Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Writer in Training

So I've decided that for my second/retirement career (right now I'm a happy IT person right now and a non-professional dog trainer) is that I want to be a writer.

Writing has always been a part of my life (lit undergrad etc) and I never really realized I had much talent at it until email and the internet where I started writing a lot and people would complement me on it.  Over time I've finally come to realize that it might be something I could semi-seriously persue.

But I have a lot to learn.  I am a great expository writer and I write for work every day and I have two blogs also, but I would like to write fiction and I have limited experience in that.  The big thing is the entire art of storycraft and plots and creating a consistent, credible fictional world.  We all have a good idea of what makes a good story, but to actually create something that someone actually wants to read is a whole 'nuther universe.

So I've started going back over books I've read just to see how the story develops and it's been really interesting.  I'll have to add more to this over time, but things, in particular, I've noticed are.

The beginning drops you right in the middle of something and you are immediately busy trying to figure out what is going on.  Something like: "I ducked as the pig flew by and sailed into the dining room and then I noticed that ground squirrels were drinking whiskey and laughing."  Then the writer will give you more information while the character and you are trying to figure out what to do about the situation.

Another thing I've just noticed, and I'm not sure I quite understand the point of it is hint dropping that will be missed by 90% of first time readers.  "His stance was squared off and seemed vaguely similar to something that my father once did."  Then chapters later it turns out that this person is a missing son of said father.  What is the purpose of doing that?  I can see if it is intriguing, but most of new readers are going to miss the reference.

Then there is the fictional world you build, and you have to understand that readers are going to be comparing your world to other authors.

I'm reading Deborah Harknesses A Discovery of Witches where she has Vampires, Witches, Demons and Humans.  I am a devoted fan of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and I can't help but compare the two, and sometimes I feel like Harkness is directly addressing the issue.  For example, when a vampire explains to the main character (a witch) that he doesn't need a specific invitation to cross a threshold. In Butcher's world he would, and my in-house Buffy the Vampire Slayer expert says that in Buffy's world they also would need an invitation.  You could probably write a whole essay comparing all the vampire worlds on this issue (including Anne Rice's and Bram Stoker's)

This is one thing I really like about Science Fiction.  You get to make the rules.  Detailed, reality based, fictional books like the ones that Daniel Silva writes are so perilous because if you get one detail wrong it jars many readers and they really don't like it.  In Science Fiction and Fantasy as long as you are consistent in the world you create you're ok.

More as I learn more.


Elf said...

The beginning--that's your hook, the thing that makes people want to read more. It doesn't necessarily have to be right in the middle of the action, but you're right, it's whatever will intrigue the reader. There was one novel that I don't remember anything except the first page, 2 or 3 paragraphs about a man as a passenger on an airplane, waxing philosophical, and ending with "I remember the first time I killed a man." Then a break and off into some background and action.

Barry Longyear says that "the beginning of a story creates tension in the audience, makes them feel a need. The ending of that story comes when that tension is eased, when that need is satisfied."

And since you're on the topic of mnemonics, he mentions that whichever of the MICE (milieu, idea, character, event) is the most important element in the story--that matters most to the writer (and hence should to the audience)--determines the beginning and end. Like in Gulliver's Travels, milieu (world) is the most important thing, so the story begins with the first world he visits and ends when he gets home. Beginning with details of his childhood would be silly. Idea stories raise a question at the beginning and answer it at the end. (Like murder mysteries...someone dies at or near the beginning, story ends when who/why has been answered.)

Jack Webb likens telling a story to a chess game--your first move sets up the rest of the game. The beginning of a story places the reader in a time and a place and gives a feeling of movement. The first sentence or paragraph or page has to make the reader (and espeically the editor) want to read more. He gives an example of a great first sentence from scaramouche, "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Elf said...

Next, I think you underestimate what most readers will catch and retain when reading a story. I'd have to see in context some examples that you think are setting up for later in the story but that the reader might miss. Murder mysteries do this sort of thing all the time--the characters are chatting about going out in the yard and how warm it is and one character drops their sweater on the couch, it all flows very naturally and you think nothing of it until the end when the sweater on the couch is the key to everything, and then you remember what you read earlier and it all fits together. I have that experience many times when reading, "ah HA!" And noticing and appreciating things like that I think are what made me know how The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense would turn out within the first 20-30 minutes of those films. It was all there to see. But even for those who didn't put the pieces together early, when the twist was revealed, all the earlier pieces suddenly fit in as supporting evidence to the ending, so the ending didn't come completely out of left field.

Elf said...

Lastly--world building, boy do you have it right, except that if you're building your own world and get one little detail wrong, readers still notice it as much as they notice blips in real-world settings, and it's a lot harder to keep track of your own world than you might think! I'm trying to remember which author it was who was glad that some fan came up with an encyclopedia about their world, because s/he could then refer to it to make sure that they got details correct in later novels in the same world.

Elf said...

Oh oh oh, and back to the beginning--I should make the distinction between the *story* and the *text*. The text has to begin with a good hook. Sometimes that's the middle of the story. Sometimes that's the end of the story. Sometimes it's the beginning. I know that I've read stories & seen films where it starts with the ending, but you don't know what it means until the text/movie goes back in time and works its way forward. The hook is the thing.

Elf said...

Elf said...

And one more about dropping hints in a story--

Elf said...

Six comments, and they're all from me. Oh, joy. Here's another one--a writer I know (who has had a pretty successful career) writes about world-building, including links to some of her related earlier posts. She has an interesting take on it.