Themes are the underlying identity of a piece of fiction. In fairy tales, the prevailing theme is usually summed up in the final paragraph of the story. But in most fiction the theme is more of an underlying current, directing the reader to focus their attention of certain details.
Ambitious works may use their themes to try and persuade the reader to accept new ideas while others may seek to hide their themes in subtext.
I never set out to write with a message in mind. I have a story to tell, and a way I want to tell it, and themes arise naturally through the process. When these themes show their ugly head, I’m often caught off guard by where my themes land. But once I discover a theme, then I’ll hone it without judgement.
Discovering the Themes
There are a few themes surfacing in Grim Curio, and today I’m going to talk about one. Namely nihilism, the absurd, and the sacred is dead. Believe me, the prevalence of these themes kind of took me by surprise, as these are not topics I tend to dwell on, nor are the necessarily deep held beliefs of mine.
You might suspect that I’ve read lots of Friedrich Nietzsche (the dude who claimed God was dead), but in reality I haven’t. I’m aware of his philosophies enough to hold a conversation about them, but that’s it. Honestly, I don’t care about philosophy enough to study any viewpoint, I tend to fall in the ‘it’s a waist of time’ camp. BUT, when I write philosophy has a way of sneaking in, and all of a sudden I’m a part of the conversation. I’m going to touch on a couple of those themes. Let’s get started.
Nihilism, The Absurd, The Sacred is Dead
In a recently written scene, James (the protagonist) sneaks into a villagers house. A professor who’s been studying these villagers for years tells him not to enter the rear rooms, they are sacred to the villagers. To this James remarks, “All that’s sacred died centuries ago. All this (referring to the rooms and the hedonistic village ceremonies) is simply absurd.”
Grim Curio takes place during humanities last days on earth, and what remains is a constant struggle to maintain order despite the meaninglessness of simply surviving. There are varying degrees of this nihilism, from James’ simple uncaring to Nat’s (antagonist) outright disregard for human life.
Since The Calamity, a series of cataclysmic events (water, fire, radiation), religion as we know it has died. What remains are the beliefs in order, in a return to nature, in the progression of science, and in giving in to the end of the world and just dying already.
In order to maintain stability and allow the human race to survive a little longer, those who cling to the new warped version of nature live in ‘the fringes’, the edge of livable space, and their bodies have evolved to deal with their new environment. And those who strive for scientific progress believe that technology will eventually save humanity, despite the fact that it was technology that led to humanities destruction in the first place.
So what we’re left with is the absurd world of Grim Curio where everyone is right, everyone is wrong, and no one can see the other side’s point of view. Hey, kind of sounds like the 21st century to me. And then there are the hardline opposites, the nihilists, who delight in the end of the world and the eventual removal of humanity from the earth.
So that’s it for today. There are of course other themes that are showing themselves: man vs. nature, order vs. chaos, but they aren’t nearly as interesting to talk about as the ones above. If you enjoy these peeks behind the scenes of Grim Curio, I would love to see you share them. This blog is only a few months old, and readership is growing slowly but steadily. If we could give it a shot in the arm, that would be super duper. But if you hate these posts (and why are you still reading? weirdo) then don’t share, and go sit on a tack or something.
When writing any work, it’s a good idea to establish goals. Some authors may focus their efforts on exploring the entire life of a character in a compelling way (Patrick Rothfuss and Name of the Wind). Another may focus on terse, expressive sentences and a relationship between father and son (Cormac McCarthy and The Road). Another may focus on exploring an interesting city and all the varied inhabitants therein (John Berendt and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).
Of course I can only guess if those goals were established by their authors. I haven’t talked to them about this or anything, but Pat, if you want some free coffee or beer, hit me up and I will gladly buy 😉. Either way, it’s a safe bet that these authors followed guidelines set up by themselves at some point during the creative process.
What are my goals while writing Grim Curio?
I’ve been considering my goals for Grim Curio for quite some time, and I have a pretty solid idea of what I want out of the book, at least in this stage of the process. Things may change, and that’s ok, but for now these are the driving So let’s dive in.
A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match.
My writing style morphs a bit from work to work. While writing Discovering Aberration my goal was to write as though I were a steampunk Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson love-child. I wonder what those two would think of that sentence. I believe form should match content. A post apocalyptic world is a barren, caustic place, so the sentences should match. This doesn’t mean writing as many three word sentences as possible, but I do like the occasional one or two word fragments for emphasis. The trick is not overdoing it.
The final thing I enjoy about minimalism is the rhythm. By the time I get to a third or forth rewrite, the rhythm and flow gets really established. It’s fun to establish a series of short and medium length sentences, then subvert that with a long, flowing thing that builds the scenes and expands the action. Then short again.
Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things.
One thing I loved about the novel The Final Empireby Brandon Sanderson was the eventual relatability of the villain. There’s something special about a story where even the bad dudes give you the feels. I want that in Grim Curio, but in my own way. There are a few antagonists in Grim Curio, but one of the major ones, who is introduced in the second chapter, is Nat. She is a sixteen year old girl who’s still figuring out the world she lives in. Like many disenchanted teenagers, Nat deals with harsh reality by destroying things. It starts small, smashing windows, but what happens when she’s adopted by an extremist group?
If I do my job right, you’ll love her and hate her. You’ll want to give her a hug, or wish someone would shoot her. The same goes for my other, secondary antagonists, but in different ways. Each should be understandable, relatable, even when they’re doing something terrible.
Strange but familiar
All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science.
I’m a huge fan of weird fiction, like Perdido Street Stationby China Mieville. I love the effect of making the strange feel familiar. Now I’m not attempting to dive as deep into the strange rabbit hole as Mieville. Rather I’m drawing heavy inspiration from how fantasy is portrayed in the anime (and manga I suppose, though I’ve not read it) MushiShi.
So how is fantasy incorporated into MushiShi? Very naturally. All of the fantasy elements are grounded in an in-world science. The Mushi themselves feel like an extension of our own reality, like slightly more fantastic bacteria, strange sentient swamps, or parasites that grant supernatural hearing that drives people to madness.
If you’ve read any of my snippets, you’ve probably seen similar things. Namely the disease in Clayton that afflicts children, causing them to scream in the sunlight, slowly eating away at their consciousness. I want these fantasy elements to feel like an extension of reality, strange but familiar.
Great things from small beginnings
James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?
There is a type of story where the protagonist begins with a relatively small task, and from that is sucked into an epic adventure. One example of this is the movie China Town (and many other film noir or hardboiled novels). In China Town the detective begins with a relatively small case that expands as he uncovers… why don’t you just watch the film, it gets intense.
In these stories, an often reluctant hero must escape his/her comfort zone and rise up to the challenge, otherwise the results could be disastrous. Grim Curio will take on a version of this. What begins for our protagonist, James, as a small case in an inconsequential village will escalate into a story of survival for the last city on earth and the entire human race. James motivations are often selfish, but when the time comes will he abandon those selfish desires, or will he give in to nihilism and abandon meaning in life, abandon the will to continually struggle to survive?
So those are my goals for Grim Curio as I see them now. They may expand or morph over time. Writing is an iterative process, and what seems to work in concept doesn’t always pan out in execution. So I suppose a last goal is more of a process one: to have the ability to roll with the creative punches, to abandon any goal that isn’t working for the story’s benefit.
That’s it for now. What do you think of these goals? Let me know in the comments, and we can continue the discussion there.
When I talk about writing, the most common question I’m asked is, ‘How do you stay motivated enough to finish a novel?’ That’s a tough question, especially when talking to new writers.
Until recently, I never really thought about it, it was just something I did. But over the last month, I’ve been hyper aware of what keeps me going. This blog post is the result.
We create because we are driven to create.
So if you’ve lit the fire inside, if you need to create something great but find your mind drifting to other things, this post is dedicated to you. Hopefully a few of these points will help instill in you the drive to keep going no matter what. Don’t worry, we’ll have some fun along the way 😉
You’ve heard this before, but that’s because it’s true. If you’re not passionate about what you’re creating, how can you stay motivated? There are ways of course, maybe you’re guaranteed a fat paycheck, but for most of us that’s not the case.
The driving force
We create because we are driven to create. So before you dive head first into a project, find a way to check your passion barometer to make sure it’s something you could spend a year or two working on without sticking a fork in your eye.
You’re going to spend a lot of time writing this sucker, you might as well enjoy it.
Measure your passion
For my latest novel, I spent six month doing this. I had three novel ideas:
a science fiction novel about a terminally ill man becoming the first true cyborg and the existential crises that follows
a thriller where an estranged father kidnaps his son and the mother must track him down in the woods of the Pacific Northwest
a post post apocalyptic novel of a man in the last city on earth who researches the unravelling of the universe.
Three very different books, three very different writing experiences, but each seemed equally interesting for me. So I devoted a couple of months to writing the opening to each of these ideas. When six months passed, I mulled over which writing experience I was most passionate about and landed on number 3 (you can read it here).
You don’t need to do this exact exercise for you’re next creative project, but I recommend seriously considering whether you’re idea will remain compelling to you six months, a year, maybe two or three years down the road. You’re going to spend a lot of time writing this sucker, you might as well enjoy it.
Passion is important, but it’ll only get you so far. If you’re like me, then you’re human. As humans, we get easily distracted by shiny things like social events, entertainment, work, video games, chores, this whole internet thing, pick your poison.
Pick a temptation and regulate it so that you only partake during or after you’ve worked on your project.
So we get distracted for a day or two, and that stretches to a week, a month. Suddenly our passion project has become a task because we lost momentum. Our tour de force has become another chore. Time to get some psychology on our side.
Harness your temptations
Creative work can be hard and thankless for long periods of time. When the going get’s tough, you need a way to pull yourself back in. One technique I use is called Temptation Bundling, a trick I learned from the Freakonomics podcast.
The gist of it is: there are things you love to do. Video games, reading, podcasts, food, TV, etc. These hobbies can either overwhelm your creative energy, or empower it. Pick a temptation and regulate it so that you only partake during or after you’ve worked on your project.
For me, I love The Witcher 3. At the end of the day there’s little I’d rather do than dive into The Witcher‘s world and slay some monsters.But I don’t allow myself to do this unless I’ve sat down and spent some time writing.
Let the things you enjoy motivate you
Some days when I don’t feel inspired, I sit in front of the computer, write maybe 100 words, then turn around and dive into my monster killin’. Other days I get sucked into the story I’m crafting and The Witcher remains untouched. Either way, at least I’ve done something.
I don’t know about you, but I thrive on recognition. I have a hard time writing in a vacuum. There are a few reasons for this. First, the feedback I get is invaluable to the quality of my writing.
Even when someone doesn’t know any literary techniques, they can still gauge when you’re story is interesting, when your characters are compelling, or when your writing is stilted or meandering.
Beyond this, just the knowledge of people reading my work is enough for me to get a little extra oomph in my motivation reserve. Harness this social desire to have your work recognized as a factor in your drive to create.
Get eyes on your work
There are lots of ways to get others to read and respond to your writing. Let’s explore a few of these methods to get you started.
This is a community of writers putting their work out there with the express intention of receiving a brutally honest critique. Nothing is as eye opening on the quality of your work as honest feedback from complete strangers. I find learning my weaknesses helps me improve my writing as I go, rather than when the piece is complete. Highly recommended.
If you’re lucky enough to have a friend willing to read over drafts and drafts of your work for a year+, then take advantage of that as much as you can.
This is a tricky relationship to maintain, especially if it’s with someone you see on a regular basis. You don’t want to pressure anyone to read your work, because that can strain a friendship.
Still, accountabilibuddies can offer you motivation by telling you what works, what doesn’t, and by asking about your progress regularly.
For me, I like to spread this relationship around. I’ll share my writing with anyone who shows an interest, and then I’ll lay off and let them read it in their own time. Some people get back to me right away, others may take a month or two. Either way, be patient and understanding that they have a life.
When they do get back to you, gauge their enthusiasm. Try to see if they are holding back for fear of hurting your feelings, or see if their excited for the next part. Either way, you’ll know if you need to make changes, or keep on the path.
Wattpad is a website for writers to share their works. It tends to be serialized pieces and the audience skews pretty young. The pieces you share on Wattpad must start at the beginning and go through the novel in order, not so for the last two options. Finally, on Wattpad readers expect your work to be fairly polished, so this isn’t a good option for the early stages of writing.
Even given all this, Wattpad can be a nice place to get eyes on your work in progress. Readers often comment, and you can glean valuable insights into how your work is affecting them. Of the three ideas I’m sharing here, this is probably the least effective for motivation, but it works and it may build your audience too.
Ooooo. Controversial territory here. I used to drink while I wrote. I’d by a six pack of beer or a bottle of gin and dive in. I found my mind less encumbered, the barrier in my brain that might say, ‘don’t write that, it’s stupid’ would shut off. A sure fire win, right?
Making these things an integral part of your creative process will eventually end with you relying on it.
Unfortunately this led to me drinking whenever I wrote, and during extended writing sessions I’d drink a lot. Sometimes I’d get drunk and have to stop because I could no longer concentrate on the work. And I gained weight. And I’d feel like shit the next day. And soon the law of diminishing returns caught up with me.
The issues with substances as motivation
When drinking or pot or whatever is part of your motivation, dependency happens. Sometimes the substances begin to outweigh the writing, and your ritual devolves from writing with a glass of wine to drinking every night, to alcoholism.
There’s this image of the alcoholic (or drug addicted) writer, singer, artist that is romanticized in our culture. But in the long run, it doesn’t leads to better motivation, better work, or a better life. Don’t let drugs or alcohol become part of your routine as a writer, it won’t be worth it in the long run.
You don’t have to be a prude about it
Don’t get me wrong, I still drink on occasion, and have no issue with someone smoking weed. It’s legal in Washington state after all, and even before then I didn’t give a shit. But making these things an integral part of your creative process will eventually end with you relying on it. That’s bad news bears.
If you spend all your time writing, your writing will suffer.
Here’s the last bit, and maybe you weren’t expecting it. If you want to stay motivated as a writer, then ensure you’re still living. Don’t spend all of your time writing. You’ll burn out. You’ll miss out on the many awesome things life has to offer. You’ll lose the opportunities life provides to instill you with deep inspiration. If you spend all your time writing, your writing will suffer.
Great writers live full lives
Maintaining a balance in your life will not only keep you from burning out as a writer, but it will give you happiness and inspiration to boot.
I’ve heard some writers say that they need to write every single day without a day off. Maybe that works for them, but not for me. Don’t be afraid to take a night off every now and then.
I tend to remove the requirement of writing on the weekends. I may end up writing anyway, but it’s not something I’m setting out to accomplish. Instead I’ll be with my family, go out to Seattle, go mountain biking, exercise, practice Muay Thai, watch anime, read books, swing by coffee shops, take my kid to the park, life stuff.
Ok, so not entirely true. I write all my blog posts on the weekend too. So you caught me, I’m still writing, but the subject material is different.
Make room for inspiration to strike
Maintaining a balance in your life will not only keep you from burning out as a writer, but it will give you happiness and inspiration to boot.
Inspiration rarely strikes in front of the computer. It hits in the quiet moments of solitude when your mind is free to wander on its own. Inspiration sprouts while walking in the park, showering, laying in bed, driving, meditating, or just staring off into space.
Structure your weekends so that these moments are plentiful. Be lazy, enjoy the feeling of grass on your toes, watch the way leaves dance in the wind, or the way shadows fall. When you do this, you’ll find explosions of insight into your work will become an regular occurrence.
Participate in activities you can draw on
Do you know what it feels like to get shot? No? Yeah, me either. But I’ve dropped a knife on my foot (by accident) and I can draw on that experience when describing something different but related.
You can draw on these experiences and add a sense of realism to the things you’ve never gone through.
There are so many safe, fun, and controlled activities you can do that you can later draw on in your writing. Make sure you work these into your life, and while you do, contemplate on your experiences.
I’ve used the feeling of hiking off trail to inspire descriptions of exploring a jungle in my novel Discovering Aberration. I used the experience of playing music at open mic nights to inspire characters in my unpublished novel Everything Else by the Wayside.
Do I know what it feels like to be chased by someone trying to kill me? No, but I do know how it feels to spare with trained fighter, get beat up, smacked around, and still come up on my own two feet.
I know what it feels like to ride jumps on my bike that I’m not sure I can land, and how it feels to unexpectedly crash.
I know what it feels like to be physically strained through strength conditioning classes. You can draw on these experiences and add a sense of realism to the things you’ve never gone through.
Make room for inspiration
Life provides inspiration in countless beautiful ways, from nervousness to love to pride and beyond. How can you write about those things if you haven’t lived them? Find the activities that speak to you, get out there and do cool shit, focus on the experience, and later distill it into words.
I hope you found this piece helpful. The topic of motivation has been on my mind for a while now, and I have more to say on the topic. If you want more, or if you have motivational strategies of your own, please let me know in the comments. And if you found this piece interesting, helpful, or just a little entertaining, please share on your favorite social network. Until next time.
If you’ve been following the production of Grim Curio, then you already know that it’s a story told in first person, past tense. Well that’s changing.
I’d written 30,000 words before I realized that first person, past tense just wasn’t working out for the story I wanted to tell. I want an epic story told from intimate perspectives, so first person felt like a natural choice when I began.
But I also want the city of Refuge to be a character, and I want to build a world that can engross the reader. And in my execution using first person, that felt clunky no matter what changes I made.
I also want a feeling throughout the second half of the book that no character is safe, but first person practically gives characters narration armor (the idea that the character can’t die because he or she’s the one telling the story).
I considered using this to my advantage buy killing off a character in first person, but in past tense that felt a little off. I could be done, and it might work, but mixed with my other issues, I didn’t think it would be worth it.
After a while, I began wondering if a change to third person, present tense would make things better. To test this, I saved a backup of the first couple chapters and rewrote them from the new perspective. Instantly I loved it. The story feels more in the moment, I’m able to explore the city more, and I build scenes more fluidly in this environment.
Here’s one example. Below is the opening scene of the book which sets the world up in three paragraphs (and one is a single sentence):
The world never ended. When flood came, many survived. The sufferers shuffled about from place to place, some finding shelter, others not. When fire came, some survived. It blazed over continents fueled by primal fear, justice and revenge. Fire has no conscious. When radiation came, few survived. The survivors were not a chosen people. They lived in the correct geographical locations with mountain ranges and northerly winds and had access to a little infrastructure to support a small, terrified wallow of survivors.
Years passed, the pockets of humanity dwindled. Some starved and died, others fought and died, and others fell to indiscriminate forces: massive storms, poisonous air, and not a little stupidity.
But the world never ended.
Scenes like this are nearly impossible to get right in first person, and I was trying so many different ways. The switch to third person was like a breath of fresh air, and these three paragraphs just came naturally without much effort. A good sign.
I wonder what you think of this change? Be sure to let me know in the comments.
When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.
Is sentence length varied?
Do sentences flow naturally?
Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
Are two words used where only one will do?
Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
Are the details portrayed in logical order?
Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.
Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
Writing is a process. Prose don’t appear on paper perfectly executed. First drafts are a spew of consciousness, a firehose of concepts splattered haphazardly with the wrong words in the wrong order, the wrong setting with the wrong details, the wrong character featuring the wrong motivation. But you have to start somewhere.
First I mash my mind onto the keyboard, sleep it off, then begin the process of refining everything. Rearrange sentences. Alert the senses. Mold your characters into believable people. But for now, let’s focus on that last point – characters.
Clive and Nemesis
These are two very different characters featured in Grim Curio. You can read a scene featuring both of them now in The Working Copy. Among their differences, Clive is a bit character, created out of necessity to carry a few scenes forward, Nemesis is a major character, antagonist, created to foil some of the plans of James and co. Beyond this, their very conception is different, Nemesis being a premeditated character and Clive being a necessitated one. So let’s look at the differences.
Conception of a Character
Above: Harry Lockhart from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
When bringing a character to life, I’ve found I tend to follow one of two paths into inception. There’s the Premeditated Character and the Necessitated character. Premeditated refers to the days I’ve spent constructing a character and theorizing her place in the story. Necessitated refers to the moment I reach a point where I realize I need someone new to carry the current scene(s) forward.
Premeditated Thought Process
I need an antagonist and I want it to be a person that’s unlikable yet somehow relatable. How do I do that? Make her a girl. Make her young, like sixteen or something. Thrust her in an scenario where the only way out is by ‘going to the dark side’. Have her emerge confused, conflicted, wracked with insecurities but steadfast in her convictions. Etc. This could lead to an interesting villain.
Premeditated is the most obvious method, I stroll through the day, mull on a character and think how this person exists in the world I’m creating. Like Whinnie the Pooh, I think think think think think. I sit to write, fingers frozen over the keyboard while I consider from which angle to attack this person first.
Necessitated Thought Process
James needs to go to Clayton, how does he get there? Does he walk? No, too dangerous. What then? He hires somebody to drive him to Clayton in an ATV. Ok, so what is a person who does this like? For that matter, how many people like him exist in this universe? Not many, maybe 5, they’ll be called runners, and this guy, let’s call him Clive, is the only one James trusts. But why does he trust him? Because of his reputation as the only runner you can really trust. This guy must be expensive, how does James hire him? On and on, deeper and deeper, etc.
You can see how answering question after question a character might emerge, pieced together until he’s fully formed. These tend to be bit characters, but they often morph into major ones without me premeditating it.
Above: Alfred Borden from The Prestige.
Premeditated characters are a pain to get started. They feel fully realized in your head, but they’re not. They’re an amalgamation. Inspiration comes from my influences, my experiences, bits from people I know, bits from things I’ve seen people do, and most of all just my own sick mind. That’s not a person, that’s a blob and a blob must be sculpted.
You take this mass and begin to massage it as you write the first scene where they appear. For me, this scene is almost always emotional, tense, proving who the character is in a dire circumstance. That’s just me though, the action nerd wanting to see what my puppets will do when facing the gun.
As it turns out, these scenes are rarely the right way to introduce a character to a reader. They are good for me because now I get to learn more about who this person is. But for a reader coming across this sort of scene as way of introduction, everything feels disjointed and unearned.
Necessitated characters come about in a much less deliberate way. Often they are a means to an end. James needs to do something and needs someone to interact with to get the job done. Enter minor character.
But each character needs to feel fully formed, no matter how or why they’re conceived. In action, I tend to set the scene, flesh it out, write the major points I want to hit, then go back and add. It’s exactly the opposite of the premeditated character. Instead of a blob that I need to refine and temper, it’s a brick I need to add to and build up until a fully formed house emerges, or at least one that looks fully formed.
I have more to say on this topic, but I think this will do it for now. Come back soon when I follow up with some critiques I received for the writing of Nemesis and the changes that led me to make. I hope you find it informative and interesting. Until then, have a great weekend.
Part of Grim Curio’s subtext involves a variety of groups that live in or around Oasis – the last city on earth. I’m considering new names for the city, maybe Final Refuge or something. In recent excerpts we were introduced to the Naturalists and the Students (they were called Scientists in the drafts, but I’m trying out new names.
Well, I’ve got a third one now. The Nihilists.
Nihilists are a loose knit group who live primarily in east Oasis. When the first and second Calamities wiped most of humanity off the earth, some people survived. The Nihilists think this is a mistake. They believe the earth wishes to be purified, and they seek the finish the job.
Nihilists mug, burn, murder, and otherwise ruin the lives of anyone they can. Many are petty criminals who ‘believe’ in the Nihilist teachings, but who don’t participate fully. Others are nothing short of terrorists. The most hardcore of the Nihilists commit a pledge that if they are the last humans alive, they will kill themselves to cleanse the final life off the planet.
As I write my novel Grim Curio, I’ve been sharing excerpts on /r/DestructiveReaders and my development diary to get feedback. At first I did this just to get an idea of what people thought of my work in progress. Then a pattern emerged, and through it I found myself becoming a better writer.
I’m calling this pattern the Critique Feedback Loop. It’s nothing revolutionary, I’m sure, but it’s been incredibly useful for me, so I thought I’d take a little time to share this pattern with you.
Phases of the Feedback Look
Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
Make changes based on feedback.
Repeat 3 and 4 until changes are no longer significant.
Like I said, nothing revolutionary here, but it’s been immensely helpful. Not only does it make my drafts higher quality, it informs my green field writing, giving me areas of weakness to focus on improving as I write new content.
Why it works
Every round of criticism has been focused on one of my weaknesses. First was character, then setting, now structure. It’s amazing to see my previous weaknesses no longer getting mentioned as new ones emerge.
If you want to see proof that your writing is getting better, there’s no better way than submitting the same piece over and over after each rewrite. But this only works if your writing community is: 1) blunt, 2) informative, and 3) has a culture of 1:1 critique ratios.
Let’s break down what a constructive community looks like.
How constructive /r/DestructiveReaders can be
/r/DestructiveReaders is the best feedback loop I’ve ever found. Better than in-person writers workshops. Better than any other message board or online community I’ve been a part of. But why is that?
1. The attitude
When you submit your work to /r/DestructiveReaders, you are fully aware that people are there to give you unfiltered feedback without much regard for your feelings. They’re not being dicks, but they will tear your writing apart if they don’t like it. They’ll mention line by line what bothers them, what you can improve, and what you’re missing all together.
Nothing makes you a better writer than having your flaws bluntly pointed out to you. Often this will come with a suggestions for improvements, and it’s up to you to filter through the suggestions and choose what to work on. Of course if someone is pointing out a weakness, it’s also up to you to consciously improve it.
2. The 1:1 ratio, aka don’t be a leech
If you submit a piece to critique without first critiquing someone else’s work of equal or greater word count, you’ll be labeled a leech. Don’t be a leech.
But you know what? That’s how it should be. First it keeps the critiques coming, keeps the tone civil (even when the critique is brutal), and it teaches you as a writer the clear line of what you like and don’t like in a piece.
As I read others works, I have to think hard about why I don’t like the sentence structure, or why a pieces character development doesn’t work, etc. When I then turn to write my own work, the critiques I wrote for other writers is fresh in my head, actively forcing me to cut out the passive voice, build the setting, and make the characters feel real.
3. Line edits
There are two phases to most /r/DestructiveReaders critiques: 1) line edit, 2) critique essay. Both are very useful but cover very different things.
We use Google Docs to share our work, and line edits come through the built in commenting feature. Line edits tend to focus on style, grammar, dialog, confusing passages, etc. This will lead to a lot of quick fixes to your text, but I don’t think that’s where the real value comes from.
The real value comes when you sit to write the next day. You know for a fact what you’re struggling with now. Your weakness might surprise you.
4. The Critique
First let me say that I have not received a bad critique. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received fairly brutal ones, but they have always led to significant improvement in my work. The amount of work /r/DestructiveReaders users put into their feedback is staggering.
Most critiques begin with a short paragraph on what the reader liked and didn’t like. That’s followed by an in depth, point by point essay that often exceeds the length of two pages or more.
Everyone critiques slightly differently, but there is a trend to focus on title, style, plot, character, pacing, etc. individually. This format in particular is so helpful, because it helps you as a writer see the boundaries between these skills, and inform you of what techniques you’re using incorrectly and how they affect the reader.
The feedback loop
Sure, you can submit a piece, make changes and move on. If you’re goal is to get the most words critiqued over the shortest period of time, then this makes sense. But if your goal it to improve your writing, then submitting the same piece after making significant changes will be much more informative.
The reason for this is simple. Most pieces have one pronounced weakness, and several less obvious ones. The first round will likely focus on that weakness, which allows you to go back and improve it. But if you don’t re-submit your work after the changes are made, you’ll miss out on discovering the next pronounced weakness that’s been lurking just a layer deep.
Submit a piece to get critiqued, wait at least three days for the critiques to come in, make significant adjustments, then submit again. Once your critiques only point out minor mistakes, then move on to your next segment to get critiqued.
This is a slow and deliberate process, so you can’t let it hold back you’re overall progress. Keep on writing green field words, reading your critiques, and adjusting your writing process accordingly. In this way your entire work benefits without your progress coming to a halt.
What if I want to submit, but I’m too nervous.
That’s normal. I’m terrified every time I share a piece of writing. Terrified but excited. I know my writing isn’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who don’t like my genre or my style, but that’s fine.
You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. Instead focus on writing what you like to write, and then take the criticism with gusto. Even someone who hates your piece will give you valuable advice. And if it’s brutal, if people just rip your work apart, be thankful and start making changes.
On the flip side, if you’re lucky, people will actually enjoy your work. You may gain a small group of authors who regularly read your writing because they genuinely enjoy helping you.
So, yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s natural to be scared or nervous. Power though, it’ll be worth it.
I hope you found this blog post useful. If you’re new to this development diary and want to follow along my entire writing process as I write Grim Curio, consider following me here or on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, I’d like to hear what you think of this. Have you ever submitted your work for critique? How was the experience?
I’ve been talking about my novel in progress for a couple of weeks now, and there are some topics that I’ve brought up that need some fleshing out. Grim Curio is a kind of Fantasy/Post Apocalyptic hybrid, so there’s a fair amount of world building in the subtext.
Today I want to talk about one probably the most prominent piece of subtext, The Layered Universe Theory. The Layered Universe is James Bartlebee’s working theory seeking to explain the many phenomena he’s witness through the years.
The Many Layers
The theory states that our reality is actually one of many. These realities exist on a plane stacked on top of each other. The idea of a stack is very important, realities piled up like a deck of cards. In fact, these realities are so tightly stacked that they almost inhabit the same space: often things from one reality can influence the other.
Between each layer of reality is a thin substance known as a veil. This matter acts like lubricant between realities, allowing them to coexist without too much friction. Certain actions can put stress on the veil, for example attempting to punch a hole through the universe. As the veil hardens, veil sign is produced.
Veil sign can be many things, but in all cases it is an observable manifestation of stress on the veil. Often this will appear as a burnt smell or an optical illusion that distorts reality.
If the veil is stressed enough, the result is veil residue. This is the flaking of the veil where literal flakes of reality will appear in our world as the veil attempts to repair itself.
A base layer is any layer of reality that exists “below” our own. As you travel down the layers, life becomes more primitive. If we were to visit the layer directly beneath our own, the most complex organism would be like the simplest in our reality.
They’re behavior, however, might be incredibly beguiling to us. Some organisms might be driven by an urge to no longer exist, others might invade empty spaces and attempt to build a consciousness into them. There are some, though, the may present a truly great threat to our world with their insatiable drive to multiply.
Go past the first base layer to the next and what you find will be truly mysterious and unfathomable. The laws of the universe shift as you go down, with forces that behave one way in our layer of reality (like gravity, dark energy, dark matter, etc.) behaving in quiet different, unpredictable ways in another.
As you might guess, if you were to somehow go up a layer in this stack of universes, organisms get drastically more complex. Consciousness behaves radically different, and a creatures ability to manipulate things like matter, time or space would be considered god-like to us.
James even extends the Layered Universe Theory to include the possibility that gods as we know them live in this layer. Any god who may have affected our world could simply be a being from a higher plane who’s pressed up against the veil and greatly affected our world.
Move up more than one layer, and the complexity will become so great that your mind could not comprehend it.
There are some concessions in the Layered Reality Theory. For example, James has only collected evidence of two layers apart from our own. Those may be the only layers in existence, but it’s impossible to say unless we were to visit a layer up or down and seek evidence for the next layer there.
Also, layers beyond our neighbors, if they exist at all, may not continue to follow the pattern of Baser things going down, and greater things going up. No way to know without going there.
One thing to remember, this is just a theory proposed by James and it is not widely accepted in the world of Grim Curio. In fact, many groups (such as the Naturalists and the Nihilists) are hostile to this idea because they see it as a threat to their own beliefs. Many scientists scoff at the idea, reasoning that if such layers existed they would have been fully discovered by now.
So that’s the Layered Universe Theory in a nutshell. I love it because it opens up a universe of possibilities for Grim Curio. What’s going to happen when Simon pierces the veil? You’re just going to have to wait and see.
In part 1 we were introduced to James, a detective specializing in anomalies and living in a dystopian world. James seeks out Veil Sign, a phenomena that’s the result of ‘creatures’ from other realities brushing up against, or invading, our own.
When we meet him in part 2, he’s investigating a disease that is turning a villages young into brain dead husks. He has just made a breakthrough when he see’s veil sign in a little girls room. Creatures from another plane are swarming her, drinking her thoughts.
There’s one more short section before the end of Chapter 1. It looks like it’s shaping up to be another 2,000 words or so. That would make Chapter 1 a total of 8,000 words.
What does that mean? I don’t know, you tell me. It’s certainly a damn long chapter, much longer than I anticipated it to be. But I don’t see a reason to break it up because it’s scenes are already broken up pretty well.
Here’s one thing I could do: I could turn Chapter 1 into Part 1 and separate the scenes into chapters. I’m not sure what I think of this idea yet. Probably too short for a Part.
As for the overall structure of Grim Curio: if this story ends up having five acts, then I think the first four chapters would make up act 1. Act 1 will involve the introduction of characters, plot and setting (surprise!).
Act 2 will involve the mystery of the creatures that posses Simon, and will likely set up the tear in the veil. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach that yet, but I think it’ll be cool.
Act 3-5 is where things get hazy. I haven’t really thought this far ahead in any real depth yet. I’ve done that on purpose though, because I want to make sure the plot is reactive. But I do have some scenes in my head.
I have this idea of these ants that live in a fungus forest. They are about 2 feet tall and three or four feet long. They are hosts to mind fungus growing out of their heads. That’s all I know about that, but we’ll get it in there eventually!
Let me know what you think in the comments. Did you know that there is an actual fungus that does that to actual ants? Google that shit.