Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Unnecessary conceits

I roleplayed in Yahoo chat rooms for several years, from the time I was 13 or so. It was certainly long enough to have seen every fantasy cliche ever. I stumbled across a picture of a boy with dog ears and a dog tail on a random Google image search (which had nothing to do with wolves or boys or random animal parts, in case you were wondering), and it reminded me of the bajillion nekos and kitsunes and anthros and what the hell evers that wandered around in chat. Naturally, I thought too much about it and had to write it down. My thoughts are not fully formed on this, so pardon me while I ramble.

I've never understood the appeal of having a character with animal parts or a ten-foot-long sword or blood-red eyes or bat wings or whatever, other than looking/seeming badass, which I guess is the whole point. To me, they're unnecessary conceits. They never contribute anything to the character or the story, so why have them?

Granted, you don't often see stupid extremes in published UF or fantasy novels, but there are still some unnecessary conceits that get under my skin. The Badass Chick Who Can Fight in Heels and Still Look Fabulous is one of the more recent and infuriating ones, but that's a rant for another time. I'm talking things like the supernatural + pop culture. Zombies, vampires and werewolves occupying "cool" positions like radio jockeys or fashionistas or celebrities. I blame fucking Anne Rice for the rockstar vampire thing, and True Blood for bringing about the popularization of this conceit. I'm sure there's some parodic message about society and the supernatural to be found in the trend, but frankly, it annoys me too much to think hard about it. I'm not sure why, except that I have pretty much zero interest in Top-40 pop culture. I find it shallow and annoying, and adding the supernatural to it doesn't suddenly make it interesting.

There seems to be a long-running trend of doing things just because you can, especially in UF. Example: the hero collects unusual, never-before-seen powers until s/he becomes a Sue, and then the author throws in some equally weird "consequences" or "flaws" from being superpowered. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Anita Blake. I'm sure needing to have sex a lot is a real burden. Or the world contains every creature to ever appear in the D&D monster manual, and they dogpile on the protagonist nonstop. As much as I enjoy The Dresden Files, that drives me nuts.

And because I can apply pretty much every one of my UF pet peeves to this series, I'm going to pick on Rachel Vincent's Werecat books. First: the protagonist's name is Faythe. Good God, seriously? Second: At the beginning of the first book, Faythe is an English literature grad student. This never appears again. This is fairly minor compared to the third point, which is the scarcity of female werecats as it applies to Faythe. Apparently, because females are rare, they Must Be Sheltered And Protected and are Obligated to settle down, marry and have babies. Vincent tries to create a really bizarre pseudo-feminist conceit in creating this aspect of the world, and in my view, it succeeds in doing nothing more than being only halfway relevant. Its purpose, I suppose, is to make Faythe seem like A Rebel Against Her Oppressive Society like early feminists. What it makes her seem like is a stupid bitch. Yup, I went there. Faythe's education and Oppressive Society serve as little more than either place settings or convenient complications, with no real purpose other than to seem like something hip and progressive.

Before I get too far into that rant, because I could go on all day, I'll turn to the real tragedy of a lot of amateur fantasy: when magic itself becomes a conceit. It happens. It's flashy. People are cool if they can do it. But it's the worst kind of gratuitous literary special effect. It has zero bearing on the world itself. It might serve as a plot point (mostly for the protagonist, who is usually the one with the magical powers and is either ostracized or heroized because of it), but it doesn't affect anyone else. It doesn't exist as part of the world. If you have something that can be as pervasive as magic, why not have it affect societies, environments, governments--people's daily lives? Not everyone has to be conscious of it (in UF, for example, a line is often drawn between People Who Know About Magic, which are usually supernatural people and those who happen to hang around supernaturals, and those who aren't, who are the ignorant mundanes), but a sensitive, subtle narrative should take pains to show how it affects people in general. How could something like magic not affect the world it exists in? How could super-powered magical/supernatural beings not affect, intentionally or unintentionally, the environments they interact with? I guess this is something the annoying pop culture supernatural stuff is trying to get at--making supernaturals pervasive rather than isolated.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that if magic doesn't affect your world and everything in it, there's no point in having it. Yeah, it would be cool to have your character pull out some badass trick like calling lightning, but honestly, who cares if he does when there's no bearing on anything? And really, personal consequences or benefits of using magic, while a step in the right direction, are not the be-all end-all, and they can end up a conceit as well. Don't look for a reason for your character to be persecuted or adored. It's patronizing.

I think a lot of these conceits stem from concern with making characters Cool. Want to add some Coolness? Add some badass powers, magical or otherwise. Don't, like, give them an interesting personality or anything. Who cares about that? Just add some dog ears and a tail. People will either think he's adorable or they'll think he's a freak, and either can work in your favor.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Doing" magic

I can't seem to write a novel without some element of the paranormal. Even the little bit of a plot bunny I had yesterday while watching a show on female mobster Virginia Hill involved a touch of the paranormal (Mafia UF, anyone?). Oddly, although I define UF as being magic-focused to differentiate it from magical realism, I don't often think much about how I "do" magic. But writing two different UF series has got me thinking a little.

In my first series, Shadow Embers, which is co-written, magic is very organic. It's not something you see or something that's really flashy--it's just something that is. It's woven into the fabric of the world, and when it appears, characters are is very matter-of-fact about it. This is in part because there are no major human characters in Shadow Embers; it's completely focused on supernatural people. Magic is an effect: either people have an effect on their environment through magic, or magic directly affects people. It's framed in terms of action, sometimes cause and effect. Here's an example from my as yet unfinished novel Touched, which is part of the Shadow Embers series. The point of view character is a Seer with psychometry, meaning he gets visions from touching things.
Vasily gave up the argument--arguments between them never lasted long--and shrugged, tugging off one glove. There was only one way to find out. He closed his eyes and reached out to touch the rail. His skin prickled as it always did before he touched something that would give him a vision, the last-minute sensation that came too late to pull his hand away.
Vasily, especially, is focused on sensation. Other characters use a little more or a little less description, but it's almost always in terms of action (Korian forms a word, Grace makes an Illusion). Here's another example from Touched:
He didn't notice, at first, when Vasily began to move the air away from his face. It was safer than drawing the air out of his lungs, which risked lung collapse. Creating one pocket of air without oxygen was harder; air moved all the time, naturally, and didn't like to be confined, but he had no desire to kill the man—it would attract too much attention. 
There's just enough explanation so the reader understands what's going on. The description overall is pretty minimal.

On a Twisted Tree, my current project unrelated to Shadow Embers, is a lot different, though I didn't realize exactly how different until someone pointed out my treatment of magic in the story. The two protagonists experience it differently: Lindsay feels it and Cary sees it unless they're touching, when they can do both. But either way, it's a lot flashier. An example:

The world went black again for a second, with even the dim lights of the green magical web disappearing, but then the entire world flared into life, bright as day. He could see the rivers of magic flowing into the pools of the nodes, but he could see every tiny trickle that branched out from the rivers, every tree and blade of grass and into the horses' legs. He could see the glimmers of red shifting in the trees and the brush, maybe little animals. He could feel them, too, like bugs crawling over his skin. Of course, he could see and feel Cary, out-shining them all.
All except one.
The figure stood in the middle of one of the rivers of magic they'd tapped to make the circle, overlapping it. Lindsay's magic-sense felt the interruption like a hand stuck into the flow of water; except the water didn't keep flowing around it. The magic flowed through the figure, like a sieve. The figure itself looked like something Lindsay had seen in a book once, something from mythology, half-man and half-horse. It had all the colors of fire, from white to red to indigo. And it was looking at them.
The character of magic is completely different. This is in large part because while Lindsay and Cary are supernatural, they're new to the supernatural world and so are more conscious of it. Part of it is because I wanted to do the flashy magic thing--it's so outside what I normally do.

Another difference is the presence of the supernatural in these two worlds. In Shadow Embers, magic is very organic to characters. They're born to do it. But it's foreign to the world. All supernatural people are imports--they're descended from a group of people who took refuge our world a few millenia ago. Only those people with magical blood can use magic, and it has a direct effect on the world and its elements.

In Tree, magic is literally the fabric of the world. It's completely natural, although it can be corrupted to have negative effects on the world. (Yeah, that may or may not be a statement on my part.) Even those not inclined to be able to control magic can still have an effect on it--all it takes is intent. And not even intent to do magic, just intent to do something. If you get a group of people who want the same thing, they can make it so. This idea will be developed more in future books.

I've never believed in magic for magic's sake. It has to be an integral part of the setting. I think the major difference between these two projects is that in Shadow Embers, the magic isn't the primary part of the plot. It's always a big part of part of the plot, but the primary aspect is character interaction and conflict. Magic doesn't affect the plot as much as people do. Tree is also very character-based, but magic--the discovery and use of it--has a primary effect on the plot.

So there's my analysis for the day.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What We Leave Behind

When I was a kid, I hoarded paper, especially loose leaf paper. Should I for some reason be able to get paper Ever Again, like if the apocalypse arrived as predicted on Y2K (yeah, that worried me), I'd at least be able to have a stocked supply of paper to write on. To this day I often can't get rid of notebooks. I keep hard copies of my writing even if I have digital copies galore. When I moved several hundred miles a few months ago with only my compact car, I had to part with several notebooks filled with my most recent novel, and it was a wrench to do so, even if I had a bajillion copies elsewhere. Ignoring the fact that this probably indicates some underlying obsessive anxiety issue, which I feel qualified to make fun of, this gives you an idea of what writing has meant to me since I first discovered it.

My first semester of grad school, I took a research methods course with a rather eccentric genius professor who fully believed that research isn't research unless you're looking at primary sources--and he showed us exactly what that meant. He took us to the university archives and pulled out eight or ten boxes of yellow legal pads, coffee-stained pages filled with handwriting. They belonged to a poet-turned-author from University of Arkansas who had passed away fairly recently, leaving an unwritten novel and a half. He thought he was doing us a favor by making is dig through these boxes of legal pads, trying to put together this novel and a half into a publishable manuscript. In a way, I guess he was--not many first-semester grad students have ever gotten to do that, I'm sure. But a fair number of us were creative writers, and rather than inspiring us, it scared us. We did not want to die this way, leaving behind these boxes of randomly-ordered legal pads for someone else to put together.

I was oddly fascinated seeing those pads, not that I would have admitted it at the time. The idea that someone could leave behind what was essentially an impenetrable mess of handwriting was deeply unsettling. No one was ever meant to see these pads, I'm sure--they were pieces of a newborn novel, still bloody and kind of blue and covered in mucus. Just like a newborn baby, a newborn novel is not in any way aesthetically appealing. (Sorry. It's the truth.) It's a miracle of life, sure, but could you really call it pretty?

Before I run the risk of driving this metaphor into the ground, I'll explain what I mean. This guy died before his novel ever made it past infancy. His first novel was not what I would term a success; it was bizarre and not much more accessible than the hand-written pages my classmates and I sorted through, which, in my mind, made it even harder to put it together into any kind of manuscript. To be honest, I felt like I was violating the author's privacy, in a way. He must have had a vision for this novel, and surely this ugly, newborn draft wasn't it. He wanted to raise it into a Big Boy Novel, but it wasn't there yet. But my professor wanted us to revive it and shove it out into the world anyway.

I don't really have an end to this story. I don't know that I learned any lessons from the experience aside from the obvious "Oh God please don't let me die with a bunch of unfinished manuscripts lying in boxes around my house so people can root through them and publish the awful literary skeletons that need to stay in the closet." Maybe it's just that I don't want to remain a mystery like this guy. Sitting in the archives, flipping through 30-year-old handwritten pages, is not a memory I will ever forget, and I think it was a valuable experience, but I never knew the man. I should not have been the one doing this. It should have been friends, family, colleagues. But it sounds like upon his death, he was really a mystery to everyone. He kept his writing hidden, pecked away at it in secret. Even his wife didn't know what was on those legal pads.

I don't want that for myself. I want people to know me and know what I'm doing. I don't want to keep it a secret for a bunch of reluctant grad students to try to unravel after I die, if for no other reason than the idea of being unable to control what people see of my writing (and therefore of me) is really pretty horrifying. I don't know, maybe I keep those filled notebooks around so people can have a more complete image of my writing (and therefore of me). Maybe that's why I've kept a LiveJournal for nine years, and I've never actually gotten rid of the horrifying teenage posts I made back then, despite much temptation. Maybe that's why I keep blogging in various places. I want to be understood.

Doesn't everyone?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

This summer has been killer. I’ve written 40,000 words of On a Twisted Tree so far, but my progress has been either crazy or nothing at all. I try to schedule time every day to write, but some days it just isn’t possible–too much work to do. My online classes started on the 6th, so if it’s possible, I’m even busier now than I was when I was in school. I’m packing, etc. etc. etc. excuses. I also haven’t co-written in a couple of months, which is just killing me, but I’m/we’re both busy as hell.

I move August 2, and after my helper/houseguest leaves, I’ll have a couple of weeks to hang out and hopefully catch up on some stuff as I unpack. Now, having said that, I’ve completely jinxed myself.

In other news, I brought home my new kitten on Friday. His name is Gomez, and he is the most adorable destroyer of souls ever. He’ll kill you in cold blood and you will like it. I also went on an interesting canoe trip with 60 Colombians from the ELI. Said canoe trip could not be complete without drunk rednecks in canoes, some fishing and some half-naked or naked. It couldn’t have been a more quintessential float trip for the Colombians if we’d planned it that way. I came away with a smashed thumb and a weird combination of dark tan and sunburn. I don’t sunburn easily (this is like my third sunburn ever), but the cheap sunblock we bought clearly wasn’t that waterproof. Damn

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I am a sick bitch

I’d been wanting to write one particular scene in On a Twisted Tree for a while. It’s a really tough, really raw scene, so I put it off for a while as it developed in my mind. I finally sat down to write part of it last night and ended up doing the whole thing. It involves Lindsay coming across his brother, Cary, after he’s been paralyzed in a hunting accident. (No spoilers there, really.) It’s really gelled his character for me, and gelled their relationship.

Yikes. That was tough. I tried to capture that disconnected feeling you get during a tragedy, where half of you is numb and half of you is just rotting with dread because you know. I hope I did it in a way that communicates that feeling.

I’ve discovered that I like (although”like” is a strange word) to delve into the moments that make and break characters. I push them into the absolute worst moments of their lives and force them (and me) to live those moments. I can’t write a character as well as I want to until I can see and experience, through writing, the moments that have formed them as people. I also tend to explore the various tiny ways people can be good and cruel to one another, and this scene (this story) is full of those.

A teaser:
“Roll him,” Wade said. “Do it gentle.”
Lindsay did, moving to Cary’s other side and grabbing him around the middle. He’d barely lifted Cary’s hip from the ground when he let out a low cry from deep in his chest. Lindsay cursed and let go. “What hurts, Care? What hurts?”
“Don’t move me,” Cary begged. “Just let me be.”
Lindsay’s throat tightened. “I’m sorry, brother. I got to. We got to get you to the hospital.” He put his hand on Cary’s hip again.
“Don’t!” It was a scream, like a fiddle with a broken string. The sound rattled Lindsay badly, and he couldn’t force himself to do it, just knelt there. Paralyzed.
“Lindsay,” Wade said behind him. “Turn him.”
“It hurts him!”
“Do it!” Dad’s scream this time, almost as harsh as Cary’s.
Later, Lindsay would wonder why he had been forced to do it.
“I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
To belabor a point, the idea I was trying to get across here is that Lindsay, the son, is forced to purposefully hurt his brother (even if it’s in the interest of helping him) while Dad stands back and watches. This is something Lindsay will never forget, even if he eventually forgives himself for it.

This is the kind of stuff I like to write. I am a sick bitch that way.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


This new WIP, which I’ve tentatively titled On a Twisted Tree, is a first for me in a lot of ways. It marks the first time I’ve written about a place I’m intimately familiar with (I grew up in the area) and references places I pass by every day–in fact, part of the story takes place in my apartment. It’s also the first time I’ve written a protagonist with a disability, and the first time I’ve really dealt with the kind of people I grew up with, who are, in a word, unapologetic rednecks. Maybe most significantly, though, this is the first time I’ve dared to address some of the demons of my past through writing.

Now, I can’t write a story without some family drama, because we all know family drama is just ripe for the picking. This particular family is just as wonderfully fucked up as the rest of the ones I’ve written, and, just like many of the rest of the ones I’ve written, it comes along with a dysfunctional dad. In this story, though, I’m facing some particular dad issues head-on. I decided, more or less on a whim, to do this because the story lends itself well to it.

This dad is a larger-than-life version of my own (my dysfunctional dad is not a militant conspiracy theorist, for instance), and I will freely admit that. His two sons react to him in a combination of my real feelings and actions during a particular period of my life and the actions and words I wish I had done and spoken. The combination provides a pretty amazing catharsis. Part of me worries that I’ll turn this story into my own personal therapist and wring out all of my issues into it, but I think I’m pragmatic enough to handle it in a way that will appeal to a wider audience.

Because, really, what’s not to love about rednecks and mythology?

I’m also doing my best not to make the story into a session of “local masturbation,” as I like to call it, chock full of references and in-jokes and self-conscious descriptions of settings for the sole purpose of having someone who lives there go, “I know where that is!!” I’ve found this annoys me in other stories (Laurell K. Hamilton is bad about that, and Jim Butcher can be). If you live here, you know exactly where the boys’ trailer park is, you can picture the parking garage is, etc., but try to describe the setting in such a way that someone who will never set foot in Springfield will get most it.

This story is my own weird tribute to the area and the people that fostered me in my formative years. I’ve developed an odd affection for the place, so it’s fitting that I write this as I’m leaving it. Even more, though, as I move on in my life (cue violin music), it’s my attempt to exorcise some of my personal demons rather than letting them haunt me.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pantsing in world building: legit or folly?

I make no secret that I’m largely a pantser when it comes to a lot of aspects of writing. When it comes to world building, though, I’m definitely a planner. I’ve done the top-down method (creating a whole world and then narrowing it down to a more specific setting to start with) and the bottom-up method (starting with a certain culture/setting/group and building outward), and the sideways-and-upside-down method. I’ve also tried pantsing and building the world as I go along and figure out what I need.

And I’m here to say, the latter method is complete bullshit.

Maybe this is just me–maybe people can legitimately pants it the whole way. Some people can just dive into a story and see where it takes them. I cannot, and I’m not completely convinced that anyone benefits as much as they think they do from winging the world building. Here’s what’s happened to me, and what I know has happened to many people I know: they dive in, and everything’s good. The excitement is still there, and they’re just trucking right along. Then they get a couple chapters in, and all of a sudden, they hit a snag, because they don’t know what the hell to do next.

This is where a little planning would have helped. There is such thing as too much planning, where you get to the point where all you’re doing is world building and researching as a clever form of procrastination (not that I’ve ever done that…nope, of course not). But you have to know the basic milieu of the story, the things that will affect how you proceed toward the important aspects and turning points, before you get too far in. It’s like getting that particleboard entertainment center home and diving right in before you even glance at the directions (not that I’ve ever done that, nope). All of a sudden, oh shit! Where does this one piece go? What’s this thing supposed to look like, anyway?

How the hell are you ever supposed to know where you’re going and how to get there if you can’t answer the basic “journalist questions” about your story, or if you don’t know the place and setting your characters are interacting with? You don’t want them to bump around a big empty vacuum of a room. Setting ain’t just for scenery, folks. Unless characters interact with the setting, unless the story could happen in no other place and time without significantly altering, it’s not believable.

So, you have this fantasy story. There’s this guy. He’s sort of short and he has hairy feet. And there’s a dragon! And another guy, who’s ugly and has a lisp and talks to himself a lot. And, um, the short guy with hairy feet…goes…somewhere. And there’s this thing he finds. It’s a piece of jewelry. A necklace, maybe? Or a ring. Not sure what the ring does, but it’s a ring. And there’s writing on it.

Somehow, I doubt Tolkien dove in with half a page of notes.

There are some people who argue that you don’t have to know where you’re going when you start. I don’t understand these people and I think they’re freaks (kidding, mostly), but I can understand wanting to build a story organically. I’ve done it, though granted it was never by myself. But pantsing plot vs. pantsing the entire world? I just don’t see how the latter works. At all.

I’m fully willing to make the concession that no, you don’t have to have it all figured out before you start writing. I never do. I’m one of those, “Eh, that’s enough” types. I make shit up as I go along all the time, but I know where I’m going, how I’m going to get there and what’s most important, and that actually helps me get stuff done. Writing is all about momentum. You lose it, and it’s really hard to get it back again. You lose it because you have to go back and figure something out, fuhgeddaboudit. It’s one thing if your story takes a left turn you didn’t expect, or if there’s something you just didn’t anticipate, but another thing to have done shoddy pre-work and have to pay for it later. No excuse for that, IMHO.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Trucking Along

I crossed the 10k threshold with New WIP just now. Pacing-wise, it’s actually going pretty well already, not fraught with pacing issues from the beginning the way some (a lot) of my stories are. I’m having fun dropping little Southern jokes about Miracle Whip and iced tea.

People have been giving me some really excellent ideas for the story left and right.  It’s awesome to have friends who are not only creative, but are knowledgeable in my areas of concern.  As I write, I’m getting good ideas, too. I haven’t felt quite so capable of doing a solo project in a really long time. It’s a good feeling.
Last night, Co-Author #2 and I decided that our current UF project would work best as a serial, as well. It would ease a lot of plot structure issues and make the whole thing more cohesive. I’m inclined to think all of the stories in this series would do well in serial form. Now that I’ve told Kate we’re going to do it, we can’t disappoint her, so we better get to work!

I’m actually finding the structure of a serial easier than I’d anticipated. The episodic nature forces me to think in terms of individual chapters as well as the novel overall, so I have to keep the tension and even raise it at the end of each chapter to keep the reader going. Keeping the tension is something I struggle with sometimes. This is a really good exercise in structure overall.

My goal is to get this done by the end of July and then off to betas. At this rate, about 5k a week, I think I can  do it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Trying something new

For the new UF WIP, which will be a serial novel, I’m writing something that’s significantly more mythology-and-magic based than I’ve ever done before. Most of my UF happens to be about magical people–magic will play a bigger and more fantastic role in this story. Necessarily, I think. It needs to be very plotty and have clear episodes without losing the overarching story, so I’m thinking bigger in scope. I’ve also kind always wanted to challenge myself a “save the world” plot (I don’t do those often either), so, why not now?

And, because you know a couple of challenges is never enough, I’m adding on another one. I recently bought Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I’ve mentioned previously my distaste for anything resembling NaNo, but I can see its appeal–it forces you to sit your ass down and Get Stuff Done. What I really like about this particular book as a guide is that a) the pretty charts and clear guides and b) that the author stresses that “Book in a Month” isn’t necessarily realistic for everyone; it’s sitting your ass down and doing that matters. The peer pressure aspect of NaNo doesn’t lend comfort to those who don’t meet its goals.

Anyway, enough on that old rant. After a few days of spinning my wheels and trying to come up with plotty things, I’ve got a vague but workable plot in mind and, IMHO, a couple of really interesting characters. I’m sure the last thing anyone wants to read is my gushing about my new brainpets, so I’ll keep them to myself. For now.

Still doing a little research into Hungarian mythology, so if anyone can point me toward legends/info about the taltos, please do. I’ll give you a cookie. Or maybe even a sneak peek (once I write it).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When stories run away with you

I’m firmly skeptical about the idea that there is such thing as a muse, and that characters really actually “take over” a story. I think that’s a cop-out to keep us from writing, and most of us are already very good at not writing. I think that if I have writer’s block, it’s not because my “muse” is faltering or I’m not “inspired.” It’s because I haven’t thought well or hard enough about what I’m doing and where I’m going. I’ve found that if I don’t plan well enough, I follow tangents and get thoroughly lost.

Case in point: Touched, formerly known as Intimations. I originally intended for it to be a short story, maybe 15,000 words, about a crazy Seer who was a supporting character in another story. Then I decided I could also tie it into an important piece of his background, which happened in Houston, TX. Then, I had to decide what he was doing in Houston in the 1920s, since he was Russian. I decided he was looking for someone, so I had to figure out who that someone was.

From there, I ended up building a spy story. It got more and more complex as I went along, but I was more or less pantsing the whole first draft. I knew how the story should end, but not how to get there. I would plan several scenes ahead–sometimes–but I got to the point where I had a huge, knotted plot and no idea how to untangle it. Since I was writing Intimations, as it was known then, as my first Master’s thesis, I had a deadline. Rather than pulling a Stephen King and setting off a bomb (I have an incredulous hatred of The Stand, by the way), I sweated and bled until I figured out a solution, in time to turn in my draft. At that point, it was around 60,000 words.

In retrospect, having a deadline was the best thing that could have happened to me, because I don’t know if I ever would have finished the damn thing if not for that. I was that pissed off at it. So pissed off, in fact, that it was another ten months before I could get back to work on it in earnest.

Now, I plan compulsively in every aspect of the rest of my life; anyone who knows me can tell you that. I don’t know why I don’t plan nearly enough when I start writing, but this experience has convinced me that I really need to do it. The -J in my INTJ tends to think I have “enough” plot or “enough” information to start writing. Generally, that’s the truth, and I still tend to think that an overabundance of plot and information tends to convolute the story. I’m all about letting stories develop organically, but at some point, planning and plotting is necessary.

Of course, this is just how I do it. I admire people who can just sit down and write, and it turns out pretty decently. But for me, I have to be conscious of what I’m doing, where I’m going, and how I want to get there.

Finally, I think I’ve figured out what’s going on in Touched. I actually had some pretty good ideas in the first draft, but there were several issues. Finally, I sat down today and hashed everything out by outlining the four separate plotlines. I did it in about an hour and a half, which makes me wonder why the hell I didn’t do it earlier. I can keep most of the material past about Chapter Eight, which is when I think I figured out what the hell I was doing. It’s incredibly complex, but finally, finally, everything fits.

Christ on a cracker, that took long enough.

Lessons learned:

Plot early.

Plot thoroughly.


Ask, “Why the hell is this person doing this?”

Plot some more.

Use charts.

On a related side note, today I ordered Book in a Month from Amazon Marketplace. I saw it in Borders a couple of weeks ago and was impressed with the charts in the back. As an incredibly visual person, they looked awfully shiny, and as someone who loves to organize, they looked like a neater and tidier way to consider overall story structure than, “What happens next?” I often scoff at “how to write a book” books, but the reason I tend to like the “30 day novel” type books is their emphasis on planning and structure.
And, who am I kidding. I like charts and color-coding and organization. I might be a little Type A.

The joys of internet research

I expect the FBI to come knocking down my door any day now. Periodically I build what is doubtlessly a bizarre FBI file by researching things like sniper rifles and BDSM, or assault rifle modifications and paraplegic sex on the same day. Sometimes in different tabs of the same window.

If my three years of grad school were useful for anything, it was learning how to research effectively. I can now tell you what junk food was available in 1970, what downtown Cleveland next to the river looked like during the same period, what ethnic groups started creating organized crime in Houston in the 1920s, what types of BDSM implements are used when, what assault rifles are commonly sold to what countries, how the LHC works, the basic differences between Jewish sects, how to join the CIA, and how a paraplegic person gets from a car into a wheelchair. I know enough about pirates and pirate ships to be annoying when watching Age of Sail movies. None of this, of course, has anything to do with my field of study.

Most of my research starts with characters in a situation I wonder about. My current pair of characters live and work in an area I’m very familiar with: they grew up near where I grew up, and they live in the town I live in. Most of my characters, of course, do not. They are, by and large, very different from me. So I wonder, what would a Russian who’s addicted to junk food eat in a hotel room in 1970? What hotel existed in this particular place at that particular time? How long does it take to go by private jet from Brisbane to New York? How does a paraplegic person have sex? (Don’t tell me you never wondered.) Most of these questions require more than simple Google-fu; they require some digging and more advanced Google-fu, and a lot of luck. I’ve wandered through sites specifically devoted to private jet routes to forums for people with spinal cord injuries to Cleveland history archives. Fortunately, the internet makes this really easy for someone who’s willing to do that digging.

No academic should ever say this, probably, but Wikipedia and YouTube are the two best resources I could ask for when I’m writing fiction. By following links in Wikipedia articles (don’t tell me you’ve never lost an hour or two to that activity), I’ve found inspiration to create an urban fantasy world. By watching YouTube videos, I learned just today from a paraplegic stoner how someone in a wheelchair gets into a car, into a chair, or onto the ground/floor and back again. I also learned how to assemble a Saiga 12 assault rifle. For an unrelated story, I confirmed my suspicion that raptors don’t naturally fly in straight lines.

I’ve also gotten inspiration and fascinating information from the completely random TV shows I sometimes watch. Future Weapons has given me ideas for many projects, as have many shows on the History Channel. I’ve gotten information about various fighting styles from Discovery Channel shows like Deadliest Warrior, and I gained a fascination for (and lots of information about) organized crime from other specials. Random life experiences, like living in the Ozarks or being assigned temporarily to an accessible dorm room with strobe lights activated by a doorbell mechanism or having a deaf colleague or visiting my aunt in Austin or living for a few months in Baltimore have given me plenty to write about, too.

And, of course, just taking classes, being in college, etc. has given me a lot of useful information as well. I took two years two decide what my major was going to be after changing it four times, so that two years consisted of almost nothing but Gen Ed classes. I have enough information about psychology, physics, anthropology, art history, etc. to know how to search more effectively. This has given a distinctly interdisciplinary bent to my graduate study interests in addition to helping me research for my stories more effectively.

Of course, I do plenty of purposeful research for details as well as general information as well. I have books on gypsies and writers’ guides to weapons, missing persons, police procedure, criminal profiling, places, books on pirates and pirate ships and Marines during the Vietnam War and Catholicism (I’m an atheist). I learned quite a bit about cowboys from reading Louis L’Amour and Lonesome Dove and about the procedure and style of an action/spy novel reading some David Morrell. And, of course, I watch police procedurals and TruTV. There’s my dirty little secret, and I’m not ashamed of it.

For me, the details make the story, so if I can find answers to the little things I wonder about in a story, I can add richness to the story. I can’t promise every bit of information is going to be accurate, because, frankly, sometimes I have to guess or give my best approximation, given that I’m not deaf or illiterate or in a wheelchair or male. (All of those traits belong to different characters, if you were wondering). I enjoy the hell out of creating diverse settings and situations and characters, but I’m always concerned about portraying these things well enough. I don’t want to come off as ignorant or, worse, insulting, when I wrote about my character who uses a wheelchair. If I’m going to have a character who’s a gun bunny, that character needs to look like s/he knows what s/he’s doing, even if I don’t have the first clue. And I don’t want to brush aside or avoid the details, because I’m out to create verisimilitude.

Is verisimilitude the same thing as realism, or is it more about believability? I don’t know. Maybe that’s a subject for a different post. Discuss.