Writer’s Wednesday: An inspired Setting

Setting is something I struggle to write. Not the nuts and bolts of description, but the actual setting of a story. There are so many little things in the real world that bring it to life, and it’s damnably hard to capture those in a novel. Some authors are excellent at it, and I’ve come to believe (more and more) that an inspired setting equals a better book.

There are several basic ways to approach settings. To some extent, all fictional settings are fantastical extrapolation. Historical fiction tends to be less so, and sci-fi and epic fantasy can have entirely fabricated settings. It’s a spectrum of how much or little the author cares to extrapolate or invent or blend the real world into their setting. At some point, though, setting has to be based on something real, whether it be a scientific idea or historical facts.

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I’m currently working my way through the Long Earth series that’s authored jointly by Steven Baxter and Terry Pratchett (RIP). The premise is that humans learn how to ‘step’ between an infinite number of multiverses (Earths, in the first several novels), and the books deal with how this changes the various human societies. The first book is an adventure travelogue, which is a decent stand alone if you decide you don’t want to read the remainder of the series. Both Pratchett and Baxter have this knack of taking scientific and fantastical concepts and creating settings that drive the story forward. (Note: this series feels more in line with Baxter’s work than Pratchett’s, which is understandable.) In The Long Earth, the plot is the setting. The idea of an infinite number of worlds drives everything forward, and there could’ve been a different character per chapter, and it would’ve worked. The thing is, I didn’t necessarily care for the characters in The Long Earth. This is something a friend mentioned about the novel: they didn’t like the characters.

And yet, they finished the novel and loved it.

That seems to dash against the character-centered storytelling wisdom that gets passed around. That doesn’t mean that the characters in The Long Earth series are poorly written characters or that they don’t do the things characters are supposed to do in a novel. They have goals and passions; they’re well-rounded people, but they’re not the main draw of the novel. They don’t drive the plot. The setting does.

Yes, you can cheat and say that the setting is a character, but it’s not. (I loved Lost, but ‘the island is a character’ schlock that got thrown around there was equally idiotic.) There are fundamentally different ways a setting and a character are portrayed. A setting doesn’t have hobbies or interests or desires. A setting just is. Characters can’t reason with a setting (most of the time…), and that’s a source of conflict. Characters can reason with other characters (again, most of the time…), which is also conflict, but they’re different. A setting conflict is man verses nature, which makes the story different than man verses man. There are usually elements of both in a story, and that’s certainly true of The Long Earth, but a major focus of the novel is the man verses nature aspect, and the man verses man plots kind of dragged the story down for me.

I love backpacking. There’s something implacable about the natural world that humbles and challenges you. That’s different than how you deal with difficult people in your life. The setting matters. It’s not arbitrary, and if you’re writing fantasy, that’s doubly so. I’ll save my geography and fantasy map rants for another day, but you can have a very small geographic area as your setting and make it feel huge if you understand the realities of a complex setting.

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The picture above is my all time favorite hiking photo (my boyfriend took it because he has a better eye for composition than I’ll ever have). Every time I look at it, I feel what it was like to eat lunch in that meadow. I remember the glacial waterfall that’s out of scene. I know how close we were to crossing a mountain pass. The were realities of that moment–exhaustion, relaxation, and wonder–that compose the basis of why I love to go into the outdoors. That picture is like a good setting: it takes something real and turns it into something fantastical.

Ultimately, setting is mood. Adding a character can’t change the entire tone of a novel the way swapping the setting can. This is why things get set IN SPACE. The tone is changed, old is new, and a heightened level of conflict and interest is found.

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Writer’s Wednesday: We all write differently

There’s some cliche about there being ‘no right way to skin a cat’ or something, but that’s just gross. The gist of the statement is that there’s no one way to do things. On r/YAwriters there was a discussion about bad writing advice. The original post tackles such tried and true ideas as ‘write what you know’, ‘show, don’t tell’, ‘raise the stakes’, and ‘kill your darlings’. Mary Robinette Kowal does a fantastic job at taking some of these things apart; especially dear to me is the ripping up of ‘kill your darlings’. For the love of God and/or Satan, don’t you dare rip up the good parts of your book just because you believe you have to be more critical of the things you love the most. Readers can feel that passion, so be critical, but no unnecessary book surgery.

The discussion on r/YAwriters delved deeper into other tried and true aspects of writing advice, which shows one thing: we all do this writing thing differently.

Write Everyday

There is no one right way to write a novel. You’ve got to write it one way or another, but trying to ape another author’s writing style might not work for you. I go days (months, sometimes) without writing fiction, but I’m a speed drafter. I can write 2000 words a day, sure whatever, but I personally feel writing more words per day helps me link up the emotions and pacing between scenes better. That said, I get very few days to sit down and write 6000+ words a day, so yeah, there are plenty of days I just won’t write. There are others who’d get twitchy if they had to write for more than an hour or two a day and can’t speed draft.

Harlequin Valentine summed up the issue with this piece of advice:

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It’s not quite the same as the ones here but one that gets me is “write every day” – I unfortunately took that to mean that if you don’t write every day then you’ve failed horribly and need to give up being a writer…

I’ve always thought that better advice (for people who take things too literally like my younger self) would be: “set yourself high but achievable writing goals and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always make them”.

When I wrote about not doing NaNoWriMo, I didn’t include this reason, but my reaction against this piece of advice is probably another reason NaNo doesn’t work for me. It’s just not what I do. Writing everyday can make my story feel like suck. (I don’t want my story to feel like suck until I have to edit it…I’ll have plenty time to contemplate how bad it is then.)

Writer’s Write

Let me put this one to bed: writer’s do a lot of things. One of those things must, by it’s very definition, be writing. That said, writer’s also can edit, market, tweet, blog, book sign, book tour, read contracts, negotiate with agents/publishers, approve cover art, and a whole mess of other things I cannot think of. There’s way more to this gig (and being a successful author) than just writing. You’ve got to write, yes, but there are so many other parts of this career. One thing people often over look is hustling and branding. Whether they do it intentionally or not, a lot of successful creative people have branded themselves and are always on, always selling themselves and their work even if it’s subtle. Being an author is about more than just the work itself, and if you’re famous enough, there’s always ghost writers.

Write What You Want to Read

There is a niche for everything in the world. The larger that niche, though, the easier time your story might have finding readers. Writing an alternate history about were pigs struggling against monarchy in 17th century France might be great, but the number of people who want to read that story could be shockingly small. Or not! You don’t know. When I write, I do have a (vague) audience in mind–but it’s not always the same audience for every story. You might want to read some erotica, but those readers aren’t necessarily the same ones who might like your sweet-romance YA (even if you like both). Today, self-publishing can eliminate the need for pen names, but plenty of authors still use them to cross genres because what you want to read doesn’t necessarily line up with the groups of readers you’re trying to reach. This is more of a marketing thing, sure, and some authors do genre hop successfully (Delilah Dawson comes to mind). But the main point is this: what you want to read may limit your readership. Some of you (and sometimes me) don’t really care, but it’s worth pointing out the cynical, business aspect even if it is considered the Dark Side of being a writer.

Writer’s Wednesday: On opting out of NaNoWriMo

It’s time for the most sacred holiday among writers: National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the writing community comes together and pounds out millions (maybe billions) of words worldwide, all in service of finishing their novels. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is a simple: write 50,000 words (or the entire first draft of your novel, which ever comes first) in a month. The main goal behind NaNoWriMo is to discipline yourself to write everyday, no matter what distractions there are in life. Writing first! Writer’s write! Art harder!

We live in an age of constant gratification and distraction. I get it: lots of things threaten to take priority in life. Loved ones, waitressing shifts, going for a run, Steam sales, the new season of Korra…shhh, shhh I understand. I’m here for you. It’s not easy making time for creativity. Are there valid reasons to do NaNoWriMo? Yes, and here are a few:

  • Writing community. Twitter and the NaNo boards are going to be JUMPING with people frothing at the mouth to talk about their new novel this month. THEY WILL BE SO EXCITED to post word count (always word count!), discuss characters, dissect plot…all of the things we writers never have enough people on earth to talk about. (Hey, it’s why I started this blog!)
  • Discipline. Making time for writing is hard. Developing productive habits and getting in a rhythm is something you’ve got to learn, homefries, if you’re going to write things or just get things done in general. NaNoWriMo can and absolutely will teach you how long a scene should be, how many hours it takes before you want to bash your head into a wall, and most importantly, how to write consistently.
  • Getting shit done. This is a corollary to the point above, but if you’re stuck on an idea, NaNo it out. Don’t let your little brain nugget rot away. Get it out there, see what it is on paper, and move on.
  • Transitioning into a new genre. Want to experiment with writing erotica or Westerns? Never written a space opera? DO IT NOW. NaNo is the time for experimentation. Make it happen!

Still the best comic about NaNo

However, I will not be doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m here to talk to those of you writers who feel like you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines twiddling your metaphorical thumbs this year. I’ve done NaNo; I even ‘won’ NaNo. I’m not participating this year. Gasp! Writing Sacrilege! Wait, wait, before you click away, let me tell you my experience with NaNo, and then lay out some reasons why it’s perfectly okay to opt out of NaNoWriMo and be the black sheep of the writing community.

When I did NaNo, I had a project that was partially finished, but it needed to be rewritten from the beginning. The idea changed a lot when I started to write it (this is a common theme with my writing…), and it needed demolished completely for it to be a better story. This was several years ago, and I’d known friends who did NaNo the previous year. I checked out the website and thought, ‘Why not? Need to get this crap done someday. Why not today?’ I made my account, popped open a new Word document, and stared to pound it out. I’d written ~75k by the end of the month, and in December, I finished the new first draft. And I realized the story sucked. Hard. Even after editing, it was all over the place and just not the right story for me to tell. So I shelved it and started new projects, which never would’ve been possible until I faced the cold, hard truth about that particular story.

The 1st of November for many writers.

Am I staying away from NaNo because I wrote a bad novel using that method? Maybe, but it helped me discover things about my writing, and one of those things is that I’m just not a NaNo type person. I can pound out the words with the best of them. My PR (personal record) for words written in a single day is 15,000. My PR for fastest rough draft was 88,000 words in 10 days, with multiple days of sustained 10,000 words per day to make that happen. Getting the word count down was never the problem for me; if that’s an issue for you, NaNo will teach you how to Art Hard.

How many novels are conceived.

That said, there really is something to all the frilly talk about the ‘creative process.’ Sometimes, what that means, is not writing. Ideas are like good wine: they need time to ferment in your head. I have to tell myself the story I want to write about half a dozen different ways before I write it down. If you’ve got an idea, and you think its ripe, write it down. Do NaNo and finish; make the dream real. But here are some reasons to bench yourself during NaNoWriMo:

  • You’ve just finished a big project. I’m coming off a marathon of a writing streak from August, September, and October. Any writing I do during November is going to be more intermittent. Word count isn’t going to be a priority if I sit down and drabble out some stories.
  • You’re working on other art. Maybe it’s not conducive to the NaNo format.
  • Real life takes priority. November might be The Month From Hell for you to write your novel, even if it’s ready to meet the page. The good news is there’s a NaNo something just about every month now, so don’t feel pressured into November if it sucks for you. Hey, my birthday’s in November, and I still don’t know why my parents picked this month. (Hint: look at where Valentine’s Day is on the calender. Yes, this turned into a sex joke.)
  • You’ve got your own writing groove.
  • You don’t feel particularly inclined to participate in the NaNo specific writing community.

There are probably more reasons why you should or shouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, but I’m just listing some of them that have been prominent for me and those I know who’ve done NaNo. The idea of always writing, always being on point and ready to sell yourself, is so pervasive in creative culture today. Sometimes, you need to turn that off to reconnect with yourself and your stories. At least, this has been true for me. This isn’t a popular opinion, but when I turn that nebulous thing on to write, it’s like an atom bomb blowing up in my head. It’s powerful, but I can’t sustain that kind of energy indefinitely. The smart asses among you will say ‘build a nuclear plant, duh’, but that’s more like editing for me than rough draft writing. The power is there, but in a more controlled way. So write if you have to write, edit if you need to edit, and let your ideas get delicious in your head. Whatever it takes, and remember, if you’re doing NaNo or not: you’re not alone.

Writer’s Wednesday: Character Agency

I’m in the midst of finishing/starting a big project, and I realized what’s drawn me so deeply into this story (or set of stories) is my characters. That’s because it never feels like any character in the story is a prop piece; no one is hanging out in this story just to help or further another character’s arc. The plot requires all the characters, and none of them want to feel useless; they come and go when they have a part to play, which has made this story difficult at times, but also a thrill ride to write. All the characters have their own agendas, and whenever I’ve been stuck, focusing on what each character wants helps crack the story open again.

Think about your favorite stories (books, movies, TV, comics, wev). Each major character has their own reason(s) for being there, don’t they? Even the villain (and especially the villain) should have unique motives for being involved in the action. That’s because no one lives their lives, hoping to be the set piece in someone else’s life. Who wants to do that? We all want are own story; we think what happens is about us. Every side character and villain thinks it’s their story, not the heroes.

LSP gets it.

That’s why fridging a character is such a pernicious thing to do, too. It’s traditionally been done with women, but there might be examples of it being done with men, too. (A father or brother dying could qualify.) That character is essentially boiled down to a prop, a piece of set decoration for someone else’s pain and growth. If you’re going to off a character, sure, their death is going to impact the rest of the story (as it sometimes should), but maybe they’ve contributed their own little part to the story or went out fulfilling (or failing to fulfill) their own wants and needs. GRRM may have oodles of characters, but each character feels like they’ve come into the story for their own reasons. It’s a bit easier to show that each character is unique in multi-POV stories, me thinks, but it can definitely be done in single POV stories as well. Two of my favorite stories/series growing up were Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series and Harry Potter. One of the things that subconsciously drew me to these stories was that all the characters felt real to me. When I went back and read them as an adult, I was struck by how the supporting cast has so much of their own agenda; sure, the many story is about Harry or Sabriel, and other characters take that journey with them.

But the main point is that it’s a with not a because.

People aren’t prizes (hint: people owned by other people are slaves), and reducing characters to objects is the fastest way (for me personally) to lose interest in a story. It’s the princess in a castle syndrome; the hero needs to rescue the person in the highest tower or at the center of the maze, but it’s difficult to understand why or empathize with the hero’s quest because we don’t even know who this person is! They’re an abstraction to us, an ideal. Sure, me might care because we like the hero and want them to succeed, but if they’ve never met the person they’re trying to save, it’s hard to see why they’d want to. At least own up to the fact that you’re chasing an ideal, hero, and not a person. Jeez.

Of all the stories that got the ‘princess in a tower’ thing right, it was Shrek. Fiona starts out as an ideal, a princess to be won, but she’s not the end game of the story. When she’s saved, we find she has her own wants, her own desires and needs. It’s a twist, and a good one, in the traditional story of rescuing a damsel in distress. She wants to break her curse, and we’re rooting for her to do it (of course, not in the way she’d like it to be done, but that’s dramatic irony for you). This is because Fiona has agency: she’s in the story for her own reasons. Everything else about a character can change, but the act of checking to see if the character is joining the quest (or sabotaging the quest) for their own goals helps more than all the complex world-building or 3D chess level plot machinations ever will into making a story feel full and alive. Good story tellers do this because they’re in love with their characters (or love/hate with some of them), and they don’t want to leave any of them without a good reason to be participating in the plot. You, dear reader, are welcome to think the reasons given are stupid or contrived, but that’s another post for another day.

They came for second breakfast.