Were there always bars?

In my work in progress, set somewhere other than planet Earth, I suddenly flashed on a scene that took place in the future equivalent of a bar. I myself am not a barfly and I asked myself if this wasn’t a bit cliche? Were there always bars in the history of man? My definition of bar here hasn’t to do so much with alcohol, or even food, but rather the gathering aspect. Have there always been places, doesn’t have to even be a roofed building, where people gathered mostly to be social?

The internet tells me that taverns were common in Greek and Roman times and they were gathering places for people. In India there were caravanserai which seemed more like motels than places where people hung out. I do suppose that every village had informal get togethers, where people would just gather and “chew the fat” every night after the sun had gone down but they were not tired enough to sleep.

So, I guess a scene in a bar off world is not that cliche, it can reasonably be expected that every place with several humans has a formal or informal place where people just sit and see who they talk to.

Writing as entertainment

After playing video games or watching TV/Movies most of the time I feel I’ve just been consuming something valueless. I keep thinking “I would do this differently.” On the rare occasion I read or watch something I really like, I think “Wow! I should do that!” So, my dream has been to write my own stories, producing instead of just consuming.

I’m happy to see that I’ve gotten more successful in making writing my entertainment. I went cold turkey on video games about two years ago and recently I’ve been able to substitute writing for late night TV binging.

Writing has many points against it as entertainment. It is slow, it burns a ton of brain power, requires discipline to sustain and it is difficult for me to do at the end of the day.

However it has strong points in favor of it too. It builds towards something and is very rewarding in the end. Even if a writing session doesn’t add to a story, it helps develop experience in the craft. Also, I, mostly, enjoy the process of creating by writing.

The process of learning about writing has been very enjoyable too. Now when I read a book or watch a movie I pay more conscious attention to the choices the creators make to hook the audience and to develop the story.

All in all, I’m very glad I am no longer a gamer and I have significantly reduced watching TV. Again, to emphasize, there are a handful of games I played that I really love and have no regrets playing, and a handful of movies and TV series that I’ve watched that I am the better for. It’s just that there is only so much of that, and it’s harder but better for me to create.

That lovely moment a character is internalized

A delicious thing happened to me today. I wrote a few lines of dialog for a secondary (non-POV) character. I moved on to the next paragraph and then I stopped. I reread the dialog I’d just written. I realized that I had written it, without conscious thought, with the mannerisms my character was supposed to have. In the past I’d been fixing this on my second run through, consciously and laboriously rewriting the dialog. I had even been doing web searches to find hints to formulations I should be using. I realized then that I had become that character. This is such a rush! This is why I write. I’m sure this is why you write. To become the story!

Progress report

(My current WIP is SF set in the asteroid belt. I pay attention to physics though I take liberties with materials science and biology.)

At one point I had 45K words of novel. Then I started to pay attention to a few things and started rewriting heavily and now I’m down to 30K. 

I have 13K worth of plot and character notes and a 5K world building glossary.

The things that I started paying attention to are

  1. Don’t start too early. Start in the middle of the action and fill in backstory gently. I had too much backstory up front.
  2. Have consistent POVs. I found I had written a bunch of vignettes from different POVs. I went through a brutal culling where I reduced it to 2 major POVs. However, as I wrote I added a third POV character who appears rarely, but is interesting enough that I think I can make it entertaining.
  3. I had an outline. It was great. I also felt free to alter it, which was even greater.
  4. I took a bunch of telling I was doing and converted it into showing. I could reduce the length of the descriptions this way by scattering them all over the text at more natural moments. I focused more on sensory stuff too during my POV clean up.

My current typical progress is about 400 words a day.

The Worst Witch: Murphy (1974-2018)

This is a series of books about a girls boarding school that teaches magic. We follow the adventures of a trio of friends who are good hearted and kind. The lead character is an animal lover who gets into all sorts of scrapes but ends up alright in the end because of her good heart and good morals. She has an arch enemy who is scholastically perfect, but is selfish, mean and of flexible morals. The arch enemy loses in the end. There are kind teachers and strict scary ones. There are broomsticks and spells.

My book reviews will likely contain spoilers.

There is some discussion on the internet about how much the Harry Potter stories owes this series. I think the notion that Rowling “stole” from Murphy is way too strong.

The British have a love affair with stories about their public schools. Billy Bunter and Malory Towers were two that I read and loved. In this tight space of ideas, it is normal that when people write public school based books with magic added, in many ideas will overlap.

The tones of the two series are very different. Harry Potter (HP) is scary, dark and angsty. The Worst Witch (WW) is homely, funny and warm. WW weighs in at, perhaps, 50,000 words for the whole series of 7 books. Sometimes it feels that one chapter of HP goes on for 50,000 words.

There are however some interesting parallels. WW introduced the theme of bad witches/wizards planning to take over the school. This, like all themes, is taken to an extreme in HP, but you gotta wonder, why did Rowling have Voldemort fascinated with taking over the school?

In the latter WW Books the idea of apparating is introduced. Looking at the time lines of HP and WW I’d say this is an idea that appeared first in HP. Similarly, the idea of magic mixing with the real world, and there being prohibitions of doing magic in the presence of non-magic people appeared in the last WW book, which was published after the HP books.

In any case, the space of ideas is small enough that collisions will happen.

I will now say an odd thing. I’ve read both series of books to my 1st grader. She enjoyed both of them, though she had scary moments for HP. I however, enjoyed WW much more. I felt that the word count in HP was inflated, especially for the later books. There were places in WW where despite the more brief writing, I felt Murphy described some things much better. A big example is episodes where the lead character is changed physically, such as being made tiny, or turned into a different animal, or turned invisible.

8 broomsticks out of 10

Notes on technique

  1. Third person close is mostly used, and the author will on occasion change perspective and also go to omniscient. At the start of the first book the author spends enough time with a secondary character that my 6 year old, who has a fine nose for character and plot already, pointed out confusion about who the main character is.
  2. The author shows great skill in putting us inside alien minds. This is especially true in the later books where we see the world though Mildred as she flies, become invisible and turns into different animals. This reminds me of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”.

Dropping the flash back

Ending a reasonably punchy first chapter with a main character in serious trouble, I worried that my readers were not sufficiently invested in my hero. I tried to sneak in backstory via flashback. It caused me heartburn.

I had snuck in some backstory via a few words of dialog here and there in the first chapter, but I wanted the reader to know more about the dreams, fears and aspirations of this character. I wanted them to really care that they were in trouble.

One attempt I made was to have the character, in the third chapter, have a flashback of a conversation with a friend where they argue over the decisions he’s taking and their consequences. It did not sit right.

The second attempt I made was to have him have a dream while in a semi-conscious state from the disaster, where he has a surreal conversation with his friend, which plays this flashback content in disguise, but let’s face it, it was still a flashback. This did not sit well either.

I think both of these attempts changed the pace and timeline for and it was not worth it. My character is relatable enough because their quest is – fundamentally – common enough: a person trying to make something of themselves while keeping their family safe.

I suspect this motivation can be made clear enough in the first chapter with a few lines of dialog. I predict that my reader will see enough in the setting of the scene before the disaster to want to at least know how it goes in the next chapter.

I can feel this is the right direction because I feel relief and freedom when taking this decision.

Multiple POV?

I’m struggling to decide whether to write from the POV of one character, or have more in my WIP. I’m trying to judge whether the extra risk (higher word count, more complex writing, alienating the reader) is worth the gain.

In my story I want to avoid the “invincible hero” and the “chosen one” themes. There are several heroes (and villains) who step up to their roles because of a greater cause. (There are also some villains who are just vain, greedy and selfish too).

In my first draft I made the mistake of trying to follow the POV of too many of my ordinary heroes. For most of them I only succeeded in writing short vignettes, with no good plan for developing them in depth. I found I could better relegate many of them to secondary characters whose progression can be described, with some care, through the eyes of just one character while keeping the theme. Logically, this person should be my MC1.

However, there is a decent part of the story where I have a team who travel from the Asteroid Belt to Earth and have a series of adventures there. I want my MC1 to remain in the Asteroid belt, but I have some important things I want to show about Earth. I spent some time thinking if I could have MC1 experience this second hand, say via recordings from the team, or have the team relate this to MC1 when they meet. Neither seemed convincing. I should have another main character (MC2) on this Earth Expedition.

But is this enough of a reason to spring for a second MC? What happens when the Earth Expedition is done? Does MC2 disappear? This led me to the key question: WHY did I need MC2 to have this part of the adventure and not MC1? Well, I didn’t want MC1 to hog all the pages. I wanted a different view point, a different character, with different strengths and weaknesses.

I have convinced myself that I do need a second POV. I’m now going into my outline and doing some surgery to change some of the plot to fit with my new strategy.

As inspiration, I found and read this following post on managing multiple POVs.

I found Jane’s writeup to be a good, neutral, study of multiple POV writing.

POV insecurity 40,000 words in

Even though my story is science fiction, I want it to be plausible scientifically and socially. In my story ordinary folk struggle against an extraordinary foe in a world following known physics. My people almost always fail alone, and sometimes succeed together.

40,000 words in, pausing to reflect on my writing, I decided that I have too many POVs. I have too many characters with too little page space, each doing a tiny bit of action and then not having anything else to do.

I’ll admit that I suffered a moment of panic the night I did this assessment. For a few minutes I sat there thinking that I would have to rewrite everything. Then I thought I should abandon it all. I sat there for a while, flipping through my notes and scanning the chapters and skeletons.

Then, as I went back and looked at my plot, I slowly realized that in order to explore the concepts I wanted to and visit all the locations I wanted to, I could squeeze things into POVs of three characters (third person limited for all of them). The rest of the characters will be seen through the eyes of these three main ones. The page space they take fit nicely into this format.

I had to rework some of the plot in order to get people into particular places, and I will have to shift some of the action around but it works out I think. Onward ho!

The “no boring bits” rule.

I’ve come to an exciting point in my writing. I’m a fan of the snowflake method, so the initial prep for my novel has been to get the storyline, then to add some details to it, and then start working on the chapters. Once the first excitement of coming up with the plot and the themes had worn off, I entered the “Oh, it’s work” phase. For about a month I had to force myself to sit down and plug away for an hour before bed, trying to put words to paper. Now, however, I’ve come to a third, and exciting phase. It’s the phase where I look forward to that hour before bed each day where I get to write. The reason for this is that I have put my two favorite characters into a very sticky situation, and I am eager to get them out of it, but not before they have faced great peril. So now, every night, I’m like “Man! I gotta write! I can’t leave them hanging there! I gotta get them out!” I find this feeling very refreshing. This only came about, however, after I reread my (incomplete) first chapter draft and said to myself: I gotta open with a bang. I can’t have too much humdrum daily existence in the first chapter. I gotta lure the reader in, tell them that some exciting things are going to happen, are already happening! So I started to write in this sticky situation. And things just took off. So now I have a rule for myself: if I have to force myself to write, then my characters aren’t doing anything interesting or of value. I have bored myself, and therefore I will definitely bore my reader. I don’t have to write about those boring parts of their lives. I should only be writing about the interesting, story worthy parts, where they fight demons, and make hard, life-changing decisions. And when I do that, I will automatically become interested myself and raise the probability that my readers, too, will be excited and interested.