Archive for category Writing
The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.
In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.
Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.
Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.
The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.
That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.
There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:
- Proper sleep and diet
- Some minimal socializing
There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:
- Baking cookies
- Cooking Christmas dinner
- Holiday Decorating
- Gift Wrapping
- Parties and large social gatherings in general
- Sending Christmas cards
All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.
The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.
Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.
I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.
Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.
Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.
The question mark is my favorite punctuation mark.
Days before my seventh birthday, I went to Santa Monica Hospital to have my tonsils out. Parts of the experience stand out clearly in memory. For instance, I remember being carried into the operating room by the doctor. I remember a mask being placed over my face. I remember being told to count backwards. And I remember a dream.
I’ve had general anesthetic a few times since, but don’t ever remember any dreams. This one time, though, I did.
I dreamed of question marks, dancing around me, and I dreamed of them jumping off a cliff. It wasn’t a nightmare exactly, but I found it disturbing. I have continued to find question marks menacing, somehow. What is it they want from me, exactly, and do they expect me to have answers?
Of course, I’m joking, a little bit. I experience no uneasiness at all at a question mark at the end of a sentence. Do you know where I left my keys? is not disturbing. Even Is there any meaning to life? ignites no particular emotion. It’s when the question mark stands out there all on its own that I get a bit twitchy.
There’s something about the wiggly insistence of the mark itself. It conjures uncertainty and instability. It suggests that there’s no end to possible questions, that no answer will ever be enough.
The recent flurry of Dr. Who programming reminded me of my uneasy relationship with question marks, where they appear on vests and shirt collars in the various incarnations of the Doctor. I also recall the music group from the sixties, ? and the Mysterians, how I never liked that name. I do not even like the way it alphabetizes in my iTunes library.
My research into the origins of the question mark was disappointing. I expected (hoped) I might find it had some occult origin, but in fact, its beginnings–while subject to debate–are mundane and practical. I was astonished to learn that, while used around the world in non-western languages such as Japanese and Chinese, some languages use other symbols to indicate an interrogative. Armenian uses something that looks like a backwards, flattened, cursive “a.” Arabic uses a question mark, but it’s turned around to accommodate right-to-left text. Three vertical dots indicate the interrogative in Ethiopic. Coptic uses a small square. None of these do it for me; they are thoroughly unsatisfying interrogatives.
This “backwards” version of the question mark has another use I was previously unaware of, that of a percontation mark, for a rhetorical question, or to denote irony or sarcasm. I would have thought the sarcasm and irony uses would be recent innovations, but no, they date from the 19th century, according to my online research.
I suppose there are other symbols that spur feelings, for instance, $, or perhaps @, if you’re into Twitter or email addresses. For me, it’s the question mark, all the way. Periods put me to sleep. Semicolons make me feel smug. Exclamation marks annoy. Only question marks make me want to know what’s up.
That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.
I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.
And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.
That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.
I would prefer you don’t:
1) Overuse italics.
Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.
2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.
All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.
3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:
Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.
4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:
I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.
5) Let your isms show:
Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.
Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.
The foregoing is not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?
Every year about this time, I travel to the Twin Cities for Diversicon. It’s a small convention, about 100 people, but over the last 20 years has attracted terrific guests and fans. Last weekend, I attended Diversicon 21.
In a later post I may go into why and how a kid from California became a regular panel participant in a small Minnesota convention, but for now, simply accept the fact: this is what I do.
One of the great things about Diversicon is its programming, which, as the name of the convention suggests, is diverse. It covers science fiction and fantasy, and touches on literature, films, and TV. The panelists come prepared. The attendees come prepared. fights don’t exactly break out, but frank and spirited discussions take place. Oh, and the people are smart. They aren’t afraid to be intellectual. They manage, however, to be smart and intellectual in a polite, Minnesota sort of way. They talk, but they also listen. I always come back home energized. Last weekend was no exception.
All of the above does not prevent trepidation on my part every year as I open my programming schedule. It’s always an emotional thing. This year, as others, followed the familiar pattern of interest, excitement, dismay, and “…did I really volunteer to moderate that?” I always have to remind myself that moderating can be easier than being a panelist…you don’t need to know much yourself. All you need to do is come up with a bunch of questions. Asking questions is always a good tactic if you don’t know the answer yourself–and sometimes, even if you think you do.
Another aspect of moderating has to do with structure. This can mean keeping the panel on-topic, reining in an overly talkative panelist or audience member. I strive for balance. Allow audience participation, but make sure the panelists have priority. You can defer all audience questions until the end, but sometimes it pays to be flexible. On the Sunday afternoon Iain M. Banks memorial panel, for instance, I had four very knowledgeable and distinguished panelists. I therefore went in with the notion of being fairly restrictive with audience participation, so that I would have ample time to pick the distinguished panelists’ brains thoroughly clean.
No need to worry. All but one audience member were content just to listen, and the one who did talk was as knowledgable as the panelists. I picked his brain as thoroughly as I did the panelists’.
I was on a Friday afternoon panel on “Recapturing a Sense of Wonder.” I approached that panel with some trepidation: Upon careful reading of the program, which I apparently had not bothered to do before volunteering, it appeared to have a lot to do with YA fiction, which I have only passing familiarity with. And, the panel included Jack McDevitt, Guest of Honor. When a Guest of Honor is on the panel, one can be a bit self-conscious about one’s role as fellow panelist.
But Jack didn’t come to play Visiting Celebrity. He spoke knowledgeably, and he listened attentively to anything anyone else said. Jack McDevitt is a genuine, charming Guest of Honor, as well as being a terrific writer.
A word about the Special Guests: Catherine Lundoff is a sunny and energetic presence, and also a terrific writer. Roy C. Booth showed us his very strange short film, “The Day Lufberry Won It All.” I need to watch it again, so I bought a copy.
Diversicon 22 will happen July 25-27 in St. Paul, MN. If you like small, serious-but-relaxed SF conventions. I recommend it. If you go, don’t forget to ask a lot of questions.
Oh, and the yellow shoes? I wished to demonstrate that a weekend convention wardrobe could be built around a single, colorful accessory. I succeeded, pairing the yellow shoes with a series of neutral clothing. No one, however, appeared to notice. The programming was that good.