Sunday, September 13, 2009

Characters Butting Heads

When I wrote the first draft of my novel More Deaths Than One (and the second draft and the third) I had the hero Bob meandering around his world trying to unravel his past all by himself, and it was boring. Did I say boring? It was moribund. The story went nowhere because there was no one for Bob to butt heads with.

As an aside: this is my current metaphor for a good story — characters butting heads with each other and spinning off in new directions. Too many authors today have their characters butting heads, moving straight back and butting heads again. If the characters don’t ricochet off into a different direction each time, you have characters that don’t change and hence you have a static story.

In the fourth draft of More Deaths Than One, I gave Bob a love interest, a waitress he met at a coffee shop. (Hey, so it’s been done before. The poor guy spent eighteen years in Southeast Asia, and didn’t know anybody stateside. How else was he supposed to meet someone?) That’s when the story took off. He had someone to butt heads with, someone to ooh and aah over his achievements, someone to be horrified at what had been done to him.

From that, I learned the importance of writing scenes with more than one character.

So why am I mentioning this?

Well, I’ve hit a hole in my work-in-progress, a possible weakness. The hero of this whimsically ironic apocalyptic novel, Chip, loses one person after the other until he is alone. (I’m not giving anything away here. I already told you the work was apocalyptic.) There will be plenty of conflict as he contends with his new environment, but it might get boring without other characters for him to interact with.

There will be no problem once he ends up in the human zoo in the second part – his problem there (though not mine as the writer) is that he will have too many people to contend with. The same holds true for the third part of the book when he escapes. So there will be only about sixty pages where he is alone.

I do have one thing in my favor. I am a much better writer than I was when I wrote the first draft of More Deaths Than One, so perhaps I can keep the story going with Chip alone. (Saying I am a much better writer now is not necessarily saying I am a good writer. The first draft of More Deaths Than One was laughably bad. That I found an agent for it says more about the agent than it does my writing. No surprise – he couldn’t sell it.)

Chip does have to be alone at the end of the first part; he has an important step to take and must be by himself to take it. He also has to go through some experiences alone because they are essentially in his mind (or at least he thinks they are), but who will he be butting heads with the rest of the time? I’ll have to think about this.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sex in Books and Serial Killing

Thomas Harris’s book Red Dragon really blew me away when I read it years ago. It was the first book of its type, or at least the first of its type that I read. Since then, hundreds of books about serial killers have been published, each one more grotesque than the last in an effort to excite the interest of a jaded public. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, written years after the Red Dragon, was so bizarre it was almost ridiculous.

Sex in books in like serial killing in books. In an effort to make what is essentially a reproductive act ever more interesting, authors keep coming up with different positions, different euphemisms, different ways to describe the act and the necessary anatomy. At times, the descriptions are more gruesome than titillating.

Maybe I’m jaded, too, but I find myself skipping over the sex scenes in books. And, since I have a strict rule not to write what I don’t read, each book I write has less sex in it than the last. In fact, in Light Bringer the characters didn’t have sex at all. But what can you expect from aliens? Still, it never occurred to me that I left off any mention of sex until it was pointed out to me. (I also left out the violence. Hmmm. No sex or violence. Is this a clue as to why I can’t find a publisher?)

Last night I had the hero of my work-in-progress, Chip, go out on a date and they ended up at his place. (His mother was finally gone, hallelujah! I was getting a bit bored with her. She really wasn’t nice.) Chip and the girl weren’t in love, though they knew each other; so without the love/romance angle all that was left was sex. And since I couldn’t think of a single thing new to say about it, I closed the door and left them alone.

Maybe when Chip does meet his life mate, I will let them be intimate, make love, copulate, possess each other, sleep together, but until then, poor Chip will need his strength. The world is about to come to an end.

Friday, June 5, 2009

On Writing: Spend Your Words Wisely

Although I am not a fan of long descriptive passages, or even short ones that add nothing to the story, I do think that setting is important. We readers need to know where we are, and why. We need enough description to get our imaginations flowing, though not so much that we feel the story is the author’s alone; we want to be a participant in the process.

Setting need not be static. It can be a character with its own personality, scars, weaknesses, strengths, emotions, and moods. Like the other characters in the story, we should get to know it little by little, not in big chunks of exposition. And, like the characters, it should change; or at least our perception of it should change.

The space given to description should be in relation to its importance. There is no point in writing a long description of a setting that will disappear from the book before the readers have fixed it in their minds. For one thing, it delays the action unnecessarily; for another, readers won’t forgive the false impression.

For my work in progress, I envisioned a fabulous pet store. It was a standalone building with its own parking lot. The building was in the shape of a U, with the main room across the front and two wings. Because it was once a doctor’s office, there were several little rooms in each wing. My character, Chip, created special habitats in the rooms, like a mini forest for the owl and a large terrarium for the reptiles. In the center of the U was a courtyard that the doctors once used for an outdoor eating area, but Chip had enclosed it with wire mesh, filled it with exotic plants and small trees, and used it as a retreat for the birds and small animals.

As I was designing the store, I encountered several problems: the birds were tropical, and would not have done well outside in Denver’s harsh climate. The terrariums for the reptiles would turn into charnel houses because the creatures would eat each other. But even with the problems, I was loath to implode my store; I spent a lot of time creating it and I thought it was a great idea.
Then I started writing it. To make it more than a lifeless description such as the one here, I had to give it several paragraphs and for what? Within a few short chapters the store would disappear (along with the entire neighborhood). It didn’t make sense to give so much space to something that was obviously unimportant when a plain old store would work just as well and with fewer descriptive words to delay the action. Besides, anything the fabulous store said about Chip was more entertainingly portrayed by his relationship with the animals.

While my setting — Denver in the not too distant future — is important, the store wasn’t. Whatever words I would have wasted on the store, I will spend creating a living, changing, vital setting for Chip to interact with. Because of that interaction, I won’t need long descriptive passages for readers to skim over.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Humor Metamorphosing into Horror Metamorphosing into Allegory

Of all the books I’ve written, my current work-in-progress is by far the most fun. Part of it, I am sure, is due to the past months of reviewing and being reviewed. I am more confident of myself as a writer, more accepting of my style, and even though the words still come slowly (I average about a page of keepers a night; the rest ends up in the trash) they are coming easier. They don’t fight me as much as they did in the past. I don’t spend as much time agonizing over the perfect speaker attribute or trying to come up with an original metaphor, which I would end up getting rid of anyway, because they always sound trite to me.

Another part of the fun comes from knowing where I am going. Because of the blogs I did on creating the character, I know who is his, what he wants, what his internal and external conflicts are, which in my previous works didn’t show up until after I’d written about fifty pages.
But the most fun is how the mood of the story keeps changing. It started out as a whimsically ironic apocalyptic novel, metamorphosed into horror, and now it has become something completely different: an allegory. A biblical allegory, which is itself ironic because . . . well, just because.

Chip, my hero, and the torments that beset him are reminiscent of the book of Job, or so it seems. It’s been many years since I’ve even looked at a bible, so I can’t give you specifics. But the overall feeling is the same.

How did this happen?

Details. Although I know the story and my character, I don’t necessarily know the day-to-day minutiae until I write them, and the story is in the details. Each action, no matter how small, has a reaction. Each reaction is motivated. How does Chip react to what is happening to him, and why? Why are the things happening in the first place? By such little steps – the hows and the whys — the story builds. And deepens. And metamorphoses.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Humor Metamorphosing Into Horror

My work in progress, a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic adventure, is metamorphosing into a horror story. I study my words trying to figure out where I went wrong, but they seem to be behaving properly. Does this mean that I am losing control of my story? No. The problem is in the details.

Plausibility in a story depends on the accumulation of consistent, accurate details. Those details are even more important for a fantasy than they are for other types of books, such as police procedurals. An author of a police procedural can summarize or even skip some of the boring details. After all, any person who reads crime novels, follows detective shows on television, or watches documentaries about modern forensic techniques knows many details of a criminal investigation, and can fill in the blanks. For example, early police procedurals gave details about taking fingerprints from a suspect, but today most readers know how fingerprints are taken, probably even had one taken for a driver’s license, so few authors waste words on that particular detail.

On the other hand, only the author of a fantasy knows all the details of his or her world. For those details to seem real, the characters must act consistently with their history, experiences, and psychological profiles.

Although I might find it incongruous and therefore amusing to have a saber-tooth lion spring out of a dark alley in modern Denver, the character experiencing this is not amused. To him, it is unimaginable horror; therefore, to the reader who is experiencing the world through the eyes of the character, it is also horror. A character who finds an attacking saber-tooth lion to be funny is not a believable character, unless somehow I can make the reader believe that the character will react in such a way, which still proves that plausibility is in the details.

Since I am writing to my specifications and not to a publisher’s, it does not matter whether I am writing humor or horror. That the details are consistent and accurate within my story world does matter, and of that, I am in control.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Moons, Mayans, and Muses

When writing my previous novels, I didn’t bother with the underpinnings. I had an idea of where the story began and where it ended, but other than that, I wrote the story as I thought of it. I didn’t pay attention to the timeline; the days flowed one into the other without regard for weekends, holidays, or phases of the moon. (If I needed a full moon, I simply wrote one in, even if it was astronomically or lunarly impossible.) Invariably, though, in the second half of the book, I would get confused as to where I was and how everything fit together, and I’d have to stop writing while I figured out the timeline. My still unpublished novel Light Bringer was the worst because I had several characters whose activities needed to be coordinated, and I couldn’t hold everything in my head or even on a written chart. I finally set up a bulletin board, wrote a brief description of each scene on a card, then arranged and rearranged them like a puzzle until I got it worked out.

To keep that from happening with my current work in progress, to be able to track the story from the first scene, last night I set up a calendar for the hypothetical year of my story — the year the world ends. Even though I will not name the year in the book (at least I don’t plan to) I decided it takes place in 2012. That gives me a year to write the book, a year to rewrite it, a year to sell it, a year for the publisher to get it ready and still have it take place in the near future.

Perhaps it isn’t necessary to use the calendar of an actual year, but so much of reading occurs in the subconscious. Readers register details that don’t impinge on their conscious minds; they hear echoes of duplicated words and phrases; they get an uncomfortable if they feel that events couldn’t have happened as portrayed. So, it’s best for us writers to stick with reality when possible, especially when writing fantasy. (And, in the end, aren’t all novels fantasy?)

This morning I Googled phases of the moon for 2012, wanting to make certain my moon won’t be full or new at inappropriate times. I found the chart I was looking for. I found something else, too, something I had forgotten. The Mayans believe that the world will be end in 2012. Life imitating Art? Art imitating Life? My muse (or my memory) playing tricks on me again?

If nothing else, it tells me I did the right thing by setting up the underpinnings for my story this early. If I hadn’t, I would never have made the connection, and it might add an interesting dimension to the story, consciously or unconsciously.

Rhapsody in Blue

When I begin to get immersed in a creating a book, whether by writing or simply by working it out in my mind, I look twice at everything that comes my way, wondering if it is a gift from the muses.

When I received a solicitation from The Nature Conservancy describing the Karner blue butterfly and what they are doing to preserve it. I tossed the letter into the trash, then immediately fished it out. I’m familiar with blue wasps, and recently I saw a huge blue bee, but I had never seen a blue butterfly, and the thought captured my imagination.

I could see it, a scene in my novel — a savannah of blue lupines, clouds of blue butterflies, a swarm of blue bees, a few blue wasps daubing in the mud. My characters would be filled with awe as they made their way through the blue, but it would be so strange that they would also be fearful.

Of course, like all gods and goddesses, the muses are fickle and love to play tricks on us humans. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time I finished writing my book and got it published, blue would have been done to death. The nine muses will be out there somewhere in the great blue yonder, laughing at me and my gullibility in thinking I was original.