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Writing process

Story ideas

Not every idea turns into a fully fledged novel. Some of them die after three chapters. Others sit in the ideas box, waiting for time to write. Still others sit in the ideas box waiting for another idea or character to click with before we can use it.

Ideas and characters are everywhere, but it takes a combination of things to decide to write a story about them, and other factors to decide to write that story now.

The third chapter death

I find that if you can’t write past the third chapter, you don’t want to tell this story, or at least you don’t want to tell it right now.

This often happens when one of us doesn’t like the idea.

It also happens on those rare occasions when we decide to write something for commercial reasons. Analogous to the “Everyone can write a romance novel, let’s do it.” We don’t quite do that, ours is more, “We read lots of mystery novels, why don’t we write a whodunnit? They’re shorter than a fantasy and we’re more likely to sell it.” Maybe one day we’ll do it, but I can tell you now that at the rate we’re going our whodunnit is also going to be a science fiction (RAINBOW) and it will likely run to well over 100,000 words.

Whilst you can keep up the enthusiasm for pretty much any story for a couple of chapters, I find that you usually know by the end of the third chapter whether or not you are prepared to live with the story for the next couple of years.

The ‘I want to write it now’ great idea

Ideas don’t wait until you get to the end of the current book. You might see something, overhear something, dream something. You can’t just say, “Hold on. I don’t want to know about you until the middle of next year. I’m writing a different novel right now.” You’d forget it.

We write the idea down, and add it to our list of story ideas. If it’s a truly persistent idea that comes fully visualised (a la SATISFACTION) we’ll write a rough version of the idea that’s demanding to be heard, and put that into our ideas box as well. We have the first ten or fifteen pages of a script for Satisfaction, plus lots of notes on who, what, why and how. It’s all handwritten in one of our writing notebooks, and it’s not going any further—and definitely won’t be typed up —until we get to it. Unless another part of the story demands to be told, of course, in which case we’ll write that down in our notebook as well.

We have a number of great story ideas where we have the start written down, plus some rough notes about where it is going. Stories we’d love to write, when we get the time.

Sometimes too, these demanding ideas are just procrastination. You hit a block in the story you are currently working on, and rather than fix the problem you come up with all these other stories you could write instead. There’s no easy way over that except to recognise the procrastination for what it is, and somehow, if you can, get back on track with the current story.

Just don’t let yourself start writing that second story properly though. You need discipline to write a novel. As soon as you start being lenient on yourself you make it harder to finish.

If you hit a slump half to three-quarters of the way through a novel (and we always do) , try at least to finish the draft before you throw it away. If you liked the story enough to get that far, you’ll probably find that once you get over the hump you’re able to continue with enthusiasm.

The really great idea that isn’t a story yet

You need more than one idea to make a story. These ideas seldom arrive all at the same time. You might start with an idea or a character, but he’s going nowhere without something happening to him.

The origins of BARRAIN, our on-line novel, are hazy now, but I do know that long before Scott arrived on the scene Jacob was there (only he wasn’t called Jacob then), watching Caid—a member of his own team—saying to his companion, “Such a pity we have to kill him.”

We have some great ideas tucked away in our ideas box. Right now that’s all they are. Ideas. A single idea is not enough to build a story on.

If you start writing these ideas too early the story peters out, and you have a third-chapter graveyard for what could have been a truly great story if you’d given it more time.


We go through the ideas once or twice a year. We dice an occasional one that was obviously a fad at the time, but most of them we put back into the box. (It’s a figurative box, not a real one. A pile of notebooks, and a directory on the PC.)

It surprises me occasionally, how enthusiastic I get just reading some of the ideas. I want to write about them.

It’s an interesting thing, though, that it’s never the ideas box that sparks the final decision to write a particular novel. The ideas are obviously there, and we choose one or more of them, but I don’t know what it is that makes us say, “This is the time to write this story.”

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On writing

The perception that some types of writing are lesser than others

I often come across the misconception that a technical writer has no ‘real’ writing skills. They can write a user manual or training materials, but that’s not real writing, is it. I mean, anyone can do that.

In particular, there is a widely held belief that the technical writer cannot write business documents. (Even though we’re often the ones who write the company style guide that tell other people in the company how to do it.)

A technical writer, for example, ranks lower than a business analyst or the media/communications person.

It’s a little like being a genre writer.

“Oh, you write fantasy (or science fiction). Then you’re not a ‘real’ writer, are you?”

Or as Lynn Flewelling puts it …

… by now I’d picked up on the subtle concept that exists among some non-genre writers that fantasy writing is the basement of the literary ghetto and that as a writer of such, I probably had no business breathing the same air as “real writers”.

Lynn Flewelling (original quote was from the Voyager Online site, but link has gone now)

Some genres rank higher than others. Mystery writers come higher on the respectability ladder than fantasy writers, as do those who write techno-thrillers, while romance writers come lower. Yet of them all, who is the most likely to make a respectable living out of writing? The humble romance writer.

Even our own little genre niche has its layers of supposed superiority. Hard-core sci-fi fans consider science fiction superior to fantasy; and hard science fiction is superior to soft. I’m sure, if we delved deep enough, we’d even find some types of fantasy are supposedly superior to others.

Me, I love it all. Give me a good story with great characters and I’m lost. This world or any other, I don’t care. Based on science or magic—or both—I don’t care.

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On writing

Do you become your characters?

I was reading a thread on the SFF writing forum about whether or not people prefer to write in first, second or third person.

The preferred style of writing appears to be third person. This is our own preferred style too. One poster said

First person is probably the easiest to write in, there’s something comfortable in sitting yourself inside the narrators head and just writing them.

Posted by Murrin in the SFF writing forum thread The different Persons on 21 July 2006 and it made me think about how I visualise stories, and characters in stories.

As a teenager I know that I used to imagine myself as the hero or heroine of the story. If I ever made up stories about characters from other books, I was that character. I saw through their eyes, spoke through their mouth, any actions were those character’s actions. Stories I wrote were mostly in the first person.

Over time that has changed.

Now I write in third person, and when I imagine what is going to happen in the story I imagine it as happening to the character, rather than being the character and having it happen to me. I get into the character’s head for some of the emotions, but that’s all.

It’s a very close, personal third person, but it’s still third, and it’s very visual.

For example, in chapter two of BARRAIN Scott and Melissa argue as they drive along to Scott’s rendezvous with the bird watchers.

I see the car speeding along the road. It’s as if it’s on film. I’m watching from a distance, and can see what’s going to happen before it does. I see that Melissa is going to go out and pass the slow-moving vehicle, I see the car almost do a 360 degree turn as Melissa slams on the brakes to take the side road. I see them eat dust as she rattles up the dirt road, the car almost sliding into the side of the road every so often because she won’t slow down.

I’m watching from outside, but at the same time I’m in the car, sitting between Scott and Melissa as they argue, feeling Scott’s anger at the stupidity of Melissa’s argument, too annoyed to even be really scared about how badly she is driving. These are Scott’s emotions, not mine. I know they’re his, I know what he is thinking but I am not thinking them.

When you are younger you react to situations emotionally. Your whole life revolves around how you feel. Somewhere along the way you start to analyse those emotions. You start stepping back and saying, “I did this because …”, “He said that because …”

Life is a lot like writing. That’s exactly the same sort of analysis you do for characters in a story.

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Progress report

Writing progress

Only a couple of pages into chapter 1, and already Scott’s a little wimpy. Not sure what Sherylyn’s going to say, and not sure how to fix it yet either. I think it’s because he’s a victim. Things happen to him, rather than him taking control.

Sherylyn’s a few days behind on reviews on this. It has been tax time, and she has been working 12 and 14 hour days. Luckily it’s finished now. Tax season is July to October.

Categories
Progress report

Writing progress

The transfer from present tense to past tense is harder than I had hoped. It’s made more difficult by the omniscient point of view we have taken with the prologue. Not sure yet this POV is a good move.

Started off doing it in past tense, found we were switching between present and past, so changed it all to past tense. The rest of the novel will be past tense.

Outside of that, the transition from script back to narrative is more of a direct copy than I expected.

Categories
On writing

The ubiquitous prologue

Hmm. Looks like we’re going to start with a prologue on this novel.

I’m not a fan of prologues.

Some writers, particularly beginning writers, seem to think that because they’re writing a fantasy their novel absolutely, positively must have a prologue, whether it needs one or not.

A common mistake is writing a prologue that really is the first chapter of the novel. If the prologue uses protagonists from the main novel (particularly point-of-view characters), and covers a period of time shortly before the rest of the novel starts then this is not a prologue, it’s part of the main story and should be treated as such.

If a prologue is used to denote a time break, then that break should be a long one, again particularly if the protagonist is a main point-of-view character.

Personally, I like the way they do in the movies in this case. Start with the beginning of the story, then pop up a line—”Four years later”—at the start of the next chapter and keep going.

Another common mistake is the “This is a fantasy. I must have a prologue” type prologue.

This one has absolutely no reason to be in the story whatsoever. You could cut it out and no-one would even know it had gone.

A prologue has to be there for a reason.

David Eddings‘ prologue at the start of THE BELGARIAD series is one that works. You must read the prologue to fully understand what the story is about. It deals with matters that happened to secondary characters hundreds of years prior. Things that were written about in another series. What happens in The Belgariad is a direct result of events triggered in the prologue. (Some people might argue that Belgarath and Polgara were not secondary characters, but I say they were. The story is Garion’s, start to finish.)

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On writing

Do you see what I see?

It wasn’t until the fourth draft of POTION that Sherylyn and I realised we didn’t see the characters the same way.

Tegan, one of the point-of-view characters in Potion has long dark curls that frame her face. We mention her eye colour—blue—when comparing her to someone else but that’s pretty much all the description you get of Tegan’s physical features.

We were talking one day and realised that Sherylyn’s Tegan had rich, chocolate brown hair with chestnut highlights that fell half-way between her shoulder and her waist, and the curls were quite, well, curly. My Tegan, however had hair that fell past her waist. It was darker, and the curls were more waves than actual curls.

In another story, SHARED MEMORIES, the point-of-view character comes from a world called Nuan. Sherylyn pronounces it “Noo-one”, I pronounce it “Nah-wonn”.

Does it matter?

Not in the least?

The vision we share for a book depends less on the physical than on how the characters act and react. Yes, there are some phyisical things we know about each character—Tegan’s long dark curls, for example—but it’s more, “Tegan wouldn’t muck around like this. She would unleash a magical firebolt instead, and it would all be over in minutes”, than “That’s not how Tegan looks”.

We do, however, need to share a common vision for the story, and where it’s going. I mentioned in an earlier blog about writing as a team that before we start writing we talk about the story, finessing it until we have a story we can both visualise and are prepared to work on. SATISFACTION is the most extreme example of this to date, where my original idea was changed totally. Changed for me, that is. The final concept of SATISFACTION, the one we’re going to write, is the picture Sherylyn saw in her mind in the first five minutes as I described it to her that first day.

That was unusual. Normally we meet somewhere in the middle.

Writing a book with a writing partner is a lot like reading a book you both love. What each of you gets out of a book when you read it is totally your own. But it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the story for either of you.

Categories
On writing

Peek into another book

Finished a major draft of SHARED MEMORIES last night. I’m sitting here now with pen in hand while Sherylyn reads it through, waiting to write down her comments as she reads.

  • She doesn’t like the start. That’s normal. She never likes the start of our books. This one has already been re-written about five times. We replaced it with a different start for a while, but just recently reinstated the old one.
  • Then she starts on the holes. “Kym would have gone through his bag that first night, particularly if she thought there might have been drugs there.”Hmm. This one is a problem, as Kym’s going through the bag two days later is important. If she finds the map any earlier it loses impact. Unfortunately, Kym is a professional. She would check the bag that first night.

More holes, all the way through the novel. They get worse (because the first part of the book has been re-written so many more times than the second half), and Sherylyn’s comments get more and more honest, especially if we’re doing this over a glass of wine, which we often do.

By the time we’re at the end it’s:

  • “… and the poor Wyverns, they just come charging into the room and make straight for Roland and try to kill him. They’ve had plenty of time to do it before, but they don’t. Instead, they go out of the room and then come back in and then race over to kill him … and they don’t even succeed. They can’t even slash his throat with their claws. I mean, these claws are inches long. They would have done it. Then Roland’s father comes in behind them and what does he do? Absolutely nothing.”

It’s funny and very honest. We have a great time.

Some people think it’s too honest. We had a friend staying one night (they were staying a lot longer than that, otherwise we wouldn’t have been working on our novel that particular night). She was horrified that Sherylyn was so brutal.

“Karen has gone to a lot of trouble to write this,” she said. “The least you can do is give her positive feedback about what she has written.”

She didn’t understand that we didn’t need praise, we needed an honest assessment of what was wrong.

When you’re critiquing for a writers group—such as the excellent Critters, for example—you need to say positive things about the story as well as telling them what doesn’t work. Firstly, it’s polite. You don’t know the writer, and a writer puts a lot of him/herself on show when they put a story up for critting. It’s up to you to respect that they have done so. (Not to forget that Aburt will boot you out of Critters if you are not polite.)

These writers need to know what works, as well as what doesn’t work.

But Sherylyn and I, we have been writing together a long time now. I know the story must be working on some level or she wouldn’t stick with it through all those rewrites. Not only that, when she says something works, she really means it works. When she says, as she did for this review, “The bit where Marco and Hamill talk about his son is much better. You have really improved that,” she means we have really, really improved it.

Categories
On writing

Your novel doesn’t write itself, you have to work at it

Write a novel in a month. 50,000 words in 30 days. Start on 1 November, finish on the 30th.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is back. It started in 1999, when 29 people took up the challenge. Last year 59,000 people started, and nearly 10,000 finished their 50,000 words.

It’s a wonderful idea.

I’m tempted. Sorely tempted.

Herein lies the trap.

There are many temptations along the road to completing a novel.

There are always other things to do. Some of them are unavoidable. Work deadlines, family commitments, unexpected crises. Others are things we choose to do—like NaNoWriMo.

Last night Sherylyn and I chatted over a bottle of wine and some home-made pizza. We really enjoyed it. By the time we have finished talking it was too late to do any writing.

Another 1,000 words we didn’t write.

Novels don’t write themselves. They take time and commitment, and a big chunk out of your life. Your family and friends don’t understand why you bother. Deadlines help keep you on track, as does mixing with like-minded individuals. That’s where things like NaNoWriMo are so good, as they provide both.

I would love to take part, but we’re already working on Barrain, and Shared Memories is waiting in the background for another polish. The rules of NaNoWriMo specifically state that you must work on a new story (and no writing together, either).

If I was between novels I would probably do it. Right now, though, insofar as my novel writing is concerned, I’d be foolish to take it on.

Categories
On writing

Why write novels

A question related to “Why do you write?” but slightly easier to answer, is “Why do you write novels?”

Because we can’t write any shorter.

I read numerous writing advice where they say, “Start off with small steps. Start off writing short stories, and then graduate up to novels.” Sound advice but I, for one, have never been able to do it. Every short story story we have ever written is sitting in our story ideas file, waiting to be turned into a full-blown novel. The characters in these shorter works have stories just waiting to be told, worlds we need to write about, ideas we want to explore. Way too much information to go into a short story.

It’s a pity, because I think becoming known as a writer of short fiction would definitely help us to sell novels—both to an agent and to the general public.

From my own personal experience, I will buy a novel written by someone whose short works I have enjoyed. Having read Connie Willis’ Firewatch and A Letter From the Clearys (okay, Firewatch was a novella), I went out and bought her novel, Lincoln’s Dreams. True Names (another novella) introduced me to Vernor Vinge’s writing.

It’s not just short stories. Any writing will do. I bought Nancy Kress’ books based on her monthly column in Writers’ Digest. I admired her writing there, liked what she wrote, so when I came across Beggars in Spain in a bookshop one day I bought that.

Outside of this, I tend to discover new writers at the library, rather than buy books on spec.

If you can write short stories then do so. Not only does it hone your writing skills, but you have a much better chance of selling a shorter work than a full blown novel, and the credits you get from that short story sale may just help you sell your novel.