Tag Archives: challenges

The challenges of plotting Mrs. Hawking part 4

Bernie and I have begun work on Mrs. Hawking part four, tentatively titled Gilded Cages, and we’re running into some challenges. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as we’ve had this happen with each subsequent installment, but this one has presented some difficulties that are thus far unique.


The biggest thing to deal with is the fact that we’re writing a colonial story. Part four is going to be split into a present day case in 1885, and a flashback story to Mrs. Hawking’s youth in the colonies. We haven’t decided WHICH colony, though, as we are still doing research to figure out if there are any historical features that would serve our turn. What I’d really like to display is that some terrible event that happened during Victoria’s childhood demonstrated to her how corrupt and broken the system is, which helped to shape her worldview in the present. A natural possibility is witnessing something of the horrors of Victorian colonialism. But I really don’t want to just turn the suffering of the local people to be just a lesson for my white hero, or make her into a white savior for those same. And I definitely don’t want to sidestep the issue and just end up tell a story set in a colony that’s only about the white invaders.

What I’ve got here is a Problem of the Protagonist, to use my own theory– when the need to centralize a particular character ends up objectifying or dehumanizing other characters. Because my hero is white, it runs the risk of turning any characters I include of the local people into objects who exist only to facilitate my protagonist’s story. And I definitely do not want to do that with characters of color.

I’m going to put in the work on this. I’ve got a lot of researching and developing to do yet. But I do know a good way to keep a character human is to give them their own arc, demonstrating that their story is one worth following, and affording them agency in the story, making them take actions in the service of achieving their goals and needs. So, while I’m by no means certain yet, my current idea I’m exploring involves having a local character whose personal mission is the central arc of the flashback’s story. This character, who’d probably be female, could have the protagonistic qualities of wanting something, taking actions to pursue it, and driving the plot with their efforts. Perhaps if she drives the story, and other characters are in the position of being reactive to that, I can avoid making any such person being subservient to Victoria’s development.

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to do more work. But I’m resolved to figure out how to do this in a respectful, conscientious way.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.

The challenge of writing Base Instruments

The third installment of Mrs. Hawking is now underway. With Bernie’s help, I have begun the challenging process of plotting it out, and it’s clear that this will significantly harder than what I’ve done before.

First of all, Base Instruments will be a true mystery, as opposed to a caper like the first two stories. In Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina, our heroes are presented with a problem rather than a question. “Foil a blackmailer and return a kidnapped child.” “Bring a monster to justice who is hiding behind diplomatic immunity.” They knew what they were going after, and their challenge was to figure out how to accomplish it. In a mystery, however, they have to investigate to find out the answer to what’s gone on. That’s a very different story design process, as it requires the slow unfolding of the truth based on the gathering of clues, which is really tough to do in a theatrical medium. Think about it; most mystery stories require lots of people to interview and places to investigate, while in theater you have to minimize both locations and characters in order to make staging feasible. The few theatrical mysteries tend to be of the “locked room” variety, to keep both suspect pool and number of settings down.

Bernie and I are trying to use that “locked room” model after a fashion for that very reason. Still, this play is going to have a LOT of speaking characters, there’s just no way around it. We’ve got our three leads, of course, and we’re starting to build up a cast of supporting characters we want to recur and develop– in this case, Nathaniel’s wife Clara and Arthur, the policeman Mary befriended. I also want to include Nathaniel’s brother Justin Hawking, and of course there’s going to have to be all the characters specifically involved in the mystery.

But we’re trying to concern ourselves more with telling the best possible story than with “production stuff” yet. Writing a compelling mystery will be tough enough on its own. I’ve been watching a ton of mysteries lately for research, and we’re going to be working out a lot of kinks. Wish us luck! I want the next installment of this story to continue the upward trajectory of the last two.

Letting my characters be my characters

I have a fear of letting my characters be my characters.

While art that works is art that works, and it’s often difficult to quanitify exactly what makes one piece compelling while another one isn’t, there are generally some guidelines to good storytelling. Drama requires conflict. Stakes should be high. There must be an arc or journey of some kind; things that do not change are, if not dead, extremely dull. The absense of these things tends to leave stories hard to emotionally invest in, or else feel stagnant, boring, and unworthy of attention. Their absense also tends to be a likely mistake made by novice writers. Most writers find it easier to come up with interesting characters, and make the error of assuming because they’re interesting people anything about them will be automatically engaging.

I personally care a lot about what happens in a story. Both what plot events occur and what character development happens. And character development is NOT, contrary to popular belief, simply establishing what the character is like. It’s MOVEMENT, it’s growth and change, it’s the crashing of their thesis with the antithesis of the circumstances around them to create a new synthesis.

When I try to write without a plot, or at least a character journey in mind, I find myself feeling very… guilty is the only word I can come up with. Like I’m making a fan fic where the character sit around and talk about their already-obvious feelings in very on-the-nose terms and nobody grows and nothing happens, not even in the sense of character-arc-progresses or relationship-is-changed sense. It feels self-indulgent rather than creative; almost masturbatory, even– well, it might have been fun for me as the writer, but there’s nothing for anyone else to get out of it. I had that feeling in the extreme when I was writing the “Being Married” scene.

The problem with this is, well, you NEED to know who the characters are before you can appreciate the way they grow and change. You can enjoy the distance of the journey if you can see how far they come. And more and more, it’s seeming that because I focus so much on that journey I don’t always make clear to my audience who my characters are before I ask them to come along for how they change.

I flatter myself that it’s not ENTIRELY my particular weakness. Drama needs to go by FAST; people simply cannot be expected to sit through something that’s too long, or that takes too much time to get really going. And I am positive it’s not that my characters are not fully fleshed out; it’s an issue of what comes across, not what is or isn’t there. But I think I need to practice taking more time allowing characters to just be themselves, without necessarily worrying about the progress of the plot. My teacher and friend Mark Edwards suggested recently practicing that, and given that I have to fix a couple of things (Tailor at Loring’s End, Puzzle House Blues) for this very problem, it’s probably a good idea. After all, if I’ve done my job right, people will like my characters, and actually want to spent a little time with them in that manner.

Sex in my writing

I don’t write about sex much. I don’t know if those of you who have read much of my work have noticed that, but I tend not to deal with it very often. To be frank, I think there’s something approaching a prudishness in a lot of my writing— not a lot of exploration of sexuality, not much drug use, few truly crude behaviors. I don’t even like my characters too swear too much. A lot of it’s just taste. I think dialogue’s more interesting when people don’t swear all the time, I’m a bit put off by human grossness. Those are just things I am not all that interested in exploring in my writing.

But I get a bit funny when it comes to writing about sex and sexuality. I have no DISTASTE for it the way I do with that other stuff. I feel like it’s an interesting and important part of most characters, something that could really add drama and dimension and intensity to stories. I can talk about sex with friends in person. But for some reason– maybe it’s an immaturity, a silly hangup –I get nervous, even embarrassed, when I trying to write about it.

I have a weird impulse to worry, “What would my parents think if they saw this?” Which is stupid, for several reasons— not least of which because I only have one parent anymore —a silly thing for an adult to be concerned over. I also worry that the way I try to depict it won’t work the way I intend it to. Like somebody will read it and think I’m a freak for thinking that’s how you depict sexuality and eroticism. “What the hell was that?” “It was supposed to be sexy.” “That’s not sexy. That’s weird. And you’re weird.”

I ran into that challenge with Bernie and my Adonis screenplay. I don’t think sexuality ever played a bigger part in my work than in this story. A major theme is flipping the typical hetero power dynamic, and a big goal for that was to write a romantic relationship with a slowly growing sexual dimension to it that people would actually find hot. And with my nervousness that was challenging. It was made worse for the fact that I was using a lot of things I personally find hot to accomplish it. My muse for much of the project was Chris Evans, given my extreme attraction to him with the Captain America presentation— blond, smooth, and huge with muscle. So writing my lead character Aidan, the titular Adonis, to be played by him was a starting point. And naturally when I was looking for ways to express my characters’ attraction to him, I referenced how I experienced my own.

Sex is personal and idiosyncratic. Even when there’s nothing really wrong with how you relate to or experience sex, it’s not always something you want everybody to know about. People might not get it if it’s too different from their own way. This made me feel particularly vulnerable— like, what if you thought I was a weirdo for things that were actually representative of me? Or what if I just didn’t get the job done as an artist depicting sexiness and it came off as clunky and awkward and now you knew way more about me than you wanted to for your trouble? A lot of the time I would feel shy as I was writing and then sort of pull back from the depiction for fear that if I got too specific, or too detailed, or too whatever, it would just be uncomfortable rather than sexy or furthering to the story. Or what if you read too much into a lot of the ways in which sexuality plays out in the story, particularly the problematic ones, and got uncomfortable because you suspected those things were representative of me? That one was particularly worrisome to me. You might find something a little disturbing in the fact that the man I modeled to be my physical ideal I wrote to be a multiple sexual trauma victim, which in certain instances plays out onscreen. I want that to be a circumstance driving the emotional arc of my story, not to come off like the author’s weird rape kink.

The truth is, if you care, what I mostly drew from myself for the various depictions of sexuality in Adonis is how I experience intense physical attraction. In this story I wanted to both celebrate and elevate the female gaze, as well as highlight the dangers of investing too much power into the mere concept of gaze. When it came to the former, I tried to depict the way I feel awe of extreme beauty, the somewhat fallacious but poetic attribution of some great deeper meaning to that beauty, the indulgent, rhapsodic cherishing of each quality in turn. When it came to the latter, I worked in the threat of that attraction to push out rational thought, the tipping over from appreciation into objectification, and the encroachment of a possessiveness that comes from the impulse to self-aggrandizement. Female gaze is my pet feminist issue, so I’ve given a lot of thought to deconstructing it, particularly how it expresses in myself. I joked a lot about how awesome it was to be able to claim looking at hot photos of Chris Evans as research. But I am being a hundred percent serious when I say that when I felt blocked, experiencing what my attraction to him felt like would help me figure out the right words to embody such a reaction for the story. I flatter myself that I think it gave the exploration of female gaze some real power.

It can be scary to put too much of yourself into your art. When people criticize it or don’t like it, it feels like a personal attack. But oftentimes that personal element can make something more complete, genuine, or powerful. So you have to be willing to open yourself up to that vulnerability. I hope it improved my work here, though it was definitely not an easy thing to do.

The drafting process

The drafting process doesn’t come naturally to me, and as such, at times I find it frustrating. During my early development as a writer, I was extremely compelled to edit as I wrote, and if I couldn’t figure out just how I wanted to phrase something, I wouldn’t write it. That lead to nothing ever getting written, as that level of perfectionism is the enemy of creativity. It wasn’t until I started telling myself to just write SOMETHING, no matter how bad it was, no matter how far away from what I was envisioning, that I started actually making progress.

Of course, when you finally start working that way, you need to next confront the challenge that is the process of revising. This too did not come naturally to me. Most of the time, when I write something flawed I can tell that there’s something not right about it— though not always, never discount the value of other sets of eyes —but just couldn’t figure out how to do it properly instead. I am subjected to the feeling of “Well, if I knew what it was supposed to be, I would have written it that way the first time!” Which is of course an utter fallacy, but it’s one I have to work through.

The two ways I combat this are as follows. First I resign myself to the fact that the first draft is going to suck. I don’t shoot for “good” or “accurate” the first time around; I just shoot for finished. I get some semblance of a complete telling of my story. I chunk it down into small pieces; scenes are usually for me the most convenient. When that first very, very rough draft is finished, then I like to do a second pass, seeing if any easy or obvious fixes jump out at me. The result of that, which I continue to pick at, becomes draft two.

The second things is having friends come over to read the script and give opinions. That has been amazingly helpful for me. It gives me fresh perspectives, and allows me a little bit of critical distance that enables me to see what I wrote in a new way. That often gets me passed that “if I knew how it should be I would have written it that way the first time” feeling. I’m so lucky and grateful for friends who come over and do this for me; I owe them so much. I then do the next round of edits based on their comments. Often I have a reading of this third draft as well, and that second round of responses often leads to the more or less finalized version.

And now I’m writing about writing in order to procrastinate writing. That’s enough of that! Back to the work that got me thinking about this in the first place.

The tradeoff for plot

As a writer, plot is very important to me. I care about other things too, of course– character, voice, style, things like that –but I have a very hard time getting invested in a story unless "something interesting happens" in it.

It also happens to be part of the writing process I'm pretty good at. I have a lot of ability to figure out cool events to occur in my stories, and those stories make sense such that the reader can follow their progress, and they unfold at an appropriate rate of speed. Most of my stories have pretty dynamic, solidly-constructed plots. Good examples of this include The Tailor at Loring's End with its well-built mystery, as well as the way the action facilitates interpersonal stories in the Mrs. Hawking plays.

However, when you care about establishing plot in that degree, it takes a lot of time and work. You find yourself having to devote a lot of your story just to the ensuring that everything that needs to happen has time to happen. It puts a really high demand on utilizing moments for multiple purposes at once, such as to advance the plot AND reveal the character. That's very difficult. One thing I particularly struggle with is subtext, I tend to have much more direct conflicts of feelings and motives instead, so making a limited amount of text perform double-duty is very challenging for me. I need to get better at it.

I think of this because I'm currently doing the script edit for Puzzle House Blues, the musical I'm co-writing. After a fairly intensive restructuring of plot events in order to make the arcs work, we've gotten to a place where we're happy with the structure. But now the concern is to make sure there's enough character in there as well, that the audience can really tell who all these people are. It's challenging because a piece for theater performance for a modern audience needs to not exceed a two-hour runtime, and a certain large percentage of a musical must be devoted to the music. So I need to work on my skills at using every line economically– so nothing is sacrificed for plot or character.