January 31, 2013

Everyone's a Hero

The latest episode of Writing Excuses features a great discussion of side-character arcs. This is a topic I find especially interesting, and I've written about it before. I pride myself on making secondary characters real by hinting at pasts and presents that unfold beyond the pages of the novel.

Do I create a detailed backstory and arc for every character who appears? No, although for the first novel I wrote, I had a detailed character database which included where all the main character's friends' parents went to college. Some of the parents of some of the friends only had a few lines of dialogue, so this was probably overkill. I'm no longer quite so unnecessarily thorough.

For example, one character in my current novel with no arc is a coworker who my narrator flirts with in a few scenes. I've given this woman a name and a little bit of a personality, but nothing about her changes over the course of the story, and I don't know anything else about her. I don't think my narrator knows anything else about her, either, and I imagine that the scenes she appears in are approximately all the interactions they've ever had -- these are two good indications that a character doesn't need an arc.

On the other hand, a character who has an ongoing, complex relationship with the protagonist should appear to possess an ongoing, complex life of their own. If the best friend doesn't seem to have anything going on besides serving as the ever-faithful best friend, readers will notice that one-dimensionality. This is true even if the main character is too wrapped up in their own problems to ever directly ask the friend what's up in their life.

My narrator and his wife have best friends, another couple in their neighborhood. This other couple appears (together and individually) in a large number of scenes, and it's established that my main characters interact with them even more frequently than that. These are characters who need arcs.

I've indicated a bit of their backstory (no, I don't know where they went to college), and some stuff happens to them that's independent of the main characters. The arc of their lives during the story involves making choices that contrast with the choices of the protagonist. Additionally, their arc impacts the arc of the main character's family, creating obstacles and complications that have to be dealt with. These are good ways to develop a side-character arc: find points of connection with the main plot, and highlight differences.

As they say in the podcast, everyone is the hero of their own story. Let your secondary characters have lives of their own.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Amwriting Blog, Jason Black discusses the language of world building: "Easily the single biggest problem I see with world building in my clients' novels is characters who live in places that are different from modern-day America (sometimes radically so), but whose English is indistinguishable from that spoken here, today."

January 28, 2013

Start Here, and Continue All Year

START HERE: READ YOUR WAY INTO 25 AMAZING AUTHORS is a fantastic guide to approaching potentially intimidating literature. The book, edited by Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky of the great site Book Riot, is a collection of essays from contributors who each champion the work of a different author.

Every essay offers a reading sequence through three or more of the author's works. A best known or most ambitious novel isn't always the best starting point, so there's a suggestion for a first book that serves as the ideal introduction, then a progression for continuing that will provide a solid foundation. The reading pathways take various approaches, with some building toward a major work and others offering samples from different parts of a wide-ranging career.

It's a wonderful idea, and it's very well executed. The START HERE page at Book Riot lists the 25 authors featured and includes ordering links. The book is currently only available as an ebook because the initial small print run sold out, but there may be another print run in the future.

As I was reading START HERE, I found myself thinking that one could use it to structure a reading plan for 2013, if one were the sort inclined to do such a thing. I might be, but I also had another plan in mind for the year, which was to make some serious headway on reading the many unread books on my shelves. My collection is arranged alphabetically by author, so I thought I'd go through them in that order. I really don't expect to get through the whole alphabet, especially since I'm sure to also read a whole bunch of other books that come to my attention, but it would be a start.

Well, as it happens, START HERE is also arranged alphabetically by author, and there's a certain amount of overlap with books already on my shelves. So, I thought I might combine the projects. Again, I don't expect to get through all of START HERE this year, and I'm not necessarily going to do the full pathway for each author, but I'll try the first suggested work for each author I get to (or another one, if I've already read it).

Anyone else want to join me in Starting Here?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Dell Smith offers an Anatomy of a First Chapter: "I knew I had to approach the first chapter in a new way. I started by reading it over, and making a few small changes. Nothing major, just getting my feet wet. Then I broke down the structure of it. It's only 11 pages, but it needs to introduce the main character, show his roadblocks, let us know what he wants, and set him in motion."

January 25, 2013

Talk About Random

Earlier this week, I made a vague resolution to go through my blog idea files and turn some of these notes into posts. As I mentioned, many of the ideas don't lend themselves to any further elaboration beyond the brief note I made, but I found some of these still interesting enough to share. So, miscellaneously:

→ For a while now, it's been the case that when I think of some detail or bit of dialogue I should add to one of the storylines I've already revised, more often than not I discover it's already in there. This seems like a good sign.

→ A while ago, I was talking to a friend who teaches music. She said many of her students don't like having to repeatedly practice the same section of a piece. They're only interested in playing the whole piece through. She has to explain that in order to improve, it's necessary to keep working on a section until it's right. "It's just like revising!" I said. (I say that a lot. Also, as a piano student I never had any patience for practicing either.)

→ In other analogies, writing a first draft is like packing for a trip in a station wagon: There's plenty of room, so you can throw in everything you might possibly want. Revising is like packing for a backpacking trip: You'd better make sure you're only carrying stuff you really need.

→ Recently I saw a movie that had a tense conversation between two characters before one drove away, accompanied by overdone music. "We really didn't need those dramatic strings to know that was a dramatic scene," I said aloud. (I'm annoying when I watch movies at home.) I've noticed I have a bad habit of doing the equivalent thing in my writing: My narrators frequently have a moment of emotional reflection about what's just happened. In trying to underscore the significance, I'm accidentally weakening the scene. Time to get rid of those dramatic strings.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alicia Rasley at edittorrent looks at the difference between subtle and obscure exposition: "The more sophisticated the writing and plotting, the less obvious the exposition. But that doesn't mean there's no exposition, only that it's done subtly and carefully through the characters in a way that is consistent with the way they think, speak, and interact."

January 23, 2013

This Is Just To Say

I leave a lot of notes for myself. Occasionally the notes are on paper, stuck places where I'll see them ("Car needs gas!"), but mostly they're typed into my computer in a ridiculous number of applications and files.

I make detailed to-do lists and use them to plan my days. Because of all my lists, I more or less accomplish what I need to, and I rarely forget stuff.

I write down ideas for my novel whenever they occur to me. I keep these carefully organized so I can consult the notes and incorporate the ideas when I get to the right place in the story.

All these notes get to serve their purpose in life when I eventually act on them. But I've also been creating a very large body of notes that sadly never get to progress to the next stage of existence. These are the ideas for future blog posts that I record and never look at again.

I have multiple files containing notes for blog posts, I guess so I can feel organized as I type things into the appropriate black hole. Obviously I'm posting to my blog on a fairly regular basis, but it's never thanks to these notes. Most of what I post (besides book recommendations) is sparked by some thought I get inspired to write about immediately. That's just fine, but I'm curious about all those other topics I wanted to explore.

I've started looking through my notes, and there's some decent stuff in there. The ideas I've noted for later are mainly either too big (they'll take a lot of time and maybe multiple posts to cover well) or too small (I may not have more than a sentence or two to say). It's the medium-sized ideas that most often make it to actual posthood.

What with it being the beginning of a new year, I thought I would try digging through my idea files and turning some of them into posts, even if the writing situation that provided the original spark is now lost to the mists of time. I think I'm sometimes reluctant to go back to the old ideas because they feel too random if the topic isn't currently on my mind, but since I'm sure that for you the readers, this whole blog is pretty random, that's a silly concern.

That said, if there's any particular subject or type of post that you the readers would like to see here, please let me know. I'll make a note of it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Evan V. Symon presents 10 Deleted Chapters That Transformed Famous Books: "Bram Stoker's iconic novel is by far the most influential horror book. But what many don't know is that the final chapter was taken out by Stoker at the last minute. In the deleted chapter, Dracula's castle falls apart as he dies, to hide the fact that vampires were ever there." (Thanks, Louise!)

January 21, 2013


BENIGHTED by Kit Whitfield has an intriguing premise: Most people in the world are lycanthropes (werewolves, though the book avoids ever using this term). When the moon is full, they change into violent beasts, but the rest of the time, they carry out normal human lives, and as the majority population, they control pretty much everything. Those who don't transform, due to a rare birth defect, make up less than one percent of society. These people are considered freaks and are treated as second-class citizens, but they perform an important, if despised, role because they are the only ones able to keep the world safe on full moon nights.

The narrator of the story is a non-lyco named Lola. She works for DORLA, the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. In fact, all nons are recruited into DORLA at an early age, which further alienates them from their families and other potential peers. This is one of many reasons that Lola has a chip on her shoulder.

Lola works as a legal advisor to lycos caught out on moon night. The story opens with one of these cases, and the situation soon turns into a murder investigation. The deeper Lola digs into what's happened, the more disturbing the case becomes. It's an exciting plot that kept me reading and always curious.

I enjoyed the world-building in the book, especially passages that discussed the history of the relationship between lycos and nons. While I was never entirely convinced that the arrangement of society made sense, I was willing to go along with it, and it was clear that Whitfield had thought it out in a way that was plausible for her. Ultimately I was disappointed that the scenario of the world wasn't explored in even greater depth, which might have answered some of my remaining questions. Still, I recommend this book, and I'd be eager to read another story set in this world (alas, the author isn't currently planning a sequel). Thanks to Lauren for the recommendation!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Guardian Books Blog, Imogen Russell Williams dreams about the fantastic food in children's books: "CS Lewis's Narnian food, too, remains among his otherworld's most seductive characteristics. From the datelike toffee-tree that grows from Digory's planted bag of sweets, to the eel stew served, with gloomy predictions of its toxicity, by Puddleglum, the familiar is transmuted into the exotic in much the same way that a wardrobe becomes a doorway to a forest -- where fauns serve Edwardian afternoon tea, complete with boiled eggs and sardines."

January 16, 2013

Evil Writer Is Evil

I'm relieved to report that the writing is going better than last week. I'm still only inching along, but I keep moving forward, and there's less of the loathing.

I'm enjoying myself, actually. My narrator is in a state of complete denial about the bad things he's doing, and he's built up elaborate justifications to excuse himself for his faults. He's quite good self-delusion, due to years of practice. This turns out to be a lot of fun to write.

So I'm sitting here writing sentences like, "That was why the past months had been so difficult," and I'm giggling maniacally to myself because I'm imagining a reader who will scream at the book, "No, you idiot, that's not the reason, and you've chosen the worst possible solution to the problem!" (Trust me, it's all terribly clever with context.)

I do hope readers will be engaged enough to scream at the book. A while back I wrote about how I came to accept that this character is and should be unlikable, and he's not getting any more endearing. Personally, I have a lot of pity for him, but I don't know if any readers will experience that. Maybe I only feel sorry for him because I keep making him do such awful things.

I can't help it. Being cruel to my characters is just so much fun.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer R. Hubbard talks about reading between the lines: "Writers have a point of view, an agenda. They may lie, misremember, propagandize, use false flattery. They may make careless mistakes or may deliberately cover something up. They may omit things that are common knowledge at the time."

January 14, 2013

In Other Worlds

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, though I haven't read even close to her entire extensive catalog of work. I think highly of the novels and story collections that I have read, and when I come across an Atwood interview or essay, I always find her thoughts insightful and entertaining. So I was thrilled to learn that Atwood's latest nonfiction book is a collection of her ideas about science fiction, a topic I'm always eager to ponder and discuss.

IN OTHER WORLDS: SF AND THE HUMAN IMAGINATION assembles Atwood's past lectures and criticism on science fiction, plus includes a few brief stories. Since the material in the book was written at different times for a variety of outlets and purposes, it doesn't come together in a completely satisfying way or delve as deeply as I would have liked. Still, I was interested in everything Atwood has to say, and I enjoyed this collection. And to be fair, the opening paragraph clearly states:

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather, it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or sub-forms, both as reader and as writer.

The first part of the book is adapted from a series of lectures in which Atwood explores her relationship with science fiction throughout her life. She covers her childhood as a voracious reader and budding writer, college studies of mythology and other SF precursors, and the eventual publication of her own SF novels. It's interesting to read about Atwood's lifelong fascination with SF, because while she has more recently been associated with speculative fiction, most of her work for three decades was based in the real world. As someone who reads a lot of SF but more often writes realistic stories, I find it encouraging that a successful author discusses this unapologetically.

The second section is essays about SF works by other authors, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Aldous Huxley. I enjoyed these pieces of criticism, whether they were for books I was familiar with or ones I hadn't read. The collection ends with a few very short stories by Atwood, which were hardly enough to quench my desire for her fiction. I'll definitely be reading and rereading some of Atwood's novels soon.

IN OTHER WORLDS was the most recent selection for the Bookrageous book club. The podcast discussion of the book is a great conversation about experiences of reading SF and the topics that Atwood explores. It could be listened to either before or after reading the book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nathan Bransford considers What Writers Can Learn from Downton Abbey: "We like to see characters do the right thing when presented with competing options, and the creators of Downton Abbey are really skilled at creating situations where characters' honor are tested."

January 11, 2013

This Is How You Do It

While I was on vacation, I didn't forget how to write in terms of craft. I didn't significantly lose track of my place in story, at least not once I'd reread the chapter in progress and the notes I'd left for myself. Ditto for the character's voice.

What I did forget was how to write in terms of how to actually sit down and do it. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I forgot that writing is never a thing I especially want to do.

Well, sometimes I do want to write. For example, if I'm in the kitchen getting something to eat before a writing session, I often think how nice it will be to get back to my desk and dive in to the story where I left off. This feeling can last all the way up until I'm sitting at my desk, at which point I would rather do almost anything except start typing sentences into my manuscript.

It's like this pretty much every day. But generally as soon as I've managed to type anything at all, I'm hit with tons of ideas even better than what I was planning, and I can't wait to get it all down. In three words flat, I can go from loathing to loving writing. It's not the writing process I would opt for, but it's gotten me through all these drafts.

So it took a few days to remind myself that when it seemed like the prospect of writing was the worst thing imaginable, that was just another day at the office. As usual, I had to force myself to write, and then it was fine. That's just how to write.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Chris Abouzeid ponders The Mystery of Names: "Why does one name light up in the author's brain while dozens of others seem dull and unworthy? J.K. Rowling chose Harry Potter's name because she wanted something ordinary. But there are hundreds of ordinary English names. Why not Henry Miller? Or John Smith?"

January 9, 2013

A Fresh Look

Getting my brain out of vacation mode and back into writing mode hasn't been easy. During my time off, I got used to the loveliness of reading for much of the day, and I'd sure rather keep losing myself inside books that someone else has already done the work of writing. But I've managed to nudge myself back into my own manuscript, and I expect I'll soon get the rhythm back and recall that the world of my novel is interesting, too.

In honor of the new year, I've been taking care of various catch-up tasks and finally getting around to stuff I've been meaning to do for a while. (Okay, this has also been a way to put off writing for a little longer.) The big stack of magazines from the corner of my desk is gone, unread, because I decided if I hadn't read them all year, it wasn't really that important. And I now have new socks.

I also have a new profile photo on this blog's About the Author page (thanks, Louise!). The picture that was there before showed me with long hair and no glasses, and I haven't sported that look in some time, so I thought it was time for a change.

The other updated page is Work in Progress, which now describes THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE in much greater detail. I went back and forth on whether to post this synopsis, which summarizes more of the plot than I normally reveal when discussing someone else's book. But I realized I haven't given most people much idea of what my novel is actually about, even family and friends who've asked lots of questions and expressed such eagerness to read it. Since you can't read the novel yet, here at least is a better explanation of what I've been writing about for all this time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Marcy Campbell writes at The Millions about the evolving tastes of her book club: "I'm in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like 'heartbreaking,' (too sad), 'epic' (too long), 'thought-provoking' (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it's written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope."

January 7, 2013

Building Stories

I spent part of my winter break at a lovely vacation rental surrounded by family. There were several days of rain, which left us free to guiltlessly sit around reading in front of the fireplace. In anticipation of this, before the trip I'd purchased a copy of BUILDING STORIES, a new graphic novel by Chris Ware.

"This is a present for everyone," I announced. And then I guiltlessly started reading it, because one of the great things about this work is that it can be enjoyed by many readers at the same time.

BUILDING STORIES is packaged in a large box like a board game. Inside are 14 separate printed materials in formats that include hardcover books, pamphlets, and newspapers. These 14 pieces make up the story, and they can be read in any order, which is why this is so perfect for sharing. (Don't forget to read the box, too!)

You can dive in anywhere, but I do recommend the piece that looks like a game board as a starting point because it provides a good overview of all the characters. That's one of the mostly wordless sections where the pictures tell the whole story. Others have plenty of text, both inside speech bubbles and as narrative "voiceover". There's a variety of storytelling and some different visual styles, but all of it is presented with Ware's clean, colorful drawings that simultaneously evoke cartoons and convey detailed human gestures and emotion. You can see samples at NPR Books and in the New York Times review.

Reading these stories in the company of loved ones is also a good idea because this is a depressing work overall, with a central theme of loneliness. Most of the characters are miserable most of the time, though there are moments of exquisite happiness, particularly in the parts focusing on a mother's love for her child. I cried a few times while reading, but I didn't mind. I found this a very honest and realistic portrayal of the different stages of several lives, detailing both the good and the bad of romance, marriage, parenting, and families.

This is a beautiful, touching work that succeeds at addressing the big stuff like death as well as the tiny moments that make up a life. I would have appreciated the story even in a more conventional format, and the presentation adds an extra layer or two to the experience. BUILDING STORIES is well worth reading.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Jacket Copy, Hector Tobar resolves to tackle bookshelf chaos: "My book collection is in a state of disorder many decades in the making. I have books boxed and shelved in four different places. More than once in the last few years, I've gone to a bookstore to buy a copy of a book I need and which I already own -- but which I can't find, despite driving back and forth across L.A. to the places where my books live."