Archiv der Kategorie 'The Craft of Writing'

My writing is suddenly full of joy. So is my life.

To me, geeks are people who pursue our own joys and passions more than universal truth, and that’s why I love being a geek and being around geeks so much.

I planned to write a novel of at least 50.000 words during November, and prepared myself the best way I knew how. I was confident that I could write this novel quite easily until November the first hit. When I sat down, I found that I didn‘t enjoy writing because I expected me to be able to write either way better or way faster. I felt that I was wasting my energy agonising instead of being able to enjoy myself.

I took a step back and asked myself why I want to write. Like everything else in my life, I want to create a story because I hope that it will bring me joy. And I want to write it down so I can share it whith others in the hopes that they will enjoy it too. (That’s my take on the one reader response: I‘d rather have exactly one reader getting joy out of my book than whole generations being bored to tears by it in school.)

I tell stories to inspire joy. There are other great reasons, like inspiring laughter, tears, terror. I‘m not usually going for the terror, but that’s just my preference.
So if I want to inspire laughter, I have to first find out what will make people laugh. My approach would be to pay attention to and think about what makes me laugh, and then write to that, because that way I get to laugh while writing. If I‘m trying to write to what makes other people laugh, whether or not I laugh at those things too, I can no longer rely on my knowledge about what makes me laugh. I have to find out what makes other people laugh, and the wider I want my audience to be, the more difficult it gets. For example, I have spent almost my entire life with my twin, and still I won‘t know what will make her laugh until after I have told the joke. I always tell them to laugh myself, too, so that’s okay. I don‘t feel like I wasted my valuable time trying to make her laugh and then she didn‘t, I just feel like I enjoyed myself and maybe look a bit like a giggling idiot to her. I can live with her thinking that, and I can live with her being right about it, because I know that at least I enjoy what I‘m doing.

I just realised that my definition of sense and meaning is joy. If I am enjoying myself, life makes sense to me. If not, it doesn‘t. Universal truth doesn‘t figure into this.

Anyway, back to writing.
So in order to inspire laughter, I need to know who I want to inspire and want may make them laugh. If I can‘t even figure out a reliable joke for the one person I have been closest to for twenty five years, how am I supposed to figure out how to make a thousand random strangers in a thousand random bookshops laugh?
I‘m not even trying. I find it much easier to just write to my own sense of funny. I will laugh about surprising things if they seem harmless (If they seem threatening, they inspire terror in me). I also laugh in moments where I truly enjoy life. I think the two are related: If something unexpected happens and I see that it doesn‘t threaten me, that reinforces the idea that life is good, that I don‘t need to shield myself from the unexpected. (Neither my laughter nor my terror rely on surprise; that’s why I enjoy Terry Pratchett and Edgar Allan Poe so much. It’s the inevitability with which they arrive at their conclusions that makes sense to me.)

Another reason why I‘m not trying to be funny for others is that I don‘t feel comfortable around people who try that. If you tell me a joke and I think you‘re not enjoying it, I wonder why you bothered, and I may come to the conclusion that you were trying to manipulate me. This is why I can enjoy all forms of humour that feel sincere and harmless to me. The same is true about other forms of art and human expression. I think any form of human expression is art to me if I view it as a sincere atttempt at joy.

Now that I know that, writing comedy is suddenly easy: I can just create a world in which I would feel comfortable, and make harmless things happen that I wouldn‘t expect.
Easy as pie. Even if I don‘t always know exactly what would make me comfortable or what I wouldn‘t expect, I can usually tell what I find uncomfortable or expectable just by paying attention.

When I started writing this book on the seventh November of 2010, I just wanted something nonsensical and funny. Then I realised that I need a certain level of sense, or maybe that I find nonsense only funny if I can find a deeper sense behind it.
Now I was suddenly trying to write a book that made sense. It became a lot more daunting. Had I just gone for nonsensical without funny, you would probably now be reading a meaningless string of 50.000 words.

At first, I tried to defer to other people’s ideas of meaning, but eventually found it as hard as trying to write to others‘ ideas of humour. Then I made sense of my life, and now I can write a book that makes me happy. I feel that it drastically improves my prose, because I feel unhappy with my writing if it doesn‘t convey my sense, and I see beauty in it when it does. So if it doesn‘t strike me as beautiful, I know that I need to fiddle. But since I now what I am striving for, it’s easy to go in the right direction. Beautiful words, clear sentences and striking imagery now seem like the easiest thing in the world to me. They just have to be joyful to me.

Now that I know what I value and enjoy in writing, I also know what I value and enjoy in life. I enjoy it fully now. Everything seems a lot simpler and more enjoyable than it did just a few days ago. I used to try to find truth and share it with others, which I find a lot harder and more frustrating than trying to find and share joy. Since I know what joy is to me, clarity just finds me.

Messages in Fiction

I recently listened to the spectacular podcast StoryWonk Daily, which has been my greatest source of writerly inspiration and crafty insight since I discovered it about half a year ago.
The hosts Lani and Alastair discussed gender issues in writing last week, and in episode 197 − The World Vs Men And Women − Lani got very passionate about messages in fiction, arguing that you should never include them. She most likely meant that you should not preach to your readers or be anvilicious, but she ruled out the possibility that messages could be integrated into stories gracefully, organically. To me, expressing what you believe in and dropping anvils are two very different things and I‘m as passionate about achieving the former as Lani is about avoiding the latter.

I think that our understanding of the world, our values and biases and unquestioned assumptions will always shine through in our writing, and that the stories we as a culture tell each other have an impact on our society. How big that impact is, I don‘t know, and being a writer, I‘m likely to overstate it.

That doesn‘t mean I will have my characters get on a soapbox and preach − In fact Lani herself gave an excellent example of what works much better: She talked about the gay and transgendered characters in her books (which I haven‘t read yet) and that she included them without making a fuss about their sexuality or gender, without portraying them as jokes or freaks, and most importantly, that she made them rounded characters instead of clichés.

I think there is a common concern amongst writers that readers will not get the message if they are not explicitly told what it is. But they do. They are usually a lot smarter than you think, and will not thank you for patronising them.

As almost always when it comes to good fiction, the writing rule Show, don‘t Tell applies. Don‘t tell me that friendship is important, just show me how little Maggie defeats the evil narwhale by realising just in time that she has to get over her pride and ask Sandra and Robin for help even though she bragged to them earlier about not needing it.

If you‘re having trouble with this, just think about Terry Pratchett, and how he manages to tell us profound things about the human nature while simultaneously spinning one hell of a yarn. He never compromises his story, because his messages and yarn are intermingled, are one.

To give you another example: Zoe from the TV show Firefly is a very capable, tough and strong woman. We know this because of her actions, and it would really ruin the effect if another character turned their head towards the camera and intoned: „You see, kids, women can be capable too!“ I think it’s a good rule of thumb that you shouldn‘t have a character say anything just because you want your audience to know it. Also, it would assume that the concept of a strong woman is somehow new or daring or unusual, which would undermine the message that strength is completely normal for women.

Whether you are a writer or create other media, just the simple choice of which characters to include and how to portray them can have a huge impact. A fellow StoryWonk listener (Hi Jenni!) linked to this article by Ms. Twixt about girls and women in TV shows, and the statistics are pretty grim:
Less than one third of the characters are female, a number that hasn‘t changed since 1946. Likewise, only 19,5% of the workforce on screen are female, even though in reality, that number is 50%. In crowds, girls and women only account for 17% of the people.

The article concludes, „Other research GDIGM cites finds that girls who are exposed to more media have the feeling that they are fewer choices in life, and that, on average, the more media boys watch the more sexist their outlook.“

I‘m sure most television writers and producers don‘t set out to paint a sexist, reactionary picture of the world or want to endorse that women are so inferiour to men that the main reason to show them at all is to serve as eye-candy for straight men. Still, this is what most of them are doing, and if they don‘t like it, they had better include as many strong female characters as males, and not sexualise every single one of them.

I could probably make similar observations and arguments about people of colour, queer, trans and genderqueer people and every other marginalised group. Sure, you could fall into tokenism, but to be honest, I as a trans genderqueer would much rather have a dozen token trans sidekicks to identify with in the books I read and the movies I watch than be treated in the media like I don‘t even exist.

PS: StoryWonk are just celebrating their 200th episode! I‘m getting on my trusty old soapbox now to tell you to go forth and listen in on the fun!

Dumbledore’s Death

In my last blogpost, I discussed how writers can use death scenes to show us who the character truly is and what matters to them most. I analyzed Dobby’s death, but another truly great one is Dumbledore’s.

Dumbledore dies at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince, at the hands of Severus Snape. Harry saw him performing the curse, and it seems clear that he is a cold-blooded killer and a traitor, and that Dumbledore was wrong to have put so much trust in Snape. Only at the end of the seventh book is it revealed that Dumbledore had been slowly dying from the effects of touching a cursed ring and knew that he had only weeks to live, and he intended to use not only these few weeks, but even his death himself, to work against Voldemort. He had planned everything in minute detail, and he had ordered Snape to kill him.

Dumbledore uses his own death as part of his genious plan to defeat Voldemort. He cares just enough about himself to ensure a relatively painless death, and shows no fear of or regret about it. At no point does it occur to him to avoid death. He does everything he can to save Draco’s soul--who is actively planning to kill him--, and yet is very harsh with Snape when he voices his reluctance to play the murderer and kill his own mentor (the argument Hagrid overheard between Snape and Dumbledore, where Snape accuses him of taking a lot for granted). On the tower, facing the Death Eaters, his last fear is that his death might not come about exactly as he had planned, and when he begs Severus, it is one of the very few scenes that show him vulnerable and scared, and one of exactly two scenes that show him at the mercy of and dependent upon another. The other scene is after his death, as he makes his confessions to Harry and asks his forgiveness, revealing that he did not only play out his death like a master chess player to defeat external evil, but also to atone for his own old sins. Sins he does not try to forget or excuse. This lies at the heart of his nobility.

So his death shows Dumbledore to be… quite complex, actually. A genious tactician, a saviour to his enemies and ruthless towards himself and to his ally (I debated whether or not to call Snape his friend), cold and calculating as he plots, but ultimately human in his last breath, seeking reassurance and redemption.

Rowling didn‘t manage to show all of this at his death scene at the end of book six, and needed another scene at the end of the last book, where he and Harry meet in the twilight between death and life. Another interesting facet is that Dumbledore, unlike Dobby, doesn‘t undergo any fundamental change throughout the entire seven books. Dumbledore as we meet him at the beginning of The Philosopher’s Stone would have made the same choices as he eventually does at the end of the series. The change that enables--and requires--him to sacrifice his own life takes place entirely in his backstory, decades before Harry is even born. JK Rowling gets away with this because she weaves this backstory about his sister’s death into the seventh book in ways that directly influence Harry’s actions and are important to his emotional growth.

He is already slowly dying of the ring’s curse when he decides to have Snape kill him, so that’s not the moment of his sacrifice. It’s when he chooses to pick up the Resurrection Stone, because he must have known what the consequences would be. He throws caution to the wind and his life away the second he finds a chance to bring back his sister, to correct his greatest mistake. In this instant, he even forgets his world-shaping plots to defeat Voldemort. As I said earlier, it’s the character’s actions that show us what matters to them most.

While Dobby is faced with external foes and chooses to act courageously, Dumbledore has to confront the terrible consequences of his own immaturity and arrogance and chooses to act with a nobility he has to gain through guilt and the loss of his family. This is a task that takes him an entire lifetime.

Next up: How a character’s death can affect the surviving protagonists.

Harry Potter and How (Not) To Kill Your Characters, Part I

…in which I am going to explore what makes a character’s death good — from a storytelling perspective — and what doesn‘t, using examples from the Harry Potter novels.

This is, obviously, going to be full of spoilers about who dies and how and why. So for the love of all things purple, if you haven‘t read all the books yet — what are you even doing reading this instead of the Harry Potter series?

I am going to focus primarily on the deaths of the good guys, not only because there are so many powerful examples of this done well and done badly in Harry Potter (I am looking at you, final fight scene of Deathly Hallows), but mostly because this is much harder to do satisfactorily than killing off the antagonists. After all, the readers want those bad guys to pay anyway, but for the characters your readers love, you have to have very compelling reasons why they need to die, or your readers might not forgive you.*

So how do you make a character’s death meaningful? There are three major ways, and they work best if combined: Make the death deeply relevant to who this character is, to the characters around them, and to the plot of the story. You only get to kill off characters solely for plot reasons if they are really minor or if you are writing mystery.

In this first part, I will focus on what a powerful death scene can reveal about the dying character.

Let’s take a look at the death of Dobby the House Elf, which is one of the best examples of the entire series.
Dobby starts out in Chamber of Secrets as a well-intentioned, but completely incompetent character. All his attempts to save Harry backfire, and his absurd reasoning and creeping servility towards his owner make it hard to take him seriously. Maybe we feel sorry for all the abuse he suffers, maybe he just annoys us, but other than that he carries no great emotional depth or weight. He is certainly not heroic.

At the end of the book, Harry sets him free from his cruel master, Lucius Malfoy. In the course of the series, he becomes more and more competent and helpful to Harry, his personal quirks develop (his love for socks, for example) and we begin to care more about him. He has this honest desire to please, he has been through a lot of unfair suffering and yet is exceedingly cheerful and takes his life into his own hands. We don‘t want bad things happening to him at this point, because he just doesn‘t deserve it.
And then, through no fault of his own, he dies.

Openly defying his old masters, Dobby rescues Harry and his friends from Malfoy and his evil sister-in-law Bellatrix LeStrange, and, just as they are about to Disapparate to safety, she throws a dagger at him, piercing his heart.
And his death is beautiful and tragic and poetic, because it shows just how selfless and genuinely nice Dobby really is, which are qualities he possesses from the beginning; and because it shows him standing up to those who would deny his rights of freedom and autonomy, which is something he only learns throughout the course of the series, and he learns it the hard way. In other words, his death exposes his core nature and his personal growth.
Had Bellatrix‘ dagger missed, none of this would have been shown so clearly and so emotionally striking.

In order to reveal his true character, it is essential that Dobby makes choices and takes actions that, in this case, ultimately lead to his own death. I‘m not saying that he is responsible for his own death — Bellatrix is. I‘m just reiterating the importance of the Show, Don‘t Tell rule: We know exactly how selfless and noble the elf is, not because Harry says so while digging Dobby’s grave, but because we were there when he marched into the Malfoy’s living room, head held high, telling Bellatrix that he won‘t allow her to harm Harry Potter. This is arguably his Crowning Moment of Awesome. Dobby has to actually do brave and selfless things, and this means he has to choose them. He could have stayed save in the Hogwarts kitchens, but instead he makes a conscious choice to risk his own life for the person he is devoted to, and to fight against his old masters, and he acts upon this choice.

If you want to show us who your dying character really, truly is, you cannot afford to have them be a victim of circumstances. You need them to make choices that reveal what does and does not matter to them, and they need to act on them.

There are circumstances in which that isn‘t why you kill a character. Sometimes, the death of the character is only used to reveal how vile and dangerous the villain truly is, how those around them cope with the loss, and to move the plot along. An example of this done really well is at the end of Season Six of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where --Spoiler!-- Willow’s lover Tara is shot.

But even then, one thing you should avoid is cutting a character’s development short by killing them off before they are done with their journey. Really think about this before you kill them: Are they in the midst of internal change or growth that they haven‘t completed yet? Is there something they need to overcome, a character flaw or unfinished business? They don‘t necessarily have to settle everything nicely before they die, but you should think about the effect it has on your readers when a character dies before fulfilling their potential. I am going to talk about this at length in my next post about Sirius.

So, lesson one: Use the death scene to explore the dying character. Show what this character truly is. Make it a consequence of the choices he_she made and actions he_she takes. And if you‘re really good, make the death bittersweet by making us happy for the character that they could finally make this choice. Just think how sad and pathetic it would have been if Dobby had cowered before Bellatrix instead of standing up tall.

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*One valid reason would be that yours is a crapsack world in which good people die for no good reason. In which case this article doesn‘t apply, and that’s fine. You don‘t necessarily need emotional justice in your fictional world. Also, there are some genres like mystery or thriller that have a much more cavalier attitude about killing off characters, which is also completely ok.

Dogs Underground and NaNo

Titles are damn hard, and Dogs Underground is only the working title of my novel.

When I first heard about National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org), I thought it was silly. It’s an nonline challenge where you have thirty days to write a 50.000 word long novel. I thought it wasn‘t for serious writers, and that those rushed novels couldn‘t be very good. But then November came around and I was feeling depressed and I said to myself, „Self, do something proactive! You want to be a writer, right? So write!“ So I plunged into NaNo a week late without anything resembling a plot or even idea, because I didn‘t want to ‚ruin‘ any of the serious projects I had swimming around my brain.

My theory was that once I had written a full length manuscript, no matter how shitty it was, I had proof that I can do it. Before that, I had only written short stories, and doubted if I could write something novel-length.

So I started with a deliberately silly premise – ‚My heroes‘ superpower is being able to see the colour purple!‘ and then tried to write a novel from there. I came up with this underground civilisation that’s been cut off from and completely unaware of ours. I figured out how their society works, how my protagonists got there and what they have to fight for, and I gave them a scheming, power-hungry antagonist.

By the end of the month, I had 50.315 words full of awesome characters and bits of great dialogue and neat scenery and world-building, and I was exstatic about my success. I had written a novel! Yay me! The Pulitzer awaits!

But when I looked back at my draft a few weeks later, I realised that the plot was weak and the structure essentially broken. What I did in that month of frenzy was what Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens call discovery writing: I figured out my world and characters and backstories and relationships and what’s awesome about them, but I didn‘t discriminate between what needed to be in the book and what was just stuff I need to know in order to write it. Not having anything resembling a structure didn‘t help.

So now I have to rewrite the whole thing. But I still think taking part in NaNo was the best decision I ever made for my writing, because I have never been this far with any other novel before. I mean, I have an actual rough draft, that’s pretty awesome. It’s something I can work with.

So, what are your NaNoWriMo experiences? Or if you hadn‘t heard of it before, what do you think? And how’s your writing going?

Here’s the podcast where Lani talks about discovery writing. Go listen to it, it’s a great podcast, funny and entertaining, brilliant and helpful.
If you know of any other good writing podcasts, let me know!