The Right Tools

Writers have promoted their favorite writing tools – each of which is different – for as long as I’ve been in the business, and probably all the way back to when the writers working on clay tablets sneered at that new-fangled papyrus stuff imported from Egypt. To some extent, it’s purely a status thing. If the guys with the clay tablets can convince people that their way is “better,” then at the least, they get looked up to as “real” writers. At best, their work will sell better or be more admired or last longer, or they’ll have an easier time finding a patron who is impressed with (and willing to fund) their supposedly-more-authentic work.

These days, though, there’s more to it than that. There’s still plenty of snobbery on display, from the folks who swear that nobody could possibly write anything decent without using a fountain pen to those who swear by the latest high-tech writing software that integrates playlists and Pinterest photos to help inspire each chapter, while tracking word count, productivity, and readability levels and generating a storyboard for each viewpoint character. But there are two things that both sides of the argument seem to leave out.

The first is that people are known to have three different modes of receiving and processing information: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. Everybody uses all three modes to some extent, but usually one is primary. For most of us, that’s the visual one. Those computer programs are good at that; they let you see lots of text and integrate photos, or do diagrams and storyboards that help visualize the story in different ways.

Computers also have a lot to offer those who like the aural mode – there are speech-to-text programs (and text-to-speech, if you want a flat computer rendition of your prose), and lots of places that will help you organize a play list of music that “fits” whatever you happen to be writing. If you want something simpler, there are hand-held recorders that you can dictate to, then download and transcribe.

But computers aren’t that great for those who are strongly kinesthetic. Keyboards have moved to a lighter and lighter touch, in the interest of speeding up touch-typing; the carriage return is long gone, along with rolling paper into a typewriter. What’s left is pen and paper, which impart a lot more physicality to the act of writing than any other currently available method.

Most of the paper-and-pen writers I’ve run into don’t think about it this way, but…they wax rhapsodic about the feel of a fountain pen gliding across a sheet of heavy, watermarked paper. They debate the advantages of ball-points compared to roller balls, fountain pens versus dipping pens: is it better to be able to keep going without having to stop when you’re on a roll, or do you get better results when you’re forced to stop every so often to re-ink the pen?

It’s no surprise that different writers have different favorite methods of production. It’s also no surprise that you hear a subset of editors and writers complain that computers have made writing “too easy” – the ability to keep changing and rearranging things with little effort makes for poorer quality work, they claim.

Having done some time teaching writing classes, I can attest to the fact that there are students out there whose stories suffer from “workshop burn” – that is, they’ve been rewritten and revised so many times that they’re like silver plate that’s been polished down to the copper. However, I don’t think that this is an inevitable result of using a word processing program; after all, I had fifteen students in that class, and only one had a story that plainly exhibited workshop burn. I think this problem is a function of a particular type of personality – the people who do this would try to do it even if they were working with chisels and stone tablets. The computer certainly enables them to take things to an extreme, but that’s not really the computer’s fault.

What all this boils down to is that when somebody says they work better with pen in hand, or music playing, or total quiet, it is probably quite true…for them. Persuading them to do something different, just because that’s what works for you, is probably a bad idea (unless what they are doing is manifestly not working for them, in which case “try something else” is the obvious solution).

I should also point out that many of us use different tools at different points in the process. Some writers handwrite their first draft, then type it into their computer for revision. I compose at the computer, but I frequently use pen-and-paper to diagram my plots and character relationships. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Which brings me to the second thing that gets left out of the argument:

None of the tools of writing will do the writing for you. Not the computer, not the electric typewriter, not the Bic pen, not a quill dipped in ink, not a brush painting on papyrus or silk, not a chisel on a stone slab. All the tools can do is to make the process work a little better, a little more easily, for you.

And while I don’t know even one writer who wouldn’t be exceedingly glad to discover a way of making their personal writing process a little bit easier, there comes a point of diminishing returns. Or no return at all. If you are a strongly kinesthetic writer, you might find writing a bit more fun or productive if you switch from a computer to handwriting with pen and paper. Spending six months testing every brand of fountain pen on the market to find the one with the perfect touch is unlikely to be worth the effort, especially if you are using it as a Writing Avoidance Technique. (If it’s something you’re doing in your spare, non-writing time, for fun, go for it.)

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Ever since the invention of the assembly line, one of the fundamental assumptions of our culture has been that the most effective way of getting something done is to break the job down into small pieces or steps that get you from where you are to where you want to be. It’s a very effective approach for doing everything from making an omelet to assembling a car or a space station, from planning a wedding to learning to speak a foreign language.

To apply this approach to things that don’t have actual physical pieces that need to be put together, one has to begin by defining and describing the pieces. This can be tricky to do when you can’t see an actual widget in front of you. Nonetheless, the break-it-into-steps approach is basis of nearly every get-organized-and-accomplish-stuff system I have ever seen, from really high-level business models like Gant charts and critical-path models to magazine articles on how to arrange your kitchen.

The models that deal specifically with non-physical things like setting goals or managing business projects or learning a language differ in their details, but they implicitly agree on one thing: the importance of “edges.” By this they mean that when you define and describe the pieces that you are later going to assemble as part of your plan, they need to be clear and crisp and not overlap. It’s like drawing out the shapes of jigsaw puzzle pieces; if they don’t have nice, clean edges that interlock neatly, they won’t fit together later.

We do this with writing, the same as with everything else. English and literature classes teach us to analyze fiction into parts: character, setting, plot; theme, idea, atmosphere. Critique groups and writing blogs encourage it, because you have to break things down into pieces in order to figure out what’s wrong (and often, what to do about it).

The trouble is that the pieces of writing aren’t like the parts of a toaster. They aren’t made of metal or wood that stays in one specific shape and belongs in one specific place. They’re more like bits of wet clay: You can line them up in a row, and each bit is distinctly itself and clearly one particular shape and size, but as soon as you start putting them together, the edges disappear. They become one mass. Not only that, but if you pick up one of the bits and squeeze it or roll it between your fingers, the shape changes. It still has edges, but they’re in a different place.

This is extremely confusing for people who have been raised to break things down into pieces, on the assumption that this will help them put the pieces back together in the right places. With wet clay, there isn’t a “right place” for a particular bit of clay, and the bits of clay are pretty interchangeable because of the way you can reshape them. You have a shape that you are trying to create, and it needs a bit more mass on this side, but it doesn’t matter whether you grab one large bit or three small ones to bulk out that section.

And while some bits of writing can belong very clearly to one category or another, it is far more common for them to do several things at once. For example: “Martha had always hated the heavy bronze statuette of MacBeth’s three witches that stood on the corner of her grandmother’s mantelpiece.” That sentence tells the reader something about both Martha and the grandmother who owns the statuette; it also describes part of the setting (the statuette and the existence of the mantelpiece). So it has both characterization and setting. It could very well be related to theme, plot, or idea, depending on where the story goes (the statue is a murder weapon three chapters later; the witches are a recurring motif; the statuette is actually magical).

That sentence does not have the kinds of edges we’re used to. It’s possible to break it apart somewhat to provide them, but doing isn’t an improvement, to my thinking: “A heavy bronze statuette stood on the corner of the mantelpiece. It depicted the three witches from MacBeth. Martha had always hated that statuette. It belonged to her grandmother.” And even then, there’s really no way to separate the “setting and background description” part from the “plot relevant set-up for murder in Chapter 3” part.

In short, it is highly desirable for fiction to have muddled-together edges. To use another metaphor, writing fiction is like making a cake in this regard – it can be very useful to lay out all the ingredients in advance, all measured and methodical, but if you then dump the flour in a pan, set the two eggs on top, lay half a stick of butter next to the eggs, pour a cup of sugar on top of that, and then shove the pan in the oven without mixing, you aren’t going to get a very good cake.

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Worst and Best Advice

“What are the three worst or best bits of writing advice you’ve ever been given?”

Somebody asked me that a while back, and it took me a while to come up with a reasonable answer, because at least one of them was perfectly horrible advice for me…but it would have been very fine advice for several of my friends. And usually when people ask what the best or worst advice is, it’s because they want to know which bits of common writing advice they can ignore, or which bits they need to pay particular attention to. Unfortunately, a lot of writing doesn’t work like that.

The “first worst” bit of writing advice is one of those “bad for me, but maybe good for you” ones: Write short stories first, and then “move up” to writing a novel. The reasoning behind this piece of advice came in two main parts: 1) Short stories are short, maybe 5-10% as many words as a novel. So going by word count, a novice writer could write ten to twenty short stories in the time it would take him/her to write a novel, which would give said writer lots of practice in all the things one needs to do to complete a story and lots of practice in the submitting/selling side of things. 2) It is a lot easier to sell a novel if you have a track record of finishing and selling other things, which of course writing short stories would allow you to do. (Ha!) There was also 3) Novels are Big Important Literary things, which ought not to be tackled by novices; if you didn’t start with short fiction and Pay Your Dues and Learn Your Craft and Demonstrate Your Worth, the Novel Police would come and haul you off to Alcatraz or Siberia or somewhere similar.

Unfortunately, #1 and #3 are total strike-outs. I have never met a writer who could write twenty 5,000 word short stories or ten 10,000 word short stories in the same amount of time it took them to write a novel. I know very, very few writers who can write a novel in the same amount of time it took them to write their last novel. It just doesn’t work that way. And there aren’t any novel police, however much some folks seem to wish there were. Editors aren’t even Novel Police; they don’t reject novels because You Have Not Demonstrated Your Worth, they reject them because their list is full or they don’t think they can sell enough copies to break even.

As for #2 – it is technically true that IF you have a track record of finishing and selling short stories, selling your first novel will probably be easier, but getting that track record depends on actually finishing and selling things. And if you are, as I am, a natural novelist, it will be a whole lot easier to write a passable first novel over the course of five years than it will be to write four or five dreadful and unpublishable “short stories” that are more like novel outlines than short stories. As a result, you will get farther, faster, by following your own inclination than by trying to base your choice of what to write on math, logic, or someone else’s “shoulds.” Yes, that means that if you are a natural short story writer, you can wave this particular bit of writing advice at people who insist that you should write novels (because you can’t make a living any more writing short fiction).

The second worst bit of writing advice I got early on is another one of those “bad for me, maybe not for you” ones: Don’t talk about your stories to anyone until you have written them. The theory behind this one seems to be 1) telling people the story will kill your desire to write it and/or 2) if you talk about it, people will give you advice and you might – oh, horror! – be influenced by them! In this case, #1 is most definitely true for some writers (undoubtedly the ones who made up this advice are among them), and most definitely not true for me and many of my other pro-writer friends, who sit around happily discussing our plots for months while our books are under development. If you are a talking-kills-the-book writer, then don’t talk; if you are a talking-gets-me-excited-and-motivated writer, take your friends out for a gab fest.

#2 places some kind of primacy on the author’s original, pristine vision or inspiration…which frankly does not deserve this kind of veneration. Well, not unless you hang out with a bunch of really stupid people who give you bad advice, but I hang out with smart people who point out my plot holes and throw out tidbits that spark other ideas and generally make my books far better than they would otherwise be. I don’t see how influence that improves my work is a bad thing.

The third worse bit of advice was the classic “Write what you know.” Fortunately for me, I write fantasy, and as it is a) blatantly obvious that neither I nor anyone else can ever know what it is really like to live with a dragon or cast a magic spell, and b) equally obvious that lots of writers produce stacks of fantasy novels and make their livings doing so, I never really took this one seriously. I was, in fact, badly taken aback when a high-school student who had swallowed this advice hook, line, and sinker, asked me, in all seriousness, whether he should ride his bicycle off his parents’ garage in order to “come as close to flying as possible.” I spent considerable time saying “no, certainly not!” in as many ways as I could think of, along with pointing out that people who write murder mysteries are not all murderers.

I am still more than a little bemused by the number of would-be writers who really, really seem to want to follow all this bad advice (sometimes demanding exact details as to how many times they should visit a place before they “know” it well enough to write about it, or precisely how many short stories they have to write before they are “allowed” to write a novel…even after I have said, as plainly as I know how, that these bits of writing advice do not work for every writer, and that they have to discover for themselves whether they are among the folks it works for.

The best advice I ever got, on the other hand, applies to every writer I have ever met: Write. Finish it. If you want to be published, send it out and keep sending it out. This, too, is common knowledge, partly because it is pretty much the first piece of writing advice most published novelists give out when they are asked. Would-be writers keep coming up to me with this same question, though, and I can’t help thinking that it is because they are hoping to get some other answer.

They won’t get it from me.

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Recruiting Extras

I keep running into the problem of “the main characters seem to be the only people in the setting.” Might I beg a post on how to do crowd scenes (or scenes in general) where there are lots of people in the background? –Question from Deep Lurker

First off, the writer has to be aware. If your attention is focused too tightly on your main characters, then it won’t occur to you that there is anyone else present, and if you don’t realize that there are other folks around, you won’t think to mention them. Awareness usually starts with pausing briefly before (or sometimes during) a scene to ask “Who else could be around?”

The answer to this depends on the place, time, and current action of the scene. A public marketplace is likely to be crowded at noon and empty at midnight…but at midnight you could have street sweepers, police or city guards, lamplighters, and even a vendor who’s still packing up. At noon, you could have not only vendors and shoppers, but police, pickpockets, and someone busking for the crowd. And if the action involves the Zombie Apocalypse in progress, then there isn’t likely to be anyone at the market no matter what time of day it is.

You aren’t looking for new characters here. You’re looking for extras – the people walking along a crowded New York City sidewalk, the sightseers at the Eiffel Tower, the fans in town for the World Cup, the 295 other soldiers in the battalion your 5 main characters belong to. Also, at this point you aren’t saying they are present; you are just saying they could be, that this is a place and time and circumstance where you wouldn’t be surprised to run into someone like them.

If you are doing this for the first time, or if you are a very analytical sort, you may want to make an actual list. I usually just think for a minute about what kinds of people might be present, especially the ones who might be a little less obvious (and hence, to me, more interesting). If I come up with someone who is very non-obvious and I am pretty sure I want to use him/her, I might jot that one down somewhere so I don’t forget about them when I’m writing the scene. Because that’s the next step: making some tentative decisions about which of those possible people you actually want to use in the scene (as opposed to having them be present by implication).

(Implication is the second bit that trips up a lot of writers. If they set their scene “in a crowded market” in the first line, they figure the crowd has been established, and is there by implication through the next three to six pages of scene, even if they never mention it again. This happens not to be the case.)

How you use your extras will likely affect which ones you pick from your “possibly on stage” list to actually be on stage, i.e., get mentioned. The following is a non-exhaustive list of ways to think of and use your extras; pick the ones that suit your style and process, try to throw in some of the others once in a while for variety, and then try making up some new ones of your own.

Part of the Background: If your main characters are at a large party, there are other people around. They will be dressed appropriately and doing party things – if it’s a Victorian ball, some will be dancing; if it’s a modern cocktail party, people will be standing around with liquor glasses; if it’s a 1930s card party, everyone will be sitting at little tables with stacks of cards. Periodically, these background people will do something – change partners, refill their glass, shuffle and deal the cards. This is part of the setting, and you work bits into the scene every so often as they impinge on your viewpoint character, because this is nearly always a more effective way of conveying the background than putting everything in one large lump of description at the start of the scene and then ignoring the setting completely for the next three to six pages. If your main characters are walking down the street or moving from room to room, mention the people they pass as well as the furnishings or buildings.

Pacing your characters: Your extras will not be standing around doing nothing, but what they do is not vital to your plot – that is, after all, why they’re extras. However, while your main characters are having their intense, plot-relevant conversation, there will come times when you want a pause in the dialog. One way of doing this is with stage business – having the next character sip her cocktail or fiddle with his car keys – but another way is to have a character (or the narrator) notice what else is going on (the band has switched to a slow dance; the woman arguing about the price of baskets is leaving in a huff). This works especially well when the POV character needs to pause and think for a moment, but you don’t want to actually show every bit of his/her internal monolog because he/she is going to repeat most of it out loud in the next line.

Pacing yourself: Sometimes, you need a break in the conversation or the action because you need to give the reader a moment to absorb all the information you’ve just provided. Sometimes, you get to a point in a conversation where you go completely blank about what gets said next. Having an extra interrupt briefly (“Would you like another cocktail, madame?”) can allow enough of a break in the conversation to let you start over. You don’t want to use this one too often, as it gets a little obvious, but it can get a stuck scene moving again in an emergency.

Characterization: What people notice tells you something about them, whether it’s about who/what they find interesting (Character A always notices the pretty girls; Character B spots every concealed weapon on casual passers-by) or about whether their attention is wandering away from the current conversation. This is mostly useful for the POV, unless she’s B and A is really obvious about checking out the hot chicks.

Worldbuilding: Whatever your extras are doing in the background, it is likely to be whatever typical people of the particular place, time, and culture do in these circumstances. If there are interesting differences – say, whenever a deal is successfully concluded at the market, the seller shoots purple sparks into the air – you can mention your extras doing them, and allow your main characters to notice and react (if they are unfamiliar with the custom, or irritated by it), or ignore it the way people ignore billboards when they’re driving. Either way, you imply something about the culture and your main characters, while mentioning that there are other people around doing things.

Chorus/Reaction: If your main characters are doing something that attracts attention, like a fight or some showy magic or a dangerous public rescue, they are in all likelihood going to end up with a crowd of gawkers, who can be made to gasp, shout encouragement, or heckle, depending on what’s going on. Only rarely do you want everyone in the crowd reacting exactly the same way (you don’t want to create a laugh track for your story), but you can give similar reactions on the same scale (say, the guy edging along the ledge twenty stories up seems to slip; you could have several of the watchers gasp, one give a high-pitched inappropriate laugh, and a woman look away while covering her child’s eyes with her hand. That’s three different specific reactions, but all of them boil down to “OMG, he almost fell!” And it establishes that there are a bunch of people watching).

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Not from Around Here

Lurker, I’ll get to your crowd post next.

Every so often, I am reminded that not everyone lives in Minnesota. I was reminded of this forcibly a few years back at a fabulous Minicon panel at which five editors graciously consented to, in essence, read slush for an audience. The idea was that they would take Page One of various stories that folks had submitted and then each of them would say whether they would read further or reject the story, and why.

It was a really remarkable panel, and I sat there nodding through the first three or four submission-explanations, until they got to the one set on the first day of a summer camp in the north woods, where the head councilor was lecturing campers about not feeding the bears. The editorial feedback began with an editor complaining that the situation was totally unbelievable; nobody would build a summer camp where there were bears, and if they did, nobody would send their children to it.

She was taken aback when almost the entire audience burst into laughter, because if you are going to build a summer camp in the Minnesota woods, you’d have considerable trouble finding a place that doesn’t have any bears around. Heck, the city of Duluth routinely has problems with bears scavenging at the city dump, and at least one got as far south as the Twin Cities in the last twenty years, if I remember the news reports correctly.

This comes to mind because I’ve spent the last week working on the first chapter of The New Thing, and most of that chapter is set at the Minnesota State Fair. (Which cleverly gave me an excuse to visit the fair three times during its twelve-day run, gorging on fried olives-on-a-stick, cheese curds, Sweet Martha’s cookies, and other traditional State Fair foods, as well as spending lots of time in the Creative Arts building and wandering around the Midway…but I digress.)

The Minnesota State Fair is a really big deal around here; everybody knows about it, even those who’ve never been in their lives. It’s on every TV station and radio show (most local stations have a booth at the fair and do at least some of their broadcasts from there while the fair is going on). It’s inescapable.

Most of my readership, however, does not live in Minnesota. They don’t know about the “food on a stick” tradition (which includes everything from common stuff like corn dogs and cotton candy to deep fried pickle, lobster, and fudge), or about numerous other fair traditions like the butter heads and crop art. And as if that were not enough, there is one other important consideration.

Neither my editors nor my agent live in Minnesota.

What all this means is that using the State Fair as a setting for Chapter One is a fairly tricky balancing act. On the one hand, I have oodles of real-life material. On the other hand, some of it is likely to raise questions from my editors if I don’t handle it right (fried crocodile on a stick? Really?). On the third hand, I’m only setting the first chapter at the fair; after that, everybody goes Elsewhere, and I don’t want the fair itself to be so interesting that my readers are disappointed when they get to the other world where they’re going to spend the rest of the book.

And honestly, coming up with an Elsewhere that is weirder and more wonderful than the Minnesota State Fair is hard.

So the task boils down to writing a Chapter One in which I 1) portray the fair’s weirdness accurately, 2) but in a way that is convincing and believable for people who aren’t familiar with it, while 3) not making it too interesting compared to the rest of the book.

This can be harder than it sounds. Several times over the past umpty years, I’ve read books where the writer did a brilliant portrayal of a part of the country they knew well (Georgia, North Dakota, small town Manitoba, south Florida, Arizona), and then veered off into a more-or-less standard Magic World that was much less well-realized…and consequently, much less interesting to me, as a reader. (In most cases, the reviewers agreed with me on that score.)

The problem, I think, was that the writer was so familiar with the place that to them it was not interesting – it was just an ordinary spot that they wanted to escape, preferably as quickly as possible. Whereas for their readers, it was the fantasy world that they’d seen before, and the real-world setting that was new and strange and fascinating.

Writers need to be aware of this on two counts: First, things they take for granted (like bears and fried-crocodile-on-a-stick) may not seem believable to readers who aren’t from around here (wherever “here” is), and therefore, may need more setup and clarity than the writer expects; and second, incorporating some of the ordinary, everyday, uniquely local traditions into one’s fantasy world may make it a lot more interesting to those same readers.

Now all I need is a reason for people in my other world to dress llamas in costumes and eat deep fried Twinkies-on-a-stick…

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Crowd control

There are two basic problems with controlling a mob of characters: juggling all their individual stories throughout a book, and juggling their conversations when all of them are in the same place and trying to talk at the same time.

The simplest solution to both problems is, obviously, to cut some of the characters, either out of a scene or out of the book entirely. Cutting characters out of the story can be hard to reconcile oneself to, but quite often it results in a tighter, more effective story, especially if the writer is not terribly good at juggling multiple backstories and conversations just yet. Surprisingly often, it results in a more interesting story, because cutting one or two characters forces the writer to consider alternate possibilities.

For example, one writer I knew started with an ensemble group of five main characters. Unfortunately, her world-building included a society that mandated early marriage and treating couples as a single unit (i.e., if you hire an engineer for a project, his/her spouse is part of the package). This instantly ballooned the cast to ten characters, and she hadn’t even gotten around to the bad guys yet.

First question was, did she really need all five of the main characters as she had originally conceived them, or could one of them be the spouse of one of the others? That worked, so she was down from ten characters to eight. Next question: could one of the characters be a widow/widower? That also worked, and provided an interesting opportunity to show how the society would deal with the inadvertently single. What about a gay couple? That didn’t work for the story, but she filed it as an interesting idea to explore at some other time. She was left with five main characters, but only two extra spouses, which was a vast improvement.

Cutting out characters can frequently be done by combining roles. For instance, in the current WIP, I started with a Head Minion, Evil Aunt, Evil Uncle, and Sort-of-Evil Cousin, among others. When I decided I needed to pare down the number of people, I looked at that and realized that there was no reason why the Head Minion couldn’t have gotten his position by marrying the Dark Lord’s sister, thus combining the roles of Head Minion and Evil Uncle in one person.

Cutting characters out of a scene is usually a matter of finding them something else to do while the scene is taking place. “I’d love to come to your meeting with the King of Somewhere and provide you with good advice, dear, but there’s a dragon attacking the town just to the west and I have to go sort it out.”

Sooner or later, however, one gets to a scene where everybody has to be present. Often, this is the Big Climax of the novel, and one can sometimes reduce the numbers present by killing off or disabling a couple of folks along the way. Still, there are probably far more people present than can have a reasonable conversation.

So think about a giant dinner party in real life. Four people at one table can all talk to each other at once, taking turns listening and speaking. Six people can do it sometimes, but if the center of the conversation is at one end of the table, the two people at the other end often start their own conversation. So with six people, you sometimes have one large conversation going, and sometimes two small ones. Anything more than six people is almost always split into two or three two-to-four-person individual conversations. It’s what people can hear and participate in over a distance.

This is surprisingly easy to adapt to writing. First, you figure out where everybody is in this giant scene. If it is a battle, and you have seven or more people involved, they will probably end up in different places, which means that instead of juggling seven-plus people in one scene, the writer can write three to seven individual scenes, each focused on just one or two characters and what is happening to them. Juggling then becomes a matter of cutting and pasting them into the most pleasing order.

If you have something like the grand finale of Mairelon the Magician, where I had sixteen characters in a room at once, all with different agendas and different ideas of what it was important to talk about…well, then you have to juggle the presentation of all the conversational bits. This means you have to figure out who is talking to whom (which starts with who is standing close enough to whom to be heard), and what sorts of overlapping conversations they are all likely to have.

You also have to consider your viewpoint. I like first-person and tight-third person, which give me a nice, clear way of organizing and juggling all the various two-to-three-person conversations going on: they are all filtered through what my viewpoint character is paying attention to at any given moment. If she’s talking to someone, all the other conversations are going to be like bits and pieces overheard in a restaurant; if she’s keeping quiet, she’ll pay the most attention to the people she thinks are the biggest threat or the most likely to have important or pertinent information or ideas.

I don’t tend to plan out my crowd scenes in any more detail than I do most of my other scenes, which is to say that if I am not sure who is where or how various moves will work, I sometimes do a sort of football-play-type diagram with letters representing characters and arrows showing how they’d move or respond to someone else’s movement. That works best for fight scenes, though there have occasionally been tea parties where I needed to know who was where and whether they had a clear route to an exit or a hiding place.

More usually, I have a clear idea of what everyone thinks they are about to do (which generally does not include the presence of any of the other characters – most of my crowd scenes are a surprise to the participants, these days), and then I just start with my main character and let her observe as people arrive. Every page or so, I stop to make sure that I haven’t lost track of anyone – even if the villain is in the middle of the traditional monolog, the viewpoint can see other people reacting in fear or loathing or exasperation, or sneaking off to hide behind the arras, or fiddling with their teacups. More usually, I have several two-to-five line excerpts from one two-to-three person conversation, then two-to-five-lines from a different one, as my viewpoint character tries to keep track of what everyone is doing and saying. If it gets too chaotic, I figure one of the characters will get fed up and yell “Silence!” loud enough to make everybody stop for a minute and start over.

It does take a fair amount of rewriting to make the conversation snippets in a mass crowd scene flow well. Sometimes, you can rearrange them; other times, one set has to come in a certain order, so all you can do is spread it out a bit and interpolate bits of other conversations, so that none of the other speakers gets lost. In the rewrite, the thing to keep an eye on is how long it has been since the last time each of the characters was mentioned. They don’t have to have actually said something; they can roll their eyes or scuff their feet or give some physical reaction to what someone else is saying. You just want to remind the readers who all is present, so that nobody will be shocked when someone who hasn’t been mentioned for ten or fifteen pages suddenly says something. (You also want to keep track of anybody who leaves; it is extremely awkward to have somebody deliver several crucial lines of dialog and then discover that they left the room five pages earlier.)

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Sounding a Little Different

Apparently there’s some interest in techniques for crowd control, so I’ll address that next post. In this one, I want to continue talking about characters’ voices, and ways of making them different. First, a couple of examples of what I mean by “characters who have radically different conversational styles,” that is, characters who are really easy to tell apart:

“Look, fur-brain, if I knew, would I ask?”

“It would probably be very awkward for you to explain. So many things are; awkward, I mean. Large kettles, for instance, and carrying three brooms at once, and those fat brown birds with the red wings whose name I can’t remember just at present. They waddle.”

“Every man has choices. I have made some few of mine, and now the sands fall to your side of the wheel.”

The differences between the voices above are a combination of the things I talked about last time – word choice, syntax, and grammar – plus personality, background, and sentence length. Character #1 is slangy and abrupt; character #2 is more formal and polite, but rambles off-topic at the drop of a hat; Character #3 is also formal and polite, and comes from a different culture with different idioms than the first two. They’re fairly easy to tell apart, even without speech tags.

Most of the time, though, one has several characters, at least, who come from a similar background – same culture, same village, maybe even from the same family – and who can therefore be expected to have speaking voices that are very similar. They still won’t be completely identical, though, and subtle differences in voice can be a lot more difficult to hear, let alone recreate.

A writer who has a few characters with significantly different backgrounds, plus several characters from the same area, is usually best off starting by deciding on the big differences in speaking style that are based in culture and different backgrounds. Once you have that clear, it is generally easier to take three or four characters from the same town and pick out further modifications.

Some writers try to go straight to the dialog by giving one character a stutter or another a tendency to slur words together (hafta, sorta, woulda). This is nearly always ineffective if it is done this way, for this reason, because at the level of “four characters from the same village need different speech patterns,” the difference in voice grows mainly out of a difference in personality. If you give a character a stutter just to make his dialog different, it won’t work, because having a stutter ought to affect other things about him, from his inclination to communicate in general to his self-image.

Sometimes, though, a character shows up who, well, just has a bad habit. The first rule of thumb is that if you are going to give one of your characters a bad speech habit that requires some kind of phonetic respelling, use a light hand. Phonetic respellings, even ones as innocuous as leaving off an initial “h” or terminal “g” (as in “I ‘ave to be goin’ now.”) can get very, very wearing to read, very quickly. And try very, very hard not to have more than one character per book that uses this kind of dialog. Sometimes, of course, you can’t avoid it; if so, recognize that it will take some extra work to make the dialog flow smoothly and readably, especially when your two characters with the phonetic dialog are talking to each other.

Usually, it is more effective to start with the character’s personality, and figure out from that what they’ll sound like. Writers also need to remember that voice is as much about what gets said, as it is about how things get said. A character who is straightforward and efficient may tend to shorter, crisper sentences, and may also stick closely to the point under discussion; one who is a little insecure may feel a need to contribute to every discussion, and perhaps go on a bit longer in order to provide supporting evidence for their contribution. A different sort of insecurity or shyness may make a character disinclined to talk much at all, or to be very diffident about expressing an opinion. So one has to have some idea what a character is like, but also how “what the character is like” will be expressed for that particular character.

A lot of this gets done by instinct or practice. I find, as with much dialog, that reading really good plays helps. Radio plays are good, too, because there really isn’t anything but dialog and sound effects.

I’ll finish with a pair of examples: a brief conversation between two women having lunch together. They don’t sound radically different, but they’re still distinct:

“This place has good hamburgers.”

“Well, I don’t know if I should have one. I read this thing last week – I forget what magazine it was in, but it was all about how red meat is so bad for you. So I’ve been trying to cut back, at least some.”

“You’re always reading things.” She shook her head. “Have the fish.”

“But isn’t there mercury or lead or something in fish? Something bad for you, anyway. Oh, and it’s breaded and fried, I don’t think I want fish.”

“Well, have a salad, then.”

And here’s the same conversation, only with the voices reversed:

“I just love coming here, they have such good hamburgers. Why don’t you have one?”

“I’m cutting back. Red meat is bad for you.”

She frowned. “Well, they have this really good fish – let me see, where is it? There, halfway down the second page, the batter-fried cod with chips, just like they give you in England.”

“Too much grease. Anyway, fish has mercury in it. I’m not eating fish.”

“I suppose you could always have a salad.”

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Sounding Very Different

Characters, like people, are different from each other. They are different ages and genders; they come from different countries and levels of society; sometimes they even speak different languages, at least as their native tongues. This being so, they should by rights sound different from one another. Theoretically, they should sound different in ways that make sense, given all the other ways they differ, but let’s take one thing at a time.

Many writers – me included – start off with all their characters sounding the same. In some cases, the characters even use the same syntax, sentence structure, and vocabulary as the narrator, which really sounds odd unless the story is first-person, and even then it can be something of a stretch. I am perfectly all right with a first-person narrator saying something like “We spent five long, boring days waiting out the blizzard, while our supplies dwindled and our tempers frayed,” but if he/she is actually describing the experience to someone in dialog, I usually expect shorter sentences, more informal word choice, and a more personal reaction: “The blizzard lasted five days. I was so bored I was ready to shoot someone, and we almost ran out of supplies.”

The first step in giving characters their own unique voices is often to go for radically different conversational styles, or to assign one character or another a signature verbal tic, like never using contractions, using lots of jargon and slang, or frequently using an unusual word order. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars can figure out who said “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not,” even if they don’t remember which movie or under what circumstances.

This kind of thing can work well when one has a cast of characters who are supposed to be very different. If your main character is the lone Earth-type human in a group consisting of six aliens, each of whom is a different species from a different planet, giving each character a radically different speaking style not only makes sense in terms of worldbuilding, it also serves as a reminder to your readers that these beings aren’t all from the same place. The main things to watch out for here are 1) making sure that whatever identifying verbal trait you assign to each character is distinct and different, 2) keeping that trait consistent throughout the story, and 3) being sure that the dialog will remain easy to understand in spite of whatever twists you are giving the characters.

#3 is easy to overlook, especially if you assign your verbal tics in advance, or when only two of the characters are having a discussion. Something that works when A is talking to B may turn out to be incomprehensible when B is talking to C, or when there are more than three characters involved in a conversation. It’s particularly awful if you have six or seven characters who have been talking in twos and threes for twenty chapters, and then suddenly they are all together in the same scene and you realize with horror that the discussion is impossible to follow without labeling each and every line. Which leaves you the choice of making it obvious that you didn’t think your dialog choices through (by leaving the scene as-is), or splitting up the discussion so that the characters never, ever have to have a conversation all at the same time (which may not be possible), or figuring out some other speech tics that do work in a multi-character conversation and then doing a massive rewrite (which always leaves one feeling uncomfortable, because by Chapter Twenty, one has gotten comfortable with those characters and the way they sound, and no matter how necessary it is to make the changes, they won’t sound right after that much time).

Most of the time, though, one isn’t writing about six characters who are each a different species. When the characters have more in common, their speech patterns will also have more in common. However, even if you have two people from the same family, they won’t sound exactly alike. Personality makes a difference. I sound a lot like my sisters…but not identical, and the differences have grown more pronounced over the years as we’ve had different life experiences.

These kinds of more subtle differences in dialog patterns are harder to get a handle on (at least, they were for me). I will take a crack at them in the next post.

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Before the Start

“I only need one gun, but it has to be the right gun.” – Lois Bujold

Very few ideas are perfect on arrival. Few non-writers recognize this, and almost none of them realize that the process of correcting them often begins before a word of a story gets written.

This is part of the unwise veneration of “getting a good idea” as applied to writing. The general notion appears to be that getting ideas is very, very hard (or at least, that getting a good idea is hard). The corollary to this seems to be that “getting an idea” is something that, once it happens, is finished and final; if it is a bad idea, one doesn’t use it, if it is a good idea, one does use it, and there’s nothing in between.

There are writers for whom that is true, but the vast majority of us (and the vast majority of ideas) fall somewhere in that large gap where, supposedly, there is nothing. That is, 99% of stories do not end up looking a lot like the idea that got the writer started writing them. Furthermore, they often start changing almost as soon as the writer has the idea.

Non-writers find this nearly incomprehensible (unless they’ve had a lot of exposure to the odd ways that writers work). Even a lot of other writers find it disconcerting when it’s someone else going through it. Those who aren’t used to it – beginners and writers who normally don’t make changes until much later in their process – can find it downright disturbing when it happens to them.

For those of us who normally work this way, though, reworking the idea is a necessary part of the process. And the reworking can happen on many different levels, depending on the degree of detail and the qualities involved in the original story idea. I have one particular story idea that I’ve tried to write three times; each time, it has morphed so extremely before I even started typing that the idea has remained usefully pristine. I may be able to keep trying to write a story from that particular seed-idea for the remainder of my writing career, without ever getting it down on paper.

Other times, the changes are less dramatic. I mentioned last post that the current project is now expected to open with my heroine visiting the State Fair; what I didn’t say is that I already have several unsatisfactory opening scenes on my hard drive, beginning, variously, with my heroine waking from a nightmare, sitting in her bedroom on a hot August afternoon, walking through a park, and leaving the library. Also one truly unworkable in medias res opening that will probably end up being cannibalized for Chapter 2 or 3.

None of those various openings felt right, and consequently, none have been seen by anyone other than me, but quite often, I find myself talking about plot twists and characters and elements that I want to “try on.” Things that might make it into the final story, but I’m not really sure about. The difficulty arises when one of my beta…listeners gets attached to one of these could-maybe-happens that, in the end, doesn’t make the cut.

Most of my beta-readers and –listeners have been putting up with me for a long time, and know perfectly well that until it’s on paper, it isn’t going to make it into the book for certain. Even so, they can’t really help but make sad faces when something they were particularly fond of doesn’t make it. And I try very hard not to cut stuff that more than one person really, really likes, because if two people like it that much, it will probably appeal to a lot of other folks, and appealing to readers is part of the point.

Sometimes, though, things have to change. What I have is a perfectly serviceable idea – a perfectly good gun – but it isn’t the right one. The idea sounds good, sometimes terrific, and everybody I’ve mentioned it to loves it, but I know in my heart that it just doesn’t fit the book I’m getting started on writing.

The obvious thing to do at this point is to go ahead and come up with something else: a new character, a different plot twist, a change in the magic system or the politics or the setting. Oddly enough, it can be just as hard to resolve to make this kind of change before one has written even a word or two as it is when one has 17 chapters written, 14 of which will have to be scrapped. Because whichever point one is at, making the change is going to require more work, and I, at least, resist the inevitability of “more work” as much and as often as possible.

Painful experience has taught me, however, that forcing a project forward when it doesn’t feel right always results in having to scrap a bunch of chapters later in addition to working out all the stuff that needs to be different. In other words, it’s a lot less work to stop and work out the changes when my backbrain first starts looking at something sideways and frowning, rather than waiting until it starts screaming and jumping up and down and refusing to move a foot farther into the story until things are put right.

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Second Opinion, anyone?

I have this new project, which I have been wrestling with for a couple of months now. Mostly pleasant wrestling, as there are a lot of elements that please me. The problem is, I couldn’t get the thing started.

This is extremely unusual for me, but it was pretty obvious why: the thing starts in the present-day USA, and I have no real interest in writing contemporary fiction. Zilch. To the point where I was trying to start with the Second Evil Minion knocking on my heroine’s door and whisking her entire family off to wherever they’re going well before the end of the first chapter.

I had a couple of good reasons for doing it this way – not making false promises about where the story will happen, not introducing a bunch of characters who won’t be in the entire rest of the book – but it really boiled down to “I don’t wanna write present-day stuff! Wah!”

Which, I eventually admitted, is a totally wrongheaded reason for writing something a certain way. Also, it didn’t work. At all.

Unfortunately, that left me with trying to write at least a chapter or two set in present day, without introducing extraneous characters and without misleading readers. There’s also a little matter of foreshadowing a bunch of developments that will happen later on…some of which I have no clue about as yet. And, incidentally, writing all of this in a present-day setting that a) wasn’t a total cliché, b) didn’t necessitate making up a lot of one-page characters who’d look important (like teachers and friends), but who won’t be appearing in the rest of the book, and c) didn’t bore me to write about.

So I did what I usually do when that kind of thing happens, which is go to a coffee shop or restaurant with friends and complain. (This turns out to be a vital, downright indispensable part of the writing process for nearly every writer I know, though it is seldom mentioned in how-to-write books.)

There was some back-and-forth discussion, and then one of my compatriots pointed out that what I needed was to have my heroine appear first in a setting that was inherently temporary and obviously ending soon, like the last day of the family vacation, or summer camp, or a visit with grandparents. That way, readers wouldn’t be expecting to have to remember a lot about the place and people in the immediate opening, but I’d have time and space to develop the character and get some of her backstory nailed down before everything goes pear-shaped for her.

That sounded very promising, though the specific suggestions didn’t ring any bells. The general idea – starting in a place and at a time when things were obviously not everyday business-as-usual – felt spang on the money. We kicked it around a little more, looking for other possibilities, and then the obvious one occurred to me: the State Fair.

The Minnesota State Fair is an annual event, so it falls within the realm of “normal, recurring, part-of-everyday-life” for folks around here, but it only lasts twelve days. So it is inherently temporary, even if people go every year. There are weird things at the fair, and not just on the Midway (crocodile on a stick, anyone? Maybe the bacon-flavored ice cream?), so Second Evil Minion can show up without causing undue comment (other than “What’s he advertising?). And it starts next week, which means I can go and do some actual research, instead of having to rely on my memories of State Fairs past. Most important of all, it will be fun to write about, which will (I hope) get me to stop trying to move everybody out of town faster than they ought to be going.

Oh, and it is really, really going to be fun to see how Second Evil Minion copes with the butter heads, the llama costumes, and the crop art, among other State Fair perennials. Plus, I think the whole group can vanish in a puff of smoke in front of a crowd, and everyone who saw it would just assume it was a publicity trick or street theater or advertising or something. Which would be handy if and when my heroine has to come back, assuming I want to finagle the time differences so that she hasn’t been gone for months and months.

The trick at this point is going to make sure it doesn’t turn into a “Second Evil Minion does the State Fair” book. Not yet, anyway. Maybe a sequel…

The thing is, the story is moving. And I am pretty darned sure that it wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t gone out and whinged at the right people. I was spinning my wheels because all I could see was “writing boring contemporary school scenes – ugh!” (and trust me, if I’d had to write them, they’d have been boring!). I was so focused on what I didn’t want to do that I wasn’t looking for the right kind of alternatives. It took somebody who had no particular list of “things I want to avoid writing” (because she isn’t writing this book) to see what I needed in order to get around the initial problems: a setting that was both obviously normal and contemporary and obviously temporary rather than someplace readers would expect to come back to.

That kind of stuckness is especially frustrating because it isn’t what most folks think of as “writer’s block.” (It’s also a heck of a lot more common than all of the different kinds of “writer’s block” that I can think of, put together.) I know what the story is; I know where it’s going; I know more or less what has to happen next. I just couldn’t get it moving, because I could only see one way of getting it all started, and I really, really didn’t want to write that.

Every person looks at stories from a different angle, and sometimes that’s just what you need to break loose this kind of stuck. It certainly worked for me.

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