Making up stories

You know what? Writing consists largely of making up stories. And yet sometimes, one of those stories is so powerful that it enters our lives and changes them, becomes a part of them.

We sadly lost Terry Pratchett this week, and I’ve read many comments on the subject. He was a man who made up stories that entertained but also made us think, as he held a mirror up to our world and showed us with uncanny insight just how the world works.

One of the hardest storylines for me to absorb right now is the collection of stories he told about Death. Somehow, Death became a character with a job to do, and a personality of his own. He became, if not a friend, then at least someone familiar to greet us and to take us on our way when our time comes.

He has become such a clearly defined figure that thousands of people signed a petition asking him to give Terry back. And that’s where, for me, the line between real life and fiction blurs uncomfortably. Does it matter if we choose to accept a story as true and to live our lives as though it does? Does it make any difference? I personally believe that if you can make up a story that makes you feel better about a situation, then that’s helpful, as long as you recognise it as a story. The difficulty comes when you accept that story so deeply that you forget it is a story (please note that I’m not suggesting those people who signed the petition actually believed Death would receive it and reconsider; merely that it is tempting to believe it because it feels comforting).

There are other stories around us that have become part of our thinking as well. The family story, where something (often magical) happens to make people look at each other differently, experience each other’s lives, and at the end brings them closer together. The hero story, where the reluctant hero is forced into action and comes through triumphant, after many setbacks. The classic fairytales, where we understand that no matter how bad things appear to be for the heroine, it will all turn out well in the end.

These stories influence the way we see the world. We try to impose our own stories onto random events, or expect things to turn out a certain way. We feel cheated if we don’t get our happy ending. Terry Pratchett’s narrativium lives on.

In the end, we all write our own stories. Some write them better than others. Some can share their stories. Most stories have little effect, but the more powerful ones can change a life.

Is it wrong to want to write one of those stories?

 

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So this is what it feels like

I’d forgotten just what it feels like to be in the middle of a writing project. The buzzing brain, the inability to switch to talking coherently in the real world, the frustration when a character decides he’s not going to cooperate and play along, even though it would make the job a lot smoother, the urge to pick up the laptop and get on with writing even though I’ve only got a short time available before I need to be somewhere, the sheer intensity of it all.

Next time I fall out of the habit of writing regularly, kick me hard. Remind me what it’s like – tell me to come and read this post. Point out that just as I feel bad when I don’t run or swim, I feel bad when I don’t write. That continuing to not exercise/not write does not make the bad feeling fade, it just generalises it so the cause isn’t so obvious. That the only real way to feel better again is to get back into that regular habit.

I’m currently 15,000 words into my nano project. That’s over 3000 added today, most of them at a write-in where about nine or ten of us sat around tables in a cafe and wrote or chatted about writing (or had conversations via facebook, but that’s another story!). I have a coherent story, which needs editing, sure, but some issues are getting sorted as I go. Others are getting flagged up to be dealt with at the editing stage. Characters are starting to act for themselves, the plot is starting to develop and I’m having so much fun it’s untrue.

November is my favourite time of the year, and now I really do need to learn to apply the lesson to the rest of the year too.

Considering characters

As I continue with preparations for nanowrimo, I find myself inspecting the assembled cast and considering each very carefully. I found myself wondering this morning if one in particular would be better off male than female, and that has made me look closely at what each brings to the ensemble. Have I made the best selection I can? Have I got one particular character in just for a single joke? Will that relationship actually work in practice? Is that sub-plot going to be worth bringing along? And do I need a male hero that I can fall in love with?

This last is the one giving me most pause for thought, and to answer the question I need to think very carefully about what I want this particular character to do. Can she achieve that as a female? Can she achieve it as a male? Which produces the better story? Which will I enjoy writing most?

My baby novel tends to contain mainly female characters, and a lot of this is down to the plot itself, although discussion at writing group did lead me to explore a little more the role of males in that world. This new one contains a mixture, because among other things I want to show the range of people who play MMORPGs, and explore the different relationships that form and what each might get out of the game. I currently have a team of seven people: four males and three females. That’s pretty balanced.

I need to decide whether Elaine is too much of a Mary Sue in the story, or whether she’s really going to live her own life and have her own experiences. Equally, if I turn her into a male, is it for personal reasons rather than because it makes the story better? Which will I enjoy writing more? Which can I write better?

In the end, I think being female provides the best chance to contrast game life and personality with real life and personality, and that just has the edge, so for now Elaine will stay, but as I put more thought into the role she plays in the main story and in the relationships and growth areas, that still has time to change.

In other news, I get to design a new computer game and a related world system at the same time, just as background to the story. Writing isn’t just about actually putting words down on paper, you know!

Gearing up for action

gods v heroes coverIt’s October, and that means it’s nearly November. And that, as we all know, means NANOWRIMO! We’ve already kicked off in our area; not actually writing, of course, that would be cheating, but we’ve already had a meetup where we exchanged strategies and generally discussed writing and putting the world to rights (or writes!).

I’m very lucky in that our area has a very active group of writers, who have stayed in touch all year via a facebook group and occasional meetups, so we’re all raring to go. Our MLs (Municipal Leaders) are enthusiastic and proactive, and the rest of us are quite likely to call a meetup in our area as well, if we want one, so nano is accompanied by a great feeling of community and support, to the point where I end up feeling not that I grant myself permission to write for the month, but even that I feel obliged to write!

I’ve been through the nano website and updated my profile with any nano novel I can find evidence of on my computer, which means I currently have three years won, one year half-done and the current year. The idea of being able to upload a cover image is great, as just the act of putting the title, author’s name and image together on a graphic helps to inspire towards a finished product.

While I’ve never yet managed to do any more than complete nano, each year I do it I feel I understand the creative process a little more, and each time I feel my writing has improved. I was amused to find the first draft of my babies book, which I did in 2004, and compare that to the 2013 version. The earlier book was much more of a complete narrative, but also much more simplistic, as I chose easy options to keep the story moving forward, without bringing any depth to it. Last year’s was starting to gain more depth, but lost itself in complexity at times.

This year I’m starting a whole new project, because I feel that to keep hammering on babies is achieving little (unfortunate phrasing, but it amuses me, so it stays). It will get done – the story has gripped me too hard to abandon it – but I need to pick apart what I’ve done and rebuild it, which will take time. Instead, I’m changing tack, with a complete fantasy novel as opposed to speculative fiction. The freedom that offers is great, and I’m really looking forward to getting going.

Current stage is thinking about the plot, which is fairly straightforward, and interviewing characters. I have seven main characters (I’ve learned from nano 06, where I started with 10 and ended with 5), and while all seven will have a place, it’s very possible that one or two or even three will play a larger part in it, with the rest as supporting cast, so I’m just feeling my way through who they are, what they sound like, what they look like, what they want and how they fit in to the overall arc.

The intention, as every year, is to get to the end of the 50,000 words before the end of the month. The growing determination is to reach that stage with a project that’s worth going back and editing, and then to actually do so; to get past this feeling that I’m only allowed to be properly creative in November, and to build writing into my daily routine and do something with my writing other than file it and read it again years later, only to regret not having done more.

 

V is for villain

Continuing with the A-Z challenge – we’re nearly at the end.

Without conflict there is no story. Without a villain of some kind, there is very little conflict. Villains can be the most interesting to play, watch or write about. All restrictions are removed; your villain doesn’t have to be honest, or good, or behave in any expected way.

One of my favourite villains is Sue Sylvester from Glee; the coach for the cheerleaders, Sue has always declared battle against the Glee club members, and done what she can to cause problems for them. And yet there’s another dimension to her, that makes her so much more than a stereotypical villain: she has a sister with Downs Syndrome, and she loves that sister dearly. She loves winning, but playing the game is more important than winning outright, so if she gets too far ahead she will back down. When she judges a competition and the other judges are looking down their noses at the kids from glee, Sue stands up for them and gives them her vote – not that she would ever admit it to anyone, of course.

Another villain who fascinates me is Snape. I was never convinced that he was as bad as Harry made out, because it seemed to me that he was more a victim than a villain. Somehow, my response to the character in the book was to feel sorry for him and empathise with him over the way he was treated, and to look for redeeming features.

I’d like to write a villain like that – a villain who becomes so effective because readers can empathise, can understand his behaviour and really feel him as a well-rounded character, not a caricature of a bad guy.

One moment I remember when reading Pride and Prejudice at school, which in one way marked my growth from fiction to literature, was when Mrs Bennett makes some sort of joke. In my young mind, characters were good characters or bad characters, and I’d classified Mrs Bennett as bad guy. So to see her behaving like a normal person, joking with the others and getting on with them, came as a shock to me. in that moment, I realised that book characters can be the same as real people, rounded out, both good and bad, rather than the diametrically opposed characters I’d read about up until that point.

So my heroes can’t be perfect, they need to carry some sort of flaw, and my villains need to have some sort of justification for their behaviour, even if it’s misguided. That’s one of the aspects that will lift my writing and give it strength.

 

When characters fight back

Since nano, I’ve been struggling to get back to my novel. I’ve tried editing the opening so many times but it just hasn’t felt right. I got to the point where I wondered if I’d simply taken the wrong approach to the story altogether.

So this morning as I took myself to the cafe for my usual Friday morning breakfast and writing session, I asked my main character just what her problem was. This is what she said to me:

The trouble is, you’ve made me too conventional, expecting to follow the norm, and then provided no justification for me breaking from the norm except one that puts me and my baby in danger. You need to think much more clearly – why do I go against the norm? what problems does it cause? Why would I be so stubborn and awkward when I’ve always been one to do as I’m told?

I thought for a while, and then answered her:

Because you were always like that. Because you followed the norm while hating it. That side has been squashed your whole life, and Matt brought it out. Matt made you feel alive, and now that he’s gone, his baby gives you the courage you needed to reveal who you really are. That’s why you want to hold on to him.

So now I guess I need to sit down with her some more and have her tell me some stories of her childhood, and meeting Matt. Stories that might or might not be used in the novel but will at the very least help me get to know her better and understand why she behaves the way she needs to in the story.

 

Day 20

I’m starting to feel that finish line approaching… at 42k, I only have another 8k to write to complete nanowrimo. Of course, my story won’t finish then, it needs to continue on until it reaches a full conclusion. I’m guesstimating around 75k at the moment. I find I’m getting more nervous as I get closer to 50k – will I keep going properly? Will I shove it in a metaphorical drawer, never to see the light of day again? Will I be able to find something usable in there by the time I’ve finished?

At 36k I suddenly realised the motivation and situation of one of my main characters. Since then, I’ve found things are getting away from me. The government has turned nasty and my main character has a real dilemma to face. And I thought I was already making her life difficult! So, does she fight the system and risk losing her child or keep her mouth shut? Are the actions of a small minority enough to deal with a corrupt majority? Will the masses rise up and rebel? tune in for tonight’s thrilling instalment…

An extract: She weighed up the options, lying awake at night and worrying, and by Monday morning she still didn’t know what choice she was going to make.

And neither does her author…

Maybe it’s time I switched to the other main arc and see what she’s up to. She’s progressing fairly steadily, but I’ve a nasty feeling there might be a spanner in the works for her somewhere along the line too. I’m not sure whether this double arc is a blessing or a curse – it makes it easy to jump to the other arc when I get stuck on one, but on the other hand maybe I need to push through the pain and see what happens.

Ah well, I’ve still got about 800 words to write for today’s instalment, so I’d better get on. Still looking forward to a couple of full day write-ins. I’m also wondering how much time it will need to go through the story and check its flow and plot as well as actually adding to the word count. I’m trying not to tear on so fast I can’t use anything, but I know there will be chunks. The important thing is not to get so far off track that I’m writing for the sake of the word count and not for the storyline.

 

They’re finally starting to talk to me

Well, here we are, 21,000 words in, and the characters are finally starting to relax and talk to me a little. One main character has suggested gently that she’s lonely and could do with some company, preferably male. I’m starting to understand their characters a little, and the story is starting to flow a little more.

It’s still hard work, don’t get me wrong. I’m still nothing like happy with what’s going on. But it’s a first draft. I don’t need it to be perfect. I just need it to be written, so I can take an objective look at what I’ve got and start pulling it apart and doing it better.

I did a lot of planning. Probably not enough, but I could plan forever and never actually get anything written. This way at least I’ve got something to work on, and the more I work on it, the more engaged I am with it and the more likely to continue, not to mention what I’m learning as I write.

My notebook is proving important, and I should probably make more use of it, to make notes of characters and their names as I introduce them. I printed out a section today to go through and check up on the names I’ve used, and I already found one character who inexplicably changed name partway through, and I know there’s another whose name I spelt wrong for a section or two – he’s turned out to be a right nasty character, by the way.

I haven’t done much looking back at what I’ve done so far. I’m more concerned with moving forward at the moment – working on covering as much as I can, with a view to paring it down to the essentials later. I’m also not concerned about being subtle yet – I’m happy to exaggerate situations and characters, with a view to refining later.

I’ve now attended a couple of write-ins, and at each I’ve taken part in sprints and increased the word count. I’ve also had a chance to chat to other writers and to admire how impressive we look, all sitting around with notebooks and laptops, talking about our novels.

I’ve started to get into the routine of sitting writing in the evenings, on the laptop in front of the TV. I mostly ignore the TV; that’s just for the others in the room. But it means that I have company and warmth and comfort, and a ready distraction if I need one. Still, I’m managing to keep to a steady 2k words plus per day, and so the word count is steadily going up.

So generally things are going well and I’m well on track to finish the 50k challenge on time and hopefully finish the full first draft soon after.

 

And we’re off!

I was constrained this morning by having an hour set aside to write but no computer available at the cafe, so I started the morning by making notes about settings. I got a few things clear in my head about how things work in my world, and I discovered a few new characters. I got to thinking about different characters and the part they play.

I often get a TV show in my head, and will watch and rewatch episodes from that show, as background while I work (that way it’s actually better if the episode is very familiar rather than new to me). My current favourite series is Numb3rs, a US TV series about an FBI agent and his mathematician brother who use math formulas as a tool to solve crimes.

Each episode features a crime, and some maths problems, but they also contain snippets about the family, and when you watch a series often, especially back to back episodes, the crime arc can take a back seat to the character arc, or maybe better to say that the crime offers a mirror to reflect and build on the character arc. The family is Don, the Agent, Charlie, the mathematician, and Alan, their father, but there’s another very important member of the family – the mother. She actually died a year before the series even started, but she is still present and very much felt by the family in almost every episode, as her influence is felt in their relationships with each other and how their childhood was shaped.

At school when we were in the “Make a play and perform it to the rest of the class” mode, one group made a play in which everyone on a ship was complaining about the captain and each had a different reason to hate him. In the end they all turned on him and killed him together, but the captain himself was never seen.

In both these examples, a character who is never seen onscreen plays a vital role.

I thought it would be fun to do that, in part, in my novel. In fact I did something like it before, for a fanfiction story for the TV series Bones, where the absence of a character and how the rest react to his absence was the main thrust of the story. So I’ve decided I’ve got two characters in my novel whose presence I intend to make readers feel as important, even though they play no active part, because their influence will be seen in the way that my main characters behave. One is a woman grieving for her dead boyfriend. The other is a woman who had a difficult relationship with her mother, but grows to understand her better as she becomes a mother herself.

I also thought about my writing group, and the questions they had asked about my novel, including asking about the role of men in my world, so that brought in another few characters. In fact, at some point I might consider all the different influences on my writing, to see where each has come from and what it has brought to the cooking pot. So many times something occurs in real life that ends up being amalgamated into part of my writing.

Having returned home, I realised I still had to adjust scrivener by moving previous pre-drafts to the research folder and setting the word count to 0 (in fact it set it to around 25, which is the standard gumph on the title page). I’ve set the session target to 2,000 and the project target to 50,000, although I’ll probably end up with far more than that, and I’ve started writing.

I’ve already tried out the first scene, but I didn’t cheat and copy it, I just remembered what I’d done and wrote another draft, with more detail and taking the story on further. It’s not good, but it’s written, and I know it’s not good, and I expected that and am prepared to keep working.

I’ve now gone just beyond where I’ve got to before on this scene, and probably completed the first chapter. I stopped at 2067 words, and updated my nano wordcount. I’ve got to update the spreadsheet as well, which gives me lots of pretty graphs, and then I’m done for the day. Feeling pretty pleased with myself so far, but I know that the first few days are easy; it’s when you fall behind, or reach 10,000 words and feel yourself slowing down, or you decide that the last two chapters are absolute rubbish but going back and fixing them would waste precious time and words. One year I just changed tack halfway through, merging characters as I had too many, and continued as though they were the same ones I started with. This year I hope that my planning will help me avoid major issues.

Still, I’m having fun, and that, really, is all that counts.

How about you?

PS this blog is 839 words; does that count towards my total for the day? 😉

Building characters

mindmap of one of my charactersI’m trying to develop my characters at the moment. I took advice from a creative writing workbook and tried out mindmaps. Some of the stuff I already knew, but other information came out from nowhere – I knew Meryam was impulsive and excitable, but I didn’t realise how much the resentful stubborn side would show up.

I have two different characters, whose purposes are to illustrate different sides of the story, so I’m trying to ensure they’re different enough to be interesting and believable. The next stage is to start hearing their voices. Ideally the reader should be able to tell from the way the story is told which of them is telling it.

I’ve got a third character who is kind of hovering at the edge. During one swim (aka thinking session) last week she was nearly written out entirely, and part of her storyline transposed onto one of the others, but she argued her way back in, pointing out the roles she should play during the story. For now the story seems to be divided into 1/2 Layla, 1/3 Meryam and 1/6 Chantelle, but I’ll have to see how it plays out once I’ve finished planning properly.

I’ve been researching characters, and reading all about how to make them sympathetic/lovable/believable, but in the end it all comes down to: do I really know them? Have I made them realistic? do they have enough detail to be believable? Do I care about them? Do they care about their own lives?

The idea for the story is definitely exploring a world situation, but it’s important to me that it’s not just about the situation, but about how it impacts on real people, because often it’s only when you see the reactions of someone living in a situation that you really understand its implications. I also have characters who are going against the normal way of life for most people, so I have to make sure they have real reasons why they’re resisting normal societal pressures. Then these characters need others to react against, who don’t need to be as fully developed but still need to be detailed enough to work.

Like I said before, writing is not just about stringing words together.