Monday, July 30, 2012

Is There a Camera in Your Mind?

Often when I am writing a scene for a novel or story I can visualize it in my head.  It's like there a camera in there filming the scene for a movie.  This helps me a great deal because it lets me simply record the scene as I see it. I refer to this as the camera in my head.

Having a camera in my head also lets me step through a scene frame by frame and examine what's going on.  Remember the scene in Bladerunner where a photo of the crime scene yields all sorts of evidence?  The camera in my head works like that too making revision easier because I can stop the action or rewind it and fiddle with a specific bit or other.

The other benefit is I know when to revise a scene; when I am not visualizing it, it needs revision.

I don't know how I developed with approach; some person a visually oriented and others are not.  Writers tend not to be.  We think with words not pictures, as opposed to painters or sculptors. But like any generalization that is true only up to a point. I learned that sometimes you need a picture, like a map, because words just won't do.

On the other hand there are times when I only want to use words.  Poetry relies on this and so do good descriptions. The right words in the right order to convey precisely what you want to say.  I've hit the mark, or come close a few times.  You can too if you are willing to practice, practice, practice.

An exercise to develop a camera in your head, try reading a lot of fiction and watching movies that tell a story about a set of characters.  That's harder to find these days than it used to be so don't be afraid to rent some old movies.

And above all, keep writing.

Friday, July 27, 2012


When it comes to developing a story, the devil really is in the details. You want to pull out all the details  that enhance the story.  What happened?  Describe it. How did the character react? What happened next?

The longer you can keep this going the more developed your story will be.  If you get stuck, try changing an event.  For example, my first novel was originally a 40-page chapter in a larger book.  When broke the book into pieces the chapters had to undergo some major revision and development.

To develop the first chapter I changed the ending.  Instead of catching the bad guy, I let him get away so the heroes must chase him.  But they had no way to do this so I had to think up a way.  All of this adds details and events to the story.

Then I throw roadblocks in their way during the chase to keep the journey interesting.  Then they arrive at their destination and proceed cautiously until they find the thief and then more obstacles because the thief doesn't have the item he stole any more.

Later I added new scenes where the heroes are betrayed by one of their own.  More details and events.  All of these allowed me to turn a 40-page chapter into a 70,000+ word novel.

None of this was easy and added months of work to completing the book but it was worth it.  So think about the scenes you are writing.  Add the details and action that will help propel your story forward.

And don't forget about character development.  You can have a great story and flat characters that will turn off many readers.  Get the characters involved.  Show how they react.  Have them draw on their experience and offer suggestions.  Of course, this means you must know your characters well.  But that sorta goes without saying.

And above all, keep writing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How Many More Must Die?

This post is not about writing or technology or social media or anything else I typically blog about.  It is about us and our society.  America and the people who live it in.  And my one question is: how many more must die before we learn to live together without killing each other senselessly?

In my lifetime, the number of national tragedies that have played across the national stage is greater than at any other time in our history.  I suppose part of the reason for that is the mass communication we now have. But it is more than that.

Americans have always needed to be violent; shooting and killing was how the frontier was settled. But the frontier is gone now and we need to stop shooting -- especially when the urge is to shoot our fellow citizens.

That won't be easy.  Human nature can be extreme and violent; God, I have my own demons with which I wrestle; I have moments -- like everyone else -- when I want to lash out because I am angry, but I don't act on them. Similarly, we need to find a way to deal with whatever it is that drives people to kill others.  After all, we have enough people outside our country who want to kill us, do we have fight with each other too?

And it is not as if the answer on how resolve differences is news. We have laws for this and when that is insufficient, we have the right to peaceful assemble and protest, to make our voices heard to our government so that new laws can be enacted.  That is the American way.

If you feel you need to go further, passive resistance is also an option.  But under no circumstances should you kill another person.  Never. I don't care if you don't kill the other person's politics or religion or sexual preference or ethnic background. And if you are just plain anger, go work it off at the gym or tennis court please and spare the lives of innocent people.

So what will it be?  How do we stop the killings and the madness?  How many more must die before we can love our neighbors?

I don't know, but I hope it is soon.

Friday, July 20, 2012

False Starts

One aspect of writing that does not get a lot of attention is the number of times it takes to get a story right.  When I was learning my craft back in college I had always assumed that the great writers spit out their stories and novels complete, correct, and fully-formed the first time.

Then one instructor showed the class the revisions on a Mark Twain story.  There were cross-outs and revisions; insertions and rearrangements.  And another writing myth died for me.

This made me feel better and it something I remember when I struggle to get a story right.  Generally these days, with all the stories pouring out of my head like blood from a bad gash, I usually get close to the mark but there's always a revision or two because I almost always leave out something I wanted to include or I realize at the end what I really need in the middle of the piece.

But when I really struggle I will go down rat holes looking for a way out.  That doesn't happen often.  I'm a careful enough writer that I usually know what I'm doing and where I'm going before I sit down to compose.  And I write a lot of material in my head to save time.

But just the other day I started a story about stealing content that went off the rails after the first page or two.  It became a love story.  Whoa!  Not where I wanted to go.  So I thought about what I was trying to say and then it hit me.  Stealing content from the internet creates bad karma -- not a good thing -- destroys any personal happiness you might otherwise have because you are cloistered in a room and not with other people.

Once I knew this, the rest was easy.  The main character has a dream on these exact points (arguing with himself you might say) and decides to start to make amends.  He goes to a video store to buy a movie, meets a girl, and viola!  Now I have a love story.  Oh, the beginnings of a love story.  But in typical fairy tale fashion, the protagonist made a deal with himself  to delete all the stolen content should he find the happiness he had been missing.  When he doesn't, the girl is in a bad car accident and ends up in a coma.  Our hero deletes the illegal content the next morning and the girl comes out of the coma -- a happy ending.

And my moral: if your story is going nowhere, don't despair.  Instead try thinking about where the story is going and is there a more interesting way of getting there.  If there is, take it.  If there isn't maybe you need another character to help the story along.  Or perhaps you are not telling the story you intend.  Thinking about all that but above all, keep writing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Writing as Therapy

When I first started writing, back in high school, I kept a journal.  The journal, in addition to getting me writing on a regular basis, was also a form of therapy -- a way to let out the stresses of the day. And while it may not seem like a 17-year old has many stresses -- aside from the standard soap opera fare of my love life, such as it was -- there were things that pissed me off or scared me or were unpleasant.  And those pages are filled with a record of those events.

These days I am more mature and vent stresses in other ways but writing is still a form of therapy depending on what I'm writing.  How could it not be?  I draw from my personal experience and often relive moments and situations that were stressful.

In fact, I find myself writing short stories about my younger life focusing on events that are black and painful to me.  I suppose I am exorcising the demons I've carried for years, but I'm finding that art does not always imitate life exactly.  I make adjustments to make the story work better.

This is nothing new, of course.  Writers have been drawn scenes and characters from their lives as far back as Charles Dickens and possibly farther than that. It is believed that Shakespeare channeled his madness and angst at the loss of a child into Hamlet and King Lear.

More importantly, all art has a therapeutic effect.  The whole notion of catharsis in Greek tragedies is based on this idea.  Art helps us purge our demons and wrestle them to the ground, it helps us understand them and expose them to the light of day in the hopes of dispelling them like shadows before a flashlight.

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.  So far for me I writing about my demons is seems to be a form of absolution but I can't be sure.  I seems the more I write the more demons demand a voice.  Good thing I keep a notebook.

Keep writing everyone.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writer Collaboration

A friend on Facebook found an interesting site for collaboration among writers.  The way it works is someone, say me, posts an idea -- a plot for a story.  Then other writers flesh it out and develop it.

On the surface this sounds fine.  But then I saw all the legal stuff about rights and splitting of profits if the stories from the collaboration sell well and I lost interest.

Frankly, I'm not going to give away any of my ideas to anyone, not even my publisher.  But even if I put that aside, collaboration among writers is a tricky thing because writing talents vary.  If I come up with the idea and produce a solid first draft, someone else can come along and wreck it because their talent is at the same level.  Or the reverse can happen:  I come up with the idea and write a first draft and then someone else rewrites it and improves it more than I ever could.

In that situation how do you determine how I am compensated or how the other person is?  Is the idea worth more than the story itself or the other way round?

I don't know and the situation gets murkier still when you increase the number of writers involved.  In a team of five writers, if each writer does not contribute 20% of the whole, an even division of credit is unfair.

Now having said all this, I should say that I would like to see a way for writers to collaborate and work together.  I just don't see how it is possible because of the compensation, ownership, and rights issues surrounding it, which is sad.

I wish my friend luck on the collaboration site he found, but I think it will come to naught.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Revised Plan for Revision

Some months back I detailed my main way of editing and revising my novel.  It works well when I am focusing on the individual parts.  But the novel has to work as a unified whole and that was getting lost so in addition to the process I described using my Kindle to read and enter comments, here's a few extra steps you might want to take.

At some point in your revision process, say after you've got five or ten chapters or say ten or twenty pages or more, stop what you are doing and go back a re-read the book from the beginning the way the reader would.

I like to read it slowly because I'm looking for anything that is missing or is inconsistent or simply wrong, like the word that I forgot to include.  Sometimes I let the computer read it to me so I can listen. My ears proof my work better than my eyes because my ears almost never hear my writing; my eyes see it all the time and are easily fooled.

Have a listen to some chapters I stop and think about what's missing, do I have all the character reactions I need, is there a vague point that I can clarify, can I place the reader more concretely in the story?  All of these things matter and all get my attention.

I did this for Book 2 over the weekend to see how well it holds together and I was surprised to see it works pretty well.  Oh there were some adjustments to me made, but not many.  Well, not so far, but I'm not quite done revising yet.

The one drawback to this method is it requires a good chuck of time without interruptions.  So if your environment is chaotic, you might want to wait.  But once you start you want to proceed to the end so that you can experience your book in its entirety.

I chose a good place to stop work yesterday, a natural breaking point in the story, but I need to resume today for several hours so I can reach the next breaking point.  This is hard because I have other demands on my time too.  But I'll do the best I can and hope it works out or I push a bunch of stuff off to the side and make time so that I can complete this work and then hop over to the edits from my publisher on Book 1 once more before it goes back for a second round of editing.

Keep writing everyone.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Stepping back

I received the edits on my first novel.  They weren't anything I can't live with and in some case I've rejected the edit.  My rule on this is: if it changes the meaning, the edit is bad.  That said, that doesn't mean some sort of revision isn't in order.  Often editors know that they original text needs changing but their attempt to do so misses the mark.  That's okay.  They are editors, not writers.  They don't have my vision for the story.  But if I see their intent, I can often revise my text to include their suggestion.

And so when I read book 1 it is clearly well written with a polish I like.  But when I read book 2 my reaction is to go look for some glossy paint.  The book does not yet give the same reaction.  I'm not sure why, so I'm stepping back and revising the book again.

Not that I finished the last revision.  I haven't but what's the point of that?  The book needs something.  I think I need to more clearly dramatize the scenes.  Or maybe it is the scenes themselves.  Or the writing isn't flowing or all the above.  I'll figure it out.  I just wish I hadn't spent three months on the last revision without realizing this.

And to be fair it is not the whole book. At least I don't think so.  I suppose it might be.  Hmmm.

Regardless, I'll put on my revision goggles and start hacking away at the thing.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Does originality means sales?

I was reflecting the other day on something my publisher told me.  They said my novel, Aure, the Topaz, was unlike anything else on the market.  I said I know, that was my plan all along to write something original and unique.  But then I got to thinking, does originality mean success?  Does it translate into sales?

Oh, sure we prize the original ideas in our society and try to encourage them but the sad truth is something original can fail just as easily as something that is not.  And conversely, we seem more interested in sequels to original movies than the original ones.  Toy Story 3 comes to mind here.  So do all the vampire novels and TV shows.  Or the zombie stories.  How many times do I need to read about mindless undead that walk the earth? And yet many of these sell and sell well. This is original turned on its head.

So when I look back at my novel I am ambivalent.  I want it to do well and I want to be original, but these two things seem to be at odd.  And yet if examine my novel I see it comprises ideas from the many other sources.  For example, the elves are very much like Tolkien elves.  I introduced a twist dividing them along political lines, but they are not solely my idea.

The humans are a composite from historical sources and from books I've read.  For example, the order of St. Michael is out of the Deryni novels from Katherine Kurtz.  My treatment is very different but the idea came from her books.  Likewise, the basic plot: valuable item is stolen and must be recovered, has been used many times in many other stories.  So what makes my novel original?

Well, for one thing, I have characters unlike any others I'm aware of.  Daniel, the Qua'ril master, is one example.  Elven martial arts is my idea.  The bard, James, is pulled largely from my experiences.  In fact all the main characters are pulled from me in some way.   But they are unique, each one and the mix of characters is unique too.  A bard, a fire mage, a demon hunter, an elven archer, and a martial artist.

This is one reason why good characters are so important to the story and why many people choose characters over plot; it is far easier to come up with original characters than an original plot.  In fact, I am told, there aren't anymore original plots.  I don't know if that's true but there are plenty of original characters.

And so what makes the story work is the interplay of the characters and their reaction to the situation they find themselves in.  This is original and fills most of the book.

So will people flock to my book, or any other original novel?  I doubt it.  Not just because it is original, no.  I'm going to have to entice and interest the reader. After all he or she have plenty other novels to pick from.  How I do that, aside from the way I've already blogged about, is the subject of another post.