All According to Plan

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of SCBWI the other day, and we workshopped a number of pieces different people had brought. One was a chapter from the middle of a longer work, ending with the protagonist forming a plan of action. I mentioned that, for the next chapter, the author would want to remember: only explain the plan to the reader if it isn’t going to work. The other members were all like, “Oh yeah! That’s true, but I hadn’t thought of it as an actual rule before!” So I thought it might be worth sharing with you lovely peoples.

(Note: I can’t take credit for coming up with this “rule.” I’ve seen it before, though I can’t think where, or I would credit the source. Possibly on TV Tropes somewhere?)

The inverse relationship between how successful a plan will be and how much readers should know about it beforehand makes a lot of sense. If the plan is going to fail, you want it explained first so that readers will see it failing. They’ll understand what’s going on, and they’ll want to read on as they anticipate the trouble this will mean for the architects of this failed strategy. If, on the other hand, the plan is going to work – well, in a movie, you might have the team leader say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do . . .” and then CUT AWAY, straight to the plan’s implementation. Either that, or the person who comes up with the scheme doesn’t share it with anyone in the first place. The reasoning here, as I see it, is twofold: you want to avoid repetition, and you don’t want to steal the thunder from the actual events when the strategy is put into action.

Basically, you want to avoid either of the following situations:

  • Someone explains, either to other characters or to the reader via the description of her thought process, that she is going to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion. She then borrows her sister’s car, robs a bank, drives to Vegas, bribes a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnaps a white lion.
  • Someone is planning to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion, but never informs the reader, so the reader doesn’t see the significance of the situation when her sister’s car won’t start.

(Of course, this all assumes that the strategizing party is either the POV character or someone who would communicate her scheme to the POV character. We don’t get to be privy to everyone’s plans all the time.)

This can, of course, lead to a funny meta situation when you’re reading or watching a movie and someone starts laying out a detailed plan. You can assume with some confidence that things are not going to shake out that way.

Exceptions? Thoughts? Diabolical schemes?

The Eyre Affair

I recently read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. (My book group discussed it yesterday. Discussable it definitely is.) Some spoilers to follow, I suppose, though nothing too dramatic.

What struck me was a bit that probably piques the interest of most writers who read the book: Mr. Rochester’s description of what it’s like to be a character in a novel.

Mr. Rochester and the others do not lead a linear existence, but live the story in an infinite loop. Their lives aren’t linear even within the loop: they experience their part in the whole story simultaneously all the time, but each character can choose where to locate the majority of her/his consciousness at any given time. Naturally, Mr. Rochester spends most of his time hanging out at the parts of the book when he’s happy with Jane.

As far as free will, the characters seem able to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t contradict what’s written. They have to do and say what it’s written that they do and say, but they can do anything else when they’re offstage, especially when the book’s narration is limited (e.g. when the narrator of a first-person story can’t see them). This becomes especially interesting when combined with the fact that the whole simultaneous-experience-infinite-loop thing means that they know exactly what’s going to happen all the time. They have to make the same mistakes every time, no matter how they seethe about it inside. They’re much like actors.

My reaction to this was almost exactly the same as my nine-year-old self’s reaction to seeing Toy Story. “Hey, that’s cool!” segued immediately into, “Hey, I wonder what mine would be like if they were alive like that!”

Naturally, one doesn’t write books picturing the characters this way, unless maybe one is writing highly experimental meta-type fiction. Even in The Eyre Affair, which kind of IS exactly that, the characters aren’t written this way. But if the characters in your novel did live, and lived like this, what would it do to their psyches? If they knew everything that was coming, which parts would they relish, and which would they dread? How would their feelings during different scenes change if they knew everything that was going to happen? (I see some villains feeling very bitter as they deliver their triumphant speeches, and a lot of characters mentally rolling their eyes as they muddle through romantic misunderstandings that they actually understand completely.) What might they do differently during their off-page time? Perhaps most interestingly, where in the book would different characters focus their consciousness?

A lot of questions about characters’ lives aren’t answered in The Eyre Affair. What’s it like to have backstory that you never technically experienced, because the whole of your existence takes place over the course of the book? When you’re offstage, can you do all kinds of death-defying things because you know you can’t die given that you appear later in the novel, or are you simply blocked by the fourth wall from trying such things? When the POV is close enough to include thoughts and feelings of one or more characters, are those characters constrained mentally and emotionally as well as physically to the plot, and how does that work? I may actually read the sequels just to see whether more of this comes out.

Writing about Reading about Writing

Post title is more than usually symmetrical on a word level. Nice.

I’m currently enjoying Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction. Might actually do some of the writing exercises in it, as they seem fun.

Interestingly, most are actually editing exercises, e.g. “Choose a section of your manuscript in which two characters are conversing for roughly a page and rewrite it so that one character’s responses are entirely nonverbal. Now rewrite it as a shouting match. Now rewrite it with no dialogue tags or actions interspersed. Now rewrite it so that one character is in love with the other, who doesn’t reciprocate. Now rewrite it with one character drunk and the other one trying to get to sleep.” Etc. (Do not interpret the quotation marks there to mean that I’m actually quoting the book.) (Also, if anyone has a scene in which all of these actually apply, I’d love to read it.)

It strikes me that I have read a lot of books on writing. A lot. Plus many issues of Writer’s Digest. Many of my lessons in writing have come, of course, from actual books (and movies, and TV Tropes – note how I’m not linking to it and stealing your whole evening! You’re welcome). Still, I do love some books about writing. After a certain point, a lot of their advice gets repetitive. Sometimes, though, you run across a shiny new take on writing advice, and that’s always fun. So here are my favorites on the subject:

  • The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Volume One by Tom Dullemond and Darin Park
  • The Fantasy Writer’s Companion by Tee Morris and Valerie Griswold-Ford
  • How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them: A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

This selection may or may not be slightly skewed toward my area of writing interest. But hey, having a narrower approach can make a book’s tips stand out in a sea of, “Instead of telling, try showing!” and, “Practice moderation in adverbs.”

Anyone got any to recommend? And, unrelatedly, anyone else really enjoy Thor? Good times.

The Real Elements of Style

These are actually elements of content, but that wouldn’t be a snappy title alluding to a well-known book. So sue me.

Recently, I was reading a book in which it rained a lot. And I realized something: I really like it when it rains in books.

I wondered if perhaps this was weird. I could rationalize it, certainly. Rain, especially accompanied by darkness, thunderclouds, and/or cold, is atmospheric in a way that I like. It narrows the scope of the world, drawing a curtain over everything outside a character’s immediate surroundings. The search for shelter can bring people together or push them into places they wouldn’t ordinarily go. It also lends itself to body-centered writing, bringing us closer to a character’s experience by showing how this affects her physically (generally, in the direction of “cold and wet”).

My use of the word “rationalize” doesn’t mean that these things aren’t true or that they don’t contribute to my appreciation for fictional precipitation. Still, these factors don’t seem to touch the satisfaction I feel when it starts raining in my reading, whether the characters are indoors or out. This had me thinking about things and situations to which I have not-immediately-logical-warm fuzzies, or an equally illogical growly feeling. I thought about potential explanations of these reactions, but again, I think they only partly cover it.

Note: these are not things that it inherently makes sense to like or dislike, given my taste. For example, I’m pleased when magic and swords show up, because I like high fantasy; I’m annoyed when a story’s few female characters are ineffectual, because I’m a feminist. These things aren’t like that.

  • Beaches – I like ’em. Not sure why, although they do make nice battle backdrops. I especially like settings on beaches, because they allow characters to spend time on the beach with less immediate risk that they may get on a boat.
  • Boats – This is possibly my weirdest reading hang-up. I like boats in real life. I like sailing or paddling on the water. But when fictional characters get on a seabound vessel, I make a frowny face. I’m pretty sure this is because I perceive maritime scenes as often being written the same way. Authors use the same terms to describe the sea, and the same things happen when characters are at sea. “Oh, here comes the obligatory storm-at-sea scene.” Supporting this theory are the facts that I don’t mind boats that are large enough to basically be floating towns in which the action takes place disconnected from the whole “boat” aspect, nor do I mind when characters hop in a canoe to go downriver a bit.
  • Cities – This is sort of the opposite of boats. In real life, cities terrify me. In fiction, they fascinate me. Also, they have an excellent chance of being home to plot.
  • Cooking – Okay, guys, I love when authors get into details over food. I for serious do. But even more than that, I love when they get into cooking. Especially when the food is of a kind, or prepared in a way, with which I’m unfamiliar. This fits neatly with my appreciation for fantasy in which the author has thought out how everyday life – including food – works in the fantasy world.
  • Cowboys – I don’t like ’em. Seems strange, given that I like action, adventure, and horses. The fact that I dislike guns may have something to do with this. I also credit that bodice-ripping Western I picked up as a bright-eyed twelve-year-old, expecting horses and excitement, only to put it down when our cowboy protagonist is given a present of two girls who may or may not be underage, with whom he undertakes a graphic drunken threesome sex scene containing acts that I’d not been aware were physically possible. This is the first book I definitively remember putting aside for good without finishing it. Also, there were NO HORSES.
  • Forests – What can I say? I like me some trees.
  • Guns – Don’t like ’em, but I can make exceptions depending on the genre I’m reading.
  • Travel Scenes in Books that Aren’t Actually About Journeys – I prefer that these be skimmed over. Otherwise, there had better be some killer character interaction, because otherwise let me tell you what will happen: there will be a lot of scenery, and then our POV character will start indulging in flashbacks and/or reminiscing. Do you know why that is? BECAUSE S/HE IS BORED. AND SO AM I.
  • Mansions – I am a huge sucker for scenes in which characters, alone or in small groups, explore big, rambling houses. Or castles, or even ruins. Especially if there may be magic involved. Especially if it’s creepy.
  • Parties – The natural habitat of interesting characters and plot advancement. I’m always excited when the characters decide to go to a party. Bonus: in fantasy, there are likely to be cool magical decorations.
  • What the Bad Guys are Up To – Assuming the transitions aren’t awkward and the villains aren’t cardboard, and especially when there’s discord in the antagonists’ camp, I love to see what’s going on with them. I think this is partly because villains have so many more options for dealing with disagreements among themselves than do good guys. Even if their goals and personalities are anathema, White Hats are expected to more or less make nice. Bad guys are much more flexible. I’m sure there’s some level of wish fulfillment in reading about the, “I don’t like him, therefore I will have him poisoned,” thought process. Plus, having life-and-death struggles within their side as well as between them and their opponents means a lot of tension and excitement. (Good guys, in theory, hold up their end of the story’s tension based on the fact that you care more about them and want them to succeed.)

None of which is to say that I can’t feel differently about these things depending on how they’re done, of course.

I’m sure most everyone has instant satisfaction/annoyance triggers like these. One blogger I read mentioned she won’t read a book that prominently features fairies. Can you think of any that you have?

This Post is So Meta

(There should totally be a rocking-out-style hand gesture for “meta.” Whoever creates cultural phenomena, I hope you’re getting on that.)

Part of the reason I don’t update this journal more frequently is that I’m still grappling with figuring out what kind of blog, exactly, this is. That it’s a writing blog means, to me, that it’s related to writing rather than to my life in general. But beyond that, what is it?

The writing-related blogs that I follow (to greater or lesser degrees) can probably best be separated in terms of their intended audience, which falls into one of two categories:

1. Writers

2. People who aren’t necessarily writers, though a lot of them are going to be anyway, as this is a writing-related blog

The first category is a larger one than some might think. Take a look at the comments section on, say, Nathan Bransford’s blog. Most of these people are writers. Indeed, if you aren’t a writer, or possibly a literary agent, his blog is not especially likely to interest you. It’s largely about the publishing industry and how writers might best go about appealing to agents (like, say, Nathan Bransford). Limyaael’s journal has a more specific appeal: it focuses on worldbuilding with an emphasis on fantasy.

Some blogs are, by their nature, particularly relevant to writers, but are entertaining enough to attract a more general readership. The Rejectionist, for example, offers publishing advice, but is also awesomely hilarious.

Some blogs have something specific that they do. They may run regular contests, or provide an esoteric service (see again Merit Badger).

There’s a whole set of blogs by published writers. Yet another snazzy bit of being published: you automatically have content that will, at the very least, interest other writers. (You know, providing that your presentation of this content isn’t miserably awful. Which, hopefully, if you’re a published writer, it won’t be.) Blogs like Kiersten Writes include wacky tales of book signings, descriptions of how the author got her book deal, and contests to win copies of the book. Scott Westerfeld’s blog includes this sort of content, too, plus fanart and features on steampunk creations, which are relevant to his recent work.

There’s also a sort of continuum of reviewing books. Many authors and agents review the odd book, whereas some bloggers do nothing else.

Presumably, nonfiction writers also sometimes blog about whatever their nonfiction books are about. Enviably simple, and rather difficult for anyone who’s writing alternate-world fantasy.

So I suppose my main angst here is content. This does, I believe, get much easier once one is published, because there are release dates and signings and (if you’re lucky/active) tours and conferences, and various announcements. Then, too, I feel like having a novel published would remove, or at least reduce, the slight insecurity I feel about posting my thoughts on writing experiences, techniques, etc.. It’s not as if I’d turn up my nose at the writing-related thoughts of anyone who hasn’t published a novel – far from it – but I do look at such people’s publication creds.

I don’t know how this will actually affect my continued posting. I suppose it’s largely a lame explanation for why I don’t post more often. Should I come up with an effective gimmick (and I don’t feel that’s necessarily a negative thing in a blogging context), then you might see more from me.

In the meantime, I’m gearing up to start querying The Dogwatchers. Wish me luck, and enjoy this excellent interview with a vampire . . . dater.