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.

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)?

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.

LEGO? Japanese Toys? Cartoons? I Thought this was a Writing Blog…

There comes a time in a blogger’s life when s/he must ask that essential, universal, question; Why am I here?

No, not so much in the existential way, rather the concrete why bother to have a blog and if I do bother, what will it contain, kind of way.

So here I’ve been, asking the question. Perhaps Shakespeare would have said, “To blog or not to blog, that is the question.” And it’s been the question I’ve wrestled with lately.

When I started this blog, I was fresh from a high of starting to feel like a writer. I delved right into articles about the writing craft and my series on the Hero’s Journey. Thing is, I didn’t have a lot of fun.

Why was that?

Because it was work. Because it took time and energy away from the thing I really wanted to be writing, The Veil.

So, once my series on the Hero’s Journey was done, I pretty much left this place alone. I’ve posted maybe once a month the past two or three months. The simple fact was, I couldn’t think of what to write. I’ve been so focused on trying to get to the end of The Veil that spending time and energy here seemed like a waste.

Until the other day.

Yesterday, to be more precise.

Because I saw something so cool, so fun, I just wanted to post it on my blog. Which is when it occurred to me. All the things I love, all the anime, toys, bobbles and carry-overs from my childhood are the things that make me the writer I am. When I sit down to watch a movie, an anime or even play an RPG, it influences me. For that time, I am lost and inspired and my imagination is freed from the daily grind of putting food on the table and being a good father and husband. In those moments of complete geek-tastic euphoria, my mind finds pathways in my story that I never did just staring at the computer screen.

So that’s what this blog is going to be about; the things that excite me. You’ll see toys, anime, movies, books, all the things that I love, enjoy and get excited about.

I’m sorry if that’s not why you’re here or what you want to see.

But that’s where I am right now, and it’s what this blog needs to be.

I will write posts about the things I discover about writing.

I will write posts about what I’m doing during the writing, editing and, let’s hope, the efforts to get my work published.

I hope you’ll hang around. I hope you’ll bear with my childish indulgences. I hope as time goes on, I’ll write something that will make it worth your time.

Back to my inspiration – Comic Books

When I was eight, my parents had no problem supporting my $10 a month comic habit. This consisted mostly of Transformers, GI Joe and Batman.

Entering into my working teen years, I had nothing important to do with my money, so my $10 a month habit expanded to $60+ a month.

Then adulthood struck; car payments, mortgage payments, food, clothing, kids, little room for a comic habit. So my comic collecting, and therefor reading, days ended.

I’ve recently been able to resume a small portion of comic reading. It’s funny, but I didn’t think for a moment that it would make me as happy as it has.

What has surprised me most, is how it’s helping me see my writing. If you view each issue as a chapter, some comics have plot lines that go for hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages. Each issue has to extend the plot and leave the reader hooked to come back next month.

The reality is, comics have become the modern serial. In the past, comics were seen as the domain of children and their stories were seen as having little consequence. That has changed as audiences have aged and demanded stories that still provide the visual flair of comics but deliver a story worthy of an adult reader.

A particular comic I’ve started to read is The Walking Dead. AMC has recently started a TV series based on it. The Walking Dead is about a group of people trying to survive in a world over-run with zombies. While the setup sounds cliche, the execution of the book is anything but. Sure, there is action, but much of it has little to do with the zombies themselves. In fact, the zombies are just a minor obstacle to the greater threat, which is other survivors. There’s tense character development, conflict in relationships, interesting back stories. Essentially, everything a great novel has. And each issue has a development arc that leaves you waiting anxiously for  the next issue. It’s fabulous.

As much as reading novels has always been inspiring to me, I had forgotten how much comics had engaged me as a child and powered my imagination. Getting back to comics makes me feel like some of the batteries are getting recharged.

yWriter – Useful Writing Tool…. and it’s FREE!

OK, I’m going to admit something embarrassing…  I am lazy.

I know, I know, it’s hard for you to believe, especially when I haven’t posted a blog entry for over 5 days, but it’s true.  I fall so madly in love with ideas, but the second they require true work I buckle.  While this usually means a temporary stall in things such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or getting the garage cleaned out, it becomes unsettling when it prevents me from fulfilling a long-held dream.  Let’s face it, writing is work.  Especially when you create a new Word document for Plot Ideas, each character, each chapter, etc. etc.

I am happy to say I have found the answer to my problem.  Best part, it’s FREE!  Through the help of the Twitter gods, I was pointed to a program called yWriter.

yWriter allows you to do so much.  The best part is that everything is available in the assortment of tabs.  Let’s say you’re about to describe a scar belonging to a character you mentioned 100 pages ago.  The way I used to do things, I had to minimize my writing, navigate to the folder with all my notes files, open that file, find the information on that character, then close that file and return to my chapter.  With yWriter I just click on the Characters tab, find the character, and all the information I’ve created about that person is available.

yWriter also helps you keep track of whose viewpoint you’re telling the current scene from, you can create location information, item information and have it accessible the same way the character sheets are.  Each scene is created in its own RTF file so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket.  But when you’re all finished, you can export the whole thing into Word as a single document so you can do your global print settings and print the thing!

There are a ton of features to this program and I’ve only been skimming the surface so far.  I just wanted to pass along this really useful tool to anyone following the blog, because I think it is a fantastic piece of software that can only make the work of writing a novel easier.  And that’s a good thing for a lazy boy like me.

Not Finished Your Manuscript? Write Your Query Letter Now

You’ve read the headline and now you’re wondering, why would I write my query before I finish my manuscript?  After all, the advice you see on every website says to not send out any queries until after the manuscript is finished, edited and rewritten.  Well, I’m not going to tell you any different.

What I am going to do is give you something to think about.

What is a query?  New writers agonize over them, agents spout platitudes about their importance and they are generally seen as the key to the publishing kingdom.  Forget that.  They might all be true, but focusing on those points creates a distraction.  Besides, that’s not the point I’m getting at.

The query is a statement that uses two to three paragraphs to describe your story and then perhaps a single paragraph that states who you are.  You’ll read lots of advice on writing queries, but they will all tell you to include these two components.  It is because of these two components that I suggest you write it early on, like now, maybe before you write a single word.

The query in this sense becomes your mission statement.  Every time your story feels overly complicated and you think you’re losing track, you look back to those simple paragraphs and you remember the essence of your tale.  Distilling your story to its core early on will keep it omni-present in your mind.  This will give you cohesiveness.

It is not only the story the query distills, it is also your identity as a writer.  Remember, you and your story are a package.  Both need to be sell-able.  There have been interesting conversations about online identities and figuring out who you are as a writer.  Once again, your query not only serves as a mission statement for your book, it also serves as a mission statement for yourself.

The query is about selling yourself and your work.  If early in the game you can write a query that sells you on your book and your identity as a writer, it will be all that much easier to sell those things to someone else down the road.  No one will love you until you love yourself, KWIM?

Maybe someday I’ll feel competent enough to write a post on how to write a query.  Until then, I’ll provide you with a link to Adventures in Children’s Publishing where they link to examples of  Successful Kid Lit Query Letter Examples.  Feel free to add any great websites you know of that provide instruction on writing queries in the comments.