A Toppled Tower

from fimoculous c/o Flikr

Imagine, for a moment, a tower that’s built piece by piece over a number of years. It starts as a one story house with a solid foundation; over time, another story is added, then another. Soon it reaches into the sky, and grows higher and higher. It gets that cartoonish curve you see when someone draws something tall and rickety. If it keeps getting higher, what’s going to happen?

It’ll crumble like a house of cards. Unless, of course, you continue to work on the foundation.

This is the trouble, I find myself in currently. Over the weekend, my wife and I were doing some shopping and I had a creative epiphany that solved one of the question I’ve had about my Tapestry Project: how do I bring my main conflict–a behind the scenes war between gods–into the forefront so it means something to the characters? The idea was a war between two fey tribes, the Winterkin and Summerchilde. The conflict has been waged for centuries in an alternate plane of existence, and it’s now bleeding into the real world. Sounds compelling, or so I thought.

The problem was that, in shoehorning this concept into my existing framework, I’ve effectively built too many stories (forgive the pun). Magic in my World is a product of the Elements–I’d have to equate that somehow to the seasons if I have Summer and Winter fey tribes. I haven’t introduced fairies into my story, so I have to make them fit before giving my characters that identity. Having an unseen world that lurks beneath Tornum gives a lot of opportunities, but requires some retooling to make sense. And, ultimately, I’d be adding a core concept to the book.
Really, this epiphany doesn’t work–not for this story, anyway. I like the idea and may use it elsewhere, but for Tapestry, it’s a dead end. But it was revelatory for another reason.

It showed me that my overall story, as much as I’ve worked on it and tinkered with it over the years, has an awful lot of holes. It’s a tower waiting to be toppled by the slightest breeze. Why? Because I keep adding to it.

It’s a good story–I think so, anyway. It’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time, and I’m excited to finally be doing it. But it’s become larger than itself now, and I’m trying to incorporate too many disparate elements in an effort to make it interesting. This is what happened the last time I put it down. It collapsed under its own weight, and I simply couldn’t keep it straight anymore. This time, I don’t intend to abandon it–but something needs to be done.

This is a very valuable lesson for me. If something as simple as a cool idea can tear the foundation of my story to pieces, there’s something wrong. I need to repair the foundation, rather than thinking up new and creative ways to solve the problems inherent in the story. I didn’t expect that lesson, but I’m glad for it. It’s given me a lot to think about.

And lo, as if the Great Muse was thinking of me as I pondered my problems, I came across this article, How To Strengthen A Story Idea. Go ahead and click on the link, it’ll open in a new window. The greatest thing I took away from this article is that if you feel that your story is falling flat, you’re in trouble. You have to reinvigorate it somehow, and it’s likely a larger problem than warrants adding some action or a new character. To quote the author, Roz Morris, you have to “recreate the gut ‘wow.'”

How do you do that? I’m just learning that myself, but this article is a great place to start. In the back of my mind, I’ve known for a while that my story is getting too complicated. Most of the research I’ve been doing will end up in the ‘background,’ colouring the characters, setting and themes, but that doesn’t mean it’s strong, or relevant to the story. I have to find our what is, and go with that.

This is what I’ll need to consider over the next while. Do I need to involve kabbalah, I Ching, Tarot, astrology, alchemy and theological philosophy? Do I need to have each character’s name reflect some esoteric or occult meaning? What’s really important for this book?

The answer to that question, simply, is the story. That’s what’s important. I can have all the window dressing I want: if the story isn’t good, the book’s not good. The narrative is the foundation–and I can add as many stories to the tower as I want, it won’t do a lick of good if I don’t have a strong foundation.

So where does this leave me? I’m of a mind to shelve the project for a while, work on something else, and come back to it with a clear head–something suggested in the article above. I’m wary of that though, because I know myself. If I put it down, even for a couple weeks, there’s a chance I’ll neglect it completely.

So for the moment, I’m going to continue working on it–through research, if not actual writing. I need to get back to basics, and my research on Tarot will give me that anchor. Once that’s complete, I should be able to get a clearer view of the overall story, do some revised plotting and outlining, then dive right back in. In the meantime, this is something I needed to learn, and I’m glad it came when it did (as opposed to, say, after releasing the first stories in this project). It’s a lot easier to fix  the foundation if you haven’t built the tower already.

Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

Characters and Gaming

copyright Wizards of the CoastOne of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.

This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.

You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?

In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.

But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.

Like Darth Vader.

DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).

You get the idea.

At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.

And have fun with it!

ROW80Update: Movin’ Right Along

This is going to be a short one today–not much to talk about really, but I wanted to make a check-in.

Fortunately, this week has been more productive than last–I wrote 3000+ words! They came very easily, too; it says a lot about the direction your writing is going if it flows so nicely.

And here’s the most important thing I learned this week: if writing that scene if like pulling hen’s teeth, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing–it’s your muse telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. Pick a new one, and it’s amazing how much easier things become. Last week I had a crisis of faith with where my story was going, but I found a solution by taking it in a direction I hadn’t thought to go. It worked, and now I have a firm direction, my character arc is established (rather than just being ‘set up,’) and I’ve got a cliffhanger. Sometimes you have to force yourself to think outside the box.

The other great accomplishment I had this week was finishing the first draft of Court of Rain. This puts me at 50% of my first draft of phase one, and about 1600 words in total. Court of Sand unfortunately needs a lot of work yet, but that’s okay; it’ll be easier to edit that now that I have a clearer direction with Court of Rain. And the next instalment, Court of Sylphs, is being set up nicely.

 

Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

Not Enough Hours and a late update

Time by Alan Cleaver, c/o Flikr

You’ll notice, of course, that I missed my Wednesday post. Well, maybe missed is a bit harsh–I’m writing it a bit late, that’s all. I wanted to talk about characters this week in my Writing Wednesday, but my lateness has inspired me to write about something else: the issue of finding the time to write.

My update for ROW80 today is, sadly, not very exciting. I haven’t gotten much accomplished this week beyond daydreaming about my plot and characters, and one could hardly call that progress. I didn’t even come to any epiphanies that will affect the story; really the only decision I made was that one of my main characters loves licorice root. No word count.

Since I signed up for ROW80, I’ve tried to keep myself accountable, and get frustrated with myself when I don’t have much to report. But then I sat back and thought about why I didn’t have much to report. I haven’t been exactly idle; I’ve been very busy with work the past month, and worked several evenings in the past two weeks. More evenings are on the horizon. Who has the time to write?

And there’s the rub: there aren’t enough hours in the day. I still have to sleep, eat, and walk the dogs, not to mention spending quality time with my wife and family. People have this image of a writer as someone who holes themselves up at a desk and pours over the keys for hours on end. Anyone reading this blog knows that’s not how it works. Sometimes, you’re lucky to get 250 words down.

Which all got me to thinking about two main points I want to address today:

Excuses

They’re so easy. I couldn’t write today because I slept in. I’m just not inspired today. It’s Thanksgiving or (for our Canadian readers) Grey Cup. See my excuse above: I’m working at my real job.

Except those excuses and others like it don’t accomplish anything. They just point a finger at the problem, and attempt to absolve you of your own guilt. I do this all the time, so I’m not exempt: making excuses makes me feel better when I fall behind. The problem is that excuses are intangible. They’re just words, and they won’t help you get back in the saddle, or any further ahead. They’re completely arbitrary, and often don’t have anything to do with why you actually didn’t write.

Of course, that’s not to say excuses aren’t occasionally valid. A family emergency certainly applies. Work is a good one too: if you’re not making a living off your writing, you have to pay the bills somehow. That, and family, need to come first. The trick is to know the difference between these valid excuses and ones that just give you a pass–the ones that don’t do anything for your half finished book. Which leads into point two…

Finding the Time

This is probably the most common excuse; for me, anyway. I just didn’t have time to write this week. This is what I’ve been telling myself since mid-November. It’s a potent excuse, and very easy to justify. The problem is, it’s complete bunk.

I used to work a job that was mostly evenings and weekends. I’ve also wanted to take Tai Chi classes for a long time. Once, I lamented to my wife that I’d really love to take a class–you just don’t learn the same from a book or DVD–but that I didn’t have any time to commit to it. She told me flat out that finding the time wasn’t the issue at all. I wasn’t making the time. Wise woman.

Finding the time is a ridiculous notion in the first place. There’s time everywhere. It’s not like you get more or less allotted you in a day: it’s always 24 hours. What matters is how you manage that time. It’s all about priorities. You have a given amount of time each day for recreation or personal use; it may be more or less depending on what’s going on, but you’ll have it. You just need to use it wisely. Instead of lamenting that I didn’t have the time to take Tai Chi because I worked evenings, I could have been looking for daytime classes, finding a private tutor, or finding a class close enough to work that I could pop in on my dinner hour.

It’s the same with writing. You don’t need to find the time to write, you need to make the time to write. If you have a busy week, that’s fine, but make sure you set aside some of your off time to pound out a few words. Every bit helps, and if you’re consistent with this demand on your own time, you’ll get where you need to go. Just don’t let excuses get in your way.

Now, let’s see if I can follow my own advice… 🙂

Three Pillars of Fiction, and ROW80 Update

image by troismarteaux c/o Flikr

This has been a wonderfully productive week. This time last week, I was stumbling around trying to figure out why my characters were misbehaving–now I’ve got a clear(er) vision of what they’re up to, and I’ve set aside the scaffolding behind the book to settle on the actual writing. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed 2242 words in total since Sunday’s update. This means I’ve finished the re-write of my Knight of Sand scene (with a new character!) and have half finished Queen of Rain, the first scene in the second story. With luck, I’ll have that finished by tomorrow and will be well on the way toward finishing Court of Rain by the end of next week.

All this work last week on the structure of my book got me to thinking about how fiction is, well, structured. So I thought I’d share something today that I’ve long thought at the core of a good novel or story: the Three Pillars of Fiction.

These aren’t by any means the be-all and end-all of writing fiction, but I think they’re a pretty well distilled group. I don’t think you can write a story without them–and if anyone knows of an example, I’d love to read it! I think all three are necessary, too–you can’t have one without the other. They’re like a tripod holding a brazier: knock one leg down and the others will topple, spilling embers and setting fire to the whole temple.

Anyway, in no particular order:

Description

This is the meat of your story, and has always been my favourite part to write. One of the most quoted adages of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what description is all about. This can be done well, or very poorly, and how it’s handled will give the reader a very strong image of the book as a whole either way. If you have some great descriptions, it can bring a reader into the World of your book like no other way can–but if your descriptions are tepid, cliched, or dull, they’ll just want to put it down.

This, I think, is where the book really comes alive. In a way, description is where you as an author get to whisper in your reader’s ear. You set up the tone and the feel of the story for them, lead them through it. When I’m writing description, I often think of my background in the theatre–it’s like directing a play. You have a particular image you want to portray, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show it to your reader. The best part is that, done right, this pillar isn’t all that difficult–the secret is in allowing the reader some leeway with their own imagination. They’ll fill in more detail than you could ever conceivably put down into words, and make your descriptions stand out with as much vibrancy as they like.

Exposition

Anyone can have a character tell the backstory, but doing so in a compelling and informative way is not easy at all. The trap here is falling into a lecture. The last thing a reader wants is a five page history lesson about the background of your main character–even if it’s crucial to the plot. Exposition should be used like salt: a little dash here and there.

There’s an excellent article about this here. Roz Morris says it as succinctly as anyone could: “The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural.” Exposition–as required as it is in some form–just seems jarring when it’s not done well. Would you enjoy a movie where the main character took ten minutes of screen time speaking directly to the audience trying to explain the story? No. In fact, having a character take the time to explicitly explain the story is a tell-tale sign that you’re not trusting your reader. You don’t have to beat them over the head with it, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, maybe your writing is too obscure in the first place.

On the other hand, exposition is very important for any story. Any reader is going to ask “why should I care?” when they first pick up a book. What drives them to want to read it? What’s it’s about? You have to get that across somehow. The trick is doing it subtly enough that your reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Morris shows a great example from Orwell’s 1984 in the link above. To use another theatre analogy, one of the best ways to inexpensively build a set is to use Indicative Props: items you put on stage to hint that you’re in a particular place. A couple trees shows you’re in a forest, a scarecrow and sheaf of corn shows you’re in a field–you don’t need a whole painted backdrop. Writing is the same: sprinkle hints here and there, and you’ll get some nice “Indicative Exposition” to coin a phrase.

Another of my favourite techniques (though I’m not too good at it myself) is The Watson. This is a character who exists to ask the same questions the readers need to ask to get involved in the story. The Watson might be a major character or a narrator, and have other reasons for being there–but part of their purpose is to get the reader to identify with them. Effectively, the reader experiences the exposition vicariously through the Watson’s eyes.

Dialogue

This, for many people, is the big one. Honestly, I hate dialogue–I don’t think I’m very good at it, which is precisely the reason I don’t write stage plays. Dialogue has a lot of small factors you need to get right before it sounds real: accent, colloquialisms, tone, phrasing. And so on. It’s like maintaining a large machine without knowing how all the individual parts fit together.

For me, the hard part about dialogue is getting characters to sound different from one another. I’m not expert, but I think the trick in this case is to do character sketches. The way a character talks should reflect their character as a person. Someone who’s been brought up with a silver spoon in their mouth probably won’t swear as much as the dock worker who needs to bust his hump ten hours a day to feed his family. If you have a well fleshed out character, dialogue is a bit easier to write.

I think the most important thing to consider about dialogue is how it reads. That might sound redundant, so let’s rephrase it: you should hear how it sounds out loud. Read your dialogue as if you were reading a script. Have a friend read the other part, and have an actual conversation. If it sounds stilted or forced, re-do it. If it doesn’t sound like people talking, it’s not good enough. Dialogue that sounds unnatural sticks out on the page like a sore thumb, and it’s another easy turn off for a reader. On the other hand, if it reads like people talk, it’s easy for the reader to follow along–and more importantly, to connect with the characters.

 

Well, there we have it. Three Pillars of Fiction–do you have more to suggest? I’d love to hear your comments below!

Horror Done Right

Credit to Marxchivist via Flikr

Today was a busy day at work, and I had to work through lunch–meaning I haven’t had time to put together a decent post. So I’m going to write up a quickie on a topic I’ve been sitting on for just such an occasion: what makes good horror literature.

First, a story: The Outsider, by H. P. Lovecraft. This is probably my favourite horror story, and it serves as a great example of the point I’m trying to make today. Go ahead, give it a read. I’ll wait.

Back?

Okay. The first thing you note about this story is the way it builds–and Lovecraft is a master at this kind of tension. You’ve got the whole story figured out right from the beginning paragraph–or so you think–and so the description and the action can appear a bit tedious. But the more you read, the more “off” everything feels. He drops hints here and there as to what’s really going on, while at the same time putting more and more of a veil over what you think you’ve figured out.

Then there’s the ending. At this point, you’ve probably understood what’s actually going on, but you can’t stop yourself–it’s like rolling down a hill with the break line cut, going fast and faster until you drive off the pier at the end.

And that is what good horror should be.

And, although I can’t claim to have mastered this myself yet, here’s the secret to writing good horror fiction: don’t work too hard. Let the reader do most of the work for you. Get them all worked up. Give them hints, but not too much; give them direction and plot, but leave just enough open that they have to do some thinking. And I don’t mean you should set up a mystery they should be trying to figure out: literally leave out certain details, don’t explain certain things.

A lot of writers are going to say that’s a cardinal sin, but I’ll stand by it. Think of the movie Alien. The whole reason it was scary was because you didn’t see the alien until it was too late. In the meantime, you see people’s horrified reactions, hear them panting as they run through the halls escaping it. And, most importantly: you’re making up your own alien to fit the stimuli.

Writing horror literature is about trusting the reader. You want them to follow along with your story and fill in the blanks, because–and trust me on this–anything the reader comes up with in their own mind is going to be infinitely more frightening than whatever you could come up with. And that’s not because you’re not a good writer–it’s because they know what scares them most. You don’t know that. You’ve probably never met your readers; how are you supposed to know what scares them? They know they’re reading a scary story, so they’ll fill in details with things they find scary. And half your work is done for you.

Okay, okay. I know it’s not really that simple. But it’s a start. And it’s a load off. I think a lot of writers and move makers try so hard to scare their audience that they fall on tired old tropes and ideas that nobody finds scary anymore. The first Friday the 13th was awesome because you’d never have guessed who the bad guy is; by Jason X (or, affectionately, Jason in Space) there’s nothing left to be scared of, so the director has to fill the movie with special effects and tons of gore.

And this is why Lovecraft is always going to be my favourite horror writer. His stories baffle me, complete and utterly. The things he describes have no meaning in this world–most of his characters literally go insane when they confront these things–but that means I can make them up myself. I follow his lead, of course, and every time I re-read a story I know exactly what’s going to happen.

But because I’m the one filling in the blanks, it happens differently every time. And he always gets me.

 

And hey, you wouldn’t expect me to pass up a golden opportunity like this would you? You can grab my own scary stories at Amazon and Kobo right now! Happy Halloween, everyone!

 

 

ROW80 Update, and Random Musings

So, this is my first Round of Words update.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a whole lot to say. The ROW80 FAQ looks for tangible results, so all that daydreaming I’ve done about where my plot will go doesn’t count, right? 🙂

Seriously, I’ve not done too bad. This week I wrote close to 2500 words–I forgot to get an exact count, but my story was around 1000 a few days ago and is 3500 now–and finished the first rough draft of one part of my project, tentatively titles Succor. I also corrected some plot holes, I think…and in the process, sort of wrote myself into a corner. The ending of my story now makes a bit more sense, but I’ve added what will turn out to be a major plot point in a later part of the project. Mental note to follow up on that.

So, considering that I released two books in the last seven days, I think ~2500 is pretty good. Here’s to keeping up the pace. By my calculations, reaching 32000 in the time I have left is only an average of 470 words a day, so I’m on track.

While we’re on the topic, I thought I’d describe my project a bit more…clearly.

Tapestry is the working title of a nine part project (series) which takes place in the world of Tornum, where my short story The Astrologers, is set–but a few hundred years earlier. The basic setup is this: the Ozym are a hard people who live in a land of deserts, mountains, and little else. They’re rich in wealth, metals and (steampunkish) technology, but are wasting their resources otherwise–they’re a starving people, and need help.

Then there’s the Toral, a more agrarian people steeped in faith, religion, and dogma. They’re a deeply spiritual people, but their Hierophantic religious caste has grown decadent and useless–their religion is more a “matter of course” than anything, though there are those who long for their faith to be affirmed.

The warlike Ozym want what the Toral have–resources–and through the conniving of a young ambitious page of the court, are willing to take it by force. A war is inevitable, but there’s much more at stake than food for the people and religious freedom–and powers at work that neither race suspects.

As I’ve described elsewhere, the project will encompass three phases:

  1. Phase One: four collections of four stories, each centering on a different viewpoint leading up to the conflict. Court of Sand is first, and features the Ozym; Court of Rain follows with the Toral; Court of Slyphs concerns the Four Hierophants, and Court of Tinder leads to the call of war.
  2. Phase Two: four novellas, as yet untitled, each focusing on a different side of the war. The Ozym, Toral and Hierophants all get their own feature again, and the fourth will cover the actual conflict.
  3. Phase Three: A stand-alone–but intricately linked–novel focusing on the journey of a young Toral page-turned-prophet, Tobias Osir, as he struggles to find meaning and salvation for his people. This one is further down the line, but will serve as the basis of the mythology I’ve drawn up for the world of Tornum.

The whole point behind this project–and the reason it’s called Tapestry–that that each segment of the project will link to another in a way that’s more than just chronological. The aforementioned Succor takes place as the Yziman Emperor is discussing terms with the Toral Queen; the second story in Court of Rain will look at it from her point of view. Items that are hinted at in one story will be explored in another, and questions here will be answered elsewhere.

All in all, the story will feature magic, technology, and alchemy while attempting to discuss issues of racism, class disparity, and spirituality. It’s been in my head for a good long time, and I’m loving that I’ve finally found an outlet for it. I expect the entire project to take at least a full year to write, and maybe around 332,000 words.

Fortunately I’ve got the ROW80 community at my back keeping me accountable and providing inspiration!

Tapestry–A New Project, and a Sample

All Sizes

Image by shutterhacks

While I’m in the midst of planning the marketing and production of my upcoming collection–The Astrologers and Other Stories–I’m also continuing to write. I have a file on the memo app on my phone that teems with story ideas, and one of them is particularly exciting for me.

Those of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, but my planned novel never got finished. The Astrologers is a stand alone story I wrote partly in the hopes of rejuvenating that world–and it worked. The ideas started flooding in, and now I’ve pencilled out an outline for a large project.

It starts two hundred years before the time of my planned novel–which I still plan to write one day–and The Astrologers. I wanted to explore the backstory of my World, and in the process, help build it. I’m also planning on featuring a favourite character of mine, the Prophet Osir–a character that never appears in the aforementioned novel, but is a significant figure in its mythology. Now, I get to tell his story.

The project–tentatively titles Tapestry–will be written in three phases. Phase one is a collection of sixteen short stories, each working as character studies; they will be released in four sets, each between 8000 and 10,000 words long

Phase two will consist of four novellas, each following the story revealed through the earlier character studies. These stories are interrelated, and some scenes from Phase one will be revisited from other viewpoints, or otherwise expanded upon.

Phase three will be a longer novel that concentrates on Tobias Osir, a young soldier in the army who is caught in the middle of a religious and political war. Osir is forced to question his faith and his place in the world. It will follow him from his naive beginnings to…well, you’ll just have to read it.

In the end, we’ll have nine separate stories, each interrelated and connected to each other: a true literary tapestry. There’s a specific structure behind this–but we’ll talk about that another time. In the meantime, here’s a sample: the opening of the series. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Garden

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Alkut stopped for a moment, listening; content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmelus, General  of the Court, watching him.

****

Metedre fell upon the door as it closed, resting her forehead on the rough wood. A heavy sigh shook her shoulders, and yet she wore a faint smile; these encounters were always bittersweet. She bit a lip. More sweet than bitter tonight.
But the guilt would come. It haunted the dark, sang refrains in her mind as she held court with her Emperor. She never ceased to marvel that he didn’t know—or if he did know, that he didn’t care. She would be naïve to think that it was as well a kept secret as she wished, and that thought kept her continually on edge.
And yet she would not deny herself. Tauri was cold, distant—he had an empire to rule, and had no time for her. She had known that even before they were married. She had but one role as Empress: continue the line. That she had, with Ohmelus, and though more heirs would be welcome, her function had been served. Tauri had little to do with her, nor should he. His eyes were on the governance of the realm.
When Alkut’s footsteps receded out of earshot, she stepped away from the door and padded her way, barefoot, to the window overlooking her garden. A small marble bench sat by the sill, and she wrapped her robe more tightly around herself as she sat. For once, the breeze was cool tonight. The soft caress was welcome.
She did not love him, and he had as much as admitted that he had no love for her. Their…arrangement was mutually beneficial, and that was all. Occasionally, she revelled in the thought that all she need do was give the word, and he—and his temptations—would be removed. She need not expend any further thought on the matter, and no one would dare ask questions, even tell the Emperor if she bade them not to. Her quandary would be erased. But then, Alkut served not only to warm her bed. He was critical to the Empire’s survival.
The breeze wafted through the window and brought with it a scent of jasmine. They had been imported from Tornum at her request—and no little expense—and had become one of her greatest pleasures. It was a slave for an overwrought mind, and always served to bring her back down to earth.
Tauri had acted interested when she asked for the flowers, and the Court did as they always did, applauding his decision despite the cost. In the end, it had been to him little more than an opportunity; he’d had the flowers planted all through Ais for the populace to enjoy, and spoke at length about the benefits of bringing such beauty to the normally hot and dry city. Indeed, the white blooms had infested the city, and everyone praised the wisdom of the Emperor for bringing such life to their veritable desert. Not a word was spoken about her own involvement, but that was immaterial. She relished in the people’s enjoyment, and was happy that her own request had benefited them.
Still, she was the only one in Ais with a full garden. Many of the richer caste had flowers in their yard, even grass and fountains—but not a real garden like hers. It was a great indulgence in a realm with more sands than people, and the resources it took to cultivate and maintain the plants was considerable, but nobody begrudged her. Occasionally she held lavish public parties in her garden, welcoming everyone, regardless of caste or wealth. The people often called her The Jasmine Empress because of it, and celebrated her generosity. No regent of the Empire had ever done this for the people, and she knew she would be remembered for it long after she turned to dust. It was a legacy that gave her more pleasure than that of the Tauri line ever could.
The parties were becoming more frequent, and more necessary. Her people had fallen on difficult times; populations grew while resources grew thin, and there seemed to be more problems than pleasures. Her garden had become a bastion of peace, a refuge where people could forget their cares, if even for a short time. Something about the verdant growth entrances the Ozym; they felt grounded in her garden, rooted. She liked to think that being connected to the land gave them a new perspective of their problems—that they were fleeting, however taxing, that these blossoms, properly tended, would outlast all of their problems. She wanted this garden to become a symbol for her people, a sign that the problems of their material world mattered much less than the wonders of the world around them. This garden, she hoped, would continue thriving long after all of them had turned to dust.
She smiled at the thought, her indiscretions of the evening almost forgotten. Then, gazing dreamily out the window, she caught a flutter of movement in her garden, and a small gnomish figure stepped out of a copse of trees. Metedre stood at once, and fled to the door. The Crone had news.