Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Writers--Do the Hard Thing

By James R. Tuck, @JamesTuckwriter

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Sometimes we run into a writing wall and we're too scared (or lazy) to scale it. We might see the right path leads over the wall and into the scary woods, but it feels like so much work to get there. Scary, uncertain, finger-breaking work. One of my favorite people, James Tuck, is here today to share some thoughts on this, and what to do when you hit that wall. And I'm delighted to announce that we'll be seeing a lot more of James, as he's just joined us as a monthly contributor.

James was born and raised in Georgia and grew up drawing and reading a steady helping of Robert E. Howard stories, Golden Age comics, and books he was far too young to be reading. Combined with a very Southern involvement in church and watching horror movies, this became the bedrock of his creativity. He became a tattoo artist, and now writes dark fantasy. He's the author of the Deacon Chalk: Occult Bounty Hunter series, a variety of short stories and novellas set in the same world (and some outside of it), and the editor of the Thunder on the Battlefield anthologies. His newest series (co-written with Debbie Viguie), is Robin Hood: Demon's Bane.

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Take it away James...

The other day I got a text from a writer friend of mine. He's a good kid, working on a new novel, still not quite disciplined enough to finish and polish something before starting something new, but he'll get there.

This is how it went:
Nick: You know that feeling when you plan out 3 chapters but then your character is like AHAHA NO WAY LETS DO THIS INSTEAD

Me: It's happened once or twice, lol

Nick: It happens to me more often than not.

Me: Take control man!

Nick: Aha. Workin on it. Gotta make some decisions though

Me: Whatever is the choice you don't want to do …..do that but harder

Nick: That's really good advice.

Oftentimes our stories hit a crossroads we didn't see coming. Characters begin not wanting to follow orders, or things just seem to be going awry from what you had planned. This isn't a bad thing. It's simply our subconscious, which has logged millions of bits of data on story from our lives of reading books, watching movies and television, and even relating to other humans by telling stories of our lives or our days. The underbrain will often kick in with a better way of doing your story. The problem is that the underbrain can't speak English, or text you, or call. It simply has to push its way through while you are doing something else.

When this happens to you, don't panic. It's normal. I assure you.

Stop and do what Nick did: realize you now have choices.

I urge you to look at ALL your choices. Not just the three easy fixes that will pop up in your mind's eye and be self-evident. No, I want you to burrow a bit in this new found plethora of ideas you can explore.

Some of them will be tough.

Some will require a lot of work.

In my experience, those are often the ones that grind out the best story meal from your idea wheat.

And if you want novel bread you need good story meal.

Look at all your characters and see where these new decisions can take each one.

Maybe someone will find their mind changed dramatically. Maybe one will have to face their fears. Maybe one will lose their status. Maybe one will be hurt.

Maybe one will die.

Yes, die.

I think more genre writers need to kill more characters. Not gratuitously. Not for shock. But in genre, we normally write some pretty harrowing situations for our characters and let them get through them unscathed. Well, it's time to scathe them.

Luke lost his hand. Tara burned to the ground. Magic Mike was still a loser.

King Kong died.

All these stories have dramatic loss. Consequences of the plot. Not for shock, but for development. Characters bloom when they are put through hardship. Look at your protagonist--if you killed their greatest ally, what would that do to your story? It would definitely change it.

Now imagine if they kept their ally, but found out they had cancer. You say: but I write sci-fi, how would that work? Look, there needs to be more space cancer in books. Check out the Hellblazer story arc DANGEROUS HABITS. Garth Ennis had a comic character that had done a LOT. 40 issues of adventure. (for you non comic readers that's 3.5 years of comic books) and Garth needed to do something different and new.

So he gave chain-smoking, demon summoning, and all around right bastard John Constantine a healthy dose of lung cancer.

The result is a book that has a character examining his own mortality. A man intimately acquainted with the afterlife, especially the nastier side of it. At this point, Constantine had tricked demons, screwed over angels, and made a fool of the Devil himself . . . Hell wasn't going to be nice for him.

It's a riveting and inventive story line.

And it came from Garth Ennis choosing a hard path.

Give it a try. You might find a better story. And even if you don't use the ideas in the current manuscript, the exercise will pay off in another book down the road.

You can do it. I have faith in you.

About Robin Hood: Demon's Bane

Sherwood Forest is a place of magic, and Prince John and his allies are demons bent upon ruling Britain. The solstice draws close, and Prince John and the Sheriff hold Maid Marian, whose blood sacrifice will lock the prince’s hold on the kingdom and the crown. Unless Marian can reach Robin with a magic artifact coveted by the enemy and entrusted to her by the Cardinal, the ritual will occur. 

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  1. Excellent advice. I look forward to more posts from you. Welcome. *waves*

    1. Thank you! I'll be here approximately monthly so I will look for you in class!

  2. Excellent post, thank you. Timely for me!

  3. "The underbrain will often kick in with a better way of doing your story..." Thank you for this article. Some of the best info and advice I've seen to-date.

  4. Brutal, James. But you got me thinking: Maybe I've been too tender with my characters. Need to spice things a bit.

  5. I had already made my choice but found that I struggled with putting it down in visual words. All of a sudden I'm back to squeezing the words out of me as if I'm a sponge drying out. There's still a lot in the sponge but I have to crush and wring to get it out.