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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing Tip Thursday!

I know, you've all been clamoring for advice from me, since I know about as much as you do, if not less. BUT! As my husband has pointed out to me many times, I can have an opinion - a strong, well thought out, convincing opinion - about anything under the sun, without letting facts or experience get in the way.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I want to introduce a feature on Thursdays that I call, cunningly enough, Writing Tip Thursday! The secret to a catchy name is, you'll notice, the exclamation point.

Today's tip is about writing a series. I love series books. I am a pretty childish reader in the sense that I don't want books I like to end (except for the Road, I wish it had ended before the scene of the people kept in the pantry like sides of beef, a scene i've tried to scrub out of my memory unsuccessfully, but I digress). I read series books because I can more easily inhabit a world and stay a while. Off the top of my head, my favorite series books: Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (all six of them), The Abhorsen Chronicles. I could go on and on and that's the point. I never want it to end.

I'm writing a YA fantasy series right now and as I go along I realize I have a shed-load of characters and I need to get organized. How am I going to keep everyone straight? Luckily, I have the answer:  You need to create a Series Bible.

OK! I didn't have the answer, but I found the answer, just where Nathan Bransford left it, on his blog. Nathan, who is absurdly smart and funny and unrelentingly positive has pretty much the answer for everything. I will be mostly cribbing from him, with some additional things I thought of myself.

Series Bible
I like excel documents, I know some people hate them, but they are easy to update, sort and you can highlight cells in pretty colors. There are other writing tools that can do all the below for you, but they are usually spendy software. Almost everyone has excel or a similar program.

1) Create an excel doc with character names, nicknames, birthdate/age, and anything significant about him/her. Some writers include details about their characters, like their favorite color or what they dressed up as last halloween, things that never appear in any book, but I don't. I want to know my character so well that I can answer those questions on the fly, I don't want to have imagined him into a corner. Characters need room to grow, through a series and even in the writer's mind.

2) Location - if it's a real place that you don't know well and need to do research on, keep your research here and categorize it according to what makes sense - your character's homes/workplaces, meaningful/sentimental value locations, locations of conflict. If it's a made up world you need to nail it down COMPLETELY. The cosmology you create needs to feel so real and effortless that your reader immediately believes it and makes a little home in your world. If you're making crap up as you go along and something doesn't jibe, your reader will  stop suspending their disbelief, making them unable to get 'into' the story.

3) How things work - again, especially in fantasy or a made up cosmology, you need to have rules. The rule can be that vampires can only come out at night, or only when it's cold or that vampires sparkle and look like Cedric Diggory, whatever the rule is make it consistent. Not just a rule like 'No more cupcakes for you little girl!" but make it a LAW of PHYSICS. If you break the laws you make, your world will become unreliable and fall apart.

4) Keep track of the gun on the mantle.
Chekov said "The gun that is placed on the mantle in the first act must be shot in the third act." If you've set things up, whether it's a showdown between two characters, an unsolved mystery (big or small) or something that a character needs to overcome - and this gets tricky when you're dealing with lots of characters or some key minor characters - you need to close the deal. I don't mean that there can't be things left unsaid, that everything needs to be resolved in a neat little bow, but if you put something significant to the story in motion, you need to make sure it's addressed. I'll give you an example that probably won't be too much of a spoiler if you haven't read the Hunger Games Trilogy - Haymitch. He starts out as a drunk, goes through some stuff (understatement) and in the end, he's still a drunk. My husband and I talked about whether it's a good thing that his problem didn't get resolved or a bad thing. Ultimately, I think it's a good thing. Not everyone's problems are solved at the end, not even fictional everyone's. Keeping Haymitch an alcoholic was realistic and true to his character. Having him kick the booze would have seemed out of character.

To keep track of my 'guns' I keep  a running list of things that have to be addressed and next to each I put a progress report - where it's addressed, if it's 'dead' as in completed, or if it needs to be addressed again.

5) Sometimes, the build up to the ultimate crisis in a series is so effing huge, it can seem overwhelming and insurmountable. The temptation to employ a little deus ex-machina is irresistible. BUT RESIST!
Deus ex Machina is an old greek-style war horse plot device whereby god/gods swoop down into the quagmire you've created and make everything magically delicious again. If you've ever read a book where the heroine is in dire straits, all options have been exhausted, she's just going to have to become someone's love slave to save her consumptive sister when, POOF! out of nowhere appears a rich, kindly aunt you've never heard of to save the day, you know how completely unsatisfying that is. It's a gyp. Don't do it.

OKAY! That's all I've got. Was it helpful? Do you have any writing tips that help you? Or anything you're struggling with that my paltry tuppence might help with? Let me know!

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