Writing Descriptions

Writer's Digest Magazine Sometime ago, I swore off providing writing advice on my blog- my own learning as a writer feels too incomplete.

But that shouldn’t prevent me from sharing great writing advice when I hear (or in this case, read) it.

This little tidbit comes from the January 2014 edition of Writer’s Digest.

In an article entitled, Miscalculations & Missteps, Elizabeth Sims provides some of the best, and simplest, advice when it comes to writing descriptions in fiction.

Here’s the trick: Get going on a description with the attitude of discovering, not informing. In this zone, you’re not writing to tell the readers stuff you already know-rather, you are writing to discover and experience the scene right alongside them.

That paragraph opened a door for me. I hope it does the same for you.

 

My Interview for the Writer’s Knowledge Base Newsletter

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had an opportunity to do an interview with Elizabeth Craig for the Writer’s Knowledge Base newsletter. The issue came out last week, so I thought I’d post the interview here for all you non-suscribers.

If you are an aspiring author, I highly recommend you check out the Writer’s Knowledge Base for a ton of great information to help you achieve your goals. While you’re there, you can also sign up for their newsletter.

 

You had an October 30th release for your first book, “Harbinger–the Bleeding Worlds.” You’ve got its sequel planned for release this spring, and two other books in the pipeline. How do you balance your time between your day job, family to two boys, and writing? Do you keep the same schedule each day, or is your schedule flexible?

My work schedule consists of two 12hr day shifts, then two 12hr nights and then 4 days off. It makes a consistent writing schedule almost impossible. Most of my writing happens in the late night hours after my family has gone to bed. During my night shifts at work I take time between calls to jot down ideas, plot points, etc. and then do some writing on my breaks. In general I try to squeeze 1-2 hours of actual writing into each day.

Any tips for worldbuilding?

After you have some basic concept of plot, ask, “What kind of world would this happen in?” With the Bleeding Worlds, I started with this vision of a boy plunging his arm into the ether and summoning forth power. So I wondered, is this a fantasy world? Is he a magician? I realised very quickly that this was our world in the modern day. Next, I asked, “Is he the first?” No, that didn’t work with my other ideas. So I asked, “If this had been happening for a long time, how would people with these powers be treated?” This led to the idea that the gods of myth were just super-powered humans. I kept on like this, asking more questions. Every answer expanded the world and its possibilities. Then, I dialed it way back, told a story with a small group of characters, and kept the bigger world stuff for future books. In my experience as a writer and a reader, I think it’s best when worlds are hinted at as opposed to blatantly laid out in every detail. It leaves some of the magic up to the reader. It also means less rules you might one day have to break as the writer 😉

What’s your approach to plotting? How did you work out story arc for the first two books of the Bleeding Worlds series?

I always start with an idea or an image. Harbinger was an image of a boy with energy swirling around his arm. Another series I’m working on, Hidden Empires, started with the idea of a princess trying to bring sunshine back to her kingdom. I take these ideas or images and just ask a lot of questions. Why does the boy have this power? Why can’t the kingdom see the sun anymore? Each answer gets written down. As the number of answers grow, I start to see threads that connect them, or a logical sequence that needs to occur.

From there, I use the writing program Scrivener to lay out a few chapters. Each chapter gets a part of the sequence. Then I start writing. I find as the initial chapters develop, they inform the following chapters. It’s a mix of plotting ahead and flying by the seat of your pants. I try to keep a vague endpoint in my mind, but I let the story tell me how I’m getting there.

In terms of plotting a series, it wasn’t until halfway through Harbinger that the larger story took shape in my mind. It happened in response to a simple question I had about one of the characters. That question was, “Why did he leave home?” The answer led to me using the Norse legend of Ragnorok to help structure the series (for spoilers sake, I won’t tell you how the question led to that).

I also find a lot of series related plotting happens in edits. When Harbinger went through edits, I knew a lot more about book two and the series in general, so I left myself room to grow. I also made sure I hadn’t painted myself into any problematic corners.

You’ve got an interesting and fast-paced job as an emergency dispatcher–how does that inform your fiction…or does it?

Every day my job gives me a “I should put that in a book” moment, but I’ve yet to find stories where they fit. Let’s just say that truth can truly be stranger than fiction.

Where it did help in getting Harbinger written was that it taught me you can’t wait to pursue your dreams. Life is fragile and you never know when it will end. I learned to stop talking about writing, and actually get to it. Because tomorrow, I might not get that chance.

Tips for new writers for finishing a book and staying motivated through the process?

First off, find a community. As an indie author, you are constantly bombarded with the message of being on social media for exposure. But the main reason to use it is to meet outstanding people who help and motivate you. Twitter was a major factor in my finishing this book. On nights where I didn’t feel like writing, there were people who cheered me on, or who were just so inspiring that I had to keep writing to chase after them.

Also, accept that the process is long. While my newer books are taking shape much faster, it’s taken me two-and-a-half years to get Harbinger to the point of publication. The first one can be hard-it’s filled with doubt and fear. But don’t stop. The best writing advice I’ve heard, outside of Stephen King’s “Read a lot,” is from Neil Gaiman. His simple answer on how to write was “finish what you start.” This really resonated with me when I finished Harbinger. When I was writing it, I would be filled with doubt. Could I really write a book? Was I even capable of building a plot intricate enough for that? Now, I don’t have those doubts anymore, because the answer is “Yes, I can.” It’s made my writing since far more enjoyable. So stick with it.

Where can we find you online?

I’m a bit of a social media butterfly, but Twitter is always the place I come back to and where I post most regularly.
https://twitter.com/JustusRStone

Naturally my website is always a good place to go, http://justusrstone.com. It also has links to all my social media accounts.

Where can we find out more about your new book?

You can find out about Harbinger, and all other future Bleeding Worlds releases at the official website http://thebleedingworlds.com/

Another place to check out is the Goodreads page for Harbinger http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15745096-harbinger. You can see what other readers think, and add it to your lists!

Thanks so much to Elizabeth for asking me to participate. I hope to converse with all of you online and I hope you’ll give Harbinger a read.

 

Naming Characters

First off… Happy Halloween!

But that also means tomorrow is November 1st. Nanowrimo begins!

I’ve dubbed the month of October Nanoplamo – National Novel Planning Month. For the entire month I haven’t written any new words on a story, I have only laid out scenes and built character profiles. But I came across a large obstacle in my plans; Naming Characters.

This issue was odd to me. In the past, I’ve had a pretty easy time naming characters. Baby name sites are really handy in this regard. I typically search the site by name meaning and then choose the name that feels right.

I started my naming tasks the same way with this book. But no matter how many various sites I visited, I just couldn’t find anything that felt right. My story this time is a fantasy novel, and the names just felt too plain. Which, I suppose since they exist to name a kid in our modern world is kind of the point. But that left my usual source out, so I went searching for another way.

A Google search produced a list of random fantasy naming engines. Most are pretty simple, you just choose a sex for the character and let it rip. But I was never satisfied with the names. Most just felt like hollow names formed from a random arrangement of vowels and consonants (which I think is exactly how they work).

Not good enough. I like my names to have meaning.

So I started looking at names of different angels and deities. Meh, been there, done that. Nothing jumped out at me.

Then I seized upon a new idea. I Googled Online Translator. Naturally, Google presented its own version at http://translate.google.com/. But this worked surprisingly well.

I entered in English an attribute that I associated strongly with the character. Then I translated it into the 63 different languages available.

Here’s the cool thing. While the translator shows you the word written in that language’s native alphabet, you can click on a symbol at the bottom right that will show it spelled out phonetically in a Latin alphabet. A lot of the translations even offer a button that you can hear the word pronounced.

I’ve managed to name most of my characters this way. What I like is that it is still “fantasy” sounding, but it has meaning in our modern world. And that meaning is tied directly to the characters themselves.

If you’re stuck for a unique sounding name, I recommend giving it a try!

yWriter – Useful Writing Tool…. and it’s FREE!

OK, I’m going to admit something embarrassing…  I am lazy.

I know, I know, it’s hard for you to believe, especially when I haven’t posted a blog entry for over 5 days, but it’s true.  I fall so madly in love with ideas, but the second they require true work I buckle.  While this usually means a temporary stall in things such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or getting the garage cleaned out, it becomes unsettling when it prevents me from fulfilling a long-held dream.  Let’s face it, writing is work.  Especially when you create a new Word document for Plot Ideas, each character, each chapter, etc. etc.

I am happy to say I have found the answer to my problem.  Best part, it’s FREE!  Through the help of the Twitter gods, I was pointed to a program called yWriter.

yWriter allows you to do so much.  The best part is that everything is available in the assortment of tabs.  Let’s say you’re about to describe a scar belonging to a character you mentioned 100 pages ago.  The way I used to do things, I had to minimize my writing, navigate to the folder with all my notes files, open that file, find the information on that character, then close that file and return to my chapter.  With yWriter I just click on the Characters tab, find the character, and all the information I’ve created about that person is available.

yWriter also helps you keep track of whose viewpoint you’re telling the current scene from, you can create location information, item information and have it accessible the same way the character sheets are.  Each scene is created in its own RTF file so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket.  But when you’re all finished, you can export the whole thing into Word as a single document so you can do your global print settings and print the thing!

There are a ton of features to this program and I’ve only been skimming the surface so far.  I just wanted to pass along this really useful tool to anyone following the blog, because I think it is a fantastic piece of software that can only make the work of writing a novel easier.  And that’s a good thing for a lazy boy like me.

Not Finished Your Manuscript? Write Your Query Letter Now

You’ve read the headline and now you’re wondering, why would I write my query before I finish my manuscript?  After all, the advice you see on every website says to not send out any queries until after the manuscript is finished, edited and rewritten.  Well, I’m not going to tell you any different.

What I am going to do is give you something to think about.

What is a query?  New writers agonize over them, agents spout platitudes about their importance and they are generally seen as the key to the publishing kingdom.  Forget that.  They might all be true, but focusing on those points creates a distraction.  Besides, that’s not the point I’m getting at.

The query is a statement that uses two to three paragraphs to describe your story and then perhaps a single paragraph that states who you are.  You’ll read lots of advice on writing queries, but they will all tell you to include these two components.  It is because of these two components that I suggest you write it early on, like now, maybe before you write a single word.

The query in this sense becomes your mission statement.  Every time your story feels overly complicated and you think you’re losing track, you look back to those simple paragraphs and you remember the essence of your tale.  Distilling your story to its core early on will keep it omni-present in your mind.  This will give you cohesiveness.

It is not only the story the query distills, it is also your identity as a writer.  Remember, you and your story are a package.  Both need to be sell-able.  There have been interesting conversations about online identities and figuring out who you are as a writer.  Once again, your query not only serves as a mission statement for your book, it also serves as a mission statement for yourself.

The query is about selling yourself and your work.  If early in the game you can write a query that sells you on your book and your identity as a writer, it will be all that much easier to sell those things to someone else down the road.  No one will love you until you love yourself, KWIM?

Maybe someday I’ll feel competent enough to write a post on how to write a query.  Until then, I’ll provide you with a link to Adventures in Children’s Publishing where they link to examples of  Successful Kid Lit Query Letter Examples.  Feel free to add any great websites you know of that provide instruction on writing queries in the comments.

Two fabulous posts about plot

In my previous post on plot, I was very open about my sloppy approach to writing.  As a matter of coincidence, Twitter delivered two fabulous article links that deal with plot development.

I loved both of these articles.  I’ve been doing my best not to turn my site into nothing but recommended link after recommended link, but I just have to put these out there, especially considering my own lack of expertise in this area.

First up is a link to the first of three articles that author Laini Taylor wrote dealing with plot.  In this article Part 1: What is Plot? she tackles very quickly the nature of plot and also discusses the difference between narration and dramatisation and how each can be useful.  Do yourself a favour and continue on to Part 2: Character, Motivation, and Conflict & Part 3: Structure.  Though I’m sure you’ll be hooked just as I was.

Secondly, I’m sending you over to Plotting Made Easy – The Complications Worksheet. This article is written by Martina Boone.  Two things I really liked about this article 1)The structure reminds me a bit about the Hero’s Journey, which I talked about just the other day 2)It really is an uncomplicated checklist of items to help guide and inspire.

The other thing I love about these articles is that the authors sound like they started where I am, lacking the clearest of plans.  They have gone through trial and error and come out with these ideas.  I’m giving them a very close look and thought I would pass along.  Hope it helps me and you 🙂

The Hero’s Journey or I Need A Stronger Main Character!

Luke Skywalker did it in Star Wars.  Simba did it in the Lion King.  Heck, even Frodo and Harry Potter were in on it.  What is it?  The Hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell first published his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in 1949.  Campbell looked at a vast number of classic myths and fairy tales, and from those he found there was one grand schematic that applied to virtually all of them.  This schematic has since been referred to as The Hero’s Journey.  Campbell summarised the journey as;

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In describing the “monomyth” Campbell lays out several stages.  Not many myths or stories contain all of the steps, but may skip some or focus exclusively on one.  Giving thought to multiple book stories, book one might focus on the first third, book two on the second, and book three on the final third.  The steps Campbell lays out are;

  • The hero starts in the ordinary world.
  • An event occurs that draws the hero into an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure).
  • Accepting the call to enter this world, the hero must face challenges (a road of trials).  The hero may face these trials alone or with help s/he has earned along the way.
  • If the hero survives, the hero might receive a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge.
  • The hero must then decide whether to return with the reward (the return to the ordinary world).  If the hero decides to return to the ordinary world, s/he will most likely encounter more trials on the way back.
  • If the hero succeeds in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

For more in depth, you can visit this page for the Hero’s Journey Summary of Steps.

When we talk about a shared human experience, the Hero’s Journey is certainly present in all people.  Looking at the modern films that have found worldwide success, almost all of them follow this general schematic.  It is perhaps because we see this journey as a metaphor for our own lives.  After all, I think we all have moments in our lives where the world feels strange and alien.  How we cope with the trials life gives us lead to insight.  Our myths, books, movies, even video games, are the everyday struggle of people blown to fantastical proportions.

However, there is something pretty key about the Hero’s Journey.  Something so vital and instrumental that without it, your tale is certain to fail.  That is, naturally, the hero.  Without a hero there is no story.

This past weekend, I started reading two books on writing.  One was Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life and the other was Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life.  Both of these books emphasised the importance of creating in depth characters and allowing the plot to organically grow from them.  I’ve never been a fan of sitting down and filling out forms.  I suppose that’s why I’ve shied away from character sketches in the past.  Also, I’ve always been more of a concept person than a character writer.  Actually, I can’t think of a single time that I started a piece because of a character in my head.  This presents a problem when your story is following the Hero’s Journey.

So, something Elizabeth George suggested, which I think sounds fun and still allows me to flesh out my main character, is to free form write about the character.  Instead of a rigid set of questions regarding the character, you allow yourself to freely write about who they are, what their motivations are, etc.  Noah Lukeman’s suggestion is to think as different people.  In one sense of describing your character, imagine you have witnessed them do something and you need to describe every physical detail about them to the police.  Next, imagine you are their new family physician and you need to know everything about their medical background.  Now you’re their psychiatrist and so forth.  Both ideas work better for me than a strict form where you detail name, height, etc, etc.  I’m a creative person and these approaches speak to me more than a mathematical approach.

In order for the Hero’s Journey to be effective, you have to know your hero.  You have to know where your hero starts, what they want to accomplish, how they will respond to the adversities that come, and what personal insight they will come away with.  By establishing all elements of your character early on in the writing process, you stay true to that character throughout the story.  This means, your audience never questions why the character did this or that, they know because the ground rules exist and have been followed.  It also means that the character might guide decisions.  Having a character who is multi-dimensional, no maybe even real, means that when you get stuck in how to get out of something, you have someone to ask.  You just turn to your character and say “How are you going to deal with this?”  By knowing them, you might even be surprised by the answer.

Now, both George and Lukeman suggest doing this for all your characters.  I don’t know if I have the patience.  I understand that by doing this for more characters the possibility for deepening the relationship amongst the cast of the story grows.  It also means more ideas for subplots present themselves.  But the first time through, I think my main goal is to know my protagonist the best.  The story is largely told from his point of view (read that as almost entirely) and it is his journey.  I’m thinking for myself, I’m going to do this for my main character and see how the rest of my first draft goes.  Then, to take a break before editing, I’ll do more of these for some of my other characters and see how that aids in my second go through.  I might end up learning it makes more sense to do them all from the start.  I’ll let you know.