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.

 

Learning the tools of the trade

To be human is to be a storyteller.  Whether it be simply answering the question of “What did you do today?” or telling a joke, we all tell tales.  If we look at our modern media, what do virtually all of them have in common?  They tell a story.  Movies, books, comics, television, even video games, all tell us stories that could be our lives or something entirely fantastical.

So then, if all of us have this ability, even desire, to share our stories, why do writers who get paid seem such a rare breed?  Why is the idea of being a published author romanticized so heavily?  Why do we treat our storytellers as though they have some great and mythic ability?

I spent the day reading Write Away by Elizabeth George.  Reading her detailed breakdown of how she constructs her novels, it struck me that what truly separates those who create and those who spend time at the water cooler is one part imagination and another part education.

Imagination is something that you have, or you don’t.  I can’t teach someone to have an imagination.  Which is too bad, because it is wondrous!  But on the flip side, what if you can imagine dozens of tales, yet lack the technical ability to express them cohesively.  Can this be taught?  Given the volume of books on writing, clearly someone thinks the answer is yes.  And based on my experience of today, I’m inclined to agree.

See, I have had dozens of ideas over the years.  So many that my wife rolls her eyes when I say “I came up with a really great idea for a story!”  She rolls her eyes not because she doesn’t want to hear it, but because none of my great ideas have turned into great, finished, stories.  When I wrote earlier about how not letting myself suck killed a number of projects in the past, it wasn’t a lie.  But what I have figured out today is that I never really knew what was wrong.  After years of reading, I instinctively knew my writing was sub par, but I lacked the education to determine why and how to fix it.  So do I possess that after reading half a book?  No.  At the same time, yes.  See, having given myself to this current work in progress, I have finally broken through my personal glass ceiling.  I am open to new ideas.  I am open to being educated.  I am surprised at how quickly I am recognizing my own failings.

Ms. George talks about using your gut.  She discusses how she has a very real physical reaction to the right idea.  I had that a number of times reading her book.  A number of times my gut said, “this is why you’ve failed in the past.”  Having now recognized this, I am determined to not fail again.

So, education time it is.  I need more tools.  I have imagination, I have a skeleton of a story, now I need the tools to put the pieces together.

So, do you have a favourite book about writing?  I would be very interested in checking it out.

Sometimes Inspiration Makes Writing Harder

So you sit down to your work in progress.  In your brain, scenes are flashing that you are about to write.  You are inspired!  You know deep down that what you are about to write is the turning point of your novel.  It is this one spot where everyone hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the mythic words “The End.”  Only, the words don’t come.  Despite your giddy high of inspiration, the scene is difficult.  It stutters and shuffles along at a lumbering pace.  You start to doubt yourself.  You start thinking ‘This is the wrong thing for me to be writing.’  Perhaps you scrap the story all-together.  Welcome to Chapter Two.

The above scene played itself out over my last several writing sessions.  I knew what I wanted, knew where I had to be.  Despite that, I couldn’t get the words out.  Looking at what I’ve written, I’m not satisfied.  Where did it all go wrong?  Was my idea too weak?  Am I just not up to the task of writing my own story?

Being an author is a solitary exercise.  Yes, we can have critique groups, we can tweet until our fingers bleed, but when it comes time to write the tale burning in our minds, we are alone.  Which I have discovered, quite painfully, compels me to play mind games.  I go from one moment loving my characters and believing fiercely in their tale to the extreme opposite.

My current work in progress stands at just over 10,000 words.  Guess what, it’s the third project to hit that landmark.  Funny enough, it has not even surpassed my other two projects that have found themselves shelved.  When I wrote the others, I was inspired, yet they’ve not been completed.  What’s the problem?

I think, and maybe this is just me, it is a fear of failure.  When I have only the vaguest of ideas where my stories are going, I write easily.  When inspiration truly takes hold, I stall.  See, I play the worst of head games.  Because of inspiration, because of ideas and direction, I impose an expectation that I will write something profound and wonderful.  As the words dribble out, I start to doubt myself.  In the back of my head, a nagging voice starts whispering “This isn’t how it’s supposed to sound.  This isn’t half as cool as it was when you were thinking it.  You’re lost, let it go.”  All too often, I have listened to the voice.

This time, I will not be denied.  This time, unlike so many of the others, I know my work is what I have to be writing.  I know that if I fail, my dreams of writing will perish.  I must finish this, regardless.  Besides, through my Twitter friends, I have learned that virtually no one delivers a grand novel the first time around.  The books we hold in our hands have been written, re-written, edited, and polished several times over.  What matters now is getting the thoughts on paper.  What matters is crafting the story.  Once the story exists, the rest is just choosing better words to express it.

So inspiration is both vital life and poison at the same time.  The antidote is a healthy dose of realism.  I need to talk to myself as much as my characters and story do.

To combat this, I suggest the following; when the greatest of inspiration hits, write down the ideas.  Sketch out what you have.  Then let it sit and percolate a few days.  Once it’s boiled and cooled, sit and write.  That was how I got through chapter two.  I let it digest longer.  The more time I gave it, the easier my stomach accepted it.  Once I sat down to pen the final thousand or so words, I had better ideas, a stronger sense of what I needed to do.  I wasn’t running on pure giddy inspiration, I was running on cooler-headed thinking and, most importantly, planning.

So what’s our single word that all the blah-blah takes us to today?  Planning.

Inspiration makes things hard.  It fills us with expectations, pumps us up to an almost drug-like high, and then kicks us when we realise that it’s just not enough to get the job done.  Inspiration is one part of the equation.  Working that inspiration into something more manageable, taking time to shape and mold it, yields results.  At least, that’s my experience.

The Most Important Question is “Why?”

If you follow me on Twitter, or just check out my Twitter feeds on the site, you might have noticed my two tweets from yesterday that stated,

As great ideas increasingly come, they bring with them certain logic problems to be solved #amwriting

Great thing about solving logic problems though, it helps to deepen the story & present new & interesting directions #amwriting

I thought that I would expand on those two thoughts today.  I don’t claim this is the reinvention of the wheel, nor that this advice is in any way new or ground breaking.  It’s just that yesterday, this made perfect sense to me.

I spent most of the day driving in the car with my wife.  I would either contemplate my current WIP, or openly discuss it with her.  The more ideas I thought of, in terms of plot, overall mythology and character development, the more I realised there were problems.  For instance, if the main character does action B, what happened to action A?  If the character has to do action B for the plot to progress, I either have to insert action A, or explain why it makes perfect sense for action A to be skipped.  Or, if a certain scene has to exist to accomplish something in the overall plot, how does that scene occur?  Why do we end up there?  Why?  Why?  And most importantly, Why?

As I forged ahead and answered a number of these nagging Whys, I realised just how much deeper my plot was becoming.  I also came to the realisation that a stronger inner logic was forming that would give the world a better grounding.  In sci-fi, fantasy or spec-fic particularly, but I suppose horror, romance and just about any genre that bends, adds to, or all together disregards, our common reality, it is important for there to be rules.  If Superman can fly, why does he fly?  Answer: he’s an alien.  So did all of Superman’s people fly on his home planet?  No.  Why?  Because they had a red sun and it is our yellow sun that grants him these powers.  See what I mean?  As you answer the question why, your mythology deepens.  The further down you dig, eventually you will hit firm bedrock and you’ll know that your mythology makes sense.

Using my Superman example, we now have several plot points that we could include in a novel.  Superman is an alien but our story is set on Earth.  How does he get here?  Superman never had abilities on his home world, so he would develop them here on Earth.  That could be an extensive storyline.  Oh wait, eight or more seasons of Smallville owe their existence to this kind of thinking.

Think about this.  The Twilight series started with a dream about a girl laying in a field with a boy who sparkled in the sunlight.  That’s it.  By asking the questions of why does he sparkle, why are they together, and I’m sure numerous other why questions that came along, a whole series was born.

Harry Potter could have started as simply as an image in the author’s mind of a boy with a scar.  Why does he have a scar?  Why did someone try to kill him? You see how this is going?

By constantly asking why of our stories, situations, characters, etc, we create the bulk of our story and provide ground rules that will keep our reader engaged.  When we make rules up on the fly or break established rules of our world without sufficient reasoning, we lose our audience.  As an example I present you with a tale of two movies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.

While considerably different movies, both featured incredible fight scenes where characters defied gravity.  In the Matrix this was explained.  The very foundation of the movie allowed for the flexing of typical laws of gravity.  Audiences were thrilled and totally into the wire work on display.  When I left the theatre, all I heard from people around me was that the movie was amazing and how the fight scenes were incredible.  Crouching Tiger did not really explain the abilities of its characters to defy gravity, it took it for granted that the audience watching the film was acquainted with the cultural heritage it came from and would therefore accept what they saw without question.  Unfortunately, seeing this in a Canadian theatre, there were clearly people there that thought this was a Chuck Norris film.  Walking out, I could hear people muttering how it was stupid that they could fly etc.  Granted, cultural ignorance of the genre contributes, but it illustrates my point.  People will accept the breaking of accepted laws, as long as you give it a reason grounded in the world of the story.  By doing this, The Matrix found a much larger accepting audience than it would have if it just took for granted everyone watching loved anime and its penchant for defying gravity.

If your character does magic, why?  Does everyone in your world do magic?  If not, be prepared to answer why.

Embrace these logic problems.  They present incredible opportunities to develop plot and character.  As I said, this is just my observation from my own journey through the creative process.  Hope it helps.

Using Familiar Style

Sometimes, as writers, we feel the need to use large and overly cumbersome words to express ourselves.  This is probably due to an inner need to sound intelligent, or perhaps to create a certain effect (such as stringing a number of similar sounding words together).  But is this appropriate for Young Adult fiction?  Peta of blog ILBNH makes a pretty good case that it is not.

Instead of filling our books with overly complex words, Peta suggests using Familiar Style.  What’s that you ask?  Well, I’ll direct you to her article so you can get the info first hand.  Follow the link to read What Familiar Style is and Why You Should Use It.

What Harry Did Right

When approaching Young Adult fiction, there is a singular holy grail of modern achievement.  I can’t recall a series that had such equal appeal across age and gender.  Naturally, I’m talking about Harry Potter.

Now, when you have a series as big as Harry, there are going to be the naysayers and pundits that want to tear the book apart and justify why it should not be the success it clearly is.  As writers, I don’t think any of us really care about Harry’s grammar, structure or any other negatives people drag up.  What we care about is, why does it work, and how can we use those lessons to improve our own chances of success.  Well, I have a handy series for you to look at that can do just that!

Jane Friedman’s website There Are No Rules contains a wealth of advice and information.  One particular series of articles, contributed by guest writer Jim Adam takes a look at The Strengths of the Harry Potter Series.  There’s a wealth of things to learn from looking at the fundamental elements that makes Harry Potter work.  I know the first article, on being able to sum a plot in one sentence, gave me some serious pause on my own work in progress.  I went back to ensure my story held up to this seemingly simple test.  Initially, it didn’t, and I realised I was writing more of a concept than an actual story.  Some serious soul searching and digging in the guts of what I was writing eventually produced that simple sentence, and I found almost immediately everything seemed more cohesive.

So go check the link.  I found every single one of the points useful and will be returning again and again just to check.  There are far worse role models.