Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Real Life Intrudes

I am in an unfortunate rut.

The sad reality of the world is that only one soul can live per body. My body has volunteered to do a lot of work recently, and my soul is being stretched pretty thin. I'm experiencing the stress in various ways; I've got weird phantom muscle spasms and pains from time to time, I break down into emotional goo piles at random triggers, I have started swearing more liberally than I'm used to, and I'm excessively tired.

Despite all this I've tried to continue writing, but the part of my soul I use for Threadcaster is being wasted on other things. The time I can devote to it is fractioned off to other responsibilities - sometimes suddenly and dramatically. I've written a thousand times "I'd rather be writing", but this is the first time I've written and had no will to do it. Usually if I hit a wall or something I can jump back and revise a bit to restart my juices, but now no matter what I do everything feels forced and lifeless. Still I have to finish this draft. I have to write through the plot points and get to the end so I can start over from the beginning. There's no time to pity myself. I must keep going.

What has actually happened is that writing has become part of "work". It was never "work" before, it was always hobby - something I did for fun. Now that I'm trying to make Threadcaster into something substantial, I'm experiencing for the first time what paid writers feel when a deadline is coming up. I'll do it even if it doesn't come out great, I had a vision when I outlined it, hopefully the vision endures through my exhaustion.

I spent an hour writing two paragraphs tonight. I think they'll do. They're acceptable enough that I can go to sleep and assume everything will sort itself out eventually.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Earth Town troubles.

I don't know how to write this next part. I'm bothered.

Last time I hit this wall I went back ten chapters and rewrote the characters. Now I still have no idea who they are or what they're doing because I'm having a hard time getting them motivated to do it. Cat shows up and does things... hurray.

I had two versions: the one where they meander through the desert kind of depressed and stop for a moment by the road to have a character scene, then evade a couple Brushcasters by pretending to be whiny teen runaways, and the one where they get caught in a dust storm and charge blindly into a dramatic event.  Slow version and Fast version respectively.

Benefit of the slow version is we have character moments. It gives us a chance to sort into our new roles in the group and shows Cat growing up a little and reacting bravely in the face of danger instead of uncertainly.  Drawback is ITS REALLY SLOW. It feels like filler and that's bad. When we get to Earth Town you feel like you're going through the Cursed Town paces like the last three we went to.

Benefit of the fast version is it's more exciting. It rockets us from one place to another without the boring travel scenes and introduces Earth Town in a huge exciting event. The bad news is that it doesn't give the Curses riding shotgun a whole lot to do. They're almost like other baggage in the wagon right now appearing every so often to have a conversation with Cat then vanishing back into the tent like they never existed.

Maybe I need a touch of both. Maybe I should salvage the stop on the path from the slow version and put it in the new version ahead of the big event. I don't know if that'll solve the problem or not. I really don't know anything right now, I'm so frustrated with the rest of my life piling up that it's throwing me off my keel.

I'll experiment with sorting paragraphs around. Revising always makes me feel better.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Allegorical Frustration

So I arrived at the conclusion last night that the swift downward slope to the end of this book will go much faster if the end is already first-drafted. I've had my big finale planned from word-one but that doesn't mean conclusions are easy. I've always been terrible at beginning things and ending things both in person and on paper.

Needless to say this passage might be a bit of a spoiler.

What's killing me now is I know exactly how this is ending. I know what's going to happen, why it happens and who it happens to. It's always been religious allegory, because I believe the forgiveness story of the Bible is the greatest story ever told - the very concept that someone would endure so much pain and suffering for the love of others moves me, and I wanted to write about that kind of relationship between people. Not to give too much away, but when Threadcaster comes down to brass tacks it's still a story about overcoming the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. As a result, the beautiful ending I have planned flirts really hard with line between literary and preachy. I learned at the writers' conference that writing a novel with an underlying moral is one thing, but using a novel as a vehicle for a certain message is another. To keep to the topic of allegory, if the whole point of writing the book is to show people that "Jesus is the Way", then maybe you should be writing a book about that instead of pretending to write a novel and stapling it blatantly on the end.

This is where my christian faith is causing me trouble. Yes, I chose to write an allegory because of the faith I have, but I don't want to sound like I'm pushing my readers into feeling the same. My book explores a fictionalized version of the time between the last of the old testament phrophets and the arrival of the first new testament prophet. Hundreds of years passed in the middle of these two men where the Israelites were left to sin and warp society without being told what to do by a messenger. The result was a corrupt church, an oppressed people and enough false messiahs to turn the whole idea into a fairytale. This is the world Cat and Peter live in, so how do I fall on the mainstream side of the religious vs popular fiction debate?

Perhaps I'm thinking too much about it. I'm so scared the reader is going to check clean out of my conclusion the minute the phrase "died for your sins" is uttered that I've twisted and bent all the dialog to avoid direct eye contact. Perhaps I should just straight up write my ending and let betas decide if they feel like they've been to church or not. I mean, like any author, I already know about this story and can see all the signs. Perhaps someone reading it for the first time will see a romance story first and an allegory second? Maybe they'll see comparisons between the Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, The Chronicles of Narnia or one of the other supposedly religious allegories of modern times?

Really in the end there's no escaping the suspicion of religious allegory. If you search it on google you'll get articles on everything from Harry Potter and Star Wars to Halo and Toy Story 3. The fact that mine was one on purpose only makes the cloaking harder. I'm scared my twists won't pay off, my red herrings will fail in their deception, my characters will become archetypes and my audience will groan. I wish I could turn the religious part of my brain off for right now and stop analyzing every word my characters say to excess. That would make concluding everything a whole lot easier.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Missouri Writers Guild's "Just Write" Conference

I have a ton of stories from the conference this weekend but I'll do everyone a favor and keep this entry just to writing and Threadcaster.

I wanted to start with a retraction. Before the conference I wrote a huge entry about applying backstory, now I know better. I learned so much about craft and process at this conference! First lesson came in the first session At the Agents and Editor's panel, someone asked "Why do you all hate prologues" and the answer was this - they don't as long as they serve a purpose other than A, Lazy Backstory or B, Lazy Worldbuilding. I realized my prologue was both so out it goes into the Graveyard.

-oh and as an aside. Since I'm a big fan of revising I wanted to share a little method. Soemtimes it's easier to retract if you don't delete. I have a Threadcaster_Graveyard.doc I keep open. When I have large chunks of prose to eliminate, I write a title and where it came from, then cut/paste it into the Graveyard in case I need something from it later. It lessens the blow.

Back to the con - after the panel came the Nightcaps. I had a pitch the next day with two Agents, Kristine Makani of Blank Slate Press (A local small press) and Kathleen Ortiz who is interested in YA, but I was on the waiting list for Kristin Nelson so I joined her small group. All I wanted was to talk and be memorable, considering I wouldn't be pitching. As it ends up she's extremely nice and very down-to-earth.  A lot of people were treating her like she was made of gold and if they touched her hem magic would happen - but she was very sincere and human. We talked and asked questions - afterward I shook her hand and asked for a business card. I even invited her to the StLouis Writers' Guild's open mic starting down the hall. She declined of course.

At open mic I read a scrap of Threadcaster hoping to hand out promo cards. What happened instead was a cringeworthy trip through a sequence that desperately needed a rewrite. I decided earlier to bring it to Kristin's "Agent Reads the Slushpile", but now I had some serious work to do. I ran home to gas my prologue and rewrite my first two pages, removing as much pointless info-dump worldbuilding backstory as I could. The goal was to get Cat, the Brushcasters, and Peter all on the first page. It worked (although Pete was just a name-drop) and I saved and closed the thing at 2am.

I slept in the next morning and missed the first session. I also missed a call from the conference coordinator telling me Kristin had an opening for me! Sweet! But now the question was; do I put Threadcaster on the slush pile before I pitch her? What if she hates it and shuts me down? I decided to do it anyway - I went through the trouble of changing it up last night, might as well. Plus I know the story is great and the only reason she'd shut it down would be late night spelling and phrasing errors.

I went to the workshop. There were easy over thirty people in there and she only had time to get to eight entries (after all the disclaimer and paper rustling). The workshop consisted of an assistant reading the entries aloud and Kristin stopping her to share her thoughts on things that bothered her then tell her to continue or pick another. It was a window into her mind when she reads the slush pile in her office - rejecting 90% of what she sees there. I found her comments extremely helpful. It was great to hear the kind of things she likes and didn't like. I'll give you some notes
-1, Be mindful of your character and their relationship to the prose. We identify with character - if they are in trouble, don't concern yourself with describing small details in the setting. We care about what they care about and they care about the gun in their face not the flowers blooming ironically nearby.
-2, The same point with age. Even if your narration is not first person it should be appropriate for the age of your protagonist. If your protagonist is young, then they'll see the world in a distinctly polarized way. If your narration feels too adult it creates a disconnect between the reader and the character, therefore drawing us away from the people we're supposed to identify with.
-3, Show not tell. The way you phrase the action can convey emotion. If a woman sees the man she dated in highschool sitting with a hot blonde and a toddler we already know there's some kind of jealousy going on simply because of how the characters were described, we don't need the next line to tell us she's jealous.
-4, It takes one line to generate a clever turn of phrase. Be concise, tighten and activate your verbs. You can make the same point and not slow the story.

I didn't expect mine to be chosen; it was still web formatted at 12pt font with no title, totally pass-overable. At the five minute warning she pulled one last draft and read the opening line; "Cat sat on the front porch of her parents' house weaving a web of string within the cage of her hands". EEEK! The moment of truth! She stopped first thing and spoke to the crowd "I just wanted to say that that's a great image."

DoubleEeek. At that point I didn't care what else she said, I was keeping that phrase forever. She read most the first page (Didn't get to Peter), expressing concerns about my sense of space and world - all of which are valid. She stopped at the first sign of "Tell not show", when I put a phrase in specifically for the audience not the characters. Worldbuilding needs to happen as we watch the story and should not detract from it. Of course this is the lesson I learned yesterday so I totally and wholly agree. I'm going to have to rewrite a LOT.

Straight from there it was to pitches. Kristy was really into my story - like she really liked it and asked questions and things. I was feeling good, then she turned around and pitched her press to me as well. I consider it a win.  Immediately following was my pitch with Kristin. She was like "Hey!" and I was like "Hey!" and we talked about how it felt like we were friends after all the times we ran into each other. She asked me about my story and I'm like "You know something already! It was the last one on the slush pile!" and she's like "About Cat and the Calligraphers?" and I'm like "Yeah!" and she's like "You're going to revise it aren't you?" and I'm like "Good Lord Yes."

I told her a little more about it and she's like "Here's my card. I want you to go home and take your time revising it... don't rush it... and when you're ready query me, tell me we talked and I'd be happy to see your first thirty pages." to which I about exploded.

So Kristin Nelson is interested enough to read more on my story after a pitch and a half a page. I consider that an acceptance. I wish the thing was done so I could give it to her right now while it's fresh in her mind, but even if it was I've learned so much in the last 24 hours I'd want to revise it anyway. Anyway that's pretty awesome. A great day for Threadcaster, that's for sure!

My pitch with Kathleen was much later. She told me the age of my protagonist was a problem and I needed to make her younger if I wanted to appeal to the YA audience. I was resistant at first - I already  youngened her once, and I wanted to make a point of having a character that WASNT 17 because it seems like all the characters out there are 17. Not to mention i'd have to change Peter's age too, and then change the expiration date on Curses to keep him on the cusp, but in the end I decided it made sense. Cat was behaving a little young for 21 in a world without any higher education, and although it's weird to youngen Peter more, having the death cap at 20 helps encourage the idea that Curses have to live their lives in a wink when most of us consider them still children. So it's now canon - Cat is 18, Peter's freshly 19, and Curses die within their 20th year.

As for the rest of the conference, I made some new friends, I grew closer with old friends, I laughed and talked and told stories and heard stories - it was a wonderful experience and immeasurably beneficial. From now on Threadcaster is an actual job. I want to get it peer edited and to Kristin's desk before this time next year so she doesn't forget all about me, so if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of writing to do.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Virtues of Exposition and how it's Delivered

I made a joke on Twitter last night:

 "I wish I could write a thoughtful piece about including pages of exposition without ruining pacing but I obviously know nothing about that"

Well, perhaps I'm a little bit wrong. I know a whole lot about including exposition in ways that impede and foil pacing, so naturally I guess I know a bit about what NOT to do. I might as well write about that now.

The two dangerous ways to deliver exposition are through paragraphs of unapologetic backstory or question and answer sessions. There is a time and a place for both and a time and a place for neither. I shall explain.

I open my story with a Question and Answer session between a six year old boy and his grandfather about the nature and rules of my universe. These are the things that everyone reading my book needs to know in order to understand where they are and what the heck's going on. Paragraphs of exposition when you have nothing invested are boring (that is unless it's really exciting exposition) so I introduced two characters to feed off each other with a bit of an underlying b story to keep the audience interested enough to read on. I am well aware this segment is not perfect. I've re-written it a ton of times, every pass making it shorter and more concise. These are what I have come to call "Bamboo Trap Scenes"- pages and pages of characters sitting and talking about stuff they already know.

Your standard bamboo trap is usually set up in jungles or forests consisting of a deep pit covered loosely with sticks and leaves. The trap is sprung when an innocent passerby steps on the cover and falls down to be impaled on several pointed bamboo sticks stuck in the bottom of the pit. This is about the same unfair painful feeling you get from a QnA scene gone wrong. You wander in innocent enough but before you know it you're waist deep in pages of information, trapped and helpless. A good sign that this has happened is when your characters start getting bored. When their whole contribution to the conversation is "What about this?" "Tell me about that" "Why is that". When the engineer in your story-locomotive is sitting around doing nothing useful, the audience riding the train is doing the same. No matter how interesting the backstory is, Bamboo Traps are not a fun place to be stuck in and should be avoided at all cost.

The other option is blatant blocks of exposition. I consider this a more honest approach; we've got a ton of exposition, why force the characters to sit around and discuss it for three pages when the prose can lay it out plainly for one? The downside is that now your characters aren't involved at all! I call these bits "Lectures" because it's the author abandoning anything the characters were previously doing while the audience takes a minute to do some supplemental reading that has nothing or little to do with the current plot. This throws a huge wrench into pacing and should only be used at times where a little separation from the action doesn't matter - like at the beginning of a chapter, after a scene break, or in closing. I still try to keep these things brief. If the characters are off-screen for more than a page I go back and start eliminating things to shorten it up. This has worked in my favor before - bits of exposition I've had to cut out of one Lecture sometimes surface later on in dialog or as flavor text. This leads me to perhaps the wisest and best form of exposition; the gradual kind.

The best way to learn about a world is to explore it, go places and learn about them as your characters see them; talk to locals to learn bits about what happened in the past and the present, make events take place at historically significant sites so that your backstory is told parallel to your main one. This is a good way to make your world feel established, because people only stop every few feet to read about the past when they go to museums not when they're on adventures. Bundle events with backstory as much as you can to slip the bits people need to know naturally into the story as they experience it. The first example of this I can think of was pointed out to me by a scriptwriting friend several years ago when we were having this discussion.

In National Treasure starring  Nick Cage, the history of a certain document and how it got into his fathers hands is explained as a diversionary tactic. Nick is pressing his dad for specific info and to avoid answering, his father distracts the other characters with a story about the document they are studying. It was obviously exposition, but it also served a purpose and was more than one scientist walking up to another scientist and saying "Boy I'm glad Dr. Klien put us both on this project together. I get to study how rats reproduce, you get to test your new rocket fuel and the pay's good too!" The scientist conversation would not happen in real life, but the National Treasure one conceivably would. This is good implementation of exposition.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. I hit a point in Act 2 where a huge element of the past was suddenly revealed. It was not the kind of discovery that could be stretched out amid worldbuilding scenes and was important for setting up decisions and motivations for the next few chapters. Cat found herself sitting in not one but TWO one-on-one question and answer sessions. I fall in to way too many Bamboo Traps for my own good, so I had to find creative ways to get the information out without making Cat a "Then What", and employing Lectures wouldn't do for the timing.

My answers were to turn the Traps into something else. The first became a game; the character we were receiving information from was actually interesting to talk to and spoke in slant for most of his replies. This gve the audience something to ponder as the exchange progressed as both they and Cat try to figure out what exactly he's talking about. In the second I decided to tell the history as a tale within a tale delivered by a storyteller complete with dialog of the past characters. I'm content with this because it physically removes us from the Trap for a good chunk of time, making the time we do spend speared in the pit more manageable. If nothing else it connects the backstory events to real human emotions the readers can relate to soy they'll be distracted enough to forget that we're two people in a room asking questions back an forth.

These are all points to consider when writing your exposition but I'd like to reiterate that I write Bamboo Traps and Lectures constantly in my first drafts and it's only in the revising process that I solve and sort them out. I'm sure I'll talk about how I mold and handle drafts later because Lord strike me down if I try and stop talking about writing this book, but first drafts are just for putting your ideas on paper - letting them out of your head to make room for more. Once they're on paper you can see them in daylight and figure out the parts that need work. Write first off the cuff, if you worry too much about nitpicks like Bamboo Traps, repetitions or the passive voice you'll overwhelm yourself. That said I'll complain about reps and pvs in another post.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A box of goodies!

My VistaPrints order came in the mail today! I placed my honorary first sticker over the unsightly scratch on the lid of my laptop. Still have no idea where the scratch came from, but the Baron looks much cleaner now.
I am such a sucker for the  Merch, you don't even know. I can't wait to hand my promo cards out this weekend. Will blog about the Missouri Writer's Conference and tell you all how it was.

A Brief note on Breaking chapters

Something I'd like to share about pacing and chapter breaks learned the hard way.

There are three ways I use to pass time in a story. There's in-prose passage when you say something like "some time later" or "After a while". These work best when the action is continuing throughout and is intended to flow unimpeded from one bit of time to another. Like say your characters enter a maze. Instead of describing every turn in detail you can say 'They continued through the maze making educated guesses and left turns for several hours before finding the dreaded minotaur." This passes several hours of "prose time" spent on the same small action. Nothing significant happened within the aside and the reader doesn't feel rushed.

The second option is what I call the "scene break". It's a change in time or place usually indicated by asterisks, dotted or solid lines, tiny graphics or my favorite - the ' ~*~ '

Scene Break transitions take place at the close of something. When it comes up whatever happened in the preceding passage is over and no longer of concern. Going back to the maze idea, I'd use a scene break when the maze goers stop their random turns to sleep for the night, instead of explaining in long boring detail the efforts of setting up camp and fixing dinner, I'd employ a scene break and resume with "In the morning they started searching again." This gives the reader a significant stutter in time and implies that things actually occured while they were gone. To put it in more modern terms, it's like the commercial break in a tv show. We don't care about the commercials but we know they're there. The show will pick up at a more convenient time when there is something important going on. In that vein I usually conclude scenes with a wrapping up line, bringing the reader to an even halt before the break.

Scene breaks are often followed by a change in location or cast, like when you switch from the A story characters to the B story characters. When used this way the break implies time or distance between the two events. If the hero and the villain were making camp on either side of a forest, I'd employ a scene break to transition between them. If they were camping within earshot, I'd use prose instead, giving the reader a first-hand impression how close the two camps actually were to each other. These extra scenes usually come at the beginning or end of a chapter, at least in Threadcaster. There's enough focus on Cat and her party that any deviation from that story feels like a derailment. Scene injections can take place in the middle of chapters, but always be aware of pacing; whether it's a line of asterisks or twenty paragraphs, applying a scene break severs the connection between the reader and the events they were just reading about.

The final (and title) form of time jumping is Chapter Breaks. This is the most severe time jump of them all. If you want to pass hours, days, or even years the chapter break will do it. People usually see chapters as a good place to put the book down for a while, it's dangerous to bridge important action from one chapter to another unless you're really good at writing cliffhangers. Some authors are almost devilishly good at making you want to jump straight into their next chapter, especially near climaxes when everything is happening at once. In threadcaster I use chapters as containing nodes chronicling each stage of our quest into identifiable bits. Most end with a hint of where the party will be going next and a reflection of where they just left. Never end a chapter lightly and be careful of where you cut things short. Sometimes a chapter break happens naturally, you have to obey the pacing of the story and listen to your reader voice as you go along.

Right now I'm looking at an eight page chapter. I like my chapters being twelve, but I've tried prosing the time away and scene breaking the time away and neither of those had the impact they needed. This scene needs a chapter break and so I shall do it, letting the meaning of the previous scene sink in with a reader who needs a chance to take a breath and turn a page.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Now on Deviantart

Deviantart is my home away from home when it comes to the internet. I'm very happy to announce the book has it's own group on the site. It's primarily an art site, so pop over if you'd like to see some of the Threadcaster themed art I've been making over the last five years of production! It'll be a lovely gallery with even more to come