Thursday, April 30, 2015

Weather Report

When it comes to the weather, sometimes conditions change in a hurry. The same goes for creative writing.

Four months ago, I was planning on finishing one novel this spring: Race the Sky. Then, along came a couple dozen short story ideas that went in a myriad of directions. Some of those short story ideas morphed into novel ideas, and suddenly I found myself looking at yet another trilogy idea where Race the Sky was only the opening act. Sounds great, right?

Over the past few weeks another two dozen short stories sprang to life. And, well, as creative things go, that means there is another book in there. Or two, if I am patient enough. It has no title as of yet, but there are at least 15-20 stories that will make the cut. The rough draft is about halfway done and I will likely be able to make it available in the next two to three months. Then it's back to the novel.

In some space related news, the MESSENGER mission finally ended by crashing into the planet Mercury. Back here on Earth, there was New Shepard's first test flight, which is a rocket built by Blue Origin. I hadn't heard of them until today and was surprised to find out the company is a private aerospace venture founded by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Drawing on Description Lists

Sometimes when writing a book it is easy to get stuck on a particular scene or setting. It may take a while to find the right words to describe the exact mood or feeling of the moment. Or, it may be difficult to visualize the scene before starting to write it. I seem to encounter this problem at various points in almost every manuscript, so over the years I developed a technique to overcome it. I call the technique writing up "description lists".

With any given manuscript, I can usually anticipate these problematic scenes well ahead of time. Often, it may be because I have never visited a particular location before or in some cases (such as Mars), I can't go there at all. With certain settings I can usually find images online or in books that match what I want to convey. With science fiction, though, I often have to describe technology or settings that do not exist in real life. Once in a while I can find a piece of concept art that matches the idea, but other times I have to draw multiple sketches to visualize it properly.

After finding a picture or drawing a sketch, I then write up a long list of words that describe the image. The purpose of the list is to brainstorm a vast range of ideas so that when the time comes to write the scene, the descriptions flow easier.

For example, in Fractal Standard Time, I wanted to use nanobot-generated statues that could morph on command into different shapes. I had this visual in mind of the statues of Easter Island and so I printed out a copy of the one of the images on the Wikipedia page.

Then, I wrote up a list of all the words that described the image. The list went something like this: statue, rock, pumice, tall, sloped nose, oblong ears, stare, basalt, large brow, slender face, etc.

For another novel, I had to describe a painting of a forest in late fall. Since there happened to be a group of trees just outside my window at the time, I wrote down everything related to what I saw. The list included words and phrases such as branches, bark, snow, reaching, dead sticks, squirrel, leaves hanging on, brown, rust, faded leaves, dry leaves, dead leaves, crunch, forest floor, etc. Then I wrote up a list related to the act of painting: brushes, wooden frame, stretched canvas, oils, tempera, water, palette, crunch (the sound a dried brush makes when pushed onto a surface), easel, etc.

Some lists end up being more lively than others and may even lead to metaphorical ideas. The ideal time to use this technique is before you start on the rough draft of the manuscript. That way when you arrive at the points in the story that worry you, you'll have an abundance of raw material to work with in order to shape the scene.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Thumbnail Novels

Writing and publishing a full-length novel can be a huge time investment. For me, a short novel can take over 300 hours to outline, write, and edit. That doesn't even include the time it takes to research or to test out ideas as short stories.

So today I'd like to mention a technique I've been using for years that can save a writer some time. I never had a name for it until now, but after watching these two videos from FZD Design School, I think I'll call the technique "thumbnail novels". By the way, if you have never checked out Feng's tutorials, I highly suggest it. Even though the videos are related to visual design, many of the concepts are interchangeable with the processes a writer goes through.

In one of the videos (Creating Worlds, #79), he talks about an idea generation technique that involves putting together different environments that appear to clash at first glance. Although the environments involve gaming, the concept easily applies to writing (especially science fiction and fantasy). In video #80, Mixing Surroundings, he goes further in depth but also discusses obstacles to creativity that an artist can face such as the unneeded stress that comes with thinking your work has to be perfect all the time.

Like drawing, a writer can draft quick sketches just to see whether an idea will work or not. I frequently do this through short stories, character sketches, scenes, rough novel outlines, etc. None of these sketches are ever published by themselves, but they are very useful before spending hundreds of hours on an idea only to find out there are major flaws in the characters or the plot that will take hours and hours to fix or worse, the whole thing is unworkable in the end.

For example, for my short story collection Corridors, I wrote about two dozen short stories. The settings ranged from underwater cities to Mars to a steampunk airship to a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Only fourteen stories ended up making the cut, and one of those stories became the basis for an entire series set on Mars. The rest of the stories were either incomplete, did not have enough "interesting" ideas in them, or were only made up of single scenes. Some of those ideas may never go anywhere or I may revisit them in a few years.

I went through this process again a few weeks ago and generated two dozen more short story ideas in matter of a couple of weeks. Although some of the ideas were incomplete or just too strange to pursue further, others were full stories, and a handful ended up becoming the basis for quick novel outlines. With two of the quick novel outline "sketches" I noticed several plot holes and a lack of solid character development right away. Meanwhile, I had previously developed another novel outline that was ready to go, but really needed something to make it technologically "unique".

I kept swapping ideas around (which generated another fifty handwritten pages of notes) and suddenly something clicked. When I took the characters from the well-developed novel outline and plugged them into the two other quick novel outline sketches, three completely different ideas converged together into a trilogy. I then took the wild technology from the third outline and dropped into the first book and the series became energized even further. I never anticipated that result.

So what would a quick novel outline look like?

First, I often set aside a few notebook pages for characters. I set aside space for their histories, traits, personalities, habits, etc. Then I write up another few pages for the novel theme, structure, POV, and title ideas. Then I brainstorm plot ideas, but I don't put the ideas in any particular order. Over the next few days or weeks I then plug in different ideas and may even rewrite the plot section as a basic outline. I might change the environment of the story entirely or remove old characters and put in new ones. Then, I set it aside and or, if it seems like the concept has serious momentum, I'll keep reworking the idea until it starts to come together. This whole process takes only a few hours total, as opposed to the hundreds of hours that a full novel would take. The outline at this stage is very basic, highlighting major plot points, important scene details, or changes in character development. The purpose is not to get too hung up on any particular detail because often a better idea will come along in time.

The other aspect of this technique is that it removes the pressure of trying to create something "marketable", which can work against the creative process in general. As a result, a writer may end up generating numerous ideas and then can pick the best ones to develop further. If you have ever watched any behind the scenes documentaries of movie making, especially those related to science fiction and fantasy, it's amazing to see how many concept art ideas, props, and costumes that are generated that never make it into the final movie.

I'll post more process-related ideas soon, but for now, I have more outlines that need assembling.