Character vs Plot

I am finally really reading Reamde by Neal Stephenson. I’d made it not quite 25% of the way through last time I started. This time, I’m further, and right about 25% of the way in, the story really picks up (which is about 30% sooner in the story than Anathem picked up).

It was at that point that I noticed something.

For me, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson write very similar types of books. For both, their early work was much more what we would call cyberpunk, much more obviously futuristic. But Reamde, much like the Pattern Recognition/Spook Country/Zero History trilogy (which combined is also about the same number of pages at Reamde) is ostensibly set in the present. And having finished re-reading Spook Country right before this, I can’t help but notice some key similarities and differences in two of my favorite authors.

 

Reading the newer Gibson and Stephenson books requires you to trust the author. You absolutely cannot make it through Anathem or Spook Country if you do not trust that your author will make it work. You just can’t. You absolutely must trust that the set up will make it all worth it – that all the background information you are being given will absolutely matter and pay off by the end of the book.

And yet, the way in which they handle the structure of their books, their plot and characters, is very different.

In Spook Country, Gibson introduces you to every character who is going to matter right off the bat. You get a chapter for each character. You know them from the very beginning. You must trust that these characters who seem to have nothing to do with each other, whose actions seem to have no effect on the lives of the other characters, will, by the end, be tied together in a reasonable way. You must believe that there will be a pay off to knowing everyone from the beginning and seeing their story lines developing in the same time frame. In Spook Country, you are following the characters and only meet the plot when it is necessary for understanding the characters.

Gibson writes very differently. In Reamde, you follow the plot and only meet characters when they are necessary for understanding the plot. Sometimes you get a characters back story as soon as you meet them. Sometimes you don’t get that back story until their part in the plot diverges from that of the other characters you met first. In this case, you must trust that the characters are there for a reason, that they are not filler.

 

In many ways, it is easier to read Stephenson than Gibson. It is easier to trust and follow plot than it is to trust and follow characters. If you have read both authors, imagine for a moment trying to read a 1000 page William Gibson novel. It seems nearly impossible, even if you are a fan of Gibson, even if he has earned your trust. And yet, Stephenson doesn’t appear to be able to write anything less than 1000 pages.


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Prologue

This was written as a prologue to my now defunct novel. 

 

I ran my fingers over the faces in the pictures lying on my kitchen table, printed copies of newspaper front pages from almost 30 years ago.  Emotions I had buried rose up within me – betrayal, loss, and an ever binding love.

“Thank you for helping with my journalism project, Aunt Anna.”  Monica’s voice brought me back to the present.  The oldest of my nieces and nephews, her’s was the only birth I had missed, and I had missed it in part because of the people in the picture.  For that reason, I knew I needed to answer her questions.

I smiled, not trying to keep the bit of sadness that had washed over me out of my face.   Honest reactions only with Miss Monica.  She would know if I were hiding something. “I’m happy to help, Mina.”

She frowned at my use of her childhood nickname.  At 22, in her last year of university, she was no longer a child but still young enough to bristle at any indication that she might be.

I could not repress my chuckle.  “Sit down.” I pulled out one of the blue draped chairs that surrounded my little white kitchen table.  “Would you like anything to drink.”

I watched her pretend to consider the question.  “Do you have any strawberry lemonade?”

I pulled out two tall glasses and the pitcher of lemonade that I’d made just that morning.  “So who are these guys, Aunt Anna?”

I set the glasses and pitchers down.  My eyes fell on the pictures again.  Their names – Toby, Jeremiah, Kevin, Carlos, and EGO – ran through my mind as I sank into a chair.  “They were the friends of my youth.  People I loved more than anything else in the world.” I looked at her, sitting across the small white table from me, so full of youth and innocence not yet ready to be lost.  I had protected her more than I should have, perhaps, when she had first come to University, and moved in with us after one miserably homesick semester in the dorms.  “At least until you came along.” Protected her against having friends like those in the pictures scattered in front of me.  “I would have died for them.”

I could see her struggling with the statement, trying to reconcile it with what she knew of the timeline of her birth and my marriage.  Her confusion filled the space between us.  “But none of them is Uncle Trevor…”

I reached out and took her hand across the table, needing her to understand the difference.  “No dear, for your Uncle, I choose to live.”


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Making myself write in order to make myself want to write

When I am busy, I crave time to write. I consciously carve out that time and protect it jealously. And when I do write, I am productive. While working, I was able to maintain three to four blogs, one of them updated daily, two others 2-3 times a week, and the fourth (this one) updated when I felt like it. In addition, I worked on my fiction, generally about once every two weeks in my time before critique group. I valued that time for my creativity, my expression, and made sure I could get that done. And my creative juices flowed.

I have been out of work since January. This blog has not been updated since September (though again, it was never on a regular schedule). My pet and personal finance blogs have been neglected. I am on complete hiatus from my 100 words a day blog. And as for my fiction, I have barely touched it. This despite the fact that I now have time, actual time, not a few stolen moments, to write.

I guess this is related to the same part of my brain that makes me a procrastinator. My brain works best when I have a deadline, when time is short. It fuels the adrenaline, which in turn gives me the creative energy I need to put words on paper. It creates the conundrum that when I have no time to write, I have so much I want to say. And when I have all the time I could ask for, I feel strangely silent.

This does not make me happy. I love writing. Writing makes me happy, whether it is fiction or blog posts. I always feel better when I have written something, anything. And so, I am trying to make myself change. I am trying to set myself a schedule, and that schedule will include writing time. It will not matter to me what I write, just that I write.

I am hoping that making a schedule will help me find the creative energy to write, and that writing will make me feel more productive and add to my desire to have a schedule and get things done. It is a circle that should feed itself.

And with any luck, I’ll get a job soon, too.


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Book Review: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

What first attracted me to the Frist Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie was the covers. If anyone tells you the cover of your book isn’t important, they lie, especially if you are a first time author. I never would have picked up any of these books if it weren’t for the cover of The Blade Itself, the first book. It’s a very simple cover, and that made the book compelling.

The copy on the back never interested me enough to buy it, though, not until I found it again in a used book store after I started my new commute (where I have 2 hours to read, every day). I remembered looking at it time and again because of the cover, and I finally picked it up. I also grabbed the second book, Before They are Hanged. It’s cover art had the same simple, compelling quality of the first book.

The Blade Itself introduced me to many characters. Some I cared about, some I didn’t. I only found one or two even slightly likable, and the one I liked most I liked a bit less at the end of the book. But the writing was compelling, and I started reading Before They are Hanged immediately after finishing The Blade Itself.

Before They are Hanged had some more character development, but also plot development. I started to see where things might be going. I grew to like some characters more and others less. I started to see how they all fit together, and I was intrigued to learn how it all would end.

It was a month or so after finishing the second book that I found the third book, The Last Argument of Kings, in a used book store and picked it up.

The writing remained tight and compelling. Everything fell into place. And in the end, I can’t recommend the series.

 

Let me digress. When I finished The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, I couldn’t wait to get other friends to read it so that I would have someone to complain about the epilogue to. That book would have been so much better if the epilogue had never been written. But I really, really needed other people to read it so that they could understand, and to appreciate how a writer could mess up an otherwise beautifully written novel. The Somnambulist still has some of the most beautiful writing in modern fantasy, and I would highly recommend listening to it as an audio book or reading it out loud. The language is gorgeous, and the book is worth reading just for that.

The end of The Last Argument of Kings soured me on the whole series. Let me be clear, the writing in the first two books was good enough to get me to buy the third. This is not a poorly written series. But it does not end well. This is both true for the characters and for the general nature of endings (which are almost as hard as beginning to write). At the end, I felt like I had gained nothing for reading the books.

I am not looking for profound, world changing endings. A book does not have to be Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, where my mind is reeling from the trip I’ve been on for me to feel like I have gained something from reading it. I truly enjoy many pulp style books and authors. In fact, I count Steven Brust, Jim Butcher, and Lilith SaintCrow among my favorites. What I gain from those books is adventure, fast pacing, and an ending that leaves me satisfied.

Books don’t necessarily have to have happy endings for me to like them, either. If a book can make me think, if it can leave me in tears, those are good things. But I’ll be honest, I do like my stories with a little bit of hope at the end. I read for enjoyment. I don’t read horror for a reason- I don’t enjoy it. If you are not going to give me a happy ending, or at least a moment of hope (Children of Men is one of my favorite movies ever, though I don’t know that I will ever watch it again. It decidedly does not have a happy ending, but there is a sliver of hope that makes the whole journey worthwhile), your book needs to give me something else.

The Somnambulist gave me gorgeous writing, so I’ll still recommend it. The First Law trilogy, while well written, did not give me a particularly unique plot, nor a character so different from any I’ve other read that I can recommend the series just for that.

In a sense, the ending was very much like that of one of Shakespeare’s Dark Comedies. Sure there was some death at the end, but there were also some marriages, though marriages that made you feel a little squicky. Characters got what they had “always” wanted only to realize it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  But others, including the character I grew to dislike the most (which I believe is what we are meant to do) get away scott free. In the Dark Comedies, no one gets to just walk off stage.

Maybe if this had been a single book, a Dark Comedy ending might have worked for me, but after three full length novels, it just did not cut it.

Throughout the books, one character says over and over “you have to be realistic” (if you equate realistic to mean pessimistic), and I think that’s where it went wrong for me. I don’t read fantasy novels for their realism.


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2013 Writing Goals

I have two writing goals for this year. They are both very ambitious, but also very doable.

 

The first is to complete the first draft of the novella I’ve been working on. The key to this is letting it be a complete first draft. I often like to go back and edit as I go, which means I spend forever on whatever scenes I’ve been working on, but never actually get a complete longer work completed. Simply having the entire thing written, no matter how much editing needs to be done, will be a major accomplishment for me not matter what.

That doesn’t mean I won’t go back and edit as I go along. I have already gone back and rewritten the opening scenes, but now I’m at the point where I am making myself simply continue the story. I know some of what I am writing does not quite mesh with earlier scenes because I’ve changed my mind, but that can all be fixed in future drafts. The key for me this year is to get the first draft completed.

 

My second goal for the year is to submit at least one of my shorter pieces to a paying venue every month. I’ve written a lot of short stories, and while many need some kind of cleanup, getting the short pieces ready to send out is not that difficult.

The harder part of this goal is finding places to submit my work too. It can be hard enough just to find places that you can submit your work to, let alone markets that are actually right for your work. Luckily for me, there is Duotrope.com.

Duotrope is a site where magazines and anthologies list their calls for fiction and poetry. I can sort by genre, length of story, or by how much the publication is paying. Duotrope also shows me contests (generally means you have to pay to submit, but the prize money, if you place, is pretty good).

It is a huge boon to me. Instead of trying random web searches, I have one place to go where I can look at the calls for pieces and find the right market for what I have already written, or perhaps be inspired to write something new.

When I first discovered Duotrope, it was free. As of this year, it does require a subscription fee from writers. I decided the one year subscription was worth it for me because, if I’d paid money to have access, I was more likely to use it.

 

So far, I am making progress on both goals. In the novella, I finally have my characters in the jungle and only one step away from the heart of the story. As far as short stories, I have submitted in November, December, January, and for February, I have submitted to a non-paying venue, a paying venue, and two very short flash pieces to a contest.

It is kind of hard on the ego, though. The pieces I submitted in December and January have received rejections. (What was hard is that both rejections came in the same week.)

But surviving rejections and submitting again is a rite of passage all writers must go through, or at least that’s what I am telling myself.


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Spam Poem

I love some of the spam email and comments I get on my blog. There’s just something lyrical about the way the non-sense is put together. This morning I was so impressed by four different spam comments on my blog that I decided to combine them into a piece of spam prose poetry. That is to say that I didn’t really write the piece below. I simply took what other people had written, combined it, changed the formatting, and in a couple places moved a phrase around. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

 

They are arguing over who should pay the bill. Mother doesn’t make up. I’ll just play it by ear. However, Susan has not really made up her mind yet. It’s going too far. I’m usually just using the search engines to look up information.

I’m usually just using the search engines to look up information.

Spring is a pretty season. Walking up and down the stairs would beat any exercise machine. What you need is just rest. You’re welcome. A bad workman quarrels with his tools. Your life is your own affair. A good knowledge of English will improve your chances of employment. He has completed the task. They have to work hard to support their family.

Be quiet!

Would you please go to a dancing party with me? Time is money. He suggests you leave here at once. The sight of the dead body scared him stiff. He paused for a reply.

I love you!

He is in his everyday clothes. They employed him as a consultant. Tom’s birthday is this week. Love me, love my dog. Ice cream is popular among children. Ice cream is popular among children.

Control yourself!

Money is so intangible, it’s almost like a promise and a piece of paper.


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Dream Weaver

This is something I wrote a few years ago that was meant to be part of a now defunct larger project. I still really like it as it’s own little piece of abstract fiction though.

 

I am sitting quietly, surrounded by deep blue sky and stars.  I reach out to the stars and pull their light to me, spinning it into thread.  I weave, using the loom that sits in front of me, turning the strands of starlight into a blanket.  The pattern in the cloth is more intricate than I can follow, but I don’t need to worry, for the thread patterns itself.

Something approaches, a shape darker than the surrounding night, blocking some of my stars.  It wants my blanket.  It wants my loom and the thread.  It wants to keep the stars from me.

We fight, though I sit still.  We do not touch, yet my soul grapples with the darkness.  Finally, it leaves.  I do not know who won, if either of us did.  I can still see the stars, but their light no longer reaches me.  I still have my loom.  The blanket is there, though the pattern is fading.  I blink and the pattern is gone.  Rain falls from my eyes.

I do not know what to do, so I go back to what I have always done.  I reach out to the stars.  I cannot see the strands, but I can feel them between my fingers.  I weave, knowing the blanket will never be complete.  I cannot see the pattern, but I feel it wrap around my heart.

Somewhere, someone is calling my name.


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Thoughts About Writing Inspired by #FinCon12 (part 2)

So now that I’ve addressed the questions about voice, what about the general writing questions? Here’s the thing about writing- I can’t tell you how to do it. I can teach you about content, about story needs, character, etc. But I can’t tell you how to actually sit down and write.
I can tell you what works for me. I can tell you what works for my friends. I can give you ideas to try, but I can’t tell you what will work for you. Only you can figure that out.
As a procrastinator, I write best when I have deadlines, unless I am particularly inspired. But that’s why I do have a set blogging schedule (even though many experienced bloggers argue against that) because I need the power of a deadline, even if I’m the one who set it.
I also need dedicated writing time NOT at home. I have a very difficult time writing anything- blog posts or fiction -when I’m at home. The dogs want attention. My husband wants attention, or my bed and the tv look so relaxing. There are just too many distractions from what I want to write.
I actually do some good writing at work on slow days. I’m writing this while at FinCon. I work on my fiction for about an hour prior to every critique group meeting at a Starbucks.
For blog posts, I don’t have too many drafts. Generally, I write what I want to write, do a quick scan for typos and put it up. If, while I’m writing, I realize the post has jumped the shark, I delete the whole thing and start over. Sometimes that means I start a post 3 or 4 times, but for the most part, it’s a one and done.
For fiction, I write and share my first rough draft with my critique group. And then I put it away. I don’t look at it again until I’m done, unless something very strongly inspires me to change it. My fiction tends to have many drafts. Still, when I go to do my initial edits, I rewrite the whole scene. I don’t go into the text I have written and make edits. I start with a fresh piece of paper and do a wholesale rewrite. It’s only when I’m near a final draft that I simply edit the words on the page, instead of starting from scratch.

I have friends who only write at home; who only bring their 3rd or 4th draft to critique group, who go home and make their edits immediately. That is what works for them. Some set dedicated writing time every day, and they write during that time, no matter where they are (home, swim practice, etc). And that is what works for them. You have to find what works for you.

As for exercises, there are tons of them. Most of the ones I know are for fiction, but they can be adapted to blogging or non-fiction. Since most blogging is storytelling in some form or another, any exercise that helps you form stories can help.
For me, the “exercise” that works best for me is micro writing. Whether it’s my microblog- 100 Words On… where every post is exactly 100 words long, or if it’s micro or flash fiction. These exercises help me distill what I want to say to their essence. It prevents me from babbling or going off on tangents.
Even if I plan on putting the post up on one of my longer blog post sites, if I’m having a hard time focusing on the post, I do the 100 words exercise, and then I let myself expand from there.

The key to all writing- blogging or fiction -is to be yourself. Write like yourself. Write when it works for you. By putting yourself at the center of your writing (not exactly the content, but the actual act of writing) you will have consistent voice and get the writing that you need to get done done.


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Thoughts About Writing Inspired by #FinCon12 (part 1)

Writers are writers. It doesn’t matter whether they write fiction or non-fiction, books or blogs. Writers feel the need to write. And writers want to talk about writing.
I am at a conference for finance bloggers this weekend. Much of the content of the conference is about blog content, blog design, ways to grow the blog, etc. But there has been only one talk on the craft of writing. In this case, it was about the importance of voice in writing. It was a good talk, but what I found most interesting were the questions at the end. There were questions about voice- does “consistency” matter in voice, how do you find your “voice” when you’re writing informative articles, and what about voice when you manage a site with multiple authors.
Other questions were more about the basic craft- hints for writing, exercises to make yourself a better writer, etc.

While the speaker at the talk gave her answers, I felt like they were limited by her experience as a journalist and blogger. That may seem odd, but I think having the combination of fiction and non-fiction writing experience gives me a slightly broader view.

If you write as you, your voice will always be consistent. Your voice doesn’t stop being your voice when you write an emotional post. It may have more anger or joy or sadness than other posts, but the voice remains the same. You don’t stop being you, you don’t stop speaking with your voice when you’re emotional- there’s just an added element.

As for finding a voice when you’re writing informative articles, my first question is- are you writing for a text book? If you’re not writing a text book, you’ve got room for voice. Even financial writers for the Wall Street Journal and The Economist have their own unique voices. The next response is that you are a blogger. People don’t come to blogs to read what they would read in a text book. If that’s what they were looking for, they would be at the library. People read blogs, even personal finance blogs, because of the personal. They need the financial information, but they are looking for it in a personal format because that makes it easier to understand, easier to digest, and even easier to follow. You’re not a nameless “expert” writing about what they “should do”; you’re a real person who has been there done that. Your struggles help them feel not alone. Your successes help them feel like they can do it to. You always want you in your posts. And if you do that, they will have voice.

If you manage a multiple author blog (kind of like editing an anthology or newsletter), unless you are asking all of your authors to pretend to be the same person, you want them all to have their own unique voices. There’s no point in having multiple writers if you are not looking for multiple points of view and multiple voices.
That doesn’t mean you don’t want some consistency in the blog. But you don’t get that consistency by trying to control their voices. You create a style guide for the blog. You have guidelines for content, perhaps formatting requirements (or you format the posts yourself, instead of letting the authors format them). But consistency in your blog does not have to mean forcing your writers to have the same voice. In fact, trying to force that will probably lose you your writers.


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A Writing Weekend

Last weekend, my writing group did our 3rd annual writers’ retreat. We pick a location and go spend the weekend at a condo far away from our homes and families. It is all about hanging out with the people who feed our creative juices. We write. We talk about writing, and just overall, have a stress free weekend dedicated to talking about what we do, what our next steps are, etc.
It is not all writing. People volunteer for different meals, we take walks on beaches (when we’re near the beach), spend some time in hot tubs and the like.
But none of us have to be spouses, or parents, or whatever else we are in our regular lives for that weekend. We just have to be writers.
While not every group may have the resources we do (access to timeshare condos in multiple locations), I have to recommend the writing retreat to all groups who can stand to spend that much time together.
We all come away from it energized, with our creative juices flowing and new ideas for what we want to do, or at least new ways to look at the challenges we face. To have that time where we are all writers and nothing else is invaluable.


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