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.

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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.

And Now For Something Completely Different

My daughter has been very slow to start talking, which is both worrying and deeply frustrating. It’s getting to the point where we need to make an appointment to take her to a specialist to try to find out what the problem is.

And that makes me think about language barriers. My little ninja (she’s seriously stealthy and agile for a two-year-old) woke up in the middle of the night last night and had shrieking hysterics when put back into bed… and I don’t know why. She can’t tell me. I don’t know if she had a scary nightmare, or if she had a stomach ache, or if she’s just upset because she has the flu. I can try assorted things – drink of milk, bottle of chilled water, cuddles, songs, letting her curl up in our bed instead of her own – but they’re semi-informed guesses at best.

Language differences are often handwaved in fiction. Universal translators are a science-fiction staple, ‘common’ or ‘trade-talk’ ditto in fantasy. Magic can ease a linguistic barrier, or maybe a babelfish in the ear.

Which bugs me, a little. Language is the medium in which novels communicate and yet they hand-wave and simplify it to the point of  non-existence. I really think characters can handle a little in the way of basic linguistic inconvenience. It also ignores the fact that even now, let alone in the days before pocket dictionaries, people often know more than one language, especially if they’re likely to need to. Lady Jane Grey famously spoke and wrote French, Greek, Italian and Latin fluently, in addition to English, and she was still in her teens when she died. There is no reason why characters in high fantasy shouldn’t speak multiple languages… even a Farmboy Protagonist may have picked up a few words here and there, if he happens to have grown up near a trade-route. In fact, the idea that everyone in a fantasy world speaks the same language is orders of magnitude less likely than Farmboy Protagonist happening to have happened on a few words of Exotic Foreign.

I’ll concede that in science fiction, this is harder. A mechanical translator is a pretty reasonable solution to the fact that not only are there whole worlds full of new languages that possibly haven’t been encountered before, but that a humanoid vocalizing mechanism probably isn’t going to be up to producing all of them. Even so, it would be nice to at least see some token difficulties.

One of my favourite depictions of this is in the beginning of the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’, in which the poet Ahmed ibn Fadlan learns to speak Norse over the course of a journey, by listening to the men around him talking. Words slowly become clear, and eventually he’s able to communicate, though his use of grammar is noticeably different, which I thought was a nice touch. (Yes, I know it’s a terribly cheesy movie. I like it anyway.) David Weber in his War God series does acknowledge the existence of different languages, and gets around the problem tidily enough by having his protagonist being a somewhat well-educated noble, the son of a prince, who like Jane Grey has learned multiple languages as a matter of course. He doesn’t speak them all perfectly, but he can get by.

In science fiction, the best example that leaps to mind is a very old book called ‘The Dancing Meteorite’, by Anne Mason. I loved this book when I was younger, and as an adult I hunted down a second-hand copy so I could have it forever. It features a young ‘e-comm’ xenolinguist, who runs into trouble several times not only because learning multiple alien languages – some of which are nigh-impossible for a human to produce the sounds for – takes up all her time, isolating her from her peers, but because it takes up all her study time. She doesn’t have enough scientific grounding to know that a meteorite shouldn’t change direction spontaneously, let alone all the other information her peers think is elementary. Anne Mason showed very clearly what a huge barrier language can be, including having Kira explaining to the members of her exploratory team when they protest that handling languages is her job, not theirs, that they will all be in different parts of the alien ship they hope to travel on, and that she will only be able to translate for one of them at a time, and in addition is required to do her own work as well as acting as the diplomat for the team and suck it up and learn your shit, princesses. Not that she says that, but oh, it would have been delightful if she had.

I know it’s tempting to insert a convenient lingua franca into fiction, so that you don’t have to waste time on explanations or translations, but I do think it’s something that should be given real thought, not just brushed off. Language barriers are so utterly frustrating, they make a wonderful source of tension in a plot – and one that doesn’t require willful misunderstandings or being Stupid-In-Service-To-The-Plot. I would love to see a fantasy novel in which the group of travellers Brought Together By Fate don’t all speak the same language, and have to rely on those members who know both or all three languages to relay information. The possibilities for complications just abound! And when The Group Gets Separated, as it traditionally does, well, then things could get really interesting.

Does that story already exist? If it does, please let me know!

EDIT: If anyone is wondering, the trouble with the Tiny Ninja was an ear infection. We have antibiotics for it, and she’s much happier already.

I Would Make A Terrible Fictional Character

I have hurt myself again. I’m not really sure how – I was just walking along and there was stabbing pain in my ankle again. Hypermobility means that this happens, and I’m mostly used to it.

But it got me thinking, because I narrativize my reality fairly frequently, about how completely unrealistic my life is sometimes, when you define ‘realistic’ as ‘standard’.  I’ve always had a great sympathy for Sailor Moon – her detractors complain about how her klutziness is supposed to be ‘cute’ and isn’t, and it’s always bothered me. When I was younger I loved seeing a character – a heroine, even! – who was just as apocalyptically clumsy as me, and couldn’t walk down a street without falling flat on her face.  And Usagi isn’t just clumsy – she’s gawky and awkward sometimes, has trouble figuring out how to behave like a grownup even as she wants more and more to be one, cries when she’s scared and generally acts like a completely genuine fourteen-year-old girl. I loved her for that, and always will.

I’m relatively fortunate in my search for role-models. I am a white, English-speaking cis-gendered woman, and I have plenty of them to choose from. I’m aware that that makes me relatively lucky, in that I’m actually permitted to exist in popular media. But if I was a fictional character, unless my hypermobility was the subject of a Very Special Episode in which everyone is instructed about my obscure illness via a carefully tailored scenario – maybe by House – I wouldn’t be very plausible. I have trouble convincing people the problem exists even when they can actually talk to me. Add severe anxiety issues and the unrealistically poor memory to the mix, and I’m really quite poorly thought out as a character.

Now I envy the characters in fourth-wall-breaking comics like Real Life, who can complain to their creator about their poor characterization or their story’s internal logic, because I definitely think my narrative could be improved.

Realism in writing isn’t the same thing as ‘like reality’. Reality is all too often dull, repetitive, and sometimes wildly implausible. When I see a novel or a movie lauded for being ‘raw’ and ‘real’, I will automatically pass on it because ‘real’ usually means ‘full of unpleasant people doing stupid things and being just appallingly dull and self-pitying’. A story should be held to a higher standard of narrative plausibility than reality, because reality has no quality control at all, whereas a story should have an editor or a producer or someone whose job it is to say ‘wait, that just makes no sense at all’.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to be realistic in writing – realistic characters are the best kind. But consider the suffix. Realistic doesn’t mean real. Wiktionary defines the suffix ‘ic’ as ‘of or pertaining to’. (It kind of startled me that Google had so many suggestions for a search of ‘the suffix ‘ic”, indicating that an awful lot of people had wondered about this) So realistic writing should be ‘of or pertaining to’ that which is real, but not necessarily real real. Reality doesn’t need to make sense, to be logically consistent and plausible. Fiction does. Which is odd, when you think about it, but there it is.

If anyone else has looked at their life or events therein and thought ‘wow, my narrative is really pretty sub-par, I could come up with something way better than this’, I would love to hear about it. Answers guaranteed!

 

Narrativizing The Random

Yep, narrativizing. I’m pretty sure I just invented that word. Inventing words! I’m just that kind of edgy creative type.

I couldn’t think of an existing word for it, though. You know that thing you do when things happen and you connect them in your head even though they’re not apparently causally linked and it makes a story? That thing! Narrativizing the random.

It’s a vital skill in playing D&D. The dice act as randomizers, but then you have to work the random effects into the story, right? For example, I used to play a half-orc warrior who loved a fight, right? First into every fray, that kind of thing. I was always out in front in my eagerness to kill anything that moved. Except that for some reason, I couldn’t win an initiative roll to save my freaking life. I almost *always* wound up last in the round, despite the fact that I was the one standing in the doorway, and I had to explain that. So my half-orc became a wild enthusiast who tended to get over-excited and charge right past the target, or miss her first swing in the excitement.

I’ve had some good luck with ‘it’s a sign’! More often than not, when I decide that I have been given a sign to go shopping, I will find a sale or something I really want. Of course, I never ever get a sign to suggest that I should not go out in bad weather, so I’ve been caught in many a severe weather outbreak. Signs are iffy things. But it can be fun to roll with them and see where they lead you.

Sometimes reality positively connives at this. Every time my husband and I have a major fight, something happens to him. He’ll get injured somehow, or knock something over onto himself, or a coconut will fall on his head (really, this has happened twice!) or our daughter will strike him a mighty blow to the testicles apparently by accident (about twelve times and counting), or he’ll in some other way be struck down by seeming chance. It happens every single time. At this point, I’m honestly not certain if it’s an increasingly unlikely set of coincidences,  if he’s being punished by the household gods for doubting me, or if someone up there just likes messing with his skepticism.

Nothing ever happens to me when we fight. He thinks this is very unfair. I think it’s because I’m always right.

I’ve used it for writing, too. When I’m really stuck, I’ll turn to anything for inspiration. Tarot cards are often very helpful – every card has its own little story event thingie, so drawing one at random and then throwing the indicated plot twist in there can really get a stuck story moving. Putting on the television and using the first plot idea you see can also work. I’ve flipped coins when I couldn’t decide which character to kill off, I’ve consulted my horoscope for suggestions, and if I’m really having trouble I create copies of my characters in The Sims and see what they do. (This is actually really helpful sometimes. The way the characters interact can give you a ton of new information, like ‘hey, these two are attracted to each other? that makes so much sense!’ and ‘wow, this guy whose sexual orientation I hadn’t decided yet is the gayest Simling I have EVER SEEN, good to know’.)

If you’re really stuck, don’t be afraid to consult the oracles. Your random card or coin toss won’t always help, but sometimes putting your plot in the hands of fate can really get things moving. And if your horoscope says today is a bad day for creative endeavours, well, fate clearly intends for you to put word-count on hold for the day and play Dragon Age instead. For inspiration. And in day to day life, narrativizing the random can really add interest… and sometimes paranoia.

 

My Dreams Judge Me

I’ve always had quite vivid, often peculiar dreams. An enduring favourite remains the one in which I was attending Hogwarts, which was located in Brisbane’s Myer Centre (a shopping mall, for foreigners), and was berating Professor Xavier for reading my email. Really, I swear I actually dreamed this.

The most recent one of note – aside from the one in which I married James Bond, and when I woke up couldn’t think why because there are SO MANY FICTIONAL CHARACTERS I WOULD RATHER MARRY, but as far as I recall I was doing it to spite my actual husband who *does* like James Bond – is the one I believe I have previously mentioned, in which I attended a writing seminar with my friend Miranda on the art of writing Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which was going very well until the zombies attacked. (Wow, that was quite a run-on sentence. I considered fixing it, but it’s so magnificently long that I thought I should preserve it as an example to future generations.)

Anyway, I dreamed about attending a writing seminar, which was nice of my brain, since I can’t afford to go to real ones just now, but given that I’ve never had any desire to write a choose-your-own-adventure story I’m puzzled as to why that was the subject. I actually learned some things, too, which only goes to show that my subconscious doesn’t skimp when it comes to suspiciously brawny writing instructors who also fight zombies. I wrote down what I had learned, which mostly boiled down to ‘how you can plan the structure of one of these suckers so it won’t fry your brain’ and passed it on to Cult-Leader Kess who runs our writing group. It got used last night, which made me happy!

And I finally figured out why my brain had done this to me. I’m a pantser, not a planner, and I often fall foul of the Pantser’s Bane – a floppy middle section and lost plot direction. So my subconscious dragged me to a seminar on the one genre  that has to be planned. That I can’t just blithely assume will work out as I go along.

My dreams judge me. And now I kind of want to write a choose-your-own-adventure story.