I’m once again participating in Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is different than the full-fledged National Novel Writing Month in that the word count goal is set by each participant, folks frequently use camp to edit an existing work rather than write new, and the camp website supports small private chat groups called “cabins.” The best part of either project, IMHO, is having a mechanism to publish your daily word count totals, and have friends to encourage you.
At least those are good things for me. I am more productive when there are people I have promised certain things (completed stories, word counts, edits, et cetera). I’m also someone who loves getting in a race with someone on word count, if they’re into that. That doesn’t always work for everyone.
But writing buddies and cabin mates are a good way to have folks to consult with or just get encouragement from or give it to. That’s another thing I find that motivates me: getting to encourage other people and congratulate them on milestones improves my mood considerably. And sometimes when you’re trapped deep in seemingly irresolvable plotholes, anything to perk my mood up is great!
So, that’s what is happening here. If you’re doing Camp NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re interested in joining my Cabin, leave a comment here, or send me a message on twitter, or send me an email with the Contact Me page here—or if you already have another way to ping me use that.
There have been stories I struggled with for years. There was this one story where I had this very interesting character whose voice just flowed from the fingertips at the speed of lightning when I wrote the opening scene for her story. I knew the trouble she was in and how she would eventually get out of it. She was a new character in an existing setting where I had a lot of great established character who could play the supporting roles. It just felt like magic every time I re-read the half dozen scenes I’d written. It was taking me longer to get to the resolution than I had originally thought when I had the story idea, but I figured that once I ironed a couple of plot issues out, I could probably trim a few of the scenes so far.
Then I read the story aloud to my monthly writers’ group.
I honestly don’t remember much of the critique I got from the group that night. And truth be told, I didn’t read everything I’d written. I only read the opening scene, and by the time I reached the end of the scene, I already knew that the story was a disaster. Part of it was the nonverbal reaction of the group, yes, but that wasn’t what killed the story for me. No, just hearing it aloud in my own voice revealed that it was an awful opening to an unpleasant story.
The character was in a very unpleasant situation, but that’s not what I mean when I say it was an unpleasant story. I mean that it was unpleasant to read the scene that I’d written. And I knew the rest of them suffered the same problem. I had picked the wrong place to start the story, and I was fairly certain that while my new character was interesting, she shouldn’t be the viewpoint character for this particular story. She might still be the protagonist, but she wasn’t the person who should narrate this particular tale.
And I learned all of that before any of the other writers in the group said a word. Just from the act of reading it aloud.
It’s advice I have received for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a grade-school student haunting the library’s magazine collection reading back issues of The Writer and Writer’s Digest I saw the advice again and again: read the story aloud to yourself before you show it to other people. It’s advice I’ve given many times. But I don’t always follow it. That particular story I really should have.
Reading it aloud, either to yourself or an audience, will expose awkward sentences at a minimum. There are all sorts of sentences you can write that make perfect sense, follow the rules of grammar and so forth, but when you try to say them out loud, your tongue trips on them. That’s why I always have a pencil or other writing implement in my hand when I read aloud, so I can circle the places I stumble over awkward phrasing.
But that isn’t the only thing you learn reading it aloud. There are numerous studies that show, for instance, the act of simply speaking about a problem you’ve been worrying about makes you think of it in a new light. Neurologically, they say, that’s because different parts of the brain interact differently. It’s not just the act of putting a problem into words, it appears to also be the fact that as you listen to yourself speak, different areas of the brain react differently than when you contemplate a problem in silence.
That process doesn’t just apply to solving real world problems, obviously. Listening to your story aloud makes you process it differently than reading it silently.
Reading it aloud to someone else brings in a different level of information, much of it non-verbal as I alluded to above. Your listeners may fidget, or become distracted, for instance. You’re not holding their attention. You’ll get other cues, as well.
That particular tale was re-written substantially several times, though I didn’t bring each draft back to the group. I tried telling the story from the points of view of three different supporting characters before I found the right viewpoint character and the right starting point. The fourth version, when it was read, got very positive responses. And eventually was published, and I got a few compliments from readers of the ‘zine.
The key to realizing my approach was wrong was to simply read the opening scene aloud–advice I have tried to follow much more faithfully ever since.
A lot of my stories, no matter what length, start out as imaginary conversations. I’ll be doing something and a couple of characters will start talking in my head. Sometimes I know the character already: they may be characters I have written stories about before, or they may be characters from a book or movie or series that I have watched, or they might be characters from a roleplaying campaign I’ve been involved in. Sometimes it is a weird mix from difference worlds (you should hear some of the arguments that Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Malcolm Merlin from Arrow, and my fantasy character the Zombie Lord get into while I’m trying to read something!). And other times I don’t know who the characters are, at all.
So I write it down (or as much as I can) and see if I can keep the conversation going. If I don’t know who some or all of the characters are, I try to figure out who they are. I ask myself why they are talking about this interesting thing? What is at stake? Why does each person in this conversation care?
Notice that I haven’t yet asked ‘What happens next?’ Some people operate under the mistaken notion that the plot of a story (play, movie, series, whatever form your story takes) is what happens—this happens, then this, and then this guy does that, then she does this, then another thing happens, et cetera.
Nope. Plot is a problem, obstacle, or riddle that confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and forms the connection between all of the events in between. Plot can be described as the blow-by-blow style of the action of the story, but getting all those actions in order generally follows long after figuring out the central conflict.
So at this stage, I’m trying to find that problem or conflict that will drive the story. That means I’m also still trying to figure out who’s my protagonist(s). You might think that as soon as I figure out one, I’ll know the other, and generally that’s true, but a single problem/obstacle/mystery can confront mulitple people, who all have to deal with it. So finding the right protagonist for your tale among the involved characters can be a challenge.
One of my favorite examples of a conflict that can have more than one protagonist is illustrated wonderfully in two middle-grade books by Mary Stolz: A Dog on Barkham Street and The Bully of Barkham Street. In the first book, the protagonist, Edward, would love to be free of the constant bullying of Martin, another boy who lives on his street. Edward also would really love to have a dog of his own, and is a bit jealous that other boys who have dogs. The second book happens at exactly the same time, and for the most part involves the same series of events, but Martin is the progagonist who has no friends and constantly tried to prove that this doesn’t bother him by picking on others.
Some times it takes a really long time for me to sort out the plot and protagonist. Years ago I had an idea for a story set in the sci fi shared universe of the Tai-Pan Literary & Arts Project. I knew who all the involved characters were and I knew what the problem was. And I thought I knew who the protagonist was. So I wrote about half of the story and read what I had at the monthly writers’ meeting. I wasn’t even halfway through the opening scene before I knew I had it all wrong. Reading the scene aloud for the first time told me that I was approaching it wrong, but also feeling the energy in the room, as some people fidgeting and others started scribbling down critiques made it clear this wasn’t the compelling story I thought it was.
I tried starting the story at a slightly different place. But when I read that over to myself, I knew it was still wrong. So I set the story aside for a few months and worked on other stories, instead. Some time later I tried writing it from a different character’s viewpoint. Things seemed to be moving along a lot better, but when I shared it with the writers’ group it was clear, once again, that I hadn’t had it right. Once again, the story went onto a back burner and I worked on other things for many more months.
Sometimes you do have to set a story aside for a long time, let it percolate in your subconscious while you work on (and complete) other stories. It may take a long time.
I tried to tell this storfy from two other characters’ points of view, but it still didn’t work. Finally, I used a modified version of an exercise from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s excellent book, Building Fiction:
For every character in the story I wrote out the answers to these questions:
What does this character want immediately/externally?
What does this character want on a deeper, emotional level?
What is preventing this character from getting the external thing they want?
What is preventing the character from getting the internal thing they want?
What is the moment in the story when the character believes that they will not get what they want?
What is the character thinking and feeling at that point?
I did it for every character that I thought had any role at all in the story. And once I had those things written out, I realized that one problem was that the character whose viewpoint I tried at the beginning believes she will never get what she wants, so her reaction at the crisis point of the story is to shrug and cynically say, “I knew it!” And one of the other characters never, ever believes that he can’t get what he wants, because he sees several ways to get it at every point.
Finally I saw that one of the characters I had been thinking all along as a supporting character was the person who thinks she can solve the puzzle, then learns that the problem is different than she thought, then sees everything fall apart, and then could have an epiphany and turn the situation around. Suddenly, everything clicked. I was up late a couple of nights in a row getting the story through to the end, but this time I was sure I was correct. And the writers’ group confirmed it, not by saying, “You got it!” No, instead, everyone’s critiques were about little quibbles of grammar and the like.
The events that all of the failed versions of my story covered were the same, in the abstract, as what happens in the final version that worked and was eventually published. What was different was I found the character for whom those events represented something that could be lost, but still fought for, and for whom overcoming the issue required her growing or changing.
In case you haven’t heard, the owners of LiveJournal have been moving the servers to Russia. A Russian company bought LiveJournal many years ago (because in those areas formerly part of the Soviet Union, blogging means writing on LiveJournal), but had left the servers in the U.S, which means that your data on those servers was covered by U.S. law. That is no longer the case. I know lots of people abandoned LiveJournal ages ago, but I still cross-post my blog there, and it is still the case that at least two long-term friends always read my posts by clicking over from LiveJournal. During the first couple of years that I was hosting my blog here at my own domain (FontFolly.Net), about half of the clicks to my blog each day were referred from LiveJournal.
I also want to point out that at least one prominent sci fi writer (George R.R. Martin) still does all of his blogging and otherwise communicating with fans over the internet through his LiveJournal. I know of several others who have domains of their own who still cross post to their LiveJournals, as well.
A lot of people are archiving their LJ posts so as not to lose those years of journaling. Since the owners have also removed HTTPS security on everything but the payment page your LJ password is slightly less secure. There are ways to mitigate that, but if you have a LiveJournal account you ever log into, you should make sure that the password used there isn’t used anywhere else. I’ve used a password manager for years, but not everyone does that. I highly recommend 1Password which is available for PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. I have friends who use and swear by LastPass. Both get stellar reviews.
Anyway, years ago (after the debacle where the previous LJ owners conspired with or were duped by some rightwing anti-gay groups into deleting hundreds of journals for bogus reasons; never mind that when it was brought to light LJ restored the journals and claimed it was all a misunderstanding) I migrated all my LiveJournal entries to DreamWidth, which is a much smaller company and doesn’t have an image hosting service. And now my actual blog is hosted at FontFolly.Net, with cross-posting to Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, and Tumblr. And I babble on Twitter.
Since I’m not the sort of person that the Russian government is out to shutdown, I think the main danger to me of the move of the LJ servers to Russian soil is that eventually the owners of LJ will decide that the U.S. journals aren’t generating enough revenue to justify keeping them. We’ll all get deleted at some point and I’ll lose contact with some people who only know me from there. So if you are someone who likes reading my rambles and rants and such, follow me on DreamWidth, at FontFolly.Net and/or Twitter. And ping me to let me know who you are so I can follow you back as appropriate.
Note: you don’t have to have a WordPress blog to follow FontFolly.Net. One of the options will just send you email updates when I post something. And it’s not me sending the emails, it’s an automatic WordPress thing, so you only get anything if I actually post a blog entry.
I may turn off comments on LiveJournal and/or delete older entries. I haven’t really decided.
There’s some features of LiveJournal (and Dreamwidth) that I really wish were easily available from my blog. The ability to post things that are only visible to a pre-defined list, for instance. There are ways to get something like that elsewhere, but only slightly similar functionality. And the main reason LJ’s worked so well is because it was not uncommon at the time, particularly if you were a geeky person, for the majority of your friends and trusted acquaintances to already have an account on LJ. Another thing I really liked was the ability to go look at journals being followed by someone you followed. I found some interesting writers I might not have ever even heard of otherwise that way.
This is related to another thing I’ve been thinking about/wrestling with recently. So I’ve been trying to motivate myself to work more diligently and methodically on finishing the galley edits to the first novel in my Trickster series and publish the darn thing. One thing I find that motivates me is to have a deadline that other people are expecting something from me. The more concrete the something is, the more likely I am to deliver. So I had been contemplating trying to use Patreon for that. Give myself a monthly task of posting a revised scene or similar, right?
My reason for considering Patreon is not about money, but rather the fact that Patreon has tools in place to restrict access of information. If I post a chapter on my blog, that puts it out there in a published format which may have implications for the later publication of the finished work, for instance. Lots of people publish excerpts and samples of works in progress, I know. I’m just not sure how much of that I want to do. So having an option to restrict it to only certain people (similar to when I bring excerpts to my writers’ group for comment) is appealing.
It’s been suggested that I just start a writing blog (whether it be a subset of my existing blog or separated) where I set myself deadlines, post reports, and maybe just ask people if they would be willing to look at something at give me feedback from time to time. And that might end up being what I do. As I mentioned when talking about my yearly goals, just giving myself the assignment to post once a month about my goals did seem to help me stick to them better the two years that I did that.
I’m still thinking about how to go about this. And I’m always open to ideas.
My friend, Barb, referred to the weird lingering cold, maybe flu, maybe multiple colds that seems to be hitting a lot of people as “the Martian flu,” and I’ve decided it’s a great name. I want to mention that said friend lives 1400 miles away, in Arizona. Another friend who reports a similar phenomenon in his community in January, lives 2200 miles away, in Texas. And another friend who reported it in her area lives 2800 miles away, in North Carolina. I mention this because I’ve had a couple of conversations with other long distance acquaintances where I mention the illness running around my office, where they’ve said, “I’m glad I’m not in Seattle!”
The thing is that I’ve been sick nearly continuously since the end of December, and so have a lot of people I know. We’ll be really sick with a certain constellation of symptoms for a few days, start to get better for a few days. Then we’ll have a couple days where we don’t feel completely, 100% healthy, but definitely nearly well. And then a slightly different constellation of symptoms will hit is full bore, and the cycle will begin again.
So, when I was up all night with symptoms that you do not want me to describe Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, I felt an awful lot like that bowl of flowers in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books: “Oh, no. Not again!”…Continue reading Martian flu trumps Writers’ Night→