Archive for writing

writing, video project

Videos Up Now

Since I added the clips to the videos that went with the last couple of posts after I posted, here are the videos, for those who were quick on the ball to read posts before I added the video links.

The welcome and intro:

Do you really have to “kill your darlings”?

writing, video project

Kill Your Darlings

One of the most often repeated — and most misunderstood — pieces of writing advice is “you have to kill your darlings.” In other words, don’t get too close to anything in your book, and if you love something too much, it may be something you’re writing just for you, so it has to go.

But this is terrible advice if you take it that way. If you have to get rid of anything you love, then you’d be left not liking your work, and it implies that you can’t trust your own judgment.

I think this is actually a misinterpretation of the advice. A better way to think about it would be that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. In other words, you have to get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story, no matter how much you love it.

What are some darlings you may have to kill?

A big one is description. Not that description is bad, but it does tend to make it to “darling” status because description feels like real writing. We hear in writing workshops about using all the senses, and it’s easy to wax poetic and create something that feels award-worthy. In the satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the author puts asterisks by the particularly good passages of description, spoofing this tendency. The problem is when that description doesn’t fit the viewpoint character or the situation. You may have written a beautiful description of the sunset that vividly brings the image to life, but if your viewpoint character is a jaded warrior who’s been fighting or walking all day and you’re not trying to show that he has the heart of a poet or artist, then he’s probably not going to think of the sunset in eloquent, poetic terms. Or if your character is on the run for her life, she’s not going to pause and admire the beautiful sunset. It may be lovely writing and you may be proud of it, but it has to go.

Then there’s “your research is showing.” You’ve spent hours researching exactly the undergarments your character might wear and how she would put them on, so of course you want to write a scene showing your character getting dressed so you can show all your research. But all the story really needs is to mention that she got dressed. Or, really, you can assume she got dressed if no one faints when she shows up for breakfast.

Another darling that may have to go is the germ of the idea. There’s something that sparked the idea for your story or that was in what you first imagined when you started thinking about the story, but as the story develops, you may no longer need that thing in your story. I ran into this with my book Rebel Mechanics. There was a scene I had in my head before I even got the idea for this book, and I realized that this book would be a good place to put that scene. My editor wanted me to cut a big part of this scene. After I stomped around the house, griping to myself about how I couldn’t cut it because that was the whole point of the scene and it was the thing that inspired the whole book, I realized that I didn’t actually need that part of the scene, and the story worked better without it. I was clinging to it as the spark for the story, but it was a darling that had to die. I often find that scenes I dream up before I start writing don’t end up fitting in the story that I write. I may try to cram them in, but they don’t serve the story. I tend to imagine scenes of the characters hanging out and talking, and then I try to put those scenes in the book, but it turns out they don’t need to be there, even if thinking about them was a good way for me to find those characters’ voices and get to know them.

Jokes are often darlings that need to go. Something you find amusing might not work for anyone else, or it might not be truly appropriate for the story. I often find that they don’t even work for me when I’m doing the second draft.

I seldom delete any of the darlings I kill. I have a “cuts” file for each book and copy them into that file. Sometimes I get to use them elsewhere. They may be right for a different character (like the description that doesn’t fit the viewpoint character) or a different book in the series. I sometimes put cut pieces on my website. That’s a great place for those sitting around and talking scenes.

Instead of looking for darlings that you should kill, instead look for things that don’t serve your story, and then overcome your resistance to letting them go.

Here’s the video version of this post:


Cutting Away

I’m continuing to fix the beginning of this book. I’ve now cut about 30,000 words and seven chapters (in some cases, I merged two chapters after cutting a lot from each). Not only did I have the problem I mentioned before of adding unnecessary conflict to things that weren’t important to the plot, but I’ve found that I’ve been writing scenes that don’t make a lot of sense when I really look at them.

There was one nearly 4,000-word scene that I liked but that I had to admit wasn’t that important to the story. It was just two of the characters hanging out and drinking tea and becoming friends. As much as I liked it, I didn’t need 4,000 words of that, especially not at that point in the story. We can see their friendship develop later on. There was just one thing in that scene that was critical to the plot, something those characters reveal to each other, and I decided to add it to the next scene.

Then looking at that scene, I realized that these characters wouldn’t actually reveal that information to each other so soon. They have to build a bit more trust. And then it occurred to me that them not sharing that information will mean that they’re working at cross-purposes for a while, doing things that they each think will help the other, but because they haven’t opened up to each other yet, they don’t know that they’re actually getting in each other’s way. That gives me some conflict, plus there’s opportunity for some fun moments, which then will naturally lead to them opening up to each other, since the choice will be to let the other person continue making things worse while thinking they’re helping or to stay quiet and keep their secrets, and it will finally get bad enough that telling outweighs keeping the secret.

It’s funny how things that seem so obvious in retrospect aren’t so obvious in the first draft.

I’m currently wrestling with another scene, where it’s a group of people having a conversation, and I’m trying to figure out what the critical events in the scene really are. I want to keep the scene, but I need to be honest with myself about whether I really need it, if I’m just repeating old information (it’s new to the characters, but the reader already knows), and if there’s some better way to make this point. I seem to be writing a lot of “the characters sit by a fire, drinking wine/tea and talking about things” scenes — I guess I’m taking the “cozy fantasy” thing to heart. It’s a big part of the vibe of the book, but I need to be sparing about that kind of scene and only use it when I really have to.

And as I wrote this, I figured out that there are two scenes I could combine in a way that would be even more interesting, so I have just one “sitting by the fire, drinking wine and chatting” scene, and there’s some action that happens during it. It would be lovely if I could figure this stuff out before the first draft. I even outlined this book pretty heavily, but I still don’t seem to see it until I’ve gone over it a few times.


Going Pro

I’m continuing the story of how I came to be a writer. It started with telling stories in my head, and then I finally realized I could write these stories down, but it didn’t really go anywhere for a long time. I came up with story ideas and wrote first chapters, but I didn’t truly write anything until I was out of college.

I’m not entirely certain what flipped the switch and made me get serious. I think part of it was that I hated my job so much. I’d compromised about what to study in college, going for something adjacent to what I really wanted but that seemed more practical, and I hated it but wouldn’t admit that, and then I couldn’t get a job in that field and ended up in a field adjacent to that, and I was miserable, so I decided that writing would be my escape. My first real step came when I saw a notice in the newspaper about a meeting of a writing group in my city, and I went to that meeting. The group actually wasn’t much. It was mostly a “little old ladies writing poetry about their gardens” group, but at one meeting they had a novelist speaking, and she mentioned a group she was in that would be meeting the following weekend, and that was what really launched me, while also sending me off down a detour, since her group was a romance writing group.

I’d never really been a fan of romance novels, though I liked love stories in other books, loved romantic comedy movies, and thought that meant I should like romance novels. And then there was that practical thing again. There were so very many romance novels being published, and some of those publishers didn’t require agents to submit, so I thought that might be an easier way to break in, and from there I might be able to get back to my real love, fantasy. At the time, though, I didn’t know the subtle but critical difference between “I like this but I think I could do it better” and “I don’t really like this, so I’ll write something sort of like it that I do like.” (I’ve written before about the issues I have with the romance genre and how it’s different from romantic comedy movies, and that’s a whole other post. Not that the romance genre is bad. It’s just not what I’m looking for.) I thought what was going on was the first, when it was really the second, so I went to the romance group meeting and ended up getting very involved in that organization and the national organization it was part of. That was where I learned all about what it took to write a novel, how plotting actually worked, how structure worked, and other stuff like that, as well as all about the business of publishing.

Probably because of joining that group, I ended up on a mailing list that meant I received a brochure for a writing conference being held at a university in my area. It was a huge investment for me at the time, but I decided to go for it. As part of your entry fee, you got two entries into the conference’s manuscript contest. I wanted to get the most for my money, so I put together an entry for a romance novel, and then dug up one of those fantasy story ideas I’d been playing with and turned that into an entry. At the conference, I met a real editor for a romance publisher, and she invited me to submit something to her. I wasn’t able to stay for the awards banquet because of another commitment, but I went home from the conference all excited to finish that romance book I’d started for the conference. Much to my surprise, I got a call at work the following Monday telling me I’d won the contest — but in the fantasy category. Still, I wrote that romance book, since I had an editor interested, and that was the first book I finished. She rejected it, but I later sold it to another publisher, and then later I did sell a couple of books to that first publisher. The fantasy book got shelved (I dug it out last year and am reworking it). I went to the same conference the following year, and I won the fantasy contest again.

You’d think I’d have gotten the message at that point, but I started selling romance books right after that second contest win. I must have some raw talent to have managed to pull off writing something that would sell when I didn’t actually like that kind of book and I was trying to write what I wanted those books to be, but it eventually became more and more difficult for me because my editors were asking for one thing and I was giving them another, and what they wanted wasn’t at all appealing to me. I spent years banging my head against that brick wall and not selling anything until I came up with the idea for Enchanted, Inc. and got my career back on track.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d been honest with myself a lot earlier. Getting involved in the romance writers organization wasn’t bad for me because I learned so much, and there wasn’t really any other organization offering that kind of training at that time. On the other hand, if I’d figured out that I was trying to succeed at something I didn’t actually like doing and had pivoted sooner to trying to do what I liked, then I might have had a lot less frustration. Oddly enough, that first book I sold was about a writer trying to write romances and realizing that she was a fantasy writer, so I must have known on some level, but I have this weird stubborn streak. Once I set off down a path, I’m bad about clinging to it and seeing it to the end, no matter how unhappy with it I am. Sometimes, that can be good, but it can also mean spending a lot of time on the wrong path. Most of my regrets in life involve things I stuck with for far too long instead of admitting to myself that I was unhappy and letting myself change course. Most of my course corrections have been forced by outside factors. For instance, in spite of having had the plan to leave my job to write all along, and in spite of having met all my milestones for savings to be able to do so, I didn’t leave the day job until I got laid off, and that forced me to get more serious about writing.

So, that’s how I came to be a novelist, going from reader to storyteller to dabbling writer to writer on the wrong path before I finally found my real niche. And who knows where I’ll go from here.


Bogging Down

I had a grand epiphany the other day about the problem with the book I’ve been working on: I’ve been getting bogged down in trying to add conflict to stuff that’s not critical to the story. I struggle with having enough conflict in stories, so I make a conscious effort to be sure there’s conflict in each scene and that nobody gets anything easily. But sometimes you just need to move your characters into a place where things can happen.

The best analogy for what I’ve been doing is the movie Legally Blonde — the one about the California sorority girl who applies to Harvard Law School when her law school-bound boyfriend dumps her because she’s not “serious” enough. The movie is a culture clash/fish out of water story about this bubbly blonde who dresses in pink at Harvard Law, where she shakes things up and applies her skills and knowledge to be a great lawyer while also realizing that she doesn’t actually need her boyfriend.

But what if the writers of that movie got sidetracked and bogged down in the process of her getting in to law school? In the actual movie, that’s handled in a montage that shows her studying, acing the LSAT, going through the interview process, and then getting in so the story can really get going. If they had written it like what I’ve been doing, they’d have thrown conflict into that part of the story, like having some of her sorority sisters be against this plan and trying to sabotage her and her parents not approving so that she had to prove to them she could do it. There would even be obstacles that aren’t even really conflict, like her not being able to find a parking space when she went to take the LSAT so that she ended up having to run in heels from a remote spot to get to the test on time. Then during the interview process we’d see that some of the admissions committee was against her, and the other applicants were sabotaging her. If they’d done that, she wouldn’t have made it to law school until an hour and a half into a two-hour movie.

It would be a perfectly valid story to show the challenges of a formerly shallow sorority girl overcoming stereotypes and getting in to law school, with the acceptance being the happy ending, but that’s not what this story was about, so they only needed to show enough of the process for it to look at all feasible (she already had good grades and lots of extracurriculars, so she just had to prep for the LSAT and nail the interviews) and hurry along to get her to the place where the story can happen. There doesn’t need to be conflict in that part. If the movie is called Legally Blonde, we know she’s going to get in to law school, so all the conflict and tension is just stalling.

And that’s what I’ve realized I was doing. I was trying to show the full process of how it all works and what the heroine was up against while also adding conflict when the story isn’t about her getting into a certain position. It’s about what happens after she does. There are some actual issues that have to be set up, and getting into the position isn’t easy, so this isn’t entirely stuff that can happen in one chapter, but I don’t have to delve too deeply into it. I’ve cut more than 20,000 words so far. Some words may get added to the earlier chapters because there’s a subplot I have to deal with that will merge with the main plot, but still, that gets things going a lot more quickly.

I’ll mostly have to deal with it next week, since this weekend is the Nebula Awards conference. I’ve got two panels, one early Saturday and one early Sunday, and then I’ll be attending a bunch of other stuff. It’s a virtual conference, so I’ll be attending from my desk. I’ve bought snacks so I can do a proper con suite for myself and replicate the conference experience.


Fantasy Language

One thing that gets tricky about writing secondary-world fantasy set in the past is figuring out what to do about language. Since the story takes place in another world, you know the characters aren’t speaking modern English, so the author can be seen as translating the whole story so that people in our world today can read it. But how strict should that translation be? Do you go all-in and truly translate it into modern English, or do you try to keep some flavor of the time period the secondary world is based on?

For instance, the word “okay.” It didn’t come into use in our world until the 1800s, and only came into really common use in the 20th century. When I read that word in a fantasy novel set in a pre-modern setting, it throws me out of the story. And yet, if we’re going by the “it’s all being translated, anyway” idea, why not translate their word of agreement to “okay”? I don’t have an answer for this. I just try to avoid using it unless I’m writing contemporary works set in our world. Katie and Lexie say “okay,” Verity does not, and the heroine I’m currently writing doesn’t.

Then there are the things where the truth sounds wrong. For instance, “hello” is more modern than “hi.” “Hello” didn’t come into use until the 1800s when it was introduced as the way to greet people on the telephone. “Hi” dates to the middle ages and comes from an Old English word, “hy.” The Norwegian word is “hei,” and since there’s a lot of crossover between old Norse and Old English, I’m sure they’re related. But if I wrote a character in the 1600s saying “hi,” it would sound wrong and “hello” may sound right. The way I understand it, “hy” was more about getting attention than it was a greeting the way we say “hi” now.

The other tricky thing is common words that come from proper names. Like “sandwich,” which is named for a person. Can you use that term in a world where there was no Earl of Sandwich? An ottoman is named for the Ottoman Empire, which doesn’t exist in a secondary world. Does that fall under the “it’s all a translation” rule, or do you have to find another word? It’s really hard to find something else to call a sandwich without it getting awkward. The Norwegian word is smørbrød, which seems to translate literally to “butter bread,” and that doesn’t really say “sandwich” to me. And then there’s the metaphorical use of it, saying something is “sandwiched” between two other things.

Or there are words that come from technologies that don’t exist in that world. I had to stop myself from using the term “sidetracked” when my character was distracted because if there are no railroads, there shouldn’t be any concept of being sidetracked. I did once read a book set in a pre-industrial secondary world in which a character who was hiding out talked about staying under the radar, and I can’t believe the editor let that one go because that concept would have been totally foreign to the characters and I don’t think even the “it’s all a translation” idea works there.

Another issue is keeping the flavor of the language. If you’re basing your secondary world on, say, the early 17th century, you wouldn’t want to write your whole book in the style of the King James Bible if you want modern readers to actually be able to get through it. But you also wouldn’t want to translate it into language that’s too modern and casual. Your scheming prince saying, “LOL!” when something bad happens to his enemies would break the spell.

I once read an essay by someone who was a grand master in the field of fantasy complaining about a new author’s book that she thought sounded too modern and mundane (this author went on to be in the grand master category, but she was a young first-time author at the time the essay was written, so I think singling her out like that was a tacky move on the part of the more established author). She took a scene from the book in which a pair of noblemen who’d just left a council meeting were discussing the events and showed how she could change them to politicians who’d left a committee meeting by only changing the specific references. At the time I read that essay, I hadn’t read the grand master and was a fan of the newer author, so it made me mad, but even now as a reasonably experienced author, I think the grandmaster was wrong.

If you’re taking the “translated from that secondary world language for modern readers” approach, you’d stick with language that would be appropriate for the modern equivalent of the people depicted in the story. In that case, members of the royal council would equate to members of Congress, and therefore the fact that you could change the character names and titles and change “palace steps” to “Capitol steps” would be a sign that the author did it right. Where you’d have problems would be if you could change them to student council members and palace steps to school steps and it still works. Then your language might be too casual for a high fantasy.

I don’t think you need a lot of “hark” and “prithee” type language, but I think you can go too far the other way. There’s an author I’ve read recently whose characters and stories are great, but his use of language keeps taking me out of the story because he’ll have a medieval-equivalent chieftain say something like, “Okay, guys, we’ve gotta pull together on this.” Then again, that would possibly be the equivalent of a CEO in our world, and some of them do talk like that.

I don’t really have any firm answers. I just have to go by what feels right for the story, something that gives the flavor of another time and place but that’s still readable. I try to have “invisible” writing, where you don’t really notice the words. The words inject the story into your head, and you experience it that way without feeling so much like you’re reading. Part of that is using language that doesn’t draw attention to itself and that feels like a natural part of the story. I think for the book I’m working on, that will mean finding something else to call a sandwich, not letting a character get sidetracked and nobody saying “hello” or “okay.” Another author might make different decisions.

writing, movies

Seeing the Structure

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a routine of Friday and Saturday movie nights. On other nights, I don’t just sit and watch stuff. When I’m “watching” TV, I’m usually also working crossword puzzles, reading, knitting, exercising, or doing embroidery. But for movie nights, I make some popcorn, turn out the lights, and just sit and watch. It’s an exercise for my attention span and almost like meditation in that I force myself to be in the moment and just watching what’s going on.

Of course, I can’t turn off my brain entirely. I can’t help but think about what I’m watching, and I’m usually analyzing the story structure. I make note of when I start the movie and how long it is so that I can find the various story milestones and see how closely it aligns to story structure.

If you don’t want to have the way you see movies changed, don’t read beyond this. Once you see this, you may not be able to unsee it whenever you watch a movie.

I recently read a book on story structure that said at the middle of a story, you’ll find what they call a “mirror moment.” That’s a moment of self-reflection in which the hero has to face the person he is and decide what person he’s going to be. This decision is critical because it affects the way he’ll deal with the final crisis in the story. Quite often, this moment of reflection involves a literal mirror or other reflective surface.

The Middle of the Story An ordeal that’s the mid-term exam for the hero May be: First attempt at achieving story goal that fails because the hero’s flaw still holds him back Part one of achieving the goal, but the hard part is still to come A stepping stone — a smaller-scale version of what the final battle will be A false victory — the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal, but either he’s wrong or he soon loses what he achieved

But I’ve generally found that the midpoint of a story is some kind of ordeal. It’s like the midterm exam of the story. The hero can’t reach his goal at this point or the story would be over, but he may make his first attempt at reaching his goal and fail because he hasn’t yet fixed the flaw that’s holding him back. Or he may achieve part of his goal but still has something else to do. This shows up in a lot of “get the thing to the place” plots. At the midpoint he gets the thing, but he still has to get it to the place. The ordeal could be a stepping stone, an initial test that somewhat reflects the ultimate challenge but that’s a bit easier than the final challenge will be. Or the hero may think he’s achieved the goal but then turns out to be wrong about that or loses what he achieved (like Indiana Jones getting the Ark away from the Nazis after an extended midpoint action sequence, only to lose it again). In general, something big and exciting or tense happens in the middle.

So, I started tracking this when I was watching movies, and I did start noticing the mirror moment. Something that would fit the idea of facing oneself is in just about everything I’ve watched recently. It very often does involve a mirror or other reflection. There’s a moment when the hero pauses and reflects on what’s happened or on his identity and has to be totally honest with himself or someone else. But this isn’t the midpoint. I’ve been finding it at the 3/4 or 2/3 point, right before the final “battle.” The exact point depends on how long and involved the final “battle” (literal or metaphorical) is. If it’s an extended sequence and there’s a long resolution, it will be at 2/3. If it’s a fairly quick bit of conflict and there’s not a lot of wrap-up, it will be at the 3/4 mark. I’m still finding an ordeal at the midpoint.

Usually the structure goes: Midpoint ordeal, celebration (we made it! There’s often a love scene here), realization that they still have to face the hard part, big setback, mirror moment, climactic “battle” scene (may be literal or figurative battle) that’s essentially the hero’s final exam.

It’s really easy to track this in a movie. I find it a bit harder in books because time gets wonky in books. Movies take place in real time. There may be gaps between scenes, so not every movie story happens within two hours, but once a scene starts, the amount of time it takes is the amount of time it happens. A two-minute dialogue scene takes the same amount of time as a two-minute action scene. In a book, that dialogue scene that would take two minutes on the screen may take five pages, while the two-minute action scene could take two paragraphs or ten pages, depending on how detailed the description of the action is, whether it’s “they fought” or a blow-by-blow telling with thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations described.

That makes it a little harder to open a book at the midway point and find the ordeal. Then there’s the issue of multiple viewpoints, so that one character’s ordeal may or may not happen at the same time as other characters’ ordeals, depending on whether or not there are subplots. A movie is closer to a short story in structure so is less likely to have multiple braided plots. There’s one ordeal and one final “battle.” A book may have this for each character, and each character may be on a different timeline. Usually the subplots wrap up before the protagonist has his final battle, since the resolution of the secondary characters’ plots may be what leads to the final battle.

Still, this kind of structure is helpful in planning a book. I’d originally plotted the book I’ve been working on with the idea of that mirror moment coming halfway through, which is part of why I’ve been feeling like I’m slow getting into the story, but if it’s at the 2/3 or 3/4 mark, then I’m closer to being on track. Now I just have to figure out what the ordeal really is.


Writing Status Update

I’m still plugging away at the book I’ve been working on. I’ve passed what should be the halfway point, based on my targeted word count, but I’m not yet really at the midpoint of the story. Either this book is going to be a lot longer than I planned, the “midpoint” event is actually going to be at the 3/4 mark, or I’m going to have to do a lot of editing. Possibly all of the above.

I’m going to try not to worry about that for now. I’m going to just keep writing and then I’ll know after the first draft is done what I need to do in the second draft — if I’ll need all the setup scenes, if the subplots I set up early in the book will actually come to fruition or if I can cut that setup, if there’s stuff I can trim. Or I can reconsider some things and pull back to just one or two points of view and let the readers have the same amount of knowledge as the main character does instead of showing what’s really going on through other perspectives.

I feel like the book is starting to hit its stride. I’m enjoying the main characters, and the humor is starting to really come out. I hadn’t thought of this book as a comedy, but it’s got more funny stuff than I expected. I just can’t seem to help myself. But funny is good. It’s part of what I’m known for. In fact, it’s kind of a relief that funny stuff started showing up.

This book seems to be coming more slowly than usual. I’m spending the usual amount of time writing every day, but have fewer words than I usually get from that amount of time. And yet I’m also spending a lot of time planning each scene before I write it. I guess I’m having trouble translating those ideas into actual words.

I’m planning to have at least two books in this series written before I start worrying about publication, so I have no idea when it will make its way out into the world. It will depend on whether things speed up and how much revising I have to do, and then whether I can use my planned book 2 or if something else will come up. So I’ll just keep writing and see what happens.


Pacing Perception

At the end of last week, I’d reached the 1/4 of the book point, if this one is going to be the length my fantasy books usually are, and I felt like I’d only barely started to really get into the story. I wondered if the pacing was all off and this book was off to a slow start, so I reread what I’d written so far.

That reminded me that writing pace is not the same as reading pace. It had taken me weeks to write that much, and I read it in about an hour and a half—and that wasn’t even normal reading speed. I was trying not to edit as I read, but when you see a typo, you have to deal with it immediately because you might not notice it again. What feels slow as a writer because it takes you days or weeks to write may feel fast for a reader. In fact, I find that the fast-paced, action-packed scenes are the slowest to write.

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about this book. It reminds me of the meme showing a beautiful oil painting of a horse as “the book in my head” and a child’s stick-figure drawing of a horse as “the book when I try to write it.” The weird thing with this one is that the story is pretty much playing out according to what was in my head. The scenes are all there. And yet they’re somehow lacking. I think part of it is that the book in my head was like a movie trailer. I wasn’t necessarily seeing the whole scenes. I was seeing the highlights, the key moments. It skipped the parts that are necessary for getting to those moments or for getting from those moments to the next key moments.

Then there’s the fact that as I write, the book becomes even more vivid in my head, so there’s a huge disconnect with what I can put on the page. I’m bad about not getting much description in during the first draft, but even in a final draft it’s impossible to fully describe every little detail of what’s in my head. It would be a boring book if I did. The trick is figuring out exactly what needs to be described and finding ways to fit that in so that it’s not an obvious chunk of description, and even then, what’s on the page can never be as vivid as what’s in my head because it requires putting images and sensations into words.

This book is a bit different for me because it has multiple viewpoints, and each of those viewpoint characters has his or her own story. The stories will eventually meet up and mesh in the main plot, but I have to get them started separately and get them all to the main plot. If I were only dealing with one viewpoint character, like in most of my books, then the story would have moved a lot more quickly, and I’d be long past the point of the main character “crossing the threshold” into the main part of the story. But since I also have to set up the subplots with the other characters, it’s taking longer than I’m used to. I think that there’s some tension in seeing how those subplots are coming together to create a situation that’s going to hit the main character like a truck. We can see the disaster she’s heading for, but she has no idea when we’re just in her viewpoint, so it feels like her story is only just starting, but we know from seeing all the other stuff that she’s in for some trouble. I suspect this book may be a bit longer, as well.

And then there’s realizing what I’m writing. In my head, I saw it as epic fantasy, but it’s really more of a courtly intrigue and comedy of manners story. There aren’t any quests or battle scenes, just scheming and plotting and trying to cope with new situations. Part of my brain is going “this isn’t very exciting,” and I’m reminding myself that this isn’t an action-packed story.

I’m sure I’ll do some trimming in later drafts. There are some concepts I’ve had characters explain multiple times, since there are multiple people who need explanations, but the reader doesn’t need all those explanations, and I can maybe replace one or two with something like “he explained how it worked” and then move on. But then I’ll probably also be adding description and detail, so the length won’t change all that much.

writing, movies

Specific and Universal

I was surprised to see a criticism of the movie Turning Red that suggested it was too specific in its setting, that it would only appeal to the filmmaker and her friends, people of Asian descent who grew up in the early 2000s in Toronto.

I found that rather baffling because stories are supposed to be specific. The whole idea is to take something universal and put it into a specific place and time. I’m not of Chinese descent, was a pre-teen long before the early 2000s, and have never been to Toronto, and yet I related quite strongly to the characters in that movie. It reminded me so much of my seventh-grade year at a US Department of Defense school in Germany in the early 80s.

I have to wonder if this reviewer has ever seen any other Pixar movies. Last weekend, I watched the first two Toy Story movies. I am not a cowboy toy owned by a little boy, but I related to the fear of being replaced. That sort of experience comes up so often in life, like when your friends really seem to like the new kid in school and you worry you’ll lose them, when that new employee is so slick and cool that you’re worried your career is going to come to a screeching halt, when get a baby brother or sister and worry your parents will have less time for you. It’s a universal feeling put into a specific setting.

In fact, just about all stories are like that. You might be able to find a few things that are about someone exactly like you who’s experiencing something exactly like your life, but I’d think they’d be kind of boring. Why read or watch a story that’s basically about your life? We’re not space knights, superheroes, princesses, 1940s private detectives, or any of the other heroes that show up in fiction, but we can still find things about them that we can relate to.

That doesn’t mean, though, that not everyone needs to be represented or to see themselves in stories. Every so often it’s fun to find something that you relate to not only on a universal level, but also in something specific. I was in my 40s when the movie Brave came out, but it still gave me a huge thrill to see a curly-haired heroine—one who had real curly hair that acted like real curly hair, not like a straight-haired actress who’d had a curling iron waved in her general direction. Even better, she didn’t get a makeover in which she suddenly became beautiful when her hair was straightened. If that movie had existed when I was a kid, it would have had a huge impact on the way I saw myself. I think everyone needs to see themselves in stories at some point.

I suspect this writer thought the setting should have been more “universal,” like middle America. We need to get past the idea that white middle America is some kind of default that’s universal. It’s not, really. For one thing, which America? A town in the deep South isn’t the same as one in the northeast, and both are different from the midwest, which can vary depending on whether it’s north midwest or south midwest. There is no “universal” setting. I suppose the Toy Story movies do take place in some kind of generic suburban middle America, but since it’s seen through the eyes of toys, they have no real experience of the world outside Andy’s home so they have no idea where they are. Their specific world is Andy’s home.

When you try to have a generic setting with real people, you get a Hallmark Christmas movie, where they talk about the city without naming it and the small town may have a name, but you never know where this town actually is. The cars all have generic plates, if they show the license plates at all, so you can’t even tell what state they’re in. It’s just generic middle America, and it doesn’t seem like a real place. That’s the irony: the less specific you are about your setting, the less real it feels. You don’t find the universal emotions in the story when the setting feels fake. You’re more likely to relate to something in a specific setting that’s far from your personal experience because it feels more real.

This applies to made-up places, too. You need to make up a place that feels specific, like someone who grew up there could tell you exactly what it was like. Otherwise you get those generic quasi-medieval European-ish fantasy worlds.