with my newest hobby–making beer.

I’ve wanted to try home brewing for quite a while, and after pulling out my first batch this past weekend, I can say it was a really fun experience. I enjoy a good beer, but there’s nothing quite like sipping your own brew. A satisfaction not altogether unlike seeing your book in the Amazon store. In fact, home brewing isn’t that different from writing and publishing your own work, once you get past the malt and yeast.

So, for a bit of fun, here’s a few reasons why Home Brewing is like Indie Publishing:

The recipes vary, but you always start with the same ingredients
The great thing I’m learning about beer is that once you get past the Budweisers and Coors and Alexander Kieth’s (previously my favourite), there’s an enormous variety out there. Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown tastes like hazlenut and chocolate; Weihenstephaner makes a dunkel that’s like buttered and toasted rye; the Vermont Pub and Brewery makes their own sour beer that’s like a mix between cider and brandy. But when you get down to it, this incredible variety comes down to four ingredients: malt, yeast, hops and water.

Likewise, there’s as many different types of fiction as there are writers. Our trade defines variety by way of our creativity. And yet, any good story has essential ingredients like plot, character, conflict, a call to action, and so on. As with great beer, the variety comes with how those ingredients play off each other, and how well you use them.

You have to know the rules before you break them
In beer making, sanitising is paramount. It’s so easy for your beer to become infected from the tools you use, not washing your hands, even yeast that’s gone off. The result is a lot of bad flavours in the beer–or worse, a bacterial infection. But there’s an exception to every rule: sour beer is, quite literally, beer that’s become infected and been allowed to develop “off flavours.” It’s an aquired taste, but much sought after in the craft brew world. The thing is, you can’t just infect your beer and hope it will turn out–you have to know what you’re doing, and where it’s appropriate to introduce an infection that might otherwise kill your brew.

The best writers know when to follow the rules, and when to break them. They can tell instead of showing and get away with it. They can add pages of flat exposition with such flair that the reader doesn’t care. Star Wars has some of the most tired and overused tropes in storytelling–but it works, because Lucas knew how to make those cliches work for him. Anyone can break all the rules and try to be revolutionary–only an artist can pull it off.

It’s not impossible, but it’s not simple
The first thing that surprised me when learning how to make beer was how easy it looked. The second thing was how difficult is really was. Beer making really comes down to balancing your ingredients properly, adding things at the right times, and making sure everything is clean. You can pick up a brew kit as a complete novice and brew a decent batch in six weeks with no experience or hand holding. But if you want to be good at it, you have to hone your craft. I’ve talked to people who’ve gone deep enough to grow their own malt, hops, and yeast. It’s one of those things where you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.
Writing’s much the same. Anyone can put a plot on the page, but that’s not really writing. It seems easy, and on the surface, it is–many writers plonk down their first draft without breaking a sweat. But it’s the crafting of that story that’s hard, and I’d venture to say that few people become absolute masters. The really good writers are the ones who make it look easy, knowing full well just how difficult it really is. But on the other hand, it’s not an unapproachable craft–just pick up a pen, put it to the page, and see where it takes you. Like beer making, you can go as deep as you want.

Carelessness can ruin the batch
Remember what I said about sterilization? I’d say at least 70% of the time it took to brew my first batch was taken up with cleaning. It took me fully an hour and a half to properly clean all the bottles before I was able to prime my beer–filling them took about twenty minutes. Fortunately, there are tools to help cut down that time, but it’s still crucially important. And it’s not just proper cleaning–if you add your hops at the wrong time, you’ll introduce an oily bitter taste; too much malt can make it overly sweet; not allowing it to ferment long enough can produce exploding bottles that sends glass through drywall. There’s an adage in the craft brew world that it’s really hard to completely ruin a batch, but by the same token, if you don’t watch what you’re doing, it’s not going to turn out as you like.
You can probably see where I’m going with this one. The Indie Publishing oeuvre is rife with badly edited or composed books. I’ve read some that had a decent story, but were nearly impossible to get through because of paper thin characters and ridiculous spelling mistakes. These are people who haven’t made full use of the resources available to them, or have simply sent out a book they wanted to publish in a hurry, long before it was ready. It might not take an English major to write a good novel, but a writer at least needs to take good care of their story. Otherwise, like bad beer, it’s just hard to swallow. Which leads to…

Patience, patience, patience!
This last one is probably the most important, and it’s easy to fall victim to it on both fronts. A hastily published book–without proper editing, cover art, formatting and so on–is pretty obvious. It turns readers off, and can damage your platform. And a lot of writing is about getting those fine details right–not just spelling and white space, but asking if your character arcs make sense, or if your continuity’s off. These are things that can’t be accomplished on your first draft–you need to be patient as you work them out.

Likewise, patience is the absolute key when brewing beer. One of the biggest reasons a batch can fail is because it was rushed–and in fact, many first time brewers dump a batch that would have been perfectly fine, given time to condition properly.
I’m experiencing this right now, actually. My first batch was scheduled to finish last Friday, so I put a couple bottles in the fridge. After more than six weeks of anxiously waiting to tip back the first bottle, I was chomping at the bit–but the first glass (pictured above) tasted watery and thin. The flavour was there, but something was missing.
I did some research, and found that this is pretty common–it just means it hasn’t had enough time to carbonate. Notice that it’s got a thick head but almost no bubbles in the beer? The carbonation is coming out of the beer too fast; it hasn’t had time to properly dissolve in the liquid. So I’m leaving it for now, and will try another bottle each week until it’s ready–be patient!

Okay, a bit longer than usual, but I had some fun writing this post. If you enjoy beer and haven’t thought about making it, pop over to Home Brew Talk to learn more. Or visit your local home brew store–usually they’ll sell wine kits too. There is an initial investment, but honestly it’s not hard to do–and what beer aficionado wouldn’t love to quaff his own hand made brew?

Mind Maps Done Right–Scapple for Windows is Here!

I didn’t intend to do a post today, but got an exciting announcement via Twitter this week–Scapple for Windows is in a free open beta!

Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I’m a fan of Literature and Latte’s word processing program Scrivener–most Indie writers use it, or have at least tried it. But, it’s a MAC OS program, and took a while to come to Windows. The ‘port is extremely useful, though it lacks a few of the features of the MAC version. If you haven’t already, you can check it out here.

Scapple is the much-touted companion program to Scrivener. It’s mind-mapping software–you can jot your ideas down on the virtual page, connect them, move them around, and generally brainstorm to your heart’s content. I’ve been using Microsoft OneNote for this, and it works fine…but it’s lacking. It doesn’t integrate with Scrivener, I’ve had issues synchronizing files across computers, and using it alongside Scrivener is counter-intuitive.
Scapple does integrate with Scrivener (well, sort of…keep reading), and being made by the same company, the two programs are designed to work in concert. But Windows users have had to wait patiently while MAC users reap the benefits of this robust program.

Until now. If you’re a Windows user, you can go here to download the open beta, and try it for yourself.

My first impression of this product is that it’s…impressive. There’s a unique simplicity to it–there’s zero pretense. It’s brainstorming software, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some people may not like that it doesn’t have a billion features, but I rather prefer it–it’s like an extension of Scrivener, and that’s all it needs to be.

Here’s what you do: double click anywhere in the program window, type your note. Double click elsewhere to type another note–then drag that to the first one to create a connection. (Press the Alt key as you do this to create an arrow). Do it again to remove the connection.

And apart from a few tricks, that’s it. But really, it’s all that’s needed. Very nice. Here’s a screenshot after I fiddled with it for a few minutes:

Simple!

Simple!

Now, keep in mind that this is a beta. I noticed that the spellcheck doesn’t work correctly (it would insert the correct spelling into the middle of a word, creating an extra-wrong spelling). More importantly, the Scrivener integration doesn’t seem to have been added yet.* You can export your Scapple file and insert it into Scrivener, but the Drag and Drop feature doesn’t work–probably because it requires you to use Scrivener’s “Free Form Corkboard” feature, which isn’t available in Windows.

*Marta posted a workaround in the comments below. Simply create a Scapple file then add it as a Project Reference in Scrivener. Whenever you open Scrivener, you cal right click on the project reference and open in the default editor–bingo! It’s not exactly imported into Scrivener, but it’s as good as. I’ve tried it and it works like a charm. Thanks for the tip, Marta!

Still, it’s an excellent tool to complement an already excellent tool. Definitely recommended! I’m going to continue playing with it, and will probably post about it again soon–in the meantime, try it for yourself, and tell me what you think!

Scapple is available in open beta until September 15 2013. Once version 1.0 is ready, it will go on sale, probably for the same price as the MAC version at $14.99. Here’s a features page–but keep in mind it’s for the MAC version.

Chekov’s Neglected Gun

by ToastyKen c/o Flikr

Anton Chekov is the bane of many a theatre arts student. His plays are long, tedious, and famous for having little (apparent) movement in the plot. He relied less on overt conflict and more on what he termed a “theatre of mood,” resulting in little action with tons of subtext. It’s tough to wade through and analyse, but it’s thoroughly brilliant work.

But the thing I remember most of my studies of Chekov is his shotgun. To paraphrase, he urged writers to remove everything irrelevant from a story–if you have a shotgun on the wall in act one, someone better fire it in act three.

It’s a simple concept, and seems quite obvious–why introduce a character or MacGuffin if you don’t intend to use it?–but it’s shocking how often it’s ignored. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but literature, TV and film is rife with examples of neglected firearms. A lot of the time, they show themselves as plot holes and hanging threads–things the author fully intended to resolve, but for some reason didn’t. (I suspect that it sometimes comes with editing–changing a certain scene without realising that the change has repercussions elsewhere.)

I think this is one of the cardinal sins of writing, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes in describing a scene or setting a mood, I’ll introduce elements that I have no intention of revisiting, because mood or description is their only purpose. To an extent, that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope. Adding a brief mention of some exotic fruit that only exists on a single island can create a sense of wonder or alienness…but spend too much time describing it to the reader, and they’ll assume it’s an important plot point.

The big risk, in my opinion, comes with World Building. When you’re building a world for you characters to play in, it’s crucial to have a lot of detail: everything from social customs to geography to how that world works. When a writer does that much work on a story, it’s easy to want to reveal it to the reader–and the more little things you reveal, the more complete your world appears. But there’s a fine line here, as your readers will expect you to follow up on those small details.

Lost was a horrible example of this. It was obvious from the pilot that the writers wanted to instil a sense of mystery about the show, and I’m sure there were things they never intended to disclose. On the one hand, it worked–while it was running, fans had a rabid passion for developing theories explaining what the writers left unexplained, creating a wake of obsessed viewers(myself among them). On the other hand, the finale was a letdown because of all the loose ends–that sense of mystery was created, but it backfired, leaving many viewers frustrated (myself among them).

But it’s not always this simple. There are ways in which leaving that gun on the wall can actually work pretty well. One great example is the film Midnight in Paris, about a writer disillusioned about his present, longing to live in a bygone era. What could have turned out to be a relatively mundane exploration of wistfulness was made a terrific movie with a simple conceit: at midnight, he always finds a car that transports him to 1920s Paris where he can hobnob his literary heroes. The time travel angle is very important to the story, but it’s never explained–it’s hardly acknowledged. Beyond a couple mentions here and there, it’s simply accepted and left there, hanging on the wall.

But it works. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s nothing more than a conceit. The time travel itself doesn’t matter at all of the story, except as a plot device–the story is really about learning to appreciate your present and stop looking backward. It’s a shotgun, but we don’t care that it’s not used because doing so would almost contradict the very theme of the film–or, at the least, it would greatly reduce the impact. And here we come full circle to Chekov–the film uses this conceit not to move the plot forward, but to create a mood that suits the film.

Still, this isn’t an easy thing to pull off. It’s much easier to take that shotgun off the wall, load it, and fire. Or cut it entirely.

What are your favourite (or most frustrating) shotguns? I’d love to hear your comments!

The Descent: an Innovative Contest Where the Indies Win

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Kobo fanboy. Kobo was my introduction to e-books, and I’ve never tried another platform (beyond installing other companies’ apps on my Kobo), and I don’t really care to. I’ve found a nice home there, and that works for me.

One thing I really like about Kobo as a company is that they truly support their Indie Writers. Kobo Writing Life is a great program, as many Indies can attest. But for the most part (and this is just my opinion), Indie books are still somewhat underground–someone has to point them out to you. Fortunately, that’s changing quickly–and Kobo has an innovative way to help bring about that change.

J.F. Penn is well known enough in the Indie world that she doesn’t need an introduction. Suffice it to say that the author of the Arcane series is at the forefront of our industry, and an incredible representative of the Indie Community. She’s a powerhouse, to be sure, and a concrete example of how writers like us can make this work.  Now, Penn is working with Kobo to present a truly unique contest: The Decent.

The short of it is this: for three weeks, Kobo will release a short story written by Penn. Within those stories is a series of clues which the reader has to ferret out and assemble. This will lead the reader to a secret web page where they can enter to win a grand prize of $5000. Sounds like fun, right? Well, here’s the best part: all of this is part of a promotion for Dan brown’s coming novel, Inferno.

Okay, hear me out before you browse away from me. I can hear you now: this blog is about the Indie community, why are you writing about a contest for a Dan Brown book? Believe me, I had my own reservations at first. I enjoy Brown’s novels, but let’s be honest–they’re not the pinnacle of English Literature. And he’s about the furthest thing away from an Indie writer you could imagine. So why write about it here?

The reason is that this puts Indie writers squarely in the spotlight. Well, one writer in particular, but this is important: J.F. Penn, a voice of the Indie Community, is being advertised alongside Dan Brown. People who are lusting after Brown’s book will learn about Penn–and when they learn about Penn and her self-publishing success, they may explore more Indie writers. Even better, it validates our industry; if Dan Brown is in the big leagues and Penn is playing ball with him, it reflects very well on the rest of us.

Now, to be honest, there are those who will read Penn’s stories, click through to the contest without realizing who she is in the Community, and never give Indies a second thought. But there will be those who are intrigued enough by her work to explore her other books; they’ll see that she operates under her own imprint, The Creative Penn, and isn’t attached to a large publishing house; they’ll visit her webpage and see that she offers marketing advice for people wanting to publish their own books. And that is a direct open door to the Indie Community. And besides all that, the very fact that Kobo is associating Brown with an Indie writer in this way is very telling: it shows that they have a stake in the Indie community, and are willing to invest in us in a real way. This contest might be going out to the world, but really, I think the Indie Community has already won.

I thought about reviewing Sins of Temptation, the first of Penn’s three stories, but have decided against it. I wouldn’t want to inadvertently give spoilers that turn out to be clues. If someone wants to enter this contest, they should run the gamut themselves. I will say this about it: it’s decent, and left me wanting more. It’s rather short, though it’s intended to be. And it has a distinct flavour to it that is more than reminiscent of Brown’s novels. Which, I should add, I think is a good thing.

But don’t take my word for it. You can find the first entry here, and it’s free! The second entry was supposed to be released today, but was available online Wednesday–you can find Sins of Violence here. The third and final story will be released next week. This contest is exclusive to Kobo, however, so if you don’t have an account you’ll have to make one. The account is free too, and Kobo has a great store, so you won’t be disappointed.  Finally, if you don’t have a Kobo, keep in mind that they have several apps that can be run on different devices, or even on your computer.

So go out, pick up the books (supporting a fellow Indie) and spread the word–the more people who see this, the better it is for all of us. Happy sleuthing!

This contest is run and operated by Kobo Inc. You can find the full rules and conditions here.

Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

Weaving a Tapestry: a Creative Experiment

I’ve talked before about my Tapestry project–a series of stories and novels, each based on a different facet of the Tarot. I’ve also spoken at length of how it’s fallen apart. For a while I considered abandoning the project (a fate that this story has suffered many times in the past decade), but I kept on it, mostly thanks to this blog (which keeps me accountable) and the Indie Writer’s Community (which inspires me to no end). But the fact remains that the project, sadly, has ground to a halt.

So I decided to try something radical to inject some much needed life into the project, something I’ve never done before: a pre-determined plot.

But not like you’d think. I didn’t want to just take a tired trope or formula and churn out a “well made story;” I still wanted something creative and true to the structure of the greater Tapestry project. So I went back to the Tarot.

Tarot is a wonderful tool for a writer (whether you believe in it or not) because essentially, all it does is tell stories. You draw cards randomly and arrange them in a pattern, then read them in a certain order while relating the disparate meanings of each card. The simplest spread is done in three cards: past, present, future. Or, in terms of storytelling, beginning, middle and end.

A simple three card spread

A simple three card spread

I’ll give an overview of this reading as an example. The Priestess represents spiritual growth and intuition, a “lifting of the veil” to find something innate; the Knight of Wands is direct, full of forward momentum, and has a tendency to burn out for all that energy; the Ten of Wands is a symbol of a great project that’s been very successful–almost too much so, as it’s now become so large it can only be sustained through immense effort. If this were the plot of a story, it would be of a protagonist who has great ambitions but ignores their intuition in favour of quick (even reckless) action. The result is that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. There’s a further layer in Tarot; in this spread, the Knight is clearly turning away from the Priestess, but the figure in the last card is working his way toward her, with the Knight “standing guard” in his way. He knows the project is too large, and wants to get back to the “core” of things–but his exuberance and demand for results is preventing any real progress.

It’s the beginning of a fascinating story, which brings me to my point. I wanted to kick start my creativity, so I decided to write four short stories (each based on a different element, the backbone of the “world” of my stories). I drew five Tarot spreads, one more than I needed so I had some leeway. Each spread is intended to be a vague outline of a story, which I’d explore from there.

I was excited to try this; after all, the rest of the project is steeped in Tarot symbolism, and one part of it will follow the “Fool’s Journey” laid out in the Major Arcana–why not try to develop a story from a spread of cards? It appeals to me because each spread is random–unique–and because it would be a challenge to fit my world and themes into whatever came up.

But–there’s the rub.

Has this experiment worked? Yes and no. It’s certainly got me to thinking about my world and characters again, which is great. On the other hand, I find I’m trying to shoehorn that world and its characters into the spreads that come up. To a certain extent, it feels inauthentic. Part of that can be explained with last week’s post about plot vs concept. I’m not sure much will come out of it in terms of actual writing. If I can develop these plots into concepts and further into fully fledged stories, this will have worked. But only then.

In the meantime, it’s an interesting project. I want to continue toying with them; the spreads I came up with all have their own personalities and stories, as Tarot spreads always do. The thing I love most about Tarot is that it makes so much sense when you string everything together. These cards are based on archetypes that exist for a reason–they’re buried in our collective unconscious, as Jung would say–and the interplay of various archetypes is what writing and storytelling is all about. You don’t even need to believe in divination to get some benefit from this–just enjoy the art and the tales the cards tell.

But–for those of you who, like myself, believe that Tarot can enunciate things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have otherwise, this spread in particular spoke to me. It’s a clear allegory of what I’ve been going through with my Tapestry project as a whole: I have a great idea that speaks to me, burst out of the gate with dozens of ideas I wanted to implement immediately–then watched as it fell under its own weight. Of course, it’s only one in the five I drew. It’s quite an interesting coincidence, I’d say–though there are those who don’t believe in coincidence…

For those that are interested, the deck I used here is the Gilded Tarot by Barbara Moore with art by Ciro Marchetti, which is available at Amazon and many other vendors. It’s become my “go-to” deck because it’s based on the Rider-Waite (the ‘seminal’ Tarot deck) but with much better artwork. If you’re interested in Tarot, this is a good deck to start with, though I’d recommend getting a separate book to help you learn the cards; the one included with the deck is helpful, but not as thorough as others.

How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

If you Love Them…

Ruby Sparks

This weekend, my wife and I watched a delightful movie called Ruby Sparks. It has a fun premise: a writer struggling to complete (well, start) the follow-up to his wildly successful first novel creates a character straight out of his dreams–and somehow makes her real. Ruby is everything he’s written down, and he’s able to change her simply by starting a new page. It reminded me a lot of Stranger Than Fiction,though from the opposite angle (and, frankly, more well done). As people who watch movies, we enjoyed it; it poses some interesting ethical questions, and it’s well written and produced.

But as a writer, it really got me thinking.

What writer wouldn’t want to be able to converse with their characters in the flesh? What would it mean to the story you’re crafting? How much more developed would your characters be if you could take them out for a coffee interview? Sounds like a pretty interesting opportunity.

But this movie isn’t really about a writer whose character becomes real. It’s about a writer who gets so attached to his character that he can’t distinguish her as such–she becomes a girlfriend and lover, instead, and he even stops “writer her” for a time because of it. The result, of course, is that he sets aside his work, only developing her character/story when it suits him to do so (watch it for specifics–no spoilers here). The movie treats this in a very literal way, but there’s an unspoken metaphor underlying the film: what happens when you get too attached to an ideal?

In the movie, Ruby starts to grow on her own, according to the backstory and personality Calvin has “written into” her. A natural way for a character to develop; I think we’ve all had characters run amok in our stories once they have enough steam of their own, as it were. But she grows in unexpected ways, so the prime conflict of the movie becomes Calvin trying to mold her into his perfect woman. Again, lots of ethical questions and considerations here, but the point is that Ruby isn’t what he expects, and those expectations cause a lot of trouble.

It all got me to thinking: what happens when we, as writers, make up a character that doesn’t perform to expectations? Or, worse, what happens when they do, and we grow so attached to them that we refuse to let them take risks?

Superman is an excellent example. A character written by so many different writers that he’s less a character than an icon; the ideal of who Superman is has become so entrenched that any deviation is a bombshell. Anyone remember when Superman died? Personally I don’t like Superman, but I hung onto that story with every page. It was an important moment in the character’s arc, and his sacrifice epitomized everything he stood for. Then, he came back, and everything was ruined.
Superman dying was a watershed moment for the character–but his return negated that. Suddenly death can’t even raise the stakes. But why bring him back at all? Because it would be ridiculous to actually kill of Superman and leave him dead and gone–he’s too well loved.

Getting attached to a character can be dangerous. When they don’t live up to your expectations, you can end up disappointing, sure, but often they’ll surprise you in other ways that make up for it. At the least, when a character takes you in an unexpected directions, it’s often a sign that the story needed to go there anyway (in my opinion). But if you’re so attached to your character that you can’t see them take risks, you’re in trouble. Suddenly they become invincible like Superman, and you can’t (or won’t) raise the stakes enough to put them into real danger. Which means they won’t grow, and they won’t learn.

I felt that Harry Potter fell into this trap, to an extent. Yes, he learned a lot about life and friendship along the seven book journey, but there was never really any doubt that he’d end up winning. The stakes seemed high because everyone else was at risk–but Harry never truly was, and because of that I felt he was one of the least interesting characters in the books. But that’s my own opinion.
Star Trek–as much as I love my Star Trek–is bad for this too. You know that the bridge crew is going to survive every away mission, and that no matter how many Romulans or Jem-Hadar they’re facing against, they’re going to pull a rabbit out of their hat and get away on top. It’s even become a running joke–only the “Redshirts” are ever in real danger. Although I love watching these stories, I know there’s no danger to Kirk or Picard, and so they’re less interesting to me too.

But you can’t write every main character with the intent to die, can you? Well, on the other end of the spectrum is George R. R. Martin–if you haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ll just recommend you don’t fall too fond of anyone in particular. He’s a master of high stakes, but he gets away with it because there are so many well developed characters in his books. They’re almost cannon fodder. What’s better is that he revisits even the characters who die–if not literally, their memories haunt the rest of the series.
And there are other ways to invoke serious risk on your characters. Another Star Trek example: one of the best episodes of any of the series is In the Pale Moonlight form Deep Space Nine’s sixth season. Captain Ben Sisko has to make a deal with the devil in order to win a protracted war. The episode is told in flashback, so you know he’s at no physical risk–but the stakes are incredibly high. He’s breaking regulations, breaching ethics, and going against everything he believes in, all for the greater good–and he’s not even sure it was all worth it. The conflict here isn’t any tangible risk; it’s that he’s done something that will live with him the rest of his life, something he may not be able to forgive himself for–and what’s worse, it’s all off the record, and he can’t tell anyone about it. This one episode developed his character substantially.

In the end, we as writers need to realize that our characters are not just our creations–they belong to the reader as much as to us. It’s easy to write a character that you grow attached to, and it sounds almost callous to say that you have to put them in harm’s way for your story to be interesting. But the reader will see it differently: the characters who play it safe and take no great risks fall to the background; they become extras without conflict. A writer who really loves their characters will make them march through Hell–and the reader will love you for it.

What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

Pinning Him Down–Pinterest and Character Development

Frankenstein’s Monster, by DerrickT c/o Flikr

Today I thought I’d continue my exploration of Pinterest with a post about Character Development. I’ve wanted to talk about characters in writing for a while, and eventually plan to do a series–so this seemed like a good place to start.

My first impression of Pinterest after a couple day’s use is that it’s best for…well, impressions. As writers, we’re in the business of creation, and that means we’re always keeping an eye out for inspiration which can come from anywhere. It’s tempting to use too much of something that inspires you–but that’s a topic for another post.

The way to get around this–in my opinion, anyway–is to cast a wider net, as it were. Use Pinterest to gather images from a large range; don’t collect a bunch of pictures and videos that are too alike, and don’t be afraid to spread out beyond the subject of the board. What you want is something like a Scatter Plot. You’ll have a certain number of images that relate to one another, but you’ll have enough on either side of the range that it can develop into your own unique idea.

Anyway, back to impressions. I think this sort of strategy is going to be most useful in two areas: developing a setting, and developing a character. Neither should have real-world counterparts (unless your story is set in a detailed real setting), so you want to have a wide-ranging impression. I think this can be most effective with characters, because the best characters are the ones that are multifaceted. You want to have a character that would look like a scatter plot if they were graphed out.

To that end, I’ve started two boards which I’ll use to develop two of my main characters: Alkut and Ahbinzur. Take a look.

Alkut

Alkut is the main villain in my Tapestry Project. He’s is a Page to the court of the Emperor Tauri, recently deceased. The Yziman Empire wishes to establish a trade agreement with their rivals, the Toral–an initiative planned by Tauri. The Emperor’s heir is no statesman, and so much of the negotiations fall to Alkut.

He’s a remarkably handsome man and very charismatic. His equivalent in the Tarot is the King of Wands; he knows how to take action, has a fierce temper and will, and tends to consume what he touches. I’ve included several different versions of the King of Wands, each with subtly different iconography that help me round out his character.
His defining characteristic is his yellow eyes. Most of the Ozym are pale and have little natural colour. There are a few Ozym who have yellow eyes, but they’re washed out or indicate sickness. Alkut’s eyes, on the other hand, shine with an otherworldly vibrancy. A lot of my board so far consists of different yellow eyes, and I’ve even deleted several pictures I thought didn’t work. I like one in particular: a picture of a young boy with bright yellow eyes. There’s an innocence and peace to the face that offsets his eyes nicely–he looks older and wiser than he is, and his gaze is hypnotic.
Because he’s a villain, I wanted some pictures that reflect his personality. He’s evil, through and through (though I’m brainstorming some redeeming qualities so he’s not flat). I chose a few pictures of frightening or spooky figures; these won’t be used to describe him, but they give me something to look at as I’m thinking of his mannerisms. In this sense, they truly are pictures of impression.
Finally, I included a picture of a spotted salamander. That creature is the Elemental of Fire, and in my story a mage working with a particular element will often have such a creature as a familiar. Alkut’s familiar, however, is a dragon, and I want it to have a slamander-esque form. So I’ve also found some neat pictures of Hypsognathus and Eryops, early dinosaurs with that kind of structure. The Hypsognathus Skull is particularly evocative.

Ahbinzur

In Tapestry, the Toral are ruled by a Queen, who is in turn advised by the Hierophantic Caste. The Caste is ruled by the Stewards, four mages who each look after their element. Ahbinzur has been newly elected to be the Steward of the Aether, but immediately notices the decadence and hypocrisy latent in the Caste. She wants to strike a blow for True Faith, and though her actions may be devastating, they’re for the greater good. As such, she correlates nicely to the Queen of Swords, who looks out for Justice and Truth at all costs.
I’ve included several images of the Queen of Swords in her board, each with different iconography. I particularly like the Crowley version–this is a deck I work with often. That image is the Biblical Judith, who seduced Holofernes, then killed him in order to free her people. She went to great lengths and suffered much for the Greater Good–and so does Ahbinzur.
Her element being Air, I wanted to find images that have a flowing, sort of ethereal quality to them. The meditating maiden is particularly nice. I also included an image that evokes her namesake, Binah–the third Sephirot on the Tree of Life–which represents knowledge and understanding. She has a clarity of vision that most of her Order lack, which is exactly why she’s taken it upon herself to reform her Order. Yet there’s a certain innocence about her. She’s young and inexperienced, and there’s a hint of doubt in her. The image of a fairy by the pond evokes this; there’s mischief there, but more so, there is uncertainty.
The Elemental of Air is a Sylph. This is a creature normally appearing something like a fairy, which doesn’t really fit into my world–so I’ve been trying to find something analagous. In searching Pinterest for Sylphs, I came across several beautiful birds. The Long Tailed Sylph, fittingly, is a real hummingbird native to South America. While my world is a fantasy one, I’m not going crazy with imaginary creatures, so it was an epiphany to find an actual creature I could use here. Ahbinzur’s familiar is a retinue of Sylphs, which she can communicate with and who follow her instructions.
There’s a dragon for each element, and the Aether is no exception. When thinking of what form this creature should take, I looked at pictures of Chinese Dragons, and learned of the Azure Dragon, a Chinese contellation. This fits perfectly, as the dragon lives in the sky, flows with the currents of air, and has a sinuous appearance. I imagine the Aetherdrake being born of smoke, striking fast, and floating away on the breeze before it can be struck in kind.

So there we have it. These “character sketches” can help flesh out my characters in a grand way–and I’m learning new things about them as I browse. So far I think it’s a great way to build characters–you should give it a try!