Read these hastily scribbled notes... hastily...
I've spent the last several months writing a work-for-hire novel set in someone else's universe. When this project was first discussed, I thought it would be very difficult to work within those constraints. But I'm finding that it is really liberating in some ways.
When I have no constraints at all and I can write anything I want, it can be hard to focus, or even to get started. So if I am not sure how to proceed, I should just start moving instead of waiting for the perfect book to be arranged neatly in my mind. Just start typing. Take that leap of faith. That's a lesson I've been learning a lot lately.
One reason this works is that when I start to write, I create fixed points of reference. And having even one fixed point is a great help-- even if that one fixed point is kind of ridiculous, figuring out how that fits, and what it means for the rest of the world will help to build the story. This is one of the points made in recent podcast
about moving from "the ridiculous to the sublime." Don't be afraid of starting with ridiculous elements, they say. Treat them seriously and see what happens.
So, I'm going to take that challenge, embrace the silliness, and try to write a story about an angsty teenage lichen-thrope. Huh. Any ideas?
With the first 50 pages
of my most recent project being right now in the hands of a publisher, I have been thinking a lot about beginnings. In particular, I wish I had spent more time revising the opening page, opening paragraph, opening line of those first 50 pages. I want my writing to hook that publisher from the very start, and I don't know if I pulled it off.
So I've been very interested by a couple of recent podcasts over at Writing Snippets
, in which the hostesses consider the beginnings of successful young adult novels, both classic and contemporary. They argue, and I agree, that the contemporary novels work harder on hooking the reader from the very first sentence. Although I really like the way the classic stories begin. To me, they seem less gimmicky. Their hook is just great prose. People keep turning pages because these books are just a pleasure to read.
I've long thought that this is the hook that I want to use. I don't want to resort to cheap tricks. But if I turn a critical eye on my own work, I can see that I don't really grab the reader's attention until they're five or ten pages in. And I can't count on my readers hanging around that long. They have lots of other books to choose from, and I can't blame them for picking one that has an arresting first line / paragraph / page.
I need to stop viewing awesome openings as illusions designed to fool the reader into buying an inferior good. Maybe that's how it is for some authors, just like how pick-up lines and first dates are for some people. But for me, I should think of my first line / paragraph / page as a way to communicate to readers that I am willing to put in the time and effort to really polish my work and make it fun for them to read. Instead of a deception, it's a promise that that the rest of the book will be this good. And in a way, I'm setting the bar for myself before I jump into the rest of the book. And I want to set that bar high.
With all that in mind, here's an opening paragraph which I wrote as a joke. And now my goal is to write a short story, beginning with this hook:
“You, the reader, reading this right now, are in terrible danger and only this book can save you. If you don’t read it, you will be killed by a gang of Nazi biker mummies with machine guns. But if you do read it, you will be a famous TV millionaire and everyone will love you. And you will win the Olympics.”
I'll keep you posted!
This morning I had a bit of writer's block. Over the weekend, I was working on a key scene, and I was just red hot-- writing as fast as I could. But once the scene was finished, I cooled down until my pace became almost glacial.
So I did a couple of things. First, I went back to my world book and worked on fleshing out a couple of important characters, a brother and sister. This didn't produce new pages for the novel, but it did warm up my brain again.
This afternoon, as I listened to a podcast
on plot and character, I realized why. The authors on the podcast talked about whether their own work was plot-driven or character-driven. All of them agreed that both were important, and that they wanted their works to have exciting plots AND characters. But they started in different places.
I think every author starts with one of the basic building blocks of a story-- plot, character, setting, and maybe conflict-- and lets their work grow from there. Some people love to world-build; I would call that a fascination with setting. Some people see cool action sequences in their head; that sounds like they're starting with plot.
Me, I start with characters. I think about who they are, where they came from, and where they want to go. That helps me build my setting and my plot. So when I don't know what else to do, I try to flesh out my characters. As I do, inspiration will strike and scenes will start to pop into my head. When it's working well, I hear dialogue in my mind and just have to write it down.
This is why I'm often stuck when I finish a scene. I don't have a storyline all set in my head. But that's okay. I don't have to sit and outline plot-- that's boring to me. That's going to make my brain freeze. Instead, I can use my characters to help me discover what happens next.
As authors, we need to figure out what fuels our creative fire, so we know what to do when it burns out.
Just listened to a great podcast
about kids' books. One of the authors said that he sometimes a little self-conscious reading these books-- especially genre fiction-- in public. I feel that way myself sometimes, even though I see lots of other grown-ups reading kids' books on the subway, etc.
Can we even really say there is a stigma? Kids' books are really popular with adults. If we consider just two young adult fantasies, Harry Potter and Twilight, we have tens of millions of grown-up readers. And I'm always hearing about a new one I should read, like the Hunger Games.
Why are these books so popular with people who aren't part of their target audience? I think part of it is that lots of adults don’t feel like they have a lot of time to read, and a big doorstop can be intimidating. A young adult book, on the other hand, is just a fun little way to relax.
So maybe the lesson for us as writers is that whatever we write should be a pleasure to read.
In the last few years, as writing has become less a hobby and more a profession, I've been thinking about how to generate and develop new ideas. As writers, ideas are our lifeblood. And for most of us, we have some we have collected accidentally as we have moved through life, and those accidental ideas have been enough. But there comes a time where we need more grist for the mill, more ideas to grind up into stories.
Larry Correia and John Brown do lectures about generating story ideas. You can find a couple of them on youtube, here:
One of the things Larry and John talk about is the need to push your ideas just a little bit. You begin by brainstorming, just writing down things that go ‘zing’ in your brain, things you think are interesting or exciting.
But then you take another step. Maybe you start combining these ideas together. Or maybe you do what they call the “list and twist” approach, where you go down your list of ideas and think about how to take them in a novel or strange direction.
So, if you need ideas, start with a dream journal, or wiki-walking, or anything else that gets you exposed to new ideas, things that make your brain go zing. You plant seeds. Then, take that next step and develop your ideas, see if they grow. Cultivate your best ideas by doing some writing and then harvest the fruit.
Lately I've been thinking about writing groups, perhaps since my current group has been on hiatus but we are talking about re-starting.
Over the years, I've been a member (usually a founding member) of a half-dozen writing groups, some of which have met in person, and some of which have been only online. Most of them don't last more than a year, which I think is due in part to my own nomadic existence. Any writing group needs at least two people who will submit something every single time, even if it's short. And every group I've ever seen needs periodic infusions of fresh blood to replace writers who move, quit, or just mysteriously fade away.
But even though they may be ephemeral, a writing group in my experience is a great place to get a fresh point of view. I don't always like that point of view, or agree with it, but it's almost always helpful to hear it. Howard Tayler once said in the Writing Excuses podcast that the customer knows what the problem is but not how to fix it. I think of writing groups the same way. They help me identify places where my words aren't doing what they should. But ultimately, I have to make the decision about how to make the writing work.
I now declare this bridge... open!