Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing Crutches

I am currently finishing the latest editing pass of ...Warns The Ruling Circle..., chapter three of Gods Among Men. I have reached the point in my editing process where I listen to the recording of the writers group meeting where the chapter was reviewed. In the middle of the recording is a point about how I keep using the passive voice in my writing.

This relates to my long standing war with grammar. I am, at best, poor at spotting these types of problems. I have to use a dictionary or do research on the web to define "passive voice". Even then, the definition is a just a string of words to me. I recognize each word, I can tell the definition is well formed and clear, I get the basic concept, but a clear grasp of the details never crosses into into my consciousness.

Mind you, I am not a stupid man. I am a computer programmer. I read and understand highly technical books and articles loaded with technical jargon on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I don't really understand something like:
form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

Here's what I do get: Does a sentence sound awkward and ill-formed or not?

For example, "Why was the road crossed by the chicken?" sounds to my ears like an awkward phrase. It is an unnatural way to ask the question. It has the same content as "Why did the chicken cross the road?" which is clear and more natural. I know, intellectually, the awkward sound of the first version comes from the fact it is in passive voice. I know this because the web site I copied it from says so. Had the website not explained this I would never have been able to identify the problem, I would have just known there was a problem.

Listening to recording of the writers group meeting, I realized that the passive voice creeps into my writing as a writing crutch. The passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but it does detract from the content of the writing. Often, the passive voice is a lazy way to say something.

As I write, particularly on my early drafts, I tend to focus first on plot and character. Style is a matter of polishing the final work. Rewording a sentence to avoid the passive voice takes more time and effort. Rather than take that time, make that effort, I unconsciously lean on the passive voice over and over. Over time, using this writing crutch weakens my characters and erodes the story.

This is not the first time I found myself relying upon a writing crutch. The use of the "ly" words is also a crutch. (Angrily, sleepily, madly, stoically, happily, sadly, etc....) These words are a lazy way to establish a mood or emotion. Often they can be left out without changing the content of a sentence, letting the context establish mood and emotion. Sometimes descriptions are needed instead. For example, "What do you want," she asked angrily. versus, "What do you want?" she asked, her hand clenched in a fist.

When I discovered I had an problem with overusing and abusing "ly" words I declared war upon them. I began scouring my writing for every instance and replaced as many as possible. Sometimes I couldn't, but I did manage to reduce the problem to an acceptable level. Now I try to avoid "ly" words in the first draft, which makes my editing process shorter and simpler.

With regards to the passive voice problem, I am now declaring war on the "to be" verbs. (Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.) This lets me focus on a well-defined set of words that are often the hallmark of the passive voice. When I find a sentence with one of these words I will examine it to see if I can rewrite it without a "to be" verb. Often I won't be able to, but just as often I will discover a more natural, less awkward way of expressing the same idea. At the very least, I believe the practice will make me a better writer.

I admit, this approach is a gimmick. It isn't a true substitute for understanding grammar. But, since I don't really understand grammar, I have to rely on gimmicks to help me improve my skills. It may not be the best approach, but it is a technique that has worked well for me so far.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge

A while back I wrote abut the roles of protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain in my story, Gods Among Men. Today I will delve deeper into the role of antagonist and how my character, Demiurge, fills that role.

The antagonist is fundamentally a reactive character. It is the protagonist that initiates the action and drives the plot. The antagonist reacts to what the protagonist does. It is common for the antagonist to either be the hero or villain of the story, but Demiurge is neither.

Once, a very long time ago, Demiurge was a great hero. That was before he was killed in his war with The False Gods. In the final battle he was utterly destroyed, yet continued to exist. He is now a grotesque aberration, neither dead nor alive. He has no choice in this. The one thing he fundamentally cannot change is himself.

Demiurge's current relationship to most people is similar to our relationship with insects. If an insect annoys us we either make it go away or kill it. If an insect is doing something interesting we might watch it for awhile, but likely not interfere. Otherwise, we ignore insects. Few insects occupy our thoughts for more than a moment and all are soon forgotten.

It is this attitude that keep Demiurge from being hero or villain, antihero or antivillain. The mundane world means too little for him to either save or destroy it. He has no interest in causing harm, and makes no effort to stop tragedy.

Damon Roth, my protagonist, is another matter. Damon Roth at one point has something Demiurge does care about, and proceeds to play a shell game with it so Demiurge can't find it. What is it that Damon has that Demiurge wants? My MacGuffin, the satchel I wrote about in a previous post.

Damon Roth puts Demiurge in a unique position. Demiurge wants the satchel more than anything else in the whole of creation. He cannot ignore Damon like he does others. Nor can Demiurge kill him. Damon has arranged that if he dies Demiurge will never find the satchel. This allows Damon Roth to lure Demiurge into a battle of wits and wills, subtle manipulations and opaque strategies. A game of chess with everyone else as pawns to be used or discarded as the situation demands. A contest both know can only end in the destruction of one of them.

What does Damon Roth want from Demiurge? Demiurge is the God Among Men, and that is what Damon Roth needs to become if he is to save all life on the planet. The only way Damon can do this is to destroy Demiurge and steal his immense power, knowledge, and memories.

What Damon needs to accomplish this goal is in the satchel. He must have the satchel and be near a distracted Demiurge in order to succeed. He dare not let Demiurge near the satchel until he can guarantee these conditions.

The other character's in the story revolve around these two figures and their cosmic conflict. They follow one or the other for a variety of reasons. Their individual fates depend on which one is ultimately triumphant.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Recording The Writers Group Meetings

Last night I finished another edit of chapter two of Gods Among Men, ...Awakens the Outer Circle.... During the editing process I used a recording of the Magic City Writers meeting where the chapter was reviewed and suggestions made. This is a practice I will continue to use.

I became aware of my need to make recordings some months after the OmegaCon convention in the spring of 2008 in Birmingham Alabama. It was the first time I ever attended writer panels and workshops. The experience was inspirational on many levels. It led me to recruit other aspiring writers into the group we now call the Magic City Writers. (Well, I call it that and no one so far has objected.)

Months went by and the OmegaCon convention retreated from my memories. The group's reviews of my work accumulated. I began to see the limits of note taking. Moments that had major significance at the convention became vague recollections. Specific suggestions from the group were now cryptic notes even I couldn't fully understand.

I began recording the group meetings, and at ImagiCon in 2009 I recorded all the panels I attended. I'm not sure I shall ever revisit the recordings of the panels, but the recordings of the meetings has proven invaluable.

My editing process has become this:
  1. Review the general comments each person wrote about my chapter and do an editing pass addressing those issues specifically.
  2. Go through the chapter line-by-line and check for any comments made about that specific line. Make changes as needed.
  3. Clean up any garbage I may have accidentally added in the first two steps.
  4. Listen closely to the recording of the meeting to see if I have missed anything major.

In each of times I've used these recordings I've discovered several major points not in any written notes or suggestions. Forgotten moments no longer than a minute or two, buried in several hours of recorded interplay. It is invariably a point when the conversation was flowing and ideas were being tossed about rapidly. Sometimes it is a point I made, an insight I had, which I failed to write down and have forgotten in the weeks after the meeting. Something that was impossible to pause and record on paper without dissipating the creative energy being produced.

When I find such a nugget I stop the playback and address the issue. Sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes hours. The end result is a block of writing that I can definitively state is better than it was before.

For me, recording group meeting and brainstorming sessions so I can replay them at least once is a crucial part of my writing process. It is the only way to be sure the final work is as strong as I can make it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Five the Hard Way

Well, I have achieved what I thought impossible. I started a novel without a preconcieved notion as to where it will go... or end up. I dreamt (as most my stories start) about a story, and it just wouldn't leave my brain. One night, quite late actually, I decided to get a little on paper, so I wouldn't forget it. I popped in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for background noise, and as a sort of timer to keep me from going to bed too late. When the episode was finished, I had written a 12 page chapter of a new story.

Now, I am not much of a 'pantser': someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I love plotting stories out, and figuring out where the story should go before I write it. I think it may have something to do with my strong background in science and my need to control... pretty much everything. But I read over this story, and I really liked it. It is a werewolf story, but so far I don't know much more about it. Except to say that in it, 'werewolf' is a derogatory term.

I showed it to Brant, who really liked it also. We had one small arguement over the actions of one of the main characters, so I did a small rewrite, which ended up adding about 6 pages. Then I decided to turn it over to the writer's group. And I am more than anxious to see if they liked it too.

I believe that because this story is fresh in my head, and not one that has been roaming those empty halls for decades, that it comes out much easier. So I am going to experiment with it. I am going to try my best not to plot it out, but to write at least the first five chapters 'by the seat of my pants.' And we can see how it goes from there. Now, on to chapter two...

Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth

In an earlier post I spoke about the various roles of protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain. In that post I spoke in general terms about how those roles are filled in my story, Gods Among Men. Today I will delve deeper into the role of protagonist and how my central character, Damon Roth, fills that role.

The protagonist is the central character around which all action revolves. He is the driver of the plot, he creates the situation that everyone else responds to. Often the protagonist is either the hero or the villain, but not in my story.

Damon Roth cannot be the hero because he does not embody heroic ideals. In his past he committed horrible acts for his own benefit. Acts which harmed many, including people he cared deeply about, though he was unable at that time to acknowledge those feelings even to himself. The important point of his character is that he is still doing this. He will again commit and cause atrocities that will harm many including those he cares for.

This makes him seem like the villain. However Damon is not a villain either, at least not now. In his past he was a villain. He committed evil acts to promote himself; to advance his power, wealth, and ambition. Now he is searching for redemption. The acts he commits in Gods Among Men, as terrible as they will be, are intended to save mankind, to save the world and everything on it. To avoid the death of every living thing on the planet he believes, truly believes, that he must follow a ruthless plan that leaves a path of death and destruction in his wake. Some must suffer so all may be saved.

Important in this distinction is the word, "believes".

Just because Damon believes his actions are required does not make it true. His goals are clear, and the threat real. The path he chooses to address this threat and achieve his goals are dictated by the man he was as well as the man he wants to be. If he is successful then mankind and the planet have a hope for survival, not a guarantee. And his failure does not mean the death of hope. His solution is one possible answer out of many. It is the answer he believes in, the one he has the skills and personality to achieve. It is this ambiguity that also prevents him from being either antihero or antivillain.

If his plan were the only hope, with his failure resulting in the inevitable death of all life on earth, then he would be an antihero. A savior who lacks heroic qualities. If his plan were flawed, or the threat non-existent, then he would be an antivillain. A destroyer with at least some noble qualities. Since neither of these conditions are met, he cannot be either antihero or antivillain.

In the end, Damon must face the ultimate test. Successfully saving the planet is not enough for him to achieve the redemption he seeks. If it were, then his actions are tainted by the same self-serving motivations that made him a villain in his youth. To redeem himself Damon Roth must eventually sacrifice himself. His quest requires him to commit an act that harms himself terribly, but guarantees the world is safe.

Gods Among Men opens at the moment when Damon first realizes he must make such a sacrifice. Everything that happens from that point forward hangs on his acceptance of that fact.

Damon cannot be classified as either good or bad, hero or villain, antihero or antivillain. He is a flawed person of tremendous abilities dealing with an immense problem in the only way he knows how. In the end it is the reasons for his actions and how he adheres to those convictions that will determine his true worth.

Monday, May 11, 2009

When last we met...

Yesterday the group met to review chapter three, ...Warns the Ruling Circle..., of my epic Gods Among Men. They also looked over the latest version of chapter one, The Wizard's Spells..., to let me know if it still required formal editing by the group.

I had hoped, not vainly I believe, that The Wizard's Spells... would pass muster. That the group would say, "It's good enough, don't waste our time submitting it again." I was pretty certain that ...Warns the Ruling Circle... would require another major pass, but I was very hopeful for chapter one.

Alas, my hopes were dashed. The consensus was that while chapter one was much improved it still required one more editing effort by the group. But just one more. A final review to clean up the flotsam and jetsam still floating around in the text. We didn't discuss the details of what was wrong, just that it still has issues. I want to avoid infinitely editing this chapter, but I cannot ignore warnings from the group. I shall resubmit chapter one when my turn rolls around again.

Chapter three still has major problems in its first section, but surprisingly few problems in its other two sections. The first section will certainly require another significant reworking, and another editing pass, and possibly one more after that, but I think the crucial structure of that section is becoming much clearer. The problems are clear in any event, even if solutions are not. The direction I must take the chapter is known, it is the path from the start to the end that I must find.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villian, Antihero, and AntiVillian

Protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain are crucial elements of storytelling. At least some of these roles must be filled by one or more central characters or there is no story to tell. One character may fulfill several of these roles, or one role may be filled by several characters. For example, it is common for the protagonist to also be either the hero or the villain, and the antagonist to fill the opposite role.

Identifying which role particular characters play is crucial to how you define them, how you write them. When a character approaches a crucial decision, what they do is largely defined by the role they play. In Gods Among Men, I found it useful to deconstruct these elements into separate individuals.

My protagonist, Damon Roth, drives the plot, but is neither hero nor villain. He is opposed by the antagonist, Demiurge, who also is neither hero nor villain. They both are larger than life and pursue goals that cannot be labeled as good or evil. They will not hesitate to do good when it does not affect their plans, and they hesitate to do evil even when their plans demand it of them. People are pawns in a game they play, and the world’s fate depends on which one wins.

The hero role is filled first by Morel Rihtwis, a prince whose name literally means moral, right, and wise. Morel embodies nobility, and struggles with every decision to always make the morally right choice. Later his daughter Tara grows into the hero role.

My villain is Maelgar Tregadie, also called the Y’fel. He is filled with hate and a desire to see the world burn. His desire for power is inextricably tied to his lust to harm others, especially his father, Integras Tregadie. He believes Demiurge is the key to his success.

Artemis Arrowsmith is my antihero. She has been raised to be a soldier, a killer, and she is very good at it. She is driven by desires for vengeance, a bloodlust that leads her to commit atrocities against those who wronged her. But she is willing to sacrifice herself and those desires to save others. She is ruthless when she must be, but tries to walk away when she can. She aligns her fortune to Damon Roth.

The antivillain is Widukind. He is driven by honor above all else. He will not lie, nor cheat, nor steal, nor shy from danger. His word is sacrosanct and he would rather die than break it. He is deeply religious, and remains true to his faith throughout the story. He has no problem with sacking villages, killing the helpless, and committing atrocities for no reason other than he is following orders. His conscience bothers him, but not enough to make him stop. He follows Maelgar, believing him to be a prophet of his god, Demiurge.

There are many more characters in this large, complex tale, but this collection of people form a crucial core to Gods Among Men. Without them, there is no story to tell.

A Flash of Inspirtation

I have heard that it can happen. That you can get so involved in the writing process that before you know it, you actually write a lot in a single sitting. But it never really happened to me until last night.

We had a mini-monsoon yesterday here, which apparently knocked down power lines and screwed up our Charter bundled stuff. Since we were without cable or the internet, and I wasn't sleepy, I decided to watch a DVD. I choose one of my favorites, Mystery Science Theater 3000 presents Werewolf. Then I remembered that I had a werewolf story brewing in my head. As the cheese-fest continued to play, I started getting a great idea on how to start the story in my head.

Luckily, I was in my office, at my computer, watching this DVD. So I started to write everything down as it entered the conscious part of my brain. In the span of an hour and some change, I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of this story. When I was done I was absolutely amazed! I had never in my life written a whole chapter in one sitting, let alone be happy with the concepts I put to 'paper.'

As I read over it, I was incredibly happy with two things. First, although somewhat inspired by the movie I was listening to, it in no way resembled its plot. The last thing I want is to write a story worthy of only copywright lawsuits and bad jokes. Second, I had managed to start the story off with action and introduce the key characters in the span of about fourteen pages or so.

I am well aware that I skipped an awful lot of description, and the character development is rudimentary, but I believe that it is a solid start. Best of all, it got me re-energized about my writing abilities, and I also wrote an additional 12 pages this morning for my main story. Now if I can just parlay this writing streak into a finished product...