No Time to Write, Again

Tonight’s another night with my nose to the grindstone. Another long night.

I’m not going to publicly complain about my day job, but I will say that this isn’t sustainable.

Something’s got to change.


Writing a Story Part 7: More Brainstorming

I realized this evening that the last two posts in this series had the wrong title, so I corrected those first. When this is all said and done, I want anyone to be able to search for “Writing a Story” on this site and find the whole series. I’ll create a page with links, too.

We’re getting close to the fun part. I enjoy drafting, once I get into it. To get ready to draft, I keep thinking about the characters and the story until something vaguely story-shaped is in my head. Some of the best stuff will come out of the discovery part of the draft, but before I feel comfortable exploring the void, I want to have at least an idea of where this thing is going.

In previous brainstorming, we wrote:

What does the plot look like at this point?

  • We start in a burning building and our protagonist is in the middle of fighting a fire
  • They rescue someone, using their elemental gift without realizing that’s what they’re doing. The person they rescue recognizes it for what it is, though.
  • The rescued shows up at the fire station and it seems they’re going to be a nuisance trying to thank our hero, but they’re really there to talk to them about the elemental world
  • We need something to set the stakes
  • We need to push our hero out of their comfort zone
  • We need to put our hero in peril
  • Our hero needs to learn something/embrace who they are to overcome the peril and save themselves/save the day
  • We close with the hero taking a larger step into the world they’ve just become part of

A lot of this is vague, and some of it doesn’t really work with Angela the Firefighter. Our main character wants validation. If one of the people she saves comes looking for her, it will give her what she wants and let out most of the tension. It should be something else, which will give Angela a chance to be more proactive. We want her to direct the story and not passively receive it.

Let’s tweak what we came up with before.

  • We start outside the burning building with Angela. She’s checking her gear, and she’s checking herself. She’s trained for this, but this is her first time facing a real life-or-death situation.
  • We follow Angela into the building. She’s a little nervous, but it’s somehow easier than she imagined it would be. She’s in tune with the fire, and it’s responding to her, though she doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on yet. This is where we’ll sprinkle the first hints that she has a supernatural ability
  • Angela finds someone in the building that isn’t supposed to be there. This other person is terrified, and Angela is having a hard time rescuing them. While Angela is still trying to figure it out, water from one of the hoses blasts through a window, and the stranger bends the water and uses it to escape.
  • With all of the smoke and the fire and the tension of the situation, Angela will question the whole experience as something imagined or hallucinated, especially after checking the hospital and finding no sign of the person that escaped. She’ll keep searching, and eventually find some camera footage showing the stranger escaping.
  • Angela will gather and follow the clues until she finds the stranger and they have a confrontation. Something interesting will happen in this scene — not sure what yet — but eventually the stranger will confirm that they’re an elementalist and they’re after a fire dancer named XXX that is going down I-5, starting fires wherever they go
  • In for a penny, in for a pound, Angela decides to help their new friend, if for no other reason than to stop the arsonist. As they travel, the stranger will tell Angela more about the gift and nuances of the secret world
  • They’ll find a burn site down I-5, investigate, and find some clues as to what the antagonist is doing and where they’re going. Maybe they catch the antagonist in the act and they’re able to stop them. We should get some hint that it’s more complicated than Angela’s friend has made it out to be
  • They get to the third site, but XXX laid a trap for them. The water shaper is incapacitated or knocked out. Angela and XXX have a final confrontation, and Angela consciously uses the fire for the first time, and beats XXX (but does not kill them — Let’s try to have no murder or deaths in this story)
  • We have a final scene with all 3, and Angela surprises everyone by going with XXX to help them with whatever their deal is, but with less villainy

Something like that. We’re more specific, now. There’s lots of gaps and places where we can shift things.

It’s game night. I’ll sign off here. Next time, let’s do a little bit more world building and maybe look at our villain and our secondary character a little bit more.


Writing a Story Part 6: Our Main Character Continued

It’s 9:45PM and I’m just now finishing work. I had a break between 5PM and 7PM, where I had a beer some appetizers with coworkers, but it’s still be a long day. I really wanted to skip the blog tonight, and I don’t know that I’m up to doing much writing. Sometimes you take a day to rest. Tonight, however, feels like one of those times where I need to push myself, if only a little bit.

Here is the last thing we came up with for our character:

Our main character will be a cinnamon roll, which is someone that is sweet, optimistic, and tends to put others above themselves. Why did they become a firefighter? Because they wanted to help people without having to carry a gun.

They are healthy, strong enough to carry a person while wearing a bunch of heavy gear, and they’re brave enough to run into a burning building.

How do they feel about fire? We might as well ask the question, since that’s going to be a big part of the story.

Stories are about problems. What kind of problems does this character invite?

So far they seem kind of perfect, don’t they? Perfect people are hard to follow. Superman, when he’s written well, has weaknesses beyond the Kryptonite, such as being overly optimistic or naive. Captain America can similarly be naive, but he also has the complications of being time displaced and out of touch.

Our firefighter is neither Superman nor Captain America, but they are a hero. How do we want to make them more relatable?

Often, it is the character’s flaws that make them the most interesting. In Synthetic Dreams, Dee-ehn is shy and a bit neurotic, while Jayvee is outgoing and non-committal. In Spin City, Arthur Kane is observant and capable of solving complicated puzzles and mysteries, but his longing to go to Earth pushes him to drink too much. In The Repossessed Ghost, Mel is young and a bit of a creep, which sometimes overshadows how he is also genuine and kind.

I think our hero wants to help people, but is not particularly good at interacting with them. Perhaps that’s part of why he does what he does. If he helps enough people, maybe that will make him worthy of being accepted and loved.

I like this person more already.

Let’s pin down a couple of details that I’ve been avoiding. What’s this person’s name? What’s their gender? How old are they? Where do they live, and where are they from?

The character’s gender doesn’t really matter. For now, let’s make her female. I might be tempted to make her trans or gender fluid, but I’m not sure I have the courage for that in this project. I have trans friends that would probably be more than happy to give me insight, and possibly read this to make sure that I’m not doing damage. However, since I’m doing this on the blog, the chances of me inadvertently hurting someone by misrepresenting their real, lived-in experience is non-zero.

I’m not worried about writing women characters, even though I’m not a woman. I think my attitude of, “Just write a character” works for non-white and/or LGTBQ+ people, too, but it’s more complicated. For this public writing project, I’m just going to play it safe.

What’s her name? This doesn’t matter, either, but having a name helps make them seem more real. The first name that comes to mind for our firefighter is Angela. Maybe that’s a bit on the nose, since she’s something of an angelic type. For now, she’s Angela. If you have a suggestion for a different name, let me know in the comments.

When I give her a last name, I’ll start googling a bunch to make sure I don’t pick a name that is already widely out in the world. I don’t think I’m doing that tonight. I’m too tired and too lazy right now.

Being a firefighter, they’re younger than I am. Since she’s also coming into her power as an elementalist, let’s put her in her mid 20s. So, she’s my son’s age. That’s neat.

Where do they live? Where is this story taking place?

I think it needs to be a town and not a city. I think somewhere on the West Coast would be good, since we get a lot of fires here. Let me look at a map.

Maybe Red Bluff, or Redding. Maybe our villain is going along I-5 starting fires.

I think this is where I’m going to stop tonight. It may not seem like we’ve done much, but we have made some significant progress. I’m much more looking forward to writing this character and bringing her to life.

Again, let me know if you have some other ideas for names. In fact, if you give me a list of names, I’ll draw from them while writing this story. I can really get stuck on names while drafting, so having a list to pull from helps significantly.


Writing a Story Part 5: Creating a Character

I’m not sure I’ve ever really talked about how I create characters for my stories or for my roleplaying games. Sometimes the process is similar, but usually it’s very different.

With a game, I’m looking at rules and balance, and how I will be able to act as the character so that everyone at the table has a good time. Some meta gaming may be involved, but not always. Can I speak in an Irish accent? Do I want to be the guy that supports the group from the back, the meat shield that protects the group from the front, or maybe a sneaky and spry fellow that strikes from the shadows?

This isn’t generally how I think of characters for stories. I bring it up because many of you know that I’m a gamer, and some of you know that Mel Walker started as a character in a roleplaying game.

Some writers create character sheets and build characters just like they’re about to take them into a game. If that approach works for you, keep at it! It’s not my way, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a way.

When I’m thinking about characters in a story, I build them up in my mind one layer at a time. The first layer is all about tone. Is this person happy, sad, angry, bitter, jealous… you get the idea. When I decide on the emotion they’re going to exert on the scene, I ask why they’re feeling that way. Sometimes the answer is obvious. Sometimes the angry receptionist is just an angry receptionist, but I always consider what sort of breadcrumbs I might leave for allowing the reader to figure out what’s going on in their head. If you’re familiar with “show, don’t tell,” this is a place where showing really shines.

Next I ask what myself what they sound like. This gives me hints on how to write their dialog. Sometimes, the character’s voice will remind me of someone I know, and I might tease out some quality of that other person to give the character something real.

Somewhere in this process, I consider what they’re purpose is for the scene I’m about to write. Once I’ve figured out some details about the character, I might determine that I don’t want them for my next scene at all. I’ll put them on the back burner and pull them out when it’s their time to contribute.

A scene has a starting point and an ending point, and it involves one or more characters trying to overcome an obstacle. Sometimes the obstacle is another character. Is the character I’m adding to the scene trying to help or hinder the main character? Why are they on the side they’re on?

Imagine our hero is at the bottom of a pit trap. Before the scene began, they fell in, miraculously avoiding a broken ankle at the bottom. But the walls of the trap are slick mud, and there is someone at the top of the trap with a spear. I probably already know quite a bit about the hero, but who is this other guy? Is he there to stab the hero when the hero tries to climb out, or is going to lower his weapon to give the hero something to grab onto, and help them out? Who is this guy, and why are they doing whatever it is they’re about to do? Is it personal? Is it a paycheck?

When creating characters like this, I try to consider how much time they’re going to spend in the story. Are they a waitress that’s only there for one scene? If so, I don’t need to do that much with them. They probably don’t even need a name. However, if they’re going to have any screen time at all, I’m going to give them something that implies character.

If this character is going to show up a bit more in the story, I’ll look at where they fit into the bigger picture. I’ll get to their motivation, and I’ll see if there is some kind of arc I can give them. It doesn’t have to be major. They don’t need to steal attention from the main character. But imagine a cop that shows up early on, and they seem like a nice enough guy, but there is something in their past that is getting in their way, and by the end of the story, they find the courage to overcome their trauma. Are you thinking of the first Die Hard movie now, because I am.

If I’m working on a major character, I’m going to consider them more and flesh out smaller details. Then I’ll either try them out in the scene, or if I’m struggling with their voice, I’ll write some throw away stuff that gives me the opportunity to play with their personality and voice. Once I’ve got it locked in, I can return to the main story and continue.

These are a few thoughts on characterization. We’ll do some more with that this week.


A Long, Quiet Week

Last weekend was 3 days, and I thought it’d be great for recovering and getting my feet back under me. Then the fire nation attacked.

Well, not that. Maybe that would have been preferable.

I spent most of Saturday in bed, not feeling great. Sunday, I got up and tried to work, but I still felt like garbage. I didn’t get much done. Monday, same thing. Tuesday, I was supposed to get back to work, but I could not get out of bed.

Was it Covid? Probably not. Flu? Some kind of virus? Maybe. I was exhausted. Throughout the week and even still, I struggle to get enough sleep. On top of that, I didn’t complete my sprint for work. Worse, some of the things I thought I accomplished caused problems in the production environment.

In a nutshell, things are rough at work, I’m not getting enough sleep, my depression hit another low, and there was nothing I could do to help with any of it.

Something had to give, so I excused myself from the daily blog posting for a week in order to try and get back on top of things.

Did it work? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m still not doing great, but I hung out with Michael Gallowglas and attended both of his shows yesterday. Today, I’m downtown with Mike Baltar. We’re at the Sunday Shut Up & Write, and we’ll probably hang out some more afterwards.

I’m trying to stay positive and productive and be my “normal” self, but I mostly feel old, tired, and pessimistic about the future.

What about the writing? Does that not still sustain me?

It’s complicated.

Part of the reason I let the blog posts go for a week is because every time I approach a story, I do so with fear and respect. Respect, in that I appreciate the story for what it is, and I appreciate my ability to compose it out of words and imagination. There is power in creation, and it is not hard to use that power irresponsibly and create something that is harmful to others.

The fear is just a manifestation of self-doubt. Do I have the skill necessary to tell the tale? Is it a story that I should write? Am I going to finish it, or will it be another project that goes onto my shelf, waiting for me to find the time and energy to bring it to life?

When I’m depressed, the bitter voice inside my head becomes more believable. The voice that suggests that no one likes me, that my writing isn’t as good as I think it is, and that I’m out of touch and can’t write something that will appeal to anyone other than myself.

When that voice reigns, I try and do things that drown out everything. This last week, I played a bunch of solitaire while listening to old episodes of Dimension 20. I finished all of Tiny Heist, and I’m now most of the way through A Crown of Candy.

There is another fear I have not mentioned yet. Writing a story publicly, demonstrating what I do and taking away all of the magic, leaves me feeling exposed. I’m still going to do it. I’m going to see the story through. But it doesn’t feel as good.

That’s all, for now. I’ll get back into the daily writing again. It’s a good thing this wasn’t a New Year’s Resolution, because otherwise this whole thing would be busted, right?


Let’s Talk About Madam Web

Yesterday I talked about thin characters, which is a perfect segue for talking about Madam Web! Hey-oh!!

That was a joke, but not too far off the mark, actually. Melissa and I went and saw Madam Web earlier today, and since it’s on my mind, I want to talk about the movie as well as the negative buzz around it. I will do my best to do so without spoilers.

The trailer offered us a flat reading from Dakota Johnson that made me nervous going in, but Dakota herself took the movie seriously. She did fine! She didn’t phone it in, and the line from the trailer is nowhere to be heard in the movie itself.

I found the very bad ADR on the villain to be distracting. I think the Internet is abuzz over that, but I didn’t know about it until I was sitting in the theater, watching the actor’s lips move out of synch with his words. It was not a very pleasant surprise, and it’s probably the bad thing that sticks out the most in my memory.

Based on the trailer, I thought there would be bad acting. Sydney Sweeney’s performance was the only one that stood out as not great, but that could be because the actors around her were doing more with what they were given.

Was this a clever movie? No. Was this a good movie? Again, no.

Did I hate it? I did not, actually. I thought the movie was okay. If I had to give it a letter grade, I’d give it a C+.

Looking around at the hellscape that is The Internet, it seems like this movie should be as bad as The Room. It really isn’t.

Without going into spoilers, I will say that there was an emotional core revealed in the third act that I did not expect to be in this movie. It made me feel a feeling. Therefore, I can’t bring myself to hate this movie.

I think the bandwagon hate this movie is receiving funny and dishonest at the same time. I enjoy the memes. I can laugh at the jokes made at this movie’s expense. At the same time, I feel like people are either bashing on it without having watched it themselves, or they are letting The Internet Hate cloud their vision.

No one asked for this movie, but it’s out, and thought it’s not awesome, it’s not the trash fire people are saying it is. It’s better than Ultraviolet and The Rise of Skywalker. It was good enough that I don’t regret seeing it at matinee prices, and it’s not good enough for me to keep thinking about days later.

Have you seen it? What did you think about it? Let me know if I’m being too generous.


Writing a Story Part 4: Our Main Character

I woke up feeling not great. I stayed in bed most of the day, getting up only long enough to connect with my writing group and let them know I wasn’t going to make our monthly meeting today. Then I went back to bed.

After getting up, showering, and putting a little bit of sugar in me, I’m feeling okay. Not great. The headache is still there, but I think I’m well enough to work on this story before I lose too much interest.

Let’s begin. Free indirect writing, activated.

What kind of person do we want to hang out with for a while? This is a short story, so their journey from a normal, everyday person to a hero has to be relatively straight forward. We won’t have time to take them through a lot of changes.

Mary Robinette has a formula where you can plug in the number of characters, settings, and plot points, and determine roughly how many words that story is. I have had a similar formula for a long time, and mine isn’t quite so precise. Generally speaking, if I want a story to be around 6,000 words, I need to limit it to no more than 3 settings, 4 “real” characters, and 2 plot points.

Why am I talking about this when I should be working on the character?

Characters generate plot. They are plot machines. When you make a believable character, with motivations, voice, and agency, they will upset the plans you laid out before said character became fully realized. So, when developing the character at the beginning like this, I try to anticipate how complicated they’re going to make the plot.

Very clever characters tend to like very clever plots. If you don’t give a clever character enough problems to solve, they come across flat and boring.

For this story, I want things to be relatively simple. So, our main point of view character should also be a little bit simple.

What do I mean about characters being simple? Let’s look at characters from our comp titles, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Supernatural.

Aang is a young man that was not ready for the weight of the world to be placed in his shoulders, so he ran away before the story even began. He’s an upbeat pacificist that deeply loves his new friends while also deeply missing the people he left behind to die when the Fire Nation attacked. He wrestles with his powers, his responsibility, his love, and by the end, his pacificism. Aang is definitely simpler than Zuko, but Aang has depth and layers, and it would take more than a short story to get a character like that right.

I think the simplest main character in Avatar: The Last Airbender is probably Sokka. He’s mostly loyal and goofy, until later in the series when he deals with learning to be responsible and leading people. He is the normal guy running around with demigods.

Flipping to Supernatural, Sam and Dean have their own complexities. We can simplify them, but I’m not going to bother. Instead, I’ll focus on a character from that show that would be great for a short story: Bobby. Bobby is made of two things: his love for The Winchesters, and his deep, practical knowledge of the supernatural world.

Our story about a firefighter that becomes an elementalist is not going to star either Sokka or Bobby. However, we can look at those two characters and figure some things out.

Both Bobby and Sokka are loyal. They’re good, decent folk trying to do what they think is right. They are cinnamon rolls.

Our main character will be a cinnamon roll, which is someone that is sweet, optimistic, and tends to put others above themselves. Why did they become a firefighter? Because they wanted to help people without having to carry a gun.

They are healthy, strong enough to carry a person while wearing a bunch of heavy gear, and they’re brave enough to run into a burning building.

How do they feel about fire? We might as well ask the question, since that’s going to be a big part of the story.

I think they respect it, but they neither love nor fear it overly much. Fire is useful and good when it is controlled.

I think I’m going to stop here for tonight. We haven’t made that much progress, but we’ve made some. We need to get into their wants and needs and motivations soon. After that, they’ll start to seem more like a person, and we can go on to other parts of the story.


Another Rough Day

It’s nearly midnight, and I don’t want to post too late so today’s will be brief.

The Day Job really, really sucked today. A coworker I really respect retired today. Changes I made in production went badly, even though it was thoroughly tested before it went out. The work has piled up, and in spite this being a 3 day weekend, I’m going to need to work quite a bit of it.

I’ll get back to working on the elemental firefighter story soon.

Some days you get the bear. Then there’s days like today.


Writing a Story Part 3: Knowing When Not to Write

Writing can be like any other job, where it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling or what you’re going through. You show up, and you do the work. That’s it.

On the other hand, writing can and should be joyful. If you’re under deadline, you find ways to get the words flowing. Sometimes you can find the joy during those times. Sometimes you can’t. The deadline is still a thing, though, and if you want to act as a professional, you get the job finished on time. There is a stereotype around artists being flaky, and you do not need to embrace it. Focus on what the job means to you, what the money or the opportunity means to you, and get to the other side.

You’re not always going to be on deadline. When there is no pressure to turn out a story at a specific time, be gentle with yourself. You can try to push through. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Are you being needlessly lazy? Be honest with yourself. If you’re being lazy, or pulled into a video game, or you don’t have the interest at the moment, it’s perfectly fine to trick yourself into being productive.

On the other hand, if you’re running on very little sleep, and your day job has drained you, and your emotional state is not super great, and pushing yourself is going to lead to more harm than good… don’t push. Take the time off. Rest, relax, and do the things you need to do to recharge. The story will still be there tomorrow.

Yesterday, I said we were going to work on characters tonight. That was my plan, but then I spent several hours beating my head against a SQL server that does not want to cooperate.

I’m in a foul mood. I’m tired. There is no joy in the writing tonight, and I’m not sure that whatever work I try to attempt on this fledgling story will be useful or helpful. Tonight, I need to take a break and let it sit.

I’m not under deadline. There is no demand for this story. It’s not going anywhere, except here.

So, here is another lesson in Brian C. E. Buhl’s writing process: know when to call off. I’ll sleep tonight, thinking about the characters. Tomorrow when I sit down to work on them, I expect the process to go smoothly.


Writing a Story Part 2: Brainstorming

Happy Valentine’s! Let’s jump right into this.

Yesterday, we worked on coming up with an idea. An idea doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or well developed. It’s a starting place. It’s a seed you plant in the hopes of growing a story. Our idea we came up with wasn’t much: a firefighter that has elemental powers, in a modern setting.

Just like with the generation of the idea, we’ll be asking questions and using our answers to fill the void. This time, we’ll be working on refinement of the idea. And again, I’ll use free indirect writing in order to bring you along for the ride.

What do I think about this idea? I slept on it and I’m thinking that this is somehow Avatar the Last Airbender meets… Supernatural? Now we’re talking.

I’m saying Supernatural here rather than Dresden Files because I think this will be written in 3rd person, rather than 1st. I don’t know why. We can pivot on that, if we want to. I write a little bit faster in 1st person, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference and we’re not necessarily in a race.

We should make this a short story, though. Writing a full length novel via my blog sounds like it would take a long time, and probably be a little bit painful for everyone involved. A tight short story should be fine, and when I don’t submit it anywhere, I won’t feel bad. I have many, many short stories that no one else has seen.

Let’s figure out our tone. Avatar the Last Airbender is a bit more epic in its telling, and it can go between comedy and drama fairly well. Supernatural had comedy episodes as well, but the overall tone of Supernatural was dark and suspenseful. Our main character is a firefighter. We’ll have at least one scene — action scenes — in which our character is in a tense fight against a building fire. I don’t think this will be a comedic story, but we can probably find some places for humor to shine through. A good story should have contrast, and humor and horror utilize similar techniques to achieve their goals. I don’t think we’re going for horror as much as adventure, mystery, and suspense. But we’ll want to find the places to inject contrast.

Our character is discovering things about their world and themselves. We want our readers to be swept up in those feelings.

Do we want the elements to influence the personality of the characters with elemental powers? Hmm. I’m not sure about that. Maybe we can do that a little bit, but I don’t want to march into the world of cliche with too much gusto.

Should we talk about magic systems? How hard do we want to make it? Probably a little bit hard, since I’m having some thoughts about how the main character will solve the plot with elemental gifts.

We can poke some fun at astrology. Water signs, Earth signs. Things like that.

Let’s lean into the Avatar idea. Our main character, the firefighter, could be one of those rare sorts that has affinity with multiple elements. They spend so much time around fire, though, that their other affinities are masked until a pivotal point towards the end. We can leave signs and hints that this may be the case. We can be subtle and reward the reader for guessing our not-too-difficult twist.

Maybe we should watch Elementals before writing this? I don’t know. It might be a bit on the nose with what we’re going for.

What does the plot look like at this point?

  • We start in a burning building and our protagonist is in the middle of fighting a fire
  • They rescue someone, using their elemental gift without realizing that’s what they’re doing. The person they rescue recognizes it for what it is, though.
  • The rescued shows up at the fire station and it seems they’re going to be a nuisance trying to thank our hero, but they’re really there to talk to them about the elemental world
  • We need something to set the stakes
  • We need to push our hero out of their comfort zone
  • We need to put our hero in peril
  • Our hero needs to learn something/embrace who they are to overcome the peril and save themselves/save the day
  • We close with the hero taking a larger step into the world they’ve just become part of

That’s fuzzy, but we’re starting to get a general shape for the story. This isn’t an outline yet, but some rough ideas, with more general ideas taking the place of specifics in order to give this the shape of a potential story.

Antagonist? Who actually is our protagonist?

I like the idea that our antagonist is an arsonist. They match our hero in that they both have an affinity for fire, but they’re opposite our hero in their stance on how to use or control the fire.

We need more motivation and personality for both our hero and our villain. We can work on that. In fact, if we develop the characters more, they will inform us about the plot.

So let’s stop here. Tomorrow, we’ll work on our characters.