Author Archives: Elizabeth Shack

Writing math

I’ve been playing a game with myself. Every week, I set very specific goals for the amount of time I need to write. They’re broken down by project, and by days of the week (Mon-Wed, Wed-Fri, Sat-Sun) (and no, writing on Wednesday doesn’t count twice).

This week, I need to write 2.5 hours total on 3 different projects from Mon-Wed. Right now it’s Tuesday night, and I’ve written for 2.3 hours, and I still have 1.17 hours left.

2.5 – 2.3 = 1.17 in writing math.

Why? Because extra time put in on a project doesn’t count. What a fun game!

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Making animated word clouds

Recently I ran across a post about creating an Animated WordCloud for Alice in Wonderland and thought, that looks like fun. So I ran my novella through this code, which breaks the text up into 500-word chunks and makes a word cloud for each chunk, then strings them together into an animated gif.

It’s bizarrely entertaining to watch the plot of the novella go by as a word cloud.

Here’s the first image:

page1

I removed the main character’s name from the word clouds because the novella is in 3rd person. As it is, her brother Stebbin is the biggest item for the vast majority of the book.

Here’s Stebbin later on, appropriately surrounded by an ice squid (and tentacles):

icesquid

This totally counts as productive writing time.

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Gen Con Panel Notes: Rewrites and Second Drafts

Max Gladstone, Stephen Blackmoore, Elizabeth Vaughan, Thomas M. Reid, Ray Vallese

How many drafts?
Thomas – 2 or 3 for work for hire
Stephen – work for hire edits are not change this massive thing, it’s lots of little things. So not rewrites. But typically I do at least one rewrite.
one book agent said something at end should be at beginning. It cascaded through everything. But for the most part, a couple drafts.
Max – 6-14 before the editor, then another round after that.
Of those, one to two are significant structural reworking.
Elizabeth – three drafts. First very rough. Made a mistake in not keeping a bible for world as accurately as I should.
Max – if I can still bear to move past page five after so many drafts, it’s a good book
Ray – one novella, didn’t have a deadline so it took a long time to do 5-6 drafts

Ray – turn off internal editor.

Elizabeth – process. I never go back and rewrite until done. But others rewrite as they go.
Stephen – I focus a lot on voice and if I don’t get the opening to click I might get 2-3 chapters in, and fix opening. But then I’m a linear writer.
Thomas – depends how I feel when I wake up in the morning. If you’re trying to have the fingers keep up with brain you can just keep going. But if struggling to get feel of what the characters are like, you go back. But I generally write from start to finish.
Stephen – I outline, sometimes very sketchy.
Got 50k into 3rd book in series, and realized it was all backstory and exposition so started from scratch.
Ray – I skim from the beginning and end up revising before getting to new stuff
For 35k novella, outline was 20k words because was meticulously plotting everything and filling in.
Thomas – pantser or outliner, how much rewriting depends on whether you’re a pantser or outliner.
Does a lot of planning before , so first draft is happy with, not as many rewrites.
Max – pantsers get to a point where they do some planning, outliners. Get to point where they throw out outline and make changes – no one hews perfectly to either approach
Elizabeth – whatever process gets to final manuscript is good
Thomas – I’d get to point where I don’t know what I’m doing (when trying to pants), went back to outline
Max – defined myself as a pantser, then on 3rd book had a deadline and started working and would write 20k words and throw out. And then thought about how he’d avoided that before. Several stages where he’d write out everything that happened in the book.
Thomas – why we talk about pantsers and outliners, there is a lot of structure to putting together a novel or short story.

Elizabeth – what are some concerns that you only address in second draft? Theme? Character consistency? Is there something you don’t worry about in first draft?
Stephen – I think of my outline as my first draft. When I have a manuscript, I look for repeated words, too many dialogues, “and”, things that are too close to each other,
Max – the saying no man happy until he’s dead – call no book good until it’s done, until you see the full draft. Stuff you don’t see until the whole thing,
Pacing, character logic, large scales arcs and thematics,
Elizabeth – my first draft is action and conflict. But in romance you expect the internal dialogue of the doubt of the relationship. I add that in second draft.
Reader wants to be in their head.
Thomas – macro and micro editing, the question is how much and what kind do you do on your various drafts.
Macro – scenes in the correct order, equal screen time for characters
Micro – is prose tight, too many “ands”, does this dialogue work for this character
What you do in subsequent drafts has a lot to do with what you do in initial.
Stephen – I write 1st person so that internal dialogue is integral to the story.

(Third and first person, tenses)

Thomas – writers cover so many differnt things in revisions because initial process is so different
Ray – in second draft I focus on beginnings and endings , I often start too early or go to long

Elizabeth – putting book in drawer or stepping away from it. Hard to do on deadline. But consider it for first book.
Thomas – hard to do on contract. But you have to write a lot of words (to get good at it).

Questions
Rough first drafts (draft zero) , when do you give to writing group?
Elizabeth – they get early draft but I try to clean it up
Stephen – is careful,about kind of critique he’s soliciting. Don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
Max – has critiquers but sometimes don’t have time
Different layers of people, some see final draft, some see the first or second.
The earlier I show someone a draft the more I’m looking for assurance that it’s not a travesty
Thomas – group meets every week with 1000 word chunks and shares a Dropbox.
You have to trust and get along with your group.
We all know how they write and what kind if feedback.
But you have to be ok with saying it’s still my book.
Ray – doesn’t send to writing group until second draft

What if you love something but aren’t sure it belongs?
Stephen – ask questions. Does it move the plot. Is it too clever, is it a joke that doesn’t fit. I hate the phrase kill your darlings, a better phrase is everything is fair game
Thomas – find out why people think it should go
Max – trust your joy. On second draft ask if it breaks the book, or have I written the book to live up to it.
Stephen – stop caring

When do you realize you have a weakness and how do you stop obsessing over it while writing? Eg dialogue or endings
Elizabeth – in my first draft I don’t care.
Thomas – get the story down first
Max – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying writing

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Gen Con Panel Notes: Character Motivation

Elizabeth Bear, Gwenda Bond, John Horner Jacobs, Lauren M. Roy, Howard Tayler (m)

Take it as given that characters need to be motivated. Where do you start? When you want the character to do something important to the plot.
Bear – make them want something even if only glass of water (Vonnegut)
Also makes reader care about the character
Roy – yes. Also thinks about what their controlling worldview is. How they feel like it’s keeping them from getting what they want.
What’s different about their perspective
Jacobs – at beginning of musical, character sings their desire. It’s good to know when you’re setting out what you think the characters desires are, even if it’s preserve the status quo
Roy – conflict between what they want and what they need
Jacobs – authors create situations that strip away characters , leaves their core
Tayler – musical theater shows the use of tools we don’t get to use. Into the Woods, Agony – it’s a better Captain Kirk than his Captain Kirk. It tells what he want. It’s slimy but we’re on board bc of how it’s communicated
How do you communicate that to the reader as enthusiastically as musical theater might
Bear – protag should have strong want and conflicting need. Put in situations where those conflicting desires can be exposed.
The character who runs toward gunfire will make the plot for you.
Bond – Lois lane, easy to write because she’s so intrinsically motivated and creating her own obstacles. Also confidence porn, she has the ability to see things are wrong.
When starting out I would choose the wrong character. Often the ones that are easy to understand aren’t the ones w a deep desire that can sustain an entire novel.

Tayler – when character does a thing that the writer hasn’t earned. When James Bond is awesome in first 5 min it’s earned, but for an unknown character, how do you earn the readers trust?
Jacobs – example, Fury Road. It should have been Furiosa road. Max was divorced from everything, you have no clear idea of his motivations except flashbacks.
Regret is not a sting motivator, revenge is.
In first frame he has connection to dog, and later they transfer that to the feral boy. He can form a bond and when threatened he’ll act to protect that.
But at end he fades back into crowd…
Sometimes motivation is connection to other life…
Bond – girl is wire walker. Was worried about how to make reader believe she can do it. Grabbed the physicality of wire walking. Ground us in the body of the character so we feel it. You have to show that it’s not easy and that they trained or learned.
Bear – cheap way is training montage. And reaction shot.
Meeting Eliot in Leverage, great character introduction, bar with mobsters, walks out with macguffin.
Tayler – if he were the protagonist that wouldn’t work bc you’ve set up an impossible situation and won. In ensemble cast it worked.
Bear – it can work in a lot of ways.
Sherlock Holmes, teveryone takes it for granted that he can do this.
Bond – you’re so close to the protagonist that you forget to make sure that the other people in the story are reacting to them.

Tayler – what do you do to demonstrate that secondary characters have motivations?
Roy – show them interacting with primary characters. Small interpersonal interactions to establish the character and how they talk. Who they are in relation to each other.
Bear – point about conversations is good. Usually both people are talking about their own stuff and there’s a point of intersection. That’s how we build empathy,
Bond – it’s important that those characters …
Tayler – everyone hero of own story. We are in building full of people with motivation I need to get into exhibit hall to get this thing. And they were in my way when I wanted to get here.
We want to write that so our character’s quest to be the moderator runs afoul of real people.

Obstacles. What are your favorite? When you want to drive the character arc and plot, serve multiple purposes.
Bear – character is plot. If they’re doing something out if character the writer isn’t forming the plot from what they want.
There’s the thing they need to do to become a whole, complete being. Die Hard – he wants his wife back, he needs to become a person she wants.
Bond – be as extreme as possible within the bounds of credulity.
Make the obstacles tough from the get go
Roy – they have to choose, and think they’re making the right decision
Jacobs – there have to be realistic, often unforeseen consequences to what your character decides
One rookie mistake – needing more tension, bring in man with gun, tends to be a small conflict that you’re fabricating.
Bear – the character who is constantly in conflict because they’re brittle and mouthy, are better as secondary
Bond – can be primary if you see inside them…

In your writing, moments where your characters had a motivation problem and you solved it – an aha moment
Bear – one-eyed jack, 1st person narrator. Had problem with protag as unreliable narrator, withholding information. I couldn’t figure out what he was withholding. He had interesting backstory that was motivating him, took four drafts.
Bond – last week, had about 20k words which is where I stop and see where I went wrong. Girl who wants to be magician like her dad, he doesn’t wNt her to. She runs away to join circus. Wasn’t feeling like she and dad were close. Realized she’s been practicing on her own. Now she has something to prove, and is more interesting because she’s spent six years becoming an expert on escape.
Jacobs – my first novel, horror crime mashup. Vet with PTSD. …
Roy – weird hybrid of pantser and plotter. Ending of book came to her. Don’t know who’ showing to so,ve the problem , then character gets what he wants but it wasn’t what he wanted. So etimes you have to let it percolate and let your subconscious…

Questions
Is a need to do your duty a lazy motivation?
Jacobs – some motivations are more interesting than others.
Forrest Gump a lieutenant motivation wanted to die in battle, and was interesting character
Job of writer is to make it interesting
Tayler – protag is bodyguard, job is to guard the CEO. But critters asked what he wanted besides his job. So he joined the military to save the world, realized he can only save some people. Now he has a motivation, and at end he might get to save the world – that connection made the story work.
Bond – he wants to do his duty why?
Bear – guy doing his job – Clerks. And Ned Stark.
Jacobs – interesting thing about duty is pride and ego.

Running toward bullets – but what about a no confidant protagonist?
Bond – I love that kind of character. They’re almost immediately forced outside their comfort zone.
Bear – tragic arc is guy who refuses to grow. Use a series of carrots and sticks to get him to move to take more responsibility.
Jacobs – works really well with young adult.
Bond – even the most competent character is an asshole if they never question.
Roy – wendig’s Miriam. Sees people’s death. She tried to circumvent that but it happens anyway. If your character tries to run away, out the thing right back in front of them.

Character has motivation but finds it’s not as simple as they thought (are betrayed) and have to do 180?
Bear – the turn or twist.
Bond – hague’s 5 act structure, 10 percent of the story problem isn’t driving the plot, 25 is. (?)
Tayler – it is a disaster when you discover everything you wanted is wrong, it’s a powerful story. Now they’re lost, you rescuer them
Bond – Solitaire by Kelly Eskridge

Closing remarks
Bear – break stuff, make character react
Bond – yes
Jacobs – make it worse
Roy – have characters bullshit at each other, figure out how to interact
Tayler – watch people, if you understand why ppl want things that make no sense…

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Gen Con Panel Notes: High Fantasy Without Cliches

Josh Vogt, our own Kelly Swails (m), Robin D. Laws, Lauren M. Roy, Kameron Hurley

Favorite cliches
Kelly – farm boy saves the world (favorite)
Josh – destiny (least favorite)
Mcguffins (fave)
Robin – least – dark lord of darkest darkens embodiment of evil
Lauren – likes it when she’s surprised.
Josh – holly lisle had a series with a prophecy , society waiting for a messiah. He’s born in the middle of the book and someone kills him. It works well.
Robin – avoid D&D cliches
Josh – cliches are shorthand
Kelly – likes the farm boy cliche bc sometimes i don’t want to be wowed, just want mind candy
Kameron – fave – scullery girl will be queen
We’re always waiting for someone to choose us and say we’re amazing
least – medieval Europe (boring)

Kelly – do we need to avoid cliches
Robin – tricky distinction between trope and cliche
Hero’s journey seems cliche if you do it badly, but a trope if you do it well
Josh – be widely read so you know what’s been done – make a trope uniquely yours. Distinguish it or subvert it.

Kameron – wanted lots of unfamiliar aspects, so using the stable boy story helps ground the reader in something familiar
Kelly – part of discovering yourself as a writer and not writing cliche stuff is doing it at first
Robin – how to make it suck less – look at the characters. If the character is fresh and new and specific people will like the other elements, but if the character is also stock, the book sucks
Josh – that’s why antiheroes are popular
Lauren – give yourself permission to have fun

Kameron – people are drawn to passion, they see you’re having fun. Write the book you want to read.

Robin – if there is something else you want to do professionally, do that instead
(Digression into productivity)

Blending genres as a way to subvert a cliche
Josh – Genres are a marketing tool, readers don’t care
Robin – is it two cliches and therefore twice as bad? Or did it make it new and cool?
Example: the movie Priest – ideas disconnected from historical context and an uninteresting character.
Kameron – big fan of worldbuilding. Sees a lot of lack of imagination. People do a thought experiment and then don’t think through how various technologies would transform their lives. Like transporter technology. The more you think through, the richer the world will be.
Combining genres is difficult to sell. Call it the thing that it is most like. Mirror Empire is an epic fantasy. God’s War is science fiction.
Lauren – booksellers ask what section to put the book in, they do t want it in two places
Josh – you see a lot of cobbled together steampunk…
Or our world with magic, but we wouldn’t have developed the same tech. You have to think about the consequences.
Good examples?
Lauren – Defiance
Kameron – Cherie Priest new series, thriller horror gothic mashup. Jeff vandermeer, China mieville. Lots of the new weird – combined horror and fantasy
Robin – first season of true detective – cop drama and horror
Josh – max Gladstone – urban fantasy, high F, SF. Cat Rambo beasts of tabat
Kelly – kris rusch – Paloma, police procedural set on the moon
(But fantasy and SF are settings, not plot)
Kelly – we blend a lot – SF and mystery, or thriller
Josh – Jim Hines libriomancer, definition of mashup.

Questions
Define high fantasy?
Kameron – the great man theory of history, vs low fantasy which is the grunts
Robin – one steals from Tolkien one from Robert e Howard
Josh – the stakes – alter the world vs more personal

Will learning how to craft a mystery help your writing?
Kelly , kameron – yes.
Robin – read literary fiction. If you want to learn character which is the basis of all interesting writing, read literary fiction.

How do you not fall on the tropes like elves, dwarves?
Kameron – read really widely.
And travel
Robin – read science and natural history
Kameron – cultures – anthropology and history
Josh – aliette de bodard’s Aztec city

Do you have to put things back into satisfy editor or reader?
Like super hero origin?
No.
Kelly – quality of critique makes a big difference

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Gen Con Panel Notes: Eliciting Emotional Responses

I’m at Gen Con this weekend, talking writing and playing games. Every time I go to a con, I take notes at panels, and then often don’t look at them again. This year I’m sharing.

Eliciting Emotional Responses

Greg Wilson, John Helfers (m), Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth Bear, Aaron Rosenberg

Having the readers connect w characters on an emotional level. How do you craft a character, plot, or book that will resonate with readers?

Eb – get the reader to connect with the character (sympathize with)
Doesn’t believe in audience insertion characters
How :
Give the character something they want very much, something they love very much. Or make them incredibly interesting.

GW – create the character that the reader is in real life. Wesley in sttng. But it didn’t work bc ppl didn’t want to identify with him, they wanted to be Picard, Riker, worf…
Don’t make a character that is the reader. Make a character the reader can understand and get to know, even if they don’t agree with or like them

Ar – making their emotional responses reasonable. Unless you’re going for the opposite.
Ned stark in GoT – most sensible people wouldn’t throw everything away for honor, but it caused an emotional response in readers
Cw – everyone gets what he’s doing, we’ve all put ourselves on the line for something. The chestnut write what you know. You’ve experienced awesome stuff and terrible things. Some writers are afraid to mine that. You have to look to your own life for emotional moments.
The struggle in SF is ppl make the quest the thing you care about – but that’s not what ppl care about. They care about the hero’s problem with his mother and him trying to impress the princess.
JH – collection of WWII novellas. Protag betrayed other pows because it’s dishonorable to try to escape. His wife has become a prostitute to support herself – you can’t eat honor. The different emotional response of the two of them.

JH – audience insertion character. Twilight. So blank you can put yourself in there. Is it an effective use or a cheat? She did it successfully.
AR – it’s an exception. Unfortunately it spawned others trying to do it and not succeeding. Considers it a chest.
EB – it’s a focus on a different thing. One of the best characters recently is Katniss. Twilight seems like Bella is more of a scaffold or placeholder. Katniss is extremely well developed, prickly and difficult. She’s not a typical protag, not easy to like.
Both can appeal to readers for different reasons.
Harry potter is not particularly strongly characterized. Like twilight it’s a world people want to go live in.
AR – in HP the world is amazing. Twilight is less about the world than the specific vampire characters. Bella is a blank slate for the vampires to react to and act upon. Harry is an active character.
EB – the most interesting character is the one who runs toward gunfire.

GW – in HP you have an ensemble cast. Gives people a way to approach from different angles.
AR – it’s hard to craft a character you’ll…a cast gives you a broader range of emotional responses.

CW – one way to see it in action is sit at the rpg table. You’re creating characters and motivations.

JH – group dynamic – examples of minor characters in your books? Does reader attachment influence how you see them?
EB – I don’t have the bad boy gene. Han Solo is chewbacca’s sidekick. I sometime write complete jerks and get fan mail who say x is so sexy.
AR – does lots of tie in writing so characters aren’t his. In back of head has possibility for pirates of Caribbean. First movie is good. Second one has character who should be in supporting role as focal point. But it doesn’t work. In first movie we id more with the lovers. Sparrow is secondary. When you make him central the emotional responses are muddled and we can’t connect who him.
EB – so don’t make a movie where darth vadar is the central character?
AR – sometimes characters pop up who are entertaining … Love to hate
CW – the audience doesn’t know what they want. We’re there to hurt the audience. The characters are the proxy by which we torment the audience.

GW – In twelfth night you have ensemble quest. Main character could be almost any of them. The jester is always wiser but if they’re at the center of the tale they’re not the outsider
When sparrow is at center who’s his foil? It overwhelms what the audience is looking for.
Sometimes if a character pops up that people want more of, making them the center makes them lose what makes them interesting in the first palace.

Ar – emotional responses don’t work well when dealing with 24 syndrome. Jack Bauer should be dead. Nonstop emotional responses become ineffective. You need highs and lows so reader can catch their breath.
CW – in music terms, you’re looking for multiple instruments.
GW – it’s dynamics. changing the energy you feel.
The only exception is movie crank where guy has to keep his heart rate high.
Ar – but there are still ups and downs. Where adrenaline drops and poison starts to take effect

Questions:

Recut trailer of Monty Python and holy grail – makes it into a serious movie. Contrast between ridiculous encounter and how serious they take it.

Depressing endings and having readers still come back – have a ray of hope
People feel better after seeing King Lear – they saw the mistakes, his common humanity. They hold their own family closer.
CW – likes complicated victories where some is won, some lost
EB – that’s more realistic.

Emotionally withdrawn characters?
JH – wrote one unintentionally. Very reserved. A diametrically opposed person started talking to her and connected with her on her level.
EB – in Worldwired every character begins in post traumatic distress, numb. It was hard and don’t recommend it. Handled it by giving people goals and dealing with the emotional disconnection part of the conflict.
The depression itself becomes an adversary. Dealing with Spock – put him in situations where emotional response is part of the struggle.
They can also serve as a foible for other characters. Can become an obstacle for the other characters.
It comes down to finding ways to insert conflict.
Watson – Holmes would be hard to pull off as a narrator.
GW – Susan Calvin is less human feeling than the robots she’s talking about. (I, robot) movie changed that, badly.
The Magicians – character is emotionally withdrawn. Because that’swhat teens Grossman knew were like.

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Top-Secret Productivity Hack!

So it turns out that going over a 9 item checklist for each page of my novella takes kind of a while. But! I recently discovered a new productivity-boosting trick to get my butt in my chair with my printout and multicolor pen.

I sprained my ankle.

No tennis. No yardwork. No going to the park and walking around. No painting (my drawing table is set up for standing at). No computer! (My computer is on a standing desk.)

If I hadn’t been at a stage where I was working on real live dead trees, this would have been an anti-productivity hack. But since I was working on paper, and it’s really easy to edit on paper with your foot propped up on a chair, two pillows, a towel and a ziploc of ice, I spent more time working on the novella than I would have otherwise.

The bad news is that my ankle is feeling much better. Yesterday I spent three hours digging up grass for my garden, and today I played tennis. Maybe I’ll sprain the other ankle tomorrow.

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