Saturday, January 30, 2010

Music To Write By

I like to listen to music when I write, sometimes at decibels that can cause hearing loss.  I have even created playlists that I associate with certain characters; that expresses, for me, something about their nature, or inspires some scene involving them. 

I find that, after a while, the song itself becomes an odd mixture of background noise and inspiration.   I end up not listening to the words or individual notes, but my imagination still becomes hyperactive. 

An All-Round Favorite

A short list of my favorite pieces would have to include  All The Strange Strange Creatures , the trailer music from the new Doctor Who series.   This is a terrific piece of music that just never gets old.   It practically screams, “write an epic while listening to me”.  I can listen to it and write almost anything.

Other songs are more tied to particular scenes, often ones that I have long planned. 

The Ecstasy Of Music

Such is the case with another favorite of mine, The Ecstasy Of Gold by Ennio Morricone from the movie The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  Not the version on the “official” soundtrack; that version just lays there and puts itself to sleep.  No, to hear the version worth listening to you must rip it from the actual movie itself.  (Or, click on the link I’ve provided above.  It takes about 40 seconds before the song starts.  It’s worth the wait.)

To me, The Ecstasy of Gold is synonymous with a scene where Tara Rihtwis is pursued closely by a pack of Gogs, led by Widukind, who in turn are being tracked by Artemis Arrowsmith.  

When the music plays I can see this scene as if it were being played in a movie theater.  I can describe it in perfect detail, probably better than I will ever be able to write it.

Moody Music

I find almost anything by The Moody Blues great to write by, but Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time), from their album To Our Children's Children's Children, holds a special place for me.   Listening to it inspired a scene that struck me as so powerful, a plot twist so unexpected, I altered my story to include it. 

The opening moments of the song made me think, completely unbidden, of someone hearing something that alarms them. For no good reason I decided it was Tara who was alarmed.  

Then the drummer hitting cymbals in the background made me think she was hearing the muffled sounds a sword fight, perhaps on the other side of a door. 

Then the music swells into a strong guitar rhythm, and in my mind’s eye she opened the door to see a room on fire.  In the center of the room are two people locked in mortal combat.  One, her beloved father, Morel Rihtwis; the other her closest friend and oft times protector, Artemis Arrowsmith. 

I had never thought about having those two characters fight until I listened to Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time).  Afterwards, I realized that their diametrically opposite worldviews made their conflict inevitable, and the result of that conflict equally inevitable.  I came to see their final clash as the pivot point from which to start bringing various plot threads to satisfying finales.

Other Music

The list goes on, and on.  So many pieces of music that have shaped my thoughts, and in so doing shaped my story.  The point is not which music inspired what moment, but that music itself forms such unexpected connections within each of us.

What music do you listen to as you write?  What scenes are synonymous with certain songs for you?  What songs have inspired elements of your own stories? 

Monday, January 25, 2010

What Price Art?

Recently, Nicole said something that spawned a rather wandering chain of thought in me.  She was talking about the post I wrote entitled The Hidden Danger of Epic Tales, and said something like, “It is the first story you try to tell that inspires you to write in the first place.”

My brain, as usual, worked too slowly for me to pick up on that train of thought and pursue a conversation about it at that time.  Instead the idea planted itself in the back of my thoughts, somewhere between the mold and the mushrooms, and began to germinate.

Beginning in the Middle

I doubt that many people, when they first start to write, think of their story from beginning to end.  I certainly didn’t.  Instead it starts with a character, or small set of characters, and some scene that seems compelling at the time.  An idea half formed, with no beginning or end.  A theme or genre may be in mind, some grand ideas, but nothing concrete.

Taking the compelling first thoughts and turning them into a story takes time, so much time.  Time spent alone, with a computer or pad of paper, doodling ideas like an artist might randomly draw images hoping that art will emerge. 

The Price Paid

Most of that time is totally wasted.  Hours spent that will never come back, putting down words that are unworthy of the blank page they spoiled. 

Why do it?  Why not go do something more enjoyable?  Why not spend it with your family?  Why not call up friends and go out for the evening? 

Because the story will not let you rest.  Because you can’t stop wondering what will happen next in the tale you alone are trying to tell, and which you alone may read.  Because you are convinced that with the right words you can describe the images in your imagination, and nothing will detract you from finding those words.

The Profit Earned

It is not the completed work that writers strive for, so much as the sparkling sentence.  Don’t get me wrong, a completed work is the ultimate goal. 

But what drags you through the long nights and repeated attempts to write the same scene or chapter are certain moments that make you think, “Did I write that?” 

It is those moments when you see a few words, a handful of sentences; a paragraph, scene, or chapter and think, “I really like that.  I did that. I wrote that.” 

With those words you feel a justifiable pride.  At that moment you don’t care if anyone else ever reads one word of what you wrote.  The long effort was worth every moment it took to achieve.  You bask for a few seconds in a wonderful feeling.

Then you start trying to write the next sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter.  And the frustrating hunt for the right words starts over again.  The feeling fades, but your remember it well.  And as the long hours pass you know, or at least hope, that you will again find the right words and experience that heady rush once again.

Later stories you might write for money, or other less noble reasons.  Some you may start and then abandon.  But the first story you write for the love of writing, for the want of skills greater than you currently posses,  is a special story that changes you in ways immeasurable.

It is the story you can’t walk away from, because it simply won’t let you. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Few Good Blogs

My post this week is a bit delayed due to laziness combined with the game Castle Age on Facebook.  (Curse you Nicole for introducing me to a game I enjoy!  Wait…that doesn’t sound right…. Never mind.  We return you to your regularly scheduled post.) 

In addition to being lazy and goofing off, I have been reading various blogs lately, some of which I found to be highly informative.  I thought it would be  good idea to pass on a few quick links for those interested in the art of writing.

First Up: Between Fact And Fiction

Natalie Whipple wrote a post  entitled Revision Reference on her blog, Between Fact and Fiction.   In addition to being very interesting, this post made me feel like the slowest writer in creation.  She casually mentions that last year she wrote first drafts for 6.5 books! and that this is to be "The Year of Revision". 

After I popped my eyes back into my head, I went on to read what she described as “The little ticks that bog down” her writing.  I saw in her list many attributes I have learned to avoid thanks to the Magic City Writers’ Group

Such tidbits include Hedging (“she almost ran to the door” versus “she ran to the door”) and using Tags such as angrily, sadly, vehemently,  and so forth instead of describing actions that imply the emotion. 

Natalie goes on with a list that includes Chattiness, Repetitiveness, Overstaging, and other items good writers shouldn’t do.  It is a very well-written, highly informative post that I can easily recommend to anyone wanting to improve their writing skills.

Second Up: There Are No Rules

I have sung the praises of Jane Friedman and her blog, There Are No Rules, before and I do so again.   This week she mentioned the release of a book in a post entitled, Form The Perfect Critique Group.

The book is The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback.  Given that this blog is dedicated to a writers’ group, I think you can see why this caught my attention. 

I’ll let Jane’s post explain why this is a good book to have.  For myself, I plan to sucker someone into buying it, and then borrow it from them.  (Nicole, you owe me for Castle Age!)

Third Up :There Are No Rules, Again

Yes two posts from the same blog.   It’s a good blog.  This time I am highlighting a guest post by Jim Adam entitled Story Structure: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

This post focuses on the Harry Potter series as a way to highlight good story structure.  It is a first rate analysis and part of a larger series of guest posts he is doing using the Harry Potter series to discuss various elements of storytelling.

In this installment, he points out how both the individual books and the series as a whole have layers of structure designed to draw the reader in and give them a sense that the story is “going somewhere”.   He also underscores how J.K. Rowling includes details, scenes, and incidents that at first seem minor, but become important to the plot.

This is a post that makes you think of stories at a higher level. That requires you to step back and think about how the small details give rise to a pattern that readers subliminally understand and respond to.  For new writers, such as myself, Jim’s post is thought-provoking and provides insights easily overlooked when casually reading the Harry Potter books.

Th…Th…Th…That’s All Folks!

There were other great posts I read this week, but I am behind on my list of 3-trillion things to do, so I shall sign off till next time.  Have fun and party down.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Hidden Danger of Epic Tales

I read an interesting post on Jane Friedman’s blog, There are No Rules, entitled Telling a Story: One-Sentence Stress Test. It is a post well worth reading, but I want to focus on one thing she wrote.  It is some advice that might have helped me over twenty years ago, but now comes a bit late.  I provide the out-of context quote here because I think it is worth repeating.

For most first-time novelists, however, pursuing a story that resists the one-sentence stress test is perilous. Stephen King didn’t start off with The Stand; his first book was Carrie. Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin only undertook his complex fantasy cycle late in his career when his skills had reached full maturity.

Complex books like these should come with an FDA label: “WARNING! Trained professionals at work. Do not attempt this at home.”

Struggling writers who wave off such warnings often pay for their hubris by producing a novel that simply doesn’t work.

My own work over these many years is a testimony to the wisdom of Jane’s words.  If I could go back to my younger self and give some writing advice it might well be something like her warning above.  “Start with something simple.  A straight forward tale that fits in one novel.  Something easy to tell.  Delay working on the complex epic until you have the skills to tell it properly.”

I had simple stories in my head back when I was in college, but I didn’t feel the urge to write those stories down, to tell them quick and fast.  Instead I was lured by a disjointed series of ideas that felt right together, and so became fascinated by a complex puzzle of a tale that I could only glimpse at out the corner of my mind’s eye. 

Over time I toyed and tweaked with the various ideas I had, arranged and rearranged them next to each other, trying to discover how the fragments fit together to form a greater whole.  I knew I was trying to write something big, something complex, but I had no idea how big or how complex.  I didn’t have the skills needed to tell my epic, nor those needed to find the thread of a story that connected one item to another. 

Over the last several decades I gained the abilities needed to tell the epic I call Gods Among Men.  I know my story now in ways I couldn’t in my youth, and I know what I must do to tell it.  It is a daunting task, and if I had other books under my belt I would feel more confidant in my ability to do my story justice.  To tell it the way it deserves to be told.

I said Jane’s advice comes a bit late.  When I was younger it might have been possible for me to choose another story, a simpler tale that I could have focused on and finished.  Now I cannot turn aside from Gods Among Men.  Day and night I think on it; it fills my daydreams and is the center of every effort I make as a writer.  Call it passion, or obsession, or just plain stubbornness, but the end result is the same.  I cannot tell another story until I have Gods Among Men “finished” in some sense of the word.

I take solace, however, in a different thought: had I been more experienced, had I realized early on how complex and difficult it would be to tell Gods Among Men, I might never have found the nerve to to try writing it down. 

Gods Among Men is the work of a lifetime, my lifetime.  And the truth is I love this tale.  It isn’t effort to work on it, to think on it, to write and edit for hours at a time.  Well, sometimes it is an effort; but often I lose myself in a fantasy world of my own creation.  A brutal world, a beautiful world, a complex realm with characters that defy simple labels such as “good” or “evil”.

Perhaps I shall never finish this tale of mine, that it will be nothing more than a monument to my own hubris.  If so, that will be a shame, but not a tragedy.  A tragedy would be if I had never tried to tell this story, if I had never accepted the challenge of telling one great, truly original, tale.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Reverse Engineering An Outline

I have long had a good idea about the plot of my story, Gods Among Men, and a high-level outline for the first half of the story.  Lately, as I have been working on my new website and planning to forge ahead with writing new material, I have come to realize that it would be useful to have a brief chapter-by-chapter outline of the whole story. 

This goes back to my natural inclination as a plotter, as opposed to a pantzer (someone who write “by the seat of their pants”).  My plot is convoluted enough to easily get lost in, so I need a road map to guide me. 

Having made that decision I was now faced with the prospect of actually writing the outline.

The Insights of A Child

As a child I loved to solve mazes, to trace a line from beginning to end through a convoluted collection of passages.  And as a child I discovered something that shaped my thoughts to this day: Most mazes are easier to solve if you start at the end and work backwards.

All mazes have a plethora of choices at their beginning, false paths and dead-ends design to confuse and confound those trying to solve them. 

But almost all mazes have only one route open to the end, a predefined choice essential to completing the puzzle.  And while the path back may be littered with choices, it is often easy to spot which ones dead end and which lead back to the beginning.

And so in life I have often found that if you want an end result, it is easier to plot your way back from that end result than to decipher how to move forward from where you are.

And This Relates To Outlining How Exactly?

As I tried to wrap my mind around the effort of creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, I came to think about the insights into my story I had some months ago.   Those insights focused upon my realization of what the ending must include, and what was required to get there. 

And that I discovered is the key to the outline I shall create. 

Starting at the beginning and going forward to the end is hard and treacherous.  It is easy to get lost in the details, to pursue sub-plots and minor character arcs that go nowhere. 

Starting at the end, however, and working backwards is much easier.

The finale is about Damon and Artemis, the end of their character arcs and the conclusion of the plot.  A known point I must reach. 

So what must happen immediately before to set up that scene?  I can answer that question, and in doing so write down the outline for the preceding chapter.

That preceding chapter will also include the ending of plot threads and arcs for lesser characters.  Those endings must be setup by chapters that come earlier in the story.  Now I know what to write down for those even earlier chapters. 

And so on and so forth, until I reach the parts of the story I have already written.  Back-tracing through my maze of a plot to my known beginning.

It may seem an odd technique, but it is one I have used often to solve difficult problems.  And when faced with a thorny plot is a useful way to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Tell-Tell Sign of Boring Characters

Last time, I posted about a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and mentioned that it had lessons applicable to anyone trying to tell a story.  Today I would like to discuss one such lesson: how to tell if your character is boring.

At one point in the video, the reviewer poses a challenge: 

Describe the following Star Wars character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was.  Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Star Wars.


Ignoring the double negative in the last sentence, and without dwelling on the characters the reviewer refers to, consider the point of the challenge itself.   It is a test to see which characters the audience remembers, understands, and (most importantly) cares about; and which ones they don’t.

With that thought in mind, I will reword his challenge slightly in order to make one of my own.

My Challenge:

Describe a character, from your own work or another’s, without saying what the character looks like, how they dress, or what their profession or role in the story is.  Do not mention details of the story’s plot, or the genre of the story itself.   Describe this character to your friends as if they have never seen or read the story for themselves.

If a reader or viewer can reasonably described a character out of context, without going into specifics of the story itself or even the genre in which the story resides, then the character is more universally understandable.  The audience can form an emotional connection with the character; will come to like or dislike them, to care about what happens to them.  If the story is told well, the character will be remembered and talked about with others who also experienced the story.

If a reader/viewer cannot describe a character, then there will be less of an emotional connection.  They may not care what happens to the character.  If the character is central to the plot, then the audience may become bored with the whole story.   If they do talk with others about the character or the story, they will have little to say, except perhaps to mention how forgettable both were.

For myself, I am reconsidering my central characters and seeing how well they withstand my challenge.  If I cannot write down a satisfactory description that meets my stated requirements, then I will know I have a problem, that the character needs to be reconsidered and possibly reworked.  

I plan to add a section to my new website where I will include these character descriptions.   I hope it will serve both to remind me of my intentions for these characters, and to help me write them honestly.

Such character descriptions are not sufficient for making interesting characters.  The descriptions themselves are a form of “telling”, and (as mentioned here and elsewhere many times) a writer should always strive to “show, not tell”.  Nonetheless, if a writer cannot create a “telling” description of a character filled with interesting facts, odds are they will “show” their audience someone boring and forgettable.