Friday, February 26, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Four

Parts One, Two, and Three

Well, our criminal protagonist has a name now, so that's good news. Jacob "Jake" Barlow was born in roughly 1890, and found himself on a prison train in the mid 1930's (on account of all the murdering). So I guess today we’re going to talk about naming characters.

There is a process for this whole naming business. Sometimes the names just show up in my head, but usually I have to go find them. Typically the process for first names is to go to, and look up the most popular names for the year the character was born. I don't write fantasy, so I don't need weird elf names or anything. This time around, I also looked at this list of Depression-era outlaws.

If I don't have a last name in mind, behindthename has a sister site for surnames, and I'll usually browse names by whatever ethnic background the character has (in this case, English). It's a very scientific process, wherein I go through lists of names until I find a pair of first and last names that sound good together. I have a whole list of mental rules that I go by revolving around a balance of vowel sounds and ban on alliterative names (averted once with Albert Armstrong, and he got assassinated).

That of course leaves the question of how I determined when Jake Barlow was born. Long story short, I can picture the guy. Long story slightly longer, because I'm a visual person when it comes to these things, I imagine each of my stories as a movie that plays in my head, and I just write down what I see. What movie would be complete without a cast of characters, so I cast the principal parts for my mental movie, and that tends to answer those pesky questions like how old someone is and what they look like. So, that's how I can tell you that Jake Barlow is in his mid-40s. I could also tell you that he was born in Australia, but emigrated to the US long enough ago to lose about half his accent, but that's neither here nor there.

A side thought about names:

I have, on various occasions, given characters names that were somehow meaningful, like the meaning of their name somehow described them. The best example of this was a story I wrote a couple of years ago about a circus whose members were supernaturally trapped there. It featured a pair of conjoined twins, named Thomas (meaning "twin") and Levi (meaning "attached"). I've spent the past two years thinking I'm hilarious for a joke no one was ever going to notice. Not that I'm a stranger to making inside jokes with myself.

That's all I have for this installment. I'm actually writing this ahead of time and scheduling it to post in the future, so hopefully I won't be so long in updating next time.

Once again, comment if you like, and consider joining the email mailing list. Each new post will be conveniently delivered to your inbox.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Why NaNo?

We interrupt your regularly scheduled writing adventure to bring you this special message:
National Novel Writing Month. 30 days of literary abandon. If you're not in the know, National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, or just NaNo) takes place every November, and challenges writers worldwide to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I have participated every year since 2010, and have reached the requisite word count each time. Up until 2012, there was also an event in April called Script Frenzy that required 100 pages of a script in 30 days, which I succeeded at in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, two summer events called Camp NaNoWriMo were added, with the additional feature of a customizable word goal (10,000-1,000,000), and I have made various attempts at that, with mixed success, since 2012.
This means that nowadays there are three annual writing events--Camp in April and July, and regular NaNo in November--and I must do them all. Not only that, but the past three years (since 2013) have been spent as my local region's Municipal Liaison (ML), which basically means that it's up to me to set up and host the various parties and Write-Ins (where we get together and… write) in and around November. So why do all this, every year?
Every year, I have to come up with a new story to tell, and tell it at high speed. Some days it's easy, and the words just pour out of my head and onto the page. Some days, I slog through, adding flashbacks, dream sequences, pointless dialogue and circuitous descriptions in an effort to reach that word goal. I forgo sleep and household responsibilities in favor of writing. Some years, I hate my story and its inability to make any damn sense (that would be 2015). Most years, I can barely get to the last week of writing before I start thinking about what I should do next.
But every year, when NaNo or Camp are approaching, I get excited, eager to start a new adventure with some new fictional friends. I'm not sure how to explain it, because I have weird reactions to things, but it's like a bundle of energy in my chest that tries to crawl its way up into my throat, where it can make me make ridiculous noises while probably jumping up and down. I have to contain it, of course, because I have to at least pretend to be human. Maybe one day the thrill will wear off, and I won't look forward to NaNo. I guess at that point, I'll stop doing it. But that day hasn't come yet, and I don't see it anywhere in the near future.
April Camp NaNo is coming up in just over a month, and I'm already brimming with excitement and trying to decide what this project should be. I'll of course take you along for the ride, so you'd better strap in, come April. This also puts a deadline on my prison train story, since I don't want to stop in the middle of that to work on something else. I'll likely be back on that for my next post.
As always, feel free to comment with any questions or anything. I'm still working out the structure of this whole blog thing.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Three

I do apologize for taking so long to update. It's taken this long to come up with enough to write home about.

Let's review the prompt:
You're shackled to a ball and chain in a train bound for prison. When the train stops you find yourself in front of a large brick mansion instead of the prison. The train has been abandoned.

The saga continues as I search for my elusive main character. I now have some scribblings on a piece of notebook paper that I started during Microeconomics. I have also realized that I have neglected to mention a critical part of this planning process: OneNote. It comes with most versions of Microsoft Office, but I feel like it's the so-called red-headed stepchild of the suite. What I mean to say is that a lot of people have it, but I don't think that many use it. Me, I have folders and subfolders full of pages and subpages. I have all of my ideas sorted into categories, and I will usually start a page for each story I'm working on. I’ll then add subpages for individual characters, locations, etc., as needed. I haven't at this moment started one for the train story, but I probably will by the time I post this. I'm actually writing this in OneNote, and I'll copy/paste it into Blogger when it's done.

Anyway, I've been doing some pondering about my criminal protagonist. What kind of man is he? What are his flaws, and his redeeming qualities? What kind of world did he come from? What made him the way he is when we meet him on that train.

Well, here are the facts:

  • He is a killer, with victims numbering in the severals (6-8 probably).
  • He didn't always lack a soul, but lost it piece by piece.
    • In the case of his first victim, there were some kind of extenuating circumstances (yet to be determined), rather than just a random murder for the fun of it. This act caused a crack in his soul.
    • Subsequent murders broke off more pieces, causing each subsequent murder to be easier than the previous, like a declining marginal cost of conscience (see, I was paying attention in Microeconomics).
  • He probably still has some standards for who he will or won’t kill. Maybe he's one remaining soul shard away from becoming a complete monster.
  • The story takes place sometime in the 1930's, and that is the world our protagonist comes from.

This is all I know for right now, so I'll go ahead and post it. If you have any questions about the story, the character, the setting, whatever, feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Finding a Story, Part Two

Read Part One here.
I have here probably the best example of how story construction works for me. I went into the bathroom to take out my contacts, and walked out declaring, "Maybe it's a portal." It's a well-known fact that all the best thoughts are thought in the bathroom. Maybe it's the inherent lack of things to write with.

This restroom revelation addresses the question of "Where did everyone go?" Well, maybe our train has passed through a portal into some other realm, and our protagonist was the only one invited. Now, there's maybe a 60% chance that this thought will have nothing to do with the final story. Many paths are explored before one is followed to the end.

This could become an afterlife/final judgement kind of tale where the protagonist was really dead all along and this is some sort of purgatorial prison. References to various parts of the Greek Underworld and all that. This story could go that way, but it won't. I've done basically that already, so it would just feel like an easy and cheap way out.

I'm thinking we need to go a little more horror with this one. The Langoliers comes to mind. Everyone's gone and something is quite amiss. And a guy that makes me think of weasels. It's been a while since I've seen that movie.

At this point, a more rational and considerate blogger might stop to apologize for the tangents. You'll find no such contrition here. You're in my head now. It's a labyrinth and there's no street signs. What I'm trying to say is that this is all a part of the process. One thought leads to another, which leads to fifteen other completely unrelated thoughts. And sometimes a story falls out.

In this case, it's a story about a prisoner on a train, who finds himself suddenly alone in front of a mansion.

Right now I mostly just have a vibe. It's like an inaudible tone at 19Hz, and you find yourself with an inexplicable feeling of dread. I have the image in my head of a boxcar door sliding open. Outside and set back from the tracks is a dismal grey mansion. The sky is overcast, and it has been raining. The rain has stopped, and once the door stops moving, there is no sound.

I asked myself what kind of character would be in this story. He's obviously a criminal, being shackled and bound for prison as he is. The question was then: what was his crime? Was it a minor offense? Was he perhaps wrongfully accused? Does he need to be a "good guy" in order for us to be drawn into his story?

Upon asking these questions, I stared off into space, as this is my patented planning technique. And then I abruptly answered most of them with "No." Maybe he's not a straight-laced guy who made a few bad choices. Maybe he's a murderer. Maybe whatever evil exists in this world feeds off of souls. And maybe he doesn't have one.

We're going to leave it at that for today, or this post will go on forever.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Finding a Story, Part One

Since I spent all of last week trying to think of a clever blog name, I don't have any writing progress to share. So I'm going to go on an adventure. And you’re coming with me.

I have tons of ideas for stories and things, from various sources. One such source is the Writing Prompts subreddit. I have a huge list of prompts that appealed to me, stowed away for future use. Every so often, I'll look back through the list to see if anything jumps out at me. The other day, one did.

You're shackled to a ball and chain in a train bound for prison. When the train stops you find yourself in front of a large brick mansion instead of the prison. The train has been abandoned.

So today, and probably later this week, I'm going to invite you to witness the process that turns an idea into a story. The faint of heart may want to turn away now.

We begin with the idea. My next step is usually to ask some questions.

  • What was your crime?
  • Where did everyone go?
  • Why were you left behind?
  • What's in the mansion?

I don't have answers to these questions, not yet. The point is to start thinking about the idea and expanding on it. We need to know what kind of world we're dealing with, and what sort of character we're following before we can get much further. This part of the process can take an hour, or a year. We're hoping for the former in this case.

This is where I'm going to leave you for today. It's an unsatisfying ending, I know, but that's how a journey works. You can’t just skip to the end. When I have some answers to my questions, I'll be back.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

New Beginnings

So I thought to myself, "I should start a blog!" which was immediately followed by, "That you'll write for twice and forget about?" Yes, self, exactly like that.

The idea was that I would chronicle my journey toward becoming a real writer. I've tried this in the past. I have an old LiveJournal on which I posted updates about my NaNoWriMo projects. Why don’t I just pick up on that? Well, you get made fun of for using LiveJournal. It's right up there with MySpace, full of emo teenagers and people who can't keep up with the changing face of social media. Point is, I thought I should start fresh.

Here I am, starting fresh.

I recently submitted a story for potential inclusion in a local literary publication (North Idaho College's Trestle Creek Review). This is kind of a big deal for me. Not just because something I wrote might be printed on actual pages, but also because this is the first thing in a long time that I actually let people read. I have a terrible fear or criticism and rejection, so I tend to hide away my rough draft stories and novels (all twelve or whatever of them), lest someone give me crap for the amount of characters I kill and maim.

Obviously, if I'm going to be a "real" writer, people are going to have to read it. So that's step one, getting over my paranoia and self-doubt. The other thing I'll have to do is write things that people want to read. I seem to have that in hand. I at least have a tenuous grip on it.

The idea for this whole blog thing is that I would post something at least once a week. Which means I need to be doing something writerly and worth posting about every week. I don't see how this could be a bad thing. They say that if you're going to call yourself a writer, you have to write every day. And I have basically no homework right now, so why not? I have a collection of half a million story ideas. I might as well sit down and try to write them.

That's the other point of the blog. If there are people out there who are expecting things from me, it kind of forces me to write something, so I have something to deliver. It gives me… accountability, or something.

So that is the plan. I'll be posting this just as soon as I come up with a clever name for the blog. By the time you read this, obviously, that will be done, so consider this a note from Past Me.

And if you are interested (I'm sure you all are), my submission to TCR was "A History of Falling Off the Wall," the untold story of Humpty Dumpty, a notoriously bad egg. I should know in April if it was chosen for submission.