Writing: The Passing of Time

sundial-3692590_640One of the tricks to master in writing is how to show the passage of time in a story. For example if Chapter 2 occurs two weeks after Chapter 1, how do you show that? It’s one area I’m still honing in my writing.

I first highlighted these lines in book 11 of the Wheel of Time series:

“…the sun more than halfway to the horizon, by the time he saw what he was looking for.” (Page 151)

“In a morning ritual, his fingers made another knot mechanically, then slid down the cord, counting. Twenty-two knots. Twenty-two mornings since Faile was kidnapped.” (Page 156)

The first obviously makes use of the position of the sun, and the second describes in a clever action-oriented manner the time that has passed. I decided to exclude these two quotes from my upcoming highlights post, because I wanted to examine the topic further.

Of course the crudest way to show time is simply to tell the reader “10 days later…” I’ll admit earlier drafts of Vengeance Will Come had this a lot. There were two reasons for this: I didn’t know any better  and I was also using the prompts to aid my own keeping track of time. It is a crude approach which pulls the reader out of the story. There are still a few instances of itin the book, but it’s something I use rarely now.

A better way, as the old adage goes, is to show the reader instead of telling them. The goal, I think, should be to show the passage of time through the setting and/or character.

Here are some of the ideas I brainstormed. If you have any other ideas, please add them in a comment below.timescale

 

 

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There is No Excuse

When you use your real name as a domain name you’re making yourself something of a public figure. (Possibly in the loosest sense of the word, just go with me for now). When you’re a public figure you have to be very careful how and what you say, so as to not unintentionally offend.

If you want to be a writer of fiction and you haven’t listened to the Writing Excuses podcasts then you’re flat-out crazy.

It needed to be said.

And perhaps you needed to hear it. You’re welcome.

As an amateur writer when I insert a character into a story I’m aware of their motivations and how they’ll interact with the other characters and situations. (At least I try to be).

When one of the Writing Excuses podcasters puts a character into a story their aware of so much more on a fundamentally deeper level. When it comes to constructing stories, while I build a lean-to in a slum they build a Palace fit for a King.

In a recent podcast (s9) Dan Brown talks about how his main character is a sociopath. The problem with sociopaths is they’re not really very likable people. So Brown puts in even more  unlikable characters around the sociopath. Relatively speaking therefore the reader likes the sociopath. He also gives him a healthy dose of gallows humour (pun intentional).

Just a small example of how they’re thinking way beyond the sentence structure. When you have to take some time out from writing, you’d be wise to listen to Writing Excuses. It’s fifteen minutes of informative conversation interspersed with humour that will have you laughing out loud. Probably best not to listen to it at funerals.

More Q&A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 20 ‘More Q&A’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Question: How necessary are plot twists?

  • Don’t over-inflate the term ‘plot twist’ to always be the dramatic reveal which changes everything. This is not required in every book and if you’re not good at doing them then don’t do it. Small things going wrong are also plot twists.
  • There must be conflict and challenge for the protagonists; these are more required and important than dramatic reveals.

This is freeing, and correlates with my thoughts I wrote about in relation to the last episode plot twists. It isn’t always necessary.

  • The requirement for plot twists depends upon the genre: romance novels don’t really have plot twists because the reader doesn’t want it; science fiction it is more important; mysteries there must be multiple plot twists.

Question: How is the market changing with electronic media?

  • Speculation that the majority of future readers will want commute-friendly length chapters. The number quoted is 2500-3000 words long.

As someone who regularly reads on a 20 minute commute to work, I agree with this. It is much more satisfying to finish a chapter than to have to stop part way through a chapter.

I know that I am reading a great book when I consider stopping for a coffee (and a bit more reading) on the short walk to work. As an aspiring author I want to write books that completely mess up people’s schedules 🙂

  • Note the increase in the number and spread of audio books; becoming more mainstream.

I’ve never actually listened to an audio book. Maybe it’s because of my disability: I literally can’t walk and think about things at the same time. Sure, I can do some low-level thinking, but walking really does take up a large part of my active concentration. Some thoughts can distract me enough that I fall over. So multi-tasking is not something I do well… listening to a novel via audio book would make me feel as though I’m missing bits.

  • With the advent of the internet, e-books etc authors can now sell direct to readers. (The example is given that a $2 short story sold direct-to-reader gives the author more money than 2 sales of an $8 paperbacks, and the author doesn’t have to wait for 9-15 months for the publisher to send the $0.80).
  • Copy editing / editor can become contract services to individuals.

This is incredibly disruptive. As they describe in more detail in the podcast, this partially breaks the traditional publishing model.

The benefit with the traditional publisher is that they have experts in the fields of editing, marketing etc. You can do it all yourself, as many have successfully done, but it is an additional burden upon the author.

  • Could we see the return of the weekly serial?

I like the romanticism involved in this idea. I love the idea of the weekly radio broadcast where they tell a riveting story… I suspect though our attention span is not good enough these days. We are a binge-watching society, used to getting what we want exactly when we want it, on-demand. I think this would negate our ability to enjoy a weekly-released (or even daily-released) serial; we would find the wait too frustrating.

Yes, audiences tune into popular TV series season after season, grumpily enduring the between season periods… but that is entertainment that comes with visual and audio candy and multi-million dollar budgets. Broad-appeal literary serials: it would have to be exceptional material to work.

Question: How do you make your protagonists as interesting as your villains?

  • Blur the line between hero and villain.
  • Villains are more interesting because they often have better conflicts. Ensure your heroes have good/deep/interesting conflicts or they will be weak characters.
  • Protagonist should be competent but not overly-so.
  • Villains are more active, heroes are reactive. Try and make your heroes active. David Gerrold says that for the first half of the story the antagonist is driving, but for the second half the protagonist should be driving. (In the first half the monster chases the hero, in the second half the hero chases the monster).

Question: How much to sell a story for?

(This is obviously going to be the US-version of the answer, so factor in exchange rates and probably, differing markets).

  • Short stories – about $0.05 per word.
  • Novel – about $5000 advance for a first novelist is a good amount; at least $1000.

Additional Wisdom

 

  • Recommended way to break writer’s block: take the last line of dialog and make it the inverse…which then forces you to explain why they say that.
  • Ralan.com – resource.
  • The importance of networking (i.e. at conventions).

Writing Excuses: Q and A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 18 ‘Q&A session’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

 Question: How do you create distinct voices for characters so they don’t all sound the same?

  • The voice/perspective of the character should be a product of their environment, upbringing, occupation, experience etc. How they perceive the world and what they see will be different to other characters. E.g. a receptionist might see a ‘tool’ on the cabinet, while a mechanic will see the same tool and know it’s exact name, approximate value, function, limitations and capabilities.
  • They will be interested in or ask questions that reflect their viewpoints or knowledge.
  • Try to get across who they are without explicitly telling the reader.

When I think about portraying a character’s voice I automatically think of Sian from the Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan). Sian is one of most powerful elected figureheads in an important faction in the story world. But before she was that, she was a girl from a fishing village. Most of her jokes, curses and insights are all flavoured with salt… which is my eloquent way of saying that they come from her background and speak to her past.

  • Dan Willis (guest podcaster) writes the backstory of the characters; this helps get their voice. This helps you break away from unicharacter conglomerates.
  • Brandon Sanderson uses a practice technique of trying to write a scene with only dialogue and tries to differentiate the characters using that. (No narration, no dialogue tags).
  • When you know the characters you know what they will say and how they will say it. Know your characters really well.
  • The words they use will be different. E.g. a scholar is going to use bigger words etc. (bit of an old trick… can be a weak method).

One way that I approached this was to write a series of ‘biographer’s interviews’ with the characters. In this fictional piece I asked the characters about their background and how they felt about other characters. I used this to tease out their personalities and viewpoints, and understand the dynamics between the characters. The interviewee was not always forthcoming with answers, which revealed which kind of topics they would be touchy about in-story. (Full disclosure: I began to do this for The Rebel Queen but never completed it because I had already written most of the story before I started the interviews. It helped and is a useful technique I will use again… only earlier next time).

  • Sometimes you may realise that your characters are speaking in another character’s voice. You need to fix that by changing the lines, or having the other character speak them.

I am trying to get in the habit of having another window open on the computer, or using sticky notes to remind me who I am writing. If my scene is from a certain character’s point of view then I try to remind myself how they are currently feeling about other characters/plot developments and what they are trying to achieve.

Undoubtedly this is something that takes time to get good at.

Question: What do you do when you’re having a hard time finishing the story?

  • A lot of people have a hard time finishing the story. They get 3/4 of the way through and then think ‘this is horrible’. (Neil Gaiman shares a story where his agent tells him that Neil has complained about every book he has ever written and to “Get back to work and finish it.”

Oh boy, do I know that feeling. I go back and read my own post on Overcoming Writer’s Block and try and work through it. (Next time I write something from scratch I am going to track my own motivation… I think it will be informative).

  • If you’re a discovery writer you won’t know your ending and you’ll probably have to throw out a few endings.
  • Make yourself excited about what you’re writing now (and don’t get distracted by the other ideas). Remind yourself why your current book is cool.
  • Outlining can help.

Question: What to do when you’re bogged down in the middle (i.e. act 2 in a 3-act format)

  • Act 2 often begins with the character solving the problem from act 1, and then discovers a plot twist which makes things worse or a redirection of problem.
  • Often when you are bogged down the characters are too close to solving the problem. Or things haven’t got unexpectedly worse for them yet.
  • If you’re having trouble in the middle it may be there’s not enough going to keep you interested. When you’re bored your readers are going to be bored. What conflicts can you add?
  • Try-fail cycles: Fail the first 2 times. Act 2 is a good place for the first fail cycle. Make it a plausible/solid solution that fails – not a throwaway (pretend that this is the climax to the story and surprise the reader when it fails).

For better or for worse, I’ve kind of turned this on its head in The Rebel Queen. The protagonist isn’t actually the one who is pushing the story along, it’s the actions of the antagonist. The antagonist is like the rapids that are trying to crush the protagonist who is riding in the small boat. So the try-fail cycle is actually referring to the actions of the antagonist. We’ll see how it turns out.

  • Three disaster structure: First disaster between first and second act, second disaster in the dead-centre of the second act, third disaster at the start of the third act. (Metaphorically blow something up right in the middle of the second act).
  • Don’t be too formulaic. They are general frameworks to be used, not patterns to be followed with religious-like fervour.

Question: Trouble naming the characters

  • Sources: spam emails, phone book, anagram inanimate object
  • Language flavour from an atlas: Find a country and then look at common baby names, place names. That helps you find patterns of sounds and makes them consistent across your story world.
  • Don’t agonise over it too much, just get on with it.
  • Mentions an essay by Orson Scott Card

I normally have an ethnic idea in my head and then use google to find names with meanings which reflect the identities of the characters. Other times I just plain make up names that sound cool in my head.

I don’t allow the names of non-major characters bother me much. I have to find something for them to be called as I’m writing it, but I’ve also done plenty of ‘Find and Replace All’ when I decide that a name needs to be changed partway through the writing process.

Laying out the Plot

As I learn to write I am developing my own tools and techniques of how I write. This is of course mostly through trial and error; the methods I use are improving incrementally all the time. What works for me might work for you. I recently shared how I solve plot problems (part one and two), but how do I go about planning the overall plot of a story? This is how I did it for my current project, The Rebel Queen.

I designed the plot document in Microsoft Excel because it formats things nicely in a grid. Otherwise I would have to line them all up myself; I’m a bit OCDish in that regard. I will admit that I do tend to spend a bit longer “tidying” (aka procrastinating) on these things than I should so the formatting can get a bit pedantic. I do however like to work with things being “neat”, so it is still a valid and important part of my process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I almost believe it.

Step 1: Identify the actors

plot-actors

These are mostly the characters, but can also be a faction or group within the story world who are involved in the plot.

Each of these I place in the first column of the spreadsheet, with a small row between each to provide a visual gap. I have written the character’s name and role, and sometimes also add their mood or disposition at the start of the story.

(Pedantic detail: The background is the same colour for the different core factions e.g. the good guys get one colour, the bad guys another colour etc. The “main” character in each group gets a slightly darker shade. All of the characters have a different colour font which is consistent throughout the plot document).

Step 2: Outline plot elements

plot-example

Under a heading of “Chapter 1” I then use the background colour to shade the cell. Inside of the cell, I add a brief description of what the character is doing or feeling in the chapter. Note that this is per chapter and a character having a box here doesn’t mean they necessarily get a point-of-view in the chapter. Not every actor will have a plot box in every chapter. Any additional detail that I want to write beyond a short description goes into a comment attached to the cell.

(Pedantic detail: The columns are uniform throughout the rest of the document. I always have the text box with a width of 16.09, then a visual gap column of width 2.18 and then an indicator column of width 0.5. Just to be clear the columns in the document are therefore 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5 etc).

The “indicator column” which is green in the above picture starts off life with a grey shading. Grey denotes that it hasn’t been written yet; I change it to green when it has been written. Writing one scene may result in “completing” one or more indicators at a time.

Obviously I then continue with a column for each chapter…

Step 3: Tweak, and repeat

Inevitably the plot will change as you write. It’s a living document and I make changes as I realise that things needs to be adjusted.

Final thoughts

  • I haven’t described it above, but I also use the COUNTIF formula and text hidden in the indicator column of the plot boxes to calculate the percentage of how far through the plot line I am.
  • I probably should write a macro to make it easier to insert columns as needed; it’s a little tedious.

If you want to see the full plot laid out (but obfuscated) I posted it in a previous blog post. Hopefully you found this post or part of it helpful.

If you have any hints/tips that work for you I’d love to hear them.

Good Reading

I’m currently reading a couple of books, and enjoying them both for completely different reasons.

The Archivist’s Story

First there is the older The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland.

It is a slow-moving story, but deep, emotional and rich in content, language and character. The story follows Pavel Ivanovich an ex-lecturer in literature who under Stalin’s socialism is forced into service at the KGB headquarters. As a lover of fine literature he detests his job which consists of cataloging and then destroying literature deemed dangerous to the State.

You can sense the tension in the book as Pavel suppresses his own thoughts, because they put him at odds with the socialism. Though the danger is immense, you feel his integrity is starting to reassert itself against the lies that he must continually repeat to stay safe in socialist Russia.

Pavel’s relatively young mother (early 50’s) also has ailing health, which Pavel is struggling to deal with. The following excerpt is where they are in the waiting room of a neurologist in an attempt to diagnose his mother’s ‘black outs’.

“In the waiting room a little boy weakly flails away on his mother’s lap, paddling the air with his hands, as if struggling to wake from some dream of falling. The boy’s eyes, beautifully blue, follow Pavel as he passes; the frank despair in them chills his heart. Is this what awaits him and his mother? Private miseries played out in public, as in the pages of a novel. Like that old woman who couldn’t remember her own daughter. Only these people aren’t characters conjured from the imagination, their stories do not end when the reader closes the book and shuts off the lamp. He is unable to prevent himself from imagining a morning years from now when his mother will no longer remember him, when she will turn to him and ask, Do I know you?

And Pavel will tell her, I am your son. (page 60)

Excellently written and highly poignant. Though I haven’t had to go through the experience of seeing a parent in such circumstances, I can imagine how difficult it must be. It is something that I have certainly thought about before, which led me to write two short stories The Captive and the follow-up Alone.

Pavel is also grieving the loss of his wife who died in a train de-railment (while he remained at home). Though he misses her terribly there is also a hint of attraction for him toward his younger neighbour.

“I sometimes wonder ,” says Pavel, surprising himself, “whether it would be better if I just put her pictures away.”

Natalya glances at him, and Pavel sees at once the question in her eyes. What is he telling her? That it is so painful to go on looking at Elena’s pictures day after day, knowing he will never see her again? That would be the simple answer, the expected answer. How then to reconcile this with the sense of uneasiness that has grown up in him since his wife’s death? Uneasiness, because Elena has slipped, ever so gradually, into abstraction. She has become these pictures. A handful of memories. Worse, she has become the imagined last moments of her life, which Pavel will never likely be able to let go. (page 101)

Though I failed to bookmark any particular quotes the description of depression, both on the economy and on people’s psyche is also excellent. It describes people going through the motions of survival; lacking joy or optimism.

The Alloy of Law

The other completely different book is Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. As one of the author’s in the Writing Excuses podcasts I thought it was about time I read some of his work. Sadly, my local library seems entirely lacking with this being the only Sanderson book they had.

It is a light-hearted adventure/crime fantasy. It’s not the first in the series, so I did feel a little under-prepared in respect to an understanding of the magic systems, but I still found it enjoyable. I noted several things about the book, worthy of a mention:

Sanderson does a good job of designing a plot where the pieces fit together well at the end. I’m talking specifically about the final fight scene where they defeat the almost-invincible enemy. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it, so I was impressed with the resolution.

I like the way he does dialog. There is an incredible amount of dialog in the book. In my writing, I don’t think I have as much dialog, and rely more heavily on the characters doing something, rather than what they are saying. (Which I’m not sure if it’s just different or not as good). Also I noticed that his dialog is often flourished with movement, which I think works really well. For example, this is all of the dialog on page 176 (italics added):

“Well?” she asked.

“Two Tripwires,” Waxillium said, “rigged with explosives. Nothing else dangerous we could find. Other than Wayne’s body odor.”

“That’s the smell of incredibleness,” Wayne called from inside.

“Come on,” Waxillium said, holding the door open for her.

She stepped in, then hesitated in the doorway. “It’s empty.”

“Sleeping quarters up there,” Waxillium said, pointing at the other side of the foundry. “The main chamber here is double height for half the building, but the other side has a second story. Looked like they could house some fifty men in there, men who could act like foundry workers during the day to maintain the front.”

“Aha!” Wayne said from the darkness on the left side of the chamber.

“How easily did that open?” Waxillium asked, trotting over.

From this I take two pointers – not to be used always, but frequently:

  • Where is the character when they say the dialog?
  • What is the character doing when they say the dialog?

As can be seen from the example above, the story is well-peppered with comedy. The two main characters play off each other in a very humorous way. There’s a joke or smart comment every few pages at least. The character Wayne is funny too – he’s something of a kleptomaniac who doesn’t steal, but trades without consent. For example he might take someone’s gun, but leave in its place a picture that he drew.

Technique: Flaws vs Handicaps

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 6 . I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

A flaw is internal to the character and can be changed by the character. A flaw is the fault of the character and often leads to a character arc.

A handicap is external to the character and can’t be changed by them. A handicap is a limitation/constraint imposed by the plot. A handicap leads to different types of conflict.

Why is it important for our hero to be flawed?

It makes them more interesting and allows readers to identify with them.

People read about a super-man for escapism, they read about an every-man because they can identify with them. e.g. Han Solo has the flaw of greed, Luke Skywalker is handicapped by his youth (no one takes him seriously).

The importance of flaws is that they allow growth in characters.

The hero’s journey: an every-man who ends up a super-man.

Choosing the right flaw or handicap

Base it on the conflicts you want the hero to be dealing with. Look for points of conflict and justify the characters reaction to that conflict.

Make the flaw something that the villain can exploit.

Flaws should work into the story and make the conflict more intense (because of them).

If your character is not a likable person (because of their flaw) then you must make them competent (or the reader won’t like them).

Problems (for long-life characters)

How often can you have your character overcome a new flaw before the reader gets bored?

As the superhero gets more powerful how do you bring up new challenges for them?