Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Beauty of Brainstorming

I am a ceaseless advocate of the importance of brainstorming. Without it, my stories would be flat and confusing - and extremely short.

Brainstorming gives you the opportunity to take a question or concept of your story and let your mind run with it, asking what it will and throwing out ideas - good, bad, and off-the-wall - to see where they lead. Eventually one of those ideas will make you pause and think: yeah, that might work. So you run with the idea some more. When you are done asking questions and testing ideas (or until you can't think straight anymore), you [should] discover that your questions are answered, and your story has expanded exponentially with even more complex characters and layered plot. (Make sure you give yourself a few uninterrupted hours to hold the session, though - your brain needs a continuous thought stream or you'll lose track of those ideas, and possibly even the questions.)

A few days ago when I sat down to write, I was pondering an article I had read that morning which pointed out a blaring problem I had been wrestling with. "They" say (and I do listen to "Them," occasionally) that a good story has both an external struggle and an internal struggle - meaning both an outward situation and a personal conflict that your character must deal with. And a time limit. For ID, I had my outward situation set, but I hadn't come up with a personal problem or a time limit for EP to deal with. And as I found myself scrounging for more plot at only 15,000 words, I could see there had to be more to the book - or it was doomed. It was time for a brainstorming session.

What spawned out of those hours of brainstorming gave me not only a personal conflict and a time limit, but the back story for the antagonist's motive, a few new key characters (who only help by being murdered, but still), future tension and danger, and...well, the list is quite extensive.

When I finally stopped (my head dizzy with intersecting plot points and characters), I had more than enough material to run with (80,000+ words, here I come!), and was really excited to begin writing again.

Brainstorming can be used for plot, character, or both - or anything, really. By writing down your chaos of thoughts, patterns emerge. And once it's down you can organize it, discovering what your mind was trying to say but couldn't through the tangled mess in your head. And once it's untangled, you'll be surprised by what you can come up with, if you only let your imagination run free.

Monday, May 16, 2011

When Inspiration Strikes

Never fear inspiration. "Of course not!" you say. "What writer would fear such a blessing?" Well, "they" can sometimes tell you that, while you are working diligently on one story, you should not work on any others. And if inspiration strikes you on another story? Well, just jot down a few notes and ignore it.

With no respect to "them," this is insane. Inspiration, no matter which of your stories it concerns, should never be ignored! Take a break from your current story and let your inspiration take you where it will.

But there's a catch: once the inspiration ends, you must go back to your current story.

This is where I always had trouble. I would get so caught up in the new story that I would put the old story completely out of my mind. And by the time inspiration died on the new story, the old story was a boredom best left until inspiration struck for it. And normally, it never did.

So if inspiration strikes you, run with it. But no matter if it's for a day or a week, make sure you always keep your current story at the front of your imagination, directly behind that shining inspiration. That way, when the inspiration finally vanishes (as it always will), your current story can step right back into front position (where it belongs). Always strive to finish what you start!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rule #1: In late, out early

"In late, out early." This is one of the most well-used and well-known writing sayings today simply because it should always be followed. (This is especially true of YA fiction and younger genres, though apparently not so much for adult fiction if most published works are any indication - but don't get me started on that.)

This saying literally means you should begin each chapter (or scene) either at the last possible moment before or right after something interesting happens - and then end the chapter/scene right after it's over. No backstory infodump, no unnecessary description, no filler. Just the best bits of the story - not much more, not much less.

Backstory is mainly for the author's information only. Plot and write whatever backstory you need to, but unless it's absolutely necessary to the story, you shouldn't use it in the book. If you do need to explain something about a character's past, or perhaps a bit of world history, mix it into another necessary scene - don't just infodump it wherever it "feels right." The same goes for description. Weave it into the narrative using the character's senses. Don't "set the scene" (start a scene with a block of description) unless the scene truly needs setting (and in most cases, it doesn't).

The only time filler is appropriate is for pace padding (so the story flows properly), and even then filler should only be necessary information to further the story. I just used a bit of filler in ID - I felt the need to expound a few paragraphs on EP and AD's history together while they were driving to NYC. When I got done, though, I felt a bit dirty for throwing in the part-flashback/part-infodump scrap of filler, and will most likely trim it down to bare facts in editing.

Every scene, paragraph, sentence, even word, should inform the reader of necessary information and move the story along. If it doesn't do this, it doesn't belong. I don't care if it's your favorite scene in which Martin goes to the Laundromat to wash his socks and runs into a batty old woman. If this old woman (or his socks) doesn't end up predicting a dastardly event in Martin's future, and instead simply annoy him, then the reader doesn't need to know about it. I don't care how many hours you put into crafting the old woman (or his socks). (But if it's already written, don't toss it! Literary Deleted Scenes now have a place: on your website.)

Now, I'm not saying that you should fret every time you begin a chapter/scene, worrying if you're starting at the right point. The First Draft is for getting down whatever flows out of you. If Martin suddenly goes to the Laundromat, let him. He may end up just washing his socks, or the batty old woman may predict his death. It isn't until later drafts that you need to worry if something furthers the story or not. Write whatever comes to you - and then prune it like a bonsai later.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Some Imagination Words

These lyrics from "Gone In the Morning" by Newton Faulkner describe how I feel when I sit down to write:

Off to a land where no one’s been before
I’m going to take my shoes off at the door
I’m going to go where dreams like rivers flow
When the alarm goes off I just won’t know
Won’t you come with me

And what the vastness of writing feels like:

I’m going to master all kinds of kung-fu
I’m going to live inside a tiny zoo
I’m going to grow myself a giant afro
When the alarm goes off I just won’t know
Won’t you come with me

Fortunately, it's never "gone in the morning." (Incredible.)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Doubts & Assurances

I finished my read-through yesterday morning and was pleasantly surprised with what I have so far. "They" usually advise not to go back and read/edit what you've already written until you finish the 1st Draft, but if you ever find yourself doubting your characters, story, or ability, print out what you have and read it. If it's anything like my experience, it will do you wonders.

On EP's character: while she is proving a bit self-centered (as I'd thought), it seems to fit her nicely. Her narrow, sheltered view of the future world can prove sarcastic and surprisingly childish at times, both enjoyable qualities for the adult story. I am quite happy with how she has developed and therefore will continue to let her do as she pleases, instead of trying to direct her. Her sidekick AD is still a bit in development, but I'm close to figuring out his new place beside her and will fix his beginnings later.

As for the plot, it's a little choppy but I'm doing okay for right now (I did tone down the "mob scene" though XD). And I discovered two new leads for EP to follow! When I write, I never know what's going to come out, so I'm learning to always be watchful (and take notes!) lest I accidentally forget something along the way.

Overall, the read-through was a great success, and now I'm energized to continue my story.

My advice: When you are having doubts, read through what you have to rediscover your purpose. I was glad I did. And always take notes on everything!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A mind of its own...

If you are a writer, you know how a story and/or characters can get away from you if you're not careful. Well, I thought I was being extremely careful. Apparently not.

It all began with an epiphany. I had a problem letting my Special Agent characters run an errand not related to their FBI job description. But they had to go to this man's house to begin their search. So how to allow them to make the trip? I thought: if only they weren't Special Agents...and then: why did they have to be? This evolved into breaking away from the Special Agent angle and instead making EP a part-time consultant for the Bureau - along with other employment. Suddenly she had a whole other job apart from the FBI, through which she could easily be hired to make the errand. Voila! I was on the right track.

Or so I thought. While this change in direction seemed the perfect fit for EP (my MC), it seems to go against my original plans for AD, her sidekick. He gets lost in EP's splendor - I'm always forgetting about him unless EP needs him. He was supposed to be an equal for her, but instead he's turning into the strong, silent, muscled type. Not exactly what I wanted for him. And as I write along, EP as the empowered, intelligent type is dissolving into something else much more...self-centered. Not exactly what I'd had in mind.

And then by Chapter 7, all heck seemed to break loose. My plot, already faltering, began to spiral, and to get the results they needed my characters began doing gray-area things that, after writing them, I was shocked to find they had just done. "You are not mobsters!" I declared, for all the good it did.

So now I have printed out the chapters already written and begin an extremely interesting (and frightening) read-through before figuring out my next move. Here's hoping I can salvage their integrity before they join the mob. (That's what I get for reading Holly Black's Red Glove and watching old episodes of The Untouchables at the same time.)

So are these new changes good? Horribly bad? I'll let you know.