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Friday, December 23, 2011

When "Waste Not, Want Not" is a Bad Thing

Don Rocko and I are avid recyclers. Paper, cardboard, plastic ... we even have a compost. It's one way that we're lessening our collective carbon footprint. That's not all we do, but that's besides the point. For related reasons (the "reuse" part of the 3 R's), I'm a bit of a packrat.

And that's not a terrible thing, especially because I find it's often a useful money-saving trait. But as a blanket mentality, it's definitely a problem.

Because I am doing the same damn thing with my writing.

Rewrites are a necessity. A colleague of mine, whenever I tell him that I'm working on rewrites, likes to say, "writing is rewriting". And he's right, of course. Novels never spring fully formed and perfect from our heads. Rewrites will happen when we fix what our beta readers point out, when the agent asks us to make changes, and again when the publisher does, too.

The problem is that I've been rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and getting bogged down by the process.

The original SIGN OF THE STAR took me just over a year to write. But it was a 100K behemoth and desperately in need of a makeover. What's worse, the makeover involved splitting the manuscript into three. It's definitely a much better story for it now, but an overhaul of that magnitude took forever. An additional twenty-one months, to be precise—and that's just Book 1! Part of the reason why was that I didn't want to delete what I'd already written.

Now, I have my own valid concerns and mild phobias about forgetting and/or losing what I've created. But that packrat mentality has been holding me back, and I've only just realized the source of my frustration.

Digression: I have a trunked set of manuscripts (let's just call the whole lot "Takara", after the world I set it in) that I know are salvagable because I spent thirteen years, between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, pouring everything I had into them. Takara is my greatest heartsong, one I've given so much time and energy to that I know I will one day de-trunk it. (I love it enough to recognize that it's gonna stay trunked for some time.) Anyway, what strikes me is that when I was younger, I didn't hesitate to start over every few years and re-tell it better. Fresh. I recognized as I grew up with it that it needed work that a bit of tweaking wouldn't solve. And I was okay with that because I wanted to tell the story right.

So why did I stop doing that?

I don't know if I can pinpoint a single reason. Maybe it was that, as I got older, I started to think I was ready to seek publication. And that put pressure on me. (Read: I put pressure on myself.) I couldn't bear to start over, not when I felt so close. Oh, little did I know ...

So when it came time to break apart the original Janni story and craft the first volume of the trilogy, I took painstaking measures to save as much as I could, to build around what I had and enhance it. I was a packrat with my words. A miser. Trying to fill in the cracks of my work rather than starting over. And you know what that meant?

I no longer had a way of gauging how my writing has improved.

Don't get me wrong. I feel confident about SOTS now. I'm just saying that I went about it completely the wrong way.

I also haven't been engaging in nearly as much fresh writing as I'd like. In my drive to be published, I haven't taken as much time for fresh writing. I can be very crotchety about my writing time, given that I have a beloved but intense day job and other committments, like sword class and reading and oh, I don't know, friends and family. So some foolish part of me decided to categorize things like writing exercises and writing not related to SOTS as a waste of time.

This past Nano, I very quickly recognized that I was going nowhere with my attempts at STAR CHILD (SOTS #2). I was trying too hard to make my writing fit what I thought existed, and even just using that as a rough outline wasn't helping. (Especially since the story has changed so much.) So I started a new project, one whose ideas have been on the backburner and that I recently realized I wanted to bring to life. And it felt good.

Fresh writing is important. Even if it's just the same project, retold instead of tweaking, the way I did with the Takara stories. The point is that it's the creation of something new. And exercises, writing practice, don't take away from writing time. We've gotta lift weights to build muscle.

Realizing this has been a load off of my shoulders, to say the least.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

First, you have to milk the tiger ...

Note: This recipe has been updated. Please check here for the newer, better version.

*blinks* Hi! Wow, is it December 20th already?

I think at this point, the rest of my SiWC 2011 notes can wait until after Christmas. I have some vacation days coming up and the holidays so far have been crammed with festivities, sword class (where I passed another assessment, yaaay!) and fudgecrafting. The most latter is the topic of this post, because I only make one kind of fudge, and it's been getting a lot of attention lately: tiger butter.  Simply put:

Tiger butter: white chocolate and peanut butter melted together and swirled with milk chocolate.

I've always had a thing for the stuff since I first tried a square of Purdy's Chocolates' version as a kid. It was one of my guilty pleasures. But about five or six Christmases ago, I came across a recipe at that seemed simple enough, so I made it (and I would love to find the link to give credit where it's due, but it doesn't seem to be around anymore).

My tiger butter has evolved over the years as I messed with ingredients and proportions. I won't bore you with the nitty gritty details, but suffice to say, this year, I feel that I've perfected the process. And I know what people say about not sharing a secret recipe, but I personally believe that this is something everyone should be able to make, so here it is:

L.S. Taylor's Nomtastic Tiger Butter


- 4½ cups Foley's White Chocolate Melting Wafers

- 1 cup Foley's Milk Chocolate Melting Wafers
- 1 cup smooth peanut butter
- ¼ cup smooth no-sodium, no-sugar added peanut butter (I recommend Kraft)

Tools required:
- 2 saucepans, one much larger than the other
- 2 spatulas
- 1-2 baking sheets
- Waxed paper

Prepare the baking sheets with the waxed paper. Depending on the desired thinness of the squares and the size of your baking sheets, you'll need either one or two. In the larger saucepan, melt the smooth peanut butter with the white chocolate on very low heat (I don't have a double boiler and you don't need one either). In the smaller saucepan, melt the milk chocolate wafers with the no-sodium, no-sugar added peanut butter.

Stir both mixes frequently, each with their own spatula, to help them melt together, and to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. When both mixes are completely melted and the mixtures smooth, pour out the white chocolate mixture onto the pans, using the spatula to help spread it out into an even layer. Next, drizzle the milk chocolate mixture over the white. Finally, swirl the mixtures together with a spatula, like so:

Allow your creations to cool, then place flat in the freezer for at least 2 hours. Once frozen solid, break them into shards by peeling back the waxed paper. Dropping the sheet on a solid surface from a height can jumpstart the process, if you don't mind the small mess involved. The size of the pieces can vary and is ultimately up to you.

Best made on a full stomach.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Thank God It's Over (But It's Not)

Thursday marked the first of the month. The sun had set on another NaNoWriMo; we gathered to celebrate our happy exhaustion. Because it was the first of December and for the most part, we had all survived. Today being a Saturday, some of us will gather again, because not everyone can make a weeknight event, given that it's December and all. And the events are called Thank God It's Over, because hey, it's been a wild and crazy journey. It always is.

Battle-weary, we stumble into a restaurant to celebrate our success — because even if we didn't achieve fifty thousand words, we still tried. We put our fingers to the keyboards and together, we wrote.

And next week, some of us will keep writing like this.

We call ourselves The Other Eleven Months, because for us, writing is not something we can simply stop doing, and we like the energy that being in a group can bring. Once a week (or more) throughout Greater Vancouver, we gather for coffee or tea or (if you're a chocoholic like me) cocoa, and we talk about plot points, characters, and ideas. Every so often the conversation wends in the direction of pop culture or current events, and we discuss related topics. But most importantly? We write.

I've heard a lot of arguments against NaNoWriMo. I've heard that it cheapens the craft of writing, that it clogs the mailboxes of agents and publishers, that it is a waste of time, focusing on quantity over quality. I've also heard the unecessarily defensive rebuttles (that it's meant to encourage newcomers to the craft, that it's meant to be something anyone can try once, that "real" writers are participating these days). I don't want to point fingers or dwell on either side because I've heard enough of both sides this past month and a half and anger over this has no place in my life. So I won't.

But I will say what I know.

I know that sometimes, my internal editor is so harsh that I feel frozen at the keyboard.

I know that being forced to focus on quantity rather than quality helped me unfreeze.

I know that the sound of silence and a dozen keyboards is pretty amazing.

I know that this group has been a source of energy and inspiration.

I know that I've regained a new appreciation for the rough draft.

I know that before I joined NaNo, I was scared of rough drafts because rough drafts are, by nature, crap, and I'd somehow convinced myself that I didn't need them.

I know that NaNoWriMo has evolved beyond itself, and that many more writers, both aspiring and published, are taking part.

I know that I can adapt the challenge to my needs, that all that really matters is fifty thousand words of new writing.

I know that our weekly gathering keeps me going even when things are at their worst.

I know that I find laughter and cameraderie and joy in a craft that is, at its heart, a solitary act.

Of course, that's pretty much the point of our group: we don't just write as a novelty one month out of twelve. We write because we want to. Some of us just for fun, some of us to learn, and some of us because we're actively pursuing writing as a career.

Whatever the reason, we write.  And that's what really matters, no matter how you feel about NaNo.

This year, for fun, we had some temporary tattoos made. To celebrate ourselves, we chose a semicolon (a bit of an in-joke), but I think it fits:
(And you wouldn't believe the exhausted discussion we had about font! But it was worth it.)

So like any sane NaNoer, I am thankful the insanity of writing fifty thousand words in a single month is over. But I am also thankful for The Other Eleven Months, because frankly, for me writing is something that can not be contained to a single month. I wouldn't want it to be. And the people I've met and the friendships I've made through TOEM are something I wouldn't give up for the world.

Do you have a group like ours? Let me know in the comments! I would love to hear about more efforts like ours. Community matters.

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 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.

-          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

- 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.

- 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!

Monday, October 31, 2011

October WIPmadness: Week 5 Check-in

Wow, here we are at the end of the month. Tonight some of us light pumpkins and/or fireworks. Some of us frantically add one last piece to the story puzzle that is our NaNoWriMo outline. Some of us prepare to embrace the crazy that is NaNoWriMo. And some of us realize that ... hey, wait! This is WIPmadness! We have the crazy down to an art!

So, how did this month go for everyone? How about this past week? Did you meet your goals? Exceed them, even? Or were you locked in heated battle with that unavoidable nemesis, Real Life?

Whatever you did or did not do, you did what you needed to. And whatever you did, it was enough.

I didn't meet all of my goals. Starting with the writing conference, I ceased to log what I was eating. I'd like to get back to that, but we'll see what happens in the weeks to come. Given that next month is NaNo and the month after that is Winter Festive Season, nothing is guaranteed about my waistline. Well, at least Don Rocko and I held off buying Halloween treats until just last night. And I did make it to sword class, but that's about the extent of my being healthy.

However, I did finish the edits to my WIP. I even sent it to an extra special, very awesome beta reader who was kind enough to get me feedback within a week and a half when I needed it. I had my pitch and my Blue Pencil ready for the SiWC, and I had an amazing time at the conference. I got asked to submit and submit I did. I made my tiger butter (and I swear I'll upload photos and a recipe soon, if not in November then by December for sure!) and shared it with many people. I participated in the VancoWriMo events as planned. And for the most part, I have a good idea of what I'll be writing during November.

So I'm fairly happy with how this month unfolded. How about you?

Thanks, gang, for letting me host this month!

P.S.: This month just happened to have five Mondays, but the Madness is far from over. Don't forget to stop by Lora Rivera's blog tomorrow to check in with goals for November. ^_^

Monday, October 24, 2011

October WIPmadness: Week 4 Check-in

Well, here we are at Week 4. One seven more days left! How has this past week gone for everyone?

*pause for extreme yawn* I maaaay be a wee-bit sleep deprived this morning. But I have good reason!

I had a crazy week leading up to the SiWC. I managed to get the finishing touches done on my Blue Pencil and agent pitch in time. Both went very well. Um, exceptionally well. During my Blue Pencil, where a published author looks at your work, I received great feedback on the urban fantasy piece I've been toying with for the last few months. It was nice to be able to talk not about spelling and grammar, but about word choice and plot issues. This novel isn't one that's set to a schedule. It's a piece I'm working on out of sheer joy and because it's so much fun. It is also definitely not YA, so it's technically not my focus. But as was reaffirmed for me this weekend, you have to write what you love. It's my motto: write the stories you wish to read in the world. And sometimes, I need a break from Janni and her story, which I also love very much but which can be intense, just because it's first-person, present-tense.

As for the agent pitch ... well, it went very well. I don't know how I feel about talking about it too much, because nothing is set in stone and for all I know, nothing will come of it. I have this bad habit of jinxing myself on the Internet. But my focus this week will be sending what I was asked to send, after one final pass.

Beyond that? Oh my gosh did I have so much fun at the conference. I got the chance to meet people I only knew from the Internet, including one of the original WIPmadness hosts, Denise Jaden! There were Twitter friends present as well, a few friends and acquaintances attending, and new folks, too.

Then there were the classes. I lucked out and found all of them quite useful for my needs, including the Master Classes I took with Diana Gabaldon and Donald Maass. I have notes to share! Lots of notes! You'll be seeing those in the weeks to come. I may be busy, what with NaNo coming and everything else, but I will post them.

Okay, enough gushing. I had fun. It was energizing and fantastic and I hope the good things prove to be great. But as with everything, we'll have to see.

How did your week go?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Art of War for Writers (SiWC 2010 Notes)

I didn't get a chance to post more notes before now, but I did have a darn good reason: I finished my rewrites to SIGN OF THE STAR! It is now in the hands of one last (but incredibly awesome) beta reader and then I'm going to start sending it out. And I'm feeling confident about it.

But if I had to choose just one more set of notes to share, it would have to be what I took away from James Scott Bell's class based on his book of the same title: The Art of War for Writers.

* * *

The Art of War for Writers
James Scott Bell

Sun Tsu: Chinese general abt. 2500 yrs ago
As writers, we often overthink things

Elevating everyone where they are to the next step

1. Know the battlefield.
What is the publishing business about?
- Money.
- Not a cynical view because the people in publishing care about writing and good writers, but ultimately it’s a business.
- To get published, you must offer value to the publisher.
- Think of yourself as a person who produces books.
- They’re interested in someone who can produce multiple books.
How to add value to the reader?
- Make them feel satisfied for buying the book.
- Inverse ratio between what’s in the market and what personally pleases
The fact that we are here increases the chances of getting published.

Pyramid (reverse):
People who think they want to write
People who have written a book
People who keep writing, keep trying
People who get published
Wheel of Fortune at the top

2. Career Novelist:
- Desire – really have to want it enough
- Discipline – self employed as a writer
- Knowledge of the craft
- Don’t just start writing, also know that you have to learn craft,
- So how to books help.
- You can learn how to be a writer. And you should.
- You should make it something that you do every day.
- You need to be honest, face your weaknesses
- A willingness to learn
- A buisness attitude – what people are looking for, how to present yourself
- Rhino skin – thick skin – criticism of your work is not criticism of you
- Take the long view: this is a lifelong thing
- Talent (least important) – there are highly talented people who never make it because they don’t keep trying (high expectations of self, fear, etc), but there are people who from hard work and dilligence do make it even though they’re not necessarily very talented
- Write to a quota
- It’s okay if it’s crap/drivel, you can edit it later
- Accept the quota for yourself
- Accept that real life intrudes – better to take one day off and set a weekly quota (take a break)
- Use an excel spreadsheet to keep track
- Only count new words when revising
- Finish the first draft as fast as possible
- Revise the previous day’s work then continue to write.
- Create new words every day
- Day by day dilligence
- “nobody knows anything” – William Goldman – Don’t stress about it or worry about adding value when you add the freshness of your voice
- No one knows anything about e-publishing and the future of that
- Job is to add value to the reader. If the book sucks, the reader will be disappointed
- If you really think you need to e-publish, you need a professionally edited manuscript, someone who really knows how to craft a novel
- Developmental edit (does the story work) plus copy edit
- Readers do reader reviews online
- Need a good cover
- Need a marketing plan
- – Joe Conrad

3. Systematic and never ending improvement model of business.
- Self study: Where can you improve? What are your weaknesses as a writer?
- Even if you only get one thing out of it, a writing book
- Think of all the novels with a great ___ (character, etc) and find out why you like it
- Make a copy of things you like and keep them in a writing notebook
- Keep outside commentary, read it
- Robert Heinlein: 1 you must write, 2 you must finish what you write.
- Don’t get it right, just get it written.
- Tactics to elevate your fiction:
- It’s crucial to bond your readers with the lead character.
- A great novel/plot is how a character deals with death (physical, professional, psychologically)
- E.g. romance writers have to create a psychological death
- The stakes are that high: death being that high enough
- Death to the lead character him/herself
- Can be a ghost from the past
- Make mistakes for your lead character
- Positive lead or hero – someone who represents community values
- Negative lead e.g. Scrooge or Scarlett O’hara – don’t represent the community (Power is important e.g. Hannibal)
- Antihero: has own code, doesn’t want to be concerned with the community but get drawn in, fights impulse from the start
- The community is sometimes us, the readers, not always the
- Grit, wit, and it
- Grit: Stakes aren’t always death: character needs to experience courage, trying to survive –Scarlett has
- Wit – If character can be self-deprecating
- Take a line of dialogue and freshen it up
- It – e.g. Clara Beau during the roaring twenties – Someone that people are drawn to, not because they’re trying hard, but because they are comfortable in their own skin –
- Pet the dog or save the cat – when the character takes care of someone weaker than themselves at the price of their own greater danger (esp. When they’re trying to save themselves)

4. Scene writing
- How can you increase the readability of your fiction – scenes need to be very readable
- Hook, intensity, and prompt
- Hook: Look at openings: Various ways to open a scene, depending on the pace
- Begin at a later point in the scene, with action (description can fit in)
- Intensity: Every scene should have a degree of intensity, or the reader is being let down
- Comes primarily from fear (worry to abject terror)
- Every scene should have a fear factor
- Prompt: What you can do to get the reader to keep reading
- Don’t write a lot of scenes to completion/logical end
- Try to find a good place to start (a line of dialogue may be intriguing)
- A question answered – try to keep it unanswered

5. Opening chapter, opening scenes
- Editors and agents read the first sentence rather than the proposal first because they want to know if you can write
- Avoid opening with the weather and place
- Avoid dreams
- Avoid opening with happy people in happy land
- “A great story is like life with doll parts taken out” Hitchcock
- Opening disturbance: something to disturb the character, something is out of the ordinary, amiss
- Anything that is interrupted
- Aim for a scene that is active – includes dialogue
- Don’t open with a character alone, merely thinking about the strong emotion s/he’s feeling – readers don’t care about them yet
- Show the main character in conflict (dialogue as a possibility is good)
- A good prologue is a full scene with high intensity that has a reason for being there
- Could call it Chapter 1
- Could open it with no heading (just don’t call it prologue)
- Don’t have backstory in the beginning: you can, but you need to marble it in with the action of the story: why the character is in this situation
- Reaers don’t need to know everything about the character

6. Dialogue
- Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript – gives the editor/agent confidence that you know what you’re doing
- A compression and extension of action
- Every character in every scene should have an agenda
- Dialogue is a weapon – an intense scene, becomes a weapon to fight (e.g. Now Voyager)
- Dialogue is one way you can let it flow
- Try writing the dialogue first, as improv
- Use it as a way to write the scene and figure out what a scene is about

7. Three great scenes and no weak ones.
- What is your weakest scene – least intensity, seems to drag – cut it
- If absolutely must keep, make it better
- Need a great scene to be memorable for the readers

8. To outline or not to outline – Yes, outline.
- But allow the story to breathe on its own. Change the outline.
- Have a log line: one line to summarize the script.
- Write back cover copy.
- Create an opening scene with disturbance
- Come up with twenty possible scenes after that.
- Then you will have a great understanding of what the story’s about.

* * *

Yes, this was an incredible class. Check back tomorrow for one last SiWC 2010 post. I'll be at the hotel, settling in and taking some pre-conference Master Classes!