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Monthly Archives: October 2018

Since May I got a new job, bought a house, moved into the house, had the house kinda explode, fixed the house, moved into my new classroom, got the school year started, and have frantically been generating curriculum for my two preps (two different subjects). That has left me zero time for writing. That said, I didn’t stop doing something related to writing. Mostly, I’ve been reading.

I’ve been on this studying story structure kick for the last two years. About four years ago I became dimly aware that stories have structure beyond the stuff they teach you in middle school English class. Specifically, I think I saw some youtube videos of Dan Wells teaching a creative writing class. So I got to studying it and I read a lot of books. My favorites are by Weiland. Very useful stuff. It’s like she’s taking everything Swain said and writing it in an accessible format. So then, once I read her books 5-6 times (I’m a slow learner) I started to re-read books I’ve read a zillion times to see if I could identify the structure in the books.

First I marked them at the right percentage points, and when I read to those points, I’d stop to see if I could see what was going on as per Weiland/Swain/etc. Once I got pretty familiar with that, I didn’t mark the books. Now I can pretty well tell when something’s supposed to happen in a book, and approximately what that thing should be. Which doesn’t turn me off to reading at all! It’s actually a little exciting, like reading a mystery and guessing whodunit before the last pages. (Note: I’m not good at mysteries.)

When I was a wee tiny writer, back in the 1980s, I got into Mercedes Lackey. Pretty much everything she writes could be cataloged as young adult, even her enormous thick fantasy books. So I have read probably over 50 of her works. And I read the Valdemar stuff so much I became somewhat of an expert on them. Which made them perfect for re-reading for story structure.

Sure enough, Lackey follows story structure to a T, especially in the Valdemar books. (Not in the first Tarma/Kethry book, which I haven’t re-read, but that book is really far more like a collection of short stories set in a frame than a novel structured properly.) The Winds and Storm trilogies were quite clearly plotted out in their entirety before word one of Winds of Fate was written. And they follow the hook, inciting event, pinch points, etc. very clearly.

But I got really excited when I re-read Magic’s Pawn. The reason I got really excited is because Vanyel, the main character, is a total git. He becomes a hero and a likable character, but when he starts the series he’s a 15-16 year old boy and he’s annoying as hell. So he’s great to study for “how to write an unlikable but sympathetic character.”

Basically this is what Lackey did.

Most of the first 12%, which is where you’re supposed to do a fuck-ton of character development, is spent moping around with Vanyel at his totally unfair life. Vanyel is the eldest son of this provincial lord. The lord is actually a good lord; cares about his people, feels a sense of duty and obligation to his people; works with them at harvest; yadda yadda yadda. But Vanyel’s a skinny little twerp and Dad is homophobic to the point where, although over the series he tries very hard, he never quite loses his homophobia. So Dad is making Vanyel’s life very hard. The other reason Dad is making Vanyel’s life very hard is because Vanyel couldn’t give a shit about becoming the new lord, about helping the people, any of that. Vanyel wants to go be a musician. He wants no obligations or responsibility of any kind. And that’s driving his dad nuts, because his dad is afraid that the next lord (Vanyel) will not be good to his people.

So we spend a lot of time in Vanyel’s head, hearing about how everyone seems to hate him — though he can’t figure out why — and he’s going to show them by Not Caring as aggressively as possible. In short, Vanyel is arrogant, obnoxious to other people, irresponsible, and has no sense of duty. He’s the first as a defense mechanism, and he’s the latter two because those are the character flaws he has to overcome as his character arc in the book.

Anyway. He’s obnoxious. If we were just in Vanyel’s head, it might be easy to write him off. But Lackey does something clever. She sprinkles in scenelets from the POVs of other people on-site, people who talk about Vanyel behind his back. One of those scenes goes like this:

Kids talking in the hall

M: Why is Vanyel so obnoxious? You’d think he was King of the Country, the way he sticks his nose up around us!

R (we are told he is a wise and thoughtful kid): Well, he is obnoxious. But some of his obnoxiousness is because you-all keep picking on him. Maybe if you didn’t pick on him so much, he wouldn’t be so obnoxious.

So there we’re given a character we’re supposed to trust (R) who tells us that yeah, Vanyel really is awful, but here is where he is awful and here is where we can make an excuse for his behavior. And Lackey does this many times in the first 25% of the book. So when you have something like six different characters all having similar conversations about Vanyel, it makes it easier to see where he’s being picked on and to excuse some of his shitty behavior as a consequence.

I also found it amusing that when I was a kid, I was totally sympathetic to Vanyel. And now that I’m 43, I think Vanyel was obnoxious and I’m a tiny bit sympathetic with his dad. (Not with the homophobia thing. I’m down with the rainbow.) But that’s an aside.

Now what I want to do is look up other unlikable protags (not anti-heroes) and see how their writers honestly introduce those characters but make us want to read about them anyway. Lackey did have the advantage in that this was like Book 7 in her Valdemar series and all her readers already knew that Vanyel was going to be some massive hero. I’d like to find a book where none of that is pre-known.

In terms of writing … I wrote 25% of a book last December/January, submitted it to my crit group, and watched it get utterly destroyed. Then I had some severe problems at my last job, went job hunting, quit that job, bought the house, etc. and haven’t had a chance to restart the novel. Aside from doing the story structure work, I’ve been doing a lot of concentrated thinking about what my crit group said.

It is fucking painful to be told your work is complete crap. They were right, but it still hurt a lot. For me, when I am told something like that, I usually need to take a few months off just to work through the pain enough to see where and how my critiquers were correct. Because I know I need this time, I’m usually very polite to my critiquers. I have seen people fly into a rage, cuss out other folks, ragequit, etc. and once upon a time when I was in the pupa stage of writing I did get mad at two or three people who turned out to be totally right, so I have learned not to burn any bridges just because in the heat of the moment I think someone might be totally off-base.

So. I came up with a number of workable solutions.

I scrapped the plot almost all together. Aside from certain basics (setting, characters, etc.) the old plot is gone. I reworked some of the characteristics of some of my characters to help create a new plot. I opened a new Scrivener file and, using the index card option, laid out all five books in terms of Act 1, 2, and 3, then really thought about what I needed to have in this book (I’m writing Book 2) and, therefore, what sorts of scenes I needed. And then I rebuilt a basic plot.

Something about one of my significant male characters has been bothering me for years. His inner wound has to do with his sister and mother, and for the past 3 years of my working on this project, something bad happened to his sister and this created X mode of thinking in him. I didn’t like that. It’s lazy writing. Basically, sister was a “Disposable Woman” [warning: TVTropes is a rabbit hole and you can get lost down it for hours. Click the link at your own risk]. And when a girl gets hurt a lot in order to create angst in a male character … ugh. Knock some points off my Feminist Cred score card for that.

So it’s been bugging me for a long time that his character was set up that way, but I need him to have this particular point of view and react in a particular way to certain events in Book 3, so I didn’t see any way around it. But then, last night, it came to me: Why not have the bad thing happen to him? And then the person doing the bad thing wanted to move on to the sister, but was blocked by Male Character. So, ultimately, nothing bad happens to the sister, and she’s fine, and he still gets to feel like shit. Yay! The “react in a certain way” will be harder to pull off, but I think I can do it, AND this gives me a whole new set of problems to put him through. Problems that will make him obnoxious and irritating to my protag, which is what I wanted in the first place. Since Male Character is one of the antags in this book. (He becomes a protag in Book 3. Antags aren’t necessarily villains. The villain is a vampire.)

So I sat down at my computer last night, said “the hell with grading!” and hacked out 600+ words. And it felt so good to be writing again. I have a better idea of what I should be doing, and putting words on the “page” is always a nice feeling. I’m hoping that, by the time I’m done with this series, I’ll finally be good enough to write something publishable.

I do like starting paragraphs with the word ‘so,’ don’t I?

Also, Chuck Wendig’s book Damn Fine Story is a good read.