Post from April, 2013

Light Bulb Moments

Monday, 29. April 2013 9:37

This week’s post is about  “Light Bulb Moments” by which I mean, moments when something about writing clicked for me, and I learned something. Sadly, I haven’t learned very much, so this will likely be a short post…

Here we go anyway.

Like most writers, I have learned quite a lot of the craft of writing by reading. I learned what I liked. What I didn’t like. The kind of writing I wanted to emulate, and the kind I wanted nothing to do with, and these moments of discovering what my taste was were certainly light bulb moments. For instance, even though I loved the Lord of the Rings, after reading it a few times, and then trying to read a lot of the folks who attempted to follow in JRR’s footsteps, I learned that I didn’t have the patience for epic fantasy. All the family trees and stories that took place over decades and sometimes centuries. It was too much work to read, and too much work to write. What I liked were stories about a guy, or a couple of guys, or a couple of girls, or one of each maybe, faced with an immediate problem which gave them a hell of a bad time all at once, but which they either solved – or failed to solve if it was a tragedy – in a few days. You know, stories like Romeo and Juliette, Ill Met in Lankhmar, or The Tell Tale Heart. Thrillers rather than epics, basically.

Another thing I discovered I liked while reading was sex. Sorry, I don’t mean sex while reading. You’d lose your place. What I mean is, I liked sex in the stories I read. And I don’t mean porn. I liked when people had complete lives. When the there were scenes in the book that didn’t take place either on the battlefield or the throne room. People in Tolkien and a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy books didn’t seem to have lives below the waist. They didn’t shit, piss, or fuck. So, grit was another thing I looked for, and apparently wanted to embrace. Realism, or at least a nod to it. Leiber, John D. MacDonald, George MacDonald Frasier, Phillip Jose Farmer, Michael Shae, etc.

So, that’s preferences taken care of. But when I actually started writing I found out a lot of things that reading along just didn’t prepare me for. For instance, did you know that writing a novel is impossible? It is. Completely. You can’t hold that much info in your head at one time, and I despaired of ever managing it, until I had the epiphany that, though it was impossible to write a novel, it was possible to write a chapter, and then another, and another, until, without knowing it, a novel had accreted around you.

Another thing I learned, which is connected to the whole chapter-by-chapter thing, is that structure is as powerful a tool as character, voice, theme or moral. If you’ve got the structure wrong, if the chapters don’t flow in a way the feels natural to the reader and carries them along, all those other things will fall flat. If you wait too long to reveal your protagonist’s character, you lose the reader. If you have no pacing, voice won’t save you, no matter how engaging. If you bury the theme or bungle the payoff at the end, the reader might miss the moral, or fail to feel the emotional punch you were hoping to bring him to tears with.

Hmmm. Are there any others? Oh, yeah! A big one! Proper channels don’t work. Sending unsolicited manuscripts to a publisher, writing cold query letters to agents, all a complete waste of time. For years I believed that I should let my writing do the talking, and that anything else was somehow cheating. I would write things,  put them in the mail, and never hear anything forever and ever. On the other hand, once I actively made a point of meeting fellow writers, introducing myself to agents and publishers, stepping out of my ivory tower, and actually getting involved in the community I wanted to be a part of, things turned around, and that kind of reprehensible behavior has gotten me almost every job and sale I’ve ever had.

Okay, falling asleep now, so I guess that’s all you get. Sorry it’s more disjointed than usual. Maybe in a minute or two a light bulb will go off and I’ll realize that proper planning and time management are another key to success.

But probably not.

Category:Writing | Comment (0) | Author:

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Sunday, 14. April 2013 21:31

bloodforgedMaybe it’s because I cut my writing teeth in Hollywood, where no movie is complete without a dollop of “boy meets girl,” but there is always a love interest in my stories. Even in my Warhammer books, where the testosterone levels were so high that I had to shave twice as often while writing them, I still slipped in a little romance. Yes, even in a world of gore-caked battle axes and deathless demons of destruction, love blossoms.

Or maybe it is because romance is the greatest conflict generator of all time. A feud between two rival families in Italy? Boring. But what if a boy from one family and a girl from another love each other? Instant intrigue. A princess has second thoughts about assuming her throne? Dull. But if she meets an American reporter in Rome and has to chose between him and her crown? All at once we want to know what happens.

Romance adds human emotion to any situation, and therefore human interest. The tug between love and honour, love and duty, love and loyalty, love and cultural mores, has been grist for conflict since the days of Greek drama, and since fantasy fiction is already a very romantic genre, a genre about the triumph of spirit and emotion, about irrational hope winning out over cold reality just because it should, Romance with a capital R is a perfect fit. It gives heroes a reason to fight and strive. It gives villians a reason to be jealous. It makes tragedies deeper and happy endings more joyful.

It also works very well to personalize a broader conflict. Last year’s prize for best journalistic photograph went to a picture of a mother holding her wounded son after a battle. Why is this more powerful than a photo of a hundred wounded men laid out side by side? Because it shows love. It allows the viewer to identify with the pain of the mother who does not know if her son will live or die. Do you want your reader to feel the conflict you have created? Don’t tell them about the movements of armies. Tell them about a wife searching for her husband amongst the stream of refugees fleeing a battle. Tell them about the soldier forced to go to war against his lover’s country. Tell them about a pair of lovers who steal money to buy passage out of the warzone and end up jailed seperately.

Some may deride romance as cheap melodrama, but I say if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. It is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it well, and you will live – or at least write – happily ever after.

Category:Warhammer, Writing | Comments (2) | Author:

How to Build a World

Monday, 1. April 2013 20:11

How to do it?

1 – Start with the kind of story you want to tell, the mood of it, the point of it, then shape all the things that make up a world – the geography, the economies, the cultures, the politics, the religions, the peoples, the flora and fauna – so that they reinforce the story.

2 – Remember that world is slave to the story, and not the other way around.

Why to do it?

I’m not so sure.

I have a world. It’s called Ehre. A few years ago I spent an incredible amount of time and energy building it from the ground up. I bought a program called Fractal Terrain Pro so that I could make a realistic globe, with rivers and mountain ranges that made geological sense, and from the simulations it created drew world maps and named countries and cities and peoples. I invented seven thousand years of history, the pantheons of several different religions, a system of magic, numerous forms of government, a number of currencies, the naming conventions of half a dozen cultures, some social hierarchies, a few different slangs and cants, the rules for a gambling game, and a detailed map of the city in which I intended most of my stories to take place.

I did all this because I only wanted to do it once. I figured, if I was going to write fantasy, I would set all my fantasy novels in the same world so that I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I started a new book. That would be the smart, efficient thing to do.

Anyway, like always happens with this sort of thing, I ran out of steam after about half a year, and decided I would use what I had to write a novel set in my shiny new world.

I had a lot of fun writing that novel, lacing it with all the lore and culture that I had spent so much time and effort creating, and I was very pleased with the end result. Unfortunately nobody else was. It got turned down by two big publishers, and my regular readers had their reservations as well. Everybody hated my main character. That’s all they ever talked about. They didn’t take any notice of all the effort I put into creating the world.

Cut to last year. I sold Jane Carver of Waar, my ten year old first novel, to Night Shade Books.

When I wrote Jane I literally made the world up as I went along. If I needed a god or a monster for the next scene, I’d come up with one on the spot. If I needed a town, or a race, or some little detail to bring a scene to life, I wrote it on the fly. In fact I still did that as wrote the second book. For instance, there are Seven Gods on Waar, but I’ve only bothered naming two of them – the ones I needed for the plot. The rest are still a mystery to me.

Nobody who’s read Jane has ever commented on how little effort I put into creating the world, but everybody loves Jane. That’s all they ever talk about.

So, by all means, build worlds if you like to. I had a blast doing it, but remember that, no matter how often people pin the map of middle earth to their wall – like I did when I was a kid – they wouldn’t have fallen in love with that world if they hadn’t liked Frodo and Bilbo enough to follow them through it.

Category:Jane Carver, Reading, Writing | Comments (8) | Author: