Monday, December 30, 2013

Discovery Writing (or Pantsing) World Building - How it Informs your Plot and your Characters

Otherwise known to me as gardening. Bizarre gardening, but gardening none-the-less.

Imagine, for a moment, a plot of land. Nothing growing, nothing there but fresh, fertile soil. The sort of soil that smells of cows and sweet rotting things.

You pick a particular corner, and you start building a path. As you build this path, you scatter seeds around you, plant trees, roses, place streams and rocks down. But you only really create the garden around the path. You sort of make it up as you go along. The things you just planted inform what you next plant, but if you decide to just go ahead and whack a gum tree in the middle of a bunch of roses, no-one will stop you. You decide to maybe plant the roses in a nice circle, framing the gum tree, so it makes sense.

Your path will have offshoots, and you'll set up the garden around those offshoots, and then come back to the main path. When you finally finish the path, you'll look back, adjust some things, plant some things in the gaps that are visible from the main path.

Your first visitor comes along, and you take them through the path, down all the little offshoots. You notice they're getting tired about halfway through, so you resolve not to take your next visitor down the little offshoots. The plants are still there. You can still point them out to the next visitor if they want to know.

And maybe some of the other visitors ask about the bits beyond the garden they can see. So you think about it, look what else you've done, then plant some more stuff.

This is essentially what my world building looks like. The path is my story and plot, the offshoots are little plot bunnies I chase that don't really come to fruition, and the friends I'm showing through are my alpha and beta readers. I make up the world that informs the plot first, then fill in the rest later. I make it make sense by looking at what else I've created, and fitting new information into that. If something seems totally out of left field, but I love it, I'll just go and make the world building around it fit.

Notice the offshoots. There are many many times when I'm writing something and it makes no sense at all on the read through. So I change it, or get rid of it, or rebuild my plot. But that offshoot had value because I learnt more about my world and my characters while writing it.

Another important thing to realise is that your characters reflect their world. When your character does something, think about why they do it, and that might give you your next clue for what to plant next. If you get stuck, take a step back and look at where you've come from. Maybe build a stream in the middle of everything so when you show people around this garden of yours, they have to jump over it. World building can cause complications for your characters just as much as anything.

And if something random pops up, justify it. Sometimes you'll just be coming up with bullshit. And sometimes it will present new character motivations, political manoeuvres, and plot points. Discovery writing is literally about that - making shit up and seeing if it works. If it doesn't work, then that's fine - you've learnt something about the story you're writing, trust me. You've learnt something about your characters, about how they react to the other people and places around them.

The trick in pantsing and discovery writing isn't finding a plot. It's recognising what is plot, and what isn't. It's figuring out which part of the garden you've created to show to people, and which part to keep in your own files, for your amusement and joy. Because while pantsing can be frustrating, you can't get closer to that joy of creation, because you're literally creating everything, all at once.

Happy Holidays  All,


Saturday, December 28, 2013

On Turning Points, and Small, Non-Act Defining Ones Especially.

One of the books I've read recently has been "The Rook". Despite being mostly exposition and talking, it managed to hold my attention so completely that I finished all just-under-500-pages in a day. It's about a woman who wakes up with no memory, and only letters from her previous self to guide her through the totally bizarre world which she apparently used to help run. There's not a lot of action, most of what goes on is internal, and takes part in offices and in letters from her previous self. There are a few notable exceptions, but it is largely much more a political thriller/mystery than an action novel.

 So I went about looking for what kept me interested. And it was quite straight forwards: I was introduced into a world I knew nothing about, and every time I got used to everything, something happened which would either propel me further into the world and the politics, or would force a turning point.

Now, to define turning points as I see them: they rely heavily on character choice and resolution. They are, essentially, the character changing their mind about how to solve their major problem. This can either come as an active choice:
  •  I did this before, it's not working, time to try something different 
 As resolution by the character:
  • I've been thinking about this, now it's time to fully commit to this action.
Ideally, a turning point also represents the growth a character has undergone.Their decision or resolution is a result of all that has come before.

You can find them in every story - to make an example of Harry Potter - the first turning point is where he agree to go to Hogwarts. Second one is where the trio decide to go and fetch the Philosopher's Stone for themselves. The third is when he decides not to hand the stone over the Voldermort.

None of these would have been possible without all that had come before. If Harry hadn't spent his life being mistreated by his aunt and uncle, and hadn't just been dragged around the countryside for a month and had his birthday completely forgotten, his decisions about going to Hogwarts might have been different. He may have made the same decision "go to Hogwarts", but with different implications. He may have kept in touch with a nicer family, may have been less desperate for acceptance and friendship when he showed up in his new world. His second major decision, to go get the Philsopher's Stone himself, would not have happened without everything that went on before that - finding out about the Philospher's Stone, facing the troll and Fluffy with Ron and Hermione, having Ron and Hermione there to back him up.

And the third major turning point would not have happened if he hadn't created a place and a family for himself in this new world. He might well have accepted Quirrel's offer.

But these are the major turning points. They are the decisions that bookend acts. What about in between? Especially in books, which tend to be longer than movies. Are there smaller turning points within acts?

I would argue, that yes, there are. Not every decision in a story changes the entire direction of the story, but they do make an impact on the character, and what they try next. They are not
  • What do I have to do differently to solve this big massive problem?
They are instead:
  • What do I have to do differently or strengthen my resolve in to resolve this issue in front of me right now?

And that's what The Rook did well. There was one scene in particular, where the MC acted differently from how those around her expected her to, given how her previous self had acted. And the MC, despite the danger of someone discovering that she'd had her memory wiped, resolved to act how she wished to act, not how her predecessor had.

Now, this decision didn't change the way the story played out, but it did foreshadow other major decisions and changes of direction. The character took charge of her narrative, and it led her onto her next set of actions.

These smaller turning points, when I looked at the book, popped up every 30 pages or so.  They weren't huge, I wasn't getting whiplash from a rapidly changing story, but they were there, and they were interesting enough that I would then read the next 30 pages to witness the consequences of that choice. And then another turning point would pop up, and I'd want to see the emotional consequences of that decision.

This interests me, because previously I'd been led to believe that turning points only came at the end of acts. But if you look at any story (of sizable length), you will see more than three turning points. You just can't go for 50,000 words without the characters making decisions of import.

So what can we learn from this? Well, I made a short list:

  1. Keep your characters involved and active in their destinies. Whatever the circumstances, have them make decisions about what to do
  2. this will depend largely on the type of novel you're writing, but I think a good rule of thumb is to put a small turning point every time the consequences from your MC's last major decision have run their course.
  3. Try and give these turning points emotional resonance. Irregardless how small, they should both impact on the character, and show the impact of the last run of events. The decisions the character makes 60000 words in won't be the decisions they made 30000 words in.
So yes. Things to keep in mind I think. I hope everyone is enjoying their holidays, and writing all the words.

See ya invisible readers :D

Friday, December 27, 2013

Goals for 2014

It's been a while since I posted here. More than a while actually - probably a couple of years. I tried, at one point or another, to start a new blog, but that didn't grab my attention, so I decided to come back to this one.

So - Goals for 2014. This will be a big year for me - last year of university, first year I won't actually have to work to support myself and pay my rent (scholorship ftw. Finally). I'll also be on placement a lot more, so that means more time in the back of the ambulance, more experiances, more life. More death, probably.

I'm currently halfway through a contemporary fantasy, so I want to finish that within the next month or so. My first drafts are almost always fast, because I am, at heart, a Pantser (ie, I make shit up as I go along), so that shouldn't be too difficult. I also think the thing will be fixable, which is a marked improvement on previous attempts at novelling.

I know enough about structure now that I won't be literally re-creating the story from scratch in the second draft.

All these factors combine to mean two things: I will have spare time on my hands for the first time in ages, and I will have to use it wisely. I need to find an actual job at the end of this year - not a supermarket one, but I'll have to be presentable as a paramedic. That makes me wary. I'm 22, I'll be 23 when I start applying for work - older than some of my cohort, but young in the scheme of things. Age matters for something, I think, in professions like this, so I'll have to show experiance through experiances rather than just time spent on this planet.

That equals voluteering, hopefully in something related to healthcare. My scholorship is tied up in tutoring for the university, so that will keep me busy too.

This year I also want to have an actual go at starting a writing career instead of just writing. I've been just writing since I was 13. I've completed 7 books, not counting total revisions. I think I need to actually start looking at what to do with all this.

To that end, I've devised a plan, of sorts. Whether it'll hold is another matter entirely, but here it is:

The first draft of a book, and a readable, "as good as I can make it" version of the same book every four months. So two months for the first draft, two months for the "ignore it till you forget it" bit and the general revision and editing.

Two short stories a month. Find a beta, a permanant beta, and make these as good as I can. Create a list of magazines, and send the lovelies out on a roster. If I have 24 stories in circulation by the end of 2014, one of two things will happen - either I'll be published, or I'll have learnt enough to be published the year after. Either is a win.

Beta someone's story now, with the goal of having them beta my own novel later in the year. I have time now, being on summer break, so I should build up brownie points rather than trying to cram beta-ing into semester time.

So, in summation, at the end of the year I want: A job, in my actually profession. At least one story published. Two novel length stories finished and ready for shopping.

This list is quite wishful, and I'm not sure if it'll get done, but worst comes to worst, I'll just disappoint myself. And I get over disappointment quite quickly, so I don't see any harm in it.

Happy New Year all.  :)