Friday, July 29, 2011

Act I Complete!

Current Word Count: 111k altogether, 105k from prologue to interlude.

Song I was listening to when the the final period was put on chapter 23: Chrono Cross: Chronopolis


After twenty-one months of writing, the first twenty-four chapters of my novel, encompassing the first act, are complete.

Part of me is relieved. The climax event is over 110 pages long and stretches across five chapters (18-23; there is a 24, but I'm debting putting it in act II.) I have been writing it for over six months.

It's cool to see things I thought of years ago finally put down in a readable format. Connecting dots A to B was a much lengthier process than I had imagined.

Another part of me is not so relieved; if my estimates are right (and if history teaches us anything, it's that every estimate I've made so far has been very low) I am only halfway done. And that is a very daunting prospect.

On the other hand, I have multiple scenes--bits of dialogue, some of the stuff is actually good, I think--already plotted and even some chapters already written. I have a rough sketch of where (I think) things will be going, though Stephen King wrote that plot is like excavating a fossil with a jackhammer. I think there's some truth to that allegory.

I stand somewhere in the middle of the story. Pretty much everything has gone wrong for the characters, and everything that has become comfortable is about to be turned on its head. The story is shifting gears.

It's been quite interesting to watch these people come to life.


Current Chapter List

Prologue: The Prose of Photius, Record One

1: The Autumn Garden

2: Midnight

3: Ghosts of Chimon-Jing

4: The Demon

5: The Conclave

6: What Friends are For

7: Helmsman's Folly

8: The Merchant's Arcade

9: Miles from Mine

10: We Should be Sleeping

11: If the Stars are Willing

12: Broken Promises

13: The Only Life I've Ever Known

14: Memories like Mountains

15: What Tomorrow Holds

16: A Lovely Day

17: Revelations

18: City on the Winds

19: Grasping at the Stars

20: Event Horizon

21: To Reap a Whirlwind

22: Falling

23: The Heavens Remained Quiet

24: A Well to Draw From [May be moved to act II.]

Interlude: The Prose of Photius, Record Two

Hey, thanks for playing along.


How to Write: Divulging Information in a Limited POV Tale

I was recently discussing a novel-in-progress called The Fisherman of Cat Island, about a Frenchman named Pierre, with the story's author. I raised in my critique of his work the topic of the infamous "info dump." Here are some thoughts about sprinkling that information in a contextually-appropriate manner.

I think every writer has their own method for revealing information. If a story is told from the POV of a certain character, the reader may still be interested in the back story and physical appearance of said character. The problem is, in real life you and I don't sit around day in and day out thinking about how we look, so it doesn't make sense for a character in a story to do so--if we want the character to be real and the story to be true-to-life, that is.

Information is contextual in a story like in life. There are times when you muse on your appearance: perhaps when you are getting ready in the morning, shaving, or dressing up for a special occasion. Perhaps you see a photograph of yourself. During the course of the day you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about how you look, but there are contextually appropriate times each day, I'd reckon, when you pay close attention to your appearance.

What you need to do is create a contextually appropriate time to describe your character's appearance. Pierre sitting in the boat thinking about how he has no home is not the time for this. In Pierre's case, he might catch a glimpse of his appearance if he gazes into that gulf water (for whatever reason is up to you) or, in his travels, has his rugged good looks called into question by a rabblerouser. If someone calls him ugly, he's got a reason to think about his appearance. Conversely, if the sultry waitress gives him a wink, it's probably not because he's toothless and haggard. She might even call him "handsome." Then the reader knows it. So does Pierre.

Those are just ideas. At the core is context. It goes not only for his appearance but also his back story. There are significant events in each of our lives that define who we are--a birth or a death, for example. As time passes, we think less and less about these events, but every once in a while, when the planets are aligned, we find ourselves remembering when this happened or thinking about so-and-so. That's reality, and it's entirely appropriate to create a scenario in a story in which your character thinks back. You, as the writer, know what the past is. You also know what the trigger is.

I have two examples of this in my introductory chapter. I manage to squeeze my POV character's physical appearance in by having her see her own reflection in a piece of polished stone. She doesn't sit and think for three paragraphs on how she looks. She doesn't consider her eyes or muse on them. She simply sees them for a moment, and in that moment I'm able to tell the reader what color they are. A moment later, she brushes hair from her eyes. I'm able to show the reader one, her hair is short, and two, her hair is black. I accomplished this with contextually appropriate action.

Back story is a little easier, in my opinion. I recently had a discussion with another writer about why my story starts on the day it does. I mentioned above the moments in life we recall, and specifically deaths and births. If you consider something particularly traumatic in your life, you know that there is a bit of disconnection with the trauma; this is a coping mechanism. Nonetheless, when the planets are aligned, something will happen to get your really thinking about the trauma. That's exactly what happens in my first chapter. My character had years to develop calluses toward her past, yet it is a question asked in innocence that sets her dwelling on her past. She thinks about it in ways she normally does not and it thus becomes entirely appropriate for her to consider at length her past. Thus the story is satisfied, as is, hopefully, the reader.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Write: "The Rules" - On Context and Myth in Storytelling

Regarding "restraining your research" (the topic of my last update) I began a short dialogue with the author of a blog about exposition. It went a little something like this:

Daniel, thanks... I recently gave a seminar about the subject of revealing too much of your valued research via exposition. Many professional authors still to this. I could name a few, particularly in the SF field (it's hard not to go on and on about your cool discovery of (theoretical) particle inter-dimensional plasma dark-matter propulsion that you've researched for months)... 
I'll share here what I shared in my seminar: 
One way to keep yourself from over-sharing all those "clever bits" (instead of keeping them to yourself) is to purposefully file them away in a backstory scrapbook or dossier or in directories devoted to spin-offs, short stories or even novels set in that same universe, world, time period. 
Think of J.K. Rowling's spin off book on Quiddich, the game Harry was so good at. Or the spin off books featuring minor character Boba Fett in Star Wars (another reason to keep dossiers on your characters, even minor ones--you never know when one of them might become a star). 
I've done this with several of my books. For instance, I generated several award-winning short stories from my two books "Darwin's Paradox" and "Angel of Chaos". My next book "Outer Diverse" (due this October) is set in the same universe as a previous book I'd written several years ago. 
The dossier idea is fascinating, but not my cup of tea. However, I very much agree with the notion of having a vibrant world in which to tell more than one story. One of the things I like about being a writer of Epic Science Fantasy (I think that's the tag I've decided upon, yes) is that it is appropriate to tell the tale of a historical individual or to have songs, poems and other pieces of culture to weave into the story. It's even better when readers nod along with you and say things like, "I can see why they would use that benediction; it makes perfect sense."

Assuming I garner the success to semi-support myself with this craft, I fully intend to expand beyond the borders of the story I'm writing at the moment.

As I see it, rarely in real life do people stop what they are doing to explain the nature of what they are doing. Having created an entirely fictional world with its own rules, I had to restrain myself from outright deviating from the plot in order to explain The Rules, because to the characters who live with the rules, there is no need for pedantry. It's implausible. It wouldn't happen as much as I wouldn't explain all the background information for my own life. (If you must know, the little scar on my forehead is a chicken-pock scar from when I was eight. My parents warned me not to scratch.)
With things that are less mundane (in fiction as well as reality) there is more opportunity and necessity for explanation. Regarding your reference to Quiddich (and I never read the HP books) I have no doubt that Harry was unaware of the rules. When Harry learned the rules, it was the best possible opportunity for the reader to learn them, too. That's context, and I think it's key to disseminating information in a story--for it is the necessary relay of information at the most appropriate time. My "info dumps" slowly disappeared as I adopted this philosophy.

Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.


Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Write: Realism in Fiction

The following is a response to a question about realism in fiction:

I'm basically begging for advice on how to write this so it doesn't seem fantastical or contrived. Any ideas?

  1. Realism requires research: books, internet, knowledgable people, personal experiences. As an example, things I have researched for my novel include: British accents, Muay Boran, bo staff fighting (YouTube,) magnetic fields and space travel (a friend who works for NASA,) animal behavior (a friend who studies wildlife,) names and ideas in religious history (school,) human muscles (Wikipedia,) the feeling of a stiff drink going down (I went to a bar and bought a stiff drink; asking a friend did not suffice.)
  2. Realism requires familiarity: even if you were to write speculative fiction in which you engaged in full-blown world building, your story would still written by you and would thus be crafted with your experiences and expertises operating behind the scenes. For example, the relationsihp between two of my main characters--one a female and one a male--is a conglomeration of my relationships with my female friends. Without those real-life relationships, the interactions between my female and male character would be quite different. The same could be said for everything else I've learned and experienced to this point. Even a fictional story in a fictional setting can come off as real if the author puts their shoulders back and writes with confidence. The adage "write what you know" does not mean "rehash your life in the form of a fiction." It means write with your life on the table.
  3. Realism does not require pedantry. Realism is not bogging your reader down with technical details even if you bled, sweated and cried to understand those details. The purpose of realism is to support the story. The story is about the story; everything else is secondary. It is not your job to extrapolate at every point details which have no bearing upon your narrative. I repeat: the story is about the story. Unless your story takes place in a setting that has no gravity, you do not need to explain the principle of gravity to your readers. They will assume gravity the same as they will assume your characters breathe, that they need to sleep and eat, that, even though you don't stop to unpack all the details, your characters have potty breaks.

Writing, like life, is variegated and will require you to draw upon an array of resources to do honestly and realistically.

Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Autumn Veil: Slowly but Surely

Current Word Count: 108,000
Listening to: The Swell Season, This Low

A Prelude: My Travels

I am sitting at the kitchen table of my friends Lauren and Allie in Bowling Green, KY, following a road trip that began June 9th with a flight to Atlanta, GA, and brought me and Burks to Fayetteville, NC, Yorktown, VA, Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, PA, New York, NY, Boston, MA, Richmond, VA and finally Birmingham, AL. In two days I will board a plane in Nashville, TN and fly to Chicago where I will spend five weeks staying with my friend Alex and his family in Crystal Lake, IL, until school resumes in mid-August.

My travels themselves could reckon a lot of blog posts (sights, sounds, smells, people) but that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because I woke up this morning and said to myself, "Today you will write something."

I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing (I got a lot done on the hilly backroads of rural Pennsylvania, particularly) and could have slapped myself when I read that Mr. King takes 2.5 hours out of the beginning of each day to write between 1,000 and 2,000 words. I've probably written 2,000 words int he last month. It's kind of hard to get into the guts of your story when you're carrying a twenty pound bag and barely keeping up with a long-legged bronze god.

As John Gardner said in On Becoming a Novelist, (and King makes a similar claim) art is a solitary thing. Being on the road has convinced me of something: I like writing more than I like traveling. If I ever attain my dream of going to New Zealand, I will probably find a rustic house with big windows and wood furniture, acquire a lot of tea, find the closest and best coffee shop and spend a lot of time sitting around typing.

Also, I'll walk the path to Mordor.

Where are We?

We are currently anchored about 70% through chapter 22, "To Reap a Whirlwind," as we have been for quite a while. Not considering that I have to go back and change certain key details, this has been the most slow-going thing I've ever written. I think this quote from King's On Writing sums it well:

The realization that stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

Yeah, something like that.

I will not quit.

Other Happenings

I have not stopped with the commision works. Harvey Dunga from the Philippines has continued to offer good work at very reasonable prices, so I've picked up a few more drawings from him: Shoji and Cerinth

Shoji Copy

Cerinth Final

Blog entires on idea progression for the characters' physiognomies forthcoming!