Punctuation – A Personal Religion

In english class, they taught me what a clause was, and the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, and how to use a comma with all grammatical correctness to separate them.

But that’s not how I learned how to use commas. If you took most of my sentences and asked me to explain why a comma belongs here or there, I would have to tell you half the time that, grammatically, I have no frelling idea. It just feels right.

See, I learned to use punctuation, not from english class, but from reading. I read a lot. I learned these things organically, from seeing them used properly, a million times over in hundreds of books over the years. I use commas and such by feel, much like a musician might know how to play from sheet music, but still be able to listen to a song and play it by ear without the music written on paper.

It can be hard to describe sometimes, especially when I tend to be such an analytical person. A comma, to me, doesn’t represent a grammatical technicality, it’s a pause for breath. A semicolon is a longer pause to collect your thoughts while linking two ideas. An em-dash at the end of a piece of dialogue means the speaker was interrupted, and an ellipsis means they trailed off. When writing fiction, grammar isn’t important. You can write run on sentences if the narrator’s voice calls for it – incomplete sentences even.

What matters most is the effect what you write has on the reader. I think the only way to gain that intuitive sense for what effect any particular punctuation and sentence structure is going to have is the organic way – by reading extensively, and watching the masters do it.

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First Lines Contest at Blog: Between the Sheets

More than one critiquer has commented on liking the first line of The Eyelet Dove, so when someone tweeted about a first lines contest, I figured what the hell, and entered my opening line.

And what do you know, I got a runner up prize. Pretty cool, huh? I’ve had a number of critiques on the OWW on this particular opening chapter, and it’s gone over pretty well, overall. I’m quite proud of it, and I think that it’s within a few line edits of being ready to send to an agent or editor.

I like this idea, overall, for a contest. I think I might try to do something like this myself. Thing is, one line makes it not such a heavy commitment for the person putting it on, and yet, you get feedback on one of the most crucial parts of your story. I like that idea.

And she says she’s thinking of doing a pitch contest in the future, so stay tuned, if you’ve got a novel to pitch:

NEXT CONTEST COMING IN APRIL:

Create your best pitch and win a FREE WRITER’S WEBSITE (a $450 value!) or BLOG from professional web designer and developer, Brian Mowell. Details coming soon. YES, this is a FREEsetup of your author website or blog! A-M-A-Z-I-N-G PRIZE! Already have a site? No problem. Have your existing site revamped for FREE!

Character Creation for Fiction and White Wolf

A couple years ago, I made a breakthrough with character creation and development, and my beta reader’s reaction to my characters shifted pretty dramatically for the positive. From there it’s developed further, and I’ve started to look at characters a little differently. Of course, I didn’t really look at them at all, before, but I went from not really thinking about it, to very deliberately crafting characters to suit their roles in my stories.

Robert J. Sawyer has a good post on characters, so I won’t repeat what he says, but summarize: good characters aren’t people, they’re carefully assembled robots who do exactly the job the author needs them to do in the story. As in, if the author needs a character to do something, they create a character who can and would do it. You craft them for maximum effect in the story.

What I’ve been observing the last year or so, in my creation of characters, is not so much what to do, but a tool to break down how to do it. Because the best advice is practical and easy to put to use, right?

I’ve played a few different tabletop RPGs, not extensively, but enough to understand how they work and enjoy them. Mainly D&D and White Wolf World of Darkness. D&D, I like the character creation aspect less – I’ve always found World of Darkness character creation to be more engaging, and much more about creating a character rather than creating a dungeon crawling toon. It brings the focus more onto the characters and brings their character traits into the story. The Game Master in World of Darkness tends to be expected more to focus on the character traits the players have chosen and work them into the story.

I didn’t come to the idea of creating characters for novels that way directly. In fact, it likely would have made for dry characters if I had, because the traits in the books are relatively limited, and not necessarily useful for my own fiction. But now that I’ve written more stuff, and seen people react to my characters, I’m realizing how, when I make characters, I don’t conceive of them as whole beings, but as a collection of traits, similar to the merits and flaws of the White Wolf system. So much so, that there have been times when I’ve piled on too many character traits on characters, and had to split the character into two characters. In that case, I looked at all the character traits, and worked out which ones to give to each new character.

Now, as often as not, the characters I’m making up don’t have the magical abilities that encompass much of what the merits and flaws I’m comparing them to in the White Wolf system. But there are some of the merits and flaws even in the WW system that I do use. For example, contacts, or bravery, or cowardice, cleverness, ability to lie convincingly, a temper, mentor (as in, a character has or has had a mentor), allies (character has friends or family they can turn to for help), debts (character has someone they can hit up for a favour, or vice versa), the character might have a chronic illness, missing limb, or just be bat shit crazy, or fanatically religious. Or rich (“resources”).

These things may seem obvious, but I read a fair bit of amateur fiction, and see very little of this sort of thing appearing. Writers come up with a character concept, but often don’t go further than the characters profession, or general station in life (orphan, mercenary, prince/princess, priest/priestess, soldier, tavern wench, etc.) They come up with a single defining characteristic, but it’s often not even a unique one.

I think it’s in watching some of the newer tv shows out there that I’ve seen more character traits added to fill out characters. The best example I can think of is Community. You have your group of characters, the leader, the jock, the token black woman, the womanizing older man, the ditzy hot girl, the more mature, standoffish girl, and the geek. But each of those is much more than that – the leader is a former lawyer who got caught not having actually trained as a lawyer. The jock is a closet geek and doesn’t want to play football anymore. The token black woman is a single mom and deeply christian. The womanizing older man is filthy rich, son of a corporate CEO, and member of a thinly veiled copy of scientology. The ditzy hot girl is a recovering drug addict and jewish. The standoffish girl is an atheist and an activist, but only for attention. And the geek is a muslim with an aspergers diagnosis who wants to be a film director but his father wants him to take over the falafel business. And I’m missing tons of stuff.

It’s a great show besides, but that’s the thing that’s stood out to me to most, as I develop my skills in crafting characters, and then I realized how much it was like the merits and flaws system in White Wolf. I may have fun with this in the future.

NaNoWrimo: Five Things to Do Before November 1st

When you ask what someone does to prepare for National Novel Writing Month, their mind usually goes to outlining, or deciding what they’re going to write. That’s not all you can do to prepare, though. Even pantsers (fly by the seat of your pants authors – as opposed to outliners) have things they can do to make their lives easier when November 1st hits.

1: Story Prep – Whe obvious, figure out what you’re going to write, and if your mind bends that way,  at bit of plot, characters, conflict, etc. If you’re a panster, don’t worry about it, do it your own way. There’s no right way, just what works. I know of some very good and very famous authors who are pansters.

2: Catch up on Laundry and Dishes – When you get off work (or school) and you have to do dishes before you can make food, and you have to eat before you write, that’s not good for your word count. I know, you cant do so many dishes and so much laundry that you don’t have to do it all of November, but you can start off November at least not behind on them so badly that it screws up those first few days word count when you’re most psyched up and ready to write.

3: Clean House – I don’t know about anybody else, but on those days when I don’t feel like writing, there’s nothing so distracting as housework staring at me. When the house is a mess, there’s always something I should be doing that seems more important than writing I feel like I should be doing, and I use it as an excuse not to get my word count. And the last thing I need is excuses not to get my word count.

4: Prepare Quick Meals – On those days when things are rough, and you’re behind on your word count, it really helps to have easy meals in the freezer, that are healthy. Sure you can order pizza, but it’s important to get a healthy meal in as often as possible when your brain is working so damn hard. People joke about living off energy drinks and candy through the month, and we all know that’s not healthy. But not only is it unhealthy, but your overall ability to function, and obviously, to write, will suffer. So throw together some spaghetti sauce, soup, chili, etc, and put it in containers in the freezer, for those days when time is tight and you’re behind on your word count.

5: Talk to Your Family – Family, and friends too, can be a great support during Nano, but when you’re behind on your word count and your SO hasn’t seen you in a week, it can be a strain on things. Not all your family members may be supportive, and they don’t have to be, but do your best to make them aware of what you’re going to be up to this month. Tell them what they can do to help you, if they’re willing, but even if they’re not on board, you should at least be on the same page, as far as their expectations of you in the coming thirty days and thirty nights of literary abandon.

That’s the main things I look to. You may be psyched up now, and ready to go, but when week two rolls around (and the veterans know, week two is when anyone who quits drops out, because it’s the hardest week to hack through) you’ll be glad you did a little prep before hand. Happy Nanoing!

NaNoWriMo 2011 – Road To Elysium

It’s that time of year again, NaNoWriMo is coming around, and I’m gearing up to participate.

My Nano history: my friend Turtle talked me into it six years ago; I started three days late because I was convinced that I wasn’t interested until I saw her so motivated and having fun, and the peer support, and finally caved and started. Failed miserably – exams were at the same time. But I was hooked. Same deal next year, but I got to about 25k this time. Next year I hit under 20k, but that was a month before my wedding. The year after that was 2009, and I wasn’t going to school, and I booked time off work in November to prove that if I had the time, I could do it. And I finally did. Last year I got a new job, and the weeks I had booked off in November disappeared. But I was working close to home, and slightly shorter shifts, that gave me two hours a day extra to do it, so I was determined to give it all I had, and I made it again last year, if barely.

This year I figure I got it in the bag. I have 1 week off, and I’ve had my hours reduced at work – bad financially, but writing wise… eh, I’m enjoying the time it’s given me to work on revision, so there are perks. As long as I don’t get overconfident and lazy, I should be golden.

The project this year: Road To Elysium. Breaking away from my usual Dieselpunk, and delving into science fiction, specifically cyberpunk. The setting will be intergalactic, and largely inspired by current economic events, extrapolating the Corporate personhood idea out to where corporations are now government, and there are no nations, just Companies. Workers are often brainwiped to protect corporate informational assets.

There is slavery, though they don’t like to call it that. In this world, people in debt are forced to work off their debt in service of whatever corporation that owns their debt. Whoever owns their debt, owns them. Society is composed of mostly debt slaves, since the companies don’t pay their workers in cash, but credits that can be spent only on company goods, or traded for cash at a pointless conversion rate, so that no one can actually get out of debt. Or their parents debt, passed down to them. The only other option for someone who can’t work, or refuses to, is bankruptcy, in which case they must go to live on one of the refugee camp planets.

The story starts with the main character, who’s been brainwiped, and doesn’t remember anything before being rescued from an escape pod two years ago. A strange woman shows up to take her away from the mining asteroid she works on – her debt is being sold to another company because that company is looking for a “certain type of worker”. What that is, they won’t tell her, other than she fits the bill.

Once they’re free and clear, she finds out that the woman who’s taken her away is an AI from the planet Elysium, a paradise where all inhabitants live in perfect harmony and equality. The woman tells her that’s where she came from, and she’s come to take her home. But the Corporation that owns her debt catches on, and their journey home becomes a desperate flight from the corporation’s mercenaries, among others.

Seeing as I’m breaking out of my old habits with genre, I figure I might as well in other ways as well. I think I’m going to try writing in first person, present tense, just to mix things up. The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi was in present tense, and while I noticed right away, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. First person is a little less foreign to me – I wrote my first novel in first person (an abomination that will never ever see the light of print on paper). And most recently, I wrote a short story in first person. I hadn’t planned that, I just had the plot entirely worked out, and sat down to write and the first sentence came out in first person. I looked at it and blinked, and went with it. It’s one of my better pieces, but too long for a short, so it’ll probably be a novel some day.

In any case, I’m being ambitious and daring this year – I suppose I had to make up for having a more comfortable amount of time to work on the thing. Which reminds me, I should go finish the outline for it. 😛

The Zeitgeist – Writing in the Spirit of the Times

This is something of a followup to this post and this post. Robert J. Sawyer touched on this on his “Idea is King” lecture as well. It’s about finding an idea that will hit a nerve with your audience.

Think about what concepts are big right now. The current issues and events rocking our world today. A work that makes statements on that is the sort of work that will get people talking, and right from the time of Jonathan Swift and H. G. Wells, science fiction and fantasy have been a platform for making a statement.

I find as I’ve matured, the ideas that come to me are the sort of ideas that are in the Zeitgeist. Obviously I can’t feel strongly about every concept being debated right now, but the bigger ones that I feel most strongly about, I write about.

My last major project, The Box, was about religious tolerance and faith, and the conflict between science and religion, approaching it from the speculative standpoint of “what would a society look like if science was the dominant religion?” From that, the idea was born of a country where an underground group of rebels dedicated to science had overthrown the reigning theocracy, and captured God in a contraption they’d built, and ultimately turn out to be no better ruler’s than the theocracy had been.

My current project, The Eyelet Dove, originally was about a country occupied by a conquering country and revolting against the occupying country. I slowly got frustrated with it, there was something wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then finally I realized that the reason I didn’t like it, was because I didn’t want to write about an occupation – what was on my mind was the conflicts in the world today between the corporate aristocracy and the working class people. That’s what I feel passionately about right now, and when I realized that, the story turned into a people’s revolution, overturning an oppressive and indulgent monarchy and upper class.

And with the way the world is going right now, that’s totally on the front page of the Zeitgeist newspaper.

And now I have NaNoWriMo coming up, which I do every year, and have finally decided on which of many ideas bouncing around in my head that I’m going to do. It’s going to be science fiction this time, possibly classifiable as cyberpunk, with AI’s being a major theme, but then I read this article on debt and my worldbuilding elements began to fall into place. Many futuristic science fiction novels themes center around an extrapolation of how the world will be in X number of years, if things keep going the way they are.

This one’s going to look at debt, and how the current economic situation has turned the lower class into little more than a slave class, with no upward mobility and no power. So that will be the world my main character is trapped in, only with spaceships and asteroid mines, where there is no government anymore – the government has been bought out by the Corporations, and their employees are their citizens, and if they have any debt, they’re their slaves. Only they won’t use that word – that’s an ugly word. There will be internment camp for the bankrupt, and defaulters will be hunted like escaped slaves. The companies won’t pay employees in cash, but in credit that can only be used for buying company goods, so that their employees can survive, but can never get out of debt. And there will be an attack on one of the companies, attempting to delete all of their financial records, so as to free their employees from debt, by a legendary hacker. It will be fun.

Write something that matters

First, read this; it’s relevant and also entertaining:

http://hollylisle.com/index.php/Workshops/how-to-write-suckitudinous-fiction.html

I have read one book of holly lisle’s and I did very much enjoy it. It was Minerva Wakes, about a woman who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity when her husband bought their wedding rings; the guy at the ren fair or wherever he bought them mistook him for one of the “weavers” who are the arch enemies of the unweaver – basically force of creation, vs force of destruction, good old fashioned good and evil. So, having these rings, they are supposed to take up the fight against the unweaver and their love and powers of creativity, as I remember, is what’s supposed to help them do it. Or something to that effect. It was a long time ago – but that only goes to show how much of an impact on me that I remember it. Them loving one another was important. Catch is, when the story begins, their marraige is in shambles and she’s considering divorce when they find out what these rings mean. So she gets dumped into a fantasy world where she has to get in touch with her dreams again in order to awaken the weaver powers she’s been oblivious to. And of course there’s the happily ever after in the end, but it was cute, and I liked it.

Anyway, that’s only partly relevant. The relevant part is that it had a purpose and a theme and likable characters with flaws and dreams and goals and things they cared about dearly that drove them, and the story.

Some people, particularly in writing circles, don’t like stories to have an obvious message, because they don’t like being preached at. I never like those sorts of stories. Experimental stories that dance around the fact that it doesn’t give me any compelling reason to read on. Drives me friggin nuts, I’m like ok, why did I read that? What’s the point of a story if it doesn’t have a point? Why write it at all, if there’s no reason to write it?

They say, for entertainment. They just want a story to entertain them and nothing else is allowed to creep into it. These people have never given me a more compelling argument than “I don’t like it.” And yet, these people defend their position vehemently, like a rabid atheist, trying to push others to adopt their position, and warning other authors that if they writing something that expresses their opinion, especially if it’s a political opinion, well, be careful, because there’s no market for that stuff.

Which is just not true, I don’t know what kind of crack they’re on, and they never have any statistics to back them up, unlike arguments to the contrary.

I wondered where this attitude comes from. But then I look around at the world, and at my generation, I think, no wonder they’re writing this blather. My generation is a generation that’s jaded by helplessness. Even if we vote, we’re outnumbered by the earlier generations who have vastly different values and ideals, so that our votes don’t matter. We feel that the old guard hasn’t given up the keys to our world and we can’t make the changes we see need to be made. Because there aren’t enough of us, and it’s too big a fight, too much work, and the guy beside us isn’t going to take up that banner alongside and fight beside us for what they believe in and what they want.

I’m not even going to get into all the things we see wrong with the world; that’s not the point of this particular outburst. The point is that we’ve lost hope.

It’s what they want us to believe. They’ve always wanted us to believe that things are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do to change them. Politicians promise it, but they don’t come through. The people in power don’t want change, and they’ve convinced us that there’s nothing we can do.

The complacence is deadly. We give up on our dreams, take jobs that don’t matter to us, and when we feel unfulfilled, we say, well, that’s life, you have to accept it. And when we can’t accept it any more, we put guns to our heads, because we have no hope for anything better.

I may still be relatively young, but I’ve been through a fair bit, and even been close to losing all hope. But I’ve come back from it. Most recently, my last job was really getting rough and it wasn’t allowing me enough time that I was coherent enough to work, to work on my writing, which is my dream. It took a while but I realized that job was outright stopping me from following my dream.

I don’t generally act rashly in those situations, so I didn’t quit right that moment, but I started looking for a new job pretty quick, and awesome friends came through for me in helping me find one. Things are way better now. Because I did something.

I could have survived on that old job. I could live in this ghetto apartment indefinitely and raise kids in here that I didn’t have time to see, and never write another novel. Hypothetically, I mean. I’d actually just do what I did because I couldn’t bear giving up progress or at least the hope of progress.

Right around that time, my favourite band released their new album, with a song that hit home just then:

Letters From A Little Boy To Himself As An Adult
Lyrics by Captain Robert

”Robert as boy:”
Dear Mr. Brown,
One day I’ll be you and
Although I’m only eight now,
You need to hear my rules
Never stop playing
Never stop dreaming and
And be careful not to
Turn into what I’d hate

”Robert as adult:”
Dear little boy,
I’m doing my best up here but
It’s a thankless job and
Nobody feels the same
You work long hours
Watch your credit rating
Pay your taxes and
Prepare to die

”Jody Ellen:”
I have tried to keep my soul
I lost the fight to keep a hold
Now I am not awake
Now I’m not awake

”Robert as boy:”
Hey Mr. Brown,
That can’t be what life is like!
I’ve watched some movies,
And I’ve, I’ve read some books
Life should be exciting
And sometimes scary but
What you’re describing doesn’t
Seem worth the time

”Robert as adult:”
Hey little boy,
I think you are always right
I’ve dropped that worthless life and
I’m moving on
Life should be adventure
I’m stealing back my soul
I’ve lost too many years now
I’m awake

”Robert and Jody Ellen:”
You were right
I nearly lost my soul
I will fight to steal back my soul
Now I am awake
Now I’m awake

This became Etienne’s song, and all my feelings about my life then came out in the novel I was writing for national novel writing month. Etienne is a man who led a small uprising against the oppressive monarchy that was put down brutally. He lost friends, spent time in jail and when he got out, he no longer believed it was possible to change the way things were. Eventually someone convinces him to try again, and he dares to hope again.

Then there’s Claire who dreams of flying a fighter aeroplane, and since it’s a man’s world, she has to fight society’s rules tooth and nail to follow her dream. But she does, right to the end. She never gives up on it.

And there’s the admiral; he doesn’t like the way things are, but he accepts it, and doesn’t believe that change is possible, so he tries to make the best of the way things are.

And finally there’s Maddie, the little girl, who is too young to know she shouldn’t hope for better, and inspires it in others too.

I want my writing, and my characters to inspire people. I think people want to believe and to hope, they’re just inundated with apathy, and there needs to be more hope in the world. I want to put more hope in the world, and this is how I’ll do it.