Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Devils in the Details

I spent a good portion of the beginning of this week destroying the world in fire and, as it turns out, it's a lot harder than it sounds.

For those of you that were reading last time, I had just started fleshing out a character that had been floating around in my head for a ~really~ long time.  As I was doing that, I got a better sense of the world that character lived in.

It wasn't pretty.

He told me about radioactive wastelands, vast tracts of desert, hordes of lawless maniacs that would shoot you for a better look at your boots, areas of land choked with scrub and little else--pretty grim stuff.

As the writer of this story, it's my job to figure out what the heck happened and then bring it to you so that it becomes a place thats real enough for you to lay down and roll around in.

Since this post has two parts that I want to talk about, I'm going to split that last statement into two parts

I'll start with the latter half of that statement first.  How do I bring you there?

The best way that I can bring you into the landscape is to provide you with--you guessed it--details.  The first devil wants to dump it all on top of you, but I'll lose you if I do that.  I've got to be pretty sneaky when I'm adding the details, but if I do it right, you won't mind (or even notice) that I slipped a bunch in there.

How do I do that?

A good chunk of it is through character.  You're seeing the world through the eyes of a character.  What you get is what the character is getting filtered through that character's perceptions and prejudices.  You're getting their mood and you're learning more about the character.  The detail is doing double duty here and that's good.

I can also slip in senses other than sight to really put you in the scene.  I can swirl the wind through your ears, getting sand (or snow, or rain or smoke) in your eyes and in your mouth and nose.  That's pretty important because taste, touch and smell are pretty often forgotten in description with smell coming out slightly ahead of the other two.

What I'm trying to do is trigger a memory of a similar sight, smell, taste, touch, or sound in your head as you're reading.  If I can do that, you're there on the ground with my character and we both win.

Now lets take a look at the other "Detail-oriented" part that I want to talk about: Just what the heck happened to the world in the first place?

So, how do you ruin the world?

I won't get into the nuts and bolts of the research I did.  I want to talk about the trap I narrowly avoided stumbling into.

I tried to find an exact scenario to create the kind of world I was envisioning.  Not surprisingly, I couldn't.  Everything I read landed on one side of my world or the other.  It was frustrating and (Even worse) it made me start to wonder if I was wasting my time.  Here's why:

Even if you're writing in the most radically different environment from our own, there are still basic rules to the way things work.  If you've got an object in your hand and then let go of it suddenly, "Something" is going to happen.  Regardless of what that "Something" is, you want to be consistent in the details of what happens.

Working in a familiar environment means that I've got the rules already spelled out for me and you're already familiar with what happens, so if I want to break those rules, you're going to want some details as to why.

Well, I couldn't find a compelling reason for why I could trash the world on the scale that I wanted while not wiping out the human race at the same time.  About that time, the uncertainty came creeping in and destroying the world stopped being fun.

In the end, I shook myself like dog coming out of the rain (anyone else get a flash of that wet dog smell?) and I reminded myself that:
1. I'm writing FICTION and
2. This is world building and I don't have to have the entire history of the universe planned out to tell a story in a certain corner of it.

That's the other devil: getting so bogged down in the details that you don't actually get any writing done, or that you give up in frustration.

Either way, you don't end up with a story which is probably the worst devil of them all.

How about you?  What techniques do you use to bring your readers into the story and what are some of the alarms that go off telling you that you've gone too far down into the World-Building Well?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sometimes a picture is just a picture

Where do you get your ideas from?

If you're a writer--actually if you're an artist of any kind--you're going to have to field this question eventually.


 If you're a writer--actually if you're an artist of any kind--you probably don't have the faintest idea where they come from.

You might have a couple of tongue-in-cheek responses (Under my bed.  The dust bunnies build them.) or you might try a deeper approach (The Muse provides them).  But if you're anything like me, you don't really know where they come from.

That's ok.

What I can tell you is how they come to me.  Some of you out there think in pictures and some of you think in words.  Me?  I think in pictures and that's how the story ideas come to me.

I get a picture.  I get a single image like I was looking at a frame in a strip of film.  I don't get to see what comes before that and I don't get to see what comes after that.  Further complicating things, the picture that I get never shows me what the beginning (or the end, for that matter) of the story is.

It's just a frozen slice of time.

I mention this because I've spent the last week or so wrestling with one particular picture.

And I sat down today all set to describe this picture in detail and to bemoan the fact that this picture is one that I've had in my head since college and I STILL don't know what to do with it.  Then I'd try and  take some of the sting out of that thought by reminding myself (and you) that sometimes ideas need longer than others to cook and that's ok.

Then I started typing.

And as I got into the description--which would have been several lines on this blog--I realized that I didn't have a picture anymore.

I had a character.

A character is someone that I can talk to.

I don't know a name, I don't know what it is they are doing in that picture and I sure as heck don't know what they were doing before that picture was "Taken" (for lack of a better word) or what they're going to do after.

But I can ask.

And that, I think, is where stories really come from.  I still couldn't tell you where the picture came from or what it was about me sitting down and typing out the description of an image I've seen in my head for years (over a decade really...) that allowed me to begin fleshing out a character this morning.  I don't think I'll be able to tell you that if I live to be a hundred and fifty and publish hundreds of books.

I don't think anyone could tell you.

What I can tell you is that sometimes a picture is just a picture, until you look at it just right.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year, New Goals?

I'm not the biggest fan in the world of New Year's Resolutions.

There, I've said it.

For me, it's way too easy, once you've strayed off the path, to simply say, "Oh well, maybe next year." and be done with it.  After all, there's a gleam of glory in defeat.  You did try after all.  Some folks don't even do that.  As an added bonus, you've already got next year's resolution lined up.  You're ahead of the game.

Last year, I stopped doing the resolution thing and I started thinking about why I made the resolutions in the first place.  It came down to wanting to improve myself and, at the end of it all, I came up with three questions that I asked myself and then made a single decision around the answers (You can find them all right here).

The long and the short of it is that I came up with was a series of goals last year.  I'm still working on them and that's one of the reasons why goals are much better (and much more work) than resolutions.  Here are a few more:

Goals focus on the positive.  I've known folks (and I've been guilty of this myself) that wake up New Years Day with a checklist of everything that they don't like about themselves and they go over that list in excruciating detail, saying "I've got to change this and I've got to change that, so I will resolve to never..."

That's a bad way to begin a new "Anything" let alone a new year.

Goals are all about what you want.  They look ahead.  The hard part comes when you discover that the work involved in getting what you want means that you might not have any more room in your life for stuff that would be on a "Resolution" list, like whatever it was that you did last night that ended with you waking up half under your bed wearing swim fins and somebody else's pants.

A goal is something that you work on over time.  They don't happen overnight.  There might be simple, easily attainable steps involved with reaching your goal--there probably will be--but chasing a goal is a long-haul thing and the only way to get there is by hauling yourself there.

A goal is always there until you reach it.  You may try to impose a time limit on yourself, but even if you don't reach your goal in that time frame, the great thing is that you're closer to your goal than when you started.

Reaching your goal will often show you another goal. You don't make it to the top of the hill unchanged and, when you get there, who knows what you'll see up there.

Here are a few of my goals this year:

My goal is to write more.  Yes, I don't think I've ever met a writer that told me "I think I've written enough" so why is this a goal?  Well there's always room to improve, isn't there?

My goal is to read more.  I put away 68 books last year.  That's better than one a week and, still, my To Be Read shelf is groaning under the weight.  Not that I have a problem with that (Sorry TBR-shelf).  The focus here is on honing my critical reading skills.  Learning what works for me and what doesn't and understanding why stuff either works or not.  The only way I can do that is by reading.  The payoff?  What works will make it into my own work and I'll be able to see what isn't working when it's in my own work before any of you do.

My goal is to find a balance with it all. Work, writing, family, myself.  It's all got to fit in there and it's way too easy to let something important slide in favor of other, lesser, things.

My goal is to keep track of how much I'm writing.  For starters, I can't write "More" if I don't know what my "Average" is.  This year I want to keep better track of words written so that I know what I've done at the end of the year.  I'm including the Blog here in those numbers as well as any short stories, novellas, etc.

And from last year, you ask?

I did manage to read 68 books last year.  Not too shabby, and...

One of my goals from last year was to finish the first draft of my first book and I DID IT!!!  I had a lot of unexpected time on my hands at the end of the year and I finished it up just before Christmas.
Right now, I'm calling it "The Flight of the Kestrel" but I can already feel that the title doesn't fit quite right.  I expect that when I start editing, a better name will come to me.  When it does, I'll put it here...and everywhere else I can manage.

What about you?  What are your goals and your plans for getting there?