Saturday, July 31, 2010

Going Back, Going Forward

We writers live in a strange world of fantasy. We create stories. Sometimes there is truth in them, even if it is just a grain, but in all cases (except memoirs, maybe) we were not there and have to imagine what it was or would be like. We can travel through time and space and go anywhere, be anyone, and do anything through our writing.

But in another sense, we are always going back and forward constantly just by the nature of writing. We go forward and write a story, then we have to go back and edit said story, probably multiple times. For those of us who write series, that could mean that in our new writing we my be following a character who is ten years more mature and then have to go back and do another round of editing (probably thanks to an agent or publisher) and revisit their youth. We may have to rewrite an entire scene and we have to do it consistent with that character at that time. Then we have to return to the current project and resume writing the older version of the character.

It is a never ending ebb and flow of where and when we are with our writing. Quite a challenge. As a writer, I find it fun to be able to jump back and forth and if I wrote something I didn’t like, I can change it. I can rewrite history for my characters, sometimes by changing just a few words. But while we have the power to go back and fix things and change things (and write prequels), it is going forward that is the writers greatest power and joy. What is the next project? Who will I write about this time? Going forward is the creation of new material, new adventures. Going forward is what we live for. It is why we write.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where Do Ideas Come From?

The origin of ideas is hard to pin down. It is one of those wispy things that most writers can’t explain. I don’t claim I am any better, but I can explain the source of some of my ideas and explain how the idea developed. As to how I knew that was a good idea... that’s part of the wispiness.

The first story I wrote (that I’d still let anyone read) where I was the master of every aspect was set in 2000 in Nebraska. It is the story of a small town family. The father is a Vietnam Vet, the mother a Japanese woman he met in California. The father is dying and the story is how his youngest daughter deals with it. This may sound somewhat original, but the basic family setup is one from my own family history. That youngest daughter, if the year were 1900, would be my great-grandmother. But I’ve changed almost every aspect to fit with the setting I wanted. So that’s the secret of that story, a family story reset with the characters fleshed out to match the setting. I still get good remarks from people who read it, though I do warn them to have a box of kleenex handy.

My Science Fiction writing was born at a desk where I received deliveries. I have no doubt that the source of some of my SF universe that sprang up around my characters came from the drivers I encountered on an almost daily basis. While I know that some of my early scenes were inspired by Han Solo, that quickly dropped away and left a more real, gritty image in my head of the world of space traders that I’d begun writing about. Out went the glamour and in came the drudgery, the paperwork, the day to day hassle of such a job. I drew conflict from an idea that had been stirring in my head since I’d read a novel and not liked one part of it. My interest in history added texture by imagining a world that had been there for a long time and I did my best to convey that. My first foray into this future galactic civilization will remain in the dusty files, but since then I have voyaged with other characters and created an even broader picture of the world I created. It is pieced together from many ideas and it is the union of these different pieces that makes the setting unique and gives me ideas for the stories to tell. Oddly, that same job that inspired the first story and the setting, inspired my third novel.

I get many of my ideas from life, but sometimes the idea only comes with lots of thought. I have considered writing a Fantasy novel for a long time. Even before I truly started writing, I had a setting in mind, complete with characters and general plot, but I have yet to write a single paragraph. What finally drew me to fantasy I cannot quite pin down, other than I had an idea and it had to be written (most writers will know about such ideas that won’t stay in their head or remain merely notes on a page). It started with the question of what I could write about that would be different and unusual. So much of Fantasy is filled with European-based folklore and I didn’t want to do anything like that. Instead my mind turned to Asia. I drew on Japanese folklore and some Chinese as well. But that wasn’t unique enough. I had to have some other idea. Then I hit on it, something very unusual. One protagonist would be somewhat of a cliche, a Canadian farm boy. But the other would be the most unusual person to counter that cliche, an Asian Muslim girl. When I put those pieces together, I just had to start writing.

Another idea I have (but yet to be written) involves a cat, a dragon painting, a deck of cards, and a music video. Ideas can come from anywhere. I’m always on the lookout for them, but often all I get is a snippet, not enough to form the whole idea. But if you can match the pieces into something that inspires your imagination (and more importantly, engages your readers), than you have something. And the funny thing about being a writer is that no matter how experienced a writer is, they can still get an idea that fails to live up to what they see in it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Realistic Conflict

Conflict in life comes from a variety of sources. So too, should conflict in writing. Some of the many types are represented by bullying, misunderstanding, and stubbornness. I’d include all the super evil bad guys, like Tolkien’s Sauron, under bullies. That one is pretty straight forward. It is the other two I want to cover right now.

Comedy often makes use of misunderstanding. One person says something and another person takes it, either out of context, or in a way the speaker did not intend. The result is the same, conflict born out of a lack of understanding. I have noticed some writers, particularly for sitcoms, take this to an extreme that becomes unrealistic, even for comedy. You can’t always rely on the same type of conflict for every situation. It’s great for one-line jokes or to create the main conflict, but to do it again and again get boring and isn’t what happens in reality.

While it is true that as writers, we aren’t creating reality with our words, we do have to create the illusion of reality - that these are people our readers can understand and relate to. Without that illusion, we won’t hold their attention. So all aspects of our story, weather grounded in reality or fantasy, need to have the illusion of reality. That include the series of problems we beset our characters with.

I’ve found stubbornness to be an equally normal source of conflict. For example, religious beliefs fall in this category. A religious person will hold to their beliefs regardless, in stubborn adherence to their faith. Similarly, a politician will hold to their political beliefs. Put two such people together with very opposite ideas that they will stubbornly hold to and you have an endless source of conflict.

The best written novels have one major source of conflict (like the Tolkien example from above) and a variety of other conflicts to bounce the characters around as they work to overcome the major conflict. Some novels use a series of smaller conflicts that build to the big climax. The not so good novels use a series of smaller conflicts that only serve as episodes to frustrate the characters and bring drama to the story, without forwarding to the main climax of the story. Soap Operas are famous for these strings of small conflicts.

Let's look at Gone With the Wind, at first glance, it might seem to be a Soap Opera. But it isn't. Although there are constant episodes that set Scarlett back, there is one overriding thing that lies behind every scene - a girl growing up. One by one, her childish ideas are removed, not always in time. Each conflict she faces whittles away her fantasies. The conflicts she faces are of all types. Her stubbornness causes many, misunderstanding abound, she faces danger from soldiers, starvation, troubles she causes herself, troubles she tried to avoid. While it is quite a list of conflicts she faces, it is an every changing landscape of conflict that rings true for her time and place. That is the key to good fiction, that your conflicts ring true for your setting.

And that is where the issue lies. They always say to write about what you know, but to be realistic, you have expand your horizons and be able to write from perspectives that aren’t yours. You can’t rely on stubborn characters just because you are. You have to expand. Not that you, the writer, have to change your beliefs, but you have to write characters that realistically differ from your beliefs. It is one of the skills to learn to take your writing to the next level. Many writers make a good living writing about the same types of characters and conflicts over and over, but the best writers can delve into a multitude of different characters and conflicts, a talent that adds rich realism to their writing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Death and Life

I found out this week that a small town Newspaper Editor I knew passed away. He called himself the Old Editor. He will be missed. It is a reminder of all the areas writers occupy and how they spend their creative energy.

There are writers such as Isaac Asimov who are prolific and famous. Not quite everyone knows their name, but their volume of work will not soon be forgotten. Then there are writers like the Old Editor who plug away week after week with their short editorials. They have a large volume of work, but few ever see it. Two figures to admire, both now sadly gone.

On the other hand, the profession of writing sees constant renewal. While some leave our number, it is ever replenishing. There are always new writers growing up and adding themselves to our numbers. Their work has far to go compared to those they replace, but they’ll get there if their determination carries them that far.

Renewal, something we write about, is integral to our profession. While death claims all of us eventually, before then we have a life to live and things to write about. Some will write the next best seller, some will write that daily editorial. Each one of us who finds and niche and plugs away at it is an important writer and should be remembered as such. So while I say goodbye to the Old Editor, important to his corner of the world, I think that somewhere out there, another writer is starting a similar role, maybe not knowing how important it can be.

In the end, whether new or old, famous or obscure, we writers fill many niches, often unnoticed, but always important.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Names and Unintended Humor

As an author of speculative fiction, I create lots of names. Create is not always accurate, sometimes I find them. One thing I have learned, both from the names I find and create and from other languages I have had contact with, is that you have to be careful that you don’t give a character an unintentionally funny name.

Even with real world names you can run into trouble. At my day job, name after name passes my eyes from all sorts of ethnicities. Some turn out to be quite amusing. Some of the most amusing are what parents do to their children or what people do to themselves. I can think of one woman in particular who decided to hyphenate her name with her husbands. The unwitting result is a name that to those with minds in the gutter (and this author admits to finding his there frequently) is great sport. I’m afraid I can’t provide the exact one I have encountered, but there is a close second that came to my creative mind - Melinda Wang-Carr - that should give you some idea.

And parents can be far worse to their children. I have encountered names that make me wonder what chemicals their parents were on when they came up with the name. I’m sure everyone knows what I am talking about. I have seen the silly, the ridiculous, the off color, and the simply embarrassing names so often I have lost count.

Then there are linguistically funny names. We English speakers find them in what some call ethnic names, but speakers of other languages can often find them in ours. One that stands out is the name of a car dealership in the Denver metro area. Kuni Lexus sound innocuous, but to speakers of Pashto (which includes parts of both Pakistan and Afghanistan), it sounds really, really bad. Not a name you would buy a car from. So if your target is going to be an ethnicity that you do not belong to, you need to be careful that the names you use, for all your characters, don’t have any unintended meanings.

As a writer, I strive to avoid landing my characters in this situation. Having a mind that frequents the gutter makes filtering the names I create easier. But there are also cases when a writer may want a name that does has a humorous connotation. These are either crafted and subtle or blatant and obvious depending on the purpose and comedy level desired. It can be done very effectively. I’m of the opinion that unless you are going for the laugh factor in a name that it is best to shy away from anything that can be taken in an unintendedly humorous way that might detract from the story.