The mysteries of this author’s mind

I had a great question the other day from a guy at work. He knows I’m a writer, with my first novel coming out soon, and wanted to know if I’ve got any new writing in the works at the moment. My answer was, Yes, I’m in the middle of drafting three stories.

He gave me a surprised look and confirmed, Three?

That’s right, three separate books concurrently written. A prequel, a sequel, and something completely different to keep things exciting. To that, he wanted to know how I don’t get them all tangled up and confused with one another. Therein is the interesting quality of being me, and writing the things I do.

My explanation was something to the effect of, I spend most of my time thinking about these characters and their situations. They’re like friends. Just as a normal person probably wouldn’t mistake one friend’s life with another, I can keep track of the people in three different books at the same time.

I didn’t mention that I’m actively reading two novels and a bunch of short stories by other people as well.

From the perspective of someone who doesn’t write, this concept seemed especially amazing. I know a whole lot of authors would also agree. Myself, I just don’t struggle to identify each character, and even if I need a refresher, I have a lot of notes. I’m kind of obsessive with note taking these days. Even though I can follow the lives of half a dozen main characters and twice as many minor characters doesn’t mean my memory is any good. I’m in their worlds so often that there isn’t anything terribly confusing about it, not at the drafting stage.

I might disagree when it comes time to edit.

~A

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Timelining

Okay. Alright. So. I am not a plotter by nature, and any kind of organisation system I have tried has failed me utterly. Something about all of the bits and bobs (especially in certain speciality writing programs) leave me irritable and unproductive. This shouldn’t go here, and what is that doing there, grumble grumble. Too bad I’m not a programmer, or I would just make my own application the way I want it.

But there comes a time when some things are necessary, and you either adapt, or fall to the ground in a sobbing heap. I adapted, and man, have I ever been missing out on the fun!

The Damning Moths requires an ongoing timeline. Simply put, there are a number of vital players in different locations who I need to keep track of, even if their actions never show up on paper. Oh, sure, I hummed and hahhed over how best to do this, and tried the sort of standard-looking horizontal timeline dealie (you know the kind they have to depict historical events or a person’s lifetime). That flopped. Too many people, too many things happening, too difficult to modify; I found myself holding the original sketchy outline of “character, location, and event” in a messy pile in my notebook, with a bucket-load of extra frustration. So what do I try to keep this tidy and easier to reference to prevent mistakes?

I realised at some point, people use daily planners in the format they are because it’s the effective way. I already knew the calendar system for TDM (which is actually far too complicated to relate in a few sentences), the length of the years, the months and seasons, so forth. Which lead me to the somewhat lengthy, but ultimately very useful process of creating the full calendar in a normal OpenOffice document, using a table. Yep, just like a real calendar, with little boxes for each day, or month, or year, depending on the level of detail it holds.

As such, I have several versions to reference. The historical, which is just years listed, because the characters have lifespans of hundreds of years, so I just use that to note births, deaths, and important events like wars, covering the past several thousand years as I need it. Then we move down to important years, which shows all the dates for a more specific tracking of events and the season they occur in. And now, the individual book calendar, which follows where people are at times of the day and when important plot points are revealed to various characters.

Sound complicated? It is and isn’t; when TDM deals so heavily with misplaced memory and deceit between people that the individual character’s knowledge at different times is a major factor, this makes it much, much easier. It took a lot of work in the first place to build the calendars. But it’s so refreshing to have it finally laid out where I can see everything at a glance, and I’ve kept blank copies of the yearly calendar to re-use for each subsequent book. There won’t be future issues regarding who is where and what they know about at the time. I’ve got it covered. I can easily figure out people’s relative age during events through history, keep track of who knows who and when they meet, and of course, at the book level, I can make sure no one will be written in two places at once as these subplots come crashing together. It’s exciting.

~A

Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting

As usual, the exact details of my story are worked out as I go. I need enough flexibility in my plotting to implement the good stuff which inevitably comes along after I’ve already started writing. On the other hand, sometimes figuring out the important parts when you reach them doesn’t always bode so well. Sometimes you hit a challenge which is solved in an even more difficult fashion.

Ever have a story or plot point you’re not sure if you should write for its intensity? I’ve come across the first instance of a fully justified, genuinely evil action which fits in exactly with the story. It ticks all the right boxes for reasons and rational in the world setting and for the characters in question. But I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the worst ideas I’ve ever come up with. For all the murders I’ve already written, the characters eaten alive, those betrayed and hurt beyond recovery, this one idea actually makes me pause. I got teary just coming up with it, and it sure would be hard to write.

The thing is, as I said, it slots right into place. It’s the big, awful catalyst I need. It works with all these other plots and subplots swimming around it. And I kind of want to write it. I want to be scared of what I’m creating, if only a little bit.

On that subject, I will always remember reading an interview with my favourite author, Matthew Reilly. In case you haven’t read any of his work (go fix that problem now, don’t worry, I’ll wait while you buy one of his stories), you need to know this: He kills any character. Not a single one of them is safe, no matter how important they are, and Matthew wields that power with a deftness and investment which really makes my experience reading his work superbly memorable. In one of his books, he kills a major player. It’s huge; this isn’t just killing a very important character like all those others, we’re talking “central to the setting he’s built” kind of character. In this interview, he spoke of debating over whether he could go through with it. Writing that particular death over all others he had put to paper. What it would mean to him, and to the readers, when that character is killed. He admits he had to take a break after getting the words down. But the important part was, for the story to go the right way, and for the surviving characters to face this challenge and grow, it needed to happen.

I know what it’s like now, in a surprisingly intimate way. Do I go through with this? Write this horrible event, knowing what it does to the characters, knowing how challenging it could be to readers?

You probably already know the answer.

~A

The amazing, beautiful depression of book three

Book three of The Damning Moths Anecdota was actually what started me writing the series. I’ve known certain things about this book since the moment of conception; scenes which would be integral to the overall plot. From these seeds, much of the world lore and characterisation was born.

Last night while at work, a lot of book three happened in my head. Certain key scenes in books one and two carry over emotionally into the main points of the third story. Things were just right for me to follow these scenes and understand the direction of this story arc.

This morning, as usual, I sat down to work on The Damning Moths and hunted for some appropriate music. I came across the perfect song for the culmination of last night’s ideas, a song which just broke all of my plans to edit and demanded I write this book. It isn’t just one of those “make notes and get to it later”, this is all-consuming. Depending how you see the situation, this is either awesome, or really unfortunate, because I have written a lot, but edited very little.

I’m a big believer in taking what’s offered to you; if my mind is fixed on these parts of the third book, I might as well write them. And they have come out smoothly, without effort. The setting is all there, and I have reached “Flow”. Nothing like writing completely out of order! Also, this book is depressing as hell. You’re all forewarned. Book three. I knew it would be this way, but I have had a few moments of wondering how I can possibly love my characters so much when I’m doing this to them.

I am definitely a tragedienne; the one prone to choosing tragic roles. I revel in sad music, my favourite stories kill, maim, or impossibly wound my favourite characters, and this definitely shows in my writing. There’s a lot of struggle and sadness for my characters. It all makes me love them more, though. To have them experience loss and death and their own melancholic realisations. The actions of other characters. Challenges they don’t know if they can survive. And speckled in between are the moments of light and love and happiness to contrast all the parts which make me pause, close my eyes, and feel an echo of their pain. Writing is hugely emotional, especially when the right song is on repeat for hours at a time.

With things the way they are going, I should manage to get these scenes out of my system with plenty of time left to get back to editing, and then I have all this head start on the third novel… when I am finally meant to be writing it.

~A

Integral ending

I recently read a book. I loved it; a cynical, jaded, altogether unsympathetic main character made through sharp dialogue and subtlety in action into the anti-hero you want to cheer on, even if he’s doing all the wrong things.

Then the ending happened.

I won’t say it was a bad ending. It tidied everything up neatly, took care of all the problems, and set the (remaining) characters off on their way with the right degree of this is completed, but there’s more for these people in life. Still, the ending. It niggles at me as too quick, too wrapped up. It rushed through a somewhat surprising turn and almost seemed to state, “There. All the loose ends have been taken care of. Are you satisfied?”

The answer to my imagined question is, unfortunately, no. Not really. The ended could have, and from my perspective, should have been drawn out further. The final chapter lacked the same wry interaction (largely because most of the characters died), and I felt like the protagonist began acting outside of his normal bounds, without a proper reason. Oh, sure, I know what part of the story was meant to act as the turning point, his trigger to behaving a little more compassionate. But I didn’t believe it.

Just because I can identify the when and why of this character’s motivation doesn’t mean I buy it.

Maybe that’s me being weird. Maybe it’s my background in psychology making the developments ring false. I would probably need to re-read the book, perhaps even several times, before I could pin down exactly what throws me about the ending.

Nevertheless, I’ve learnt something from this story, which I still think is pretty awesome. The ending is actually the most important part of your story. It’s the last taste we get of your characters, and the world they are in. It’s the part which will linger, because it’s the freshest in our memory. A weak ending could very easily ruin an otherwise good book.

Cue writer’s paranoia! Does my ending measure up? Have I made it too obvious and forced that all the pieces are coming together and being taken care of? Does it finish at the right pace?

It’s a wonder I’ve survived being an author as long as I have. Egad.

~A

The gift of humour

I am super lucky to have some of the best friends anyone could hope for. They appreciate my sense of humour! Who would have thought that was possible! It swings from the wildly exaggerated, to completely dead-pan (though that’s hard to translate to text), and while I certainly amuse myself, I don’t usually consider myself a funny person.

The husband is outrageously proficient in humour, and expressing it through multiple mediums. He honestly makes me laugh every day. It makes for some very interesting conversations about my writing work, though. I will express an idea or a concern I have, and he will usually recommend disarming the entire situation with something humourous. I rarely take his advice, but if we ever co-author a book like we have discussed, it will definitely feel the presence of my comedian husband.

In the meantime, we’re working on other projects together. Youtube videos and comic strips are in their respective stages of planning. Though I can’t give too many details, we also have an independent video game in production with a programmer friend, and that has a significant dose of our joint humour. It’s usually a good sign that, after our brainstorming sessions and I’ve written up all our notes, we both still find it funny later (and our programmer also gets a good laugh!).

When I read through my writing, I often come across moments of character interaction that make me grin and chuckle. Some characters are intentionally humourous, while some just have flashes of wit. The interesting part is trying to give them diverse thoughts and behaviours, and making sure that carries through well. Making a character express a sense of humour which I don’t necessarily share becomes a very interesting experience.

The single way to find out if I’ve succeeded in these endevours is to share my work with others and receive feedback on those characters. There are certain things a person just can’t judge on their own, and the presentation of the varied types of humour is definitely one of them. While I may or may not be a funny person, some of my characters definitely need to be!

~A

A step into the past

Revealing character insights is a very complicated business.

I come to a “flashback”-style moment in my book, I don’t know if I want it. Is there a better way to integrate that information? Can I make it more seamless? Or is it fine to just have the main character narrate their reminiscing? I don’t know, because I’m too close to it, I don’t have an objective opinion when I’m so deep into editing. No one else will know the answer without reading the story, but I don’t want to give it to my betas yet. It’s not ready for that read-through.

I already know that a very clever author will provide insights like the one I am debating, in a way that doesn’t disrupt the momentum of the scene. Does this flashback take too long? Does it disrupt the flow? I can’t figure it out. It seems to sit well enough, and it’s not totally unique in its delivery.

The degree and speed of which I wish to divulge information is one of those tricky things. I don’t want to dump all the character’s knowledge and feelings at the beginning of the book; there are more natural, poignant moments to reveal certain elements. But I also don’t want to take too long to establish the early motives of these characters. I don’t want it to be one of those books that someone else reads, wondering, “Why would these people do this?”. I’ve experienced that with other people’s stories, and I know I want to avoid it in mine.

I can try re-writing, or I can carry on. This won’t be the only edit the story sees, so it isn’t completely essential to figure it out right now. But it gets me all tangled.

~A