Tag Archives: writing

Layers of a scene: Action #amwriting

Scenes are often comprised of people talking, a little action, and then more talking. Sometimes the action is minor, taking the characters from one place to another. Two characters talking in a coffee shop would have minimal action, but a lot of dialogue.

Other times the dialogue is minimal, and the action is violence. It can be sudden, as in a car wreck, or planned as in a battle.

At the outset of any story, our characters are in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray, beginning the real story.

Once they recover from the first obstacle, they realize they must do or find something important. Only a certain object or person will resolve the situation. To acquire what they need, the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances.

They must struggle and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation. This is where the action comes into the story.

I have read books were the author was so involved in setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost. The author failed to entertain me.

Action scenes must fulfil several requirements:

  • They must entertain the reader.
  • They must create new circumstances.
  • They must force the character to grow and change.

The events the protagonist experiences must push the plot forward. In the process, the action should force the characters involved in it to become greater than they were, to find something within themselves they didn’t know existed.

I’m just going to get this out into the open: long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

So many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how the combatants were dressed, who hacked, who slashed, and so on. Scenes involving fighting should be written as controlled chaos. They must be logical and real and must give the impression of a chaotic event. Just as if the physical dispute were a dance, we choreograph it.

We all know the common fundamentals of the fight scene:

  1. Physical violence/weapons
  2. Shouting/screaming/other loud noises
  3. Damage to the immediate environment
  4. Injuries/death

Those are part of the elements that comprise the “push” of the action—the chaos. It takes time, but over the course of several hours, you can put the skeleton of your fight scene on paper. What is physically possible and what is not?

But what of a non-violent action scene? Perhaps the characters are sneaking into a room or attempting to board a crowded train. What furnishings does the immediate environment contain, and how does that affect their movements? What hinders the characters moving within their space? What aids them?

For much of the morning they rode in silence. The path climbed more steeply than Alf had imagined a fully laden cart or wagon could manage. The vertical wall of the Escarpment on the left side of the trail and a waist-high stone barrier with a terrible drop on the right made him jittery. It occurred to him that the low wall was little more than a robust fence, knee high to his horse.

The next step, after the action is laid down, is fine tuning it, so the reactions and responses of your characters are natural and real. If the scene is about dialogue, insert the action so it is minimal. It can be a slight buzz in the background that serves as a speech tag:

He forced himself to loosen his grip on the reins. “I suspect the little barrier is there mainly to keep the wagons from sliding over the edge in the winter. It does provide some comfort to know that, while I would be launched amazingly far, my horse would likely be saved.”

Dex looked at him sharply. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights. This is nothing compared to what we’ll deal with when we leave Hemsteck.”

After the push, comes the “glide” where the characters assess what just happened, tend to their injuries, and decide what to do next. They must catch their breath and figure out where they went wrong.

Every now and then a manuscript comes to me that is impossible to navigate because the author is afraid to let their characters rest and regroup, and it basically becomes a nonstop beating for the protagonist. The author may fear that the reader will find it boring if he pauses the action for any reason. That continual pressure on the protagonist is exhausting to me as a reader.

If you don’t allow your characters to process the violence they just experienced, the story gets lost in the chaos. Once the reader can no longer suspend their disbelief, you have lost them.

Most of us understand verbal disputes and how they are constructed. But if physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, you may wish to consult someone who is and have them look at your scene. They will tell you what is physically possible and what is not.

Once I have a fight scene choreographed, I run it past my writing friends, Dave and Lee, both of whom will point out the areas where it is no longer believable.

To wind this post up, a constant assault of random action, scene after scene, makes no sense unless you allow the reader to put the events into perspective. Scenes inserted for shock value and with no pause for rest and reflection don’t allow the protagonist to demonstrate personal growth.

As a reader, I will put that book down, unfinished.


Credits and Attributions:

Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Layers of a Scene—Immediate Environment #amwriting

While you are reading this post, you are probably sitting in a room, or perhaps sitting in some form of public transportation and reading on your phone. Wherever you currently are physically, you are reading a blog post. Because you are reading this post, your attention is in my room. The sounds of your environment have faded, and you are here with me, observing as I write about writing.

It’s 05:38 am, and my house is quiet, but not quite silent. It’s not a dark place, as the nightlight in the living room casts a warm glow, and the ceiling light in the room I call my “office” keeps me hitting the right keys, mostly. The furnace has come on, and the vents are making that familiar soft wooshing sound.

A cat once lived in this room, but she is gone, nine years now. Still, her spirit lingers among the dusty books and boxes of the storeroom that is my Room of Shame—a room no one is allowed to see when they visit. A sign on the door clearly warns, if you’re not in my book, keep out.

I wear a blue robe and ratty pink slippers. My feet are propped on a folding chair from Costco and the keyboard rests on my lap. Filing cabinets, boxes, shelves, dusty books, my husband’s citronella plants in the window, boxes and more boxes—this room is a cacophony of visual noise.

And yet this room is my haven, my quiet space, my room to write.

My keyboard has a certain rattle to it, a few keystrokes forward and the backspace key is pressed several times, then we go forward again. The end of a sentence arrives, and the punctuation is firmly added.

The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee calls to me. I set my work aside and go to the kitchen, the room that, despite its location in the rear corner of the house, is the center of my home. As I pour my first cup of coffee, my plan is to make a Sunday breakfast, bake bread, and maybe make oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries and walnuts.

But perhaps not. Perhaps after breakfast, I’ll return to the Room of Shame and write.

This is my immediate environment.

Our characters also occupy a particular environment at any given moment of their story. Whether they live in a condo, a house, or a caravan, their immediate environment reflects their personality.

The larger world is comprised of sound and scent as much as it is physical objects. The out-of-doors has a certain smell, perhaps of damp grass, or fresh-turned earth. In the city, smog has a scent all its own.

The smaller world, the immediate environment can be shown with brief strokes. My room has sounds that are unique to it: the furnace vents, the keyboard, the sound of the TV in another room. But some things are universal–coffee cups, small appliances, etc. We all have an idea of what a kitchen looks like. Place your character in a room with certain common props and the reader’s imagination will supply the rest of the scene:

Rick closed the drapes, which smelled faintly of cigarettes. He switched the TV on—for light or companionship? Maybe both. The hotel’s movie selection was minimal, but The Maltese Falcon seemed appropriate. Unable to relax, he sat on the worn sofa, waiting, his gun at the ready.

Whenever you mention an object in a scene, it becomes important. When you mention odors, they become important, as do sounds. This is why using your character’s senses is a part of world building. What they see, hear, and smell shapes the world the reader experiences.

As an exercise, picture your immediate environment. What are your impressions of the place where you are now? Write a brief word picture of those impressions. For me, the impressions of my immediate space are: Glow of monitor, rattle of keyboard, looming boxes, cooling coffee.

Those four things show my environment.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Ideas to jump-start #NaNoWriMo2018 #amwriting

I have been a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo since 2012. I started participating in this annual writing rumble in 2010. I  found myself taking the lead as the unofficial ML for my region in 2011 when our previous ML didn’t return, and we didn’t have one that year. Organizing write-ins, cheering on my fellow writers–I didn’t really know a lot about how it all worked, but it was a lot of fun and I met so many wonderful people.

Over the years I have learned a lot of little tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Some people continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress but on November first, they write all the new work in a separate manuscript that is only for NaNoWriMo validation purposes.

Most will start an entirely new project, which is what I do. Actually,  since 2012, I have started a bunch of new projects, an attempt to amass a collection of short stories to submit to magazines and contests.

Many times, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do until 12:01 a.m. on November 1st.

But that lack of a finite plan doesn’t mean I have no ideas. I am always prepared to write something new.

One of my favorite tools is the prepared list of one-liners that I keep on hand, little ideas to open a story with.

You must write every day, even when you are only writing for yourself. When you write every day, you keep your “writing mind” in top condition–you are training yourself the way an athlete trains for a big event.

For this reason, I have a document saved to my desktop that I use to write down ideas as they hit my brain.

Everyday I pick a prompt out of my list and start writing. I write new words on that idea for fifteen minutes.

Often, I end up with a good drabble to show for my fifteen minutes. Other times, what I produce is not worth much, but the act of writing new words is important.

On November first I will pick one that will be the first short story I write, giving me a jumping off point to riff on.

1 – Leonard always said there was no place for pansies in this war. His preferred weapon was a dahlia.

2 – Dogs and little children hated Eldon. The rest of us merely despised him.

3 – Death is the one thing you can take with you, and Harvey Milton was packed up and ready to go.

4 – No dogs or cats for Mrs. G—she had pygmy goats.

5 – The body in the trunk of Edna’s car had become a real inconvenience.

6  – “Technically, it’s not my cow. It’s my stepdad’s cow. Anyway, we aren’t going to harm her. She’s just going to school for a day.”

And what about essays, those wonderful commentaries and literary pieces for various magazines? I’m stricken every day with ideas that would make such good essays, and November is my month to write them.

  • Impressions of a spring day at the Olympia Farmer’s Market (one of the largest on the west coast).
  • The story of a mentally ill homeless woman whom I met on a rainy day.
  • A road trip down Washington State Route 105 from Westport to Raymond, and the ghostly, nearly abandoned coastal towns of rural Washington State.

So many random ideas and so little time to write those stories! That is why November has become so precious to me—it is my time to make use of my flashes of inspiration.

Another trick to both jump-starting and finishing a NaNo Novel is to write the last chapter first and set it aside in a separate document from the NaNo Manuscript.

Yes–its true. I wrote my first complete novel by writing the last chapter first and then wondering how the characters had gotten to that point, that place.

Once I knew how the book ended, I was easily able to write 60,000 to 70,000 words to connect up to that final denouement.

The original premise: An old man returns to a town that was the scene of his most treasured memories.

The book opens when he is a young man of barely twenty and takes him through grand love affairs and miserable failures, a Don Quixote-like story of madness and bravery. My brain was on fire with that book.

I still love that book and one day I will republish it.

Maybe.

That wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first one I had completed—and if you don’t complete your projects, you can’t really lay claim to being an author.

We all have false starts—it’s part of writing. My first novel was begun in 1994 on an old Macintosh Performa. The original manuscript was lost when I switched to a PC in 1998, but I rewrote it. Over the next ten years, that version evolved to over 250,000 rambling words, ten different story lines, and it was still nowhere near the finish line.

I promise you, that is one book that will never see the light of day.

NaNoWriMo has shown me that writing prompts are a wonderful tool that we can use to jump-start our imaginations. The Writer’s Digest website has an excellent post dedicated to writing prompts:

Creative Writing Prompts

If you want to practice writing something but can’t think of what, take a look and see if something interests you.  No two people are alike, so don’t be afraid to use a prompt from a popular site like Writer’s Digest. The way you go with it will be as unique and individual as you are.

In the meantime, start keeping a list of ideas, prompts that you think would make great stories. Save it to your desktop so it is always available with just a click. Great novels all begin with a random idea, a “what if.” Don’t let your ideas slip into oblivion–write them down and use them.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

6 Comments

Filed under writing

World building: what was, what is, and what may be #amwriting

All novels are set in one of three time periods: the past, the present, or the future.

Readers are much smarter than we are, so knowing what you write about is critical no matter what the level of technology. Even when setting a novel in the present day, the actual technology available is an unknown quantity to most of us.

However, targeted research can shed some light on what was once possible, what is possible, and what will one day be possible. Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

The Past:

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid- to late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This book was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who knew the people she was writing about.

What I find absolutely charming is the way the author used excerpts from medieval rhymes and literature to put their lives into context, forming a picture of how we really lived before the industrial revolution. In fact, many rural communities were still living this kind of life in the early twentieth century. The author knew and interviewed farmers whose lives had been spent working the fields and raising animals the old way.

Best of all, even though the book makes no apologies for being a textbook, Hartley’s prose is so enjoyable I found myself reading it with the sort of enjoyment one gets from a novel.

I also get a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands. In the course of their work these painters created accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, how they dressed, and what was important to them.

The Present:

You can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there. If you need to know how many bodies you can fit into the trunk of a Mini Cooper, don’t guess. Look it up and write with authority. (The answer is NONE—Mini Coopers have no trunk.)

Available on the internet today:

TED Talks are a wonderful resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Barnes & Noble and look at the many publications that are available to the reading public. You can find everything from culinary to survivalist, to organic gardening—if people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

Know what your community is interested in, and your setting will have depth.

The Future:

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

But many business people and scientists have incredible imaginations, and their life’s work is making the future knowable, and a reality.

SPACEX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci fi, you must read sci fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the classic science fiction is now current tech—ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy. Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the amazing bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing.

Above all, enjoy the act of creating a world that a reader will want to live in, whether it is set in the past, the present, or the future.


Credits and Attributions:

Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, © 1981 by Pantheon, cover illustrated by Beatrice Fassell, fair use.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

Creating Societies #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing, I was woefully ignorant about many things, but I knew it was important to create a solid feeling of reality in any fantasy world. My first efforts were less than good, but as time went on and I read the works of other authors, and played certain, world-heavy video games, I learned how important creating a sense of depth is in world building.

We all know the importance of giving depth to the physical setting of your story. The environment must be absolutely clear in your mind. But the society your characters inhabit is just as important as his physical world–how they live in that environment a key component of world building.

You achieve depth in a society by creating layers. What those layers are is listed below, but key is in how you apply the layers. The society must be there in YOUR mind, rock solid and with no apologies. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.

The World of Neveyah was originally invented as the setting for an anime-based platform-style RPG (Role Playing Game) that was never built. We intended to create a Final Fantasy style world and game, but the tech crash happened, and the game didn’t materialize.

However, I had retained the rights to my maps, my characters, and my story line—which eventually became the Tower of Bones series. Mountains of the Moon is the original story that the series grew out of, although it was the fourth book to be completed and published.

In a large console/computer RPG, world-building is critical. When you look at the great games that are considered classics, you find one commonality: Whether the classic game is a Platform game, ‎a Beat ’em up game, ‎a Shooter game, ‎a Stealth game, or an MMO game—they all have memorable worlds and deep, involving story lines.

What I originally did for the game was to write the story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of that world and how the environment shaped their society. I made a list of questions about the society and the answers formed the picture of Wynn’s world and his place in it.

With that done, I set it aside, to use as reference material when I need to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. This is the method I still use today when I create a new world.

I have posted the following lists before, so if you have already seen them, thank you for stopping by!

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?

Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system? If you are inventing it, keep it simple. (I generally use gold, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver/ 10 silvers=a gold)

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 seen as honest and trustworthy?

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?

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?
  • Or do they have a magic-based technology?
  • How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?

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?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

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

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 also what the enemy will be packing. Do 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?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a jumping off point. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing other large concepts that combine to make up a civilization. You are welcome to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.

Know your world, know the society, and write with authority.

Give the reader just enough detail to show the world as one that is real and solid, but don’t devolve into dumps about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Milano Duomo 1856.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Milano_Duomo_1856.jpg&oldid=146639100 (accessed September 23, 2018).

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Author Simon Wood on Plotting #amwriting

In my post, Theme and the Short Story, I discussed how, as part of my pre-NaNoWriMo exercise regimen, I create small outlines of the short stories I intend to write. Using an outline is also how I write novels.

  • First, I divide my story arc into quarters, so the important events are in place at the right time. When I try to “pants” it, I sometimes end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What length am I writing to? Knowing the word count in advance will help you keep on track.
  • What will be the inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • 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?
  • Who is the antagonist? What does he want and why?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?

For novels, I make a larger outline, offering myself a more in-depth exploration of the intended story, and I discussed that process here: Jumpstart #NaNoWriMo2017, the Storyboard.

I do it this way because I can’t keep all the many threads on track if I don’t have some sort of a road map to follow. The outline is my literary GPS device.

Recently, at the Southwest Washington Writer’s Conference, I attended a two-part seminar on plotting, given by Simon Wood, author of such USA Today bestsellers as The One that Got Away.

Simon’s outline goes even deeper than mine. His outline is simple and linear, and color-coded to each character. Numbered from 1 to 80 (or however many scenes you have) each scene is listed with a sentence or two describing what happens at that point, something like Jack meets the dealer at the drop point. Argument ensues.

The sentences are small road maps from which he develops the entire scene. Each line is colored red, yellow, or green depending on whose point of view the scene is being shown from. Green is the protagonist’s point of view.

His outline doesn’t go into so much detail that the story is already written, but it ensures the plot goes in the intended direction with good pacing. Pacing is the reason why I outline—my earlier work was inconsistent.

What struck me in Simon’s seminar was the idea of color-coding each POV—when you have large stories encompassing the points-of-view for three or more characters, all it takes is a glance at your first-draft list of scenes to see if there is an imbalance in who’s talking.

Simon began this style of plotting in 1998, long before Scrivener. Some of you will say you use Scrivener for this, and to you, I say bravo! I find that program isn’t intuitive, is less than user-friendly, and is extremely annoying to try to learn. So, I have it, sitting in my computer taking up valuable real estate on my hard drive, going unused and unloved.

Simon writes thrillers, and I write fantasy, but we both create our outlines in Excel. However, this could easily be done in any word-processing or spread-sheet program (such as Google docs/sheets) or in Word, simply by changing the color of your fonts. You can even do this on colored post-it notes, as some authors do. For visual people who are not Scrivener savvy, being able to use the cut-and-paste function to move scenes around to where they are most effective is critical.

Simon was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about his process.

CJJ: First of all, what do you consider a scene? Is it a chapter or a portion of a chapter?

SW: A scene isn’t a chapter necessarily.  It may be made up of  2-3 scenes.  It depends on how the scenes connect.  Say the chapter was “Robbing a bank.”  To me that would be broken into three scenes: Getting into the bank, Getting into the vault, Getting the money out.  An over simplified answer but I hope it illustrates the point.

CJJ: How do you decide if a character is important enough to warrant a voice and becoming a viewpoint character?

SW: I just assess whether a particular character has valuable insight to share.  If a supporting character’s POV gives additional context to the relationship on how the protagonist and antagonist are behaving then their POV is valuable. Essentially a POV character has to add something to the story.

CJJ: How long are your scenes in terms of word count? For purposes of NaNoWriMo, 1,667 words a day is needed to reach 50,000 words by November 30th and some will plan to write a chapter a day.

SW: Usually my scenes are 1500 words.

CJJ: In your own experience, during the process of getting a novel to the final draft, how many times will the direction of the story and the outline change from the original?

SW: It all depends on how well I did my original outline or how well I had conceived the idea.  Sometimes it’s changed several times.  Others it’s pretty much stayed true to the original.  Usually a couple of times at least.

Thank you, Simon, for sharing your insights with us. For all who are curious about his process, Simon offers several wonderful seminars on writing craft, the links to which are at the bottom of this post. Do yourself a favor and sign up for one!

In the end, we as authors must each find our own best way to free the story from our creative minds. For some of you, a program like Scrivener might fill the bill, but for me, a simple outline to begin with, the willingness to change course when the intended storyline isn’t working, and sheer stubbornness are what it takes to get a book out.

You must give your plot structure. In other words, use an outline to create a good story arc at the outset, but within the structure of your outline, allow your characters to surprise you. 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, threats take away the option of going about life as normal and leave characters with several choices, all of which are consequential, the final one of which should be made in a stressful situation. I intentionally used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. If there are no consequences for the bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Simon’s idea of color-coding the scenes in the outline is a great addition to my writers’ toolbox. Being able to see at a glance if my story is imbalanced away from the protagonist’s thread will be a good way for me to avoid having to scrap a few months’ work to get a novel back on the right path.


About Simon Wood:

USA TODAY bestselling author, Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He’s a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist, an animal rescuer and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and six cats. He’s the Anthony Award winning author of The One That Got Away, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Deceptive Practices and the Aidy Westlake series. His latest book is SAVING GRACE. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at http://www.simonwood.net.

Website: Simon Wood’s Web Hideout

Check out Simon’s workshops here: Simon Wood’s Workshops

Follow Simon on Twitter: https://twitter.com/simonwoodwrites

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Titling that book, or wringing blood from a stone #amwriting

A great book title can sell a book or short story to the reader:

We all start out with a working title—after all, we have to label our files somehow. But how do we come up with a catchy title for that finished product? It’s an issue we all face.

First of all, write the book and don’t obsess about the title until you are at the stage where something must be put in place on the cover. During the writing of the book the perfect title might come to you, so don’t sweat it.

What is the book’s genre? Go to the bookstore (or online to Amazon) and look at books in that genre to see how other authors are naming them. This will also give you an idea of how the cover should look if you are an indie. You will know what to ask of your cover designer.

Your friends and your writing group are good resources for brainstorming titles, so get them involved. Your writing group will know what the book is about, so their ideas will be valuable. If they haven’t been able to help and you are in the editing stage, ask your editor for some ideas.

I have two books titled after the main character’s name, Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers. This works because their names are unique. Other authors have done this too:

Are there any scenes that depict watershed moments in the protagonist’s life, places that are turning points? Settings that represent the theme can be great titles.

What is the central plot point?

If your story is dark, you might want to emphasize that theme by going the mysterious route.

Giving your work an official title is sometimes difficult, and it’s hard to find good titles that aren’t already famous. In the US, book titles aren’t copyrighted so there may be multiple books out there with the title you want to use—take my advice and research your prospective title thoroughly.

I once was at a book signing event with my epic fantasy book, Mountains of the Moon (World of Neveyah), seated opposite an author selling a travel book, Mountains of the Moon, detailing his journeys in Africa. We laughed and helped sell each other’s books—because he was a good sport, the identical names worked to our advantage at that show, and we sold more books than we would have. But knowing what I do now, I would definitely give my book a different name–I had no idea such a place existed here in this world.

The right title is a subliminal lure enticing the reader into opening the book or clicking on the “look inside” option.

In 1989, I bought a book by Tad Williams: The Dragonbone Chair. That title hooked me, and the book itself lived up to its promise so well that I patiently waited two years between books for Mr. Williams to finish each installment in the series.

In my case, good titles are as much of a hook as an intriguing cover design.

Comments Off on Titling that book, or wringing blood from a stone #amwriting

Filed under writing

What is NaNoWriMo and why bother with it? #amwriting

As most of you know by now, I regularly participate in the annual writing rumble known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m a rebel in that I usually scratch out as many short stories as I am able in those thirty days.

I participate every year because for 30 precious days, writing is the only thing I “have” to do.

My friends and family all know that November, in our house, is referred to “National Pot Pie Month,” so if you drop by expecting a hot meal from Grandma, it will probably emerge from the microwave in the form of a formerly frozen hockey puck.

I usually have my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but I continue writing every day through the 30th and update my word count daily.

NaNoWriMo is a contest in the sense that if you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website you ‘win.’ But it is not a contest in any other way as there are no huge prizes or great amounts of acclaim for those winners, only a PDF winner’s certificate that you can fill out and print to hang on your wall.

It is simply a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing a novel.

Now let’s face it–a novel of only 50,000 words is not a very long novel. It’s a good length for YA or romance, but for epic fantasy or literary fiction it’s only half a novel. But regardless of the proposed length of their finished novel, a dedicated author can get the rough draft–the basic structure and story-line of a novel–down in those thirty days simply by sitting down for an hour or two each day and writing a minimum of 1667 words per day.

With a simple outline to keep you on track, that isn’t too hard. In this age of word processors, most authors can double or triple that. As always, there is a downside to this intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because you can sit in front of a computer and spew words does not mean you can write a novel that others want to read.

Every year many cheap or free eBooks will emerge testifying to that fundamental truth.

The good thing is, over the next few months many people will realize they enjoy the act of writing and are fired to learn the craft. They will find that for them this month of madness was not about getting a certain number of words written by a certain date, although that goal was important. For them, it is about embarking on a creative journey and learning a craft with a dual reputation that difficult to live up to. Depending on the cocktail party, authors are either disregarded as lazy ne’er-do-wells or given far more respect than we deserve.

As I said in my previous post on NaNoWriMo, more people do this during November than you would think–about half the NaNo Writers in my regional area devote this time journaling or writing college papers.

For a very few people, participating in NaNoWriMo will give them the confidence to admit that an author lives in their soul and is demanding to get out. In their case, NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years, something that had been in the back of their minds for all their lives.

These are the people who will join writing groups and begin the long journey of learning the craft of writing. Whether they pursue formal educations or not, these authors will take the time and make an effort to learn writing conventions (practices). They will attend seminars, they will develop the skills needed to take a story and make it a novel with a proper beginning, a great middle, and an incredible end.

They will properly polish their work and run it past critique groups before they publish it. They will have it professionally edited. These are books I will want to read.

The life of an artist or author is not one of constant accolades and fetes. After you have downloaded the PDF Winners’ Certificate from www.NaNoWriMo.org, you will rarely receive an award to show for your labors. Yes, some people will love and admire what we have created, but other times what we hear back from our beta readers and editors is not what we wanted to hear.

The smart authors haul themselves to a corner, lick their wounds, and persevere. They pull up their socks and keep to the path and don’t expect or demand overnight success.

When we write something that a reader loves—that is a feeling that can’t be described. That moment makes the months of intense work and financial sacrifice worth it.

And whether we go indie or the traditional route, writing is a career that will require financial sacrifice.

Most authors must keep their day jobs because success as an author can’t always be measured in cash or visibility in the New York Times bestsellers list. For most authors, success can only be measured in the satisfaction you as an author get out of your work. Traditionally published authors see a smaller percentage of their royalties than the more successful indies, but if they are among the lucky few, they can sell more books and earn more because of that.

The fact your book has been picked up by a traditional publisher does not guarantee they will put a lot of effort into pushing the first novel by an unknown author. You will have to do all the social media footwork yourself, tweeting, getting an Instagram account, getting a website, etc. You may even have to arrange your own book signing events, just as if you were an indie.

This is time-consuming, and you will feel as if you need a personal assistant to handle these things—indeed, some people rely on the services of hourly personal assistants to help navigate the rough waters of being your own publicist.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author. Going full-time or keeping the day job, going indie or aiming for a traditional contract—these are conundrums many new authors will be considering after they have finished the chaotic month of NaNoWriMo. While few of us have the luxury to go indie and write full-time (my husband has a good job), many authors will struggle to decide their publishing path.

However, if you don’t sit down and write that story, you aren’t an author. You won’t have to worry about it. With that in mind, November and NaNoWriMo would be a great time to put that idea on paper and see if you really do have a novel lurking in your future.

13 Comments

Filed under NaNoWriMo, writing

Who should participate in #NaNoWriMo #amwriting

As summer ends and fall approaches, those of us who are regular NaNoWriMo writers begin to plan for November, our month of committed writing. We are making notes to and jotting down ideas as they occur to us. Some of us are making brief outlines which we may or may not follow.

Some years I start with the idea for a novel. The first draft of Huw the Bard was written during NaNoWriMo 2011, although he wasn’t published until 2014.

However, for the last four years, I have written short stories and novellas during NaNoWriMo, because I have several fantasy novels in progress and what I really need are literary fiction short stories for submitting to contests and magazines.

I always enter November with my literary guns blazing. I have a list of ideas for plots and hit the keyboard at 12:01 a.m. on November 1st by attending a virtual midnight write in.

Many people have heard of NaNoWriMo, but think the month is only dedicated to novel writing. People are always glad to learn that many people with no desire to be published authors use this month to create 50,000 word manuscripts.

  • Family historians
  • Dedicated diarists
  • People working on their PhD
  • people writing cookbooks

Anyone who wants or needs a month dedicated to getting a particular thing written will do so in November.

More people do this during November than you would think–about half the NaNo Writers in my regional area are journaling or writing college papers. The support of our online group gives the graduate student an added incentive to stay focused on writing their thesis.

This support group offers moral support to diarists and encourages them to write more about their world, their thoughts, and their philosophies.

I’ve been asked many times what I see as the differences between journaling and noveling. (Sorry, word-nazis—”noveling” is a word. I invented it several years ago for a blog post and still use it regularly.)

Anyway, journaling is keeping a personal diary with an eye to stress management.  As a self-exploration tool, journaling works best when done consistently. You write on a daily basis, or at least frequently.

According to the website, Very Well Mind: Journaling allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, thereby gaining valuable self-knowledge. It’s also a good problem-solving tool; oftentimes, one can hash out a problem and come up with solutions more easily on paper.

Diarists detail their lives, the world around them, and how the larger events of society affect them. A famous diarist was Samuel Pepys, whose diary details the Great Fire of London and include many tidbits about the famous people he knew.

From the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: The detailed private diary that Pepys kept from 1660 until 1669 was first published in the 19th century and is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period. It provides a combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events, such as the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London.

Noveling is telling lies, keeping them straight, and making the world believe it until the last page.

When I first began with NaNoWriMo, I spent some time lurking on the various threads on the national website. To my utter surprise, I discovered a contingent of writers who were not trying to write a book that could be published. For them, this was a game they wanted to win at any cost, and their goal was to see how high their word count could get.

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

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

Whether you are journaling or noveling, participating in NaNoWriMo helps you develop the discipline of writing daily. Write for as long as you can when you can, and that will build your ‘writing’ muscles.

As a novelist, if I dedicate 3 hours of every day in November to just writing stream of conscious, I will chunk out 2500 to 3000 words a day, half of which are miskeyed and misspelled. No one is perfect.

When I can’t find a word to express a thought, I invent one. In reality, some words I invent, and some words invent me.

If you should choose to enter this highly addictive adrenaline rush of a month-long activity, go to www.nanowrimo.org and sign up! Pick your name, get your author profile started, and look up dragon_fangirl (that’s me). Add me as your writing buddy, and I will be part of your writing posse, cheering you on when you need a morale boost.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Samuel Pepys,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Samuel_Pepys&oldid=854824642 (accessed September 4, 2018).

Quote from Journaling for Stress Management, by Elizabeth Scott, MS for Very Well Mind, https://www.verywellmind.com/the-benefits-of-journaling-for-stress-management-3144611, Ⓒ 2018 About, Inc. (Dotdash) — All rights reserved (accessed September 4, 2018).

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

13 Comments

Filed under writing