Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Facebook and Thoughts on Writing Strategies

Yup, I'm on Facebook. I finally caved. Now I have this weird urge to go out and find things to "like." :D I'm still fooling around with the options, gadgets and things, so there may be some design turmoil around here (and over there) until I've finished futzing with everything. You can find my fan page here if you're so inclined.

I've gotten a little done on the writing, but not as much as I'd like. I'm diving back in tonight, so hopefully I'll have something completed soon. All week I've felt as if I'm forgetting something. You know that niggling sensation at the back of your mind? Well, I've got it. I just know that any day now I'm going to stop whatever it is I'm doing and think "Damn." Then I'll feel silly for forgetting something obvious.

I get that same feeling with a story sometimes. I know I'm overlooking some element, but if I knew what it was... Well, I wouldn't be overlooking it. At those times I like to sit down and write about a given scene, character or plot point. Chances are that if I write about it (rather than trying to write it) I'll figure out what's been bothering me. "Oh! That's not something I've introduced yet," or "Soandso couldn't possibly sit there so long without saying something!" So, when I get stuck, I pull out my trusty notebook (of the moment) and write about the scene/story/character.

Do you guys use this kind of tactic when you're stuck? What's your best solution for when you get stuck on the writing?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Exercise of Vital Powers

"Happiness is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope."

That quote is usually attributed to Aristotle, although there's some debate over whether or not that's what he actually wrote. I don't think it matters, because the words are perfect. It's certainly what I want. It's what happiness is for me.

But what exactly does it mean? What are "vital powers?" We all know what the words themselves mean. Vital is something essential. The absence of it diminishes the whole. It is integral. And powers are gifts, right? Talents, skills. It refers to the talent that is part of all of us, whether it's a great big imagination or an eye for visual composition, or the ability to throw a bunch of ingredients into a pan and pull out something not only edible but delicious.

We all have something that is part of us, something that we love to do and are good at. Something that fulfills that need inside of us. Something that we fear losing because the loss of it would make us someone else entirely. We all have vital powers.

For me it's writing. I love it like almost nothing else. I don't know who I would be without it, and it's not because I'm a workaholic. I'm a workaholic because of my love, because of my need. Because even on the worst days a turn of phrase, a trick of rhythm or a lovely alliteration can thrill me, fill me. (Props to Poe, for that last bit there. :D)

And there are bad days. There are rejections, and setbacks, and stories that I can never seem to get right. But if that's the price I have to pay to do something that I love? Well, I'll consider it a happiness tax and move on, probably after a small pity party. After all, if you don't feel the bad stuff, you can't really feel the good stuff, right?

I don't let the pity party last any longer than it has to, though. I don't want to be one of those people who ignores all the good stuff in their lives because they're too busy complaining about the bad stuff. It hurts, we all know it, but you can't let it eat up your life.

And I think that's where the "in a life affording them scope" part comes in. Because it's all about perspective. About looking back on your accomplishments and failures and realizing that they're all the same thing. They're all a part of life. And life is the context which defines what we do, which lends it meaning and significance. An interesting loop, isn't it? What we do defines our lives and is in turn defined by it. It's that Escher sketch where one hand is drawing the hand that's drawing it.

The word "scope" comes from the Italian "scopo," from the Greek "skopos." (I know there are some linguists out there, so if I've got that wrong feel free to let me know! :D) It means a target, a goal, something to shoot for, to achieve in life. And life is, by definition, not finished until it's... Well, finished. We can't judge our own scope, because we can't see the end and so can't take it as a whole. We're missing context.

So, translated into modern lingo, the quote might read something like "Happiness is the use of our inherent talents, in the pursuit of excellence, in a setting that gives them meaning."

Sounds good to me.

It doesn't imply success, because that's not the point. Happiness lies in the endeavor itself, in the exercise of those vital powers. Let your life provide the scope. Don't define yourself by how often you win or lose. Define yourself by how often you try.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writing Update

I'm a little late with my usual mid-week update. I was going to post it yesterday, but then I broke my toe. :( I've got it splinted and it's less painful today, but it's still bruised and pretty swollen. This is the second time I've done this in like, the last two or three years. Poor toes. At least it's a different one this time!

As far as writing goes I've gotten a bit done on Blood Home, which is my next "must finish" project. I'm also going to start revising Glass and Steel this weekend. It's short, so I'm hoping to knock out the new draft in a night or so. Then I'll probably put it up for more critique while I get some more writing done on Blood Home. Fated is longer (too long!) so I need to do a edit on it before I can even post it for critique.

All in all, too many projects and never enough time! :D

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tropes and Cliches in Fantasy

What makes fantasy, fantasy? Is it magic? Is it the low-tech level? The inclusion of creatures from mythological and folkloric sources? What makes a fantasy novel not a science fiction or horror novel?

Someone once told me that one of my stories couldn't be fantasy because it lacked an overt magical element. But there are plenty of low magic backgrounds out there, and they're still fantasy. Most fantasy does include other species or creatures, but not all. I've read stories without dragons, elves, fairies, trolls or anything except humans. They're still fantasy.

Low-technology is common, but there are plenty with higher tech and some that are labeled as a cross between science fiction and fantasy, but they're still fantasy, too. Otherwise, they'd just be called science fiction. :D

I think it's the tropes that make fantasy, fantasy. Tropes are commonly used devices of plot, setting, species or character. The things you expect (or wouldn't be surprised) to see when you read a book in a given genre. Tropes are part of a genre's tradition, built upon with each new generation of writers as they expand (or don't) the genre. Not every book has to be expansive, and there's nothing wrong with not expanding a genre, but there are some books that make it big with the genre's fans. Those books effect the tropes. They reinforce it or subvert it or change it so it's not quite what is was, but not quite something different, either.

For examples of tropes, just visit TVtropes.Org (they cover books, comics and movies, too), but I warn you that you can get lost in that labyrinth and not find your way out for hours! Take a ball of string with you.

Tropes are used over and over again and can be anything from the power of love's first kiss to the hero's journey to the evil (TM) overlord. These are elements that most people aren't going to be surprised to see when they crack the spine of a fantasy novel. Some people are surprised if they don't see the bigger ones.

And, yes, these tropes can get stale. They can become old and brittle and crack apart in your hands. They can become overused and (duh, duh, DUM!) cliché. Oh, most dreaded of labels. For many writers, it's an arrow to the heart. But does it need to be? Do we need to be so worried about clichés?

Well, I think it really depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you want a reader to put down your book, blink and think "Wow. That was breathtakingly original." Then yes. Yes, you should be terrified of clichés.

But, if what you want is for a reader to put down your book and grin and think "Wow. That was a good read!" Then no. While piling on too many un-subverted or unspun tropes (or full-blown clichés) probably won't make for a good read (the audience already knows where everything is going, after all), a few tropes sprinkled in among your other ideas can actually make a book more relatable to the reader.

They're tools that can help to simplify what could be a complex subject. Complex subjects require explanation, words, and time in order to be related to the reader. The more original complex subjects you have, the less you need one more, especially if it's not original at its heart.

And, while we always want to highlight what's original and unique about our stories, readers are looking for something. Most often, it's something they found in another book. If they're fans of the genre, they're looking for things they found in other fantasy books. And if it's been in enough books to keep them as fans of the genre, it's probably at least a trope.

What's your view on clichés? Do you use them? How do you make yours feel fresh or new? When does a trope become a cliché?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fated is done!

Okay, so it's only a first draft, but I don't care! It's done! I've been working on it like mad in every spare moment and it's finally finished! There are a ton of things I put off so that I could get this story finished this week, and I have a lot to catch up on, but that's all for later. My story is done, and now it's time for dinner and some time with the Fiance, who have missed during my self-imposed exile to storyland.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My Writing Week

Well, while I've gotten quite a bit done, I still haven't finished Fated. I'm hoping to blow it out with one big push tonight, but it might take until this weekend. I still need to figure out a big plot point and until I do, I can't go much farther and they're pretty much stuck.

At least I got through the 3/4 moment. I guess it's just part of my process, but somewhere around three quarters of the way through a short story, I often find I have to stop and figure things out all over again. Sometimes I need to reconsider the characters and sometimes its the setting. One way or another that's usually the point at which I'll throw out an idea that's not working. I know I can get to the end of this one, I just have to figure out how!

What processes do you guys go through when writing?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Themes in Fiction

Themes have been on my mind, lately. They're a bit of an abstract concept and often I see writers stressing out over them and I've stressed about them myself from time to time. What are themes and what part do they play in writing?

I think that, too often, we think of themes as "morals" or "lessons." But themes are just motifs, subjects that recur in a given work. More overt themes may be used to "teach a lesson" or as "the moral of the story," but a theme can be just an idea that keeps coming up.

I think it helps to look at themes through the POV of an artist. While a painting should be visually pleasing (or disturbing, if that's the point), often that visual medium is made up of symbols. One artist I know worked a peace symbol into everything she painted as a method of spreading peace--and the idea of peace--through her work. That's a theme. It's a reoccurring symbol (and idea behind the symbol) that connects one work to the next.

A book also has to be pleasing (or disturbing, if that's your bag), but it too is made up of symbols. They have to be, they're just words (which are in themselves symbols). It's the recurrence of a given idea or topic that constitutes a theme, but that's not all there is to it. You can't just throw in gerbils every few chapters and *boom* you've got a gerbil-ly theme.

Well, you can, but it may confuse people unless there's an idea behind the gerbil. Now, if you set the gerbil up as a symbol of monotony--always going around on that damn wheel, over and over, the same damn thing--and then you throw one in every few chapters, well you've created a theme. And a tool.

Now, any time you want the reader to think about monotony, or you want your character to think about monotony, you can throw in a gerbil! Speaking literarily, not literally; they tend to splat.

And characters are especially important to theme, because the things your character thinks about, worries about, fights for or against are themes. They have to appear in the story, and they have to recur in the story just to keep the character moving. If your character cares about nothing, that in itself is a theme.

Whether your character is doing what they're doing because of their family, or for friendship, or revenge, or justice, or fame, or money, or acceptance. BAM! There's your theme (or at least one of them). Now, what your story says about that theme is a different matter. That's created by your character's choices and how it ends up for them.

If you're writing a character who's motivated by money and greed and by the end of the story they're giving everything away, you're making a statement on the theme of money. If you're writing a story about a girl who discovers she's descended from an Egyptian god and by the end she's embraced her powers and decided to use them to do good, you're making a statement on the theme of responsibility and power, and possibly divinity.

Because those are the issues your character is dealing with, those are the ideas and concepts which drive the story forward. The more you and your character explore them, the more pronounced the theme, but they're there one way or another.

Theme isn't always consciously constructed, though. We write things based on the way we see the world, people and reality. You're view of irony in the world could lead you to write a story wherein a greedy character wins in the end and becomes rich and famous. That makes a statement, too, whether it was meant to or not. And depending on the angle from which you write it, it could say "character doesn't matter as much as ambition," or "people get what they work for," or simply "life is unfair." You may intend to say any of those things, or the story may simply say it for you because that's how you feel.

Theme is not only at the heart of writing, but it's at our heart as well. We see things (events, characters, settings, objects) the way we see them, and that is communicated in how we write them. Our own views often become the theme, and it's from that, I think, that we've come to think of "themes" as the moral lesson of a story. Because sometimes a theme is all about how we view the world, which is imprinted on our characters, our situations, our plots.

What do you think is the best way to use a theme? What sorts of themes do you often find yourself writing? Do you write them consciously or do your themes just seem to happen?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Good Writing Week

I did some good writing this week. I'm making progress on both Fated and Blood Home, and I'm hoping to have Fated done within the next week. Well, provided Enora and Aric can survive that long. It's not looking good for them. :D

Blood Home is going more slowly, but I hope to finish it this month. I want to finish at least four more short stories before I start the final edits on A Sign in Blood. That way I can send them out for submission and I'll have editing the novel to distract me. :D I'd like to finish Guidance too, but I don't know yet what the other story will be.

How about you guys? What projects are you working on? Do you work on more than one at once?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Links Post: Folklore and Mythology

Hey guys! I haven't got much time this weekend, and I haven't done a links post in a while, so I thought I'd share some of my favorite folklore and mythology resources. These cover a variety of traditions, countries and stories from Aesop to Yggdrasil. They can be a huge time suck, but it's totally worth it! :D

Folktexts - This is a huge archive of different folktales and mythology from all over the world. They're organized by the type of story.

Internet Sacred Text Archive - Sacred texts and mythology from all over the world.

Perseus Digital Library - This archive includes Arabic, Germanic, Renaissance and Greek and Roman material.

Have fun with the mythology!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

And The Writng Goes On...

Slowly. But at least it goes. I took a few days off last week, so the word count looks low and make me frown. I have added almost a thousand words to Blood Home, but now I'm a little stuck. Hopefully I'll figure out the plot problems and get some serious words in. I need to consider Addison's character more deeply, but it's the antagonist that I'm having trouble with. Hmmm.