Monday, July 30, 2012

The only one who can hold you back is you

Answering my emails this morning, I came across a letter from an aspiring writing asking for advice and encouragement for making the jump from hobby writer to pro-writer. This is no small order for anyone, but once you add in kids and a job, it can seem impossible. She was already writing most days, so I told her that was the absolute best thing she could do. But thinking about her question reminded me of the days when I was in the same boat (though minus the kid).

The number one bit of advice every writer repeats is "Write!" I do this too. Every time someone asks me how to become a writer or what to do, I say "Write! Write every day you can. Don't give up! Keep writing!"  It's gotten to the point where the word Write! is starting to lose its meaning because I've repeated it so much.  But that doesn't matter, because writing is the fundamental act that makes you a writer.

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but years ago, when I would wake up very early to write in the mornings before work, I used to talk myself out of bed by telling myself "Writing is your great dream. If you can't even get out of bed for it, you don't want it." This is a pretty cruel thing to say to yourself at 5 in the morning, and I'm not recommending guilt as motivation, but I will say it worked for me.

Here's a secret, though. When I was starting out, I didn't write every day. There were times when I quit writing for months at a time, or days when I got up to write and ended up wasting my entire two hours reading web comic archives. It took me a year and a half to finish my first book, and another year to finish my second. But there, friends, is the kicker. Though there were days I didn't write, days I flubbed, sometimes even months when I walked away from the computer, I never stayed away. I always came back.

The difference between the writers who make it and those who don't is that the writers who win are the writers who never quit. This is the secret to all writing: You only fail when you stop. So long as you are writing, even if you're not writing as much or as fast or as well as you'd like to be, so long as you do not quit, you have not failed.

In the end, the only thing that will ever determine whether or not you become a successful writer is you. Not publishers or agents or luck or even readers. You. You are the only person who can write your books, and you are the only person who decides when to give up or keep going. This is the writer's greatest power, and no one can ever take it from you.

And now, from one person who didn't give up to another: it's absolutely worth every second. You can make it. Never quit writing.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching Your Reader Magic

The other day while I waiting in line for my delicious burrito, and the chatty lady struck up a conversation with me. It quickly came out that I was a fantasy writer (because come on, I didn't work this hard to not tell people), and the lady honest-to-god clutched her pearls and said, "My goodness! Isn't it hard having to make everything up?!"

My answer at the time was of course not. I love not being held down by the real world. But her question stuck with me, rattling around in my head, and I realized I'd like to change my answer. It's not hard having to make everything up, what's hard is making sure your reader understands it all.

Every time you make a new world, you undertake the burden of exposition. In order for your reader to appreciate the story you're trying to tell, they have to understand all the circumstances surrounding it - the world, the rules, the powers at play. This burden is most pronounced in fantasy and scifi, which have the fewest crutches, but even the lady writing cozy mysteries set in Cape Cod has to do a certain amount of set up so people understand why the character's actions matter.

I like to look at this problem as a matter of teaching. When I introduce a new fantasy world to the reader, my first job is to teach them how things work - the magic, the world dynamics, all that good stuff. But I can't just dump all this information on people, because I'm also an entertainer, which means if I don't keep the audience enthralled, they leave and I fail.

Teaching your audience about your world is one of the most subtle and easiest to screw up aspects of writing. Too much and people get bored with all the overexplaining, too little and people don't know what's going on. Explain your magical system in a giant lecture and people's eyes glaze over, just like in real lectures! But if you don't explain how the magic works, people won't understand why it's important. 

Since this sort of thing is so easy to muck up, I like to watch when people do it right. To this end, I will now employ a visual aid.

The Portal video games do the best job of explaining a new world I've ever seen. They tell you almost nothing in dialogue, instead relying on ambiance, inference, and your own curiosity to expand the world. But even better is how they teach you to use your portal gun. The entire first Portal game is really just an extended tutorial teaching you how to use this very unique mechanic, but you never feel like you're being lectured. The learning is the game, and by the time you finish Portal you can give a lecture on the subject yourself, and all without a single info dump.

Now, novels aren't video games, but as Uncle Iroh says, "It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place, it become rigid and stale."

Pixar's WALL-E is another amazing example of how an entire world, complete with history, rules, and conflict, can be explained without saying a word. Contrast this to the stop action movie 9. I was pretty excited about this movie when it came out and dragged several friends to see it. Despite its stunning visuals, though, the movie was ultimately a dud. This happened for many reasons - bad plot, terrible pacing, etc. But what really got me was the movie's terrible habit of overexplaining everything. The movie would show you this cool, mysterious thing, and then, just when you were starting to appreciate it, they would explain every. Damn. Thing. Characters would actually stop what they were doing to lecture each other on what had just happened.

To say this was boring is a disservice to the concept of boredom. It was excruciating. I hate nothing more than wasted potential, and 9 was painful for me. There was so much there, so much potential for a beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, interesting world, but the writers seemed to be going out of their way to kill it at every turn.

Nothing kills wonder faster than dry explanation, and nothing kills a book faster than sloppy info dumping. It's not easy to explain a complicated magical system through good writing, but being good is never easy, or everyone would be awesome all the time. But really good books, especially really good fantasy books, let the reader discover the magic for themselves. They teach and cajole, pulling the reader in with wonder and the promise of knowing more.

This balance a matter of practice and craft, of paying attention to what you're doing and listening to your beta readers, asking where they got confused or slowed down. It's a lot of work and tinkering and delicate, subtle changes, which means it is hard as hell to get right. BUT, once you manage to pull it off, it will seem effortless, natural, like magic, and that is the sign of a well done book indeed.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A new look at plotting

I've been having a bit of trouble with plotting recently. It's not that I can't think up plots, I can plot all day, it's just that the plots I'm coming up with aren't working. Or, rather, they work as a plot, as in one thing leads to another leads to a conclusion, but they don't do what I want. And that lack has caused me to take another look at how I plot novels.

I've talked before about how I plot a novel. I still use this approach, but I'm thinking I might need to add a new step. Because while this method is great for coming up with the plot, it's not so great at mapping out the story.

Story and plot are not the same thing. Plot refers to the order of events, the way information is revealed to the reader, and the management of tension through out the book. The plot is the doing part of a book, and it is amazingly important. Nothing kills a story faster than a lame, limp plot. Story, on the other hand, is a book's soul. It's what the novel is really about, and as such it's very easy to get wrong.

If you've read my blog for a while, it should come as no surprise that I'm a nuts and bolts sort of writer. One of my friends recently called me a story architect, and I'm still glowing with pride from the complement. I plan my books meticulously, building them up like a tower, but until recently, I gave very little thought to story. After all, if I did the plot right, the story would follow. I plotted with my head, but left the story to my gut instincts. So long as the book felt right, I didn't give it much more thought.

Now that I write it out, I can see how stupid that way of thinking is. I'm actually pretty embarrassed to admit I left such a hugely important thing to instincts, but honestly story makes me very nervous. Unlike plot, which only gets tighter and smarter the more attention to pay it, story is easy to over do.

For example, let's look at the Eli novels. At its most basic level, the plot is "wizard thief gets in over his head." But the story of the Eli is about an abused boy with a good heart who finally stops running from his problems and takes a stand. It's about becoming a hero despite your character, about doing the right thing even if it costs you dearly, and there you can see my problem, because that sort of thing can get REALLY cheesy if you're not careful with it.

This is why I tend to shy away from digging too deep into story. I'm afraid if I give it the same analytic treatment I give everything else, it will start coming on too strong. The last thing I want to do is write cheesy, preachy books. But ignoring it is even worse, because when you ignore an aspect of your book, you relinquish control over it, and that will never do. An author is god in the story they create, and what kind of god leaves such an important thing to chance?

And this brings me back to plotting. I think one of the reasons I had such a huge problem on book #10 was because I wasn't taking story into account. I'd plotted a pretty thrilling novel, but when I sat down to write it, I knew it wasn't right. All my exciting battles and huge set pieces felt flat because they weren't personal, they weren't part of my main character's story. All I had was plot, a body with no soul, and it took me almost three months of hair pulling before I figured out how to wed plot and story back together.

The point of all this rambling is that I need to change my process. I can't leave story to my gut anymore, not if I want to write the sort of books I know I'm capable of. To this end, I'm completely tossing the plot I wrote out for my next book and starting over, but this time, I'm not just going to start with what I know, I'm going to start with what I want. I'm going to write the story out first - how I want the characters to develop, what kind of story I want to tell. And then, once I have that, I'll plot from there. I'll make the plot serve the story, not just hope they meet up.

The longer I write, the more I realize that writing is a constant evolution. There is no magic process, no perfect solution. It's an artisan profession, you're always advancing, improving your skills. Every time I think, ah, I've got it now, I discover some huge gap in my knowledge. Sometimes I think I'll still feel like a newbie writer when I'm eighty. But then, where's the fun in something easily mastered?

Sometimes writing feels like pushing a boulder up an endless hill. No matter how far you go, you're never even a tenth of the way to the top. I'll probably be dead before I master all the aspects of writing. But hey, at least I'll never be bored.

And with that, back to work!

Bonus: Sarah Monette Writing Links! 
I've been a Sarah Monette fan for years. I think she's absolutely brilliant and if I ever met her I would probably melt into a puddle. While I struggling with this story issue, I went back and reread some of her old posts, and I've marked a few of my favorites for ya'll to enjoy.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people are jerks on the internet

So my attention over the last few hours has been drawn to Stop the GR Bullies. For those of you who've managed to dodge this internet oddity, GR stands for GoodReads, which apparently has bullies or something.

Now, when I first heard of this site, I thought it was an author blog complaining about reviewers, which lead to RAGE, but then I read a little deeper, and I discovered I was wrong. Stop the GR Bullies appears to be a site cataloging the wrongs of certain GoodReads posters who team up to "take down" badly behaving authors through scathing forum posts. Stop the GR Bullies aims to stop these "bullies" by, wait for it, engaging in similar types of personal attacks under the flag of righteous defense, complete with twitter stalking of the proclaimed "bullies," personal attacks, real life pictures, and other general creepiness.

Annnnnnnnd this is about where my palm hit my face.

Okay, people, I realize it's 2012, and a decade and a half might not have been enough time for you to properly realize the truth of the internet. For sake of clarity, allow me to employ a (crude) visual aid from the ever helpful Penny Arcade:

People on the internet are jerks. Not all people, but enough that you're sure to find them anywhere opinions can be expressed. Jerks say terrible things without regard for the feelings of others, often for attention. Arguing with these people, pleading with them, or attempting to shame them into better behavior is fruitless because the same wall of distance combined with the megaphone of the internet that gave them the power to make you so mad in the first place protects them from any real retaliation. It's all one giant shouting match, and anyone who's watched a political debate can tell you just how effective those are at changing people's minds.

Honestly, I have a lot of sympathy for victims of internet trolling. It can make you feel powerless and desperate, which is not a fun way to be. But, for the love of little green apples, surely, surely you can see the irony of "fighting online bullying" by becoming bullies yourself.  I mean, that's some Nietzsche "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster" shit right there.

GoodReads is an internet community frequented by thousands of vistors every day. 99% of those are perfectly lovely people who rate books, leave reviews, and generally use the site as intended. The remaining 1% are the crazies. You can't stop people from being jerks. It's the part of human condition. But you can stop feeding the trolls, and you can refrain from becoming a troll yourself.

Haters gonna hate, y'all. But unlike in Elementary school, these bullies can't actually shove you in a locker. So just let them be, don't give them attention, and they'll go away. Even if they don't, it doesn't matter. The only real defeat comes when you let them win. Never do that, and you can never lose. 

It's just the internet, guys. Go have a coffee and cool off. And lay off the twitter stalking, that's creepy.

This has been a friendly message from you nosy neighborhood author,

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Learning from Gaming

First, I just wanted to mention that all the parts of the podcast interview I did with the guys from The First Million Words are now up! Go check them out!

Again, thanks so much to Ben and Guillermo for having me on! They did a great job :D

Now, on to real content!

(Honesty demands that I admit this is actually a repost of a blog I wrote for The Magic District back in 2009, but I've been in a blog slump lately and I figured something old was better than nothing. New writing posts coming soon, I swear! In the meanwhile, please enjoy this hopefully new-to-you post. If you want more Rachel Aaron writing advice backlist or just want to laugh at how starry-eyed I was in the halcyon days of weekly blogging, you can read all my old Magic District on-writing posts here.)

I make no secret of my nerd nature (not that I could, really, but whatever). Part of the awesome combination of being a huge nerd and being an author is that you get to steal from everywhere, including things that don’t have anything to do novels. Case in point: the other day my husband (who makes and runs role playing games and is thus an even larger nerd than myself) was talking to me about the theory behind how a good GM decides what kind of threat to throw at players.

According to him, there are 4 types of challenges players face:

1 – Easy

This is a problem the characters can face without stretching at all. Think small scale bandit attack. The characters have to act and address the problem, but they’re not really threatened.

2 – Challenging

This problem forces characters to actually dig into their resources. It’s a serious fight where the characters are threatened and may be wounded, but if they don’t botch, there’s no real risk to their lives and they don’t have to do anything particularly clever to triumph.

3 – Difficult

This is a fight where the characters are outmatched. Their lives are really threatened, and they won’t be able to win unless they use their powers in new and interesting ways. Screw ups, bad decisions, and/or sloppy planning have real consequences in a difficult challenge. Think boss fight.

4 – Overwhelming

The characters are too short for this ride. Overwhelming challenges are large scale plot events the players aren’t meant to be able to face, and are often used by the GM to railroad wandering characters back into the plot. These world-sized roadblocks can only be conquered with help from the GM through deus ex machina or a powerful NPC taking pity on the players. 

Generally my eyes glaze over when my husband starts talking about game theory, but every now and then, he comes out with something brilliant. This was one of those times. While all of these are framed in terms of players and a game, it doesn’t take much rearranging to see how diving challenges up into these categories can help with pacing a novel.

For example, an easy challenge at the beginning of the novel is a quick way to give characters instant cool factor. You simply set up a challenge that looks hard, but is actually something the character can do with ease. Stopping an assassin, say, or slaying a demon, it’s rough stuff for us normal people, but all in a day’s work for our heroes. However, this sort of thing can’t be used exclusively. A novel where the challenge level never gets above 2 (challenging) has no teeth. If the characters are never truly pushed, they’ll never grow, and you’re left with dull, static people. Plus, no one likes a main villain who goes out like a punk.

On the other hand, though, you almost never want to use an overwhelming challenge, and certainly never multiple ones. When you give your people a hurdle they can’t possibly jump on their own, you’re taking the power of the story out of your character’s hands, turning them into passengers on their own plot. While taking power away from a normally powerful character can create great tension, powerless characters are boring over the long term, and no one likes to see their favorite heroine get the shaft at the very end.

I’m constantly amazed at how many novels, especially fantasy adventures (my favorites!), start at level 1 and end at level 4 but skip everything in the middle. Or they start at 3 and never let up, so the characters are constantly in over their heads, and we as readers never really get a feel for them as competent people (which isn’t to say there haven’t been novels that have pulled this off, but it’s not an easy trick to have your character constantly on the losing side and not get beaten down or, even worse, unbelievable).

My ideal story (assuming a fresh book, not #2 in a series) starts at 1 or 2 and then slowly builds up (through a series of 2s and 3s) to a 3.5. This is a difficult challenge that looks like an overwhelming one until the characters apply some new trick and cut it down to size, tipping the situation on its head to come out on top. Those are the best! I love seeing characters start at the top of their game, and then get in more and more over their heads as things get tougher until they’re using every weapon in their arsenal, plus a few they had to make up along the way, to get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into.

Again, this is stuff I always kind of knew, and I’m sure none of this is new to any readers of this blog. However, for me, the act of organizing challenge into set levels gives a degree of control over what is otherwise an abstract concept (which is the whole point of role playing games – assigning numbers to concepts). This system of levels allows me, as the architect of the story, to think about the challenges my characters face in a measurable way so as to preserve tension without working myself into an impossible scenario I’m going to have to hand-of-god (or as I call it, WRITER SMASH!) my way out of. When writers smash, books get broken.

Anyway, just another one of those unexpected story paradigms I love and wanted to share, and I hope you found it useful, or at least interesting. For those of you who write, how do you approach conflict and challenge for your characters? Also, do any of you game, and does that experience have any influence on how you approach your stories? Inquiring minds want to know!

Thanks for reading!
- R