Tag Archives: creative writing

#NaNoWriMo Getting word count when you’ve fallen behind #amwriting

For some NaNoWriMo novelists, falling slightly behind becomes a death knell to their project. They feel there is no way they can make it up, that they are doomed, and therefore they quit.

In my experience, falling behind on your word count is the easiest problem to fix.

First, don’t let self-doubt creep in. This is human nature, but don’t let it defeat you.

Second, you must buckle down and write more than the minimum for a while. That is also hard, but if you catch it early, you can do it.

Do a little math. Figure out how many words per day you will need to write to make up what you missed. Add that number to your daily word goals. You might want to add a hundred or so words to that number, so you have a little wiggle-room.

Remember, what you are writing is a rough draft, so your story arc is going to be bumpy and uneven. It doesn’t have to be perfect so don’t fuss over making so. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. So, every time you have fifteen minutes to spare, sit down and write as much as you can in that short time period. Spew your story as fast as you can in those moments before you are pulled away. With six or seven short bursts of writing, you can really rack up the word count, and perhaps make up the difference there.

We all must eat, so during NaNoWriMo, I am the queen of the crockpot and anything that can be baked in the oven. Think about it—once the food is in the oven, you will have at least half an hour of downtime. Set your laptop on the counter and write while things are baking/nuking. That is how I cook Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family—I start prepping food on Tuesday, and by writing every time I have a ten or fifteen minute pause in the preparations, I don’t fall behind. This also allows me to enjoy my family on Thanksgiving day, because most of the work is already done.

Yes, the vegan does roast 2 turkeys for the numerous carnivores, but everything else is plant based and homemade. Despite the extra work that Thanksgiving week adds to my life, I get my word count every day and still get my house ready for guests by using this method.

For much of my working life, I was a single parent, sometimes with three part-time jobs. My main job was as a bookkeeper, or working in data entry for corporate America, but though the 1990s I worked weekends and holidays as a hotel maid. I’m retired now, but although I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo, I was a secret novelist, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was writing.

What I did in those old days was this—I always took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour. You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all my thoughts and ideas, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

I always wrote in the evenings while my children did their homework, which sometimes meant a lot of stopping and starting, but I did get some writing done. Some is better than none! You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to make up some words, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an un-infringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family.

But by writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished, and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

One way to cultivate your emotional and poetic mind, and to improve your writing skills in general, is to write in the stream-of-consciousness style. This is unstructured, unedited writing. It reflects your (or your character’s) observations. Writing in this fashion mirrors the way internal thoughts in the human mind work – you are quickly processing thoughts and perhaps switching from one topic to another with a certain amount of abandon. Just go for it.

Remember what I said above? Don’t worry about perfection. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get that rough draft written in thirty days. In January or March, or whenever you go to rewrite your rough draft, you might be amazed to find that much of what you originally wrote has life and passion.

The point is to keep on writing even when you have fallen behind. Use whatever motivational tricks you need to encourage yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Far more importantly than simply getting word count, the goal is to finish your novel.

And remember: you can do it.

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Writing to a Theme #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

November 1st begins the merry month of madness known as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I will spend the thirty days of November on an intensive writing binge.

Every day I will sit and write at least 1,667 NEW words on my current work in progress. If I do only that, I will have 50,000 words by Nov. 30th, which will bring the rough draft of that book nearly to completion.

But I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day, and I work on several different projects. This year, while I WILL work on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, my official project is another collection of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which will be written to a variety of different themes.

The reason I need to build the backlog with a wide variety of themes is that most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as  redemption, bridges, asylum–a large concept that  unifies the disparate stories.

So, my plan is to write to as many different themes as I can think of. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.

One question I hear often is “how do I identify the theme of my story?” I have discussed this before, but it bears mentioning again. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.

Several of the stories I will be working on are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching. When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I know the desirable themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are quite a ways out, some have short deadlines.

Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.

What I hope to do in each story is to layer character studies, allegory, and imagery to emphasize the central theme and support the story arc. Sometimes I am successful, other times, not so much, but I still keep trying.

Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle. These are the themes that were most powerfully depicted in the books that rocked my early reading world and are the sort I still seek out.

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The Stranded Novel #amwriting

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. For that reason, first lines and the opening chapters frequently become all that is ever written of a would-be author’s novel. Yet the authors of those few chapters have the entire book locked in their head.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors to write the entire book before they begin editing.

In your first draft, DON’T OBSESS over the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener. Write the entire story as quickly as you can, let it sit for a month or two while you do something completely different, THEN come back to it and focus on shaping the prose. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

So, let’s assume the rough draft has been completed, and you are pleased with the way it ends. But you are looking at your early chapters, and they feel lackluster. Now is the time to shape the words, to write them so they are the words you would want to read if you were looking for a book to purchase.  The second draft is when you should obsess about your first lines.

One of the best first lines ever: George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts, “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” That line makes one want to know Miss Brooke and the reader wonders who the observer is who chronicles this. It is a novel, but if it had been a short story, it would still have hooked the reader.

Good first lines make the reader beg to know what will happen next.  How about this first line from Ulysses, by the king of great one-liners, James Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Or, take the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 

Should your first lines be required to introduce your main character? I think not.

Dickens introduced an era in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, etc…” 

In his Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan frequently opened with a glimpse into the side of evil, illuminating the foes whom Rand Al Thor must somehow prevail against, and that always hooked me.

All of the above books were begun as great ideas and the manuscripts were finished, which is why they were published. Admittedly, Robert Jordan did pass away before the final books were completed, but he wrote 12 of the 15 books and left a complete story arc with enough notes that Brandon Sanderson could finish the job. Jordan left behind a complete story, not just a first chapter.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors have completed their work. Of course, you must read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You don’t have to spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Most importantly–published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job. If you want to lay claim to being an author, write the ENTIRE novel! Get that story arc down on paper before you begin rewriting the first chapter! If all you have ever written is the first chapter, over and over, and over… perhaps you need to set that idea aside and begin one that interests you enough to inspire you to write a complete novel.

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Details and Exposition #amwriting

For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.

In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.

Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.

The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.

Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.

In the second draft, we seek out and remove

  • Repetitions
  • Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
  • Nonessential historical information

We check to make sure the story

  • is cohesive,
  • only has events that flow logically,
  • has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.

If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say

It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books.  A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.

I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.

In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.

Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.

If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.

Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.

Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.

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#amwriting: SW Washington Writers Conference, What I learned from @RobertDugoni

This last weekend I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. I was also privileged to attend a class called Creating Plots for Page Turners, given by the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni.

I say privileged, for this reason. Robert Dugoni is a bestselling author of thrillers, My Sister’s Grave being the book that caught my attention several years ago. Dugoni understands what makes a gripping story.

As I sat in the class, it became clear to me that attention to writing craft is integral to his work, but he also sees it from a slightly different angle. While he covered many things which I will discuss in my next blog post, several things pertain to recent posts of mine, regarding the first draft.

Bob asked a question I found intriguing: “What is your purpose as an author?” There were several different replies. He said, “Your characters must entertain the reader. Never stop entertaining.”

That was my thought, exactly. So how do we entertain our reader? What should we avoid?

One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are mostly for you, the author, and are meant to set the scene in your mind. You know the rules, and don’t want them in the finished piece, but they slip into your work in insidious ways:

  1. Is the information you are about to dispense relevant to the character and his/her immediate need? Does it advance the story?
  2. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  3. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  4. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.
  5. Opinions about the scene or the character, or anything—author intrusion is to be avoided.
  6. Don’t be lazy—show the story, even when it is simpler to tell it.

Points 3, 4, and 5 were concepts I consider in my own work, but never really thought about and hadn’t articulated them. They are critical and do bear mentioning here.

A question Dugoni asked was one I have often considered and discussed here. “What is a story?” The answers varied, but the one he wanted, and with which I agreed, is the story is the journey.

Frequently, stalled creativity is the result of the author having lost sight of the character’s journey, both the physical and the emotional journey.

Dugoni offered a solution for when that is the case: Ask yourself, “What is the character’s physical journey/quest?” You must ensure each character has a journey, a quest, but Dugoni adds third aspect–a dream. That idea that the journey/quest is also a dream that must be fulfilled resonated with me.

Then, consider the emotional journey. Why do these people continue in the face of great challenges? Is it love, anger, fear, duty, greed, honor, jealousy, or some deeper emotion that drives them?

Find that emotion, and you will find your character’s motivation.

Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t succeed? What are the consequences of failure?

  1. What is the public risk?
  2. What is the private risk?

Something important is at stake, or there is no story. Once you discover what it is and how it affects the characters’ emotions, the story will come together.

Classes like this are why I attend writer’s conferences. Robert Dugoni, Scott Driscoll, Cat Rambo—these people have the knowledge I need, and they are wonderful, accessible people who freely discuss all aspects of the craft in seminars, frequently at conferences I can afford and which are near me.

The companionship and support of other authors has been invaluable to me, and I have made every effort to repay their many kindnesses by supporting them in their endeavors. The friends I have made through this career are as dear to me as any I grew up with, and that circle widens with every conference I attend.

You may meet writers who are local to your area, and they will know of good writing groups near your home. They will also know about resources you can draw on, reference books you may not have heard of. If you are serious about the craft, you will seek out the company of other writers.

Find a conference in your area, and see what turns up. You may find yourself learning from a master.

Robert Dugoni’s most recent book, Close to Home launched Sept 5th and has garnered well over 65 customer reviews on Amazon in the first week alone and maintains a 4.5 star rating.

THE BLURB:

New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy.

While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice.

When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home.

As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.

*

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. He is also the author of the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction. His books are sold worldwide in more than 25 countries and have been translated into more than two dozen languages including French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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#amwriting: the paragraph

A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea.

In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea.

While I do edit for people who are pursuing literary degrees, that is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.

This post pertains to the paragraphs in a literary narrative, whether the genre is contemporary, sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance—or any kind of writing that is fiction. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

Wrong:

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”

That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”

Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He spat, “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed, which sometimes makes for long paragraphs.

With that said, some considerations must be taken into account in the modern world of eBooks. EBooks versions of novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as an unbroken wall of words. The reader can be daunted by this and may decide to move on to a different book. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

Thus, for a genre-fiction manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to keep your paragraphs shorter, dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea.

In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.

No matter what, you must have an amazing opening paragraph. One of the greatest hooks in literature is the following one by French author, Albert Camus, which opens the 1942 novel, The Stranger.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.

This is where the artistry of the author comes into play: he takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.

Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.


Credits and Attributions

Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)

Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).

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#amwriting: give your characters agency

In literature, the word agency is used to define an active vs. a reactive character. Active characters have agency, where passive characters are pushed into predictable actions and boring outcomes.

Chuck Wendig, in his wonderful post on this subject, nails down the heart of this issue: Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.”

In other words, the character must drive the plot. Until you nail down just who your characters are and what they want, your plot will go nowhere. In this regard, you must give your characters permission to NOT BE PASSIVE.

I am an ‘outliner,’ but I am also a ‘pantser.’ By this I mean that I have an idea, a “What if…” moment, and that evolves into an outline, a guide that is the jumping off point. Once I begin writing, the story goes through a radical evolution, driven by the personalities who inhabit that world.

Because my work evolves drastically over the course of four drafts, the moment I set pen to paper, I start building a stylesheet, also known in the industry as a ‘bible,’ a list of names, places, and relationships, updating it as I go. This is critical so that in the editing process any subtle shifts of spellings or names (and a multitude of other horrible things) can be rectified and made consistent.

We begin with a static idea for the story. We think we know who goes where, what our characters will do, and we think we know how it will end.

You must give your plot structure. In other words, create a good story arc to begin with, but allow your characters to surprise you, taking the story indirections you didn’t originally envision.

We know that the way to avoid obviousness in a plot is to introduce a big threat. How our characters react to that threat should be unpredictable because they have agency.

When we give our characters agency, this threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Bubba buying a loaf of bread. But make him the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give him options:

  1. Bubba can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. Bubba can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Bubba have? What does he see when he looks around the store?

Whatever Bubba chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, he could become a hostage. If he goes unnoticed but tells the police what he knows, he and his family could be in danger.

Once he is in the middle of these consequences, Bubba will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread for toast will only be one of them. He will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.


Quotes and Attributions:

Quote from JUST WHAT THE HUMPING HECK IS “CHARACTER AGENCY,” ANYWAY? ©2014 Chuck Wendig, posted June 03, 2014  http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06/03/just-what-the-humping-heck-is-character-agency-anyway/ accessed July 25, 2017.

#amwriting: ensuring consistency: the stylesheet, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, posted August 3, 2016 https://conniejjasperson.com/2016/08/03/amwriting-ensuring-consistency-the-stylesheet/ accessed July 25, 2017.

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#amwriting: regaining the mojo

Events in my family during May, June, and most of this month have hampered my mojo, stalling my creative mind. Many projects and plans have fallen by the way and I don’t really mind. This year I will not have my books in the bookstore at the PNWA conference (which kicks off on Thursday), as I just had no time and no way of getting them to the right people by the due date. But that isn’t a big deal, really—I will go to the signing event and visit my friends’ tables and buy their books, so all will be well.

Now, with my son on the mend and back in his own home, I am somewhat at sea. For four weeks, I spent two hours every morning doing wound care on his injured hand, and the rest of the day cooking, cleaning, and entertaining a houseguest. That became my schedule, and writing took the back seat, limited to writing blog posts on the fly—writing if and when I had the time.

Now, I have no demands on my time, no rigid schedule to adhere to. In a way, it’s like suddenly finding myself retired again, only this time I’m not killing time by painting flowerpots. (The last time, it looked like a Mexican pottery stand exploded on our front steps.)

Things have settled back to normal here, and I am struggling to get back into the habit of creative writing. While I have been inspired to write technical posts on writing craft for this blog, and do revisions on my finished novel as my editors ask for them, the rough draft of my new work in progress has languished, receiving erratic, haphazard attention.

Once again, just as I did years ago when I first challenged myself to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, I am forcing myself to sit down and write from 6:00 am until noon. For me this kind of self-discipline is critical—other people may work better with a less rigid schedule, but I need to keep office hours to be productive.

I work “back and forth” when writing, rather than writing in a linear fashion, although each manuscript starts out in linear way. Each section is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale. Like assembling a quilt, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete. This is why I make a detailed outline, so I won’t get lost. Now  am revisiting what I have already done on the first draft of this book, finding that I have written the framework for a pretty good story. My notes are all detailed, and the backstory is on file in a separate file so I can access it or update when I have questions. This ensures I will know why certain things are happening.

The maps are drawn, and cover art has been selected—all these things were done in May. The first 50,000 words are written; the book is at the ½ point. The story arc has pretty much followed the original outline with only a few major divergences. The stylesheet is up to date because each change to the originally outlined story was noted as the changes were made. This means I know exactly where I left off in May, and what must happen to these characters to complete this book.

I am itching to get back to it as I want this first draft finished before November, if possible.  I need to have it done by then because November is NaNoWriMo, a month of divine madness—each year I write a patchwork of short stories, novellas, and doggerel, all of which become fodder for the rest of the year.

As an author, I am self-employed. This means I succeed or fail by my own efforts. I choose to succeed, and for me, that means finishing each book to the best of my ability. I am inherently lazy, a self-confessed slacker who would rather read a book or play video games than work—thus I must enforce the puritan work ethic my ancestors brought to America and which somehow passed me by.

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#amwriting: personality and the fight scene

I am in the process of getting one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers, ready for publication. This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard makes an appearance, although not in the opening chapters.

The book opens on a sunny day, and my characters are wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re nervous about the trail they are on. Through their casual comments, we learn that the world they live in is dangerous, and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work my characters do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

The second scene is the setup for the inciting incident, the moment we meet the first antagonist, Bastard John. When he enters the scene, it is one of the few times when the Bastard will be in such a place that we can see who he is as a person. The inciting incident makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

At this point, an argument ensues, which turns violent. Scenes involving fighting are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. There must be a reason for the fight, one that goes beyond the need for livening things up. When it comes to fighting, I keep it concise and linear, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

Most authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight–how they were dressed, who hit who with what weapon, and so on. These are necessary elements of the scene that good, responsible research and an author’s diligence can resolve.

But there is a larger consideration to your battle: you must have a good reason for the conflict. No one is going to stick with a novel where random, convoluted battles happen for no good reason. They hack, they slash, blood flows, the winner walks away–but why did it happen? What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative? In Billy Ninefingers, besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals with that fight scene:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. In the resolution of that scene, my intention was to demonstrate that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.

Each character in the fight is, and must remain, a unique individual. There should be no blurring of personalities, which can happen when an author focuses to intently on the action of the fight scene, writing it as if they lived it. For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense, but you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper. You must go back to the first part of that section, and make sure you haven’t lost the individuality of the characters in the chaos. Each character must be portrayed in the actions sequence in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

Consider the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the irresistible chemistry aside and think about their mannerisms, their habits.

That sense of uniqueness is what we must give our characters through their habitual movements and speech, and it is crucial we maintain those differences when we describe a fight scene.

Our bodies, as well as our faces, are in constant motion. You can show this in small, unobtrusive ways by sitting back and visualizing your scene as if you were the witness rather than a participant, making it real in your mind before you commit it to paper.

In conversation, people miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and sometimes mumble.

Every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author, visualize them this way, but the difference between success and failure as an author is the ability to commit their personalities to paper. Many authors don’t succeed at this—they either fail to give enough subtle clues to the reader, or they are too specific. The fine line between enough and too much is where the author’s artistry comes in.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions, we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions as they interact with their environment and each other illustrate the world they exist in. Each scene is your opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters without resorting to an info dump.

Especially when describing a fight scene, the author must give the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework to hang his imagination on. We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the idea and the atmosphere of the conflict as if painting  the scene in the style of the impressionists.

I love it when I can suspend my disbelief and become immersed in the story, getting wrapped up in the fight because the battle is crucial, and the good people must win.

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#amwriting: it’s #magic

Once magic enters your story, you must do some foot work, or your premise won’t be believable. It’s critical that you have finite rules for limiting how magic works. If your magic rules are too elastic, or you imbue too many amazing abilities into your main character, you will make them too good to be true. Readers won’t be able to relate to their story.

When I sit down to write a fantasy story, there will be magic, and I will have planned carefully for it. I have three worlds with three radically different systems of magic.

  1. In my serial, Bleakbourne on Heath, sorcerers use incantations sung to certain melodies.
  2. In Huw the Bard people can purchase magic (majik) amulets and potions.
  3. In the Tower of Bones series, magic and religion are intertwined. Aeos, the goddess, has decreed that all children who begin to show healing-empathy, or the ability to use the magic of the elements must be brought to the Temple and trained, for the protection of society in general. There are rules, certain things which can and can’t be done. As in real life, there are certain exceptions, but they too have limitations. No one is all-powerful.

Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world. Remember, conflict drives the plot.

First, you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  • if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield magic?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in anyway themselves?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize his abilities?

Even if this aspect does not come into the story, for your own information, you should decide who is in charge of teaching the magic, how that wisdom is dispensed, and who will be allowed to gain that knowledge.

  • is the prospective mage born with the ability to use magic or
  • is it spell-based and any reasonably intelligent person can learn it if they can find a teacher?

Magic and the ability to wield it usually denotes power. That means the enemy must be their equal or perhaps their better. So, if they are not from the same school, you now have two systems to design. You must create the ‘rules of magic.’  Take the time to write them out.

In creating both social and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within your magic system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Another important point to take note of is this: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when they affect the characters and their actions. Dole this information out in conversations or in other subtle ways and it will become a natural part of the environment rather than an info dump.

It is a fact that sometimes books that were outlined to a certain storyline sometimes go off in their own directions, and the story is better for it. I haven’t experienced the sudden influx of magic into the story as that plot twist is always planned for, but I have had other random events throw a curveball at me.


Attributions:

Portions of this post have previously appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy and also in my column on writing craft for the Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA).

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