Saturday, December 31, 2011

Enjoying the Living Hell out of Horror Writing [WIP]

I've got a chapter of The Work nearly presentable for Magic City Writers, which is good considering that they'll need it tomorrow if they're going to have a week to critique it before our January 8th meeting.

This single 2,100ish-word chapter is the hardest-researched and most-thought-about prose I've ever written, especially given the short amount of time it's been since coming up with the story idea: December 5, so it's been less than a month. Behind the scenes, I've constructed a massive mind map to support the conceptual framework of the novel, written over 8,700 words of characters' backstory, and put together two full chapter-by-chapter outlines in Scrivener (I threw away the first).

I've also been filling my head with great (well, awful, but a great kind of awful) material, for nearly four weeks straight now. In novels: Whispers by Dean Koontz, Misery by Stephen King, Odd Thomas by Koontz, and I'm in the middle of The Shining by King. And in audio: I've listened to eighteen or so half-hour episodes of the Pseudopod horror podcast in the car going to and from work. The podcast in particular has been helpful: Pseudopod is an excellent resource for what sounds good and is paced well for the ear, instead of just the page.

It's been lot of work in a short time for 2,100 words, true, but so far the result has been unlike anything I've ever produced. Rough around the edges, but almost entirely character-driven, and using better-realized characters: plot movement can just fall into place when the characters are people you feel like you know. Their motivations pull the story along, instead of the reverse.

It's all been surprisingly easy, and surprisingly simple, and yet frighteningly exposed: I'm used to a LOT more worldbuilding being required. The Work is taking place entirely in modern-day America, with only a few brand names changed to protect the innocent. There's no sheen from duralloy bulkheads or glow from magical thought-eating algae to hide behind here: it's just me, the characters and the reader.

TL;DR: this feels great. I'm enjoying the act of writing more than I have in years, and I've hardly been hating it. This is definitely a new phase of the craft for me, and I'm loving the ride.

And now, some Work in Progress:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitting the Characterization Part Hard; Horror's Needs

The past two weeks have seen me undertake something I'm ashamed to admit I've never really done properly before: sit down and do character sketches of all the major characters in a novel I'm planning to write. Not "write a diary entry about characters," or "ponder a character's background and write down a few thoughts," but "fill out a structured character sketch, from background to conflicts to an overview of what I want/need their character to do in the book."

It's been a humbling and exciting exercise: on the one hand, I'm having to answer all sorts of niggling questions I'm embarrassed not to have thought of beforehand, but on the other I'm having more fun and getting more enthused about my novel The Work than I have about any other project I've worked on, which is saying something...

The prospect of writing a horror novel is what's driven me, finally, to get my characters right. Not that SF or fantasy need good characters less (perish the thought), but to quote Stephen King, "You've got to love the people... that allows horror to be possible." At some level I know that if I fail to allow the readers to get into the characters, then when things begin to go bump in the night and the knives come out it'll fall flat in some measure, and that's death for horror, probably more than any other genre I can call to mind.

So, I've finally completed in-depth sketches for my four main characters. I need to do some brief reshuffling of the plot outline I have (thanks to knowing more about the characters, their motivations and needs than when I first did the outline), and then, probably tonight, I'll finally begin laying down prose.

Can't wait. The plot, as I tweeted the other night, is no longer by any stretch the scariest thing. I'm worried for my characters, now. How awesome is that?

-Rich

PS. Many thanks, by the way, to the people at literatureandlatte.com for including good project templates in the shipping version of Scrivener for Windows 1.0: there are many, many, many ways to write a character sketch, and one way is probably as good as another, but your inclusion of the sketch template in the Novel blank-project gave me an excellent place to start. Well done.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

On Technology and Creative Friction

I've spent a fair amount of time this week, between plot outlining and character sketching for The Work (which is going outstandingly, thanks very much), refurbishing an old Dell Inspiron B130 laptop of Amy's. It's 2006-vintage with upgraded memory, which means it's a very competent Windows XP box. I'm typing on it now.

It's got a 15" screen and weighs several pounds, which is gargantuan by today's featherlight standards of netbooks, 13-inch Macbook Airs and "ultrabook" PCs. I do have a netbook which is doing yeoman's work as a primary machine (thanks to its capacious hard drive), but its keyboard, while usable, isn't quite big enough for fast or accurate typing with my big mitts.

I did need to replace the Dell's keyboard, though, which brings me to the subject of the post. Whether through heavy use or simple age, the Dell's original keyboard had become stiff and reluctant to recognize keypresses. Luckily Amazon offered a replacement for $10, which arrived yesterday. Yank the battery, pop a panel, unscrew the old keyboard, install the new, and suddenly the laptop types like a dream. Now that I've stripped off all the gnarly mid-decade software and run through Microsoft's patching gauntlet, it's become a quite respectable and comfortable word processing computer. So comfortable, in fact, that I may well make this computer my primary writing machine.

The Dell's 15" screen and full-size keys are like coming home: I used to use an old (2004-vintage) Mac Powerbook G4 for writing, but I let Apple OS-revise it into senescence: I really should have kept it on OS X Tiger, but wiping it and going back would be too much grief, now. Windows XP, by contrast, is still getting patched, still supports most Windows software (most notably Google Chrome, MS Word 2010 and Scrivener for Windows), and runs like greased lightning on cheap old hardware like this.

It's surprising the difference that a good keyboard and working environment can make for smooth writing. The netbook's screen is just a little too small, its keyboard a smidgen too cramped for comfort, which makes a big enough difference that I'd been using the netbook plugged into an external flatscreen and keyboard just to make it palatable. With the Dell, that's not an issue: despite weighing nearly double what the netbook does, I've been happily typing with the full-sized laptop on my lap-desk all morning, while I would have moved off onto the plugged-in desktop and its less-comfy chair by now with the netbook.

I know: first-world problems, right? Still, I try never to let little stuff serve as an excuse not to write, but getting the little stuff right can really help out by making writing just that much more pleasant and distraction-free.

-Rich

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thoughts and a Request: Nanowrimo Postmortem; Plunging into the Worlds of Horror and the Weird

Well, Nanowrimo didn't work out: November kicked my posterior this year, but the ways it did so were for the most part unpreventable and only slightly foreseeable, so I don't feel but so bad  about it. I fell out of love with my concept about midmonth, too, which didn't help.

However, my falling out of love came largely because of a new enthusiasm: horror and weird fiction. In the run-up to Halloween this year, as I mentioned a few posts ago, the guys in the Magic City Writers group suggested that I look into horror writing, since I enjoyed our spooky/creepy exercises so much.

The more I think about it, my very tactile, very description-heavy style might well lend itself to horror/weird. I'm already a China MiƩville fan, and some of the Dean Koontz and Stephen King I've read has been quite compelling. So, I've been buying up all the Kindle horror I can find/afford (and putting the rest on my Christmas wish lists), and I've begun a search for my much-neglected (and buried in my recent office renovation) copy of Vandermeer's anthology The New Weird, which along with comprehensive Poe and Lovecraft anthologies, ought to give me a suitably diverse place to start as I try to build up my literacy in these areas.

I've already got a few story ideas percolating to get started: as I produce prose I'll air some of it here, but I fully expect to be raw and stumbling for a while as I discover which ends are the pointy ones.

So, the request, for those who've read this far: in the comments, if you have favorite horror or weird-fic authors or titles, please recommend them! I need to read as widely and as deeply as I can, so I'm inclined to try a little bit of everything while I find my feet. Thanks!

-Rich