Unresolved

UHere’s the thing: I’m not going to finish this A-Z month on time.

Here’s another thing: That’s OK.

A third thing: I’m not giving up.

I have posts planned, and partly written, for all the remaining letters of the challenge; so I’m going to post them as and when I can. And then I’ll keep going, and this blog will become something more than a once-a-year flurry of posts.

The challenge may be over, but the story continues. And that’s one thing I find hard as a writer, because the story always continues. There is no point at which everything stops, so where is a good point to end the story? When the big victory is achieved? When the lesson of the day is learned? When the romance becomes official? When the next generation is born? When every last plot thread is neatly tied off, and all the consequences of every action played out in full?

In my plans for Fragments I have a timeline that covers almost two centuries. The story itself happens over the course of one, maybe two years, but I know what happened in that world a hundred years before and about a hundred years after the main events. I’ve got enough material for at least five books, in terms of events. But there’s a difference between events and story, and I’m not sure that those two centuries’ worth of stuff happening will lead to new stories.

It seems fitting to end this post on a note of uncertainty, which is good because I genuinely don’t have an answer yet.

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Open Steno Project

OLast November, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, as I have done every year since 2009. While waiting for the kick-off, I happened across a forum post that mentioned machine steno, and that sent me off on a Google-trawl that led me here:

http://www.openstenoproject.org/

I’d heard of steno before, but never thought that I could get into it, for the reasons listed in the video – prohibitive costs, and training only available at specialist schools. Discovering Plover changed all that, and set me a new goal: Learn steno.

I live and work at my computer, as do so many of us. Often, my hands and wrists ache at the end of the day, even though I use the most ergonomic set-up I can manage – and I don’t even type that quickly (30 wpm at best). So when I read about the ergonomic advantage of steno, I knew it was worth investigating. The possibility of a speed boost was also a strong argument.

Ironically, I bailed out on writing during November, in order to learn a better way to write. I recommend reading through the links on The Open Steno Project page, because they will explain it all much better than I can. For another perspective, see this diary, kept by a fellow student: Steno Diary (Google Docs)

The Google group, linked from the Open Steno Project page, is the place for all the latest news on new builds. It’s also a great place to ask questions, raise concerns, and suggest new ideas. I’m a novice still, being a very slow learner (also, I hibernate, so didn’t really start studying properly until last month) and I have found the group patient and helpful. There are even a couple of entrepreneurs who are building steno keyboards with Plover in mind.

Imma get off the soapbox now, but seriously – go check out Plover. Then maybe you’ll understand why I’m so enthusiastic about it.

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Repositioning the Beats

RThe Plotting Workshop is built around the beats of a story. At first I thought I had too much plot because there didn’t seem to be room for everything – and yes, one of my encounters turned out to be superfluous, and was promptly axed. However, even with that scene gone, things didn’t seem to fit.

With some help from the Facebook group, I realised that I could move the beats without changing the plot – or even the order of events. All my notes stayed in the same sequence, and I had only to change the rhythm. What I had previously marked as a climax gets a softer treatment, and lets the new climax come through.

One of the keys to working out the new beats was figuring out what kind of story I was telling. Although I’ve been calling it a fantasy adventure, it’s very character-driven. The physical shifts and turns, which I used to mark the beats in my first outline, are less important than the changes to the characters themselves. So the climaxes hit, not when the characters are faced with a new situation, but when that situation triggers a change within the character (for good or bad).

I have a feeling that I may be writing “literary fiction” after all. Even though I’m still not sure what that even means.

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Local Knowledge

LI’m currently reading Pao by Kerry Young, and one thing that stands out is how well she knows the places she writes about. Without a word of authorial explanation, she takes me thousands of miles away, to a place unlike any I have in my own experience. It’s clear that she has done her research, and that deepens her story.

At the same time, she doesn’t show off her knowledge. There’s no point at which the plot is stalled, or the narrative broken, just to let Kerry Young prove to the reader how much research she has done. This balance is a tricky one, and seeing it achieved so well has made me think about how to present my fantasy land to readers in a subtle but effective way.

My world-building is usually pretty thorough. I know the Land of Fragments inside-out, including many details that will never come up in the story. Somehow, I need to convey that familiarity to the reader without info-dumps or narrator intrusion. Fortunately, there’s a lot of travelling in the story, so I can have characters experience the places they go through, and mention contrasts between each place and their own homes. Also, there are children in the party, who can be taught about anything the reader really needs to know. And, yes, this means it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to describe the finer points of the ancient trading system – but seriously, when has there ever been an adventure story that featured trade?

 

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Questioning Assumptions

QThe planning stage is a great place to explore and test the diversity of a novel’s cast. Not to engage in a box-ticking exercise, or insert token extras, but to take a look at some of the automatic assumptions made about the characters at the moment of their creation. Is the cast mainly white, male, able-bodied, young, good-looking, etc? If so, what can be done?

Once I’d stated to get the plot down for Fragments, I found myself facing these questions. Instead of worrying about balancing the percentages, I tried examining the mental images that I had developed for the characters, and asking myself how the story would change if I altered certain features. Would it affect the plot if I changed the colour of Nesh’s hair, skin, or eyes? What if I made Carrick shorter, or gave Ash a speech impediment? Does Volnar have to be male? Does Falerian have to be in her twenties?

So I changed a few details, and let the story simmer. Sometimes, I ended up discovering that the original description was better – but now at least I knew why. Other times, the change affected the story in a positive way; and mostly the changes didn’t make any difference at all. So long as I held on to the two or three adjectives that made the characters fit their role in the story, I could do what I liked with my cast.

Since I’m writing a fantasy, I don’t have to deal with the social norms of our world – but I can exploit reader expectations to illustrate the prejudices and biases of my fictional world. Or I could subvert those expectations, and discover new and interesting character traits along the way.

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Planning Pays Off

PJust this evening. I finished the list of thirty key actions in my story. This list covers all the major plot points, while leaving plenty of room to expand on a scene, add character moments, or even introduce a sub-plot. It’s really satisfying to see it all laid out in columns, and to know that the structure is solidly in place.

This “30 scenes” summary is based on ideas from – you guessed it- The Plotting Workshop. Sorry to keep going on about it… wait, no, I’m not sorry. This is hands-down the best planning tool I’ve ever tried, and is worth paying for.

I realise that a paid course might not be an option for some people, so in the interests of completeness, I’ll mention the Ideas to Imprints Book Writing Challenge. It’s being run through email and Facebook, and the tutor is very experienced. The course started yesterday, so there°s still plenty of time to catch up on the first assignments.

However you go about it, planning thoroughly is the perfect way to start a big project. Writing the draft starts on May 1st, for me. Just a couple of weeks to go! And for once, I *am* ready!

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Jumping About

JAs you’ve probably gathered, it’s been a bad month so far in terms of progress, and I’m now scrambling to catch up with my tasks before I go away, in one week’s time.

 

PSA: It is a bad idea to announce to the internet that your house is going to be empty. I can only get away with it because (a) I have never linked my location to this blog, and (b) I have a very small audience. Also (c) I don’t have anything worth stealing. That said, I’m still taking a bit of a risk talking about my personal life in a public forum, and you should not follow my bad example. OK? 

So, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, there’s something of a mad rush going on chez Kell, and tasks are piling up. I will get them done – but not necessarily in the right order. (Thank you, Eric Morecambe.)

Working out of sequence can be a morale boost, because simple brain equates high numbers with good progress. Having finished task twenty-four, it’s surely a trivial matter to go back and do task five. And eight. And twelve, fifteen, six, ten, and twenty. (Shh, simple brain is happy. Don’t spoil it!)

It would have been better to have done all the work as I received it, and to be able to spend this month reviewing and fine-tuning my plan. As it is though, playing catch-up can offer its own rewards – and the freedom to jump back and forth between assignments is one of them.

PSA 2: This is not an excuse for not doing homework, kids. The comments about my bad example still stand. Message ends.

 

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Master Procrastination

While not-working this week, I have discovered some interesting (and informative) videos. This one seemed particularly apt:

The point at the end bears repeating: we are all procrastinators. I’ll take it further and say that none of us are entirely alone in our heads. Whether it’s monkeys, or monsters, or black dogs, or the distraction fairy, our Rational Decision Makers have a hard time keeping hold of the wheel.

It seems like the best solution would be to clear the decks a bit; to get rid of the unhelpful extras. Easier said than done. Like riddle of sultan’s camels, the solution is to add a new character: the policeman/babysitter (with thanks to Terry Pratchett for the names).

The policeman/babysitter is on the side of the RDM, and evens out the odds a little. It’s not a perfect system, but it works. Sometimes.

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No Surrender!

NOver the next twenty-four hours, I’ll be uploading the posts I’ve missed this week. Apologies in advance for flooding the feed.

In previous years, I’ve back-dated late entries; ostensibly to keep the archives tidy, but really to keep myself from painful reminders of my annual failures. This year, I’m going to keep the original post times; because this year will be the year I made reasonable adjustments and met my goals even after a bad start.

Uppards!

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Inspiration

IOne of the first assignments in The Plotting Workshop is to list some key inspirations for your story. Working on my list gave me some valuable insights into my writing, and myself.

For example, I noticed that I’m often more interested in the undertones and structure of the story, than in the plot details. This meshes with my being able to easily identify the theme and character arc of my idea, but having trouble with the actual events. My outline has multiple “stuff happens” sections at the moment. I know what the results of the stuff will be in terms of the group dynamic, but I’m not sure about the details.

I also noticed that I tend to like ensemble stories, which might explain why I had so much trouble deciding on a protagonist. After a lot of discussing itin the group, and re-examining familiar stories, I realised that most of the stories I liked did have a protagonist, even though the plot featured a group. Watership Down, for example, is the story of Hazel; Bleak House is the story of Esther; even Friends is pretty much the story of Rachel, in that it starts when she arrives on the scene, and ends when she gets her happily ever after.

Red Dwarf is an interesting case, because the TV series is the story of Dave, but the books tell the story of Rimmer. Same events, different focuses (focii?).

So Fragments has become the story of Carrick, although there may be follow-up stories telling the events from the view of other key characters.

Finally, I learned that I tend to over-analyse things. Oh, the irony.

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