Saturday, September 21, 2013

Describing vs Evoking

Any fool can describe a scene as they write. They often write something like this:

Sally walked in wearing a blue coat, her her long blond hair running down her back. The blue made her pretty face look that much prettier. She was so pretty that men watched her as she walked by.

Technically, those are accurate sentences. However, these sentences fail to bring an image to mind. There is nothing in them that would grab a reader. In essence, they are a checklist of facts.

The thing about the written word is that it is TERRIBLE at accurate description. The more that you work for accurate description, the more bogged down you will be in facts. You can sit down and write me ten thousand words on the beautiful Helen of Troy and I still won't really know what she looks like, nor will I be struck by her beauty.

The power of the written word is the human mind. If you give a person some facts, that mind will stitch those facts together into wholly new information. What excellent writers do is skip the checklist of facts and go straight for evocation.

For example:

Sally walked in wearing that blue coat that Henry so adored. When she wore that coat, there was something special that showed in her face that cried Helen of Troy. In those moments, he knew what Paris felt. Other knew it too, for every eye of every man followed her through the room. 

I won't win awards with that description, but I do demonstrate a few things.

First, your descriptions do not need to be impartial. The writer is not required to be neutral on their subject. In fact, I assert that being partial is a vital part of the writing process.

The second trick that I use here is a simple comparison. By comparing her to Helen of Troy, I tell you that she is a great beauty without having to tell you that she is a beauty.

Third, I spoke about Sally's emotional impact on Henry. Events have emotional feels. You can't see emotion, because this is writing, so you must remember to write it in. In that respect, you are a puppeteer giving your character form. Without you, a puppet is just a puppet, but with you, that puppet becomes a distinct character.

Once you get the hand of evoking, it becomes dirt simple. You use such techniques all the time in real life. All that you are doing here is wiring the rest of your life into your writing.

We can go to an extreme when using first person point of view.

Sally walked in wearing that blue coat that I so adored. When she walked in, I felt like Paris, and just as lucky, but as I saw all the other men stare at her, I had to wonder. Would someone steal her away, and I found myself Menaleus or whoever that ancient king was, and was someone else Paris? You may think me a fool for thinking so, but I'd be a fool not to. The mistake that Menaleus made was that he did not value what he had, and so she fled away with someone who did. The Trojan War happened after that. It was a ten year long divorce that made all other divorces look like cakewalks.

Again, I won't win awards for that, but Gawd-Damn, that was FUN to write.

Don't forget folks, part of writing is fun, and if you aren't having a hoot of a time writing it, nobody will have a hoot reading it.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Unrequested Critique - Unconscious Lies


Unconscious Lies, D.W. Brown,  2013. 274 pages. DW has three books in publication.

I picked this book from the G+ Fantasy Writing community.

Cover

The cover depicts a red and brown cover, with some benches as illustration.

Formatting

The books is formatted correctly.

Thumbnail Description

A man doubts the world that he is in. His memory is apparently faulty.

Blurb

What does it mean when only you can see the strange people inhabiting your home? When you call out to your wife to un-strap you from your bed, but she seems not to hear? This is what is happening to Peter Lawson. He can’t seem to remember anything from his past, and has to rely on the words that his wife is telling him. 

Since he can't remember anything about his past, Pete must take his wife's word for everything. But can she be trusted? Why hasn't anyone around town heard of the firm where she claims to work? What is she hiding?

The dreams Pete keeps having about murdering six people seem too real not to be true. The feeling of sticking his blade into the old man's chest should've been something he disliked, but the fact that he enjoyed it was undeniable. Still, why would a simple woodworker enjoy taking another man's life?

Opening Sentences

After following the old man back from the upscale restaurant where he had feasted on a large salad, a Filet and baked potato, I stood patiently in his backyard, waiting for his driver to turn out the lights for the night. Two hours later, the house was completely quiet and I heard no movement coming from within.

This paragraph is supposed to hook me. Instead, it falls flat. These sentence contain far too much unproductive detail.

Writing

This book needs work. By work, I mean it nasty back alley fight with a chainsaw. That's not a condemnation. That's just the writing process. The manuscript needs a few significant rounds of hard work polishing.

Surprising enough, there's some style under all this mess. The writer does sometimes compose good sentences and paragraphs, but I don't think that he knows why some paragraphs are good while others are not. Quality seems happenstance where it ought to be planned.

The writer is striving to write a very difficult to pull off book, one that would give even a very good writer pause. The protagonist's myopic world is entirely underplayed. The writer leaves so many cards on the table. The human experience here, even if dulled by drugs or mental illness, must be vivid to catch the attention of the reader.

Overall flow is poor. That kills this sort of narrative. If the writer is to get lost, then the flow must carry him along. As it is, the flow stomps a bit this way and that, always walking ahead of the reader and stopping rather unexpectedly. Rather than help the reader, the flow irritates him.

Character development is almost nonexistant. The whole world seems to be made of cutouts, which is good if that is the intended purpose of the author, in which case I would say that the intent doesn't work. That sort of novel would be even more difficult than the one already proposed. I shudder to think of the difficulty.

The writer has a difficult time determining what is important, what is entertaining, what is informative, and what is excruciatingly tedious detail. We spend far too much time in the tedious detail section of the narrative.

Additional Comments

Get thyself a proofreader.

The protagonist, the person who tells this story from the first person perspective, needs to have opinions. He shows, which is great, but showing is the least powerful of all writing's powers. A first person perspective is, in the end, a discussion with the reader.

When writing from such a personal perspective, then the person narrating must be gripping. This sort of narrative is possible, so you should find a few writers who do this well and learn from them. All writing is derivative, so take is from Groucho Marx: steal from the best.

If nothing else remember: entertain the reader with relevant details, if not, entertain the reader with irrelevant details, but don't ever not entertain the reader.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Double Jack, Draft 3

I've wrapped up Draft #3 of Double Jack, my primary work in progress (WIP).

So far, this is the easiest story that I've told, yet also the hardest. Stylistically, it's a leap off a cliff with all the faith that I would make it work. That is mostly works gratifies me, but in writing, if something isn't totally working, you have a problem. At this point, I don't know whether I've written something wonderful or something overly pretentious. I don't think that I will ever know. I suspect that some people will always love it for what it is, while many are turned off for the exact same reason.

Th novel is set in a mildly fantasy 1920's. Added to this mix are has-been wizards, some alternate timelining, and all the sensibilities of a 1920's novel. Those sensibilities turned out to have a huge impact on the work.

Since a 1920s novel that I've read have no presumption of violence, my story likewise has no presumption of violence. I found that amazing. For my Endhaven series, I had wrestled with how to make a less violent fantasy novel, but Double Jack skipped merrily to my destination then splashed in the birdbath. In such a novel, the mere threat of violence often serves the same function, with the added bonus that losing the fight doesn't kill any of my characters.

I also found a modern novel much easier to write. I didn't have to make everything up. Where before I would poke along at 500 words a day, I suddenly found myself dumping 2000 words with ease. I had the whole world as my backstory and mining it was easy. Unfortunately, Double Jack is not easy to sequel.

I still wrestle with the novel's length. At this point, it's a novella at 40k words. I am not sure how to increase the word count. It may just be a novella.

Now that I've finished draft #3, it's off to my few readers. I don't call them beta readers as they comment on many drafts, not just final ones. They really help spot big things early, but more importantly, they point to things that work well and stand out.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How I Learned to Write Novels

How do you learn to write a novel? This was my adventure.

I began writing in college. I was awarded a big, clear F+ on my first paper. Yes, my friends, I was a terrible writer. Talent? I definitely proved that I had no special talent. In order to rectify this, I took each paper, looked it over for errors and comments that the teacher made, and took those lessons to heart. My goal was no never repeat errors. By the time that I got out of college, I could churn out an A paper reliably. If anything, my papers earned A's merely by the quality of my writing.

After college, I did quite a few different projects. I wrote several user manuals for software. I wrote for LARPS, such as Tales From the Floating Vagabond and Murder Mystery Weekend. I also coined the word microLARP for my short LARP Bus Stop. To day, Bus Stop has been my most successful project, being played countless times, translated in multiple languages, and even used as a conversational English exercise in Singapore.

For a while, I wrote round-robin style stories with my friends. Someone started a story, then the storyteller kept changing. That is a sub-optimal way to tell a story, I admit, but quite fun and definitely good and developing my adaptability.

Around 2000, I decided to write a novel. I was finally going to do it. I gave it the working title of "My First Bad Novel." These days, I refer to it as Four Characters Searching For a Plot. I wrote out a draft by longhand, then typed that draft in and began making changes. I never did finish it. It has issues that I will never resolve. Yet, it represents my first novel. When I look back on it, my style was there, but I still lacked tools for dealing with an 80k word story.

Years went by, and after the birth of my daughter, I decided that I would write a novel and see it through. I chose to base it in my Endhaven RPG setting. I would squeeze in writing time as I could. I started a first draft, but I got stuck on what the characters were going to do after the introductory adventure. I did a thorough rewrite, threw out many characters, rewrote the villains, and rewrote the villain. I had improved the story, but the work simply did not pass professional muster, so I went in a third time and rewrote the story again. I changed more things around.

For the fourth draft, I looked hard at my novel and saw that I still wasn't up to professional standards. I rushed through too many scenes, barely bringing my reader along with me. My characters were not interacting properly. Some characters had already had three or four revisions on their personalities. Determined to see this project through, I was now writing at 6am and writing for 30 minutes. I can't emphasise that enough. I was DETERMINED to see this novel though to the end. If you learn nothing else, learn that. Writing happens because you choose to make it happen. The muses may help, but when they fail you, determination sees you through.

On the fourth draft, I made a fateful decision. I determined that an ensemble work did not work for me. I would focus on one character. Most books are written with one or two leads for just that reason. Ensemble books blossom into behemoths, and I was not prepared to write a behemoth.

"I'll take my character through Jura City," I said to myself. I thought that she would visit the city, but then move onto the real adventure. The city surprised me. Jura City, the place on my map with almost no words to its name, became a real place. That town grabbed a hold on my novel so fierce that the two follow-on novels could not break its grip.

Even as I wrestled with this city, a new realization hit me: my primary characters were not at all interested in fighting. What does a fantasy novel with little or no fighting look like? I had no idea, but that's the direction that the book too, and I followed along, having no idea where it was going.

I also made a choice to make the novel more character based than plot based. I listened to many criticisms of my writing, but I notices that nobody, even when pushed, had anything bad to say about my characters. Knowing this, I decided to make the book a heavier character work.

At the end of the fourth draft, I had the beginnings of a real novel. From then on, it was write, change, and rewrite. I yanked out whole sections without knowing how I would replace them. By the end, which required three more drafts, I piled up 130k words in removed and rewritten prose. My cutting room floor had more words than the novel had. I did not let that deter me. I pushed on.

At the end of three and a half years, and a total of seven revisions, I had my first novel, Weeds Among Stone. I followed that up eighteen months later with Standing Between Earth and Heaven, then this year with A Touch of Genius, each work an improvement on the last while requiring less time to produce.

If there's one technique that I want to leave you with, it's this: hold your work up against a professional's work. Your determination to meet that standard is what takes your writing to a professional level. Your goal, with each additional work, is to improve upon your quality every time.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rethinking the D&D Paradigm

In D&D, you have a DM, some players going through the adventure, and unknown encounters before you. I think that's rather odd, because most games and theater forms don't include either of these elements.

In a game, you know the game ahead of you. The rules don't change. You know what to expect.

With a play or a TV show, you may watch something novel, but many people like watching their favorite plays and movies over and over again. How many theater companies have done Hamlet or MacBeth? Still, after all these years, people go back to see that. Even more importantly, the actors know the play that they are about to perform in and rehearse and develop their characters with full knowledge of their impending doom.

So, if we want D&D to act as a theatrical form, why does the adventure remain a secret? The game side will always remain the game side. The rules don't change. The fights will still be challenging. The drama side can only be enhanced by knowing about the adventure ahead. Why not change the paradigm?

What I would like to do, sometime in my busy schedule, is to run a game where the players brainstorm with me to create an adventure. The players also brainstorm how their characters can interact, and various ways that they can improv during the adventure. I then run that adventure, administering the rules, while the players play to the adventure before them.

To me, that sounds like a wonderful game.