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Questions and Answers part 2

I had a lovely weekend in Montreal, and got to visit with papersky and zorinth again, this time with family in tow (mine, that is). It was warmer there than in Toronto (which is unusual), and there was snow here when we arrived. In our shoes. More later.

Cassandra Chan asked, downthread, a question which I'm posting the answer to here because I don't want it to get lost. At least, I'm assuming it's Cassandra Chan. She's a mystery writer, whose first book will be out in 2005, and I'm really looking forward to it -- although I'm not sure under what name, or even title <wry g>. It's with St. Martin's, though.

You've spoken earlier about needing lead time before you actually start writing, time to let the project percolate in your mind before you set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, whatever). But once you do start, are the characters fully-formed, or are there parts of their pasts (and thus their futures) which still come along to surprise you as you're writing? Take, for example, Meralonne, about whom there has been so much speculation among your readers. When he first appears in the Hunter series, did you just have in mind a mage with a certain personality, or was everything that has since been hinted at in later books all in place by then?

One reason I'm curious is that I was dumbfounded when I was reading Christopher Tolkien's books to find out that JRR had absolutely no idea who Strider was when the hobbits first encountered him at Bree. He'd gotten the hobbits there, and this unexpected character had cropped up and for some time thereafter his notes are peppered with comments like WHO IS STRIDER?!! Very amusing as well as surprising.


I think I found this surprising when I read it as well -- it was a while ago.

But the brief answer is: No.

The longer answer -- because, of course, I'll go long regardless -- is less definitive. In Meralonne's case, the world was still taking shape; I knew about Evayne, of course, and about Kallandras; I knew about the Empire. I had in mind two things: a mage with a certain personality, but also, this particular mage in this particular set of circumstances. His was one of the early roles that I knew about. The big surprise in that book was Jewel and her den; I hadn't expected them to so thoroughly run off with their section of book. I wanted a way of showing what was happening in the Empire when Stephen and Gilliam arrived, and that was best shown with her. But… she wouldn't let go of me, or the book, and she became entwined in the politics & the conflict almost immediately in ways that I had not only not planned, but hadn't even considered when I was building world.

This frequently happens, both to me and to other writers I know; characters sometimes have a vivid intensity that doesn't let go, and it becomes a large part of what the book is about in ways that the book wasn't about before the words hit the page. Or the screen. The only thing that suffices for writing a book is … writing a book. At this point in my life, I was trying to follow a personal (as in, nothing I submitted) synopsis of events, but I gave up entirely with DEATH because I spent more time reworking the synopsis than I did writing. (Okay, that's a significant exaggeration, but it's also based in fact; I really did have to go back and rework it so many times I gave up on it entirely).

pameladean mentioned elsewhere that she loathes outlines because they require what the book requires without being the book itself, and I agree with this profoundly.

But even so, in the back of my mind, there are things I know.

They just don't survive the initial knowledge unchanged because, like any knowledge of people one meets the first time, the knowledge itself is superficial. The world itself is strong enough (in my mind) that it will hold any deviation of character, any change, any revelation; my novels are a series of actions, and reactions, and the plot and characters are tightly enough intertwined that I find it impossible to separate them. The farther away the text is from the characters, the less deviation there is. In Meralonne's case, because he's so seldom a viewpoint of his own (but not never), my initial concept and his current role aren't that different.

In Black Gauntlet this may change. Which is to say, I'm almost certain it will. What I know of him is true; how it's true, and how that truth deepens or changes, I don't know yet. Because I'm not certain.

Arg. Let me try this again.

There are ways in which story and plot are not the same. The story -- for me -- hasn't changed, and usually doesn't; the plot always does. But it changes not so much in substance as in form. It's kind of like growing bonsai trees; the work isn't in getting the tree to grow; it's in the stunting and the shape of the tree itself. What I'm working with is organic; the way the branches twist, the way the roots burrow -- I know that these things will happen, but I can't predict in which ways, or how; I can try. The many attempts to do so don't change the fact that what I'm dealing with is a tree -- but it does make the tree something I couldn't -quite- control or envision in and of itself.

The characters of import to me are like that, in miniature; the directions in which they grow, the areas in which they deepen, aren't things I can entirely predict, and they aren't things over which I exert conscious control. I write the way I write because I assume that my subconscious has a clue, that it will pick up and lay down things that will become significant later in ways that my conscious mind hasn't yet seen clearly. So there are things that will tie together in ways that I didn't see coming until they suddenly interlock, and once they're interlocked, I can't separate them without uprooting the whole thing and starting over.

Also: the emotion always gets laid down in the writing of the actual book words, and only then. I give my intellect free rein when I'm laying down the initial garden beds, but that's what it is -- it's laying things down. It's not, in and of itself, a living thing; it's meant to contain things that will live, in as much as text does, and if weeds end up being persistent and important, I absorb them and keep going. It's almost an act of blind faith. I didn't have a Strider, in these novels; I did have Jewel, for instance. And, say, Avandar. This is not to say that there won't be one later, because the later of BG is probably the most mythic of the arcs.

Oh, wait -- BROKEN CROWN example: I realized the significance of Yollana's gift to Ashaf much after the fact. I realized the significance of Diora's role in the Voyani lives, as opposed to Valedan's or her own, only in Shining Court. But Evallen realized it long before I did. And paid.

I know that some writers have trouble with this approach; that they end up in dead ends and blind alleys. It's something to be afraid of, because time is not exactly a writer's friend when it comes to things like, oh, deadlines. Or taxing the patience of readers. I have tossed an entire book over my shoulder, so I'm aware that there are pitfalls here, and I'm also aware that they're to be avoided if at all possible. Because I know no one who works exactly the way I do -- and no two writers who work exactly the same way, period -- I'm comfortable with this approach. But I'd have to be; I haven't figured out a cleaner or better way of getting a book to work for me.

I have a different question, though. I've always wondered about writing mysteries because I have a sense that things have to be known in advance to make things work out in the end. Do you find that you outline ahead of time, that you know who your characters are? Or do you lay out the motivations and characterizations that are relevant to the mystery structure in advance, and then let things unfold as they will?

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
kyranjaye
Dec. 7th, 2004 05:41 am (UTC)
I've now heard you mention your opinions on outline in several places (at least I think I have, maybe I've read the same thing several times? but I could have sworn it's come up in the YahooGroup? Anyway)

I never used to outline, and in fact my earliest writings are completely off-the-cuff. With my largest project, however, I had to develop an outline - I'm working on part of it with another person, and we were getting massively lost as to who does what where. But even though I have a major events timeline (which spans sixty years, ten of which are actually in the books we're writing) and know how and in what order things happen, I still get blindsided by plot and characters.

Characters, especially, keep popping up and taking the story in different directions. And though the major events still happen roughly in order (mostly the A-leads-to-B sort), how they happen changes, sometimes drastically, and how these events affect the characters changes - thereby changing the "feel" of the story, and its meaning, in ways I rarely expect.

So, I guess, I do outline ahead of time, but that doesn't mean I know who my characters are... or what they're going to do.
(Deleted comment)
matociquala
Dec. 7th, 2004 02:03 pm (UTC)
That sounds a lot like what I do.

Almost everything I write is structured like either a mystery or a thriller, hopefully without cheating.

By a third of the way through, I know how it *has* to end--but that doesn't mean I have any idea how to get there. My general plotting technique is to break things until I have no idea how the characters are going to fix them, and then see how they wiggle out of it this time. (Usually, not without losing some skin.)

And I always find out that the lizard brain has a much better idea of how the story goes than I do, and will salt in little things that turn out to be important later. (Little things like, entire subplots.)

And hey, if they don't work I can cut them--
(Anonymous)
Dec. 7th, 2004 05:59 pm (UTC)
At least, I'm assuming it's Cassandra Chan. She's a mystery writer, whose first book will be out in 2005, and I'm really looking forward to it -- although I'm not sure under what name, or even title . It's with St. Martin's, though.

Yes, this is me. The title will be The Young Widow by Cassandra Chan, and it's coming out in August 2005 (same month as your Luna book!).

The big surprise in that book was Jewel and her den; I hadn't expected them to so thoroughly run off with their section of book. I wanted a way of showing what was happening in the Empire when Stephen and Gilliam arrived, and that was best shown with her. But… she wouldn't let go of me, or the book, and she became entwined in the politics & the conflict almost immediately in ways that I had not only not planned, but hadn't even considered when I was building world.


I think my question really had more to do with the backstory of characters than what they do within the novel itself. Most writers (or at least a lot of them) have had the experience of a character that decided to do something quite different than what they had envisioned when they started writing. What struck me about the Strider example was that JRRT had no idea who the character was at all. You knew who Jewel was when you introduced her--you just didn't realize what she was going to insist on doing once you started writing about her. For myself, if I had been writing LOTR (and don't I wish!), Strider would have appeared because I suddenly saw the character in my mind. Perhaps not fully-formed, but I would have known he was a man, with certain abilities, and I think at least part of the whole Ranger thing would have come to me. I might not have known he was descended from kings, or what further role he was going to play, but Strider would never have appeared in the first place if I didn't have a pretty good idea about him.

As for taxing the patience of your readers: not a bit of it! I don't think I would have loved the Sun Sword Series so much if it had not been for the sudden, unexpected (to me) branchings it took. The Shining Court, for example--I knew there would be something about Jewel and Avandar because, after all, you had to get them to the Dominion. But I never expected the trip to take half a book, or to happen the way it did, and it was all the more wonderful for that.

I have a different question, though. I've always wondered about writing mysteries because I have a sense that things have to be known in advance to make things work out in the end. Do you find that you outline ahead of time, that you know who your characters are? Or do you lay out the motivations and characterizations that are relevant to the mystery structure in advance, and then let things unfold as they w

To a certain extent, you're right, things have to be known in advance. I don't usually start that way, though. A character and a situation occur to me, and I start writing. Once I get to a certain point, I usually have to stop and figure out how somebody was killed and why. And then I have to figure out how my detectives are going to discover all this (usually the hardest part). But, like you, although I may have decided that, for example, one character must have sister, when I come to write her, she may blossom into someone else entirely, someone who does things I had not foreseen. It's not usually that difficult to incorporate those changes into the plot, and I find it usually makes the plot better. Because until I write it, there's no depth to anything. It's just A killed B because he hated him, and the detective will discover this by finding out a, b, c, and then d.

So I do usually have an outline, but it's a loose one. Detective must find out that B has a knife, for example--but lots of times the way he finds out is quite different from what I had plotted out because the interactions of the characters as I go have made another route possible.

Cassandra
zhaneel69
Dec. 7th, 2004 06:23 pm (UTC)
I have a different question, though. I've always wondered about writing mysteries because I have a sense that things have to be known in advance to make things work out in the end. Do you find that you outline ahead of time, that you know who your characters are? Or do you lay out the motivations and characterizations that are relevant to the mystery structure in advance, and then let things unfold as they will?

See my recent post on writer's block. Grar.

I try to outline in advance. And I'm still only at short stories. During those outlines I outline the basic plot. I also will do character studies (sometimes) at that point. Trying to figure who someone is and why they are doing what they are in the plot. Taking both of those and actually writing is a pain, sometimes. I'm almost wondering at this point if I would do better to just write rather than ever outline, cause the stories that I don't outline seem to come together quicker than the ones I do end up outlining. On the other hand, those are also the stories I let sit longer, so...

But even with outlining, I end up with things I didn't know. I end up with subplots or relationships I wasn't expecting. A lot of those end up being cut or watered down, as I'm working in the short story medium and sticking to one story is helpful in that, but at least I know they are there so they can be hinted if not shown outright.

I have noticed from participating in the two WotC open call contests for novels, that the outlines were hard. I usually enjoyed the writing sample, but outlining was a pain in my ass as I didn't know all the answers and COULDN'T know without writing some of the book. Which is a dangerous thing to do on a WFH project that you aren't hired for. After submitting to one of the contests, I wrote more in that world and found a wonderful little subplot. I'm sure in the book itself I would have had to cut some of it, but it was fun to write in the meantime.

Zhaneel
intheweeds
Dec. 7th, 2004 07:46 pm (UTC)
Building a World
You may have covered this in a previous post, and if so, sorry for asking again (you can just redirect me!). If you haven't, maybe some other people would be interested as well.

How do you create a world? And by that I mean the landscape, the towns, the cities, the people, the names, language, etc. I know that seems like a loaded question, so I'll explain why I ask.

I have a world that I am creating and I feel certain that there are things I'm leaving out and points I'm not considering. Do all the names of characters/places have to follow a certain theme? What about language? Religion? When you have a character go from one place to another, how does that character get there? By what road? Over a mountain? How do you develop landscape and borders for your lands? Did you draw maps?

Just interested in how you came to a solid, believable world.
msagara
Dec. 7th, 2004 11:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Building a World
I have a world that I am creating and I feel certain that there are things I'm leaving out and points I'm not considering. Do all the names of characters/places have to follow a certain theme? What about language? Religion? When you have a character go from one place to another, how does that character get there? By what road? Over a mountain? How do you develop landscape and borders for your lands? Did you draw maps?

Just interested in how you came to a solid, believable world.


I'm not entirely sure I succeeded in coming to a solid, believable world. This is one of the problems with age and experience -- you learn more; you can't help it. When you revisit old work, you see the flaws that you hadn't considered the first time out.

Otoh, if you're crippled by the desire to be flawless -- and I use the word crippled in a very limited sense, which is synonymous with "not writing" -- you can labour a very long time without ever reaching a state in which you're satisfied.

My impetus for the process was this: I wanted to create as much background as possible -- including names -- because that background would seep into the foreground; it would become part of character knowledge, character interactions, in a way that creation-on-the-fly wouldn't.

satorias, kateelliott and sleigh all have different ways of approaching world-building, and at least the first two start with geography. My geography comes almost after the fact, which is exactly historically backward.

Having some sense of technology, or some sense of how magic has replaced it, having some sense of how distance is travelled, and how it was historically travelled, is added to geography. Languages, I assume are different, depending on geographical separation, and different cultures -- but I tend to use phrases and I tend to say "they switched", but to keep all dialogue in English. I like names to sound as if they're culturally based, but that's a me thing.

Religion is probably one of my weaknesses, in that it exists, but it's never dominant; because of this, I designed a world in which the gods are not held in quite the same esteem as they are in cultures here.

And yes, I drew maps. But they were blobs. No one with an eye for detail could possibly look at them and not think "wow, this is a series of connected blobs, with more blobs that look a bit pointier around the edges, and lots of words." They have meaning to me, in terms of scale -- but I wouldn't hand them to anyone else I didn't intend to amuse for days on end.

Economics is one of those things I think are often forgotten, and they're often dependent on terrain, geography, etc. I pull snippets of information from other sources as well; I create something that doesn't break the bounds of my own ability to believe in it, and I write from there.

I remember a discussion about a Guy Kay novel in which people were taking it apart because of its "lousy sense of geographical climate". I could probably make that same mistake, or would have, were it not for that.

Not sure if this is helpful at all -- you might want to wander over to sleigh's LJ, because I believe he posted a series about world-building.
mmarques
Dec. 8th, 2004 11:34 pm (UTC)
Off-topic question
Hi. This question isn't related to this journal entry, but I was interested in your thoughts, considering your other entries.

I've been reading lately about a new Canadian drive for aggregated book sales information, including from independent bookstores. (One article can be found at:
http://www.itbusiness.ca/index.asp?theaction=61&sid=57531&adBanner=eBusiness )

What do you think about this? Do you think it will help Canadian authors with Canadia sales? Will it make a difference.

Thanks for your thoughts.
msagara
Dec. 9th, 2004 12:04 am (UTC)
Re: Off-topic question
Re: Off-topic question.

You're right; it is <g>. I've clipped that, and I'll respond to it at length, because it's the perfect opportunity to segue into a similar system in the US.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )