Thursday, November 01, 2012

Writers Talking About Writing: Maureen McGowan and Deviants

We've talked to a lot of writers here at DWT - about process and craft and some of the details about the books they're working on or promoting. So, we thought we'd turn the attention to Maureen and some of the thought-provoking writerly things she's learned on the DEVIANTS journey.

Find out more about the book or order it here

1. One of the things I was really impressed with about Deviants are the action sequences. What's your approach to action sequences, to keeping them fresh and clear?

Thank you! With action scenes, I usually have a picture in my head of what’s going to happen before I start writing. Not always every detail, but I like to plan the bones and know what must happen during the scene to move the story forward. Once I’ve got the overall shape of the scene planned, I try to write it as fast as I can—without worrying about mistakes or wording.

Sometimes magic comes out. Sometimes it doesn’t. So, for me, the key to good action scenes is rewriting them. Taking out every unnecessary word and, more importantly, taking out every unnecessary action... For example, instead of, “She balled her fist, swung her arm and hit him,” it’s better to write, “She hit him,” or even better, she punched him, or she slugged him. The reader fills in the blanks in a well-written action scene, and makes it into a movie in his or her head—which might not be the exact same movie as another reader’s, but that doesn’t matter as long as the outcome is the same. Better than boring the reader with detail or having them skim.

Usually my first drafts have too much detail, particularly in sections where the action is complicated and I was having trouble choreographing the movement. So, I often need to trim and trim and trim until I get it right. And sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s so spare I can barely understand what I wrote in the first draft and I have to add words or intermediary movements to make it clear where everyone is and what went on. But my general rule is that simple is best.

You often hear that action scenes should be written using short sentences. And I think that’s right to some degree. But I think the rhythm matters more. A series of short choppy sentences can actually stall the flow of an action scene. A long, well-written sentence can simulate movement and speed.

Sometimes it’s less about short sentences and more about having a sentence go on and on until the action builds to a climax and then—pow—adding a short sentence for impact. Simple sentence structures are best, especially if you make them long, because they require less punctuation to be clear. Punctuation can slow reading down too. (Unless it’s necessary for clarity...)

I also think that action scenes should have a minimum amount of internalization, physical reaction, and description. They need *some* of those things, though, or they’ll seem detached. But it’s important not to add those elements in huge chunks. If you do, it will dramatically slow things down. Also, if you’re writing in deep POV or in first person present like I did in DEVIANTS, you can’t add things the character wouldn’t have time to think.

2. Glory your main character has a huge arc over three books. Looking at the books, how much planning went into that arc, how much of it was a happy accident?

Oh, that’s an unfair question because I think you know the answer and how confused I get about this at times. LOL.

I could lie, but in all honesty, it was a bit of both. The second book in the trilogy COMPLIANCE (May, 2013) comes closest to the original story idea I was contemplating before I started to develop DEVIANTS. (Which was actually an idea for an adult urban fantasy.) So plot-wise I wanted DEVIANTS to get Glory to the right place to tell that story in COMPLIANCE.

I also knew right from the start that something devastating was going to happen in the first book that would be difficult to get over. (No spoilers!) So, I knew that I’d probably need all three books in the trilogy to cover her dealing with the emotional turmoil of that, and to let her heal.

But... some parts were happy accidents too. I wrote DEVIANTS under the gun. I had just left my first agent when I was starting it, and knew that I’d need something strong to attract the caliber of agent I wanted going forward, so I just wrote the crap out of DEVIANTS (as Sinead would say) without really worrying too much about how the rest of the series would go.

When I contacted my now agent for the first time, I told him I had a trilogy planned out, but, well, it was only very loosely planned.

After he signed me, he wanted to get DEVIANTS out on submission within a week, so I barely had any time to clean up the manuscript—never mind plan and write synopses for the second two books. But it’s amazing what can happen under pressure. And of course, the stories have changed from those quickly drafted synopses that went out on submission. But at least those synopses showed editors that I had a full story arc thought out for the trilogy—even if there was some crazy repetition of similar plot points along the way.

3. Do each of the books have a different 'feel' in your head? How would you describe the three books compared to each other?

Hmmm... I think the main character arc that spans all 3 books is moving from distrust to trust. In others and yourself. She has steps forward and back along that continuum throughout the trilogy.

But back to your question. (I was stalling...)

DEVIANTS is essentially an escape story. A quest. A story of discovery in many ways.

The second book, COMPLIANCE, is more of a spy story, full of deceptions and double crosses. It’s also more psychological as Glory is dealing with her loneliness, loss and guilt. COMPLIANCE has a claustrophobic setting, and I like that the setting is almost a metaphor for how much she’s in her head in that book.

The third book... um... I still haven’t finished it, but it’s tentatively called GLORY. It’s about deciding what’s important, what you’re willing to do for others, and whether the ends justify the means. It’s also a story about recovery and redemption and a story of heroism and bravery. But not typical—lead the charge into war—kind of heroism. I hope it’s about heroism demonstrated in an unexpected way.

I think if one could argue that Katnis in The Hunger Games Trilogy ends up being like Joan of Arc, then Glory in The Dust Chronicles trilogy is more like Madame Currie—sacrificing a piece of herself for the greater good, rather than leading everyone into battle. I find it somewhat implausible when teen characters lead adults—not that they aren’t capable; it’s more that I don’t think many adults would be willing to be led by teens—so I wanted to find a way for Glory to make a key difference, to be the hero in a pro-active way, without her leading the charge.

Note to self: Madame Currie? Really? Nothing more sexy and exciting than that! ;) Not sure why she popped into mind, except that science and experiments are involved.

Second note to self: Clarify your thoughts on book three—STAT. What a jumbled mess that description was!

4. If you could have a Deviance what would it be?

Good one! I definitely wouldn’t want Glory’s Deviance that’s for sure. It would be horrible to know that you couldn’t make eye contact when you were emotional, without hurting the other person. When you’re emotional is often when you most want to make contact!

There’s a character in COMPLIANCE who can make himself invisible. I think that might be kind of cool. But I think what I’d really like is to be able to fly. A boy in COMPLIANCE has wings, but he hasn’t had an opportunity yet to spread them.


Sinead M said...

Great interview.... and really great information the rhythm of action scenes and how the wording is sparse, but effective.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Great interview! Loved the discussion on action scenes. As someone who tends to want to write out each and every action it's a good reminder that sometimes simplicity can really help pacing.

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