Okay, so I didn't EXACTLY fall off the Earth. But I have been really busy. No, not your usual relatives are in town and I have laundry and dishes kind of busy. I've been teaching all summer. I ran three week long summer camps and taught at one. That's four camps. Not to mention my amazing daughter won a film making award so we had to go out to Vancouver to see her animation on the big screen. Pretty good for an eleven year old. Then September rolled around and I got to breathe for two seconds before RIO started up again as well as a Theatre class I'm teaching and school. Did I mention I home school? Couple all that with a novel deadline and a few rewrites and the fact that I'm also self publishing a novel and had a play in the Calgary Fringe festival. Yeah, so like I said, busy. But things are slowing down to a low roar and I've found a long ladder to hop back up on the Earth. Hopefully this blog will come more frequently now. In the meantime, for your entertainment - here is a good review I got of Hook Up. I'm so pleased: http://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol19/no4/hookup.html
Write what you know is an often repeated statement to young authors. But in the world of Speculative Fiction where we create other worlds, step into the future or change the past, writing what you know is harder than a simple phrase. However, the teachers of this philosophy are correct. You must know your environment before you can write about it.
So how does one get to know a space station on a distant, impoverished and forgotten asteroid? Senses and research.
Our character’s senses are what connects our story to our readers. A derelict old space station will smell oily and musty. Head out to your uncle (the car fanatic’s) beat up garage to get to know that one. The space station will creak as things clatter and break. A trip down to the metal recyclers or into an old metal building that shifts with the wind can give you good sounds. How does stale, over-breathed air taste? Think of your school or an office building. Run your hand over some rusty, dusty, greasy metal to get the walls and floors of your spaceport. The look of your space station can come from what you’ve seen in your travels, your research from looking at real and imagined space stations and your own sketches.
To make a place that readers from here and now can imagine, we must use things they can relate to. We must take things from this world and place them in our imagined place. This will allow our readers to understand and walk within our story. Right where we want them.
Starting a story? Had it bouncing around in your head for a while? Think you know all your characters? Maybe not.
Now, I’ve encountered some resistance when telling authors this. They don’t like to hear that they don’t know their own characters as intimately as they think they do. But calm down everyone! It’s not such bad news – and it’s an easy fix.
First – if you haven’t already done it. Write a character sketch. Those of you who play role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons you’ll already know what this is. It’s where you write out a kind of dating chart: Pets, favourite colour, weaknesses, strengths, family, race, loves, hates, etc. Basically whatever you want. There are some good ones on the internet, though I usually just make up my own specific to my project.
Next – give your character a … well… characteristic. A facial tick or special movement like sighing through clenched teeth every time something doesn’t go his way. A word or phrase. An object that the character is never without (if you take it away it’s going to be a big time plot twist). Do this for every big character (or even EVERY character) in your story). It adds dimension and makes the character easy to spot in a crowd.
Now – take your character out for a walk or a cup of coffee. Get to know them and their views on the world. Ask questions that aren’t even in your story – “How do you feel about the politics in Egypt?” “Do you like Fall or Spring?” You don’t have to write these out either. Just play it out in your mind as you’re taking a stroll or sitting in a café staring out the window. Ask yourself how your character would react to the different people you see and why.
Finally – write a short scene (and I mean SHORT, after all you need to get on with writing your original story) detailing an average day for your character. The kind of day they have before you, the writer, screw it all up.
And there you have it. Do this and you will know your character like a best friend. You may even miss them when you are done writing the story. I recommend doing this for ALL major characters: heroes, villains and secondary characters that stick around for any length of time. Although you may not use all you have written in your preparation, the readers will feel your work and it will make your story deeper and more convincing.
So give it a try and see if this technique works for you!
My daughter is getting ready for her grade six PATs in English. The cool thing is, she's in grade five. Do my teaching methods work? Oh yes. Of course this doesn't relieve any nerves she has. But the same thing I teach the kids in all my writing classes is the same thing I keep going over with my daughter. Pick your main character. Give him or her a Goal, Motive, and Conflict. Build your plot using a try/fail cycle where whatever your character does makes things worse or complicates things in some way. Make the climax so dire even the reader can't figure out a solution. Then be really clever and end with some kind of change in your character. Of course there's a lot more to it than that. But it's a great place to start for any young writer. Basically, writing 101.
Writer, Teacher, Mutant. What more could you want?