Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Building Blocks of Writing Part 1: Action

Ah, DNA, the building blocks of life. Hey, you want to know something cool? This insanely complex thing is made up of only four molecules. And you know what else? Everything you're seeing on this screen is all 1's and 0's. And atoms? The building blocks of everything? Nothing but protons, neutrons, and electrons. The universe is both complicated and simple, and so is writing. Story's made of only three things: action, dialogue, and description. Doesn't make it any less excruciating, but when I came to this realization, my writing became a lot less daunting. Like DNA, binary, and the atom, all it takes is a combination of these three things to build a story.

Let's kick-a-pow it off with action! Why? Because action's bad ass! Who doesn't love seeing John McClane kicking German terrorist butt? Or the terminator speeding off while a truck explodes in the background? Wait. That's not the kind of action we're talking here. Action goes beyond "Character A punches Character B in the face!" Action is momentum. Action is the emotion that jerks tears or makes you gasp and shout, "Hoe, don't do it!" And, yeah, sometimes it's punching someone in the face.

Going back to the example from last time—I was talking about the boy's discovery of the cave before he goes off naming every detail while walking through it. Even though, at the time of his discovery, he wasn't physically doing anything, that suspenseful Eureka! moment was just as much action as his epic game against...okay, getting pretty close to spoiler zone here. The key word is suspense, and the gambit of suspense is all in the power of suggestion. We're filling the readers' heads with their own conclusions based on the context clues we sprinkle through our pages. As this speculation races closer to the apex of understanding, the reader's train of thinking has to sync with the character's until the two jump and shout, "Eureka!" How is this done? Momentum. We're not only syncing the reader's train of thoughts with the character's, we're syncing that sense of urgency and excitement. We are, in fact, speeding up the writing. Our sentences get shorter. Less syllables are used. Words snap, hot and fast.

And we end on impact.

There's no reason why that last line should've cut away from the previous paragraph, except to drop the beat. It's that, "Yes. Yes. YES! I KNEW IT!" feeling in both the reader and the character at once. This is done by adjusting the velocity of our words. The paragraph break thing isn't necessary, it's just cool (caution: use rarely) The point is to consider what we're doing with our words, and how we place them strategically to sync up the emotions of our characters and readers, and to move the story along.

But all of this suspense talk is leaning towards the explosion end of the action spectrum. Action is just as slow as it is fast, and in these slower parts, we need to cool our jets on the momentum and focus less on physical actions (he walked to, she looked at, they punched each other in the face) We're turning more introspective here—stopping to smell the flowers and the like. It seems counter-intuitive, because during these slower parts, it'd make sense to have more happening to keep the reader engaged. Truth is, every story needs its slow parts, or we exhaust our readers. 

There's a series I loved when it started, but instead of keeping a wave-like property in each book, the author tried to treat the entire trilogy as one huge plot triangle. The last book is nothing but the intense moments right before the climax, and, honestly, I got bored. It's true that the reader and character sync when the action is sped up, but that can only be done if the reader sympathizes with the character and understands what's going on in the world. Ever hear grandpa say "slow it down or life will pass you by"? Same thing's going on here. We've got to stop and put together the clues before we find the cave.

On the other side, when the story is speeding up towards the climax, that's when I want the most action. I want that momentum picking up pace, but I also want my characters doing things. I want them running, jumping, punching each other in the face. I want the reader to experience that same thundering heartbeat that's pounding in my character's chest. I want to feel their urgency. I want the climax to be the biggest punch in the face of my life (the crack of the bastard's jaw that shakes from my knuckles to my heart...unless it's that kind of story...then ouch) But to do this, I've got to consider what action is: momentum, physical movement, and the emotion we incite in our readers. I have to take these three aspects of action and combine them into a whole. Sound familiar? It's just like the atom, just like DNA and binary. It's just like what I'll have to do with dialogue and description.

Current Stats
Watching: Gravity Falls
Listening: Cake - Fashion Nugget
Reading: Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book 3 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Metal Gear Solid 5
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Unofficial Blog: Likes and Dislikes

Since there's no official vlog-blog today, here's something I found while rummaging through my old notes. This is a good ol' round-up all of the the things I like and dislike in a story, and this here bullet list is one of my many techniques for outlining. What? Yeah, I make multiple types of outlines per project, and sometimes, they don't have anything to do with the plot. What this method does is show me what I should and shouldn't include in my story (Emphasis on my since it will definitely be different for you. Definitely. Maybe)

Disclaimer here: All of the books I reference are actually ones I love, even if I am talking $#!% about them. Like everything else I write in this blog, it's all just my personal opinions. Permission to hate on me for them.

Oh, and P.S. This is a direct copy+paste from my notes, so you'll see how messy I write while conceptualizing. I also write as if I'm talking to someone, because, you know...I'm crazy.

Things I Like
  • Conflicting POV’s (That is, neither side is good or bad. I’m just picking one I think would make the more interesting story)
  • Challenging ideas
  • Layered meanings
  • Intense backstory and world building (though balanced. While I loved the flashback in Rats of NIMH, it feels like it got too far away from the plot)
  • Colorful description (as in, actual colors)
  • Description weaved into narrative
  • Suspense
  • Suspenseful action
  • Really @#$%^& up things
  • Political issues
  • Drama
  • Scattered puzzle pieces that are put together towards the end
  • Psychological mumbo jumbo (both in the character as well as the reader)
  • Horrible injuries that throw a wrench into everything
  • Elegance in contrast with low-living (the two combining)
  • Infiltration (suspenseful infiltration)
  • Mischief
  • Characters who grow
  • Chronological passage of time
  • Breaking out of imprisonment (or oppression or the like)
  • Failure
  • Not all is well, but well enough endings that are full and satisfying (Specials. Unwind)
  • I know I already mentioned psychological stuff, but I’m going to take note of dilapidating insanity
  • Deep emotions
  • Hints of sexuality and romance (rarely and suggestively)
  • Clever humor (woven into the narrative)
  • Humorous characters having their own %^&*# of a time (Hayden)
  • Neutral characters who slowly change their mind
  • Issues divulged through dialogue or suspenseful
  • fast-paced narrative/action/description

Things I Don’t Like

  • Romance driven plots (or books that end up with so much romance, the real issue is shoved into the backseat. Divergent series)
  • Long Set-up (Dune. Foundation)
  • Contradictions
  • Weak middles (the author is just babbling to fill up space)
  • Too realistic (organic is one thing, but I don’t like being reminded of our boring ol’ world)
  • False facts
  • Weak ending (the author didn’t seem to know how it was supposed to end, so they just babble on, or worse, drop it off)
  • Too much action (in bulk. Think the newest Hobbit movie. It gets to the point where that big ass battle that took up 80% of the movie just felt like filler)
  • (Contrariwise) too slow pace
  • Flat characters (Filler characters who have no business being in there)
  • Characters who are too angry or angsty
  • Stories that work in accordance with the law (crime novels)
  • Stories that become repetitive
  • weak humor driven plot
  • Single setting
  • Dark colors
  • Getting too far away from the initial conflict
  • Too much description in bulk
  • Ending that renders the story no meaning (Extras)
  • Jump from one time frame to the next (saying a few days/weeks/months passed is okay as long as there’s something to suggest what was happening at the time. Think Unwind. What I don’t like are years, because that leaves huge gaps in the story and compromises my connection with the character. Like Dune)

Okay, real vlog-blog will be up next week. See ya'll then!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Domino Effect: Fluid Transitions

We all know that a story is a set of dominoes, right? That inciting incident is the first flick that sets forth event after event until the last tile falls. What we don't think about is the third law that gets those tiles smashing into each other. Well, I mean, maybe we do, if we're in a science class or something. Shut up, this is writing. But these same laws that dictate the mechanics of the universe also dictate our writing. We have to understand these laws in and out and develop the skills to create this fluid and interesting transition from domino to domino (anyone else craving pizza?)

A story is a set of dominoes, but looking at it as event to event is on the macro scale. This is what the reader needs to see, but what the writer needs is on the micro scale—to understand what these events are made of and how they cause this domino effect. What I've told every apprentice I've ever owned (I mean...taught) is story's nothing but action, dialogue, and description. One always happens as a result of the other. A character doesn't say something out of the blue, just because. You aren't going to spend a whole paragraph describing a tree without that tree falling and killing your MC's mother. That's just the way a story ticks. 

"But H."  you might say, "I thought stories were supposed to be believable. Random events happen all of the time!" Yes. Yes they do (brat) And, yes, a story is supposed to be realistic enough to resonate with the human condition. So, yeah, randomness should happen as often as a butterfly's wings cause a storm. Hah. See what I did there? Even the most random event will set off a chain reaction to cause another. This is something you need to consider in your writing. While random events that have nothing to do with your story might happen in the world, you, as the writer, have the power to ignore them, and instead, focus on the events that will directly affect the plot—even if they don't seem like they will at the time.

One of my favorite techniques is to make the reader think something is random, and later have an "ohhhh" moment when they realize it wasn't. See, I have this chaotic good character who's too poor to afford clothes that fit. He goes off on a crazy tangent about this early in the story which my MC rolls her eyes at and brushes off as more of his insanity. Later, against all odds, they get out of a sticky situation only for his pants to fall down, trips them both up, and whaddya know? They get caught. But be careful with this. If you keep having seemingly unconnected incidents that connect later again and again, they're not random anymore. The reader will be expecting them, and they'll get bored.

Okay, let's back it up. What's all this about dialogue, description, and action? Yes, one can't happen without the other. We'll take one of my favorite books for example. To avoid spoilers, I'm not naming any names, but the MC's walking through a cave and describing nearly every damn nook and cranny. This is something you'll hear from every writer's mouth not to do (except mine...apparently) But for some reason, this works out okie-dokie in this situation. Heck, I was even excited about it! Why? Because the author got me interested early on. He connected this description to an action that took place the chapter before. There, the boy made this discovery about the place and runs off to find it. This action led directly into the description, which, in fact, lead straight into more action that connected back to description that then connected to dialogue that connected to more action, and...okay, I'll stop there, but do you see what's happening? The entire story is connected simply because one aspect (action, dialogue, description) falls into another (like dominoes!)

I'll get more into the gritty details of action, description, and dialogue next time, but for now, I've got an assignment for you (Yay! School! Best day ever!) Pick a page at random in your favorite book and look for how these three elements bleed into each other. If you want to take it a step further, with whatever book you're reading now, highlight something that seems totally out of place, then, whenever that "ohhhh" moment hits, highlight that. Well, unless that moment never hits. Then make note of how pissed you are at the author for wasting your time. Keep that in mind for your own writing. That's why fluid writing is so important. If those dominoes don't smack each other in just the right way, your story's going to have one hell of a disappointing ending, and nobody wants that. Except, like, elephants mate during the rainy season, and gestation takes twenty-two months. Interesting, right?

Current Stats
Watching: Avatar: The Last Air Bender
Listening: Pokemon battle music
Reading: Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book 3 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Metal Gear Solid 4
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Hello, Character!

Well hello there, beautiful. Come here often? Nope, you sure don't, because you don't exist yet. But hey, maybe we can change that. Let me take you out sometime and get to know you a little better.

If only it were that easy. Problem is, even the most boisterous character is an impossible introvert when it comes to getting to know them. We can't get them to tell us anything about themselves unless we pry it out of their mouths. I don't suggest that. Forcing a character to tell you who they are is about as effective as shaking up a Coke to get a quick drink. Yes, we get our fix of all that sugary goodness, but more so on our face than in our mouths. Trust me, it ain't nearly as pleasant (unless you're into that...we're talking character here not your weird fetishes)

When meeting the love of our lives (or mortal enemy) the first thing we notice is a face, followed by a name. Same goes for character. Except, well, reversed. I can't tell you how many times I scared my mom with my online history of baby name websites. Sorry, Mom, but that's where I look for a name that feels like the character I'm trying to portray. Then I get into what he/she looks like. I'll either draw them, or find myself a picture of how I think they'll look. But this is where the story telling kicks in. How they look and behave depends strictly on their lifestyle and the terrible things we put them through.

You know my obsession with physiology, so, of course, I'm going to start there. The biology and lifestyle of our characters is one of the deciding factors of who they are. Think about their genetic background, their diet, their day-to-day life. Just like with any of us, this will influence their appearance, health, mental state, and personality. For example, if a character comes from a genetically skinny family, but he/she survives on junk food, that character may not be fat, but there are other consequences. Maybe the character has bad skin, or a sluggish personality, or maybe they feel sick all the time and don't know why. Consider the psychology behind this. We tend not to admit that our lifestyle affects the way we think, look, and act. This creates conflict, both in the character and in the story (which is a good thing)

This is where it gets tough, because now we're really getting to know the way our characters tick. Getting into their psychology leads right to the big ol' nature vs. nurture dilemma. Whatever side of the spectrum you lean towards, we have to take in both halves and decide which one (or both) works best for our character and our story (consider genre, audience, and tone) If a character was beaten his whole life, that will dictate his actions and personality, and where he puts the blame for what he does. On the other hand, say the guy's an orphan who grows up in a perfectly peaceful environment. All the same, he becomes a psycho murderer and later finds out his real family has a history of violence (the plot thickens) The thing the two do have in common is either his upbringing, or his genetic history (or both) will affect not only the way the character sees his world, but also how he sees himself. 

However, the way our characters see themselves and the reasons they give to support this doesn't necessarily account for reality. I have a character who thinks she's ugly and socially inept, and this comes from the nurture side as a traumatic event in her past made her think this way. But is it true? Well, in the eyes of a different character, she's gorgeous and he thinks of her as an idol who swayed the opinion of a nation. Over the course of the story, this might not 100% change the character's mind about themselves, but it will affect their self-perception, and how they grow as a character. So in reality, the nature vs. nurture thing is in the mind's eyes (in the case of our characters) Every character will view each other in a different way, and it's that perception, and how our characters experience that perception, that creates a fuller story.

Okay, all this brain and body mumbo-jumbo's well and good, but we're writers, ain't we? So how do we write our characters? For me, it goes back into that same old thing I always say: trust the story. I like to crash through the first draft and see where the story takes both me and my characters. My character's personality and development trot hand-in-hand with all of the horrible blows the story throws at them. Going back to my girl, she was originally going to be a cheeky little minx. What the hell happened? Well, I started in the middle of an enormously stressful event, and the way she reacted to it set the bar for her behavior throughout the rest of the story.

I admit I'm a pantser, and the problem with my method above is inconsistency within the character from the beginning of the draft to the end. This is because I don't fully understand my characters, and even when the first draft is done, I still might not get them as much as I could've if I had fleshed them out when I first started (which I refuse to do!) Fleshing out story or character just doesn't feel natural to me, so the way I deal with this is, between the 1st and 2nd drafts, I'll write short stories from some piece of my characters' lives. These usually consist of the events leading up to the actual story, and are are mostly of the supporting cast, especially the antagonist or any other character I have a hard time writing

Now remember, your reader knows as much about your character as we did when we started, which can be hard to maintain when we're learning every nook and cranny of our cast. To make sure I'm keeping it fresh in round two, I like to have the first draft open side by side with my second. I take note of that raw feeling I got when first introducing my characters and growing with them. I am keeping in mind the behind the scenes of who these characters are, and who they will become, but at the same time, I'm remembering to start off with nothing but voice. Over the course of the story, I'll build their attributes and goals with two cups of action and dialogue, and half a teaspoon of backstory (you have to be careful with backstory and how you sprinkle it in over time) It's all a terrible balance between discovery and foreknowledge, but unfortunately, writing—all parts of writing—is a terrible balance! Just another part of the hell we put ourselves through.

We can't be that pushy, creepy guy at the bar with this kind of stuff, or we'll never draw those tricky little introverts out of their shells. This is why it's important not only to know the in's and out's of our characters (okay, we've dropped the dating analogy) but to be patient. This is a long process, but if you take your time and listen, your characters will tell you everything you need to know about themselves, and their story.

Current Stats
Watching: Lovely Complex
Listening: Flaming Lips
Reading: Monsters of Men: Chaos Walking Book 3 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Zelda: Wind Waker
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Get Pumped! Time for Notes!

Have you ever had one of those sleep overs with your bestie where you stay up all night, getting super excited about some kind of idea, and working it out together? That's what notes are to me; working hand in hand with my story as we piece it together. More often than not, we end up jumping up and down, yelling stuff like...

Yes, this really is a screen cap from my notes.

'Might seem like a "Duh, H." kind of topic here, but I've got to stress how damn important our notes are, and the system we use to take them. Like everything else in writing, there are different techniques to effective note taking. As for me, well...

I'm a very messy person (if you've watched my videos, you know this) and the way my brain ticks is no different. I've accepted that. and I've learned how to use it.

When beginning a new idea, the most important thing for me is to jot it down as soon as it hits. For this reason, I always carry a small notebook with me wherever I go. If I'm at home, I go straight into the series of tubes to strike up my story with a brand new folder, which I duly dub (Insert Working Title Here) From here, I do folder inception, creating another folder within the folder, and name it "(Working Title) 1st Draft", where I slap in a document called "(Working title) 1st Draft—Notes 1". This is about as organized as it gets for me until the draft is done. I scribble in this document as I go along the story to help move it forward. By that I mean, collect ideas, free write when I'm stuck, copy+paste research and inspiration...yell at it.

Use your imagination for that blacked out part.

The reason for this is I believe notes should not be treated any different than the first draft. They should be messy, organic, personal. This is the only way my brain and I can shake hands and get anything done.

And hey, whad'ya know! Just now, right now, I did another technique for my note taking. It's something I mentioned in a previous lesson of the day, but I had this big, long part exactly in the spot you're reading here, which I cut and pasted into my notes. Maybe I'll use it in a bit (Incoming Call From Future H.: I don't) maybe not, but it's there if for no other reason than to look back on and laugh. 

This is why I always keep my notes document open next to my draft. You never know when you'll need to copy+paste, but also, you'll never know when inspiration hits. Maybe something later in the chapter sparks right in the middle of it. You have to write that down in that second, or it could very well fly away before you get to it.

When I say notes should be messy, I mean it. Anything and everything should be jotted down, which makes it tough because, when (by the grace of God) your draft is done, you're going to have to go back and read through every word of it. You know what, I'm gonna take it up a notch. You have to get yourself another notebook and physically write down every note you took.

Okay, I'll cut you some slack. Not every note. I scribble out only the stuff I think is or will be applicable to my next draft. Of these things, I'll go through and read again, and I'll highlight what I think is the most important of the important stuff. That's where "(Working Title) 1st Draft—Notes 2" comes in. Nothing fancy here. I'll copy down those highlighted part, but I might do a little note-ception and jot down a few notes about those notes. Then I'll go on to the next draft.

I'll do this between every draft I write (don't freak out, I only write three) I know it's complicated and convoluted, but this is the method that works best for my crazy brain.

But there are other elements to note taking—ones much less bloodcurdling. I come from an animation background (where I fell in love with script-writing and ended up eloping with it) so one of the methods I feel comfortable with is getting myself a sketchbook and drawing characters, settings, hell, entire scenes if I'm feeling sadistic. But for you stick-figure connoisseurs, there's always Pinterest and You Tube (both of which I use, myself)

I feel one's technique for note taking should be just as organic and personal as one's technique for writing. It doesn't have to be college format, but if that's always worked for you in school, heck, go for it. If that was sheer hell, as it was for me, play around. Find that slumber party conversation between you and your story where you can lay on your bellies, kick up your legs, and giggle all night about this awesome world you're dreaming up.

Current Stats
Watching: Orphan Black
Reading: The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking Book 2 by Patrick Ness
Playing: Pokemon Red
^^^What are ya'll up to? Comment below!^^^