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#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep our novel by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novel, short stories, poems, memoir, personal essays, etc.

nano prep end this messPost two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), so we have an idea of who they are and what they do.

Post three explored the setting, so we already know where they are and their circumstances.

Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot.

Now we’re going to jump to the end. I know it’s rude to read the end of a book before you even begin it, but I am the kind of writer who needs to know how it ends before I can write the beginning.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

Julian Lackland was my first nano novel. In its proto form, it was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project. That novel emerged from my mind because I had written a short story of about 2500 words featuring an elderly knight-at-large. Julian was a Don Quixote kind of knight, returning to the town where he had spent his happiest days in a mercenary crew.

He enters the town and finds it completely changed. The town has grown so large that he becomes lost. Julian talks to his horse, telling him how wonderful the place they are going is, and all about the people he knew and loved. When he does find the inn he’s looking for, nothing is what he expects. The innkeeper he was so fond of has died of old age, and stranger still, the old innkeeper’s middle-aged youngest son, is the man behind the bar. Most of the friends he’d ridden with are dead. The story ends with Lady Mags, the third leg of his love triangle, entering the tap room and their reunion.

On October 28, 2010, I was scrambling, trying to find something I could write, but my thoughts kept returning to the old man’s story. The innkeeper had referred to him as the Great Knight, stupidly brave but harmlessly insane. Had he always been that way? Who had he been when he was young and strong? Who did he love? How did Julian end up alone if Julian, Beau, and Mags were madly in love with each other?

What was their story?

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

On November 1, I still had nothing for a new novel, but I had committed to writing 50,000 words. The short story nagged at me. I found myself keying the hokiest opening lines ever, and from those lines emerged the story of an innkeeper, a bard, three mercenary knights, and the love triangle that covered fifty years of Julian’s life.

That book spawned Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers. While Julian Lackland was the last book in the Billy’s Revenge trilogy to be published, it was the first to be written.

The trials and tribulations of that first novel’s publishing path, the title change, and the numerous reasons it took so long for Julian to make it to the finish line is another story, but he did eventually make it.

If I know how the story will end, I can build a plot to that point. So, let’s look at my current project. I have one book that has been languishing for 5 years now because I don’t know how it ends. Unfortunately, the ending I’m detailing here is not for that book.

For my new novel, I have my characters in place. We’ll call them Marco and Dinah for this post. In reality, they have other names, but I am using their situation to show how I brainstorm my plots. I have my setting, and I know their place in that society.

This story is a murder mystery with no title as of yet. The exact details of solving the murders are still a bit murky. However, I know who is dead, how they died, and who the murderer is.

Right now, the end of the outline just says, “Marco and Dinah prevail, Klaus dead. Sarie and Jon safe.” That isn’t a lot to hang a story on, and when I begin writing the novel, I will need to know a little more, or I will lose the plot.

What I do is write an outline that will become the final chapters. This is what I came up with:

Klaus ties his barge up at the pier and goes to the inn while his crew offloads the cargo. He overhears that the mages have repaired the Temple. He decides there is only one way to end it: to take out the healers who had failed to save his daughter.

Dinah spots Klaus entering the Temple and is surprised because he didn’t pass through the gate. She recognizes him from down at the docks and wonders why he’s there when he’s been so anti-Temple. Something about him bothers her, so she follows him.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMarco arrives at the inn. The innkeeper mentions Klaus was there, but now he’s gone. Marco sees his barge is still there, and the deckhands don’t know where he is. He goes to the gatehouse where Dinah is supposed to be on duty and immediately knows something is wrong. He fears Klaus has gotten to her, and instinct tells him to go to the Temple.

Dinah tracks Klaus toward the infirmary, where Sarie and Jon are working, treating an elderly man. They’re in a healing trance, unaware of anything other than their patient.

Loren is working in his study, unaware his wife and her journeyman are in danger. He glimpses Dinah sneaking through the shadows and knows something is wrong. He follows her, meeting up with Marco as he leaves his study. The two confer and move on to the infirmary.

Klaus senses he’s being followed. He steps behind a pillar, ambushing Dinah. He attempts to strangle her, but she grabs him by the hair. Her feet slip out from under her, and she falls, pulling him down to the floor. Twisting around, she pushes him away with her feet and manages to grab her staff as she stands. Klaus has also regained his footing and is coming for her, but as she swings her staff, she slips again, cracking his skull, just as Marco arrives and fires off a lightning bolt, killing Klaus.

Or something like that. I’ll choreograph the fight when I get to that spot, but I guarantee it will be quick. I dislike reading drawn-out fight scenes and usually skip over them.

Anyway, Sarie and Jon have no idea what has just gone on, and the patient is healed. Loren agrees the new floor is too slick after all, but at least it won’t burn. Dinah finally tells Marco she’s expecting, and they all live happily, at least for a while.

30 days 50000 wordsIn real life, people live happily, but no one really lives deliriously happy ever after. But that’s another story and a different genre.

So now I know how the novel ends, and I thank you all for listening to my mental ramblings—I hope they help you. All I need are a few paragraphs, a skeleton to hang the story on, dots to connect, and I can write the first draft.

Next up, we will decide where and how the story begins.

Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 4 Plot Arc #amwriting

Today we’re continuing prepping our novel by thinking about the plot, the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we want to write–novel, short stories, poems, memoir, personal essays, etc.

Post two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), so we have an idea of who they are and what they do.

In post three, we explored the setting, so we already know where they are and what their circumstances are.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedNow we’re going to design the conflict by creating a skeleton, a series of guideposts to write to. I write fantasy, but every story is the same, no matter the set dressing: Protagonist A needs something desperately, and Antagonist B stands in their way.

What does the protagonist want? Everyone wants something. The story is in if they acquire it or not. Doubt, uncertainty, the unknown—these nouns comprise the story.

This is where we have to sit and think a bit. Are we writing a murder mystery? A space-opera? A thriller? The story of a girl dealing with bulimia?

Let’s write a historical fiction.

My uncle fought in WWII in Ardennes and was wounded. He never discussed his wartime experiences, but I like to use that battle as my example for plotting. Here in the US, that battle is referred to as the Battle of the Bulge. A book about that battle may be compiled from personal accounts, interviews, photographs, and diaries. But the author must build the events of Ardennes in December 1944 and January 1945 out of words that express memories, opinions, and wishes.

Even though your novel about this battle may explore an Allied soldier’s experiences, in reality, this narrative is a fantasy because the events it explores have disappeared into the mists of a long-ago time. They now exist only in a few places:

  • military archives
  • newspaper accounts
  • history as written by the victors
  • the memories of a dying generation
  • the handwritten diary of the soldier
  • the author’s mind
  • the pages of the book you are constructing
  • the readers’ minds as they are reading

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterWhere does our soldier’s story begin? We open the story by introducing our characters, showing them in their everyday world, and then we kick into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. That might be their arrival at their first camp in the Ardennes region.

For our soldier, the inciting incident might be the orders that transfer him and his unit to Ardennes. After that, many things will occur before he and his fellow soldiers return home. Each event will range in intensity from the inconvenience of filthy living conditions to the unavoidable confrontation with the horror of war.

We will make a list, a ladder of events that give us landmarks to write to, like a connect-the-dots picture.

First, how long do you plan the book to be? If you plan to write 50,000 words, take that word count and divide it by 4. The first quarter opens our story and introduces the inciting incident. This is the moment of no return, even if our characters still believe they can salvage things.

The following two quarters are the middle of the narrative, exploring the obstacles that our soldier faces. If you are writing a historical novel, your plot will follow the historical calendar of actual events. The Battle of the Bulge was fought between 16 December 1944 and 25 January 1946, and reams of documentation still exist about that terrible month.

117th_Infantry_North_Carolina_NG_at_St._Vith_1945

117th Infantry North Carolina NG at St. Vith.

Your plot arc might include these events, but in chronological order:

  • Initial German assault
  • Attack on the northern shoulder
  • German forces held up
  • Germans advance west
  • German advance halted

Attack in the center: our soldier will either be with the US 30th Infantry Division at the Battle for St. Vith (Americans) or the Meuse River bridges (British 29th Armoured Brigade of 11th Armoured Division). He likely couldn’t be at both unless he was in the US Army Air Force.

  • Attack in the south
  • Allied counteroffensive
  • German counterattack
  • Allies prevail

You will connect those dots. Take each incident and write the scenes that our soldier experiences. You might also write scenes showing the commanders planning the offensives and switch to show the enemy’s plans.

No matter what sort of book you plan to write, this is all you need at first. It’s just a skeleton of the plot. You will write the scenes between these events, connecting them to form a story with an arc to it.

As we write, our soldier’s thoughts and interactions will illuminate and color in the scenes. His encounters, how he saw the enemy—were they people like him or were they faceless—all his emotions will emerge as you write his story.

No matter what genre we are writing in, you must introduce a story-worthy problem, a test that will propel the protagonist to the middle of the book.

300px-SCR-299dooropen

US Army Signal Corps photo of SCR-299 radio set in operation 1942, US Army Signal Corps

This event is the hook. We raise a question and set the protagonist on the trail of the answer. In finding that answer, the protagonist is thrown into the action.

  • If you are writing genre fiction, get to the action quickly.

Drop the protagonist into the soup as soon as possible, even if the conflict is interpersonal. Some books open with a minor hiccup that spirals out of control with each attempt to resolve it. This is the place where the characters are set on the path to their destiny.

Some plots are action and adventure. Other books explore a relationship that changes a character’s life for good or ill, while others detail surviving hardship.

When do the protagonists first realize they’re utterly blocked from achieving their desired goal? Note this event on your outline somewhere in the first quarter. This is the moment our protagonist realizes their problem is much worse than they initially thought.

At this point, they have little information regarding the magnitude of the trouble.

This is where the skeleton list comes in handy for me. Crucial knowledge that affects my characters’ choices, the information they don’t have, should be doled out at the point in the story arc where they need it. If I give all the information in the first 10 pages, there’s no point in reading the book any further—the reader knows it all.

plottingLIRF07122020One thing that I do is make notes that help limit my tendency toward heavy-handed foreshadowing. I try to keep it brief, but what will be enough of a hint, and where should it go?

Subplots will emerge as we begin writing. It’s a good idea to note them on the outline as they come to you. In my opinion, side quests work best if they are presented once the book’s tone and the central crisis have been established. Good subplots are excellent ways of supporting the emotional parts of the story.

Now is the time to read in your genre and let your ideas simmer for a while. If you are writing in a fiction genre, read the bestsellers so you know what kind of plot the reading public is looking for. Don’t worry about inadvertently channeling their ideas—there is no such thing as a story that has never been told.

Whatever you write, you will take it one step further and give it your own spin.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:117th Infantry North Carolina NG at St. Vith 1945.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:117th_Infantry_North_Carolina_NG_at_St._Vith_1945.jpg&oldid=661386897 (accessed October 14, 2022).

 

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

Today we’re continuing our NaNo Prep by imagining a world. These exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. In our previous post, we asked ourselves who we think our characters might be. Now we ask, “Where do my characters live? How do they see their world?”

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery world in which every story is set is imaginary. This is true whether it is a memoir, a cookbook, a math book, a sci-fi novel, a contemporary novel set in London, or an encyclopedia.

All written worlds exist only in our minds, even those non-fiction books detailing recent events.

The world you paint with words will be inhabited by the characters you create. I write fantasy, and I have three created worlds, peopled with characters I cherish and places where I feel at home.

But my created worlds didn’t begin that way. They emerged as the first draft of the first novel evolved. Each world started as an idea and grew in detail as the narrative unfolded in my imagination.

But what if you aren’t writing fantasy? Creating a fantasy or sci-fi world is exactly the same as detailing a historical time or a current event.

The difference is in documentation. While you can use Google Earth to visit a distant city, read documentation concerning a historical event, or view maps drawn by contemporaries, you must create the history and landscape of your fantasy world. With fiction, your preparatory world-building is the documentation.

800px-Mount_Rainier_sunset_and_cloudsWhen writing our narrative, we want to avoid contradicting ourselves about our protagonist’s world. Keeping it all in your head is not a good idea, especially if you’re like me—too much data means I regularly have the eternal loading screen when trying to recall something. (I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.)

I recommend you create a file containing all your ideas regarding your fictional world, including the personnel files you are making. I learned to do that the hard way, so take my advice: write down your ideas, and update them with later changes.

I list all my background information in a separate Excel workbook for each book or series. You don’t have to go that far; you can use any kind of document, handwritten or digital. Many people make notes on their phones. You just need to document your ideas. If you want to get fancy, see my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Find images on the internet that are either historical or represent your ideas. Paintings and great photography inspire me and fire my imagination. Go to the internet and find maps.

If you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, sketch a map. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but I recommend you use a pencil in case you need to rearrange it.

Clementines_Astoria_Dahlia_Garden2019Just like we do when creating our characters, we want to begin with a paragraph that might be the encyclopedia explanation of where the action takes place. I write fantasy, so here is the one paragraph I might start with:

The Citadel of Kyrano, a port city along the River Fleet. Its population is around five thousand, and its primary industry is wool production. Every industry in Kyrano supports the cloth trade in one way or another. The merchants’ council rules the citadel and a small armed militia keeps the peace and patrols the walls, repelling the occasional band of highwaymen.

I will ask myself several questions about Kyrano.

  • What objects do the characters see in their immediate environment?
  • When they step outside, what ambient sounds do they hear?
  • What odors and scents do they encounter indoors and out?
  • What objects do the characters interact with?
  • What weapons does this society use for protection? (swords, guns, phasers, etc.)
  • How important is religion?
  • What are the layers of society, and where do my characters fit?
  • Is the use of magic a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what is the science of that magic? What are its limits?
  • Are science and technology a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what are its limits?

Keep your world-building document handy, or a notepad and pen. As you go about your life, observe the world around you and make notes of smells and sounds you can incorporate into your work. I spend a lot of time walking in my neighborhood, but my own backyard is a haven for birds and insects. If you plan to set your work in a fantasy or sci-fi world, what can you incorporate into it that is familiar, something the reader can identify with?

Write a paragraph or two about what you think your characters might see and hear in their environment. What do they smell? It’s been exceptionally warm and dry so far this autumn here in the Northwest. When I go outside, I smell smoke from distant wildfires. I see browning vegetation, falling leaves, and a militant spider colony attempting to annex my back porch.

An author takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. Successful fantasy and sci-fi authors take the world they see and reshape it just a little, just enough so it seems alien yet familiar.

Every novel requires world-building.

Make notes about possible places where events will occur, writing them down as they come to you. Remember, the setting for a contemporary novel requires the same thinking and the same imagining of place as a fantasy novel does.

Seattle from the w space needle 2011If I were to write a thriller set in the current Seattle of 2023, I’d want the reader to see the landscape as if they lived there. I would use the eternal gray of certain times of the year to underscore my dark themes.

In fact, world-building is nothing more than taking what we know and reshaping it into what might be and then dropping casual hints about it into the narrative. It is only the backdrop against which our characters live out their lives. But without that backdrop, the story unfolds on a barren stage.

Pike_Place_Market_SeattleThe internet has information about every kind of environment that exists on Earth. All we have to do is use it.

Google Earth is a good tool for contemporary world-building if you can’t travel to the place in person.

The websites of NASA and other international space agencies are bottomless wells of information about the environment of space and what we know about other worlds.

Over the next few months, it’s up to you who write fantasy and science fiction to take what we know and make that intuitive leap to what might be.

Those of you who write romance, or thrillers, or action adventures, cozy mysteries or any other kind of novel—you must also take what we know of this world and turn it into what might be.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Pike Place Market, by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (Accessed October 10, 2022)

Mount Rainier Sunset and Clouds, US National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022).

Downtown skyline in Seattle viewed from the w:Space Needle, by M.O. Stevens. Wikimedia Commons contributors, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, File:Downtown Seattle skyline from Space Needle May 2011.JPG – Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022)

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

Today is part two of my October NaNo Prep series. This post explores character creation. Often, we have ideas for great characters but no story for them. For those who don’t write daily, it’s a way to help get you into the habit.

nano prep namesThese exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. Each post will tackle a different aspect of preparation and won’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes to complete. By the end of this series, my goal is for you to have a framework that will get your project started.

SO—let’s begin with characters. Some will be heroes, others will be sidekicks, and still others will be villains to one degree or another.

rudimentary stylesheetI recommend you create a file that contains all the ideas you have in regard to your fictional world, including the personnel files you are creating. I list all my information in an Excel workbook for each book or series, but you can use any kind of document, even handwritten. You just need to write your ideas down. See my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Perhaps you already have an idea for the characters you intend to people your story with. Even if you don’t, take a moment to sit back and think about who they might be.

No matter the genre or the setting, humans will be humans and have certain recognizable personality traits.

names keep them simpleSo, who is the protagonist of my intended story? Truthfully, in some aspect or another, they will be the person I wish I were. That is how it always is for me—living a fantasy in the safe environment of the novel. Bilbo was J.R.R. Tolkien’s younger self, an inexperienced man discovering the broader world through his wartime experiences. Luke Skywalker was the hero George Lucas always wanted to be.

For me, a story is the people—the characters, their interactions, their thoughts, and how the arc of the plot changes them. In return, writing the events they experience enables me to see my values and beliefs more clearly. I begin to understand myself.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story. But we must also use common sense. Too many named characters is too many.

So, let’s start with one character, our protagonist. First, we need a name, even if it’s just a placeholder. I have learned to keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. My advice is to keep it simple and be vigilant—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical and that begin and end with the same letter.

Have you ever read a book where you couldn’t figure out how to pronounce a name? Speaking as a reader, it aggravates me no end: Brvgailys tossed her lush hair over her shoulder. (BTW—I won’t be recommending that book to anyone.) (Ever.)

You might think of the unusual spellings as part of your world-building. I get that, but there is another reason to consider making names easily pronounceable, no matter how fancy and other-worldly they look if spelled oddly. You may decide to have your book made into an audiobook, and the process will go more smoothly if your names are uncomplicated. I only have one audiobook, and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.

Now that we have a name, even if it’s just a placeholder, we can move on to the next step. Then we write a brief description. One thing that helps when creating a character is identifying the verbs embodied by each individual’s personality. What pushes them to do the crazy stuff they do?

The person our protagonist appears to be on page one, and the motivations they start out with must be clearly defined. Identifying these two aspects is central to who your character is:

  • VOID: Each person lacks something, a void in their life. What need drives them?
  • VERBS: What is their action word, the verb that defines their personality? How does each character act and react on a gut level?

the hobbitIf we know their void, we should write it down now, along with any quirky traits they may have. Next, we decide on verbs that will be the driving force of their personality at the story’s opening. Add some adjectives to describe how they interact with the world and assign nouns to show their characteristics.

Example:

Maia (healer, 25 yrs. old, black ringlets, dark skin, brown eyes with golden flecks.) Parents were mages, father an earth-mage who builds and repairs levees in the cities along the River Fleet. VOID: Mother murdered by a priest of the Bull God. Father never got over it. Maia is not good with tools and unintentionally breaks or loses things. VERBS: Nurture. Protect. ADJECTIVES: awkward, impulsive, focused, motivated, loyal, caring. NOUNS: empathy, purpose, wit.

Once I do this for the protagonist and her sidekicks, I will ask myself, “Who is the antagonist? What do they want?”

Nord, a tribeless mage, turned rogue. Warlord desiring control of Kyrano Citadel. Intent on making a better life for his children and will achieve it at any cost. VOID: Born into a poor woodcutter’s family. Father abusive drunk, mother weak, didn’t protect him. VERBS: Fight, Desire, Acquire. ADJECTIVES: arrogant, organized, decisive, direct, focused, loyal. NOUNS: purpose, leadership, authority.

Our characters will meet and interact with other characters. Some are sidekicks, and some are enemies. Don’t bother giving pass-through characters’ names, as a name shouts that a character is an integral part of the story and must be remembered.

Your project could be anything from a memoir to an action-adventure. No matter the genre, the characters must be individuals with secrets only they know about themselves. This is especially true if you are writing a memoir. Over the next few days, list these traits as they come to mind.

Name your characters as they occur to you. Assign genders and preferences and give a loose description of their physical traits. If you like, use your favorite movie stars or television stars as your prompts.

We are changed in real life by what we experience as human beings. Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become jaded and cynical. Others become more compassionate and forgiving.

Everyone perceives things in a unique way and is affected differently than their companions. In a given situation, other people’s gut reactions vary in intensity from mine or yours. Whether we are writing a romance, a sci-fi novel, a literary novel, or even a memoir, we must know who the protagonist is on page one.

That means we need to create their backstory, just a paragraph or two. This will grow in length over time as the story takes shape. As we write each personnel file, we will begin to see their past, present, and possible future.

name quote, richard II shakespeareMaking lists of names is essential. You want their spellings to remain consistent and being able to return to what you initially planned is a big help later on. When we commence writing the actual narrative, each character will have an arc of growth, and sometimes names will change as the story progresses. Do remember to make notes of those changes.

Heroes who arrive perfect in every way on page one are uninteresting. For me, the characters and all their strengths and flaws are the core of any story. The events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

Posts in this series to date:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

National Novel Writing Month is not only about writing novels. This is a month solely dedicated to the act of writing. Even if you have no intention of “doing” NaNoWriMo, it can’t hurt to think about what you might like to write.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

First, we must decide on a project. Once we know what we’re writing, we can begin laying the groundwork.

Many people know they want to write something but don’t know what. The words live within us, but how do we free them? First, we have to find out what those words want to be.

Some ideas are:

Novel

  1. What genre?
  2. What is the central theme?
  3. Who are the characters, their gender, their culture?
  4. Will you “pants it” through the plot or create an outline?

Poetry collection

  1. What genre? Free verse? Or do you prefer traditionally structured poetry? Odes, Haikus, Elegies, Sonnets, Dramatic Poetry, or Narrative Poetry? In my misspent youth, I was a musician and wrote lyrics for a heavy metal band, so I tend to write lyric poetry. I have a friend who writes sci-fi poetry.
  2. What is the central theme of this collection? (The central theme in my poetry is the landscape that shaped me, i.e., the lake where I grew up, the river emerging from the south end of it, and the hills rising above it.)
  3. Will these be random poems expressing the thoughts of the moment?
  4. Will these poems be planned to express certain ideals and beliefs?

Old booksShort story collection

  1. What genre? Or will it be a mix of genres?
  2. What is the central theme that gives shape to this collection?
  3. Will you have a recurring character binding the collection together?
  4. Will a different protagonist be featured in each?
  5. Will the stories be set in one town or in many?
  6. Will you “pants it” or write little outlines? I work both ways when it comes to short stories.

You’ve noticed that I’m repeating myself—but trust me, a fiction project is easier to create if you know what genre you are writing for and can see the central theme that will bind it together.

Memoir

  1. Have you read any memoirs? Do you know how the plots of successful memoirs are constructed?
  2. Your actual memories or a fictionalized account?
  3. Dare to name names or not?

Family history

  1. Are you just curious, or are you searching for an identity, trying to find a past to know who you are and where your family comes from?
  2. Research from a site such as ancestry.com or gleaned from family bibles, letters, and other collected papers? A combination of both?
  3. Photographs?
  4. Will you include interviews with older family members who may remember something about your family’s history?

Academic Papers

  1. Will this be the basis for a thesis, or is it an independent study?
  2. Will it become the basis for a textbook?
  3. Will you be required to conform to a specific format for disseminating the arc of information? (Structural editing.)
  4. Will you need to use a specific Academic Style Guide for grammar and mechanics? If so, where can you acquire it?

As we go toward November, we will delve further into plotting a novel or short story. We’ll also talk about structuring literary collections (short stories or poetry) so a reader will stay involved and finish the book.

Now is a good time to declare your intention to participate, if you are so inclined. But navigating the website at www.nanowrimo.org can be confusing. Take the opportunity to explore it ahead of time and get to know all the many tricks for using it. You’ll be more comfortable when November arrives.

Perhaps you haven’t been a participant for several years and are considering joining again. You’ll find the new website is quite different from the old site. Many features we used and loved in the past are no longer available. However, the new site includes many features you will enjoy. The following screenshots will help you find your way around the website:

First, go to www.nanowrimo.org. This is how the landing page looks:

nanoLandingPage

Next, create a profile. You don’t have to get fancy unless you are bored and feeling creative. On your profile page, click the “Announce New Project” button. Open this to declare your project.

profile page

dragon_fangirl’s profile page at http://www.nanowrimo.org

  1. Give your project a name if you have one. I don’t have a working title yet, so I’m going with 30 Days of Madness and Pot Pies, my all-purpose NaNo title, when I have no idea what to call my project.
  2. Pick the genre you intend to write in.
  3. Write a few paragraphs about your intended project if you know what you plan to write. If you have nothing yet, don’t worry about it.

You can play around with your personal page a little to get used to it. I use my NaNoWriMo avatar and name as my Discord name and avatar. This is because I only use Discord for NaNoWriMo and two other large writers’ organizations. (Later in this series, we’ll discuss Discord and how numerous regions rely on it for word sprints and virtual write-ins.)

While creating your profile, write a short bio. With that done, you’re good to go. If you’re feeling really creative, add a header and make a placeholder book cover—have fun and go wild.

NaNoWriMo-Menu-IconNext, check out the community tabs. The tabs will be across the top if you are in full screen. If you have the screen minimized, the button for the dropdown menu will be in the upper right corner and will look like the blue/green and black square to the left of this paragraph.

When the button is clicked, the menu will be on the right-hand side instead of across the top.

Your regional page will look different from ours because every region has a different idea of how they present themselves. It will be there in the Community tab. Also, don’t forget to check out the national forums, which can be found on the Community tab.

You may find the information you need in one of the many forums available.

Book- onstruction-sign copyBy the time November arrives, I hope that those who want to “do NaNoWriMo” will have the tools they need and the confidence to get it done.

Many people don’t choose to participate in something that intensive but still want to write. November is dark and gloomy here in the Pacific Northwest–a good month to begin a casual writing project, but often, people don’t know how to get started.

If that is you, my goal will be to get you closer to identifying what you want to write and helping you begin that project.

Whether you participate in NaNoWriMo or not, I hope to help you take that nebulous idea and turn it into written words.

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October is #NaNoPrep Month #amwriting

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is approaching, and October is NaNo Prep month. I have participated in that annual writing event every year since 2010. For the past 11 years, I was one of my area’s Municipal Liaisons for NaNoWriMo as a way of volunteering in my community.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

Usually, I have earned my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but even so, I continue writing on that project every day through November 30th. I update my word count daily because using every moment available in November is a personal challenge.

I say this every year because it’s true: NaNoWriMo is only a contest in the sense that if you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website, you ‘win.’ It is simply a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing.

This year, my personal life has taken a left turn for the different. I stepped back from my position as Municipal Liaison. I will still participate, but I can no longer serve my region as they deserve.

My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in June and will be starting an intensive physical therapy regimen in the middle of November: Big Therapy For Parkinson’s – ParkinsonsDaily.com

I am already seeing improvements from the medication and the PT he has already been given. We’re fortunate to have good health insurance, an HMO providing us with a terrific neurologist and cutting-edge physical therapy.

An immediate effect of that diagnosis was that his doctor said he was not to drive. We live south of Olympia in an area with no public transportation and no uber or even a taxi.

StarshipHydrangeaLIRF072022So, for the two final weeks of November and the first two weeks of December, we will be firing up the Starship Hydrangea (our hydrangea-blue Kia Soul) and driving 30 miles a day to and from the clinic. This will happen four out of five days a week, barring snow.

Then, I will have an hour or two to kill at the clinic. I could take a laptop and write, but I find that more disruptive than waiting until I get home. Instead, I will probably read or daydream and make notes for possible plot twists.

And that’s not terrible. Taking a break from the grind helps spur creativity.

Usually, I end November with around 90,000 words on two or three projects. But twice I’ve finished with more than 100,000 words. Most were crap—I wrote them, cut them in December, and used them as fodder for other projects later.

50,000 words is an acceptable 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 book, a dedicated author can get the basic story arc down in those thirty days.

Alice in Wonderland Tea SetI have no problem getting the first draft done with the aid of a pot of hot, black tea and a simple outline to keep me on track. All that’s required is for me to sit down for an hour or two each morning and write a minimum of 1667 words per day.

So how do we find time to write daily? I plan ahead and use my time wisely. Cooking and cleaning are things we all have to do. I think simple is best when it comes to food and housework.

I have a crockpot that gets a workout every winter. I use it two or three times a week for soups, chilies, and stews. I’m a fan of meals that can be cooked in the oven, and also of dinner salads. I serve tasty and eye-pleasing meals that don’t take much time to assemble.

We all have to live in a home, which means we all have housework. It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s how I get my exercise. I zoom through the house daily, wiping down surfaces and vacuuming.

When the holidays approach, I locate the cobwebs, spray them with hairspray, toss a little glitter on them, and presto! The house looks festive with little effort on my part.

(My mother’s ghost just fainted.)

(Did I mention I write fantasy?)

Anyway, as in many good things, there is a downside to November’s intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because we sit in front of a computer and pour words into a document doesn’t mean we’re writing a readable novel. Many cheap or free eBooks will be published every year, a testimony to that fundamental truth.

to err is human to edit divineThe real work begins after November. After writing most of a first draft, many people will realize they enjoy writing. Like me, they’ll be inspired to learn more about the craft. They discover that writing isn’t about getting a particular number of words written by a specific date, although that goal was a catalyst, the thing that got them moving.

For a few NaNo writers, writing becomes about embarking on a creative journey and learning a craft with a dual reputation that is difficult to live up to. They will find that we who claim to be authors are either disregarded as arrogant ne’er-do-wells or given far more respect than we deserve.

More people write during November than you would think. In some previous years, half of the NaNo Writers in my regional area devoted their time to journaling, writing memoirs, or even writing college papers.

For a few people, participating in NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years. These writers will join writing groups and begin the long journey of learning the craft of writing. They may find the courage to go back to school and maybe even get their MFA.

steering the craft leguinA good way to educate yourself is to attend seminars. By meeting and talking with other authors in various stages of their careers and learning from the pros, we develop the skills needed to write stories a reader will enjoy.

One good way to polish your work (which costs nothing) is to join a critique group. Be bold—ask the clerks at the local bookstores in your area if they know of any writing groups that are open to new members.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author.

Books contain ideas, and ideas are the most dangerous magic of all—a magic that topples kings and gives rise to great civilizations.

Dare to be dangerous.

Go ahead and write that book.

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Using Polarity #amwriting

When I get into revisions, I often find my characters seem two-dimensional. Certain passages stand out because the characters have life, an intensity that feels palpable.

Others, not so much.

ContrastsI aspire to write like my heroes, authors who create characters who come alive. While I’m in that world, I see the people and their stories as sharply as the author intends.

Some of my work manages to find that happy place, but other passages feel flat, lacking spark. That is where I look at contrast – polarity. When I use polarity well, my narrative makes my editor happy.

I know I say this regularly, but word choice matters. How I choose to phrase a passage can make an immersive experience or throw the reader out of the book. Sometimes I am more successful than other times.

My goal is to make vivid sensory images for my readers, but not one that is hyper-dramatic and overblown. Subtlety in contrasts is as essential as painting a scene with sweeping polarities. They both add to the texture of the narrative but must be balanced for optimal pacing.

Poets understand and use polarity. John Keats used both polarities and similes in his work. The last stanza of To Autumn begins with this line:

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;”

We see one obvious polarity in that line, and also a sneaky one:

  • Lives or dies is a clear polarity.
  • Sinking implies heaviness, and Keats contrasted it with light wind, a less weighty, gentler sensory experience, the opposite of the weight of sinking.

activatePolarity gives the important elements strength. It provides texture but often goes unnoticed while it influences a reader’s perception.

The theme is the backbone of your story, a thread that binds the disparate parts together. Great themes are often polarized: good vs. evil or love vs. hate.

Think about the theme we call the circle of life. This epic concept explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Within that larger motif, we find opportunities to emphasize our subthemes.

For example, young vs. old is a common polarized theme with many opportunities for conflict. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty allows an author to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

In my current outline, I seek to see beyond the obvious. I am searching for the smaller, more subtle contrasts to instill into my work. My intention is that these minor conflicts and hindrances will build toward each major plot point and support the central theme and add texture to the narrative.

This outline is evolving into a mystery. The main character is a peacekeeper who must solve it. To that end, I am inserting clues into the outline, guideposts for when I begin the first draft. On the line that details the plot arc for each chapter, some of those words will have antonym’s listed beside them, opportunities for roadblocks.

The theme of justice looms large in this novel. Hopefully, I can make this plot worthy of the characters I’ve created and who stand ready for NaNoWriMo.

Contrast is the fertile soil from which conflict grows. It can make protagonists more interesting, and in worldbuilding, it underscores the larger theme with less exposition.

Contrasts within the narrative shape the pacing of the action, as ease is contrasted against difficulty. In my projected piece, justice as a theme allows for many contrasts. Justice only exists because of injustice.

Polarity is a sneaky way for each word’s many nuances to raise or lower the tension in a scene.

Let’s look at the word cowardice. Cowardice is a gut reaction to fear. In real life, cowardice is often exhibited as a habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism.

It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib told for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Or it can be as epic as an act of treason committed for fear of a political change in a direction the character finds untenable.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear or as thrilling as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

I like stories with protagonists who contrast acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice. It adds texture to their otherwise perfect personalities and subtly powers their character arcs.

In all its many forms, polarity is a catalyst—the substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a faster rate. In this case, the reactions we’re trying to speed up are the emotions of the reader.

oxford_synonym_antonymI use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This book is as essential to my writing as my copies of Damon Suede’s Activate and the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. I’ve posted this list of opposites before because they create powerful mental images:

  • dangerous – safe
  • dark – light
  • decline – accept
  • deep – shallow
  • definite – indefinite
  • demand – supply
  • despair – hope
  • discourage – encourage
  • dreary – cheerful
  • dull – bright, shiny
  • dusk – dawn

In short, by employing polarities in our word selections, we add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool for both character creation and worldbuilding.

Often you can find great reference books second-hand, which will save you some cash. But even at full price, the books I referenced above are good investments.

However, we’re all cash-strapped these days, so a comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. Their website is a free resource.

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The Business Side of the Business: Publishing Industry News #amwriting

Autumn is arriving as we speak, and it’s a good time to look at how the publishing industry is doing.

publishingIndustryChatLIRF03162021Let’s have a look at how the Big 5 Publishers of literature did last year. You will note that the top players have changed since my last Big 5 article. Some of the big fish have been absorbed by the even bigger fish since we last looked at them.

#1 on the list is Penguin-Random House. They’re headquartered in Germany and are still the big kid in the schoolyard. Last year they reported earnings of 3.3 billion US dollars.

#2 is Hatchett Book Group. They are headquartered in France. Their reported earnings were 2.7 billion US dollars.

#3 of our top 5 is a corporation called Springer Nature. They publish periodicals and magazines like Nature and Scientific American. They’re headquartered in both the UK and Germany. Their reported earnings were 1.9 billion US dollars.

#4 is Wiley (John Wiley and Sons), a US company publishing academic and instructional materials. They reported revenue of 1.7 billion US dollars.

#5 is McGraw-Hill Education, with reported earnings of 1.7 billion US dollars.

So, did you notice the trend? Only two of the top five traditional publishers are focused on publishing fiction.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

And what is affecting the profits for these companies? According to Publishers’ Weekly, supply chain issues combined with inflation and dropped earnings in the first quarter of 2022. However, strong backlist sales propped things up at Penguin-Random House, titles like Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Atomic Habits by James Clear. They also report that the late Dr. Seuss’s titles sold more than 5.7 million copies in that period.

As always, audiobooks also performed well. Penguin-Random House’s global CEO Markus Dohle said the ever-expanding international audio business has become a strong growth pillar of their publishing efforts. He also noted a technology- and data-driven transformation of their sales, marketing, and publicity strategies.

This side note about the backlists propping up the Big 5 reminds us to be careful when we’re offered a contract. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. A hastily signed contract means you might never receive back the rights to your intellectual property (your books), even if the publisher is no longer publishing it.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

Most of us are not attorneys. If we go the traditional route, we should consider hiring a lawyer specializing in literary contracts.

This is good advice, even if you are represented by an agent. The complexity of negotiating a literary contract is both confusing and intimidating. By not having the advice of a professional, you risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Many well-known authors were smart or had good lawyers. They either weren’t offered or didn’t accept a legacy contract. These authors regained the rights to their work when the contract terms were fulfilled. They’re now self-publishing their backlists and earning more royalties even though they sell fewer books.

On the indie side of things, we’re in the same boat financially as the Big 5, but we’re better positioned in some ways. We’ve always relied more on digital sales, which have no upfront cost outlay. Many indies are moving to audiobooks too. However, we do need paper books.

Significant cost increases for paper and production (and for distribution and freight) will affect our costs and profit for the foreseeable future. Per an email I received from Draft2Digital, due to supply chain issues and the rise in material costs, their print partner will be increasing D2D’s costs. This means that effective October 1, 2022, the cost of author copies via D2D Print will increase.

I suspect the same will be true for Amazon KDP and IngramSpark.

Scientific American 1848For indies, our most reliable royalties have always come from digital sales, although we do sell some print books. But the best route to gaining loyal readers has been book fairs, conventions, and signings at bookstores.

We pay upfront for our stock of books and have to keep an eye on our inventory to ensure we have enough on hand for each event. So, with printing costs going up, we will either raise prices or see a drop in our already-slim profit.

So, that is the industry’s current state as of this week. The Big Traditional Publishers are still consuming each other as fast as possible. At some point, there will only be one Big Traditional Publisher owning thousands of popular imprints worldwide, and they will be based in Europe.

The publishing industry is currently in a downturn because of inflation and production costs, but little has changed for indies. We’ve always been at a disadvantage, so in some ways, we’re better equipped to deal with change. We adjust and go with the flow whenever the market goes up or down or moves in a new direction.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Nature volume 536 number 7617 cover displaying an artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Nature_volume_536_number_7617_cover_displaying_an_artist%E2%80%99s_impression_of_Proxima_Centauri_b.jpg&oldid=675402098 (accessed September 20, 2022). ESO/M. Kornmesser (photo displayed on the magazine cover), CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of Scientific American, the September 1848 issue Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:SciAmer.gif,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:SciAmer.gif&oldid=655833071 (accessed September 20, 2022).

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Outlining is Pantsing it in Advance so you can Wing It Later #amwriting

Over the years, I have learned many tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Most writers will start an entirely new story. Some have an outline, but others are flying blind, or in author speak, “pantsing it.” Other writers will continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress.

plotting as a family picnicI am a planner, but I’m also a pantser. I’m just writing to a loose outline. All I need is a little free time in advance of November to let my mind wander.

When I first began writing, I found Excel useful, but any document or spreadsheet program will work. The outline becomes my permanent stylesheet for that novel. I think of outlining as pantsing it in advance—a visual aid for winging it later.

Once I’m done winging it through the story and am in revisions, some scenes will make more sense when placed in a different order than originally planned. An outline allows me to view the arc of the story from a distance, so I can see where it might be flatlining. Perhaps an event should be cut completely as it no longer works. (I always save my outtakes in a separate file for later use.)

Over the years of editing and reviewing books, I’ve assembled a list of questions that help me nudge a novel from an idea into an outline. If I make notes as I think of things, I’ll never lose those characters or their story. Even if I can’t get to it right away, I’ll have all the essential stuff in a document and saved.

The first two questions I ask are what genre do I think I’m writing in, and what is the underlying theme? I prefer to write character-driven fantasy. A world will emerge with the characters, and I will make notes as bits and pieces of that environment occur to me. I have a deep streak of gallows humor in my personality, so humor in the face of disaster will be a theme. This theme comes out in most of my work.

Who are youNext, I ask the creative universe who the protagonist is. I create a brief personnel file, less than 100 words. It’s a paragraph with all the essential background information. Sometimes it takes a while to know what a character’s void is (a deep emotional wound), but it will emerge. I note the verbs, adjectives, and nouns the character embodies, as those give me all the necessary information.

Let’s create a protagonist. He doesn’t have a story yet, but that will come along once I have a few other people figured out.

Brand (MC) (Fire-mage, armsmaster, 36, divorced. Brown hair, brown eyes, suntanned.) Parents were mages, now deceased. VOID: Deep sense of failure. A convergence of personal tragedies led to a failed suicide attempt. VERBS: Act. Fight. Build. Repair. Protect. Create. ADJECTIVES: wary, sarcastic, hopeful, dedicated, considerate. NOUNS: sorrow, guilt, purpose, compassion, wit.

Does Brand have close friends? If not, will he gather companions? This question is important. If he doesn’t have friends at first, I will leave space on that page to add them when they emerge from my imagination. As I contemplate Brand’s story, perhaps a love interest will show up later, or maybe not.

What happens to take Brand out of his comfort zone? Sometimes I don’t have the answer to this for quite a while. Other times, it’s the spark that starts the story.

The entire arc of the story rests on how I answer the following question. What is Brand’s goal, his deepest desire? Currently, it looks like he’s hoping to regain his self-respect. That will become a secondary quest when a more immediate problem presents itself.

What stands in his way? Who or what is the Enemy?

Let’s name the enemy Silas. What is his deepest desire? How does Silas control the situation at the outset? Once I know who the antagonist is and what they want, I give them the same personnel file I give all the other characters—I identify a void, verbs, adjectives, and nouns for him.

Once I have Silas described in a paragraph, I can determine the quest. Silas is the key to what Brand must achieve. A believable villain is why Brand’s story will be fun to write.

Now we come to creating the plot. I decide where the story begins, then list a few possible scenes, using keywords to show mood and intention.

Mood words for meditationMeditating on mood words often precipitates a flash of brilliance that has nothing to do with anything. What if …

Newly arrived in the border town of Axeton, Brand discovers an ancient gate sealed with a magic lock. Beyond it, a faint path leads into the Deadlands, but where does it go? No towns exist in the moors, and no country wants to claim the Deadlands. The elemental creatures are too dangerous. Could it be a beastmaster searching for rare elemental creatures to use as weapons? If so, who has that skill, and what could they intend to do with them?

This plot twist forces me to rearrange the outline, and now I have to change Silas’s paragraph to make him a beast master. He can’t be two-dimensional, a cartoon villain, so why does he do evil with this talent? Why does he think he is the hero? The answers to those questions should give Silas a personality. We should feel some empathy for him.

How does Brand react to the pressure Silas exerts? Side characters may emerge as Brand works his way through the problems, people who will influence the plot’s direction. As the outline evolves, I will see many places where the struggle can deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interests.

Later, after I have the characters figured out, I will work on the plot outline and try to shape the story’s arc. This is where roadblocks and obstacles do the heavy lifting, and my outline will contain ideas I can riff on. Brand will have to work hard to achieve his goal, but so will Silas.

Information and the lack of it drive the plot. Brand can’t have all the information. Silas must have more answers than Brand and be ruthless in using that knowledge to achieve his goal. My outline will tell me when it’s time to dole out information. What complications arise from Brand’s lack of information? My outline will offer hints for what he can do to rescue the situation.

With each chapter, Brand and his companions acquire the necessary information, but each answer leads to more questions. Conflicts occur when Silas sets traps, and by surviving those encounters, Brand gains more information about Silas’s capabilities. He must persevere and use that knowledge to win the final battle.

I could actually use this example as the genesis of a story, but I have a different outline in progress. Having my characters in place and an outline on hand helps keep me on track when I am pantsing it through NaNoWriMo. New flashes of brilliance will occur as I am writing, and hopefully they will make the struggle real. But two fundamental things will remain constant:

Brand’s determination to block Silas and wreck the enemy’s plans is the plot.

Brand’s growth as a character as he works his way through the plot is the story.

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Questionable Physics, Plot Armor, and the Searchable File #amwriting

No matter their failings, our protagonist is always endowed with a special power not granted to ordinary mortals: plot armor. They alone are allowed to survive all manner of dangerous situations because they are needed for the plot to continue. 

And if the author has done their job, we believe it, and ask for more.

researchI just finished reading a sci-fi book set ten years from now, in 2032. It was a free Kindle book, but I felt overcharged.

One glaring issue, a blunder that outshone the obscenely poor editing, was this: The heroine’s amazing survivability was made possible by the author’s indulgence in Questionable Physics.

Via Wikipedia: Physics is the natural science that studies matter, its fundamental constituents, its motion and behavior through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force. [1]

The science seemed more like squishy magic. Once I realized that, the book veered into fantasy, which wasn’t what I was in the mood for.

Readers of hard science fiction are quite particular. They want ideas that inspire thought about large issues, such as the far-reaching impacts of scientific, social, and technological innovations.

Science, technology, and their possible consequences are the core of hard sci-fi, and this book had nothing to say to society other than many mentions of how brilliant the heroine was.

The author had marketed their novel in the wrong subgenre—it belonged in Narcissistic Self-gratification, not hard science fiction.

Alarm clock quote ray bradburyNever once did the super-heroic and uber-capable protagonist fear for her life no matter what ridiculously dangerous situation popped up.

Above all, a protagonist must deserve their plot armor.

But enough about that book—let’s talk about research.

Authors who write science fiction should learn what modern physicists are currently doing in the lab and what they’re theorizing on paper.

We must use that knowledge to extrapolate how societies will look in the future. Authors must do the research and take what we know is possible today and flavor it with a dash of what we wish for.

Therefore, research is needed. But if we aren’t physicists, how do we go about it?

First, we identify what we need to know, and keep a list as new questions crop up. Then, we hunt for information. We use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of material that backs up our assertions.

A searchable file is a document containing links to every website, book, or published paper where you have found information about your project.

Every book I write has a stylesheet, usually in the form of an Excel workbook. For instance, this is how some of the tabs on one of my stylesheets looks:

tabs of a stylesheet

That workbook has several pages: a glossary, a calendar, a sheet with the maps, the outline of the projected plot, and personnel files for each character. Also, it has a page with the technology that might be available in an agrarian society. It also has a page with all the links to the websites where I’ve found information, and what I found useful on that page.

But I love science and spend some of my non-writing time randomly watching science shows.

One of my regular bits of brain food is a daily science news report by Anton Petrov, What da Math? His YouTube channel focuses on up-to-the-minute advances in astronomy and physics.

For example, Anton’s report which aired on September 11, 2022, discussed the known dangers of space travel as we are currently capable of it and possible solutions based on our current capabilities.

And Anton’s is not the only hard science show out there.

If the book I am currently bashing had been researched at all, the author would have understood more about the hazards facing humans in the colonization of Mars.

What if you are writing something involving a common, well-understood physics problem—that of braking and docking with another vessel in space? That maneuver is complicated, and there are many reasons why. What you learn about velocity and inertia won’t make it into your story, but you will know what you are writing about. That confidence will emerge in the rest of the story.

But science fiction is not the only genre where magic bullets and impossible solutions ruin a story for me.

For example, I am also a history buff. I love historical fiction, but stories set in that genre must also be meticulously researched. History details events that occurred before the present time and accurate information is still available.

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyTake a look around in your local secondhand bookstore. A brilliant source of information on low-tech agricultural life and culture came in the form of a book I found at a second-hand bookstore in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. It was called Lost Country Life and was written by the late historian, Dorothy Hartley. She details how every aspect of farming was done, the wide variety of tools and equipment that everyone knew how to make and use. If you need to know it, it’s in that book.

As far as I know, it’s still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon.

But let’s go back to the future. If you are writing a contemporary sci-fi novel, you need 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 Big-Name Bookstore and look through the many publications available in their racks.

You can also find many scientific papers published online. But for non-scientists, sites like SpaceX, NASA, and Digital Trends will offer a wealth of information in bite-sized chunks and give you leads about where to look next.

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, if you hope to write hard sci-fi, you must read that genre. Examine their content. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech. See what other writers think will be the technology of our future.

Talk to scientists. Email them and tell them what you are writing and ask them questions. Many will help you because they don’t like mushy science.

We may be fiction writers, but we are also disseminators of information and dreams. No matter what genre we are writing in, we want the reader to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story. If we do the proper research, we remove one barrier to the success of our work.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Physics,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Physics&oldid=1109211521 (accessed September 13, 2022).

Fairy of Eagle Nebula By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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