Monday, February 22, 2010

An Inspired Day

Today was all about getting things done: cleaning off some desk space, taking out the trash, following up on things I've let slip lately. I was expecting it would be a writing day, too -- I figure getting things done earns me a stretch of uninterrupted creativity, and I was looking forward to it. Ideas have been buzzing in my head lately.

But to my surprise, I couldn't get myself typing. Sitting at the computer, staring at the screen, rattling the keys, all of it felt like the wrong approach today. So instead, I stretched out in the sunlight, with fresh air blowing in through the windows, and started drawing. Pencils first, starting with the lightest 4H scratches until I had an idea of what I was putting down, then working my way up through the ranks of my Staedler-Mars box. As soon as my hands realised they had a reprieve from typing, they became exceedingly cooperative. The old strokes, lines and curves came back to me through the fingertips of memory. An hour or so later, I had a Stuff of Legends comic strip ready to be inked. This evening, the inks are dry, and two more pencil drafts are ready for their turn.

Tomorrow, I'll be back to the keyboard (I had to bargain with my hands for a blog post today; the rest of this comic strip story-arc will be hand-lettered instead of machine-done). The comic strip (of which I include a sample here) will appear over at the Comic Genesis site, and most likely I'll be working head-first whether I'm drawing or writing.

But some days, it does feel good to let inspiration take you by the hands.


PS: Publishers Weekly ran an article about the ABNA Contest; I'm quoted in it, if you're interested in such things.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's late and I'm tired... today's post is simply a link to an aptly-named podcast I enjoy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Rant, Because I Haven't Done One Yet

I found these linked on Neil Gaiman's blog:

There's some good advice in there about how to write, the best of which (in my mind) boils down to "Write". What I don't like is when advice gets set down as Rules. Writing isn't a game, and there is no all-hallowed Book of the Laws; you win no points for every page you complete without the use of adverbs, and your book will not be the subject of an exorcism for excessive description.

Now, before I go any further, I will clarify: I'm not talking about how to get writing published, or how to write better (which I define as writing for clarity of intent, for the greatest level of literary telepathy between author and reader). Those things, I'm still learning, and there may yet be gold-lettered Rules on iron tablets somewhere. But in the act of writing itself, there are no rules, only guidelines and suggestions, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

To be a writer, you sit down (or stand up, or lie down -- your choice) and write. Pen, paper, keyboard, typewriter, it doesn't matter -- your real tools are words (learn as many as you can, their meanings, uses and implications) and ideas. Find a coherent path from beginning to end and tell that story. That's it. Put aside any other worries about whether you're doing it right, and tell the story. Once the first draft is down in words, and likely the second and third drafts after it, then would be the time to start thinking about your favourite author's tips and tricks, or the house style of your ideal publisher, or the literary trends of the current era.

And I do mean, think about them. Understand and acknowledge why these writers, or readers, or editors make their suggestions or injunctions. Early drafts exist to be improved, and (to come full circle) there is a lot of good advice out there.

But don't just blindly follow the Rules, and don't let a fear of doing something wrong stop you from getting that first draft written.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Story Skeletons

The weather, though much improved, continues to be over me, and so my quills continue to be more DayQuil than ink-dipped. When I'm writing stuff like that, I know I shouldn't be working on any of my real writing. So, instead, you get me here on the blog.

Today, a glimpse of the bones beneath Stuff of Legends. If you've read the comic, you've already seen a bit of it. No, not the characters or the backstory -- I mean the outline. Turned sideways, it was the background for the last series of strips, starting here.

I work a lot on outlines before I start to write. It's a fairly new development, after a lot of years of improv-writing that started strong and went nowhere, but I'm hooked on it now. I start with a one-paragraph outline -- who are the characters, what do they want, what gets in their way, what do they do to overcome it.

  • Eliott wants to have an adventure with Jordan, but Jordan is retired, so Eliott teams up with Jordan's old agent, Glister, to force an adventure on Jordan.
From there it expands. How can I give it an act-structure? What would be a really cool scene to write? Most importantly, how does it begin and end? I do this a few times, each one in a fresh text file or on a new, blank page, re-writing everything each time, until the outline is a page or two long. By this time, most of the characters have appeared, and the scenes I'm looking forward to writing -- there'll be a dragon, and side-track through a forest that involves goblins -- and I have a clear idea of where the story starts and what the individual and overall resolutions are. Some bits are still vague -- "Jordan nearly gets to fight the dragon, but it escapes" -- but even if I don't know exactly what happens, I still know there's a scene there I'll have to write. If a line of dialogue has jumped out at me, I bracket it and put it in -- Eliott meets Jordan ("I want to be just like you!").

The next phase is, again, an expansion, but this time I'm splitting my outline up into what I imagine will be chapter breaks. I'm frequently wrong, and the breaks dance like amoebae at a jazz club, but they're a good starting place. Each would-be chapter gets its own paragraph, with as much detail as I can assign to it. Some fill out because of the scenes I want to write, some balloon into being because I'm rushing too quickly from one scene to the next.

Once the chapters are established, I finally begin to write. Because everything is laid out in front of me, I usually pick a scene that sounds like fun and start from there; the first thing I wrote in Stuff of Legends was what is now Chapter 5, in Glister Starmacher's office. A now-cut introduction scene before Eliott appeared in Chapter 1 came soon after. The flesh grew onto the bones in bits and pieces, wherever caught my interest on a given day.

Having a solid structure provides me the freedom to write non-sequentially, and lets me imagine my novel as a sort of reverse-zombie. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Language of Fantasy

First, a warning: I've come down with an obnoxious head-cold, and anything I write is already labouring through DayQuil and the stuff of sinuses. Take it all with two grains of salt, and I'll proof-read it in the morning.

One of the last pieces of editing I did was in response to my editor querying if a line of dialogue, spoken by the leader of a pack of goblins, was still in Goblin, or if he had switched languages. This gave me a bit of difficulty, because while I knew what language the goblin was using, I didn't want to come right out and name it. As I've said before, Stuff of Legends is set in a medieval pseudo-Europe, a place where real dragons and wizards exist alongside the legends of Charlemagne and Atlantis, and the characters are more likely to vacation in the south of Spain (I hear it's lovely) than in the starlit fields of FantasmoriƩn or Ulth (of which I know little). The problem with this is, it's hard to convince people that, if there even is a common language in this pseudo-Europe, it's not English or (Tolkien-forbid) Common. French or Latin, possibly, but what would you think if, halfway through the book, I dropped it on you that everyone had been speaking French this whole time? I don't want anyone to be abruptly pulled out of the story by having to think about the languages.

Because the language the goblin is speaking as he barters with Cyral, the language everyone speaks, is the one you hear in your head. Headish is the universal language of readers, the default for all fantasy speech, and in my opinion, the less attention paid to it, the better.

My trick, in the end, was to tag the goblin's speech as "a passable mimic of Cyral's own voice and dialect", which I think successfully dodges the issue. Now, hopefully, by the time you're reading Stuff of Legends, you'll have forgotten all about this post, and won't get distracted by wondering if that dialect is French.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Love of Words

I received a gift today: a brand-new, 15th edition, Chicago Manual of Style. I may not be online as much for the next few days.

I've spent many happy hours browsing the Q & A section of CMS Online -- I highly recommend it for insight, technical expertise, and dry wit.

Happy Valentines' Day to all, or for those who prefer, Happy Day-Before-Cheap-Chocolate. (If you don't like chocolate or Valentine's Day, then have a Happy Day, because we all need more of those regardless of calendar date.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Whose Head Am I In, Anyway?

Lately, I've been reading samples of writing from other peoples -- friends and acquaintances and that strange demographic of hopeful new writers who think I can offer helpful advice -- and I'm fascinated by how many people start off with an obscured narrator. The first character I'm introduced to is simply "He" or "She", or an undefined subject such as, "With the sun coming up, all that was left to do was hide the body." And this can stretch out for paragraphs, even pages, without giving me anything as solid as a name to latch on to.

Now, as a style choice, I won't say it doesn't work -- I picture it like a cinematic sequence, where the camera avoids the actor's face. I see his boots, the back of his head, the crowd moving around him, animals reacting to his presence, but I have no idea who he is yet. It puts me in mind of assassination plots and thrillers -- the longer I read without learning a character's name, the longer I assume there's a reason it's being concealed from me, that this is a ghost or a spy, and very likely the scene will end with a muted gunshot -- pvvvft.

What I will say, though, is that the technique doesn't work for me. I need to put a name to my characters, and I need to get it onto the page early on. I want to know in the first paragraph whose eyes I'm borrowing when I'm reading or writing about the scenery. If at all possible, I want to slip in a few physical details in the first page, especially if my focal character is an elf or a dwarf or a seven-eyed spider-rabbit -- it doesn't need to be a self-examination in a full-length mirror, but at least give me a hint (the best writing, in my opinion, includes these details so subtly that I'm not even aware of them until afterward, when I suddenly wonder why my mental image of the character is what it is).

I'll throw this out to everyone reading: Do you ever write with an intentionally obscured narrator? Does the technique work for you, as a writer or a reader? How long do you let the opening of your work go on before you introduce the character from whose point of view you'll be telling the rest of the story/chapter/scene?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sir Not Appearing In This Book

As I'm feeling a bit under the weather today, and my brain is slightly fuzzy, I won't try to impart any useful information about being an author or getting published -- you have been warned. Instead, I'm going to ramble about two characters who didn't make it from the webcomic into the novel -- two of my favourite characters, who I was sad not to be able to make room for: Bard the bard, and Alec James of the Physicians' Guild.

When I originally wrote Stuff of Legends as a webcomic, it was an ensemble piece. The early strips are just Jordan and Eliott, but all the characters were there -- Kess, Alec, Bard, even Glister (though not Cyral... more on him later). I found the characters as I discovered how to draw them, feeling out their personalities as I worked out straight or curved lines; how their hair fell; the shape of their noses. By the time I drew the first strip, I already had the lead five planned out and knew how they'd play off each other. By the time Cyranan de Bergerat had added his smug piccolo to the strip, I couldn't imagine working without the harmony of all their voices.

But the novel needed a different balance, and six was more than a crowd.

I knew the story was going to be about Jordan the Red and his relationship with Eliott, so they had to be there. Kess, as Eliott's magical helper (don't get me started on "the Monomyth"), had to be there to set things in motion -- and originally, that was going to be it. Those three voices, in a love-triangle not with each other but with the ideas of stories and adventure. I was deep into the third draft of the outline before I discovered that I needed a fourth voice, a snarky professional to balance the triangle when Jordan the Red stepped away from it. I almost brought Alec James back to fill that role.

Now, Bard the bard, I'd excluded almost as soon as I thought of converting the comic to a prose novel. A character whose gimmick was that he was incomprehensible to everyone around him (including the readers), who was at once feral and street-wise, and who generally lived in his own substitute reality, struck me as too much of a challenge -- and too much of an infringement on a certain bibliophile orangutan. Since then, I have thought of at least two possible ways to deal with his mumbling, and a fairly nebulous idea for a story about his journey back from the Entertainers' Guild to his adoptive yeti parents in the pseudo-Himalayas, but that's getting ahead of myself.

Without Bard, Alec James was only half of an odd couple. He didn't fit in as novel-Eliott's personal physician, and no one else seemed in need of a doctor. What he did have was a dry sense of humour and an attitude towards his job that was six parts grudge to four parts defiance of anyone trying to stop him from doing that job. So, like the good doctor he was, he became a personality donor for the one major character created new for the novel, the freshly-minted bard, Cyral Gideon. Cyral is my Frankenstein's monster of a character, when I look at him closely (or as Alec would suggest, dissect him). His first name, and most of his physical traits come from Cyranan de Bergerat. His personality is stitched together from Alec James and several 18th century explorers I'd researched for an earlier (abandoned) novel, with a dash of the previously-hinted-at Cyrano de Bergerac in his melancholy. His face is borrowed from Keats. His last name is a nod to Gideon Spilett of Mysterious Island.

Despite the excision of Alec and Bard from the key cast of the novel, however, I couldn't resist slipping them each in for a cameo appearance. They're still in the adjusted universe of Stuff of Legends, and in due time, their story will be told.

This has gone much longer than planned -- I did warn you it would be a ramble -- but I'll end it with what may be an authorial tip after all: like the "Little Darling" phrases that so often need to be cut out of a manuscript, if something isn't working in a story, don't be afraid to remove a favourite character. Some harmonies are better with fewer voices.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

These Things Don't Write Themselves

Another element of the business of turning words into a shelf-occupant has been revealed to me recently: getting the cover blurbs. I'm not sure what magic I'd thought caused these wondrous commentaries to appear on back covers -- perhaps, in my naive imagination, famous authors and critics spend their free days wandering through quaint, cramped book-repositories until some imp of serendipity pushes an unsung novel off the shelf; the author seizes upon it, reads it, falls in love with the words and simply must write to the publisher of such a jewel, singing its praises.

Apparently not. If there are such imps, they are firmly in the employ of my publishers, and they work very hard to get the blurbs. "Approach" is the word my editor uses: she's going to approach a number of authors on her list. We'll try to make contact. We'll see what a certain highly-recognizable-name author might be willing to provide. The amount of networking going on behind the scenes to garner the quotes I've previously taken for granted is daunting, and I'm certain that I'm seeing only the smallest fraction of that work. I'll be receiving some copies of Stuff of Legends in pre-galley form (we're apparently in a rush) to distribute myself, which makes me regret not having a close circle of author-friends to call on for blurbs. I fear I'm not going to be help at this stage, unless I can find a bottle with one of those imps in it...

On the more creative side of things, last night I believe I found the key to the opening scene of my sequel: re-telling the epilogue of Stuff of Legends, from Kess's perspective as she re-visits those events in a lucid elf-dream. Personal moment of literary satisfaction: re-using the same line of dialogue with a completely changed meaning by framing it differently within the dream. I have no idea if this conceit will survive to the second draft, but it's good enough to keep me running, and to quote Jordan the Red, "it's working for now, and now's all that matters."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Funny Fantasy

This morning was business: redrafting the look of my website over at Comic Genesis, posting on forums, getting my name and my book a little bit farther out there into the web-consciousness. It's not as much fun as sitting down with Kess and Eliott and plotting out their ongoing adventures, but it's all part of the process.

One of my posts was in a thread about comedy writing on the ABNA discussion boards, where I described Stuff of Legends as "funny fantasy", which I'm told is the correct term for that odd fantasy/humour hybrid where someone getting eaten by a dragon makes you laugh. This made me think about my automatic assumption that everyone who reads this blog or hears me refer to Stuff of Legends knows that it's both of those things -- because, hey, I know everything about this book, so of course you do, too.

Silly, silly author.

So, for the record and pending an official cover blurb, Stuff of Legends is a satirical fantasy about heroism and celebrity, in a pseudo-Europe-ish world where sword-swinging dragon slayers not only defeat demon armies but also have their deeds orchestrated and marketed by talent agents and bards. Jordan the Red was one of these heroes, until he retired and went into hiding. Twenty years later, his past catches up with him in the form of fifteen-year-old Eliott, his greatest fan, who brings Jordan back to the attention of his agent, Glister Starmacher. With Eliott's best friend and former babysitter, Kess, and newly-certified bard Cyral Gideon along for the ride, Jordan must once again defeat evil wizards and dragons, this time to save the very people responsible for creating his legend in the first place.

I hope you'll laugh at the dragon.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An Introduction

Today, I sent what I believe will be the final draft of my first novel, Stuff of Legends, to my editor. Six months from now, I will be published. The reality of this is still sinking in -- characters I first created as sketchy doodles and a story I jotted down in three paragraphs one lunch hour will be sharing shelf space with Tolkien's hobbits, Terry Pratchett's wizards, and George R.R. Martin's sellswords. I will be able to open a crisp, trade paperback copy of Stuff of Legends and breathe in that new book smell.

This blog will be about that experience, and the path that has brought Stuff of Legends -- and me -- from idea to publication. I'll be writing about the technical aspects when those are at the forefront of my thoughts, and about the creative process and the wild ideas that tumble over the waterwheel of my brain during the long stretches where I'm not actively needed in the publication process. I'll try to answer questions, if this blog draws an inquiring audience. I may even post some of the sketches, doodles, and pseudo-strips I used as writing tools during my first drafts, though those will be back at the original home of Stuff of Legends: the webcomic, back at Comic Genesis.

I'll end with a Publication Process Quote of the Day, this one from my editor: "I think that's it."

Sincerely, your scribe,

~Ian Gibson