Posts Tagged ‘On Writing’

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

Hands1I like action movies, spicy food, and long walks on the beach. Sounds like a dating site mantra, right? Well, there might be something more to this.

Real people have tastes, real people have likes, dislikes, and preferences. Real people discriminate both positively and negatively. Real people are unique. Shouldn’t our characters share similar attributes?

It’s easy to get lost in our plots, interactions, world building, story structure, prose, and a million other important building blocks of storytelling. But in any great book I’ve read, characters are at the center of it all. Characters who seem like real people.

My advice, learn about your characters. In an outlined, plot-driven story, it’s easy to forget about their decisions. It’s easy to make them do something because the plot requires it. But is that decision something our characters would make if truly given the option? Do we even know?

Spend some time building your characters. Get to know their families and friends. Discover what sorts of people they hang out with, and what they like to do in their free time. What decisions have they made in their past to get them to where they are today? What are their hobbies?

In addition, I recommend truly looking at whether they play inactive or active roles in your story. In other words, are your protagonists responding only to how your antagonist set them up, or are they actively progressing and growing based on their own motivations? Commonly, protagonists play inactive roles in the beginning of stories due to the antagonist’s inciting incident, then grow based on their experiences and interactions. However, most great stories I’ve read show the characters actively making hard decisions and progressing the story themselves – and from the very beginning – instead of being pulled along by the plot.

Now, should all the characters likes, dislikes, and preferences be included in the story? I say no. But as the writer, it is important you know them. Give hints to some, and reveal others. This will make a character jump out of the page and come to life.

In short, characters are people too! Know them better than your best friend, even better than yourself. You alone know their pasts, their present, and their futures. Show us who they are, connect us to them, and we won’t be able to put that story down.

EasterIshtarHappy Easter. Wait, hold on, back up. Easter? What is this “Easter thing” I speak of? Seems like a strange question, but the name alone inspires much controversy. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

For Christians, it celebrates the resurrection of Christ. When I was a kid, the following questions always made me scratch my head. Where did the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs come from? Why is it always celebrated on Sundays? And finally, why do so many non-religious people observe it?

I won’t even begin to delve into this, but it has everything to do with old paganism. Disagree? Yeah, controversy.

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Easter – what it means today, what it used to mean, and why it changed so much. This also got me thinking about holidays in general, which made my mind spin with creativity.

Holidays in writing. What a great opportunity to create culture in a story. So much richness, contention, and differing beliefs exist today in reality, why not transfer this over to world building?

Developing holidays gives us a chance to create cultures and conflict, back-story and religion. If you don’t know where to begin building characters, religions, or plots, you can start with holidays.

easter_egg_huntJust make something up! Call it Purple Tortoise Day! It sounds ridiculous, right? But to those of us unfamiliar, and even to some of us who are, painting Easter eggs and dressing up Christmas trees might also seem ridiculous. Call your new celebration Day of Milk Baths or create a yearly Carrion Carry!

Regardless what you choose, the more ridiculous the holiday you think up, the more interesting it will be, and likely, the richer the history. It will create conflict, religions, and tension potentially before you even come up with a protagonist.

Then, when you set pen to paper to write your story, your world will already be vast. Your characters will feel more real and relatable. Their adventures closer to home. Here’s a point I find very interesting. The majority do not know the true roots or reasons of common holidays, or understand the full picture of their histories. I find this fascinating. Holidays are traditions. Through the years, they change. Meanings lost or twisted. Reasons for certain games and their rules shift. But the spirit of the holidays can remain.

Christians, atheists, agnostics, and every other religion can celebrate Easter in their own ways, or can choose to not celebrate at all.

ChristianEasterThis is what makes holidays so intriguing. You do not need to write exposition in your story as to why it exists. You simply can show your characters celebrating it. The readers will understand your hints of meaning, and will be intrigued as to why certain traditions endure. As the writer, you don’t need to delve into the past to pique your readers’ interest. In fact, doing just the opposite can often help mold a richer culture, develop more tantalizing characters, and reveal hints of a lost history. If done correctly, you will have succeeded in sucking your readers in, and making your story feel more real.

So Happy Easter to all, whether you are Christian or Agnostic. Atheist or Buddhist. Celebrate this special day as you wish, but remember, each day is what you make of it. May you find happiness this day, and the next.

“What the hell are you talking about?” you ask, incredulous at the ridiculous and counter-intuitive title you just clicked.  Horror, especially the graphic sort, is a public menace that desensitizes us to negativity.  In the war between good and evil, positive and negative, light and dark, extreme fiction pulls us out of balance in a direction we should not tread.

This, my friends, is horse manure.

Like any other symbolic product, art that draws on the dark, the nasty, the gruesome, and the violent is received by different audience members in a variety of ways.  I know this because I have experienced horrific art in ways different than others assumed that I would. The idea that because I like something you see as negative means I glorify or support negativity is false.  Personally, I feel like I’ve taken positive lessons from extreme art.

By way of example, let me take you back to my teen years.  Yes, the dreaded 1980s.  Big hair, parachute pants, actual arcades.  The decade was awash in all kinds of subcultural sounds, from pre-Goth, depressing New Wave stuff to dudes in make-up party rock.  Me, I dug on thrash.  Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and of course, Slayer.  You would be correct to assume, with names of that sort, that these bands didn’t exactly sing happy songs.  And as part of the subculture that worshiped these bands, I had many a devil and skull on my bedroom walls.  The thing was, I never took it as bad because I was never a bad person.

So imagine my surprise when one day, based on the Slayer tee I wore, I was accused of being a Nazi.  Turns out, a lot of people thought that the band glorified the Third Reich and supported their ideology.  And maybe they did.  There was certainly some Nazi imagery in the artwork the band chose.  The biggest reason people thought that, however, was because of one of the bands most popular songs, Angel of Death.  The song is about Josef Mengele, and approaches the notorious doctor by singing graphically about his gruesome medical experiments during the Holocaust.  The lyrics pull no punches. They are graphic and nasty. And they are likely in the realm of truth in depicting what this monster actually did.

Now, I freely admit that I did (and still do) really like this song.  The music is fast and the subject matter appeals to my sense of the macabre.  But, I never liked it because it glorified Mengele and the Nazis.  In fact, as gruesome as some of the lyrics were, they are actually presented in a value neutral sort of way.  They come off more as a list of facts.  When I heard the song, I never thought the band was holding Mengele up to be emulated.  I actually took the song to be on the side of the victims.  I took it as an illustration of horror and terror brought down on innocent people, and I tended to empathize with them.

The song sensitized me to the horrific.  The opposite of what many believe horror does.

That influence carries over into what I write today.  I choose, at times, to rub my readers faces in nastiness because I want them to feel it in a visceral way.  No doubt, sexual violence makes frequent appearances in what I write.  But I don’t write it for the purpose of titillation, though I’m aware a small percentage of readers will be titillated.  And I don’t write it just to shock.  I write it because it’s a prominent part of our culture and I want people to engage with it, understand it, and work to integrate the impulses that cause it.  I want to sensitize the reader to the horror a victim experiences so that they will empathize with them.  Hopefully that empathy becomes part of the way they approach the world.  And, I want to sensitize the reader to the darkness that might lead someone to victimize someone in that way.  I want people to empathize with the perpetrator because he is us and he won’t go away by ignoring him. Perhaps that sensitivity will lead to solutions.

Does graphic horror desensitize?  In a world where drone strikes are discussed as body counts and dead innocents are referred to as collateral damage, I think maybe we’d be more sensitive if our noses were rubbed in the smell of burned fleshed and the gore of shattered bodies a little more often.  Go watch graphic scenes of torture in films like Hostel or Martyrs and see if you can still stomach the idea of “enhanced interrogation” or still think it’s okay to farm out information gathering to nations with less restrictive rules.  Irreversible does not make me want to victimize women.  It makes me, by engaging my primal emotions, want to resist their victimization.

So go on out there and fight desensitization.  Get elbow deep in the gutter.  Imagine the out of control.  Empathize with the light by entering the darkness.  Write some extreme fiction.  It can be a public service.

I’m a nice guy. I like fuzzy critters, love my wife, and get all squishy when I think of my first child who is on the way. I can watch a Disney flick and feel uplifted or a comedy and laugh. Friends are awesome, and I live for a good hug.

But I have a dark side.

Despite my sweet disposition, I’ve always been pulled toward the shadowy, lurid, and nasty in literature. Don’t ask me where my fascination with the horrific comes from because I can’t tell you. I do know it’s been there as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child, the one that now haunts me in implication, was an obscure Dr. Seuss with a melodramatic black and red cover. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a simple story really. A poor boy in a long ago kingdom must remove his hat in respect for the king. Unfortunately, every time he takes his hat off another appears on his head. Well, there’s a serious downside for young Bartholomew. People who don’t remove their hats for the king get their heads chopped off. Green Eggs and Ham it ain’t. Why was I drawn to such a dark tale? I don’t know. My attraction just is.

Now, the biggest problem with loving horror is that most people don’t. They wonder why you want to feel bad when you read. Or they think you perverse as they imagine you entertained by death and gore in the same way they are entertained by American Idol.  Being a horror junkie is right next to porn perv on many people’s list of, “What the heck is wrong with you?” It can really get a gorehound down.

With reading, it’s not a huge problem. Reading is private. Reading is safe. When I’m asked about the nature of the book in my hand, a simple, “It’s horror,” is enough to send the majority of folks on their way with just a vague feeling of unease. And if they stay? Well then, they’re probably my people. They’ll get why I keep a list of the best, most awful books I’ve ever read (Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door tops it, by the way). The point is, when reading there’s only minor risk of judgment.

Writing is a whole different animal.

Your writing marks you in a way that reading does not. The words on the page are yours. They are fed by your experience, cobbled together in your mind, depend on your fingers for their existence. Yours. And when people judge it, they point a finger squarely at you. When I present images of torn panties and severed heads, strangled pets and devoured infants, incestuous mothers and child beating babysitters, well, I’m forced to own them. And there is risk in that. People conflate artist and art. Sick art means a sick mind, and illness makes many close the door. When I present my work I tend to wonder, “What must they think of me?”

But here’s the thing. Not everyone sees the art as sick, twisted, and wrong. I’ve had the same depiction of sexual assault derided as disgusting fantasy and praised as aggressively feminist, and I’ve had the same gore soaked scene called excessive and tame.

And therein lies safety.

Art only belongs to the artist until the moment it’s released to the world. From that point on, it belongs to the audience. It doesn’t matter if I intended a tale of bloody infanticide to create rumination on the nature of evil or just to shock the hell out of people. Once the audience has it, the rumination is theirs, the shock is theirs, the judgment is theirs. If they think your work is brilliant it’s because it appeals to something in their head, their heart. Alternatively, it’s their sense of perversity that makes your story excessive, not your excess as an artist. People may be angry at your story and furious at you for writing it, but that affront is their responsibility. The writer generates. Interpretation belongs to the audience.

So, here’s my advice on the choice to write extreme fiction. Be a channel for the stories that choose you as parent and stay secure in your own sense of who you are and what you intend. If you think you’re the next Richard Laymon, go for it. Forget about judgment. It’s out of your hands.

In the many Facebook wall posts, individual blog entries and Meet-up discussions I’ve seen in the short time since the New Year began, I’ve noticed a theme among all of them; “I need to start writing again” or  “I can’t find my motivation,” or “I just have to force myself to write.”

I too have felt the burning desire to get back to writing and, have also experienced the disappointment of not being able to get rolling the way I want to. Rather than disappoint myself into defeat by cracking the whip on my own back, or by setting unattainable goals, I decided to take a step back and just allow myself to grow naturally.

It all started with the first step – deciding which of the three stories that I am currently developing to start with. This in itself may not be an easy choice for some. I decided to work on the rewrite of my completed Erotic Romance novella. I had finished the first draft back in July and have recently received some feedback on the first two chapters from members of Stonehenge, my  Meet-upTM writer’s group, so I felt it was the story that I had the best chance of doing anything with successfully.

The second step was what many folk are having a difficult time with right now. Finding time. I found some time, one hour every morning where I had no distractions, no interruptions and a quiet atmosphere to work in. So I began the rewrite. It wasn’t a very large block of time, but it was something.

The first day I produced a paltry 374 words in that hour. Oh – whoopee! Atta-boy David! You’ve got a good first paragraph (exaggeration – it was really about 5 paragraphs). Needless to say, I was less than exuberant with my results. But then I just had to tell myself that it was a step forward. It was progress after all. Why berate myself on not being able to pen half a book in one hour? It was a success!

Day two was much better. In that one hour window, I had added to my initial 374 words to reach 1100.  Still not a big leap forward but forward progress nonetheless.

Day three I broke 1000 new words in one hour. That was a lot! I was quite proud of myself for the first time since I did 8000 words in one day when finishing the first draft. I looked forward to the next day’s hour with great expectations.

Day four – another 1000 word hour and the story was actually flowing nicely as well. Realizing that my efforts weren’t just creating dribble, that one thousand words in an hour made me feel very good about myself. Again, I looked forward to the next day.

Day five, six and seven have all seen 1000+ word days in that one hour window of opportunity. Something is happening. I’m writing! How can this be? I didn’t even feel stressed or hurried over the past week. I’ve actually got something on paper (well, pixels at least) and it wasn’t the drudgery that I thought it would be. I sort of forgot that I had to write and just wrote.

That’s the trick. Stop telling yourself that you have to write, like it’s a job. Most of us are still doing this as a “hobby” in conjunction with our real jobs, so why make it a task when it should be fun?

Taking that one step further – why feel the need to sit and write for hours on end? Write when it feels good and for as long as it feels good and the work flows. When you hit a hurdle, pause for a moment and try to think it through. If the answer doesn’t come immediately to you, put it down and go do something else. I have found that in working this way, I get through stumbling blocks much easier than I used to. When you are in the heat of the moment, and you come upon a problem, one part of your mind is saying “screw it! I have to get this other information down” while another part fights the first and says, “No! We must solve this problem first BEFORE we go on. The fate of the free world depends on it!”

Both are right to some degree, and if you can skip ahead and continue writing then come back to whatever is hanging you up, then go for it. I have the tendency to get marred down in trying to solve a problem, the result of which is I get frustrated, angry, disenchanted and begin second guessing everything about my story. I get stuck in other words. No one likes that feeling and it is probably why many of us find it difficult to get started after a break. We don’t want to feel that way.

The baby step approach I’ve been describing above has helped me find my groove. I work, not expecting much, but end up achieving a lot. When I feel good, I write. When I am stuck, I walk away and think about it. Usually, I can work through my problems and at the next one-hour writing window, I can implement changes and move on, many time still achieving a 1000 word hour. But the most important thing that helps me maintain this one-hour-a-day schedule is that I feel good and am looking forward to writing. If you can’t feel good about what you’re writing, or even look forward to your writing time with enthusiasm – what’s the point? There’s enough stress dumped on you by life, why dump more needlessly?

I don’t even pretend to assume this method will work for everyone, but it’s working for me right now. So much, in fact, that I’m inspired to share my workflow with the hope that I might be able to help or inspire someone who’s experiencing the same difficulties in finding their happy place.

If you find this has helped you, let me know. If you have a method you find helps you get through the muddy trail, share it here. You might just help me or someone else in the process.

 

Happy writing.

Whether you write in Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction, YA, Erotica, Literary Fiction, Horror, or in any other genre, your world shows us your reality.  Some stories require little world development, (as earth already exists).  However, others require a great deal of thought and imagination.  But whatever story you choose to write, make your world a character.

WorldCharacters.  This main element keeps me flipping the pages of any great novel.  I love experiencing life from inside characters’ minds.  It keeps me on my toes, allows me to feel what they feel, hurt when they hurt, love when they love, and hate when they hate.  Writing from a POV (Point of View) is an incredibly valuable tool to develop.  But what does this have to do with the setting – the world?

Well, how do we experience life but through our senses?  Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.  And let’s not forget what emotions these senses evoke, the reactions they elicit.  Setting can create tension, complement the mood of the scene, add dangers and surprises to the story, and most of all – can interact with the characters.

Imagine a world without weather – a world neither cold nor hot.  A world without sunlight or darkness – without homes, jungles, mountains, beauty, or horrors.  A world we couldn’t interact with.  If we could imagine such an “environment,” it would be a pretty boring place to live.

The setting of a story allows us a unique opportunity to exaggerate real life, show emotion through a storm, torment our characters, and experience beauty of the impossible.  You might already have a great story with interesting character arcs, a tight 3 act structure, and an awesome beginning and end, but if you don’t have a developed setting, you are missing out on a wonderful opportunity for exploration and experience.

One question I ask myself after creating a new world from scratch is:  How much of this should I show in my story?  The answer?  If you’ve done your homework – created fascinating countries and cities with rich history, know the evolution of your plant life and beasts, generated interesting cultures, wars, literature, languages, games, not to mention weather, magic (if necessary), oceans, and naming conventions – do NOT include all of this in your story.  Show only about 1%.  It isn’t possible to include everything, and if you try, your story will turn out heavy and boring.  Fiction is neither the place nor time for telling.  Take a college class or read some non-fiction.

Instead, show.  Don’t tell.  Let us experience and interact with this fascinating world through the characters’ senses.  Don’t tell us of the history of an ancient palace.  Instead, let your character’s hands run over the rough cracks and ancient carvings.  Let us smell the dust in a cellar that hasn’t seen the light of day for a century.  Let us taste the sweet fruit that exists only in your imagination.  Let us fear as your unique beasts threaten us, as your storms thwart us, as your prisons break us.  Let us fall in love with the colors of your mountains, the smells of your food…  The point is, show us the story that exists in your world – don’t tell us of the world itself.

Once you have developed your world, your characters’ interactions will become richer, the plot more interesting, the arcs more tense.  And if your story doesn’t require world-building, still, let the characters interact with the environment.  If we’re in a cafe, I want to know what the coffee tastes like and if its raining outside.  Show me an argument on the streets, subtle looks of passersby, the discomfort of a three-legged chair, the annoyance of being seated beneath a fan on a cold day.  The richness of your setting allows you to show the personalities of your characters, allows them to interact more freely, and creates a more realistic impression on the reader.

So make that setting a character!  Experiment.  Let your surroundings inspire your imagination.  Both most of all, have fun doing it!  The more fun you have, the more you fall in love with your story, and the more involved you are with your characters, the better the reactions of your readers.  They will love you what you love, hate what you hate, smile when you smile, and cry when you cry.

To quote Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

I couldn’t agree more. It is through reading that we grasp how the written word brings other worlds to life. I think it’s safe to say that storytelling has existed just about as long as language has. Every time we tell someone about an experience we had, we are essentially telling them a story. Granted, they aren’t always good tales, but none-the-less, they are still stories.

In just over the last year, I’ve started listening to audiobooks while I work, since it doesn’t interfere with my job. It’s actually how I revisited Stephen King’s On Writing. But here’s the question. Does listening to an audiobook count as actually reading?

I say yes, and no. I think if you have a good grasp of how the written word is properly used, then yes, it can count. Maybe not wholly, but at least a fraction, say 1/3. I often find myself imagining that I’m reading the words as they’re spoken. I also say yes, because you’re exposing yourself to the art of storytelling. However, the reason I say no, is because even though I see the words in my mind, I don’t see the way they are on the actual page with all their punctuation and style. This is why if I have the print copy, and the opportunity, I occasionally like to follow along by reading while I listen.

One of the first audiobooks I listened to at work was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The reason why I listened to the audiobook in the first place, was because I couldn’t stand the writing style employed in the print book, which doesn’t contain quotation marks, and with certain contractions, doesn’t include the apostrophe. I should note that this is intentional by McCarthy, and is part of his unique style which he employs in his other books as well. Many of which have been made into movies. Unfortunately for me, I find I dislike reading his works. However, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Road, as it is a great story. I will add though, that some liberties were taken with the wording in the audiobook version, as certain parts were changed so that it read easier.

In my own writing style, I tend to use a lot of commas. It’s my way of setting the pace and cadence of my writing. I know I don’t always follow the proper rules on the use of the comma, but I’m aware and acknowledged it. It’s my style, and, as much as I’m disheartened by the thought, I’m sure that there is someone out there who won’t like my style, just like I don’t like McCarthy’s.

It’s often been said when it comes to writing, that first you need to learn the rules, so that you can properly break them. Many authors have said this in some fashion or another, and even the Dalai Lama has a similar quotation attributed to him. I’ll admit, in high school, English wasn’t my favorite class. I just couldn’t seem to care what the difference was between a participial phrase and a prepositional phrase. My teachers always praised my writing, so I figured, what did it really matter if I didn’t know all the terms and their differentiation. But when I started taking my writing seriously, I realized that I needed to bone up on my English. I still don’t think you need to learn all the rules, as there are quite a lot of them, but I will admit learning the basics is essential, and any extra beyond that helps. This is where I think reading a lot comes in handy. The more you read, or even listen to audiobooks, the more you absorb how language is properly used. You subconsciously absorb what sounds and looks right on the page.

One of the main things I’ve come away with from being a part of this writing group, is seeing how others interpret my style while reading my works aloud. As a member of Stonehenge, when we submit our works for critique to the group, the author chooses one of our fellow writers, sometimes several, to read aloud what we’ve written. We do this in order to see, or rather, hear, how others interpret our written word. I find this to be extremely helpful.

So, even though my advice isn’t brand spanking new or even a good twist on an old theme, here it is. If you want to be a serious writer; write, read, and listen to audiobooks. And, learn how to properly use the English language so that you can improperly use it effectively.

Stephen King recommends the classic, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I would add to that, A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker. I will also add, that one of the many beauties of the internet, is that almost anything can be found online. If I feel something I’ve written just isn’t quite right, it generally only takes a minute or two of searching to find myself saying, “Doh, that’s what I meant to write.” There are a good number of grammar based sites out there on the web, but one that I find the most helpful is by Mignon Fogarty, AKA, Grammar Girl @ http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

What makes Grammar Girl so great, at least in my opinion, is that it’s also a podcast, which means I get to work at two things at once.

So there you are. Now you have my not so sage advice  to being a writer.

P.S. Since this is a blog based on a writers group, I would feel amiss not to add another little bit of advice. Check out a writers group, at least a few times, and even few different ones. They aren’t all the same, and you may have a hard time finding one that fits you, but they can be beneficial. I will say though that they aren’t for every writer. As a matter of fact, some of my favorite authors are against such groups, believing that the cons outweigh the prose. Yes, that’s an intentional pun. But if you don’t ever give them a shot, how will you ever know? Unless you live rurally, I’m sure there’s one local, and if not, there’s plenty online. And if you’re in the Sacramento area, pop your head in some time.

This post is part of my ongoing series inspired by my revisiting Stephen King’s On Writing. To check out the rest, visit my personal blog @ rienreigns.wordpress.com