Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Retreat and Forms

This past weekend I had the opportunity to go on a creative writing retreat for my department. If you think writers are insane when there's one of them, well then, you should see what happens when we all get together. We hike in rivers. My shoes were soaked, but hey, they were clean. We went on 3 hikes and visited a lookout point at a national park, and before each hike we would be given a writing prompt. We would walk and think about the prompt, and then when we rested we would write on that prompt. We also talked a lot, mostly about our varied writing projects.

We were supposed to write about nature. One prompt asked us to write about nature in a way other than we usually do, so if you consider nature this source of poetic wisdom, be cynical. And vice-versa. Another one asked use to ask questions about the location we were in and also to mentally peel back layers of time to think about how past people or future people might see the landscape. I don't usually write about nature, although I love it, so these prompts helped me find a way into parts of my mind I don't usually use.

Likewise, I'm currently in a class that is making me experiment with forms. I mean, I have to write 2 short fiction pieces every week that use a form other than the typical narrative style, with exposition and dialogue leading from beginning to end. The forms I've used so far include an index (using numbers to carry the story), lists (simply put, using long, varied lists to add to the story), fable (short, some kind of moral, simple characters), telling a story using only questions, and telling a story in the form of directions to someone. My directions story was titled "How To Be Batman", and is dedicated to one of my friends who shall remain nameless. But, I will say, she is super-awesome, like Batman.

This week I had to write an anecdote. That's a short story meant to be conversational and to make some kind of point. It also had to be fictional (not something I lived through) and interesting enough not to have to end with the phrase, "And then I found 5 dollars." I read my anecdote in class, and it got a good response, so now you get to read it. I'm sorry. That's the way my blog works. So, here it is:

The Bottle-Thrower

            A few years ago, my husband and I rented a house at Cape May in New Jersey. It wasn’t beachfront; that would have been too expensive, as we wanted the house during the busy summer months. When I wanted the ocean to inspire my writing, I would take my notebook and bike down to the beach in the early morning while Zack, my husband, was still asleep. I would find a flat area of sand and write ideas for new stories, poems, or whatever I felt like writing that day.
            On the first day I was there, I was in the middle of sketching out a plot for a fantasy novel when an elderly man rode up the boardwalk on his bicycle. He parked at the end of a long pier, threw down his bike, and raced to the end of the pier. When he reached the end, he pulled a brown glass bottle out of a bag slung around his shoulders and threw it into the ocean, as far out as he could fling it.
            The next day, the man did the same thing, in the early morning as the tide was going out. And the next day, and the next day, and the next. Every morning for two months it was the same thing: the old man would bike to the pier, run to the end, and hurl a bottle into the sea like it was a Molotov cocktail.
            One morning I went down to the beach and watched for the old man’s daily visit, but he didn’t come. He didn’t come the next day, either. When I came home and told Zack, he pulled out the paper and turned to obituaries. There he was. The old man’s name was George Manwell, and he was eighty-seven years old. He was unmarried and had no children that anyone knew of, and had been an investment banker in Trenton before retiring to Cape May. Apparently, he had a strong love of the sea. But nothing in the obit explained George’s mad dash to the sea every morning, bottle in hand.
            Zack and I, talking it over, decided it must have been his form of a will, a way to leave behind his legacy even after death. Each bottle probably had a life story or a photograph in it.
            That night a giant summer storm churned up the ocean. When I went down to the beach that morning to write, the sand was littered with brown glass bottles. I wandered the beach for what seemed like hours, picking up the bottles and examining them. Although the wax seal over the mouth of each one was tight and unbroken, every single bottle was completely empty.

That's an anecdote. I like writing in these different forms because 1) I feel like I'm learning new ways to ply my craft and 2) they are forcing me to get more creative with what I write. The next form is describing a scene, like a picture or screenshot. Not really a narrative, yet, but it can be based on how I direct the reader's eye around my described scene. It's creative writing weightlifting, as was the whole retreat weekend. I'm sore now, but I'm sure I'll be stronger for it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Writing the Mystery

Again, sorry for the ambiguous title for this post. I'm not going to talk about writing mystery, whodunnit novels. I really like throwing you off, don't I? But in my defense, I want to talk about every kind of story is a mystery for the reader to figure out, and how writing an story with that mindset might lead to better, tighter writing.

I can't take credit for this idea. My YA novel professor is the one who taught me this idea. Here it is: basically, a story is a mystery to the reader. They are reading to figure out what happens at the end and how it gets that way. So, any genre from science fiction to romance is a mystery when the reader first opens the book or pops in the DVD. What this means for writers is this: dispense information like you would in a mystery.

It's hard to start writing a story, especially a sci-fi/fantasy, without feeling the need to start out with a bunch of exposition about the world and the characters. And while that kind of thing is necessary, to some degree, after a while the reader just wants to move on to the main action. So how does writing like a it's a mystery help this? Think about mysteries: do they tell you everything at the start? No! They leave parts out, imply bits, and have the hero find out details as they become important. Exposition to set up the flow of the story comes at the beginning, but readers don't have to know everything from the beginning. They can pick up on the fact that one character is kind and another cruel by how those characters act. The details in setting and plot may also reveal better to a reader things that might have also been said in early exposition, but in a far more entertaining way.

Another thing, I think, that writing as if the story is a mystery helps is how the writer sees the story. The reader solves the puzzle, yes, but only after the writer does. Personally, I feel more like a detective than a creator when I write. I come up with specific characters with values, strengths, and weaknesses, and I have to solve how they end up where they are. This means using what I've already written to solve problems, instead of inventing a new way out of trouble for my hero. I feel like I've been handed a bag of clues - details revealed in earlier writing - and I need to puzzle out how they come together to solve the problem.

For example, this week I was writing and hit a snag. I have two characters, teenage boys, who are working very hard to lie to each other about who they are and where they come from. They're guys; they're not going to confront each other unless it's life or death. So, here's what I had:

Alder: half-human, half-elf, but doesn't know it. Determined, defiant to the point of stupidity, and curious. From Earth, but is hiding that. Has panic attacks when his life will be threatened in the next couple of hours. Also, heals extraordinarily fast. Doesn't trust Berzen.

Berzen/Zed: fireperson with enhanced powers (large wings and the rogue ability to burn things with a touch), but hiding that. Wears gloves and a long coat. Street-smart, knows the history of Cartha where Alder doesn't. Good liar. Has redemption issues over an accident his powers caused.

So, here's what I came up with to reveal to both characters the identity of the other: Alder and Berzen (or, really, Zed) arrive in a town. Alder has a panic attack, but dismisses it. They get a room in an inn. Berzen takes off his coat and goes to bed before Alder comes in. Alder, seeing Berzen asleep, wonders about his companion and why he's always wearing gloves. He sneaks over and takes off Berzen's gloves, seeing a large scar on one hand. Berzen rolls over, and his bare hand sets the bed on fire. Alder freaks out, and Berzen jumps out of bed. His wings are out and obvious. The fire spreads. Because Berzen wants redemption for things in his past, he goes to save the other people in the inn. Alder, feeling like the whole thing is his fault, goes with him. Alder acts heroically and is burned while saving a life. After everyone escapes, Berzen tries to get Alder some medical help and the burns are completely healed.

Both boys have explaining to do.

Okay, so this example is kind of bare-boned and rough. But the point is, I didn't need to invent any more than what I already had. Everything already there about my characters and their situation allowed me to create a scene where Alder and Berzen's true identities are revealed. I held all the clues, and a little creative thinking allowed me to solve this mystery.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Let's Talk Politics!

Okay, okay. Not fair of me to scare you with a post title like that, not in an election year. While I believe voting is important, and something I will be doing come election time, this is a writing and storytelling blog, not a politics blog. I apologize to those readers who want a political debate between me and the second personality. I also apologize if this post turns out to be a little haphazard in organization and rationality; it's been a long day. No, I mean it: it's been a really long, long day. It ended with me watching The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, which was a good way to unwind. If you want a good example of a story that has a very simple plot, made interesting by good characters, that's a film to see.

So, politics. Have you ever read a story where the main conflict is, of course, a character's personal dilemma, but politics plays a huge role? I see this a lot in the sci-fi and fantasy I read (think Dune and Eragon), but I've also seen it in thrillers, romances, spy novels, the list goes on and on. Honestly, I don't like politics because I think it's boring, but now that I'm writing a novel where my main character is about to get embroiled in the politics of three Kingdoms and a group of desert clans, I've been thinking about it a lot.

Politics, when used as a backdrop in a story, gives the story a sense of realism. Every kind of people have a way of governing themselves, so politics is as prevalent as death and taxes. It provides the feeling that there is more in this story than just Bob and Sue's current workplace tension that will erupt into romance or, maybe, violence. This is especially useful when worldbuilding for a science fiction or a fantasy. In fact, I think every writer who worldbuilds should take into consideration what the politics of that world are, even if they aren't referenced much in the story. Then again, they may be more than you realize. If your hero's a thief living in a settlement on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, wouldn't it be helpful to the reader to know what the laws are regarding theft, without going into unnecessary detail?

Some stories use politics as a major thread. This usually happens when a main character is someone of importance, like royalty or a dignitary. This kind of story gives the writer a chance to create a utopia or lampoon current politics. I advise against both; utopias are boring, and politics changes enough to make the story obsolete in a short time. However, I think exploring politics as a story is a good way to explore human nature, and how the lure of power (or the loss of it) affects different kinds of people. What will these people do to get what they want? Will they sacrifice their personal interests for the good of the people, or will they put their ambition above all else? Will they lie and manipulate? Will they rise above corruption or succumb to it? A good story is one that deals with the struggles of complex characters. Politics is a good way to show those struggles and that complexity.

Here's the warning label: using politics in stories can get big. It can get messy, and tangled, and snarled. It's probably best to use it in a novel or film, over a short story. But good writers can do whatever they want, as long as it works. Breaking the rules is one of the best parts of writing, I think, and like theft in the Andromeda Galaxy, it's not against the law.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Odds and Ends

I don't have much to say this week on the formation of good stories - my life is nuts. I am currently taking a class that requires a lot from me, and another that requires more, and for the other two...don't get me started. The good news is that my fiction class is teaching me how to use unusual forms of prose, such as index (telling a story with numbers), lists, letters, questions, footnotes (most of the story is in footnotes), etc. I feel like it will make me a better writer. My class on writing the YA novel is a little different.

You see, I know my professor doesn't like high fantasy and there is a possibility writing high fantasy will harm my grade. However, the novel I want to use is high fantasy, and I feel like using it will make me a better writer than if I used something else. For those who follow my fictional lives, it's down between the Alder Torrance/fantasy world of Cartha story or the Jeremy Wilderson story. Alder's story would help me grow in writing plot, characters, dialogue, prose descriptions, and, well, basically everything else, whereas I feel Jeremy's story will only help me write characters. Which is good, but I can do better.

The good news is, my professor knows me and knows I write fantasy. Also, Alder's story is not a conventional high fantasy. Yes, there is another world and yes, the names there are strange. But Alder is a typical fifteen-year-old from our world. It takes him a long time to accept the magic in Cartha, he doesn't get the fashion of cloaks and tunics, and he has a hard time pronouncing the names. I also plan on messing with the idea of magical translation (how Alder can understand what the people of Cartha say) by having some puns and idioms not land with Alder. I think this story will be okay when I workshop some of it next week.

In other storytelling news, I went to the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival this weekend for the first time. I highly recommend it for budding storytellers; the style and mastery of words that I saw there was amazing. It was inspiring for me, as I try to write a bunch of stories for my two classes. I learned there that anything can be a story, even a drive home with your kids, and that the best tool a storyteller has is the ability to see things in a different way than most people. Huh. I guess I did talk a little here about the art of story crafting.

Lastly, I think I'm beginning to be a real writer. One of my friends teaches sixth grade and she is currently teaching her students about the writing process. Somehow I came up in conversation and her students want to read my novel (that's hopefully coming out around Christmas). When she told her colleagues about this lesson, they said, "You should get your friend in here and have her give an assembly on writing." So, next semester, I may have a speaking gig at an elementary school. It feels weird. Who am I to be talking about writing, Brandon Sanderson? I'm no expert. But, I'd be lying if I don't giggle a little gleefully when I think about it.