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The Gearbox: What’s in a Name?

by on Apr.15, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everybody! I’m back, after a brief hiatus from The Gearbox! For those of you unfamiliar with this column, The Gearbox is the weekly column where I tell you how to write the books I want to read. Please bear in mind that this column is in no way intended to tell you how you actually SHOULD write, as I am an amateur, myself. I simply wish to spur discussions on some of my favorite topics.

Today’s topic: nomenclature.

So let’s say you have a setting where there are dudes with magic, and they use their magical skills to pilot big, steampunk mecha. However, these mecha have souls and can talk to their pilots. The mecha can even be summoned from a stone, which the pilots wear around their necks. Well, let’s jazz that up by putting a character and some marketing text on the back of the book:

Kolo is a “Driver”- a pilot of one of the enigmatic Machinas that can be summoned from Kolo’s “Calas”- a charm which she wears around her neck. When she begins to hear whispers from the Spiritus- the spirit inside her Machina- Kolo’s life is turned upside-down. Can Kolo get to the mysterious origins of the Machinas before it’s too late?

One of my biggest problems with writers in the sci-fi and fantasy genre (and RPG writers) is their ridiculous love of renaming a convention and calling it their own. I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s basically the way that a lot of anime functions, to be frank, and it is always my first clue to weak writing. The second I hear some overblown name for something that already existed, my gut churns, and I get ready to be disappointed.

Pilots are pilots. Magic is magic. Mecha are mecha. Wizards are wizards. Those names are good enough, and they serve a very important purpose: they are the waypoints of convention that we need to sail through your world. When you’re telling us of a new world that you’ve created from the ground up, there are very few things upon which we can count. There’s probably dirt, air and water. Aside from those things, that’s it. Oh, man, and if we’re in space, there’s no telling what sort of conventions exist. We can’t guarantee that there will be humans. We can’t guarantee that the animals will all be there, though cats and dogs seem to inhabit every world for some reason. That’s why, when you do plant something familiar in your landscape, it is imperative that you call it what it is. Without those familiar legends to your world, we’re lost.

I think that writers have a number of reasons for renaming things that had a perfectly good name. Let me see if I can parse through them.

1) The word, as it stood, conjured the wrong image. You know what? I get this one. I really do. When I say “wizard,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Odds are good that your response was either: A) Gandalf or B) Harry Potter. That’s rough stuff when you’re writing your hard-edged urban fantasy about a geomancer and his buddies who fight the magic mafia. Well, actually, just call the guy a “geomancer.” It’s a thing already, and it’s the right thing to call the guy. Fantasy nuts will know what this guy does, and a lot of them will know how he does it even before you lay pen to paper. Just don’t call him a “Lukor” or a “Caller” or an obscure Latin word. Of course, the other thing that you could do is simply take the word back. Write something involving that word that subverts preconception. For example, I would imagine that, before Harry Potter was written, most people though “Gandalf” when you said, “wizard.” Now they think of schoolchildren. Write confidently. Write potently.

2) The word didn’t sound cool enough. You know why the word didn’t sound cool enough? If you take a look under the hood of your story, you might just find that the plot is boring and predictable. All too often, writers change the words in a deliberate attempt to make us feel lost, like there is something to discover when there really isn’t. Take a good, hard look at your story and ask yourself if the setting has usurped the place of the plot, and if you’re having more fun coming up with ridiculous words than writing real fiction. I’m sorry if I sound inflamed about this, but I’m tired of spending hours to get into a book, only to find out that I’ve just been reading a poorly-disguised cliché.

As an addendum to #1, let me just say that I fervently believe that there are no synonyms in the English language. When selecting a word, always pick the right one for the job. A shaman is not a wizard. Magic is not always the same as essence. I think you should always tell it like it is.

And also, don’t hesitate to be a pioneer! If you actually have a concept that is new to us, great! Now is your chance to coin a new word! If you have a race of merfolk that turn into angels under the light of the full moon, for god’s sake don’t call them “were-merfolk-angels,” or “serasmerfolk” (“Smurfs” for short. Say it out loud and you’ll get the joke.). Don’t think you have to stick to all current conventions and never add ANYTHING.

Does anyone know of any examples of good/bad writing regarding nomenclature?

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The Gearbox: Anatomy of a Scene

by on Apr.01, 2009, under The Gearbox

Just kidding! I could never presume to cover a topic like that, considering my status as an unpublished, two-book writer. No, what we’re covering today is not the whole anatomy of a scene, but rather the heart of it- conflict.

Let me just lay this out there- I am a huge hypocrite. I’m telling you all of this when I KNOW that there are scenes in The Gearheart that violate these rules. In fact, when I go back through to write a redraft, you had better believe that those scenes will be gone. Not one of them will survive.

So, according to David Mamet, there are only three important parts of a scene. I don’t want to agree with any statements of direct formula for writing, but I begrudgingly admit that I can’t really find times that I disagree with what Mamet has to say. Mamet states that the following create the conflict in a scene:

1) Who wants what?
2) From whom do they want it?
3) What’s going to happen when they don’t get it?

And it’s that simple! I would love to say, “Hey, this is common sense! Everyone knows that’s how you create conflict,” but I can’t, because I never really thought it out like that. I have several scenes that don’t work out like that, or lack one of those three answers. Let’s break down two scenes, shall we?

The Death Star Trench Run
Luke is skimming along the Death Star trench in his X-wing fighter. Most of his friends are dead. If HE doesn’t destroy the Death star, no one will, and all of his Rebel friends will be destroyed.

1) Who wants what?
Luke wants to destroy the Death Star.

2) From whom do they want it?
It’s a tricky statement, but I guess you could say, “He wants it from the Death Star.”

3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it?
All the Rebels die, issuing in a new era of galactic terror (read: “prosperity for humans”).

That one was very simple, because the conflicts were primarily external. Now let’s take a second scene that features only one character. I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but I’m going to use one of my scenes because many of you are probably somewhat familiar.

Keegan’s Dilemma
It’s early in the morning, and Keegan is drinking. He is torn apart thinking of how the death of one of his old Agents may have been his fault. Augustus pulls up on a motorcycle and tells Keegan that Isabelle has been attacked. That doesn’t sound like conflict, right? Let’s break it down.

1) Who wants what?
The question here is one of absolution. Keegan needs forgiveness for his sins, whether real or perceived. Keegan wants a mind that is in balance, free of cognitive dissonance, and so he must confront his past.

2) From whom do they want it?
Keegan wants forgiveness from the toughest critic of all- himself. You are the least likely person to forgive yourself in most circumstances, unless you’re a sociopath like Patrick Bateman.

3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it?
This is probably the most abstract part of the scene, and it’s where I have probably not been clear enough. Keegan is drinking in the mornings. Keegan goes back on his promises. Keegan changes tactics to keep the team safe for the moment, rather than get the job done. In effect, Keegan has become a coward, only playing the safe game. If Keegan does not overcome his past choices, he will not be a good Headmaster. In this case, his failure in the face of adversity could negatively impact the human race as a whole (but he doesn’t know that).

This trifecta of information, this Triforce of conflict, is so absolutely important to a scene. Let me add something, though:

4) Who’s stopping them?
Now, this is actually a sub-question of #2, “From whom do they want it?” However, I think you’ll find that explicitly asking yourself this question prior to writing any scene will cause your scene to take shape in a more understandable way.

I didn’t hear Mamet mention this in the interview, so if he did, my apologies. In essence, there are only two types of conflict- external and internal. Either a character wants something from someone else- external- or they want something from themselves- internal. Scenes of external conflict tend to be violent or action-oriented. Scenes of internal conflict often have a lot of hidden subtleties. To make matters more hazy, you should know that a single scene can contain several conflicts, each with a set of questions all to itself. Let’s answer question #4 for Keegan’s dilemma.

4) Who’s stopping them?
Keegan, being the caring person that he is, is unable to forgive himself. Easy, right?

The answer to #4 for the Death Star Trench Run isn’t quite as clear.

4) Who’s stopping them?
-A: Darth Freaking Vader
-B: Here’s the fun one. Luke is a naive individual who only trusts that which he can observe with his eyes. Torn between his eyes and his heart, Luke finds himself unable to ponder the deeper mysteries of the universe because of his inability to move past his mental limitations. Unfortunately, one of those mysteries of the universe is how to use the Force, and without the Force, there is no way that Luke will make the killing shot to the Death Star. He must learn to let go of everything around him, when everything around him is threatening to kill him. He must learn to trust… his instincts… Luke.

That scene is way better than my scene! Oh, well. I’ll just have to find a way to spice up Keegan’s Dilemma. Perhaps I could throw in some TIE Fighters?

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The Gearbox: My Recipe

by on Mar.18, 2009, under The Gearbox

Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion of writing theory! I really wasn’t going to continue this when I started the blog, because I thought no one would care. However, over the course of this past month, I’ve gotten some amazing responses! All of the commenters (most recently Nate) have really given me cause for pause, and I greatly appreciate your help on my writing journey! I can’t believe that anyone actually reads what I have to say on this subject!

I want to start with my standard disclaimer: The Gearbox is the study of writing books I want to read. It’s not intended to be any sort of authority or anything like that. It’s kind of like a manual where I tell you how to get me to give you my money. What’s worse is that, like any good customer, I might not have any clue what I actually want. Please, feel free to chime in and smack me around as much as you please.

Here’s how I begin to craft a story, as might be evident from my previous posts:
1) I start with something I want to see. This is an event, and thereby, a plot point. It must be poetic and beautiful, cinematic and compelling- a visual. I’m well aware that not everybody thinks like me, so I am in no way endorsing this as a valid method. I do not bother with any of the rest of the plot at this point.
2) I ask myself what characters are participants in that visual. What do they look like? What brought them to this point? Why are they wearing what they’re wearing/doing what they’re doing?
3) I create a backstory support structure to get the character to an “alpha” state- their mindset when they begin the story. I try to really get to know the character, even going so far as to look at primary attributes of my friends’ personalities (but I’ll never tell those friends anything about that). I also look at animals and philosophies and try to imagine which ones for which my characters will have an affinity.
4) I throw all of that stuff out except the characters and the visual, and I evolve the backstory and plot as necessary to complete the story. It feels bad to just drop most of what I had created, but I think it has to be done. What’s worse? The visual, the thing I want to see the most, might not- probably won’t- even happen! Hopefully, something even better will happen.

I basically look at all backstory and plot as a way to fulfill and subvert the desires of the characters. It’s true (and I am a hypocrite for this) that I actually start with PLOT, then move on to BACKSTORY, but I do so in minuscule amounts. I just want to know why I saw what I saw in my head, and how I can repeat it. I still feel that true, logically-extrapolated character interaction is the king of any story, but I realize that I have sold short the other elements in my previous posts.

(By the way, when I say “character interaction,” that can mean gunfights and explosions. It doesn’t have to be Woody Allen talking to Diane Keaton.)

So that’s how I begin to craft a story. To all of you writers out there:

What’s your recipe?

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The Gearbox: Organic Plot Generation

by on Mar.12, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hello, and welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Be warned, everyone: I am not an expert. I’m a guy who likes to write. Because of my very nature as an untrained amateur, nothing I say should be taken too seriously, okay? If you disagree, please weigh in at the comments section!

Disclaimer #2: For the purposes of this essay, let us put aside existentialist writings, or any stories where the characters are too impotent to affect their surroundings. Those stories will always have a place in my heart.

What is the difference between inorganic and organic plot generation? Why should writers care? Well, I’ll tell you.

Let’s start with a comparison of organic and preserved cookies. Organic cookies are made naturally. They come from a series of unpreserved, un-bug-sprayed ingredients, and they spoil really quickly. They taste good, but they’re gone so soon, and certain bad tastes cannot be masked. Preserved cookies have things added to them to make them predictable, to add life and lastly, to add value to the retail overlords that sell them. They are unchanging, with each one as mediocre as the next.

Now let’s move on to the point, since I’ve made such a loaded analogy.

Inorganic plot generation- sometimes I call it a static plot- is a method wherein you as a writer say, “This is what will happen. I will make this so.” You have a plot twist so cool, a backstory so unbelievably great or some other motivation so compelling that you bend the events of the story to your will. These sorts of plots make for high-concept books when executed well, but more often than not, they turn into disaster movies or twist-ending flicks… or stalker movies. These books and movies are easy to turn into 90 minute movies or 90,000 word novels. Inorganic plots are the tripe of Hollywood and the bread and butter of executives and accountants alike.

Organic plot generation occurs when you start with a very loose timeline, and you let the characters do whatever it is they want to do. No one is un-killable. No plot point is set in stone. Sometimes, what would have been a novel is a short story. Sometimes, what would have been a short story becomes a trilogy. You literally have no clue with what you are dealing until the story is done. You, as the novelist, set the parameters, run the program and wait on the other side to see what comes out.

Well, I have painted a very flattering picture of organic plot generation, haven’t I? It would almost seem like organic plot generation has no flaws, from what I’ve said.

The flaw is gigantic. There is no built-in “zing” to a scene. There is no predictably unpredictable outcome! Where is the action? Where are the twists? What if the hero would rather go home and microwave a burrito, when all you want is for a huge gunfight? I’ve never been in a gunfight, but my bet is that a microwave burrito is better than getting shot… depending on the brand. When the hero wants to leave, how do you make him stay? How do you make him stand up for himself?

The way I see it, you have two choices at this point:

1) The hero goes home. You are making a Coen Brothers movie. It will probably win an award for best screenplay, but you will be left alone with your unspent bullets and a raging need to see something get shot. This is an example of organic plot generation in action.

2) You introduce a new element and run the program again. Give the hero a gun. Give him an opening. Make it more exciting/honor-binding/profitable for him to stay and shoot than to go home. This may literally mean hundreds of rewrites, but you have to keep going until that hero pulls the trigger willingly.

Here’s what you DON’T do: Don’t EVER use inorganic plot generation. There is no good reason.

Is there?

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The Gearbox: Plot vs. Backstory

by on Mar.04, 2009, under The Gearbox

Welcome back to The Gearbox, my weekly discussion on writing theory! Today we’ll tackle a topic that should be a no-brainer. Why? Because I’m pretty much an amateur, myself, so I can pretend to be knowledgeable by writing well about this idea.

The question is simple, really: What is the difference between plot and backstory, and what are the uses of both?

I know that I said that it was a no-brainer, but the relationship between plot and backstory can be quite hairy, especially for writers of science fiction and fantasy. Have you ever spoken to an aspiring fantasy author and asked him or her what their book was about? How many times have you heard a response like this:

“Well, there was this war a loooooooong time ago, right? It divided the universal race into these three races: elves, men and dwarves. Anyway, so like, they’re all at war now because Misha the Red (she’s one of the Antediluvian Witches) decided that she wanted to take the Sickle of Life from the Cave of Peace. So now the elves are leading this blah blah blah blah blah…”

I hate to say this, because writing is supposed to be subjective, but WRONG. That is not what your book is about.

Your book is not about your caste system. Your book is not about the fancy name you came up with to call your giant mechs (I’m talking to you, anime!). Most of all, your book is not, and cannot be, about things that happened before your book takes place. And yet, so many authors focus almost the entirety of their attentions upon the backstory. Why? Is it because a bunch of us started our fantasy/sci-fi careers with Dungeons & Dragons campaign guides?

The plot of a book is the series of events that happens over the course of the story. I know that’s crazy talk, but there you have it. It starts on page one and it ends at the end. Also, I don’t believe that plot is something you can write, but that’s a discussion for next week.

I had a writing teacher tell me something once that absolutely changed the way that I looked at writing sci-fi and fantasy forever. I came into class with this mega-binder of backstory. It was the freaking Bible of that universe. It had historical details, timelines, races, magical abilities… even stats for D&D versions of a bunch of stuff. He took one look at it and asked, “Well, how does the book start?” I didn’t know, and that’s when he took me aside and told me, “Alex, I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this, but your story is like a stew. Right now, you have all of the spices in it that you could ever need, but you don’t have any meat or water or anything else. The backstory is just the flavor. You need to add in everything else.”

Simply put, a setting is not a novel. Don’t make the mistake of planning your story out that way.

Now, in order of importance for story planning:
BACKSTORY < PLOT < CHARACTER INTERACTION Of course, I could be totally wrong. If so, please- I urge you to step in and correct me!

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The Gearbox: The Role of Character Flaws

by on Feb.25, 2009, under The Gearbox

Welcome to The Gearbox.  Each Wednesday, I’ll post a little writing theory discussion, and you guys can weigh in and tell me I’m full of it.  I’ll try to reveal to you the tools and inner workings of my story, and you can tell me if my torque wrench needs replacing or if my sprockets are corroded.

Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to listen through the first episode, and you’ve gotten acquainted with the characters.  I realize that there are a lot of them (five), and that we didn’t get much time with them.  In fact, none of them had more than about four lines apiece!  However, I hope that Initiate Andrews’s character has come slightly into focus.

I wrote Jonathan to be who he was because I despise perfect characters.  Rather, I have something of a disdain for characters whose only flaw is that they are “distant” or “brooding.”  This includes a lot of stock-standard male anime leads.  They are always beautiful, talented and intelligent, in addition to being potent fighters.  Their built-in flaws are that they are “bad boys” or “too focused.”  In other words, their flaws are that they are too awesome.  Hamlet may have had all of those qualities, but he was also a raving psychopath who made a fool of himself in front of others.

This brings me to Jonathan’s flaw (or at least the only flaw demonstrable after one episode):  Jonathan Andrews has poor mental equipment for the serious tasks ahead of him.  Jonathan needs to find a way to be serious and graceful, combat-minded and quick to solve problems.  He needs to learn decorum and politics.  At the outset, his lack of these things should be somewhat apparent.  He’s not a very good magical secret agent, but he is special, and the Seekers are stuck with him.

So I’ve talked about the fact that Jonathan does have a character flaw, but why?  Why not make him Superman?  Why not make him some Adonis with a MENSA card?  Why are those options totally boring?

That’s because stories are about growth and learning.  Well, at least, good ones are. Gaining wisdom is as integral to the human condition as a journey over long distances.  In fact, a physical journey is just an analogue the growth of the human spirit.  To have a main character who begins the story at the end state, who never learns and who never needs to make exceptions- well, that’s like saying that a movie is only good for the twist ending.  Once you know the twist, all points inbetween are revealed to you.  After that, why bother watching the movie. (Are you reading this, thriller-directors?)

We as a society don’t want to read about the men and women who are simply better than us, who have triumphed even before the story begins.  Rather, we want our storytellers to help us understand our human potential, and show us that anyone can be great.

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