Captain Of The Story Ship

So do your characters always do what they’re told?

I’ve read many an account of characters getting away from their author, and quite a few people sneering at the very idea because honestly, you’re the author, keep the little bastards under control.

… have I written about this before? God, I have no idea, there are too many entries to read over all of them every day to remember what I’ve already written, and I know I’ve ranted on the subject before but have I done it here?

I don’t know. I’m going to say not. If I have, please point and laugh discreetly.

Anyway, I’ve had characters ‘get away’ before, doing things I hadn’t planned. I actually plan for that, since I tend to write better when I give the narrative its head and see what happens. And I have been criticized for that, because clearly my characters are just made up in my head and they can’t do things on their own because that’s silly. To which I say… well, yes and no.

Yes, technically, my characters are generated by my brain, and have no outside existence and no free will. In theory.

But the brain is a magnificently complicated organ, with several layers of processing going on that have nothing to do with my conscious thoughts. The more fully realized a character is in my head, the better I know them, the more likely I am to suddenly lose the ability to force them to do something that isn’t appropriate to their internal logic.

Seriously, imagine someone you know well, say a family member. Now make that person, in your head, do something wildly out of character, like axe-murdering babies or giving money to Greenpeace. (I’m not judging, I’m just saying, different people have different absurdity-thresholds) It’s hard to do, right? You generally don’t imagine your mother laughing maniacally as she tears live kittens apart with her teeth, because it’s not something she would do. Your brain knows that this is an unrealistic simulation and doesn’t fire up the old adrenal glands because seriously, Consciousness, that is a completely unrealistic fear what are you even trying to pull here.

When you know your characters well enough to understand their internal logic, to get them as people, it’s hard to force them to behave out of character, because deep down you know better. And when they start doing something you weren’t expecting – well, for me, it usually turns out that while my conscious mind hadn’t taken into account this or that minor thing, some lower level of my brain had, and was factoring it into their characterization. Internal consistency is incredibly important in a believable character, and forcing them to behave irrationally in service to the plot doesn’t do anyone any favours. And just as you can often predict the reactions of people you know without thinking it through consciously, you can start doing it with well established characters, too.

So my characters do things I wasn’t expecting sometimes, and it’s often only on the reread that I realize oh, hey, that actually makes perfect sense because she’s actually quite defensive and wouldn’t even have done that so yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and I do have to beat them back onto the planned path, but not often. As a rule, if a character insists on doing something, in my head at least, it’s because it’s in character for them to do that thing at that time, and my subconscious knows it even if my conscious mind hasn’t thought of it yet.

So if people give you crap for letting your characters get away from you, tell them you’re just very in tune with your subconscious. Or that you feel that maintaining plausible characterization is more important than adhering rigidly to an arbitrary plan. Or just ‘screw you, I write how I write and it’s none of your damn business’.

Because it isn’t. We think how we think, we write how we write, and what’s important is finding the process works for you, not what other people think you should do.


Little Details And Coffee Fandom

Little details are important. A little thing out of whack can get the attention of someone of someone who knows how things are supposed to be.

I used to work for the Queensland Police, and I really impressed them once by identifying a counterfeit twenty dollar note from across the room, while it was in a bag. I couldn’t tell that the note was printed on paper instead of plastic, or that the holograms were missing… but I could see that it wasn’t exactly the right shade of red. (Australian twenties are orange-red) I’d worked for years in a supermarket, and one of the few things I do remember well is colour. I see a scarlet red instead of an orange red on a twenty and I know something is wrong.

Someone who handles money all day – and pays attention to it – is much more likely to spot a forgery than someone who only uses it to buy things. Someone who spends all day taking care of kids will notice the signs of illness, especially in a kid they know, before a non-expert. Someone who spends all their time in a particular place – the woods, the city, whatever – is going to notice something out of place that no visitor would.

… I had to get up and deal with the kid and now I have no idea where I was going with this.

So, I really like coffee. But I don’t like good coffee. I like cheap instant with way too much sugar. I’m really bad at liking coffee, or so I’m told by *real* coffee-lovers. But I don’t care. I like it how I like it and it works for me.

Coffee fandom is a lot like most other fandoms, when you get right down to it. Everyone thinks their flavour preference is the best, people get really passionate about what sweetener their coffee is shipped with, and they can be very judgemental of other fans who don’t like coffee properly. Seriously, walk into a Starbucks and order a plain black coffee, or ask for a mocha frappucino in a nice cafe, and see how people look at you. It’s Avengers Movieverse vs 616 all over again.

So it can be a good way of explaining fandom. A lot of people drink coffee, and they understand that drip vs instant is a whole big thing, and sometimes if you can find a comparison they understand, people can transition from ‘god, you’re so weird for being so obsessed with fictional characters’ to ‘God, you are not seriously comparing Captain America to a cappucino how does coloured ink on paper compare to SWEET CAFFIENE’.

Well, it’s not perfect.  But if you’re trying to explain fandom to a Muggle, coffee isn’t a bad gateway obsession.



Being An Adult Is Tiring

So apparently I was so tired yesterday that I forgot to post at all. My only excuse is that I’ve been being a responsible adult all week and it wore me out. Sorting out unemployment payments, parenting payments, a rent assessment, a job-center interview and trying to budget for the Big Girl Bed my daughter needs and the new trampoline mat we’ll all go mad without took it out of me.

If you are the parent of a hyperactive toddler, or know one, may I recommend the backyard trampoline as an unbeatable aid to sanity? They can wear themselves out bouncing around, and pavement chalk works a treat on the mat, so they can draw up there too. This is excellent for the child whose creativity you don’t want to stifle but who cannot be permitted access to crayons, pens or pencils due to an uncontrollable urge to draw on the walls.

One thing I noticed as I was rushing around was the way that most of the people I was dealing with seemed to be willing to go out of their way to help me. Especially since in at least a couple of cases, I’d screwed up on providing information I was responsible for, so the problems were at least in part my fault. Most of the credit goes to the genuinely lovely employees of the various organizations, of course. Working for Centrelink and the Department of Housing has to be pretty thankless, most of the time.

But it did help, as one woman I talked to confirmed when I asked, that I have a good reputation with these organizations. I always overpay my rent a little to the DoH to build up a cushion for emergencies, which they love. I’m always pleasant to Centrelink employees, thank them for their help, and don’t complain about the long waits or hoops they make me jump through (at least, not to their faces or in any way that could get back to them). I try to get appropriate information to them on time. So when I screw up they’re understanding about it, rather than assuming I’m trying some sort of scam.

I am constantly baffled by the number of people who throw fits at Centrelink or scream curses at the receptionist at the DoH office. Surely if there was ever a time to try to attract civil servants with honey, not vinegar…! Anyone who’s worked in customer service knows that customers as a group are grasping, rude and deceitful, but it’s even worse when you’re providing a necessary service rather than a product they can take or not as they like. (This may explain why most Centrelink/unemployment offices appear to be staffed with a combination of tired, flustered saints and former prison guards discharged for unnecessary cruelty to prisoners.)

I cannot too strongly recommend being nice to people providing you with a service. Not only is it the decent thing to do anyway, but a little good-will built up with your landlord or your unemployment officer can go a long, long way if you run into trouble.

Now I have to go pay the electricity bill and oh crap I owed a write-up on choose-your-own-adventure stories to Kess two days ago.  (Revelations in real time! That’s the kind of raw honesty this blog has!)

What’s In A Name?

As previously mentioned, I have a terrible memory. It’s particularly weak on the subject of names. This can be a real problem for a reader. Nobody with a good memory can understand the sheer embarrassment of walking into a book-shop, realizing that your memory has failed you utterly, and having to ask for help.

“Uhm… excuse me?”


“I’m looking for a book, it’s a sequel to a book I have and I really liked, but I don’t remember the name.”

“Sure, what was the author’s name?”

“Uh, I don’t remember.”

“Okay, what was the name of the first book?”

“… I’m really sorry, but I don’t remember that either.”

“Oooookay. Do you remember anything about the book?”

“It was about a detective in a steampunk version of Victorian England and he had a lady assistant named Veronica and the cover had a dirigible and lots of shiny gold bits. I’d know it if I saw it.”

“(super bookseller tappity-taps for a minute at the computer) Oh! You’re looking for The Osiris Ritual by George Mann. I’ll show you where it is.”

She was very nice and didn’t laugh at me even once, but I was utterly mortified even as I hurried out of Dymocks clutching the precise book I’d been looking for. And in the spirit of honesty, to tell this story I had to google ‘steampunk victorian detective’ and look around for a familiar cover, because I still don’t remember the author’s name or the titles! But I found out there’s a new one out, so go me. (And they’re good books!)

I have even worse problems with comic-book creators, who change way more often. My husband and I frequently have variations on this conversation whenever we try to get back into buying comics.

“Ooh, that story sounds interesting, let’s buy that!”

“(husband picks up the book) No, you don’t want to buy this.”

“Why not?”

“Frank Quitely drew this.”


“The guy you say is like Hitler.”

“OH, right, the one who can’t draw people! Okay. Find me one of the guys I like.”

“Do you like Grant Morrison?”

“Who’s he? Is he the one who hates women?”

“Which one who hates women?”

“The one with the Evil Slut Flakes.”

“No, that’s Chuck Austen. Grant Morrison is the one you think can be a bit of a wanker but all right if he’s properly edited.”

“Think he’s properly edited in this one?”

“I’ll risk it. I want to read this.”

“Okay, so who’s the one who doesn’t think I want to buy comics?”

“Joe Quesada. Now go get your Batman so we can go.”

For the record, comparing Frank Quitely to Hitler can get you funny looks. But it’s true! Good at landscapes and architecture, rubbish at people! Although I hear Quitely’s gotten a little better in the last few years.

And it’s not just real people, or their fictional characters. (My spouse is getting used to getting television recaps with such descriptors as ‘you know, the floppy one’ and ‘the pretty one from Friday Night Lights. No, the other pretty one.’) I have trouble with my own characters too. I once showed up at a NaNoWriMo write-in to realize that I’d culled my on-the-go writing file too far and had cut all mention of one character’s name. She was SFP (secondary female protagonist) for nearly two hours before I yelped ‘SOFIA!’ and startled everyone on my side of the table. This, mind you, was a week in, and I’d been writing her name multiple times every day.

I have learned to keep cheat sheets of names on every computer when I’m writing. Especially if I’m inventing gods or suchlike, because they crop up rarely enough that the name won’t get hammered into my brain by repeated typing. But then I always forget to update the sheet and I’m left hunting through Chapters Four to Seven because I know I mentioned him somewhere in here. I once had to call my long-suffering husband and ask him if he remembered what I’d named my fictional kingdom. He did. He’s so awesome. (He also didn’t complain when I went and woke him up just now to ask him who the one who hates women is.)

On the up side, I’ve only called my child by my sister’s name – or my cat’s name – a few times, and I’ve had her for nearly three years, so maybe I’m improving.

Reading is compulsory

So I posted yesterday about how writers need to read (and watch, and listen, and basically stuff stories into every facial orifice as often as possible and wow that’s an interesting mental image). And I do read. I read constantly. I have caches of books scattered everywhere- in the bathroom, in my handbag, in the drawer of my bedside table – in case I am caught without reading material for a few minutes at a time when I can’t immediately get up, or don’t want to because my bed is cosy. One of the first things I bought when I found out I was pregnant was an e-reader, because five days in hospital and you’re only allowed to bring one bag? Yeah, not going to work for me.

As it turned out, this was the best purchase I made, because between the fact that I couldn’t get out of bed to get a book for three days thanks to the c-section, and spending my first day in intensive care without even my baby to pass the time with, I would have gone nuts without it. But that’s another story.

I read constantly, but I recently realized that it’s been quite a while since I read anything new. I love to reread, in part because I love dwelling on the eloquent prose of my favourites and revisiting favourite passages, and in part because as previously noted my memory is epically bad. So rereading is actually super fun for me because I know I loved the book but I don’t actually remember half the details, so it’s like having a nearly new book.

It does not, however, help much in the whole ‘growth as a writer’ stakes. I already know what these books have to teach me, so now I’m just rereading for the fun of it. Which is not making me grow. Growing is required – plus, if I want to get published, some passing knowledge of books published in the last three years would probably be a good idea.

So new project for the new year. Read – and review, I think – at least ten new books by writers previously unknown to me. I want to try to read some Australian authors, maybe more steampunk, some classic fantasy and some science-fiction, because I’ve been reading almost no science fiction lately. Does anyone have any recommendations for new books? I would be very grateful! Those available as ebooks are best, since I rarely read paper books these days. Also ebooks tend to be cheaper.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Little File of Big Ideas

I’ve had one of these for years. Actually, I’ve had several for years – I tend to back them up when changing computers, then be too lazy to go looking and start a new one anyway. It’s where I write down all the nifty ideas that come to me when I’m working on something else, or too busy to deal with them right away. I realized years ago that if I don’t write them down, no matter how brilliant and memorable they seem at the time, sooner or later I will forget. Especially given my Queen Of Bad Memory status.

I’ve got everything in there, including genres I almost never read – there’s one plot for a tech-thriller that just won’t drop out of my head – ready for me to come back to them. I almost never write a story as soon as I have the idea. I can’t. If I do, it invariably dies on the page, because the plot hasn’t had enough time to germinate and put down roots in my head. I need to think it over, play with it, write it down, let it simmer for a while in the back of my head… and then come back and see what grows. Sometimes it’s nothing, occasionally it’s something truly amazing. Occasionally I go through and delete a few ideas that no longer seem big, because it’s possible to grow out of ideas.

But it’s a wonderful thing to have, and I strongly recommend it to any writer. It lets you walk away from an idea you’re not ready for, or one that needs more germinating time, and come back later knowing you won’t forget or lose it. Obviously you should back this particular document up to hell and back. I favour dropbox and USB, but in general just make sure it’s in at least three places that won’t all die simultaneously. Back it up along with your writing, so it’s all safe together, that’s always best.

And go back and reread it from time to time. It’s wonderful the good ideas you’ll find there that you completely forgot that you had, waiting like little gifts from your past self.

Three guesses what *I* was doing this morning…