The Process of Creation – Here’s a Concept

I’m looking at how stories begin. Where do they come from? What compels a person to dedicate so much of their time to put words in order, just to tell a story?

In my post on Starting with Characters, I talked about how some authors start with an interesting character.

Today, I’m going to discuss the type of inspiration that always drives me to the keyboard; Concepts.

To save you all from eye-strain, I’ll be breaking this into three separate posts because there’s three types of concepts that lead to a story. The three concept related topics are;

  1. The World Concept
  2. The Scene Concept
  3. The Thematic Concept

Concept vs. Idea

I had mentioned the notion of concept versus idea in my post on Writing Like it’s Chess. However, if you don’t feel like clicking on the link, here’s the quick version;

  • A Concept is a vague notion – ie. A world ruled by evil dragons.
  • An Idea is a definitive shape that sounds more like a short synopsis.

For the purpose of these articles, I’m talking strictly about Concepts. These vague notions that will only become a story after a great deal of poking and prodding (we’ll talk about poking & prodding later).

The World Concept

The World Concept is much like what I used for my example above. It usually comes from thinking of worlds that don’t exist, or about unique and interesting ways to view our own world.

Strip all the story out of Harry Potter, what do you have? Imagine a world where magic exists alongside of us, but normal people are ignorant of it. Cool idea. Not overly original, but cool nonetheless. But it’s not a story. Instead, it is the beginning of an interesting world where a story will take place.

However, that can often be enough to drive someone to the keyboard.

Be aware, I also lump the “People with amazing abilities” type of concept into the World Concept because, after all, the world they live in would be different.

Starting with a World Concept, in my opinion, is the fastest way to story (in terms of the Concept category). Because a world already begins to give rules, and because of the rules of that world, the nature of its people begins to become apparent as well.

Take the example of the world ruled by evil dragons. Some rules have been established, such as, mythical creatures can exist in this world. If mythical creatures exist, it’s possible magic does too. Chances are the physics of this world are similar to our own, but it is likely at Medieval tech level at most (unlikely dragons would allow the scientific discoveries we’ve made). Humans in this world are probably of two types; those who cower in fear & serve and those who are filled with outrage and are always on the lookout for a way to rebel.

That took me 45 seconds to come up with. Sure, it’s not a story yet, but because the world and the people in it are taking shape, it’s not too hard to find the story. Will it be about those who are rebellious? Will it be about a character who currently cowers, but due to some event, rises to lead the rebellion? Or will it be about one of the dragons? This could go on for a while.

What’s the weakness here? In my experience, Characters.

Just like I cautioned that a strong & dominant character might overshadow their story, an overwhelming concept could cause characters to be shallow and act as nothing but standard archetypes.

Fact is, when you start with an amazing concept, it can blind you to the “human” side of the story. Who does a reader relate to? Who is the hero here? Is the author so preoccupied with their own concept that the story meanders and feels stagnant?

Been there, done that. Which is exactly why I throw it out there as something to look out for.

Just as in the Character inspired story where you need your story to meet your character, in the World Concept story you need characters who are just as interesting and compelling as the world they live in. Otherwise no one will care. Not to mention that the story will feel like a series of cliches.

Next article will focus on a closely related Concept, that of the Scene.

Zone of Enders gets some Revoltech Love

My love of anime, and therefore large, powerful robots, dates back to my childhood. At that time, shows like Robotech, Grandizer, Gaiking, Getter Robo & Voltron were the center of my world. Little wonder then that I was also a Transformers, ahem, enthusiast.

As I grew older and my geeky interests expanded, I found myself in possession of the PS2. I wasn’t as much of a gamer when I was younger. I was the moocher who hung out on his friends’ couch playing Nintento & Colecovision, but never owned a system myself until I was in my 20s.

The first system I owned was the original Playstation. The reason I had to own it? Final Fantasy 7.

I had become hooked on Final Fantasy playing my girlfriend’s Super NES (It’s cool, we’re married now, so I didn’t just mooch & run). So when I saw the glory of what was to be Final Fantasy 7, I had to own it. Funny story, I actually had my copy of Final Fantasy 7 prebooked before I even owned the Playstation.

So where am I going with this? Ummm, yeah, that single game turned into a gaming love affair. So when the PS2 came out, I had to own it.

One of the games that blew me away with its graphics and enjoyable gameplay was called Zone of Enders (given to us by the gaming genius of Hideo Kojima) . It didn’t hurt that you ran missions using a giant mech called Jehuty (that’s why I mention the mecha love earlier. See, it all ties together).

Jehuty was a great mix of the streamlined aesthetics of the modern era, but with the chunky boosters, missile launchers & sword of the mecha of my youth. I loved the design of Jehuty.

And now I can own him!!

Kaiyodo, those creators of awesome mecha toys, are releasing a Jehuty as part of their Revoltech line in April. Wonderful toy site Tomopop had the official news today.

Click on the link to read Tomopop’s article on the Jehuty figure.

I mean, c’mon, this lets you show your love for mecha & gaming all in one! I’m thinking this will be gracing my desk sometime in May.

The Process of Creation – First Came the Character

How do you start a work of fiction? What is the initial spark that lights the fire?

In these series of articles, I’m going to be looking at what starts the ball rolling. This isn’t about the first line or paragraph, this is about what made you want to start writing your story in the first place. Today’s focus is on Character.

The lady with the big gun is named Black Rock Shooter. She was first an illustration that was posted by Japanese illustrator Huke on his website and the illustrator website Pixiv on December 26, 2007. At that time, she was nothing more than an image of a character.

Soon after, Ryo of JPop group Supercell caught a glimpse of the character and was so inspired that he wrote a song about her. The band had Huke do drawings & animations for the music video.

The video was released on the web and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. It was so popular that soon a 50 minute anime was produced, which of course spawned countless figures, posters, etc.

So what’s the point?

The point here is that a story, and an entire marketing franchise, launched because of one thing; a cool looking character.

JK Rowling has often said that the character of Harry Potter just popped right into her head. The kind of boy he was, the scar, the boy he would become, all of it, BAM, into her head like a lightening shot.

In these cases, and many more like them, an author had a character in mind but no story to use that character in. The story was eventually born from poking and prodding the character to learn more about them.

Some writers compare this to an interview process. In fact, some literally have interview questions that they write and fill out by asking their character.

From the answers that they receive, the author begins to build a story. From the character they learn who their friends are, what kind of family they have, what scares them, what makes them happy. If the character has some sort of defining physical trait, the author probes deeper into it. Like, gee Harry, why do you have that scar?

Admittedly, I’ve never written anything this way. I’m more a concept person.

The potential for strengths I see in this are probably clear. First of all, most readers are hooked by a compelling and fully fleshed out character. That’s likely to happen when the whole story has been crafted around a character so compelling that the author had to write their tale.

Is there a downside? I can only think of one; a thin plot.

Reading the synopsis of the Black Rock Shooter anime, it’s pretty clear that either it was meant as a tease for future projects, or the story was only half conceived (when I’ve actually watched it, I’ll let you know my full opinion).

What it all boils down to is the author’s intent. Is the story beautiful & wonderful because of its character, or is there an amazing story that has an equally awesome character? I mean, would anyone argue that Harry Potter’s plot was thin and lacked intricacy?

In the case of Harry, I think what truly saved him wasn’t just the world he revealed to his author, but that it was populated with characters just as interesting and compelling as Harry himself. And that’s where careful steps need to be taken. A story usually involves several characters. If only one is formed in your head, there’s probably going to be issues.

What do you guys think? Are there liabilities to writing based on a character as opposed to writing based on a concept that you then populate with characters (that approach will be post 2)?

The Plastic People Are Coming To Get Me!!!

I just had to post this video here.

I’ve made no attempt to hide my love of anime. Recently I ordered a figure for a character named Black Rock Shooter (who is going to figure prominently in a future post).

Anywho, an anime that has proven to be immensely popular is K-On! a story about a group of girls in a high school music club.

Someone, who has an extraordinary amount of extra time on their hands, has used the highly pose-able Figma action figures of the main characters to recreate the opening of the show. It’s odd, maybe a little scary, but very well done stop-motion animation.

To Self-Publish or not Self-Publish?

It’s funny how much changes in the matter of a year.

This time last year, the Apple iPad had yet to be released. We all wondered just how revolutionary a product it would be.

Initially, people seemed underwhelmed. But if you followed bookish type people on Twitter, you started to see an increasing ripple of excitement. Maybe a healthy dose of fear and uncertainty as well.

While products like Kindle and Sony’s eReader had been out for some time, this was the first time a product was released that was capable not only of being an ebook reader but also of being able to display colour media. For some, this created intense excitement. Some of the products released to date have taken true advantage of the iPad’s abilities. Has anyone seen the official Bram Stoker Family edition of Dracula? Or War of the Worlds? How about Alice in Wonderland?

In the darker days of self-publishing, writers went to horrible expense to get their product into the hands of the public. And most of the time when they did, it was substandard in its print quality.

Not only that, but there was the stigma of being self-published. It was seen as an act of desperation to get a substandard product that wouldn’t be published by any sane Publishing House into the public arena.

But the current eReader products, including iPad, seem to be quickly changing that. And funny enough, the major product category at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was, yup, you guessed it, tablets.

As a self-publisher, you now have multiple options for releasing your product to the public, and most of them at a very low cost (ok, if you’re willing to work at it, you can do it yourself for only the cost of your time).

There is Amazon, Kobo, iBook Store, Smashwords, & so many others. You can produce the book in several formats and sell it through your own website. In short, you now have access to a marketplace of thousands (millions?) of people as opposed to those you can hand a copy from the trunk of your car.

In this new paradigm of self-publishing, it is seen more as a choice of control as opposed to being a substandard product. Numerous authors are moving to ebooks as a method of being able to create their own artwork and pocket a larger percentage of the product’s sales.

In the modern publishing market, authors are largely left to their own devices to market their books. This is the message that comes across time and again when speaking to those in the industry. So as an author, if you’re going to have to have a huge platform online and in bookstores to promote your work for sale, why see only two or three percent of the sales as opposed to seventy to one-hundred percent?

I think what appeals to me the most about self-publishing is that I control every aspect of the book. In traditional publishing, you put all this work into crafting the words, just to have someone else decide on the font, cover art, bio, author pic, etc. As someone who is very visual, I think I would completely lose my mind if I had no say in my cover.

There is something immensely satisfying in the idea of creating the words, creating the images, choosing all physical aspects of the work and then seeing it out into the world for release. Every sale is like a victory of the hard work of the author.

But there’s an ego thing with being traditionally published. Being able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on the shelves (without me having gone in there previously with self-pubbed copies) is very appealing and a form of validation that I’ll have to do serious soul searching to decide if I can live without.

So what do you think? Is self-publishing rising from the less reputable position it’s held for years? What would your choice be?

Writing like it’s a game of Chess

In the writing community there is often a question of whether you are one of two types of writer; a Plotter or a Pantser.

Both are self-explanatory.

  • The Plotter – Spends a significant amount of time planning before writing anything that can truly be considered “the story.” Instead, they lay groundwork first. Usually a Plotter will have a rough outline of every chapter, a character worksheet for every major character (as well as some less significant) and will know exactly what the themes of their story will be.
  • The Pantser – Is the antithesis of the Plotter. They start with the vaguest of ideas and run with it, hoping that as the story is written it will find it’s way to perfection.

If I had to assign myself a category, I would fall more into the Pantser vicinity. Truthfully though, that isn’t exactly how I write. What has worked for me is a combination of the two. We could call this a Balanced Approach or something, but the other day the truest analogy came to me – Chess.

First, I want to get something out of the way. That is my definition of Idea and Concept. I apologise if what I’m about to say differs from the rest of the world, but know that anytime I mention these two things on my blog, this is what I mean.

  • Idea – Is something tangible and sounds like the beginning of a synopsis ie. A boy and his dog go fishing. While they are fishing, the boy is kidnapped by robbers fleeing from authorities. The dog is instrumental in helping to track down his beloved master. We have a clear idea of our story and where it is going to go. There’s very little in the way of detail, but we have a launching point. At this time, we could even begin to infer the themes of the story – friendship, loyalty etc.
  • Concept – This is a simple notion that could lead to an idea. ie. A world populated by evil dragons. This is just a concept. There’s no story here. With a concept we need to ask more questions and prod deeper in order to turn the concept into an Idea.

Why define those off the hop? Because the Chess analogy (and process of writing) only works if you have an Idea. Sorry Pantsers, but a mere concept needs a touch more planning.

So let’s get to it. Chess? Yup.

When you sit down to a game of chess, you have an idea of what to do; you know the rules, the way each piece moves and you know the ultimate goals – protect your king while taking your opponent’s. What you don’t know at the start of the game is how it will proceed. Your opponent throws in an element of the unknown. Sure, you may have read books on classic chess openings and counters, but until the moves start playing out, you don’t know what you’re going to use and how.

Starting a book if you’re a chess writer (for fun I’m going to call them Chessters) is much the same. You have an Idea and you have some knowledge of how a story is structured. You also know that your ultimate goal is to type “The End.” In this way, you’re much like the Chess player. You have tools and some idea of where things are going to go, but there is still an element of the unknown. The chess player has his opponent, you have the story itself.

See, in the heat of a chess game, you start thinking a couple of moves ahead. You start to lay the groundwork for your success. However, you also remain flexible because your opponent may do something unexpected.

Writing as a Chesster is the same. You plan a couple scenes ahead, based on where you are. Not more than three or four. With each passing scene you write, you add another scene to your advance plan. This way, if you strike a chord while writing that will change everything you’ve planned ahead, you’re really only trashing a handful of scenes, not a whole book.

Now you might be thinking this still sounds kind of like you’re still flying by the seat of your pants. But that’s where you’re wrong. Writing this way still means some planning. It’s just that the planning takes place during, and in response to, the writing itself.

Another way to think of it is this;

  • A Planner takes a trip. They have a map with their entire route planned from point A-Z with rest stops clearly marked.
  • A Pantser takes a trip. They have no map, just a notion they want to go somewhere, and they hope there’ll be signs along the way and they’ll make those turns when they see the sign.
  • A Chesster takes a trip. They have an idea of where they want to go. But instead of planning the whole journey, they plan to their first rest stop. Once there, they crack out the map and consider where their next stop will be. But wait, they passed a Taco Bell on the way to this first stop and now that they’re hungry, they want Mexican. How can they get to a Mexican restaurant in the next leg of the trip. Once that’s figured out, they get into the car and get under way.

Writing this way allows me to be spontaneous and surprised by where my story takes me. On the other hand, because I’ve always planned a few steps ahead, I don’t feel like I’m just spinning my wheels. It’s a compromise, one I’ve come to find works very well for me.

This is how I write and because I plan too much to be a pantser but not enough to be a planner, this is the analogy I’ve come up with. Feel free to use it, or come up with your own.

Happy New Year

So we have survived another year.

What will 2010 be remembered for? Recessions? Job Loss? History will one day tell us, but I don’t think we need to wait to say people are eager to leave 2010 behind and greet the new year.

With New Year’s eve comes the inevitable question of a resolution.

What is it that we want to accomplish in the new year? What challenges do we want to set for ourselves.

This usually results in the banal answers of “lose weight,” “exercise more,” “eat a healthier diet,” etc.

Like most other authors, my goal this year is to write better, to increase my writing output and complete my novel.

But I also want to do something different.

So here’s my plan. I will finish the first draft of The Veil by the end of February. My edits on The Veil will be completed by the end of August.

But during the editing phase, I want to work on something new and different. I want to create more of a multimedia work, something that combines words and imagery. Do I know what it will be? Nope. I just have the desire to branch out and do something different. My intention is to also use this website as the place where that work is published.

Of course, I have all the other resolutions to do as well. I need to lose weight, eat better and get exercising.

What are some of your resolutions?

What do you hope 2011 has to offer you?

And most importantly, do you think you’ll accomplish your resolutions?