Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Guest Post: Daniel Ausema

Kicking off the New Year with a visitor - which means that this is probably the best post you'll see for a while, so enjoy it.  ;-)  With no further ado, I turn it over to Daniel Ausema, author of the serialized Spire City, Season One with Musa Publishing ...

My thanks to Lindsey for allowing me to post this here, and please do take the time to head over to Twigs & Brambles to read her post there, which should be going up soon as well. (Or even check out the post she had there about two years ago, for a little time traveling.)

Lindsey and I share a love of odd story structures and stories that rise from strict forms. She has a great flash fiction piece told in the liner notes of an imaginary CD, and we've both discussed and enjoyed the series of posts from Bruce Holland Rogers on Flash Fiction Online about writing short shorts in all manner of styles and formats.

It's easy to fall into a romantic view of writing that holds any imposed structure as automatically suspect, necessarily limiting the writing in some way. The truth is quite the opposite. Not that an artificial structure is required, but as Italo Calvino and the Oulippo group show in their works (as well as any poet who has made use of any poetic structure), great stories can arise directly from the self-imposed rules a writer creates. This idea fascinates me, and while I don't always write with any sort of predetermined requirements, sometimes I do, and in Spire City there were some specific rules I decided on before I began for how the episodes would go.

The broadest way to look at this is that it is episodic, which places it somewhere in between how I'd usually approach chapters of a novel and how I'd do loosely related short stories. Each episode is neither one nor the other, but aims for a balance between standing alone and advancing the broader story arc.

For planning that structure, I looked at how TV shows handle their episodes and longer arcs. There is a wide variety of season lengths out there at the moment, but I settled on thirteen as a relatively common number of episodes. That number imposes a certain feel to the season-long arcs of the series. Frequently, new shows also are given the first six episodes to establish themselves, and therefore have a definite climax at the end of those first six episodes. So season one follows that, with a major confrontation in episode 6 that forms a complete mini-arc while pointing toward the longer arcs of the season and series as a whole.

The structure of each episode has a large effect on how the story goes. Again I drew inspiration from TV shows. An hour-long show will often have three commercial breaks, dividing the episode into four sections. The Spire City episodes likewise divide up in that way, so that each episode is made up of four 1,000- to 1,500-word sections.

What effect does this have on the story? Each episode is different, so I tried to avoid falling into any repetitive pattern. Even so, it does create a sense of increasing tension as each section complicates the preceding one or expands its implications. It also avoids falling too easily into the three-act structure that writing advice often follows, which is good for making sure it's not taking a mindless way through an event.

The strict word limit also affected the writing. I wouldn't plan out the scenes until I was ready to begin an episode. Then I would take out my note cards and jot down a quick idea for each scene to give the episode direction. Sometimes as I wrote, though, I'd find that the idea I had for a given scene was only enough to sustain half the target word count. Other times, though less frequently, it was cruising toward easily exceeding the target. So I had to work in new wrinkles, or smooth out unnecessary complications to get the scenes to fall right. The stakes went up, the problems increased, the characters were forced to face greater challenges.

Those scenes, difficult to work through at the time, often proved the strongest when I went back to rewrite. The realization that my initial idea needed tweaking (or a complete overhaul) forced me to rethink how I was creating the scene. But without that word count miss, it would have been very easy to just wrap things up and move on to another scene, never realizing (or not until it came time for rewriting) just how much more of an impact a given scene could have within itself and on the story arc as a whole.

At its heart, Spire City is the story of a group of people faced with a terrible infection and fighting back against the scientist who created it. Around that central story is all the structure built from these episodes, which is to say all the crises and adventures of their infected lives. That structure, arbitrary as it was, helped to create the overall feel and focus of the entire story of Spire City.

Episodes 1 and 2 of Spire City, Season One: Infected are available now, and episode 3 is schedule to come out on January 10, 2014. Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Lindsey for hosting me.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.

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