May 30

Building Working Worlds from Weird Ideas (3 of 3)

Continued from part 1 – So where DO you get your ideas from?

and part 2 – Turning ideas into worlds

 

Turning Worlds into Stories

You know what’s annoying about thinking in worlds? Worlds are fun and all, but worlds aren’t story.

Don’t look at me like that, it’s taken me years to work that one out.

Worlds aren’t story, and story is everything.

 

All that hard work in the background

A bunch of people wandering around in a world, no matter how cool that world might be, isn’t even plot, let alone story. A bunch of people who do something just so the coolness of your interesting and well-developed world can be revealed, isn’t story either.

The fact is that all that hard work we’ve been talking about — the exciting ideas, the new friends, the deep and intricate links between spark and world — they will inevitably end up in the background. Because story is key.

I didn’t say just in the background. The world and the idea might not be the story, but they are bound to the story. They are an integral part of the story.

The world and the story don’t work independently of each other. They interact, and intersect. And the same goes for plot and character. What’s the point of dumping a bunch of characters onto a very particular world and having them act out a plot that could happen anywhere? Only these characters could live here! This story could only happen here!

 

So what is this story thing then?

As a developing writer I was usually in the “A bunch of people do something so the coolness of my interesting and well-developed world can be revealed” group. It’s still my default setting, but that’s what happens when you think in worlds.

I had to learn that wasn’t what stories are.

This is an explanation of what story is that speaks to me, and helps keep me grounded when I’m at this stage in my planning process:

wired-for-story“A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.

“What happens” is the plot

“Someone” is the protagonist

The “goal” is what’s known as the story question

And “how he or she changes” is what the story itself is actually about”

– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story (Ten Speed Press, p11)

(quiet aside, I’ve never been the type of person to read ‘how to write’ books. I always rolled my eyes at them, and thought things like “real writing isn’t learned, it comes from the soul” or some such wankery. That’s changed. The more I write and the more I learn about writing, the more I want to learn. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this book and found it useful. Thanks to Cat Sparks for the recommendation)

My interpretation of story is

I’ve got this cool idea, but the story is why anyone else should give a damn.

 

Tools for developing story

Three guesses what I use? Notebooks!

For me, developing the key elements of the story happens almost the same way and almost at the same time as developing a world. Characters sprout in the middle of all those scribbles and drawings just like magic systems do. Same for the goal and the conflict that drive the plot forward.

The mcMansion being built in loud and irritating fashion two doors up led to self-aware high density housing running amok through suburban streets, consuming all the single story red-brick 1950s houses with a backyard and a garage. But that’s not the story. High Density is about the people who live in those single story red-brick 1950s houses struggling against a change they cannot stop. From a loathing of mcMansions sprung the kind of people who would fight against them. Usually older, usually poorer, but armed with the magic of the every day, fighting the spread with their bleach, dusters, and photos of the kids who have long fled the nest. The conflict between old and new, a mistrust of change, all coming from a resentment of being woken up so blood early on a Saturday morning.

I have begun to find Scrivener extremely useful at this stage, and that’s because of the 0 draft.

Remember what I said about worlds being my default setting? Well, the 0 draft gives me permission to write to that default setting, because along the way is where I will find my story.

Using the notebooks, the pens and the highlighters, I can wrangle my idea into a world. I can squeeze out a few characters and get to know them. But I still don’t know what my story is about.

I won’t find that out until I’m writing it.

That doesn’t mean I’m a pantser! I have a light outline to work from: always a beginning, and an end, and a few points in between. And anyway, this is a 0 draft, not a first draft! It’s still part of my notes. It’s rough and unwieldy. I may not finish it, not properly anyway, because when I realise what the whole damn thing is actually about, it all might change.

This is why Scrivener is so useful. I can divide up my zero draft into POVs or chapters or plot points and physically rearrange any or everything as I see fit. And I can see it all in a glance while I’m at it.

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 9.45.25 PM Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 9.45.40 PM

 

Of course you can do that in another word processor, or by hand, or with your cue cards of whatever you’ve chosen to use, I’ve just been finding Scrivener is good for that.

Oh, and by the way, I’m not advocating this method! There are folks who do all their planning in advance, who know what their story will be and produce a near-perfect first draft as a result. And the more power to them! This is just something that I have learned, through trial and error, works for me.

Which is the point — I’ve found a series of tools that allow me the creative freedom to develop on my initial *spark* of an idea until it becomes a fully-fledged story. And that’s what we all need to find.

 

The STORY is the point of everything, but everything starts from the IDEA

I’ve been saying throughout this that even though idea doesn’t equal story, they are connected. One does not exist without the other, and throughout the planning process, and into the resulting book or short story or graphic novel, they should be in constant contact.

Well — going around in a bit of a circle here — I think that’s because good ideas already had stories inside them. We just have to develop the tools and learn the techniques to find them, and let them out.

***

And that’s it! I hoped you enjoyed these blog posts, thanks for reading :) Coffee and cake will now be served in the foyer (I wish!)

 

 

May 28

Building Working Worlds from Weird Ideas (2 of 3)

Continued from part 1 – So where DO you get your ideas from?

 

Turning ideas into worlds

Thinking in worlds

I think in worlds. This means  I am incredibly jealous of writers who think in character, plot, or theme, because I never start out with any of those. My ideas, they’re all worlds.

Despite my jealousy, I’m not actually upset about it, because damn, I love those worlds. Now, by worlds I don’t mean geography. I don’t even mean species, societies, politics and religion. All these things are vitally important, but all these things will happen next. When I say I think in worlds, I mean I think in the *spark* that makes these worlds different from ours.

That *spark* is the idea. Here are a few examples from The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories:

  • The giant mcMansion being built two doors up becomes a world where high-density housing roams the streets, consuming older buildings
  • A Goya etching of witches stealing teeth from dead men becomes self-aware machines on a derelict starship hunting humans for their body parts
  • At the end of a yoga class, when I should have been meditating, I was distracted by the sound of a wind chime. That lead to a world where wind chimes could summon spirits
  • A friend’s holiday to Thailand and description of the ‘Vegetarian Festival’ became a post-apocalyptic world, buried in ruined tech, relying on sacrifice to survive

I can’t tell you why that mcMansion wanted to become a world of its own. Possibly because damn those builders start really early and lack of sleep might have had something to do with it? The point is, I was ready to listen when it did, and quickly wrote it down. So I could turn it into a world.

 

The world and the idea are one

One cannot exist without the other, and everything that happens in this world MUST be informed by the idea. Even if that’s going on in the background, and even if no one else will ever know about it but you. That’s how you make a world absolute, and complete. It’s not enough to have a cool world based on a cool idea and plonk any old society and/or political system on top of it as assume ‘oh that’ll do.’ The people, the geography, everything must grow out of or at least be consistent with the idea.

If wind chimes can summon spirits, then what effect would that have on the way the rest of the world functions? Is it normal, or unusual? Can everyone do it, or just a few? What about the spirits themselves, is it just wind chimes that summon them, or are they a part of a larger picture of spirit summoning? What effect does this have on the people who live there? How does it influence their day to day lives, their politics, their technology?

And ultimately, what part does it play in the story?

 

Tools for growing worlds

What do we use to grow these worlds?

It’s notebooks all the way for me baby. My ideas grow into worlds in a fertiliser of increasingly illegible handwriting, scribbles that are supposed to be drawings, and lots of dot points. It’s old school, and absolutely none of it happens on a computer screen.

That’s how my world-growing brain works, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You need to find what works for you, and that can take a lot of experimenting. Scrivener is a great tool if you’re happy working electronically. I know other folks who use a whiteboard to develop their ideas, or cards pinned on a note board, or just a word doc.

It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as you give yourself the freedom to play with the idea and nurture it into a world. Nothing at this stage is set in stone, but that also means that any of it can be thrown out. You need a tool that gives you permission to go a little crazy, at least at first.

 

The nitty gritty

That’s great, we got our idea and we got our tools, so how do we actually do this? Step by step, how do you grow a world?

I’m going to introduce you to your two new best friends — ‘what if?’ and ‘so what?’ ‘What if’ is full of promise and creativity and mad ideas. ‘So what’ makes you justify the ‘what if’.

Step 1) To grow a world, liberally apply ‘what if’ to your idea

Step 2) Attack your ‘what if’ with the ‘so what’ knife, and discard any leftovers

Step 3) Repeat

This is a concept best described through example. So let’s talk about the Phuket vegetarian festival.

In Phuket they have this amazing festival where they offer prayers to the nine gods by performing self-mutilation like fire walking, piercing their cheeks and other body parts with, well, pretty much everything. Blades, guns, wheels, shovels, you name it. The people who do this are called ‘Mah Song’ (translates into horses of the gods) and they’re essentially spirit mediums. It’s all about thanking the gods for good health.

Fascinating, isn’t it? So, when a friend told me how she went to this vegetarian festival expecting, you know, vegetables but found this instead, I knew this was an *idea*.

What ifs started happening immediately. And that means you gotta bring the so what’s out to play.

What if the festival was happening in a post-apocalyptic future?

– so what? Why is this a future world, what’s it adding, or are you just doing it for funs?

Well, if it’s a future world then mutilation could become modification, couldn’t it? Trans-humanism, cyborgs, that kinda thing–

so what?

Well, it’s an offering to the gods, right, and in a future world those gods could be technological, and linked to the post-apocalyptic state of things–

so what?

You see what I mean.

Growing worlds is a fun process, but it has rules. The main rule is that everything must pass the ‘so what?’ test. You can shove anything you like into your shiny new world, but if you don’t have a reason it, then it doesn’t make the cut. Doesn’t matter how cool it is, doesn’t matter how much fun you will have lavishly describing it. If it doesn’t play a part in the world building or serve the story, then it’s just taking up valuable space.

 

Continued in part 3 — Turning Worlds into Stories

 

 

May 26

Building Working Worlds from Weird Ideas (1 of 3)

At the conflux writers day in April I gave a ‘Writing Skills’ presentation called Building working worlds from weird ideas. I’m not used to public speaking, and the idea of getting up in front of a hall full of people terrified me, so I knew the only way I was going survive would be to talk about the thing I loved most about writing. Thankfully, it worked. I survived (yay!) and I even enjoyed myself (crazy!) and apparently other folks enjoyed it too (madness!).

It occurred to me that my little presentation might make a few interesting blog posts too. So here we go, I hope you enjoy them:

 

Building Working Worlds from Weird Ideas (1 of 3)

Every writer ever will be asked, “Where do you get your ideas from?” That goes double for speculative fiction writers.

But the more interesting question is how do you turn your ideas into a working world and an engaging story?

As spec fic writers, weird ideas are our currency. Our obsession. They are the seed from which our stories grow, but they are not the stories themselves.

So let’s talk about ideas, where they come from, and how we can develop them into stories.

 

So where DO you get your ideas?

Let yourself get bored.

 “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” – Neil Gaiman

Ideas need space to grow, but that space can be hard to come by. Mental space, and physical too. There is this pressure, isn’t there, to be busy?

But, you know what, doing nothing is awesome. There is so much joy in boredom.

I remember reading a study somewhere about the connection between boredom and creativity.

“Boredom is nearly always essential to creativity. It isn’t true that creativity is mostly sparked by having a specific problem to be solved. It’s far more likely to arise because the person is bored with the way something has been done a thousand times before and wants to try something new”  – the Guardian

That’s not it. I don’t remember where I saw it (probably Facebook. It’s always Facebook) but I clearly remember thinking, “well der.”

I’ve always known this, and I’ve always lived it. When I was a kid I would bounce on the trampoline for hours on end telling myself stories. I used to love long drives with nothing to do except listen to music and, you guessed it, make up stories. (That’s not so easy now I’m the one doing the driving. Don’t freak out, I do pay attention to the road. I promise!)

Nowadays I lean more towards housework as my boring repetitive task of choice. Running’s a pretty good one too. My ideas feed on music, apparently, so both of these involve plugging myself into headphones.

But I still defend my right to do nothing.

I don’t feel guilty about that, and you shouldn’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it! Because it’s all part of the creative process.

My Dad’s an academic, and he likes to say

“Just because an academic is looking out the window doesn’t mean he isn’t working.”

I have well and truly adopted that in my life

“Just because a writer is looking out the window doesn’t mean she isn’t working”

is my mantra, and I’m not afraid to use it.

 

Tools for catching ideas

Once you’ve given your ideas the space to grow, you need to catch them. They are slippery, squirmy things. Never, ever think “oh I’ll just write that down later” or “that’s such a cool idea, I’ll remember that” because no, you won’t. The idea will laugh at you and leave you alone and depressed, desperately clutching at straws.

My solution is notebooks. A possibly unhealthy obsession with notebooks. Pretty ones. With nice covers and ribbons. And pens. A possibly unhealthy obsession with pens. Pretty ones, in different colours.

There’s a notebook for random ideas.

photo 3

There are notebooks for short stories, where I develop the initial idea further. Plot, characters, revision notes, that kind of thing.

photo 1

Each novel has a whole notebook of its own. Research notes are in here, as well as random world building thoughts and questions. Plot points I don’t end up using, intricate magic/tech details no one else will ever know. I even transcribe the revision notes that come back from my beta-readers.

photo 4

They start out pristine and full of promise and end up scribbled on, torn, dog-eared and riddled with post-it notes. But they work for me.

photo 2

These are my tools, but they’re not the only way. Personally, I need to write by hand while I’m growing ideas. I need colours and sketches, even doodles while I’m staring out the proverbial window, pondering. But that’s just me. Your notebook could be a file on your computer, linked to the Evernote app on your phone. It don’t matter how you do it, just write the buggers down as soon as they appear.

 

Not all ideas are created equal

Not that you’ll end up using them all, because not all ideas are created equal. But how can you tell the difference between a good idea, and a bad one? How do you know which ideas to invest all that growing and writing time to?

A good idea has a certain spark to it. It keeps you up at night. It takes over your brain. You start writing it in your head even when you’re desperately trying not to.

Not all ideas start out like that, but that doesn’t make them useless. And even the good ideas that started out so passionately can be a slog to finish writing sometimes. So how do you tell the difference?

This is something I’ve been wrestling with personally — what stories should you start, and when (or even if) should you give up and stop? And I wish I had a more definitive answer. A formula, maybe? If a = y then story? But I don’t, I’ve only got this: listen to your gut.

This is my current experiment — keep listening. From the very first line scribbled in that little green notebook, to the initial sketches, to the first draft and revision. Keep listening. If something doesn’t feel quite right stop, and try to work out why. Because we’re writers, and we have story-guts. And we should listen to them.

To be continued in part 2 – turning ideas into worlds

 

May 20

Guardian books! Real books!

Guess what! Guardian is REAL. It’s a BOOK! And it’s beautiful!

Don’t believe me? Check it out:

photo 2Dion Hamill’s artwork is amazing to begin with, and it’s just so rich and vibrant on the cover there. Yes, I’m gushing. I know this. I can’t help it :)

Also, Trilogy:

photo 1TRILOGY. Look at it, all three of them together. Trilogy.

*deep breath*

Guardian is officially out in June, so it’s still not too late to pre-order and get a special price! Then you too can pet the pretty book! (Or am I the only one who does that??)

 

May 01

Ditmars (and freebies!)

TheBoneChimeSong-CoverIt’s Ditmar time again, and I’m SO excited that Mah Song and The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories have been shortlisted! Mah Song has been shortlisted for best short story (yay!) and The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories has been shortlisted for best collected work (ALL the yays!!).

Fablecroft have made some samplers and free fiction available on their website, as well as the full shortlist. Check it out here. That’s a lot of cool stuff to read.

It also means that if you haven’t read Mah Song but would like to, you can download it here!

Isn’t that awesome?

The Ditmars are decided by vote, and are open to all members of Continuum 10 (including supporting members) and to members of Conflux 9 who were eligible to vote in the 2013 Awards. It’s a great opportunity to get involved and support something you’ve read and loved. There’s so much cool stuff on this list too! (voting can be done here and it’s open until the 28th May)

Speaking of which, I’d better get my vote in :D

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