Wednesday, August 29, 2012

5 Ways Writing Fiction is Like Writing Code

I'm a writer, but since I'm also a huge math/science nerd, I don't fit the creative stereotype. This is fine with me, especially since as a result of the two years of Computer Science I took in high school, I learned that there are some rules which apply both to writing fiction and writing code.

1) You can't edit (or debug) a blank page

While you don't want to get into the habit of writing gibberish, the worst failure of any writer is to write nothing at all. For coding, you have to have something written so you can test it - all the ideas and plans in the world don't help if you can't see if the darn thing runs. For writing, the same applies: that beautiful book in your head doesn't actually exist until you write it down - flaws and all.

2) You don't have to do it all at once, nor in order
This has been an important lesson for me to learn when it comes to my fiction, but one that comes naturally in code. You write a bit, and then test it, and write another important bit, and test that.

By the same token, in novels and longer stories, I find it often helps me to just skip to the next important/interesting part. If I need to come back and fill in something later, then so be it - but there's no point in writing filler that I'll just delete later.

3) A plan is your friend

Have you ever tried writing a program off the cuff? I have. For short programs, it's doable. But as the programs get more complicated, it becomes imperative to have some sort of plan - even just the idea of "first this, then that, and somewhere along the line also this third thing."

There will always be a debate between plotting and pantsing for writers, but I think even pantsers can benefit from learning to think one step ahead, so you're writing towards the next important event instead of stumbling blind in a fog.

4) Sometimes you just have to debug

I've recently realized that when I think over my plot again and again, and let it percolate in my brain, and then have a giant idea for what needs to happen/change - that's plot debugging! Just like we have to make sure our programs work the way we want them to, we have to be sure that our plots work to the benefit of the story. This can mean changes that are painful to make. Make them anyways.

5) Use your friends (& strangers!)

It's hard to know everything needed to write a particular program, especially when you're learning. That's why everyone in my CompuSci class was always asking their neighbours and google for advice.

As writers we use a different set of tools, but that doesn't mean we have to work alone. Critique partners and online writing references are invaluable. And as I've found out over the past six or so months, twitter is a great way to meet friendly writers from around the world - and then ask them for advice!
In that vein, I hope this has been helpful "advice" - or at least made you see computer programming in a different light. Please, chat me up in the comments!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My MC isn't a Mary-Sue... I hope!

(if you don't know what a Mary-Sue is, click here or here)

My August Camp NaNoWriMo protagonist is a young woman named Siva Grey. She's an orphan, and currently the youngest living master mage, having attained the rank years earlier than most people do.

Most of the story happens while she is living in a land where her magic is forbidden, where she meets and falls in love with a man who's boss is the king who outlawed all the magic.

By the end of the story the kingdom's policy on magic has changed and she lives happily ever after.

This all sound very Sue-ish, doesn't it? As I was writing last night, I became quite nervous that Siva was a Sue, so I ran this test on her. Even before I got the results, reading through all the things that didn't apply reminded me that a story and a character are both more than the superficial details.

Sure, I can draw a bullseye around the Sue-ish traits, but in doing so I omit from consideration most everything that makes her a believable character.

She's an orphan, but not a special "chosen one" kind of orphan. She's the youngest Master mage in years only because she grew up at the school. And that isn't because she was special - she merely had nowhere else to go after she was kicked out by her adoptive family when she started making magic.

Siva is living in a foreign land because she ran away from the school when she found out that her best friend had only been using her to learn magic. Too scared to face everyone knowing, she fled far and fast without a plan or adequate preparation.
And the king's man she falls in love? He's barely got status at court, and that only as a tutor to the prince. He's not a hottie warrior, but someone she has to protect with her magic when his diplomacy fails.

Lastly, the kingdom's policy doesn't change because the king realizes how right she is... it changes because he dies.
After thinking through all of the above, I realized what a difference the details make. I don't think Siva's a Sue after all, despite some characteristic traits.
What do you think? Is my MC a Mary-Sue? Please warn me if I've been blinded by my own story!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Storycraft and tragedy: The Wise Man's Fear

I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear last night, and I was awestruck. The sheer craftsmanship that went into the story - not just the plot, but the world and the cultures and the layers upon layers of perfection... my mind is still too boggled to even contemplate how much work went into that.

I am a writer. And I damn well want to be a published money-making author one day. But I doubt I will ever write anything as intricate as this story. To be honest, I'm not sure I'd even want to.

Not that the book isn't a masterpiece. The way the two timelines mirror each other, the way the different threads of story weave together and apart again as Kvothe faces adventure and disaster again and again somehow always coming out a little more on top - and yet all the while, thanks to the 'present day' narration, you know roughly how it ends and so you wait for the other shoe to drop.

It's agonizing, delicious and has driven me a little bit insane. If I could write like that I would weep for the sheer beauty of the craft, but that is not how I aspire to write. That kind of epic story is not the kind of story I want to tell.

Over the roughly four days, three late nights and most of last evening that it took me to read The Wise Man's Fear, I was nearly always caught in the grips of the story. But when I wasn't, I was lamenting its winding nature, the way things always go wrong, and how the only stated goal is something we KNOW is going to fail.

I don't write tragedies.*  I may have written a story in which the main character's entire family dies - but it wasn't a tragedy. I don't write tragedies and I certainly don't read them if I can help it.

The Wise Man's Fear reads a little bit like a tragedy, because we know where the main character ends up, and it isn't pretty. I would not have picked up The Name of the Wind (book one) if I had known this, because I can't stand the thought of the sad 'present day' being the end of Kvothe's story. (this also means I will come back for more, but I digress...)

In my stories, yes, I torture my characters. Murder your darlings, after all. And in my main WIP I kill off most of the cast, including a love interest, and at the end leave the main character locked up in the last place she wants to be. But it's not a tragedy because despite all of that stuff I just mentioned, if you look at things a certain way, you can see that she "wins". She got what she wanted, even if the price she had to pay was many times higher than she expected.

I guess what it all comes down to is that people have plenty of different kinds of stories they like to tell, and that they like to read. As both a writer and a reader I can admire Patrick Rothfuss's work with the awe it deserves. But if I want to love my stories and have that love push me to craft them to be the best they can be, I have to know what kind of stories I have it in me to tell.

I don't write tragedies. I don't write "setting" books. I don't write epics. But sometimes, when the story is good enough, I like to read a book that is a breathtaking combination of all three.

*Well, I did write this slightly creepy contest winning horror story off of the prompt "love". But that doesn't count. Right?

Have you read The Wise Man's Fear? What did you think of it? What kind of stories do you have it in you to write?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Atalanta Retold: TCWT's August Blog Chain

The theme for this month’s blog chain is…
“Write a retelling of your favorite fairytale, myth, or legend.”

My favourite fairy tale type stories have always been unconventional retellings (ie. Dealing with Dragons, Wicked), so this was a difficult prompt for me.

But then I remembered the story of Atalanta from the "Free to Be... You and Me" tape I listened to ALL THE TIME as a kid. That was already a reimagined story, retold with a slightly utopian feminist message. When I read the original (spoiler alert: the 'hero' is a cheater) I got so steaming mad I knew I had to give Atalanta back some power - and maybe some less than honest skills of her own. 

The Goddess Knows Best
When I was born, the king cursed Artemis for three days and three nights. It didn't change anything, and my mother sighed and told him, "the goddess knows best."

My father eventually agreed, deciding that my birth was a sign that he was allowed to choose his successor - in the form of my husband.

And so from the moment I could open my eyes I was groomed to attract the best and strongest of princes. I had dancing lessons, deportment lessons, music lessons and every other kind of lesson imaginable. Mother convinced Father I should be able to converse as well, so I had tutors enough to spin my head teaching me a bit everything a prince would know.

I didn't mind the lessons too much though. I even missed them when they ended on my sixteenth birthday, because that was the day the parade of suitors started. Tall princes, short princes, handsome princes, ugly princes... all of them good fighting men, strong as oxes - and plenty about as smart.

For three years I drove my father to despair, rejecting every prince for one reason or another. Mother had told me not to settle - I was a jewel befitting any crown. And while she meant for me to find the best prince possible, the comment had sparked other ideas.

But after three years Father grew tired of waiting and proposed a contest to settle the matter once and for all. We would hold a footrace, and the winner would win my hand in marriage as well. Since I would have rather cut off my own hand than give it to some of the princes I knew wanted it, I made some conditions of my own.

The race would occur - but only if I could determine the course, announce it when I pleased, and race it alongside the men. Since I had never been an athlete of any sort, Father was happy to humour me. But I wasn't counting on strength to win.

We announced the race, and princes flocked from every corner of the earth to compete for my hand. By day I watched them train; I flirted and flounced, as empty headed as you please. By night I ran laps of the ballroom, honing my speed as best I could over its hundred yard length.

Come race morning, I still had not shared the details of the course with anyone but Mother. I told her I was arranging for a special someone to win, and she was only too happy to help me.

As we lined up on the starting line, the men grumbled that they still did not know the course.

"But of course not!" I simpered at them. "If I told you, you'd all run off and leave me back here!"

They laughed and agreed not to abandon me.

"Oh good," I said. "I'll tell you the course as we run." It was, after all, technically true.
We set off and I gave the men directions as we ran, playing the bumbling fool. After a few minutes, I started making a joke of the race, sprinted ahead and laughing when they followed me. By the fourth time they knew better and let me get ahead, knowing I would have to stop to catch my breath - and let them catch up.

But each time I ran ahead a little further. Soon, we approached the palace again. I saw Mother in the distance, and slowed down a little. 
When there were only a hundred yards between her and us, I took off sprinting again. The princes laughed.

They stopped laughing when I yelled that the finish line was the Queen. I was already a quarter of the way there.

I heard them cursing and panting behind me, but I crossed the line Mother had drawn in the dirt still easily ahead of everyone. When she realized I had rigged the race for myself, she doubled over with laughter. I did the same - of out exhaustion.

But when I spotted Father approaching I quickly straightened up.

"What is the meaning of this?" he bellowed.

"I won," I said, unable to stop myself from grinning. "My hand is my own." And I was very glad not to have to cut it off to make my point.

Father drew himself up to yell again, but then he looked at all the princes who had tried to catch me, staggering around or collapsed on the ground, and he shrugged.

"I guess you outwitted us all," he said slowly.

I nodded.

"Then... I guess... the crown is yours."

I laughed aloud with delight, laughter that turned near hysterical when Mother looked Father straight in the eye and said, "See? The Goddess knew best."


For more information on various versions of the Atalanta story, click here.

Want to follow our blog chain? Here are the participating parties, day by day:
August 4 – – Musings From Neville’s Navel
August 5 – – Crazy Red Pen
August 6 – – Lily’s Notes in the Margins
August 7 - Olivia’s Opinions
August 8 - – Snippets, Slices, and Scenes
August 9 – – Mark O’Brien Writes
August 10 – – One Life Glory
August 11 – – A Story of a Dreamer
August 12 – – Life, Among Other Things
August 13 – – Blog of a (Maybe) Teen Author
August 14 – - The Teenage Writer
August 15 - – Scribbling Beyond the Margins
August 16 – – Dragons, Unicorns, and Other Random Things
August 17 – – Kirsten Writes!
August 18 – –The Zebra Clan
August 19 – – Miriam Joy Writes
August 20– – All I Need Is A Keyboard
August 21 ––The Incessant Droning of a Bored Writer
August 22 – Teens Can Write Too! (announcing next month’s chain)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cutting myself some slack

I'm exhausted.

There's no pretty way to say it - I'm just tired.

Tired of fretting about everything I have to do before I leave for university in three weeks, tired of making decisions about what to buy, bring and do.

Tired of worrying if I'll be ready and if I'll lose touch with my physical world friends and if I'll ever make new friends who'll matter half as much.

Tired of working and not sleeping enough, while still running and writing and spending way too much time on Twitter. (even though I love all three of those things)

Part of me wants to say: I need a break, from all of it.

The rest of me says: go to bed.

And I think, if I give myself near 9 hours of sleep every night, and keep making incremental progress on my NaNo novel, and just relax about the rest of my life, this will all be okay.

Everything does not depend on this moment. Don't waste it, but don't waste it worrying about wasting it either.

I planned a post today, but I don't want to put up some half finished mess. Next week, when it's more like four fifths finished, then you can see it. :)

Until then, goodnight.

(& as always, good luck)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Camp NaNo excerpt: MMC introduction

My August novel is a story I've been meaning to flesh out for some time, inspired by a short piece I wrote maybe a year ago about a woman who gains master mage status only to learn that the one thing she was most certain of was a lie.

Fire is the story of how Siva runs away from everything she knows to a land where her magic is forbidden and there finds love - only to be confronted by the need for her magic again.

So far, the book opens with Siva, but very shortly the male main character is introduced, and that's the excerpt I'm sharing today.

Avery cursed the gods for saddling him with such a troublesome charge. Who would have thought a well-bred boy of twelve could be so much trouble? But from the moment he had taken this job, Gavin had been nothing but trouble.

He knew he should be grateful for having this job - it kept him fed and sheltered, and even earned him pay to save, while still being respectable, if only barely. And Gavin wasn't a bad boy, just rambunctious and lacking in discipline. Most of the time Avery enjoyed his work. But not today.

Not when, in the middle of the biggest storm system the kingdom had seen in years, his twelve year old responsibility had wandered off outside somewhere. If Gavin got hurt, if - gods forbid - he died, Avery would be hung up for treasonous derelicting of duty. And he would deserve it.

What had he been thinking, letting Gavin "go down to the stables for a few hours"? Well, he had wanted some time alone to get through the damn history books that were so convoluted they made his eyes ache trying to read them. Didn't help he was only passably good at the ancient language they were written in.

But none of that would matter if Gavin died, he reminded himself. And while there had been servants outside for a good half hour now, it was time to admit that he should join the search. He had wanted to be here in case Gavin came back - or was dragged in - but there was no way he could tell the king he hadn't even tried. Even if, with his spectacles, he'd be nigh useless in this rain.

There was a knocking on the door, and Avery ran to open it, beating the footman normally assigned to the task - a fact of which he was proud until he remembered that the footman was actually outside in the rain right now.

Oh well. He opened the door, letting in the wind and driving rain, and nearly keeled over with relief when he saw Gavin. He bundled the boy and his finder inside, scolding the young prince with all the anger he could muster against his relief.

It wasn't until the boy had been bundled away by his manservant that he realized the woman who had brought Gavin in was still standing just inside the doorway, shivering. She looked cold to the bone.
I didn't know much about the MMC when I started writing Fire, and so I'm glad this section turned out as well as it did.

At least, right now I think it turned out well. Do you agree?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why You Should Be A NaNoWriMo ML

Today is the first day of the August session of Camp NaNoWriMo, an amazing event where - just like regular NaNoWriMo - writers around the world attempt to write 50 000 words in a month. 

The biggest difference between the two events is that Camp doesn't have Municipal Liaisons (MLs), and while Camp is still a ton of fun, November NaNo wouldn't be the same without the local gatherings, the fun of meeting people in person, and the community we build. And while all that is possible without an ML, it's a lot easier with someone who has the responsibility and the power to take the lead.

But my region doesn't have an ML for this fall. (My old region, I should say, since I'll be at university this fall, elsewise I'd be volunteering.) And that makes me pretty sad. I hope someone steps up, but I'm writing this to ask you, whether you're in Ottawa or not, to go check, right now, if your region has an ML (go here & scroll down). 

If so, great. Maybe send them a message of support, now or after seeing what a great job they do in November. But if not, please consider filling out the applicationNaNo needs MLs. It's not as hard as you might think, and way more rewarding than I can properly describe.

I ML'ed for Script Frenzy in April, and it was one of the most fun commitments I have ever made. If you're nervous about trying to lead, get together with a friend and be co-MLs. If you think it will be too much work, let me tell you: being an ML is as much work as you want it to be.

If you want, you can put up posters, contact media, raise funds, send out daily emails... or you can organize a kick off, a TGIO and maybe a few things in between. Whatever you're comfortable with. And trust me, people will step up to organize other meetings - you just have to get the ball rolling.

Still unsure? I promise, HQ is very supportive, as are the other MLs. Once you're in, you get helpful emails, an awesome guide and private ML forums where you can ask anything you want.

For right now, if you have questions about ML'ing, you can ask your previous ML (if there was one) and check out last year's events (via google calendar) by visiting your region's homepage. For anyone considering ML'ing in Ottawa, go here.

The deadline to submit an application is August 12th. Think about it. And then go download that application!

I was an ML at 18, and it was amazing. Whoever you are, you can be an ML too.

So tell me... does your region have an ML? If not, are you considering it? Hit me up with your thoughts and questions here or on twitter @amethystars.