March 9, 2020 • No Comments
Consider setting versus worldbuilding. According to Novelist and screen writer Chuck Wendig, when we say worldbuilding “We’re talking about the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — world building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.”
That means there is work to do on your story. The basic place to start is forming a clear picture of your setting. Chances are, it is a real place or it is similar to a real place that can be investigated.
If you’re writing about a real time and place, research the history of your setting up to the time period you’re working with. Your characters will know the history–at least the recent history–of their world, so you need to as well.
- One question you might ask is who founded your location? Why?
- Does that matter to your story (for instance, what would the old prime-time soap opera Dallas be without the oil industry)?
- Think about taking your story and putting it someplace really different. How much of it would work? What would you have to change? What does that say about your choice of time and place?
Writers with a contemporary setting need to do as much or even more research. People live in the city you’re writing about, and they’re not a homogeneous group.
- Different parts of an existing town have different characteristics.
- Different groups of people have different hangouts, different language, different food, dress, etc.
PRO TIP: Climate is important and often a defining characteristic of a region. However, don’t assume. Most of the world thinks of Canada as snow country. Victoria, where I live, has palm trees and rarely more than a few days of snow a year.
You might want to make a story bible, which is a collection of facts, documents, ideas, and everything else about your story world. This is a lifesaver if you’re doing a series.
Here are some tools:
An article on How to use Scrivener for Worldbuilding
An amazing customizable template from Sarah Perlmutter
The type of information you collect and how you collect it will depend entirely on your story and working methods. The only important thing is that you keep the relevant information in a way you can access quickly. Start collecting information before it becomes unwieldy. The time when I normally decide I want a story bible is long past the time when it would be convenient to start one.
Other, more entertaining ways to deal with research:
- Youtube videos about places
- Blogs about visiting places
- Pinterest for pictures of places
Of course, the very best option is to visit a location. Taste the food. Smell the air. Feel the dryness or humidity, and whether the atmosphere is high and clear or soft and sea level. Look at the flowers. Fall in the mud (speaking personally). Find out what is the same and different from the place you live.
March 6, 2020 • 2 Comments
Here is the map (beautifully done by Zenta Brice) for the Crown of Fae series:
March 2, 2020 • No Comments
Why care about a story’s setting?
A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”
This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.
Setting is way more than a blob of description.
It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set: the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.
One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense. In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.
Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)
Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them. It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.
Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.
Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.
Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city. Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.
December 31, 2019 • 2 Comments
Some authors are posting dazzling lists of publications, and I heartily salute their accomplishments. I thought I would have a bumper crop of books, too, when this year started. Somehow, though, things changed along the way and the year didn’t end the way I thought. 2019 was a dumpster fire for a lot of people and, while I count myself lucky, I didn’t entirely escape the smoke. 2020 will be better.
What did I actually get in front of readers this year?
- In January, did a re-release of an older book that rounded out my 2018 goals.
- Released two books in box sets, hit the USA Today bestseller list for both, and then put them in the vault for later.
- Published an essay in an academic work.
- Wrote a short story that’s now a lead magnet.
- Got my extended print distribution onto Ingram Spark.
- By the end of this week, I’ll have finished a draft of a new, full length, first-in series.
I also investigated a lot of marketing courses, played with various ad platforms, and listened to many podcasts. That’s all hard to quantify as achievement, but it will serve me well in future.
Where did that get me?
I think it’s safe to say all authors want enthusiastic fans and financial freedom. It’s not an impossible dream, but it’s not an easy road. It requires groundwork such as intelligent branding, scheduling, and development of infrastructure like engaged newsletter lists, reader funnels, and social media. There are a thousand choices to consider, and dozens of platforms to learn. It’s all behind-the-scenes stuff readers don’t consciously notice and most authors despise unless they have an aptitude for business. However, it’s like gas for a car. It stinks, but you don’t go anywhere without it.
2019 was my trip to the gas station. I’m not done putting everything together, but I’m well on the way. Part of the process has been discovering what mix of marketing makes sense to me, given my time, money, and introvert tendencies. I’ll probably blog more. I’ll review craft resources. I’m also very interested in sharing some of the ingredients that go into world building, especially with the fantasy stuff. I think it’s going to be fun.
And 2020? I haven’t scheduled it all yet, but I’ll have a nice list of the year’s releases by next New Year’s Eve. I’ve put in the work to be ready.
October 10, 2019 • No Comments
Unfortunately, the income of most authors is not enough to sustain a mouse, much less a modern household in a large urban city. Without a doubt, this is the most common reason for the rise of the weekend warrior writer, who toils for pay five days a week and pounds on the keyboard during weekend hours. The disadvantages of this state are obvious—who doesn’t want to be a full-time writer rather than drudging for someone else? Plus, if one is serious about a writing career, the time commitment is equivalent to a second full-time job.
But there are also advantages to a double life.
- Some of us actually like our day jobs (or at least the benefits package)
- Part-time writers might have fewer titles under their belt, but they may have gained other useful busness skills.
- It’s far easier to let the imagination frolic when there’s less pressure to succeed.
- If writing to a niche market is your thing, financial security allows you the luxury of taking a creative risk. So, go ahead and write that book of your heart about vampire sheep conquering distant galaxies!
Whatever the trade-offs, we do what’s necessary to get words on the page. So here are some survival tips for writing around the edges of your day:
Organization is obviously important for any home business, whatever its nature. For us, this means breaking down writing, marketing, and production tasks into manageable bites and fitting them into our schedules. There are people who can squeeze in writing time in uncanny circumstances, but others get more mileage by blocking off set times for creation. The important point is to manage time in an intentional way. If I go with the flow my day is soon circling the drain.
I’ve experimented with an endless series of calendars and apps like Things 3 to corral my to-dos. I need something that offers repeating reminders (daily, weekly, or monthly) and groups tasks by project and type (writing, personal, household, etc.). The combo of ideal tools will vary with every person, but the basic goal is to avoid reinventing the to-list every morning. Ideally, your app fairies have that figured out before you roll out of bed. The less time spent puzzling over the day’s tasks, the more time can be devoted to actually crossing items off the list.
Know your peak productivity times. Some people can knock off a thousand words before breakfast. Others (like me) are night owls. Put your creative time where (and when) it counts. I might be able to schedule Tweets in the morning, but don’t ask me to make complete sentences, recognize faces, or handle anything sharp. Once, I actually put cat kibble in the coffee maker.
Be professional. Show up fully wherever you are. In other words, leave writing at home and work at work. Keep your deadlines and commitments, whatever hat you’re wearing. Bottom line: avoid emailing your manuscript to your boss by mistake.
Respect your muse. Writing can a hard business, with a ton of expectation placed on our creative selves. In particular, there is a lot of pressure to produce material quickly, which is especially hard when writing time is hard to get.
Deep breath! It is possible to get faster with practice. Solid plotting skills and a regular writing routine naturally increase the pace of book production. Drafting by dictation speeds things up for me, but it took months to produce something beyond stream of consciousness babble. Sadly, there is no magic software that makes you write a bestselling novel in two weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried them all!
Most of all, be patient with yourself. Weekend writers aren’t on a learning curve, we’re on a mandala, looping in and out and around everything else to pursue our path. We’re proof positive that there are plenty of ways to find success, even if it’s by the scenic route.
October 9, 2019 • No Comments
The Hellion House series (the first installment, Scorpion Dawn was introduced in the Rogue Skies box set) involves a great many floating objects. The plot centers around the Fletcher family, who own one of the largest and wealthiest airship fleets in the city. Besides being nifty, the airships serve an important purpose in their adventure.
Don’t leave home without one
Haunted by hungry creatures, the wilderness is extremely dangerous. Humanity has been driven into walled enclaves. No one dares to travel outside the city on horseback, much less on foot. The only options are by water—which is extremely risky—or by airship.
How does humanity retake the countryside from lethal foe? The only way to find allies and solutions is to look outside the city, and the only way reach new friends is through the clouds.
There’s money in the sky
The patriarch of the family, Norton Fletcher, wields considerable social influence. Fletcher Industries has made the family rich and respected even though the founder is a commoner who came from nothing. But every success comes at a cost. Who will pay it?
October 7, 2019 • No Comments
Editing advice is depressingly easy to come by, especially when our work in progress is circling the drain. That’s when the armchair editors come out to play, usually with a sympathetic shrug and sad eyes. Then they gingerly toe our story as if it were a roadkill raccoon.
Once we get past the impulse to bash those know-it-alls over the head, we are at the point of autopsy. That’s when we survey the wreckage with an ache in our chests, wondering whether to draw the sheet over our darling, or make one last heroic attempt at rescue.
I’ve had my fair share of emergency room moments. Deciding whether or not a book is salvageable is tough, but I’ve come up with a diagnostic test I use when I get to about the five-chapter mark, then half way, and then again at the end. This doesn’t cover every possible scenario (I’m always finding new ways to make a mess) but it does hit the probable pitfalls.
Consider these issues before you pronounce time of deletion. Everything here can be fixed in a thorough edit.
One: Are your characters acting like real people?
I’ve read books where characters seem to experience a story in isolated episodes, as if they’ve had a brain wipe between page turns. It’s hard for the reader to engage with a protagonist in this detached state. Characters should come across as individuals with complete interior lives.
Take a moment and think about what it would be like to be your protagonist, an ordinary person, shoved into an exciting adventure. Imagine going through events as the chapter progresses as if it were happening to you. What does your character feel? Where in your body does that emotion show up? A clenched jaw? An aching stomach? How does your protagonist continue to function despite those emotions? Now put those feelings on top of the feelings from the last chapter, and the one before that. A writer needs the cumulative impact of all those layers to make character change realistic. It’s okay (and probably useful) for your protagonist to cope badly from time to time.
This is one of many reasons that it’s useful to construct a plot timeline. If your character’s parent is hit by a truck on Monday, they will still be reacting to the incident on Tuesday. It doesn’t hurt, when starting a fresh chapter, to make a few notes about the character’s state of mind going in. This is especially helpful if there are breaks between writing sessions and the material isn’t fresh in your mind.
Two: Are you keeping secrets?
This is related to the point above. I have occasionally questioned one writer or another about why a character does XYZ and been given a long monologue about the character’s thoughts, feelings, family dynamics, ambitions, grade school experience, etc. Note to author: it doesn’t count if I can’t read it on the page.
Check when you are revealing information, especially where it reinforces motivation. I know we’re all afraid of the infodump, but being coy is just as harmful. It annoys and confuses readers and frequently makes the characters appear to require strong psychiatric medication.
Three: Do you have the right amount of story for the length of your work?
A well-written story can come in any length, but sometimes that short story we think we’re writing turns out to be a surprise novel. That’s okay, as long as we don’t try to squish it back into a short story-sized container.
To figure out if your story is too short or too long for your chosen format, here are some questions to ask:
- Does every section (chapter, scene, or whatever unit you’re using) relate to the main conflict in terms of action, character, or theme?
- Does every section contain enough of its own conflict to be interesting?
- If you left the section out, would it matter to the overall story?
- Are any important events happening off stage? Does the event take more than two sentences to explain? If so, cut it out or …
- Would it raise the tension in the story to show those events on stage in real time?
- Can any other exposition be turned into action or at least a conversation?
- Is there enough rising action and setbacks to make us doubt the outcome of the story?
- Are all important character traits/relationships demonstrated on screen?
Four: Is your climax in the right place? Are the right people participating in it?
Go ahead, think about the sexual double entendre. It fits.
We all know the big finale should happen close to the end of the book. Romance has a climax for the exterior action (the villain is stopped) and then one for the interior conflict
(the romance receives its final test). I would argue that most character-driven work has this double climax in which the action resolves and then the protagonist(s) gain final insight. It’s the best way to iron in a satisfying character arc. Although there are always exceptions, to put these peaks too soon or in the wrong order can make for a less than satisfying end.
Also, please ensure the main character is a participant in the climax. Not an observer. Not hearing about it from a friend. Not using a peephole. They need to personally impact the outcome of events or the reader feels cheated for spending so much time with someone who clearly doesn’t matter.
Five: Do you have too much beginning?
This tends to be an issue with bigger books or series, but it can happen with short ones as well. This is a good moment to consider whether the overall work is the right size (see above) because the beginning sets the expectation of how the whole story will be paced. If you whitter on at a leisurely trot and then sprint through the last half, the book feels lopsided.
If you’re already at novel length but need five chapters of exposition to get out of the gate, the best advice I can give is to start with a corner of your universe and build out as you go. Give us ONLY what we need to make it through the first scene. Show us the mud, the castle, the village cow. We don’t actually need the name of the town to know what kind of place we’re in. If you need to add a little something for scene number two, then dribble it in when we get there, and so on. Consider that your character doesn’t think about his or her environment all at once. They’re dealing with what’s in front of them, just like we do when we walk out the front door.
Think about the reader experience like vacation travel. Once we’ve checked our luggage, seen the hotel room, and had something to eat, we’re ready to see the sights. That’s when it’s okay to start giving more detail, because the reader has some way to relate it to what they already know.
September 30, 2019 • No Comments
A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox. They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.
As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.
How Do We Create a Character?
There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.
Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.
Character is conflict
What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.
Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.
Let’s build on this idea some more:
One arc or two or three?
How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.
Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:
- There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
- Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
- In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.
The Third Arc
I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.
Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.
While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.
Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.
To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.
September 23, 2019 • No Comments
Most of us experience procrastination at some point in our lives. I’m guilty of some very late night submissions, study blitzes, and (ahem) blog posts that barely slide under the wire. But rather than focus on the less attractive aspects of dilly-dallying, why not embrace the creative potential? Don’t settle for any old delay—go for the procrastination gold!
August 8, 2019 • No Comments