November 27, 2003

Color Coding Plots -- part two

Another post made me add to the whole color coding scheme.

I use paper because there's no "come on stupid program, do what I want" and I use BIG paper, usually like 3 foot by 3 foot. What day it is often important in my books, so I often draw lines down to indicate the day has changed and label "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday..." across the top. Bitter Water was set in a seven day time period, and Dog Warrior was only like five days.

I don't shift colors because the idea is to MAKE IT SIMPLE and QUICK.

I do big scenes -- the whole first scene is actually wading through a flooding sewer system to rescue a lost boy -- and I jump around and I write out of order.

What I detailed out was all the little steps you need to back up and fill in so the reader can build to the big scene.

For example, the first scene I wrote for Bitter Water was Ukiah picking up Sam and her throwing a fit because in all of Tainted Trail, Max never mentioned he was a multi-millionaire. Cool scene, but it didn't work as a first scene of the book. It focused on Sam, not Ukiah.

Back up, and write the "down in the sewer" scene. Cool -- it worked as first scene of the book because it introduced the HERO, not the sidekick's love interest.

Now I had to bridge the gap. First, who is Sam -- not only do I have to get in the whole back story of her relationship with Max, but also that of how they met and why she's coming to Pittsburgh. Also why didn't Max go and get Sam himself?

Solution? They get to the office and there's phone messages. One from Sam to set up who she is. A second one to set up why Max will be too busy to pick her up when the car she's driving breaks down just short of Pittsburgh. Each phone call is only a paragraph or two long but are important foundation stones for bigger issues -- triggers so to speak.

If you're going to jump around, you need to write, and then consider what would lead to this situation and do little details and plots to create the threads that will run through the big scene.

Lastly, because I have lots of big scenes and then these little scenes doing fill, I make the little scenes work hard. Not one addresses just one plot point, and each is as interesting as I can make it.

Back to the telephone calls after the sewer scene. In the book, this is three pages. Ukiah and Max walk into the offices after a thrilling adventure in the sewers. Tension of the plot is dipping down, but I don't want it to hit the floor. Law number one -- build tension like a strong stock market -- lots a little dips down but always building upward.

First call -- one page, five paragraphs -- dealership calls saying new car needs picked up. Ukiah reflects that before he left for Oregon, he didn't care about this, now he wants to be more part of the business. Max growls that their part-time help is letting things fall through the cracks -- thus the need for someone like Sam to join the business. Lastly it gives me someplace for Max to disappear to when I want Ukiah alone.

Second call - one paragraph -- accountant wanting to talk about quarterly taxes -- once again, Ukiah growing up and Max disappearing.

Third call -- three paragraphs -- Sam calling to say she's in Wyoming. First paragraph tells Sam is the private detective they met in Oregon and they hired her to bring a car back to Pittsburgh. Second paragraph -- the last time they saw her was this morning when Max kissed her goodbye (Yes, plant ROMANCE with one word) and hoped that he will be able to talk Sam into joining the detective agency while she's in town. Third paragraph gives an ETA for Sam's arrival -- you want the reader to know, sometimes, what will be happening in the future.

Fourth call -- one page -- a series of hangups with no messages. After checking the caller ID, they realize that these are all from Homeland security. Being that Ukiah is half-alien, this could be very BAD for him, but there's no message to explain WHY Homeland is calling. This brings the tension back up and leaves a mystery to hang over the two until the Homeland agent appears.

With the fourth call ending on a tension filled note, I can now do laid back stuff with Ukiah's family and friends and just poke back to this plotline to remind reader of the drawing doom.

I came up with the phone calls as a logical thing you would have after being gone from home/work for two weeks. By doing the color codes, I knew which plot threads needed to be run through this small section and make them lean as possible. By keeping them very lean and ending with the tension builder, I kept them interesting.

Posted by wen at 09:52 AM

November 26, 2003

Color Coding the plot

Someone asked if I ever use color codes on my plotlines.

Usually I don't do this until I'm deep into the story and deep into trouble. I write what's been described as 'twisty' plots, which results in lots of little loose ends that all need threaded through the entire novel.

I color code out the plotline on a seperate sheet of paper usually, which each thread a different color (yes, one must buy many colors for it to work).

I write out something like this:

Ukiah returns home from Oregon and immediatelly called into case of missing person. (the scene)

Ari tells them about missing children (red)
Ari tells them about homeland security (blue)
Mention that Ukiah went through unexpected growth in Oregon to start I'm-not-a-kid-anymore plotline (green)

Ukiah and Max return to office after finding kid.

Sam has left message on answering machine(yellow)
Homeland has left message on answering machine (blue)
Accountant has left message about taxes and dealership left message about new car (green/yellow -- note: this is why Max can't pick up Sam)

As you can start to see, I can tell when the various threads are mentioned in the book and follow all the stages needed for them -- set up, conflict, resolution -- as they move through the outline. If I'm missing one section of it, I can see more clearly where one thread has been dropped and where it needs to be inserted. For example, if the first time Sam (yellow) is mentioned is where her conflict of "why didn't you tell me you were a milionaire/is this relationship going to work" comes to a head, I know that I need to back up and start doing set up for her somewhere -- which is the phone message.

Posted by wen at 06:54 AM

November 17, 2003

Writing a novel -- SPOILERS for both Tinker books

So, I知 doing a rough outline for this novel. Tinker (1) was started blindly, throwing words on a page and seeing what stuck. It was a mad scramble, writing frantically and yet at the same time, trying to figure out where the novel was going.

Writing, as I like to say, is like planning a trip to Disney World. You say okay, I want to go to Disney World in Florida. I want to drive, which requires cash, a car and a map. From my house in Boston, I値l drive down south, and since it takes like 20 hours, I値l break it into three days, so the maximum I値l drive is like 7 hours before stopping. That means I値l stop here, here and here and arrive at Disney World on Tuesday. Or I might do this side trip in North Carolina and visit Baen痴 offices or I might drop that idea. I値l stay at this cheap hotel and the actually GOING to Disney World, well, I値l deal with that when I get there.

I know that the story I want to tell revolves around Tinker, Windwolf, Pony, Riki and Lain. I want the 疎ction to be supplied by a monster (Riki) and the anomaly of Turtle Creek (everyone else). The whole monster sideline might be dropped. The anomaly will need to investigated, possible actions discussed, attempts made that failed, and finally a solution.

So I plan my trip out -- and that takes scenes.

Scenes are the basic building blocks of story telling. It痴 a snapshot of story, a single setting and usually one piece of the story handed at a time. One mystery writer said never more than two characters per scene, and I like this idea a character alone is boring, two people give them someone to talk too, but more than two characters are hard to do well. But it痴 not a hard fast rule -- sometimes you can稚 help to have more than two characters in a scene but if you can juggle people around so that for the most part there are only two people go for it. This might mean sending them out for coffee, tying someone up, knocking someone out, but get rid of the extra people. The easiest way to get rid of them is just to delay them arriving. Walking or riding horses or a crowded party is a great way to split people up so you can have two people talk in a crowd.

So you start collecting scenes, these snapshots.

I know that I need to introduce the unstable area where the oni gate once sat. Snapshot. Tinker looking at Turtle Creek. What does it look like? What happened here? What steps does looking at suggest for future actions? How does Tinker feel? Of course I want a second character with her, but who?

My gut says Pony. Why? I think because he痴 the easiest to explain in so many ways. First 塗er bodyguard explains why he stands around and doesn稚 say much without needing lots of text. And I need text to explain the entire world to the first time reader. I don稚 need a story reason for him being there and yet I need to keep in mind that first time readers don稚 know who he is. A description, his name, and 兎lfin bodyguard will do until later. I need to keep in mind that I need to describe Tinker too. I like to keep things dramatic, so I start on the massive George Westinghouse Bridge with Pittsburgh spread out behind them which is handy to set up the world.

Once I get the entire basic layout of the world nailed in as few words as possible, I can let the two venture down into the valley, do some poking and pushing, and then introduce the other big story element the monster. After roughing them up I bring in Riki to lure it off.

One long scene to start the novel. There are only two characters until the end where an important third character is introduced. I keep all other people out of the conversations to keep the story uncluttered as possible. I値l do introductions later. The world problems are set. There痴 this mysterious something where the gate used to stand and now a monster to contend with. Note that I haven稚 gotten the descriptions all in yet.


1: Ghost Lands

There were some mistakes that 徹ops just didn稚 cover.

Tinker stood on the George Westinghouse Bridge. Behind her was Pittsburgh and its sixty thousands humans now permanently stranded on Elfhome. Below her, lay the mystery that once was Turtle Creek. The valley seemed filled with a blue haze; the air shimmered with odd distortions. The land itself was a kaleidoscope of possibilities -- elfin forest, stone oni buildings, the Westinghouse Air Brake Plant fractured pieces of various dimensions all jumbled together. And it was all her fault.

Except for a blue taint, color seemed leached from the valley, making the features seem somehow insubstantial. Perhaps the area was too unstable to reflect all spectrums of light or maybe various spectrums of light weren稚 able to pass through the the she lacked a name for it.


Tinker decided that was as good a name as any.

展hat are these ghost lands? Pony shifted uneasily beside her.

Or not.

Pony had spoken in low Elvish as he didn稚 speak Pitsupavute or Pittsburgh Speech but ghost lands had been in English, so most likely a human had coined the term.

Certainly the name suited the place well. She winced, remembering that the oni had an army poised to invade Elfhome through the gate they forced her build, the one she booby trapped and caused this mess. The disjointed valley. Pittsburgh stuck on Elfhome. The hyperphase in orbit so much space debris and burnt ash on the ground.

Even 都orry didn稚 seem adequate.

What happened to the oni army on Onihida? Of the oni on Elfhome? She found herself worried about those she thought she hated.

Her bodyguard looked at her, waiting an answer.

的 don稚 know what happen. Tinker ran a hand through her chopped short hair, grabbed a handful and tugged, temptation to pull it out running high. 的 set up a resonance between the gate I built and the one in orbit. They were supposed to shake each other apart. They did. Certainly neither was still intact. 典his was unexpected.

的s it going to get better?

的 don稚 know. Tinker sighed, releasing her hair. 的知 going to have to study it, take some measurements. Although what kind alluded her. 典ry to build some kind of computer model to figure out what happened in order to see if it痴 fixable.

Pony grunted a slight optimistic sound, as if he full of confidence that she could solve all problems. Sometimes his trust in her was intimidating.

Posted by wen at 01:28 PM

November 16, 2003

Organizing a novel

This morning I thought I壇 mention organizing to write a novel.

I start every new project by setting up a folder in My Documents for the project. With Tinker 2, I致e labeled the folder, oddly enough, TINKER 2. From my desktop I致e made a shortcut into the folder.

Into this folder I make two folders. One is NOTES, where I have things like the synopsis that I sold the novel with (which I did have stored in the Tinker (1) folder) and the bible I知 building which has all the characters from the first book and descriptions of them.

I also needed to work out a rough timeline so I know when this novel starts. In Tinker, the story starts shortly before Midsummer痴 Night Eve, and then runs for roughly two months after that date, so it痴 now the end of August. August tends to be muggy hot during the day and cool in the evenings. The days are still long, and the summer stars are in the sky. The trees will be starting to turn if the novel runs more than a month in time. There won稚 be a lot flowers blooming, the corn is starting to be hard to find, and apples will be harvested soon. As the story pushes into September, flocks of geese from Canada will be flying overhead. If I run into the end of October, frost starts.

While I write this, I track the days, so I know if the events start on Monday and three days later the characters are trying to refer back to that day, they can say 溺onday or 典hree days ago. If the story is based in the real world, I find a calendar for that year and figure out the dates (June 21 is it a Monday or Thursday), when the sun rises and sets, and what phase the moon is in.

I also set up a CUTS folder, for the things I don稚 want to use but don稚 want to throw away.

I write every day on the computer, but I also usually carry a tablet around with me at all times. During my first novel, I would scribble on anything handy: napkins, scraps of paper, paper bags. I discovered that this is really, really bad. You lose such notes, so you might as well not written them. Even you save them, there痴 no easy way to store them. Keeping the notes in one or two notebooks or all on notecards in one box, or some other carefully organized manner is the only sane way.

A lot of these notes are just thinking on paper. Sometimes I write something and then scratch it out and write 渡o, no, that won稚 work in the margin. When I hash something out that I think is really important, as soon as I can get to my computer, I type the notes into my computer.

When I知 starting a project, all notes are important, and I usually key them into the computer in one file. This is the big stuff the main story threads. I知 thinking big and everything is new and easily lost. I want to keep track of it all in one place. And it痴 easy to do so because there isn稚 a lot already stored.

Later, when I知 trying to work out little plot details or a fight scene and I have TONS already on file with the project, I usually make up a separate file for each set of notes.

Posted by wen at 10:27 AM

November 15, 2003

Writing A Sequel - Step One

Warning -- Spoilers for both Tinker books!

So I'm starting into writing TINKER TWO -- whatever I end up calling it. I realized that it was a good chance to think about how I write a book and let people in on the process.

To start, let's talk about why a sequel.

As I wrote TINKER, I realized that I'd set up a problem that had to end with the destruction of the orbital gate. Anything less would leave the book with an unresolved crisis. As long as the Oni had access to Earth, and from Earth, Elfhome, everything set up in TINKER would continue. The orbital gate had to go! But this left me in lurch that Tinker thinks about while pacing the bridge. If I put her on Earth, it really wouldn't be a happy ending and would still need a sequel to get her returned to the 'home' of her heart and those she loved. If I put her on Elfhome without Pittsburgh, it couldn't be a happy ending because you couldn't imagine her happy forever without her high tech toys and her various friends and family from Pittsburgh. The solution was taking the best of both worlds and stranding Pittsburgh on Elfhome with her. Of course, this immediately generated a need for a second book to resolve that little problem, but I loved the world and the characters and was willing to do a sequel.

I finished TINKER around March 6th. Jim Baen asked for a sequel after reading it. Selling a second book to a publisher is usually a fairly simple process -- unlike the first book. The first book you have to prove yourself, the second book usually just needs enough to prove that there is a story there to tell.

I sat down and wrote up a quick synopsis based on how I could see the second book going -- and discovered a problem. If I base the second book on "building a gate" its just a revamp of the first book. Obviously, there needed to be other problems where a gate system became a minor importance compared to the true 'conflict.' So what were ALL the threads I left hanging?

Well, obviously first was the mess at Turtle Creek. Windwolf said the land was "fluid." I had assumed that this problem would be a temporary thing and resolve itself. What if it didn't?

Secondly, there was a mass of Oni, Tengu, and Chiyo unaccounted for. Personally I loved Riki as a villain and was sure there could be other oni that would make great villains.

Thirdly, there was the whole elfin politics with the other clans trying to strengthen their positions in North America. Certainly Windwolf just lost his strongest power point -- the link to Earth.

And lastly, there was Tinker's own heart. She was in love, but was that enough to build a strong, lasting marriage -- and there was Pony.

So I wrote up two pages of spinning all those elements together in a story that had nothing to do with building a gate. I emailed it off to Baen and they accepted it, issuing contracts that we both signed. A check followed, which I cashed. So, come hell and high water -- there would be a sequel. I promptly put it on the backburner as I had to finish DOG WARRIOR and do SF conventions to support BITTER WATERS, build support for the John Campbell Award, and spread the word of TINKER's release.

Mid-November and I finish up DOG WARRIOR and here I am, half a year later, no longer sure what I actually wrote for TINKER and a little over a year to write a sequel with lots of interruptions. Sometime in the near future, I'll have to revise DOG WARRIOR and A BROTHER'S PRICE, which are both sold to another publisher. Also, I'm hoping that I can build support to get TINKER onto the Hugo ballot, so I'm going to be doing book tours and SF conventions. And of course, the family would like to see me time to time.

First step is to get familiar again with the material, which means reading the book with pen in hand. You might think this odd. Don't I remember what I wrote? Well, yes, but I wrote a LOT. The question is, what actually STAYED in the book? I have a tendency to write a section and realize that I took the story off in a direction that makes it impossible to continue. Oops, I cry, copy that section off to a "cuts" folder, and delete it out of the main story. Copying it makes me fearless to delete it. Sometimes some or all of that 'cut' section does work its way back into the story -- often at a later time in the story. What might not work in chapter three, might work fine in chapter nine. Or maybe I realize that the scene was fine if I change one of the characters. I had a scene in TAINTED TRAIL once where I had Sam and Max fighting and it wasn't working. I cut it but found that Sam HAD to be dealt with before the story could proceed. I pulled the fight back up, but this time, inserted Rennie, and boom, same fight but this time it worked. Where Max would be reasonable and coaxing, Rennie would be dangerously stubborn.

I read over, too the synopsis I wrote with the book fresh in my mind. Publishers don't require you to stick to the exact plotline in the synopsis used to sell a book. They realize that often what you plan won't work, but you can't foresee it until you're at the scene, fingers over the keyboard, and your writer's instinct goes ", that's not what would happen!" Publishers do like, however, that you get somewhere close -- like the same world and approximate characters you said you would use. I really need to write a book about Tinker's world, probably with Tinker appearing as a main POV character. If I want to pick up a second POV -- such as Riki -- I could. (Stop screaming! I haven't decided yet.)

Another thing I'm doing is building a bible -- which I should have done for the first book but didn't. This bible is a listing of all the characters used and anything I mention about them. Who did I say was head cook for Windwolf's household? Ah, Lemonseed. What did I say about her? Sweet tempered, looks barely older than Lain (who I never did give an age too) and was several thousand years old. Also I note that it was implied that Lemonseed like Tinker and fussed over her when she was feeling blue.

One surprise I find is that I never described Lain except via her crutch. I have a image of her, but I never put it into words. This leaves me in a bind. If I want to use that image of her in the second book, I need to find out what people thinks she looks like. If everyone is imagining a 5'5" brunette, if I suddenly say she's 6'5" red head, people are going to be annoyed.

Once I'm familiar with the material again, I can start writing.

Posted by wen at 01:06 PM

November 12, 2003

Names in TINKER

Why did I name the various characters of TINKER the names I gave them? Why did I pick Alexander Graham Bell?

Oh the joys of naming characters.

Well, part of it was that if you have a young girl dealing with elves and magic by the name of Tinker, Tinkerbell follows unavoidably. Bell had to be Tinker's real name to begin with because it would be too "cute" for Tinker to call herself otherwise.

When I was growing up, my sister who now runs a junkyard ran with a guy by the name of Oilcan. I never knew his real name or why they called him Oilcan. On the first day of writing Tinker, I reached for a name to go with an junkyard employee and came up with Oilcan. Later I made him Tinker's cousin. But what was his real name? Why would he go by Oilcan? I decided that it was his real name was 'weird'. At first I was going to use a family name of Orie, who was my Dad's uncle. But I changed my mind and went with Orville. It was a split moment decision -- fingers paused over the keyboard, then typing, then backspacing and more typing. One second he was Orie and the next Orville. I think it might be my brain saying Orie wasn't geeky enough.

The family naming scheme then sprang up, suggested by a family that used to live down the road from our Berkshire Mountains home. The father was a software engineer that had gone through at least one startup company and now was a millionaire. His daughter was named after the female inventor who inspired one of the first programming languages to be called Ada.

So Orville became Orville Wright, and Tinker Bell became Alexander Graham Bell, so of course, the dead father became Leonardo DeVinci Dufae.

Why Dufae?

Well first, if the family's "real" name was Bell, then the natural assumption was that they were related to the real Alexander Graham Bell. Secondly, it wouldn't make sense that no one realized Leo had a daughter if his father had a granddaughter that wasn't his daughter's child -- thus the family was "in hiding," and Bell was a "cover" name. Third, if Leo's work was an natural extension of current theories, it wouldn't make sense that no one had recreated his work in nearly thirty years. If his work was based on magic and spells, however, handed down through the family, then it was would be such a radical leap forward that everyone would be left in the dust. Thus, the family had to have a elf in the family.

Tinker's ancestor, however, would have on Earth when the gates failed, which I wanted to have happened hundreds of years ago. Since North America was unknown to the elves on Elfhome, he would be in Europe when the gates failed. I decided to go with France, with a convienent revolution to kill him off. All that suggested Morgan la Fae, which I twisted to Dufae, via the immagration to an English speaking colony (perhaps Boston or Philadelphia, instead of the more Dutch New York or French Montreal or New Orleans.)

Maynard and Tooloo were fingers over keyboard and the name came. Lain is actually named after an anime character that we just finished watching -- not that she's anything like the anti-social VR hacker. Lain's last name came when I was sitting trying to think of a last name for her and my husband walked into my office to talk about one of his managers.

The seed character of Tinker was based on a RPG character named Page Bailey, a teenage girl genius that kicked butt in deep space. One of Don's character was Corg Durrack, who I swiped. Hannah Briggs is named in part for a friend, Sherry Briggs.

The dead scientists were all tuckers from the Baen's Bar newsgroup.

Pony's name -- Storm Horse, Little Horse, Pony -- was all swiped from a character of a failed writing project (although the character objects voilently about his name being taken. I've pacified him with the name William, which he's taken a liking too.)

Sparrow was actually a long thought out process. I wanted a name to suggest a lowly beginning that was raised up to a new level, and yet still stuck with her old trappings.

Riki was always Riki. Chiyo was picked off a list of Japanese/Chinese names. Lord Tomtom came from the one thing I remember from reading Thieves World, where there was a character with a long name that the other characters would call Prince Kittycat or somthing like that. I was trying to indicate the idea that the Earth-born Oni found the name difficult to deal with and were rebelling against the Oni rule.

Posted by wen at 12:58 AM

November 08, 2003

Writing Backstory

Someone asked how do you handle backstory of characters? How much do you show? How much can you just hint at?

One writing book I read long ago -- long enough to forget it's name -- talked about the importance of making the characters seem real by having them exist prior to the beginning of the book. This is done by giving them histories.

Certainly I feel like you create more depth in characters by not explaining everything. If you leave shadows -- areas not fully explained -- then what you hinted at seems deeper and richer than if you fully explore it.

One anime I'm watching now is called Haibane Renmei. It's a story about a young girl finding herself reborn with wings in a mysterious town. She doesn't remember who she is, and she's named Rakka which means "falling" because her only memory is of a dream about falling. Somethings about the world are explained but most of it is left up to the imagination. In an interview on the DVD, the creator talks about the fact that he never makes clear what exactly is going on. This could be an afterlife where the girls need to 'learn' something before gaining heaven. This could be aliens, trying to control and understand humans. Who knows. But it's cool, and the story is about the girls, not the world.

Sometimes backstory can be fully explored in back flashes, a mystery of the past can provide the key to the mystery of the present. "Stir of Echoes" is a movie about a man whose pyschic abilities are unlocked to see a ghost in his house. We're then given back flashes of the past to discover how a girl was killed in the house. The backstory is important to the present as her killer still lurks nearby, ready to kill to keep his secret.

Other times, we don't really need to know the past, just hints of "we share a past, he hates me, I hate him, end of story" is enough.

In my own writing I use both. In ALIEN TASTE, Max is introduced to be a widower and still grieving over his dead wife. I make a few allusions to it. Max gets drunks and talks about his disappointment of how his life turned out -- nearly 40, alone, and no kids. Later Indigo mentions that Max was investigated for his wife's death only to be cleared because he was on the opposite coast when she disappeared. Lastly, Ukiah shows photographs of her crashed car and grave of the wife to Indigo. Nothing else is mentioned. It gave the illusion of a huge backstory, giving depth to Max, but without the bulk of more of story that might distract from the story of now. Certainly, nothing about the death of Max's wife could add to the current story since it was an open and close case that has nothing to do with what they are doing now.

On the other hand, in Tainted Trail, Ukiah and Max go to Oregon to find their friend, Alicia. Originally I wrote the novel with no backflashes. The character motivations, however, were lacking. The reader needed to see how Ukiah and Alicia interacted to understand 1) that Alicia would dig into Ukiah's past and thus bring trouble down on her head and 2) Ukiah would move heaven and earth to get Alicia back. Thus I went back and added several scenes of Ukiah and Alicia together that explored their relationship prior to Alicia disappearing.

I would recommend that you go ahead and allude to common history between characters, but only adding backflashes to explorer deep if the history is important to *future* actions of the characters.


Posted by wen at 11:36 PM