Category Archives: Writing - Page 3

Another one down

So on Monday I finished my latest novel. Brendan’s Way is a science fiction book set on a colonial space ship travelling to a newly-settled world, about two or three centuries in the future.

Brendan is a young, idealistic farmer turned colonist, recruited to take the trip by a shadowy group of revolutionaries and dissidents. He is travelling with Neala, one of the revolutionaries, who is posing as Brendan’s wife. But Brendan doesn’t know until they are hurtling through space that Neala is hiding much more than her identity.

So I’m still working on the pitch, obviously, but that’s a good start.

I did two new things when I wrote this novel. One was writing it on a keyboard instead of writing it longhand. In the past, I found that writing on the keyboard was difficult; I stalled easily and the words refused to flow consistently. This time, though, not only did they flow easily, I wrote at an unbelievable pace. Longhand I average 500 words per hour; on the keyboard I was up to 1500 words per hour. I was shocked at how quickly it all came out.

It might have something to do with the other change I made in my process: I wrote a detailed outline for the whole book. It was about 10,000 words long itself, and had roughly one paragraph per chapter. I stayed very faithful to the outline until the very end — only the last two chapters were not worth keeping from the outline and it took a little effort to rethink the ending.

Although the book came out much more quickly, I found that I lost something in the process too. It’s hard to define exactly what; I think it’s most accurate to say my style is just weaker. Again and again I’d finish a sentence and think, well, I hope I remember to improve that when I edit this thing.

The speed tradeoff is significant though. I went from nothing to outline in two days, and from outline to completed draft in five months. Considering it took over a year to write On the Heat, it’s quite amazing.

Of course it’s just a first draft, and there is lots of work yet to do. But the first draft is the biggest milestone there is, and I’m happy to have passed it so soon.

Stupid Goals

I was reading a thread on reddit today where someone was talking about their inner critic and how they found it so hard to even get started. Paralyzed by fear and all that. Nothing new there, and nothing that most of us haven’t dealt with at one time or another.

One response that I really liked, though, was from another writer who had been through the same thing recently. His solution was to decide to write a hundred stories. His plan was to show them to no one, just write them to get the words flowing.

He wasn’t done the hundred stories — he’s still working on them, in fact — when he started some new writing projects. He’s obviously excited, and obviously past that hump. And he did it by giving himself an utterly irresponsible and unrealistic goal and trying to achieve it.

It’s a fantastic technique. It’s one I use from time to time; two winters ago I set out to write 10,000 words in a single weekend, when I went away to a little hotel in a sleepy off-season town. Just last month I set a goal of 20,000 words in the first two weeks of October, when my wife was away on a trip (but while I was also working full-time). I hit both goals, albeit just barely.

There’s something about setting impossible goals that really works for some reason. Maybe it’s freeing, mentally; you wouldn’t beat yourself up for falling short, since the goals were so outrageous from the outset. So you work towards them without the same kind of pressure.

On that note, I was planning to finish the book I’m working on by the end of November. I’m pretty far behind the pace I need to get there — basically I need to write around 20,000 words in the next three weeks, and work is really busy these days. But what the hell — I’m working to hit that mark anyhow. I only started this book in July so finishing it by the end of this month would be a great achievement. If I don’t get there, well, I’ll finish it soon after.

Back to work, then.

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

Lester Dent was a pulp fiction writer in the first half of the 20th century. He was insanely prolific, typically writing 200,000 paid words per month. He seemed to have this whole writing thing all figured out. Dent’s master plot formula (later used and endorsed by Michael Moorcock) is probably his best-known work in the modern writing world. On the starting point for a story:

Here’s how it starts:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

The rest is well worth reading, but Moorcock sums it up very nicely:

Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.

Dent’s “formula” doesn’t work unless you’re a pretty competent writer already; it’s more about organizing your work rather than actually writing the story. But it’s good stuff, and I’ll be referring back to it the next time I start an outline.

 

On Prologues and Epilogues

On the writing reddit today, someone asked about prologues and epilogues:

Should a story, or even a series of stories, use prologues and epilogues. Is there a standard for using these devices? Does it only apply in certain circumstances?

How do you writers out there feel about a prologue that shows a future scene in the story, and then ‘Chapter 1’ which takes places days/weeks/months earlier?

Are they best avoided? Thoughts?

I was a bit disappointed to see that other commenters were generally in favour of prologues and epilogues, with the (arguably slight) caveat that they should “work”. That’s pretty undeniable: if something works, it works. But in general, prologues and epilogues don’t work, and I think that’s because they’re a symptom of more fundamental flaws in the story.

There are some common justifications that writers make for prologues:

    • They draw the reader into the story.
      If the main story you’re writing doesn’t draw the reader in, you’ve got some serious problems that a prologue won’t solve. If a reader is drawn in by a prologue, but then reaches the main story and finds that the author is actually writing a different story, the reader is likely to be kind of annoyed. And if that different story is not as compelling as the prologue, what have you gained? You’ve delayed the reader’s disappointment, at best.

 

  • They provide important context or background.
    If the context or background are so important that they need prime placement at the start or end of the story, then maybe they are the story. Write them instead.

With these justifications, writers are actually trying to justify not working on the real problem: their story, or at least the opening of their story doesn’t work. And if they tack a prologue on there, what’s the result? They have a prologue, and then a story that doesn’t work.

I think I have less of an issue with epilogues, although my question again is: if you’ve just given me the powerful emotional climax to your story, why are you undermining it by taking me away from the story that just concluded? Give me denouement — I love some good denouement — but don’t switch gears and take me away from the experience of the ending.

I’m trying to think of a really great piece of literature that starts with a prologue that really works well. Nothing is coming to mind, though. Suggestions welcome.

On the origins of artists

This week, Bug Comic is discussing how to be a true ar-teest. The above is illustrating an appropriate background for the artist. Haven’t we all felt like that at some point?

Click the image for today’s strip, and keep reading all week.