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.