More on using multiple viewpoint

A couple of folks had questions about the last post, most notably “How do you know your story is complex enough for multiple viewpoint?” and “Does it count as multiple viewpoint if it’s a camera-type that follows different characters?” So I thought I’d spend another post on this.

Multiple viewpoint is one of the most confusing terms in writing, because it isn’t really a viewpoint at all. Think about it for a minute: viewpoint type comes in first-person, second-person, and third person, just like verb forms; arguably, one can also do first-person-plural and third-person-plural. There is no verb form “multiple.”

What multiple viewpoint is, is a structure, like “linear” and “parallel scenes” and “circular.” It is a way of ordering the events and incidents in the story. Unlike most other structures, though, it isn’t playing with the when and where of events, or with the mental/emotional effects on the main character. Instead, it’s playing with who and why. Specifically, it’s playing with whose eyes the reader sees through, and what each character’s reasons for doing things are. And, sometimes, with letting the reader know more than any individual character does.

A multiple viewpoint structure can be used with any story that has more than one character. For example, take Cinderella. The fairy tale is straightforward, and most retellings are equally straightforward: the Cinderella character is put upon by the evil stepfamily, the godmother interferes and sends Cinderella to the ball anyway, the prince falls in love and seeks her out, and the evil stepfamily gets their comeuppance.

Retelling the story using a multiple viewpoint immediately raises the question which viewpoints to use? The answer depends on whether the author wants a complex retelling or a straightforward one. For the straightforward one, Cinderella, her godmother, and the prince are the obvious main choices; the evil stepsisters and stepmother could be viewpoints, but if they are, they’ll almost have to be one-note caricatures in order to keep the storyline the same. Most authors don’t try; if they want more viewpoints, they go for original characters whose presence is implied by the setting – palace footmen, the king and queen, servants, townsfolk.

A complex retelling, on the other hand, almost requires the stepsisters and the stepmother’s viewpoints as well as Cinderella’s, and not as caricatures, either – as individuals who have a different take on what is going on, and good reasons for what they do that the reader would never know about without those viewpoints. Perhaps the stepmother is being blackmailed and that’s why money is so tight, or perhaps she’s trying to fend off a skeevy old rich dude who wants to buy all three of the girls for his harem. Maybe the stepsisters are running a charity fundraising business that Cinderella made a nasty comment about once (not knowing they were involved). Maybe the stepmom has cancer, unknown to Cinderella, and is trying to get her family safely settled before she dies. Maybe the chores she sets Cinderella aren’t really so bad if one looks at them from a different viewpoint (I certainly thought that I was much-put-upon when I was sixteen and had to do dishes and fold laundry).

Whatever the reasons, the complex multiple-viewpoint story looks vastly different from the simple one. It may still be obvious who the good guys and bad guys are, but neither side looks quite as black-and-white as they do in a straightforward story, because the reader knows more about everybody.

Because multiple viewpoint is a structure, rather than a first-person, second-person type of viewpoint, it can be used to mix up types of viewpoint as well as viewpoint characters. That is, one viewpoint character’s scenes may be in first-person, another’s in tight-third, and another’s in camera-eye or omniscient. This lets the writer play with different levels of intimacy with different characters – that one-shot viewpoint where the warehouse guard gets killed is often (not always) in camera-eye because the point isn’t to get the reader identifying with and understanding the guard, it’s to move the plot along by showing the killing. Sometimes, this kind of one-scene viewpoint is a good way of ramping up tension or creating a mystery or just moving the plot along; other times, it’s a cheap way for the writer to get out of learning how to get a particular bit of information in when none of the current viewpoint characters are conveniently to hand.

The answer to “does moving the camera focus around count as multiple viewpoint?” is, therefore “No, because camera-eye and omniscient are third-person viewpoint types; multiple viewpoint is a structure.” The answer to “How do you know when your story is complex enough?” is “Actually, that’s irrelevant; the structure can be used with any kind of story. The question is, is it the most effective structure for the story you want to tell?” If you want to focus strictly on Cinderella’s story, you probably don’t need multiple viewpoint (and it may get in the way). If you want to show that the stepmother and sisters are perfectly justified, from their viewpoint, you may not need Cinderella’s viewpoint. If you want to examine the complexity of a blended family from inside and outside and across generations, you probably do need multiple viewpoint.

It depends on what story you want to tell, and how you want to tell it. The problem isn’t the complexity of the story, so much as it is mis-matching the kind of story you want to tell with a structure that works better with a different kind. If you desperately want to write a multiple-viewpoint story, but you also want to focus really tightly on Cinderella…maybe you should think about doing Cinderella as tight-third or first-person, and save the multiple-viewpoint for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

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Setting out to do multiple viewpoint

Note to self: When the blog posting date happens the day after a major busy day (like, say, the day the taxes are due), write it in advance, because you are going to get home from dropping stuff in the mail and collapse and completely forget to write it until late the following morning.

Announcement: The e-book of Wrede on Writing is on sale for $1.99 at SF Signal  through the end of next week . If you were waffling about buying it, here’s a chance to have it for less.

This week, I am being a “counselor” for NaNoWriMo’s April “camp” session, which I take to be NaNoWriMo for all the people who can’t do it in November because of Thanksgiving and holidays coming up and such. As part of this, they sent me a set of questions  the WriMos asked, and one in particular was interesting but would take way more space to answer properly than I have in the NaNoWriMo blog. So you get to watch me muse on it.

The question had to do with writing a good book with multiple viewpoints, and I’m going to start with the obvious: to write a “good book,” you have to know what you think a “good book” is (other people will disagree with you) and you have to do all the non-viewpoint-related things like dialog and plot and structure and background that you’d have to do for any book. “Multiple viewpoints” is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for all the other things a writer has to do effectively.

So this is really about juggling multiple viewpoints, and the first question is, does the story have to be multiple viewpoint, or is the writer just defaulting to multiples because it seems easier or because The Game of Thrones is multiple viewpoint? If the reason is “it seems easier,” run away fast. Multiple viewpoint, like omniscient, is harder for most writers to do well than most single-viewpoint alternatives, because you have to all the same things you’d have to do for a single-viewpoint story and you have to do them several times in different ways depending on each viewpoint character’s voice, personality, etc. It is also desperately tempting to throw in a scene from the viewpoint of a minor character whose only reason for having a viewpoint is that he/she happens to be in the right place to “show” an important event that none of the viewpoint characters will actually see. This is almost always a bad idea, and I don’t care if George R.R. Martin does it. He’s George R.R. Martin. You aren’t.

Using multiple viewpoint because you’re used to seeing TV and movies done that way, or because your favorite novel is multiple viewpoint, is a failure of imagination and attention. TV and movies have different requirements from novels, and different constraints; applying the techniques of film and video to written fiction without thinking about their appropriateness and effectiveness is very nearly a recipe for mediocrity. You may get lucky and be writing a story where the use of these borrowed techniques does work well, but depending on luck is never a good idea, because it comes in two varieties and one of them you really don’t want.

Assuming that the writer has already done all this thinking, and is writing a complex, interwoven story that really will benefit from being told from multiple viewpoints,  the next question is, which characters should be viewpoints? Every character has a story, but some of them are completely different stories from the one you are telling, and others only have a bit of overlap. You want viewpoint characters whose individual stories and/or subplots are crucially relevant to the story you are telling, not just viewpoints who happen to be in the right place at the right time to let you have a scene you want.

You also want viewpoints that will let you show what you need to show and avoid showing what you want to avoid showing, which can be a lot trickier. It is easy enough to avoid making the villain a viewpoint (so that the writer doesn’t have to worry about giving away the Evil Plot too soon), but it is not always obvious up front that Character A is never going to be around when interesting/exciting things happen, or that making Character B a viewpoint means the reader will learn about the kangaroo escape too soon and the plot will fall apart, or that if Character C is a viewpoint you will end up repeating certain things often enough that you will have to worry about the reader getting bored with hearing them.

How many viewpoints is another question, one that is both important and dangerous. Every character has his/her own story, usually at novel length. If you have two viewpoint characters, both of whom are focused on stopping the nuclear reactor from having a meltdown, they’ll still be doing it for different reasons, and they’ll have very different angles of approach to the problem (if they don’t, there’s no reason for them all to be viewpoint characters). Theoretically, you would be able to write two different 100,000-word novels, one from each viewpoint, but by using both characters as viewpoints in the same book, you can cut that back to two 60,000-word stories because so much of the central event (the damaged nuclear reactor) is the same. That gives you a perfectly reasonable 120,000 word book, but not one that fits most people’s definition of multiple-viewpoint. Add one more viewpoint, with his/her own different story, and you’re up to 180,000 words, which is quite long; at four viewpoints, fully-fleshed out, and you’re at 240,000.

The solution is to have several tiers of viewpoint characters:  say, two to three central viewpoints, whose stories are more complicated and will be fully fleshed out; another two to four characters who have shorter, more focused stories (they’d maybe be novelettes or novellas if they weren’t part of this book); and maybe a couple who have short story-length stories. The problem here is keeping oneself focused; many writers dive into their viewpoint characters so thoroughly that they can’t keep D’s story to the 5,000-word short-story length they’d intended when they know they are writing a novel. This can end up with eight to twenty viewpoint characters all of whom have novel-length stories that the writer wants to tell. Inevitably, this leads to fuzzing the focus on the main storyline as the writer wanders off into the fascinating but irrelevant underbrush of different characters’ tangential stories.

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Character voices

Announcements: For the past year, Tim Cooper has been running around Minneapolis taking pictures of different people reading Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks in places featured in the book. He’s currently running a kickstarter project to finance an art book collecting all the photos. Check it out. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the readers in one of the forty-two photos.)

People talk about the importance of making different characters’ voices different, but they often don’t get down into the nitty-gritty of how to do it. It’s one of the things that took me a long time to begin to get the hang of.

“Differences in character voices” applies to dialog, which means what you have to work with are the character’s word choice, grammar, and syntax. At first glance, this doesn’t look so complicated, but if you think about it, the character’s background will affect all of these things. His/her beliefs, attitudes, and worldview will also factor in, as will the character’s culture-of-origin, class, and life experience, which in turn are affected by things like race, religion, age, ethnicity, and gender. Personality is a big factor, too – just think about that person you know who goes on and on about his/her current hobby or crush, without regard to whether anyone else is interested, and compare them to the one who never says much of anything about him/herself.

Lots of writers do character voices by instinct, basing them on specific people or groups of people they know. I did that with Telemain in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles; he sounds like every obsessed computer programmer I knew at the time, rolled up into one guy, with the topic changed from computers to magic. Sometimes, though, one wants to be a little more conscious about one’s choices, and one way of doing that is to look at your tools, one at a time.

Word choice: Start with overall vocabulary. At least some of your characters won’t have as large a vocabulary as you do; what kinds of words are they missing? Long, polysyllabic ones? Formal ones? Specialized terminology about cars or gardens or knitting? Why are they missing these words – lack of interest in car engines, or lack of opportunity to study them?

Are there words this character would never use? Swear words are one obvious choice, but there are gradations; you can have a character who never swears or only uses euphemisms like “darn it,” or one who swears but only using vulgar words, never profanities like “God damn it,” or one who is always profane but never vulgar. Are there things the character would never talk about, given his/her background? (Money, power, and sex are both the three great motivations and, at times, the three great conversational taboos, but there are plenty of others.)

Grammar and syntax vary based largely on class and background – not just ethnic or cultural background, but which part of the country someone is from. In the U.S., a Southern accent is very different from a New England or Midwestern accent, and within the South, a Texas accent is different from a Georgian accent or Mississippi accent. If one is inventing one’s own world, one should keep in mind that in a large country, there are going to be regional styles of speech; if it’s a multi-cultural empire, things are likely to be even more varied.

Grammar, syntax, and word choice can also vary with membership in a particular social or professional group. Computer programmers can speak what sounds like a totally different language when they’re discussing their specialty; so do most professionals, from doctors to insurance salespeople. Science fiction fandom has its own set of terms; teenage slang changes with every generation (in part so as to be impenetrable to adults); groups from motorcyclists to hip-hop artists to surfers have their own idioms and speech rhythms.

Above all, though, speech styles reflect personality. The anti-social character may choose to speak seldom and in monosyllables whenever possible, in spite of his vast vocabulary and noble background, because he wants to be left alone. The one with a tendency to be a drama queen may use long, rambling sentences as a way of hanging on to control of the conversation (as long as she’s talking, nobody else can get a word in).

What it ultimately comes down to is:  for this particular character, which of these things has the greatest effect on the way they sound? The answer will be different for each of them; the monosyllabic character and the garrulous drama queen may be next-door neighbors or even siblings, with the same ethnic, class, cultural, and educational backgrounds.

Once you have a clear speech style for each character, you have to keep that in mind whenever you’re writing a line of their dialog. Again, this ends up being largely intuitive. There have been many times when I wrote a line for someone and stared at it, because it was what they would say, in terms of content, but it didn’t feel like the way they would say it. Sometimes, fixing it is a matter of changing a word or the word order; sometimes, it takes rewriting the whole sentence. It is both embarrassing and gratifying when a beta reader or editor points out where a character’s voice is not in character – embarrassing because of the mistake, but gratifying in that it means that the character’s other dialog has a clear enough voice that a reader can spot the wrong bits.

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From the mailbag #7

How much do you develop your characters prior to their appearance onstage?

Not much. Usually, they either walk into my head fully formed or develop as I write them. Very occasionally, I’ll poke at one of them before I start writing, but it never seems to be much use as far as their personality and what they’re like is concerned. I either know them, or I don’t.

What I do do is backstory – who is related to whom, who works for whom, who is plotting with or against whom, what kinds of agendas different characters may have. But much of that can change when they finally show up on the page, if their personality demands it. Or if the story does. Sometimes, it feels kind of like casting an actor in a role and then realizing that he/she doesn’t have the right chemistry with the rest of the cast and having to replace them after a couple of days.

What’s your daily work schedule like?

Extremely varied. I have enough else going on in my life that I can’t set a time and stick to writing, unless I get up at 4 a.m., which I am not about to do when I don’t have to. For me, what works best is to get some words written on a daily basis; how many, for how long, and at what time of day doesn’t matter as long as they happen.

What are your passions outside of writing?

Reading and, at the moment, knitting. Reading is the only constant; I’ve dabbled in gardening, home repair, tailoring, cross stitch, and a variety of other things over the years.

How many books had you written before your first major sale?

My first novel was my first sale, so none. I’d done a number of unsellable short stories, mainly because everyone told me that was how you were supposed to do it, but I’m not a short story writer, so they all sounded like plot outlines or else like a chapter excerpted from the middle of a novel. Which is why they never sold. Well, that plus them being really terrible.

How much time do you spend creating your worlds? Do you shape your worlds around your characters or vice versa?

It depends on the book. I have to have a certain amount of backstory done before I start writing, but it always keeps developing as the story gets written…and backstory is not quite the same as worldbuilding. How much I need to have figured out before I start the story varies from book to book; it also depends on how close I am sticking to real-life history vs. making things up entirely out of whole cloth, like the Lyra books.

I don’t always start with the same set of ingredients, so there’s no one answer to “Do I shape the world around the characters or vice versa” – it depends on the story. If I start with the characters, things shape around them to some extent; if I start with the plot, that’s what both world and characters grow from; if I start with the world, the plot and characters grow out of it.

What writers have influenced your work the most?

J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, L. Frank Baum, Georgette Heyer, and Jay Ward.

 After thirty years or so, does finishing a book still give you the same thrill of accomplishment?

I wouldn’t call it a thrill of accomplishment; it’s more like a huge sigh of relief.

 What do you think of women’s (characters) roles in Sci-Fantasy? Are they given enough credit for their strength and ability?

There is no genre that has only good or only bad portrayals of one kind of character. There is also no genre that has only one way of portraying a particular type of character. Some books have complex characters, while others have flat ones; some have a realistic variety of characters, while others have a sprinkling of stereotypes. There are also a variety of reasons why this happens, ranging from intentional authorial effort through unintentional reflection of authorial beliefs to lack of authorial skill on the part of an author who wants his/her characters to be realistic and complex, but who doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. And all of this applies just as much to male characters as female ones.

Why do you write children’s fantasy?

I don’t write children’s fantasy. I write books I would like to read, and then the Young Adult/Teen Fiction people offer me more money than the adult publishers for them, so they are printed and marketed and sold as YA.

Is there anything about the writing process that absolutely sucks?

 For me, it’s transitions and middles and council scenes, especially in the first draft.

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Plotting in bits and pieces

There are a myriad of books out there on how to construct a plot. Most of them, so far as I can tell, seem to take one of two approaches: either they focus on the main character as the driver of the plot, or they focus on the traditional plot-skeleton as the way of pushing the plot forward.

Both of these methods (and most of the others I’ve run across) begin by saying things like “have an idea” or “pick a main character” and then proceed directly to either “decide on the main plot problem” or “decide how it ends.” This isn’t wrong – the plot problem and the ending are important, and in most books really do need to be there by the time the story is over. They’re also perfectly valid places that one can start working out one’s plot. They just don’t work first time, every time, for every writer…or even for a writer who has developed plots that way in the past.

But these systems are top-down approaches, the equivalent of saying to a sculptor or potter, “First, decide what you are going to make. A statue of an elephant? A teapot?” The idea is that once you know where you are going, it is much easier to chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, or add material until it looks like a teapot.

What these approaches don’t help with are the people who work from the bottom up or the inside out. These folks are more like quilters who start with eighteen different types of fabric and a box of triangles and squares left over from the last project, and ask “What can I make out of this that would be interesting?” rather than starting with “I am going to make a Log Cabin quilt; what do I have that I can use?”

If you’re starting with a box of bits and pieces – a couple of characters, a scene that doesn’t seem to have a point, a notion that a sea voyage ought to come in somewhere – the approach you have to take to generate a plot probably isn’t the tidy linear method that so many plotting books describe. It’s going to be iterative, going around and around or back and forth until a pattern emerges. Because that’s one of the things plot is: it’s a pattern that goes somewhere.

The first thing to do is to see what you have. For a quilter, that means spreading out all the fabric and bits so they can get an overview; for a writer, it usually means reading through everything, though it might also mean printing stuff out and spreading it around like the fabric bits.

Depending on your personal preferences, you can then proceed in a couple of different ways. You can pick out all your very favorite bits and then try to see if any of what’s left fits around them or connects them. You can group and regroup your snippets – by obvious mechanical categories like length or type (dialog, description, action) or category (characters, places, backstory, plot twists), or in more intuitive “these feel like they belong together” groupings. You can move stacks of paper around, or use 3×5 cards or Post-It Notes, or make diagrams in a brainstorming program. You can clump things together (all the bits that involve Mary Ann) and then shuffle the clumps, or you can sort things individually and then look for all the different groups that have a Mary Ann bit in them.

As you do this, two things usually happen: one is that as you go over and over the bits from different directions, they will start to collide in your head and cause new bits to appear; the other is that you start to notice the things that are missing. Again, depending on your personal style and preference, you can scribble a list of new ideas and missing bits and keep going, or you can stop and write down the whole idea (whether that’s two lines or a five page scene) or try to make up some bits that would fit in the missing places.

If you are very, very lucky, you will start scribbling down something and come out of the daze several hours later realizing that you have just written Chapter One and you can stop looking at the bits and pieces and just keep writing now. Don’t count on this, though; it’s rare.

More usually, you will shuffle bits and pieces, and add new bits and pieces, and eventually you will start noticing a pattern or patterns. Maybe you have eight scenes where someone is rescuing someone or saving something, or a set of conversations that all seem to involve family crises of different sorts. If the emerging pattern appeals to you, make it your centerpiece and look through all the remaining bits to see what might fit with it. (You won’t ever use all the bits and pieces.) Or just resort and regroup everything until the emerging pattern grows clearer or you nudge the missing bits into view.

If the pattern(s) you come up with don’t appeal, pick the one that includes your favorite scene/clever line/dialog/character and ask yourself what would make it appealing and interesting – not to readers, you’re not at that point yet. Interesting and appealing to you. Or try recombining it with something else – maybe the action-adventure bits would be a lot more fun to write if the main character was trying to deal with the family crises at the same time, or the typical romance scenes would be more interesting if it involved a pod of dolphins.

Eventually, you probably do want to get to the “where does it end?” and “what is the big problem?” questions, but the odds are good that by then you will have a fairly good notion what your story is and where the plot is heading. Then you can tidy up all the stacks of papers and take a quick look at the top-down planning models to make sure you haven’t missed anything you really need or want. Or you can just start writing once you have whatever your backbrain considers “enough to go on with.”

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Writing scenes

A lot of writing books lately seem to focus on scenes – what they are, how they work, and of course how to write great ones. Most of the books I’ve read urge writers to start by deciding on the point of the scene, or the characters’ goals for the scene, or the writer’s goal for the scene. Then you’re supposed to find the conflict, or raise the stakes, or pick a disaster/catastrophe/failure to lead into the next scene. There are a couple of problems with this kind of approach.

The first is that scenes do not exist in isolation, nor are they truly complete in themselves, any more than one link in a chain is. You can take a single link and refine it and polish it and make it shiny and perfect…and if it doesn’t connect to the links before and after it, you still have a broken chain. Furthermore, if you take one single link in a chain and polish it up, and only work on that one link, the chain is going to look a little odd.

There’s also the fact that chains usually have a purpose, and that means they need to be the right length for that purpose. If the point of the chain is to keep the dog out of the next-door neighbor’s garden, the chain had better not be long enough to let the dog get halfway down the block. Which is not something you can evaluate by studying the chain one link at a time.

Studying the chain one link at a time will also not tell you whether the chain is actually connecting two things together, or whether it goes in a circle like a necklace. This is an important thing to know, because a necklace won’t help if you need to keep the dog out of the garden and a chain leash is not going to work very well to hang your grandmother’s diamond pendant on so you can wear it at your wedding.

In other words, looking at the point of the scene, various goals, and so on, is … well, the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” comes to mind. The really important thing about each and every scene is “How does this further the story?”

Which brings me to the second problem with the above approach: How, and how well, a scene furthers the story is something that is generally best judged when one has the whole story there to look at. Things don’t stay the same over the course of writing a book; plotlines shift, characters grow and change (and so do their motives). What looked like (and perhaps was) a brilliant scene when one was writing Chapter Twelve can turn out to be overdone or even superfluous when one looks back from the perspective of the ending in Chapter Thirty-Two.

In other words, I don’t think most of those great points about how to write great scenes are actually much help to most writers in writing the scenes. They may have value when it comes to editing and revising, but I don’t know any writers who actually plan out their scenes this way. (Though I assume there are some.) 

When it comes to actually writing scenes, most of the writers I know aren’t thinking about meta issues like what the conflict is or what the characters’ goals are for a particular scene. If you asked, at least half of them would say something like, “My character wants to put the groceries away before his roommate gets home” or “She wants to get that funny rattling noise in the car looked at before something breaks.”

What I think about when I am writing any scene other than the very first one (and sometimes even then) is the previous scene. Where did I leave everybody – physically, mentally, emotionally, plot-wise? What just happened? What, specifically, does each of the characters want to do next (run, cry, go to sleep, talk, plan…)? Are they in a situation where they can do that, or are they still fighting sea monsters or running from the tsunami?

Once I have that clear in my head, there’s a sequence I run through: What can they do next? (If they’re fighting sea monsters, they aren’t going to be having dinner or a nap any time soon.) Is what they can do important to the plot, or is it something I can skip over? (If they’ve left home, headed for the city, I can skip the whole trip if it’s routine; if the plot calls for one of the party to be kidnapped along the way, I’d better show at least that part.)

Finally and most importantly, is what they want to and can do interesting? Because if it’s not interesting, it really doesn’t matter how much conflict there would be, or what the characters’ goals are, or what the purpose of the scene is. If it ain’t interesting, it isn’t going to be the next scene. Not in my book, anyway.

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Originality, Fanfiction, and a Few Other Things

Originality is something that is prized in modern-day fiction, at the very same time it is proclaimed to be impossible. You can find innumerable web pages and writing books that tell you solemnly that “there is nothing new under the sun,” that “there are no more original stories… everything written today is a sort of riff on previous stories,” and that “you can’t come up with a basic plot that has never been done before.” And then, in the next paragraph, these same essayists go on to say “but it has never been done your way,” or they talk about the “appealing freshness” of the latest retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” or assert that originality is the (totally impossible) only way to achieve distinction in fiction.

This leaves a lot of authors in a bind. On the one hand, originality is held up as an absolute, fundamental prerequisite for high quality writing (and this is further reinforced by the attitude of modern society toward plagiarism). On the other hand, any author who stops to think clearly for more than a few minutes will have to recognize that after some four thousand years of recorded human history and storytelling, finding an original story to tell, or something new to say about the human condition, is going to be nearly impossible.

People have different reactions to this realization. Some are completely horrified whenever they (inevitably) discover that someone else has written something similar to their story, to the point of destroying whole manuscripts. Others come to an uneasy detent with the whole idea – a sort of head-in-the-sand, don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. Still others blithely ignore the whole issue, or pretend to (apart from the occasional 3 a.m. crisis of conscience).

There is, however, one group of writers who are totally untroubled by the whole modern idea that complete originality is some kind of benchmark for quality. I refer, of course, to writers of fanfiction.

Fanfiction, as I have pointed out elsewhere, can be looked at as a sort of map of various alternate routes through the implied decision tree that the original writer used. The whole point is that it’s not purely original in itself; it has to have something to be an alternative to, or an expansion of.

There is a lot of very good writing in fanfiction. And plenty of bad, too; Sturgeon’s Law most definitely applies – 90% of everything is crud. But that last 10% can be very, very good, and in at least some cases, I think one reason is that the writers do not have to angst about “being original” – at least, not as long as they write fanfiction.

And it isn’t new, not by a long, long shot. From where I sit, I can see an entire bookcase full of fiction dating from the twelfth century to the present, all spinning off from a few scraps of history and legend pulled together into The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. For the next three centuries, authors from Britain and France to Russia retold and expanded and elaborated the Matter of Britain in ways that a modern reader of fanfiction would recognize instantly, until Sir Thomas Mallory pulled most of it together in the Unified Field Theory that was Le Morte d’Arthur. Going farther back, one could, I think, make a good case for Virgil’s Aeneid being Homeric fanfiction.

The best retellings and reframings can stand on their own, but a knowledge of the original story makes them richer. You don’t have to be familiar with Romeo and Juliet to understand and enjoy West Side Story, but knowing Shakespeare adds a level of appreciation to the modern play. (And of course Shakespeare was adapting and retelling a couple of earlier stories that nobody would remember if they weren’t his sources. Nobody complains about plagiarizing something if your rewrite is better than the original…)

All of which leads me to the conclusion that the urge to retell and reframe existing stories is a fundamental human impulse that comes right along with the one to tell stories in the first place. Originality is not the be-all and end-all of literary quality; it is simply one of the many and several ingredients that writers use to create stories. Some stories need more of it than others; some need it in particular places but not in others. Ringing changes on familiar stories like Cinderella can be fun, and just as “original” and creative as making something up out of whole cloth.

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Taxes again and again

It’s tax time again, and as seems to be the case every year, I have writer friends who are cussing and moaning about their taxes, other friends who can’t bear to look at it until 11:59 on April 15, and even a few who habitually ignore the whole thing until the IRS sends them a nasty letter a year down the road. (Don’t do this. Just don’t. It gives me palpatations just thinking about it.)

There is, however, one universal: every single person I know swears that next year, they’ll do better. Next year, they’ll start earlier; next year, they’ll keep track of expenses during the year; next year, they’ll get an accountant; next year, they won’t have to file an extension; next year, they’ll get caught up and then they’ll stay that way.

They hardly ever actually do. The relief of getting the taxes done is so great that they can’t bear to look at anything related any more, so they put it out of their minds. And that’s where it stays until the next deadline rolls around.

I am no exception to this trend. Many of my friends would be surprised to hear this, as I have not only my own taxes to handle but also my father’s (which are extremely complicated even with a CPA doing most of the actual work), and I have gotten all of them in the mail by April 15 every year except one. Even so, every year it has been a lot of stressful running around and checking things and updating things and notifying various people, and every year I have sworn to do better.

The thing is, to make a writer’s tax forms easy to do, you have to start early. Because what makes the taxes easy are not just lots of records, but the right records, and it is several orders of magnitude simpler to do them right from the start of the year than it is to try to re-create them later on. This applies no matter what it is you are swearing you will do better with next year.

This year, I made my life a lot easier by 1) emailing the accountant to ask about his schedule a good two weeks earlier than I usually do. This meant I didn’t need to panic two weeks later when his calendar and mine don’t match up until April 14; I already had the only available slots that worked with my calendar, and all those other people who took them last year can see him while I’m busy with other things.

2) I made a list of all the documents I needed, based on last year’s forms. When they arrived, I noted the date, and when things arrived that weren’t on the list, I added them and the date, too. This isn’t a big deal for major things like the advances and royalties that flow through my agent; those tend to come in on time, or I get a note explaining (usually in an exasperated tone) that XYZ publisher is late with their numbers again and everything will be along as soon as they arrive. What I needed to keep tabs on were the smaller things – payments for school appearances, reprints, the occasional speaking engagement. Because it isn’t enough to track these throughout the year; I need to know if the payer is going to send me a 1099, because what they report to the government is what I have to pay taxes on, and it really helps if we both have the same numbers.

The list of speaking engagements isn’t going to be exactly the same this year as it was last year, but there are other smallish income amounts that will be, or that will show up again in a year or two. Knowing whether and when to expect their forms to arrive takes a lot of the pressure off. For the rest…well, the plan is to keep a list this year of place, date and topic, and amount received. It is so much easier to write it down now…at least, it is easier in terms of making tax time less stressful. It is still a boring tedious job that I am as eager to put off as the next person, so we’ll see how that goes.

3) The third thing I did was to sit down with Quicken and my tax forms and make sure all the things I deduct will print out with nice, neat subtotals for the lines I want to put them in. Yes, Quicken and Turbo Tax are supposed to do this for you, but their idea of what sorts of things belong in which lines does not always match up with the things a writer can deduct, and it never matches up with how I want to track my expenses for my personal budget. I have sworn every year for the past ten years that I would do this, and I always end up printing out their form and then making four or five manual corrections while I’m sitting in the accountant’s office. It’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying, and it ends this year.

That makes this year’s taxes run more smoothly, especially since I have most of it done and it’s not the end of March yet. For next year…the main thing is record-keeping during the year. The majority of it has been greatly simplified by Quicken’s ability to go on and download all my bank and credit card numbers; the catch is that the agencies often don’t keep an entire year-and-four-months-worth of records on their sites, so I have to remember to do the download periodically. Once a month when I pay the bills used to work before I put everything on auto-pay; this year, I’m going to try for once a quarter when I make my estimated tax payments.

And that should do it for this year. We’ll see how well it worked, next year…

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Simple vs. easy

As some of you may know, I knit. (My current project is a heavily cabled cape [scroll down a bit for the pattern picture] and it’s my first time doing complex cables. I’m about halfway through and having a blast.)

Every so often, I take one of my knitting projects out to work on when I’m meeting people in a public place, and I always get comments. I get particularly nice comments about one project that’s a very simple stitch, done in a self-striping yarn (for non-knitters, that’s just what it sounds like – a yarn that changes color periodically, with long enough runs of each color that when you knit or crochet with it, you get stripes). It’s a little annoying, because people who don’t knit nearly always comment on how nice the stripes look and how hard it must be to do them, when all I had to do to get them was pick the right yarn.

What they almost never comment on is the stitch pattern itself. It’s nothing complex…which is the point. Two of the most difficult things to do well in knitting are plain stockinette stitch, and equally plain garter stitch, which are really basic. They’re difficult because even though they are simple, they show every single problem and every mistake. With cables and lace and color work, you can often hide an error in the complexity of the pattern, or just continue on in the certain knowledge that nobody but you (and maybe a few sharp-eyed other knitters) will ever know it is there. A plain one-color sweater in stockinette is unforgiving.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Oh, and there’s one more thing: in knitting, certain kinds of mistakes (like accidentally splitting the yarn when you knit a stitch) do more than just look terrible; they also create weaknesses in the fabric. So most knitters will go to great lengths to fix a mistake, even if they discover it many rows back and even if they know that nobody but them will know. (Why, yes, I am a perfectionist about my knitting. This surprises you?)

Writing is one of the many other things that works this same way: that is, some of the hardest things to do are the basics, the fundamental things of which every story is composed, the things that look easy. The things that one might possibly be able to hide under various kinds of razzle-dazzle, but that sharp-eyed readers and other writers will notice (and probably complain about); the things that may weaken the story on some level even if few people spot them on a first read-through, or even a second.

The trouble is that knitting has words for these small but important basics: knits, purls, stockinette, garter stitch. Writing has large-scale general categories that are difficult to put a shape to, and hard to break down into the smaller building blocks where things go wrong. Plot, characterization, setting, and style are all considered writing basics, but each of them can be as complex and ornate as a lace shawl or cabled sweater, or as deceptively simple and straightforward as a garter-stitch wool scarf.

People tend to assume that things that have a complicated appearance are things that are hard to do. Writers are no exception to this tendency. The result is quite often that a writer will notice a weakness in a particular aspect of a story, and automatically assume that the problem is with the most complex parts. They don’t even look at the simple basics – because “simple” equals “easy,” and “basic” means “something you learn when you’re a rank beginner and then you know it and don’t have to worry about it any more,” right? (Also, on some level they know that the “simple basics” are going to be devilishly hard to fix…much harder, in most cases, than slapping on a layer of frosting in hopes of disguising the problem.)

So their plots develop subplots and complexities and complications piled on complications, when the real problem is a fundamental logical flaw or a breakdown in causation or even a key piece of information that never quite got nailed down on the page. Characters get more complicated and develop bizarre childhood traumas, when the real problem is that the writer doesn’t actually know what they want or why they want it. The author generates reams of notes on history and current politics, when the real problem is that there are fundamental inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and implausibilities in the description of the setting. Their style becomes more ornate, or more spare, when the real problem isn’t the length or elegance of the sentences, but their clarity.

But the thing about stockinette and garter stitch is, they’re the basis of everything else in knitting, and if you can’t do a good job on them, nothing else will look quite right or work quite as well as it should. The same is true of the fundamentals of writing – not everything that gets lumped under “plot” and “characters” and “setting,” but the basic what-story-are-you-telling-here, who-are-these-people-and-what-do-they-want, and where-is-this-happening elements. They’re simple, and they’re basic, but they’re not easy.

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The Fun Part

Writing isn’t any fun. At least, that is the impression I often get from listening to earnest young would-be and beginning writers discussing their work. There are all these decisions you have to make and things to pay attention to, from word choice to plot twists. It takes forever to finish a novel (and sometimes just as long to finish a short story). And then you have to do the marketing (I have never once met a writer who claimed to enjoy the submission process, not even the ones who are very, very good at it).

There are intense arguments over slanting stories for different markets, whether to look for an editor or for an agent first, the value and risk of multiple submissions, and traditional publishers vs. small presses vs. e-books. It all sounds so enormously exhausting and unpleasant that I wonder why anyone would want to get into this business at all, ever.

And then I run into someone who is so excited about their current project that they are nearly incoherent, or someone bouncing with joy because they found the absolutely perfect thing for Chapter Eight, and I feel better.

Any writer who wants a professional career does have to worry about all the things that go into getting such a career off the ground (and keeping it there), but there’s a down side, especially for those who get so caught up in the mechanics of writing and the procedures of getting their stuff sold that they forget why they’re doing it. I’ve seen more than one writer revise all the shine and sparkle out of a story in hopes of making it saleable. I’ve known more than one early-stage writer who has acquiesced to an editorial request that gutted a finished novel, or twisted the writer’s story totally out of shape.

None of them were having fun, and it showed in the finished product. It is therefore demonstrably worthwhile to sit down occasionally and remind oneself just why one is doing all this anyway.

When you sit down to write a story, what’s the thing that you’re most excited about? The coolness of the idea? The fascinating characters? The incredibly twisty plot? The history and setting? Getting to play with your nifty new Autocad program to draw maps?

When you are just gearing up on a project, what are you looking forward to writing? Is it a particular scene, or something longer like the arc of the unorthodox romantic relationship? Are you excited about a new writing challenge, or happy to be getting back to something you think you know how to do? (You are going to be wrong, if it’s the latter, but you know that and you don’t actually care.)

What is it about this particular book that is jumping up and down in your backbrain screaming “Me! Me! Write me now!” so loudly that you don’t care that nobody will want to buy a space opera about super-intelligent rabbits fighting against vampire carrots and their allies, the telepathic chickens? (Do not ask why your backbrain is excited about rabbits and chickens and vampire carrots. Just don’t.)

What, in short, is the fun part?

The fun part can stay the same for a twenty-novel series, or it can change from chapter to chapter, but ultimately, it’s the thing you have to keep an eye on. Because in my experience, if the writer isn’t having fun, it shows…and a lot of readers end up not having fun either.

Your idea of “the fun part” is unlikely to be the same as mine, or as any other writer’s. It may be something that your agent and editor frown at and politely but firmly categorize as “not commercially viable.” It may be something that your crit group, which is usually not as polite as one’s agent or editor, tells you bluntly is unsellable. They may be right, but fun is still fun, and sometimes you can make the fun part work in spite of the nay-sayers. Even if you can’t, it is often still worth writing the thing just to be able to have that particular bit of fun. You can always stick it in the back of your hard drive somewhere if you don’t want to make it a publicity give-away or self-pub it as an e-book.

Writing is work, there is no denying it. But if it isn’t fun, what’s the point.

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