One sentence (revised) plus five times two…

2013/05/28 § Leave a comment

This was my one sentence. I’ve decided to change it to this:

A young woman, harshly trained by her father in her early years, turns against her professors and the life chosen for her during her mercenary school’s graduation exam.

Why the change? I was envisioning this story as that of a wake-up call, the story of a woman who suddenly realizes that she’s on the wrong path and decides to change that, despite societal and parental pressures. Originally, I thought the change should happen after the woman starts her professional life (a bit as a mirror to my own life). However, after giving it some thought, I like it better if the change happens at graduation. It has stronger resonance (graduation as coming-of-age). Also, the woman not being an idiot, she doesn’t really need to go all the way to her first job to realize there is something wrong with the path chosen for her. I do not want to write a passive heroine. And I’ve added the part about her father, which will tell us about the world, and about who the woman is.

So I will have two intertwined stories: that of her training by her father, and that of her choices and actions during the graduation exam. Expanding these two stories into five sentences gives:

Her father’s harsh training…

– She is the daughter of a renowned and prosperous security consultant, who through harsh methods has been training her from her early years in the skills of the mercenary.

– Following her twelfth birthday, and every month thereafter, her father subjects her to a difficult test which she must pass to go on to the dojo, the mercenary school.

– Through her repeated and painful failures at the test, she grasps the main lesson her father wants to teach her.

– Having learned her lesson, she steadily improves in the test but still fails to pass it.

– She finally wins by committing a terrible act, and gets sent to the dojo, but still her father is disappointed.

The graduation exam…

– The graduating class is assembled and told what their exam will be; she is enthusiastic.

– During one of the tests, her best friend tries to kill a professor but fails and is gravely wounded.

– From her friend’s plight she realizes the ugliness of her chosen profession and decides to avenge him.

– While working to successfully complete the tests she sets up her trap for the professor.

– As the exam concludes, she and her friend provoke a deadly confrontation with the offending professor.

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Fostering Creativity

2013/05/25 § Leave a comment

One of the key, apparently, is getting down to it, every day, to sit down (or stand up, whatever works), and create, to build the routine, to exercise the creative muscles.

See this very interesting post (about a book) at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings.

Serialization

2013/05/23 § Leave a comment

Wow, do I suck…

I’ve just had a three-day weekend and still made absolutely no progress. I did go on a trip to Toronto with my dearly beloved, which makes it a bit harder to isolate myself to write (no dear, just watch TV in the hotel room while I do this…), but still…

It’s the planning again. I’m going around in loops, second-guessing myself, incapable of wrapping things up.

So I’ve extended my planning period by a week – writing starts next Monday. I’m not proud of this, but, hey, what’you gonna do?

On to other things.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about serialized novels. One thing I find excruciating in the current publishing world is the delays between books of a series coming out. When you have to wait a year or two or more for the next chapter to be published, you forget (or at least I do) about what happened in the previous one, who the characters were, what the arcs are, etc. and it makes getting into the story more difficult. You disengage. I disengage. Of course, when you are young, carefree, or lack the need for sleep, you have time enough to re-read the previous book(s) before the new one comes out. I used to do that all the time, but nowadays, with work and everything, I’m finding that I have little time, or desire, to re-read. Too many books, you know?

Good examples of where delays have ruined things a bit for me recently are the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire series. All greatly immersive, all very complex, and I think I would have enjoyed the latest books of each much more had I been closer to the previous ones and had I had a better memory of the various arcs and characters. I’ve yet to buy A Memory of Light and A Dance with Dragons, the last books of the Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, respectively. Contrary to the other books, which I could not wait to get my hands on, I feel no great compulsion to do so, in part because I’ve become emotionally detached from those stories (though for ASOIAF the TV series is bringing me back in!).

Of course, that is not to say that the novel model is broken. It is a wonderful medium. There are not many things as great as being drawn into a deep and complex world over a long period of time and many adventures, and the novel does this exceedingly well. Plus, of course, this is only an issue with ongoing series. When you get to a completed series, it’s three cheers and bye-bye reality. (It also dawns on me that this may only be a reader’s problem, not a writer’s problem, as the series mentioned above do not seem to have been negatively affected by this from a financial stand point. That said, I haven’t looked at the numbers, so what do I know…)

To get back to serialized novels, I think they represent an interesting alternative to the current model. In a way, it is the TV-series approach applied to novels (and a return to early forms of publishing). I love TV-series and I think their approach, building a world and characters and an overarching story over the course of individual, sequential episodes, has a lot going for it. Recently, John Scalzi showed how the model could work with his latest book in the Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division. It came out in 13 weekly installments averaging 10,000 words or so, each consisting of an independent and complete story, but each adding to the broader tale. I’ve only read the first one (to see what it looked like, I’m behind in the Old Man’s War books), and I liked the rapid pace and the fact that I had a finished story at the end, while still wanting to know what will happen based on the setup of the first installment. To me, this is an important aspect of the serialized tale, which Scalzi mentioned (but I can’t remember where): each episode has to stand on its own. This way, with each installment the reader gets the satisfaction of a completed story while, hopefully, being drawn into a larger universe and getting invested in the characters.

I’m thinking that, as an aspiring writer, it could be an interesting thing to try. As such, I will try to make my first story an introduction (a stand-alone prologue, not the first episode) to what could become a bigger narrative.

The story in one sentence…

2013/05/15 § Leave a comment

An unconventional woman freshly graduated from mercenary training joins a security firm and participates in a perilous first mission that will change her life.

That’s it. That’s my story in one sentence.

Lots of unsaid here – unconventional in what way? what is mercenary training? what does a security firm do? what perilous mission? I’m also conscious that this says very little about the setting. That’s okay. As per the snowflake method, more will come in the following steps. Next up, five sentences!

Those are the questions

2013/05/14 § Leave a comment

For a long time, I’ve struggled with reading (and wanting to write) fantasy. I was asking myself, should I occupy my time reading about things that don’t exist? Am I just escaping reality? Am I learning?

The answers, of course, are yes, no, yes.

I’ve come to realize that any story will be about more than its plot and characters. Every story will have ideas about the human experience, for the very simple reason that they are written by humans and for humans. Even the most basic of tale about hero X fighting the evil Y to achieve Z will raise important questions, about good and evil, about why Z is important, about struggle and heroism, etc. As to fantasy, well, first, it is never complete fantasy, in the sense of absolute fabrication. As I said before, any fantastic story will in some way relate to life because it is anchored in a human brain. Second, I think fantasy can allow for a cleaner and deeper exploration of what it is to be human (in part by confronting and comparing humanity with unhuman things).

I’ll stop there before I make an ass of myself with this pop philosophizing – I’m sure a lot of much more articulate/intelligent/educated people have discussed these questions and more in detail (please feel free to point me to any, thanks!).

Beyond concluding that writing fantasy would not be a waste of time, I’ve also come to realize that for me to write anything, I need to know what message I want to send, what themes I want to explore. I need to know that, in some way, I’m telling a story that matters.

So, what do I want to write about?

I want to write about heroism. I think it’s an important concept. It’s crucial for people, particularly the young, to have models to inspire their lives, and stories’ heroes can play that role. I’ve had plenty: Frodo and Sam, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Raistlin and friends, Paul Muad’Dib, Jason Bourne, Kaneda, the incomparable Drizzt, and many others. They taught me many things, or at least reinforced many lessons, about what counts in this world, what it is to be heroic (where I’m lacking is in the implementation…)

As I got older I’ve found that I lean more towards the grayer, more ambiguous fantasies, probably to mirror my growing awareness of the messiness of the world and of the unavoidable flaws in all of us. But heroism in that context is even more important. The crooked hero is much more inspiring than the strong and straight one, his story usually more beautiful. (Crime fiction is particularly good at that, authors like James Lee Burke or Dennis Lehane for example)

(Although I’ve found that I can be particularly touched by moments of transcendent accomplishment, which through exceptional characters show the greatness that humanity can achieve. Two I can think of, if fuzyly, right now come from Guy Gavriel Kay: first, in Sailing to Sarantium, the performance of the wounded champion at the horse race; and second, in the Lions of Al-Rassan, when the blind doctor performs surgery in the night (I’ve tried to be spoiler-free, not sure if you’ll recognize those). There are of course many, many others (Sam at Mount Doom, the arena battle between Rage and Voltan), moments of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things…)

So I want to write about what it is to be a hero in a messy world. But what kind of hero, and what kind of messy world?

I like heroes who are of above-average competence, and possibly extraordinary, though not necessarily. Ideally, their competence would come from effort and learning, rather than from talent (I tend to like when effort beats talent…). I like heroes who are persistent in the face of adversity. I like heroes who do what they must, no matter the consequences to themselves. I like heroes who are masters of their own faith, who are active drivers of their stories instead of simply passengers taken along for the ride (I don’t like Deus Ex Machina). I think I like intelligence more than physical prowess for plotting purposes (the wily detective), but I find feats of physiques always gripping. The best is when both are combined (fight/battle scenes!). I like wounded heroes, possibly cynical heroes, but not so much reluctant heroes, or if reluctant, more reluctant in words than deeds (posturing, that blazé thing…). And of course, I like heroes who have a decent moral compass.

So that’s who I’ll try to write. I have a few ideas in mind, the reformed bandit, the fallen mercenary, the young accidental protagonist… Not sure yet who’ll fit better (and if I can make them more than clichés).

For the messy world, I have this overarching idea grounded in some ways in our reality. It a universe where the way to other worlds is through magic, which I call Animancy (the ability to talk to the soul of reality, to affect its basic coding), not technology. In its distant past, in the age of its first civilizations (Atlantis, Hyperborea, etc.), humanity discovered Animancy and made its way to other worlds. But the kings of Man angered the established order of more powerful races and humanity’s empire was destroyed, with any knowledge of Animancy and its wonders erased from Earth, and with other worlds either eradicated or left adrift.

My story would be situated in one of the worlds originally colonized by humanity. I want a world gone wrong. A world of extremes but not far from ours in its organizations. I want a world where wealth is absolute power, where everything is for sale, where death is close and people commodities. I want to deal with the cost of power, the corruption of greed, the arrogance of lords.

And I want to put heroes in the face of all that, see what happens…

Nothing super original, and maybe too ambitious for me, but it’s worth a try, me thinks.

When at first you don’t succeed

2013/05/13 § Leave a comment

Arrrgh!

Yeah, you heard me. Aaaeearrrggghh!

I suck. One week in and I’m already behind…

Not entirely. I gave myself two weeks to plan before starting to write for real, but this is not going as well as I would’ve hoped. It’s my eternal problem. I have all these disparate ideas, a portion of a setting, a piece of a message, a shadow of a character. They just don’t coalesce into anything writable.

I think my problem is impatience. I’m keeping everything in my head, and it doesn’t work there, but it’s as if I’m expecting for the words to pop out fully assembled into neat sentences and paragraphs and chapters.

I need to be more systematic. Put things on paper. Good planning is the key to smooth writing, as the very talented Rachel Aaron has said.

I like her 5-step method, but I’ve tried it a little bit and I’m not sure it’s the right fit. A similar approach that I think might suit me best is the Snowflake Method. Again, haven’t tried it fully, but at first brush it seems an interesting concept: first, write a sentence; then, write five, building around the first; and so on, with the plot and the characters, etc. It calls to the systemacist in me (hurrah for made-up words!).

I’ve been searching for the One-Sentence Summary of my story. Finding the “right” one is haaaaaaaaard…

I have a setting, and a general idea of the context, but the specific characters, the plot, remain elusive. What I have to ask myself is, what is my story about? What’s my Big Idea? What characters are best placed to incarnate that idea? Who would I enjoy telling stories about? What gets me engaged when reading?

Not sure yet, but getting there. I promise I’ll let you know.

A wall of many bricks

2013/05/08 § Leave a comment

I said in my previous post that I would talk about the obstacles that I face in my goal to write. This could, of course, be an attempt to find in advance justifications for my future failures. I’ve decided to be more charitable with myself and view this as an exercise in introspection and in identifying what will likely trip me, so I can avoid it.

The obstacles I see fall into two categories: internal, having to do with my temperament and whatever passes for my brain, and external, linked with my environment and my situation. While the external obstacles will certainly be a pain if ignored, I think the internal obstacles are the most dangerous. Obviously, I’m not discovering the wheel here, this has been said by many before me. But it’s interesting nonetheless to actually do the examination for myself and realize that while environment is important, in the end I’m the master of my faith.

I should mention that I’ve had the luck to be born and stay relatively healthy, both physically and mentally, to come from a good family which valued curiosity, reading and education, to have lacked for very little while growing up, and to be from Canada, such that my education did not bury me under crushing mountains of debt. As such, none of my problems are real killers.

That said, these I think are the external obstacles I face:

WORK – That’s a problem every aspiring writer faces, I imagine. You need to pay the bills, and unless you’re good and productive enough, writing just has to fit around whatever it is that you have to do to earn money. That means writing in the morning or in the evening, or maybe during lunch time, and I guess that’s part of the game. My concern is that my work is intellectual, but not in any obvious way that will help me with fiction writing. I wonder whether one will interfere with the other: if I write in the morning (which is my prefered time), will my brain be fried or too much in my world when comes time to go to work? Or if I write in the evening, will I have the energy to do anything good? I’ll test both and see. Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze some decent 500 words per day sessions around my 8:30 to 18:00 work time (with commute). On the flip side, having decent work means I have money, which I can use for example to have someone proofread my stuff (see language below).

CHORES – To complicate matters a little, I’m the one who cooks at home, and it’s not about to change just for this project. So it’s not all free time in the evening. This is not so bad, because I think I’m most productive in the morning, but this, as well as all the little chores one has to do, is still something that takes away significant levels of available time. I take it as a universal law (or at least guideline) that chores are annoying.

SLEEP – This is the corollary to the work and chores obstacles. Together they have to do with the time available for writing, and the state I’m in when I get to it. I don’t sleep so well, usually waking early regardless of the hour at which I went to bed. That could be a good thing, because it means more time awake, but this awake time is not that useful if it’s spent in a haze of sleep deprivation-induced confusion. On this one, discipline is the key – going to bed early (but it means less time…), careful with the wine in the evening (I’m a wuss), and no tv after certain hours (damn those excellent series and funny comedies).

LANGUAGE – English is not my first language (I’m a Quebec Francophone). And while I think I’m decent at it, I’m certainly not that good. My English is mostly instinctual. I can never remember all the rules and correct spelling. I’ve put this as an external obstacle because this is the state of things now, and I can’t just will them otherwise. I can improve, of course, and I intend to do so, but it’s going to take some time. In the interim, it slows down the writing (I’m always looking for the correct word) and my range is limited, but it’ll have to do. Why do I write in English then? Good question… Part of it is that I’ve been reading in English for 20 years now, so it’s the language I’m most used to for fiction, and particularly for fantasy or science fiction. To me, those universes are English universes (and, to be frank, Dragonbane or Darkslayer simply do not have the same punch in French: Fléau des dragons, Pourfendeur de l’ombre… It’s just really, really not the same). Also, and this is the capitalist in me speaking, if ever I reach a point where I can sell stuff, there is a much bigger market in the English than French world.

Now, the terrible trifecta of internal obstacles:

PAIN – This will come as no surprise to those who do this for a living (or for fun), but writing, and most importantly writing well, is hard. Really, really hard. And I have a tendency to shirk hard things. To procrastinate (by writing a blog for example, instead of writing my story). I am lazy and have little discipline, and I really hate that about myself (I greatly admire perseverance in the face of adversity as a quality – to me it’s one of the defining traits of heroes). To quote Teddy, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty”. So, writing is not only about writing, but also about becoming someone I can be proud of. Tough order…

FEAR – As I’ve said before, I have been telling people I want to write for more than 20 years. But I never actually wrote anything. Part of it is that it’s hard, but part of it is that it’s scary: what if I can’t cut it? What if I fail? Best argument ever for not trying… No chance you’re gonna fail! Not a chance you’ll have to conclude you’re just not good enough. Seriously, it sucks. With a few exceptions, I’ve mostly taken the well-lit path, the secure track (mainly school oriented – I was always good at school), rarely venturing in the shadows, where the exciting things happen. But it’s never brought me any deep satisfaction. It’s a cliché, but I want to be able to say that, even if I fail, even if I’m not good enough, at least I’ll have tried writing. Failure is okay. It’s disappointing, but it shouldn’t be so scary that it stops you from going forward. Writing is my gom jabbar: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear…

DOUBT – Fear and difficulty have a nasty cousin, and he’s called doubt. More precisely, doubt of my abilities. I think that, deep down, I have this belief that I’m not capable of doing this, or at least not well enough. This belief is reinforced by most things I read – “there is no way I can write something like that,” says I. But I’ve come to realize that this doubt is anchored in an illusion: it is about the now, not the then, but it is the then that matters. Of course my writing is not good enough! I’ve never really written. But it will get better, if I write. Whether it’ll get good enough is another question, but I will never know if I let my doubts of the present stop me. Also, doubt is a crippler if I approach this from the wrong perspective. While trying to write is important to me and I’m curious to see where it leads, I’ve come to realize that it need not be anything more than a hobby. For writing to be something that I do, it must be fun. I love creating stories, and that creation must be free of expectations. I’ve tended to be drawn to writing in great part because of the perceived lifestyle, and thus as something one does for a living. If seen in that lens, of course doubt is debilitating: if you don’t have the skills, you don’t make money. But if writing is just something I do, without imperatives other than my own growth, if I don’t expect it to draw anybody other than myself, then doubt looses all strength.

To recap, the key to facing my external obstacles, mainly time constraints, will be organization and discipline. And English lessons. For the internal obstacles, I need to embrace the zen of writing, to write for writing’s sake, without expectations other than the pleasures of the words. I will embrace pain and fear and doubt, and I will breathe, then I will burp, and they will be carried away by the wind…

PS: In a little less than to two hours of writing this post this morning I’ve managed to put together close to a thousand words of not-total crap. Things are looking good if I can do the same when the time to write my story comes!

Where Am I?

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