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Posts from the ‘plotting’ Category

The Weather Abides

I was working on my next Kin Wars Saga novel and got to thinking: we use the weather to set the mood, sure, but why? Everybody knows that if you have a funeral it’s supposed to rain, and a happy ending is a bright sunny day. Depressive days are flat, dull, grey and cold, while snowy days are typically for celebrating holidays.

Is this a learned writing technique or do we instinctively do it?

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‘Hold-my-beer’ Precedent

He was preceded by the president, setting a precedent which endures to this day.

Now there is a new superhero that could inspire and maybe even bring world peace… 🙂

Precedents are something few of us realize the value of until we’ve set them. They shape nearly everything we do: from what time your kids go to bed, to how the law is interpreted. Naturally they’re a huge part of writing too. Read more

Dream a Little Dream For Me

Pam Uphoff

 

“A dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep.”

Wikipedia

 

But why?

Oh, the theories are numerous. Dreams help us incorporate memories. Process emotions. Solve daytime problems. Play out our subconscious desires.

Frankly I think it’s file cleanup and de-rezing the wetware so we can function the next day, but whatever it is, I really like dreaming. It helps sort out plot problems and throws all new situations at me.

Dreams can be like brain storming—throwing out ideas as fast as possible and only analyzing them later. And they get pretty wild.

The flat-out weird dreams are my favorite.

My Zoey Ivers books? Half BSing on the internet, meshed with this totally bizarre dream . . . I mean bouncing balls that thought they were Elvis, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin?   A computer that thought it was a T-Rex? My Dad the FBI agent walking out into a cyber desert to fight a gigantic rattle snake? WTF?

I got up at 3AM and started writing that one down. Turned into a two book YA adventure. There will be a third book Real Soon Now, and maybe more later.

OK, maybe last night’s that ended with one of my fictional characters screaming in the back room while she was being tortured wasn’t one of the better ones. (Eek! Not Rael!) Was my subconscious trying to tell me I have to be more brutal to my characters? Was this a message that I’m only showing the good side of my macguffins and eliding past some obvious problems.

Maybe it was just free association in a sleeping brain. No deep messages needing dream analysis.

But you know the thing about nightmares? You can play around with the ideas. How did your character get into this fix? How does she get out of it? Be creative. The above nightmare? Oh please, Rael was screaming so the guys in the next room didn’t realize she was actually loose and beating up the torturer, collecting interesting improvised weaponry and so forth.

And yeah, that kid in the dream has a problem! Or maybe he is the problem!

No doubt it’ll all show up in a story down the road.

If I go to sleep thinking of the possibilities for the next scene . . . Okay, it mostly keeps me awake . . . but sometimes an idea falls into place.

Sleep apnea was actually great for this. Once I got that really fun overnight test, I realized that I wasn’t actually just laying there awake, thinking about the WIP. I was flipping between REM sleep and awake so fast I wasn’t recognizing the dream state. But I sure planned some good scenes that way. And typed them half-asleep the next day.

I almost miss that. But with an oxygenated brain, I have plenty of uninterrupted dreams to stock the idea cabinet.

So . . . what do your dreams do for you . . . and what do you do with them?

Oh, and the new book, a complete stand alone unconnected to anything I’ve ever written:

 

 

Making Sausage

pig

I’ve been making sausages for the better part of the morning. There is some pig that can’t easily become ham or bacon. As a wannabe writer: If you figure the cost of writer’s workshops or MFA degrees in creative writing… there’s a lot to be said for learning how to make sausages. At the end of the process you at least have sausages. And oddly you will have learned quite a lot of value, and some of it applies to writing as well as sausages.

To the sausage eater, well, a sausage is a sausage. Some better, some wurst, but a thing in itself. The eater probably doesn’t think too closely about what went into it. In the case of Dibbler’s sausages that is probably just as well, but it is almost certainly organic. And it probably helps to be drunk and have it with ketchup and mustard. Now isn’t that true of a lot of books? There are a good few that ketchup and mustard could improve.

From the writer’s point of view: the ingredients that go into s book are quite distinct, and ‘taste’ noting like the end product. And, yes, actually it is much easier to make good (or fantastic) sausage with great ingredients. The same is true of books. And likewise, a book probably fails even if those are best ingredients in the world… if they remain themselves and do not form part of the whole. Just as fresh garlic – where all you can taste is garlic and not the blend of meat, fat and salt makes a lousy sausage, so too a book where one of the elements so overwhelms the rest it’s just that. Balance is everything and final product is more and different than merely its parts. A master can even add in that touch of sweetness (apple, cranberries, sun-dried tomato) – which lifts the sausage into the sublime (and sweet in sausage is the easiest pat to screw up – the same as books). And yes, a skilled blender can make un-named dodgy meat into a pretty acceptable sausage – just as skilled writer can turn iffy material into a readable book… but are you that sausage maker? Or that writer? I am not.

There are myriad sausage recipes. Sausage made of everything from bear to squirrel, pork to beef, turkey to fish. Even vegan. Sausages with everything from cranberries to chardonnay in them. But oddly they have two essential ingredients, in essential proportions. Stray too far from either and your sausage doesn’t work. And those are fat and salt. Not the obvious – people say it’s a bear or boar or chicken sausage. They don’t say ‘it’s a fat sausage’. “Yuck!” would be the response. And indeed yuck is appropriate if you don’t get that proportion (around 20%) right. Too much and it becomes a greasy horrible thing. By the time it cooks out the sausage meat and other ingredients taste greasy and overcooked. And too little and it is dry and tasteless. Vegan is particularly difficult because of the whole ‘fat’ thing. I gather it’s considered bad to suggest using plump ones. But I gather one can buy vegan suet.

For me, in writing, that’s the story, the action, the adventure. In some shape or form it has to be in every worthwhile read. Yes, actually you can have too much. Or too little, and vast focus on the other ingredients – be they the setting or the social justice outrage of the week – they tend to dry and un-appealing. And the salt… well those are the characters. And yes, once again there is such a thing as too much – or too bland when it is merely count the pre-expected tokens. I wait with amusement for the first orange haired villain s to appear…

Oddly, in sausages, the fat is the hard part to handle. It clags up your mincer, won’t go through without careful handling. The meat or fowl – no matter what they are, are easy. The onion – if you use it– might make you cry, but it’s not hard to deal with. The fat… it has to be pretty close to frozen to mince well. The same is true in writing. That essential ‘carrier’ is the hard part to write well. Any dam fool can write the rest. Even the bits which make you cry.

Now for most sausages the texture is fine. It’s not essential, but actually there is a reason for it being successful and thus popular, and that comes back to the fat and the salt. Mixing the ingredients is vital – mixing them well. Commonly the mix is put through the mincer a second time, after a very vigorous mixing. And isn’t that true of novels too: large chunks of unmixed say description, or angst, or even action make the book less of a pleasure. Hard going. Yes, even it is the right amount, and it’ll all mix in your head, eventually. That’s like telling me the sausage will all mix in my stomach. That’s not where I want it to mix.

Once made, mixed and cooked a sample and tasted and adjusted your sausage filling (yes, just like books they require some adjustment) comes the part about getting it into a sausage. Ahem. In order to illustrate this I need you to remember – the casing is gut (or fake-gut). It’s been inverted, scrubbed, salted… and now is in 7 yard lengths. Now as a trivial detail, when bought in bulk (as I do) you’ve got maybe 20 seven yard lengths attached to one plastic ring to bind and bring the sausageer into darkness, and depair. The skein of skins is quite a job. If you can climb a seven yard ladder… (yes I tried that) and dangle and shake… no it takes patience, care and perseverance. And then when you have your gut (or story) all untangled you fill it with water and check for holes. In novels those can be fixed. In sausages you knot off and start again.

Then you do a sort of reverse condom – getting 7 yards onto six inches of spout. You push a little of your mix through the spout, and tie off. If you don’t do this you get a fat bubble of nothing – well air, as your first sausage. And that is the mistake all too many writers make – they have a great mixture in the sausage machine (well their heads as the story. But they start with a big wodge of nothing. In sausages that makes gat go rancid. In books it makes the reader go rancid about the book.

And then it’s a question of pace. You can’t actually fill the sausage skin to bursting because 1) they do burst, and 2) you still need to form links. You’ve got to feed mix into the maw of the the machine and control the gut flowing off the spout. And it all happens way too fast, and as an amateur, the disasters can be both spectacular and messy. Trust me and my ceiling on this. And if you can’t see how this is rather like writing, I despair of you.

At the end… a sausage is a linear thing. It has a beginning and an end, it is constrained by the gut. Yes, you form it into links, but a sausage isn’t made in links – any more than a book is. It’s made as a whole sausage. Chapters shape it.

With all of this: practice makes you better and it easier. It doesn’t get ‘easy’ (I’ve made 250 pounds of sausage in one single stint – and many smaller batches). It just gets a little easier. Yes, when you look back… well you’ve come a long way (especially with twisting the links – it used to take me hours to do one string.). I’ve come on yards and yards and yards since then, in fact. Just like writing.

Now, I have about 50 more pounds of sausage to make tomorrow. Just think how being my assistant could help your writing career…

No, actually my name is not Tom Sawyer. It’s Dave Freer. But when we’ve finished on sausages I have a picket fence that needs whitewashing…

Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family… No, I wasn’t actually referring to the ancient Egyptian nobility’s tradition of marrying their own daughters. They often say genetics is nature’s revenge on parents, and in this I imagine they considerably increased their chances of genetic problems. No, I was referring to the familial saga.

It’s an interesting little branch of sf and fantasy, and fiction in general, and politics (which has a lot in common with Fantasy – although given some of the antics you start wondering about this inbreeding – and if this is a ‘Game of Thrones’ reality show with no likable characters allowed to survive.)

I was thinking about this as a result of a comment from a reader – plainly someone (like me) to whom family is important. After all: we like to read books about things that are important to us, with characters that we can at least support if not love or identify with.

Maybe when you’re 16 (or not maturing much past) or single, the heart of a story is the drama and the hook up… but honestly the older I get the more I love books that at very least hint to a continuation. Maybe it is mortality catching up on me. Maybe the lack of grandkids seeing as my boys are now grown up and married and keeping me waiting… I look forward to helping the young tykes be suitable vengeance on my boys. I want to corrupt the youth with my song (yes, that is a Zelazny reference) and teach the ancient traditional ways of my people — in a fashion that horrifies the very people raving on about the wickedness of cultural imperialism. Mine are a hunting people, a warrior people, and learning to use the tools of the trade – the knife, the spear and the gun are our way. Funny, that’s not cutesy culture anymore, and cultural imperialism in doing away with that is entirely different. But aside from that – well there is a fascination in family. Military sf – and modern literary sf (where families, children and a healthy interest in future generations just fails to be unique, like all the rest) do have a harder time of it, although Bujold does weave it in well to her military sf. But the rest of sf/fantasy? THE ROLLING STONES. My HEIRS OF ALEXANDRA books – there are definitely some.

So: is it rare? Has it become less common? Is this sf/fantasy/fiction in general reflecting the diminishing role of the family in society (or at least in NY publishing and who they choose to publish) Or is just a false impression of mine, nothing to do with reality? Was the Scouring of the Shire the least important part of LotR and just important to me?

More important, as writers, why does it work, if it does? And what of books, series that follow generations. I can see the attraction – you want to know what became of those heroes that one invested so much in. But is it good for the reader? Is going to get the best out of a writer? I was thinking of some I enjoyed – DUNE sequence (to my mind got weaker), Heyer’s THESE OLD SHADES, and then DEVIL’S CUB (which got better to my mind) SHOGUN and the follow ons (which I liked less).

What are your thoughts?

Slog

I see in today’s paper that Australian research identifies me as a ‘slogger’ – a bloke who would like to work less but needs the money. And there I thought I was just a lazy beggar who would like to fish a bit more often.

The interesting part to their whole schpiel – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I am not a pigeon and they have a desperate need to put everyone in pigeon-holes – was that it seemed to hinge aspiration and reward… and that it was plainly very, very viewpoint orientated.

According to them, I would be less well socially connected, and less adept at it than any other group. Now I’m no Kim Kardashian (just in case you failed to notice the beard) and I’m a failure at twittering my every moment and movement (including bowel, or, after alphabet soup, vowel). But I have if anything too good an actual social life and chat to too many people the book-of-faces.

I’m a writer, I like to watch, to listen, to study people, to think about what they say, and why they say it. This means I can better grasp what a character – who is vastly different to me in every imaginable way, and possibly some I would rather not imagine – would plausibly react in the bloody awful mess I put them in my books. I am kind like that. I mean, here I am playing god, I could at least have them win the Lotto, meet Mr or Miss Right, and live happily ever after with a large library and enough Chateau Lar Feet (as this is Dave Freer writing, not something common like Chateau Lafite) and Magret de Canard with a black cherry reduction, to at least die happy. Nooo, instead I put them in awful positions (some not even in Kama Sutra) facing certain death, usually sober and before dinner. Yes, I am a miserable bastard. Being one is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, tough jobs are supposed to pay well (which would put me on the wrong side of the pigeon-hole margin). Sadly, no one else seems to think it a tough job (one of these point-of-view things I alluded to). In terms of aspiration, however, I’ve never come across an author who didn’t aspire to being rich and successful. I’ve met an awful lot who aspire to be Castle on TV – rich famous and living the good life without all the tedium of actually writing. I’ve met others – and I’d put myself among them, who would do the job if they didn’t get to write, and fair number who could certainly have been richer than an author is likely to be, if they’d chosen a different path. Some of them even realized that before they went down the writer’s path.

Now, sloggers (according to pigeon-holers) work because they must, and don’t earn much, or ever hope to earn much. Yet… all novelists, for at least for a substantive part of their job are literally sloggers. Producing a book (let alone a career as an author) is a long-haul process. And part of any long haul process is sheer dogged determination – or plain old-fashioned slog (unless you are Castle, and that only happens on TV.) Even if somehow you do make every ounce of writing your twentieth novel a thing of joy (and yes, I manage to end up loving my books, even those I wished I had never agreed to write), there is still editing and proofs, and then inserting the proof corrections.

And even those of us who love the writing itself are faced with horrible parts of it. For me the most difficult is writing the ‘links’ between the scenes which I have to make sure maintain continuity – usually complex – and yet must be short, clean… and the reader is barely aware of. There is always a resentful part of my mind that says ‘I am working my butt off to make this slick, clear… and virtually invisible. You would only know it existed at all (if I have done it well) if it wasn’t there. Like the servant who actually did the cleaning in the society hostess’s home (and listens to her being praised for it), there is a degree of resentment that my hardest and, IMO some of my best work is something that is only good if no one knows I’ve done it.

The times of sheer dogged slogging is an unavoidable fact of life for 99.99998% of any author who makes a career out of it. You just can’t let it show in your writing, because your readers are paying you for tedious attention to detail in your work, not for tedium in their entertainment.

Like my laziness… it’s a question of perspective and perception. I’m not much good at just sit-and-do nothing. Hell for me would be sunbathing. I do work long hours, but I have slowed down from 5 hours sleep a night – which is when I wasn’t being lazy. I’ve actually got a rigid system of self-bribery and corruption worked into a structured calendar, word counts – which have timed ‘rewards’ of checking facebook, or working in the garden, or going fishing – yes, I really do book the hours, and even try to enforce some reading, research and even free time. I’m not very good at the latter, but there is a point where you’re either staring at the screen or writing crap you will delete. It is, compared to most office workers, terribly regimented and disciplined – and the boss watches every damn thing I do.

Of course to the reader who is waiting for the next book I’m also a useless, lazy scut who never gets around to it.

So: as usual this is all about writing and technique. And as usual I have been trying to do what I am informed is wicked colonial imperialism – showing not telling. If that’s wicked imperialism, bring it on, I reckon, because it works for readers. ‘Wicked’ is a point of view issue too. What I was trying to explain is a layer of complexity that many writers never quite grasp.

At the bottom end characters are WYSIYG (what you see is what you get) which is lovely when translating e-books, but a bit weak as a character. The character is as they are portrayed – both in how they see themselves, and, identically as they are seen by anyone else. IE. Joe is a hard-working, clever, kind man. That’s how Joe sees himself, and how other characters see Joe. That is also how the readers see Joe. And oddly, comments like ‘unrealistic/ dull/poor/one-dimensional characters’ will creep into the reviews. That may be true, but I have often found this really is an inability to express something the reader is aware of without grasping quite what causes the disconnect.

The disconnect is of course, that what the character perceives themselves as – from their own point of view – is never what others see them as. Many writers manage this reasonably well. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary (another character) sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling.

This is real life. Listen to any dispute and you may think that the two principals are describing a separate set of events. Divorce cases, doubly so. And when you get down to poltics… Well, looking at it from Australia, ardent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s supporters plainly live in widely separated alternate universes which branched off from each other just after there first was light.

Dispassionately, and from neither point of view… exists another real story entirely, with more or less elements from both and things which are in neither viewpoint. Just so with the story in the READER’S head. This is the stage which great authors get to. They understand that they’re working with each character’s perception of themselves, and the other (often multiple) character’s perception of themselves AND of the other characters. All of this adds up to the author carrying his or authorial perception of the character to the reader. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling. Mary sees herself as not popular, and unhappy about this, and far brighter than Joe. Joe sees Mary as happy, loving and understanding, and not too bright. Both of their actions and responses are shaped by own perceptions… and by reality (in this case, authorial reality) The clever author manages to carry through the ‘reality’ that Mary doesn’t care for Joe, but wants to be liked, and is manipulating his feelings. She’s not actually as bright as she thinks she is, or she would realize that her un-lovable-ness isn’t how Joe sees her. But she’s brighter than Joe think she is. Joe, on the hand is hard-working, none-too-bright, but is actually kind.

It’s a multi-dimensional maze, which the reader SHOULD be unaware of as they’re led through. It’s a slog, getting it right, because to do so you will have to enter (at least) three different head-spaces.

This is why head-hopping is a poor idea. It confuses most authors, and that in turn confuses most readers. That is why the discipline exists, not for its own sake.

Of course, it’s never that simple. The ‘authorial’ head-space will quite possibly be not quite the way the reader sees it. When I was writing JOY COMETH WITH THE MORNING I wrote the book from a single point of view (hers) but made it clear by the responses of the other characters to her, that her perspective was not theirs, and that they saw her quite differently – and of course, I as the author saw all of them quite differently.

What I should have been prepared for… but wasn’t, was the range of very different ways readers saw her.

It’s a complex web we weave.

But we set out to deceive.

That’s why it is called ‘fiction.’

What is a good book?

That seems to be the question everyone thinks they have the answer to. The truth, however, is that there is no one “correct” definition. A good book truly is in the eye of the beholder. Just as there is no one correct way to write (the process of writing), there is no one correct definition for what a good book happens to be. Most of us understand that. Unfortunately, there are those (representing multiple sides of the spectrum) who believe they have the one true answer. The trouble with this is it leaves readers out of the equation and that is something we, as writers, cannot do.

Let me start by saying this is not going to turn into a debate about the Hugos. As far as I’m concerned, that is a moot point. Even though the Hugos are supposed to be a fan award, it has been made clear by some that they don’t want the every day fan included. They are trying their best to exclude anyone whose work — and maybe whose vote — doesn’t meet some arbitrary criteria of “good”. The fact there was even a proposal before the business meeting to allow the Hugo Committee to add nominees to the list if they felt there weren’t enough quality nominations proves that. Such an act smacks of telling fans they aren’t good enough or sophisticated enough to know what a good book is. My only question to the Hugo Committee and those who have continued to try to keep voters away from the process is why they don’t just amend the rules and make the Hugo a juried award? That way they can do whatever they want with the award without having to deal with the unwashed masses of readers who still foolishly think their opinion might matter.

Okay, I had to go there. Sorry. But that is all I’m going to say about the Hugos.

So what does make a good book? As I said in the first paragraph, there is no absolutely correct answer. Some readers want character driven stories. Others want plot driven. Some want literary works while others want pulp. Some want lots of sex and others want no sex, no matter what the genre. Once, all these diverse likes and dislikes meant all an author could do was trust his agent and publisher to accurately predict what the reading public would buy.

But now, with indie going strong (despite what a certain person who has received a government grant to write a book and has yet to do so), we aren’t as limited as we once were. We can write what we believe is a good book and leave it to the public to let us know if they liked it or not. What a lot of us are finding is that the books we couldn’t get past the front door of an agency now sell quite well as an indie publication. We can write the stories we want to and, as long as we pay attention to our reviews and what our fans say on social media and via email, we can build a career. Yes, there are benefits to traditional publishing but those benefits are lessening with the passage of time.

So, what is a good book?

It is a book that readers want to read. As a writer, it means knowing your target audience and hitting the cues they want. It means hooking the reader quickly and keeping them interested. It means giving them a story they want to talk about to their friends and family. It means entertaining and if you happen to educate a little along the way, more power to you.

What it doesn’t mean is preaching to your audience to the point they lose interest in the story. A skilled storyteller is a craftsman who can intertwine story and character and lesson all in one without beating the reader over the head with the message. I don’t know about you, but I will think about the message a lot more if it is subtle than I will if it is in my face.

I’ve done a great deal of reading the last few weeks. Between being ill and having to deal with repairmen, etc., around the house, I’ve not had the quiet I needed to write. So I read. I read traditionally published books and indie books. What I discovered was I enjoyed more indie books than I did the traditionally published books. Why? I could feel the passion of the indie writers in their work, a passion I did not feel in the traditionally published books. It was as if the indie authors liked what they were writing where the traditionally published authors — and these were best sellers in multiple genres — were just going through the motions. The best sellers had found a formula that worked to make them best sellers and they weren’t about to step away from the formula while the indies weren’t afraid to take chances and try new things.

Something else that struck me as I read was the lie we see so often that indie published books have more errors and need more editing than traditionally published books. I went back last night and looked at several examples of both just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. The proofreading errors between the two sets was just about even. So no, indie books did not seem to need more proofing than traditionally published books.

Something that did strike me was something I had noticed much earlier. More traditionally published books had many more formatting errors than the indie published books did. Weird paragraph breaks. No paragraph indents. Blank screens. Lack of spacing between the chapter title and the first line of text. I saw many more of those sorts of errors with traditionally published e-books than I did with indie books. Why? My only guess is that the trads don’t use the proper programs to convert to digital and then they don’t do quality checks.

And, while formatting isn’t exactly what most of us think about when we think about what makes up a good book, for an e-book reader, it is something writers and publishers should always keep in mind. If the e-book doesn’t look like a printed book, we register it. If we see an e-book where a publisher or author hasn’t taken time to make sure it “looks” right, we wonder why. That is especially true in the case of traditionally published e-books that cost as much, if not more, than their print equivalents.

So, what makes a good book in my opinion? One that keeps my attention. Fiction needs to entertain me and make me want to flip the page. I like learning something when I read but I don’t want to be preached to. Be subtle when you weave the message in. Make your characters believable. Don’t break your characters or change their personalities without having a darned good reason for it and be sure to foreshadow it. Don’t throw something in just because you think you have to — no matter what that something is. If you think it needs to be there, make sure the plot or character development require it.

There are times I want to read something that is literary. I want to see a world painted with words. There are other times I want to fly to the furthest reaches of the universe. Thrill me. Scare me. Give me warm fuzzies. Fiction for me, like it is for most readers, entertainment. Never forget that. As I said early on, remember your target audience and remember what they expect from the genre. Push the boundaries, yes, but not to the point you break them without explanation.

So, what makes a good book for you?