Thursday, May 15, 2008

Q&A #4

Wow, lots of great questions and great answers as well. I’ve been a little tied up with work and family things the last few days. But let’s see how quickly I can get all of your questions addressed. We’ll do them one post at a time, and I may do more than one post a day.

Anna asked how you connect the fun scenes that pop into your head, and make them part of a coherent story. You can read her whole question here. I’m going to divide my answer into two parts.

First of all, let me say that every author I know has cool scenes pop into their heads. Sometimes they have to do with the book you are working on. Sometimes they have to do with a book you’re thinking about. And sometimes that are just random scenes. What you do with those scenes depends a lot on where you are at with: your stage of writing, any currents projects you might be working on, and how important the scene feels to you.

One of my philosophies is that beginning writers are often pushed too hard to “finish" something. I’m guilty of it myself. When people ask my advice for beginning writers, I usually say, “Finish that book.” This is because many writers quit before they ever give themselves a chance to succeed. They spend so much time and energy worrying over whether the first three chapters are good enough, that they never make it to chapter four.

However, there is another side to the issue. Not everyone is at the stage in their writing where they are ready to write a whole book just yet. They may not even be ready to write a whole short story. Imagine giving a child (or an adult for that matter) a box of crayons and saying, “You can’t start anything new until you finish the drawing you are working on.” Talk about stifling creativity. How do kids learn about art? They draw a bunch of trees. Then they add something that may be a cow or an airplane. Then for a couple of weeks they do stick figures and houses with crooked chimneys.

Writing can be the same way. If you push yourself too hard to make everything part of one coherent story, you can end up turning writing from something that is really fun into a chore. Why not give yourself the freedom to write a scene just for the joy of writing a scene? Work on dialogues for awhile. Move from talking heads to scenes that the reader can visualize. Work on battles. Work on beginnings. Work on deaths (I wish JK Rowling had worked on improving her death scenes.) Give yourself permission to work on your art.

Definitely save them. You may find a place to use them later. In fact, at the end of this post I’ll give you an example of a scene that I originally wrote for fun, which ended up in a book.

The other side of the coin is when you are ready to tackle your first novel. The biggest mistake that beginning—and even experienced—writers make is starting their novel without having a fairly good idea where it’s going. That’s like heading out on a trip without a map. It can be fun, but you may not actually get anywhere. Before you start your book, you should have a pretty good idea of the structure of what you are writing.

I’m not talking about hard core outlining. Many writers outline their books, and many writers don’t. There are pros and cons for both. If you can just throw a bunch of characters into a situation and see what happens, more power to you. But for most writers, you need at the very least a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not the exact details, but enough to carry you through.

Once you have a general idea of where things are heading, it’s easier to write scenes out of order or plug ideas into a coherent whole. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to see if you are ready to begin your novel or if you need to do a little more planning.

Story Overview
How will my story begin and end?
What are my primary storylines?
What are the beginning and end of each storyline?
List 1 to 3 sub-climaxes
How will each character be affected by above?
Where and how will I foreshadow?
What are some of the key plot twists?

Does your main character have a noble quest?
Will the reader empathize with that quest?
What are the obstacles to the quest?
Do you have more than one story line to carry the plot?
Are the smaller climaxes leading up to the final climax?
Did I start the story at the right point?
Is your storyline broad enough? Is it too broad, so it loses focus?

Do you have a clear main character?
Do you like that character?
Do they have flaws?
What are they going to learn during the course of the story?
Who are the subordinate characters?
Is the main character in jeopardy? Of what?
What are the consequences of failure? Of success?
Are the obstacles to success difficult enough?
Is the character acting or reacting. Readers want a hero/heroine that is actively trying to fix things.

Again, you may not know all the answers when you start. And there is nothing wrong with writing scenes that don’t have a story to fit into yet. That’s part of your writing development. But if you find yourself beginning lots of stories that don’t go anywhere and you feel you are ready to move on, these questions may help you to organize your thoughts.

Okay, I promised a scene. Five or six years ago, I taught a class on three of my favorite tools: isolation, disorientation, and misdirection. To illustrate my points, I wanted to turn a non-threatening scene into something scary. To my wife’s eternal regret, I asked her to name a really happy place. She picked the Small World ride at Disneyland. (My whole family are Disney fanatics.) Using my tools, I created a rather dark version of this ride. This eventually found its way into a rather scary novel that is currently not published. Let me warn you in advance that should you read on, you may never look at this ride the same way. Also, this is a dark scene and a little gory. So if you aren’t into that kind of thing, do not read on.

Consider yourself warned

Don’t go on if you are prone to bad dreams

Last chance to turn back

All right, thrill seekers, please keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all times.

Cal was in a boat. He could hear water slapping against the sides of the small dinghy as it rocked back and forth. The dank smell of moisture filled the air and slipped into his nostrils with an almost dizzying power. He ran his fingers along the gunwale. Though he could feel the slick surface of polished wood beneath his fingers, he couldn’t see it—couldn’t see anything at all.

He tried to remember where he was and how he had got there, but for the moment his memories were as unfathomable as the darkness surrounding him. Was this a dream? It had the sense of unreality that dreams sometimes had, the feel of things just beyond his control.

Abruptly the boat jolted to the left, and he had to clutch the side to keep from falling. Now he could just make out a faint glow ahead of him. He seemed to be in some kind of tunnel. The light was growing stronger and he thought he could make out the sound of . . . of singing.

He had a vague memory of being shot at—of pain. Was he dead then? Was he hearing a choir of angels? Children’s voices echoed off the walls that he could now faintly see to either side of the waterway. But it wasn’t hymns they were singing. The tune was familiar, and for some reason it reminded him of Kat.

All at once he realized where he was. This was Disneyland. He was in one of the boats of the Small World ride. It was Kat’s favorite spot in the whole park. She said that no one could ever feel unhappy in Small World.

But what was he doing here? Kat was dead. She would never again watch the hundreds of dolls twirling in synchronized dance, their costumes forming brightly colored rainbows. She would never sing the Small World theme song along with the children in each of their different languages as the boat passed from one country to the next.

Why was he here without her? Without Kat this ride was as pointless as everything else in his life. He buried his face in his hands.

Cool fingers touched the side of his face. “You don’t want to miss the best part, do you?” He looked up and Kat was sitting beside him—her eyes glowing as they always did when their little boat rounded the first bend.

The boat turned, and they entered the bright illumination of the ride. Their boat slipped past the signs reading Welcome in several languages.

“Kat it’s you . . . you’re . . .” Back he wanted to say, but couldn’t. Emotion blocked his throat. “Am I dead? Are we . . .”

“Shhh,” she whispered, taking his hand and flashing him the smile that had won his heart the first time he saw it.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said, drinking in every line of her face. “I thought it would get easier. You know, that I would adjust. But everything I see reminds me of you, and it just keeps hitting me over and over that I’ll never wake up next to you again. Only now . . . now you’re here. Or am I there?”

Tears slipped down the sides of his face, and she reached across to brush them away. As her fingers touched his skin, he knew that he would give everything he had to be able to feel that touch forever.

She turned to look at the singing dolls, her eyes lighting up at the beautiful costumes. But he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was really here. Somehow she was back. He would never let her leave his side again.

Slowlly her smile faltered and her fingers tightened on his hand. “No,” she whispered. “No, this isn’t right.”

He turned and followed her gaze.

For the first time, he noticed the dolls. There was something strange about their faces. They were smiling. Of course they were. Anyone that couldn’t wear a dazzling toothpaste smile every minute they were in front of the public wasn’t long for it in Walt’s kingdom—even if they were robots. But the children’s smiles seemed wrong somehow, almost sly. As if they were just waiting for him to turn away so they could stick out their tongues, or make obscene gestures at him behind his back.

And the singing.

On the surface it was the same old, same old, about one moon, one sun, and friendship for everyone, sung in more languages than even a college professor could master. But the children’s voices seemed to be placing a special emphasis on “a world of fears” and “a world of tears.”

The tempo was off too. It was slower, more solemn—more like a funeral dirge. And just under their breaths, so low that he couldn’t quite make out the words, were they singing something more sinister?

Cal turned to Kat. Her eyes were glassy with fear, her breath coming in quick, short gasps. He took her into his arms pulling her toward him. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

As the figures continued to whirl and spin, their shadows stretched out behind them like grotesque specters, parodying the joy of real children and turning it into something evil. Were they getting closer? He felt sure that the dolls should be moving in set patterns, up and down around and around. But these children were gamboling, darting off their platforms and leaping down to stand near the edge of the water.

To his left a pair of Eskimo children crept stealthily up behind a cardboard polar bear. As he passed by them Cal was suddenly sure that he had seen them somewhere before. They looked so familiar. If he had just another second, he knew that he’d be able to place them.

The boat left one land behind, rounding into another, and from the corner of his eye he saw a cowboy doll twirling a lasso above his head. The cowboy tossed the rope into the air, but instead of coming down on a cow or a horse, it looped around the neck of a cowgirl and he pulled her screaming toward him.

Their faces. They weren’t doll faces at all, but the faces of children. His gut went ice cold as he realized why they were so familiar.

The cowboy pulling the screaming cowgirl into the darkness was Lehi Rucker and the girl was Amanda Porter. And the Eskimo children—they had been Benjamin Meyers and Theresa Truman. What were the children from the mine doing in Small World?

As if sensing his recognition, the children gave up any pretense of following the script and lined the sides of the waterway, jeering and laughing at him. Something launched into the air, and he turned, startled, in time to see an Indian that looked like a young Dickey Jordan throw a javelin. It glanced off Kat’s head before sinking out of sight into the dark water.

“Kat!” he screamed.

“I’m okay,” she tried to smile. “It’s just a bump.” But it wasn’t a bump at all. Blood was gushing from the wound, dripping down the side of her face.

He ripped off his shirt and pressed it against the side of her head trying to stanch the flow. “I’ve got to get you to a doctor,” he said. He had to get her off this ride. This was a theme park; there would be plenty of emergency medical personnel on staff. He looked for one of the exit doors hidden behind the props, and froze.

They were no longer in Small World at all, but floating along a depthless black river running down the center of a long dark mine. Pick axes and bits of rusted rail littered the ground to either side of them. Overhead an electrical sizzling was followed by a loud pop. The lights went out, leaving the shaft a sickly green.

The boat jerked to a stop, throwing him forward in the boat. As he looked down into the water, a groan escaped his lips. Frankie Zoeller was floating just beneath the surface, his pale white face swimming behind dark glasses. Frankie’s eyes opened and his shriveled fingers reached up toward Cal.

Cal shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he shouted. “I have to save my wife. She’s hurt.”

Kat slumped against his shoulder, and he turned, catching her in his arms as she fell forward. He had to get her out of here. They would get help. This time he’d make sure the doctors looked for a blood clot.

He began to lift her; only it wasn’t Kat lying in his arms. It was Olivia. Her long blond hair was wet with blood, her eyes rolled back in her head like white hardboiled eggs.

“Do you like my new dress?” she asked, running her finger through her clotted hair. “The blue brings out my eyes and the bloody flowers match my hair.”

“Where’s Kat?” he screamed at her. “Where is my wife?”

She smiled up at him, but it was the rictus grin of a corpse.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” she whispered, pointing to the water.

He turned back. Frankie was gone. Now Kat was the one drowning. Her eyes were red with blood. Bubbles exploded from her mouth as she tried to scream. From somewhere in the darkness, he heard Two Bears’ voice say, “There are underground springs in these caves that run hundreds of feet deep.”

He dove for Kat’s hand, lunging across the side of the boat. The ice-cold water closed over his arms and shoulders. He thought he had her—their hands were only inches apart. But just as his fingers began to close around her wrists, something snaked up from the depths, wrapped around her waist, and jerked her down into the darkness where she disappeared.


Brian said...

Wow, you're right. That is scary. What book did you make that for? By the way, thanks for the tips on outlining.

Crystal Liechty said...

Love the tips, Jeff! As always, you're brilliant. And thanks for the creepy scene. I've always thought that ride was a little eerie, myself.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

That is a scary scene. I'd probably have to read it in the middle of the day in a bright room, and yet, I'd sure like to hear what the rest of the story is about.

Mikaela said...

Interesting. Thrilling, actually. The stuff for the writing nice to know (for writing classes next year!).

Anna said...

wow Mike! (Mikaela is my cousin. We have a blog together....) glad you finally showed up here!

I would have posted last night, but computers are contrary, whether they are machines or NOT.

I liked the creepy scene. I've never been to Disney Land or been to that ride, but that scene was pretty cool.

I agree with you about Tolkien not getting published today, Scott. I think that that is really sad in some ways, because I would love to write a story like Tolkien did.....with a bunch of different all the poems, side stories and the like....but a lot of the time you can write a special book for that stuff. Rowling wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Obert Skye wrote a whole book about sychophants. Cool beans!

I really really appreciate the advice on scenes, Scott. It's already inspired me to write a kind of short story (or if you like, the sort of story that Tolkien put in his Appendixes.)

I may turn it into a novel one day, but for now I'll just summarize it. :D

G. Parker said...

wow...that is intense. It's amazing. When are you going to publish it?? grin.