All posts by matthewledrew

My Writing Process: Reader-Character Syncing

Alright, so we’re going to discuss something I like to call “Character-Reader Synchronization.” There may be other, easier terms for it. Sometimes I feel like there’s little that hasn’t been named three times over already. But this is my name for it.

Basically this is an extension of the “writing POV” talk we had a while back, and it’s something to think of when you’re writing to keep the drama in your work. What it boils down to is: don’t let your reader know more than your character knows.

Let’s explain: say there’s a character (strong female type. Played by Glenn Close or Jodie Foster). She has to run to the store and leave her two young children with her teenage daughter from a previous marriage while she’s gone. When she returns only ten minutes later, all three are gone. The remainder of the story then is her trying to find them. Sounds dramatically interesting to me. We could go inside the characters mind and hear all her suspicions about who might have done it: her ex-husband? Her father-in-law? The older man that hit on her daughter at the park two months ago? Who knows?

Well, you do. Or you should. But the character doesn’t. You know who else shouldn’t? The reader.

In a story like this it’s obvious why the “camera” or “narrative focus” should stay on your main character. If you showed what happened to the children as it was happening, there’d be no drama to the remaining scenes in which she tries to figure it out. The reader wouldn’t be invested and trying to figure it out with her, you’d already know. Clues the author places wouldn’t be dramatic, they’d make the reader bash their heads at the stupidity of the character and go: “How can you not see the answer?”

There are lots of examples of this type of writing. There’s a Star Trek: Voyager episode called “Macrocosm” that’s particularly famous for it. But mostly in literature the issue comes about in non-science fiction / horror genres. Most action-oriented genre writers have learned these rules by the time they reach a point in their craft that they’re being published (although we still get a lot of submissions with it). No, mostly in published fiction it’s cases where the author feels this rule does not apply to them. The fantasy and romance and general fiction writers.

Wake up: it applies.

Good drama is the one universal need for good fiction. There’s no way around it. And the above example destroys good fiction. The story might still be good, it might be well written with good dialog, and people might very well still enjoy it… But it’s lost the essential element that would have made it dramatically pleasing and amazing.

This is a one of the only rules I’ll press. Only exceptionally avant-guard authors should even attempt to subvert it, and even then… Probably not.

Keep it in mind.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

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My Writing Process: Be Prepared

Iphone: never need a pen again!
Iphone: never need a pen again!

Great, now I’m going to have that Lion King song stuck in my head all day.

This is another relatively obvious post, but perhaps so much so that I feel it often gets ignored. I know I did for a long time. Put bluntly it’s the act of always being prepared when inspiration strikes you. To sum up: carry a pen and pencil.

Blog post over? Not quite. There’s a little more to it then that. Basically what you’re “being prepared” for is inspiration. While many writers, especially those trained to produce under deadlines by jobs and school like me, can power through periods of dry creativity, there’s one thing nobody can fake: the divine spark. The idea.

Let’s explain. Once you have your novel outlined, most people can still force out some content even if they’re having a bad day. But nobody can force that initial idea that comes and inspires the novel to begin with. Nobody. I don’t care who you are.

This idea can come at any time, so you have to always be prepared. Muses are fickle things. Sometimes they’ll come while you’re sitting at your desk and ready for them, but other times they’ll come when you’re in line for coffee or getting your eyes checked.

So the old pad and pencil. But that’s not very convenient either, is it? Thankfully we live in a digital age. Send yourself a voicemail. Or an email. Or (my personal favorite) use the Notes app on my iPhone (this will be the only time I describe a helpful app on the iPhone). Do anything to get that idea down. Because while sometimes the idea is preserved seamlessly in your mind (I’ve had the opening scene to a book called Black Womb Returns perfect in my head for over a decade), other times it’ll evaporate within seconds. And there’s nothing more frustrating or painful for a writer than realizing you’ve lost what you’re sure would have been a best-seller because you didn’t have a pen.

But as a point, don’t go into too much detail. You don’t need to stop in the middle of Starbucks and write an eighty page outline. A) that’s time consuming and b) if the story never evolves further than the first idea you’re in trouble.

Take the note above, which I jotted down in iPhone Notes:

“Stuck on an elevator” novel
Man hits on woman,
They get stuck in an elevator together.

You don’t get much simpler than that. And the novel, whenever I get around to writing it, might never be like that. Or I may never write it. It’s so loose an idea that it’s just there to remind me. To spark the fires of inspiration when I’m near my keyboard. Like a string around my finger. It could be anything by the time it’s done. Or started.

So yeah, that’s my ramble on being prepared. If you find an idea, find a way to get it down. Don’t let it evaporate.

Make sure to give your idea the best chance at life you can, because only you can do it. And I’m sure it’ll be great.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

The E-True Hollywood Story: Sci-Fi from the Rock

20120221-090518.jpg For the uninitiated, Sci-Fi from the Rock is an anthology series published by Engen Books. There was a collection released in April 2010 consisting of three stories, followed by a second volume in April 2011 featuring five stories. These stories, and the main purpose of the series, is to tell stories that take place outside the main Engen Universe. Anything could happen in these stories. The world could blow up. I think it did in Justin Foley’s story last year.

Anyway, this year there isn’t going to be one. And I wanted to explain why before rumors started flying.

Basically it was never intended to be annual. I don’t think we ever called it annual. If I did it was a slip of the tongue. It was always intended that this title would be “preempted” every so often.

For example: Steve Lake write his “Full Moon” series of shorts. Someday he might decide to write a novel based on the property. If he does, that novel would take the place of the book of shorts that year. I’ve toyed with the idea of even putting “Sci-Fi from the Rock Presents” at the top of such a novel, but will likely not as it would alienate new readers.

So I decided this year that anthology would get replaced with another anthology, the Light|Dark I’ve been talking about so much lately. To be fair, the plan was to include many of the authors from the Sci-Fi series, it just didn’t work out that way. But that just means it’ll be all the more epic when it returns with another collection (or novel?) next year.

So, to sum up the reason for this post, I wanted to make this one point clear: the series will return. I love the series. I have non-Engen stories waiting to see print in the series.

Anyone interested in contributing should message our submissions email. You’ve likely got a year. 😉

Hope everyone’s having a good day.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

Character Development: Habitus

Okay, there’s this contemporary theory in anthropology that was pioneered by a someone named Pierre Bourdieu around 1980 called Habitus. According to his article Structures, Habitus, Practices, Habitus is the durable, transposable dispositions a person has that are predisposed to function a certain way and are the principles through which we govern our actions. And that we adapt to their outcomes, though not necessarily consciously.

That’s a bit of a mouthful. But it basically boils down to the theory that all people are the sum of what has happened to them up until that point, and to a lesser extent, the product of everything that has happened anywhere up to that point.

This theory is particularly true and applicable when writing good fiction, with emphasis on character development. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

In a novel you don’t need to reveal everything there is to know about a character. Were they ex-military? Brought up in an orphanage? Deeply attached to their older sisters? All three? These are elements of the characters history, and (according to Habitus) they affect how the character will act when confronted with different situations. In this way a characters backstory can be implied through actions without being stated outright, and also helps to form more thorough, well-developed characters.

Although Habitus puts extreme emphasis on events that happen earlier in life and they’re importance, it also states that all events contribute to a person’s Habitus. For an overt example: you are different for having read this blog post, and will act differently to relevant situations in the future all the time.

This ensures good character development. All the events of your novel will affect your character, even if in only minute ways. Remember in T2 when the Terminator learned to check for the car keys in the visor? That tiny thing was a huge moment in the film. That’s a great example of character development through Habitus. When not only the events of the novel, but the events of the story make the character different at the end of it than they were at the beginning of it.

Hope this helps.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

Character Development: Stealing

No, this isn’t an admission of guilt. Quite the opposite in fact. This is a part of the writing process that I feel often gets overlooked, to the point where the general populace (and even some writers) don’t really acknowledge its legitimacy. It’s stealing from real life.

Now, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Stealing from real life (ie: your life) isn’t stealing at all. It’s already your life. You own it, and you can use it as a tool for your art when need be. Nobody would question a painter painting the view of the Eiffel Tower from his hotel while on vacation in Paris. Why would writing about it be different? It isn’t.

So we add a new layer to your writing. Not only is it an accumulation of your knowledge an creativity, but it’s an extension of your life from your point of view. The people and events from your life will find their way into your pages whether you like it or not, so we might as well be up front about it.

So the question becomes, how much is too much? Well, I’d never pinch a main character. Even if they wanted me to. I’ve got this friend named Adam Bruce that’s been reading my stuff since the first word, and I’m sure he’d love it if I wrote a novel that revolved around him. But that would just be too much. Also, I think it’d be hard writing from another real person’s persona like that. Every main character has a little of the author in them.

I’d also steer clear of tertiary or “stock” characters. We’ll get to stock characters later, but basically these are the characters that fill your world but not the spotlight, not even for an instant. A good example from my work is Sud from the Black Womb novels. The reason not to use people from real life here is there simply isn’t enough with the fictional characters to work with. It’d almost amount to a weird, cryptic code that only you and the referenced party could understand.

So, as you can imagine, that leaves secondary characters. Secondary characters were made for depiction by real life people. Because when you think of it, they’re already playing that role. Everyone sees themselves as the star of their own life’s story (as well you should) so therefore all the other important people in your life become secondary characters by consequence. So letting them transition into fiction should be fairly painless.

Infinity, Matthew LeDrew & Ellen Curtis, 2010 edition, Engen BooksThe joy in this is when it makes the writing more enjoyable to you. In Infinity the character of Koy was based on a real child in my life, and many of the side-plots or scenes with her evolved from real memories and experiences with her. I also think my love for her translated onto the page, and maybe even rubs off onto the reader a little (from the feedback I’ve gotten). It also paints a picture of the man looking after her, Chad. “Stealing” in this way can be an extremely rewarding process.

Another great thing to steal is experiences. Again, everyone does this. Why do you think so many Stephen King novels are set in Maine? Settings and moods are things colored by the lens’s of your eyes, and are entirely subjective. When we write we share that subjective point of view with the world. Whether they agree or not isn’t relevant to the story narrative. There’s no right or wrong, merely accurate. That seems like a contradictory statement. Sometimes that happens, too.

Most importantly, don’t let any non-writers tell you this type of writing is wrong. Because everyone does it, even if they don’t realize they do it. Referencing King again, he says in On Writing that it took him some time to realize he was writing about himself when he was writing about drug addicts and alcoholics. It’s like his subconscious was trying to warn him. So don’t fight this, it’ll come out anyway.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

History of Black Womb 4: Transformations in Pain

Transformations in Pain
Transformations in Pain, 2008, Engen Books

Should I call it that? Or should it just be “History of Transformations in Pain?” Or just “History of Black Womb 4?” Really, I want to know. I want to get this right.

This one’s going to be shorter. It’s by no means a three-parter like the account of Black Womb was, because in many ways Transformations in Pain was a much simpler book.

Part of it came from the JMS run on Amazing Spider-Man. And by some, I mean next to nothing. I liked his title to issue #471: Transformations, Both Literal and Otherwise. At the time I was also big into listening to DVD commentaries and I recall on one for a movie sequel (I honestly can’t recall which one, might have been Back to the Future) the writer/director said he loved getting everyone back together for a sequel.

So, armed with a cool title and the concept of using all the main players from the first book again, I went about writing Transformations in Pain (the title is explained in the prolog and I won’t reproduce here).

It was initially only supposed to be a short story. I’ve often said the third book, Smoke and Mirrors, was the original sequel to Black Womb. This story was simply supposed to bridge the gap between them. But it ended up being novel length, so it became the second book.

I liked this book so much it inspired me to fill in all the “gaps” in the series. I used to put months long gaps between each book, but after this I went about filling them in.

Amazing Spider-Man #471

As for the “subject matter” of the book, it was simply something I hadn’t really written much on to date. Which is strange looking at my current body of work.

Curious side note: the first chapter of this book was originally the last chapter of Black Womb. How messed up is that?

So yeah. For better or worse, this book in largely all right from my head, being inspired only by a passing comment on sequels from another writer.

Hope everyone’s keeping warm.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

My Writing Process: Multiple Threads

Okay, here’s another one from the good people over at Hal Con. During my the November Con, in one of my writing panels, a young woman asked me what to do when you have too many ideas. We were discussing writer’s block at the time and what to do when you can’t come up with ideas for stories and characters. She had a different problem: she had too many different ideas for what to do.

I responded at the time with something like: “that’s a wonderful problem to have.” Which is true and got a few laughs, but I feel maybe I could have done a better job answering it. So that’s what I’m trying here today.

The problem as I understand it is that you have two (or more) different things you want to do with the character that contradict each other, each with their own unique plots stemming from it.

I understand the frustration. Imagine if you have Jane and Tom in a relationship and you have two story ideas: in one Jane dies and the story is about Tom’s emotional journey. In the other Jane lives and the story is about their relationship struggles while visiting relatives in Cape Cod.

Clearly you can’t do both. At least not unless you’re doing a very strange Scifi story. But assuming you aren’t, let’s go from there.

I call this problem “Multiple Threads,” after a comic-book concept of alternate realities. Basically the concept goes that with every choice you make you create an alternate reality: one in which you made the choice, and another in which you didn’t. The same is with you, dear writer. It’s Shrodinger’s cat. Until you make the choice, Jane is both alive and dead… And you’re stuck.

For my money there are two main causes to this.

The first is indecisiveness. It’s a tentative nature on the part of the author that prevents for the making of big choices. My advice is to make them. Because the alternative is a story where nothing happens, otherwise known as an anti-story. And they lose appeal fast. Just make the choice and never look back. If you’re worried about making readers mad, just remember: if you don’t finish, you won’t have readers.

The other cause is less severe. It’s a lack of characters. If you’re worried about, again, say killing off a character because you won’t be able to tell certain types of stories, perhaps you haven’t fleshed out your supporting cast enough. Just because Jane is dead doesn’t mean Tom can’t eventually find love.

If you’re out there, I hope that helps.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew