Seeing things done well (or: fantastic hooks & where to find them)

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff tells the story of a book critic whose childhood love of language has been spoiled by a lifetime of reading. We had to read it for senior honors English, and nothing has been the same since. Okay—I’m joking, mostly, but the whole not-loving-the-stuff-you-used-to-love thing is one of my greatest fears. Sometimes when thoughts about predictability and consistency and a million other things keep me from enjoying a book or movie as much as I might have if I was thirteen again, I want to bash my head against a wall until all prior knowledge falls out. HOWEVER, there is a flipside. A beautiful, high-shine side of the coin:

Seeing things done well, and being able to recognise when it happens.

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An excerpt from Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

“Is that all they told you?” Van Atta asked in astonishment. At Leo’s affirmative shrug, he threw back his head and laughed. “Security, I suppose,” Van Atta went on when he’d stopped chuckling. “Are you in for a surprise. Well, well. I won’t spoil it.” Van Atta’s sly grin was as irritating as a familiar poke in the ribs.

Too familiar—oh, hell, Leo thought, this guy knows me from somewhere. And he thinks I know him… Leo’s polite smile became fixed in mild panic. He had met thousands of GalacTech personnel in his eighteen-year career. Perhaps Van Atta would say something soon to narrow the possibilities.

I was a little confused when I came across this in my camera uploads because I generally only take pictures of passages I love. And I do love this passage—but not because it’s poignant or anything. Instead, I love it because it shows one of my favourite authors laying down a subtle hook. Bujold’s Falling Free didn’t start out with explosions or robberies or dramatic tension; it started with a routine check-up, but still managed not to be boring. With the revelation that Van Atta is someone the main character should know but can’t remember comes sympathy—who hasn’t been in that situation?—and interest. How do they know each other? And what’s the thing Leo is about to be surprised by?

Thinking back on other hooks I’ve loved in the past, I tend to enjoy the more in-your-face kind where a character is about to undergo a big change: The Reaping in The Hunger Games, or the girl running away from the farm (hey, that’s Bujold too), or some obscure ceremony like the choosing in Divergent. Keeping the main character a mystery helps too. Why is she running? Who’s after her? Questions like that, even if they’re nowhere near as subtle as “damn it this guy knows me—how?”

For others it might be different. I’m personally very tired of the “mysterious stranger walks into a dimly-lit inn” type fantasy starts, but there might be fantastic ways to pull that off too. The only thing I can say for sure is that if you’re a nerd who likes to see things done well, having your phone camera handy when you’re reading isn’t a bad thing. Learn by doing, yeah—but learn by seeing others succeed, too!

Anyway, getting back to the existential fear at the start of this post, I’ll probably never be able to enjoy books as indiscriminately as I would have if I’d stayed thirteen. On the other hand, when I was thirteen I was writing a book about a green-haired girl finding an enchanted egg in the forest and needing to bring it to the emperor. It had no subtlety whatsoever—or paragraph breaks—so I’ll take what I can get, and deal with that unwelcome analytical part of my mind that comes with experience. There are so many amazing authors out there that I still won’t have too little to read.

Unlikely predictions for the rest of the new Star Wars trilogy

Episode VIII:

  • Luke rides around on Rey’s back in a swamp, assuming this is part of standard jedi training. Rey doesn’t question it.
  • Kylo Ren develops an obsession with Rey. Who is she? he wonders as he destroys expensive equipment. He waits for someone to ask what he’s upset about; no one does.
  • Finn holds hands with all his new friends on the rebel base until he’s captured during an attack by the First Order. Poe tries to save him but is captured as well. They keep up the fun hero swagger until they see Kylo Ren is wearing… The Jacket. They exchange a look of utter hatred, vowing revenge. That’s their friendship jacket.
  • Some Stormtroopers besides Finn have shown signs of growing a conscience. Finn is frozen Han-style and hung up on a wall as a warning to rebellious Stormtroopers. There are rumors that First Order leadership only wanted to try using the freezey machine again, but they are lies. (They are not lies.)
  • Rey returns early from jedi training to save Finn and Poe, losing her arm in the process. She only manages to save Poe and BB8.

Episode IX:

  • Years have passed while working out a plan to save Finn. Rebel leaders have realized they should have asked him about Stormtrooper training and how it might be undone back when he was on their base. Damn it, they thinkwhy do we only ever think of these things in hindsight?
  • Rey, Poe, Chewbacca, BB8 and R2D2 disguise themselves as investors and head into the First Order base where Finn is kept. Luke comes too, but spends the entire time cracking jokes about the lifespans of mentor characters who accompany their mentees for too long. He hasn’t been the same since spending a decade alone on the top of a hill.
  • They save Finn but come across top secret plans in the process, top secret plans for… a death star.
  • No one should be surprised, but everyone is surprised. The rebels face overwhelming odds. While trying to dismantle Death Star 4.0 the rebels recover the friendship jacket and take turns wearing it, but now it smells like lonely sith lord. Kylo Ren’s tragic backstory is given as an afterthought during a confrontation with Giant Chair Man. Kylo Ren is very sorry, but secretly pleased that his own downfall could so closely mirror his idol’s—almost like it was planned that way. Death Star 4.0 goes the way of Death star 1, 2 and 3.
  • There’s a party in the woods. Han appears as a jedi-ghost. “It’s not what you know,” he says, gripping someone’s shoulder. “It’s who you know.” He winks.

It gets… easier?

NaNo 2015 is officially under my belt! Despite a visit from my globe-trotting parents, I made it to 50k words this year and—most amazingly—continued to enjoy the story as I wrote it. Having a more fleshed-out plan was an absolute lifesaver, and while I’ve already got my eye on things I’ll need to change, the days of “where the hell am I going with this and who would ever want to read it” seem to be over; I don’t miss them.

The whole process of writing constantly baffles me. Somehow it’s always just as hard as it’s always been while simultaneously getting easier—and yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. It takes just as much discipline and soul-searching as it ever has, but the years of experience do seem to be paying off. There’s the knowledge that I’ve done it before and can do it again… the knowledge that I’ll be able to change things I don’t like… the confidence that there are people who like my writing voice… etc. I’ve come a long way from writing two thirds of a novel then revising and rewriting those two thirds for years. Finishing something is the first step in getting to this point, but it certainly isn’t the only one. I’m reminded of that story about the pottery class where a teacher grades one half of the class on how many pots they make and the other half on their very best pot; without fail, the quantity side of the class makes the superior pots. This analogy probably has limited use, as revision is a necessary skill—one I definitely need to improve on—but I can’t help agreeing with the general premise. I learned a lot more from writing several complete first drafts than I did from polishing incomplete stories to death.

Anyway, the writing process still dips way too close to soul-crushing torture at times, but there’s comfort in knowing I’ve overcome it before. That’s what makes it easier, even when nothing makes it easier. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m gubbed from nano, and taking a break until Monday on that story. In the meantime I’ll be writing the synopsis & query letters for the book I finished in September. Wish me luck!

It’s the most~ wonderful time~ of the year!

Christmas? No! Thanksgiving? Not even close! (Or, well, not quite.)

The most wonderful time of the year, in my totally-not-universal opinion, is November–National Novel Writing Month–and the lead-up to it. I did NaNoWriMo for the first time as a fresh-faced second-year at uni in 2010, and I’ve never looked back. I did skip the event in 2013, but I hated that so much I’ve resolved never to do it again unless the situation calls for it. There’s just something about gearing up to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month with millions of others that lights a fire under me. It doesn’t sound comfortable, and it isn’t, but it’s fun. And torture. In the words of Ron Weasley:

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If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo before, you can read up on it here. I’m very evangelical about it, though of course it doesn’t work for everyone, and it draws some fair criticism. As far as I’m concerned, though, however you use the creative energy NaNoWriMo gives you is good, regardless of whether it’s according to guidelines. I personally never try to write a complete novel during nano because my novels are never 50,000 words; the shortest complete one I’ve written is 86,000 words, and I’m not even going to attempt that in one month.

To get back to the matter at hand—additional proof that this is the best time of the year—I have to admit that the American pumpkin obsession plays into my love of autumn as well. Anything that can pair sweetly with cinnamon and cloves, or be turned into a delicious soup made more delicious by the addition of soy sauce, is a star in my eyes. Yum. And the changing leaves & rain-lashed windows don’t make too bad a backdrop for staying in and writing either.

So: I’m feeling pretty good. And if you, like me, are gearing up for nano, might I suggest this hilariously written post on writing outlines? This year I’m determined to be less crap at planning, and I suggest any fellow bad-planners do the same. I’ll let you know how it goes!