Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Plot Magic for Wildly Disorganised People.

I write things out of order, not always, short pieces of writing in particular I sometimes write from beginning to end, but Bloody Mary, for example, was written out of order. Seriously, it's five hundred words long (almost exactly) and I wrote the first paragraph and a bit and then the last and then worked from both ends towards the middle, It's hard for me to tell so soon after I wrote it, but I think it's ended up more or less coherent (I hope). What's more, I plan out of order as well, both in the sense that I mix planning in with actual writing and in the sense that I'll plan whatever section kind of looks like it needs more planning and I have some ideas for, whether that's a scene or a plot arc or some world-building or whatever, there's not even any kind of plan to my planning.

 I know, I know it sounds like a recipe for complete and utter chaos, and quite frankly it is, but it's chaos that seems to work for me. At least it works when I'm writing short stories, until today I wasn't convinced it was going to work out for my novel length work in progress. Today, as I was staring at the screen trying to convince myself to actually write, my mind wandered off for a moment and came back with about ninety percent of the connections that were missing from my antagonists plot arc, I don't mean I fixed a plot hole, I mean my muse tiptoed up behind me and said 'Honey, you know how you have this antagonist here and that one over there and that event that doesn't seem to be linked to anything and that really awesome line that you liked but didn't know what it was about and you were going to chuck it because that character is supposed to always be right? Well, if you twist it this way and kinda squint it looks like a really awesome, rock solid character arc, that echos that arc over there and resonates with that theme and that other thing as well. Go on, rewrite it that way, everyone will think you planned it like that all along.' it's moments like this that prove that letting my mind wander is not necessarily a bad thing... and that my muse is a tad overconfident about what I'm actually capable of writing, but that's a different problem.

So, riding high on the wave of ego-affirming plot fix, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I create stories, and particularly how I weld the plot together as I go along, in the vague hope that they might be useful to someone, or at least interesting, or good for a laugh... or.... I seem to be waffling a fair bit, and I think that's because I don't know exactly how I generate those leaps of intuition except that it's a process analogous to looking at a cloud or a pile of washing and thinking that it looks kind of like a rabbit or a swamp-monster or something, and then taking a picture of it and using photo-shop to make it look more like a rabbit or a swamp monster.

In this metaphor, my first draft isn't the picture, it's the clouds (or the washing I suppose, but I like the cloud thing better), I'll maybe start by knowing a couple of the characters, though maybe not how they know each other, and I'll have some vague ideas about the plot that probably won't survive the process of writing the first draft and some other odds and ends of ideas that don't look like they really belong, but I like them so I figure I'll find a place for them somewhere and I just start writing things that seem interesting and that seem to belong in the same kind of story space until I run into a place where I realize I can't write the next bit (not necessarily next in the story) because there's something I don't know yet, or things seem too muddled and I want to do some organizing and then I'll brainstorm a bit to figure a few things out, and then carry on with the writing as soon as I know what else I can write about, and so on.

I'm not describing this well, I think I need an example, hmm... Okay, in my w.i.p. there is an emotionally damaged character who for reasons to do with his back story (and how he wound up emotionally damaged) is missing three fingers on his left hand, there's also aliens and magic (and aliens that do magic). At some point around the twenty or thirty thousand word mark I decided I wanted to figure out what my magic system was. By then I had three or four magic users of varying species that I had a more or less clear ideas of what they could do and in some cases very clear ideas of what they couldn't do and I decided that I wanted my magic system to be in a form something like a cross between an artist's colour wheel and a sundial, which is to say that I wanted different abilities to be 'close' to other abilities and opposite to others but also with some bits linked to conceptual times of noon, midnight, dusk and dawn. Deciding what to put where and how to get the overlaps right was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and the resulting wheel is a little odd in places (thought manipulation overlaps with earth control for example) but that oddness sort of has interesting knock on effects when it means that it effects the way magic users view the world, which I find far cooler than if I'd started out with a nice neat system and given the magic users their powers based on it. Anyway, a day or two later I was doodling a picture of an alien (not any specific character, just a generic member of the alien race I was creating... having just decided to go the whole hog on the mysteriously androgynous aliens trope and make them hermaphroditic) and because they're magic users, and kind of inspired by that da vinci man picture I ended up putting that picture over my rough sketch of my magic wheel and realized that, among other things,  the left hand lined up with emotion based magic, I was looking at this through the lens of the plot problem I was sorting out at the time so it was only much, much later when the penny dropped and I looked back at this character I mentioned and realized that the injury he'd had all along lined up perfectly with the magic system I'd created to satisfy completely different criteria, it was a happy moment. That's the kind of patterns in the cloud thing I'm talking about.

Both the examples I've mentioned here (one in very vague terms I admit) happened accidentally, but it's also part of my process to go looking for happy accidents, or when necessary to make them up. What I do is I take a bunch of unrelated things that I kind of like about my story but that don't really quite fit and instead of assuming that they don't belong and throwing them out like conventional wisdom says I'm supposed to, I arbitrarily decide that they actually form the basis of a hitherto unnoticed but extremely important subplot and go looking for what that subplot is, it's extraordinary how often I actually find it, in fact it's so frequent (and the results so satisfying) that I've concluded that my liking something for reasons I can't quite put my finger on is my subconscious's way of telling me that it's worked out a new story solution and also that my subconsciousness writes way better stories than I do, lucky for me there's only one person it can tell them to.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Bloody Mary

You wanted yet more flash fiction, right? yes? no? maybe? Well even if you didn't, tough, here more is. The latest Wendig challenge is restricted to a mere 500 hundred words rather than 1000 which proved surprisingly tricky (especially as two of my previous stories weighed in under that). The challenge (if you didn't follow the link) was to pick a cocktail and use it as the title of the story. Tempted as I was to go with something smutty, I eventually picked Bloody Mary on the grounds that I thought it made a interesting title, and certainly not because I like the drink - if you ask me, tomatoes should stick to things they're good at, like being pizza toppings and not get any fancy ideas about messing up my vodka, but on the other hand it takes all sorts and if you like that sort of thing at least it leaves more Tia Maria for me... Annnnyway, story:

Bloody Mary
It ended in a bar, the last of the creatures flashing into fire and dust. The girl cocked her head towards the jukebox, listening as the last chords of Sympathy for the Devil faded into nothing "Do you know my name?" she asked.
The barman cowered against his display of bottles, staring, wide-eyed at the mounds of ash, all that was left of the evening crowd "B-bloody Mary."
She smiled, a blunt-toothed, human smile "That's right." she said, she stalked towards him "And do you know what I want?" she didn't bother to wait for a reply, instead she vaulted the bar and slammed him against the display "Where the hell is Xane?"
It began in a bar as well, a dimly lit club, Stoker's Angels. Years younger, her hair dyed black, she'd called herself Magdalene. There had been dancing and drunken flirtation, when Xane's fangs had turned out to be real she'd thought her dreams had come true. It hadn't lasted, she'd thought him gentle, beautiful, loving, but blood loss wasn't the romantic bliss she imagined. Week by week she faded away.
She'd woken in the hospital, cold and alone, on the bedside table a dozen bright red roses, the card simply said "I'm sorry." and that was all. She'd kept the roses long after they shrivelled and died but he didn't visit, wouldn't answer the phone when she called. A month passed, and then another but Mary didn't forget her lover, she asked at the club, found others like it, kept looking, eventually someone gave her address.
On a grey spring morning she'd knocked on a door. He looked sad when he answered, guilty "I can't see you anymore." he said "I almost killed you."
She'd begged him to change his mind, pleaded until her voice was hoarse. Eventually she walked away, heartbroken and sobbing, through her tears she saw a woman, wreathed in cigarette smoke.
The woman had sneered "Did he tell you you were special? Did you think he would make you one of them?" she'd laughed at Mary's expression "Can't have paid too much attention in biology class then, can you? Couple of love bites aren't going to turn you into something you're not."
Mary remembered that woman, almost more than she remembered Xane, the bitterness of his betrayal still stung, but it was the mockery that drove her fury.
The barman swallowed nervously "Hell's about right lady." he said "Xane's dead."
Mary released him "What? How?" she asked, she paused "When?"
"Must be six or eight months now." he told her "It was an overdose, always is with the blood junkies."
Mary frowned, uncertain, hurt, confused "Blood junkie?"
"What else would you call it? they get addicted to the high but it kills them in the end." the barman watched Mary's face as the anger drained away and tears of loss trickled into the gap it left behind "Didn't you know?" he asked gently "Blood is poisonous to vampires."

Monday, 4 April 2011

Space Refuge 39

So another week another flash fiction challenge from that man Wendig (yes, yes I know I missed a couple), this time the game is to pick one of these supposedly unusable stock photographs (I say supposedly because surely basing fiction off them is a use of sorts... maybe) and write a thousand words or less about it. I picked no. 39, which in the event the link isn't working, the image has been randomly changed or whatever; features a girl wrapped up in what looks like one of those silvery insulation blankets they hand out at the end of the London marathon (and presumably other occasions too), next to the girl is a partially unwrapped chocolate bar with very similar looking silver wrapping. Our word for chocolate is thought to come from the Nahuatl (language spoken by the Aztecs) 'xocolatl' meaning 'bitter water', this may be relevant.

Space Refuge 39

The temperamental wind would not fix on a single corner, rattling the tent canvas from a new direction every few minutes and throwing handfuls of rain about like grim confetti. Muttered conversations mingled with the sound of the weather, infants whimpered, a mother recited an ancient myth from memory, hoping to distract her children from their hunger. A rescue shuttle roared overhead, engines spluttering. Supplies were running low and still they came, wave after wave of refugees fleeing before the alien menace.
 Xoco shivered and wrapped  the insulation blanket tighter around herself, feeling numb from more than just the cold. Around her dim figures were stirring, hope bringing them to life, faith that this time the shuttle was bringing the companions and kin left behind when they ran. For Xoco there was no such hope, Latil, her lover, her life, was months dead, slaughtered, long before the invasion, by a human warlord intent on taking the riches of Teoti for himself.
Three days before a shuttle had brought the warlord and his household to this desolate place, his guards claiming more than his share of the dwindling rations. For two nights the sounds of merriment had echoed down the valley from his fortified encampment, mocking the huddled poor. Now Xoco touched her hunting knife like a talisman and swore that there would be no third night.
Leaving the tent, Xoco was just one more miserable figure among those flocking towards the landing pad. She saw a young boy, near blue with cold, teeth chattering, she offered him her blanket. The silvery material, ironic echo of the deep mines of Teoti, was too reflective for her purpose. He smiled. The gratitude warmed her more than insulation could. "Be strong." she told him. She walked away.
Scrub grasses clung to the valley walls and wiry bushes, denuded for winter. Xoco slunk from one tenacious patch of vegetation to another, her footfalls no louder than those of her shadow, her outline no more noticeable in the falling dusk. She skirted the warlord's encampment. Grey green boulders formed a rough wall, smaller ones dragged or rolled to fill the gaps nature had left between the largest, an imperfect defence, the rocks would be an easy climb.
Watching the guards, Xoco was reminded of the mazat herds of Teoti, which she and Latil had hunted together. She remembered the hot winds of the plains, smelling of damp earth and spices. She remembered the warm ache of muscles after the chase, the fierce joy of the successful hunt. She remembered the touch of Latil's hand, silently reminding her to remain cautious. The memory brought fresh tears to her eyes and new resolve.
Xoco steadied her breathing and focused on the task ahead, the guards were too thinly spaced to mount an effective defence and they must have known it, starting at small sounds and staring too long into empty shadows, nervous behavior so reminiscent of herd creatures expecting a predator. Xoco suspected that fully half the warlord's garrison must have been down at the shuttle pad commandeering whatever luxuries they could for his personal use. His selfishness angered her, but it had it's uses, she doubted she could have crept into the encampment unseen if all his warriors had been present.
Instincts honed by the hunt allowed Xoco to slip through the gaps in the warlord's defence, the stealth learned on the plains had it's place here, careful movement that left loose stones untouched as useful for evading notice by guards as by prey. The warlord's tent was easily identifiable, by it's relative opulence, by the bodyguards flanking the entrance, by the voice Xoco heard in her nightmares raised in petulant anger.
Under the sounds of argument the faint rustle of tearing canvas went unnoticed, Xoco cut a single slit in the fabric, a mere forearm's length from the ground up and peered into the dim interior of the warlord's personal tent. A disorganized pile of cushions and discarded clothes was not much in the way of cover, but it was the best Xoco was likely to get, she crawled through the gap she had made, careful to make neither sound nor sudden movement though she need hardly have bothered, all eyes within were focused on the warlord.
The girl in rags was dimly familiar, a villager from another tribe, glimpsed at some festival, barely recognizable without her ceremonial make-up. Something she had done or not done was the source of the warlord's current displeasure, he sneered at her as his guards hauled her away, leaving him, just for a moment, alone in his tent.
Xoco didn't hesitate, in her eyes it was fate, this one moment in which to act. A half dozen swift strides took her to the warlord's bedside, a hand a cross his mouth before he could call out, her hunting knife to his throat. Xoco looked into the warlord's eyes, widening in sudden fear "For Latil." she whispered and drove the blade into artery letting his life spill out in a ragged scarlet stream.
"For Latil." she repeated. Whatever came next, her lover was avenged.