Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: “Just Bash On & Do It.”

With National Novel Writing Month just a few days away, I think it’s worth pausing my own nonfiction and lessons from my favorite writer until December. However, to help those who also revel in the Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon, I shall continue sharing Writer’s Music posts throughout the month.

That said, I wanted to talk about something from Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections that feels especially appropriate on the cusp of NaNoWriMo.

In 2011, Charlie Butler interviewed Jones in her home. At one point he asks about her writing process, and if others, such as editors, see the work in progress. Jones is very clear that this is NOT how she works:

I hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it. I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be. Then some editor comes along and says, “Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let’s cut Chapter One altogether.” And you think, No, I’m going to hit the ceiling any moment. Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person’s throat.

Thank God it was the days before computers. I said, “Send me the typescript back and I’ll see what I can do.” So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I’d taken the pieces out and put new pieces in. And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, “Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.” And I thought, “Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.”

Now while I can only dream of having this woman’s confidence and ability to write sideways and backwards and ALWAYS create something awesome (such as Hexwood), she still marks the point that it is the SECOND draft she makes perfect. Her first draft was always written by hand, and she accepted that chunks of it would need to be done over: “If you want to make your story as good as you can get it, you have to go over it and get it right.”

For some of us, who are on draft #8 (ahem), “getting it right” in only one or two rewrites still sounds like a miracle. But it is nice to know that one whose plots knot every which way and still produce these beautiful woven works does not expect it to be right the first time. Yet another reason NaNoWriMo is so wonderful for writers: it forces us through that first draft (in Jones’ words: “Just bash on and do it.”). Then, with the time crunch gone, we can take our time, pick the story threads apart, and concentrate completely on “getting it right.”

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones and her article “Hints on Writing.”

Click here for more on National Novel Writing Month.

The Old Crown

1439144371488On top of a cupboard in my father’s study sits an old crown. Sheet metal, cut and soldered together. Large, gaudy pieces of costume jewelry are glued near the points and at the base. A heavy thing—it gives one a headache after just a few minutes’ wear.

The crown was made in the 60s by my grandfather, a man for whom the theater was…well, it kept his sons out of trouble. And all three were such orators. Show some support, Rand, I imagine my grandmother saying. So Grandpa made it, and it saw the stage with my two uncles, and my father, who loved directing and performing in the works of Shakespeare. The performer in my father remained strong: he could speak in front of hundreds with ease, wit, and character. He brought a passion to the pulpit, to the sick room. He understood human nature, an essential skill for a reverend as well as an actor.

My father’s death froze the movement of many things—his study, for one. Phasers, sonic screwdrivers, Justice League Lego, starship ornaments and more remain a testament for the fantastic Dad so loved as much as his Calling. Notes about the elderly, conferences, hymns to be composed also remain, strewn about his desk as though he only stepped out for an appointment. My mother refuses to move them. While I cannot blame her for wanting that feel of Dad in his favorite room, it is…ethereal.

Yet for some reason, I am not put off by his crown. Perhaps because I, like my father, enjoyed time on the stage. I, too, love writing as he once did. And there is a sense of our bloodline with it: the love of my grandfather brought this crown into existence. My father preserved it, a memento of golden days. When I see it, I can feel the happiness it witnessed decades ago. More than all the phasers and comic books, the crown emanates importance.

It Matters.

I have written before on how things may inspire our stories. Sometimes, though, it isn’t about the writing itself. Sometimes, it is about the WHY. The crown reminds me of the joy found in exploring character, the sharing of story with others. The passion to create. The need to create.

This need may grow heavy upon our countenance, and bow us towards the ground. Take it off. Yes, take it off, and look upon it. Remember why you walk the world, day after day, with it. Why you share it with others. Why you love it.

Never has something so plain transcended into something so beautiful.

Writer’s Music: Hans Zimmer II

81hlcdsuknl-_sl1500_Showdowns are, I find, one of the most necessary elements of story, as well as one of the trickiest. Actions are a blur, emotions and motivations impossible to explain, don’t let it go too long or the pacing drags, don’t let it go too short or you’re better off not bothering at all, the setting’s impacted so you better talk about that, and what about the OTHER characters outside the showdown you can’t forget them and ARGH.

Oh, and it’s not like you can only have ONE showdown.

Music is a savior here, one which I’ll happily share over the next few “Writer’s Music” posts. Every showdown must be unique: there is no one quite like your protagonist in this moment, for he/she is either a) barely understanding the world right now, b) still learning his/her abilities, or c) ready, impassioned. These moments of growth influence the showdown, so the music should reflect that.

Your antagonist may be on a similar arc, or not. Some prefer the antagonist to be impossibly powerful so the final showdown and defeat is all the more satisfying, but I think it’s interesting to watch the antagonist grow, too. Any earlier interaction with the protagonist should affect the antagonist, and make him/her more intelligent, wary, etc.

Hans Zimmer’s “Air” is a favorite showdown track for me because, being a longer track, it does allow the characters to think and feel. To realize. Such moments are important, I think, when the protagonist doesn’t really get what’s going on; therefore, those breaths in the action help ground the reader, too.

I am also a sucker for ominous choirs, which Zimmer uses in abundance here. Strings carry the main weight of melody here, but when it’s time for the true tension to arise, percussion and choir overwhelm; you can feel the physical battle here. The eerie soft moments in the choir’s absence only add more to the tension—a moment of dialogue here, perhaps? Or perhaps a moment to run and hide? Give your characters “Air” and see what they do.

Click here for more on Hans Zimmer.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Simple Terms Can Have Magical Meanings

9780007507764One of the plights of fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, magical realism, and whatever other subgenre marketing has made up, is LANGUAGE. I am not speaking of strong writing, or believable dialogue. I’m talking terms.

When one’s creating worlds, or altering the one we’ve got, there may be a temptation to mess about with how things are named. If you have the creative wherewithal to study language, dialects, poetics and the whole shebang, then go with Godspeed. I, however, am an impatient sod, and want the story up and on the screen as quickly as possible. Who has time to (shudder) study terminology?

Diana Wynne Jones’ work reveals a very clever solution to this problem: take terms with which readers are familiar, and twist their meaning. Not a lot—just enough to give readers a real-ish sense of an unreal concept. Here are some examples from various works. Perhaps after reading these you’ll discover there is a simpler, more effective approach to terms in your world that will allow you to tell a story rather than explain it.

FARM: the portion of society a magical being controls, such as crime, transportation, or music. (Archer’s Goon)

AYEWARDS/NAYWARDS: in a multi-verse, these refer to the which worlds are strong in magic, and which are not. For instance, to move “naywards” is to move into worlds where magic has but a weak presence. (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

DEEP SECRET: a piece of an extremely powerful spell (Deep Secret)

RAISE THE LAND: to call up a dragon made of magically potent land. (The Merlin Conspiracy)

FIELD OF CARE: the area which one of magical ability must tend and protect. (Enchanted Glass)

REIGNORS: tyrannical rulers of the galaxy (Hexwood)

SEVEN-LEAGUE BOOTS: magical shoes that will help one cover miles in just a step. (Howl’s Moving Castle)

51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_MAGID: one who administrates the flow of magic to influence global events for the good throughout the multiverse (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

As you can see from this wee list, Jones’ terms are nothing exotic, but common and rooted in everyday knowledge. Yet their magical application makes them unique. Even Magid, which may sound otherworldly at the outset, has the same root as “magistrate.” That term will register in readers’ heads, and they won’t be confused when they learn what a Magid does.

If you are world building or altering, think carefully on your terms. Rather than splicing together all sorts of rad-sounding syllables to form words NO one will understand, consider using the common tongue. You may find some magic there whose simplicity will remain with readers long after the book is closed.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.