Tag Archives: writing craft

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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Crafting Worlds #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Some of the worst books I have read were bad because the setting made no sense or was unclear. This has been as true of stories set in modern New York City as well as fantasies set in wholly imagined worlds.

The author is responsible for making the setting clear and real in the mind of the reader. To do that, the author must pay attention to building that world, even if that world is a well-known city. I can’t write about Seattle if I have no idea what it is like to live there. I can’t stress this enough: do the research.

Because I had noticed these shortcomings in some less than stellar traditionally published works, I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. The Tower of Bones series began as the core story for an anime-based RPG that was cancelled before it was built. For the game’s original concept, I made a checklist of questions about the world and used the answers to write the story of the community the game’s protagonist would live in, a word-picture of about 2000 words.  This is the method I still use today.

Answering the questions posed by the following list of ideas always leads to my considering a kajillion other rather large concepts that combine to make up a civilization.

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do this society have available to them? What about transport?

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  • Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  • Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  • modern day?

How do we get around and how do we transport goods?

  • On foot?
  • By horse & wagon?
  • By train?
  • By space shuttle?

Social Organization: Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? Are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class?
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the poorest class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Every society that has merchants also has some form of accounting. The need to account for stores of food and goods may actually have given rise to the earliest forms of written languages. It has been postulated that simple accounting systems came before words.

Quote from Wikipedia:

The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens. The earliest tokens now known are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe.[6]

To create a record that represented “two sheep”, they selected two round clay tokens each having a + sign baked into it. Each token represented one sheep. Representing a hundred sheep with a hundred tokens would be impractical, so they invented different clay tokens to represent different numbers of each specific commodity, and by 4000 BC strung the tokens like beads on a string.[7] There was a token for one sheep, a different token for ten sheep, a different token for ten goats, etc. Thirty-two sheep would be represented by three ten-sheep tokens followed on the string by two one-sheep tokens.

Ask yourself:

  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system?

If you are inventing the monetary system, keep it simple. Otherwise, go with a traditional form of money if your society is low-tech. (For my low-tech worlds I generally use gold coins, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver / 10 silvers=a gold.) Conversely, use good old-fashioned electronic currency if your world is high-tech.

Language and the written word: Do they have a written language? This is important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition with only the elite able to read and write.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?

Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  • Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  • How does the government fund itself?
  • How are taxes levied?
  • Is it a feudal society?
  • Is it a clan-based society?
  • Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?

Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and what the enemy will be packingDo the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated? How are men treated?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness?
  • How important is the truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be honest and trustworthy?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  • What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  • What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  • Who has the power?
  • Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  • How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  • Who can join the priesthood?
  • Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
  • How is the priesthood trained?

You are welcome to use this roster as the jumping-off point to form your own inventory of ideas for world building.

When you have cemented the society in your mind, the world your characters inhabit will feel real and solid, and your protagonists will fit into it organically. Their society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “History of ancient numeral systems,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_ancient_numeral_systems&oldid=799316402 (accessed October 8, 2017).

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Crafting Interior Monologues #amwriting

In writers’ forums, you will find a great deal of discussion regarding interior monologues, or how writers express their characters’ thoughts. It’s true that beginning authors can rely too heavily on them as an easy way to dump blocks of information into a narrative, instead of deploying it. A few people will even tell you they despise interior monologues, and while I disagree with them, I do see their point.

For the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and in most YA novels, it is an accepted practice to italicize a protagonist’s thoughts, and readers expect to see them presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how daunting it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of italics.

A rather vocal contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized, that it creates a greater narrative distance, setting readers outside of the character and the events of the scene.

As an avid reader, I disagree with that statement if it is applied broadly, and will argue the point, although more than a sentence or two does exactly that. This is a personal style choice that you, as an author, must make for yourself, based on the genre you are writing in and the preferences of the intended audience for your work.

If we choose to omit dialogue tags for these internal conversations and don’t set them off with italics, it becomes confusing. The finished book ends up looking like a bunch of closed quotes were left out, and gives the impression of an unedited manuscript, even if the publisher has subtly changed the font just for thoughts.

So what, in my opinion, is the best way to indicate that a sentence or two of interior monologue in the middle of a scene is the viewpoint character’s thoughts (and not the narrator narrating)?

I found a wonderful, highly detailed article on crafting Interior Monologues, written by Harvey Chapman, for the website, Novel Writing Help. The following quote pertains to my post today:

Here are the possibilities open to you…

  1. Writing the thought in first person, present tense (which is the way we actually think them) vs. writing it in third person, past tense (so that they blend in with the rest of the text).
  2. Using italics vs. using normal text.
  3. Using a “he thought” tag vs. not using one.
  4. Wrapping the thought in quotation marks (either single or double) vs. not using quotation marks.

We can dispense with the final option straight away: Never use quotation marks around a character’s thoughts. Why?

Because the reader will assume the words are being said out loud, and will then have to make an awkward mental shift when they see a “he thought” interior monologue tag, rather than a “he said” dialogue tag, at the end.

We can also dispense with using italicized text when the thought is translated into third person past tense.

The only point of italics is to make a different voice and tense stand out from the regular voice and tense being used. When both the thought and the text surrounding it are in the same voice and tense there is no need for italics.

The following excerpt from Benny’s Gambit, a short fiction work-in-progress, illustrates how I write interior monologues. They must be natural, and organic to the flow of the narrative. Thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the reader’s interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she came from a wealthy family. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

You could verbalize all that information in Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is shown all they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things work well when expressed as an interior monologue, especially if you want the reader in your protagonist’s head, as in the next paragraph of Benny’s story:

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot. He dipped the mop in the bucket and wrung it out, unobtrusively watching the elevator doors as they glided closed.

The first sentence is in the third person, past tense, as is the third sentence. The thought is italicized because it is in the first person present tense, showing his real-time experience. In those two paragraphs, the reader has also gained a whole lot of information.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is that Benny is actually a detective working undercover, and Charlotte is the secretary of his quarry. I could easily have have written it all in third person past tense but I chose not to, for a specific reason: I want you in Benny’s head.

Interior monologues are crucial to the flow of novels in which the author wants the reader planted firmly in the protagonist’s mind. However, these are tools we must use sparingly. The majority of thoughts should be shown through actions or external observations.

Those external observations are a subtle part of worldbuilding when you are writing a narrative that is an intimate portrait of your protagonist.

So, to wind this up, I feel that:

    1. Interior monologues are an organic part of some kinds of narratives, but not necessarily all narratives.
    2. When they are done well and sparingly, interior monologues can create an intimate connection with the protagonist.
    3. If an interior monologue is used in most speculative fiction, it should be short and set off by italics, and only rarely with the speech tag ‘thought.’
  • Italics should never be used for long passages.

Credits and Attributions:

Novel Writing Help, The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue, by Harvey Chapman, © Novel Writing Help, 2008-2017 https://www.novel-writing-help.com/interior-monologue.html#more-78, Accessed Oct 1, 2017

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Drabbles: experimenting with POV and prose #amwriting

I love writing ‘drabbles,’ extremely short fiction because they offer the opportunity to write in a wide variety of genres and styles. Drabbles present the chance to experiment with point of view and prose. Often, these 100 – 200-word experiments become 1,000-word flash fictions, which are sometimes saleable.

In my files (to be worked on at a later date) is the rough draft of a short story that began as a brief exercise in writing from the point of view of the flâneur–the person of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. They are the interested observer, a person who seeks much, knows a little, and is a (frequently unreliable) witness to the events of a story.

Click here for Scott Driscoll‘s great blogpost on the flâneur. In short, he tells us that: “With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character to accomplish other purposes.”  

The flâneur is a character frequently found in literature from the 19th century. The story is filtered through his eyes and perceptions–it distances the reader from the immediacy of the scene, so be forewarned: genre-nazis and armchair editors who want the material delivered in 60 second sound bites of action won’t love it.

My flâneur is Martin Daniels, a wealthy, retired jeweler. He spends his time roaming his city’s streets, sitting in sidewalk cafés observing his fellow citizens, and making social and aesthetic observations. He regularly finds himself crossing paths with one man, in particular, Jenner: a self-made man who came up through the mines.

Jenner is battering against the prevailing social barriers which stand in the way of his achieving a political office that he covets, using whatever means at his disposal. He is uncouth, a barely civilized rough-neck with a bad reputation, but something about him draws Martin’s attention, and so he finds himself both observing Jenner and listening to the whispered gossip that surrounds the man.

One day, as Jenner is passing Martin’s table, his hat blows off, and Martin catches it, returning it to him. Jenner then introduces himself and admits that he has been watching Martin for some time. He has a task for Martin, one that intrigues him enough to bring him out of retirement. Thus begins an odd relationship.

When this twist happened, my flâneur ceased to be merely an observer and became my protagonist, yet he is reporting the events from the distance of his memory, so he is still the observer.

Literary fantasy, one of my favorite genres to read, is a great venue for the flâneur. It examines the meaning of life or looks at real issues, and I tend to write from that aspect. In my favorite works, the fantastic, otherworld setting is the frame that holds the picture. It offers a means to pose a series of questions that explore the darker places in the human condition.

Sometimes the quest the hero faces is, in fact, an allegory for something else, and the flâneur shows you this without beating you over the head with it. I read good literary fantasy—it tends to be written by men and women who write well and literately. Not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning and layers of allegory, but they are also often poetic and beautifully constructed.

I like to experiment with prose as well as style and genre, and writing drabbles offers that opportunity.

The character of the interested observer is not limited to a person walking the streets and making political or social commentaries on what is seen. Nor is the gender of the observer limited to that of a man. Any person can be the observer and serve in this role. The flâneur is great fodder for a drabble, so give it a try.

The modern flâneur is found in the office, the coffee shop, shopping at the mall or grocery store, waiting in line at the movies, even looking through the curtains of their front windows. These are venues they habitually visit and don’t go out of their way for, and are where they are likely to regularly see the person who piques their curiosity.

Writers are, by nature, observers of the human condition. When two friends sit in a Starbucks and play ‘the coffee shop game,’ the game where they see patrons and invent stories about who they are and what they do, they become the flâneur for a brief moment. Write those paragraphs and see what emerges.

Writing drabbles offers me the chance to write two or three paragraphs in a literary style, experiment with both point of view and prose, and allows me to play with words. I can imitate the style of my favorite authors and see what it is about their work that attracts me.

Any time you have a great little idea, pause for the moment and write a drabble about it. Save it in a file labelled ‘Drabbles.’ You never know when you may have the seeds of a great story in those two brief paragraphs.


Quotes and Attributions

Flaneur, try it and set yourself free by Scott Driscoll, © Oct 24, 2013,  https://scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/flaneur-try-it-and-set-yourself-free/

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Creating Compelling Objectives #amwriting

At the outset of any good story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs, the inciting incident.

The inciting incident:

  • Happens to your protagonist
  • Disrupts your protagonist’s life
  • Is personal to your protagonist
  • Gives the protagonist an objective/quest

The hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation, which is the core idea of your plot. This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. The circumstance forces an objective upon the main character.

In the opening pages of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a respectable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is living a comfortable life in a prosperous, sheltered village, and has no desire to change that in any way. However, a casual, polite greeting made to a passing wizard sets a string of events into motion that will eventually change the course of history for the world of Middle Earth.

The wizard, Gandalf, tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin Oakenshield and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon, Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition’s “burglar.”

The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo becomes a little indignant and agrees to do it despite his misgivings. The next morning he has second thoughts, but at the last moment Bilbo literally runs out the door with nothing but the clothes on his back.

  • You must have a strong, unavoidable event that is your inciting incident. Ask yourself:
  • What is the hero’s personal strength and health at the beginning?
  • How will his physical and emotional condition be changed, both  for better or worse? Will these changes be triggered by the hero himself or by the antagonist?
  • What could possibly entice the hero out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: Objective

A protagonist has no business showing up on the page unless he/she has a compelling objective. If he doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

Bilbo does have an objective. Once he gets past his feeling of having made a terrible mistake, he desires nothing more than to help his friends achieve their goal: that of regaining their lost kingdom.

Gandalf exerts a parental influence over Bilbo at the outset, guiding him and pushing him out of his comfortable existence.  But it is Bilbo who has common sense and compassion, who gradually takes over leadership of the party, guiding and rescuing them from their own greedy mistakes. This is a fact the dwarves can’t bear to acknowledge, and a fact he doesn’t realize himself.

Those turning points where with each adventure Bilbo gains confidence and a tool or weapon he will later need are what make up the best parts of the adventure. That is what you must inject into your story, be it a contemporary drama, an urban fantasy, a bedroom farce, or science fiction.

  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is he going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?

Perhaps your tale is set on a space station. What does your protagonist need that is in short supply? What does he have to do to get it?

Perhaps you are writing an urban fantasy. Perhaps your main character is a vampire. Vampires requires sustenance–what will she do to get it? Or conversely, if a human, what will she do to avoid becoming vampire-food?

Protagonists begin their tale in their current surroundings. They are thrown out of their comfortable existence by circumstances and forced to identify objectives they must achieve or acquire to resolve their situation.

Thus, whichever you conceive first, characters or objective, you need to know why your character is willing to leave his circumstances and embark on his adventure. That objective must be compelling enough for him to risk everything he values to achieve it.

But what if a side character has such a compelling story that the book becomes his story and is no longer about our hobbit? If you notice that is the case, rewrite your book so that the character with the most compelling story is the protagonist from page one.

The potential for gain must outweigh the potential for loss. The stakes must be high: perhaps they are headed into a life and death situation, or a couple finds their marriage on the rocks. Perhaps a young woman stands to lose her wealth and security. These are good core circumstances for plots, but for me, the greatest risk a hero faces is in moral coin. This is because personal values are fundamental to who we are as individuals, and when those intrinsic values are threatened, the risk is emotionally charged.

Emotionally charged stories are powerful.  Objectives create risk. Without great risk and potential for gain, there is no story.

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Crafting the final act #amwriting

In this series on the construction of the novel, we have discussed creating a strong opening act, and a powerful, electrifying middle. So, let’s talk about the all-important fourth quarter of the story arc—the final act.

At this point, the enemy’s plans are in place. Our protagonists have met the enemy and survived the encounter, but now they know they may not prevail.

If your work is not speculative fiction or fantasy, perhaps they’ve suffered a terrible personal setback.

Regardless of the genre, at the outset of the fourth quarter, the protagonists are at their lowest point both physically and emotionally. From the midpoint crisis forward through the third quarter, major events have funneled the players down the path to the final conflict. Now, they are scrambling, working against time and perhaps, with fewer resources than the antagonist.

In these chapters leading up to the conclusion, the protagonists have been pressed to the breaking point. Now they are at the end of their journey. They must rediscover their courage, find a reason to continue the fight, resolve the loose ends, and appear at the final showdown ready to do battle.

If you were not careful in the setting up the events that form the middle of the narrative, the story could fall apart here. Listen to your beta readers’ comments: even in your third draft, you may have to insert new scenes into the existing narrative to drive the action to the final conflict.

  1. At the outset of the 4th quarter, all subplots are resolved, and the final focus is on the enemy’s move.
  2. The enemy’s plans and their true nature must be shown.
  3. Someone who was previously safe may be in peril. Perhaps their fate hangs on a thread, and the outcome is unclear.
  4. The protagonists must face the fact that their efforts have forced the enemy’s hand in a way they never expected.
  5. Your protagonist may achieve their goal, but they will pay a heavy price for it, and return home changed for good or for ill.

If your editor asks you to write new scenes to get a flat story arc back on track, and you agree it’s needed, your task is to blend the new material into the existing story.

  • You must go back and insert foreshadowing in earlier passages, and some otherwise great passages that now go nowhere will be cut.

This is most important: any event that does not drive the plot to the end is a distraction. All side quests are being wrapped up at this point so don’t introduce any new plot threads. Emotions are key–of course for the characters, but also for the reader.

  • The higher the emotional stakes when the protagonist meets the antagonist for the final showdown, the more emotionally satisfying the final resolution will be for the reader.

The resolution should be final, with no loose threads. Cliffhanger endings aggravate readers who don’t want to wait a year for the rest of the story, so even if your book is the middle volume of a series, give the reader some reward for their faithfulness, and resolve most of the subplots.

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Crafting the turning point #amwriting

Last week we discussed the opening scenes of your story, taking it to the inciting incident. Today we are talking about the middle, a section that takes up about fifty percent of your story.

The middle is comprised of two acts joined by a major plot point, the midpoint event. Following the inciting incident is the second act, comprised of reaction to the inciting incident, and action, and more reactions, all of which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. All the action should relate directly to the core trouble, the quest.

At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. The midpoint of the story arc is the turning point, the place where there is no going back.

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he only sees disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, evolving in to a strong and moral character, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone, but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and the battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: everything starts relatively well, but events soon push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical, or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety. Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown. At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist believes he had a grip on it.

The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. Toward the end of this section,  the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters don’t know that will affect the plot.

As I mentioned in the previous post on the opening act, those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act.

Someone may die. But be aware, random action, blood and gore, or sex inserted for shock value or just to liven things up have no place in a well-crafted novel. Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in protagonists’ lives. I want to make this extremely clear: If those events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

The middle of the story is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the final quarter of the story, the protagonists should be getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the all-important, final act, the moment where they will embark on the final battle to achieve their goal. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

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#amwriting: #Interview with @Aaron_Volner, author

Today I am interviewing my good friend, indie author, Aaron Volner. A screenwriter, game designer, and playwright, Aaron is launching his first published novel, which I must say is an awesome debut. Chronicles of the Roc Rider has all the hallmarks of a great fantasy adventure, with the flavor of the wild west.

CJJ: Tell us a little of early life and how you began writing: What books influenced you most as young reader?

AV: Hi Connie! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, I really appreciate it.

I was influenced by a wide range of titles as a youngster. My parents made sure I read widely, everything from “Hank the Cowdog” to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” I would have to say one of the books that has had the largest lasting impact was “Watership Down” by Richard Adams. For a novel about rabbits, you can learn so much of human relationships from it, and it’s one of the few books I’ve reread multiple times. The “Animorphs” series by K.A. Applegate rings in right up there with it. However the books that really inspired me to start writing my own fantasy were “The Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan. My lifelong passion for fantasy began there.

Early life was spent buried in books and playing make believe a lot longer than most kids do, with a healthy dose of video games on the side. There were a number of factors that first influenced me to start writing, but one of the strongest was the example of my sister, Heather. She wrote what I remember as truly wonderful poetry when she was in Junior High/High School, even having some of it published. Much of it was serious, inspired by our pet rabbits and grandparents, and some of it was funny for the sake of it. Through her I learned how much fun playing with words and the language could be.

CJJ: How did these books influence your early writing?

AV:  The first novel I ever started writing (in about 5th or 6th grade) was a blatant Star Wars ripoff with my friends and I under different names as the swashbuckling crew of a rebel starship, one of whom could change into different space animals because of how obsessed I was with the “Animorphs” books.

My first completed novel was inspired by “The Eye of the World,” but I wanted to take a different spin on things. I chose to deliberately explore fantasy without “The Dark Lord,” but a regular, albeit unusually powerful, person with terrible ambitions as the antagonist. At the time, I thought this was a really new and novel idea, hahaha. I also have a scene in that book inspired by “Watership Down,” where one of the main heroes discovers he can communicate with animals to a degree. He strikes a bargain with a local rabbit warren to have his compatriot with plant-based magic provide them a great feast in a safe spot in exchange for sending a rabbit sentry forward to scout out information they need.

CJJ: What inspired you to write Roc Rider?

AV:  I’ve always had something of a fascination with falconry and birds of prey. I suppose, given my penchant for fantasy, it naturally followed that I fell in love with the idea of rocs, the elephant hunting birds of middle eastern legend, as well. I realized a few years back that there weren’t as many rocs in fantasy as I would like, and decided to do something about that. I started thinking about how humans and rocs would interact, where a roc would realistically fit in the food chain, how a human who rode rocs would be perceived by others. The characters and the story naturally flowed from those musings.

CJJ:  Tell us about your main character, Tanin Stormrush. Who is he as a person, and what is he capable of?

AV:  When we first meet him Tanin has suffered a terrible loss. His wife and his original roc partner have both passed away, leaving him to raise his new roc partner, Zera, alone. His first roc partner died laying her final clutch of eggs. His wife died protecting one of them from the man who murdered her. Tanin is on a quest to find the man who killed his wife and discover what happened to the other egg from the clutch, at her final request. So in Tanin we see a man who is undergoing several stages of grief at once, while trying to raise an animal partner with care and compassion at the same time. In a way his quest is a form of bargaining, in that he hopes to make everything right in his world if he can just find the egg. But in some ways, it’s also a form of denial.

Tanin comes from a proud tradition of warriors on the wing, but one that has been declining for many, many years. Tanin’s early life after learning the ways of the roc rider was spent flying campaigns with various armies to protect against invasion by the Narn, a mysterious religion that rules the lands beyond the desert to the north. It was there he developed his own code of honor, based on Roc Rider values but combined with his own worldview. Tanin doesn’t speak of this directly in the book, but we do see hints at it throughout. There are moments when Tanin is more than capable of muscling his way through a situation to get what he wants, but chooses a different path even if it costs him. I intend to explore this a bit more in the second book, with Tanin’s code being challenged more openly in situations where he must decide if it’s worth the pay off to break with it.

CJJ: Do you have a specific ‘Creative Process’ that you follow, such as outlining or do you ‘wing it’?

AV:  So far, my process changes quite a bit from book to book. I do wing it in a lot of respects, however I’ve always had a tendency to plan ahead at least somewhat. My first fantasy book began with me writing out the rules for the magic system and then diving in and discovering the character and story through a few chapters. Throughout that book I would periodically stop writing altogether to try and get my thoughts together in my head for where the story was going. I never wrote them down, just got a plan in my mind and then pressed forward a week or so later once I liked what I was thinking.

My second book, on advice from a writers conference, I wrote an outline before I started writing. That didn’t go so well. The book turned out good after major rewrites, but I discovered that written outlines and I have some issues and just don’t work well together.

With Roc Rider, I had a notebook and spent a few weeks riffing ideas in it. A lot of world building, character, and potential plot stuff. Whenever I faced a question I would write that question down and then riff possible answers. Obviously, the majority of what’s in that notebook never made it into the final product but it served as an invaluable resource when crafting the first draft of the story.

For the second Roc Rider novel, I’m going to do the same thing with one added step. Last year I took part in the 3-Day Novel Contest while Roc Rider was out with my beta readers. Since preparation is allowed for that contest, I tested out writing a story treatment for that book and loved what it added to the process.

A story treatment was something I had just recently learned about. A technique used mostly by screenwriters, it involves writing out the story in prose but in a succinct, descriptive fashion. I don’t have the space in this interview to explain it well, but I think of it as sort of a hybrid between writing an outline and simply diving into the first draft. You can dive into a story treatment like a ‘pantser’, but the treatment lets you see story problems and fix them before you start writing the first draft itself. Best of both worlds, in a way.

Anyway, after my notebook riffing I intend to do a story treatment for the second Roc Rider book as well. I believe it will help me get the book out more quickly and be better for the storytelling in the end.

CJJ: I love that. A story treatment is my way of getting a story off the launch pad too. But now, this is the question I hate to be asked, but here I am asking you: how does your work differ from others of its genre?

AV: This is a doozy of a question, isn’t it? But I’ll try.

I think my work is a little different in how it develops themes. A lot of fantasy is either aimed at a specific theme and the stories, characters, even sometimes the magic system is built around that theme. Other fantasy tries to be purely escapist and not speak to any specific theme at all.

I’ve always been dedicated to what I call organic theme development. This is a process that happens both in the writing and the reading of a work. I have certain ideas I want to explore. Not full themes, really, just human ideas. I attach them to elements I want to include in a story for escapist reasons and allow those ideas to develop as they will in the telling of the story. The result is generally a tale that can be interpreted any number of ways. The ideas get layered throughout the story in the writing, allowing themes to develop in the reader’s mind as they experience it.

Some read my first novel and see a story about the resilience of the human spirit. Others read the same book and see a cautionary tale about trusting your instincts and challenging authority.

Probably the best example, though, was my stage play “Behind Stone Masks”. That play follows a German soldier during WWII, who has a Jewish best friend and is later forced to take part in Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), when German soldiers were ordered to ransack Jewish neighborhoods in civilian clothing and the Holocaust began. Audiences had an almost staggering array of reactions to the play. Some saw it from a political perspective, others saw it through the lens of friendships and human relations. I had countless audience members express how they felt it was a poignant reflection of today’s world, but each in a different way.

I know organic theme development isn’t a unique idea and I’m sure there’s other fantasy authors who use it. But nevertheless, it’s what I feel sets my work apart.

CJJ: Why do you write what you do?

AV: I write fantasy because as a reader fantasy is what brings me the greatest joy. Creating it myself adds a whole new level of enjoyment, and allows me to hopefully bring some measure of that joy to other readers through my words.

CJJ: What are you working on now?

AV: I am already hard at work on the second Roc Rider book (notebook riffing stage), which I intend to release in 2018. I have also been working on a text-based choose your path adventure game for my website, but that project is in development limbo while I address some technical problems with it. I am toying with the notion of choosing one other prose project to write on the side. Maybe short stories or one of my other books. But I haven’t decided yet.

CJJ: When it comes to publishing, I know why I chose the indie route for my work, but I’m curious as to why you’ve chosen this path.

AV: I have a bumpy mental history with independent publishing. As a teen writer, I always swore I’d self-publish if I couldn’t find a publisher. I later became an indie skeptic after learning the ins and outs of traditional publishing and the view on indies at that time. Then along came the kindle and I once again got excited by the notion of going indie… until I learned that publishers at that time wouldn’t consider you if you had an independently published book.

However, once things changed and agents/publishers became more than willing to consider indie authors for traditional deals I started seriously considering it again. I guess at the end of the day I just didn’t want to pursue indie if it meant cutting out traditional as an option. I was sold when I realized there really is almost no downside to indie publishing anymore, as long as you put in the work to produce a quality product. Further, based on my research, the majority of writers these days who are breaking into fiction and being successful enough at it to make their living are the ones pursuing hybrid career models. Meaning they have both indie and traditionally published works. Why cut yourself off from either world when both have so much to offer?

CJJ: What advice would you offer an author trying to decide whether to go indie or take the traditional path?

AV:  Ask yourself why you want to go indie and why you want to go traditional, and how either is likely to impact your writing. Be as honest with yourself as possible. I want to stress that there’s nothing wrong with wanting success, but at the end of the day you should choose the path that’s better for your writing. For me, choosing to go indie with Roc Rider helped focus me in a way that really helped me improve as a writer in a number of ways. My productivity and decisiveness in editing being two major ones. However, I know there are some writers whose writing would suffer from the decision to go indie. They’d feel compelled to rush the process to get something out, for example. Once you have a good, completed book in hand you can always change course if the one you’re on isn’t working out for you.

>>><<<

Thank you, Aaron. You are a joy to know and to have as a friend, and are an integral part of my personal writing life. About Aaron Volner:

Aaron Volner spends a lot of time creating interesting places in his mind and getting irretrievably lost in them. Fortunately, he managed to find his way back long enough to write this book. He lives in the high desert of southwest Wyoming, where if you don’t like the weather, all you have to do is wait ten minutes.

Writer by night, librarian by day, Aaron also enjoys reading, acting, gaming, crocheting, golf, and doting on his dog.

He is also the author of Behind Stone Masks, a two-act stage play first performed in 2013 that follows a German soldier through the events of Kristallancht (the Night of Broken Glass) when the Holocaust began.

>>><<<

Aaron can be found at these places:

Website – http://www.aaronvolner.com/

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/aaronvolnerauthor/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/aaron_volner

Google+ – https://plus.google.com/u/0/111301735131803935026

Amazon Book Page: Chronicles of the Roc Rider

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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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