Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing on the Fast Track (SiWC 2011 Notes)

Ooh boy what a month this has been. In the past week I have finished my NaNoWriMo 2011, which I have something to say about (just not this post), *and* the rewrites based on the feedback I received from a rejection letter. I successfully hosted weekly write-ins in my living room and for my NaNo, after realizing that my writing brain was suffering Janni-related fatigue, I let myself work on something fun that is nothing like what I've been writing of late: an adult-level (as opposed to YA) urban fantasy that has been in my brain for years. The point is, I've been busy. So busy that I still owe my great-aunt a reply to her letter from mid-October

Okay. I'll stop ranting my absence excuses now. Notes time!

The subject on writing fast has come up a few times this year, especially if you've been following Magical Words, but I found the approach in this class to be different. (It being a class rather than just a post to read may have helped.) Author Mary Robinette Kowal (from The Intersection of Puppetry and Speculative Fiction notes I posted a few weeks back) had a great way of dissecting the subject, complete with exercises. (Bear with me. I left most of my attempts here.) The exercises were all about knowing your story. From there, we went on to discussing the actual art of writing faster.


* * *

Writing on the Fast Track
Mary Robinette Kowal

A lot of writers try to learn all of the techniques at the same time. It’s best to look at the techniques as individual things, and how they can be used to write a story very fast.

Part I: Know Your Story:

Exercise 1: Describe the room. Use all five senses.
-     The hum of the A/C. The scuff marks on the striped-wallpaper walls. The checkmarked pattern of the carpet, a burgundy and indigo and tan  pattern that was probably once vivid, but with years of foot-traffic and dust has faded to ugly shades of brown. The taste of dust on the tongue, as the air is overheated and my nostrils tingle with an allergy that before this weekend, I didn’t know I had. My throat burns with the dry air and the knowledge that, thanks to this weekend’s gathering of people, I’ve probably caught another cold. 
-          As you start doing this, if you keep describing this for long enough (try half an hour), you’ll start to notice all the tiny details that make a story pop. 
-          Description can reveal character. Point of view is what a character notices. 
-          Focus indicates thought, what the character is thinking about. As a writer, you have control of what your character is looking at, what they notice first.

Exercise 2: Take your description and take a specific point of view. Write three lines based on that, and they should reveal the character’s occupation.
-          The padded chair promised to be comfy, but already I could feel its rigid straightness wreaking havoc on my lower lumbar.

-          The seats were just a shade too high, and my IT bands were seizing up.

-          The overheated air tried to overcompensate for the rain outside, burned my throat.



Breath and motion: typically we don’t notice breathing unless it carries information. Breath indicates emotion. The speed and focus can reveal different details, depending.
- Action uses short, choppy sentences because they represent fast breathing on the page.
- Just by putting an extra line of description can show a character is fixated on something.
- Aggressive motion: anything tha is motion towards; passive is no action; regressive is movement back.
- Unpack an emotion: with motion, reveal emotion
- Avoid crutches: looked - Instead of she looked away, try she turned her face into the cotton pillow.

Exercise 3: Transcript: Go to the exercises posted on Mary's blog at maryrobinettekowal.com. Change the context of the scene without changing the dialogue. Frequently, the dialogue is meaningless without the context behind it.

Other things to consider:
- Understand what the rules are so that when you break them, you break them with intention.

- Orson Scott Card: Character and Viewpoint: Think about what's the focus of the story you're telling, using MICE. Then structure your plot around that focus:
- MICE: Millieu (settting), Idea (question), Character (dissatisfied, become resolved/resigned), and Event (something upsets the status quo, ends when status quo is returned). 
- Milleu – you go somewhere, have experiences, and come back. (e..g. Gullivers ctravels) – often dull on its own, often embedded with Character and event stories.

Rembember the Compact: Every story begins with a  promise to the reader. If you start the story with a promise, you follow through.

Think about the question: what does the character want? What to they need? Do they get what they want?
-          Yes, but
-          No, and
-          Yes
-          No
-          These questions can be in the scenes. What does the character want? Systematically deny them.
-          A scene should advance the plot, develop character, and establish setting. If it doesn’t do at least one of these, and preferably two or three, it doesn’t belong in the novel.

When approaching the plot, think: who is the character, where do they come from, who is their family, and why? Why?

Exercise 4: Write, just thinking about plot, with beginning/middle/end, thinking about MICE: Write one each of five separate plots for five separate stories.
Milleu: Goldilocks leaves home, has an adventure and comes home.
Idea: Bears come home and find a small girl asleep in their bed.
Character: Goldiocks is unhappy at home and runs away, has a bad experience and comes home.
Event: Someone has broken into the bears’ house! But when Papa bear fixes the broken chair, everything is happy after all.

What excites you most?
Think of a “what if” question.
-          Who has the most to lose?
-          What do they want?
-          Do you want a happy ending or a sad ending?
-          Do the try/fail cycle.

Part II: Now, About Writing Fast:
- You must learn the individual elements of storywriting, so that when you sit down to write, all you think about is the story. Because everything else becomes natural. You don’t want to think about it.
- It’s good to learn things these that don’t come naturally because then when you need it, you’ll come back to it with ease.
- Use shorthand if you must, but then go back and fix it. If you need to write fast, get the story down then come back and tidy it later.
- When you need to write fast, give yourself a loose framework before you begin. Just start with knowing where your beginning, middle, and end are.
- Look at your opening scene and paragraph for things that you can repeat (a line, an emotional state, an image). That helps bring the story full circle.

How do I get into the headspace to write? (especially if I'm a procrastinator?)
-          Know that you have plans to write. Use an activity around that is not verbal to start gearing yourself up. Think about story constantly.
-          Set a timer. “I have only this much time; I have to see how many words I can get done in this much time, with this many minutes” (e.g. 15 minutes).
-          Don’t get up for a glass of water while the timer is on. Don’t get up because you’ve reached an emotionally difficult point in the story.
-          GooglePlus Hangouts: Start a hangout: “Hey, I’m writing,” chat for 15 minutes and write the next 45. (e.g. write-ins).
-          If really stuck, do NOT go to the Internet. What happens is that your brain is saying, “I need time to think, to get away”, but you need to do something physical that does not engage the storytelling part of the brain. The Internet is verbal and storytelling.
-          Find something else.
-          Take an acting class: that will help you with character motivation, dialogue, and pacing.
-          Learn a foreign language. It talks about different cultures and the way we use language reflects a different culture. It breaks up your natural assumptions.
-          Read outside your genre. Don’t pick randomly; go to someone who reads something you don’t and ask them for suggestions. 
-          Read heavily in your genre, too.
-          Travel. Go places. That alone can feed your creativity.

What do I do if I have a day-job that is heavily word-based?
-          The more time you spend on the computer for work, the computer becomes “this is my work” so if you're really stuck, switch to another medium (such as writing longhand). Or have a computer specifically Internet-less to write on. The medium in which you write can change the pacing of the words, the rhythm.
-          Do exercises. Give yourself permission to doodle.
-          Every day write one page of something different. Don’t think about the entire giant thing. Give yourself permission to start something and just play. Sometimes a story will catch.
-          If working on more than one project, considering having a buffer to switch between projects. Depends on how your brain is wired, may want to keep multiple documents open on a computer.
-          Keeping track of your wordcount can be useful, but not if it makes you depressed.

Exercise: Write down a list different random ideas (1-5 words each, pref. 2 or 3). Cross out the first three or five. Look at remaining list. What idea excites you? Combine two or three. Then ask why. Why is it happening? Have an internal dialogue with yourself, write it down so that it gets recorded and excites you.

Still stuck? Do the maybe chant, where you set yourself off on a cascade of brainstorming. (Note from Laura: I totally do this. And it works: "Maybe X is because of Y. Maybe Z happens. Maybe ZOMG maybe A B and C are true and that's why X is really happening!")

* * *
So, there you have it. Maybe these notes are too late to use for NaNo, but NaNo itself is its own creature, anyway. This class reminded me of Rachel A. Aaron's post on how she increased her writing output: IMHO, it all seems to come down to knowing your story.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing Sex Scenes (SiWC 2011 Notes)

And now for something completely different!

A few months ago, I shared my notes from the late-night ConCarolinas 2011 writing panel, Writing Sex Scenes. That was more geared to writing about actual sex, i.e., erotica. At SiWC 2011, there was a class by the same title, taught by Outlander author Diana Gabaldon ... but this was about sex scenes of a completely different sort.

* * *


Writing Sex Scenes
Diana Gabaldon

It's impossible to talk about writing sex scenes without falling into the double entendres. We can’t discuss the techniques in a vacuum, either.


The main thing about sex scenes: they’re not about sex.

Erotica: there are strict guidelines as to what you can and cannot do; everything must be consensual – but this deprives the story of opportunities for conflict, makes it vanilla (for scenes of that sort).

But like any scene, there must be conflict going on. This licences us to do anything.

If a sex scene is not about sex, what is it about? Emotion.
-          The key to emotion is understanding your character.
-          The power of the story relies on how well  you know your character, their needs, their wants, their emotions, and how they respond to other characters.
-          Emotions will be magnified for the character in sex scenes.
-          The more powerful the emotion, the more important it is to stand back.
-          Don’t stand between the reader and what’s on the page.

Write with restraint:
-          Use restraint. Show them clearly what’s going on.
-          You’re pulling emotion from the reader if you provide the bare bones. They’ll imagine what the characters are feeling, will respond to what’s happening in the scene.
-          Don’t let sex scenes be too physically detailed. Be restrained so the power of the story comes through. But also because detail raises the chances of the writing becoming ludicrous.
-          You can’t tell what reference/experience/background your readers are coming from. But it’s good to leave much to their imagination.
-          Don’t be gratuitous about your sex. Don’t have the scene just because the genre demands them. They’re not typically integral to the story (even the ones that require it)
-          The restraint helps say more. Rather than cascading details, maintain tension but don’t pull it so tight. Be restrained in how you write. You can have lots of excitement going on, just evoke it.

All a sex scene is, is a dialogue scene with physical cues.
-          Deeply emotional, need the basic logistics.
-          Need sensory cues so the reader will come to the page.
-          Use smell, taste, touch, to evoke the scene – not just sight and sound.

Non-Sex Sex Scenes:
-          Scenes about sex, but the conflict has nothing to do with what’s going on
-          Can show character
-          Physical details not necessarily explicit
-          Faint details: specific (drawing a finger up the sole of the foot, not just “touching him”)
-          Physical details of the setting around them, the weather outside
-          Sensual details that are deeply suggestive, such as curves of flesh – provide them with the faintest of details; the reader will fill in the details themselves

The language of sex is emotion.
-          Anchor it with physical details
-          Readers want to know about how people form pair bonds, come together. It’s about the emotion.
-          Use the emotion to focus things. Is it about intimacy, intiation of a pair bond, trust?
-          There’s a physical connection and an emotional connection
-          It’s the basis of the relationship, about trust. Once made, it can be built on, broken, violently taken away ... it provides meat for conflict.
-          The dialogue carries the scene. The sensual details give the underlying feelings. Can use body language of any kind, provided you understand the emotion that is passing through your characters.

Conflict:
-          Carry it out in the terms of a sex scene.
-          When you begin with the assumption of writing a sex scene, don’t let the scene just be about sex.
-          Human beings are hard-wired to appreciate sex, are prepared to have it anytime, anywhere.
-          People are predisposed to pay attention to sex, to movement. Redeem blocks description with movement. Include enough movement in the scene.
-          The physical details can provide the sense of movement.
-          Dialogue is the most important.
-          It’s not about the transfer of bodily fluids, it’s the transfer of emotion.
-          Made more interesting in the context of sex.

Do you need a sex scene?
-          If so, make it not just a sex scene, but an extension of the conflict, the characters, the plot.
-          Our society thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to go to sleep with someone we’ve met at a bar.
-          Don’t go on the assumption that you must have it to spice up the emotion.
-          Does it fit the plot, the character?
-          There are other ways to induce the feelings of yearning, attraction, sensuality.
-          Can evoke that sense, that sensuality, that idea, with specific details that bring it to life without being either explicit or having anything to do with sex.
-          Use the association of sex to create that heightened focus and sensitivity without using sex. Even if characters aren’t thinking of sex.
-          How close do characters stand together? What nonverbal cues are they giving?

You can’t write a sex scene from the outside. But it is much more effective from writing from the inside. Usually only one POV because it’s hard to move from one character’s head to another and maintain a sense of connection with your reader.

Don’t write a sex scene:
-          If it distracts from the plot or emotional development (except when hiding a detail, important plot element you don’t want them to notice, where you hide things in the lower layers)
-          If there is a sense of gratuitousness
-          If it’s not connected to the characters of the plot
-          If you just want that sense of sexual engagement
-          For boredom (“I should have a sex scene”)
-          If it’s just about physicality (two people having sex is boring. It should have layers).

Mind games:
-          Don’t feel embarrassed. It’s a private thing to do.
-          Write it for practice. Try to strive for the best writing you can do.
-          Write with the freedom of mind that no one has to see it.
-          It’s better if you don’t tell anyone what you’re doing while you’re writing it. Don’t be constantly fighting off what other people will think of it.

Sex is important, interesting, fun; should be a turning point of the section of the story that it’s in. Sex is life and death. Don’t play with it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Creating Universes, Building Worlds (SiWC 2011 Notes)

Sorry, folks. I said I'd post my notes from Surrey, but I've been taking my sweet time. I've been a bit busy with NaNo ... among other things. I received a personalized rejection last week, and I'm grateful that the agent took the time to point out what didn't work for her, because it highlighted a few minor issues for me. So I've been doing NaNo *and* editing.

What, me? Overcommitted? I have no idea what you're talking about.

But here's another set of notes! And hopefully I can get some more up this week. But I can't promise anything and I *will* be selfish this month. I'd like to start sending SOTS elsewhere. Besides, I also have 20K left to go on my NaNo.

That being said, here's my notes from the Worldbuilding workshop given by Tor fantasy author A.M. Dellamonica, author of Indigo Springs and Blue Magic. This class is based on a 10-week distance ed course she teaches through the UCLA. Much of the class was spent on exercises, some of which I mention here, but they were fantastic for brainstorming new things and realizing how one little idea can lead to so many more.


Creating Universes, Building Worlds

The basic principles of worldbuilding genrerally apply to all the genres.

Exercise: Dances with Vampires
4 basic vampire rules common to a lot of vampire stories:
-          Sunlight kills them
-          They dink blood (hemovores)
-          They have fangs
-          A stake through the heart will immobilize or kill them
-          Pick one more world law: e.g. they all pine for lost humanity – what would happen?
o   Spray tan / fashion industry so they look more human
o   Take night jobs to be around humans
-          Therefore, the laws of the universe shape the story. It creates the world.
-          My rule: they all seek redemption? Or instead of eternal life, they have limited lifespans? And they have to redeem their souls while drinking blood before the time is up, or be eternally damned? How can they do that? Charity work? Get it out up front.
-          Another idea: Vampirism as a common cold, temporary
 
Now imagine that you’d created vampires from the start. Imagine how differently the opening would be like, if you had to spell all that out? It’s worldbuilding.

With worldbuilding, we’re either changing an existing structure, or introducing something completely new.

Science Fiction
-          Complicated worlds can be hard to communicate
-          Not all of us have an engineering degree
-          We don’t know for sure if the reader knows
-          Dialogue can give backstory and worldbuilding
-          It’s hard to write dialogue without getting closer to character.
-          Even something that seems restrictive can go a variety of different ways.

How do you slip in info without overwhelming the reader?
-          There will always be way more info than you can possibly share.
-          Dialogue is great to slip in the world, especially from what problems people are having
-          Infodumps are tricky, and an exercise in “what can you get away with”.
-          Make the problem relevant to the world.
-          Have something change, so character recognizes something is different.
-          Show it in day-to-day life: how the characters react, what they encounter that is different from our world, as they experience things
-         Tourism: they could go somewhere unusual for them. Because they’re experiencing things for the first time, so does the reader.
-          Mystery: e.g. the character knows/feels something is wrong in the world

How do you deal with similar books coming out that seem they’re too like your book?
-          Finish the damn book anyway.
-          If you sell your book tomorrow, it won’t be published until at least 2 years from now – 2 years will have passed.
-          The likelihood of something being nigh-identical is very low
-          Sometimes, similar work sells
-          Just because you think it’s similar, it might not be. Read the competition.

If writing hard sf, talk to an engineer/scientist to confirm details, or it might not work.
 
Exercise: Build a magic system!
-          You have to eat something to have the power: edible magic!
-          Cumulative poisonous effect (limit on how much you can do to yourselves or others; hard choices)
-          Wizards short-lived, have proxies
-          The holy grail: magic in a non-toxic fashion, cure
-          Subculture of scam antidotes
-          Could be importing magic foods from another society
-          More ingredients = more complexity, more power
-          Vehicle for oppression
-          Stolen partial antidote, loved one w/ addiction, compelling personal reasons, was a guinea pig? Does the bad guy have motivation for stealing it such as trying to get people to stop using it?

Other stuff to keep in mind:
- Magic should always have a cost.
- Any sufficient advanced technology can come off as magic (as per Arthur C. Clarke, I think)
- Fiction is about doing the impossible.
- Next time you think about creating a world, you can create immensely powerful beings, but think about what the costs are.
- Know your target audience.
- You decide the boundaries.
- If blending fantasy and science fiction, think about how the technology interacts with the magic.
- Keep the number of invented words to a minimum. As much as you need, as little as you can get away with.

For further information, check out her Resource Page.

More notes soon, I promise!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Intersection of Puppetry and Speculative Fiction (SiWC 2011 Notes)

Hey everyone! It's notes time again!

A few weeks ago I attended this year's Surrey International Writer's Conference. This one happens a little closer to home, as in I could take transit to get to it if I wanted, but frankly, this was my sixth year and I've come to realize how intense of a weekend it is. Staying at the hotel helps keep me sane.

Once again I had an amazing weekend. I took two master classes in addition to the regular conference package, and overall? The word I came away with to best describe my conference experience was useful. And not in the off-the-cuff, dismissive way. I mean that I was in exactly the right place to learn exactly what I needed.

This year, I had the opportunity to meet a few authors new to the conference, and one of them was Mary Robinette Kowal, whose Jane Austen-style fantasy novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, came out just last year. In addition to being an author, Mary is a puppeteer, and in this class she spoke about how the art of puppetry is very much like the art of writing science fiction and fantasy.


* * *
The Intersection of Puppetry and Speculative Fiction
Mary Robinette Kowal


Puppetry
- Puppets and Marionettes
- Many genres: hand, shadow, rod, body, and string
- Just with genre fiction, the red-headed step-child
- Deal with negative stereotypes (aren't puppet shows just for kids?)

The Intersection
- With SF/F, people think juvenile SF/F is the entire genre, just like with puppetry.
- We wait for the moment when we have to defend our choices
- Present it professionally, matter-of-factly
- As writers and readers of SF/F, we are the ambassadors of our genre.
- Don’t be embarrassed.
- We can be gateways as ambassadors: ask them what they read, compare genre (e.g. recommend Harry Dresden if they like murder mysteries, not if they read Danielle Steele they should read Ender’s Game) – find out what they’re intersted in and introduce them to an adult literary example.
- Point to mainstream examples of SF/F (e.g. The Time Traveler’s Wife)
- A Christmas Carol was one of the first Urban Fantasies.
- Find a popular novel to compare it to.

Puppetry breaks things down into separate techniques.
- As writers, people try to learn things all at the same time: worldbuilding, plot, pacing, dialogue
- Take these techniques and practice them individually rather than trying to learn them all at once
- Do it to the point where you don’t have to stop and think about what you’re doing so that when you’re in the throes of writing, of storytelling, you don’t have to think about technique
- People can lose track of things, know the story isn’t working, but not know why
- Description exercise: Find a place, describe the room you’re in, space you’re in, and write for half an hour. As you keep going, you notice the tiny little details that make the description *pop*.
- Practice character in much the same way: apply a character to the space and see how they react.
- Every puppet itself, every style of puppet, is different.
- The principles to make the puppet alive are much the same, no matter which genre.
- Likewise, principles of literature are the same

The four principles of puppetry: Focus, breath, muscle, and meaningful movement
- Focus: Indicates thought. What is the puppet looking at? That’s what they’re thinking. What they notice tells a lot about the character. As writers, we have complete control over what they’re thinking, and the order they notice things in (what’s important to them).
- As writers, we can only show the audience one thing at a time, so the order becomes more important. We control what they’re thinking about, looking at. By what we show them on the page, we control what the audience is looking at.
- Breath is a motion. Indicates how someone feels. Each different breath is a different emotional feel. With writing, it’s the same: the speed with which we do things controls how the audience feels. E.g. action scenes have short, choppy sentences because it’s a reflection of breath. Punctuation indicates whre people think, pause, breathe. Short, choppy sentences indicate someone is out of breath. Also, combined with Focus, changes the speed with which a person notices things.
- Muscle: Your characters are internally motivated. Know what your goal is when doing things. When a character does something on the page, if it’s not internally motivated, you can see the author’s hand. Give them sufficient internal motivation, emotional weight. That’s muscle. Changing the internal motivation changes the meaning of the actions, and gives the reader something to grasp.
- Not every single action should be a muscle action, but they need sufficient internal motivation.
- Meaningful movement: Because we can only show the reader one movement at a time, every movement should have some meaning. We rely on the character’s body motion to convey emotion. Is it aggressive, passive, or regressive? Aggressive: motion towards. Anger, happiness. Passive: don’t move back or forward. Regressive: Movement away. Open and closed silhouettes: open: anything we want to engage with more fully / closed: do not want to engage with.
- Helps us to define the surroundings, too.
- Be more specific about body language whenever you can. Does the body language you’re using do as much for your story as you can? Is it meaningful?
- Puppetry: head bobbing: amateur. Meaningless movement. Doesn’t add any meaning to the character or story. This includes nodding. Let them have a good reason for nodding. Don’t be redundant: “Yes,” she agreed, nodding.
- Do not assume that a nod means yes. E.g. in India: bobbing from side to side is yes, but a nod is meaningful.
- Can use two pieces of body language to play in contrast, to show a character is conflicted
- Don’t just insert body language to have body language.
- Some motions can be character traits, but don’t have them do ti so often it becomes meaningless.

Parameters of the story
- Puppetry looks at deciding what style of puppetry to be used based on audience: size, age; venue, budget, story you’re trying to tell: helps decide design.
- Look at the size of your story. Every character you put on the page, every set change, will take word count to establish and do justice to. Does the story you’re writing need that set change? How long is your target length? That’s the size of your theatre. Even with novels, you need to figure out how much plot you want, how many characters, etc.

The style of puppetry changes the style of the story.
- e.g. Marionettes: good at graceful movement, not fight scenes.
- Different voice (POV) is good at different things. E.g. First person: good for grounding in a single character and that character’s perception of the world
- The action of telling the story changes the narrator. They’re not the same person at the end as they are when they begin telling the story.
- Third person: good for grounding details
- Don’t choose a voice just because it is fashionable. Write to the expectation you’re trying to set. The voice you choose will shape the story.
- Your materials dictate what you can do.

Pay attention to how much detail your mind fills in.
- The same thing happens in the page: give the audience the right details, and the reader will fill it in. (Puppet e.g.: Miss Piggy doesn’t actually blink!)
- Facial expression can be less specific than body movement. Body language is a more specific tool. What are they doing?
- We betray ourselves much more with the body.
- Character description: point of view to describe it.
- POV no stopping in front of the mirror – just describe in terms of the people around them.
- If you have built sufficient credibility with your audience, sometimes your audience will believe it even if you didn’t intend, and they’ll forgive you for much.

Dialogue:
- The movement associated with the dialogue can completely change the audience’s perception.
- Although dialogue is important, a lot of how dialogue is perceived is affected by the setting.
- Why is your character saying something? Sometimes the character changes their mind midstream.
- Monologues do not typically work in fiction today because they’re out of fashion. Try to find ways to break it up: Insert questions, participation of another character (even nonverbal).
- Just remember that dialogue includes a nonverbal element.
- Exercise: Take a transcript of something. Write the setting around it. Look at how context affects the perception of dialogue and the perception of meaning.


* * *

That was one of the coolest classes I've ever attended at Surrey. It got me thinking about character presence and movement in a whole new way. (And seriously. Miss Piggy doesn't blink? I hadn't realized it, because the puppeteers controlling her portray her movements that well. It's amazing how the mind fills in the blanks.)

More notes coming soon!