Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Point of View

The creation of interesting, engaging, and believable characters for any novel is a crucial step in the writing process.
(Thank you, Captain Obvious.)

Writing back-stories for each character (even minor ones) helps to flesh out what gives them motivation, inspiration, anxiety, and trepidation. It also reveals how their hopes, dreams, hang-ups and personal history shape how they see the world, and how they interact/react to it.

Nowhere is this more important than your novel’s “point of view” protagonist. The story unfolds through their eyes, thoughts, words and actions. Their opinions, beliefs, bias, and worldview are as much a part of the story as the story itself.

In Tracker, for example, there are two main protagonists, and each chapter/scene is told from either Amos’ or Aubrey’s point of view.
And I learned from experience why so few authors create main characters whose names end with the letter “S”. Hint: you will invest a lot of time looking for new ways to avoid apostrophes. :)
This meant that any given scene/chapter would be told exclusively from one viewpoint — so if the character left the room, for example, there was no way of knowing what happened in their absence. There was no omniscient narrator providing background or context — the story was written so that the reader only knew or discovered whatever the characters knew or discovered.
A third perspective was provided by one of the ‘enemy’ (a Tracker). It was a great deal of fun to write from viewpoint of a Tracker — just how does a fanatical, semi-cyborg killing machine ‘think’, anyway? — and provide an insight into their very ‘alien’ worldview regarding their ‘targets’ (the protagonists).
The second and third books in the Trilogy widened the reader’s experience of the dystopian society where the story takes place. The introduction of Connor provided a fourth point of view: one representing the despised elite class who possessed just about as much contempt/prejudice against Amos and Aubrey, as they felt for him and his companions.

The creative fun/challenge with a viewpoint like Connor’s was to make him believable and even sympathetic: they’re forced into an alliance because of a common enemy, but that doesn’t mean they like or trust each other. And each side had their ‘reasons’ to justify their biases. The inherent conflict of their clashing worldviews provided some great opportunities for character development, as well.
Deciding whose viewpoint will be taken when all the characters are in the same scene can be challenging. Solving that piece of the puzzle just makes the story stronger.
“Point of view” is not just the luck of the draw when a writer begins creating a new work. It’s key to the story-telling, based upon well-thought-out backstories, a combination of strengths & weaknesses in each character, and an opportunity — whether utilizing single or multiple viewpoints — to create compelling fiction that captures the imagination of the reader.

A “page-turner”, in other words. That’s the goal.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

That Was Then, This Is Now

Fifteen years ago today, I embarked on a wee experimental journey: I created a blog called ‘robbymac’.

Blogging was still reasonably new at the time, as was the online software. For example, if you wanted to provide readers an opportunity to comment — and the whole point of blogging was ‘conversation’ — you were obliged to import third-party software (Haloscan was an early favourite).

When Haloscan eventually went the way of the dodo, all of the comments evaporated with it. That was a real shame, because in the early years of this blog (and many others), there was a great deal of conversation. Lively debates, thoughtful discussions, and the inevitable knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers (aka ‘trolls’) who just loved a mean-spirited kerfuffle while insulting people they’d never met.

Looking back now, in the perfect clarity that hindsight provides, I can trace some noticeable shifts/trends/defining moments:
  1. The genesis of the “Detoxing from Church” series in the early years. This was probably what first drew a lot of readers and generated some good discussion.
  2. The ‘Post-Charismatic Project’, with its attendant interactive forum, certainly added a whole ‘nuther level of conversation about a decidedly “hot topic”.
  3. Online e-zines began publishing articles I’d written, including a cover story for Next-Wave. ‘Post-Charismatic’ caught the attention of a publisher in the UK and became a book.
  4. During my fourth year (2007), I began incorporating “creative non-fiction” — fun, creative story-telling written to get people thinking. The Younger/Elder characters were introduced and quickly became regulars, I indulged in some satirical ‘riffing’ on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters”, and even wrote a metaphorical tribute to worn-out denim.
    • It’s somewhat mystifying, in hindsight, that I was blogging for almost four years before creative story-telling first appeared. Or, perhaps it’s just another indicator that blogs and bloggers evolve over time.
  5. Conversations — and inter-connected webs of blog-responses and synchro-blogs — flourished like out-of-control weeds for a number of years, and then seemed to evaporate overnight. (For a number of blogs, not just mine. It was weird.)
  6. Blogging compadres came and went, for a variety of reasons. Some of their blogs no longer exist, while others remain online but it’s been years since anything new has been posted.
    (The diminishing level of conversation may have had a bigger impact than was first recognized.)
  7. My own shift in self-perception, after I took the “I am a writer” plunge. Obviously, I’ve been writing all along, but there’s a significant difference between writing “on the side”, so to speak, and the time, attention, and creative energy involved/required to pursue writing as a career.
I don’t make a yearly practice of marking each “blogiversary”, but the recent discovery that Len Hjalmarson had retired his blog — with the exception of a single post to say farewell — caused me to stop and reflect. Len was instrumental in encouraging me to begin robbymac.org so many years ago, and while other blogging compadres have come and gone, his departure hit me harder somehow.

The times... they are a-changing.

I will continue to write simply because I’m a writer. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do. Blogging has been and will continue to be a part of my creative rhythm. As a good friend (also an author) once advised me: “Writing is hard. Be a writer only if you simply can’t not write.”

She’s right, on both counts. And because I do want to continue to develop as a writer, I will also follow the advice of another author (Stephen King): “If you want to be a writer… you must write a lot.”

In other words, there’s still lots of gas in the tank. :)

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Bending the Rules: First Draft

Writing speculative fiction is not an exercise in chaos, nor is it the literary equivalent of “throwing spaghetti against the wall and keeping what sticks”.

At the same time, the picture at left does feel strangely familiar. Especially when writing the first draft of a new novel.

The “rules” for writing fiction are very much in the eye of the beholder. While there is a consistent body of wisdom setting parameters for the genre, even among some of the most successful authors, there can be a wide range of strongly-held opinions. A famous example on the topic of adverbs:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King

“Adverbs and adjectives are rich and good and nourishing. They add colour, life, immediacy.” ~ Ursula Le Guin
The same can also be true for the age-old conundrum when approaching a new writing project: to plan, or not to plan?

Many writers and writing instructors insist that you map out the structure, storyline, and characters before starting to create the actual content.

Other writers advocate for sitting down with a blank piece of paper (or a blank laptop screen), and simply begin writing and “see what comes out”. A famous quote for this approach has been variously attributed to Stephen King and Terry Pratchett (and probably others):
“The first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.”
Elizabeth Lyon, author of ‘A Writer’s Guide to Fiction’, has a markedly different view: “Perhaps some writers believe that preparation or structure will stifle creativity... I can understand their choice — and predict their failure.”

So, which of the experts do you believe?

Honestly, when I write, I do a bit of both. The first draft of a new novel is more or less “free-fall”, and then I wrestle it into submission in subsequent rewrites.

My earlier books were in the ‘non-fiction’ category, where the subject matter — and the reams of research and citations — dictated the structure to a large degree. When I decided to write a purely science-fiction novel (and having just finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ — see quote above), I thought it would be a fun challenge to ‘tell myself the story’ first.

It was fun. And creative. And a huge, heaping pile of hard work in subsequent drafts, as I wrestled with “telling other people the story”.

The first book in the Tracker Trilogy was a free-flow, ‘tell yourself the story first’ adventure. The second and third books were mapped out beforehand — and yet, as the content was written, the map began to resemble (at times) Captain Barbossa’s interpretation of the Pirates’ Code: “it’s more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Creative writing is often like that. That’s why it’s ‘creative’ — it seems to have a mind of its own. What’s important to remember is this:
“First drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written.”

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ~ Terry Pratchett

“The first draft of anything is [dreck].” ~ Ernest Hemingway

“Edit. Or regret it. Depend on this, your story does.” ~ Master Yoda (okay, I made that one up, but it’s something he would have said, if writing were a Jedi art)