Monday, January 31, 2011

J. S. Bell and the Character Arc

I bought James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure over the holidays in the hopes of helping me unravel the criss-crossing threads of my plot in a timely, tension-building fashion. It's important to know the canvas that supports a story and how to use it to your novel's advantage.

I can't possibly make a comprehensive list of how much I learned. The techniques in there are simple but efficient and I feel a lot less likely to err when I jump into my second draft. There's the LOCK system, the two doorways, the explanations on what beginning, middles and endings need, the common plot structures, the frequent problems and how to fix them... everything.

Out of all this, however, two elements caught my attention: the character arc and tension in your scenes.

 The Character Arc

I like to think I have a strong sense of characters. I used to roleplay a lot and am used to centering stories around a smattering of characters and their evolution. A good story may take a character through a series of events until he vanquishes adversity. A great story will have this adversity change him irrevocably.

I was pleased when I noticed Bell devoted an entire chapter of Plot and Structure to this. The Character Arc can be a subplot, such as your MC learning something important just before the 'final battle', or it can be the point of the story.

Humans often resist change, however. This is good, because it creates tension. But how do you change them?

His basic idea was that every character has a core self-image, and that surrounding it are four layers of protection. These are, starting from the center: beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions.

I drew this, by the way. Super talented, eh?
 The idea is that a change on the outer layer, opinions, will have repercussions on the inner one. If you can change a few opinions, then you'll change an attitude. And with a few different attitude, you might change values. And onward like this, until your character is forced to change his self-image.

I loved this.  Starting with small changes before hitting the big ones is a great way to bring about a smooth character arc.

I'll be back with tension in the scenes on Wednesday!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reaching Out Through Themes

I'm often asked why I want to be a writer, especially when I describe the general publishing business to outsiders. I get this "Is it really worth it?" look, along with the question. There's many possible answers to it, but there is one that, for me, stands out the most.

I hope that someday, my story will touch someone. I hope it will reach a complete stranger, someone I've never met and never will, and that after reading my book, this person won't be the same.

Some novels change our lives. The Lord of the Rings, for example, made me a hardcore fantasy fan. But beyond that, I believe there are novels that change who we are.

 To me, this is Tigana, from Guy Gavriel Kay.

Last weekend I posted about the importance of themes. This week, I had to do a short presentation on a novel or a movie I liked. As I prepared it, it hit me how much I cared for the message and the themes in Tigana.

In (short), Tigana is the story of a small group's fight to bring back their province, Tigana, in the memory of the residents of the Palm after a powerful sorcerer wiped it out from everyone's mind.

This novel is all about remembering something. It speaks of the importance of words and history in one's cultural identity -- all of which, with Quebec's constant fight for French's preservation, resonate deep within me.

Of course I loved every other aspect of the novel - the characters, the voice, the setting, the incredible dialogs... Everything (though I hear some find it a bit of a slow start). But they aren't the reason Tigana is my all-time favourite (in fact I think The Lions of Al-Rassan, another of Kay's great novel, is better at character and pace). Tigana touched me because of its themes, which I care deeply about.

And if I can reach another person this way, all the hard work will be worth it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fish, fish, fish!

So many fishes. AH!


I finished 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Tuesday evening and let me tell you, there is lot of fish names in there. Think Tolkien's description, but fish-wise! Fishes all over the place!

Whew. I still enjoyed the book a lot. It's slow-moving, true, but intriguing and marvelous at the same time. As soon as you learn to speed-read when he lists species and genus, you have a nice ride ahead of you.

The Quirky Thing that Made Me Squee
Ned Land, one of the three main characters (excluding Captain Nemo here) is a whaler from Quebec. Not just any part of Quebec, either: Quebec City. It's stated twice through the novel and call me silly, but I love the idea one character from a famous novel is from my hometown.

What I Learned From Jules Vernes
Know your shit. Do your research. There is not one part of this novel that seems fake or impossible. Jules Verne was up to date about the technologies of his time and used them to justify the new technologies he presented in his novel. The Nautilus might not seem like much today. It's just a submarine. This novel, however, comes from 1870, and Jules Verne takes the time to explain how such a thing could exist.

His research and attention to details bring the tale to life. Don't mess yours. Get familiar with every aspect of your story.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A February of Writing

At this moment my scene-by-scene outline has 4000 words and is about 75% complete. I have a firm grasp on this storyline, and more importantly, my plot is solid. I can feel, once again, the excitement of the approaching first draft rising.

All I've written since November is a flash fiction. My fingers are craving for the mad typing that comes with my speedy first drafting activities. They want to hit the keyboard, again and again, as I explore this new version of WHITE ECHOES.

I'd get started now, but I know better. This time, I want a complete outline.

Thus, I decided to give myself a deadline. I'm good at meeting writing deadlines (or at least, I've been good at it for the past year).  

By the end of January, I will have finished my outline. Then I can start writing!

What about you guys? Any incoming deadlines or projects?

Monday, January 24, 2011

All the Lost Years

I'm not exactly an old writer. I'm 21 and perfectly aware I have a whole lifetime ahead of me. I still have decades to master this craft and become a professional.

Some days, though, it feels like I wasted a lot of time.

There's a lot of writers out there that have been wishing for this job since they were kids. They've been writing shorts and poetry and novels since they were 12 or younger. They've never been anything else than a writer-in-becoming (profession-wise, I mean!)

I do think that's awesome. So much, in fact, that there are days I wonder where I was. Why didn't I wake up sooner? How much better would I be now if I had started five years earlier? I had so much time during secondary school! (7th to 11th years to you guys). Then I get angry and bitter.

 That's not good. 

I'm not an angry or bitter person. I can't stand staying angry or bitter. So what do I do?

On these days I remind myself everyone has a different path to follow. I can't hurry talent. I need to take the time to learn this craft properly. All these years 'wasted' made me who I am, and it is that person who's writing today. They have an impact.

It serves nothing to glare at other writers and envy them. I have to make the best of my current situation.  Work hard. Work often. Learn fast. Don't give up. Never give up.

After all, that's how you get published.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Theme Hidden Within

Themes in my writing is something I've struggled with in the past. My problem was that I disliked being hit over the head with a message when I read, and if for a moment I had the feeling a writer had written the novel not for the story but for the message hidden within, it ruined the experience.

So how could I justified seeking to put my messages in there? Theme was nice and cute, but it didn't matter much to me: all I cared for was the story.

Looking back (but not that far back, really), I know I was both right and wrong. The story is what matters, but it will always carry a theme.

Either I leave it there, dangling awkwardly, misunderstood and misused, or I learn to use it and blow even more life in my stories through it.

I woke up to them reading Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, which had a few great suggestions to find out what mine were. At that point I could tell what my theme was, but my grasp of the concept of them was still shifty.

The following day, Larry Brooks posted about the elusive theme on Storyfix. I love his way of explaining theme:
Theme is how a story touches you.  What and how it causes you to think about.  How the story mirrors and/or comments upon real life.  Theme says something worth saying, even when it’s obvious.
I can roll with that definition of theme. Suddenly it doesn't seem like trying to force a message and preach. It's the universal impact the story has, and through what it can reach your readers. I might not be the best at incorporating it yet, but you can bet I'll be playing with theme in the coming writing.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Planning My Final Scene

My week has been spent trying to unravel the mess that was my final scenes. There were so many little things to think about. I had to keep track of where the characters were on "the set", what they were doing, if they could react, etc. I tried to do it mentally, and I spent hours turning the scene in my head, trying to see if everything fit. I wanted the scene to be consistent.

 I never managed it by myself. 5 hours in a car and little results. I had this character whom I was convinced was always in the way.

So what did I do? I drew a table.

I gave each of my characters a line, and put every 'key event' in a column. Every time something happened, I detailed where each character was and how they reacted, if needed.

It took four days of hard work to get through it, but I managed. The conclusion? Everything was actually working out quite nicely. That character I thought he was in the way? Not at all! He's right where I need him!

It was a great relief, and I learned one thing: sometimes, imagining the scene isn't enough and I need some organization. So to the others: take the time to sit down and write. If a scene gets as complicated as mine was (lots of little events happening), don't waste time trying to think through it. The pen is your best friend.

Oh, and here's the actual table, on Excel:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whom To Choose? A PoV Dilemna

One of the constant challenge of writing with multiple POVs is to determine which one should narrate each scene. I'm an advocate of stability in POVs - that is, I try not to change too often, so that the reader has time to get comfortable with each of my POVs before I move on. I also try to have as few of them as I can.

In any given scene, however, I may have more than one POV character. Sometimes it seems obvious who should tell this part of the story, but that is not always the case. Last year I read The Power of Point of View, from Alicia Rasley, and she had some questions you could use to help yourself determine who to pick.

1. Who has the goal in this scene? This character will drive the action in your scene. Often, he's the obvious pick (which doesn't make him a bad choice, far from it). He wants something, and will do what he can to get it.

2. Who has the more at stake externally/internally? Narrating from the POV of the character who stands to lose a lot will raise the tension in your novel. Remember the last post about raising the stakes? It's true for single scenes, too. Bring the reader close to the character who'll care about what happens, and they'll be more inclined to care, too.

3. Is there someone with an intriguing perspective? This can be the character who's a total stranger to the world around, who clashes with his environment. It can also be someone with a special way of saying things which will make the scene a distinct experience. I'd be careful with this one, however. I know extravagant POVs tire me after a while.

4. Who has a secret, and do you want the reader to know? This one is fun, but should not be abused. Sometimes you have a character with a secret, and using him as a POV can help build tension. Getting the reader to guess about the secret will create an interactivity with the scene.

5. Who is not revealing his personality through dialogue and action? You don't need to be into an upfront person's head to get to know him. They'll blurt out anything they think (a problem my characters all have in the first draft, but that's another matter). Sometimes, it's more interesting to use the POV of a character who smiles when he's angry and says thanks instead of an insult.

This isn't an absolute guide, far from it, as choosing a PoV will depend on the current circumstances. These questions help me a lot, though, and I can get through most decisions with them. And when it's not enough, I fall back on my usual trick: I write super-quick draft scenes of both options, and pick the one I like best.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Raising the Stakes

I finished reading Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel at the end of the last week, and had to take a few days to let the incredible amount of information and advice in there sink in. There's a lot to remember and learn from and while I had heard a lot of what is in the book from other writers, it never hurts to be reminded of it, especially with Maass' clear and straight-to-the-point explanations. This is definitely the kind of book you want close at hand so that you can freshen up on a few things before you write or edit.

One of its lessons stuck better than the others, though, and it's the one about raising the stakes. It might sound obvious that you want to have everything you can hanging in the balance, but... it's not. At least, not for me.

Go look at your story again. Could you make things worse? What do your characters have to lose? Their life, their family, their sanity, their love? Make sure there is as much here as there can be. Raise the stakes in your novel.

A word of warning, though: this may complicate your plot. It sure did for mine, and I've had to figure out a lot more material to nail the plot once more! It'll be worth it, though. So worth it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's A Science Fiction!

You may remember when, towards the end of October, I freaked out about White Echoes' genre. In short, I had a hard time telling if it belonged in science fiction, fantasy or steampunk. I may have been in denial about the truth.

White Echoes is a science fiction novel.

It's a relief to know the technical, because I have a better idea of the conventions to keep an eye on and of what to pitch it as to agents.It's useful to know your genre.

In this case, though, it still freaks me out. I love this book. I love its story, its characters, its (now in-development) setting. But I'm a fantasy writer. It does not seem wise to try and publish a science fiction novel as my first book.

I guess what I am saying is that I'm glad I found what genre this book belongs to, though it comes with some side consequences. I'm willing to accept White Echoes is one of those stories you love, work on, show friends and family, even if it might not be meant for publication.

Or maybe it is. I try not to stress out about those things yet. Learning the craft comes first, and I have some distance to go still!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Something Is Missing

In the last few days, I've worked more in my novels than I have since the year began. I solved all but one of my last storyline problems. I tied my characters together more fully than ever before. I know their motivations, their goals, their stakes. I know which of them will achieve their goals, which won't.

My plot, too, seems finally good to go. I have all the major landmarks. I have twists, turns, roadblocks. Hopes and despair. It unfolds in an organic way (the second draft did not) and tension builds up all the way through the end (the first draft did not). The scene-by-scene outline is coming together nicely.

And yet, something is missing.

Despite the progress I was making, my excitement diminished. I wasn't fully conscious of it, not until I opened my outline document yesterday and heard myself sigh. Yes, at times writing as felt like work to me. I've had to force my butt in my chair to work. I had to ignore the calling of more entertaining endeavours. But always, when I reminded myself no one would teach me to write - that I had to learn on my own - I was able to stay focused.

More importantly, it was never during the planning phase. 

I asked myself what was wrong. Since when was I not excited at preparing my story? What was WRONG with me? I had this nagging feeling, growing with every day, that this new draft would be missing something important.

I found what when I considered reworking EDINGHER instead. Let WHITE ECHOES rest and light up a new flame, y'know? I kind of miss Edingher's deep and rich setting.


This is what WHITE ECHOES is missing. The setting is getting better, yes, but it still feels generic. It doesn't live and influence my storyline. Not as much as it should, anyway.

Worldbuilding is one of my favourite part of writing fantasy. This WIP isn't fantasy, however, and somehow I forgot to put as much thought and energy into detailing the world as I usually do.

I have a lot of work ahead of me before I start the next draft, even moreso now that I have found my problem. While it makes me sigh, I know I have saved myself a lot of time in editing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Three Little Gifts From Me, To Me

I'm a student, and it's a well-known fact that students don't have that much money to go around. At the end of this holiday season, though, I found myself with a little extra, and I decided to give myself a little something.

Three books on the craft of writing.

It should be understood I can't pick those books at local libraries. They have a limited english selection, which does not include anything on the craft of writing. Plus, there are very few of these books that are translated. When I checked a few 'classics', all I found was King's On Writing, which I promptly devoured.

So what do I have now?
  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card
  • Write Great Fiction : Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell (apparently I picked "Scott" people ..?)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donal Maass
I'll be starting with Maass. He's by far one of the most often recommended book I've seen around. Hopefully I'll learn something from all of these before I jump into the (fast-approaching) next draft of White Echoes!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Bet the Rug is Tired

Human societies have a history of sweeping their problems - past or present - under the rug, and acting as though they aren't there, and never were.

The most recent example of this is, of course, NewSouth Books' decision to pubish a version of The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn  completely free of offensive words.

I've spent the last days trying to come up with a clear way to say how I felt about this. All I ended up with was this:

It's idiotic.

Thankfully, Donna at Bites has a far more eloquent post that reflects what I mean to say. Same goes for Sommer's post Go read these, it's well worth it!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Benefit of a Small Walk

We're well into January by now, and I have not started writing the new draft yet. Life got in the way, as is usually the case when my schedule is buggered. I'm not complaining. Not everything that gets in the way of writing is bad.

It remains that in the last ten days, I've made almost no progress on my brand new outline. I was stuck with 75% of the novel, which is to say I had every major plot points outlined, but was quite fuzzy on how I brought them together into a single, solid climax. They converged, yes, but it was loose and unsatisfying.

No longer! Half-hour of walking, and all my problems were solved. I feel silly for not doing it earlier, as I've solved countless plotholes in the twenty minutes I need to reach my University from home.

So remember the next time you're stuck: take a walk. Let your mind wander alongside your feet, and see where it leads you.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My First Dip in Pratchett's Universe

I finished The Colour of Magic a week ago, and decided to let it stew for a while before posting about it. I knew I wouldn't review the book: it's older than me, and I'm rather certain there are already more reviews than I can count out there.

Reading Pratchett was a release, though.

As a fantasy writer you hear a lot about suspension of disbelief. Despite the magic and the supernatural, you have to make your reader believe that your story is real, that the characters exist. Closing the book must be like waking up: you're slightly dazed, and when you look at the clock you can't believe you slept that long.

Often as I work fantasy elements in my story, I wonder if it'll work. Am I pushing too far? Will the reader scoff and stop believing? Will he think I'm abusing his trust?

The Discworld is a reminder that you can get away with a lot more than you think. It takes talent. It takes justifications. But it's possible. If Pratchett can get away with a world riding on top of four giant elephants standing upon a giant turtle well... somehow I feel my modest bit of magic can be worked in, too.

Don't be afraid to let your imaginations run. That's what fantasy is for.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unblocking Your Outline

Often when I plan, I get shiny new ideas to make my storyline better. Ideas such as "What if X met Y?" I love 'What if ...' and usually, I'm able to determine the circumstances in which the 'What if' would happen.

That's when I get blocked.

Not all the time, but it happens often enough that I've developped a way to get me out of it. It's not complicated. I just write the scene.

Most of the time I put next to no description, and very little actions. I'm a dialogue person, and since they are usually what moves my story forward, they are what I focus on. The goal is to get a rough scene out, to write in circle until I find out where this is supposed to go. My mind does it for most of the novel, but when I get stuck, I need to write things down to get somewhere.

In a way, this is a lot like what I do with my first drafts. I'm testing the grounds. I just let the creative juice out, knowing this will never make it into the novel. It's a great way to work out my storyline.

Hopefully it will get me past my current knot. I'm almost done replanning!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading VS Writing

One of the most difficult challenge I've had since starting University (nearly three years ago) was to find time for both reading and writing. Two incredibly enjoyable activities, which both contribute to my writing skills in their own way, and which I refuse to sacrifice.

The problem is, I can barely fit them in my schedule. Most of the time, reading was put aside.

 So this is one of my 2011 goals. Read more.

I started on Jan. 1st with my first Terry Pratchett (one must question why I took so long) and the goal is to pick up a book as soon as I finish another. It has risks - when I get into a novel, I drop everything else - but I'd love to see my TBR pile in a stable state for once.

What about you guys? I bet I'm not the only one with TBR-pile problems!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 - A Half-Year in Rewrite

I have to say, I don't quite take New Year Resolutions. When it comes to writing, I work with slices of six months, and my 'year' starts with November. I begin by accomplishing something crazy with NaNoWriMo, then I settle down and work out what I want done by the end of the winter semester (end of April). It's a schedule that fits the rhythm of my life better than January, in no small part because of the intensity with which I dive into NaNoWriMo.

So what is in store for this half-year?

Rewriting. I'm working hard on WHITE ECHOES (a title which is incidently becoming less and less appropriate) and I am aiming to have a solid (plotline-wise) version of this story by the end of February. I also have two short stories I want to rework hard on and try to publish. These two are in French, though, and it would be nice to write a third, in English.

Last, but not least, I need to double the amount of novels I read. My TBR pile is way too high, and I was given even more books this Christmas. Not to mention I ordered three books on writing yesterday...

In short I have another busy year ahead of me, but I will be the first to admit this is how I like it. I enjoy the occasional day off, but I work better under pressure, and when it's when I have a gazillion things to do that I work best. I'm looking forward to it!