Re-stringing

I’m hardly going to be the first writer ever to find myself tantalisingly close to the end of a first draft (115,000 words), only to discover my plot isn’t working for me the way I need it to. How can I explain it? It’s like I’ve spaced out my tent poles too widely, and now I don’t have enough canvas to cover them.

I’ve now worked out what I need to do to fix it (and hopefully make it easier to find my way down the rest of the long, dark tunnel to that tantalisingly blinking neon The End sign). But it kinda means unstringing my plot and stringing it back together in a slightly different configuration. With some new bits added in.

So that’s today’s task. Reconfigure the synopsis until I have a plot that’s going to work for me. Wish me luck.

beads

Conflux 12 wrap up – Part II

conflux12headerrgbThis year at Conflux we decided to do something a bit different with the writing workshops and run them throughout the weekend instead of all on the first day (Friday), which is how we’ve done it previously. One thing I found is – probably due to the interactive nature of workshops – these are a really good forum to hook up with other people at the convention. I managed to get in three workshops. (Although one was in two parts and probably counts as two.)

I’d asked Alan Baxter to run a version of his Write the Fight Right workshop, mostly because I’d never done it and I really wanted to. (A perk of being in charge of programming!) It’s usually a whole day, so he did a condensed version of it over two hours. It’s great, I highly recommend it and I’d love to do the full version one day. It covers stuff like what it feels like to be punched in the face, the physiological effects of fighting (far more complex than you’d expect), how to use space and even some handy first aid advice. As you’d expect he provides plenty of anecdotes and stories from his own life experience and even pointed us at a few clips of fights to give us a sense of the difference between cinematic show and what a real fight might look like. Hint: the fight between Darcy (Colin Firth) and Cleaver (Hugh Grant) in Bridget Jones’ Diary is more realistic than you might think (quintessential smashing-through-shop-window scene notwithstanding).

BJD.jpg

I did a two part workshop conducted by Kaaron Warren and Nick Evans called Spray and Wipe. This involved a trip to the Green Shed (a store that sells recycled items donated through Canberra’s tips), where we had to choose an item from the shop as an inspiration point for a story. Kaaron then took us around to the Green Shed Underground (a separate store run by the Green Shed where they sell all their donated books and clothing) and made us choose an outfit for one of our characters and dress in it to write the story.

I decided to have a stab at generating an idea for something for my suite of colour-themed stories I want to begin work on soon, and picked out a very orange biscuit tin to start with. This got coupled with a really terrible orange mumu-style shirt and some fairly tacky orange jewellery. It was when I happened upon some great 1970s cookbooks with predominantly orange covers, however, that my story brain kicked in and an idea really came together.

After that, it was back to the con venue and in the afternoon Nick Evans, a journalist by trade, put us through a fairly brutal regime of cutting, rewriting and reworking the 400 odd words we’d got down in the morning with Kaaron. I was completely exhausted at the end of it, but I definitely have the beginning of a story and I’m pretty sure I know where this one is headed!

Finally, on Monday, I did a workshop with life coach Kenny Snable on overcoming negative thoughts to increase writing productivity. This one was great. She took us through the relationship between thoughts, behaviours and emotions and gave us a bunch of strategies to manage the negative ones, and some exercises to help identify and articulate what the actual issue is that is causing us grief.

And this is only a small selection of the smorgasbord of professional development that was on offer this year!

On endings and how to get to them

the-end1

So, to deal with my stuckness (which hasn’t yet been dealt with), my good friend and writing buddy Robert Porteous asked me how my story ended. I kinda have an idea about that, but it’s vague. Bare bones. I have the pre-ending climax all sorted and have done for a while, but the actual key story climax? Sigh. So he suggested I work on that. It seemed sensible: if I know how it ends, I’ll know what I have to get to. So I did a bit of brainstorming and created a few seeds of ideas that if I water carefully enough will produce shoots (and maybe, hopefully grow into something interesting and fulfilling).

But it’s hard.

So, as a tried and true avoidance technique, I thought “Maybe I’ll go and do some story planning work on one of my other novel WIPs and get into the story planning mood by doing something a bit fresh and different and revitalise my imagination.”

And guess what. No ending on that one. Pre-ending climax sorted. Major story climax? Vaguety-vague-vague-vague. I did a bit of a mental riffle through my other novel projects and, yep, this is something of a pattern for me.

“I wonder why this is?” I wondered. Wonderingly.

As usual, it’s all to do with emotional peaks and troughs. All these minor climaxes are (in standard 3-Act plot terms) the Darkest Hour. It’s the moment of highest and most drawn out emotional tension in the story. Think the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi; Rapunzel thinking Eugene has chosen the looted crown over her; Henri telling Danielle she’s a fraud and publicly withdrawing his heart; Elizabeth Bennet confessing to Mr Darcy that her youngest sister has eloped with the villain that almost ruined his sister’s life.

If you think about most of these story examples, the Darkest Hour packs a whole lot more emotional punch than the final climax. It’s when the protagonist has lost everything – or the thing that means most to them – and it almost doesn’t matter what else happens to them at that point because their heart has been ripped in two and everything else is trivial.

The exception out of these four (all faves of mine) is Tangled. Much as it hurts to see poor Rapunzel watching Eugene sail off with the crown, it is nothing, nothing, to the blubbering mess I become at the actual climax of the film when he does what he does – not to save her, because he can’t do that at that point – but to stop her giving up on saving herself. *Deep shuddery breath*

And therein lies the lesson. If I’m going to get interested in this part of the story and motivate myself to write it, somehow I’ve got to find a way to make my ending deliver as much, or more, emotional punch as the Darkest Hour.

Simple. Right?

Right.

Running writing

running writing

I am not a sporty person. Never was, never will be. I will not bore you with the humiliations galore I suffered through in PE as a kid. Suffice to say that all the leisure activities I have really enjoyed throughout my life have involved cosiness and curling up somewhere with a cup of tea. However, I recognise that exercise plays an important part in keeping our bodies healthy, so I do make an effort. I ride my bike to my day job most days and in the last year or so, I’ve taken up running. Again, I’m not going to bore you with the details of this. But, for some reason, I’ve found that my attempts at improving my fitness through moderately energetic exercise have had a positive impact on my writing – both my creativity and the way I think about the challenges it poses me.

Getting the creative juices flowing

It is a very tried and tested piece of writing advice: if the Muse is stubbornly avoiding you, get away from your keyboard/notepad/dictaphone/etc. Get out of the house and get moving. Walk or run, either works. I often have great ideas or come up with great solutions to tricky plot problems while I’m running. It’s weird, coz it doesn’t happen so often when I’m on my bike. Perhaps because when I’m on my bike I’m either going to or coming from work, so my brain might be more focussed on work issues. But I run in my spare time, when my brain is almost exclusively consumed with writing stuff; maybe that’s why. But it works for me.

Oh the epiphanies I have experienced.

Never when I have a pen.

This stuff ain’t meant to be easy

A thing running has taught me is that it doesn’t get easy. Which is not to say it doesn’t get easier. But easy? Nope. It’s always hard to drag myself off the couch, to get out there into the winter chill, or the summer heat, or the still-dark, early morning streets. Guess what else doesn’t get easy? Setting aside the time and dragging my arse to the chair in the study to do the story work and pound out the wordage. In both cases I have to battle that sense of exhaustion that comes even before you start – just from contemplating the task ahead. In both cases, though, if I push myself, if I make the effort, I always find I can do the thing.

The importance of stretch goals

This is a really interesting thing running has taught me: Set stretch goals. Then (this is the important bit), don’t just sit there looking at them; give them a go.

Because I’m so unathletic, when I decided to try to get into running, I decided to get into it gradually, alternating intervals of running and walking. Going from running in 90 second stretches to a whole 3 minutes was pretty daunting. Then going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes to 8 minutes… Every time I level up, I always wonder if I can actually do it. But every time I actually can, and every time it feels awesome to have challenged myself and found myself up to it.

And I’ve found this applies to writing goals.

There’s something to be said for applying for something like a residency or a competitive grant or a selection-based professional development course even if you’re not sure you’re ready, because if you get in, someone else clearly thought you were. If you only ever apply for this sort of thing when you know you’re good and ready, you’re not pushing yourself. You might be moving forward one step at a time (and setting one-step-at-a-time goals is also very important), but you’re denying yourself the exhilaration and gratification of taking a flying leap forwards. That sense of achievement you get when you’ve really challenged yourself and risen to it. (Note: when I say “you”, feel free to imagine me giving a stern pep talk to myself.)

Measuring your progress

One thing I learned after I had my first story accepted for publication back in 2011 was that I had just stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder that just goes up and up and up and up. Every time you climb to the next rung, you look up hoping to see the top, or at least hoping you’ve reached the point where you can poke your head through the thick layer of cloud obscuring your vision of the top. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when there always seems to be so far to go.

With my running, I find I’m much less about “Will I ever run a marathon?” (perhaps because I can answer that question straight off: No. Zero interest.) My fantasy goal is more about being able to run for a whole half an hour without stopping for walking breaks, and being able to do it every day without feeling like I’ve broken something. But I also find myself able to stop and look back down the ladder at what I’ve achieved so far. A few months ago I thought running for a whole 3 minutes was a challenge. A few weeks ago I ran for 20 minutes without stopping for a break – probably for the first time since I finished high school.

So there’s my last lesson. Stop and look back down the ladder. Admire the view from where you’re at. Bask in the sunshine of your successes.

Here’s a picture of duckies enjoying running. You’re welcome.

duckies running

 

Writing minds-eye candy

Today has been a good day. Today I have been working on a couple of scenes in my WIP involving a handsome 18th century man in various states of deshabille. It’s always important to get the details right, so here are a few helpful images I’ve been using for research and inspiration.

Firstly, you’ve got to get the clothes right. That gap at the neck of the shirt is very important. (We’ll get to what’s under it in a minute.)

Then you have to ensure you understand just how it sits. How far down does that gap go? Exactly what can you see? Some images are more helpful than others. Some are just pure distraction. *fans self*

From there, I’m afraid, we move straight to the pics of Aidan Turner and Sam Heughan shirtless. Because getting anatomy right is important. It is.

 

Inspiration from Miyazaki

miyazaki
(Picture links to the video – because I’m such a techno-numpty I can’t work out how to embed it.)

The video I’ve linked to above beautifully articulates what I feel about most of my own characters (male and female). I love the idea of them finding a ‘team mate’ rather than a saviour; a partnership neither of them can do without; someone with whom they make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

On wordcounts

The Wordcount is a capricious beast. It is simultaneously the carrot and the stick. The milestone by which you mark what you’ve achieved, and the one that tells you just how far you have to go.

My current novel WIP is sitting on about 65,000 words. I envision it will come in around 90-100,000 words. Which means I’m about 2/3 of the way there. But, hoboy, those last 5000 words have been a slog. I don’t quite know why. I’ve got the key plot stuff all planned out, but I’m having trouble moving between plot points. Generally this means I’ve got to go back and do a bit more work on shoring up the foundations of my story, but that’s a whole other blog post.

A piece of tried and true writing advice is that if you commit to writing a certain amount of words a day (or a week, whatever), it will only be a matter of time before you’ve completed your 80,000/90,000/120,000 word novel. And that’s true…to an extent. It’s not quite the whole picture, though. You can write 90,000 words in three months, but if by then your protagonist hasn’t yet found the magic widget, vanquished the evil nemesis and saved the cat, you’re not finished. You might have another 10,000 words to go. Or another 50,000.

If you’re a good planner – or, perhaps I should say, if your writing practice revolves around planning your work – wordcounts are probably a really good yardstick by which to measure how you’re meeting your writing goals. You probably know you want to write a 90,000 word story and you know X will happen by 30K, Y by 45K, and Z will happen in the last 5K. Great.

But I’m more of a pantser. I feel like this will be a 90,000 word story. I’ve got my plot bones set out, but I don’t do detailed planning around how I’ll get from A to B to C. I’ve already had to revise my chapter plan about 4 times, because the stuff I thought would happen in chapter 7 won’t happen now until chapter 10. It’s all good. That’s what first drafts are for – working all this stuff out. The thing is, though, I find I just can’t commit to progressing my story to a certain point within a certain wordcount. So, for me, I often find that plot milestones are a better way of measuring the development of my work. Have we found the magic widget? OK, now we’re halfway through. Have we just set out to vanquish the nemesis? OK, that’s the 3/4 mark.

BUT.

The wordcount is still there, sitting down in the bottom corner of Word, alternating between mocking me and being a triumphant marker of progress. I’ve found myself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m in that mid-draft slump. When I’ve reached 70,000 words, I know I’ll be doing OK.”

The fact is, though, I am doing OK. I’ve written 65,000 words. They’re not perfect, but I’m generally happy with them. And having the manuscript sitting at 70,000 words won’t be any guarantee that the 2000 words between 70 and 72 K won’t also be a bloody hard slog. There are times when it feels like I am inching myself forwards by the raw edges of my chewed-off fingernails. But I’m not in bad company.

George R R Martin on writing A Dance With Dragons:

The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.

I just have to keep on swimming.

Finding-Dory-poster-xlarge

 

This.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

It’s not just a useful reminder about what that spark is that tells us creatives we have something to offer the world, it also explains why we’re always trying harder, why we persist even when we haven’t quite measured up and…

…why, even when we haven’t necessarily hit the dizzying heights of perfection that are the standards we set for ourselves, we still have something to offer our friends, peers and colleagues in our field of creative endeavour that will help them improve as well.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #7 – with Ian McHugh

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

IanThis week’s guest is Ian McHugh, who sports what is surely one of the most resplendent beards in the Australian speculative fiction scene. His writing speaks for itself and has featured in publications such as Asimov’s, Clockwork Phoenix and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is renowned as a blunt and fearless (and therefore extremely useful) beta reader, and his critiques often start with a variation of: “Your story starts here on page 3.” He can frequently be found running workshops at the ACT Writers Centre, or teaching at the University of Canberra.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book/story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

I’m currently writing a secondary world fantasy novel with early modern technology – steam engines and gunpowder weapons and whatnot – combined with magic. It’s not steampunk, I just wanted to step away from the standard medieval-era for adventure fantasy. So, I needed to know early steam technology, firearms and artillery, as well as naval warfare in the transition from sail to steam, siege warfare with early cannons and (because it’s a magical secondary world) golems.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

This current project started with canals. The canal infrastructure from the early industrial revolution in Britain was incredible. They had actual mechanical lifts – not locks, lifts – for barges, where the barge would go into a gated tub and be lifted, water and all, straight up a cliff, with a counterweight tub coming down. So, that canal infrastructure became a bigger part of the story as I wrote, and a number of the pivotal moments in the story are built around canal things.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

I tend to research big things before I start writing, then research details as I go. As such, research is important to both my writing process and my procrastination process. It also means I do a fair bit of backtracking to retrofit corrected details as I write, so forward progress some days can be slow even if I’m working hardly rather than hardly working.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

I think once you have writer-brain, everything and anything can become research and inspiration. Generally speaking, research is inspiration. Research is also incredibly distracting. So many rabbit holes to disappear down! For example: I recently wanted to know if a 1700s era cannon was in an elevated position – on top of a wall, say – how close to the foot of the wall could it shoot? How did they shoot downwards? Could a cannon’s barrel be declined to shoot downwards? Was it ever the done thing? I lost hours. Found a multiplicity of blogs and rants and treatises and articles and instructional manuals about the optimum angle of elevation for maximum effective range for every kind of cannon and carronade and culverin and mortar and firestick. But what about when the other fellas are nearly at the bottom of the wall? I know they used a cotton bung to stop the cannonball rolling out when the gun was pointed down, but beyond that, I’m as ignorant as when I started.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

Something like how to shoot artillery from the top of a wall might seem like a detail I could write around, but it’s the little details that can catch you. If I want to have my characters defend a fortress when both sides have artillery, I need to know what the actual real strategies were for both attacking and defending a fortress with artillery. Just because it’s a secondary world, I can’t just make shit up that sounds good to me, because it will probably be completely wrong. Whatever secondary world you’re writing, it’s going to have a lot of real-world stuff in it. You have to get that stuff right first, if you want your secondary world to have any kind of credibility, then figure out how your magic and dragons and whatevs fit in with it and change it.

Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.

I think you need to approach research with the expectation that it’s going to change your story, because research is a critical part of the process of developing and refining your story idea. And, if you’re like me and keep researching as you write, it’s also part of your drafting process. As such, every bit of research tends to have consequential changes for my plots and scenes and worlds. Less so with characters, I think, unless they’re non-human (and I find a cool way to pimp them up some more) or based on historical figures (and I turn up an interesting factoid about the real person).

I have a draft of a historical fantasy novel currently filed in the Cry For Help folder, which featured a version of Peter Lalor, the leader of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion. I originally conceived him as a fairly idealistic figure, but then reading about the real man, I discovered that, after leading this rebellion to demand democratic rights for gold miners, he became a member of parliament and voted against those rights. Although the men he led to take up arms were Chartists and other advocates of democracy, Lalor wasn’t. He was a republican and a liberal, but not a democrat. Given that the conceit of my novel is, in part, “what if Lalor’s rebellion was successful?”, this tidbit threw up some interesting questions. So my version of Lalor now became a kind of Australian Robespierre and his rebellion/revolution followed the template of the French Revolution – including the Terror. Suddenly my character had way more depth and a way more interesting arc.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?

I said before that research is inspiration. Sometimes it’s also an obstacle or a roadblock. I don’t know that I’ve ever abandoned a story because of something my research turned up, but research often turns up inconvenient bits of knowledge that then need to be accounted for. In my story (deep breath) Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture, I conceived an alien species with five genders. Initially, I just said they had three available sex chromosomes which could be paired in five viable combinations. But then I read about the other non-chromosomal ways that gender is determined in nature, like temperature variance and haplodiploidy (look it up), so I had to not only have my scientist protagonist consider those possibilities as well, but I had to consider for myself whether they were more realistic than what I’d proposed.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?    

Research for stories is often esoteric, but I think it’s only weird to other people. If you’re geeking out on it, it never seems weird. And if you’re (if I’m) researching for a story, then you’re (I’m) probably geeking out. You just end up knowing a lot of unusual factoids – for my recent story Demons Enough I decided I needed to know how much blood is in an adult human (five litres, for anyone who’s interested). Knowing it wasn’t critical for the story (read it, you’ll see) and finding it out didn’t change how I told the story, but I was geeking out on the story, so I wanted to know. Not weird at all, see?

What kind of research have you needed to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? How do you approach that?

If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind you’re always researching for stuff that doesn’t exist. I think most of the time, you’re riffing on what’s real – extrapolating technology or politics, mashing things together to make a monster, filing off the serial numbers from some meditative technique and saying that’s what you do to work magic. And if you’re not riffing on what’s real, you’re probably riffing on something someone else made up before. So, for me, I don’t think there’s a difference in the research approach – writer-brain is always switched on. It’s more what I do with it once I’ve done the research. If I’m researching something that exists, then I regurgitate it as accurately as possible into my story. If I’m researching something that doesn’t exist, then I bang together things that do until I get sparks of something new.

A gigantic metal angel statue stands over a city with one arm raised. The buildings in the foreground are low and dark, the buildings at the angel's feet are tall and gleam with the reflected light of a setting sun.Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honourably mentioned for world year’s bests and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.

Ian lives in Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.

Note to self…

…Next time you’re having trouble getting the story flowing, Leife, stop and have a think about how you can make that particular plot point have emotional consequences for your characters.

Gustave-Courbet-The-Desperate-Man
The desperate man, Gustave Courbet, 1845

I’m amazed at how often I forget basic pieces of writing advice. Then when I remember a thing I’ve known for years (usually when I’m in the shower), it’s an epiphany.

I’ve been struggling to move my current WIP along for the last couple of weeks. It’s been a bit puzzling. I’ve got that bit of plot all mapped out. I know what’s supposed to happen. But, somehow, I just haven’t managed to bring it to life.

sandys-medea
Medea, Frederick Sandys, 1868

I’d put it down to the depressing necessity of returning to work after holidays, tiredness, general malaise, burnout from having gone hammer-and-tongs at the manuscript in the two months leading up to Christmas. I couldn’t figure it out.

loves-shadow1
Miss Clive “In Love’s Shadow” or Proud Maisie, by Frederick Sandys, 1867

Then, in the shower today (of course), I worked it out. I had a plot point. I had a thing that had to happen to move the story along, but it was entirely mechanical and bereft of any emotional impact on my characters. I just had to spend a few minutes thinking about how I could use the scene to mess up my characters some more add an element of emotional narrative to the scene and Voila! It came alive.

Somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the term “emotional stepping stones”. This idea resonates strongly with me and how I like to write. I can plot out a sequence of events for my story, but what brings it to life in my mind and gets my creative juices flowing is the emotional touchstones of a character’s arc. Every time I think about a candy bar scene that I had to get up in the middle of the night to write, it’s a scene involving some kind of emotional high (or low) for my character.

So that’s my note to myself. To remember that my story isn’t just a sequence of events, but a series of emotional stepping-stones, and that, actually, is what keeps me interested.

So glad I sorted that out. Now have some more Pre-Raphaelite pictures of beautiful people having emotions.

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Joan of Arc, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1882
Simeon Solomon
Young Rabbi Holding the Torah, Simeon Solomon, 1871