Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bad decisions make good stories

Agent Rachelle Gardner had a good post recently on the importance of proactive protagonists. A good protagonist doesn’t just wander along, reacting to events, they make the events of the story happen. They take action, make decisions.

They can make mistakes, but what they cannot do is sit passively waiting for the story to happen to them.

This ties in with another well-known truth of writing – that in fact, mistakes are where the story happens. If everything goes smoothly, it’s not much of a story. But if every time the protagonist tries to solve their initial problem, they just dig themselves deeper into a hole, the story gets interesting.

Bad decisions make good stories.

It amazes me how I can know all this in theory, yet in practice, I not only make all these writing mistakes I’ve read about, but I don’t even see that I’ve made them.

I’m 90,000 words into Dragonheart, and not till my heroine hurls an accusation at her long-lost love do I look at what I’ve just typed and go hang on … She’s right! She did devote the whole first part of the story to doing X to try to be reunited with him. So how come as soon as she met up with some other characters who wanted to do the exact opposite of X she meekly fell in with their plans? How the hell does that work?

There’s a gaping hole in her motivation you could drive a truck through and I didn’t even realise. She was just floating along, letting other characters drive the action. And look what a cool conflict I missed! She wants X, her allies want the exact opposite – sparks should be flying. She should be up to her armpits in alligators, as everything she does makes the situation worse, not cheerfully letting these other characters run her life for her.

Sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees. I get so tangled up in the intricacies of the subplots I forget about the big things.

I guess that’s why they invented revision.

Monday, 28 September 2009

I'm not eating THAT!

“What’s for dinner, Mama?” asks Baby Duck.

“Peanut veal,” I say.

He gives me a doubtful look. “I don’t think I like peanut beetles.”

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Dave Allen lives!

Does anyone remember Dave Allen? He was a marvellous Irish comedian whose Friday night show was staple viewing in our house when I was growing up. He loved to poke fun at religious rituals and many of his skits and routines have passed into family lore.

A favourite was the one where the bishop took off his tall, pointy hat – to reveal a tall, pointy head underneath.

Dave Allen has been dead since 2005, but his memory well and truly lives on.

Today I was sitting next to my sister in church. My sister who is a grandmother. Supposedly mature. Dave Allen was the furthest thing from my mind as I watched a sweet crowd of little children receiving the bishop’s blessing. And then …

The bishop took off his tall, pointy hat. Dear Reader, it pains me to tell you, but my sister, who is a good Catholic and absolutely old enough to know better – my sister sniggered.

I didn’t even have to look at her. I knew at once the picture in her head, and I was undone. My shoulders shook so hard from holding it in that Drama Duck demanded to know what I was laughing at.

So much for setting a good example. At least Dave Allen would be proud.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The soul of an accountant

I was amusing myself trying to write haiku yesterday. There’s a local haiku competition coming up and I thought, why not? I’ll give it a whirl.

I remember writing haiku at school when I was about Drama Duck’s age. Back then, of course, it was all about the physical structure: the three lines of five syllables, then seven, then five again. I doubt my teacher even mentioned the finer points of nature/seasonal imagery or the way a haiku captures the essence of a moment, gives an unexpected insight. If she did, I certainly wasn't listening!

I found a gorgeous definition of haiku, itself a haiku, on the haikuoz website, by a bloke from Perth called Andrew Lansdown:

"Haiku are pebbles
poets lob into the pond
of our emotions."

So I was sitting there, scribbling away, counting syllables on my fingers, when Demon Duck asked me what I was doing.

“Writing haiku,” I said.

“Oh, we’ve done that at school,” she says, with all the lofty confidence of a nine-year-old. “I’ve written 16.”

Then she looked over what I’d written, counted the syllables and said, “That’s good, Mum, you’ve got it right.”

Next up was Mr I-don’t-have-a-poetic-bone-in-my-body, aka the Carnivore.

“What are you doing?”

“Writing haiku.”

“What’s that?”

Maybe that nine-year-old confidence wasn’t misplaced after all. At least she knows more than her father about haiku.

After I’d explained haiku, including how they’re usually about nature, he said:

“But you could write them about anything, right? Important things, like tax?”

Later in the evening he came to tell me he’d written one, grinning from ear to ear. I present it here for your edification.

“Transfer pricing,
Thin capitalisation,
Tax office pressure.”

He is such an accountant.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Memory is a funny beast

Memory is a funny thing. If you want a phone number, the date of a friend’s wedding anniversary, the details of a long-ago conversation, I’m your woman. The Carnivore, on the other hand, like many men, can’t remember his own children’s birthdays. Some days he’s not even too sure how old they are.

You’d think, being an accountant, he’d have a bit of an edge in remembering such number-related things, but no. His memory appears to be jammed full of the plot of every novel and B-grade movie he’s ever read/seen. He can even recite dialogue from some of them.

Whereas I, the more word-focused person, can reread novels without remembering anything of the plot. Sometimes I can recall one scene, or a character I liked, maybe a hazy recollection of the initial set-up, but the ending comes as a complete surprise.

It’s a little alarming to realise how fast my brain empties, but quite handy too. I never run out of new stories to read!

I was reading today and a new application of this anti-skill occurred to me. My eyes filled with tears at a moving bit, and the writer part of my brain stopped to analyse the effect. I wondered if the author felt moved when she wrote it. Maybe she was deliberately trying to engender this effect. If so, how would she know if she’d succeeded? Since she knew what she was aiming for, since she’d constructed the sadness, she couldn’t very well come at it as a new reader would, and experience the sadness.

Then I realised, due to the black hole in my memory where plots go to die, I can have my writerly cake and eat it too. (Which has always struck me as an odd expression. “You want to have your cake and eat it too!” people say, as if that’s a bad thing. But what else are you going to do with cake? Who are these weirdos who just want to look at their cake?)

I only have to leave anything I write a few months and I forget so much of it it’s like reading something somebody else wrote. Very handy for assessing what effect the story might have on a reader, though a little awkward if I ever do get published and people want to discuss my novels with me. “So Marina, why did you have So-and-so do X in your story?” “Er … remind me who So-and-so is again?”

Yesterday I reread a short story I finished back in June. That’s only three months ago. Couldn’t wait to get to the end to see what happened.

How could I forget so quickly?

At least I still liked it. Old Whatsername writes a pretty mean story when they let her out of the padded room.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Recurring themes

Like many great writers, Baby Duck has a favourite theme he returns to over and over again. His backlist would be the envy of many a writer, and all except one of his works – the classic Chickens in Space – features monsters. But even Chickens in Space is generously supplied with aliens, which is nearly the same thing.

He spends hours sometimes, drawing page after page, then he brings them to me to staple together and he dictates the text to me. If I’m really lucky I get to palm this job off on to Drama Duck, though then I worry that he’ll show it to someone and they’ll think I made all those spelling mistakes, so usually I do it. It can take an awfully long time sometimes, but its kinda fun too. His monsters are endlessly inventive, though the story usually follows a well-worn track, featuring a portal that opens into our world to let the monsters in, followed by lots of fights and explosions. Not too dissimilar to your average box-office smash, in other words.

The latest effort features a new twist – meta-text. After a dozen pages of the usual monster mayhem, I find something puzzling.

“Why is this monster being attacked by a giant pencil?” I ask.

The look he gives me says he’s wondering how someone can be that stupid and still tie their own shoelaces.

“He’s not being attacked by a giant pencil, Mum. That’s just showing people how to draw him.”

It’s so hard to get good mothers these days.

I find recurring themes in my own work too. Some are conscious. I’m fascinated by transformations, for instance. One of my favourite fairytales is Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid is another. I love a good makeover story, like Cinderella, or Grease. Shapeshifters and werewolves are great. (As long as they’re not too scary. I still have nasty memories of some werewolf movies I saw about 25 years ago, back when werewolves were still beasts and not just extra-hairy toyboys, a la the current paranormal craze.)

Some recurring motifs seem to sneak in there without me realising. I was thinking about my next Nano novel the other day and a lighthouse appeared in it. That’s funny, I wrote that other story about a lighthouse Why do lighthouses keep popping up? Which led to some sniggering about phallic symbols from the more juvenile aspects of my personality, but no enlightenment. As far as I’m aware, lighthouses mean nothing to me, so why do I keep wanting to write about them? The mind is a very weird place.

What are the themes and motifs that you keep returning to? Or what themes are you drawn to in the work of others? Weird enquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Ad fail

Dear advertising agency,

You know that radio ad you produced where the smart alec voice-over lady begins, “You wouldn’t read the end of a book first, so why make a decision without seeing our beautiful range blah blah blah”?

That ad doesn’t have the effect you think it does.

Every time I hear Smartypants Lady say “You wouldn’t read the end of a book first” in that ho ho ho, we’re all adults here way, I want to shout at the radio, “HA!! Shows how much you know, lady!”. I’m too busy arguing with her to take in the rest of the sentence, or even notice what the ad is for. And I don’t think that’s what “talkback radio” is supposed to mean.

What kind of a boring universe do you come from, ad people? I thought you were meant to be creative types. Do you really think nobody ever peeks? Have you never been so caught up in a character’s dramas that you are simply compelled to flip ahead to make sure he or she makes it to the end of the book alive?

Those numbers at the bottom of each page? Some of us take those as a suggested reading order only. And those of us with freakishly tiny attention spans develop evil habits of turning big chunks of pages at a time, reading a bit, then skipping another big chunk in our efforts to get to the end and find out what happens. Later, when our curiosity is not so urgent, we go back and read the bits we skipped. Or not.

Of course, people who do that tend to end up with tottering piles of books around the house that never seem to get finished, as discussed in my post about the bookmark that had been there so long it changed colour. Which is a whole ’nother problem. Certainly not something I would recommend. Ahem.

Nevertheless, your insistence that reasonable people would never contemplate reading out of order makes me want to rush out and commit reckless acts of non-sequential reading just to spite you. I know, I’m mature like that. But come on, I can’t be the only person who gets so caught up in a book they can’t resist leaping ahead. Maybe you’re just reading the wrong kind of books.

And you know what else? I’ve even heard there are people who read the last page before they buy the book. Just to make sure there’s a Happily Ever After before they waste their money and emotional investment. Shocking, isn’t it? Can you believe that?

Oh, right. I guess not.

But you might want to rethink that ad. It sure ain’t working for this little black duck. And who knows how many other people are driving around Sydney yelling at their radios?

Yours sincerely,
Crazy Lady Who Yells At Radios

Thursday, 3 September 2009

This is going to get ugly

This year’s Nano just got a whole lot harder. Demon Duck announced tonight that she is going to do Nano too. Holy shrieking tantrums, Batman.

Demon Duck is – how shall I put this? – not the most placid of persons. I can see it now. November will be full of daily crying jags, fights and bitter complaints that everyone else is hogging the computer.

And that’s just me.

Wait until she gets started. The you-know-what will not just be hitting the fan, but knocking the fan right through the wall, destroying everything in its path before coming to rest, a twisted wreck, a mile down the road. The world is not ready for the terrifying collision of NaNoWriMo and Demon Duck’s, shall we say, underdeveloped strategies for coping with stress. Sorry about that, world. But what can I do? Her big sister has been planning excitedly for weeks.

I could refuse, on the grounds that I won’t get any writing done if she is storming down the hallway every five minutes to throw herself on her bed and sob. Unfortunately, the fact that it is true won’t win me any points in the Being a Good Parent Stakes. Instead, I will have to grit my teeth and Encourage the Budding Novelist.

Just one more thing they never tell you in antenatal classes. But don’t get me started on that.

So. My feelings about Nano are something of a mixture. There’s the usual oh I can’t wait, all tangled up with its old friend what the hell are you thinking??? There’s the twins this year I’ll be more prepared and I still have plenty of time, but now they are shadowed by their gloomy cousin Good Lord, now I’m support crew for not one, but two junior Nanoers and his sidekick this is all going to End Badly.

The sensible thing would be to do a lot of preparation. Plan and outline to the nth degree, know exactly where my story’s going before November arrives. There are people in my writing group who write like that. They even use spreadsheets to order their scenes.

I’ve been thinking about the eternal plotters vs pantsers debate as I write Dragonheart. I started with a one-page outline in very general terms that covered the initial situation, the main conflict, half-a-dozen characters and “it ends like this and they all live happily ever after”. I did more planning than I’d ever done before, considering character motivations and some worldbuilding details. The first few scenes were clear in my mind. So not a complete pantser.

Once I got stuck into the frantic terror of Nano I wished most desperately that I’d planned in more detail. Worldbuilding’s all very well, but what would the characters actually do? My brain was bursting with the effort of dreaming it all up on the fly. I resolved to be more organised and never put myself through this again. How much easier it would be if I had a scene outline for every scene, not just the first few, and all I had to do was flesh it out. Plotting was definitely the way to go.

Or was it? I’ve talked about muse bombs before: those little gifts from the subconscious. They start off as little details, mere window-dressing on a scene, but on reflection they morph into something huge and wonderful in the story. The closer I get to the end of Dragonheart, the more I can see how enormously these features have influenced the shape of my story.

They didn’t exist in the outline. Lots of things didn’t, of course; it was very basic. More importantly, they didn’t exist in my brain at the outset either, and I don’t think any amount of planning would have unearthed them. They grew out of the story as it unfolded, when I arrived at that place in the telling.

Another one appeared the other day. 83,000 words in, you’d think I’d know everything about my world. But a perfectly innocent sentence came out of a character’s mouth and I looked at what I’d just typed and went “Oh my God – how did I not see that before?”. My whole magic system got turned on its ear.

I know the plotters say that an outline isn’t set in stone. You can change it as you go along. But if you’re going to end up changing 90%, what’s the point of going to the effort of nutting it out beforehand? Dragonheart would be a very different story without the ideas that joined the party along the way, so I don’t think major plotting is the best way for me. Even though it might stop me feeling that my brain is going to explode out my ears.

That’s not to say that I won’t do any planning for Nano. I’m thinking that a happy medium might be to plan the first quarter of the book fairly tightly to get me off to a good start.

After that anything goes. And probably will.

Now I just have to find me a flame-retardant suit for when Demon Duck gets started.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

I blame Glenda Larke

I had a dreadful headache all day yesterday, and I blame Glenda Larke.

Late last week I heard her new book, The Last Stormlord, was available at my local sff bookshop. I’ve been hanging out to read this one, so “visit to Infinitas” went on the to-do list for Monday.

Unfortunately for my head, I then discovered on her blog that the whole book was up on the Voyager website for a couple of weeks. (And what is up with that? Publishers giving away the whole book for free? Which universe is this again?)

So I thought I’d take a little peek. Cue hollow laughter. I ended up staying up till crazy stupid o’clock on Sunday night reading the damn thing onscreen in teeny tiny print. Despite knowing that I would have the actual real live book in my hands the next day. Despite knowing I had to get up early. Despite the fact that my eyeballs shrivelled up and fell out of my head. I just groped under the table, picked the dog hairs off and stuck them back into their bleeding sockets.

Note to Publisher: Do not offer Gigantic Whole Novels on your website. I don’t care what your marketing gurus told you, it is not good business to make readers’ eyeballs fall out of their heads. Not much chance of people buying your product, is there, if they can no longer read.

So Voyager must share part of the blame for the monumental headache I endured yesterday. But most of it is Glenda’s fault, of course, since if she hadn’t written such a good book I might have been able to resist the lure of just one more chapter.

I imagine Glenda might point out that people who have reached my age ought to be aware that staying up reading half the night will give you a headache. And if they persist in such foolish behaviour they deserve everything they get.

Much as it pains me to disagree with one of my idols, I would have to reply that people who commit reckless acts of Awesome World-building must in turn be aware that their actions are extremely dangerous to the reading populace. Books such as The Last Stormlord should come with a warning not to operate heavy machinery after reading. I was a write-off on Monday, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the story, couldn’t wait to get back to reading it.

The story is set in the desert world of the Quartern, where rain no longer falls randomly, but is summoned and distributed by stormlords. Water’s scarcity informs the whole society, and Glenda brings this alien world to life with amazing skill, from its marvellous wildlife to the rigid hierarchies of the cities.

Through a series of misfortunes, the number of stormlords has dwindled till now there is only one, and he is rapidly failing. The search is on for a new stormlord to prevent the total breakdown of society. But no one is as they seem, as the book’s two main characters, Shale, a water-sensitive boy from the lowest caste and Terelle, a girl struggling to escape a future of prostitution, soon discover. And maybe all those stormlords didn’t die by accident …

Quick! Run to your nearest bookshop and buy it. Don’t start reading it on screen, thinking you will be able to stop reading and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Trust me, you are not that strong. That way lies the Headache from Hell.

This is a seriously good book. Can’t wait for the next one! But please, Voyager, don’t make it available on your website. My eyeballs will thank you.