Why Do I Do This To Myself?

So I’ve spent the last few days compulsively reading the English translation of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, or ‘When They Cry‘. It’s a jolly little Groundhog-Day-style repeating story with serial killings and insanity and people getting murdered in a thrilling variety of gruesome ways.

This was a bad decision, for the record.

It’s one I keep making. I watched Ghost Ship and had a pillow over my head for half of it. I watched The Ring and had nightmares for a week. I keep reading creepy urban legends and then not being able to sleep. I don’t know why, but scary stories have a terrible allure for me even though they freak me out and I couldn’t even watch Sweeney Todd without hiding my eyes during the bloody bits.

When They Cry kept me awake until two in the morning, way too creeped out to sleep. And I didn’t have all of it, so I’m going to read the other arcs and do this to myself again. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’ll do it anyway because I need to know what happens.

As far as I can tell, most people who enjoy horror stories don’t actually have nightmares and hide under pillows and find it impossible to sleep after finding out the latest horrifying twist (SHION WHY). I don’t even enjoy them most of the time. But every now and then I pick up a DVD case and read the back, or happen across a review online, and I get curious and think I’ll just take a peek and YOU WOULD THINK I WOULD KNOW BETTER BY NOW. Apparently I have sub-conscious self-destructive urges that express themselves by putting thoughts in my head like ‘I’m thirty-five, surely I am now sufficiently jaded to handle a horror comic meant for teenagers’.

I am not.

This is why I had nightmares about my baby being either a vampire or a zombie after she was born. Didn’t improve the post-natal freakout one bit.

I have very rarely tried to write creepy. This is probably my best attempt. I would actually really like to, but I have the little problem that I completely terrify myself and can’t finish and don’t want to think about it because scary. Like writing mystery, it’s something I really want to do but find myself fundamentally ill-equipped for. Do any of you have a genre you like reading and want to write but just can’t seem to get the knack of? (Or can’t do except during day-light with cartoons on and someone at hand to distract you at need?)

The Mystery Of The Self-Doubting Writer

Well, it’s not all that mysterious. Writers are a notoriously neurotic bunch. We were once presumed to be interestingly malnourished, probably drunken creatures holed up in an attic with a typewriter, now we’re popularly supposed to be uninterestingly malnourished, probably anxiety-ridden creatures holed up at a desk with a computer.

I will poke my pale, timidly quivering nose out from behind my computer to concede that yes, I am in fact anxiety-riddled and prone to holing up, although I do it with my three year old, the TV and a supply of fruit and healthy crackers, so only for a given level of ‘holed up’. And that’s probably why I’ll never write a mystery, as much as I’d like to.

Whoa, there, Salmon, that’s quite the leap you made there. How are those two connected again? (I’m sure you were wondering.)

I love murder mysteries. I adore Hamish Macbeth, Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Tom Barnaby, Phryne Fisher, Detective Inspector Frost, Monk, and that strange little man Columbo. I love the puzzle-solving and the clever little clues and (as mentioned in my last post) the way the main characters are relatively safe.

The tension of mysteries comes from a very different place than the tension in most other genres. It’s not peril to the major characters – although some of them go with the perpetually-in-danger-of-losing-job semi-tension – it’s the mystery itself. And some peril. A bit.

Mysteries have to be a bit clever. I don’t know how mystery-writers do it. Whenever I try, it seems so painfully obvious and all the clues stick out a mile. How can you tell if a clue is subtle enough when you know it’s supposed to be there? Beta readers may be the answer – get a fresh pair of eyes on the story and see what they pick up. But I get so frustrated at not being able to come up with anything even remotely clever that it never really gets to the point where I can show it to someone else.

So if you write mysteries, well, I salute you. You are braver and more devious than I.

All The Ideas In The World

Do you ever feel like you have too many ideas? I do. I can never possibly write them all – and what if I don’t pick the right one to *try* to write? What if I forget a good one chasing a bad one?

I what-if myself a lot. I suspect we all do.

But I do wonder how published authors can stick to just one genre. Don’t they get bored? Do they really like sci-fi/romance/Pretentious Lit/fart jokes so much that they never want to branch out? I’ve heard different answers – that agents and publishers put presser on them to do more of the same because that’s what readers expect, or that they get comfortable in a particular genre and just want to stay there for a while, or that they really do just like one. Stephen King made a break for it, Barbara Cartland doesn’t seem to have. Like everything, it seems to depend on the author.

My favourite genre is broadly fantasy – urban, high, shaded with steampunk, I like it all – but the other day I was thinking about the Where Did Everybody Go trope… you know the one, where the town or ship or whatever is suddenly empty and a Rag-Tag Band of Strangers has to unite to find out what happened? And I was thinking about how I would do that one, just idly wondering because the last thing I need right now is a new project, and then next thing I know my brain is merrily depopulating a mining station on a planetoid somewhere and I don’t even usually write sci-fi but sometimes it just hijacks my brain. Especially since I happened to be reading the Honour Harrington series while I was thinking about it. (If you like badass ladies in your sci-fi, Honour Harrington is not half bad)

I’ve written down a few paragraphs of very rough outline, including what actually happened to all the people in case I forget. (If you have an idea that involves a twist, and you make a note of it? INCLUDE THE TWIST. I’ve forgotten one once, halfway through a fanfic I’d already started posting, and it was pretty damn awkward let me tell you) At this point, I’ll let it simmer for a while and then come back. If it still seems interesting and like something I want to write, I’ll take a crack at it.

 

When Planning Is A Bad Thing

Planning is in general a good idea. Planning family outings, or novels, or the weekly shopping, or means by which one may evade an unpleasant workmate is an excellent idea and makes catastrophic failure less likely.

But planning can slide over into causing failure, because it can be an excuse not to start doing the thing you’re planning. Planning a ‘perfect’ date can go on so long that you miss lots of chances for a nice regular one, and leave your significant feeling neglected. Planning a perfect dinner can take so long that you nearly pass out when your blood-sugar crashes because you were waiting too long to eat (as a certain person I know can attest). Once planning slides over into fantasizing, you may never do it at all.

And of course, planning can be absolute poison for the nervous writer. You can postpone your novel indefinitely while you do ‘essential’ research, or figure out the backstory, or wait on enough money to buy that book on Renaissance fashion that will just make the whole thing. In No Plot, No Problem, Chris Baty suggests taking a week to plan out your novel, but no longer, to keep yourself from being bogged down. This is for NaNoWriMo, of course, an exercise in on-the-fly writing if ever there was one, but I still think a limited planning window is a good idea. It could be a week, two weeks, or a month – especially if you’re doing historical and really do need to do your research – but I wouldn’t recommend going over that. You can always look stuff up as you go.

Planning is good, overplanning is bad, essentially. So I’m going to stop planning and go buy some shoes. Waiting for the perfect sale be damned, my plantar fasciitis is playing up now.

Adapting Classic Works

It’s big these days. From Clueless to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, stealing adapting the works of classic authors is a surprisingly long-lasting Latest Thing. Especially Jane Austen. Ms Austen is cool. L. Frank Baum is also big, theftwise.

I personally enjoy doing this. The closest I’ve ever come to finishing a manuscript is my adaption of The Wizard Of Oz, entitled Mobile City: Overlander Z. (I posted the first draft of the first chapter a while back, if anyone’s interested. Any comments will be extremely gratefully received.) But as with anything, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I understand P&P rewrites/sequels/adaptions are getting a chilly reception lately, which is why I’ve shelved mine for now. (Jane and Bingley’s POV! Let them tell their love story! It would be fun, must get back to it some time).

I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s works lately, as I frequently do when I’m tired or depressed or don’t have anything new to read or it’s Tuesday, because I love them and will basically read them over and over forever. It struck me that while P&P adaptions are rampant, and Sense and Sensibility and Emma have had their turn in the spotlight, you don’t see a lot of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park or Persuasion gadding about in new covers or movie adaptions.

Which is a real shame, because while Mansfield Park is reasonably tightly anchored to its own time, the other two would adapt pretty well, especially as Clueless-style movie retellings. (I know a lot of Austenphiles don’t like Clueless. I don’t care, I think it’s just adorable) Take Northanger Abbey: idealistic, slightly silly young girl goes on holiday, meets cute guy and sweet or duplicitous girls, visits guy and his sister, frightens herself half to death with wild imagination, marries boy. It’s got Hit Romantic Comedy written all over it.

Persuasion would be even better. Girl is firmly discouraged from getting married at nineteen, boy leaves in a huff, woman never really gets over the loss, then is taken advantage of by her self-absorbed sisters and father, before meeting boy again, having a couple of adventures, rescuing father from marrying sister’s scheming friend and then living happily ever after. It would transition really well into a modern setting, I think, and I like Anne as a heroine. She’s a bit over the romance-heroine hill instead of being a Young Thing, philosophical about her disappointments, and always considerate of other people’s feelings – unlike charming but thoughtless Elizabeth Bennet, just for example.

The more I think about this, the better the idea sounds. So IT’S MINE AND I CALLED IT.

I’ve always meant to try scriptwriting…

Exposition

Hi, my name is Genre Salmon and I love exposition.

I always feel like I should be signing up for some kind of twelve-step program called Wafflers Anonymous or Twelve Steps To Brusque Economy Of Language, but it’s true. I admit it. I love exposition. I love old-fashioned books that start with two or three pages of it.  I love reading page after page of description and inner monologue. Assuming, of course, that it’s written well – dull exposition is awful. But hand in hand with my passion for lyrical, evocative prose does come an enthusiasm for that prose being quite descriptive. And lengthy.

It may be because the first story I remember being read to me – and one of my two absolutely earliest memories – is of my dad reading me The Hobbit when I was three, to take my mind off a burn. He started reading the Hobbit aloud when I was, I think, four. So I imprinted early on pretty prose and extensive waffling on. (And I liked Tom Bombadil. Shut up. Tom Bombadil is fun if you’re little.)

And all, all, all the writing books and blogs and so forth seem to be categorically against exposition. Show, don’t tell. Never infodump. Don’t give away too much in the first chapter. And I know it’s good advice, I really do, but it’s so not what I do. Nope. Not at all. At least not in my first draft.

In my first draft, I info-dump like crazy in the first couple of chapters. I write down everything I think of that I want to put in, at least in part because as I have previously mentioned, my memory is such utter crap that I can completely forget entire chunks of backstory overnight. I just shove it all in there. Then, if I get to a spot later on where this piece of information would fit, I shove it in there as well. I once found the same minor revelation in three different places in the same text, which was actually kind of fun because I’d shown the different results of early, middling and late reveals and I could see which one I liked best.  Then when I’m done, and I’ve worked in little niblets of information throughout the narrative and figured out what who should know when, then I go back and cut most of the info-dumping from the first chapters.

If you have trouble pacing yourself early on, it’s an approach I recommend. You’ve got all the bits you wanted to put in in one place, including all the stuff you don’t need to leave in at all because the reader doesn’t actually need to know it but you-the-writer do, and when you’ve got more of the basic structure down you can nip back and start picking out choice tidbits of exposition and seeding it through the story a tiny bit at a time without forgetting anything.

I understand other people often get the same effect via ‘planning’. Or ‘outlining’. I’ve never bothered doing an outline more detailed than a list of bullet points to keep the plot vaguely on track, but it’s presumably also a useful way of keeping track of what’s going on and what your back-story is. (Anyone?)

Anyway. I exposit and info-dump and have my characters talk way too damn much all the time – in the first draft, anyway. Because you can always cut, but a character nuance forgotten can be gone forever.