Clarion Workshop for SpecFic Writers

This will be a short one guys (and I promise this has nothing to do with the fact that I have a bunch of class assignments staring at me, promise).

😉

Moving right along, all of us here at AD&W are SpecFic writers and I like to think that a large portion of our readers are as well.  If so, there’s an upcoming event that I think you all should be aware of and if you don’t try for it this year, at least you have the information for next year =].  It’s called Clarion.  I almost didn’t do this post because I thought, Jace, c’mon.  You were the only dork that had no idea what Clarion was before someone told you, everyone else is on the ball here.  But then I thought, what if?  What if someone’s never heard of it, like I hadn’t?  And isn’t that what gets us SpecFic writers going, the big ‘What If’?

Clarion is a 6-week workshop specifically for Speculative Fiction writers!  Each week a different published author (or editor, I believe) teaches a seminar or lecture.  There are actually a few different branches of Clarion, each with a different line-up of instructors.

There’s Clarion San Diego, which, unsurprisingly, takes place in San Diego.  You can read up more about it HERE.  And then there’s Clarion West, which happens in Seattle, and you can read more about that HERE.  (Clarion South happens in Australia but have been unable to locate a suitable venue for a little while now and is indefinitely on hold.)  Both events take place from June 23rd to August 2nd/3rd  And the deadline to apply for both is MARCH 1ST, 2013.  So read up, read the FAQ, read the application instructions and, if you’re like me, read the Scholarship information several times because it does cost money but there are scholarships and financial aid that you can apply for geared specifically to help people attend these workshops.  There are application fees to both (around $50) that is pretty unavoidable and, of course, nonrefundable.

I realize March 1st is in only 3 weeks so that doesn’t give your (or me) much time, but like I said, it’s information definitely worth storing for next year!  I do hope at least someone found this post useful.  Who knows?  What if someone reads this, applies, and gets in!

There’s that ‘What If’ again. 😉

Are We There Yet?

Arizona Grand Canyon from http://traveltherockies.com

Arizona Grand Canyon from http://traveltherockies.com

Many years ago, more than I care to admit, the family was on vacation. Our destination – The Grand Canyon.  I so wanted to see it.  I kept watching the road signs and tried to calculate how long it would be before we would be there.

From the front seat my Dad smiled and said, “You sure are enjoying the Grand Canyon.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You always enjoy something the most just before you get it.”

I didn’t understand at the time, I just wanted to get to the Grand Canyon. I wanted to see it, how could I enjoy it when I had never even been there?

As usual Dad is right.

Now, I have been counting down the days until The Hobbit comes out.  I’ve even called my friend in another state and left a VM on his phone, “David, only ten days!” and hung up.  He knows it is me, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Again, more years than either one of us will admit to (before the advent of the VCR) we recorded the cartoon version of The Hobbit with a cassette tape.  So yes, we are both looking forward to seeing Peter Jackson’s film version.

My children went to the bookstores at midnight to purchase the latest Harry Potter books, then sat up half the night reading.

Why all the hype?  What makes all this so special?

Anticipation.

PR works to get everyone wanting to be the first in line.  (I had tickets number two and three for Return of the Jedi.)

So, The Dark Knight Rises, Star Wars, The Hobbit, Harry Potter all have huge followings, and folks are willing to lose sleep to see/read them.

So my writing friends, the same thing works inside your stories as well.  Build the anticipation.  Let the reader know what is going to happen, but make the ride full of anticipation, and then give them the satisfying ending.  The end of the story is the ultimate goal, but the ride must be full of promises.  The secret is not to break any of those promises, you must deliver.  That makes the end so great.  That is the oxymoronic deal.  The End, great read, but it is over.  No more anticipation.  But the time spent reading was well worth it.

I still remember my first look into the Grand Canyon, but the ride and the conversation made that look even more memorable.

The Ingredients of Spooky on all NaNo’s Eve

First and foremost, Happy Halloween everyone! I hope it’s a safe and pleasant one. Especially for those of you on the East Coast. My entire family lives there and I know how bad it’s been, my heart goes out to all of you!

When I saw the blogging schedule weeks ago and realized I was lucky enough, as a horror writer, to have my post land on Halloween–well, I squealed. (It was very dignified, I promise.) I had a conversation with my mother not too long ago about Halloween and how it’s changed over the years. She isn’t a fan of the gory decorations like body parts and the like. She doesn’t find it to be ‘scary’ and instead feels it’s just excessive and unnecessary. She prefers the subtle spookiness, cobwebs and dark hallways, old gravestones and eerie sound effects. Two very different types of spooky, but each can be, and often are, effective.

The same goes for writing. A while back I did a post discussing ‘Gore Bags‘ or really, what does gore contribute to your horror works? Let’s take a broader look at the topic. When writing, how do you know whether to go with a bloody scene, bits and pieces flying everywhere or with growing suspense and a thick, creepy atmosphere? What about a blend of the two? There is no right or wrong way to go about it. You have to know your story as well as your audience. While you may have started out wanting to write a splatterpunk serial killer type mystery, how have the characters and setting evolved as the story progressed? Will they still make the same uneducated decisions they did at the beginning of the ordeal that led to mayhem and possible deaths, or have they wised up? If they have, the odds of someone falling into a gory trap decrease. Unless, of course, your antagonist grows with them.

Likewise, if you’re going for a strictly atmospheric spook-factor, these factors still apply. Say your characters have been trapped in a scary mansion, complete with secret passageways and a fog-heavy cemetary. The first few hours, or even days, are bound to be nerve-wracking, but the longer they’re there, will the setting have the same effect, or will the characters have grown desensitized to it? If they have, you may have to dial up the spook factor. Pull out that shambling figure or wailing ghost you’ve been saving.

The list of what frightens people varies drastically. I have a close friend that is terrified of spiders, and while zombies are gross and the gore is unsettling, they don’t frighten the ever-livin’ out of her. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I wouldn’t recommend relying on the ‘tried-and-true’ tactics in this situation. Gore may unsettle many, but it doesn’t necessarily frighten all. A darkened hallway with disconcerting soundeffects will unerve quite a few and bore others. It’s impossible to please everyone. As with many aspects of writing a novel, focus on pleasing yourself and staying true to your characters. Odds are, so long as you have real characters that a reader can identify with, what frightens the HeartyHeroine will frighten the reader.

Finally, while you’re stuffing your faces with obscene amounts of candy corn and chocolately goodness, NaNoWriMo lurks in the shadows. It watches you. It won’t strike just yet, not for a few hours at least, but when it does, it will have all month to watch you writhe in writing agony.

I won’t go too far into the joy, and terror, that is NaNoWriMo, I’ll save that for perhaps tomorrow’s post as well as my own blog. I will say that I am participating in it, and will be using this opportunity to step out of my comfort zone! Which is a frightening concept all on its own. I hope to see you there!

What frightens you in both reality and literature? Do you find gore in literature to be scary or trite? What about atmosphere and suspense? Do you intend to participate in NaNoWriMo? How about candy corn, got any you’d like to share with me?

World Building

A Guest Post by Joyce Alton

Which comes first, the story or the world-building? How much world-building should you include?
There isn’t a correct answer to the first question. It varies among writers. So no pressure there.

I have seen two problems dealing with this issue in unpublished manuscripts, however. The first is where someone comes up with a great plot and after writing it down finds they need to come up with some world-building to make their plot stand out from all the other similar plots out there. The second issue is where someone dreams up a rich, fascinating world but has little to no story to go with it.
The ideal is to create both the world and story together because they will propel and enrich each other. Incidentally, stories like these usually go on to be bestsellers. Huge lesson to be learned right there.
Compelling characters by themselves don’t get the job done. You need all three elements: plot, world, and characters. They feed off of and grate against each other.

Let’s break this down a bit more.

If you’re struggling with world-building, step back from your story a little bit. Think about what you like and what you hate in both settings and cultures. Think of all the books you’ve read in your genre and what is typical and what has stood out. You want to stand out. Avoid the lazy route of picking the exact same things as everyone else. For instance, who says you have to have a tavern in your medieval world? Who says a king must live in a castle? Who says aliens have to drive spaceships to get to Earth? What if doors were built in ceilings instead in walls?

Jot down all the ideas that you like and play with them. Stretch that imagination. Surprise yourself and you will surprise your readers too.

Next, think about culture(s) for your world. Suppose you’ve chosen a tropical setting instead of the usual plains and mountain bit for your medieval fantasy. What different crops and foods will the people there eat? Will the creatures be different because of the climate? What about what everyone wears? How do they pass their time in a place where seasons never change and fatal illness is a mosquito bite away? What rules would your kingdom have to keep people safe or under control? What’s the policy on looking for missing persons who might have been attacked by a crocodile?

Now, how does the setting and the culture affect your protagonist and antagonist? What works for them? What works against them? What world-building details can you use to make plot points happen, or better yet, change them into something new and wild you didn’t think of before?

Say originally, your hero walks into the local tavern and someone picks a fight with him. He’s left battered and robbed in an alley. A precious heirloom he’s had since childhood was taken. It’s the key to claiming the inheritance his grandmother told him about in the scene before.

Okay. Now your setting is tropical and you chucked out the tavern because that’s been overdone. Instead your hero heads to an enclosed market where streets are lined with thick adobe walls and there is a lot of shade and netting to keep out the bugs. The narrow streets are packed, vendors yell above the crowds, it’s easy to have your pocket picked or be knocked down and trampled. While searching for a chemist to mix up his ailing grandmother’s medicine (she was bitten by a lethal mosquito) your protagonist finds he has to jostle for one of the last vials with a handful of frantic other people. There’s a medicine shortage, a breaking epidemic. There’s a fight. Someone steals the heirloom because it’s gold. Money can buy medicine the chemists hoard for the wealthy.

You see how culture and setting changed a simple, typical scenario into something with more twists and turns? Something that gives you ample chance to bring the reader into a world that escapes their own. Details will come readily to you. Details can foreshadow better than dialogue.

The trick to world-building is to use your imagination. I know it’s tempting to whirl off a story and get it to market ASAP. Don’t. You’re shortchanging yourself. Get a notebook, open another file on your computer, pull out the drawing paper and pencils and get to work making your world extraordinary.
Now we get to the second question: how much world-building do you include? Write it all down in that separate file then only use what you need.

Remember that you as the writer have the bigger picture and the omniscient truth about everything in your world. Your characters don’t. They have limited knowledge of other people and places and that will warp how they perceive their world. This gives you an opportunity to prove them wrong or justify their presumptions as the story unfolds. Surprise is a good thing.

Backstory is great but dangerous. Filter it in; don’t unload it all in a prologue or opening chapter. What the protagonist already knows is a great place to start, based on what is happening in her life. If she sits down to breakfast pondering what she learned back in grade school about warring races, you’re stretching things. If she heads to market and a person of another race tries to cheat her, that gives you an opening to share the biases going around about that race.

So you’ve created an entire system of magic and how it works. Fantastic. You don’t have to turn your novel into a textbook to educate the reader. Show us how that magic works. Show us how it’s needed and what problems it causes. Use that piece of world-building to propel your plot and make your characters grow.

So you’ve created an entire new language for your world. Awesome. You don’t have to use that language heavily in the story. The reader isn’t looking to take a language course. Choose a few words, especially those for which your real-life language has no corresponding word, and use them in context. Save the language course for a page on your website.

So you’ve bent the rules of science and must overcome reader disbelief. Plan it out without including lecture tangents in the story. I’m sure there are places on the web for people to spout their science-fiction theories and structures for fun or debate. A novel isn’t the ideal place. Or again, save it for a website page. Know the ins and outs of what you’re bending and find ways to show it at work. Showing alleviates reader disbelief better than a lecture any day. The same goes for doubting characters. People can argue until they are blue in the face but it’s harder for someone to dispute what they actually experience.

So your character must undergo a period of training in order to hurdle the climax. Okay. Consider whether that character experiences a lot of internal change while that is going on. Does a vital new character come into play? Does a big mistake happen? Then show a scene or two where those factors drive the training scene, not the training itself. Play-by-plays of martial art or fencing moves are for YouTube videos. Of course, be sure to include whatever necessary training facts or discoveries the character is going to need to twist fate in his favor later on. Work them in subtly rather than force the reader to trudge through an obvious “this is how it works, and here’s the rule breaking clause so you can predict the ending.”

And so we jump back to problem number two: world sorted out, no plot. If you’ve merely created a series of exotic landscapes, you haven’t fully developed your world. Consider hiring an artist to draw these landscapes or see if you can’t inspire a game engineer to use them. You see, you really want to experience a place not share a story. A fully developed world will include issues and problems. That alone should spark some serious plot-making. You would have already speculated on who lives in your world.

The cure to excessive world-building info dumps: characters. Focus on them. What does your protagonist want? What is she feeling in that opening scene? What happened to her ten minutes before the scene started? What keeps her from getting what she wants? What is her plan to get what she wants?

When those questions are figured out, it’s easier to see which setting details a character will notice in that scene. Think about how the setting works against your protagonist. What in the setting reflects her mood or gives her aide? Is she more likely to notice the cracked vase or the bouquet of roses inside it?

Another thing to remember: how commonplace is this setting to the principle character? Is this his home? If so, he’s not going to walk through the door and study everything. He sees it every day. The only time commonplace settings deserve some extra detail is if something is wrong or has changed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t describe the setting for the benefit of the reader. Fill in details based on what the character is likely to notice and what suits his moods and needs. Let it flow with the action of the scene.

If the setting is new to the character, pretty much the same advice applies. What will the character notice first and why? Those are the details to bring out. Also consider how much time they have to gawk. If there is ample time to describe everything from the tile flooring up to the toothed molding on the edge of the ceiling, you can probably cut the entire scene because nothing is going on.

To close with a couple of published examples, let’s talk about the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. First off, I really enjoy them, so don’t think I’m tearing them down. I want to point out that Baum loved world-building. So much that he had a hard time tearing away from the travelogue through fantasy land scenario in each of the books. It was a fun novelty in The Wizard of Oz. By the time you get to Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz the pattern is predictable: something cataclysmic happens, a young girl or boy travels through quaint and strange lands meeting extraordinary fairy people and collecting traveling companions only to end up in Oz where they meet all of the old friends and traveling companions they or others have had, and then have a party. Baum does grasp better plots in some of the books yet never without the travelogue. His imagination is wide and inspiring when it came to world-building. His finesse in making those people and places not only relevant but necessary—well—is somewhat lacking.

On the flip side, look at the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Rowling created a rich and well-planned world, created characters equally detailed and well-understood, then used them to take a simple set of plots to new heights. She interwove all three elements to play off each other. She used details when they mattered and for foreshadowing. Her nodes of conjunction are study-worthy. And it’s not as if she created genuinely unique settings or characters. She kept to some expected archetypes while leaping out of the box in other ways.

You can do the same. Have a solid plot. Go beyond creating settings. Build a world with culture, rules, and conflicts. Stretch your imagination, not your readers’ patience. Use details where they are needed, not just because you created them. Don’t take the lazy path of predictability. Know your characters needs and issues for every scene. Don’t let your story’s past suppress the present. Each story element alone is fuel, not the flame.

Joyce blogs at http://yesternightsvoyage.blogspot.com/ stop by and check out her blog.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

Specfic

 

 

Keep the Reader Reading

Several years ago, I joined a car pool.  Work was a 50 min drive away so paying to ride vs drive everyday was well worth it for me.  My favorite part of riding in a car pool is being able to read.  I would read to and from work, well in the summer I could read on the way to work.  I bring this up because some of my fellow passengers never read.

One day I was reading a western, the hero was in trouble (of course).  He was in a creek, and when he came up out of the creek, he pulled his gun and fired.  I am riding in a car with hunters/outdoors-men.  I didn’t know if a wet gun could fire or not.  So I asked.

“What does it matter, the book is fiction, you can do what you want,” was the answer the driver shot back at me.

It mattered to me, if a wet gun does not fire, then the author lost credibility.

Credibility matters, a lot.  True the story is fiction, but it must be believable fiction.  I’ve noticed with the latest comic book movies that, even though they are comics and very unreal, the moviemakers go to great lengths to make them believable.

Speculative Fiction opens up all sorts of unrealistic and imaginative worlds.  However, each story, each world has a set of rules.  Once you’ve set up the rules DO NOT break those rules.  I read a time travel story, however the author set up the fact that the time machine was going back to a parallel time, not the past, but a parallel past.  Then when they went back in time, what they did, did in fact, affect the future time line.  So the past wasn’t parallel after all.  It didn’t work for me.  A great read turned into a turn off.  That author lost credibility with me.

So if you are creating, research to make it believable.  No matter how fantastic and out there the story is, it has internal rules that make it run.  Keep things inside those rules and you keep your credibility.

While riding in that car reading, I would have rather stayed in the story.  Coming out of it to ask fellow passengers if the writer wrote true broke the suspense.  It is so much more fun to stay immersed in the story.  Keep your readers reading, not scratching their heads.

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Gorebags! The New SpecFic Party Favor!

Wait…what?

For the less video game savvy of our readers, there is a game called Fallout 3.  In this game are bad guys called super mutants and raiders.  Whenever you take down one of their encampments you are likely to find sacks of gore strewn about their ramshackle place of residence.  That’s right, gore.  Just sitting there.  For the easily befuddled, it’s even called a ‘gorebag’.  As a player you can choose to stick your hand in that gore and see if there’s anything worthwhile inside, like ammo or bottle caps (in-game currency) or maybe some drugs like stimpaks (health), y’know, typical end-of-world paraphernalia.

Sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes it really isn’t.  Add to the ick-factor the game makes this horrible ‘squick’ sound when you look into the bag.

Why would anyone ever want to stick there hand in there?  I don’t know, why does a lot of SpecFic literature these days, especially in the fantasy genre, seem to be constantly trying to out-gross the last hard-hitter?

Don’t get me wrong, I write dark fantasy, I’ve put my characters through quite a bit, quite a graphic bit, so I’m certainly not against horror or gore in our fantasy works, I’m only asking you to ask yourself if it serves a purpose.  Does it, in some way, advance the plot?  Do we discover more about the characters’ weaknesses?  Their strengths?  Is it more than BadGuy kicking puppies and killing messengers to prove how ‘bad’ he really is?

Let’s use Brent Weeks’ Way of Shadows as an example, because it’s awesome and I love it.  It’s pretty horrific in those beginning chapters, and not just in a flat out blood-splatter kind of way either.  I’m talking abuse, rape and poverty all dealing with children between the ages of 8 and 14.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  But it’s more than just a desire to say ‘Well, these are the slums and stuff is bad.  See, look!’  We’re shown just how evil the BadGuy characters are and how much our Hero has to endure so that when the BadGuy makes his dramatic re-appearance years later, we’re just as terrified as our Hero.  We know what BadGuy is capable of, we’ve seen it.  We know what our Hero endured, we were there with him when the blows landed and the tears fell.  It’s real to us.  That is a gorebag with ammo and a stimpak inside.

Here’s something else to consider: there’s more to horror than blood and guts or raping and pillaging.  There are episodes of The Twilight Zone that still scare the crap out of me using black & white TV, Rod Serling’s voice and some damn good characterization.  What about the horror of a situation?  Overcoming fears?  The power of suggestion is amazing so let your readers put their imagination to work.  Have you ever been in a situation where you had to confront someone or something?  You knew it was coming, but you spend the hours leading up to it dreading all the ways it can go wrong?  How often was your imagination, fueled by your irrational fears, more terrifying than what did come to pass?

I’m noticing what could be called a trend in some of the SpecFic works out there where it seems as though everyone is trying to one-up the last guy.  Characters, significant or otherwise, are killed for shock value.  How many books lately have opened with someone either dead, dying or in the process of being killed?  It’s not a bad thing, my own current WIP opens with a bar fight, but I think there needs to be more balance.  I think it’s a fine line and some writers are crossing it in an attempt to be more shocking, more bloody, more everything than the last guy, while their plot and characters sit forgotten on the curb.

Like anything else in your story, your horror aspects must be integral.  They must serve a purpose.  In my opening scene, I need you to see just how far my MC is willing to go to get what she wants, because the shit hits the fan pretty quick and we need to see what kind of girl we’re working with.  Do I succeed?  Not sure, guess I’ll find out.  What I do know is that if I removed that scene and started the book from the next one, no one would have any reason to believe this girl could hold her own.  It has a purpose.

What about you?  Do you include aspects of horror or the disturbing in your SpecFic?  How do you feel about books that do?  Is it purposeful or trend-ful?  Would a zombie fat unicorn scare you?  ‘Cause it would me.

The M.I.C.E. quotient…ummm…what?

The M.I.C.E. quotient…ummm…what?

By Dawn G. Sparrow

There are many ways to tell a story. There may even be many ways to tell a good story. However, when you break down a great story, you find it is some variation of the M.I.C.E. quotient.

Well, okay, then, what is it?

 Orson Scott Card created this useful way of dissecting a story.

I’m a horror writer, which, if you know me, makes no sense whatsoever. I am outgoing and fun, with bouts of sadness, yet horror and Dawn don’t seem to match up very well. The point of this tangent is to let you know, that I will be skewing the formula toward horror. I may not men it to, but it is who I am.

Anyway, back to the show!

Let’s start by breaking down what M.I.C.E. means.

M- Milieu – simply the world surrounding the characters, every part of the environment of the characters has a place here.

I- Idea – information that the reader is meant to learn or discover during the story.

C- Character – the nature of one or more of the people in the story, which generally arises from or leads to a conclusion on human nature.

E- Events – the events of the story are everything that happens and why.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, each story contains different proportions of these four things.

In a MILIEU story, the story is about the setting and someone who moves through it. These are the Gulliver’s Travels and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court stories. The thing of supreme importance is the setting, pure and simple. Time travel and space travel stories often fall more heavily in this group.

In an IDEA story, a question or problem is posed at the beginning of the work and answered at the end. Different levels of characterization are needed depending on the specific genre and book. Most murder mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Ross MacDonald fall into this category. Caper stories in particular need less characterization and are all about the idea.

In a CHARACTER story (my kind of story), the person attempts to change or is changed, usually by external forces forcing a re-evaluation of life. The protagonist MUST be changed in some way from the beginning of the story to the end.

As I said, this is my type of story so forgive me if I expound a little bit. The best thrillers and suspense novels are the ones where you fear for the protagonist and watch them change through the story. Horror simply can’t work without this. Some may try to argue that Lovecraft is not horror by this definition. Fine. Argue that. Look more closely and you will see that although the milieu is important, almost its own character in some stories, the descent into madness of the protagonist is the real focus. (Remember the protagonist may not be the narrator, and madness can also encompass the ‘strange disappearances’.) Take The Mist by Stephen King, the novella, NOT the movie which totally changed the ending and made it much less of a horror story. The story appears to be straightforward. A mist comes in and traps people in a supermarket after a big storm. The environment forms the story, right? No. The real story is about the interactions of the people in the market, not their encounters with the strange monsters in the mist. Look at other horror stories and think about why the scare you, or at least work as horror. You see? Character is the very essence of good horror.

Okay, enough of my celebration of horror, I will do more posts on that later, rest assured.

In an EVENT story, something happens and causes something else to happen. The world is thrown out of balance and the people in the story try to fix it. It ends when they succeed or fail. Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo are great examples of this.

I think you can see how different stories use these four elements in different amounts to create a story of whole cloth. So, pick your story, try to figure out which one your story leans the most toward, and then decide if that is what you really want it to do.

I am indebted to Orson Scott Card’s writing books How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy and Characters and Viewpoint. Some of the examples used above come directly from those books, while others are my own.

Good writing!

Dawn