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Feb 29, 2012

What is Story Space?

Occasionally, I refer to "story space" and it occurred to me I ought to explain what I mean. I call it "space" for lack of a better term. It's not spatial, but I find it helpful to envision it as though it were to organize my creating process. (Insert Usual Caveat That Your Creating Process Will Differ).

A simple, although false, way to think about it is as word count. This is a good shortcut, as long as you understand it's a shortcut. Take a hypothetical novel from The Unfinished Song series. I'm weird in that I like to pre-determine how many chapters a book will have. Most authors don't do this. But I do, and in the case of this series, every book has seven "chapters." I'm aiming at 70,000 words for each book. That works out to 10,000 word chapters, which are on the long side--the length of a novelette. (Which works out for me, since I package them that way for the Serial.) However, it also means that there's a distinction between my Chapters and my Scenes. Each Chapter has ten to twelve scenes, often jumping around PoV from character to character. My word count is looser than my chapter count. If the book has only 50,000 words (like Initiate, the first book) then the chapters are shorter; if the book has 80,000 words (like Sacrifice, the third book), then the chapters are longer.

I think of the story spatially as a series of nested boxes into which I pour the story. (Again: weird. I know.) There are seven Chapter Boxes, and each is filled with 10-12 Scene Boxes in a neat little row. This doesn't mean the story itself is linear, since my stories are notoriously nonlinear, interweaving scenes from the past with scenes from the present. The story has to be read in linear order, however, and there are a limited number of chapters, scenes, and words that can "fit" into each story.

These boxes, these containers. This is story space.


But, Tara. Really. Neither chapter count nor even word count are set in stone. (Unless you're writing haiku or Category Romance.) True. And that's why I said that wordcount is only a shortcut to think about it. But one mustn't get hung up on wordcount. Wordcount exists only to serve the story. Wordcount is just another empty container.  It's an arbitrary limit, and it's important to keep in mind that it's arbitrary, but it's also important to acknowledge that stories need limits. No story can be everything to everyone one. Reluctantly, I've faced the cruel fact that I'm never going to have that Ultimate Blockbuster that all 6 billion people on the planet agree is the BESTEST NOVEL EVAH. Not until I perfect my mind control device. Until then, the next best thing is to made each story speak to it's own purpose.

Purpose, goals, themes. This is story space.


The story should include everything that move it toward its goal, unfolds its theme, deepens its purpose for being. It shouldn't have anything extraneous or irrelevant. Even if, pickles forbid, you are writing one of those meandering postmodern literary words that deliberately meanders, or worse, a satire with numerous inside jokes and snide asides, or worst of all, an epic fantasy that forces characters to traipse all over the map as a pretext to show off a variety of imagined nose-piercing ceremonies, each of those meanders is secretly on track to one's goal. There shouldn't be a sudden lurch into political rant in a sweet Amish Romance or a boring, dry-as-bone history of the Boxer Rebellion in a novel meant to be funny, or a long angst-filled chapter about middle-aged woman worried her husband is cheating on her in a thriller that is supposed to be moving at a faster pace than an Olympic sprinter. (And because we are writers we can all think of examples where, "Yes, if..." which is fine as long as you're not doing it just to be a smart alec.


Your story space is limited. You story space is precious. You only want to fill it with treasures worthy of your story. Whenever I start thinking about Character Based Fiction vs Plot Based Fiction or Idea Based Fiction, I begin to power-trip on overcoming all those bourgeois restrictions by writing a novel that will be superlative in every category. The BESTEST NOVEL EVAH. And I want to stuff that story space full of character building and world building and car race scenes even though my culture is neolithic.... and that's not the way to go. It's just not. I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that what I owe to each story is what makes that story grow, not what impresses me with my own cleverness. That seeming imperfection is actually what makes the story work. I can live with that.

At least until I finish my mind control device.



Feb 28, 2012

Character Based Stories

Coming soon: Anna Karenina, Zombie-Vampire Threesome
I write genre fiction mostly, but I read much more widely. It's a danger to read only in your own genre. It leads to a narrowing of walls and eventually a sense of being trapped and bored. Also, reading an unfamiliar genre is like traveling to a foreign country. You never learn to love your homeland so well as when you are abroad.


Recently, in a writer's group I belong to, there was a discussion around the question, What is 'Character Fiction' and how is different than 'Plot Fiction' or some other kind of fiction? It goes without saying that any time you ask a group of writers to define something, they will pour out loving new editions to the dictionary, with all the connotations, denotations, cicurmstantiations, transubstantiations and exceptions they can collectively envision, expand on and create, so by the end of the discussion it will be agreed that under the right circumstances, "character" can sometimes mean "things you do with a lawyer and an elephant while trapped in an elevator," even if that makes no actual sense. Imaginative people will find the one unique instantiation in which it makes sense.

(It was for this reason that I often flunked simple reading comprehension tests in elementary school. The question: "Can a fish ride a wagon?" would provoke me to envision the many, many paths leading to a fish riding in a wagon, so my answer was always, "Yes, if..." The correct answer was always, "No.")

So I shouldn't have been surprised that the discussion wound up at the agreement that EVERY type of fiction is Character Based Fiction (Yes, if...), because after all, every fiction has characters in it, right? Indiana Jones is a character. Therefore Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is Character Based Fiction.

His therapy sessions just as interesting as Woody Allen's.

The correct answer is No.

I've been thinking about this as I plot out the later novels in The Unfinished Song. Character growth is extremely important to me in this series. Each character has his or her own arc, issues, weaknesses, etc. There's one supporting character who is dear to me (aside from Dindi), and I need her to do two things. One is simply grow as a person by facing her greatest weakness. The other is (possibly) lead some dudes into battle. The battle against the weakness is internal and the other battle is very much external. Ideally, they will play off each other nicely. But I have to be honest and say, What character weakness would work best with someone trying to lead dudes into battle against Lady Death? That's the clue that in my story, plot (and theme) are more important than character. If I were writing true Character Based Fiction, it would be the other way around. I would decide on what her personal issues were first, and then pick a vocation or circumstance or location that would expose her.

This can be done crudely or subtly. In Indiana Jones, for example, there's a snake pit to be crossed. So it's a great idea to make Indy afraid of snakes. It's pretty weak as weaknesses go, but it humanizes him a bit... he does have some fears. And guess what...he has to cross the pit anyway. Because we couldn't see his courage if he didn't.

But wait!

Doesn't this may mean that the story is all about the growth of the Character, about Indy overcoming his fear of snakes?

The correct answer is No.

Because if the plot called for a pit of scorpions instead, you could just as easily make Indy's fear be about scorpions. Or heights. But probably not about bunnies. (Unless you are Monty Python.) Because fear of snakes and scorpions is understandable, it's visceral, it's something you would count on to keep grave-robbers and heretics out of your booby-trapped, treasure-filled tome. If Indy were afraid of something ordinary, unless it were played strictly for a running gag, it would take too much time from the main story to explain why he has such a weird hang-up and explore how he overcomes it. That wouldn't leave enough story-space for him to take a roller-coaster ride on the runaway mining car. Hello! Prioritize.

For instance, the heroine of A Secret Sign of My Own avoids intimacy by eating soap whenever things go too well on a date. (This among her many, many other problems.) This is pretty weird. The character would be too bizarre, and too craven to relate to if the author did not spend so much time letting us get to know the many facets of her personality and her personal history. That's the other thing about Character Based Fiction. You have more leeway to have unlikable characters. If you do it right, the reader will still like them...even learn to love them. In my genre, that's a lot harder to pull off, simply because I don't have the story-space to dedicate to letting my readers be completely intimate with my characters.

An example is a supporting character named Gwenika. She has some issues. She hurts herself; she trusts the wrong kind of guys. If she were a character in literary fiction, I could spend pages hinting at her childhood with a bitter, overprotective mother and a seemingly perfect older-sister, I could go into more detail about what she does to sabotage herself, and I think the reader would know her much better, and perhaps be more forgiving of her sometimes less than heroic qualities. But there's also war and revenge and taboos and traveling and healing to do, so I show her as best I can in the context of the forward-moving plot. Some readers like her; some find her tiresome. That's just the price of the trade-offs that have to be made between forestaging plot and forestaging character.

She also likes to knit.

Because, yes, every book must be driven, in some sense, by the characters, their needs, goals and weaknesses, even if the author only realizes what those need to be after deciding the plot. And if the most Character Based Fiction needs some external action to hang on, even if it's just standing by a table, willing a phone to ring which never does. Every story will have to prioritize, and you're never going to find the One True Perfect Balance for all books and all eternity.

But can you find the perfect balance for this book, for your book, here, now?

The correct answer is Yes. If.

*  *  *

Quick update on Wing!


The Unfinished Song is twelve books, but there are story arcs within that, so you could also look at it as a series of 4 trilogies. They all end on cliff-hangers except the the finale of the series, so that's no help to you.  :)   The reason this is relevant, is that I realized I have to resolve certain issues with Blood (Book 6), the sequel to Wing, before I can be sure Wing is done. I'm dying to rush through, but I am resisting that temptation. I hate it when books later in a series start to degrade in quality; I don't want that to happen because I've been hasty or careless. The overall story arc is secure, but it's the little details I have a hard time keeping consistent. (Did X happen before Y, or vice versa?) My editor is a great help to me, but there are some questions only I can answer.

I imagine as the series goes on, these quirky details build up and that's why authors have to work harder and harder to keep consistent and on track. I vow to do my best.

There are a lot of juicy scenes in Wing and Blood and I savor them as I write. All I can do is hope that you will too, and will agree that the wait was worth it when I'm done.

The good news is that while you wait, there is still time to get Wing for free by signing up for my newsletter.  And for readers new to the series, either email me or visit Amazon to read the first book for free too!

Feb 27, 2012

Readers relationship with books

Kathryn Kristan Rusch says:
Readers have a relationship with books. Readers love the characters or the world the author built or the author’s voice and point of view. Traditional publishers call readers “consumers,” and technically that’s true. Consumers purchase goods. Readers buy books. But that’s where the analogy ends. Because the second definition of consumer is this: Someone who consumes something by eating it, drinking it, or using it up. Readers can’t eat or drink a book. Nor do they destroy the book when they read it. They haven’t “used it up,” even though traditional publishing seems to think so. Traditional publishers are based on the consumer model—using the second definition—thinking that readers are done with the book after a few months, because the book will spoil. Anyone who has visited a library or a used bookstore will tell you that’s not true. Anyone who reads Jane Austen or William Shakespeare or Mark Twain knows that stories can last forever. Books can live much longer than their creators. Books are not ephemeral. Books, and by extension, the writers of those books, can and should have a longterm relationship with the reader.

Feb 23, 2012

Why did Amazon pull 5000 ebooks off the shelves?

There's been some fuss about Amazon pulling 5000 titles. In fact, the Gizmodo article barely explains anything beyond that, noting in two terse and profoundly unilluminating sentences:
Almost 5,000 eBooks have been pulled from the the Kindle Store because of a change made to Independent Publishers Group's contract with the online seller. The move is a result of Amazon's demand for upfront payment from publishers, required to host their books on the store.
But what is really behind this? Amazon is eliminating intermediaries. IPG represents many small publishers. Amazon, apparently, would rather work directly with these publishers, or even with the authors themselves.

Feb 14, 2012

5 Craziest Problems Writing About Love


The Five Craziest Problems To Solve When Writing About Love
The only thing more likely to drive a writer crazy than love itself is trying to write about love.  Here are five crazy a$$ things a writer should keep in mind when writing about Luuuuuuuuuv

What could go wrong?
1. Why should I include a love story? 
If you are writing a Romance, obviously, your story is going to have a love story, but even if you are writing in another genre, you will likely want a love story. Classically there are only two good ways to end a story: with a wedding or a funeral. And even the great tragedies had love stories.  Mating is one of the oldest imperatives of not just our species but our whole phylum.
Ok, Tara, but what if I don’t give a rat’s furry tail about Romance? Why should I include a love story?
Hey. Don’t blame me. Blame Plato. That dude had a theory that at the origin of the world, every human being had two halves. Kinda like bivalves. The gods split them up, and ever since everyone’s been searching for Venus on a half-shell. The union of the lovers represents the healing of the soul, the re-union of anima and animus, of psyche and eros. Success in the external relationship symbolizes success of the quest, personal transformation, heist, what have you. Failure in love symbolizes failure of the whole natural order. Just ask Romeo and Juliet.
You can be subtle about it too. When elf princess Arwen gives up immortality for Aragon, it mirrors the Elves giving up Middle Earth to the Third Age, and to Men, those grubby round-eared bastards. And look how well that went. Bitter, meet sweet.



On a completely unrelated note, I really want Barbie and Ken as Arwen and Aragon. Just sayin.'

2. How can I make the reader care about my love story?
Invest high stakes in your love story, and the reader will know they should care about it, but will they actually care about it?
Have you ever seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Near the very end of the movie, a man and woman spot each other across a field. The music swells, the lighting is misty, and they rush across the wildflowers into each other’s arms. It’s beautiful. Except this scene has just come out of nowhere and as far as we know, they’ve never even met before, so why are they running into each other’s arms? We've all seen the scene so many times, that cause and effect are reversed. The mere act of running to meet one another in a field is what makes them a couple in love.


It’s satire, but it hits home because too many movies and books do just that. Even Romances with a capital R. Just throw in a guy and a gal in the right plot slots, announce they are in love, and expect the audience to go along for the ride.
It’s harder than it looks to make a love story have universal appeal. Especially if you are writing a Romance, you want the reader to identify with one half of the couple and fall in love with the other. In fact, one of the reasons for including a relationship element in a non-Romance genre is that this is something pretty much everyone can relate to. In a more realistic story, you have to consider what relationships you characters are in, or have been in, or wish they were in, and how this has scarred or empowered them.
Make the story individual.  It’s not enough to trot out a bunch of clichés about a relationship and leave it at that. You may think that by leaving things vague, you’ll make it easier to relate to your characters. For instance, it’s fine if you want to write: “They talked for hours.” But before you tell us that, give us a sample of their conversation. The witty repartee. The things they have in common—or don’t. The sparks.
3. How do I show attraction?
Sparks. Right. It’s damn hard to write sparks!
Have you ever read one of those stories where it feels like the man and woman are shoved on stage and trotted around like puppets on a string, and then the author announces to the audience, “Voila! They are in love. Because I said so, that’s why.”
And you just don’t feel it.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
 
In books, as in movies, some couples have chemistry. Some have frickin alchemy. But what’s the secret?
Chemistry starts from character. If you have vibrant characters, with strong goals and distinct personalities, then bring them together…sparks will fly. This should be as true of a “bromance” or a girlsfriends gaggle as of a romantic couple, actually. Bring strong characters together and let them rub personalities, and that static electricity should zap out in snappy dialogue and cool scenes.
Take Clark Kent and Lois Lane. They work a lot better than most superhero couples because Lois Lane is a person in her own right, not a decorative accompaniment to the hero like so many superhero “girlfriends.” (*Cough* Mary Jane *cough* ).
With a romantic couple, you have to go one step further, and show the eros at work as well as the pyche.
In Marjorie Liu's paranormal romance, Tiger Eye, here’s Dela’s reaction to Hari, an imprisoned tiger-shifter hunk, who has just emerged like a genie from a lamp, to be her slave:
Shocking, worthy of multiple aneurysms, explosions in her shrieking brain. Dela skittered off the bed so quickly she almost lost her towel, but her own near-nudity felt less outrageous than the impossible figure towering over her, the top of his head a mere hand’s length from brushing the ceiling

The man was lean, long of muscle and bone, his skin tawny from the sun. Thick hair brushed broad shoulders, an astonishing mix of colors—red, gold, sable—framing a chiseled face almost alien in its golden-eyed beauty. His presence engulfed the room with a power that raised goose pimples over Dela’s entire body. A shiver raced down her spine.
Predator, she named him, meeting his eyes, unable to look away. It was the second time that day she found herself in the presence of the arcane, but this was infinitely stranger. Unexpected, bizarre, extraordinary; she had seen the gathering of flesh from light, and still she could not believe. Her mind was screaming no, again and again. Impossible. Unreal. She was so shocked, she did not think of escape. She did not even think of rape, murder—his appearance was that unbelievable.

Notice how Liu has cheated here. The shock of his appearance is partly that he's there at all, since he appeared by magic, but that spills over into emphasizing how excessively handsome and manly he is. Note only is this dude incredibly scrumptious and powerful, but she encounters him when she's vulnerable...in a hotel bedroom, wearing nothing but a towel. There's nothing to stop them from having sex right then and there. You know, if they weren't total strangers, and if he weren't a two thousand year old tiger-were warrior cursed to be a sexy love slave. But more on that in the next section.


In most Romances, the hero is handsome and powerful. The circumstances are sexy. But you don't need Pretty People to write a convincing romance, especially not in books. (It's harder for movies, where we really do want eye candy, hence the "Pretty Ugly Girl" schtick.) More important than whether a character is objectively good looking, is whether the love interest finds him or her appealing.  What matters is one character’s impact on the other. There’s a great scene in The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie – hardly the go-to guy for romance, one might think, and you would be right, since this is a gritty, military fantasy – where he shows Bremer van Gorst’s reaction to Finree.
He could not even bring himself to be embarrassed. He was lost in her eyes. Some strands of hair were stuck across her wet face. He wished he was. I thought nothing could be more beautiful than you used to be, but now you are more beautiful than ever. He dared not look away. You are the most beautiful woman in the world—no—in all of history—no—the most beautiful thing in all of history. Kill me, now, so that your face can be the last thing I see. “You look well,” he murmured.
She looked down at her sodden travelling coat, mud-spotted to the waist. “I suspect you’re not being entirely honest with me.
“I never dissemble.” I love you, I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you…
Abercromie shows Gorst’s reactions to Finree two ways. Obviously he thinks she’s beautiful. But there’s more to it than that, because the reader senses that someone other than Gorst might not think the sodden and wet woman is “the most beautiful thing in history.” His reaction to her is just that strong. But the real twist comes when he realizes she’s out of reach. His pain is just as powerful as his happiness. Which brings us to romantic tension.
4. How do I maintain romantic tension
Marriage counselors hate Harlequin and Hollywood. Marriage counselors are always trying to get couples to talk out their anger, use “I” statements, take turns doing the dishes, play nice. Meanwhile Harlequin and Hollywood are busy selling stories in which you can identify a person’s romantic interest by who they bicker with most. If a woman says of a man, “I don’t care how handsome he is, he’s an overbearing, arrogant bastard and I hate him!” or a man says of a woman, “I wouldn’t marry her if she were the last gorgeous heiress on Earth!” and especially if they say it about each other, you can be sure they’ll end up wed when end credits roll. And probably seeing a marriage counselor shortly thereafter.
How many real, healthy relationships begin with both parties loathing each other on first sight? I’m hoping it’s not that common. So why is it so compelling?
I think it’s compelling for two characters who loathe each other to learn to love each other because that’s the most extreme gamut you could run. Therefore it proves love can overcome everything. There are other extremes that are also compelling: the person I love doesn’t know I exist, the person I love is in love with someone else, the person I love is from an enemy family/clan/country/planet, the person I love is trying to kill me. And so forth. Some of these are more icky than others—I’ve never been a fan of the whole “but she’s your sister” gimmick, Luke and Leia aside. But I love it when lovers are from enemy states, or when one is hired as an assassin to kill the other. This may say something whacked about me, I know.
Let’s continue the samples given above. Notice that no sooner than attraction is introduced, so is tension:
“If you want my name you will have to command it from me,” said the man, and Dela shivered at the sound of his voice: deep, rough, and unbearably cold. Not the voice of an illusion.
He clamped his mouth shut, and it seemed to Dela that despite his challenge, he was actually waiting for her to command his name. There was a breathless quality to his posture; his size and strength would have hidden the slight tremor if Dela had not been standing so close. His barely perceptible shiver made her feel strange. The edge of her anger dulled slightly.
Very slightly.
“Don’t be an asshole,” she snapped, craving her neck to maintain eye contact. “I don’t know how you got here, or who you are, but you’re looking at me like I’m rat shit and I know I don’t deserve that. Give me some courtesy. You know what that is, don’t you?” She was testing him with her insults; if was going to hurt her, now would be the time. Dela was a firm believer in getting things over with.
Something that might have been bewilderment passed through the man’s face, quickly concealed behind a cool mask, something darker but far cleaner. A cousin to curiosity, dressed in anger.
Dela lifted her chin, demanding an answer with only her eyes and her body. A part of her still shrieked, but she tuned out her fear. Weakness would only invite intimidation.
Honey, you are intimidated. Do you really think this guy’s holding back just because you’re acting tough? Gimme a break. He could kill you with his pinky.
“You will not command my name?” His voice rumbled, an echo of thunder. “What then will you command?”
Dela stared, caught between laughter and a scream. This was all too surreal. “Nothing. I won’t command you to do anything.” She took in his size, his weapons. “How could I?”
His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying there is no battle to fight, no one person you wish me to kill?”
His words were too matter-of-fact, completely chilling. Dela threw up her right hand, while the other clutched her towel. She stepped away. “Hey now. I don’t want anyone to die.”
His mouth tightened into a white line. “I see.” He gave her a slow once-over that, oddly, managed not to feel degrading. “If you did not bring me here to kill or fight, then I was summoned to pleasure your body.” He looked like he would rather impale himself face-first on a bed of nails.
Right away, the conflict is introduced. A powerful, handsome guy has appeared in Dela’s bedroom, and already he hates her guts because he’s enchanted to be her slave, and he assumes she will abuse him.  It’s a nice switch on the usual roles, in that the spell renders him her helpless slave, but she has to show she’s honorable by not taking advantage of him. Yet Liu is careful to show that although he might be a slave, he’s still a powerful warrior, who could easily kill her (or just about anyone) under normal circumstances. So there’s also an element of danger in her freeing him.
Abercrombie introduces tension to his couple just as quickly:
“And are you well, Bremer? I may call you Bremer, may I?”
You may crush my eyes out with your heels. Only say my name again. “Of course. I am…” Ill in mind and body, ruined in fortune and reputation, hating of the world and everything in it, but none of that matters, as long as you are with me. “Well.”
She held out her hand and he bent to kiss it like a village priest who had been permitted to touch the hem of the Prophet’s robe—
There was a golden ring on her finger with a small, sparkling blue stone.
Gorst’s guts twisted so hard he nearly lost control of them entirely. It was only by a supreme effort that he stayed standing. He could scarcely whisper the words. “Is that…”
“A marriage band, yes!” Could she know he would rather she had dangled a butchered head in his face?
He gripped his smile like a drowning man to the last stick of wood.
There are two conflicts here, the inner and the outer. The outward conflict is that the woman Gorst loves is married to someone else. The more serious conflict, however, is that while Gorst worships Finree, she barely knows who he is. While he is a ruined man, she has everything. She is not only married but (possibly) in love with her husband. What can Gorst offer her? Ouch. (Of course, Gorst’s real romantic problems stem from the fact that he is in an Abercrombie novel, not a Liu novel, so he’s much more likely to have his head split by an ax than to win his true love. But that’s too meta for this post.)
Tension needs to be introduced immediately after attraction. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to maintain tension to the end of the story…and still have a believable Happily Ever After. (Or tragic fall.)
The main reason to maintain tension is that as soon as there is no more tension in the relationship, there is no more romance.

 
If there’s nothing to stop the couple from consummating their love, there’s no reason for the reader to keep reading. Even in erotica, where the couple might roll in the sheets, they still have to have some emotional distance. When psyche and eros are in conjunction, the reader is satisfied and the story is finished. Unless, of course, the writer throws in another obstacle. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this rule was made literal: the minute Angel knew perfect happiness (physical and emotional union with his true love), he lost his soul and became a sadistic, homicidal a-hole. Whoops. Hello new Season !


By the way, readers “hate” it when writers pull the rug out from under two lovers who are just about to know happiness. Readers hate it so much they keep coming back to read more. A raging reader is better than a bored reader.

BUT. This is a serious "But." There is one big danger besides too little tension, and that is to mistake conflict for "behaving like a jerkwad." The other big mistake is to have a couple conflict which could be easily resolved if they each told one another what they were thinking. (The one fair exceptions are "I love you," "I am a spy" or "I am Team Jacob too." Because in real life, people are pretty reticent to share crap like that.) Conflict needs arise naturally from character and situation. If it feels artificial, it will fall flat.

The other caveat I have is not a rule, but my own personal preference. I favor romances where the conflict is driven as much by the internal goals of the characters as by external factors. The dragon captures him and carries him away, and she has to rescue him. That keeps the couple apart, but it's only external conflict. Add another layer: She wants to slay dragons; he wants to keep her safe in the castle. She gives her word she'll stay put, but then a dragon attacks and carries him away. She fights the dragon to rescue him, but instead of making things better between them, things are worse because she's broken her word to him. That's much more interesting.

5. How do I balance the romance with other elements of the story?
Depending on the genre and purpose of the novel, the romance may be front and center or off on the sidelines shouting occasional encouragements to the other plot elements. But even in a Romance with a big R, there should be some other plot elements. The only story I can recall off the top of my head that is nothing but two people in a room discussing their relationship was Scenes from a Marriage, which could have also been titled, Prelude to a Divorce. Moral of the story: do not sit around in a room doing nothing but discussing your relationship, that way lies the crazy. Fight some orcs or slay some vamps or solve some mysteries together, it will do your relationship good.
Ideally, you have several forms of conflict, inner and outer, romantic and otherwise, braiding in and out as the story progresses. Then, one by one, you wrap up each problem in a neat little bow. (I don’t even want to talk to you “ambiguous ending” people. But if I did, I’d say the same still applies, except your bow is not neat.)
A rule of thumb is to wrap up the problems in inverse order of importance. The most critical issue of the book is the last to be resolved. However, there is some leeway for this rule when it comes to romance. Your hero can discover the killer, have the climatic battle and then go kiss the girl. Kissing the girl in this case is more like his reward than a wrap-up. So what he cannot do is have one last argument with her after his battle. That has to happen first. Unless it is a Romance, in which case reverse all that. One mistake Romances make is to have the hero and heroine resolve their differences and then go after the bad guy together. That works in a thriller or epic fantasy, but it is deadly for a Romance. They should fight the bad guy together before they have resolved their own issues. Only at the very end should they confess their love and live happily ever after.


If you love fantasy with romance and lots of other great adventure, don't forget to sign up for my newsletter and receive the next book in The Unfinished Song epic fantasy series for free.

Feb 9, 2012

Fantasy Vs. Science Fiction



The eternal questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there in truth no beauty? And what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

David Brin has weighed in on this last question. More than once... this time in response to an essay by Cat Valente. In his earlier essay, The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?, he asks, "what is my definition of the separation?"
I think it is very basic, revolving around the notion of human improvability. "Do you believe it is possible for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents?" For all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters across 4000 years of great, compelling dramas -- NOTHING EVER CHANGES! Aragorn may be a better king than Sauron would have been. Hurray. Fine. But he's still a freaking king. And the palantir on his desk that lets him see faraway places and converse with viceroys across the realm is still reserved for the super elite. No way are we going to see mass-produced palantirs appearing on every peasant's tabletop from Rohan to the Shire.... Fantasy has its attractions. Something about feudalism resonates, deep inside us. We fantacize about being the king or wizard. Heck it's in our genes. We are all descended from the harems of the guys who succeeded at that goal. The core thing about fantasy tales is that, after the adventure is done and the bad guys are defeated... the social order stays the same.
Amanda, one of the commenters, "The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is... you think sci-fi is cooler. Personally I define 'fantasy' as 'stories based on old myths' and sci-fi as 'stories based on new inventions and the possibilities they have created.'" I actually like her definition better, but I'd like to think about Brin's questions, because they are interesting. I mean, obviously, he does think sf is cooler, but he's explained why. To be honest, I think that one reason many people prefer fantasy is because change is static; nostalgia, rather than anticipation, is the guiding motive.



But does it have to be this way? I think Brin conflates two issues. Why is fantasy overwhelmingly feudal? Does fantasy fetishize an unchanging past?

Castles and swords, knights and princesses... I love these things, and I've never been able to walk through an old castle without wanting to write a story about it. Legends and myths give me the same feeling. I want to bring these things back to life. I want to imagine myself into that world. One has to leave knowledge of the future behind in that world because people who lived during medieval times did not have a sense of progress. They had a sense of an unchanging world, or in some cases, of a deteriorating world. Tolkien definitely conveys this, especially in the Similirilion. The Golden Age is followed by the Brass Age followed by the Iron Age followed by the Age of Clay. This isn't a story of progress and advancement in his hands, but of moral and magical decay. For Tolkien, silicon and steel are not an improvement on gold.


It's also certainly true that fantasy often falls back on feudalism. This is not so strange if one is using a quasi-medieval pseudo-European (or even pseudo-Japanese or pseudo-Chinese or pseudo-Timbuktu) culture. I had an idea once for a story set in a pseudo-Tibetan setting, and what disturbed me most was that most readers wouldn't have been able to really tell it apart from a pseudo-French one from the same era: Monks, kings, peasants, horses, swords.


Yet even in Urban Fantasy, one often finds that the Secret Organization of Were-creatures, Vampires and Merfolk, or whatever it is, operates along quite feudal lines. Or perhaps like a mafia--which is similar enough. I guess this is understandable, since the creatures were born and reared during feudal times. I liked the episode of Being Human where the more modern vampires were like, "Why don't we go public and just start advertising?" Seriously, dudes. Modern organizations obsess over how to get publicity, not how to stay secret.

One of my secret goals has been to create some democratic fantasy. Now, I don't always succeed. Faearth (the world of my Unfinished Song series) has no emperors or kings because they are not "advanced" enough. They are not a democracy either. They have elements of both autocratic and democratic governance, in the way that many neolithic cultures did. The system differs from tribe to tribe, and also from year to year, but the basic system is that there are three councils or "societies": the Society of Matriarchs, the Society of Patriarchs, and the Society of Tavaedies (the warrior-dancers with magic).

These three groups make important decisions together by casting stones (on a mat or into jars), a kind of voting. No one else is allowed to vote, but in theory, everyone in the tribe can vote eventually, if they survive arrows of ordinary misfortune, since the only qualification for becoming a Matriarch or Patriarch is old age or a Shining Name. It's as if the voting age in our society were 60, except for athletes, veterans and movie stars. (It's much younger for them because they marry and die younger.)

There is no secret ballot, and obviously no televised debates. They debate the issues in meetings of the societies. During the casting of stones, each participant may speak to his or her reasons for placing the stone on one mat or another, or simply put it down in silence, but all can see where puts each of the others place their stones. This is how they hold trials; this is how they choose their War Chief.


The War Chief is called "War" Chief, rather than simply "Chief" because he is a not a king or ruler. In theory, he only leads the warriors during battle. He must maintain the goodwill of others with Shining Names, which he does by providing them with feasts (potlatches) and gifts. Also the War Chief of a tribe does not automatically command the loyalty of all the clans in that tribe. Clans may choose to declare their loyalty to him, or not.

However, in practice, a strong War Chief can gain considerable power; he can use terror to force clans and individuals to submit to his authority. The rise of the Bone Whistler exemplifies the way a cunning and ruthless War Chief can become a true tyrant.

Here's a scene from my upcoming book, Wing (Book 5 of The Unfinished Song), in which the largest tribe, Rainbow Labyrinth, choose their next War Chief, shortly after the fall of the Bone Whistler. (Warning: if you have not read The Unfinished Song: Initiate yet, this will contain spoilers. Go pick it up right now, while it's free.)
On the day to choose the War Chief, Vio broke with only one tradition; he retired to his own house during the Casting of Stones. “I will not see who casts which stone,” he told the Society of Societies, who assembled in the great, three-tiered kiva, with a smooth river stone in hand. “Do not fear my wrath if you wish to cast your stone in another’s jar. If you want me as War Chief, my spear will be strong for you. If you choose another, my spear will be strong for him.”
Vumo and Nangi arrived at their house to report the results. Vessia lowered the ladder to them from the balcony. Houses in the tribehold had neither doors nor windows on the first floor.
Vessia did not need to eat thoughts to surmise Nangi’s disgruntlement, which told Vessia which way the casting had gone.
“His little charade fooled no one,” Nangi grumbled. “The jars would have been full for Vumo, but Vio never would have bent his knee to his baby brother.”
Vumo looked uncertain. Listening to Nangi’s poison day and night had made him suspicious of his brother.
“If you don’t take Vio at his word, then test him,” Vessia said. “Tell him Vumo was selected, see what he does.”
“That’s not a good idea,” said Vumo. “He’ll kill me.”
“You owe him the chance to prove he is true.”
They climbed up one more ladder, to the third story rooftop, where Vio gazed out over the whole tribehold, to other rooftops where families lounged, also waiting for the news of whom the elders had chosen, and past that, to the hills where his enemies camped. He leaned on his spear like a walking stick, and his expression was impassive, but Vessia had learned to read the small ticks in his forehead and cheek that showed his extreme tension. He would not let himself ask how the casting went, but waited for his younger brother to speak.
“The elders acclaimed Vumo the One-Horned Aurochs as War Chief,” Nangi announced.

“Nangi!” complained Vumo.
All the blood drained from Vio’s face. He lifted his spear, and Vumo took a step back.
“Now, Vio, wait…” Vumo began.
Vio went down on one knee and placed his spear before Vumo. “You have my spear, my arm, my light. You are my Chief, and I, your warrior pledged. If I fail you by word or deed, let my spear be broken under your foot, let my life be spit in your mouth.”
Nangi plucked something from the air and tasted it. She heaved a sigh. “There is no deceit in him.”
On the other rooftops, men and women pointed at them. Their exclamations of surprise and outrage carried on the wind. Vumo’s face flamed. “Vio, stand up!”
“As you command, my Chief.” He stood.
“No! I am not your Chief. You should not kneel to me!” Vumo prostrated himself and laid his spear in front of Vio.
“Forgive my doubt. I only wanted to know if you would honor me. Of course they chose you, Vio. Of course they did.

“You have my spear, my arm, my light. You are my Chief, older brother, as you have been all my life, and I am your warrior pledged. If I fail you by word or deed, let my spear be broken under your foot and let my worthless life be spit in your mouth!”
Now cheers and yells carried from the onlookers on other roofs. Within a few days, the tale had spread, that Nangi and Vumo had tested Vio’s honor and he had proven true, and the esteem in which he was held rose. Yet there were those who had first rejoiced at the thought that a Morvae, not an Imorvae, would be War Chief, whose disappointment was all the more bitter for their hopes being raised then dashed.
These malcontents made Vumo more nervous than Vio, and Vumo kept asking him, “You’re not still sore about that trick we played are you? It was Nangi’s idea."

“No,” said Vessia. “It was mine.”
Vio measured her a long look, but to his brother said mildly, “I’m not sore.”
In earlier generations, only Tavaedies and warriors would have been expected to bend knee and pledge life to the War Chief, but the Bone Whistler had demanded the personal pledge of every tribesman and tribeswoman, all eight thousand of them, who lived inside the walls of the pueblo. The people were eager to purge themselves of the stain of the fallen tyrant, and the elders felt only a new pledge would break any lingering thrall of the Bone Flute. Vio stood in the central plaza and received a long line of men and women who knelt to him by turn. The process took days.
Nangi offered to eat the thoughts of those who gave their pledges, as she had for her father. In her father’s day, those whose thoughts belied their words would have been dragged to one side and killed on the spot. Vio declined her services.
“Is it because you trust them so much, or because you trust me so little?” demanded Nangi.
“Let each man and woman garden what thoughts they please,” said Vio, “I will harvest only their deeds when I judge their loyalty. The same is true for you, Nangi.”
She snorted.
With his position as War Chief at last secure, Vio assembled seven septs of warriors on horse to sortie into the hills against the Morvae.
There's a single line here that speaks to the issues Brin raised: In earlier generations, only Tavaedies and warriors would have been expected to bend knee and pledge life to the War Chief, but the Bone Whistler had demanded the personal pledge of every tribesman and tribeswoman.... society is not feudal; but it is on its way to becoming feudal. They have no kings...yet. But their War Chiefs will soon become chiefs, and then, probably, Kings.

Or maybe not. That depends on whether one thinks that a certain kind of government inevitably follows a certain level of civil organization. Their society is changing. Whether one wants to call it progress is an interesting one. It is striking how many isolated human civilizations passed through the same "stages" as their technology advanced. Stone age technology usually accompanied egalitarian tribes and chiefdoms; bronze and iron age technology, in large agricultural social groups, was usually wielded by kings served by castes of specialized priests and warriors. Industrialization brought a return to egalitarian impulses and the rise of democracies. Was this the only way that civilization could unfold? And if one were in an egalitarian, tribal society on the cusp of a much more brutal but also more productive agricultural kingdom, is that progress or decay?

I did not want to write about a utopia (nor a dystopia) in The Unfinished Song. There are many things I think are admirable in the cultures I describe, but also things which are rather horrid. There is also real change; real progress--though it may be as much a threat as a promise. One thing it is not, is an immutable world. Indeed, that is the crux of the dispute between the fae and the humans. The fae are immutable, immortal and eternal. Their time is circular. The humans, like the Black Arrow of Lady Death, can only travel time in one direction. They must change, as inevitably as they must die.

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Feb 6, 2012

Blunders to Avoid Designing Magic Training

GUEST BLOG: 
MAGICAL TRAINING
by Rayne Hall



To become a mighty mage, your character needs training.  Mere talent isn’t enough.

Like in any other field, success  in magic comes from a combination of natural gift, determination,  study, and practice. It's similar to writing: you can have the greatest natural literary gift in the world, but unless you learn the craft and actually practice writing, you won't achieve your potential.

Give your magician character a backstory which includes training, or send him (I'll use the male pronoun for this article, but everything I say applies to either gender) to magical school.


TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES

1. School of Magic

Your novel may have a school of magic for children, a college of magic, a mage academy, or even a university offering postgraduate degrees in comparative magic and magical anthropology. Students sign up for full-time study, most likely on a tuition-and-board basis. If the novel is set in the modern western world, the classes may meet the requirements of the national curriculum in addition to providing magical training. In ancient Egypt, most magicians were priests, and magician-priests were brought up from a young age at the temple.

Depending on the type of school and level of education, a magic school is likely to teach subjects of relevance to magicians: for example sciences (especially botany and chemistry), medicine (conventional, alternative or complementary),  music (especially chanting and drumming), physical education (especially dancing), philosophy and ethics (especially the ethics of magic spells), ancient languages (e.g. Latin, Aramaic, Sanskrit),  religion (especially if it's a temple school), astronomy, astrology, mythology, psychology, divination, and more. A modern school may also have compulsory classes in health and safety.

2. Apprenticeship

A master magician takes one or several apprentices. The apprenticeship is similar to that of other trades, bound by similar rules. Typically, the master signs a contract with the youngster's parent, which indentures the apprentice for several years, and in return, the master teaches his craft. There may be payment involved; either the parent paying the master or the master paying the apprentice. The apprentices may live in the master's house, and practice under his instruction. Typically, they may be put to hard work, including non-magical chores such as scrubbing floors.  This form of magical training has been prevalent in many cultures and periods, especially for shamans.

3. Self-study

A magician can plausibly teach herself, learning from observation, trial and error.  This suits reclusive, organised, studious types who have a high education, a lot of self-discipline and intense curiosity. She needs access to learning materials, as well as the money and leisure to devote herself to the study. Self-taught magicians are plausible among the educated wealthy upper classes in the western world from the Renaissance onwards.   Sometimes, a magician has initially served an apprenticeship and outgrown her master (or fallen out with him), and is pursuing further studies on her own.

4. Part-Time Study

Although it takes several years of full-time training to become a professional magician, it's also possible to practice magic as a hobby, and to devote only a few hours every week to training. The part-time path is particularly plausible in the modern world, where many adults take up magic while earning their bread from a day-job. Many organisations offer part-time classes: community colleges, Pagan religious groups, New Age societies. Classes may be in classroom environments, by correspondence, or online. In about a year, the student can achieve enough skill to work a little magic, and this may be all a hobbyist wants. If she wishes to go further, then decades of part-time study can make her a magician of significant power.

5. Informal Learning

Non-professional magicians may pass on their skills informally, especially among family members. For example, a mother may teach her daughter a few things she picked up from her own mother, and make the little girl practice it until she gets it right. The range of applications is limited, typically involving skills of practical everyday use, such as how to make the cow give more milk and how to make the potatoes boil faster.  This type of magic is often called 'folk magic'. It won't equip the student to battle the sorcerous evil overlord and save the world.




CANDIDATE SELECTION

Schools, universities and masters are choosy about the students and apprentices they take. Before a candidate is accepted for training, there will be an interview and an aptitude test. Typically, the teacher will assess some or all of the following:
When testing future apprentices, magicians may check for one or all of the following:

- ability to concentrate
- ability to follow instructions
- creativity and imagination
- ability to visualise
- ability to memorise
- motivation (Why does this person want to learn magic? A candidate who replies 'To hurt my enemies', 'To get rich quick', 'To seduce chicks' or  'It sounds fun, much better than doing real work' will be rejected)
- moral integrity
- obedience (especially in traditional-style indentured apprenticeships)
- ability to control thoughts
- ability think and act under pressure
- patience
- health
- sensory awareness
- certain features traditionally attributed to magicians of that form of magic (e.g. Nepalese shamans may look for a child who instinctively climbs trees)
- natural affinity for magic
- existing skills in related fields (e.g. clairvoyance, astrology)
- faith and piety (especially for religious magic, e.g. training in temple schools)
In addition to the candidates character and aptitude, other  factors may play a role, such as money, politics and connections. A college may give preference to the offspring of distinguished alumni, and a master may take on the apprentice whose parents pay most.

THE DAILY GRIND OF LEARNING

Magic requires a lot of practice, which students may find tedious.  Every spell needs to be drilled and repeated, perhaps hundreds of times. There'll be a lot of visualising exercises, sitting still for an hour while keeping an imagined image of a yellow brick or a red flame in the mind's eye. Some forms of magic involve a lot of rote learning and recitations, others require the steady stirring of simmering potions at just the right rhythm all night long. The average teenager will probably hate much of it.



EXAMPLES FROM LITERATURE

Harry Potter by JK Rowling. The children attend a specialist school,
Hogwarts, for several years, studying several forms of magic and related subjects.  The students at Hogwarts learn theory, but they also practice a lot, and some scenes show them practising until they get it right.  Several years of study is appropriate.

Mage Heart by Jane Routley. A historical fantasy novel, a story about a young girl who grows into her powers as a magician at the same time as she grows into womanhood. The heroine started her magical training as apprentice to her adoptive father, a magician. Then she enrolled in a College of Magic for several years of formal classes. The novel is set during her final year at college when she takes on a magic job to boost her finances.

Krabat by Otfried Preussler. A powerful YA dark fantasy novel, huge bestseller in Germany, winner of several literature prizes. It's little known in the English-speaking world, although it has been translated and published variously as Krabat and as The Satanic Mill. A boy starts an apprenticeship as a miller, and is delighted to discover that he'll learn magic at the same time. The dual apprenticeship - miller and magician - takes several years. Several apprentices and journeymen work at the mill. Gradually, the boy realises that the magic he delights in is evil.

With A Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans. An enjoyable, light-hearted, humorous heroic fantasy. It plays with the idea 'What happens if an apprenticeship doesn't work out?' An apprentice magician is left stranded when his master dies. The master had used the apprentice for mundane tasks, always promising to teach him real magic, but never teaching any. The boy is too old to apprentice himself to a new trade, and he can't find another master willing to take him on.  The only spell he knows is how to start a fire. Now he must make his way in the world with no other skill but arson.

The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. A beautifully written, witty YA fantasy, highly enjoyable for adults as well. The government controls use of magic and arranges for talented children to be adopted by professional, government-approved , magicians. An unusually talented precocious boy is gets apprenticed to an not-very-good magician. While pretending to learn at the slow pace set by his master, he secretly teaches himself more advanced stuff, soon overreaching himself by the summoning a powerful demon. This is a combination of 'apprenticeship' and 'self-study'.

BLUNDERS TO AVOID

* The protagonist discovers that she has magical talent, and this makes her a powerful magician... as if magic didn't require study.  That's the equivalent of getting a black belt in karate without any training, purely on the basis of natural talent. 

* The protagonist discovers an ancient book of magical which instantly enables him to work spells... as if magic didn't require practice. That's the equivalent of someone finding a book on Russian grammar and instantly speaking fluent Russian.

* A master mage or an old witch invites a child to spend an afternoon with her, and in this time she teaches the kid everything she knows... as if a lifetime of learning could be crammed into a few hours. That's the equivalent of  becoming a brain surgeon by spending an afternoon with a brain surgeon.

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Rayne Hall teaches an online workshop 'Writing about Magic and Magicians'. Create believable magicians (good and evil), fictional spells which work, and plot complications when the magic goes wrong. Learn about high and low magic, witches and wizards, circle-casting and power-raising, initiation and training, tools and costumes, science and religion, conflicts and secrecy, love spells and sex magic, and apply them to your novel. This is a 4-week class with 12 lessons and practical assignments. If you wish, you may submit a scene for critique at the end of the workshop.
 
The next date for this workshop is:
March
2012: Lowcountry RWA www.lowcountryrwa.com/online-workshops/

Rayne's workshops include 'Writing Fight Scenes' and 'Writing Scary Scenes'. For an up-to-date schedule go to sites.google.com/site/writingworkshopswithraynehall/

Rayne has had more than twenty books published under different pen names, with several publishing houses and in several languages. Her latest novel, Storm Dancer, is a dark-heroic fantasy  about magic and demons. 


Purple wizard: Artwork by Kuoke, copyright Rayne Hall
Amrut/Egyptian magician: Artwork by Kuoke, copyright Rayne Hall
Beltane/Wiccan witch: Artwork by Leah Skerry, copyright Rayne Hall

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And don't forget!

If you'd like to receive a free copy of Wing, please sign up for my newsletter. When you sign up, be sure to tell me what ebook format you prefer.

Feb 4, 2012

5 Steps to Writing Without a Muse

I need to write a story. And I have no idea what to write. How do I start?

Trying to write without inspiration is like trying to drive without gas.

For various reasons, I've been reading a great deal of literary fiction, and for various reasons I am expected to write something that is not fantasy or science fiction. So I have the added burden of writing something out of my comfort zone.

I feel like I'm writing without a muse. That's not the end of the world. It makes the process slower, that's all. It doesn't all pour forth in white heat. At least not right away. Eventually, the story must be molten to be poured into shape, but there are steps to take before it gets there. That's true also of my genre fiction. The problem isn't the genre, really. That's just one more challenge.

Here's what I do.

1. Brainstorm.
I flip through my notebooks, reminding myself of previous ideas. I brainstorm. I jot down new possibles. Since this is to be a mainstream, "realistic" story, I search my own experience. I have an idea... a real incident, based on two people I know. I'll just write down exactly what happened.

Damn, this will be easy. I feel almost like I'm cheating.

2. Outline.
Even though it's a short story, I write an outline. A simple one, whatever comes to mind. Tat-tat-tat, into the computer. In this case, I tat out six lines, six movements in the story. It is the story of a mother and daughter, both coming to terms in different ways with a dying father. My outline looks like this: Father dying; Daughter responds; Mother responds; Father gets worse; Daughter responds; Mother responds. Because this is based on a real incident, I know more than I write down. I have a sense of the details I will work in.

I add a last header to the outline: "Conclusion." As if it were a journal paper, not a story. I don't know what the ending will be. Not a clue. But do I need a real ending? Some clever twist, some final confrontation with the bad guy, some big reveal? Nah. I can just through in a beautiful metaphor and leave it at that. This is a literary story, so I can get away with an ambiguous ending. In fact, it will be considered more profound that way! Excellent.

The outline might seem so simple as to be useless, but in fact, it has revealed glaring problems. Reluctantly, I acknowledge that it's not just the ending I don't know. The details I thought would be easy to write about--because this all really happened--turn out to be more elusive than I thought. As I run through the story in my mind, turning real people into characters who are their own, different people, I realize there's much I don't know about them, about their lives, even about the disease that's killing the father in the family.

This won't be so easy after all.

3. Research
I can't avoid research after all, not even for a contemporary story based on my own experience. It's humbling. I realize how easy it is to stumble through "real" life only half-knowing things, and how this is not allowed in fiction.

There are two kinds of facts I need to research. One kind is easy to find. The name of a disease that will work for my plot. The medical particulars. Stuff like that. Fact facts.

Then there's the other kind of fact I need to research. This is trickier. How does it smell, how does it taste? How does it feel? Sensory details. Philosophies. Emotions. And what kinds of other everyday things can I weave into the story, things to stand in as metaphors without being painfully obvious and cliche? Not to mention just trawling for oddbits and curiosities to enrich the story, to try to light that spark, to try to wake the muse and warm the pot to molten inspiration.

4. Craft
There are certain technical questions I have to address before I can begin. Whose point of view will be used? A single narrator, a friend outside the family, or the alternating voices of the mother and daughter? Perhaps even the father? Unspecified omniscient? How long will the story be? Will there be formal breaks between the seven sections in my outline, or will I sew them together and disguise the seams from all but the truly discerning? Past tense or present? What word count will I aim for?

5. Heat
I lied. I can't write a story without my muse. I can't write without the white hot fever of inspiration. But inspiration can be stoked, like any fire. If the outline, research and craft decisions don't bring me to the point where I feel it, I go back to research. Or, I put the project aside, and go back to brainstorming. Yep, I start from scratch. But I don't throw away the work I've done on this story. I keep it, as a half-finished project. Another day, I might flip through my notebooks or files and find it, and that day might be the right day, the day I fall into a feverish heat of typing and finish it.

I have just one more secret.

Sometimes, even when I'm sure I don't feel the bell ringing, I pretend I do. If I've really done the research, I know the images I want to use, I know the characters, I know their actions. I just write that down. It's like like writing notes, but now arranged in paragraphs. I'm convinced it will suck, but I keep at it. I go through the motions. I KNOW it will suck. I keep writing. It's the worst piece of suck EVER.

As some point, I realize that I've completely gone off track from my outline...and yet, I've ended up with a story which is not half as bad as I feared.