Category Archives: writing

The Quest for the Rare, Diamond Studded MacGuffin #amwriting

The nerve of some characters… lazy creatures.

Right now, my protagonist is staring at me. “What the heck is a MacGuffin, and why must I go searching for it?”

“Because,” I reply, “I’m the author, and I said so. You owe your very existence to me, and right now you’re doing nothing. I need to keep you busy and the plot moving forward. In your case, the MacGuffin is Dragon’s Milk, which your future mother-in-law, Queen Evilla, requires for some obscure reason. It should be placed in this diamond studded container.”

“Seriously? You want me to drag a diamond studded bucket through the seediest part of town just to milk a dragon?” Sir Rediculis is the only man I know who manages to look noble even when he pouts. “They do have that little issue of flaming breath? Remember that? Thanks to you, my armor no longer shines, no matter how I polish it.”

Oh, yeah… I do recall that scene. It was awesome, the way he nearly got fried. But it was his squire who really did the dirty work…  still, the hero must have a glorious task, and what could be more glorious than a diamond studded bucket of dragon’s milk?

So… ah ha!  I can have him cross the… but he could accidentally… which will give me the opportunity to promote Randall the Former Kitchen Boy turned Squire to Hero First Class. “Now, now, Rediculis. Be a good hero.” I embrace my hero one last time. “Big knights don’t whine. Princess Babs has her sword strapped on and is ready to go. Your squire has the map, and he’s ready too. Get out there and bring back my MacGuffin.”

Randall regularly fantasizes about spending a week or two trapped in a cave with Princess Babs, naughty boy that he is. Lucky for him he’s nimble, as fetching the MacGuffin will offer me the opportunity to write more hot scenes set in the Fiery Lair of Doom.

Both Randy and Babs are lots braver than this bad boy and they don’t mind a little dirt, so… note to self: have Sir Rediculis cross the Lake of Boiling Dragon Poo via the Rickety Rope Bridge…  heh heh… this is gonna be fun.

So, let’s talk about thin plot devices, or MacGuffins.

According to the Font of All Knowledge, Wikipedia: The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may reappear at the climax of the story but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.[1][2]

The name “MacGuffin” was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

If you are crafty about your plotting and careful how you portray your plot device, it ceases to be a MacGuffin and becomes a quest worthy of writing a story about. Hitchcock was the master at creating great, compelling stories around thin plot devices:

Quote from Wikipedia:  Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” using the same story.[8][9]

Hitchcock’s term “MacGuffin” helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they appeared to be on the surface. 

Thus, the object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it. The true core of the story might really be the internal journeys of Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

A good plot device emerges naturally, MacGuffin or not. Done well, it will be entirely accepted and perhaps even unnoticed for what it is by the reader. It can take the form of an object or person being pursued, often by both the protagonist and the antagonist. A good plot device can also be more intangible, perhaps the pursuit of love or power.

If the object of the quest is too outrageous or is inserted clumsily, the reader won’t be able to suspend their disbelief, and likely won’t finish the book.

Don’t let your MacGuffin become

Give the quest for the MacGuffin some closure. If the quest to acquire the MacGuffin is only meant to give the characters something to do while they are interacting and chemistry is happening, please, at least have it be a thread that continues throughout the entire story, as Dashiel Hammett did in The Maltese Falcon.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “MacGuffin,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=MacGuffin&oldid=814738104  (accessed December 10, 2017).

St George and the Dragon, Gustave Moreau 1889-1890 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cover of the original novel “The Maltese Falcon” 1930 File:MalteseFalcon1930.jpg, Fair use

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#FineArtFriday: Winter Landscape with Brabrand Church, by Christian David Gebauer

 

The above painting, Winter Landscape with Brabrand Church, by Christian David Gebauer, is a perfect illustration of a day in the life of a Danish village as captured by the eye of an artist. One of the last paintings made before Gebauer’s death in 1831, it is considered a centerpiece work of the Danish Golden Age, a period of exceptional creative production in Denmark during the first half of the 19th century. Gebauer was heavily influenced by the works of the Dutch Golden Age, a period in Dutch history roughly spanning the 17th century, during and after the later part of the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) for Dutch independence.

If you are writing fantasy, which is often set in rural late-renaissance-era environments, you can find all the details you need in the art of the past.

Artists painted details, not visible from a distance, but which combine to give the mood of the piece. They painted not only what they saw, but what they felt. They gave us a hint of how people really lived, laughed, and loved before the industrial revolution transformed the world into the modern, technologically driven place we see today.

In Winter Landscape with Brabrand Church, Christian David Gebauer shows us villagers dressed for warmth, enjoying themselves on the ice. Others are working, bringing in sledges filled with hay. A hunter and and his dogs are returning, perhaps empty handed. A bag hangs at the hunter’s side but isn’t full. The ice-fishermen are having better luck.

A woodcutter admonishes a boy, perhaps his son, to stop fooling around. His machete hangs in his right hand, as he fights what he knows is a losing battle. It’s evening, the day has been long, and children who have worked all day just want to play and have fun.

The sky takes up fully half of the painting–the church and the people are small beneath it. Beneath the powerful sky, there is an air of busy enjoyment to the painting. The hilarity of those skaters unable to keep their balance is juxtaposed against the hard-working laborers and the cozy prosperity of horses pulling laden sleds.

The entire story of one winter’s evening in this village lives within this painting, all of it captured by an artist nearly two-hundred years ago.

Is there magic here? Maybe. Is there life and passion? Definitely. There is a story in this image. Certainly the details will emerge in my work in the form of setting and atmosphere.

Regardless of how I use it, this window opens onto a time I can now visualize more clearly, less blurred by my modern perspective.


Credits and Attributions:

Winter Landscape with Brabrand Church, Christian David Gebauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Character Development: The Trickster #amwriting

In previous posts, I have discussed the hero and his/her journey in detail. Their arc is critical, but the hero must have friends and enemies, people who help or hinder him. Each of them has an arc, some large, and some small.

My lead characters always have companions. I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies. Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Even better for our purposes, in his 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler takes Campbell’s concept of the monomyth and applies it to storytelling.  His book offers insights into character development and takes the mythical aspects of the hero’s journey and places it into pop culture, from movies to television, to books. I am on my third copy of this book.

It occurred to me that the father of one of my main characters is the archetype known as “the Trickster.” This is the wise friend who can sometimes work against you, but whose presence adds an important layer to the narrative.

Tricksters:

  • Cross Boundaries
  • Break rules
  • Disrupt ordinary life
  • Charm us with their wit and charisma

Wikipedia also tells us:

All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths, Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined.

Often in mythology, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery.  When I need a thief, I automatically think of Loki—the consummate trickster of Norse mythology. Loki sometimes helps the gods and other times behaves in a malevolent manner towards them. He is also a shapeshifter and can change gender at will.

When I realized the trickster was emerging in the character of Elgar, I was thrilled. He is a good father, a widower. The son of the shaman, Elgar would be the first to tell you he isn’t fit for that task. His younger son has been chosen instead, and this book revolves around his son’s vision quest and his path to becoming his clan’s next shaman.

Elgar is a bit of a player in some ways, yet he has scruples. He takes chances but has great personal charm, so he is the clan’s speaker. His greatest weakness is that he gets bored easily, and trouble always ensues.

What I love about having the trickster emerging in this tale is the way he livens things up. He is the ray of sunshine in what could be an unremitting tale of gloom and doom.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  • Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others

  • Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts

  • Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome

  • Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero

  • Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view

  • Shadow: character who represents the energy of the dark side

  • Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving variety of functions

  • Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change

I think the rogue is an important component of any epic tale. He lends a touch of fallible humanity to the cast that can be otherwise too perfect. His influence on the hero also offers us moments of hilarity and pathos.

When I recognized my trickster, I began looking at my other characters, to see what role they represent in this cast. This gave me a reason to go back to The Writer’s Journey, and look again at my other characters and their archetypes to make sure I am using them to their best advantage.

I highly recommend The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. It is one of the foundation books in my reference library, and I refer back to it often, especially in the early stages of a manuscript, when I am trying to decide how to maximize a side character’s potential.

 


Credits and Attributions:

Renard the Fox, drawn by Ernest Griset, from a children’s book published in 1869 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608 (accessed December 5, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016 (accessed December 5, 2017).

By scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Maps, the Foundation of Worldbuilding #amwriting

The town I grew up in today bears little resemblance to the place it was even five years ago. New subdivisions, new shopping centers, replacing stop lights at heavy traffic intersections with roundabouts—the changes that have occurred in those five years have radically altered the landscape to the point that my father, who was born in this place and died in 1990, would be completely lost.

Perhaps you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. This battle was a pivotal point in World War II. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany’s armored forces, which they were largely unable to replace.

You might think researching this battle will be easy because a great deal of information about this battle exists, documents and accounts from both sides of the war. The Ardennes region covers the province of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg, and many maps showing as it was in 1945 are still available in libraries and on the internet.

But, even though your book may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and the interview you had with him just before his death at the age of 94, you are writing a fantasy. This is because, in reality, the world of this book exists only in three places:

  • it flows from the author’s mind
  • to the pages of the book
  • into the reader’s mind through the written word

Because we can only view history through the stained glass of time, we must accept that it assumes a mythical quality when we attempt to record it. Even a documentary movie that shows events filmed by the news camera may not be portrayed exactly as it was truly experienced. The facts are filtered through the photographer’s eye and the historian’s pen.

The historian of this battle is fortunate in that many maps exist, showing the terrain of the Ardennes in 1945, and detailing the placement of troops. The generals of both sides left many documents detailing how the terrain they were forced to fight on affected their decisions. The maps are already drawn.

However, if you are writing a tale set in an alternate world, you must create those maps. The first map of my world of Neveyah series was scribbled on graph paper, and over time it evolved into a full color relief map of the world as it exists in my mind.

I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, just a way to keep my work straight.  I use pencil and graph paper at this stage, because as the rough draft evolves, sometimes towns must be renamed. They may have to be moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges may have to be moved or reshaped so that forests and savannas will appear where they are supposed to be in the story.

Perhaps you think you don’t need a map. If your characters are traveling and you are writing about their travels, you probably should make a rudimentary map. In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve over the course of the novel–Maudy will become Maury (this actually happened), and distances will become too mushy even for me. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

What should go on a map? When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps certain things will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location of on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

If your work is sci-fi, consider making a map of space station/ship. My forthcoming novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because this is the world in which the story takes place.

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do. This is because their perception of a league may be three miles while yours might be one and a half.

Even though a league has no finite length and is whatever the author decides it is, some readers feel their opinion is of such worth that they will never back down. They will become so annoyed by this that they will give your book a three-star review, simply because they disagree with the length of time your character took to travel a certain distance. 

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, which means you must take the terrain into consideration.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along several winding rivers for the first half of his journey. He must backtrack as frequently as he goes forward; an effort to sneak around those who would kill him. It’s only safe for him to walk on the main road once he makes it to Maury, weeks after fleeing Ludwellyn.

When you look at the relief map of the Eynier Valley that is in the front of Huw the Bard, you can see it’s a long stretch of road. On foot, he could have made the trek in two weeks if he had been able to stay on the main road, and if he hadn’t had to do so much backtracking. But that inability to make progress created the opportunities for tension in Huw’s story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you are writing fantasy but feel your hand-drawn map isn’t good enough to include in the finished product, consider hiring an artist to make your map from your notes. Because I am an artist, my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.

Your mind is the medium through which the idea for a novel or story is filtered, and words are how it is made real. The key to making both fiction and nonfiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. Maps, no matter how rudimentary are the foundation of worldbuilding in my writing process.


Credits and Attributions

German progress during the Battle of the Bulge. Scanned from map insert in The U.S. Army in World War II–The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Sample pencil sketch map, © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson for Life in the Realm of Fantasy

Map of Eynier Valley, reprinted from Huw the Bard, © 2014 Connie J. Jasperson, all rights reserved

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Reference Books and Style Guides, #amwriting

I use the internet for researching many things on a daily basis. However, in my office, some reference books must be in their hardcopy forms, such as The Chicago Manual of Style. I (and most other editors) rely on the CMOS, as it’s the most comprehensive style guide, and is geared for writers of essays and novels, fiction, and nonfiction.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is still the same book it was when it was originally conceived, as it has not changed or evolved, despite the way our modern language has changed and evolved. Because the Elements of Style is somewhat antiquated in the rules it forces upon the writer, I no longer even own a copy of it.

Instead, I refer to my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are an author writing fiction you someday hope to publish, and have questions about sentence construction and word usage, this is the book for you. The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. No one style guide will fit every purpose. Each kind of essay and type of book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors and publishers of literary and genre fiction and is the publishing industry standard. The editors at the major publishing houses own copies and refer to this book when they have questions.

What is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style, you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for the words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books.

We’re driven to look at what we just wrote the day after we committed it to paper, despite our intent to let it rest. Did it say what I meant? How many times did I use the word “sword” in that paragraph and where am I going to find six different alternatives for such a unique weapon? Sword? Blade? Steel? After all, an epee is not a claymore, nor is it a saber.

Many readers have a little knowledge about weapons and will know more than other readers. If I mislabel a blade, they could note my lack of knowledge with an uncomplimentary review, so I have done my research and continue to study medieval weaponry. My characters swing a claymore-style of sword which is rarely referred to as ‘steel,’ so I never refer to it that way. In literature, ‘steel’ is more commonly used for epees and rapiers, which are radically different weapons from the claymore.

Sometimes we get stuck on a word and can’t think of any alternatives. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. This book is far more comprehensive than Roget’s’ Thesaurus, even more so than the online version. I have found it saves time to use the hardcopy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

If you only have two books on your desk, one should be the Chicago Manual of Style, and the other should be the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus. Besides those two books, these are a few of the books I keep in hardcopy and refer to regularly:

Story, by Robert McKee

Dialogue, by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda

Rhetorical Grammar, by Martha Kolin and Loretta Gray

You may not be able to afford to take writing classes or have the time to go to college and get that degree. But you may be able to afford to buy a few books on the craft, and it’s to your advantage to try to build your reference library with books that speak to you and your style. You will gravitate to books that may be different than mine, and that is good. But some aspects of our craft are absolute, nearly engraved in stone, and these are the basic concepts you will find explained in these manuals.

Education comes in many forms, and it’s up to you to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow as an author.

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Fritz Leiber, Takuma Sato, and #NaNoWriMo #amwriting

My first NaNoWriMo novel, written in 2010, began with the idea of writing a book Fritz Leiber might write if he were still alive and if he had consumed several hallucinogenic mushrooms. I had just finished re-reading my collection of Fritz Leiber tales, and I had Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on the brain. These two characters are scoundrels, living in a decadent world where a lack of scruples is a requirement for survival.

The book I produced had no resemblance to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and was nothing like anything Fritz would have written. But within the uneven plot and hokey, frequently overblown dialogue lay the bones of a good story.

My participation in NaNoWriMo began in 2010 when a young writer in the Philippines whom I had met through a gaming website mentioned he was going to do this writing challenge. I was intrigued, discovering it was a worldwide contest of sorts, where hundreds of thousands of people began writing a novel on November 1st with the intention of having it finished by November 30.

The catch was, you couldn’t start until 12:01 am on November 1st, and the finished book had to be at least 50,000 words long, but it could longer than that if you needed it to be. And, you had to have it validated by 11:59 PM on November 30th to “win” the coveted winner’s goodies.

Fear of failure had never stopped me from making my life more complicated, so when I signed up, I chose the handle dragon_fangirl.

As my favorite Indycar Driver, Takuma Sato says, “No attack, no chance.” At 6:30 a.m. on November 1, 2010, I looked at my laptop and had no idea what to do. Then it came to me: Just write the first line:

There was a cabin in the woods.

It wasn’t exactly literary brilliance, but it wasn’t too terrible, and it gave my idea little more form. I just began telling the story as it fell out of my mind. To my surprise, I discovered my word count averaged 2,500 to 3,000 words a day. By day fifteen I knew I would have no trouble getting the 50,000, and by November 21 I had attained the winning number of words.

At the 68,000-word point, I had completed my rollicking tale of snark and medieval derring-do. Of course, it was completely unpublishable, but I didn’t know that until later.

What I did know, was that I had written a complete novel, and told a story that I would have wanted to read. Three years later I realized all it needed was rewriting, editing, revising, rewriting, and putting in a drawer, never to be seen again.

Out of the wreckage of that book came the novel, Huw the Bard.

One rule they tell you at NaNoWriMo is “never delete,” and “don’t self-edit” as you go along. This is all strictly stream-of-consciousness, write it the way you think it. That was hard for me, but I did get into the swing of things eventually.

When I was out lurking on the various threads on the national website, I discovered a contingent of writers who were not trying to write a book that could be published. For them, this was a game they wanted to win at any cost, and their goal was to see how high their word count could get.

One suggestion from them for increasing your word count was to use no contractions.

Let’s be clear: I do NOT recommend this. If you ever want to publish your manuscript, you will have a lot of work ahead of you to make it readable if you do that.

My rules for NaNoWriMo:

  1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
  2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. Do it even if you have to get up at 4:00 am to find the time and don’t let anything derail you. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Just write, and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to see happen in that story.
  3. Check in on the national threads and your regional thread to keep in contact with other writers.
  4. Attend a write-in if your region is having any, or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
  5. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
  6. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end, start a new story in the same manuscript. Use a different font or a different color of font, and you can always separate the stories later. That way you won’t lose your word count.
  7. Validate your word count every day.

This year, I have so far written over 80,000 words. I’ve made headway on a manuscript, set in the world of Neveyah, five-hundred years before Tower of Bones. I have also worked on several short stories, trying to flesh them out and discover who the protagonists are as people. I’ve written some poetic doggerel and a great many words that will never see the light of day. But buried deep within the rubbish are some good words, words that will one day become a novel.

Participating in NaNoWriMo forces me to become disciplined, and forces me to ignore the inner editor, the little voice that slows my productivity down and squashes my creativity.

For those two reasons alone, I will most likely always “do” NaNoWriMo, even when I am no longer able to be a Municipal Liaison.

I love the rush, the thrill of having written something for myself, something that I alone will see and enjoy. But more than that, I love knowing that some of what I have written is good, and is worthy of submission elsewhere. Perhaps one or more of these short stories I have begun fleshing out will be accepted by a contest or magazine.

As Takuma Sato says, “No attack, no chance.”


Credits and Attributions

Cover art from Swords and Deviltry by Fritz LeiberAce Books, 1970. Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors. “Swords and Deviltry.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 May. 2016. Web. 26 Nov. 2017.

Takuma Sato May 28 2017 Indy 500 by Jonathan Mauer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Functions of the Scene #amwriting

A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene by scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

At the Council of Elrond, long simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together  form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.

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Existence and Past Subjunctives #amwriting

Grammarians are philosophers. You can find us in darkened chat rooms, arguing about existence, to be or not to be, postulating theories that are subjective, doubtful, even hypothetical. Or, at least the words and rules to describe existence can be murky.

We call them Subjunctive Verbs.

When you go out to Wikipedia, the whole subjunctive verb thing looks quite complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. So today, we are once again looking at Past Subjunctives: the verbs was and were.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?

Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive.” as:

adjective

1.(in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

2.the subjunctive mood or mode.

3.a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider existence and what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were,’ which are forms of the verb ‘be.’

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I only wish I were a penguin, were is correct. If I could actually be a penguin, was would be correct and I would have to rewrite my sentence, by deleting ‘I wish’ and changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl goes farther. She says: Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.

I love that clue—that verbs can be wishful.

The Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.”

English tends to favor fewer subjunctives than some other languages. So why are some grammarians ranting about irrealis mood and were? (And what the hell does that mean?) Irrealis mood is an older, nineteenth century label for a verb mood. Simply stated, it means that language can express fact (what is real) and can indicate fallacy (what is unreal). It was identified by the linguist, Roman Jakobson.

English has a formula for expressing the unreal: the irrealis mood, but that label is no longer as well-known as its modern label: the past subjunctive verb form. This verb form expresses a hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time:

Steven Pinker, in his extremely convoluted, difficult to follow book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, discusses the word, irrealis. He offers several complicated explanations but eventually gets to the point, and I will boil it down here:

There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened, or may not happen at all:  the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”

Let’s go back to the song from Fiddler on the Roof, If I were a rich man. As I am a woman and intent on remaining so, I will never be a rich man. As I am an author and intent on remaining so, I will never be rich. So, for me, that song title contains two impossibilities. “If I were” is the correct subjunctive mood.

When you are supposing about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.

If it’s likely real: Was (possibly is) I heard he was training his dog to fetch.

If it’s likely unreal: Were (possibly isn’t) If I were a penguin, I wouldn’t need to rent a tuxedo.

We are still talking existence here. Remember from above? The past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition which may exist in present, past, or future time:

  • Don’t complain about the food. What if I was a chef?
  • I wish I were
  • If this be treason…
  • To be or not to be

What if you are writing a technical manual, a dissertation, or an email to a client or coworker? Despite the ill-conceived efforts of many critique groups and Microsoft Word to erase all forms of ‘to be’ from the English language and replace it with ‘is,’ you have a right to use the subjunctive verb form if you choose to do so. Write with your own sense of style.

When your intent is formal, subjunctives may abound, often in the form of commonly used phrases:

  • Be that as it may,
  • So be it,
  • Suffice it to say,
  • Come what may,

Steven Pinker has a point that is important to this blogpost: Subjunctives are hard to spot. Forms of “to be” can be found in subordinate clauses where something is mandated or required:

  • I demand the prisoner be fed the same as anyone else.

A verb like “see” also has a subjunctive form when something is mandated or required:

  • It’s essential that I see your report before you send it.

In ordinary writing, we rarely need to use subjunctives in clauses with mandates except perhaps to show a formal conversation.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but used correctly they have a large influence on your writing voice.

And, thanks to Steven Pinker, we now know that if someone drops the word “irrealis” on you at a critique group, it’s a hint that they are fond of obscure, nineteenth century words. Surprise them by telling them the past subjunctive verb form is your friend, and you enjoy using it appropriately.


Credits and Attributions:

Subjunctive Verbs, by Mignon Fogarty, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/subjunctive-verbs, Copyright © 2017 Macmillan Holdings, LLC. Quick & Dirty Tips™

Wikipedia contributors, “English subjunctive,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=English_subjunctive&oldid=807313887 (accessed November 19, 2017).

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#BookReview: The Witchwood Crown by @TadWilliams

I am a great fan of Tad Williams’ work, in all its many incarnations. The Witchwood Crown is his most recent release, a follow up to his masterpiece series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. It is a fitting continuation of the original story featuring four great characters, Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Binabik, and Jiriki.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered the world of Osten Ard and The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams. Simon was such a complex, sometimes clueless character that I was immediately drawn to him. Miri was also clueless and naïve. Binabik, Tiamak, and Jiriki had the wisdom needed to guide these two toward making good decisions.

Throughout the original series set in Osten Ard, it seemed like each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The bigotry and arrogance shown by some members of each race, each believing in their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a sad truth about the real world.

When this new series set in Osten Ard was announced, I was curious as to how Tad Williams would maintain that deep connection to the story after such a long absence. In my opinion, The Heart of What Was Lost proved Williams had not lost his touch, that indeed, he had matured as a writer.

I bought the Kindle version of The Witchwood Crown, but also downloaded the Audible book, because I have a monthly subscription. Andrew Wincott is the narrator, and he’s an incredible reader. His narration makes this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. I read along with his narration, which is an awesome experience.

The Witchwood Crown, by Tad Williams

  • Series:Last King of Osten Ard (Book 1)
  • Hardcover:736 pages
  • Publisher:DAW; First Edition edition (June 27, 2017)
  • Language:English

MY REVIEW (as originally posted on my review blog, Best in Fantasy):

This book is not a light read. Tad Williams’ work is brilliant and complex because he understands the character arc and the importance of agency and consequences. Change and growth or degeneration happen to each character over the course of the story—no one is allowed to stagnate. With a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world, the growth of the characters is the central theme. The events, shocking and yet unavoidable, are the means to enable that growth.

The story opens some thirty years after final passages of To Green Angel Tower. Many events have occurred in that time, leaving scars on those who have lived through them. Prince Josua and his family have vanished. The League of the Scroll is no longer what it was, death and age having taken most of the people who had the knowledge. Simon and Miriamele have lost a son to a deadly fever, and are deeply concerned about the behavior of Prince Morgan, their grandson and heir. They have reservations about their son’s widow and fear her influence has ruined him. They also fear for their very young granddaughter, Lillia.

There are other problems for Simon and Miri to contend with. Political unrest, lack of hospitality and rudeness by the King of Hernystir, trouble in Nabban, and rumors that the Norns are stirring. Simon, who has always been gifted (or cursed) with prophetic dreams, is no longer dreaming. A council is held, and it emerges that Binabik the troll also has concerns.

Prince Morgan is more than just a womanizing young noble, but he doesn’t know it. Jiriki and the Sithi will have a large part to play in Prince Morgan’s journey, as they did in his grandfather Simon’s journey to manhood. Whether or not Prince Morgan is the kind of man his grandfather is, remains to be seen.

The Witchwood Crown is an epic fantasy which will put some hoity toity literary purists off. It is literary, illuminating the internal lives of the many characters, and is centered upon how the perception that the king is dying has gendered plots and plans for coups among many factions. This lack of focus on one primary hero will put off the genre purists who need more noise and sixty-second sound bites in their literature. Those readers will find it difficult to follow the many threads.

Osten Ard is a place of contrasts. Dark, in many ways Gothic, negotiating the rough waters of this dark-age world is not easy. The three main cultures differ greatly from each other and are worlds of extremes. These contrasts drive the plot and frame the story in such a way the world of Osten Ard seems more real and tangible than this world. The room in which I read grows colder when the Norns breeze into the narrative.

In the years since the original publication of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams has matured as an author. His prose is beautiful, almost poetic yet not going there. Harsh, lush, and carefully designed with layers of allegory and subtext, some readers will find the narrative too literary, difficult to read. Williams has a large vocabulary and sometimes takes the long way rather than dumping you into the fray immediately. He isn’t afraid to use compound sentences, which makes it an adult read. Other, more avid readers, like me, will devour it, savor it, and think about the deeper concepts long after closing the book on the final page.

I give this novel five stars for its complexity, maturity, and sheer originality. A powerful narrative, this book left a different kind of mark on me as a reader than the original series did. That series is young and brash, detailing the early days of kitchen boy who became king. A young and brash author wrote that first amazing series. This book is mature, not only because the author has matured in the craft but because the king is older—it shows us who that boy became, what kind of man he is, and offers us a glimpse of who might succeed him.

I look forward to the next chapter in this very large story.


Tad Williams is a California-based fantasy superstar. His genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide. His considerable output of epic fantasy and epic science-fiction series, fantastical stories of all kinds, urban fantasy novels, comics, scripts, etc., have strongly influenced a generation of writers. Tad always has several secret projects on the go. 2016 will see the debut of a number of them; March 2017 brings ‘The Witchwood Crown’, the first volume in the long-awaited return to the world of the ‘Memory, Sorrow & Thorn’ novels. Tad and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in a suitably strange and beautiful house.

You can find out more about Tad Williams and his books at www.tadwilliams.com  


Credits and Attributions

This review of The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams, as reviewed by Connie J. Jasperson,  was originally posted on Best in Fantasy,  on November 16, 2017

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Motivation, the Character’s Quest #amwriting

The rough draft is called ‘rough’ for a multitude of reasons. This earliest of manuscripts is where we are thinking out loud, finding the true story, so it is bumpy, uneven. We begin with an idea, a ‘what if,’ and as we write, an awesome cast of characters leap onto the page.

Sometimes the side characters are so great, they overshadow the person we originally thought was the protagonist. What do you do if you have chosen a protagonist, but another character suddenly seems to have a more intriguing way about him? You must make a decision–who will be the central character?

If, as you are writing, a different character than the one you originally thought was the protagonist comes to the fore, consider rewriting your beginning to reflect that change. If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and you are 26,000 words into it, don’t scrap it–simply continue forward, but insert a note to go back and change the beginning once November has passed. You wrote those words, and even though they will change in the next draft, they were hard-earned and count toward your official wordcount.

When you have a group of great characters, all with strong storylines, determining who makes the most compelling protagonist can be difficult. Sometimes you must write half a novel before you realize which character has the most opportunity to take full advantage of all the possibilities.

For whatever reason, this never happens in my fantasy work. It is when I am writing contemporary fiction that the story sometimes shifts in a direction I hadn’t planned and identifying just whose journey I am following is easier said than done. As the rough draft progresses, I have to keep in mind that motivation is the key to discovering both who the protagonist is, and who is the villain of the piece. Motivation is the character’s quest to fulfill his/her deepest needs.

  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who will be best suited to take full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. If necessary, the story will have to be rewritten to reflect that change.

Most of us remember the “five Ws” of journalism. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story. Who did what? When and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

As a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to why their protagonist wants to do the task set before them. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story but motivation does.

Suppose we have a protagonist who realizes her marriage is failing. Anna is a well-educated, professional woman, a writer of paranormal fantasy. She is married to another writer, David.

What motivates her? David is strong, charismatic, egocentric, and brilliant. There is nothing he doesn’t feel entitled to, and he will do anything to achieve his goals. Although she is a best-selling author of popular fiction and is the person paying the bills, Anna has made a habit of catering to his needs.

At first, Anna wants to keep her marriage together and presents herself as whatever she thinks David wants her to be. She feels as if she casts no shadow of her own.

Once we know what the characters desire we know who the protagonist is and also we know who will be the best antagonist.

Now, let’s see who the other characters are:

Anna and David rent a secluded house on the wild Washington coast for the summer. They invite 3 companions to join them for the summer, as a working retreat. All five characters have deadlines, and that is their official reason for accepting Anna’s invitation. However, the four other characters each have their own agendas. Other than Anna, they each have strong personalities, are charismatic, and are used to a certain amount of privilege. At first, although it is subtle, each of them uses and manipulates Anna for their own purposes.

Every member of the cast has a secret, including Anna. With the revelation of each secret to the reader, the motivations for subsequent actions become clear.

Unless each character’s desires and needs are clearly defined, the events won’t make any sense. Without clear motivations, all you have are a bunch of drama queens cooped up in a house by the gloomy Washington North Pacific coast.

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know which of them has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist. The second draft will be much easier to write.

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