Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.
When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.
This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.
Recently, I’ve bought quite a few books about writing. I’ve always been a collector of writing-related books. One of my very first purchases with some Christmas money was a thesaurus I bought at age twelve. Yep. The word bug had bitten, and bitten deep.
I’ve still got a problem.
It’s not that I don’t have confidence in my ability to write. I just sincerely believe that there is always something new to learn. In particular, what gold can I glean from writers I admire and wish to emulate, hence the books by Alan Baxter, Sean Williams, Peter Ball, and Isaac Asimov. I do believe I’ve mentioned and recommended the Brain Jar Press book by Angela Slatter: You Are Not Your Writing. Of these books, the two that resonate the most with me is Ball’s and Slatter’s books. However, How Not To Write A Novel gets an honourable mention for being both funny and seriously informative.
I would recommend all these books to serious writers.
I am currently writing books aimed at middle-grade readers around ten years of age. Ten is an interesting age. Before a child is eight, they are still in the ‘dreamtime’ of their youth where fantasy concepts can seem as true as reality. Many younger children are either completely fearless or very fearful, depending on their nature, because everything is still ‘unknown’. A ten year old is still much smaller than an adult, but the world is no longer unknown territory. A ten year old has a pretty good grasp of the rules of the world.
Then puberty hits and messes up the world view again. But that’s another issue.
This makes writing for this audience tricky. They can tell if you’re talking down to them. They can certain sense insincerity. And they can most definitely tell if the writing and story telling is bad. So, it means you have to write with your heart as well as your mind; which is how we should write all the time, really.
I’m lucky. I still like many of the same things I liked as a ten year old: animals, comics, cartoons, fairy tales. It makes writing for this age group easier, because I can remember how it felt to be ten.
It always seems to surprise people that I write horror stories – particularly my family. I am seen as having a ‘sunny’ personality with little in the way of darkness. This is because I save all my darkness for my horror stories.
As a child, I was haunted by my monster under the bed. (On a tangential note, why do so many people fear the things under their beds.) When I was eight, I convinced myself that the monster had gone to live under my sister’s bed. I never told her about the monster, and she slept in blissful ignorance of its presence. It was a brilliant move on behalf of my imagination, because I was able to sleep without worrying that some paw was going to grab me and drag me under the bed.
By the bye, ‘Poltergeist’ gave me nightmares for years.
Part of my problem is that I have no night vision … a side effect of having excellent colour vision. I can eat carrots until I turn orange, and I will still have very little ability to see my way around in the dark. What you can’t see is scarier when you have a vivid imagination that can fill the shadows with tentacles and teeth.
I’ve found that writing out my night terrors turns them into something I can cope with. It’s hard to be scared of a monster when you can edit out its teeth and slime and stuff. Instead, I can scare other people! Better to be the monster than be the victim…
So, what do you so with those dead darlings? If you’re like me, you tend to put them into ‘edited out of the WiP’ folders. Sometimes they languish and die, unloved, unforgotten. However, as I am a lazy individual at heart, I tend to try and recycle EVERYTHING. Failed ideas. The dozens of rejected stories from DailySF and Furious Fiction and the like.
Sometimes they get completely rewritten until they are unrecognisable; sometimes a bunch of stuff will get mashed together. Sometimes the attempt fails and that story is stuffed into an ‘Edited until I killed it’ folder. Except, sometimes it works. I make something new and shiny. It gets accepted by another market.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it is that you should NEVER give up … on an idea, on writing, on a dead darling. I’m a necromancer, making the dead live again! I’m the new Doctor Frankenstein, and my monsters LIVE! Watch me turn a dead darling into a zombie story …
I’ve just finished drafting the second book in the Summer Brook Besties series, part of a series of four. This series is going to be published by Iron Bridge Publishing over the next year. They made the announcement in the past week.
In this year of disasters, with the bushfires and Covid-19 lock downs and the rest, it’s been uplifting to realise that I will have actual books published soon. They are not in the Speculative Fiction genre, but they are full of animal characters, and the zoologist in me is thrilled to rabbit on about animals. They are about friendship and community, both concepts I value highly.
I’ve seen planning sketches for the illustrations for the first book. Wow, was I moved to see the characters and settings I’d created brought to life. It was similar to seeing photos of your new baby; you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re awake.
There is talk about making the four books a boxed set.Think of it – ME! The author of a boxed set of books! Tick another item off the bucket list!
A flash of inspiration has struck you! What do you do now?
If you’re me, you’ll write it down before you forget it. I have a huge collection of notebooks for that very reason. I have let too many ideas disappear because I was confident I’d remember them later.
So, now I have an idea. SHINY! I tend to let them ‘rest’ a day or longer, because my enthusiasm will be at manageable levels and I will be able to assess the idea with some confidence. However, if it is a ‘whole story just dropped into my head’ situation, I’ll write that down without pause. They have turned out to be some of my better stories.
This creates a file of story ideas, which I often dip into it when I suffer from writer’s block. Most ideas don’t get to sit in the file for long … because even after a ‘rest’, I’m still white hot to write that story.
That is a sentence I’ve heard many times, and I know every other writer gets the same query: Where do you get your ideas?
I’m going to give you an answer. However, this is just one answer to a process that has a multitude of answers, all of them correct. Every writer will have their own process, and if they are anything like me, they will have more that one way of getting a writing idea.
Inspiration: Inspiration can come from anywhere: a dream, a news article, song lyrics, something you read in a book that set off a new train of thought (another reason for reading widely). Let’s assume that the shiny pretty distracting you from your writing is just that, a snippet, and not of those lucky instances of a story dropping into your head fully formed. So, you have a glimpse of a story idea.
I always study a new idea, turning it this way and that to see how it holds up. If it seems like a solid concept and not a cliche, I will write it down. For me, the process of writing it down will start my muse working on fleshing out the story. I always have a notebook with me, or I will make a note of it in my computer files.
First Thoughts: First thoughts are the magic beginning to happen. I may have had other ideas that relate to this new one. I look them up, and list them under my previous notes. I might fall down the rabbit hole of research online. I never make any judgement calls at this point, because I never know when two trains of thought might smash together and form art. The goal is make a big pile of ideas – what Neil Gaiman calls compost. I think of it more as a bouquet of random flowers, and I pick my blossoms with enthusiasm.
Working It: This stage is when I will start working on the plot, and cull the unnecessary ‘flowers’. This will result in a very simple and rough plot. Generally, I am a ‘Plot First, Characters Second’ Planner. However, once I’ve developed my characters past the two-dimensional stage, the plot will flip over and start evolving around them. The characters will drive the plot along and not the other way around. Settings will start to present themselves for consideration. I rarely am inspired by a character popping into my head, which is probs why I am a genre writer and not a literary writer.
At this point, I might let an idea ‘rest’. After all, I was working on other projects when the new shiny distracted me. It doesn’t hurt to give your muse a chance to mull the idea over. I’ve got a current short story I’m working on that was much improved by the sudden realisation that the dead woman was the protagonist and not the victim of the narrative. I think the story has gained ‘legs’ with this realisation. If I had rushed to write the story as I first conceived of it, it would have lost this deepening of character and plot.
In Summary: I leave myself open to any kind of inspiration, and then I work the shiny concept up into an idea. Ideas don’t down sleet down from above; they take work. Sorry to disappoint those who thought there was some sort of secret to getting good ideas.