I’d planned to spend the entire day devoted to writing. After numerous interruptions, most of them more stressful than I’d care to relate, and a lovely evening chat with my smarter half, I finally got down to “business” around 8:30 PM. But the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat were each playing (and winning) and there went that bit of focus.
So, here it is, midnight, and the sum total of what I’ve written today is below.
My interview with Rosie wasn’t going at all like I planned. I suppose it might have been due to the fact that I let myself like her enough that I didn’t want to rough her up emotionally. You need to stay objective, if not antagonistic toward your subject during questioning. It could also have been the fact that the girl was a lot brighter than I expected a glorified waitress to be. Mostly, however, it was the fact that the woman was playing a game she called Strip Interview, during which she removed an article of clothing each time I asked her a personal question or one she deemed to be stupid. That left me with one of two options: stop the interview or risk having a naked subject sitting across from me.
Like I’ve said before, I’m a professional. I wasn’t about to stop the interview over some half-assed, female bullying technique. Besides, I’d conducted plenty of interviews of nude subjects during my time in Afghanistan. Granted, none of those Taliban freaks looked anything like Rosie, but that was my theory. In truth, the woman was killing me. She was currently seated across from me wearing a black lace bra, matching panties, and those damned fuzzy sandals. I was sure she kept those on just to keep me noticing her feet. I may have sort of a thing for feet.
The way I saw it, I had to figure out what I needed to know in the next two questions, or somebody was going to be in a world of hurt.
Oh well, at least I got my plot outlined organized better. That’ll make the writing fly by tomorrow. (Sigh)
I’m torn. Some of you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. It runs for 30 days in November of each year. Well, I’ve done it a few times, and it’s no big deal at this point. In fact, it’s a little asinine in that the objective is to write a 50,000-word “novel” but most participants write neither. Even if they did, 50,000 words does not a novel make. In any case, the only real “prize” for “winning” is knowing you did it and feeling superior to the cretin who failed like the losers they are.
Even so, I’ve found it a good stimulus to continue to write. I always write something in the summer and start or finish a major project in November. This year, I can’t decide what my next project should be. I’ve begun writing short stories toward my next anthology, the working title of which is Dark City Stories. I have 3 written, 1of which I really like , and a second story is underway.
So, for November, I can either continue working on my short stories, and try to crank out 50,000 words (143 pages) worth, or I can start work on my long-delayed detective novel, Jeanne Dark. I chose the name Dark City Stories as I’ve considered starting Jeanne out as a novelette in the collection. (It would be her second story.)
For the short story collection, I already have a number of ideas:
“30 July 3013” – Life in the city.
“321 Hell Street, Apt 7” – There is a darkness in the penthouse apartment of an old building populated by a diverse group of city dwellers. Rumors are its been there forever. But now it wants to leave.
“A Girl Named Serenity Sea” – This is a fun and lyrical tale of a very unusual woman, and the complement to the novelette I completed named “Holy Mother of Selina Sky” (my favorite short story to date. It will be one of the first short stories ever penned that is based to a large extent on internet memes, with a real story wrapped around it.
“Beyonder” – A tale of a wise and worldy elephant
“The Girl Who Wore Shoes” – this is the tale of a young woman who wore shoes, but nothing else.
“The Nebula that Awoke”
“Umbrella Girl” – This one is a surprise … to me.
For the most part, instead of written ideas, I’m plotting the stories initially purely visually, using images as prompts. Those interested can check out my Pinterest collection. I also have some other ideas that I came up with traditionally: a sensual love story that takes place in a large city on another world, the love story of two people who discover they live in non-linear time, and an urban tale of gang life in the distant future. While writing short stories is satisfying, I find it more draining than books, because each “chapter” is a separate book. All the ideas have to be fresh.
It’s damned hard to come up with ideas. Even then, sometimes translating them into coherent stories takes real work. “Selina Sky” was the hardest thing I ever wrote.
What does one do when the characters no longer want to obey? Are we their gods, or merely their scribes, sketching their stories as they see fit? I have been master of my universes, but these three stragglers no longer follow my script.
I have attempted to keep to my mystery, hoping for happy endings. But there are sisters now, and they love him, both, in different ways. They tug and pull, and there is a tragedy, inevitably waiting to happen. Even still, I see a hundred twists toward joy, a thousand to unquenchable sorrow. In some, the mystery is the catalyst. In others, the characters whisper to forget the main line, because there is love and passion, eroticism and magic to be had.
They wish to play, drink too much, and awaken in the nude.
“But there is the matter of the child,” I say.
“He never existed,” she says. “It was madness. You must help her accept her reality.”
It cannot be. This cannot be chimera. My lead is a simple man, with dreams of Bogart, of sleepy childhood nights under the open sky. He is not the fixer of madness. And she, the first, loves him too dearly. But does she love her sister more? Would she cut off her leg to save a sibling whose own leg had been severed?
“She would,” they whisper.
So, now I sit, confused. I see their stories in my dreams. This book, I have written entirely in my head. The scenes are acted out before me. Their lovemaking rocks me; it is indelicate and I refuse to write it down.
“These are not the stories I write,” I complain.
“They are not your stories,” she says. “They are ours. We are more than you believe.”
I must walk now and take in the sun. They have begun to twist and I do not know how to follow. A simple love story is all I wanted. But now there is another one, a sister, good and true. She is wounded; he is a rescuer.
I fear they are not pure of heart. But I am not the bearer of negativity. I do not scribe eroticism, or red weddings, or the ramblings of a dishonored brood. The people clamor for those stories … but they are too easy to write. I can sweep the table of those you love, and let the shock pass for brilliance. I can allow the hearts to break and the lives to ruin. They can twist; they can.
But how to keep them from breaking? That is the real writing. That is the genius I seek, but never master. How do I allow them to break, but never shatter?
“She needs him or I will lose them both,” says the first sister.
“Then she must have him,” I concede. “But it will ruin you.”
“Then I shall be not the tree, but the grass. I shall bend, but will not break.
I resign myself to their fate. But I feel the twists are beyond me. They do not fit on the web or in a story of this size. The words are strong and heady, and this is a vessel built for dainty drinks with pink umbrella prose.
But even still, I see her, naked, wet, demanding he watch, and promising him she will never allow him to touch her. I wonder if they know that is the magic that shall trap him, and break them both.
Some books you hate to write. Perhaps it is time to stop. I do not like this wandering; the ink is spilling all over the page and now, my hands are filthy.
I often see writers debate about which is preferable, “plotting” or “pantsing.” Plotting refers to diligently lay out your story’s plot before writing in earnest, using outlining or some similar method. True plotters may create outlines so detailed that they are actually incorporated into the work during the writing phase. Evan Marshall, author of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, should be considered the patron saint of plotters.
Pantsing refers to those writers who write via “the seat of their pants,” without the benefit of a true outline, and sometimes without knowing what the story will be about in advance. Stephen King is a well-known advocate of this method (which is why some critics claimed his early works used to fall apart in the final act). *Bill raises his hand.
I won’t describe these two methods in great detail as they’ve been described a lot, and you can look them up for yourself. Instead, I want to discuss the pitfalls of each and how to find your way in between the two extremes.
Now in truth, few people probably fall into the extremes of either method, and both can be used successfully. I fully plotted my third novel, Emprise, in advance, as it was the conclusion of a trilogy, and I was determined that 100% of the plot lines would close. That is the great benefit of plotting, being able to analyze plot lines in advance, and construct your story so that it is fluid and logical.
It’s also the trap. For some, it’s too easy to start thinking of the outline as your story. The story isn’t written until you write it, and much of it will be in your head before you ever sit down to the computer. Even the most detailed outline should be considered a guide, not a prison. Rigid plotters sometimes overthink so much they are filling in their story’s blanks to the exclusion of imagination.
Pantsers, in the extreme, sit in front of the computer, and make shit up. They let the characters guide the story, moving from one scene to the next without a pre-designed flow. Often, they don’t know what the ending will be until they get there. Plotters, in contrast, often write the ending before they begin the book.
The trap here is easy to see. You can be a Stephen King, 900 pages into a (600-page) book, with no clear way of shutting down the story. (If you’re King, you’re also too big for an editor to back you down.) A less skilled (and most of us are) writer will discover s/he has painted him or herself into a corner. The result is backtracking, massive editing, and often, choppy and uneven writing. Why? Underthinking. You can’t make up a 75,000-word story on the fly and expect it to hold together. Want to know why 1st drafts suck? That’s why.
I’m not talking about wordsmanship when I say choppy writing; I’m referring to pace. I can often tell a pantser’s book because the pacing is uneven. There will be a section rife with action: one, two, three chapters in a row of chills. And then, suddenly, we’re hit with 50 pages of backstory dialogue at a party. Why? Because the author hadn’t thought in advance how long to be in each scene. That’s the plotting part.
It also leads us to how to use bits of plotting to shore up your work without getting bogged down or ruining your flow. Let’s be scientific here for a minute. If you are a natural pantser, you will likely never shift to the plotter mode. Why? Because it’s determined by your brain and personality type. Plotters are what Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs calls Judging types, who naturally organize their environment. *Bill raises his hand again. They plot, because it helps them to manage the world. Plotters write in Word, because they knew the outline in advance. Pantsers are the Sensing type, who do precisely the opposite. They navigate the world by maximizing their flexibility. Plotting restricts and stresses them. Pantsers write using tools like Jutoh, so they can move whole chapters or sections around after they’re written, according to what feels right.
So, how do you get the benefit of both methods – to know where the story will go, and roughly how to get there, without stopping to use the bloody road map? Easy.
There is a hybrid method. I first began to merge the two in writing short stories, where there is insufficient space for a long plot. Although a natural plotter, I began to see the advantages of letting the story lead – most of all, having the plot twist all of its own accord. More on plot twists tomorrow, but suffice it to say that when you have no pre-conceived ideas for a story (or a chapter) your imagination is freer. It’s writing by brainstorming.
After a few short stories, I tried my hybrid method on a longer piece – my 400+ page science fiction novel, Hard as Roxx. Roxx was the perfect vehicle, as much of the story takes place “on the road,” with things happening to the characters that they have to deal with. As a result, the book would remain fluid even if the lack of heavy plotting bounced Roxx and her kids from episode to episode. I spent more time choreographing the fight scenes than outlining the novel.
So what did I learn from the process? That some structure is almost imperative, for any work much above 5,000 words, unless you are fine with doing a lot of moving around during editing. But too much structure limits the imagination in ways you may not have intended. At a minimum, I’d recommend the following as a hybrid, limited-plotting method.
1. Know who the main character is. This doesn’t have to be very detailed, just enough in your head that the MC is well rounded and consistent. Of course they will grow in your story, and they should, but don’t make them an introvert in chapter 1 and the life of the party in chapter 3.
2. Have some idea of the ending. You can change the details later. However, you should have a good enough idea so that you know when your story is over. (That will already put you ahead of some writers who end too soon or too late.) Sure, you can expect the ending be happy when you’re plotting and then kill all the bitches off at the end, but at least you’ll know it was the end.
3. Decide how long (in words) you want the story to be up front. DO NOT start writing until you decide. You may change (as I have) from a short story to a novelette if you’ve guessed wrong, but you’ll very quickly know your original idea wasn’t workable and be able to adjust before you build yourself walls you can’t overcome.
4. Think in terms of quarters. 1st 25% – we learn the basic story line; the main “what if” or problem is identified. Next 50% – we learn the story and stuff happens to the hero; subplots form. Last 25% – the climax and resolution of plot lines. Don’t think this is important? Watch any of your favorite 60-minute TV dramas. I bet you that the climax happens with precisely 15 minutes to go (right before the last commercial break). The formula not only works, readers come to expect it, even without realizing it.
5. If you have a fun idea, run with it. It’s your story. Not only should you not worry about changing your mind, you should be worried if you don’t. You may write a minor character who’s more interesting than your main ones, and find her taking over the book. Let her; she’s a natural star. You may add to your story, on impulse, a puppy that a neighbor tried to give you that day, and find your readers “love” that puppy (*cough, Apache!). Give the puppy more work. *Bill raises his hand for the last time.
The point of the exercise is to discover that having some structure is positive and it needn’t get in the way of the story. My web serial is being written with no advanced plotting at all. However, the hybrid method still works, because when I get an idea, it’s easy to plan the next chapter using the method I just laid out.
I’ve had people ask me from whence come my stories. … Okay, my dad asked me that once. Still, he was quite insistent: “Where on Earth do you get the ideas you need to write an entire book?” That’s actually a good question.
I previously wrote about the Event Wheel, which is a device that allows you to map out an event and find out what secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary events happen as a result. It is indeed a very powerful tool, and you can read about it if you like. However, most of the time, I’m just playing “what if” games, which is not very different that one-person brainstorming. Take for instance today. I was on about mile 0.5 of my 2-mile walk, when a question hit me:
Once humans master the human brainwave interface, which will allow for direct electrical interactions between computers and the human brain, will it not be long before we develop the ability to fully download what makes us human – personalities, memories, learned responses, etc. – into an artificial life? When that happens, what happens next?
These random thoughts are usually followed by a stream of follow-on thoughts:
If an entire human “being” is downloaded into an android, what happens to the “soul?”
Do the belief in the soul inhibit people’s acceptance that the droid is still the same “person” as before? Do religious people see these beings as “godless” starting a heated religious conflict?
Do religions like Buddhism become more popular or do people simply stop believing all together?
Would the downloaded droid (Indefs, as in Indefinite life expectancy) consider itself the person as before, or a newer (better) entity?
Would the Indefs consider themselves godly beings?
Other than the infirmed, who would do this first?
How quickly would governments step in? Surely there would be moralistic-based limits (as on cloning) to prevent this.
If not (or prevalent illegal trade) how does government limit the numbers eligible to do this? How do you stop the species’ evolution from stopping – only transfers after fertile years?
Would countries forcibly switch over their populations to save on food costs and create stronger armies? How do you prevent /combat that?
How would bio-based humans fight back against the appeal of this? Would this really open the door to DNA enhancement? Superman vs. Machine?
Would they be allied, mutually accepted, at war?
What about sex? Surely the Indefs would still be sexual beings. Would the culture be different – more logic-based or freer?
Does this create a class conflict? Rich people get downloaded but poor people just die?
Do the poor get downloaded with government subsidies, but in a lower class of bot?
Do unethical groups/governments trick the poor and only download their abilities to work – essentially creating new slaves?
How quickly would the Indefs push to leave Earth? Why would they stay? Could they be put in stasis indefinitely for interstellar flight?
These are just the thoughts I came up with on my 30-minute walk, and while I was typing, but I think you see the point. The power of the process is to allow one question or “what if” generate the next, and let it take you as far afield as it does. Looking at the above, I see a number of possible storylines, every thing from political dramas, to dystopian oppression, or even space opera.
The next step, however, is to me the fun step. What happens when you insert a character into the above?
It’s 2187. Let’s call our character Carmen, a 30-year-old ex-Marine, who is on a whirlwind tour after publishing her 1st novel based on her experiences in the North Asia Indef Revolt. Those Godless Bots took over their local government after a long terror campaign, supposedly “fighting for basic human rights.” Like they’re human. Ha. Then, suppose she is struck while crossing the street, leaving her paralyzed from the lips down. Wow.
So, stop and think about that for a second.
There are a lot of ways to go from there, huh? She can become a “godless” Indef, and begin to see their cause. She can infiltrate them and find their goal to be far less noble than we thought. We can stay away from the “Avatar” line completely, and have her recover some function, but end up being the first genuine mixture between fully an Indef and a bio-based human. Maybe she avoids the damn war and heads out to space with a crew of beings who are sick of war (or want to kick ass in the rest of the solar system.)
Or, we can keep the character, and use some of the questions above to create new story ideas. Anyway, that’s how a five-second thought blossoms into the start of a short story or novel idea.
So here’s my question to you – where would you take the ideas above? Who would your main character be?
They whisper to me, you know. Like auditory hallucinations, I can hear their breathing, inside my ear, their breathy words, their admonitions. Although they speak mostly gibberish, as if I were dreaming, it is their emotional content I recognize. She wants out, does Jeanne Dark. I begin to see the colors of her graphemes, and she screams for me to put them to paper. I can almost hear the sound the colors make, and the heady, gurgling pant of the numbers. She will never forget a number, because she can remember the color of their songs. She is insane, blindingly insane, because she manages to remain lucid in such a chimerical world. Surely, that is madness.
And dear Foss, the deep Mr. Cain, he has begun emerging in my dreams. He is more than whom I created, already. I see him in passersby. Today, at work, two African American men passed by. They were short, relatively speaking, no more than five foot seven or so. I thought of Foss, the massive six feet, four inches of him, and wondered if the men would have spoken to him were he lost in scowl-painted thought. He is bored, needs adventure, wants his turn.
Still, I keep him inside, with Dark. I can feel them clawing at me. No, it is more than that. I can feel the words; they burn, needing release. It hurts not to write them, my blue-balled determination to deny their freedom is failing. It hurts too much, and at times, I feel the need to weep. But tears would be a release. They would drip and bits of Dark’s story would come with them.
I keep her trapped, because the pain is her story. There is pain there. Perhaps she is trapped, like my imagination. Maybe that is why I will not write her. Too much of my writing is humor. My words reflect my thoughts, and I confess I see the brilliant comedy of stupidity that is the world. But Dark’s story is not humorous. She is capable of great joy – rather, causing it – but has felt little. Her world has been isolation. She hurts, but paints her face with false pleasantries. I would know none of this had I let her out.
So she will remain trapped a bit longer, until the words no longer fit inside. Perhaps it is foolishness to write so soon about writing. Maybe the ideas will be stolen. But it matters little. Dark sings only to me, and only I can write her lyrics. I begin to think there are young writers, those whom have never written a book, who would watch the process, as one would an accident laid out in super-slow motion. I will let them watch, feed their scorn, here, as I bleed on my keyboards. Already she has taken over it; I can feel her somber smile even in these few passages. Do they feel the undercurrent of her deep passion? Do they know how she yearns?
They will. I have found her cover art – the perfect photo of her shadowed self. Soon, Dark’s story will be written, the novel will be finished. …
I was watching a poorly done movie about a viral outbreak today – I don’t even remember the title, though it ended twenty minutes ago – and as my mind wandered, I started thinking about strategic planning.
Wait, that’s not as weird as you think.
When I finished graduate school, I went to work for IBM. I hated working for IBM, which shouldn’t surprise any of my fellow writers, but their classes were incredible. One such boondoggle class was a Strategic Planning course that was administered in Santa Clara, California. That’s right, a week on the west coast, drinking my way through all the cool bars with work colleagues, and hanging out in San Francisco. The excesses of the 1980s were awesome.
In any case, the class turned out to be the most valuable thing I was ever taught, outside of algebra. (I don’t count reading or writing because I taught myself those.) The key piece to the course was a simple device called an “event wheel.” Essentially, the event wheel is a device that allows you to map out an event and find out what secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary events happen as a result. Even better, it can be done with tools as simple as a pencil and a big piece of paper.
To begin, simply map out an event – here, an outbreak of a new, highly contagious virus with a high mortality rate. The first set of rings – in green in the diagram – are the primary effects of the event. These will be easy to see, in most cases. They can be as simple as cause and effect of a routine event (accident causes injury) or, as in this case, descriptions of the event.
In our viral outbreak, the victim is unaware. She is on travel when she encounters the virus. Further, unlike influenza, wherein victims are contagious for one day prior to symptoms arising, our virus has a 5-day window where the victim is contagious, but shows no symptoms of the disease. This is where the power of the tool begins to show itself.
After mapping out the immediate (fewer than 10) “event attributes,” we begin to see how the primary event begins to run its course. The 5-day contagion leads to the victim infecting all those who have close contact with her for a full work week. Her lack of symptoms means she plays out her normal life, spreading the virus faster. Everyone in her life is effected, her loved ones most of all. She’s a traveler, perhaps on a business sales jaunt through Paris, Brussels, Vienna, and Rome, taking the disease with her. These are the secondary effects.
Most of these will be things you can think of without the tool. However, you may find, even here, things that would have never connected to the event. The next step is where it gets fun. Each secondary and tertiary effect is an event unto itself. A single point on the wheel could launch an entire chain of events.
For instance, given the disease spreads rapidly and mortality is high, the Government will need to step in to ensure the safety of innocents, and to prevent chaos. A sure outcome of that single step will be that those who are naturally distrustful of government become paranoid. These “Grassy Knollers” will introduce conspiracy theories to explain how things could have gone wrong so fast. And these theories are in themselves a new string of events.
As a writer, for instance, what if you decide the crazy theory – that the Government created the virus as a biological weapon – was reality? Or, perhaps the focus of your story isn’t on the virus. It’s been done to death – who cares?
But maybe you are focused on what happens – out there in the red, tertiary effects – when people realize their friend, wife, and co-worker could be sick, and they would never know right until they got sick themselves? How rapidly, and in what way does society crumble if no one can trust anyone else? What if the virus stabilizes, but it lingers, always a threat? Would society, out in the fourth wheel of your imagination, become hermits who never leave home, dealing with each other through the virtual world?
It’s fun to think of.
Now, I know there are still skeptics. You’re thinking, “Big deal, I can do that in my head.” It’s true, and with practice, you will. But would you remember it? Would you remember which events cause what effects? With the event wheel, you can.
Here’s another innocuous one.
Someone invents the most powerful computer known to man. It is linked to satellite technology that brings 3-D, virtualization right into your home. If you can imagine it, the computer can make it real. Okay, normal Sci-fi stuff, right? Sure, but what about all the stuff that goes with it? How do you do the world building you need to make the story viable?
As you lay out your wheel of effects of this “most powerful computer” one of your primary effects will be “takes a shitload of energy” or words to that effect. Ever known new technology that doesn’t run on some kind of power? Well, the event wheel’s next steps will include “society quickly runs out of power,” “electricity becomes super expensive,” and “new power sources are sought.” Or maybe you deviate into “energy becomes a tradable, black-market commodity,” or “government outlaws the technology to save a world from the mind-fuck of virtualization.”
Maybe society splits, somewhere in the third wheel, into those who spend all their money on tech and energy, and those who reject tech completely because they can no longer even afford to light their homes.
Consider the event wheel; you’ll be surprised where it leads you. After all, when the manufacturers of buggy whips saw the horseless carriage come along, none of them used this tool to predict their product line would be obsolete, did they? If they did, you’d see them manufacturing leather car seats now.