Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Point: "Run him through!"

Running a sword all the way through someone and out their back looks cool and sounds like a cool death for your villain or a neat description to throw into your Hero's fight, but there are some things to keep in mind.

First the human body sucks... no really, it does. When a body is pierced it sucks around the wound, essentially trying to close back up. That's why we (students of swordsmanship) are taught to rotate the blade while we're making a thrust. This not only does a lot more damage (think cork screw instead of a straight in and out stab) but it also prevents the body from sucking around that wound.

What does sucky bodies have to do with running someone through? Well, the body will suck around the sword as well, making it very difficult to pull it back out again. You don't need to get stuck on a bone for your sword to stick in the body. The best way to understand this is to imagine walking in mud. You put your foot down and it sinks pretty easily, then when you try to pull your foot back out again the suction tries to hold on to you. The deeper the mud (the deeper you stab into the human body) the harder it is to get out.

If you go all the way through someone, there's a good chance that you will have to plant your foot on the person to get enough leverage to get the word out again.

This brings me to my second point, if you're fighting multiple opponents you don't have time to be yanking and pulling at your sword trying to get it free (unless of course that's an element you want to use in your scene, but make sure the actions match the consequences).

You don't need to run a sword completely through someone to kill them. All the vital organs you are aiming for are within three inches of the skin.

So watch how deep you have your sword blows penetrate and make sure the consequences match.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fear of Finishing

There are lots of different kinds of fear. Some are obvious and visceral (like spiders) others are more subtle. One of the craftiest fears I've come across in my own writing experience is the fear of finishing. This is different then fear of success (that's a whole different can of worms).

Fear of finishing begins for me in two different places in my writing process. The first is near the end of the first draft. I'm coming up to the climax. I know exactly what to do and where to go. And my writing drops to a crawl. 50 words one day. 100 the next. 20 the day after that.

Why? It's not writer's block. I know what to write. I can see all the way to the end. At first I tried to tell myself I just loved the story so much that I didn't want to stop writing it. I was lingering in the story like two lovers unwilling to part.

That's a bunch of $&#@.

I was afraid. If I finished the story then I would have to actually look at it and see if it was any good. Even if I think it's a good story, there's always that little voice in the back of my head that says that I'm just fooling myself. The story actually sucks and I'm one of those poor schmucks that just can't tell that they're writing is rubbish.

But(!) if I never finish that first draft, then I don't have to look back over what I've written. And even if I do I can justify any bad parts that I find because "I'm still working on it". You don't judge a sculpture before it's done, so I don't have to really look at this until it's done... which will be never if I'm not careful.

The second time I'm struck with fear of finishing is after I've trudged through the desolate mire of rewrites. I'm going over the whole book with a fine toothed, adverb sensitive, comb. I've rooted out all the flat parts, killed my darlings and fleshed out my characters nicely. I'm almost done... and it strikes again. There’s just one more thing that needs fixed. One more check through that I need to do. When people ask if I'm done I can tell them "Almost, but I need to fix one more thing...". And even if I do let someone see it, if they don't like something about it I can pull out my shield of "Well, I'm not quite done with it. I was going to fix that part."

It's a cheep excuse, but one that is easier to cling to then facing the fact that maybe someone wont like what I've written. Maybe I've made a mistake. Maybe I'll fail.

But(!) if I keep finding one more thing, if I keep stalling and putting off then I'll never have to face rejection.

The problem: if you never take the chance at being rejected, you will never be accepted. The fear of finishing is really the fear of messing up, the fear of someone not liking our story (and, in extension, us).
"It's better to hide." The fear it will tell you. Better to wallow in unfinished pages. "It's too dangerous out there. Don't even try. You'll regret it."

The thing is, that's a lie. I've spent months (if not years) stuck in an "almost finished" Purgatory. I will argue that it's worse then out right rejection. The fear will latch on to you, sucking with a thousand tiny mouths until it drains you of all the confidence you had or will have. Then you become susceptible to the bigger lies.
"This really does suck."
"It's not worth it. Just toss it in the corner and forget you ever tried."
"You’re always going to fail. Go back you your grey little life and never try to achieve anything ever again."

The only way to break this cycle is to face our fear head on. Face it down, open the curtains and let in the sun. I won’t say that facing the fear will make it go away. It won’t. It will growl and bare its teeth and you'll have to hit it over the head with a stick. But that is the only way to break free. You have to put yourself out there. Take some of the blows. It's the only way that you will ever reach any kind of success. Any kind of completion.

Once you break free of that fear for the first time it's like seeing the sun after a cold dark winter. The first time someone says they really enjoyed reading your story. The first good review (from someone who isn't blood related). Then you understand that all that pain of pushing through the fear was worth it. And all that hiding you did was really killing you.

Now all that being said, there is wisdom to getting your story the best it can be before sending it out to the world, but make sure you are really bettering the book and not just stalling. If you catch yourself saying things like "Just one more rewrite" or "Just one last thing needs fixed." Think back, have you said that before? If so then you're stalling and letting the fear win. Set yourself a deadline and stick to it. Tell a friend and make yourself accountable to them. Then when the time comes, send your story out. Be brave. Don't back down.

There is a sun above the clouds if we can just push our way through the storm.

Stock photos: hisks, robby_m - sxc.com

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Point: Looong fights

The long drawn out fight is a staple of movies everywhere. Whether it's swords, guns or fists. Five minutes of Wham! Pow! Bang!

It's flashy. It's cool. It also never hapens in a real fight.

Guns sooner or later run out of ammo or someone gets hit. If you've got that much led flying around in the air, it's going to hit something. That's just the rules of statistics.

When it comes to swords the fight can actually be faster. The first thing to remember about movie swordsmanship is that they are not using actual rules of combat. They are not actually fighting. They are performing stage combat. I'm not saying stage combat is inferior. It has a different aim then actual combat (literally). The whole point of stage combat is NOT to hurt your opponent. Though I think movies would be more interesting if they used live (i.e. sharp) blades and real blood, we would go through actors rather quickly. The problem arises when people start thinking that stage combat is what actual combat looks like.

After watching the Saber competition in the Olympics last year a friend commented to me that the bouts were really fast and a little anticlimactic (I didn't bother to mention that Olympic/Sport fencing isn't real combat either, but I digress). If you're used to watching movie fights, then yes, a real fight is going to look like a blur and then it's over.

I actually consider this a blessing as a writer. I don't have to come up with some long complicated fight scene. It's very hard to make an interesting fight last for pages and pages. In my opinion a fight shouldn't last more then a page (at the very most!).

Everything in a fight comes down to timing. The closer matched two opponents are, the narrower that timing becomes, but it still depends on timing. If you’re only a split second off, you’re dead. Quickly.

Most fights are finished in 1-3 moves. Attack, parry, attack in return. End of fight. If your opponent can counter your attack after a parry they're very good. My suggestion in a fight like that: run away.

Of course there are a few exceptions to the quick rule (though I emphasis the ‘few’, as in, theses are the only two I’ve heard of). One duel was between two master swordsmen. Both men kept catching and ripping holes in each others clothes, but neither could get close enough to cut the other. After going back and forth like this for a while, both men stopped, realizing that this wasn't going to end well for either of them. They took the money they had been fighting over, split it and went out for drinks.

Another was a master fencer who was challenged by a total idiot to a duel. The master didn't want to kill the man, so as they fought the only attacks he would make were to snip off the buttons of his opponent’s shirt. Finally the judge residing over the duel called a halt, it was too obvious who had won this duel.

But like I said, those are exceptions. Real fights fought by real people are dirty, bloody and quick. When you're writing a duel or any fight, don't get fancy. Get in, get out, go home alive (hopefully).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Kissing the Frog: Note Cards

Note cards. Almost every book on writing that I’ve looked at says to use note cards when planning your book. I tried it once… it wasn’t pretty. But now I am moving into the land of revision where the laws of the first draft no longer apply. After a little experimenting I think I found a really cool way to use note cards for editing.

Last time I revised a novel I wrote the scenes on sticky notes and put them up on the wall. That actually worked really well, but even the best stick note only stays sticky for so long. It was right about that time that I had wished for note cards and a decent board.

Lesson learned. I am now revising my newest novel and I’m using note cards, but I’m doing it a little differently.

First let me say that I’m… oh, what’s the right word? Cheap? Thrifty would sound nicer, but cheap is more accurate. I HATE spending money on something if I can make it myself for nothing. That’s why my writing desk is made from a couple short bookshelves I got at a yard sale and a piece of counter top found on the side of the road.

So it won’t come as a surprise to anyone when I tell you that I didn’t want to go out and buy a huge cork board to tack all my note cards too. My solution: Cardboard.

Being a taxidermist we get in a lot of big packages, many of them are made of nice double thick cardboard. At the time these boxes came in I didn’t know why I would need a huge slab of double thick card board, but it was just too cool to throw away (I’m not hording, I’m just planning ahead).

So with the cardboard and a bunch of tacks I “borrowed” from my mother, I had myself a handy little board for my note cards. Don’t think my cheapness stopped there. Years ago I got a pack of 4x6 note cards, but I really don’t need that big of a card to write scene descriptions on. So I cut them in half. Now I have twice as many 3X4 cards and they are just the right size.

Now that I have all my supplies together, time to get down to business.

I took the first note card and wrote the name of the POV character for that scene and colored it in (each POV character has their own color). Next line I put where the scene took place and beneath that I wrote a short description of what happens in the scene. Easy as that.

I could write who was in the scene, what their goals are, escalation of conflict, blah, blah, blah, but I really don’t see the point in that. At least for me. I use the cards as quick reminders of what happened in that scene. All that other stuff I deal with in a separate note book.

Over a couple days I went through the book scene by scene and made cards for each. Not only that (and this is the cool part I cam up with) as I wrote each scene card I made notes on a colored sticky note then stuck the note on the back of the card, the bottom edge hanging over so I could see it after I tacked it up on my board. The notes are color coded. A blue sticky note meant that the scene only needed some minor changes, pink, a major part needs rewritten and yellow was for a totally new scene. I also used small purple notes for quick thoughts that I came up with later. Now I can look at the board and see just how much work I need to do to this novel (which I’m happy to say, isn’t nearly as much as I feared).

So now, when I go to work on a scene, I just take the card down and pull off the sticky notes to see what I need to do.

So far it’s been working like a charm.

Here's a picture of my board:

Scene card (The pink in the corner means it in my Heroine's POV, my Hero is blue, Villain green. The pink sticky note means I need to rewrite a large part of the scene.):

Back of the scene card: