Well, NaNoWriMo is quickly approaching, and as such I’m working to get a few podcasts finished so that I can concentrate on Pilgrim of the Skies. In some ways this is gravely disappointing, as I’ve been on a roll with The Aldersgate. But I signed up and I will do it; it’s a good idea, and I’ll be happy to get something new put together. It’s been almost two years working on the AGC, so, well, breaks are important. I’ll be better for it, for finishing, after NaNoWriMo, I hope. I’ll just need to be better about keeping notes and ideas. My “writing process” is so random and unpredictable I can only imagine what’ll happen.

I’ve spent the last week in the company of my son, who is two. He’s a remarkable two, and I’ve been able to really enjoy the time with him, time I haven’t been able to spend due to work, school, or a combination of both. And you know what? He’s happy. He’s deliriously, wonderfully happy. Instead of screaming before bed and naps, he goes happily, contentedly even. He’s talking more, expressing more, listening more. I can’t help but notice he’s just happier with his mommy around. Not that my folks aren’t wonderful as caretakers, but in the past I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that they know him better than I do.

We’ll see what happens on the job front. But suffice it to say, I really wouldn’t mind the opportunity to spend even more time with him. He’s growing up into such a little gentleman, one who loves blue cheese, PT Cruisers, and, of course Blue’s Clues.

Anyway, I have a large post coming up soon about steampunk, which is more of a critique about some recent trends and whatnot… But I want to make sure it comes from the right place, and therefore need some more time. So I’m waiting for when I don’t have a two year old climbing on me (like right now) and shouting, “CARS AT TRADER JOE’S!” Because, apparently, my desk is where its location now is.

There’s no surprise in mentioning that I spend a great portion of my time listening to the opinions and perspectives of characters I’ve altogether made up, and live nowhere but in the confines of my own brain. Writers understand this, but many others will doubtless find it slightly discomfiting and perhaps just odd. It happens. I can accept that.

I was just going through my LJ account, reading posts, trying to get a good idea of when the AG folks started up their conversations with me, and how long it took me to write their story the first time. It turns out I wrote it a lot faster than I thought: just over seven months, almost from start to finish. The first draft was done in March 2008, so I’ve already outspent my editing time rather heftily.

But the story has changed, and that isn’t my fault. I don’t have control over them sometimes. I swear.

Thing is, as I was perusing old posts, it occurred to me how odd it is to think that these characters once didn’t exist. Other than driving me to the near point of madness, this whole multi-POV approach has brought me closer to this batch of characters than through any other endeavor I’ve attempted before. And as such, they’re like friends, or personas, aspects of myself/themselves that I’m really comfortable with, familiar with.

I don’t think I’m getting this across very well, at all. Ah, well. At any rate I thought it would be amusing to post the piece I wrote the day after I was set on by this new menagerie of characters. It amused me, anyway.

August 7, 2007

So, today, in spite of the insane amount of work I’ve been doing as part of my job, I’ve been practically assaulted by a whole new series of characters. All throughout the day today, scenes and snips of dialog have been flitting through my brain.

In some ways, this is disturbing. I have a book. I have two books, in fact. This was not one of the ones I was planning on, but yet it’s like an itch I can’t scratch.

So, well, I sat down after things calmed down a little this evening, and began writing. Four pages ain’t bad at all. Then, I got to the end, and realize someone’s going to die. And die soon. And ugh. That’s a little depressing.

But anyway, I’m actually excited to write this. I was feeling the story in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time. Michael asked me to go to bed, and instead of abandoning it, I said, “No! I’m at a really good part!” That’s pretty awesome.

… but Kelly McCullough did first, and did a fine job of it. So, that takes care of that.

Read his post Don’t let Writing get in the way of writing.

I have a very hard time letting go and admitting defeat; or, rather, admitting that things need to go. I hacked 10,000 words tonight, of my own volition, after sitting down and having a heart-to-heart with The Aldersgate. Defeat is definitely the wrong word here because I’m fairly certain that this work is going to lead to better things: most importantly clarity, character, and cohesiveness.

This is my problem: I try to do too much. And this, I think, is connected to the way my girl brain works. I am indeed, how Wil Wheaton put it, “A ferret on meth.” Except I don’t take meth, and am not, at last check, much of a rodent. I’m always balancing a thousand things at once, and often, I flourish in the chaos–my brain actually works better when I’m busy, ideas come more easily, dialogue flows better. But it also means I sleep less, forget more, and am often an incessant chatter-box. I’m a consummate multitasker.

But there is a tipping point. The first draft of the book had five main POVs; at one point, this current draft had nine.

I am not, I repeat, NOT George R. R. Martin.

My ferret brain is a ferret brain, and there is a point where I just can’t keep it up. So. Axe, axe, axe. I took away the narratives that were turning into character sketches and not moving the plot along very well. What ultimately decided the deal for me was, oddly enough, the podcast. I started listening to the chapters as if I were an audience and not the author and realized–heck, I’ve got to make this more interesting. If I keep introducing characters at this rate, the reader will fall asleep because nothing is happening.

And honestly? I feel like I can breathe better now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love characters. Putting these folks on the back burner breaks my heart. I get attached, feel motherly toward, and even get occasionally get crushes (very… weird, yes… but I admit it, and I’m told I’m not the only one) on my characters. But it’s not like I’m killing these folks. No, they’re just receding to the background and not getting a POV because their stories can be told through the eyes of other POVs.

I’ve probably stopped making sense by this point. I suppose, what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re at a point where you feel like you’re stuck in the mire (which I certainly have been feeling) sometimes you need to step away and put on another set of goggles (go go steampunk metaphors!). Telling stories is hard business, and telling them right is even harder.

Words are not nearly as precious as the stories they tell, and sometimes the words have to be rewritten… and rewritten… and rewritten, until they’re right. In that way writing is much like sculpture. The work is there, in the stone–you just have to chip away until you find it. And then there are even times that the stone you’re working with isn’t even worth the work, and you have to start from scratch.

But you keep going. Because well… it’s your art.

Writing. It’s what I do.

I’m a pacifist.

But don’t tell my characters.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is managing violent scenes. Call me a wuss. As someone who’s never even thrown a punch, you can imagine where I’m coming from. But my own personal preferences have to take second seat when I’m writing because, whether or not I like violence or not, it’s a part of life. Especially considering that war is a major component in my current novel–it is partially inspired by the Old West, you see, and there’s just no avoiding it. (Not to mention there’s a murder by the third chapter.)

Sometimes writers feel like they have to write their own agenda into their work. I think this can work to a certain extent (I’ve certainly included quite a helping of my feelings about society, gender, and spirituality in my book) but often it clouds the tale if gone too far. Readers need to trust a writer completely, especially if they’re going to keep with you for 100,000 words or so. So don’t skimp on violence if it’s part of the story, because your readers will feel like you’re withholding details.

That said, there’s a few things I do when I’m writing a particularly violent scene. The first thing to do is research. Sometimes this includes talking to someone who has first-hand experience. A few weeks ago I interrogated my husband about what getting socked in a particularly sensitive area that I have no personal understanding about might feel like if done with a steel-toed boot. I also take time to read other accounts (a quick crash course would be reading someone like Chuck Palahnhiuk, but only if you have a stomach of steel).

But you also want to make sure your violence is accurate. Often in fantasy people are given super human powers, or receive the most unlikely of wounds. If you’re being attacked by a mace, well, read up about what a mace does to the human body. The same with daggers, knives, blasters, rifles, or fists. (Medieval warfare is a good place to start for the fantasy camp.) That goes doubly for magic or anything high-tech. Take a half second to learn about physics! A quick gander certainly won’t hurt.

Violence has been a part of storytelling from the beginning. (Just take a look at the Bible!) It’s just one of the elements of storytelling that excite an audience, keep them on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the severing of Grendel’s arm, Roland’s brain bursting from blowing his horn, or the frequent “brain bashing” of Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, violence is a part of our mythology. We understand violence because it causes pain, and pain is something common to the human experience.

That said, if you’re still uncomfortable with your scene, I have a few more suggestions.

For instance, if you’re describing a group scene (a siege or the like) and the large-scale violence is either too complicated or too bothersome, use a single point of view. Narrow the lens, as it were, and describe what is happening through a character, not just the actions around him/her.

Also, remember that level of detail is always up to you. I’ve read some writers who go as far as the molecular level when describing their violent scenes. The difference between a wound, a gaping wound, and a seeping, putrefying wound… well, you get the point.

In the end, the decision is yours. Different writers have different levels of comfort (I’ve seen, for instance, some writers who don’t balk at writing a bloodbath, but skip over the sex completely). Find your balance, but don’t do it without examining the whys of your own approach.

The most influential film of my childhood years was Disney’s oft forgotten Sword in the Stone, adapted from T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It was my first real exposure to Arthuriana, and eventually led to my reading the full novel and, in fact, contributed significantly to my study of the Middle Ages in college. Plus, reflections of Merlin and Wart are in every early story I wrote (and, likely, still there in what I write today).

Since then, I’ve learned that much of SF/F deals with the taking, gaining, and control of power. It’s about stature, about relationships. It asks the questions that traditional fiction and nonfiction just can’t, because it (literally) removes us from our own world as we know it. It’s a long series of “what if’s” set to an intergalactic soundtrack that continues to kindle our imaginations.

But the very strengths of sci-fi and fantasy are what cause people to so often dismiss them. Oh sure, the Force is exciting–but start defining it as a parasite, and boy, we lose our love affair. Explain too much, and there’s no whimsy, no room for imagination. Critics of both genres hate the black-and-white delineation in novels and film. We live in a world where more and more, people realize that there are shades of gray, shifts in perception, and decisions we make that put us on one side of the fence or the other.

I don’t think SF/F will ever go away, and I certainly don’t want them to. But in order for these genres to survive, and to continue challenging readers and writers alike, we must fend off the expected. As writers, we owe it to our readers to write fully imagined characters, each with the good, the bad, and the ugly as part of who they are. Sure, archetypes are important–but we are all flawed, and we’ve all had to make choices. Nothing irks me more than “purely” good or bad characters.

And that brings me back to Arthur, I think. The thing I’ve always loved about the Arthurian canon is that, in spite of additions and emendations throughout the centuries, it’s not a happy ending. The most beloved knight in the entire kingdom not only fails at the quest for the Holy Grail, but has an elicit affair with the Queen who just happens to be the wife of his best friend, Arthur. (That this realistic approach was brought to life by medieval writers is amazing in and of itself!)

Everything falls apart. There is no celebration, no wedding, no making up. Sure, Mordred (usually) gets it in the end, but so does Arthur. The world he fought for is gone. Ended. Caput. T.H. White does a heartbreakingly good job of showing us this at the end of The Once and Future King. Near the book’s conclusion he writes, partially in Arthur’s own mind that

The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.

White was writing as a man in the middle of wars–both World Wars–and later as a conscientious objector. He asked the difficult questions, like the famous Might vs. Right argument and ultimately influenced a whole new generation of writers. Writers including, Michael Moorcock, J. K. Rowling, Gregory Maguire and Ed McBain also cited White as an influence (from Wikipedia: T.H. White).

My point, my meandering and somewhat obvious point, is that we ought, as writers of these incredible genres, to hold up a mirror to our own world, and ask the important questions. Fantasy and science-fiction mean nothing if we cannot tie them to the human condition and contrast the far-off worlds to our own somehow. And it can happen in the most expected places, like the Arthurian canon for instance. It isn’t always what we say, but how we say it. This is from White again:

Perhaps man was neither good nor bad, was only a machine in an insensate universe–his courage no more than a reflex to danger, like the automatic jump at the pin-prick. Perhaps there were no virtues, unless jumping at pin-pricks was a virtue, and humanity only a mechanical donkey led on by the iron carrot of love, through the pointless treadmill of reproduction. Perhaps Might was a law of Nature, needed to keep the survivors fit. Perhaps he himself…

Before dying, Arthur, the paragon of knightly virtue, the greatest of all men, cannot find the right answer. He cannot say what his life was worth, because he does not know. He cannot know. He is only a man in a story, in the end; but his thoughts, his questions, they become ours.

And in that way, he does continue on.

In that way, there is a great deal of hope.

old fashioned movie camera

A dear friend of mine is a writer and a movie aficionado extraordinaire. The films she watches fuel her creative process, inspiring her to write better, to delve deeper into her scenes, and to produce prose with an air of excitement and intensity that I think are directly related to her love of the medium. While movies do inspire me to some extent, it’s rare that I watch movies in order to be inspired. My itchy creativity comes more from books than movies.

Or so I thought.

Last night I was trying to fall asleep, and my mind went off on a tangent about how I see my writing, how I see the scenes. And I realized that I write very in a cinematic way, that each of my scenes is “filmed” in my mind. The spaces are defined, the closeups are scripted. I’m literally in the middle of a scene, and every time I think about it, I see the last place the camera left off; I know that Emry is standing slightly to the right, and Cora further up in front, turning slightly to see him. The light is from behind her, and it reflects off of her glasses. You can hear the din of the city from behind her. They are moving right to left. Very specific, but nothing that I write down explicitly. In fact, all of the scenes are like this. While Brick is being taunted by Ander, he is sitting down in a high-walled stall, to the bottom right of the screen. Ander leers at him from the top left, but the camera switches back and forth as they talk.

In essence, there is a movie playing in my head. I hear, and write down, the music. I describe the light, the sounds, but it’s more as if I’m writing down what I observe than describing something into happening.

I suppose, though, this “camera” has one big flaw. In that every once in a while, in certain scenes, the camera fades away and I’m looking through my character’s eyes. As Cora wanders her house at night, waiting to come upon her assailants, I’m seeing through her eyes, watching through her perspective. While this happens occasionally in film, it works to varying degrees, I think. Sometimes it comes off as hokey since it’s truly difficult to simulate first-person perspective through a camera lens.

At any rate, I know a good deal of you who read this also write. I suppose I wonder if you feel the same connection between film and prose, and I wonder how specific the “rooms” of your writing are to you. Or do I just have an overactive imagination?