Monday, October 29, 2012

I'm a Loner, Dottie, a NaNoWriMo Rebel

Well, folks, it's almost that time of year again, when half your twitter stream and facebook wall are beset by writing sprints, word wars, and productivity pep talks. It's time for NaNoWriMo.

For those of you wondering what in blazes I'm talking about, that strange looking acronym up there stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, the gears at the NaNoWriMo website begin turning anew, and an eager community of writers wake from their virtual slumber and spring to life around it. The aim is to write a manuscript of at least fifty thousand words in the space of thirty days, and the community is chock full of encouragement and empowerment, pushing each other toward that goal. And for the first time in two years, Yours Truly will be taking part.

"Now, hold on right there," I can hear you saying already. "Aren't you writing short stories these days?" Alas, I must raise my hands in acquiescence. The jig is up. You've caught me. This year, I'm strolling right up to the gates of NaNoWriMo, kicking them in, and laying my cards on the table. Alden's not playing by the rules this time! Okay, I'll stop with the cheese. You see, I'm still going to be aiming for that fifty thousand word goal, but I'm not going to be writing a novel. I'm sticking with my shorts, hoping to knock out as many first drafts in one month as humanly possible.

This isn't without precedent for the NaNoWriMo community. In fact, a whole section of their forums has been conceded to the NaNo Rebels, who march to the beat of their own drum, guidelines be damned. Of course, we rebels aren't without our detractors. There are those who would condemn the likes of me, looking down on us as rule breakers. I've even heard a story or two of people new and unfamiliar with the community being told by some that they can't participate if they aren't working on a novel. This is, of course, ridiculous.

The whole point of NaNoWriMo (besides making literary agents dread the month of December with every fiber of their being) is that you get out of it what you put in. It's about setting a lofty goal and striving for it with all you've got, with the help and encouragement of a like-minded community. The idea that anyone should be excluded from that experience because they aren't doing exactly what you are is an affront to the spirit of the event, and the organizers have stated this repeatedly (and it's why they gave the NaNo Rebels their own stomping ground on the site in the first place).

So, if you've been peeking at participants out of the corner of your eye every time November rolls around, hesitant to leap in and give it a shot yourself because you don't think what you're writing qualifies, consider becoming a rebel. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is about personal achievement, and you should never give yourself an excuse not to achieve something.

Me, I'll be giving it my best go. I'll be honest with you—the last time I participated, I failed. I fell short of my goal and denied myself a victory lap. This time, things will be different. There's a variety of reasons for my new found confidence, not the least of which is the fact that I have a monumentally more flexible writing schedule now, but chiefly it's because my attitude is different. I consider myself a professional, and I intend to work like one. Fifty thousand words in a month? Piece of cake. Let's do this.

The rebellion begins in three days. Who's coming with me? My NaNo username is AuthorAlden.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ruthless Writing: Make Your Characters Hate You

One of the most popular exercises some writers like to utilize when crafting new characters for a project is to write out a mock interview. The writer will ask the character about everything from their hopes and dreams to their favorite food, all in an effort to get inside their head and gain a better understanding of the personality and motivations within. But have you ever tried asking your characters about you? If you did, what do you think they'd say? What would happen if your protagonist was a real person? How would they react if they found out that you were behind every beat of their heart, every turn of their world? Would they thank you? Would they bow down and worship you as their lord and creator?

I can only speak for myself, but I'm fairly certain every last one of mine would try their damnedest to wrap their figmental hands around my throat and snuff the life right out of me. You see, I haven't exactly been kind to the denizens of my little multiverse, especially my protagonists. My stories inevitably become sheer hell for most of them, as they stumble along through one calamity after another, dancing to every sadistic whim that emerges from my imagination. I once participated in an exercise for a writing workshop that had me write a small piece in which one of my main characters introduced me to the rest of the group. It didn't turn out the way I expected. Tasked with describing myself from that poor fellow's point of view, I ended up putting myself on trial. The character cast himself as prosecuting attorney, characterizing me as the devil incarnate, wielding not a pitchfork but a pen. You know, I honestly can't say I blame the guy after all I've put him through.

Ladders, Viper Pits, and Character Adversity

But what else can I do? I have a story to tell. And I can't bore my readers by spoiling my characters. One of Kurt Vonnegut's famous rules for short fiction is that every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water. But you can't just let them reach out and grab it. You've got to let them parch for a while. Put that glass on a rooftop and give them a broken ladder. Put it at the bottom of a viper pit. In fact, in one of the rules that follows, Vonnegut encourages writers to be sadists. "No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of," he says.

In other words, character adversity is one of the most fundamental pieces of groundwork in a compelling story. It provides the lion's share of drama and tension that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and won't let them look away. We don't root for John McClane in Die Hard because he shoots all the bad guys and rescues the girl. We root for him because he has to fall down a flight of stairs and walk barefoot on broken glass to do it. Would we still love The Lord of the Rings if Mount Doom had been in Frodo's backyard the whole time? Of course not. The real story isn't just about a magic ring—it's about that harrowing journey to Mordor. By the end, the reader feels just as battle weary as the broken fellowship.

So the next time you're about to bring the hammer down on those poor, unfortunate characters of yours, do not hesitate. Turn away with a callous heart when they look up at you with Bambi eyes and question your cruelty. They may not deserve the beating you've given them, and they certainly didn't ask for it, but if you are their god, then the reader must be yours, and the satisfaction of the reader is wrought by their tears. They must suffer for the sake of your story, perhaps even give their lives for it. And if they curse you for that, you know you've done your job well.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes of all time, from Nobel laureate AndrĂ© Gide:

“What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.” 

photo credit: Kell Bailey via cc

Monday, October 15, 2012

5 Myths About Writing Outlines

Whether you're a fiction noob or a salty veteran, if you've read some books on the craft or done any poking around on the internet, chances are you've noticed two main schools of thought when it comes to approaching a project. There are those who believe it's best to plot the course of their work ahead of time, laying out the skeletal framework of the story before cutting into the first draft, and those who believe this approach is too restrictive, opting instead to dive right in and let the muse pull them along by the seat of their pants.

One of the primary reasons I decided to delve into short fiction some time ago was for the freedom to experiment without an intimidating commitment to a longer work. This has allowed me to try a variety of approaches to writing in a relatively short time, and both methods have birthed stories I'm fond of. That being said, when the day comes that I decide to sit down and write a novel again, I will most likely be using an outline. I could fill an entire entry talking about my reasons, but at the end of the day, every writer is going to have to decide which method works best for them. Neither will bring universal success for everyone. We're all different.

And that's why it gets my hackles raised whenever I hear someone saying their way is the right way, and everyone else should follow suit. There are pontificators on both sides, but most of the nay-saying I've seen has been aimed in the direction of outlines. Maybe it's just my own experience, but there seems to be a lot of "pantsers" who feel the need to justify their approach, usually by pointing out perceived negatives of the outlining process. Of course, there's nothing wrong with explaining why something doesn't work for you. But I've noticed a lot of myths and untruths being thrown out there. So, as someone who's put both methods to the test, I thought I'd put on my mythbuster hat and address some of them.

#1. Outlines Restrict Creativity

This is probably the most common myth cited, and it's absolutely untrue. The outline itself is an expression of your creativity. It's the kick-off to the creative process. And once you're knee-deep into your first draft, the presence of that outline isn't going to make the muse abandon you to the wolves. The same creative mind that produced the outline is on board with you for the entire ride, and you should be putting it to work every step of the way, outline or no.

More importantly, your outline is likely to leave plenty of room for exploration. Your story is not a sterile office building constructed from a two-dimensional blueprint. It's a vast, unexplored cave. That outline is just the dim, stuttering flare that you toss in before commencing your spelunking. It lights just enough of the path to keep your feet moving, but you still won't know for sure what’s around the next bend—or what’s going to leap out of the shadows.

#2. You are Handcuffed to Your Outline

A big source of the doomsaying that revolves around outlines seems to be this strange idea that once you've written one, the work ahead of you is set in stone whether you like it or not. This is so far from the truth that I'm not even sure which angle to attack from. As long as the pen is in your hand, your story remains malleable, and if it wants to go somewhere contrary to your plans, the author is always free to let it roam. Sometimes the finished product won't even resemble the initial outline.

This isn't a bad thing, and for outliners it often prevents the need for a comprehensive rewrite the second time through. You can hold that original outline up to the work in progress and gauge how far off course you are, examining the reasons why. The outline can be edited and adjusted just as readily as the first draft itself, avoiding plot holes and inconsistencies.

#3. Outlines Breed Flat Characters

I suspect this myth is related to the previous two. Some pantsers just seem accustomed to the idea that their method is the only way a story can truly take on a life of its own. Many writers will often speak of that feeling you get when your characters are fleshed out to the point that they feel alive. They start to feel like real people with their own thoughts and motivations, and might even resist your plans for them. There are differing opinions as to how far the writer should let them play about, but the feeling itself is pretty common, and it's not exclusive to those who write without an outline.

In fact, I'd even argue that it can sometimes happen sooner with outliners, or at least it has in my experience. The reason for this is that when you engage in heavy planning before your story begins, you've already gotten to know your characters to a certain degree. Many of them come to life in the planning stage, and by the time you start writing your story, they're already alive and kicking. This idea that outlined characters are just lifeless puppets couldn't be further from the truth.

#4. Outlining Means Writing Your Book Twice

Someone once argued to me that the reason I shouldn't outline my stories is because once I put my idea down on paper, it will have lost something to the void of the empty page. By the time I get to my first draft, they said, that initial spark of inspiration will be long gone, wasted on the outline instead of the story itself. My first draft would really be my second, prevented from living up to its potential. I asked this person if they'd ever finished anything longer than a flash piece, and they outright refused to answer.

Putting aside the fact that this claim obviously reeks of superstition (I have a few of my own, after all), it still kind of baffles me that someone would think this way. Not only do I disagree, but I feel pretty much the opposite. The very moment I get a good idea, it goes down on paper, lest it be lost forever to the all-consuming emptiness that is my short-term memory. If you can only capture inspiration properly in the first draft, how on earth do you tackle the second? Heaven forbid you attempt a rewrite. I'm a pretty big believer in the muse (or the "muse-brain" at least), but I am not a slave to my own inspiration. The muse works for me, not the other way around.

#5. There Is a "Right Way" to Plot Your Outline

Finally, we end with a myth propagated not by the detractors, but by outliners themselves. If you're interested in giving outlines a try, there are quite a few tried and tested methods out there, from index cards to mind maps to snowflakes. Chances are you'll have to do a bit of experimentation before you find out what kind of outline works for you. Personally, I prefer a rough sketch of scenes in a simple word processor document. The longer the work is, the closer I tend to drift towards the index cards.

But the way you outline your story is not what matters. Again, everyone is different. What's important is that your outline serves its purpose. That is, it should get you writing. More importantly, it should keep you writing. Be wary of anyone who claims their method is infallible and universal. If you take anything away from this entry, it should be that. No one has all the answers. Find what works for you.

Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Set Goals for Your Writing

The human brain is a marvelous thing. In addition to juggling the complex demands of our bodies as it interacts with the electrical impulses of our nervous system (while we stroll around completely oblivious), it also serves as our personal computer and problem solver, ready and waiting to tackle any situational difficulty we may encounter as we go about our lives. In many ways, it's this ability to solve complex problems that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, as it's allowed us to remove ourselves from the food chain (mostly) and shape the world as we see fit.

But making your belly growl and balancing your checkbook aren't the only ways your brain is willing to work for you. You can take hold of that cognitive power and aim it at something worth while, like your future. By acknowledging your aspirations and setting goals accordingly, you can bring that great pie in the sky down to ground level and dig in. In my opinion, this is especially important for writers, since so much of what we do requires self-discipline and long-term commitment, often with no immediate tangible reward to prod us further. The following approach to goal setting is what's worked for me thus far. If I end up a miserable failure, I promise to come back and warn you away from it.

Write Them Down

This first step might seem like a no-brainer, but a surprisingly large number of people I've talked to make a conscious decision to skip this one altogether, choosing to keep their aspirations bottled up in their heads with a lock and key. It's almost as if they think they'll jinx themselves if they admit to hoping for the best, so they remain "humble" by not daring to speak their grand goals aloud. If you're one of those people, I'm begging you to change this habit. Whether it's a notebook in your desk drawer or a document on your computer, you'd be surprised just how empowering it can be to commit your goals to paper. By doing so, you're acknowledging that you can and will do what it takes to whittle those non-accomplishments down to nothing.

Bear in mind, however, that this isn't a grocery list you're making. It's not a bucket list or a to-do list, either. In fact, it's not a list at all—it's a plan. Don't just scribble a few bullet points on a post-it note and call it a day. That's okay for the short-term planning that comes later, but we're not thinking short-term yet. We're thinking about your future. Take this thing seriously. Meditate on your end goal and envision the road it will take to get there. And again, don't restrain yourself. If your ultimate dream is to be a bestselling novelist, write that down. Don't use vague language and limited thinking. Throw humility out the window and reach for the stars.

At this point, you'll most likely want to do some research (if you haven't already) about the various avenues for success that exist in the publishing industry as well. Are you writing short stories? Novels? Will you be going the route of trade publishing or self-publishing? Will you need an agent? Read up on the industry, and don't be afraid to ask experienced writers who've already achieved some of your goals in their own career. There are many communities online with friendly, knowledgeable people that are willing to help. The more you know about what you need to do to make those dreams come true, the more detailed your plan can be.

Break Them Down

Now that you have a general idea of what you want to accomplish in the long-term, it's time to break those seemingly impossible tasks down into manageable, less intimidating chunks. This is the part where you separate the pie in the sky from the immediately attainable and acknowledge what you can and can't do in the here and now.

Remember, you're working your way from the top down. If you know you'll need a book deal in order to become a bestseller, list the former before the latter. If you can't get a good book deal without hiring a respectable agent, slide that one in next. If you'll need to have a finished, polished novel to net that agent, group it accordingly. And so on and so on. Continue to break down each important milestone further and further into sub-goals, until you'll eventually arrive at a step you can take as soon as you're done writing this plan.

Don't count on your fairy godmother to intervene and keep your journey on the straight and narrow, though. Your plan should have multiple branches and contingencies, just in case things don't always go your way (because we both know they won't). I said to abandon humility when listing your goals, but that doesn't mean you should embrace arrogance while planning for them. Don't just plan for success; plan for failure. If you address potential pitfalls now, it won't be as painful when you stumble into them.

Knock Them Down

Now you can get some use out of those post-it notes. At this point, you should have some immediate goals that you can work on crossing off. These short-term objectives will likely be different for everyone, depending on what you're working on and what stage of the game you're at. If you're between novels and ready to start a new one, your first weekly list might look something like this:

  • Brainstorm Ideas
  • Character Sheets?
  • Begin Worldbuilding
  • Outline

You get the general idea. If you're already knee-deep in a work in progress, your daily and weekly objectives might entail managing your writing schedule and meeting word count goals. I'm primarily a short story writer, so the post-it on my computer monitor currently revolves around editing recently drafted stories, resubmitting work, considering recent editorial feedback, etc.

Now, you might not be the type to want daily reminders of your short-term goals, and I get that. You also might not want to use actual notes, opting for a document on your computer or a productivity app on your phone. For me, driving those immediate objectives into my skull makes it easier to keep my butt in the chair so I can tear that note down and replace it with another. It feels like real progress that way, and keeps my eyes from wandering further up the Master Plan of Writeritude™ to goals that aren't quite in my reach yet.

The most important thing is to commit to the path you've laid out and focus on one step at a time. Don't get ahead of yourself. Whack each mole as they pop out of their holes. And when I say to commit to the path, that doesn't mean the path should be set in stone. You will undoubtedly learn and grow during the course of your journey (in fact, that should be part of the plan), and some of that growth might prompt you to alter your trajectory a bit. My original plan didn't even include short stories, so if you'd told me back then that my first publication credits would come via the short market, I'd have thought you were crazy. The important part is that we keep aiming high, and we keep working hard. Goal setting makes it easier to do that.

Of course, I've never proclaimed myself a writing sage, and there's no universal method for success in any industry, so your mileage may vary. This is just what works for me. If you've had success with a different (or similar) approach, I'd love to hear from you.

photo credit: James Jordan via cc

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

IWSG: Small People & Ambitions

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which of course hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote marks the first of this series that does not come from an author in my usual domain, speculative fiction. Nonetheless, it comes from one of the most influential and admired authors in the modern history of the written word, called "the father of American literature" by William Faulkner. His most well known works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been given a place in the pantheon of the "Great American Novel" by most literary critics, capturing the zeitgeist of a nation ripe with the wide political change and civil upheaval of the time. I am, of course, speaking of none other than Mark Twain, who had this to say:

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

One of the things that many writers have in common (especially new writers) is a reluctance to dive in head-first and proudly proclaim themselves writers to the outside world. Often the writer will go to great lengths to excuse this attitude, telling themselves things like, "You're not a real writer until you've been published." They might even relinquish a baby step or two, calling themselves things like "an aspiring writer" or even "a wanna be writer." I've gone on a rant or two in this blog about why I think that's the wrong attitude to have, but I didn't arrive at that conclusion spontaneously. I went through a period in my life where I had trouble calling myself a writer as well. 

So why is that? Why do so many of us hesitate to outwardly embrace what we do? Well, let's face it. One of the primary reasons is probably because a lot of people in this world are downright judgmental. All of us are, to a degree, and there's no way around facing that when it's do or die time and you get the oft dreaded question, "So, what do you do?" We just know the response some of them give us when they hear our answer will be that vapid look in the eyes that says, "Sure, you're a writer. And I'm an NBA superstar every Saturday at the gym." These are the "small people" that Mr. Twain warned us about.

But my question is this: why on Earth should these small people matter to you and your writing? Why would you even begin to instill any kind of gravity in the opinion of one who offers nothing but pessimism and discouragement? These people do not matter. Brush them off your path like abrading chaparral. Step over them without a moment's thought and carry on.

Of course, this doesn't just go for perfect strangers and fleeting small talk. Sometimes those small people have very large roles in our lives. Sometimes those most discouraging can be those closest to us. They can be our significant others, our parents, our best friends. They're coming from a good place, but they don't realize just how deep their words can cut. They don't want to see us wasting any of the precious time we have in our short lives. They love and want the best for us, and the long odds of "success" in the world of publishing are no secret. So they tell us we'd be better off pursuing something more realistic, more achievable. They tell us this is just a weekend hobby or a passing phase or something we're just playing at until the fancy leaves and we get over it. They tell us we'll only last as long as the first rejection, then we'll get on with our lives. 

Well, guess what? They still don't matter, not where your writing is concerned and not where your personal identity is concerned. That might sound cold or calloused when it's aimed at the people you love, but the simple fact of the matter is that we are still us and they are still them. And some of them just plain don't get it and likely never will. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to fight that, so don't even think about it. And damn sure don't let it break your heart. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep doing what we do. You know what that is. We write. Because we're writers. 

No small person can belittle that unless we let them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Elves

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Grab your bow and glue some pointy ears on, as today we're taking a look at elves.

From books to film to video games, elves have become one of the most widely used character archetypes seen in works of high fantasy, and like most of those popular archetypes, its persistence in the genre is owed largely to the undeniable influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal epic, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's elves were an ancient race of people that shared Middle-earth with equally fantastic beings like dwarves, hobbits, and wizards (and of course, the mundane race of men). Elegant and immortal, these elves would set the mold still used by fantasy writers today.

Tolkien dipped his hands into early fantasy literature and Germanic folklore for inspiration when crafting his race of elves. In Norse mythology, elves were supernatural beings sometimes associated with nature and ancestor worship that would occasionally interfere in the lives of human beings, for good or ill. Their Anglo-Saxon equivalents were not depicted as quite so ambivalent, with Old English texts usually portraying them as mischeivous or downright malevolent. These myths grew and spread through the centuries, with many different kinds of elves taking prominent roles in the modern folklore of various cultures.

Even today, elves persist in the western world via the Christmas elf of children's folklore. Many parents teach their kids the lie story of Santa Claus, who brings gifts to good little children the world over on Christmas Eve. According to the popular story, Santa lives in the North Pole, where he oversees a sweatshop workshop tended by helper elves who build the toys he delivers. This is all very traumatic for the children when they ultimately learn the cold, hard truth. I am not bitter.

Video games have become one of the most common mediums for modern depictions of elves in fiction. Their prominence comes cheifly via fantasy role-playing games, an electronic evolution of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, which was itself heavily inspired by Tolkien and the authors that followed his lead.

These elves vary, but more often than not they retain some degree of Tolkien-esque flavor. My favorite example, however, is Dragon Age, a series which attempts to subvert the trope by showing a world in which elves have lost their former glory, cast down and persecuted as second-class citizens by the humans of Ferelden.

My own work has yet to feature elves of any kind, primarily because this trope has become so well trod over the years. If I ever do dip my toes into this one, I'll likely make my own attempt at subverting the traditional role elves play in the story, likely doing away with the word itself. Thus far, the muse hasn't brought me anything that would be conducive to the pointy-eared folk.

As someone who loves mythology and appreciates its influence on literature, however, I do still enjoy reading stories with elves, dwarves, halflings and the like, even if they've been done to death at this point. There's something alluring and fascinating to me about the ideas and themes that permeate through centuries of time across multiple mediums and genres (hence the existence of this blog series), and elves are a perfect example. And yes, I did say multiple genres. Fantasy geeks, don't ever let us science fiction nerds make fun of your elves. We have a few of our own.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

Recommended Viewing:
The Lord of the Rings

Recommended Gaming:
The Dragon Age series
The Elder Scrolls series
The Warcraft series