Friday, August 27, 2010

Writer's Block

It's been a couple of days since I've added to my book. Some of it's school: this was my first week back, and I spent five hours on homework yesterday, without even finishing what needs doing.

Some of it's this blog: I'm really enjoying writing these little posts, but there are only so many hours in the day - an hour here is an hour not spent there.

The last factor, though? Writer's block. Just a wee little bit.

I'm going to handle it shortly, but before I do, I thought this would be an appropriate moment to share my thoughts about the subject with all of you. For example, what to do when you realize you've bumped into it.

*clears throat, prepares index cards*

Writer's block is something probably everyone has felt at some point, if only while doing a creative writing assignment for school. I'm pretty sure it's happened to all of you. It happens to me periodically. More often than most, I'd imagine, since I'm writing every day now. It's frustrating. It puts people off writing entirely, sometimes.

Here's the thing:

The natural state of the human mind is to imagine things. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: people imagine things all the time. Indeed, this is what makes us special: humans can conceive of things that do not, in fact, exist. We can think past what is, to what we'd like to see.

Imagination is why we've gone from mud huts to space shuttles over a scant few thousand years, while the rest of the animal kingdom mostly just reacts to us.

Writer's block is the aberration. That's why it feels unpleasant: that's not how things are supposed to work.

Fortunately, the root of it is simple, at least for me. I've likened writing to Solitaire before. Well, when you're playing Solitaire, it is possible to select your cards in such a way that you cannot proceed. You have cards left, but you can't clear them: there are no valid moves left.

In my experience, writer's block is like that. It's the culmination of a series of missteps during earlier parts of the story that prevent me from accomplishing whatever I need to do in the scene I'm working on right now. Sometimes, the problem is huge: I have, on two separate occasions, scrapped 50000+ word drafts because I just couldn't fix them, and started the entire book over.

Most of the time, though, things are simpler than that. I just look back at what I'm working on and figure out where I went wrong. I isolate whatever earlier elements have now proven incorrect, carefully remove or adjust them, then get on with my work. That's all I'm going to have to do once I'm done here: I can feel that the problem is smallish. My week's just been tiring.

If it ever happens to you, try to think about it that way: consider where you want your story to go, and think about why it can't. Then, adjust the work you've done accordingly. Not everything you put down is going to be right the first time. That's natural.

As a further bit of trivia: this is why sequels take longer and tend to be harder than original works. Every sequel has a little more baggage than any book that came before it: more details to keep track of, more little discrepancies, more potential plot holes to navigate around.

Both times I've started a series, the whole thing has slowed down for me immensely at the third volume. Indeed, book 3 of my first series is where I threw up my hands and started writing the current one - that volume remains unfinished. Just something to think about, when you're waiting for the next book by your favorite author, wondering when they'll get off their behind and actually get it done.

Anyway, I'm going to go fix my problem here so that I can enjoy my weekend. Hope you all have a good one, too.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I'm going to mix stuff up a little, this evening. Instead of talking about stories, I want to talk about religion. No reason, really. Just been nagging at me lately. S'pose I feel underrepresented, and all that.

To begin with, I'm agnostic. I know the knee-jerk reaction is to do one of two things with that:

1) Assume that's a funny word for atheist.

2) Assume I'm wishy-washy, and simply have yet to choose a side with regard to theism/atheism.

I can't speak for other agnostics - it's sort of a broad brush to paint people with - but I'm neither*, and this is about why.

The whole thing makes a lot of sense through the lens of technical support. See, I used to be a senior rep for a major ISP, ages ago. Got all sorts of stories about it. Heard everything. People threatened to sue me. A family once wisely put their ten year old kid on the line, and we fixed their computer in five minutes. A lady once got indignant with me because I was shocked she hadn't thought to plug her computer into the wall. "We're not all technical," she protested. Oh, I even trained with a guy who got fired for surfing porn websites in the break room in front of everybody.

That job was... well, everything you'd probably imagine, but with smaller, more depressing cubicles. I'm sure there's a joke in there about how phone room work would beat the religion out of anybody.

The thing that really struck me about it, though - the thing that always stayed with me - wasn't about it being an awful experience. The fact is, I actually enjoyed it once I made enough money to live on. I still resent that it got shipped overseas. No, it was that after I'd heroically restored someone's ability to, you know, screw around on the Internet, they almost always asked the same question:

"Why did this happen?"

Oh, they'd ask it sooner than that - a lot of people came at me with it from the first sentence. But once I'd actually fixed the problem, many of them honestly expected a real answer. This wasn't my job, of course. I was supposed to keep my call times down - if their problem was fixed, my official duty was to escape gracefully so I could help the next person without making them feel put off.

However, I was not unsympathetic. It's an understandable question: if you know why something happened, you have a little power over it. You could try to prevent it from happening again. Initially, I made an effort to answer. In fact, sometimes? Sometimes, the whole thing was so obvious that I could simply oblige. For instance, if you let your mailbox fill up so mail starts bouncing, well, that should take a tech about 30 seconds to notice, and another 30 to fix. It's inarguable.

More often than that, though, I had to deal with probable causes. Modem error codes, for instance, are associated with various sorts of problems that might or might not be traceable with a little effort on the customer's end. Like, there's one for 'no dial tone,' which suggests either a hardware failure in the device, line trouble, or someone plain forgetting to plug their line in. No way to know from just the code, but other causes are improbable enough not to worry about initially.

Many problems didn't have an answer at all. "Why'd we need to reinstall TCP/IP on my box?" Well... there's just no way I could know that. After all, I was solving problems without even looking at the computer itself, relying solely on responses from a customer who was almost invariably not trained in how to give the correct responses.

There could've been possums living in their machine, for all I knew.

Worse, even if I'd had access to it, some causes are just too ephemeral to trace. What corrupted a .dll? Which .dll, for that matter? I don't know. I'm not sure I could figure it out with all the resources in the world at my fingertips.

People didn't like hearing that. Most people do not want to be confronted with, "I don't know why something bad happened to you, and I can't figure it out, either. Sorry." It's a good way to leave someone unhappy even if you've helped them.

I didn't want to lie, either. I mean, greater moral concerns aside, fear for my job aside, it's just not how I like to operate.

Instead of doing either, I learned a cheat: I just told them it was gremlins.

Oh, not seriously. I didn't want to get fired. But I made a joke about gremlins, explained it might as well be, and sent them on their way. Most people could accept that: it put a face on their problem, even if it wasn't the real face.

The thing I left unsaid to avoid an argument or a lecture on company time was this: I didn't need to know. I was able to fix the problem even though I was flailing around in the dark sometimes.

More than that, drawing an incorrect conclusion early and sticking to it was death in that line of work: if someone had the aforementioned 'no dial tone' error and I just decided that their modem was broken, I wouldn't have them check their phone cord, or vice versa. Unyielding certainty is bad for troubleshooting.

This is, of course, an analogy for the world at large: everywhere I turn, people are preoccupied with certainty. Being right. The truth about life, the universe and everything is something concrete and knowable, something you can find in a book, hear on the radio. Something that can be circumscribed and understood by anyone, if they'd just look.

Backing down, doubting things, making mistakes? Not only are people supposed to avoid doing them, they're not supposed to admit it if they do. That's all weakness.

I think it's all about fear: the universe is big, we're small. Better to tell each other stories about gremlins than to admit that a lot of things will probably always be beyond our prediction or control.

For me, when I say I'm agnostic, I mean that I've let go of that as best I can. Permanently. It's about my acceptance of the likelihood that we'll never fully understand the world, tempered with the comfort that we don't need to in order to improve our lives.

There's more, but it gets a little abstract.

Anyway, I just wanted to throw that out there. Hope it's of interest to anyone. I'm a little nervous talking about this, but really wanted to put it, well, somewhere. I'll get back to talking about my secret, unpublished books again next time.

* (I'm not an atheist, but I do subscribe to apatheism for philosophical reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog post. It's one of the 'big questions' that doesn't interest me in the slightest, anymore. If anybody's curious, I may try to get into it at some point.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Organic Character Development

There are a lot of resources about how to design a character available on the Internet. Conventional wisdom is that you should have an extremely clear idea of who your character is before you sit down to put the story to paper: figure out what they look like, how they talk, what they want, etc.

If you're interested in that, I'd recommend googling "20 questions." It's good advice, in general. A story thrives on details: the more you know about what's going on, the better a picture you can paint and the more smoothly getting it out is liable to be. Details are fundamental to consistency, and consistency is fundamental to the suspension of disbelief. If you're generating a major character, I'd recommend doing it the old fashioned way.

However, I'm not going to talk about that today because, frankly, everyone talks about that. You don't need me for it.

I'm going to talk about a less discussed alternative technique which I learned from running roleplaying games. These were situations where I didn't have the luxury of time. When you're running a game, you often need a minor character right now, it's important to be able to do that. It's also good for bit parts in novels, and I have, in fact, even used it for major characters in my stories. I call it 'organic character development.'

The way this works is simple: form a dim picture of a character in your head. Enough that you could say something about them. Are they male or female? Can you tell me one sentence about them?

For example, I'm thinking about a private eye. His name is Jones. He's got... oh, brown hair. Thin, but not gaunt.

I don't know anything else about this guy yet. I don't let it worry me, though. Instead, I just run with what I do know.

As soon as I need another detail because it would be relevant in the story, I do two things:

1) Make up something that sounds good.

For instance, a leggy dame comes into Jones' office with a problem - a classic story hook for old timey detective stories. I need to know how he reacts. Is he a lech, or professional? Is he maybe gay? Does he banter, or is he businesslike?

Whatever you pick, it should be interesting enough to be worth mentioning at all, and it should serve the story at large. Never pick something that you think is boring.

In this case, I think Jones is all a bit of a wise guy who likes to flirt. I mean, that's a classic, and why would I be writing a detective story if I didn't enjoy the classics?

2) Write down what you've made up, keep it straight.

This would be the real trick to organic character development: things are fluid until you make a decision, but once you have decided, you need to stick to it. For the rest of his appearances, Jones needs to be a flirty snarker.

Moreover, later decisions that I make about Jones should support this conclusion generally: it's now too late to give him a hook for a hand or other serious physical impairment that would impact his romantic prospects, because if he had one, it should have come up in his initial scene flirting with someone.

The more decisions like this you make, the more a character goes from blurry to very focused and specific. If Jones keeps popping up, my audience will get to know him at the very same pace that I, the author do. Which is actually pretty cool when you're doing it.

And... that's actually all there is to it. Step (2) is where most people run into trouble, which is why I recommend making notes as you go. Start a traditional character profile - 20 questions style - and fill it in as you work.

Several major characters in my first series actually came about like this. If I ever get around to sharing it online, I'll talk about which ones and what that was like, but no promises - still a little disorganized on the point of, "What do I do with rough drafts of four books in the drawer, and another in process?"

Anyway, I better get to school. Time to learn about taxation and government organizational structures in detail, and I'm excited. Yes, really. Maybe I'll talk about economics sometime, too. :)


When I talk to people who play games about writing, and why they should write, the most common complaint seems to be this:

There's no random element.

When you play D&D, you have a table full of people. Hopefully, they'll behave in interesting and unpredictable ways: they do unexpected things when it's their turn to choose actions. They say funny things at the table.

This is why most people get out and do it, after all. The fun is in not knowing what comes next, and having a story to tell people afterward. Or, well, it would be if anybody wanted to hear stories about D&D. :)

Even if you've never played D&D, most social activities work the same way: you get together with friends, and hopefully something interesting happens. Something you could talk about later.

A lot of people who haven't written think that writing lacks that element of chaos and fun. They don't seem to believe me when I tell them that it's still there, that writing a story is random and strange and surprising. They don't understand that I write so fast mostly because I'm eager to see what happens next.

Rather than just repeat myself about this, here's an analogy to consider:

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that everyone reading this, (all four of you), have played Solitaire. It comes free on Windows. It's right there. If you missed it somehow, you should really try it*. People like Solitaire. On road trips, I've seen a version that you play holding the deck in one hand so that you don't even need a table.

What's interesting about this game is that every element in it is fixed, once play begins: it's just you and a set arrangement of cards. There's nobody to outwit. You don't shuffle the cards again, once they're dealt.

The outcome should be predetermined. There ought to be no reason to play it in the first place.

Except, as we all know, there's a little more to it than that. You can be surprised by the game. You can still lose, even though there's nobody to lose to.

The reason it can be fun is that even though the cards are dealt, you still have to make choices without seeing all of them at once. You can't track the whole deck and say with absolute certainty whether or not taking out any given card is going to help you or hurt you in the long run.

Writing's like that. You have to make choices about dialogue, actions and plot without understanding all of their potential implications. You can paint yourself into a corner or strike genius accidentally. Small choices sprawl and grow.

This allows something that looks static from the outside to be full of delightful surprises when you really get going. I think most people would enjoy what that feels like, if they just gave it a try. About the only thing I can compare it to is falling in love.

* (Disclaimer: I'm more of a Freecell man, myself.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010


A dear friend recently linked me a trailer for the third season of the Star Wars cartoon series The Clone Wars. She asked me to see if I could guess where she'd stopped enjoying it. So I watched, and the whole thing seemed to be going pretty well: space ships, lightsaber fights. There was corny dialogue, but nothing too embarrassing... That is, until they introduced their new bad guy for the season.

His name was Savage Oppress.

No, really. I checked, just to make sure our ears were all right.

I watched a few episodes last season because they had a particularly cool bad guy... but even he had the unfortunate name of Cad Bane. I guess maybe they were worried that people would forget who to cheer for.

Anyway, this got me thinking about names today. Names aren't an afterthought. Most of how an audience imagines a story is guided by hints, rather than full blown descriptions. A name is a subtle but powerful way of helping people picture what you want to convey. For instance, picture someone named Melvin. Maybe Herbert or Bartholomew.

Go on, do it.

It's different than naming someone maybe Gregor or Jason, which is different than going for Ezekiel or Jedediah. All these names have baggage attached, cultural expectations we mostly share if we're from the same time and place.

They're like a spice: used lightly, they enhance your work. If you overdo it, your audience won't notice anything else. The parts you've gotten right will be drowned in it.

More than that, inconsistent naming conventions can hurt a story, pulling a reader out of the moment and straining their suspension of disbelief. A town that produces both 'Joe Smith' and 'Ilana the Grey, Slayer of the Moon-Beast' strains credulity without a very good explanation.

The trouble is, names are also hard. Most people, myself included, aren't very good at coming up with names on the spot. There's nothing magical about this deficiency, it's just not something that most of us do very often.

This is where research helps. There are tons of resources out there, if you look. I thought I'd share some with all of you, in case anybody else was toying with writing.

Behind the Name: This one is first names only, but it's really neat in that it lets you search for names by meaning. So if you want a name for a girl that means lucky, it would return a list like this.

The Random Name Generator: This one generates lists of first and last names. The gimmick here is that you can decide how obscure you would like the names to be, based on how many people had that name according to US Census Bureau data. The down side is that the generator doesn't match the ethnicity of the first name to the last name, so you can get silly results like "Conchita Keobaunleuang." I fix that by mixing and matching.

Of course, the subject of culture and names, we come to:

The Onomastikon: An enormous list of names from various cultures, often with meanings included. I use this a couple of different ways. First, I love it for significant characters because it's fun to browse through.

Second, I like to give all the members of a fictional culture names from a single Earth culture to offer a little cohesion to their descriptions - a simple, unobtrusive shorthand. (I also really like Assyrian ones for things that need to feel ancient and mysterious. Those guys knew how to sound awesome.)

The only down side is that some of the links in the Onomastikon are broken, and were like that when I first stumbled across it.

Of course, sometimes stuff shouldn't sound like anything you'd find on Earth at all. For that, there's this:

Fantasy Name Generator: This is a very flexible random name generator. I leaned on this one heavily, the last time I actually ran a game of D&D. A lot of the results are noise, but there's generally a handful of really fun entries per page. It's also good in that it can easily be used for places as well. Almost all the names in Ton-Vorash, including the titular city, came from this generator.

And, finally, I have one dedicated to place names now. I really have a hard time with those. It's:

Serendipity: This one isn't so different from the one right above it, just specifically intended for places.

I think that's it for today. I'm trying to get back into making this a habit, though.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


*dusts off the old blog*

So, guess I haven't done this in ages. School got busy. Writing got busy. I will admit that I sort of forgot. But, here I am again, at least for now. :)

The new series is into its third book already, even though I've slowed *way* down. The three works form a single story, with no more than hours between each section. What's funny about this is that my original goal here was to write something episodic. Like, set up some characters and a situation in which short stories would be viable. I still want to do that, but I have yet to finish setting up the pieces: the nature of the protagonists and the space they're exploring. I expect to finish setting up the premise with the current story.

Between all three books, I'm already over 184,000 words altogether.

This has given me a new appreciation for why some people who want to write fantasy books just drop in elves or vampires and call it good*. The easy answer is that it's a lack of imagination, but I don't really believe that. As I said in an earlier post, imagination is part of what being human is all about: everybody's got one.

I think it's mostly about time and energy.

If you introduce something your audience already understands, you can just drop it in and offer a brief explanation of how your vampires aren't quite like Hollywood says. It only takes a minute, then you can race off to the plot.

Setting up something brand new means losing the advantage that shorthand offers: you have to explain it, and you have to sell your audience on it enough that they care in the first place.

It's riskier. It takes longer. It requires more skill overall, to avoid the dreaded infodump.

This isn't the only reason you see a lot of vampire/werewolf romances or fantasy books full of elves, but I don't remember seeing it talked about anywhere else, so I wanted to throw it out there.

Anyway, hope to post again soon.

(*Disclaimer: that's not to say I never use these props at all. I appreciate stock tropes too. It's just that I hate stopping there and calling it good. It's more fun to go further afield.)