Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true
** probably true

Friday, August 14, 2015

A craft post

Recently I received an email from a reader (hi Steven!) who is in the process of wrestling his own first novel into some sort of of obedience. He wondered what sort of plotting techniques I used. He mentioned snowflake methods and beat sheets and other assorted alchemies that I have heard of, but know nothing about beyond the fact of their existence.

Not being one to waste words that can be reused, I thought I would excerpt my reply here, for those who might be interested in how I make the alphabet turn into a novel:


I generally write from a character base rather than a plot base. I know that sounds weird considering the kind of stuff I write, but bear with me here.

Because as a reader I get serious attention deficit when I don't care about characters, I try really hard to make everybody in the story interesting for me to write about in some way, either through personality, motivation or circumstance. I figure if they're interesting to write about, then they stand a better chance not to be boring to read about. And because as a writer I kill any desire to actually write a book by outlining it, that leaves me moving through the darkness of plot, as Cory Doctorow sort-of said, with a flashlight. Just enough light to see what I need to in order to keep moving.

I start with a beginning (the closest I can get to the point where the Rube Goldberg device swings into action) (ok ok, the inciting event) in mind, and a vague notion of what kind of ending I want, and maybe a scene or three of "that would be frigging awesome/horrible hahaha." and that's it in the way of plotting for me.

What I DO do is take pains at the scene/sequel level to keep the tension at an appropriate, er, level. I make sure each scene has a question to be answered (does the character get what they want in this scene?) and I make sure that the answer is almost never yes. Yes, but... No... No, and furthermore... are the stock answers. How rough the answers are for the pov character depends on how far along the story is, of course. Since I generally write 60-80k books, it's not hard to gauge if the tension has gone off the boil. Or, uh, 'peaked' way too early.

But the main thing isn't really the scenes, but the sequels. That's where the character has to count the cost of the previous scene, be it in confusion, frustration, rage, humiliation, or ever-popular blood. That's where the character's character is revealed. That's where the writer's greatest chance lies in snaring the reader and convincing them to care about the *next* scene. Lather, rinse, repeat until you get to the climax, and the answer to the overarching story question.

Then, when I've got a manuscript that's got all the moving parts of a book, I go back and do all the usual editing stuff, with a special emphasis on cutting anything that makes my eyes glaze over. I'm pretty brutal about it. I pay for this in terms of world-building, but the reward is a more propulsive reading experience. There are no non-utilitarian bells or whistles, however pleasing their sound might be. This is also a risk/reward scenario inherent in writing 1st person pov. If the character doesn't know or care about something, it can be difficult to bring it up in general conversation without resorting to the dreaded info dump. So I work around it or I do without.

And there you have it. Except I'm gonna add more to my original thoughts:

I'm the youngest of three kids. My brother's six years older, and my sister eight years older. Also we moved around a lot, so I never made all that many friends. Despite these handicaps, I would, without fail every birthday and Christmas, beg and plead for board games requiring multiple players. I have no idea why.

I played a lot of board games by myself, against myself. I still occasionally play chess against myself. Yeah, I know.

To bring this back around to plot, I don't know if I'd say I plot unconsciously so much as I take on the role of the protagonists' unseen, Moriarity-esque opponent. Scene by scene, they make their moves in a way that fits their personality and situation, and then I deliberate on how their plans can be frustrated in the most interesting way. It really is a move-by-move sort of thing, for me.

Sure, there's a maguffin. There's always a maguffin. Who killed Corbin, does Thagoth really hold the secret of immortality, who sent Borold's noggin... but when I start the book, I honestly don't know the answers. Sometimes, maybe even every time, the answers become less important as the book rolls along and the deeper plot is revealed. The original inciting event and the ostensible story question is really just a crowbar to get Amra out of her door and into the story. Because as far as Amra is concerned, an adventure can go, uh, pleasure itself. It's like the "rules" for survival in 28 Days Later -- never do x... unless you got no choice.


Also, when I say 'deeper plot is revealed,' I mean revealed to me, as I write it. Now granted, some of this stuff comes from the vague, hazy series plot that I keep in a dusty corner of my head. There is an endgame here; ultimately this is all about Amra vs the 8fold goddess. But again, I think in terms of character. I know the 8fold's story, what she/they want, and why she/they want it. But the road traveled so far in the first 4 books is all that has been mapped. I know the destination, I can see it like Mt Fuji in the distance. There's no way I can walk there in a straight line, though, because I don't know what the terrain is between here and there. And I don't want to know; not until I write it.

Why? Because I write fantasy for much the same reason I read it. I want to be amazed. I don't want to paint by numbers, even if I'm the one who put the numbers on the canvas to begin with. Because writing, no joke, is often hard, tedious work, and what makes it worthwhile to me is writing a scene that's freaking awesome (at least in my mind).

SPOILER ALERT

One of my favorite scenes to write in Trouble's Braids was Amra's duel with Red Hand, and her meeting with the Guardian directly after. I knew going into that scene that Amra couldn't win, just as I knew she'd still instigate it. But I didn't know until I wrote it that Heirus would take a knife in the throat just to fuck with Amra. As soon as he did it, I knew it was perfect, and I knew exactly how Amra would react.

I also didn't know until I wrote it that the Weeping Mother statue was the Guardian of the Dead. I'd thrown in a couple mentions of the statue previously, thinking it a good bit of scenery and a nice touch of world building. But as soon as Amra wiped the blood from the back of her hand onto the grass, there the Guardian was, and it was just right. It was  an incredibly satisfying moment for me, as a writer.

Maybe I'd have come up with it if I'd plotted out the book beforehand. But I genuinely doubt it.

So. I said once before a long time ago that birds don't teach other birds how to fly. But sometimes it's helpful to observe, even if it only leads a bird to say 'fuck that noise, I'd fall outta the sky if I tried to do it that way.'

I hope all this blathering serves at least as a negative example.

And that's enough blathering for one post.