Continuity and Anxiety

I was solicited by an editor of a forthcoming fiction anthology and wound up writing a story using Myra, the jaded artist from To Another Abyss. It was a fun writing experience, I enjoyed giving her more voice and agency than she got to have in the (intentionally limited to a rather dim guy’s POV) book, but… well, you’re lacking a major tool in the authorial shed if you don’t dwell on things that are tangentially-related to your activities and interests.

The next Jay and Silent Bob movie was being filmed in the area where I work for a couple days over the summer.* What little nostalgic affection I have for Kevin Smith fades further any time he does something newsworthy, or whenever I remember something else from Clerks that doesn’t hold up, but I’ve always found it a little sad how he seemed like he was actually trying to go and do different things for a little while, wasn’t that successful, and ran screaming back to the same characters and tired freshman-profundity-with-fart-jokes shtick.

I know two tie-in short stories isn’t enough to make someone an unimaginative hack, but it has to make you consider where the line gets drawn.

And I say that as a diehard fan of some ongoing series — I’d sell plasma to pre-order a new book in Steph Swainston’s Fourland series or Hal Duncan’s scruffian chapbooks if I had to. But I don’t think either of them are developmentally-stunted for using the same characters across multiple works. They’re both more stylish than the Clerks expanded universe, populated with more dynamic characters than [insert recent Marvel property]. So it’s not simply the re-use of familiar characters that makes work hacky. Maybe it’s the failure to do anything substantially different from the last time we saw them.

I dunno. I’m not planning to do a bunch of To Another Abyss sequels that are just retreads of the first book with maybe some shmaltzy phoned-in father issues like Guardians of the Galaxy 2. But I’m not averse to dusting off old characters if I think there’s actually somewhere new that it’d be natural for them to go. Everybody who was enough of a character to warrant an arc has had it wrapped up by now, except for Ian because I’m never going to stop dragging movie people. In conclusion, read some of my old stuff until the new stuff gets here.

*He also tried getting a bunch of local artists to work FOR EXPOSURE as if that phrase hasn’t been totally exposed for what it is in twenty frickin’ nineteen.

Drawing Plots

A plot is simultaneously the most necessary and the least interesting part of a book. As a reader I’m far more easily hooked by character/voice/description, and if those are solid then the linear events that happen while those are being shown off isn’t a large concern. But as a writer, you completely need that line of events in order to have a short story or novel instead of a reeeally long and ungood prose-poem. What if you could just… delegate the plotting to someone else and free your mind to focus a little more on the parts you’re really in to? You can: your plotting intern’s name is William Wallace Cook.

Plotto, created by Cook in 1928, is a workbook for figuring out plots for novels and short stories. You begin by choosing three broad clauses from the lists at the front; the A clause describes your protagonist, the B clause provides the source of the conflict, and the C clause provides the resolution. There are thousands of sub-clauses you can look through and string together if you like the method, but I’d say the book’s first chapter is least worth experimenting with for any writer.

The clauses are all worded broadly enough that you can fit any existing novel into this system. If I were using Plotto while brainstorming my first novel, I would have gone with clauses A8, B22, and C10: “A person influenced by an obligation, following a wrong course through mistaken judgment, meets with an experience whereby their error is corrected.” That’s an accurate summary, but it does miss some important details. Why doesn’t it tell you the main character should be a gullible rich kid? Where are the warring factions of dirtbag leftists and self-absorbed indie films? Cook doesn’t provide those because he knew whoever’s reading it would have different approaches to stories than he would.

Plotto‘s basic plots are vague because it trusts that you’ll fill in those gaps in a way that’s wholly unique to you. My example plot up there leaves plenty of room to choose the particular kind of character you want to write, the story’s tone, the precise nature and details of their situation — you would write a completely different book from mine using that same basic plot because you’re a different writer. Plotto urges its readers to spackle their unique style and approach onto its plot-frames rather than trying to force you in to hard and trite formulas like Save the Cat. This is a book to help you figure out what to write, trusting that you either have the how under control or are canny enough to figure that out in short order. As someone who’d been in a bit of a rut trying to figure out what to write next, I’ve found it really helpful for generating ideas to build on.

Whether you’ve just got a character you’re enamored with but have no idea what they should be doing, sitting down for daily writing sessions and need somewhere to start, or just want your outlines to feel slightly more like filling out a Shadowrun character sheet, give Plotto a try.

Date Yourself!

Some novelists find fleshing out their characters difficult, which can feel all the more frustrating because you spend most of your life surrounded by characters — how can you actually know that many people yet have trouble coming up with a handful of your own to push around for about seventy thousand words?

You can find entire books on how to develop characters, but their exercises can be dry and feel like homework. If that sounds like a slog to you, then I think I found a shortcut that isn’t too embarrassing to admit you’re familiar with nowadays: fill out an OKCupid profile for your major characters.
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Recycled Con Notes: Turning Your Idea Into a Story

Since half the panelists including the moderator didn’t bother showing up for one of the panels I was on this weekend, here’s a write-up of the notes I didn’t get to use for “Turning Your Idea into a Story.” I don’t have a lot of stories to my name, but I’d like to think the ones I do have were at least wrought from some pretty odd ideas. Here are three suggestions I’ve used when stuck with an idea that wasn’t quite ready to get written. Suggestion 0.5 would be, “Salvage your unused scraps to make something else out of ’em.”

1) Overthink your idea.
There are always new approaches you can take to old stories, and if you’re the kind of person interested in writing fiction in 2018 then odds are you’re at least a little bit neurotic. So put that tendency to good use: trap yourself in your own head with your fledgling idea and over-analyze it until you’ve teased out some specifics.

Say you wanted to write a story about a pirate raiding ships and discovering buried treasure. Not the most original, but you can find a new angle on it if you look hard enough. What is it about the basic idea that makes you want to write it? Maybe it’s the romanticized freedom and self-determination of piracy that attracts you. Maybe you’re actually really interested in the nuts and bolts of seafaring, to the point where you’re annoyed that I think nuts and bolts were used on pirate ships. Occupy your hands by doing the dishes or dusting so that you’ll have nothing to do but think your idea to pieces, then pick out the ones that still look good when you separate them.

2) Have you tried… two ideas?
I have a list of things I’ve been meaning to try writing about in a Google doc. Nothing developed, just a three or four word description on each line. When I find something new I want to add to the list, I’ll go through the list and see if my new thing could dovetail with any of the old ideas.

For example, I’d been interested in the physiology of Baba Yaga’s hut for a good while. Was it a chicken whose body she turned into a hut, or an existing hut to which she added legs? Are the legs made of chicken meat? Does the house have blood? The line “Baba Yaga hut meat?” sat near the top of my list for about a year. Then, after hearing a friend of mine talk about his experience on a Food Network game show, I thought that might be a neat little story idea. I took it to the list, paired it up with the Baba Yaga idea, and then this happened. So throw something totally unpiratical at your pirate if he still isn’t going anywhere.

3) Figure out your characters.
Ideas are static things, but stories aren’t. I mean, there are experimental ones that are, but if you’re writing one of those then you’re already beyond the realm of general advice.

How your story progresses depends on the choices characters make, and the choices they make depends on who they are — their temperament, approach to problem-solving, Myers-Briggs type or zodiac sign or whatever you use to figure out how your characters tick. Is the specific pirate you’re writing about the sort who’d go looking for a map with a giant X on it, or just run their ship aground and start digging on any island they come across?