For those wondering, the first draft of my urban fantasy novella, currently titled “Red,” comes due on Wednesday, which has had me a little distracted on the blogging front. The next three weeks may be a bit spotty as my semester wraps up, but I hope that more-regular updates will resume shortly.
Monthly Archives: April 2010
My dad told me today that George H. Scithers, a longtime Philadelphian, and former editor of Weird Tales Magazine among others, died yesterday. He had a bum ticker. So it goes. My dad worked for him back in the days of Amazing Stories. He called me a little sprout, even though the last time I saw him, sometime during high school, I was more than a head taller than him. His house in west Philly, when he still lived there, was the kind of house you would imagine a science fiction editor to live in. The study was lined with books and had one of those enormous desks with a green blotter, the kind of desk which belongs to a room like that. He had an old telephone that hung on a wall somewhere in his house; it had a crank on the side and an earpiece which you took off of a hook and held to your ear, the whole deal.
George gave me my start as a writer, sort of. Back when I began writing, I sent one of my stories to Weird Tales, this was back when he was head editor there, and he called me up to tell me that, while my story was “damn good,” it had a number of flaws, which he then explained to me. When I sent a new draft of the same piece, he sent it back to me all marked up. He believed in me, and believed that I couldn’t be turning out bad if I had a plush Cthulhu in my car.
Though I never got to know him too well as one professional to another, I will miss him.
I realize that it has been far too long since I have posted an update on the status of work on project Red, but in some ways that’s good news. The time that I could have been using to blog about writing the story, I’ve actually been using to write the damn thing. As of this writing, I’ve passed the 8000-word mark of the first draft, and still have a long way to go.
I want to take some time to talk about structure in this post, in part because I think its’ quite important to Red. Structure is one of the elements which I often think about a lot before I start writing a story. For Red in particular, when ideas for the story began to gel in my head, using a three-act structure leaped to the forefront of my mind as the right decision for the piece. Since Red is working out to be a novella, I wanted some way to divide it into more manageable chunks besides just having scene-breaks. The plot, which I don’t want to give away too much of yet, lends itself nicely to being explicitly split up into three acts, I – The Lock, II – The Key, and III – Hodmimir, with each part encompassing one of the three acts, while still having its own small plot-arc.
Why do I think of structure during the planning-phase of my stories? Largely, it helps me envision how the story as a whole will flow and lets me figure out the pacing of the piece. Knowing the structure of a story also helps in post-production for figuring out which parts of a story need to be cut, changed, or rearranged.
Returning to Red, I want to say a few more words about using a three-act structure in a large piece like this one. In a large piece, it can be hard to keep readers focused just on the overarching plot of the piece, especially when a single act enters the territory of novelette in terms of sheer length. For act one of Red, the rising action, the full plot has not yet been revealed to readers or players, though it is hinted at. This has the potential to drag if that’s all that’s happening, so it’s important to give the act its own subplots, which can then carry through the work as added enticement for readers to continue to the end. In the case of act one of Red, this subplot comes in the form of a romantic interest for the main character, Erik.
This romantic interest isn’t just there for filler, though she wasn’t anywhere in the outline and just popped onto the page as I worked through the first act. In fact, though I hadn’t consciously considered her before she made the page, she looks to help support some of the rising action leading towards the end of the first act and eventually the climax (hur hur hur hur hur, laugh it up, this is an urban fantasy after all).
Now I know that I’ve been throwing around the phrase “three-act structure” a lot without fully explaining it. Rather than try, after midnight on a Saturday/Sunday, to explain, drawing this post out past its original purpose, I will simply point you to this episode of Writing Excuses for a good working definition of what I’ve been talking about.
I find that when I write, I’ll often come up with phrases, sentences, and images which I really like a lot, but which don’t fit at all with what I’m writing. Likewise, I find that sometimes I’ve written something that’s total crap, or that just doesn’t work for some reason. In both cases, I get rid of the things that aren’t appropriate to the piece that I’m writing, but I don’t just delete those things, especially in the first case where I’m enamored of something that I’ve written.
The only instance when you have wasted your time writing something is that case in which you delete what you’ve written. For this reason, I try not to get rid of anything that I’ve written, even if that thing doesn’t fit at the moment. Instead, I have lots of plain-text files with scraps belonging to different pieces. Often, I don’t revisit these things because they’re just crap, but sometimes there’s something worthwhile buried in all those lines of text, and I don’t want to risk deleting something useful.
In this age of single-spindle terabyte hard drives, it’s not a big deal to keep around a couple dozen text files with unused writing, especially since plain-text files are tiny. A page of text, composed of two abandoned beginnings to one of my stories takes up five kilobytes. A few notes about a story idea takes up maybe one whole kilobyte. It would take one thousand such files to fill a megabyte on your hard drive.
In a similar vein, I’m an advocate of keeping previous drafts of things that you write. I’ve found in the past that, in the course of several drafts, I’ve taken things out which really didn’t need to be taken out, and without hard-copies of previous drafts of a piece, those things would be lost.
Lesson? Keep everything that you write, even if you don’t like it. At worst, it will sit around taking up almost no space. At best, you’ll find that you’ve written something that comes in useful later.
Usually, unless I’m writing strict realism, I need to know some things about the world which my story is going to inhabit before I can begin to write. I don’t need to know everything about the world–I’ve tried writing pages and pages about a world before, and I’ve not gotten past page one on that project–just what aspects of the world will drive my characters.
When I conceived of the pillar of locks which has become the, er, pillar upon which this project stands, I knew that it contained some immense power which would be much sought after, but I didn’t for the longest time know what that power would be. This was a major sticking-point for a while, until it came to me that I didn’t have to invent brand new mythology when there already existed perfectly good myths which I could borrow and twist to my own purposes.
I was raised with d’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants, so Norse mythology seeped into my consciousness from an early age. It was natural, therefore, for aspects of Norse mythology and cosmology to spring to my mind when thinking about where I might borrow from.
From there, it was just a short jump to Yggdrasil, the world tree. At the foot of the world tree, the Norns spin the threads of all life, weaving the fates of men and gods. What could be more sought after than control over the fate of all the world?
Following my inclination towards Norse mythology also informed the current title of the project, Red, a reference to Lief Erikson’s father, Erik the Red. That also led my mind down some paths which I have since abandoned, but at this point, the title has stuck in my mind quite firmly (a good title is hard to come by in my experience as a writer), and has in some ways become apt again, though in different ways.
With some firm background in mind, my next step is to work on characters, who are, after all, the driving force behind good stories.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m working on a novella for one of my classes this semester. Now that it’s April, I have less than a month to finish, and there’s a lot to do. In the past week, I’ve been scrawling notes wherever I can find space whenever I’ve had half a chance.
As with so many stories, this project began when I thought of a MacGuffin. The object, in this case, is a key. For the sake of full disclosure, the first idea popped into my head while I was watching a James Bond movie over my winter break, but the story has nothing at all to do with James Bond. I promise.
What I thought was, what if there were a big pillar in the middle of a city? What if this pillar had a number, seven’s a good number, of locks or doors in it? What if those locks concealed some great power? What if there were a character who possessed one of the keys? If such things were true, many people would try to find the remaining keys to access that power.
My next thought was, I could throw in some airships and ornithopters and shit; those things are awesome. Later, I decided that I couldn’t do that for reasons which will be revealed later, but I stuck with the airships idea for a long while.
For a few months, I sat on these initial ideas, not knowing quite what to do with them, but really wanting to do something awesome. I thought about a collection of stories. I thought about just doing one short story. I thought a lot, but I couldn’t come up with anything I thought I could make amazing. Then, I found out that I would be writing a novella, and things started to gel.
As things have started coming together in my head, I’ve been asking myself more questions, so that my notes sometimes resemble a conversation which I have with myself. When brainstorming, I try to think of as many questions as possible which my readers might ask if I were to show them an early draft of a story. In this way, I try to make my story as tight as possible in its first draft so that subsequent drafts get closer to a finished, publishable piece faster. These questions are also one of the methods I use to try to combat slacking when I start actually writing the piece; the more questions I answer before “once upon a time,” the fewer places I’ll find that trip me up.
Please watch this space in the weeks leading up to the 26th for more updates on the status of the piece as I flesh out my ideas and begin to write in earnest.
Though this doesn’t quite fall within the traditional bounds of urban fantasy, I thought it worth mentioning anyway that I have a piece of fiction upcoming in the spring issue of Warren Wilson’s literary magazine, The Peal. If you aren’t a Wilson student, or if you are and just want a sneak peek at the piece, you can read it over at my website.