yeah, maybe, i dunno

Consistency, that’s what I originally was going to call this post, but then I was like, “Bluh, that’s so boring. Who’d want to read a post titled that?” Ironically, this post will be incredibly inconsistent. Earlier this week, I had a really great idea to cover tonight. And then I forgot it. So this one may also be a bit… meh.

After work today, I went shopping with my mom. She likes vegetables and seems hell-bent on getting me into them, too. I like vegetables fine. Just umm, not a lot of them. There’s a lot of weird ones out there. Anyway, my mom wanted to know what I was going to write about, too. I told her about consistency, but I was at a loss for how to relate this to writing. Aside from repeating what I’ve already mentioned previously about having a schedule and keeping it, I just wasn’t sure what to say.

But I think I have something now. More than once, I’ve heard about a writer’s voice. I read it in reviews, other blogs, group forums, but I was never really sure what it meant. Hell, I’m still not 100%, but today I take it to mean a writer’s style and syntax. How do they put the words on the page? How are scenes organized? How do characters develop? Almost like a pattern. If that’s the case, then most of the writers I read don’t have a distinctive voice. But there are some who I believe possess a unique storytelling voice. Steven Erikson, Frank Herbert, Tolkien… uhh. Hah. Like I said, I don’t read much. And I don’t want to bad-mouth any authors by name (particularly since they’re published and I’m not!). This isn’t a literary review blog. So yes, I know there are other really awesome, unique voices out there. Don’t rip me a new one.

Characters in a story should be consistent, from the big details to the small ones. Part of this is knowing who your characters are. Your main characters need to be as familiar to you as your own family. What they like, hate, eat, watch, wear. What they do on Saturday night, what they believe in, what sort of education they had. Can you get by without this? I guess. Probably. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But writing is a lot of work, and your characters are an essential part of the process, maybe the most important part. Don’t skimp! So let’s say that you do all this work. How does it help? It informs you on how your characters respond in situations, to people, to other words. It affects what they say and how they say it. It affects the relationships in their lives.

Syntax… well. Sometimes I think maybe I over-emphasize the importance of that. Maybe because I’m protective of my own skills in that area. I want to believe it’s important to write well. Going with the word “rancid” instead of “putrid.” (And never, ever settling for “fetid!”) Moving one pronoun over a few words, begin with the prepositional phrase, avoid semicolons at all costs. They don’t impact the story in a direct way, except maybe the way a reader experiences it, and I’ve read a lot of books that don’t seem to care how the words land on the page as long as they form a coherent sentence and cover the beats. Hm. I guess I’m making it sound like that’s terrible. But some of the stuff I’ve read lately… man. I could’ve sworn a teenager wrote it!

(If you want to check out my Goodreads to see what I’m talking about, click here.)

How do you assemble your story? Do you use first person POV? Third person omniscient? Do you devote an entire chapter to one character? Or do you scene break to other characters every few pages? And my personal favorite, do you use flashbacks? How do you use them? These are all recurring tools that authors like to use from work to work. I am a huge fan of flashbacks. They convey (ideally) crucial, eye-opening information without taking over the story or making you start the story before your story actually starts. I hate first person. Reading it is fine (though it took time for me to get to that point, too), but I just cannot write it. I can’t take myself seriously, but I tip my hat to those writers that can manage. And I love to throw multiple POVs into each chapter. And I really love to insert worldview into the description. (Umm, if you don’t know what I mean, you really should check out Erikson’s Malazan series. It’s pretty much the hallmark of the series.) Anyway, once you settle on a style for putting your story together, you should stick to it. If you do flashbacks, do them consistently. (Note I didn’t say a lot.) If you do first person, do not switch to second or third. Tonight, I watched a pretty decent episode of Arrow on my DVR. It’s an entertaining show that often makes use of flashbacks. Tonight’s set of flashbacks, though… really bugged me with their inconsistency. Were they Moira’s recollections? No… I’m pretty sure they weren’t. Were they Oliver’s? Maybe, except he wasn’t even in all of them. So were they just objective flashbacks detailing something that happened? It appears so. But I think the show does it differently, and so I was really thrown.

On the bright side, tonight’s DVR episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t confuse me once. 🙂

On Writing: Character

This morning I had to take my mom to a doctor appointment for some sort of glandular issue. The doctor then ordered some lab work. It was a long, somewhat stressful day. But we had a very interesting conversation while we waited for this and that. We talked about one of the characters in my novel.

Even before she finished her read-through, my mom announced she seriously disliked one of the male characters. Said he wasn’t a man. Used another interesting word I’m not going to repeat on here. It left me puzzled. I liked him fine. Maybe he wasn’t my favorite, but that’s okay. We all have our most favorite and least favorite. (Parents, you know what I’m talking about.) After she finished reading my manuscript, she held firm in her opinion of this guy. I didn’t get it. He was an honest, honorable, sensitive guy. Handsome and brave and all that. Today, while we sat in the waiting room, my mom added that she much preferred one of the other guys.  Well, that didn’t surprise me too much. (My mom recently confessed a major girl-crush on the Rock. But only when he’s behaving “Rock-like.”) She likes men of action. Men of ass-kickery. Men of strong muscles and stronger jaws/brows/eyes. Sensitivity and in touch with his feminine side is a bit further down her list of likes.

We talked about the differences between the two characters, compared them to characters on other shows (Person of InterestArrow, Revenge). She expressed extreme disappointment in my guy over the trajectory of his character development. It created conflict in one of his relationships, and that bothered her. At which point, I explained that conflict is important, not just for story progression but for character progression. Anyone who’s read Campbell or McKee or Egri knows this: conflict creates story, conflict builds character. It’s the engine of change for both. I also explained to my mom that it was okay to dislike/hate a character. (Though yes, I know sometimes we can hate in a bad way. Lori/Andrea from The Walking Dead, anyone?) We hate a really great villain. (Joffrey!!!) We can even hate a really entertaining hero. (Spike–or Angel, in my mom’s case.)

As I’ve said before, characters that don’t evolve will stagnate. (God, I wish I could think of a different, better word than stagnate!) Conflict is the best, most compelling, most believable way to motivate that evolution. Success can do it, but success without conflict feels just a little emptier, a little too easy. Failure works better, in fiction and in real life. Because we learn from failure, and so do our characters.

And I happen to think it’s great if a reader/viewer has different feelings for different characters. Because I think it’s great if our characters are different from each other. I mentioned this before, too, but if you have two or three or more characters who seem eerily similar to each other and seem to meet similar needs in your story, why do you have them? Merge them into one, and make that one character really shine.

I want to add something for writers who are working on a multi-volume story, because I feel like there are some differences between that sort of piece and a one-shot sort of thing. In the one-shot (movies, mostly, that aren’t part of a series of movies), you need to start and end in that one story. Makes sense, right? Your narrative must have some sort of satisfactory resolution. Your character must have arrived at some sort of destination, physically, emotionally, or thematically. In a multi-volume work (movie franchises and almost every TV show out there), story and character are stretched over the course of the project. NashvilleSons of Anarchy, even the Law & Orders introduce characters who grow over years. The same is true in literature. (I’m still working on broadening my palette, or I’d mention several examples here outside of sci-fi/fantasy.) Your character should grow, but he/she/it doesn’t necessarily have to reach his/her/its “final” metamorphosis in this installment of the story. But they do have to go somewhere. And that’s what I ended with, when my mom and I were discussing her least favorite character. This guy had a ways to go, for the reader and for me. (Yes, I admit. Even I’m not sure where I’m taking this guy.)

I take the conversation as a sign of success, though. Sort of. We all know it’s better to write a character that people hate, than a character that people sit back and think “meh” about. I really, really hate Clay from SoA, but I love to see him do his thing onscreen. But I just plain hate Rayna from Nashville. I even hated her more than Oliver Hudson’s character, Jeff Fordham. (I know some of you may disagree and love Rayna. And bless your heart for it.) Because she bores me. I don’t sympathize with her. And I really just want to see her go offscreen and not come back. 🙂 On Person of Interest, John used to be my favorite character. He reminded so much of Jack Bauer, and well… haha… I’m gonna gush in a minute. Anyway. But John’s development on PoI has taken a slight turn (or maybe hasn’t turned much at all?), and I’m starting to wonder if I really like him as much as I used to. (Go Team Shaw!)

Here’s the bottom line, though. Love your characters, even when you hate them.

what a difference a day makes

This may be a short one. I’m having a definite off-week.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Apparently, staying up all night is for the young buck. When I was an undergrad, I remember staying up until 5 or 6 in the morning, getting no more than four or five hours. That doesn’t work anymore.

Sleep is great. But I also think it’s boring. I like to spend most of my time working out story stuff in my head, and I don’t remember anything useful about my dreams. I definitely can’t write when I’m asleep. So I stay up late, either trying to write or doing something that gets my mind in a storytelling sort of mood.

I mentioned this in a previous post, but writers need to make a schedule. This isn’t just to make sure you do write, it’s to make sure writing doesn’t turn the rest of your life upside-down. Some people find structure too restrictive. They prefer to go with the flow, not make plans, see what happens. Some people go the other way with it. I lean toward that direction a little. Structure is great. But I have trouble applying it where it’s needed most. Having a daily schedule isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be treated like scripture. It’s a guide, and it has as much control over our lives as we’re willing to give it. Like everything else. But I think it’s okay to say that breakfast is best in the morning, sleep is best at night, and exercise is best somewhere between those times.

For some strange reason (it may involve a problem with discipline), I’ve never liked fitting my writing efforts into one fixed time of the day. In film school, I learned that about four hours a day was a good amount of time to work on scripts and papers. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the day.

My problem was being consistent in choosing a specific time of day and sticking to it. Despite my preference for structure, I love flexibility. (I also loved eating out, but that’s a separate issue.) I’m not an expert at scheduling, but I think they work best when your list of daily responsibilities isn’t just floating around on the day planner.

Damn. I’m tired. But I’d like to put this in now before I forget it later.

Structure is pretty good in storytelling, too. We’re all familiar with the three act structure (beginning, middle, end). Most of us have probably even heard of Campbell’s description of the “hero’s journey.” (I used to know it really well, but I’m too wiped right now to recall everything.) His point was that there are patterns of storytelling that cross cultures and centuries. As writers, we could think of them as elements of structure. There’s a hero, there’s an antagonist. There’s a challenge, there’s some kind of resolution. Maybe it’s weak sauce. I know it’s not groundbreaking.

Of course, there are plenty of stories that don’t follow convention. Some are successful, others aren’t. I think this is where arguments about “formula” come into it. Hollywood’s notorious for producing formula films, stories where we can accurately predict the outcome of a narrative, the course of a character’s evolution, even the themes that emerge. Some audiences love it, and that’s fine. They appreciate and enjoy that sense of predictability. But there are others (myself included) that would prefer to be surprised–and challenged.

I don’t like being confused, though. (I’m looking at you Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! God, this week’s episode was frustrating. How many twists and turns does it take until you turn a TV episode into a really expensive pretzel?) There’s a fine line, to be sure.

I gotta admit, though. S.H.I.E.L.D. was confusing, but at least it was bold about it.

let’s take a moment

I’ve heard it’s real easy to start a habit. It’s real hard to break one. Eating junk food. Going to church. Lying. Working out. Sleeping around. Writing everyday.

So last week I said some things about the size of your dramatis personae. Less is more, I think was the gist of it all. And that’s true. But maybe I swung too far in that direction. I certainly started to think so when I took another look at my own writing. Confession time. I’m a big fan of big cast lists. I enjoyed Lost (in the beginning) mostly because it told a really fascinating story with a lot of characters.

Maybe I need to back up a little bit. Don’t be gun shy when telling a story. Go balls to the wall. I think most of us already know this. Storytelling isn’t a timid art form, fiction and non-fiction both, across all mediums. My favorite author, Steven Erikson, recently completed a series that takes “epic fantasy” to a new level. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a ten book set, with literally hundreds of characters. Like him or hate him, he (and his partner Ian C. Esslemont, who wrote the A Tale of the Malazan Empire series) have developed a massive world and a mind-blowing multi-arc narrative to go with it. I was truly in awe when I first read it, and I knew that was the kind of story I wanted to tell. Erikson just proved it was possible. For those of you who don’t know him (and I wouldn’t be surprised), then let me say he’s a lot like George R.R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire books when it comes to big stories. Times two.

As I may have said some time ago, I’m working on a book. It’s the first book in a, oh, three or four (or five) part series. The cast list is… eh… about the middle of the road. A little less than Game of Thrones but a little more than Gravity. Like any good writer, I’ve gone over it again and again. Have I cut any extraneous subplots? Does my narrative have a beginning, middle, and end? Do I have too many characters? Well. That’s the question. At that point, I look again and ask if every character serves a purpose. In my head, they seem to. Sadly, my beta readers have been all of two people, and I’m not even sure I’d count one of them as a valid choice to begin with (my mom). So the jury’s still out on that.

Speaking of moms, me and mine went to see the new Captain America movie. It was umm… I don’t know. I didn’t dislike it, and that’s about all I can say right now. My mom, however, had an interesting reaction, and it’s one that seems to speak to this particular topic somewhat. After we left the theater, I asked her what she thought. Her response was something along the lines of “It’s gotten a bit kooky with all the characters. Was all that really in the comic?” Me being the guy that loves ensemble pieces, I didn’t really understand where she was coming from. Like, really, Mom? You watch(ed) Once Upon a Time, and that has a ridiculously large cast. Some might even say woefully large. Now that I’ve had a few hours to reflect, I sort of get it now. My mom’s the type of consumer that enjoys movies, TV shows, and books as individual, independent entities. She understands that the Captain America films are based on comic books, and she gets that it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but none of that matters when it comes to this one film. And I get that. Each film should be able to stand on its own and not confuse the hell out of people just because it’s trying to provide some continuity to the next film. (If you’ve seen the post-credits scene after any Marvel film, you know what I mean. It’s a pattern.)

Alas, my book follows that same pattern, for better or worse. It tells a story, but it also has elements that work toward setting up the next story. But that’s a convention of the genre these days. Epic fantasy likes to set down deep roots that occasionally take some time to fully bloom.

Anyway, I wanted to try to clear things up, because just a few days after my last post, I’d started to wonder if I’d just become a total hypocrite. It’s not beyond me to do something like that. I’ve definitely done/said some hypocritical things. I just don’t want my writing to be one of those things.