Cut and Drive

I just returned from a brief trip to California for a memorial service (a sad occasion, but a lovely time was had), and as is tradition in our family, we drove all the way down (and back) in one 9-10 hour stretch, with only two pit-stops in between. We’re militantly tough drivers, partially because we don’t mind being alone with the scenery and a case full of classic rock CDs. Some of my best brainstorming comes from letting my mind wander during these trips.

As I remembered this trip, sometimes building also means destruction. This is true in fiction more than anywhere else.

Much as we want to keep every great idea we scribble in our notebooks, the truth is, we can’t hold onto them all. Too much of anything, be it plot threads or characters, and the story gets weighed down. Some authors can go on for a few hundred thousand words longer than the rest of us, but I’m sure even George R.R. Martin has had to cut content from the Game of Thrones series. Even outside of books, there’s a reason that extended cuts and b-sides exist, but aren’t kept in the core content.

I found myself doing a lot of story trimming this weekend. One task was simpler, streamlining a novella I’m working on for NineStar Press’ LOST collection. I cut out a couple characters (I have a great fear of bogging down a story with too many characters, after my first NaNoWriMo attempt landed me with a novel of 16+ characters in 50,000 words) and rearranged relationships around, which on paper sounds like no huge deal. And really, it isn’t. I have to scrap the opening to the novella again, but elements of those first attempts can still be recycled. If nothing else, I learned more about the world and the people within it, so the demolished wordcount at least lead to some worldbuilding. Like tearing off a bandaid, it stings a bit, but the pain passes soon enough to forget.

Then there’s the hard cut: I scrapped an entire book.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done so for the Deadly Drinks series; the first draft of “Bones and Bourbon” was similar only in name and protagonist to the novel releasing next April, and its in-progress sequel had so many restarts before I finally finished the first draft. I’m lucky in that I hadn’t started book four (seeing as book three isn’t even done yet), but even though words hadn’t hit the page yet, tossing it still hurt. Why was this?

Because it had so much I WANTED. The magical world intruding on the mundane. Playing with Frankenstein’s Creation (I refuse to call him a monster–or, stars forbid, Frank). Secret societies! Magical cyborgs! Ghost-powered transportation through other dimensions!

But from the time I revved up the engine and rolled out of the parking lot with Santana tunes blaring from the speakers, I knew it didn’t fit. When writing a series, one has to consider not just developing plot and character across one book, but over the series as a whole, and this book didn’t fit the direction the series needed to grow in. Such a fantastical tale would raise the stakes for the entire setting too much for a mid-series book, and the Gallows brothers were taking the back seat to all the cool elements I wanted to include.

So I let it go. I burned the images in my head and picked a few pieces out of the ashes that I did need for what book 4 will become. The rest of it gets tucked away to percolate in the back-burners of my mind, likely emerging on another long road trip as a new story all its own. I collected sights and snippets of songs to inspire a story that’ll fit better with my narrative arc, and if I’m lucky, I might still be able to sneak some interdimensional ghosts in there. (But first, we finish book three, edit book two, publish book one. I like to work well ahead of schedule.)

It’s a matter of weighing what we want to write with what the story needs. Let your mind wander, but know when to reel it in when it drifts too far.

Now that I’ve spent so much time cutting content, it’s time I got back to work creating again.

~Dorian

PS: Speaking of road trips, I did sneak a couple of my favorite details along I-5 in “Bones and Bourbon.” I also refrained from making any jokes about the State of Jefferson, but I can make no promises for the finished product…

Want It All

At the heart of any good story is want. Characters are motivated by their desires, be it achieving a goal, avoiding a consequence, or some other obsession important to them. Conflict arises when obstacles arise that stop characters from their goals and they go for it anyway. (Apparently, not a lot of characters listen to the Rolling Stones.)

Now, it’s possible to just repeat this fundamental trick until the end of the story, and that makes for a fine plot on its own. It’s like a Mario game, where Mario keeps stomping Goombas and dodging Bowser’s fireballs until he finally rescues the princess. However, doggedly chasing after one goal can get boring and predictable after awhile; even Mario had to take breaks for medical degrees, go-karts, and wandering the contents of Bowser’s internal organs. So what’s a storyteller to do when what a character wants just isn’t cutting it anymore?

Add more wants, that’s what. If these new goals conflict with the old ones, so much the better.

After all, people as a whole aren’t just one-want beings. My goal is to become a successful author, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also want to in the meantime find a new job, travel across the country, and convince my cat to stop trying to knock over my bookshelves. These goals can cause conflict on their own—such as if my partner and I disagree about where to travel—or by working against each other, like if finding a new job meant more money for travel but less time for this author-to-be to write (and more time for the cat to knock things over). I wouldn’t call this a novel-level amount of tension, but examples still stand.

One of the easiest ways to set up an internal conflict in your characters is to give them an overarching goal, something that will take at least the course of a story to complete, and then a short-term goal that can threaten it. In my recently-released story The Orpheus Well, for example, the protagonist has an overarching goal of discovering the mystery of the titular Orpheus Well and its peculiar owner. However, her short-term goals often rely on her having to utilize the well’s powers to bring back the dead, serving to deepen the mystery but put her at risk.

Do the goals have to require the same amount of importance? Not necessarily, though they should both feel equally important to your character, in order for the conflict to feel impactful. If a character is torn between “rescue kidnapped family member” and “take a nap,” that’s going to feel contrived—unless the character hasn’t slept for a week straight and the family member in question is one they could live without. In “Bones and Bourbon” however, Jarrod has two goals that are wildly out of sync in the grand scheme of things: stop ancient evil spirit Nalem from wreaking havoc and possibly taking over the world, and rescue his younger brother Retz from Nalem’s clutches. Logically, stopping Nalem has priority since failing to stop him could harm a lot of people, and Jarrod knows this—but he can’t just let his brother die without a fight. Since both feel equally important to him, we get his character conflict.

Stories that go on longer (like a long-running comic or a novel series) can see goals change and evolve over time too, or even have new desires complicate matters. Could Jarrod later decide that something is a greater threat than Nalem, and leave the ancient spirit alone in order to confront a worse enemy? Sure, and that choice can cause conflict too, especially if the decision to leave Nalem alone has consequences. Or he could try to stop Nalem AND another threat at the same time, with complications arising from both, and just when he thinks one or both goals are achievable…bam!

Managing multiple goals can be tricky. They can just serve to deepen someone’s personality, or the whole novel can revolve around someone trying to reconcile their contrasting desires. But if you can pull it off, it can push your story into unexpected directions, keeping you and the readers racing through the pages.

Write on and follow your own wants, dearests. Until next time,

~Dorian

Talking Bodies

How a character is described (or drawn, in the case of artists) can say just as much about the creator—and not just how often they must stare into mirrors, considering how many initial descriptions have protagonists navel-gazing at their reflections. I mean the kind of appearances we allow to be seen in our works, as well as how they’re represented. It’s a discussion that often pops up on my various social media dashboards, and since it’s just resurfaced this past week, I figure it’d be a good starting topic for this blog.

Fiction, be it visual or written, can be an escape to a more fantastic, more “perfect” world. Thing is, by excluding different bodies—those of color, of different sizes or genders, or even disabled ones—we thus imply that those bodies are not perfect or deserving of representation. Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves in fiction, not just those who happen to have the right measurements and a smoldering gaze.

Granted, we’re used to wanting to make our characters likable (even those love-to-hate villains), and in our attempts to give them a good first impression, we make them attractive. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of our society, like how everyone has to dress nice for a job interview. But readers and viewers are going to spend far longer than a fifteen-minute interview with our characters, and in the case of our protagonists, get to see their thoughts and personality at the same time as the physical stuff. Because of this, we can unlearn our urge to make everyone pretty little defaults. We can make a cast whose bodies are as unique and diverse as real life—and it always helps when even the most fantastical fiction has roots in reality!

While it’s a goal that’s all well and good, it can be hard to know where to start. Adding diversity can be a difficult tightrope, walking the line between “is my character more than this one trait?” and “did I just add this trait to this character so I can check off on my invisible diversity checklist?” Now I’m no expert, but here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my own body-building quest.

  • Let their bodies help fuel their narrative, not consume it. In the “Deadly Drinks” series, for example, protagonist Jarrod Gallows is a trans-man. I chose this because a lot of his story is about being pulled between two sides—human and huldra, nature and nurture, mundane and magical—and having him be trans* fit that narrative. But while his gender identity and connected dysphoria is brought up, it’s not the only thing that defines him. He’s also a protective paranormal investigator who drinks to deal with all the morally-gray cases tossed his way; in that respect, the only thing separating him from Dean Winchester of “Supernatural” fame is that he’s wearing a binder under his shirt. (And has a tail from his half-huldra heritage and a curse hiding on his body…but that’s another bullet point entirely.)

  • Don’t leave your main characters out. It can be easy to introduce a minor character who’s a WoC in a wheelchair if she’s only around for a scene, but if the rest of your cast is still full of skinny-white-Hollywood-stars, readers will notice. Same for if your protagonists are “traditionally pretty” and your antagonists aren’t so much. Take your main cast and see what you can push about their identity. Does your ex-soldier have a bad knee from a fight gone wrong, prompting him to sometimes use a cane and adding tension when his leg is further hurt? Is your romance heroine perhaps a little soft, except for a sharp nose that she doesn’t mind because it’s the same as her grandmother’s? Even small details can go a long way.

  • Looking for a starting point? As the adage says, write what you know, and look at yourself or others in your life for characterizing physical details. My family tends toward having rather large noses, so I’ve developed a tendency of giving a lot of my characters the same fate in both my writing and art. (At least my nose isn’t quite as pointy as the Gallows’ family nose…) My Dad’s side of the family (myself included) has also had a fair share of dental nightmares, enough that I made a whole short story on the subject, and it also shows up in how Retz Gallows uses some of his bone-controlling powers in “Bones and Bourbon.”

  • Don’t just research a cursory introduction of what to know if you aren’t of a certain race/gender/size/health/etc, but also what stereotypes to avoid. A person with ADHD is not necessarily loud and manic! Overweight and athletic are not mutually exclusive! People of color can have narratives that aren’t about immigration or discrimination! If you can, research what people are saying not just academically when they talk about media, but also informally in their own blogs and posts.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, however, is that one author can’t do it all. We each only have our own perspective, with our own opinions and biases. That’s why it’s important to help read, watch, and support diverse creators that we enjoy! (You can even start by sharing a few in the comments below, if you’d like.)

Until next time,

~Dorian

Greetings and Salutations

Hello there, readers and watchers, and welcome to the new and improved blog of Dorian Graves!

It is admittedly sparse at the moment, but art is being scanned and prepared as we speak, and topics for blog posts are being formulated. I plan to mostly focus on the creation aspects of art and writing, such as character design and world building, with examples from pop culture, my own work, and maybe even a few indie projects.

What authority do I have on these matters, you may ask? Well, allow me to introduce myself. I’m the titular Dorian Graves, author of the upcoming Deadly Drinks series (first book Bones and Bourbon to be published by NineStar Press in April 2018), and also of a few short stories besides (such as A Taste of Empty). I even have a fancy BA in English/Creative Writing from Mills College, so I’m some sort of official. I hail from the mountains of Oregon, and believe me, being isolated in the woods means there’s plenty of time to over-analyze books, movies, video games, and all other sorts of media.

(Also plenty of time to accidentally raise a coyote or avoid accidentally crashing into a bear on the road, but those are stories for another time.)

For now, feel free to peruse the site so far, maybe even check out a few of the short stories available or learn about the Deadly Drinks series. There’s also a fancy new interview with Sage & Savant, if you’d like to learn a bit more about what it’s like living in the mountains or what I think about the Urban Fantasy genre.

Enjoy yourselves, dearests.

~Dorian