Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memories and Their Triggers

What triggers your memories?  Not just the "now why did I walk into the kitchen?" kind of memories, but the other kind, the "star-shaped shortbread cookies Mom made at Christmas with the thimbleful of jam in the center and the silver ball sparkles that were so hard you thought your teeth would break" kind of memories.

In order to trigger memories, we have to have both triggers and... memories!  Our characters have to have both too, and it's just as unacceptable for us to make up memories for our characters as for ourselves.  Memories aren't always convenient.  They aren't always correct either.  Sometimes they intrude when something else with a much higher priority deserves our attention, like you're about to press lips with someone, and a scent takes you away to humid summer evenings playing freeze-tag in the neighbors yard by the lilac trees.  Not good for the lips.

Sometimes characters in books seem to have memories conveniently manufactured for them.  They come across as part of a package of canned responses, and make for flat, lifeless, and fake characters.  The triggers can seem pretty bad too, sometimes, but I have a harder time finding fault with the triggers.  I know that anything can trigger any memory at any time, and yet, some things consistently trigger the same memory every time.

Some writers make character dossiers (I haven't felt the need, yet), but I've never heard of people putting memories into them.  Sure, they'll put key and/or traumatic events from a characters past in their dossier, but I don't think that's enough.  Memories are not events, they're not history, they're not objective truth.  But memories are keys to who we are, and therefore keys to our characters.

Knowing a character's memories doesn't tell you who they are -- if I told you a bunch of my memories, you wouldn't "know who I am."  But it would give at least the illusion of a better understanding.  Knowing a character's memories makes those characters more real.  It proves they have a past.  At the deepest level.  What memory pops to the surface in a given context can reassure a reader, astound them, make them suspect the characters true motivations....

Maybe those memories should be figured out in advance, so they're meaningful and not too "convenient" (and therefore false-appearing).  I'm treading a fine line here.  Figuring out a character's memories ahead of time sounds way too "plotty" to me.  If your characters come alive to you, then they have their own memories already.  Ask them what memories they have that you can use to tell their story. Then you need to watch for (and have the scene / setting / other characters, provide) triggers, so their memories bubble up in a normal organic way, just the way your characters do everything else naturally.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pantser / Plotter / Pitcher

My first novel was written by the seat-of-the-pants.  I had a wonderful time writing it, but I was never able to create a one-sentence pitch for it.  Maybe I'll be able to remedy that someday, but that day is not today.

In order to prevent that from happening to me again, I decided to try plotting out my next novel.  It's more economical to write a few pages of outline and then try to create the pitch:  if I can't write an enticing pitch, then I can start over without losing much work.

There are a whole raft of reasons why I'm uncomfortable with plotting, but all of them have been overridden by the completion of a pantsed novel that "just doesn't work" (doesn't work yet!).  The characters, actions, and conversations all worked well in pantser mode.  Even the character arcs worked, and I think it was at least in part because the story grew organically.  The point is I doubt I could have come up with the good parts of that first novel in advance.

Maybe I doubt too much.

But now I'm plotting, and at the outline stage, at least, my characters and my story seem to hold together.  It all seems real.  As far as it goes.  And of course I have my pitch.  I also have a problem.

My hero is driven by things in his past, things I've figured out and written down.  The villain has things driving her, too, but I'm a little stuck trying to determine why she thinks and behaves the devious way she does.  Well... actually that's not true -- she's devious because of what she wants, but I'm having trouble figuring out how she came to desire this particular thing.  If I was pantsing it, I'd just ignore the question, and when it came out in the story, something would turn up.  Something unexpected.  Something scary, maybe.  Something "right."

And the story would turn away from any vague plan I might have had for it; it could well become unpitchable.

I know I have some wiggle-room in my outline.  The outline's not overly detailed, and it can certainly change as I write the ms, but every time it changes I'll need to be very careful that the resulting story remains pitchable.  On my first novel, I actually wrote a six-page synopsis before I began, which fell by the wayside almost before I was done with the first chapter....

It's a good thing I enjoy the process, otherwise the thought of writing another entire ms that could go nowhere might prevent me from making the attempt (though if I wasn't willing to take the risk, I probably wouldn't have started writing in the first place).  Reservations aside, I have to give the plotting a fair try.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Consistency of Application (Not)

To accomplish something as ambitious as writing a novel, you have to be committed:  your thoughts, your energies, your time.

I've got to make this post short, since I'm out of town right now, and am typing on a regular keyboard (which I can't use for too long without aggravating my arthritis).

I wrote about commitment back in February, but since then I've fallen off the commitment wagon.  I have become under-committed, de-committed, un-committed, anti-committed, pre-committed.  I haven't been working on my writing every day the way I should be.

Shame on me!

Okay, we all have to learn from our mistakes and stay positive in the face of failure and back-sliding, so enough wallowing and self-flagellation.    I'll get cracking again as soon as I get home to my happy-keyboard.  No, that's really not procrastination -- I need that keyboard.  In the meantime I'll use my writing time to figure out the plot conundrum my new novel is trying to block me with.

Happy trails and tales to you....

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Flexibility for Writers

An author must be willing to be flexible.
An author must be willing to be tenacious. 

The word flexibility comes from the Latin flectere, meaning to bend.  If you don't bend, then when enough force is applied you break.  But the definition of flexibility also encompasses the concept of repeated bending without injury.  In this life we're not asked (or persuaded, or pushed, or compelled, or forced) to bend just once.  No, we have to do it over and over again.  Writers risk injury -- emotional injury -- if they're inflexible, but they also risk it every time they bend.

Emotional injury sounds bad, but that's not so.  This type of injury is completely within our own power to allow or disallow.  Not that wounded pride, or the loss of your sense of personal worth is easy to prevent, but no one can do these things to you but yourself.  A thief can't break into your car, grab an armload of self-worth and make off with it because it's not that kind of a thing.  You make it for yourself, and it's never taken from you -- you choose to give it up.  You're not even giving it to anyone else, you're just dropping it in the wastebasket.

Why would you ever do that?  Why would you choose to reduce yourself?  Most of us don't choose at all because we miss the moment of choice.  All too easily, that moment can fly by without our noticing, without our acting.  We choose loss by default, and it diminishes us.

Open yourself up to your choice.  When a character does something that you didn't anticipate, what should your response be?  When your story takes a sudden turn and you have no idea how it's going to turn out, what do you do?  When early reader feedback conflicts with your understanding of your story, what is your path forward?  When an agent or editor requests revisions that reach deep into the soul of your novel, how do you deal with it after you stop screaming?

The most important thing is to think, to decide.  It doesn't have to be an overtly rational decision -- it's okay to use your intuition or your gut.  Honor the request, refuse, or work toward a compromise; however you respond, do it consciously.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Know Your Tools: Speech Recognition Software

Writers rely on technology to get their work done.  The technology could be a ballpoint pen or a computer running a word processor program.  This week I'm going to talk about speech recognition software.

Everyone thinks they can write a book.  I happen to agree:  they can write a book.  Maybe not a good one, but they can write a book.  But they won't.  Most of them will never get started.

I've met a couple of people who think that all that scribbling or typing is too much effort, and that having the computer write what they say will expose their inner author.  Nice thought.  Doesn't work that way, though.
Voice recognition software has come a long way, and is getting better every year.  What you need to write a novel is something called continuous speech recognition, something like Dragon Naturally Speaking.  I used DNS three or four years ago.  It was a fascinating experience.  They state now (and I believe they stated then) that you can get up to 99% accuracy right from the start.  The key part of that, naturally, is up to.  Up to 99% certainly covers 80% accuracy, which is about where I started.  After months of hard work training both myself and the recognizer, I got to about 90%.

90% accuracy is really bad.  It means ten words wrong out of every one-hundred.  It means that the majority of sentences will have an error.  These are errors that your word processor (did I mention that you're speaking this into a word processor?) will not flag because they are properly spelled words, they're just not the words you wanted to spell.  And before you jump up and say that the grammar-checker would catch most of them, I have to tell you, "no, it won't."  Why not?  Because you've turned your grammar- checker off:  it is meant for business letters and not novels (and especially not dialog!).

The recognition software has to be watched, too.  You can't just start speaking and turn your back on your screen, pacing around the room while you wax eloquent.  There are two reasons for this:  you want to be sure that what you speak is being written into the proper place, and you want to make sure you're not deleting your work.  Your cursor might jump into the middle of the previous chapter, or worse, a dialog box might pop up and grab the focus -- if you don't notice, you'll speak into a black hole and lose your inspired verbiage forever.  More insidious is when you slip into "command mode" so that instead of transcribing your speech, the program attempts to carry out your commands.  Think , select all, delete, save, exit.  All sorts of painful things can happen if you're not watching.  Trust me.

Even when keeping an eye on the transcription process, I found I spent more time on the keyboard doing corrections than I did speaking my sentences in the first place.  Oh, but miracle of miracles, you can speak your corrections, too!  I tried that once.  My arthritic fingers were paining me greatly (which was why I had DNS in the first place), so I decided I was going to work that evening without using the keyboard for anything beyond startup and shutdown.  The first line I spoke was "The lawn was freshly mown."  Looking back on it, that was a terrible sentence to ask the recognizer to deal with.  Unfortunately, terrible sentences crop up all the time.

The immediate problem was mown.  The software produced the homonym, moan.  There was a problem with freshly as well:  flesh Lee.  I decided to leave Mr. Lee and the flesh where they were for the time being, and worked on the moan.  Mown was not in the DNS dictionary, so I had to add it, and I did that by spelling it out.  Or I tried to.  M and N are largely indistinguishable through the (premium) bluetooth microphone I was using, so I couldn't get mown into the dictionary.  In desperation I decided to rephrase to something like "He recently mowed the lawn," hoping that the moaning would stop, and Lee could take a much-needed break.  I corrected, spelled, re-read the manual, coerced, cajoled, backspaced, "undo-that"ed, and muttered to myself for another quarter of an hour.  Intensely.  By the way:  muttering to yourself is an uncommonly stupid thing to do with a speech-recognizer listening.  I finally gave up when the best I could do for my sentence was, "The Jews know the law."

And they may, but in the meantime the grass is growing up to Lee's fleshy knees, and there's no one to cut it.

DNS certainly didn't cut it.  I tried it for another six months and finally abandoned it.  In the meantime it made for some amusing conversations the few times I tried using it for instant messaging.

Tools don't do the job for you, but sometimes they can make it easier.  Someday (in the not-too-distant future) I think continuous speech recognizers will be useful, even considered indispensable by the majority of novelists.  That day is not today.  Of course, even if you had someone to take fast and accurate dictation, there's more to writing a book than speaking for a few hours.

Have any of you tried this "shortcut?"