Friday, April 24, 2015

Storysculpting: On Wasting Time

Storysculpting: On Wasting Time: Someone posted this quotation as a "gentle reminder" to their Facebook circle. Before I was halfway through it, I was making...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

3 Steps to Getting Unstuck in Your Novel (FIND THE GOLD)

Greetings! I'm writing to you from the middle of the vast swamp that is NaNoWriMo. I am, at the time of this writing, about 4,000 words "behind" because reasons. But I am still 22,000 gloriously bad words into the first draft of a book that is close to my heart, and it is time, not inspiration, that is keeping me from writing.

And so I am here to share with you the three-part system that is keeping me writing currently. It is just my little thing, not something important or big that will work for anyone. If you're stuck, maybe it will help you be inspired, too.

  1. Write Until You Get Stuck (The Writing by the seat of your pants part)
    This is the easy part. The fun part. The part that us baby writers think is supposed to last forever. The first step to writing is, surprisingly, just to write. Presumably something about this story has you excited enough to want to start putting words onto paper, otherwise, why bother? Ride that wave. Write until the words run out. Write past your bedtime and through meals. When you're supposed to be working, scribble jokes and plot twists and dialog onto post-it notes. If someone gives you a weird look mid-conversation because your eyes lose their focus, you're probably doing it right. You're writing right. Good job.
    Okay, so you wrote and wrote and wrote until you hit the wall. Good for you. That's normal That's what this article is about. Do me a favor right now:


    This is the time to stop and think about your story. This is the time to think about what happens next. Ask your characters to tell you the end of the story. Read a couple of plotting articles. Jot down twenty steps that will lead to the end of the story. Nothing fancy, nothing methodical, just all the steps that lead to the Big Finish. You can change them chapter by chapter. Just give yourself a general map. It's okay if this takes four hours or four days, because it's going to be your lifeline. For me, each chapter ends up being about a paragraph or two of thinking out loud, rather than a list of Roman Numeraled bullet points.
  3. Find The Gold

    This is the magic step that is making everything work for me. Look at your outline, look at the next two chapters that you are going to write. Just those two Now dive into them in your imagination. Look around.

    What excites you? What do you love about the scenes? Make a list. List at least ten things you want your readers to SEE and FEEL and TASTE and GET EXCITED ABOUT.
Now, for your reading pleasure, I am going to show you what mine looks like in action. It's very rough and ugly, but writing this down for the first chapter propelled me easily through a 4,000 word chapter and then ready to write the next one.

Someday when I am very famous and Lux is a household name, this stuff is going to be worth gold. I'll sign it for you because I love you.

The Seventh Judge 2014 NaNoWriMo

Chapter One 

Summer and Lux are walking into the Bronx Zoo. They are joined by Lux’s “man” El. They are getting ready to do a sparring show which is how Lux is making his money these days. El uses laser pointers and a fog machine to make an impressive light show which has the audience spell bound. Summer has seen it all and falls asleep. She’s awakened by El pulling her to her feet, trying to get her to run away because her father’s being taken. She runs from him and manages to get to the edge of the crowd, where she sees her father being cuffed by a quiet blond boy who’s explaining in pedantic language to the crowd that her father is being redeemed, not arrested. She wants to run up and pound him, but El pulls her away, throws her over his shoulder, and skillfully knocks her out.

Awesome things to describe: (Here's the gold, people)
the light show
Lux’s eyes
El’s grace
Summer’s drawing
Andrew’s mannerisms
The masculine beauty of Lux’s grace under fire
A look between him and Summer as he’s taken away.
Summer’s soundless grief
El’s skill in knocking her out

Cheesy, right? But each of the things I listed are things I want the reader to feel and love as much as I do, and they propelled me through this chapter. When I was done, I even had a guide for things to work on harder when I edit it.

Can I be honest for a second? Just reading that list again - and I've read it at least a dozen times - makes my breath a little harder. My heart beats a little strong because I'm in love with my story, and this helps me focus on what it is I love about it.

Not everybody needs this kind of thing. Other people will have their own ways of doing it. But this is what worked for me, and I hope it will help someone else find their way, too.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Unicorn Farts

The main reasons I read and write (and play tabletop/computer games, for that matter) are escapism, straight up. That’s probably one of the reasons I start with setting in my development process.

I start with this explanation to show that I totally understand wanting to make something near and dear to your heart a special experience or relating to it as such. That being said:

This is straight up horseshit.

Ideas do not come to any writers from some mystical plane filled with elves and spaceships (or rape and dick chopping, depending on what you're doing).  Sure, sometimes writers get inspired, everything comes together and the words come like conversation with an old friend.  There's nothing magical about that beyond being in the right state of mind.  You can have good days where you're really on the ball for a lot of things, but nobody is going to romanticize the source of your incredibly well-crafted and presented spreadsheet.

Ideas are spurred by something, even if we can't nail down what that something is immediately.  Apply a little introspection, trace back your thoughts and there's an excellent reason you had the idea you did.  We don't need to talk about it like we're traipsing about a world of dreams.  That kind of does a disservice to the hard work writers put in to what they put together.  It also discourages introspection that may allow a writer to dig down and understand themselves and use that understanding to improve their craft.

On the same vein, language like "I'm just listening to my characters talk to me" is, while a nice internal paradigm, unnecessarily mystifying the process when we talk to people.  I suppose my concern is primarily with those who wish to become writers or who are relatively new to the craft.  I can see where it would be disillusioning to conceptualize writing as a fairy tale adventure when really it's mostly just hard work.  When I'm creating a character, I'm imagining a person and, essentially, role playing them to myself.  I do not have a telepathic connection to some other person somewhere, as much as I would like to.  I make very conscious choices about how a character works, and saying "it just comes to me" isn't going to help somebody else who wants to write.

Basically I'm just angry that this wasn't a documentary.

As a closing note, though, I don't want to discourage these paradigms for internal consumption or among groups of writers that are well past the point where they might mistake Fairyland with the Word Mines.  If everyone's on the same page, great!  No harm no foul.  In talking about writing to wider audiences, though, one might want to consider the realities behind our fiction. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More on Process.

At least, my process.

I may have mentioned before that I am currently writing a book set in a militaristic magitech fantasy setting.  I probably need to work on my elevator speech for it, since the other day someone asked me what it was about and my reaction was basically:

 My inability to tell you about my story does not inspire confidence in regards to its quality.

Fortunately, this medium lets me put my thoughts together in a slightly more organized fashion.  The plot of my first book is a combination of a Wizarding School story mixed with a missing-persons mystery in the nearby city that unfolds into a much larger threat.  The two threads begin to coil together, with our precocious protagonists encountering the law officer investigating the case by being where they shouldn't and have to deal with an unfolding crisis while still attending class at a place that is basically Harvard meets Ender's Battle School meets Hogwarts. 

Hogwarts Military Institute.

Plotting out the general direction of the mystery has been fairly straightforward since I'm working backward from what I know is going on; I have a lot of fun figuring out different ways my characters can figure out what is going on.  This is a fairly intuitive process and makes writing the mystery part pretty easy.

What has been much less easy, and where I've been stuck until recently, has been my precocious teens.  I have general ideas of what sources of conflict should be, but for a while I didn't have any specific path that I had set down.  This left me unsure of where to write to or what I should necessarily focus on.  This is not an unusual problem for me; I typically build a story in order of Setting->Characters->Plot.

I decided that the easiest (and possibly even best!) way to figure out what should go on was to take a look at what other writers have done.  I took three books about Wizarding schools and did a quick plot overview of each: Harry Potter, The Name of the Wind and A Wizard of Earthsea.  I ended up junking A Wizard of Eathsea as it wasn't quite as good as I had remembered, but the other two gave me a lot of insight into how I should arrange things occurring and what kinds of elements I should focus on and when.  It let me know that I need to design some specific rivals for our intrepid heroes so I could introduce them nowish.  It let me know that I needed to get a little bigger in revealing the more magical elements of the setting.

It hardly took me any time at all, and now I feel silly for not having done it sooner.  Now I have many more ideas for what I want to do and a path for what I need to do.

Now I just need to, you know.  Do it.

 Oh sure, I get pissed that everyone is LITERALLY TALKING IN RIDDLES and suddenly *I'm* the asshole.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

3 Ways to Start Writing Deep POV Today

Have you ever gotten to the end of a story without caring about the protagonist? Or worse, have you ever put a book down after a chapter or two because you just couldn’t be bothered to continue? Chances are great that the author kept you at arm’s length by writing too shallow a point of view. Basically, the protagonist didn’t love you enough to let them into your head. It’s not you. It’s them. So don’t take it too seriously.

On second thought... do. Because you’ve got this story of your own, right? And you don’t want to let your own readers down. You want to be emotionally available to them. You want to make them ache. You want to make them scream. You want to make them laugh and cry.

So resolve to be different. To do better. 

But how? How do you engage your reader? How do you make them fall in love with the characters that live so vividly inside your head?

The answer is all about point of view.

What is deep point of view?

Shallow point of view: Red Riding Hood decided to take a walk. The road she walked on was rocky and long, so by the time she got to her grandmother’s house, she was tired.
Deep point of view: It was a cool, breezy fall day, and Red wasn’t really up for housework. She needed to be outside. Why not take a walk in the forest and visit grandmother? Instant karma, right? By the time she arrived, her muscles throbbed and her feet ached, but it was a good ache. Totally worth it.


Okay, so, shallow point of view tells the story from outside the mind of the viewpoint character. A well-defined POV will be right over the character’s shoulder, but might still be from outside. The language is clean and sterile. Details will be from the reader’s perspective, not from the character’s.
Deep POV slips right behind the character’s eyes. The narrative language is the narrative inside the character’s head. Their words, not yours. The reader feels, not in response to the character and the events, but with the character and through the events.

So how can I start?

Here are three simple ways to start writing Deep POV. This list is a jumping off point, not a comprehensive guide. Deep POV is an art form, not a science. There’s no one right way to do it. As you think about these tips, be reading other stories, particularly modern fantasy and sci-fi, and watch how the writer sharpens her POV.

1.       See What the Character Sees

When you walk into your living room, do you take in all the details at once, in a counter-clock-wise motion, while also noting the exact shade of the paint on the wall and the family history behind the displayed artwork? Course not! You’re seeing what’s important right now. If you’re tired, you see only your chair. You sink into it, noting how comfy the cushions feel under your aching muscles. You see the magazine you knock to the floor when you put your feet up and then you notice the dust crusting the TV when you flick it on. When the phone rings and you have to drag yourself out of the chair, you notice that the one of the screws that holds the phone to the wall is coming undone and the lime green paint is started to chip loose where the base of the phone is rubbing against the wall each time you bump it. And why the hell is your apartment so small that you’re bumping against the phone, anyway? Clearly you need a better-paying job. Of course it’s your boss on the other end of the line and while he berates you through the receiver, you peer into the connecting kitchen, hypnotized by the second hand spinning around the Elvis-themed clock your grandmother gave you last Christmas, and as he talks and talks, the hand seems to slow almost to a crawl. Now, I’ve never met you, and I’ve never been in your apartment before, but I see the whole thing now, all through your eyes.

2.       Talk the Way the Character Talks

In our geek and writing group, there are people from all different parts of America and all across the world. Rcently, we had a weekend-long conversation, with almost five hundred comments. About what? Beans on toast: yes or no? Through that conversation, we learned about different kinds of food in different parts of the world, different words that mean different things to different people, and different ways that people feel about things that you would think were the same.

Mostly, we learned that we’re all different. That those differences make us interesting, and they don’t have to make us dislike each other. We can learn from each other.

Your characters need to have these same kinds of differences. How do they think about the world? For example, what word do they use for people of a different gender? A man who thinks about lovely ladies is a very different sort of man than the sort who thinks about sexy chicks. Another man entirely might categorize different women using words like sluts, bitches, and dykes. Your reader probably won’t like that man — I only just wrote him and I already kind of hate him — but it’s a strong way to define a character, isn’t it?

Here are just a few ways to differentiate narrative voice. There are many, many more:

Education: Is your character intelligent or poorly educated? Do they use long, poetic words or short, punchy ones?

Slang: Do they use slang? How much? What kind of slang? Are they using is habitually, or are they being ironic?

Geographic background: Where are they from? How does that affect their words?

3.       Feel the Way the Character Feels

Traditional narration is emotionless. Deep POV swims with emotion. Drips in all over the reader. If something exciting is happening, the narrator may use obscenities or ejaculations. The narration may express surprise, disappointment, reluctance, or judgement.

Shallow POV: Susan was confused and felt sad. She didn’t understand why this was happening.
Deep POV: Why was this happening to her? What had she done to deserve it? Susan’s eyes stung with unshed tears. Life just wasn’t fair.

Shallow POV: Landon had waited impatiently for the names on the list. When it was finally released, he was disappointed to be named the understudy rather than the lead actor. He didn’t feel that Jerry was as good as an actor as he was, but he resolved to learn the part anyway.
Deep POV: Bullshit. Jerry? Jerry got the part? Jerry couldn’t act his way out of a detention, let along play Peter Pan with the flair and panache the part deserved. Bullshit! Mrs. Haney liked him better; that was all. Kiss-ass. Whatever. Maybe Jerry would get sick and he’d need to step in. Landon Harrison would be the best damn understudy the Steelton High Drama Club had ever seen.

Well, what do you think?

Can you make your reader care about your main character? Try it right now. Even if you are already working through deep POV, take a few paragraphs out of your WIP and follow each of these steps to deepen it further. Share the results with us in the comments below!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sharing Is Caring

I don’t pretend to speak for every writer, but for most of us there comes a time when we want to share what we’ve made. To talk about it, to fan over it, to give it to someone else.

This is a good urge. I’m not talking about the urge to show off here, though that is natural and (sometimes) good in a number of ways, like when you’ve done something you’re particularly proud of and you want to show a friend.

Look here. Writing—art—is about connection. Maybe you do it alone with the lights off, but you’re still trying to speak, to communicate, with someone. Here’s something. The book is different for every reader, right? How are you going to know how it reads to someone else if you never share it?

Of course, there’s an etiquette to this. For example, it’s best not to ask a working writer, especially one who’s working as a writer, to read for you. It’s absolutely a gesture of respect to the writer involved, but it’s best to wait and see. Let him or her offer. Most often, they don’t have time, and many of them (okay, I) feel bad for saying no to you. If we’re really interested, we’ll ask for it.

Ultimately, I think the best place to share more than a couple hundred words is with your writers’ group, where you have all agreed to set aside time for each other’s work.

No, it doesn’t work for everyone. But sharing your writing is the fast track to improvement. Some people like to have just one critique partner. This works best at or near your own skill level—you learn together. I’ve done that, too, and found it an excellent way to grow as a writer. Is it hard, sometimes, to find beta-readers and others who will give you critique? Sure it is. But it’s worth it.

Share it. There’s no way it’s the worst thing in the world. Trust me.

Look here again. This is a lesson I need to learn every day. Your eyes are nobody else’s eyes. Everybody reads a different thing, even if it’s the same thing. If you can reciprocate, do it, and take the work you’re presented with seriously, even if it’s not your particular cup of tea. It’s as important to the person who shared with you as your work is to you. They’re as excited about it as you are about sharing yours. It’s a gift: “Look at my naked soul. Look what I’m excited about.”

Just keep that in mind.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Mad Science of Inspiration

Famous authors seem to get tired of being asked, "Where do you get your inspiration?" Maybe I'll be famous enough to be tired of that question one day. I get the feeling that authors don't like it because they don't know the answer or it's too complicated to quantify.

Pish. How hard can it be to say where you got your inspiration from? It's an easy answer: EVERYWHERE.

What a writer's brain looks like:
(kind of like a serial killer's obsession
board, eh?)
Authors are like Dr. Frankenstein. They dig up inspiration in graveyards. They steal it from hanged corpses. They pay off shady characters to steal it from the morgue. Sometimes its donated freely. Hell, sometimes it drops from the sky to land at their feet.

Shall we look at how a writer becomes Dr. Frankenstein when it comes to writing? I'm going to use my own books as examples because I can speak best from my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

Bazaar Dreams

The Bazaar is the first book I've published but not the first I wrote by a long shot. It started as a dream that was so vivid it stuck with me and nagged at me until I was forced to write it down. Of course, I had this great idea: a magical bazaar, a woman in desperate need of help, a giant spider bursting from the head of what looked like an ordinary human but I didn't have any framework for it. Sometimes ideas come to you that don't have any anchors. This one didn't have an anchor. Who was the main character, anyway? The lady who needed help? My character in the dream who wanted to help? What was the point of the story, beyond having the epic visual of a spider splitting a person open and crawling free? When the dream came to me, I knew it would have to be a book. I let it percolate, knowing that eventually, my Dr. Frankenstein imagination would cobble together a whole monster from the pieces.

Dreams are great fodder for stories. Sometimes the dream IS the book. Another story I'm writing, Hell Wrecker, came to me as a fully formed story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course, it wasn't until I started writing it that I realized there was more to the characters than I could ever hope to fit into the story the way I'd dreamed it. In dreams, you just know that the character had a bad childhood and you hold that story in your head. In books, you have to work in the back story in a way that won't clog up the main story. For this book, it meant accepting that what I thought was a complete story arc was actually the middle and last part of a book that actually started many years earlier. 

So, from tiny bits of ideas to fully-fleshed stories, dreams are a tremendous resource for ideas. If you have trouble remembering your dreams, start making it a habit to write down the last things you remember the minute you wake up. It will get you in the habit of remembering and will greatly enhance your ability to catch your dreams. 

So, besides dreams, where else have I found ideas?

Creeptastic Conversations

I am revising and editing Bug Queen right now. The idea for it came to me in a conversation with M. A. Ray, one of my fellow epic authors here on the Scriptorium Blog. I don't remember how the conversation got started, but I remember jokingly saying, "Wouldn't it be cool to have a lady who could control bugs? I see her with this giant tornado of bugs behind her and her in control of them all." It was a fun conversation but the idea stuck and soon I was writing about Vedalia and Sabra and an alien bug called the Calx and an insidious alien fungus come to take over Earth. From a silly conversation to a book. How's that for awesome?

Sometimes you're in public or sitting with friends and someone says something that catches your imagination. Once, long ago when I was riding on a bus (ugh), I overheard a woman say, "My husband told me his contribution to our marriage was his paycheck" That has stuck with me through the years because it's so evocative. Someday I'll write that story. Until then, it sits in my memory banks, waiting for the right moment to come along. 

Just like dreams, some of the ideas that come from conversations won't have an anchor. They aren't a story in and of themselves. They need cobbled together with other ideas from other places. This is where the Dr. Frankenstein method of creation comes in. Take a dream idea and sew it to a conversation idea and see what happens. It may work great or it might destroy the city in a rage. You just never know until you strap it to the table and crank it up onto the roof to get struck by lightning.

Singing Past the Graveyard

Graveyards are great for inspiration too
Music is often an inspiration to me. From powerful lyrics to a sexy beat, from the mood of the piece to the place where I first heard it, songs often spur ideas. Sting writes songs that spark pictures in my head. It's one reason I love listening to his music. It's like dreaming when I listen, and I love to dream. Sometimes songs help me write scenes and sometimes they are the impetus for a book. 

Lovers on the Sun by David Guetta and featuring Sam Martin is a song that is a book to me. I just haven't written it yet. It's a song that paints all sorts of epic scenes for me, I just have to find the anchor and get them on paper. I don't have any stories I've written solely from a piece of music because more often, songs act as the filler for my stories rather than the inspiration for them. They help me find pieces of scenes that weren't there before, and they help me find the emotional depth that wouldn't have been there without that music. 

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

We have inspiration all around us if we're open to it. A news story might spark the idea for a book, the way an article about teenagers dying mysteriously led to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I'm often inspired by books I've read, either because the book was so good, I want to write like that too, or the book was so bad, I know I could write better. Sometimes, a book almost works but some element really disappointed me. In that case, I try to figure out how I could write a story that gives me what that book failed to do. I have a story in progress tentatively called Endless Winter, that comes from that space. By the time I'm done with it, I doubt anyone will ever know where the inspiration came from, but it will be my answer to the book that royally screwed up (in my mind) what could have been a great story.

Other places to find inspiration would be non-fiction books. If you're hurting for ideas, go visit the non-fiction section of your local library. There are a million ideas waiting for you there. Or pieces of ideas, anyway. You might take out a book on serial killers, on Abraham Lincoln, and on myth and come up with a great story. (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Maybe that's how the author came up with his book, eh?) You might pick up a book on knitting, a book on hunting, and a book on the American Revolution and end up with Betsy Ross, Bounty Hunter. Who knows? The point is to keep your mind open. Ideas can't get in if you don't welcome them.

Inscribed in Blood

A vampire! Now with more nipple,
Another great place to find ideas is in your own writing. I've gotten lots of story ideas from my books. Perhaps there's a character who's a bit player in your novel who you think would make a great main character in your next book. Maybe you mention a town in a short story that you realize would be the perfect setting in the werewolf book you're writing next. The cool thing about writing is that you're using your imagination as you do it and when you exercise that muscle, it grows bigger and stronger. Imagination atrophies if you don't use it. 

One of the books I wrote, Blood Curse, came from a what if idea: what if the Renfields were a family who served vampires through the ages and considered it an honor but one of the daughters hated vampires? I played around with the idea for a long while but didn't get anywhere until I anchored it to writing I'd done in high school. I had characters from pirate stories I wrote then that needed new life. I took those characters and folded them into this idea. Voila, I suddenly had people with backgrounds and personalities ready and willing to play out their parts in my story. 

It's Alive! It's ALIVE!

I think people ask the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" because they think that the author must lead an amazing, fascinating life full of adventure. Writers, though, understand that everything is story fodder. The plain room with the dull white walls and the nasally bureaucrat behind bullet-proof glass IS story as much as the high-speed chase that ends in a shoot out. Writers borrow from EVERYTHING, which is why they probably have a hard time saying where their ideas come from. It's not just one place but many, and they don't usually arrive whole, those ideas. They are in pieces like a serial killer's victims and the author has to pick up the bloody bits of flesh and stitch them together in a way that makes sense. Then they have to breathe life into the creature and hope that the creature doesn't fall apart upon scrutiny.

Writing is all about using what you have to create new, wonderful things. Don't think that just because you live in Nowhere, USA or Boring, China that you have nothing to write about. Of course you do. Take bits and pieces from everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, every song you listen to, and every conversation you hear and put those things together to make something amazing. Hit that shit with lightning and raise your hands high with exultation as you scream, "It's alive! It's ALIVE!!"