Can-Con 2017, Day 1!

Another year, another Can-Con. And what a great weekend it was! I didn’t do every possible thing that I could have, but it was still a busy, fabulous three days.

Friday began with workshops. There were two time slots with a choice of two workshops in each one.

In the first time slot, I went to the one titled “Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seat” that was supposed to be taught by Matt Moore. Unfortunately (especially for him!), Matt was sick and unable to be there. However, Kate Heartfield stepped in to do the workshop in his stead.

Using Matt’s notes, Kate offered a great discussion of how to cultivate tension through character, conflict, and raising stakes. The whole thing was useful and clarified things that had been floating around in my mind without specific form, but I particularly appreciated the mention of Dan Harmon’s approach to talking about story structure and how characters progress through the story (all the characters, not just the protagonist). This makes so much sense to me, not as something new so much as explaining something in a really good, clear way that I can see the immediate application of. So that was good!

Then, in the second workshop time, I chose the one by James Alan Gardner called “Nailing Your Beginning.” Each of us brought in the first 800 words of something we were working. We each read our work and the rest of the group, including Jim, commented on it in the context of it being the beginning of a work, the introductory material that the reader is presented with. I find this sort of thing really helpful and, indeed, this workshop was great. Of course, you always learn a lot about your own writing from other people’s work and what you see as problematic in what they have written! And the comments on my piece (the beginning of my draft 2 novel, Onwards to Enceladus) were so helpful, as they focused on issues that I had been uncertain about and gave me clear ways to adjust things.

When I was younger, I loathed sharing my own work (especially something not ‘finished’) with others in such a setting, but I’m (mostly) over that now. (As an aside, I think that taking Writers Studio classes, where you have to share your assigned writing every week, week after week, was super helpful in getting me over sharing issues, as well as accepting criticism, because it was a very respectful approach to it — critiquing the writing, not the writer; including positive and negative comments; etc. Being online and not face-to-face probably also helped in getting used to it.)

That was my Friday. Saturday comments coming soon!



Where has this year gone / Outlines and course corrections

I have been even more negligent than usual this year with the blog. My last actually posted post was in January! (I have 4 or 5 drafts, one I have started every couple of months, with great good intentions of posting about what I was writing or reading or watching, that are just sitting there, looking at me skeptically.)

I began to write, a couple of months ago, about my outlining process and think it’s still useful, for myself if no one else, so I include it now.

In writing circles, nothing gets a discussion going like positing a tendency towards outlining or not (planning or pantsing, as it were). I fall somewhere in between.

Short stories — not much in the way of planning. Typically, I start with an idea or an event or a character and go from there. If it’s a longer story (say, over 3500 words), I will probably go back and think about the structure and make changes accordingly — perhaps changing the opening or closing scene, or re-arranging the story’s order.

But for novels or novellas, I outline. Vigourously. I’ve been doing Nanowrimo since 2008, along with a number of Camp Nanowrimos along the way. And if I have learned one thing in writing a lot of first drafts, it is that no matter how thoroughly I outline, I don’t get the plot right on the first go.

I am sure that there are writers who do (and that’s great for you, I don’t really want to hear about it). For me, the plot evolves as I write and re-write. My current WIP is a science fiction novel. The initial idea came to me last September and I did an outline of the main plot in late October and wrote 50 033 words of it. I had some sub-plot ideas swirling around, but they fell by the wayside as November progressed.

I spent December to March thinking through the plot and developing sub-plot ideas. April’s Camp Nanowrimo was the beginning of editing. I decided to count by hours (which didn’t really work with my approach to writing/editing). I got a good start on the editing, but just a start.

In May, I wrote a number of backstory pieces for the central characters in the novel. This was really helpful (and I probably should have done it earlier).

For July’s Camp Nanowrimo, I went through draft 1 and edited the scenes that already existed (on paper), while adding the ones that were only a line or two of description (on the computer).

It went well and then I spent August putting my edits on paper into the computer and working on further character and plot refinement in September.

But my ideas around the plot have evolved and not in a bad way.

This past weekend was Can-Con (I will write more about the later, really!) and I have so many more ideas and thoughts now!

More things I’ve been watching (that I previously read or not)

(As always,  may contain spoilers.)

More about what I’ve been watching lately.

It’s interesting to see some of the things that Netflix has been coming out with — they really seem to be aiming for a broad possible audience.

This month, we’ve watched two season 1s of series that I loved when I read: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and A Series of Unfortunate Events. One of the more interesting aspects of these two series is that they have taken almost exactly opposite approaches.

Dirk Gently, rather than attempt to divine a plot out of the books by Douglas Adams (and I say that with great love, because I adore the books), takes the main character and places him in a different (but logical, given the books) situation. New characters (compared to the books) are introduced to accompany Dirk, including the very-Arthur Dent-ish  Todd and the kick-ass security expert Farah. The story, which includes time travel, body-swapping, a corgi, police, the traditional shadowy ‘government agency,’ and a holistic assassin (and more!), works well and we went through the full eight episodes quickly. The show is funny, bloody, and bizarre. I like to think that Adams would have been very happy with how it has turned out.

While Dirk Gently takes the premise of the books and goes in another, though complementary, direction, the serial version of A Series of Unfortunate Events is a very true-to-the-books rendition. Also an eight episode first season, each book is covered in two episodes (which works, predictably, way better than the movie of 2004, which tried to include the first three books). This version is absolutely delightful. Neil Patrick Harris is a perfectly creepy Count Olaf and the children are ideal for their roles. The small parts are wonderfully cast with an impressive list of actors — Catherine O’Hara, Alfre Woodard, Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Don Johnson, and Will Arnett, amongst others. And the casting,  along with settings that have a Wes Anderson-level of detail, makes this darkly comedic series work. (The literary aspect of the books comes through, as well — thanks in large part to the presence of Lemony Snicket as a narrator.)

Film-wise, we watched The Martian recently and I rather liked it. There were elements that I found unlikely but were necessary for plot purposes (such as why the ship had to leave Martian orbit immediately), but that is always the case with SF. Matt Damon was good (better than Elysium, not at the level of Bourne). And, honestly, there could have been more about the growing potatoes. But the story — about an astronaut inadvertently left behind on Mars — is solid (I need to read the book it was based on). The initial attempts by the astronaut to contact Earth, the work both by Earth and the astronaut to find a way to get him back — it unfolds in a nice back and forth. Good pacing.

And, just before Christmas, the latest season of Midsomer Murders began. We love Midsomer Murders and have been watching it weekly as it airs (well, a day or two after it airs, to give it time to proliferate on the various, slightly dodgy sites that allow us to watch current ITV programs outside of the UK). This season does not disappoint! One of the things that works so well with Midsomer Murders is that it absorbs new characters easily — the Detective Sargent position should have turnover, of course, so it makes sense that they don’t last long. The television series has long since diverged from the (much shorter — seven books versus 19 series over the last 20 years of the tv show) series of books by Caroline Graham (that I quite enjoyed when they were originally published, beginning in the late 1980s), but the stories continue to be great. I especially like that they are each given the time (an hour and a half per episode) to unfold gradually, without rush.

In addition to just keeping track of things for myself, I’ve been thinking about what to take away from what I have been watching as a writer.

  1. Midsomer Murders is an excellent demonstration of how to make a low-key murder mystery very compelling. The resolutions per se are not the most important part of the stories (although they always make sense!) — there are complex webs of relationships found in each of the villages that form the backdrop for the violence that ensues. The characters and their stories — both recurring and not — are more important than anything else.
  2. The Martian demonstrates a nice balance between the personal and technical in telling a story.
  3. A Series of Unfortunate Events shows how a, in some ways repetitive framework for a series, can explore very divergent ideas. These books are remarkable in many ways. I first started reading them to Maddy (before the series was complete) at the same time we started reading the Artemis Fowl books. I thought I would like the latter more (based on the descriptions of the books), but that wasn’t the case. I always struggled to remember which Artemis Fowl books I had read, because they all blended together, whereas the Series of Unfortunate Events were, despite the superficial similarities, strikingly different, one book to the next. (Oddly, I had the same experience when I bought, years before, books by C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner) and Harry Turtledove (Worldwar: In the Balance) at the same time, thinking I would prefer the former and actually loving the latter so much more.)
  4. Regarding Dirk Gently, I think there is a lesson in how a particular character or premise has many possible uses. As a creative type, we just need to find the right one for the right purpose.