Monday, August 23, 2010

The Advantage of Being an "Outdoorsy" Writer

First, a word count update: I stalled at about 41k XD I know, epic fail. I'm giving myself some time away from the story to recharge, and then I'll tackle it again in a few days or so. In the meantime, I'm taking this break from our regularly scheduled programming to talk about an interesting experience I had a little while ago. So, without further ado: my thoughts on being an 'outdoorsy' writer.

The last time I hung out with my friends, one of them commented that I was the 'outdoorsiest writer' she had ever known. I took this observation as a compliment, but it also got me thinking: why is it unusual for a writer to be 'outdoorsy', particularly at our age?

I've always really enjoyed being outdoors. From the time I was a kid--and with the sole exception of a brief time in my early teens marked by belligerent resistance of all things happy and a terrible taste in clothing--I could usually be found riding my bike, rollerblading, going to horseback riding lessons or soccer, playing in the woods, or just chilling in my yard with a good book. Even my sedentary activities like reading and writing were done outside fairly frequently. When I got into high school, however, and everyone was trying so hard to fill a certain list of requirements for an identity, I realized that the standard for the 'writer/artist' was to basically flee from sunlight, fresh air, and any sort of physical activity. REAL writers were pale and waifish, REAL writers preferred to spend their time inside, brooding and thinking. REAL writers couldn't be bothered with trivialities like taking a walk outside (unless it was raining, for the Poe enthusiasts?) or riding one's bike. As such, I was fairly quickly classed as not a 'real' writer....right up to the point where I got my book self-published, at which point people just left that whole 'incorrect identity' thing alone :P

Most of my 'writing' friends share a common dislike of the outdoors--sure they like to be outside for short periods of time, but they are much more comfortable reading or doing things on the computer, safe in the air-conditioned comfort of their homes. They don;t find much appealing about the outdoors: too hot, too cold, too buggy, too dry, too humid, etc etc. And when you're inspired to write, it's much easier to just jump on your computer from somewhere in your house, isn't it?

But I think these kinds of writers are really missing out sometimes. There are a plethora of experiences that every person should have, writer or not, that simply can't be done without leaving the shelter of one's home. A good writer writes about what she knows, correct? How can one write descriptions of fields/mountains/forests that are both beautiful AND accurate when the only time they see those things is in pictures or movies? How can you know what a delicious, sweet-smelling tendril of rain-washed air after a heavy, humid day feels like when you're constantly buffeted by refrigerated forced ventilation?

Answer: you can't.

I don't think that writers who like to be outdoors are inherently better writers than those who don't. Some of my most talented writing friends would much rather chill inside with a book than go outside for a bike ride. But I do think that being outdoors, and really enjoying it, adds a more colorful, and more honest, depth to one's writing, because you're not just writing about something you see sometimes, something you imagine, but you're writing about something you experience and enjoy every day. And readers can tell the difference. They know when a writer describing a forest has actually been in that forest or has just dreamed it up with the help of a web search and pictures. Neither case is better or worse than the other--that is purely dependent on the writer's descriptive skills--but to me, as a reader, its the communication between the author and the reader where that experience plays the biggest part. Because in that case, the author is not just saying 'look at this magnificent place I experienced', but she's also saying 'get out there and go experience it yourself!'
And that, in my opinion, should be what writing is all about: communication and experience.

/end self-important diatribe.

We will return to your regularly scheduled programming next post!


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Politics in Storytelling (Or: How to Keep Author-Bias from Steamrolling Your Plot and Characters)

Whenever you create a society for a piece of fiction prose, you inevitably have to deal with politics. Every society has them, and the societies that don't are either non-functional, or just plain unbelievable. Some societies have extremely complex political systems, with hierarchies and class distinctions, power struggles between separate factions. Others have really simple ones: a basic monarchy (with no one vying for the throne or control of the dude/dudette with the crown) or an idealized democracy, in which everyone manages to get along.

However, when you work within the constructs of a previously established society (say, for example, present-day America) you walk a fine line between portraying those politics and using your story as a place to vent your frustration with them.

I hold very few nice feelings towards the religious fundamentalist movement here in America. I could say here all the things I think about them, but I won't bore you or waste my words.
However, the fundies are playing a minor but important role in my story, and every time they enter the pages, it takes everything I have not to describe them as I, the author, feel about them. Particularly not when I'm talking about things from their points of view. It wouldn't make much sense for them to be hating on themselves and their movement, after all (but wouldn't it be nice if they woke up and actually DID see their habits as I do? A girl can dream).


The plus side about developing and expanding upon politics in your society (pre-established or newly invented) is that it adds depth to a plot. Motives can be questioned, actions can be looked at from several angles--who benefits from it? Who loses? Why did x betray y? Who benefits from that? Does x? Does someone else we can't see yet? Who knows? Working on solid politics is also a good exercise for developing plots with fewer holes. I once wrote what I thought was a great story, about a pair of friends who discover they are actually sisters and child-rulers of another planet, which has been ruled by evil forces since they were expelled from it. I liked my ending--the girls vanquishing the bad guys and peacefully reclaiming the throne--until I realized that 1. I had said earlier in the kingdom charter that the king had decreed the girls could not inherit and 2. There were plenty of angry stewards/nobles who wanted the crown, and it would be unlikely that two kids who had very little grasp of governance, no established army or established council, and really no memories of their time as rulers, could wrestle the crown away from them. After that, I got much better at developing plot politics :P

The drawback to politics in stories is the same as politics in real life--they can consume you. Get stuck on an idea and it becomes very hard to untangle the thoughts of your characters from your own opinions. Or, your characters end up your mouthpieces, vocalizing all your grievances with policies or groups. You end up losing sight of the original plot and instead spend chapters giving your own personal manifesto.

Problematic? Slightly.

It is taking lots of attention and care not to spin off into rant-land or "LOOK-AT-MY-UTOPIC- SOCIETY-EVERYONE-EMULATE-ME!"-world. But the good news is that a flawed political/social world makes for a lot of fun plot twists and development. Hooray for that.

How do you balance real-world politics with those of your fictive societies, readers?


Thursday, August 5, 2010

40k and a snippet.

I have reached 40k. Woo. In honor of this, I give you another snippet. Enjoy.

Paul’s words hung, crystal clear, in the room for three chilling seconds. Then, without warning, Anna swung around, pot still in hand, and bashed him flat in the face. Screaming wordlessly, she charged at him and Paul, reeling and stunned from the sudden blow, could only fall back further and further, arms up in a futile attempt to ward off the heavy metal pan which Anna brought down again and again, on his head, his shoulders, his back, his arms. Blood spurted from his own nose and down his chin as she slammed the pan across his face. Margaret lunged forward, shouting for Anna to stop, to get a grip, but Claire dragged her back, silent but smiling grimly, as if to say, it’s about time someone called him out on this bullshit. Rose, shaken and overwhelmed, felt herself give in to her panic, and a frightened wail poured out of her throat. She clapped both hands over her mouth and tried to take deep breaths, to shut out Anna’s banshee screams and Margaret’s cries of panic. Beside her, Josef simply stared, eyes wide. Even Pieter stopped staring at the wall and watched his sister, mouth agape. No one seemed to know what to do.

“You filthy, hateful, arrogant son of a bitch!
” Anna shrieked, striking Paul across the face again and sending him toppling over the coffee table. “I torture my own, do I? Let me tell you something, Paul,” She stomped down hard on his sternum and there was a soft cracking sound. Paul yelped in pain, his eyes wide with terror, and his face bright with blood. “I didn’t do a single thing to them, to any of them, that wasn’t to protect them from our parents, protect them from the Fuhrer. I kept my own from the camps, Paul Jansen. I kept them safe.” She leaned over, a cruel, hard smile blooming over her white, stark features. “Which,” she hissed, loud enough for all to hear, “was far more than you ever did for your own, isn’t it?”

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Muse: the Single Most High-Maintenance Guest EVER.

You know that feeling you get, usually at a very inopportune time (on the work commute, in the middle of an exam, while you're asleep, etc.), where your brain just switches on to full speed and your fingers itch and you just know, right down to the marrow of your bones that you need to write right now this very second?
That, my friends, is our ever-present-but-rarely-accounted-for story writing companion. The Muse.
The Muse is the thing that poets and singers warble on about, the thing that sparked Michelangelo's David, the Sistine Chapel, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and probably pretty much every other piece of truly spectacular visual, audio, or written art to date. The Muse, we can deduce from this, is a beneficial thing for any writer/artist to have.
However, The Muse is also the one who only shows up when its REALLY REALLY inconvenient. And then, when it DOES show up, it gets all pissy and won't let you do a damn thing unless you do it HER WAY. The Muse drove many a great writer to drinking, drugs, ridiculous car trips, and other outrageous acts in the name of 'following their muse' (i.e trying to keep the damn thing happy). The Muse, we can deduce from this, is also a very high-maintenance visitor, and one who can be extremely exasperating/mentally taxing/debilitating to a human being.
So, referring above to the original scenario: You are in the most inopportune moment possible in your day, and the Muse drops in and says, 'oh hi, drop what you're doing and bust out that pen, sweetheart, we've got work to do.'
That was me yesterday.
I was at work. I was fasting, and therefore half delirious with hunger. I had no pen or pencil nearby. And yet, The Muse sat there, tapping her foot impatiently until I scrounged up a pen on my lunch break and pounded out several hundred words in my notebook in a frenzy of creative excitement. I am on a roll! I thought. When I get home, I'll add this to the manuscript and keep going into the night!
Of course, by the time I got home, and had the time/energy/food/computer necessary to be REALLY productive, the Muse yawned, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Because, really, the fun is gone when the author is ready to write and therefore unable to be tortured by ideas with no time to put them anywhere.
And so I rest my case: The Muse is an extremely high-maintenance house guest, and quite possibly a sadistic torturer masquerading as a benign, whimsical creative fancy.
What do you want to bet she doesn't show up again until I am at work, starving, and pen-less once more?
Le sigh.
How do you deal with your flighty muses, readers?