Sunday Writing Discussions #1: Plotting

As most of you know that have read this blog in the past, I write. I do part time freelance non-fiction writing in addition to my day job and I write fiction and poetry. I have been writing for several years now and I am still working on getting my fiction published. I am by no means an “expert.” This is meant to be the first of a series of Sunday discussions on writing fiction and poetry. Please feel free to leave your ideas in the comments and I will respond.

I can come up with ideas that might start stories quite easily. I am one of those people who can come up with hundreds of uses for a paper clip on the creativity test. Some of the uses will be practical, some obscene, some silly, but coming up with uses is not a problem. But just envisioning a good idea for a story is not enough. The idea may be the impetus for the story, but there has to be at least a main character, a setting, a conflict, and a reasonable plot.

I enjoy writing characters. I like people and most of my fiction is very character driven. Plotting is difficult for me. I recently read on a forum a comment from a woman who said she didn’t like short stories because she found them unsatisfying. The story would be going along and engaging and then in her opinion all too frequently the short story would simply end. I critique other people’s fiction in a few different writing groups and often I read stories where the world the story is set in is quite fascinating and the characters are interesting but nothing really happens. In my opinion both what the woman on the forum was describing and my experience in the stories that I have critted represent plot failures.

A long time ago Aristotle described stories as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stories are episodic. Novels are too for that matter, they just happen to have more room to expand, have a greater cast of characters, and more subplots. One of the problems that I run into in writing my fiction is that I don’t always have a clear end in sight when I start a story, even though as Aristotle pointed out stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, often I will have an idea for a story that is character driven and only after the first draft is written can I see that it is an internal, character driven story, with a beginning, a climax, and an end. On the second revision of a story of this type, I have to rewrite the story to make those plot points stronger or the story doesn’t feel like a story, it feels more like a character sketch. Fiction is meant to be entertaining and working on making the experience satisfying for the reader is tantamount. Stories that feel like character sketches or feel incomplete in my opinion are just not satisfying reads.

At present I am writing a story that is an action driven story with political intrigue. My initial idea for the story was nothing more than a scene. At first, I saw this scene as the beginning of the story. I began brainstorming around this scene and what its significance could be. This lead me to two weeks of lots of free floating thoughts and little real plot. I shifted my focus and made the scene be the climax and near the end of the story. I began engineering backwards, suddenly a plot emerged. I still had to think of the whole of the story in Aristotleian terms and consider what the first act, second act, climax, and resolution would be. I had to think of turning points for the story, both internal to the main character turning points and external to the action turning points, that the story would logically progress through, but I was no longer in the fog of amorphous brainstorming. I am beginning to think that knowing and starting from the endpoint of a story or novel is more important that simply having a good central idea or stunning character.

What do you think?

Thoughts on writing science fiction with a positive view of the future

Where have all the utopias gone from science fiction? I have written on this in the past because dystopic views seem to be in vogue. I think we could all use a little optimism in our fantasies about the future and this started me thinking about what to write if trying to tackle writing a utopia.

It occurs to me that utopian visions come out of the perceived ills and thoughts of forward momentum/accomplishment of a time period. It seems to me that what offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of the darkest corner of the dread is that which is seized upon and a utopian dream comes forth.

So in the midst of rapidly expanding industrialization that was happening on the backs of “found” energy in the form of the workers was the realization that the workers had power, then there was the idea of unions, and socialism and an equal distribution of wealth came up as idea. This was the spin on the idea of “To each according to his need and from each according to his ability.” There was no assumed station or assumption of inherited or predetermined power or wealth in that idea.

In the midst of mechanized progress that created labor saving devices and generated a consumer economy to fuel the need to sell such no longer seen as luxury devices more income and a more regularized workweek became the norm and the utopian fantasy of the time became one of modern mechanized conveniences, a shortened work week and less labor. Everyone living in a dream of luxury needed items to enjoy their expanded leisure time. It was kind of like an advertisement to sell the American dream.

Out of the repression of the post war era where everyone had to be somnambulated back into their pre-war position because it was not acceptable at that time to have women and blacks holding good jobs that “men” needed to support their families came dreams of civil rights, equal opportunity, and women’s rights.

Currently, I would say that our utopian visions are rooted in a desire to find an energy source that will avert environmental disaster. Another possibility is the inklings of power that are just beginning to tickle the general public’s consciousness in regards to the potentialities of being globally networked, having information instantly constantly available, and having the entire planet in possession of social media applications. This could be another form of “democracy” the world has never seen. The problems to overcome are the short attention span and shelf life of anything that appears over the internet. Another possibility is the dream of what might arise out of medical/genetic advances. Genetics and bioengineering are moving forward and will quickly present a slippery slope of ethical decisions that will influence the human race on a species level in dramatic ways.

I think there is a human inclination to hoard, to have, to compete, to have more. The free market could be said to be rooted in this inclination. I would caution against saying anything akin to that this is “human nature”. I have a higher opinion of the species than this and validating something that causes callus decisions that harm, because free markets are predicated on exploitation, and making it an inescapable “truth” I cannot hold to. As human beings we do not need this to be considered self evident and we are capable of regulatory systems to hold the grossest applications of the “free market” inclination in check.

In all honesty, I do not see any utopia as free from conflict. A utopia is an ideal and ideals are always fraught with conflict. In a plurality, one can always say “wouldn’t it be wonderful if…”, but one person’s ideal will not be everyone’s ideal.

I concur with an idea that a friend expressed that our current time period would be considered a utopia by past generations. Often there is a backward glance through history that casts a golden light on a previous age and we see the past through a pastoral fantasy. The current time period may seem difficult but we have a greatly expanded lifespan because of much less infant mortality, better medical practice, better water and sewage treatment, better distribution of food, etc. We live in a world that our ancestors from as little ago as 200 years may never have been able to even imagine.

I think in looking to the future to try to write a “utopia” rather than striving for the “utopia,” maybe it is better to consider what the world might look like with current advances advanced farther. How might these things bring rise to new political systems? If we are globally networked, how will this affect notions of nationality? What does this do to borders? Immigration? Already we are seeing countries forming unions to have more economic and political clout on a planet where the system of interaction is a “global economy” and to wield power a “union” or “coalition” must have resources, respect, etc. How might alliances shift? What if policies and governments can never hide their secrets and public opinion holds power? What will happen if people can be genetically modified for their jobs? What if the human life span can be expanded fivefold? What if the roots/mechanism of human memory are found? What are the implications? What if a cheap clean virtually limitless power source is found or created? What will this do? What will happen to the population on the planet? Instead of seeing all these advances or progression in a dystopic way, what would they look like as part of ordinary life?

This is the stuff that a hopeful view of the future might be grown from.

Reading on Writing

Yesterday I went to the library to see if I could find a particular workbook on writing. They did not have it. However, they did have several shelves of books on writing– writing poetry, writing fiction, writing magazine articles for fun and profit, etc. I have been reading “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass. He discusses issues such as developing a unique premise, raising the stakes, using the context of setting, creating a plot with meaningful conflict, and other things like how to use subplots, develop voice, and advanced plot structures. Typically, I don’t really care much for books on writing, but I am finding the information in this one useful.

Another book on writing poetry that I have been picking my way through is “The Ode Less Traveled” by Stephen Fry. It is very entertaining and informative. I have learned a great deal about reading poetry from reading that book.

So, while I was at the library yesterday I checked out six books on writing.

Stephen King’s “On Writing”

“Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association” edited by Mort Castle

“How To Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction” edited by J.N. Williamson

“World Building” by Stephen L. Gillett

“Sometimes the Magic Works” by Terry Brooks

and “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction” by Patricia Highsmith.

In the past I have been dismayed by some of the writing advice that I have found in writing books, but I figured I would skim through these and see if anything catches my eye. Currently, I am writing a caper, a soft science fiction piece, a collection of poems, and developing a fantasy novel that I have been working on for about a year. My writing has been moving in fits and starts through what has been a very hard year personally and I badly want to make some significant progress. Yesterday I wrote about the blog “Write to done” and that that blog asked for what three tips anyone would give an aspiring writer. I have been following the comments since yesterday morning. Most who comment and saying that writers need to write and read. So, I am off to write and read.

What do you like to see in the books you are reading?

I am laying on the futon and listening to the birdsong this morning. I was thinking about an article that I read yesterday that was an interview with four agents. It was in Poets and Writers and can be found here: www.pw.org/content/agents_amp_editors_qampa_four_young_literary_agents
One of the topics in the article was about finding books that readers will want to read. One of the agents was talking about yucky books and authors writing about characters that they and no one else really likes. So this got me thinking this morning. What do I like to read? What characters do I like to see in books?

For me, I don’t like to read about only powerful characters. I want them to have dimension– areas of strength and areas where they have vulnerabilities. I would like to see more general fiction about everyday people drawn realistically to illustrate their everyday heroism especially in extraordinary circumstances. I despise vapid, weak female characters. Simple, unrealistic love stories and meaningless, action plots both leave me a little cold. I like unusual ideas, new takes on old themes, and the imaginative fantastic. I want good solid writing. I want the writing to say something, challenge my ideas, and haunt me. If it is for entertainment only, I want some sparkling humor and deftly drawn quirky characters.

I like explorations into whatif. I like forays into other points of view– especially ones that put humans not at the center of the universe but rather as one voice in the cacophony. I like writing that sees things from a new perspective.

More later.

What do others like to read? What characters do you like to see in books? Or movies?

Watch, Reflect, Write, and Awaken

I have just returned from seeing The Watchmen.

I am utterly ramped up right now.  I remember the US release of The Watchmen in 1987.  I was living in a co-op at the time and a bunch of us used to walk to the local comic book store and buy comics when they came out.  My favorite at the time was Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had been writing since about 1983.  I read The Watchmen before it was a phenomena and was blown away. In part by the writing which reflected the angst of the time.  The Berlin Wall had not fallen.  The Soviet Union was still a dominant force.  Afghanistan was a quagmire. The threat of nuclear war was something that hung in the air.  And into this mix appeared The Watchmen.
I have been thinking about what makes good science fiction or good speculative fiction.  The goal has to be more than the aim to just get published.  Last weekend I critiqued a bunch of stories on an online critique that I participate in.  I try every week to read as many of the stories that are up for critique as I can so that I can get a feel for what people are writing.  I am not going to comment on basic things like good grammar and punctuation, showing and not telling, and maintaining a consistent, and appropriate to the endeavor, voice.  Just having a facility with words is necessary that I don’t think needs to be repeated, but I want to move beyond that and comment further.
I think writers need to uncompromisingly strive for more. Writers are the observers and commentators on society.  We are those who are watching.  It is up to us to watch, reflect, and write.  We need to engage all of our faculties and see the world as it is and reflect it back with a bold, unflinching fierceness that will cause shock waves of thought.  That’s what we are here for. Not to write prozac to numb the minds of those who would just as soon look away and go about their comfortable lives. Not to write dreams for those who would escape into fantasy to lose the painful connection with this world.  We need to awaken the sleepers with whispers of unsaid injustices, rouse to consciousness those who would rather not consider or be made aware, argue passionately for vision, and engage those who would spread somnolence and make the selfish nature of their actions visible.
Our words need to ring out and echo with meaning, reflecting our thoughts, and adding to societal dialogue in regards to bigger issues.  Setting has to become more than setting. Characters have to be more than the mind doppelgangers of their creators or stock puppets that we move through the trite time worn tales that have predominated since shadows cast from cave fires flickered on the flinty walls of early man’s shelter.  Metaphor and meaning have to be rife.  There has to be well thought out and considered ideas embedded within the writing.  The fiction has to explore greater themes for the writing to move into the arena of being considered good fiction.
The possibilities are endless– there are so many things to comment on in one’s writing.  I think the message can be anything from an uncompromising intimate exploration into difficult personal situations as a commentary on the roles of various subgroups of the population to an exploration of one aspect of the use of some scientific breakthrough and its impact on people.  There are so many possibilities that I cannot even begin to name them all.  But the commentary and exploration of thought within the fiction needs to be real and immediate and it needs to be timely and it needs to be fresh.  The author has to have some new or expanded thoughts on themes or come up with new themes.  Recycling the same old same old only works with a fresh infusion of some new and expanded thought.  Otherwise don’t bother.
Good fiction also stays with a person who has read it and the person finds themselves reflecting upon it later.  More on this in another post.  It is well past midnight and I must go to bed.