Monday, March 25, 2013

On Second Thought

One problem I find myself often running into while writing is the question "Is this too common?" "Is this too predictable?" "Is this too cliche?" As a writer, you want to surprise your audience. From the big twists to the little motivations and backstory, you want to keep the reader interested and you want to keep them guessing. The problem is, I was often finding myself answering "yes" if I wondered if a motivation or plot point was cliche. Now, cliche isn't necessarily a bad thing. At this point in time, everything's been done before and often done to death. The important thing is to make it your own. You can find countless infographs comparing stories like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. They're each their own unique story and you'd not think of them as being similar, but there many VERY general aspects that are the same between the two, and sometimes more.

See what I mean? Reduce the details and every story is cliche. I try not to worry about the general cliche. My stories will be compared to many other things over time, and maybe someday, other people's stories will be compared to mine. What concerns me is the cliche in the details. The "wants to rule the world" villain "because he's just evil/crazy". The king's advisor who might as well be wearing a Jafar costume. The "they'll be together by the end of the book" sidekick who excels at what the hero's bad at. Thecore of the problem is that these cliches are so embed in our subconscious that when we come to story development, they're the first thing you think of! So how can you fix that?

Second thought. I can't remember if I got this from a book, a post on the NaNoWriMo forums, or if I just came up with it (I don't think I'm that clever. I suspect I read it somewhere), but last October, I gave someone this advice. "Take your first thought. Toss it. Think of a new way to accomplish what you wanted to. Toss that too. Keep the third, or the fourth, or the fifth. The further you go, the less predictable and cliche it should be." When I came up to a crossroad in my plotting, I decided to try my own advice.

MC was a senior in high school. Did she have a job?
First thought: Yes, she worked retail. Realistic, but boring. It didn't give me any development for her, either.
Second thought: No, she was focused on her studies. Also boring. A little more development, but not much.
Third thought: I had to think this one over a bit. It was harder with the "throw-away" answers out of the way. What could a teenager do that wasn't retail/food service or not working? ...An internship. She wanted to be a journalist and got a job doing basic work for the local newspaper.
Well, that's more interesting, and it gave me a much better idea of who she was, what she wanted out of her future (and would subsequently lose in the story). It gave me a lot more characterization than just saying she worked at a grocery store would have.

I ended up using the technique my writing buddy and I have started to refer to as "Second Thought" through most of the book, and onward. It doesn't always work, and sometimes I just really, really want to use the first idea, or nothing else fits quite as well, no matter how cliche it is. In those cases, I tend to just let it go. Sometimes, a little cliche and expected works, and sometimes it's okay, no matter how hard it may feel to convince myself of that. But when the puzzle piece fits but just doesn't feel right, the second thought may just be the way to go.

Do you have any tricks you use to avoid cliches in your writing?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Solitary Company

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
 - "Africa" by Toto

I've always loved that song, especially that line. "Solitary company". It's great, isn't it? Part of it is because, ever since I learned what the word meant, I've loved oxymorons. They're one of my favorite kinds of word play, and they so rarely some up in pop culture. This line in particular has always struck me. They long for company while being alone. During a conversation with my writing buddy, I realized that this oxymoron very clearly describes a writer.

The conversation we had was about silence. There are people in everyone's life who like to talk a lot and people who don't talk at all. I am not a talker. I could go a whole day without saying a word to anyone, and I could be fine with that. I'm undeniably an introvert. I'm okay with alone. I'm okay with silent. Because, as a writer, silence is... never really quiet. Silence is just a chance for us to listen to the other sounds that only we can hear: the turning of gears as we puzzle out a plothole, the rambling of a muse figuring out the new animal she found, the chatter of characters acting out a scene or telling us something about themselves, the construction site noises of a world being built. When the world around us is quiet, that's where we writers thrive.

What better way to define "solitary company" than the mind of a writer in a moment of silence? The world around us can stop existing, but we are not alone. We are never alone, because in any moment, we can be in the company of hundreds. There are so many other people we're trying to listen to, talking to us and ultimately trying to get us to make them live. And yet, just as easily as we can slip into this state of solitary company, we can leave them for the real world and no one ever knows we were there. Like ninjas. Writing ninjas.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Here Kitty, Kitty

The mind of a writer
I have come to the realization that I am a crazy cat lady.

I'm still slowly working my way through Bradbury's essays, although I'm almost done. I've got one more essay and then what appears to be a collection of poetry. It's one hell of a read and one I recommend for every aspiring writer. He talks about his experiences writing everything from short stories to screenplays, and at the very least, you end up with the knowledge that the way you feel about your work isn't wrong. Or maybe it's just me, but in any event...

The last one I read was an interview regarding his rewriting of one of his short stories that became a full story, then several adaptations for film and stage. While the talk of changing the story and some serious editing was interesting and informative, the bit that stuck out the most to me from this essay was his comments on how he writes. He said if a story was being troublesome, if an idea wouldn't give him more information, he WOULD NOT work on it. He'd turn his back and go do something else. Ideas, he said, are like cats. If you chase after them, they will ignore you or run from you, but if you let them be, they'll come to you and let you create them.

Could any analogy be more appropriate? Ideas are generally refered to as plotbunnies in some circles, but that's not really accurate, is it? We want our ideas to be like dogs. We want them to be happy to see us, to bring us all their favorite toys, drop them at our feet and then roll over for belly rubs before settling down to never leave our side, leaping up at the slightest sign of us giving them attention. We are their master and they our devoted worshipper. But they're not. Oh no, they are not. We are the peasants in their kingdom, the slave to their whims. We work on THEIR time. They will come and go as they please and you never know when or if they'll come back. If you catch them at the right moment, you may see them playing with a toy and pretending you don't exist (and god forbid you catch them, you won't see them for hours after that.) And if you happen to WANT to give them attention, you may get lucky and the idea will ALLOW you to bask in its glory and maybe you can pet its tummy or it'll sit on your lap. Or it'll bite you and bolt off before dashing in and out of the room at random intervals teasing you with the briefest of glimpses.

And yet, AND YET. You still keep bringing in the others you find because you can't turn down an idea looking for a warm head to settle into.

My fellow writers, we are all crazy cat ladies, and there is nothing we can do about it. We need these cats. At least they don't wreck up the place like the real ones...not until someone invents a way to see inside our heads. Scary thought.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Reading for Research: Harry Potter

I finished the Harry Potter series last night for my first full read-through ever. I've been meaning to for years, but I just never got around to it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I got the whole series for my Kindle and I've spent the last week and a half doing nothing but devouring them. By the end of it, I've found myself back in full-fledge Potter Mania, a Potterhead reborn.

Aside from experiencing the story in one fell-swoop finally, I was also reading them for the first time as a writer. Yes, I had been writing while reading them before (1-5 were all out before I finished high school), but I read them from the perspective of a fan, devouring the story for all it was worth. Now I read them, enjoying the story while trying to get as much out of it as I possibly could. After all, reading is just as important to improving as a writer as actually writing. You see what works and what doesn't; what succeeds and what falls flat; what your teachers told you to do that gets ignored, and what they told you NOT to do that also gets ignored.

I've been trying to pay attention while reading to the use of the word "said". It's one of the bigger debates in creative writing I've found: is it okay to use "said", or should you stick to the countless other words you can use, or use movement and action to designate the talker instead of anything?
1. "Oh, stop it," she said, rolling her eyes.
2. "Oh, stop it," she groaned as she rolled her eyes.
3. "Oh, stop it." She rolled her eyes.

I tried to spend my time reading Harry Potter trying to pay attention to how JK Rowling did it, as well as her repitition when conversations were held between two people. (I.E., did she continue to write X said, Y said after the speakers were established, or did she leave it to the reader to follow the speech). What I noticed when I dragged myself out of the books long enough to pay attention to the details was that Rowling frequently uses #1, while occasionally using #2 when needed. I was surprised at some of the instances she used "said", moments that were heated or clearly yelling, but then I realized that she expressed the situation well enough to not NEED to use "yelled" or "shouted" or anything like that. Likewise, some of the cases where she used something other than "said" seemed unnecessary and broke up the flow. I didn't make out any instances #3, but that's not to say they weren't there. I just didn't notice them.

It's hard to draw yourself out a book when the movie's already playing in your head. Not as simple as pressing pause. People tend to say that your eyes skim over "said", leaving you in the book while stranger words will bring them out. It's true, really. I was more likely to stop and remember "Oh wait, that wasn't a 'said'" after a "mumbled" or "whispered" than I ever did with a single 'said'. I also noted that she didn't have many long conversations without description of motion or scenery in them to break them up.

Along with the "said" study, I was also trying to pay attention to the action scenes. It's one of my own weaknesses, and I've always been told to be more succinct in action. Short, "this happens" sentences to match the fast pace of the events. I'm not sure, having finished the series, if Harry Potter was the best choice to look into this. Magic is...detailed. Especially, the magic of Harry Potter. It NEEDS details and longer, more descriptive sentences, but it manages to put them in without breaking the pace. While I now have a better idea of how to handle magical combat, it doesn't help me for the stories I'm currently working on.

After I finish the other book I'm working on right now (Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury) I'm planning on rereading The Hunger Games, at least the first one if not the whole series. A few short stories I'm working on are 1st person present, and the combat is more along the lines of what I need to know. As long as I can remember to pay attention and come out of the book at the important parts, it should be useful.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Thanks to A Creative Writing Teacher

When I was in high school, I took not one but two creative writing classes. My junior year (or was it sophomore?) I sat through your standard class. Daily writing prompts on the whiteboard to be answered in a notebook that was collected every day, then a lesson on different kinds of writing and poetry, ending with a homework assignment to write something along those lines. Aside from having fun with the prompts, it was dull. I was with people who were just taking the class for an easy grade (one girl didn't even know what a muse was. Period. Like, not even the mythological muse. She peer-reviewed my final project which I'd named "Voice of the Muse", and literally said "I don't know who this Muse character is, but Maggie references them a lot in her titles. She didn't put them in any of her stories.")

My senior year, I was one of a handful of students who was offered the chance to go off-campus for half the day and take courses at the local community college, classes that would transfer to a four-year university when we graduated. I jumped at the opportunity and signed up for the college's offered creative writing course among my other classes.

The professor who walked in that day was the complete opposite of my high school teacher in every way. Dr. Wright was an older gentleman, dignified, professional, straight-laced, eloquent, clean, and I wondered what I, a weird, fantasy-loving teenager who wrote short stories about a girl with a magic pencil whose nemesis was the weatherman, had gotten myself into.

I still hold to this day that it was one of the greatest classes I ever took in my entire schooling career. That first day, Dr. Wright told us we had one assignment. We were to bring in something. We had to bring 15 poems, a short story of X pages, or a script of Y pages. We were encouraged to bring something every class, and bring a copy for everyone else. And that was it. He didn't tell us HOW to write or WHAT to write. He just told us to write, and every class, we sat down and critiqued what had been brought in that day. Sometimes he would talk about things he had read himself, and occasionally would bring in giant piles of books to give away because he was just out of space to keep them. If he asked a question that we didn't know the answer to, he didn't tell us. We could look it up ourselves if we wanted to know. And he never went gentle on critiques.

I had been bringing in poems like everyone else for a few weeks before I decided I wanted to bring in a fantasy story I had been writing. All I had was the layout of the setting and the history of the world. It was looking to be very, very long. To make it work for the assignment, I put it in the context of a story being told by a grandmother who was entertaining her two youngest grandchildren while their father and teenage sister listened. There were interruptions and distractions, and Grandma didn't get too far into the story before dinner started to burn. The story was less fantasy and more the family's interaction with each other, with touches of this story I was working on in it. I had no idea how Dr. Wright would take it. Like I said, he was honest and held nothing back on his critiques.

He had no criticism for it. He liked my visuals and descriptions. When someone in the class said she didn't understand how anyone could pretend to ignore someone as I had written the younger children doing, he sided with me and explained it to her. I was in shock. He had never done this with anything anyone else or even I had brought in before. A class or two later, he came in and handed me a book. His mentor had written it, he said, and he wanted to pass it on to me because, from my story, he thought I would like it. It was a thin fantasy story about lost islands and shapeshifters. When he gave it to me, he told me his mentor had submitted it to 60 publishers before one took it. He told me not to give up, no matter how many rejections I would get. Without ever saying it directly, he told me I had promise, that I could do it, that I could be a writer and see my book on the shelves as long as I didn't give up.

I still have the copy of that short story he gave back to me with his comments on it. It's stored away in a box of memories and pictures and precious things. Dr. Wright may never see this post, may not remember my name if he saw in on a shelf, may never know how much that gesture meant to me. He could never imagine that it would be one of the things to pull me out of the pit I was sliding into six years later, to keep me from losing faith in myself and my writing when I was at my lowest point. But I will always be grateful to him for it, and I hope, someday, he'll be seated at home, reading a book by some new no-name author. He'll scan through the acknowledgements at the end of the book and see a small line: To Dr. Wright, thanks for the faith. I hope he'll smile and know that it's to him.