From Short Stories to Oh Shit

I started writing a novel something like 12 years ago and, as you can imagine, there wasn’t much of a process there. Luckily, reality got in the way and I didn’t finish the thing until 7 years later, after I had spent some time writing short stories.

The problem is, there still wasn’t much of a process to it. I’d run into something I thought was funny or interesting, or get an image in my head that seemed like a good one, and find a way to shoehorn it in. Stephen King’s On Writing says to kill your darlings; I’d written something that was 70% darling.

At this point, I’d figured out a decent methodology for short stories. They weren’t golden, but they also weren’t terrible. And we know that good short stories contain the same elements as a good book: characters and a plot that complement each other; plausibility; a good setting, etc.

So what went wrong?

For one, 3,000 words will hide your screwups better than 60,000.

Yeah, okay, that’s obvious, but the implications should be considered.

You can’t half-ass the planning.

Short stories are more forgiving. This means that if, say, you only flesh out one character and let the other ones languish as sidenotes, people are less likely to kick up a fuss. If readers get one scene with a dude behind the counter of a pie shop, they aren’t going to be like ‘hey, everything this dude does is just a response to things other people are doing.’

Sure, writers are supposed to think about these things anyway because good character make do, but let’s be honest: how often do you bother, when it’s something short?

Setting is another case where, theoretically, you’re spending as much time thinking about why such-and-such happened and how that set up the current situation—but practically speaking, that’s insane. A short story might only have one fleshed-out setting. (Alright, this isn’t impossible for a novel, but how many do it?)

I’m not saying that you should abandon short-story shortcuts. You shouldn’t spend longer planning for a story than you do writing it. But you do need to be aware that figuring out a novel goes beyond short story planning.

Wait, what?

If you look at what I’ve said so far, it sounds like I’m saying that all you have to do to adjust for a novel is more of the same thing. Do you normally flesh out one character? Flesh out six. Only build one city? Build the country. Instead of having one plot, have a couple of side plots that feed into an overarching main plot. Simple, right?

What’s missing here is the gestalt—how do these things all come together?

If main character Y happens to have a side plot where they want to buy a dog, are readers going to want to follow Y around as they visit animal shelters? What if the story is about interstellar politics?

The thing with a short story is that there isn’t—or shouldn’t be, anyway—enough space for wholly tangential side plots or extra characters. Yes, there are boring short stories, but we’d expect them to be overdescribed or otherwise drawn-out, not have an entire section with zero bearing on anything else.

Whereas with a novel, we’re looking at multiple groups of people doing multiple things over a more expansive period of time. There’s a lot more room to explore ideas which otherwise wouldn’t get more than a brief nod—but there’s also a lot more room to go off on a random track. As a reader, do you find it frustrating or enjoyable to read an arc that ends up tying into nothing, and is never mentioned again?

So when you’re planning a novel, it isn’t as simple as ‘here, let’s make this bigger.’ It’s more like ‘let’s widen this andmake it deeper.’

(But don’t overdo it, either.)

Much as I love Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? struck me as trying to do everything in too small a space. It’s a barrage of social commentary, only some of which gets full attention—the most incomplete arc being, in my opinion, John Isidore’s.

Backing me up on this—or so I like to imagine—is the lack of time given to him in the movie (Director’s Cut of course). Even though the treatment of mentally disabled people is very relevant to a story that’s about the nature of humanity, there isn’t a lot to explore that wouldn’t distract this book’s readers in one way or another.


(who wants to play Spot the Replicant?)

One of the best ways to avoid too much or too little is to plan out your story, including the major and minor arcs. By diagramming what’s happening and whom it’s happening to, you get a 10,000 foot view of how these things tie into and, most importantly, develop major themes.

In A Scanner Darkly, the subplot with Donna could be considered a sidenote—but her transformation arguably adds a different angle to the main theme of identity. We can ask bigger questions about Arctor as a result of what we see in his interactions with her, and gain a broader understanding of the drug-using subculture that this book is very much about.

Lessons from doing it wrong

The last time I tried to pull together a whole novel, I did the whole ‘okay, this is just a short story on a large scale so let’s make a bigger plot, toss in a couple more characters.’ I didn’t think about how having the characters move from place to place would affect the reader’s ability to visualize a setting, or how goddamn boring it is to have to read through yet another getting-our-feet-wet scene. My problem wasn’t just random tangents, but also repetition of the same idea without new insight: the failure to go deeper.

I ended up with 30,000 words of actual happenings and 50,000 of bunk. I didn’t have a lot of material, and I hadn’t worried about it because it hadn’t occurred to me as something to worry about. In the past, I’d padded novels out with random shit; or written short stories, where shorter—tighter—is better.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t write short stories before writing a novel. I still think it’s a great idea, especially if you’re looking at publishing. But when you’re going from writing short stories to tackling a novel, don’t expect the transition to be seamless. Plan to ask yourself tougher questions and hold yourself more accountable for your strategy.

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Microsoft Word is Ruining My Typing

No, seriously.

I spend a fair bit amount of time on chat (and, of course, writing things here or on Goodreads) and the amount of errors I make has gone crazy high. It’s most obvious on chat because I don’t bother correcting (real time communication > fancy conventions), though. Continue reading

What is Voice? (Also: how to have it and why it matters.)

Someone recently pointed out that the Google results for a search on ‘voice’ yield ambiguous and contradictory results. Not to mention a whole category of stuff that just has me going ‘wtf’. With the single exception of this wonderful blog post from All Write – Fiction Advice, which honestly you could just read instead.

And yeah, I know this stuff is subjective. The thing is, though, I can define my terms and back them up. You may call it something different, but for me, voice is the single required element for a story to be interesting and original. Everything else helps, but without voice, you will just not hold my attention.

game of thrones joffrey clapping

Okay, so the million-dollar question: what is voice?

Voice is the ‘personality’ of the book.

Third person omniscient narrators have voice, too.

Oh my gods, that’s not useful at all, is it? Let me do this with an example. Imagine a passage about a person peeing on a statue of Jesus. From the perspective of a devout, militant atheist, the person peeing will be praised and the Jesus figurine will be painted in a ridiculous light. A Christian might praise Jesus for loving this person despite his stupidity. (None of this has to be direct. It’s a matter of word choice.)

And yes, I went with something people get emotional about on purpose.

1. George whipped it out and released a lovely yellow stream on the glassy-eyed face opposite him. Jesus had his hands up and his mouth open, and before long he was all decked out, his gown like lemon meringue pie. As the steam blew off his face, George noted he was smiling like he enjoyed it.

2. George struggled to get his zipper open and started urinating right away, unable to hold it back. Jesus met the water with outstretched arms, his forgiving smile unchanged as the steam rose heavenward. George could sense the benevolence.

Please note that neither case mentions what George’s intentions were–this is relevant.

What makes two voices different?

Intention and perspective. Even third-person omniscient isn’t just some objective, disinterested narration of events (why do you think textbooks are so boring?), it’s a person with some kind of personality telling a story. As far as nonfiction goes, you do see this in historical works because the author always has a thesis (aka ‘opinion’) they’re trying to further. For instance, I’m reading a book where the author is arguing that double-entry bookkeeping defined the modern world, so stuff is going to be biased in favor of making double-entry bookkeeping look good, the way #2 above will do its best to make Jesus look good in a bad situation.

Okay, but how do I actually make this happen?

  • Style. I consider style to be the use of grammatical conventions–stuff like fragments, run-ons, even details like dash use (especially in a historical context). The result tends to convey the speaker’s background or state of mind. Action scenes will be more agitated, so short sentences instead of longer, complex ones; a strict adherence to the formal rules of grammar from a Victorian-age schoolmarm.
  • Word choice. If the examples above aren’t clear, you can ask for details. But, dude, people have opinions not just based on what they’ve learned but how they’ve grown up. A scientist is more likely to say ‘I think’ and a devout person is more likely to say ‘I believe’–it can be that simple. (Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the former never uses the word ‘belief’ and the latter never thinks.)
  • Information. What does the narrator want to tell the readers? Why?
  • Subjectivity. The above are how you get the ideas across to the reader, but how do you get there yourself? By sinking into the skin of whomever you’re writing as. To me, this doesn’t mean imagining a character standing right in front of you yelling stuff (I don’t do imagination), it’s more of an asking myself ‘how would a person of this demographic information with these biases describe this event?’

 
 
That’s all I have for today. Would something on ‘finding your voice’ be useful?

How to Write Good Horror

I’m either the best or the worst person to ask about this, because I don’t scare. Rather, I don’t have a scare reflex (I never jump), and I’m too pragmatic to be bothered by imaginary bad things happening to imaginary people. Or, for that matter, anything in a book….

 

Before going any further, I should mention now that I think Stephen King does his best work when he’s not trying to be scary, and my horror style has been described as having a fairly simple plot, though with the ‘dark’ piled on. If you don’t like this, you should totally disagree with me! I love debates. 😀

 

Anyway…much as I love writing gore, I sadly note that there’s no longer as much of a reason for visceral horror. If you look at movies from thirty or so years ago, you see these special effects that, unbelievably, were thought to be realistic at the time–well, the upshot is that modern society is very, very desensitized to images, and modern good horror really needs:

  1. Psychology. The best kind of bugs crawling under one’s skin are entirely in one’s own head.
  2. Suspense. Build it, and then build it some more! Obviously, too much buildup just bores people. I think this may be the hardest thing to control, because it is very individually determined–I read fast enough where I tend to miss when it’s happening. (The only thing to do is make sure the buildup is relatively long in comparison to the bursts of action.)
  3. Imagery. Just because you shouldn’t go all out with gore doesn’t mean you shouldn’t evoke the senses! Smell and taste seem to be particularly neglected, which is a shame because those memories are far stronger than visual (it’s one neuron per smell memory, but I’m not sure what exactly that’s supposed to mean).

 

I’m going to leave you with some real horror now.

 

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

I swear the word ‘November’ fit into there somewhere…anyway. Depending on the websites you frequent, NaNoWriMo is either a huge deal or one of those background things that’s viewed with a vague contempt because We’re Better Than That.

Personally, it does nothing for me. I’ve done the rush thing, gotten it all out in 15 days (it was only 69,000 words and I was unemployed, okay?!)…and ended up with utter crap. Which, I am given to understand, is somewhat the point: not to produce any kind of masterpiece or thing worthy of publication, but to show yourself that you can indeed write a novel if you just get your ass down to it! And, of course, it comes with the whole communal sharing of experience thing, which despite my “best” efforts this blog hasn’t done….

 

Obviously, I don’t have a whole lot to say right now…so I’d like to hear it from you: whether you’ve participated, how successful you think it would be for you, &c. &c.

 

 

Quick tip! Turn your page background dark…it’s much better on the eyes.

When Hating the Main Character is Okay

I recently read two books: ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson (prompted by his recent visit to the Borders…or was it Barnes & Noble…near Water Tower Place in Chicago, at which point I was reminded of how awesome steampunk is), and ‘Half a Life’ by V.S. Naipaul (trying to brush up on my non-Japanese Asian authors:next destination, Africa!).

 

Spoiler Alert: I’ll do my best to avoid them, but if you want to remain in complete ignorance of the plots and characters you shouldn’t read this.

 

In both these books, I found the main character (and, in the case of ‘Half A Life’, both main characters) intolerably stupid. There’s Case with his constant drugseeking and missing the obviousing (as for his mad cowboy skills…savantism, perhaps?); then there’s Willie and his father who plod through life and make decisions they themselves hate but attribute to, well, everything but their own stultatory natures.

Aaargh! I have nothing against asshole main characters, but when they’re oblivious to their own flaws/the flaws of their environments causing them to be unhappy with their lives…stupidity is my least favorite human trait, and I’ll go ahead and reforce my awful elitism by deploring its commonality. (Note: I don’t mind foolish characters when it’s used for humorous effect or it has some kind of driving goal that isn’t self-destruction they then bitch about, cough Case’s withdrawal…okay fine. There are lots of exceptions to every rule.)

 

Cough, cough.

Well, I still liked ‘Neuromancer’. It’s a clever plot in a clever world with all sorts of interesting sideplots. Finding all the supporting characters more interesting than the main one was only a minor drawback, and at some point I do intend to read more of Gibson’s books.

‘Half A Life’, on the other hand–apart from the stupidity, why was Willie so boring? Sexual this, sexual that–and in the meantime everyone else had these awesome adventures I wanted to hear more about! But it just went on and on about how sexually frustrated Indians are, especially the males…oh my god…. (Note: I am Indian. I’m good at not applying things to my parents, but that didn’t make this entire thing any less WTF. What country started Tantric again, seriously?)

 

Anyway. I’m sure it’s sometimes a deliberate move, and as these authors are both quite famous it’s clearly not a problem. I myself don’t want a sweet little main character to pity, or a Mary Sue to envy–someone human, but the kind of person I’d want to have a conversation with, would be ideal.

And when that isn’t available, I’ll settle for a fantastic plot, setting, and sidecast. 😀

 

(Main character issues are going to come up again. Be warned. ;)

And because I never emphasize this enough, and often forget people aren’t as egotistical as to share their own opinions whenever they have them, tell me what you think! I love the random debate across the series of tubes.

Funny Writing

Having recently gone on a P.G. Wodehouse bender (it was pretty much awesome), I’ve now turned to wondering: what makes funny writing so funny?

 

Obviously, one of the biggest problems with this is that humor is subjective. Surely someone out there must have found Carlos Mencia hilarious, otherwise there’s something even more wrong with Comedy Central than I’d previously thought. (The South Park episode with Kanye West, by the way, sums up what I think of him.)

Rant aside, I have this problem too–my natural voice is sarcasm, which is especially prone to misinterpretation in writing–it can also sound like the writer is just extremely stupid or keen, and on more than one occasion people within my intended audience have asked me if I was indeed being facetious. So…it doesn’t completely work. Which is why I’m considering a more obvious way to show humor: if I open with humor, people will be disposed to think of the rest that way, and voilà! problem solved.

P.G. Wodehouse-wise, he’s obviously got a formula, and if I read a lot of his books I think I would get bored out of my mind (I’m already imagining the sexy British accent). Nevertheless, he’s got a voice and it is so very comic…of course, a lot of books have funny moments, but at the moment I’m blanking on other hilarious authors I’ve read (and I do mean laugh-out-loud funny, so Terry Prachett’s older works–namely, the Rincewind series–also fit this category)…without further ado, the next bit. In which I shamefully borrow from my hint of a background in psychology.

 

V.S. Ramachandran’s giant book of fun case studies, written at some point around 2001, hypothesizes a possible origin for laughter. It’s this strange repetitive noise that’s universally recognizable: well, perhaps it started as a signal that there was no imminent danger? Linked to the idea of the smile as a bare-toothed grimace that stopped halfway: say Cro Magnon man starts baring his teeth at an approaching stranger, but as soon as the stranger gets close enough, Cro Magnon realizes it’s his favorite bro and stops midway. Hence, a smile…. In a similar fashion, laughter may have transformed over time to apply to social as well as physical situations where a sense of ‘danger’ was averted.

 

In short, do something unexpected. Threaten dire consequences and let everyone off with less than a slap on the wrist. Bam! (If you have trouble realizing the second sentence is metaphorical, I recommend staying away from humor entirely.)

Can (and should) Writers Learn From Graphic Novels?

I’ve vaguely intimated this elsewhere–I draw, too. I discovered webcomics a couple of years ago, learned I didn’t have to be ashamed of reading graphic novels (only comics…just kidding! I never read American comics anyway), and now I’m trying to start my own thing. Because a great way to get ideas is to read other things, I’ve been burning through the Flight anthologies.

They’re gorgeous. No one can deny how awesome and creative the art styles and methods of dealing with the concept of ‘sequential art’ are, and there’s a huge variation within each anthology, making it suited to most, if not all, tastes. (At the very least I recommend the first two or three. Unless you obsessively analyze images, you’ll get through them quickly.)

But….

One of the quotes on the back says it best: the strength of this series is visual. There are quite a few stories whose plots leave something to be desired or simply don’t make all that much sense, mainly because the story has been sacrificed for the sake of Art (no, seriously, it deserves the capitalization here).

 

The question is, is an emphasis on engaging the senses something writers should be emphasizing more nowadays? Sure, you can’t stuff drawings in, but you sure as hell can add a few more descriptive paragraphs. For all we reject the almost overwrought aestheticism of 19th century writers, there’s something to be learnt there. Those novels are deeper than anything solely focused on plot elements and action.

 

Also, as a short storyist, I wonder if it’s appropriate to create an anthology from unrelated stories, or if there should be some kind of common thread.

Why Characters Should Never be “Real”

“Real” is in quotes because, well, it’s not the schizophrenic sense where the person genuinely can’t differentiate, it’s…. I’m blithering. Let’s go with an example instead, in conveniently exaggerated punctuation.

“I totally didn’t write this story! It’s just writing itself!! Ha, look at those rascally characters, I never know what they’ll do next! Oooh, my characters won’t let me take it in this direction!…etc.”

I have a special face for when I hear this sort of thing.

I call it the ‘uh, what.’ face because, well, that’s what it is. Obviously, I’m too polite to do it to anyone’s face (the Internet negates all standard definitions of rudeness), but I think it.

Why, you ask?

 

Writing is hard. Writing well and writing a complete story–even just 1500 words–is hard. So why, oh why, would you want to give all the credit to some part of your mind that’s managed to detach itself and works independently from the thinky bits? It’s like that ‘Muse’ attribution people do sometimes–yes, it does feel like the ideas pop out of nowhere. I’ll admit that to myself, but quite frankly with a little work you can always trace the source. There might be a thousand of them and some of them you might not have seen in years, but there’s always an origin. And if you know what it is, you can use it for more ideas–instead of waiting passively for whatever neurons to fire off ideas for your conscious mind.

 

But what about writing realistic characters?

Okay, the one criticism I’ve never gotten is that my characters are too one-dimensional. As mentioned, I absolutely don’t do the ‘theeey’re real!’ thing, so clearly it’s not necessary to see things this way.

Writing convincing characters has nothing to do with believing in them. It has everything to do with literary devices and knowing when to use, and when not to use, words. (Just because someone’s always smirking doesn’t mean you should write that into the text. No one wants to see lines and lines of dialogue that end with “, he smirked.”)

Also, I see people more often clouded than not by their belief in characters. Not being able to kill off someone even though having them survive makes no sense (cough, cough, Rowling); wasting too much time on someone who doesn’t even have that much of a role; going into in-depth descriptions and little side scenes when they serve no purpose….

 

You’re better off being realistic. Give yourself a little credit for a job well done, hey?

Dealing With Writer’s Block

I’ve got to level with you about a few things.

First, I don’t get writer’s block. At least, I don’t get the conventional variety of having absolutely nothing to write about. (What makes it even easier is if I can’t focus on writing I can just go find something visual to do.)

Second, I thought of the best metaphor a while ago. It’s not quite age appropriate so I’ll omit some details, but let’s just say writer’s block and erectile dysfunction have a lot in common. Especially if you consider the woman to be the story, and her climax to be, well, its climax. On the other hand, the blue pill of ‘curing’ (rather, distracting) writer’s block works on the ladies, too, so it’s not totally perfect. But hey, that’s life.

 

Anyway.

 

The kind of writer’s block people are always complaining about is the one where nothing’s coming out. If you really can’t think of a single idea, why not go read a book or two? You can call it research if you’re reading within your own genre, or you can…you know…enjoy it.

About not being able to complete a story…have you reconsidered your approach? Maybe it shouldn’t start from x point or with that particular perspective; maybe the entire thing would be better told from a different viewpoint; maybe the ending you have in mind doesn’t go with the beginning. It’s important to never remain completely wedded to one ending (and more importantly one sentence or paragraph). This is one of the instances where I really, really can’t understand how believing in your characters is a good thing…more on that later.

 

So what odd variant of writer’s block do I get?

The kind where I’ve got too many ideas. A constant stream of thoughts may sound like a good thing until you have more than five unfinished stories, two blogs, a bunch of visual side projects, and a couple of books to read hanging out…plus an attention span totally inadequate for dealing with anything but playing The Sims 3.

The best way to deal with this is to give ideas some time to ferment. If it’s been 24 hours–maybe more, if you’re that good at focusing–and it’s still in your head, it might actually be worth thinking about. I’ve started the writing equivalent of a sketchbook, where I give random ideas a couple of paragraphs and come back to them once I have the time to take them further…it’s progressing alright. Sometimes I end up ignoring stuff and finding it months later, intensely confused by where it was supposed to be going. But is that really such a bad thing? It seems pointless to ‘need’ completion.

More on the “lives” of characters (and stories, perhaps) next time….