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Back in 2006, when SJ was coming to a close and I was looking at the whole writing thing, I invested in a copy of Dramatica Pro, a piece of software that hails itself as “the ultimate creative writing partner.” I banged around with it some then, with mixed results… and by “mixed” I mean “not very much in the way of useful.” I did write a lot of stuff– 1200 words detailing the childhood of a character who ended up being cut from the book for instance. Oops. But I didn’t get much actual story from it all, among other things because I kept getting hung up on all the jargon the program was throwing at me.
The software, you see, is based on the “dramatica theory” of storytelling, which is a slippery hodgepodge of narrative structure and pop psychology meant to appeal to the kind of writers who think The Hero of 1,000 Faces is the One True Book of Writing.  So to get the most use out of the software, you have to A) understand, and B) buy into the whole dramatica model, which treats characters as “types” and lays out all stories as an interplay of relationships between those types (and gives you the prescribed “right answer” for said relationships). It’s all very abstract, which it would kinda have to be as a unified field theory of plot, and at the same time comes off as a straitjacket. “If your protagonist is a Perceptive type, then the opposing concept is Fate.” That kind of thing.
As far as the actual plotting of the story goes, it seems to mostly be a modified snowflake method, starting with a one-sentence tag line, expanding to a one paragraph synopsis, and so on. However, I never actually got that far using Dramatica Pro because I always got bogged down in the character section, trying to shoehorn one character into the “Impact Character” role, another into the “Guardian” role, etc. Instead of just a relatively simple list of who the characters are and what they’re about, mapping the characters to the various types is supposed to show how they relate to each other later, guiding the story structure and blah blah blaaaahhh forget it.
So for now at least, I’m sticking with the snowflake method. It worked pretty well for my NaNoWriMo novel, I just need to get better at thinking in terms of more “novel-length” stories.
 For the record, The Hero of 1,000 Faces is a great book and has a lot of useful insight. But it’s a scholarly study of world mythology, you’re not supposed to use it as a paint-by-numbers formula for screenplays, everyone in Hollywood. ¬.¬
Thanks to National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo), my third full-length novel, and the first novel-length Michael Macbeth story, Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts, finally has a solid first draft. I actually got to “The End” somewhere around 48,000 words on November 25th, and spent the next three days going back and finding any and every thin spot I could find to expand out a bit terribly worried that I would fall into the dreaded “Close, but no cigar!” category . But then, just after midnight on Thanksgiving, I managed to pull it off, earning the Winner’s Screen, the bragging rights, and most importantly, the experience of having spent a month as a full-time writer on a tight deadline and knowledge that I could indeed hack it.
Yesterday, I spent mostly sleeping, followed by steak dinner and a trip to Barnes & Noble (the literary geek’s equivalent to “I’m going to Disneyland!”). I also did my best to not think about the book at all, although I did find myself going back and adding another 100 words or so in a moment of weakness. Now that I’ve had a little time to let it sink in, it’s time to reflect and try to pull some lessons learned from the experience.
- Yes, Virginia, I am a writer. This isn’t something I learned really, but it was a nice reminder of something I already knew. I put in long hours and bent all of my brainpower towards getting this book done within the deadline, which included coming up with logistical strategies (“I won’t be able to get any writing done Sunday, I’d better double up on Saturday and Monday…”), exercising discipline (“I really don’t feel like writing this scene, but the story won’t work without it…”), and improvising fixes for damage control (“Ack! This part of my outline actually makes no damn sense for this character to do this action at this time. How can I fix this?”). But as grueling as it was, and as wiped out as I was by the end of the day, I was never once as resentful or burned out as I was by any given day of the former day job. This is my true and correct work, what I “should” be doing– now I just have to solve the logistical problem of making it profitable.
- 2,000 words is a pretty good day’s work for me. The target for NaNoWriMo is an average of 1,667 WPD (or 11,669 per week), but that also assumes you’re going to write every day of the month. 2,000 WPD for five days a week comes to an average of 10,000 words per week, which is still a pretty ambitious pace but allows you to recharge your batteries. So when I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, that will probably be my target for a regular project. I know that there are people who claim you can easily crank out 10,000 WPD, and they may be right, I’ll certainly investigate the possibilities. But for now, a target of 2,000 WPD makes three novels a year comfortably possible, and that’s a good place to start.
- “Write the book you want to read” may not work, but is probably a good place to start. It’s no secret among those familiar with them that my Michael Macbeth stories have always been “I wanted another Dirk Gently book, dammit!” at their heart. Who Tend On Mortal Thoughts started from this same premise, and when stuck I often went back to “What would a Dirk Gently book do here (besides miss another deadline)?” But of course, Michael is not Dirk Gently, Richmond Virginia is neither London nor Cambridge, and I am not Douglas Adams. So by the end of the book, I still came out with something that was almost, but not entirely, unlike a Dirk Gently book, and I now must consider the work on its own merits and flaws. I think it’s a good book, and I think there are even parts where it might be a great book. So that’s not a bad consolation prize, anyway.
- I really need to write “fatter” and slower. The “sweet spot” for novel publication, particularly in the genre I was writing for, is 75k-90k. I was trying to come up with a novel to fit that size, and it took a lot of going back and fleshing out to get it to 50k as it was. But when I sent the beta readers to check out the first rough of the first act, the reaction was a pretty universal “It happens too fast”/”You’re skimming over the plot”. I suspect this is because I write the same way I read (or watch movies), looking for the plot points and ignoring everything else. I don’t know when I got so ruthless about throwing out everything else, and really it’s not a good habit. If I’m going to read that way, why bother with a novel at all? Why not just read the Cliffs Notes? Or an outline.  I have to remember that sometimes, just taking delight in the characters and stepping into their world is also “the good stuff,” and that I shouldn’t be afraid to write a scene just because it would be a fun scene to include.
- I need to bake more complexity into the plot directly from the outline. I still need to develop the skill of thinking in terms of more complex stories. Right now, I have graduated from “A + B = C” (short story) to “A + (B + C)/D = E” (novella/short novel). I now need to level-up to “(A + B) / (C + D) + E = F”. If that makes sense. Which it probably doesn’t to anyone but me. Point is, I don’t need a “bigger, more epic” story, but I do need a story with more layers and a more intricate structure.
There is probably more, but that’s the extent of what I can easily bring to words right now. I’m very glad that I could finally participate– and win– NaNoWriMo. I don’t know how people can manage to pull it off with a day job! But anyone who jumps in and gives it a real try, whether they reach the arbitrary 50k “finish line” or not, you have my admiration, affection, and respect. I’m proud to be among your number!
 Actually, upon reflection, the Cliff Notes comment may be telling. So many of my college literature courses were of the “Read six novels this week, ten novels the weeks after that, and the entire works of William Shakespeare by the end of the semester…” variety that eventually I gave up and did just read the Cliff Notes because there was no other way to get through the class. Not proud of the fact, and always regarded it as a major failure of the University curriculum that I was forced into it. FWIW, for most things at least, I did try to go back and actually read the text later in adult life.
Just after midnight, I clocked in with 50,024 words.
I’m taking the rest of the month off.
-The Gneech *thud*
We (by which I mean Americans generally, but it’s true of all English-speaking countries to an extant, I suspect) live in a culture which, for the most part, doesn’t like smart people. Smart people are variously considered freakshows, emotional cripples with no social skills, or scheming bastards doing all sorts of devious who-knows-what while simple, honest, hard-working folk just try to get by. Even a movie like 2013 had “weirdo Dr. Chandra creeping out a spaceship full of working-joe astronauts.”
This anti-intellectual, anti-rational streak varies from dismissive comments to outright mania, depending on the context and the mood of the day. The scientist-hero had a brief shining moment in the ’50s and ’60s during the space age, but that eventually faded, relegating the “brainiac” to a support character as “the punching guy” ascended.
(Heck, look at the Star Trek reboot. A show that was once about scientists, engineers, and explorers, using technology and concepts mostly-extrapolated from real science , has been reduced to a hyperkinetic lightshow punctuated by fistfights. Way to go, culture.)
If you are a smart person disinclined to punch people, this tends to leave you short of reader-identification characters, and the characters that do exist have to give you something to latch on to.
This is where the Smug Genius comes in. The Smug Genius has been around for ages; the earliest one who comes immediately to my mind is Daedalus, the guy who created the minotaur’s labyrinth and built wings for himself and his son to escape Crete.
The archetypal Smug Genius of modern times is of course Sherlock Holmes, who set the pattern for Tony Stark, The Doctor, Dirk Gently, Batman, Chris Knight from Real Genius, and so many others. (I note that Smug Geniuses all seem to be guys… Velma or Twilight Sparkle are certainly geniuses, for instance, but they’re not smug about it.) The Smug Genius is not only the smartest guy in the room, he wants to make sure you know it, and he’s always, always way ahead of everyone else.
What is the appeal of the Smug Genius? Honestly, I think, it boils down to confidence.
Smart people, as a group, are often not very self-confident. Why would they be? Besides the already-mentioned “nobody likes smart people” strain of our culture, they’re constantly being praised by teachers and parents for doing so very well on tests, which come easy to them, setting them up with Impostor Syndrome.
Unlike the real smart person, who is still quite fallible and able to make mistakes (leading to comments like “And you think you’re so smart!”), the Smug Genius is never wrong, is never an impostor, and if not liked for their smartness, is at least respected and gains social capital from it. That’s naturally a very compelling thing for somebody who’s got nothing going for them except the ability to take tests well.
PS: Note that the Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses of the world, while financially very successful, are still generally not liked very much. Basically someone said to them, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you RICH?” And they took that to heart.
 Except the transporter. That was always bunk. But it was required because flying around in shuttlecraft all the time would break the budget.
As I transition from hobbyist to pro in the writerly field, it occurs to me that I should have a few more beta readers. I currently have a small-but-dedicated pool of folks who I toss writing fragments, ideas, or even whole stories at for feedback, approval, or general tearing-apartness, and while they do a fine job, I would still like to have a few more different perspectives on things. My projects are going to get larger in scope and (hopefully) require more rigorous editing, so a few more eyes on it would be welcome.
The requirements are:
- A LiveJournal account. I put my beta-reader posts on my LJ, locked to a custom list, so you’ll have to have an account to see them.
- The ability to articulate specifically what you like or don’t like about an idea or piece of writing. Neither “It rules!” nor “It sucks!” are particularly useful bits of feedback, while “I couldn’t make out who was supposed to be speaking each line in the interchange between Alex and Susan…” is. Also, while I’m not looking for people to just savage everything I write, the ability to be (gently) ruthless in the search of quality is a big plus.
- You actually check LJ from time to time. Since the posts are closed, there won’t be Twitter announcements or the like for them.
The benefits are:
You get to see the messy, unfinished part of my work? And listen to me ramble about the process, even more than I already do here?
Okay, yeah, it’s kind of a hard sell. But there are folks who like that sort of thing.
Suicide Prevention Walk
This Saturday (September 28th), Mrs. Gneech and I will both be participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention fundraising walk at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. If you’d like to help out or join in, please check out my fundraising goal page for details. This is the first time I’ve done one of these, but having lost a friend to suicide, it’s a cause I’d really like to help with. Big thanks to everyone involved!
That’s all for now! Keep being awesome, everyone.
When talking about problematic social stuff, there is a concept that gets thrown at me a lot which, depending on my mood at the time, occasionally really rankles. The first time I was really hit by it was some years ago now, when Drezzer Wolf was revealed to be gay in Suburban Jungle, and someone described him with a heavy sigh as “the obligatory alternate-lifestyle character.”
My own thoughts in response ran along the lines of: “‘Obligatory?’ I’m creating this comic in my own time and paying somebody else to host it– who the heck do you think I’m obliged to? Here’s a crazy thought: maybe Drezzer is gay because that’s what’s right for the character! So sorry you have to put up with a gay wolf in a furry comic, you poor old thing.”
In the years since then, I’ve seen this idea come up again and again, that there’s some kind of “obligation” to do what I consider basic decency, or that I’ll somehow “score points” for expressing an opinion (usually of a feminist or anti-racist variety).
To those who try to undermine my beliefs or opinions this way, I have only this to say: fuck you.
If you disagree with me, well fine, you disagree with me. Nobody agrees on everything. But at least have the common courtesy to work from the assumption that I say what I say because I mean it. There isn’t anyone in the world whose good graces I care about enough to espouse a cause I don’t believe in. I’ve quit jobs and dissolved friendships based on my convictions before and there’s no reason to think I won’t do so again.
Similarly, the other day an author I like awarded me what I assume was a feminist cookie for my comment that I don’t like being called a ‘brony’. I’m pretty sure she meant it in a friendly sort of way, but it still touched on that same nerve. It could be that I come across as looking for approval; I’ve never been very good at guessing how I appear in other people’s eyes. But really, I’m not.
I’m not in it for the cookie; I’m not obliged to anyone (except myself); and I’m not here to score points. If I wanted to fish for approval, there are much easier ways to get it than discussing these sorts of topics.