Friday, April 30, 2010

GUEST POST: The Fermentation of a Writer

Susan Kaye Quinn is at-home-mom, environmental engineer, rocket scientist, writer, elected official, and the proprietress of Ink Spells, where she discusses her adventures in motherhood, writing, and the best books for children ages 8-12. She is getting ready to query a middle-grade science fiction novel called BYRNE RISK, and is digging her way through the second draft of OPEN MINDS, a young adult paranormal story (no vampires!).

Story ideas require a latency time, to sit and stew and form in your mind. Whole manuscripts are better left fallow for a while, before coming back to them with the revisionist scalpel. But I believe a writer also needs to ferment, to age and mature their craft. Just like the tiny microbes attacking the complex sugars in a fine wine, this is not a passive process. Writers need to actively push their maturation forward, or they might write much, but learn little.

A while ago, I came across a blog posting by agent Rachelle Gardner, talking about the three things agents look for in order to say “yes” to a novel: Story, Craft, and Voice. This post resonated with me as I was searching for a way to push myself to the next level of writing.

Story was something that I felt I had a reasonable handle on, although I still struggle with endings and delivering on the promise of my premise.

Voice seemed elusive for the longest time. A muse would show up on occasion, sprinkle something resembling voice into my story, and then disappear on a vaporous wind.

I hate muses.

They never come when you call, and they mess with your head, alternately making you think you’re a genius or capable only of dreck. So, late last year I set out on a 50,000 word adventure in voice, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. Phase One of my discovery of voice occurred then, when I found that the frenetic, nearly free-form writing required by wild word output is conducive (for me) to finding an authentic voice for my characters. Phase Two of voice discovery came later, when I tried to amp up my craft.

Craft is beguiling. You think your craft is moderately acceptable, only to find later, after the fermentation process has matured your writing process a little more, that you are capable of writing oh so much better. I blogged before about my Tale of Two Pants adventure in discovering the mechanics of craft, and I highly recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace: "How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace."

Having spent a lot of time writing non-fiction before ever attempting fiction (which is harder!), I felt like I had just enough competence in putting a sentence together to be dangerous. I could write something that was passable, possibly even good, and occasionally great, but not with any regularity. But if I were to be a writer, I needed to have a toolbox and to know how to use the tools intentionally, without mangling my manuscript. After a three-month intensive discovery of craft, I now feel more competent in putting those sentences together.

I now understand how to put your emphasis on the stress position of a sentence. I see the power of ending your sentence with a noun. And I feel competent playing with the delicate arts of breaking rules, splitting infinitives, and earning the trust of your reader through clarity.

But I didn’t expect that Craft would help me find, keep, and enunciate my Voice. Ah, Serendipity, we meet again!

I’m a long ways from being a fine wine (or writer!), but a year+ of writerly growth has taught me that I will continue to improve as long as I keep striving to learn.

Which of the three columns of craft, voice, and story is your weakest? And what techniques have you used along the way to improve them?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cause & Effect

I'm on to a new writing book this week, one recommended by Gary Corby. Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham is full of all sorts of writerly advice and since I'm a teacher and firm believer that we don't remember much unless we less teach it, I've got a little lesson for you today on Cause and Effect.

According to Bickham, fiction must make more sense than real life. If it doesn't, the reader isn't going to buy into it. How many times have you read a book and thought, "Oh yeah, isn't it a nice coincidence that the vampire hunter just happened to bump into the evil vampire henchman at the grocery store so he could chop off his head?"

Okay, maybe that's a bad example.

Point is, you can't use the easy way out when you write. I distinctly recall a YA novel I read a while back where the heroine and her boyfriend went to fight the bad guy at the end. The boyfriend went into the school and told her to stay in the car. After a while, the girl went in after him, found the bad guy, and beat him. The boyfriend had just disappeared for half an hour in an easy ploy to let the heroine kick the protagonist's eternal tush.

I was not impressed.

The example Bickman uses is having a character fall ill. While this could happen suddenly and without reason in real life, it will feel like a cheap trick if it happens in a novel. The writer needs to give cues that this character is ill before he kicks the bucket.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Heck, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But that doesn't mean a reader would have bought that if they were reading a novel about the Revolution.

The Benefits of Planning

"Writing is easy; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- Red Smith, sportswriter.

We all know writing is hard. There's a minimum of seven* things you have to consider when writing a novel, short story, etc -- Plot, Character, Setting, Consistency, Timeline, Accuracy, and Pacing. If one is even the slightest bit off the mark, then the entire story goes off-kilter and you lose time trying to figure it out. If you don't know your character inside and out, for example, you might have them act a way they normally wouldn't simply because they have to in order to move the plot forward. If your timeline's off, then you might state something happened Tuesday in one section when it needed to actually happen on Thursday. If you're inconsistent, then you have Character A say something on page 26 which they completely contradict on page 246.

You get the idea.

So what's a writer to do? You can write and rewrite and go over each new draft with a fine tooth comb, or you can plan things out ahead of time. Planning's not for everyone, not by a long shot, and woe be to anyone who tries to change your style to fit theirs. However, it works for me, and I'll tell you why: I lose my place much less often.

Case in point: Work's in one of its busy seasons now, and had been steadily getting more intensive prior to that. Because of this, I've not had as much time to work on CALLARION AT NIGHT during the workday like I did last year. Which has necessitated that I do a lot of work on nights off from the part-time job and waking up early on weekends to get writing in. I took it upon myself then to compose a Scene Development document for each chapter of the story. It's not done yet, but my goal is to have these different areas figured out for each scene in each chapter of the novel. This serves a twofold purpose: one, I get a deeper picture of the scene, and two, because I have the scene scripted out I know what to write simply by looking at it.

This Scene Development document is not an outline. That's important to note, because I know some of you might be thinking that already. No, what it tells me is the major motions of the scenes -- the turning points and the character goals and whatnot -- those background moves that influence the on-screen action. By knowing those, I know the scene. And when I know the scene, I can write it much smoother and be free from the concerns of "what comes next?"

That's the big benefit of planning, I think. You lose that pause in momentum from wondering what comes next because you already know what comes next. You planned it out; looked at it from all sorts of angles, and made 100 percent certain that your characters are being logical and acting in the way they would act. The end result of this, I think, is a tighter story with leagues more impact simply because you the writer have a better handle on the action. That's what I think at least.

What say you, fellow wordsmiths?

* EDIT: Because Adam pointed out that I miscounted.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Many Words

If you're a writer, you've probably heard that adage about needing 1,000,000 words (give or take) to really get a handle on your writing (this links to, a blog run by Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency... it's geared toward MG/YA authors, but she gives some pretty good advice for writers across the board).

A decade ago, I would have laughed (internally of course) at someone who told me I needed that many to find my style, voice, all that good stuff. Now I wonder if it might require ten million for me to get to that place where confidence and ability go hand in hand. Hope not, otherwise I've got a long way to go. I'm guessing I'm somewhere between 1.2 -1.5M (No, I'm not counting my WWIII stories - complete w/ fiery pictures - from 3rd grade).

Counting short stories, novels+revisions, writing exercises, and anything else writerish, how many words you got, and as you've written more, do you find yourself yearning for those days when you didn't know what you didn't know?

PS - Matt, the one who does most of the legwork for the blog, enlarged the font size. Please let us know if it works or if cross-eyed blurrage still occurs.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Guys (and gals), it's time we talked about something: the voices in my head.

My character's voices, that is.

Right now I'm working on two projects at once. And my main characters are warring for attention in my head. There's the part of me that really wants to work on the project I had already started, because it is a powerful story, and it compels me. Then there's the new story. I like to think of this one as an annoying little sister, constantly pestering me and following me around. It's a much more fun and lighthearted project, and I want to write it just as much as the other one, only for different reasons.

The bad part is that the two projects are drastically different. It's work to switch between the voices of the two MCs.

One of them is. . . well, frankly, an ass. He's learning his lesson-- that's kind of the point-- and it's a new and exciting format for me to be writing in. This project hits me on an intellectual level as well as an emotional one, because it forces me to think about everything from a different perspective.

My other MC is strong, and female, and quippy. I quite like her even though I've only known her for about 3,000 words, and I'm already having "the talks" with my fiance about where this story is headed. (When I'm trying to work out a plot, I always bounce ideas off of him. Today he bounced one back that is brilliant, and now I'm ten times more excited about this project than I already was).

The types of stories are completely different, too. But I should be used to that part by now; just as I should be used to the completely polar voices running around in my head. The project I'm currently querying was a total departure for me, as well.

In fact, what I've learned so far from this whole two-projects-at-once thing is that I have only one certainty as a writer: uncertainty. I can no longer use "that's just not me" as an excuse not to write something because as it turns out, it doesn't matter if it's "me" or not. It's only the voices of my characters that matter. They'll tell their stories to me, and I let them out onto paper. Who am I to tell them to quiet down and go away?

So, dear, dear reader-writers, please assure me that I'm not, in fact, crazy. Do your characters come from different places, and if so, do they pester you until you let them out? Have you ever worked on two projects at once?

Friday, April 23, 2010

GUEST POST: The Blog Trap

Michelle Davidson Argyle, better known as Lady Glamis, is the co-owner of The Literary Lab (with Davin Malasarn and Scott G.F. Bailey), and also the proprietress of The Innocent Flower. She's focused mainly on Literary fiction, and is currently working on a novel called Monarch. Michelle is also an accomplished photographer.

Hey, everyone, I'm happy to be a guest blogger here today on The Secret Archives! I've noticed the running theme for the week has been blogging and social networking. Today I'd like to talk about the BORING BLOG. I've spent way too much time worrying if my blog is boring, trying to come up with frequent posts that will generate comments, driving myself crazy over follower and hit numbers.

Bad idea.

In my years of blogging, I've finally come to the realization that I'm a writer, and I shouldn't be putting more effort into social networking than I do writing. Scott Bailey did a post yesterday on The Literary Lab about blogging. He makes some good points, and I agree.

Like many writers, I've been sucked into the blog trap. Maybe you're not at risk for it, I don't know. I'm just speaking from experience. I've had days, sadly, where if a post didn't do well or get many comments, it made me depressed. Crazy. I think all of us crave attention at times, and all of us like to be liked and acknowledged. Blogs, especially successful ones, can fulfill those cravings daily. It's addicting.

So, back to the BORING BLOG.

Yes, boring - to a huge audience, anyway.

Some of the best blogs I frequent have few followers, few comments, and the posts (often infrequent) are usually specific to a certain audience - either book reviews or excerpts or something that requires a lot of effort and thought from the reader. Like Matthew states in his post earlier in the week, participation is key in building readership on your blog, but I'm not sure that a huge readership should be the goal for most us. I don't know why it has been a goal for me in the past, but my own participation has helped me gain a moderate size following. And, in a self-feeding cycle, I feel somehow guilty if I don't try and return the favor to every commenter on my blog by reading their blog and commenting, or at least responding to their comment. It's this little maddening cycle, while fun and rewarding at times, seems to have caught me in a trap to the point that blogging has become work.

The truth is, I love my blogs. I love comments and interaction and posts. The problem is I spend too much time doing it. What about you? Have you ever been caught in the blog trap?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unplugging- Does It Work?

Right now I'm making my first attempt to unplug from my own blog, just for a few days. The only other time I've been away from my blog is when I was on vacation, and then I had pre-set posts.

Why attempt such madness?

As discussed here at the Archives all week, social networking has a lot of benefits, but it also takes a fair bit of time. When real life gets hectic, something has to give. And I'd rather give up a few days of blogging than forget to feed my daughter or dissolve into a puddle of quivering goo from too much stress. I'd also like to get some work done on my WIP.

I know some of you unplug a certain week every month, or maintain a not-every-weekday blog schedule. So now I'm asking you- do you think it helps? Do you actually get more writing done or do you find other ways to procrastinate?

Social Networking for Fun and .... Well Maybe Not for Profit

I first found out about this strange innovation called Blogs a few years back, when I was in college. I loved the idea, and tried to start one up while I was still doing my undergrad.

Yeah ... that didn't work out too well.

It took another few years until I figured out the platform I wanted to write on -- Steampunk, Writing, and Video Games -- and that only happened after I came around to the realization that pure Fantasy wasn't the genre I should write in. That brainchild was Free the Princess, which is the name of a now-defunct idea I had for an online Video Game Encyclopaedia. I still want to craft that resource, if no other reason than I'm a hardcore gamer geek, but that's beside the point.

Anyway, since that July 2009 day I launched my blog, I've had the good fortune to meet some fantabulous fellow writers working across the country and around this great world of ours. I've also joined the Twitter-verse, and maintain a personal Facebook page for no other reason than to keep in touch with friends from college. (And now post to three separate blogs, including one that's an ad-supported review blog.)

Since I've now bored you with my own experience in blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, it's time to move on to what I really wanted to talk about: how I've used my platform to connect with people.

Just writing to your own blog is great, but there's only so much word-of-mouth of your readers can do to build your platform. Granted, if you're already a celebrity or have a built-in audience waiting, you might not need to worry (Literary Agents like Nathan Bransford, Janet Reid, and Mark McVeigh have huge numbers of followers partly because of their positions in the book world, for example). Since I'm not a wildly famous author like Neil Gaiman, a literary agent like the aforementioned Ms. Reid, or an editor like the fabled Moonrat, I had to work to build my meager following.

How'd I do this? Comments!

I started following other blogs and became a regular commenter on some of them. There's a culture of reciprocity in the blogosphere, and many of the proprietors of blogs I followed in turn became my followers because they clicked on my profile and saw what I was writing. I'm up to nearly 75 followers as of today partly because of this strategy. I'm kind of half confident that I'd have more if my blog was of a more general focus, but Free the Princess is focused on what I want to focus on already; so I have no intentions of changing. Anyway, the end result of this is that I've gained 4,000+ hits since I started tracking visits to FtP.

Twitter is another animal entirely. My success there is partly due to Gary Corby and his network of followers, but also because I'm a regular contributor in the discussions that occur there. That's the key to success in both places, truth be told. Contribute regularly via your own blog, comments on others blogs, and in Twitter and you'll end up building a network quicker than you can say "Hey look I built a network!"

Twitter's also allowed me to talk to people I otherwise wouldn't get a chance to. Like Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, and other published authors who in an earlier time I'd have to communicate via letters and their agents. Now I just Tweet @ them and can, depending on my tweet, get a response decently fast.

Facebook is a more personal outlet for me, and I've yet to really connect professionally with anyone through there. Which I intend to remedy once I have something interesting to a wide audience to share through it. But as I don't quite yet, that's not done.

Anyway, if you take one thing and one thing only away from this ramble, it should be that participation is the key to growing your presence through social networking. Unless you're ridiculously famous ... then pretty much all bets are off and you can do whatever you want.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

White Noise

The whole idea of blogging seemed ridiculous to me a couple of years ago, and, honestly, sometimes I still find myself wondering what the hell I'm doing (I think this in part has to do w/ my lack of platform, but that's a discussion for a different day or one of my colleagues who actually has a handle on the topic -- SD and MD both have a great sense of this, IMO).

For the longest time, I'd comment on a few agent blogs, but never actually had my own. In the few months I've been running mine and visiting others, these are the pros and cons of blog social networking as I see it:

- Greater exposure to and involvement with the writing community at large
- Online presence for agent, publisher, consumer exposure
- Dissemination
- An impetus to consider industry, craft, etc. elements that might otherwise be outside one's purview

- Time, Time, Time
- Possible foot in mouth syndrome if you sometimes lack a filter (yeah, this is a mirror statement right here :)

Despite my reticence toward blogging, I can happily say that it's provided me more benefit than detriment. I've had great interaction w/ fellow writers (from Betaing to people suggesting specific agents to me who they've heard are looking for what I write) because of my blog and I've had an agent contact me b/c of a blog post (which I wasn't expecting at all). And perhaps the biggest benefit for me has been the empathy from fellow writers who suffer through the solitary persistence of rejection, revision, and madness (thank you).

All that being said, I don't think one needs to blog, twitter, or facebook. Heck, even if you're a classic INTJ like me who hides behind an esoteric moniker and an icon, you can still network w/o any of these by commenting on agent/writer blogs and/or participating in the various anon writing contests  (e.g., Miss Snark's first victim monthly Secret Agent contest, Mary Kole over at Kidlit runs contests and workshops every so often).

Ultimately, it's important to sift through all the stochastic noise out there to figure out which frequency(ies) best suit you, if any.

Given my limited experience, I'm sure I'm missing many of the pros (and maybe a few of the cons) of the blogging epidemic. What have you learned from blogging (or not blogging)?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Theme Week: Social Networking-- Well, okay, fine

It's just a bunch of Facebook statuses. Why would anyone want to know what someone else is up to every second of every day? Teenagers are the only ones who use it, and they just text about their trips to the bathroom and what toppings to have on their nachos.

All of these are excuses that I've heard-- and have used myself-- for not using Twitter. I have to admit, I still don't quite get it. But I have come to realize that there are benefits, despite the 140-character limit and soul-sucking-- I mean time consuming-- nature of the thing.

The main benefit, networking, was kind of nebulous to me itself until rather recently. I always had this vague image of networking as a term used by men in stiff suits, weary from days of financial reports, bandied about with phrases like, "Let's do lunch," and, "I think if we can just synergize on this, we can have a meeting of the minds and really power through." You know, the sorts of jargon-filled conversations that really don't say much of anything.

But it's true. Networking is beneficial. And you know what I've realized Twitter does? It gives you the opportunity to interact with otherwise un-interact-able people, like celebrities. People you wouldn't have a prayer of contacting any other way will totally talk to you on Twitter. Something about the format brings everyone to the same level (well, mostly).

So it's a great thing for writers, who suddenly have the ability to talk to agents, publishers, and other famous writers that they otherwise may not have. And that can lead to book deals, or Neil Gaiman reading your ARC, or any other number of really, really cool things.

So, is it worth it? I don't know. The chances of an agent signing me on my Twitter feed alone, or Neil Gaiman wanting to read my book, are slim to none. But, I do know that while I've been resisting the idea of and scoffing at Twitter for a really long time, I'm finally ready to give it a shot.

Do you Twitter? Care to share a link to your feed? What do you think about it? Positives and negatives?

Friday, April 16, 2010

GUEST POST: Why Write Historical Fiction?

Gary Corby is an Australian mystery author whose debut novel, The Pericles Commission, comes out on October 12, 2010. He's also a regular in the blogosphere, and runs the always entertaining and informative A dead man fell from the sky.

An editor asked the other day what caused a techie like me to become an author.  I had to write one of those About the Author notes, you see, and she thought the answer would be interesting.  But I've written, off and on, since I was a teenager, and I can't for the life of me remember why I started, except perhaps that I've read non-stop all my life, and I figured I may as well add to the book collection.

A more interesting question is why did I choose to write historical mysteries, and why in Ancient Greece?  There are a lot of writers wandering about the internet, and the motive, whenever you ask them why they write the stories they do, is almost invariably that this is the story they have to write.

When it comes to choice of genre and sub-genre I totally understand.  All the genres are equally great and it's really a matter of taste.  

I write historical mysteries because historicals contain almost all the other genres within them, and I love puzzle stories.

You can find historical mysteries that contain romance (lots of those), or military adventure (Simon Scarrow), or are political thrillers (Steven Saylor & John Maddox Roberts), are CSI (Ariana Franklin) or YA (Caroline Lawrence).  If mainstream lit is your thing then you should be reading  Mary Renault and Patrick O'Brian (not mysteries, but definitely historicals).  If you enjoy epic fantasy then there are times and places in our history so odd that they might as well be on another planet.  You might even find magic realism: an historical can't have working magic, but there have been plenty of people who believed in magic and practiced it as if it worked.  Historicals can be serious, like Margaret Doody and CJ Sansom, or funny,, I hope.

Historical mysteries cluster.  They cluster about the times that matter not only to the characters in it, but to us today; times which fascinate us, or about which we already know a lot.  Mediaeval Europe and Ancient Rome are popular.  So is Victorian England.  It would be possible to set an historical mystery in, say, prehistoric Vanuatu, but much as I enjoy visiting those lovely islands, it would be a hard sell to publish a series set there.  You might have more luck with Easter Island because it comes complete with its own enduring mystery.  There have been some excellent historical mysteries set in out of the way places, but not so many because it becomes harder for the reader to identify.  Reader buy-in matters a very great deal.

I choose to write historical mysteries in Classical Greece, and Athens in particular, for a simple reason: that period of history matters a great deal to us.  There was a 50 year period, called the Golden Age, when Athens founded western civilization.  With malice aforethought I placed my hero and heroine so that their career begins right at the start of the Golden Age.  If they survive, they will live to see the power of the first democracy, the beginning of modern drama — the first stage plays! — the beginning of science, the explosion of philosophy, the birth — literally — of modern medicine.  Hippocrates was born in the same year as my first book is set, which just happens to be the same year that Athens invented full democracy, which just happens to be the same year Pericles rose to power.  This was one of those rare moments that changed the world forever.

It seems to me there are a few times and places which meet the criteria for a good setting but which have seen little action from authors.  Classical Greece is one — that's why I'm there! — but let me list a few wild thoughts:

It'd be great to read an early homo sapiens mystery (while avoiding any cave bear clans etc), or a Neanderthal mystery, or even a homo erectus mystery.  I'm not brave enough to try, but I'd love to see some other poor fool risk it.  Imagine a very early settlement somewhere during the birth of farming and agriculture.

I do think Easter Island would be a good try.  You'd set it right at the moment their civilization collapsed.

There was a sophisticated very early culture in Europe which erected piles of standing stones.  There are zillions of them around Carnac in Brittany.  Who were these people?  Why did they erect hundreds and hundreds of these stones?  There has to be a story or two in there somewhere.

Mesopotamia.  Of course.

The Sultanate at the time of Haroun al-Rashid.

Europe under Charlemagne.

The transition period of the late Roman Empire when official Christian dogma was going through its very argumentative formation.  Plenty of motive for murder there!  It may be my ignorance, but I'm not aware of any writers who've spent time in that period.

Not nearly enough Renaissance mysteries involving the great masters of art.  Plenty of motive for murder there too.  I can well imagine a plot in which Michaelangelo and da Vinci go for each other's throats.  (And they did, at one point, meet for an artistic showdown...paintbrushes at 20 paces.)

OK, that's my list.  Feel free to start writing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The End

Today we're going to talk about endings.

I'm currently writing Book #2 and it was totally inspired by its ending. I have some leeway in how exactly I want the end to turn out, but Herodotus supplied me with a pretty killer finish that was pretty hard to pass up. So I didn't.

According to James Scott Bell, author of Plot and Structure, and ending should do the following:

1. Tie up all loose ends.

There's almost nothing worse than an ending where you're still left wondering what happened to the smoking gun or the body of the chainsmoking transexual. I once read a quote that said roughly, "If there's a smoking gun in a book, it better go off."

2. Give a feeling of resonance.

The best endings have me thinking for a long time after I close the book. Life of Pi, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Jude the Obscure all have endings that I'll never forget. The story should mean something in the larger sense. Maybe you don't know what that is when you first set out to write, but by the time the book hits the shelves there's hopefully something for the reader to take with them.

So, which endings in books have hit home for you? How do endings fit into your writing?

What is Writer's Block?

One of the many and varied discussions I have with my writer friends both in real life and through the blogosphere usually revolves around Writer's Block. Now, we've all suffered through this malady -- you've got this great idea going, going, going, and then the well of ideas dries up and you're left staring at the blinking cursor like a monkey doing an algebra problem.

We've all experienced the dreaded Writer's Block (it's happened to me several times during the course of writing both my MSs), but what exactly is the cause of this malady?

I submit to you, dear Secret Archives readers, than the cause of "Writer's Block" is nothing more or less than issues with the plot. These issues can include lack of certainty about the story arc, lack of knowledge about your character, perceived lack of research knowledge, and even lack of knowing where the story is going to go next.

Once you've figured out the plot and all conflicts related to telling the story, then Writer's Block falls away. Case in point: the rewrite I did last year of SON OF MAGIC, my epic fantasy, took approximately three months. Why? Because I knew the story and the characters backwards and forwards. Conversely, the first draft of CALLARION AT NIGHT took eight months to write because I did not know the characters or the plot nearly as well -- information I'm figuring out right now via some scene development documentation.

Once I get a handle on the characters, story, and other facets of CALLARION AT NIGHT, I'm confident the next draft is going to go much, much more smoothly. But I'm interested in your opinions, dear readers. What do you do to conquer Writer's Block? Read a book? Watch TV? Plug away at the tale until your eyes glaze over?

Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Character Soup: Attitude

When cooking up a main character, there are a few basic ingredients and everything else is garnish. In general, you want to create someone who is both empathetic and altruistic, someone who most readers would aspire to emulate. Your MC will usually be a hero, but should not be a hero caricature, even if he's Superman. One of the easiest and most critical ingredients in hero creation, and thus one of the easiest to abuse and overuse, is attitude.

Most people, when faced with conflict or adversity, may put a step forward, but ultimately, will shy from even ordinary conflict to maintain a peaceful existence. To push story forward, however, we need conflict, characters who won't back down from danger, from doing what's right or wrong. This requires a strong sense of self, a strong attitude.

Now, we can easily stray into the realm of hyperbole, but think of your favorite books and you'll probably recognize that the MC's attitude is more internal, more what most of us aim for -- the Teddy Roosevelt approach. Similar to plotting, create your  attitude more through action and and less through dialogue and introspection, which is what I call overt or cheap showing (hence that aphorism: actions speak louder than words) - sometimes this is necessary or natural, but action's the meat and potatoes, and your readers aren't on a diet.

PS -  if you're writing an anti-hero, your MC should have a similar attitude quotient, his motivation's just on a different axis.

Monday, April 12, 2010

How do you blog-- Comments

Much like writing novels, everyone has their own technique for writing a blog. And much like everyone's methods for writing novels, I'm always curious about other writers' techniques for blogging, too. So I thought maybe we could do a trade every now and then here on the Archives-- I'll spill mine, and you share yours. Today's trade of, er, trade secrets is on commenting.

My tactic is rather simple, and I'm the first to admit that it needs work. Hence the post. Are you ready for my groundbreaking commenting strategy? Are you sure? Here goes:

I comment when I have something meaningful to add to the blog post or other comment dialogue.

I know, right? Here are the troubles I have with this technique, though:

-I don't always comment on every blog I read. Sometimes, by the time I get to a comment thread, or read a post, everything that I would have said has already been said. This leaves me feeling like I'm not adding to the conversation, and therefore, I typically would rather not comment. But I don't like people not knowing that I have read their posts.

-I don't comment if the post doesn't invite conversation or if something doesn't leap immediately to mind to say. Or if I've recently said much the same thing on a lot of other posts. This, frankly, comes down more to efficiency than anything else. I follow a hundred or so blogs, and I do try to read each and every one.

So, I'd like to hear your commenting strategies. How do you visit other blogs?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Alliterati Archives Roundtable the Second

Due to some real-life consequences, our regularly scheduled guest blogger (can you have one of those?) said he was unable to grace us with a post.

So instead we turn to this week's roundtable discussion:

Of the characters you've created, who is your favorite and why? 

Answer in the comments!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Marathon Middles

Okay, last week we talked about beginnings. So now we're going to talk about bananas.

Ha ha! Just kidding! On to MIDDLES!.

I'm currently slogging through the middle of the middle of Book #2 right now. It's like the scene in the swamp on The Princess Bride, except without the killer rats. Because that would be super cool. (Except that they didn't have killer rats in ancient Egypt.)

According to James Bell Scott, author of Plot and Structure, the middle of a novel is the confrontation. He says the middle should:

1. Deepen character relationships.
2. Keep us caring about what happens.
3. Set up the final battle that will wrap things up in the end.

This can be done by weaving together subplots and setting up battles between the protagonist and antagonist. I think my problem with middles is that I always know the beginning and end of the story, but I'm not sure how to connect those dots. So the middles of my first draft drag. I'm talking like I-Just-Ran-Two-Marathons-And-Now-You-Want-Me-To-Go-Hike-Up-A-Mountain Drag. (Not that I've ever experienced that, but whatever.)

So, what do you do to keep your middles snappy? Do you have to edit your middles a lot or are they the least of your troubles?

Diving Into The World

The goal of any writer is to create veracity in their story. This extends to both veracity in character and veracity in setting. For someone setting a story in a real place, say Salem, Mass. (The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry), the need to include accurate detail increases beyond what's required in a fantasy world or in off-Earth science fiction. The prime reason for this is that people can actually visit your destinations, and will find out if you include a landmark in the wrong place. Had Brunonia Barry placed the statue of Roger Conant anywhere in Salem except at the Common, people who read her book would find out and immediately discount her as a good writer. Why? Because she didn't do her research.

However, that doesn't mean the writer of off-Earth science fiction or traditional fantasy is completely off the proverbial hook. K.M. Weiland, the proprietress of Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors, did her weekly Sunday post on the problem of using too many settings in fiction. She quotes John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story (reproduced here):
Many writers… mistakenly believe that since you can go anywhere, you should. This is a serious mistake, because if you break the single arena of your story, the drama will literally dissipate. Having too many arenas results in fragmented, inorganic stories.
I would add that having not enough detail, or too much detail, in the world of your story can have a similar effect. For example, I'm currently researching common professions of the 19th century. The reason I'm doing this is so I know what occupations the residents of the city of Callarion might have, and by extension what kind of people my MC might run into as she travels around the city.

These background details are useful to have as you dive into the world of your story, but are almost immaterial to the course of the story itself. In one portion of the story, my MC happens upon a group of dockworkers. I researched common clothing for a 19th Century dockworker so I could be certain of describing them correctly. Does this mean I spend two whole pages describing the buttons of a man's coat? Of course not. What it does mean is that I can now be certain I'm describing things accurately.

The same goes for details in the setting of the story. Say I placed a fifteen-story glass skyscraper smack in the center of Victorian London. Now, the modern skyscraper didn't really come about until the 1930s, but we did see some steel construction in the 1860s. However, my point is that the modern skyscraper would look tremendously out of place if I say it existed prior to when it historically came about. I'd better have a darn good reason for putting an out-of-history building in an earlier time period (think 1632 by Eric Flint, or Boneshaker by Cherie Priest).

Attention to time period and attention to detail is important in creating veracity in your setting. For my thus-far aborted fantasy series, I spent a lot of time reading about the 1490s (Leonardo da Vinci's time period), because that was when the inventions I included in that story existed, at least in a theoretical sense. I also did a lot of reading on select world cultures, but that's another post.

A warning, however, about attention to detail. There's the possibility that you can contract what's called Research Paralysis -- a condition where you stop writing because you think you need to find everything out before you can write your story. This isn't true. I've yet to meet the writer who can churn out publishable material on the first draft, so my suggestion to avoid this is to write the draft by making notes where you need to research such as parenthetical statements (i.e. (RESEARCH CLOTHING) or (Is this accurate?)) and then move on.

Do not let diving into your world to tease out all the details become your goal. Your goal is to write an engaging story. Nothing more. If that means leaving out certain parts of your meticulously crafted city, then that means leaving them out. Story trumps pretty much everything.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

White Men Can't Jump, and Women Can't Drive

Mexicans are lazy, but they're good for manual labor.
Asians are short and unathletic, but smarter than everyone else.
Jews are good with money, Catholic priests with little boys.
Once you go black, you'll never go back.
All black, Asian, (fill in ethnicity of choice) people look the same.
Blondes really are dumber than brunettes (full disclosure: I count myself as a blonde, despite my wife's protestations).
Engineers are dorks (despite my degree, I do not count myself as an Engineer :).
Women suck at math, but are good for babies
Men suck at romance, but are good for heavy lifting
Something about hoop earrings :)

Most of these stereotypes are fairly mundane (and you can probably think of far worse ones), but odds are at least one would draw a reaction if voiced aloud with serious measure. For the most part, in civilized company, we're gonna be appalled by stereotypes, but when we dig deep into ourselves, most  will tend to have at least one or two ingrained beliefs that are stereotypical (that being said, not all stereotypes are necessarily bad, though they can be construed as such - e.g., a man's belief that women need to be protected).

What's the point? Strong reaction, in general, equals conflict, and conflict is what makes the story go according to those in the know. Now, having your characters express outright a certain stereotype, or describing them in such a way to fit them to a stereotype (e.g., a black guy with low slung jeans, a sideways Yankees cap, tats, and bling... lots of bling) to create conflict are what I call your sugar conflicts - ultimately, they may taste better in the beginning and we might like to fill our plates with them, but they don't bring as much to the table as the complex carb conflicts.

Why? Because people aren't stereotypes. Superficially they may seem that way, but once we get past the surface, there's gotta be more. Your characters will believe certain stereotypes, and this can be a strong source of conflict for a story, but it will rarely be overt or even consciously known. Give your readers some sugary 2D side characters, for sure, but keep them healthy with the ones who are stereotyping you behind your backs (Pride and Prejudice leaps to mind).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Is it a real story, or is the story becoming real?

Yesterday, we had an earthquake. One of the largest in California in nearly 20 years. It was centered below the border in Mexico, in MexiCali.

My fiance and I had just sat down to Easter dinner with his family, when the table started rumbling and the glasses started clinking. The chandelier above me rocked back and forth, swaying in time to the earth.

I, not being a full California native and already of a nervous disposition, panicked. Luckily, there was no damage there, at our house, or the houses of any of our friends or nearby relatives. Still, I'm currently cowering in fear of aftershocks.

This post isn't supposed to be about earthquakes, though. Well, it is, and it isn't. It's more about the brain of a writer than earthquakes. The brain that caused me to think only a few minutes after the big shock had subsided, remember this. Remember this in case you ever need to use it.

The same feeling overcame me, though in a different way, when we finally managed to catch a newscast on tv to learn about the quake. As we were watching, the house began to roll and shake again with an aftershock. A few seconds later, the newscaster on tv remarked that they were experiencing the aftershock there, too, live on the air.

At that point, it felt surreal. It felt like a scene in a movie-- a disaster movie-- shortly after which the hero and heroine miraculously escape while the news station goes down in flames. My mind spiraled out of control with the story that I, clearly, was merely an extra in-- not being a geologist, or niche specialist doctor or scientist, or even failed single parent trying to make amends with my estranged children-- the story that meant we were all going to die.

It was like two separate paths in my brain. There was the rational path that was watching events unfold as they were, understanding that there was no real danger. And then there was the writer's path, spinning the story in my mind to its expected conclusion of destruction and chaos, the way the story would end if it were just that-- a story.

Sometimes I hate having such a vivid imagination. It allows to me to clearly see the worst in everything.

What's the craziest thing you've ever found yourself thinking about writing during? Did anyone else out there feel yesterday's quake?

**(Note: I don't mean to make light of the earthquake).

Friday, April 2, 2010

Roundtable Discussion: Character Development

Sorry folks, no guest spot today. (By the way-- if you're interested in writing a guest spot, we still need people! Email us at alliteratiarchives[at]gmail[dot]com.

Today we'd thought we'd introduce a semi-regular feature: roundtable discussions.

Today's topic is: character development. Tell us, and discuss-- how do you come up with (and develop) your characters?