Perhaps one of the most prevalent topics we find on writer/writing fora online these days, aside from Imposter Syndrome missives, is that of being asked whether one is a “pantser” or “plotter” in one’s approach to ones writing style.
Does one, as it were, fly by the seat of one’s pants and improvise as one goes along with no firm structure decided as one writes or does one spend more time laying out detailed roadmaps, flow charts, character sheets, and so forth with a detailed and unassailably planned plot?
Quite the polemic subject, I can tell you! However I raise one point which I think is valid; since when did writers or artists in general conform to ‘standards’ or let themselves be placed into boxes? Artists are, by definition, nonconformist in their natures, that is what makes one an artist; one does not think about or see the world as everyone else does. Of course, this brings up the famous bugbear, with whom I get along not at all well; the Writers Rules! I think having a set of cast-iron rules for writers is about as practical as expecting all sides of the American political spectrum to be civil to one another for longer than five minutes…anyway, I digress (again).
Let us think about this for a moment; are you one, either, both, or neither? I volunteer that I am quite the impulsive type. Let me outline (haha) my manner of doing things;
The Fisher Method
I do have, in my mind’s eye, the place I want to get to. I know how it ends and am, perhaps, writing backwards, explaining how my characters arrived that that conclusion. Like one of those movies that starts at the end and then, in the rest of the movie, makes sense of that titillating scene. Only I write my final chapter and seal it away forever.
I have an idea of the structure, the general characters, how they think and who they are. I know about the society they live in, the world they occupy, and the enemies or challenges they will face. In other words I have the bare bones.
I like to create artworks of my charactersm as well as some key scenes in the story, some of you like them and have told me so, for which I thank you very much! This gives me an idea of what my character looks like, how they stand, what they wear, of their general mein and expressions. I also like to hide little clues to torment present or future fans with in these artworks.
I learned early on that the best way to develop a character and get into their skin is through the medium of short stories. Put them in situations that are different to those they’ll face in the main novel. Develop their backstory and let them play to see what they’ll do. In Empyraeum, these experiments became rather popular by themselves.
By dint of the things you learn in the previous two steps, your story map has probably changed just a little bit. Maybe you have added more characters. Maybe a previously unimportant character is more prominent. Maybe, like I did, you realise that themes and ideas uncovered in the shorts require further exploration.
A story is a living, breathing , thing. It is given life through you and through the imagination of everyone that reads it. Just as your charaters must evolve and develop through the course of the story, so too must your story have some ‘growing room’.
Keep your website or blog as a Central Lore Repository this is what the readers will use to refer to the lore and background later and become familiar with it now. In there modern times, your website is the public face of your world or universe.
Be aware, during edit phases, of any information that may need some ret-conning. This is why making sure the lore on your website is always up to date so you can refer to it as you edit.
What Does That Mean, Now? That means that I don’t think you need to be one or the other. I think an adaptive and fluid attitude to writing is what keeps both you and your readers engaged. I mean, if you are not surprised or engaged, how can you expect them to be?
I have said I am rather impulsive when it comes to storytelling and, while it does make for a good yarn or three, it actually requires a lot more discipline than you would think. Most people think that those writers of a more trouserly persuasion are too impulsive, unfoccussed, and more akin to mad scientists than writers (add A to B, shake in some F, and see if we live or change shape). Instead it involves iron focus, deep lore, awareness of the whole shape of your dynamic universe, and an awful lot of spare bits you may or may not use.
I think this latter part is very handy to have because, if you hit a wall (any but the 4th) and cannot get past it, cometh forth the left-overs! It may surprise many, looking at Empyraeum as it is today, to know that it was made of three or four reconstituated left-over projects I just could not get to work on their own, that something was missing. These were;
Bloodstar; a universe envisioned in my teens which ended up bearing quite the remarkable resemblence to Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe
Trinity; Gabriel and Sham’s world of mysterious angel/demon/human creatures of uncertain origin. Part of that (including Gabriel, Unity, and Sham) was brought over in to Empyraeum, the rest was folded into The Chronicles of Enoch.
Untitled Work: Hidden from public for centuries; a secret society made up of Alexander’s former elite soldiers, emerges into the modern world announcing his return.
Embodied Saga: Short stories detailing a strange series of natural disasters which reveals mankind’s secret noospheric connection to their own demise.
I have added a lot more and chopped off a few things that I may well find useful later. There is some lore I am wavering over the use of. I brought the Ghorkai back after some hesitation. I might bring back a couple of other fantasy inspired races too; Empyraeum has grown into such a complex universe that I may well have to rely on fans to create an Expanded Universe because I seriously don’t know if I can write as much as could be written.
Of course, having fans who want to write expanded universe works is my dream and I’ll be sure to help and guide anyone that wants to get involved in that once the main trilogy is finished.
“The only constants you can rely on are death and change…”
So said a wise person who has since experienced at least one of those things, probably both at this point. People only tend to quote you a lot once you’re no longer around to say “No! That is not what I meant!” have you noticed that?
Change, though, it the one thing that most people appear to hate with a passion. One needs simply to take a look at social media today to see that. People tend to like a constant, steady progression of events they are comfortable with and can easily predict. Consider this, one of my favourite quotes;
‘People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds.’
– The Truth, Terry Pratchett
Why do you think that an endless progression of the same kinds of story never loses popularity? I watch, at times from boredom, a certain kind of late night movie on a certain kind of TV channel. They are painfully predicatable. Girl moves to new town or returns to old town. Girl has painful past and hates everybody male. Person she hates the most she falls in love with. Joy and albino pigeons prevail. Or man and woman have perfect marriage. Odd stranger appears. Stranger fame from past and oddly convenient events send either them or one member of the marriage on unrealistic murder spree which helps innocent party meet love of life. It’s boredom, OK? I’ve finised work for the day and I have the falsely optimistic hope that this one will break the mould! My wife laughs and refuses to watch them with me because I faultlessly predict the outcome before it happens, I’m missing my market here, I could write these things! I don’t ned you intelligent people! I’m off to make my fortune recycling overused tat, farewell!
Still here? Good, because I could never do that. I feel the purpose of great writing, the kind that stands the test of time, lies not in recycling the same predictable storylines in a slightly different setting. No, it lies in taking the unexpected direction. OK, we have themes which get reused, ideas and archetypes, those are there to stay. We’ll discuss those later on, in an episode or two. What is the difference? Themes can be used to misdirect as well as be slavishly followed, themes can be useful tools. Aaron Debimski-Bowden is excellent at this; presenting a hero, showing us his or her journey, only to bring it crashing down around them in the end. Graham McNeill is skilled at this too. People escape reality through fiction, they have newspapers and television to tell them the same old tales over and over again. Fiction and, I have noticed, especially science fiction, exists to challenge people. Sci-Fi has always been about pushing boundaries, going beyond the mundane, and exploring possibilities. Fantasy can be, too, but the genre has gotten quite tropy recently; full of what I call the ‘Pig-Farmer Prince’ type of thing, or the ‘Rise of Mary-Sues’. You know the kind, absolutely untrained around average person meets mentor, mentor reveals part of truth and trains them, they surpass mentor. Mentor dies or almost dies in battle with big bad (whch big bad survives and escapes from) and truth of average person is dramatically revealed. Average person is now nigh invincible and big bad’s defeat is only a matter of time and a lt of needless exposition and exploration of minor character arcs. Ok, not all sci-fi is immune from this either and we all like a bit of tropy here and there, don’t we? I’ve done a few of them myself, don’t think I’m hating on the stories that do this. In essence you write the story you want to write, not the story you think everyone wants to read.
There is some debate over this one. Does story shape setting or does setting shape story?
The answer is a little bit of both. This links back to our Consistency and Context topic from the last episode. You are building a world and a world has rules, many of which may well have to be broken throughout the course of the story, just to keep things interesting. Conflict – either that which the character creates or has inflicted upon them – is essential to moving a story along, after all. To my mind, though, the conflict and change inherent to it must be consistent with the rest of the world. It must be possible for such events to happen and not appear to be just thrown in for drama’s sake. It’s not a surprise if it doesn’t break a rule or two but it is not done well if you have have not been able to use the ‘tides’ of the world to foreshadow the coming tsunami either.
Back in Shakespeare’s time, he built his heroes with a ‘fatal flaw’, an element to the character which their experiences in the world had built into them. This flaw would cause the hero’s tragic fate in the end and it was foreshadowed throughout the tale. Just as the characters can have their ‘fatal flaws’ so too can the world itself. It can have personality, it can have moods and humours. In fact, the world is just another character you create. Like any other character, it reachs to and acts upon other characers and, if you write well, each is changed by the other. We know all about character development, don’t we? We know it is essential to a good story to have some kind of believable character development but what is it that makes that development believable? Your world does; the rules, laws, and norms of your world determine what is and is not possible. Everything you have written up that point contributes to your world and, if you’ve done it well, your readers will both feel that world and feel they are a part of it. The last thing you want them to do if fling your book at the wall with a cry or curse word because you pulled a surprise ‘twist’ out of your behind that doesn’t fit the world.
Look. Batman (from the original TV series) was always captured and placed in a needlessly elaborate trap. He would appear doomed but remember that he had just invented just the thing to escape with AND remembered to put it on his utility belt that morning. Terrible and tropy but it fit the world it took place in, people expected it and were disappointed if it were absent. The A-Team, always captured and locked up together in a location with all the raw materials and tools they’d need to create their manner of escape. We watched to see what outlandish contraption they’d build next.
If your world has smiling, indefinably ethnic old monks in it who may or may no have learned a secret yeti trick, their sudden return from certain death might be unexpected but not hated. You cannot have your character do something which your world has established is impossible without first saying why it is impossible and hinting at this one time maybe, so I have heard from a friend of a friend of a bloke I met in the pub, that it may well have been possible.
You can change what is classified as normal within the boundaries of your world as long as you make it consistent and constant within that world. You can have a world where men bite dogs habitually as long as you make it consistent and believable.
Most importantly of all, don’t be afraid to leave questions unanswered because the real world is quite literally full of those. Leaving a few gaps for the readers to fill with their own imagination is actually a great strategy because this invests them even further in your world. Why? If they start imagining answers to questions they have encountered about your world and inventing answers to said questions, then they believe in your world.
They believe in it and they understand it which means you did your job well!
Exposition; there is the rub, though in the absence of a question. Just how much is too much? That is the actual question.
I have seen this discussed, weighted, challenged and justified over and over on various groups and fora; it is called info-dumping, the Wall of Text…it is called many things and much advice about avoiding it to be found but none seem to answer the most important question for the apprentice author, for the journeyperson; how does one avoid doing it?
It is easy to do – I raise my hand in guilty associatin, I have done it – to be in the heat and passion of a scene, and to go off in detail about the background to a particular event, place, relationship, etc. It is likely that you have spent a lot of time, effort, and heart in creating your world and are justifiably proud of it, I know I am. You want to show how great it is to your readers and have them enjoy it as much as you do, I completely understand. I still have this awful habit at the moment of steering unrelated conversations to my writing, or dropping anecdotes about characters into relevent situations, it is causing both friends and family to “assume the expression” with me often.
Admit it; you know which expression I am referring to!
You are in love with your world, it’s like your child because you created it, you nurtured its early stages, you developed and taught it tricks and gave it direction. It is a part of you and you are right to be proud about that. Thing is, not everyone sees it that way.
Somebody giving one of my artworks a like does not know that it took anywhere between 3 hours and 3 days to create that, to tease and massage it into an acceptable shape. In fact a large proportion of viewers will not even see the finer details I agonised for hours over getting just right. But it looks pretty and conveys a feeling or three, so they click a button and move on, maybe even pass a moment held in its grip.
Equally, they have no idea how much time you spent deciding how to spell the word for sandwich in your work, how you spent sleepless nights debating whether your main character was a Steve, a Bob, or a Mark and why. They will never know the level of research that goes into inventing a whole language and its associated grammatical structure, or the layout of a space station, the configuration of armour, weapons, insignia….they just think we plucked it out of the air in our clever writerly fashion.
But, to quote a famous Spaniard; “Are they entertained?” That’s the goal isn’t it?
You all know the image; big chunk of frozen water, floating in the sea, most people don’t see that the bit we see is really small compared to the bit that we don’t. I read a quote somewhere from one of the effects crew in the Lord of the Rings movies. He said that they have a team of dozens, hundres maybe, of people designing everything from swords and armour, down to door knobs, the buckles on a belt, chairs, paintings in the background, cutlery and plates, etc. How many of you noticed anything special about the mugs the hobbits drank beer from, do you recall its look and feel? Nope. Someone put a lot of thought into that. Did you see the titles of the books in Elrond’s study? Probably not, but someone painstaking thought about each and every title.
Why, you might ask (if you didn’t please keep up), would they do that? Ahhh…now that is the right question.
Your goal, as a writer, is to have a stranger pick up your book and read it from cover to cover without being forced in any fashion, to enjoy it and, ideally, want to do so again with your next volume. We want to tell them a story they will never forget and have them hankering for more.
We need to draw them in and show them how much more beautiful our iceberg is, seeing as it afloat in a sea of icebergs. We must let them see that its penguin passengers are worthy of a look, that its unique algal blooms are quite stunning, and that, underneath the water, there is a frozen alien spaceship/ancient artefact/frozen caveman etc. waiting to be discovered if only they take the chance to stop their journey and look.
So, how much iceberg to show, just what do you display in order that your reader not only picks your one frozen leviathan from the hundreds bobbing in the ocean but stays upon in and is interested enough to find the secret door into its very heart?
You want them to be interested in, immersed in, and draw to your world. You want them to feel it so that they understand your characters’ struggles, the story itself, and why what happens actually happens. You want them to imagine and feel a part of it, even if they are only an observer. You want them to know what it feels like to be inside the skin of your characters, to see the world through their eyes and empathise with them.
There, my friends, is the key. Nobody will care about your character unless you can make them feel empathy towards said character, to identify and become invested in them. How do they do that?
Well, empathy means to imagine oneself in the situation of another. This requires a reciprocal relationship of sorts. The empathiser must find something in the empathee with which they can identify, a shared experience, even if it is a vague one such as shared humanity or a childhood experience. Shared humanity. Is your character a living, breathing, being in their eyes?
Here it comes. Dropping avalanches of information at a key moment of connection, as your reader tentatively explores the inner slopes of your iceberg and approaches the location of the hidden door might just sweep them off in the ocean to to eaten by orcas and leapard seals. Or accidentally stabbed by a narwal.
You have to give enough that they understand the character but not so much that they become lost or disinterested, losing the excitement of the moment. Compare these two examples;
“Well, you know, Steve did his thing, you know the thing with his whatsit? Well he was doing that when that thing with the cats happened and he remembered that other things and cried. So sad man”
“Brave Stephen considered his party trick – the one he had perfected at the age of seven and which much amused his friends. You recall? It was the one involving ferrets? Twenty-five years ago ferrets were outlawed as pets and most were exterminated, it was the smell, you see, many people were offended and there were riots, I think. Ferrets though/ Such wonderful and loyal creatures, easy to train, to share the affection and loyalty of. Quite, quite intelligent little fellows too! Why, I knew a man who had taught his ferret to… One such rioter, by the name of Marcus, he came from Greece or somewhere and was 25 years old at the time. He did this thing during a demonstration, his mother had taught it to him as a child and he remembered it fondly because she had died when he was a child and had few memories of her now. That may have been what caused Marcus to join the rebellion and, through the centuries that have passed since, inspire so many – “
See? In the latter, thread of excitement is lost completely and the eyes are becoming heavy as narrator drones on about ferrets and other unrelated things. These things might, in your mind, be of vital importance to the story and, thus, essential for the reader to know but how better to tell them?
Well, most, people wil tell you that dialogue is the trick and they are right, to quite the degree, but as you have seen above, that doesn’t always work. The sharper among you will notice that, indeed, neither example is correct because while the latter gives too much information, the former gives too little even though, most importantly, the former feels much more like a natural conversation.
I gave two extremes intentionally but felt the need to demonstrate an important point. How do we avoid movie trailer voice or insurance commercal conversations? How do we convey enough information while keeping the flow natural?
“So, we were talking about last week and Steve started to do that thing -“
“The one with the ferrets? Oh god, really?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Really.”
“That’ll get him arrested by the Pickers that will.” eyes dart around on conditioned reflex.
“Listen, I told him”
“Remember Greek Marcus, right?” she barely managed to suppress a snort. “Remember Greek Marcus.” voice low and solemn.”
Scraff! What did he say?”
He said those ferrets are all he’s got since…well, since, you know…” he ran a trembling hand over three days of growth. “Since it all went to sh-“
“Yeah…” she cut him off with a sharp gesture, suppressing a shudder. “Who can forget? Steve least of all..”
A little better right? Could be polished a bit as I made that up on the fly but you see the idea, a good starting point for a first draft. we’re invested in Steve, he has a tragedy somewhere that his friends are worried about and takes refuge in ferret tricks, it’s his way of coping. Maybe we want to know more about Steve now. Maybe we want to know what happened to him and why is friends appear frightened.
Like our iceberg, events and time reveal more or less about it. Our characters do not enter the story the same as when they exit or complete it. They develop, as they experience events or learn new information. Just as we do not reveal everything about our character and what is going to happen to them all at once, we should not with our world either. Not in the book, at least.
Publishing in the Information Age
We all know how much the world of publishing has changed since our literary heroes started out. Whether your hero author is dead, well established, or a Name, their journey was quite different to ours. We are both incredibly fortunate to have this new world and stymied by it at times. Let us consider the elements, as it were, of our information rich world as an author;
Self Publishing; the only barrier to getting published and having our book available to readers is actually finishing it. Of course, this is amazing, one can become a published author overnight! Of course, there are pitfalls and we have discussed those before and will come back to them in the next chapter.
Social media; One can establish a presence on a number of different platforms, or a combination thereof. We will discuss strategy in later chapters.
Author and Book Websites; they are (relatively) cheap to set up, host, and buy a domain name for these days; you can have everything for $20-$30 a month or even less. You can include all kinds of information there and this I will come back to shortly.
Author Blog(s); often an integral part of a website but can be an entirely seperate entity, depending on preference.
How does that connect to the topic at hand, I hear you ask. I believe it does because we have something those that proceeded us did not. We have the ability to do all our detailed expositioning seperate to our book, and, if we are really smart (and have the time to do it right) can actually blend all of that information into the ebook version of our work quite seemlessly. Amazon have a service, for example, called X-Ray which allows you to build a database of hyperinked words and terms into your ebook file so that the reader has simply to click on said hyperlink to learn more…you can turn your ebook into a truly interactive experience and allow the reader to choose how much they want to know. This is a very handy tool I encourage those with ebooks on Amazon to look into.
Next we have our website. as you know, the Empyraeum Enkyklopaedeia is a growing source of information for readers, as is the website as a whole. I encourage you to consider the same with your work. These days, everyone is looking for a website and will, if you do it right, spend a good portion of time studying it. Maybe this is a personal preference but I find myself these days, when reading a good fantasy or scifi book, having a browser window open to a good information source on that book and, when I come across an interesting term in the narrative, I find a relevent entry to learn more, often distracting myself away from the story entirely for a good 10 minutes!
Now, established series, authors, and IP’s have people to manage these vast volumes of information, to summarise and create great content but you, my friends, have not that luxury yet. It is, as the saying goes, on you.
The next chapter of this videoblog series will touch directly on these aspects of an author’s world in much more detail but I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about for today.
In these trying times, a little doubt and anxiety of only natural, as is fear. Your greatest asset, though, is your passion and your belief in the fact that you are writing the greatest story ever told….You will get through this, you are enough, you are going to do this; I believe in you.
These are things which can turn your writing from a collection of words into a Story! Make it something you loved writing and are proud of to something which people will love reading and want more of. Of course we are writing for ourselves and writing a style we love but we do want it to sell right? We want to see our vision on the Silver Screen or the TV at least. We don’t write it to leave in a drawer somewhere to desintegrate do we?
No, Alan we do not, we would love ot achieve success with it and have lots of people read and love it like we do! You have many ways to create these but here are a couple;
Fight or pursuit scenes. How can you use style, skill and language to create tension, draw them in and make them want to know how your scene ends. How can you create that ‘edge of the seat’ feeling?
Tension Building Scenes; when the reader has a good idea what is going to happen but you ‘lead them down the garden path’ in a way where they are no longer sure or don’t know HOW it is going to happen.
Death Scenes; If you have not built up a character as interesting and complete, will they care if that character dies? Can you build your scene so that, at least, a tear is shed and a heart flutters? Can you, through your passion and love cause them to feel it?
Conflict Scenes; When two or more protagonists hold vastly or only slight variations of viewpoint and that difference is either a point of conflict or pivotal part of story. Here, dialogue will likely be your friend, internal dialogue also, perhaps.
This is the hardest part that, I believe, no-one can teach because you have to feel it, you have to present it and give them a reason to engage, to emote and to be pulled into the narrative. Today I will be doing things a little differently than I have, with a reading from a key scene in my ultra-secret collaborative project.
A scene entitled “The Fall of Atlantis.” This is an example of a tension and a sort of death scene. It involves sympathy, perhaps, for someone who should really deserve none. It involves a twist of perception and an idea turned on it’s head. The idea of a sympathetic villain and why he chose to act as he did; how he got so angry and twisted up and who he had around as his only allies left to influence him. He’s effectivelty the First Villain too… How can you do this in your writing? More news and reveals on this exciting project to come but look into the style and my perhaps slightly rusty delivery and acting skills. (Alan’s acting skills could perhaps use some work but he’s trying! He has no plans to become an actual actor so don’t worry..he shall not inflict singing on you next so relax) coming soon.
Get ready for some huge changes to the website and also to existing books with the dawn of this new year. I have some very exciting and unexpected big changes coming. The text I was reading can be found HERE for those of your who would like to follow along. I made a couple of corrects and changes as I went along; hence my occasional long pauses.
This is a DRAFT not a final one either so there are errors in it. That’s why my project remains TOP SECRET because I am far from having it in presentable form. This is a hint and only here for illustrative purposes. No critique of spelling or word choices please (or observations of me diverging from the text, it is MY text so I can!) as this is a firmly WIP. Enjoy anyway if you like. The essence is true and measurable emotion and we will talk about that in the attached video. How can your words make others feel and how can you make your story huge. By appealing to people’s feelings. The Chronicles of Enoch : Darkness Within is coming soon.
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