Tag Archives: scenes

Writing & The Process

I recently had what can only be classified as a brain fart. I’ve been working on several stories. Sometimes this involves a simple idea, or maybe a what-if. Sometimes it involves an image. In this case I have one to do with elephants and monkeys and a primate researcher. The other has to do with a physicist and cats (no not Schrodinger).  The first came as a combo of someone I know and of reading about a third type of elephant, after African and Asian.

So, okay, I started thinking about the elements of the story, what is the conflict and what each character brings to it. I always believe a story is better if it has an internal and an external conflict. The protagonist must battle something (the elements, a person, a culture, a creature) as well as something within themselves. They may win both conflicts. They might win only one, and they might lose both, as often happens in horror stories.

As I started to write my monkey/elephant story, I kept stopping and ruminating. This isn’t uncommon for me. Some stories fly through my fingers, unwinding in one long skein of imagery and action. Others are like an old car that putts along, then coughs and stops, then starts again. These stories take way more thinking time than writing time and I have too many that sit half finished because I ran into a conflict/resolution issue.

I recently had to write an erotic story for an anthology. Stuck for an idea, I asked my Facebook friends. It’s interesting to see that most people will interpret a request for an idea differently. I elaborated and said I needed  a story idea, meaning something that has a conflict and a resolution. What I often received was atmosphere and setting. A setting is not a story; it is merely background. So, if you say, what if you had a world where people floated upside down and ate by way of umbilical cords that they attached to plants? Okay, but what happens that brings out a story, that makes this world integral to the plot?

I was still grateful to my friends. After all, they’re not writers and it’s not their jobs really to give me my plots. And mostly they didn’t. They gave me ideas though; images, events, settings. From those I was able to pull out a plot that did involve some of the imagery offered. That’s also why some of my stories sit unfinished, because I had a cool idea about a world or maybe even a situation, but no idea what to do with it.

This brings me back to the brain fart. Many stories take months to write because of working out the idea. Some people can write them out in point form. I tend to often imagine the story unfoldng, write a bit, then unfold a bit more because characters and events change when I write them down. In this case my brain hit a wall. I forgot how to write. Suddenly I didn’t know how to write a story any more. How do you order the words? How do you progress a story? What is the structure of a story? It’s like I had forgotten how to talk. So finally I asked a writing friend, confessing my bewildering amnesia. What makes up a story? She said simply, “Beginning, middle and end.”

Okay, that is the most basic aspect, plus conflict or plot. But, I said, how do you get there? And I realized as I asked these questions that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a plot. I do. It wasn’t that I didn’t have conflict and resolution. I do. In fact, I pretty much have the skeleton of the story, the bones upon which I must lay the words. I realized what had stalled me somehow was that I couldn’t figure out which scenes were needed to progress the story forward. Which scenes are integral to making the story work, showing the character’s inner conflict, showing the world in which she lives? When I finally realized that, I felt I could move forward again. I had remembered how to write.

That doesn’t mean the story is done…yet. I’m still working out the scenes, still doing checks and balances to figure out the right emphasis, and will the story convey the emotion I want. If I do it well, I’ll sell it. If not, it will wander the lanes of the markets for a while or a long time. Of course I could also have done it right but may not be a big enough name to sell the story. That happens a lot (and more in these tough times) to many writers. But if it doesn’t sell in two to three submissions to markets, I’ll start to look at it again and again and again.

I remember Connie Willis once saying she’d rewritten a story forty-seven times (or some such number). There are others that say, move on to a new story. But I can identify with Connie. There are stories I have rewritten so often that I don’t actually know how many times. But I also have new stories to write and they’re like buds waiting to open. Right now I can count at least five stories in different stages of thought (and two of those partially written). Then I want to write a steampunk story but have no idea at all yet.

And hopefully I’ll remember how to write; the basics at least and have a beginning, middle and end to each of my stories.

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Writing: Talking Heads

When you write a conversation between two or more people, you have a dialogue. However, for many new writers a common problem is what we call “talking heads.” Dialogue goes back and forth between Dick and Jane but there is no setting, no description whether of the room or of their actions or mood. The reader will become lost, not being able to differentiate from one character to the next, or in being able to tell what is going on besides talking.

Using “Dick said,” “Jane said” with every line of dialogue becomes overly repetitive and boring to read. It also doesn’t show what the character is doing or feeling while they are talking. Writers will sometimes fall into: “I love that coat,” Jane said excitedly. “It costs a fortune,” Dick replied morosely.

Adverbs ending in “ly” can slow down the action. They’re also used to “tell” when the writer should be “showing” instead. Using the above examples with showing could result in much more information: “I love that coat,” Jane said as she ran over to the rack and pulled out the purple Armani.

Dick scowled and kicked at the faded carpet.  “It costs a fortune.”

Here we have Jane’s excitement shown by her actions. Dick’s disapproval is shown in his expression. We now have mood and something of setting, though not a lot. This could be extended to the next lines: Jane turned and looked at Dick, noticing his hunched shoulders. “How can you say that? It cost less than your golf clubs.”This now adds more on their relationship, and notice I didn’t even have to say “Jane said.” It’s obviously Jane because I’ve mentioned her. I’ve also now made it her point of view. By noticing Dick’s shoulders, we are seeing through her eyes. Once in a character’s point of view, you need to stay there and not jump back and forth from one character’s POV to another, or you risk giving your reader whiplash and further confusion.

You can get through a few lines of dialogue without description but very few. Even a half a page is too much without something. The reader needs tone of voice, emotions or actions. Adding tone of voice is a delicate thing. You don’t want every piece of dialogue to have: he expostulated, she snarled, he growled, she simpered, he bellowed, she screamed. It gets a bit much, bringing melodrama where it shouldn’t be.

All in all, you can have a dialogue heavy scene and still show action and setting and emotion. It takes practice and balance. Variety is part of the solution. Falling into a pattern of he said/she said, or having dialogue that always ends in action is a pitfall for repetition. The important thing is to keep the action active and to stay away from passive language.

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Fourth of July for Writers

Somehow I missed posting this on the 4th. Probably because I fell asleep half way through writing it.

Today was Independence Day for the writers, and overall we did what we’ve been doing all week. We went for dinner but spent longer than usual, then returned to the dorms to write and discuss. When the fireworks went off, a couple of people went outside to watch but they were far away. The KU campus sits on a hill, but the rest of Lawrence is flattish.

I’m now quite excited about my novel and listening to a few others, they were starting to feel this “it’s right” feeling. Of course, everything will change with the critiques next week, where most of us have to rewrite our outlines.

I’ve had to get rid of a viewpoint character that Rhea was calling my Duncan Idaho and completely downplay my gods. And I have to reformat the crisis/conflicts but I also have a second and possibly third novel out of this.

We’ve talked about opening lines and how they convey setting right in the first sentence and that that first sentence is the most important. We’ve looked at pacing and dialogue, overall story arcs, as well as interior and exterior motives/arcs. Much of this I knew but working out the nuances for novels is somewhat different. The pacing can be longer and needs to be, but then you have chapter arcs within story arcs.

I think some of this will settle out once I’ve had time to ruminate.

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Writing: Scenes

We’ve been workshopping our first three chapters. Kij mentioned that many of us had setting but little in the way of anchoring a scene. At least five of the nine novels take place in worlds different enough (Earth’s future, medieval Earth style, space or non-Earth planets) that we must really set the place. This holds true for everyone in the group so Kij has given us an assignment of rewriting the first scene of the book.

The scene should be around 700 words and give at least six pieces of info on the first page and no more than three on the subsequent pages. I may not be remembering this correctly but five senses have to be used, and then three per page.

It sounds easy but is not. One has to get the right amount of pacing as well as the right info in the setting. Too little and the reader is not anchored. Too much and the reader gets lost. I’ve started my scene and it’s not one I’ve written yet. In fact, it was a later scene, which is now moved right up, bringing action and my three races into the picture all at once.

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