Archive for the ‘for writers’ category

What the Hell Are You Doing In There? My Writing Process

September 25, 2013

This week over on Just Book Reading, I’m having a stimulating conversation with Amy that’s all about me. And who wouldn’t like to get together with a friend for the purpose of talking about oneself in a sustained fashion? I’m flattered that she thinks I’m interesting enough to inflict such an interaction on her readers, and (of course!) I’ve been enjoying the conversation.

Like so many people who read and write deeply, Amy asks questions that beg for huge answers. I’m trying not to completely swamp her blog, so I’m doing the Reader’s Digest version of one of my answers in the interview on her blog and a fleshed-in version here. For readers who came here from Just Book Reading, you’ll find the first three paragraphs here are the same as the first three paragraphs there. After that comes all the lunacy I spared the tender readers of that blog. 🙂

In the interview, Amy asks,

1. Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?

To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.

I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.

Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.

I am never, ever writing the story I think I am. But I don’t know what the story will turn out to be until I write it, and none of the work I do before I begin typing is wasted. Some of it will wind up on the page; some won’t. But it’s all part of the cloud of possibilities in my imagination.

In some ways this is the most delightful part of the process for me: I just follow the characters through the problem every day, dying to find out what they will do and discover, who they will turn out to be. I’m telling myself the story. Only when I get to the other end, complete this first draft, do I know what story I’m writing.

This is where the craft portion of the process begins. At this point I’ll do plot and character analyses, chart the overall plot as well as character arcs against the models that fit the story types I’m working with. I am likely to wander off and read literary criticism during this phase, because it helps me think. I’ll also take the time to do a better job of fleshing in my world—especially if it’s an alternate-world setting, but even with stories set on present-day Earth, there are details we can choose to bring in or emphasize that make the story work better. This, too, is likely to necessitate more research. I’m a knowledge junkie.

All these exercises help me see where Writer Brain got it right on the first try and where the story could be stronger. I’ll sketch out a very detailed plot plan, down to the beat and scene level, and plug it into a project file in Scrivener ( I set up all those chapters and story nodes, those beats and scenes, as individual components in the project file. I use colors to track point-of-view threads and important subplots; I subdivide the whole thing into acts. I’m sure all this activity looks crazy from the outside, but I find it really helpful not only for plot development but for times when I start rearranging on the fly in the middle of the second draft.

Tired yet? We’re not even getting started. At this point I write the second draft in Scrivener. I don’t mean that I plug in stuff I wrote earlier and write glue; I write an entirely new second draft. I find that I write a much better second (or subsequent!) draft if I go back to zero and type new words into the file. Sometimes, when I feel I really nailed a scene on the first draft, I’ll have that file open on another screen for reference. Sometimes I’ll use entire sentences or even paragraphs. But mostly it’s new material—because this time I know what story I’m telling (or so I think) and my Muse, my Writer Brain, won’t turn on, dig in, show up for work, whatever you like to call it, unless he knows he gets to play again. And if I don’t get out of his way and let him re-tell the story, he’ll just phone it in.

I write sequentially again this time. That’s because I know what story I’m telling now, but characters are still developing, and they will continue to surprise me. The farther I go into the draft, the farther away from the plot I’d planned and the scene notes I’ve made I find the story wandering. It’s very common for me to get to a point, during the second half of this draft, where I’m writing all the plot points I’d planned but they mean completely different things than I expected. All of this means I must follow the characters from scene to scene, because the way they’re developing will continue to influence the story.

Everything continues to evolve. I’ll rearrange the order of scenes on the fly, particularly for continuity among points of view or because the way a character is developing changes how a subplot unfolds; I’ll add chapters or scenes I hadn’t planned or remove things that no longer seem important. Frequently I’ll remove plot points I had planned to use to present an idea or piece of information–because Writer Brain has already handled it much more efficiently than I’d planned. I’ll go back into earlier sections when something I figure out in later chapters ripples backwards in the plot. Sometimes, when I’m working with an alternate world, I’ll rearrange timelines because of mechanical issues unique to that world, such as complications in getting from Point A to Point B.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the process of developing this draft, I’ll start slipping my first readers (I have two, because I won the First Reader Lottery) chapters. Sometimes it’s beginning-to-end; sometimes, when I’m writing threads that don’t come together for a long time, I’ll develop and hand off a thread for a sanity check. Notes I get from my first readers may cause further redevelopment. Sometimes a novel in progress looks like the Scarecrow after the Flying Monkeys, and the only place it exists in any recognizable form is inside my head.

Finally I reach the end again. I don’t type THE END or -30- the way we’re supposed to. I’m too neurotic for that. “Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.” That was Warhol, I think. Now I have to go look it up.

(Hah! It was the poet Paul Valéry. All hail Wikiquote…)

People who have written far more novels than I will tell you that it is compulsory at this point to go over the whole mess yet again. To let it sit fallow for at least a month. By the time I get to this point I’ve been over each scene and subplot so many times that I know I’ve gotten the whole thing into the best shape I can achieve alone. So my first readers will review the complete mess, I’ll address whatever notes they give me (they tend to be light at this stage, because the first readers have typically seen big chunks of the novel already)—and then the novel goes to beta readers.

A hundred years ago, in a different lifetime, I worked in both software and advertising. I spent years laboring under the delusion that this beta reading phase was analogous to user testing and focus group research, and every objection from every reader constituted an error on the writer’s part. Later I began to realize that every reader reads a different story, because each reader brings her own past and imagination and baggage to the experience. That all I can really take away from beta reading is a collection of reactions and suggestions, some of which will trigger eureka moments for me and others which I must set aside as peculiar to that particular reader. Knowing which is which is the hard part, and it requires me to work through my own baggage to do it.

With notes from beta readers in hand, I sit down and decide what changes should be made to the novel. Sometimes it’s little stuff: word choices, a sentence that confused people. Sometimes new material, scene length or longer, is required. I’m likely to jump around on the light stuff, because it feels as if I’m knocking stuff off the list; but for big chunks and stuff that will ripple through the plot, I work sequentially again. If there are a lot of changes, I will dig back into the whole thing at the sentence level again to ensure continuity.

Finally the novel is ready for editorial. I’ve had the privilege of working with editors who are friends on both my novels. Brett Shanley, who was the editor for The Shadow of the Sun, used to come over and sit in my kitchen with me, and we’d go over notes and argue about punctuation for a few chapters, and then get together a few days later and do it all again for the next set. When we lost him two years ago, it was a huge blow to me: not only as a friend, but in my creative life. I still work with him sitting on my shoulder, still think about how he would address a problem in the work.

Anna Branscome, who is my editor for the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, is even more hands-on: she’s already read a draft of about half the novel, and she plans to come in and start working at the sentence level with me during the beta phase. She spends just as much time looking askance at my punctuation hooptydoodle as Brett did, but I am intractable in this regard. Well, mostly intractable. Sometimes they win those arguments. But otherwise I am a very cooperative editorial subject.

I know, from life on both sides of the desk, that every author-editor pairing is different. I’ve had the privilege of some terrific relationships with authors I’ve edited, but I am most grateful for the relationships I’ve had and have with my editors.

After editorial, of course, the book goes to design, to print, to the world. There’s creativity in those jobs, too; but it’s creativity of a different sort. A topic for another day.


Writing About Sex: Love Through Other Eyes

April 16, 2013

This week, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

As always, nrlymrtl asks questions that go down to the center of the earth; and also as usual, my keyboard runneth over. After driling down into the question of  how a woman can write  man’s sexual experience with any sort of confidence, I’m looking at the issue from a broader perspective: how can we as writers write anybody‘s sexual experience, and what can we do with it from a storytelling point of view?

I don’t write erotica, and I suspect much of what I’ll say here does not apply in that venue. As a writer I don’t shy away from intimate sexual detail, but I’m not writing to arouse: when I follow characters past the bedroom door, it’s because what will happen there advances the story, develops character, or–hopefully–both.

First of all, what is sex good for in terms of building story? First, and maybe most importantly, conflict. As writers we know conflict is the engine that drives stories and scenes: internal conflict, external conflict; there are dozens of different types. The writer who takes time to think about it can find endless sources of conflict in a character’s sexual impulses and actions, starting from conflict between what he desires and what he thinks he should desire and spanning the distance to a character whose sexual desires puts him in conflict with society itself.

In The Shadow of the Sun, Ellion’s sexual impulses create sticky situations for a variety of reasons: his philandering has been the cause of a high percentage of the duels he’s fought and his attendant reputation as a man prone to slice others up; in the Tanaan lands, he brings his cultural assumptions about the loose morality of Tanaan women along with him and must constantly talk himself out of his culturally-entrained assumption that any woman who gives him any notice whatsoever is actually coming on to him, whether or not it’s true; he maps his culture’s near-mythologicization of the sexual charms of Tanaan women onto Letitia, rapidly muddling the person who simply needs protection with his culturally-etnrained sexual fantasies. Which, of course, generates further conflict between Ellion, Letitia’s father, and Letitia’s intended consort: not least because she’s got her own reasons for responding in kind.

Another source of conflict that arises from sex: there are well-documented biochemical changes that take place in people who have sex together: biochemical processes that create emotional bonds. A character who might not otherwise have allowed himself to become fully embroiled in a conflict can’t help but respond when his lover is involved. Once they’ve made love, he’s all in, even if his mind knows it’s stupid. Even, sometimes, if their sexual reltionship is over.

Sexual encounters are also a terrific way of revealing character: it is during those periods when humans are at their most open and vulnerable. The private time after sex is likely to be a time when people are fully honest, or as honest as they ever get. And how a character thinks about a sexual partner and about the act itself arise from whatever other emotional baggage they’re bringing along.

A character of a romantic bent, which oddly enough my philandering Ellion is, filters his perceptions far differently from a person of shallower thinking. When I write sexual encounters through his lens, what he sees and thinks arises naturally from how he sees and responds to his partner: a brief dalliance with someone he has just met shifts from a conversation between professionals (in this case, he has just met a female bard, and their meeting begins as shop-talk) to a nearly clinical comparison of the experience to what the stories he’s heard had led him to expect: there’s no emotional involvement to speak of.

But a later sexual encounter, with someone he has developed real romantic feelings for, is almost entirely about the emotions: even his perceptions of her beauty and of the sex act itself are filtered through intense emotion. One of my early readers said, after reading that scene (and no, I’m not telling you who his partner there is: that would constitute a spoiler) that she finally felt she understood Ellion. Because in the course of opening himself up in that encounter, he finally let the reader in far enough for her to understand all the little mysteries he carries around.

What comes hard? nrlymrtl asks. For me, what’s hard is writing sex without throwing the reader out of the moment. There’s no time when it’s more important for the writer to disappear into the cracks of a scene: every word must connect the reader intimately with the character. I work intensely to choose words and images that reflect how the character would experience what’s happening: to stay true to his voice rather than allowing embarrassment to make me reach for euphemisms or a desire to titillate make me reach for detail that doesn’t serve the story. I have to pretend no one but me will ever read the scene, and concentrate on getting it right–and then just move on to the next, to the conflicts whose stakes I have strived to raise while the characters involved forgot to notice the longer-term meaning of what they were doing.

In general, I write sex scenes like I write fight scenes: at their best, I believe, neither is about the physical stuff, but rather about what it means to the characters involved. It’s important to write believable, so as not to distract the reader from the important work we’re doing in these scenes; but if I’ve done my job correctly, at the end of such a scene you know a little more about the character than you did before–and he’s a little deeper in trouble.

The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

April 15, 2013

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

April 9, 2013

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.

The Importance of Failing

June 8, 2012

Today, this article lit up my little corner of Facebook. A friend posted it; I shared it; soon ripples were spreading out from those twin centers and conversations were starting all over the place. The author of the article puts forth a wondrous theory about the problems women have with success as stemming from a conviction developed during childhood that they simply are or are not good at any given thing, and that failure is an indication of a total lack of ability. Facebook debated the merits of this theory and rightly concluded that to assign it solely to a gender issue is to miss the point, which is this: people who are encouraged to see failure as a signal that they need to dig in and try harder, differently, smarter, etc. are much more likely to eventually succeed.

When I say it like that, it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But here is the hidden corollary, which consistently trips up adults and children of both genders:

In order to achieve things that are difficult,
we must accept failure as a part of the routine.

I fail all the time. I consistently set goals and don’t manage to meet them. I take on too much, I aim higher than my current abilities or resources can take me, I execute to the limit of my ability but encounter obstacles I had not anticipated. I believe that’s OK.

I believe that if I’m not failing,

I’m not trying hard enough.

I wasn’t always this way. For years I was the prototypical “good girl” described in the article, and I beat myself up for each failure, and concluded that every time I failed it was  because of some intrinsic fault in myself. But then I had my First Midlife Crisis, in which I decided that the adult world was bullshit, and there was no real point in being a good girl, and so threw myself into pursuing my own passion. Because, really, what was the point of doing otherwise?

My passion, as it happens, was (and is) writing speculative fiction. I wrote a novel and began doing all the things young writers are taught they must in order to get their novels published. The writers among you already know how painfully difficult this particular trek is; failure is the norm. It was my introduction, at long last, to a culture in which multiple failures are expected, and the attitude is not all-or-nothing success/failure but successive attempts.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

The publishing life is not for the faint of heart; but it is a brilliant teacher of resiliency. Accepting that most attempts will end in failure, but if we are willing and able to learn from those failures and improve our craft we may well succeed on the next attempt, is a philosophy that stands in direct opposition to how we are taught to live. It is madness.

It is the key to successful pursuit of one’s dreams.

We must allow ourselves to fail. To try, to not succeed on the first or the fifth attempt, to risk looking foolish in public. More importantly yet, we must allow our children to fail, and teach them to treat those failures as learning experiences. A failure yields data we can use to build a better story, a better souffle, a better company, a better building. To master the math we need to take on the scientific learning we adore. To do a thousand other things that will not come easily, and accomplish something wondrous in the process.

Go out and fail. Do it a hundred times. I guarantee your hundredth failure will be nothing like your first. And somewhere in the midst of all that failing, almost without noticing, you will find yourself amassing success after success.

The Time to Do It Right

January 17, 2012

The clock is ticking. I swear I can hear it in my sleep. I don’t even have time to be here writing this entry.

It would be easy to assume that I have the time to do exactly what I want, when I want to: I’m the boss around here, right? In a sense that is true. But I am also very aware of the promises I’ve made, on both sides of the desk, and so very behind on all of them. I continually try to do too much.

Most importantly, for our purposes here now, I’m way behind in the study. The one-year anniversary of the release of The Shadow of the Sun is next month, and I’m still writing the sequel. In fact I’m writing the next two books simultaneously, for a variety of reasons I don’t have time to get into here–some of which are discussed in the previous post. And this week I found a new way to put more pressure on myself. Yeah, I’m pretty good at that.

This week, in the midst of planning a scene in the third novel (which is what I’m supposed to be working on) I realized that I had overlooked some details of the wider story when I was developing one of the act breaks of novel #2: seemingly small details of what-else-is-going-on, natural outgrowths of a plot development that will take place entirely off-camera but which will matter late in novel #3. It would be out of character for either of the PoVs I am writing on this pass to have overlooked those details; it was obvious, as soon as I’d realized the omission, that I must go back and weave those details in.

So far, not so bad, right? I went back into Novel #2, right before the act break in question, and began looking at how the facts would play into those scenes. A whole group of new players had to be brought onto the stage; I had to stop and work out a couple aspects of worldbuilding I’d been mentioning but not fleshing out, even in my head, and then weave them in. Took me a precious day, but the results were well worth it.

And then my two PoV characters were in the same room, and interacting, and suddenly I found myself tripping over the edge of a veritable plot sinkhole.

Oh, yes, I know this territory. I was skirting the edges of one of the central problems of the series, a piece of backstory that I won’t otherwise be addressing for another two novels. This problem is the Third Rail of this part of the series: both an engine that drives major stretches of story and a thing that is so deep and complex that to touch it is to immediately lose all forward momentum. It’s a mind-trap.

And I don’t have time for that right now. I’ve got to get a novel out.

All the pro writers in the room are nodding vigorously: they’ve all been here. The wisdom of the deadline tells us to step away at this point, to slap a bit of paint on that scene and go make the deadline. By last night I had talked myself around to that position, promising myself a nice stretch of open weeks to do nothing but solve this problem right before beginning work on Novel #4, and resolved to come into the study this morning and start slapping on the paint.

I couldn’t quite do it. I convinced myself to look up one more thing while I ate my breakfast in front of the computer. That was the Muse whispering into my ear, of course; in short order I was entirely seduced by the tantalizing closeness of understanding. I learned things about the classical references I’m working from this week of which I had been completely unaware; it sucked me in, and I dug around in references, and gradually throughout the course of the day I built the framework I needed to do justice to this half a scene I need to finish before moving forward.

It ate the day. By this evening I was once again flagellating myself for allowing myself to get sucked into the seduction of research.

But then something magical happened. I sat down, “last thing before calling it another wasted day”, and made notes on the scene I was planning. And what I realized I had pieced together in the back of my brain was not merely something that would fill the rhythmic hole in character interactions that I couldn’t go forward without addressing–but something that offered an entirely new lens on not one but both of the primary plots’ conflicts in this novel.

I couldn’t have planned that, not with the left side of my brain. But the right side, the Muse, is smarter than me–as usual.  I had almost forgotten the importance of allowing myself the time to do things right. I had nearly fallen into the trap that separates the guild craftsman from the artist. And now I am reminded of the critical importance of following the instincts I spent so many years developing.

We all have those instincts, that knowledge of what is necessary. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure on us to push those instincts aside in the interests of doing what we think is expected of us. But those slow-moving instincts are the source of the art we create, and we try to push them aside or put them on schedules at our artistic peril.

But I’m still behind, and so I have to race on again. As quickly as my slow creative brain can.

On stories and games

September 23, 2011

I’m pretty weird for a geek.

Okay, I’m pretty weird by anyone’s standards, but until recently there was a huge hole in my geekish education: I’d never played a roleplaying game, and the last computer- or console-based game I’d spent any serious time with was built on ASCII characters. (Rogue, anyone? Oops, I’ve just dated myself.) I had no idea what a huge part of the storytelling universe just wasn’t on my radar.

Fortunately, I’ve got friends & associates who can spot the need for an intervention. In recent months I’ve come to realize that games can take story into territory that the written word alone can’t accomplish. And in typical obsessive fashion, I’ve been sucking up knowledge in this area as fast as I can digest it: reading; picking the brains and observing the work of some very generous gaming masters; learning by doing in cooperation with the guys from Cliche Studio, who helped me develop two games for my Way of the Gods universe. And I’ve been regaling anyone who was too polite to send me on my way with tales of this fascinating new (?!) area of my storytelling life. Just in case I’m not the only writer who has managed to overlook the wonder of gaming as it relates to story and doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, here’s the meat of it.

Written stories—and film, by the way—have the ability to deliver a carefully-crafted glimpse into lives we would never otherwise know. They deliver a sort of vicarious experience, and they excel at communicating *meaning*. In the end, I think, that’s the most powerful thing those sorts of presentations can give their audiences: ideas and events that resolve in ways we can digest, can experience without real risk, can derive meaning from when real life frequently leaves us wondering what the *point* of it all may be. If the writer has done her job right, we carry the memory of that vicarious experience and the meaning we’ve derived with us long after we close the book or leave the theatre.

Where game excels, it seems to me, is in the arena of *experience*. When we read a story, that is not the same thing as living a story. When we write a novel, we’re delivering one story, more or less, even though each reader will take it in according to her own mindset. But when we craft a game, we create a cloud of possible experiences. In some cases, when the game we craft involves roleplaying, among the experiences we offer others is the opportunity to build and participate in wholly unique stories that will never exist except in that time and place. Game masters create stories, create the frameworks for experiences, within the frameworks game designers create. They are telling stories to the people with whom they game. And those gamers are also creators of the stories they experience: they frequently create their own characters, and they change the game the game master originally conceived with the choices they make.

In game, there’s not usually an audience in the typical sense. You don’t go to a tabletop gaming session to watch a story play out, but to help create it. The satisfaction arises not from the game’s completeness and evident meaning—neither of which a game necessarily delivers, or even really promises to—but rather from the experience of participating in it.

In a sense writing a novel is “high art”, while participating in a game that offers story is “arts and crafts”: games matter to us because they are our own experiences, our own creative expression, rather than because they are likely to please a disinterested observer. I see written stories, film, and game as parts of a continuum of ways we can experience stories, parts of a continuum of ways artists can share their conceptions with others.

To me this is the essence of the thing people mean when they talk about “transmedia”, and I believe game—true, usefully participatory game, as distinguished from the thinly-disguised advertising so many media tie-ins are guilty of—allows the story to become something we can participate in. It allows us to experience the story world, almost as if we could actually enter it.

Recently I talked with Elizabeth Campbell of Darkcargo about my explorations and the things I’ve been learning about story and game. She remains one of the most penetrating interiewers I know, and she made me have a number of new thoughts on this fascinating new-to-me medium in the process of our conversation. You can see what we talked about here.

Meanwhile, I’m going back to the studio. I’ve got this great idea for another game…