Changing Plot Gears

I’ve written previously that when writing I’m try to remember to consistently refer to the character-related attributes. For example if a character has “daddy issues” then that should appear (albeit expressed differently) in a number of places. The last thing I’d want to do is mention it once and have it like a cheap paint job.

I worried earlier that I’d failed to maintain consistency. Now I realize that wasn’t my issue. I can best describe the situation with an analogy. My novel was like a theme park with each character like an individual attraction. In the early chapters you get to know the characters. However when the plot really kicks in it’s like you’re on a roller coaster. The thrill of the plot is so intense that for the moment you’re not thinking about other issues. If you’re in the middle of the plot and thinking about anything beyond the immediate surroundings then the author has missed the mark.*

I have realized that my current speed bump is that my plot has changed gear. The engine has been racing but now the plot calls for some simmering instead of boiling. Wow, that’s more analogies than you can poke a stick at, which probably counts as another one.

Chapters 5 through to 9 are completed in 7 hours of story-time (13,000 words). The subsequent chapters will be over a number of days which is far less intense for the reader. My first thought was that I needed to find a way to keep the pressure on. That if I was unable to rush the timeline I needed to add pressure or intensity elsewhere.

I think that was also a wrong turn. There is an alternate view which says that too much intensity wears the reader out. The reader must get breathers between action.In a way I think we see this in movies like Jaws. The prolonged presence of danger can be more terrifying than instantaneous danger. Not that I’m writing a book that is  terrifying but I think that same intensity can translate across genres. Even James Bond has some time to wine-and-dine his female counterparts between bare knuckle street-fights.

Not entirely sure how I solve this issue of gear-changing, yet.

On another note, by way of an update. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you have probably noticed I overuse commas and semi-colons.  I’ve been going over my earlier chapters of Vengeance Will Come and correcting that. Consequently, the progress bar hasn’t moved (in fact, it has actually dropped as I found more words to cut). Hopefully it is a better story for the haircut.

vwc progress.PNG

Some of the columns are not actually comparable, given I’ve moved the chapter order around a bit. It’s now down to 97, 452 words. At the current rate of editing I think it will be down to about 75k by the time I finish, which is a good first-book length.

* There is a school of thought that says the plot should be character-driven. I don’t think I am breaking that rule.

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TMI: (Way) Too Much Information

Here on BenEzard.com I’m sharing my writing journey which includes the ugly and the good. If I’m being generous to myself I’d say its a ratio similar to the chemical composition of Hydronium: three ugly for every good.

A while ago I created a method of secret communication for my novel, Vengeance Will Come.  (Lacking expertise in this area I have no idea if this is a plausible solution…) The idea was that one tremendously large file hid the secrets of anyone who paid to use the storage service. To any observer, it would appear just one long piece of encrypted text, with no way of knowing where one message began or ended. Only the sender/receiver would know the coordinates of their message, and the encryption keys to decrypt it.

This was my first attempt at ‘writing it’ (many, many moons ago).

He went to the DataBank site which required no login and no password. After entering his credit card details – one of the number of fake identites he had on Drasius – he entered two coordinates. The Databank held a single file stream which was yottabytes in size.

Unmarked portions of the file ‘belonged’ to the tens of millions of users – individuals and companies who wanted to store data securely. Any person could upload/download any portion of the stream (paying per megabyte). The trick was, only you knew the coordinates in the stream where your data began and ended, and the encryption used on it. Without knowing where the ‘data ownership’ began or ended, or the type of encryption that was used, decrypting it was nearly impossible.

Cameus entered coordinates that were hundreds of megabytes on either side of his desired data block. This cost far more money, but also meant that anyone tapping the planetary-net would have to try decrypting a lot more data. The download process to his computer took a few minutes. Cameus then disconnected from the net and entered another two coordinates into the computer with the encryption details.

These coordinates were where his message was, ignoring the padding on either side. His computer was powerful and compact, but the decryption process would still take about twenty minutes. Cameus headed back toward the warehouse.

Congratulations if you read each of those 226 words. You’d be among the minority, and I don’t blame you if you didn’t make it all the way through. No one – except for me and a very rare egghead care about how the encryption specifically works.

For this reason in the next editing pass I savaged my creation, diluting its so-called brilliance for the sake of brevity.

He went to the DataBank site which required only one of his false identities credit cards. Entering in coordinates that were only known to him and his employer he began to download data. The Databank held a single file stream which was yottabytes in size, the unmarked portions of the file ‘belonging’ to tens of millions of users on Drasius. Cameus had downloaded hundreds of megabytes on either side of his desired data block; which cost more but would exponentially increase the difficulty for anyone trying to locate his message. The download process took several minutes after which Cameus entered the two precise coordinates of his section with the encryption details. His computer was incredibly powerful for its size but the decryption process would still take about twenty minutes.

So I had cut it severely down to 129 words but it was still not enough. The passage was a mouthful without flavor – calories without enjoyment – ready to frustrate the reader. I don’t know about you, but if I’m absorbing calories I want enjoyment: reading is no different.

So now my creation is rendered invisible, for the greater good of the story:

On the roof of the drinking shop he used his wrist computer to connect to the dark side of the net, downloading the encrypted stream from the DataBank. Cameus started the decryption algorithm and headed back to the warehouse at a run.

Picking up the Tools

It’s six o’clock and I’m expecting the wife home in ten minutes. At which time I need to fulfill my promise of making us dinner. That could be a problem considering there is no meat defrosted and no other preparations underway. Simple toasties or two-minute noodles will not suffice… not after the  promises I made. Dining ‘out’ or takeaway is not going to cut it either; they should be treats to her, not an antidote for my laziness...

The above is not a true story (well, not today anyway) but an analogy for how I feel I have treated you, my readers. I know we aren’t married and most of you peruse my blog like a casual night out… But still when I promise something, I need to deliver. And the deliveries haven’t been on time lately.

Recently I’d been going through a hard patch where my stress levels were getting out of control. I needed to take some time off and change my routine, so I did. The problem was, I never really came back. Like a guy sunning himself on annual leave, I just forgot to come back to the cubicle.

Publishers and readers will have a right to expect professionalism from me, and that involves delivering on promises.

I am reminded of something on one of the Writing Excuses podcasts: If you want to be professional at writing, then be professional. Treat it like a job. That means:

  • writing when it’s hard, or
  • writing when you’d rather be doing something else

I would never stop working while I’m on the company’s time; and so I shouldn’t stop working when I’m on my ‘writing time’.

I am going to start planning my writing time in advance, and sticking to it.

I’d love to stay and talk philosophical, but I’ve got writing to do.

On “When Nightmares Wake”

When Nightmares Wake is a short story I’ve been working on inspired by a bout of poor
sleeping. It was supposed to be a quick little project, a little oil for the editing-weary pistons of productivity…

Well it hasn’t been a nightmare, but neither has it been a beautiful dream. It’s taken longer to write than anticipated and the draft is (so far) not as great as I expected. My quick little side-adventure is now impeding work on my main project, Vengeance Will Come.

I have considered abandoning it as a troublesome off-shoot of creativity… However having already invested time, and promising it to you, dear reader, I feel somewhat obliged to deliver; even if it isn’t a polished gem.

So can I learn anything from this experience? Why has the project gone awry?

Firstly, I over-predicted my productivity. I have been less productive than hoped- partly due to a lack of self-discipline (distractions) and partly due to forces beyond my control. Discipline, as a writer, again proves to be of inestimable importance.

Mainly I blame my lack of preparatory plotting.I started with a great ending, but nothing else. I didn’t know where the story began or what events happened in the middle or the sequence of them. I also vacillated over points of the story, changing things back and forth with as much conviction as a swinging pendulum. Does my main character arrive before or after the big battle? Is it the dark of night or the light of day? Small changes like this meant I kept having to rehash the earlier parts of the story.

Larger questions like how the magic system functioned also dammed my creativity. Whether it was internal angst at the delay the story was costing me or something else, the words just didn’t flow. I was hoping for an experience like when I wrote Escape From Hell which almost wrote itself. (The one challenge was balancing important but unpleasant scenes without putting the reader off).

Another contributing factor may be the genre was outside of my wheelhouse. When Nightmares Wake is very much strong fantasy with full-blown magic; not something I have written before.

Two more lessons that I’ve learned are:

  1. I don’t need a good solid block of quality time sitting at the computer. I can successfully contribute to a story, even if it’s a paragraph at a time written on a mobile on the bus.
  2. I didn’t write it chronologically, I jumped around like corn on hot oil. If that’s what it takes to get it done…

When Nightmares Wake is about 75% complete; hopefully coming soon…

Resource Alert: Brandon Sanderson 2016 Lectures

Just a quick one because I am supposed to be finishing the short story When Nightmares Wake. Brandon Sanderson has begun releasing his 2016 writing lectures. He announces the videos here.

I have previously found his earlier lectures very helpful, and you can’t argue with the price of FREE. I love how Brandon and some of his fellow writer’s actually love to give back to the community of readers and other aspiring writers.

A Changing Perspective: Writing and Work

I sit at the computer desk, motionless. Fully dressed for work, but mind remaining in neutral with no thoughts beyond the now. The flavour of strong coffee fills my mouth even as the sweet scent of last night’s tea lingers in the emptied cup. All is quiet, all is still. I wish to remain motionless until a time of my choosing, but I know it cannot be.

With an internal sigh I stand and make my way regretfully to the bathroom and the waiting toothbrush. In the adjacent bedroom my wife’s alarm goes off for the third time, pulling her from sleep and me from waking-slumber.

Time is not relative, it marches on regardless. The bus travels on its schedule, not at my whim. Work must be attended, regardless of my mood or desire.

I have approximately 17 hours a fortnight which is ‘uncommitted’. That factors in a reasonable amount of time spent doing chores, occasional socializing and precious time with my wife. (It doesn’t factor in time for exercising, which highlights another problem).

That’s a maximum of 17 hours, mostly divided into two-hour chunks at the end of a workday, which is not my most productive time. I already rise early, so extending my day at either end is not possible.  (I realise that for some people, 17 hours a fortnight is a luxury).

At times I have lamented – nay: complained and whined – that my writing time should be so dominated by my occupation which pays the bills. I have seen it as a distraction from what I would rather be doing.

This attitude could be both good or bad. At its best the desire to “break free” could propel me toward the near-mythical publication success. More probably, is that I could grow to resent or have bitterness toward my occupation.

My current reality is that while I want to write I still need to work. To do both well and have a healthy attitude means accepting that fact.

Besides, until I am squeezing every ounce of productivity out of those 17 hours then I shouldn’t be wishing for more. (And I have a way to go with that still).

How much time do you have to write? How do you balance your recreational and occupational commitments?

The Dangers and Triumphs of Reading

Let me start with a caveat: for the writer there is a danger in not reading. A writer should be reading widely, analysing the skill in other writers, learning and growing through the process. It is equally important to know what is currently happening in a chosen genre.

But this post is about the dangers of reading, of which I can see several.

Bleeding

The most common effect is when reading begins to over-influence writing with themes or style bleeding over.

It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit a personal experience, even though it’s been half-a-life time since this happened. My love for fantasy was grown through reading The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. My imagination was so captured by the mythical world of Robert Jordan, I began to write my own story. I must point out that this wasn’t supposed to be fan fiction, but clearly it was. It was allegedly my own story, in the same way that a man who was caught red-handed is allegedly guilty of a criminal act. It was all but rubber-stamped fan fiction.

My protagonist was a a young boy, the only son of a farmer whose mother had died when he was young. The protagonist had a best friend who was a trouble-maker. The protagonist didn’t know it yet but he could telepathically communicate with the ‘higher-order’ animals…

If this doesn’t sound familiar it can only be because you haven’t read Wheel of Time. The content is so similar that it would make copyright lawyers salivate. Beyond all reasonable doubt I was allowing Jordan’s writing to influence mine.

Positive and Negative Influences

But there is another way that what I read influences how I write. I have read, partially or fully, seven books in the last few months: I have stopped more books this year (unfinished) than probably my entire life before that. Among my aborted reading list have been a selection of free books from Google and purchased award-winning novels. The majority of my recent reads have been disappointing with one or more insurmountable problems with the characters, plot or quality of writing.

If I read sub-standard work then I am either buoyed (I can do better) or depressed with fear that I too will be guilty of adding to the sea of slush. If I read something good, it can inspire me in appreciation or depress me (they are so much better than I).

An Appreciation of Style

Recently I bought The Eye of the World and began reading, never having actually finished the series since the sad death of Robert Jordan. Immediately I was enchanted by Jordan’s mastery of description.Take for example these non-consecutive quotes:

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.

He stepped carefully, handling his cloak fastidiously to avoid brushing the dead.

“She will give me the rough side of her tongue if she thinks I have been hiding a guest from her.”

His howl beat at the walls, the howl of a man who had discovered his soul damned by his own hand, and he clawed at his face as if to tear away the sight of what he had done. Everywhere he looked his eyes found the dead. Torn they were, or broken or burned, or half-consumed by stone. Everywhere lay lifeless faces he knew, faces he loved. Old servants and friends of his childhood, faithful companions through the long years of battle. And his children. His own sons and daughters, sprawled like broken dolls, plays stilled forever. All slain by his hand. His children’s faces accused him, blank eyes asking why, and his tears were no answer.

She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumble-footed.

I was absolutely intimidated by his formidable talent, on full display in the hooking first chapter.

The more I read however the more I move from slack-jawed awe to a respectful and modest appreciation. Jordan was an immensely talented writer with incredible world-building and depth of plot and character.

But I am no longer intimidated because I have realised that his style is just different to mine. His description and narration is more dense, mine is becoming leaner and faster the more I write. The quality of writing is such a subjective subject: some will like my writing, and others will hate it. That’s fine by me.