Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Micro Voice

I’ve been floundering a bit, trying to think of what to blog about, partly because my own writing has stuttered to a halting, bumbling stop. It reminds me a lot of when you’re driving along on one of those perfectly nice stretches of highway, then with a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling thud, hit one of those metal grills across the road to keep cattle from crossing? Yeah, that’s the feeling. But it seemed too lame to blog about, and so I was stuck. Then Aspiring Author came to my rescue with a question in the comments. (Which is a good reminder to you all that you should feel free to ask questions in the comments!)

Her question was on voice, which I covered a lot here, but didn’t answer this specific question.

"What ways can you make two characters talk different? I only know one and that's one seldom speaks and uses short sentences and the other doesn't.
do you know any others? "

It’s a good one, and this is where I would instruct you to all pull out you worksheet from a few weeks ago, found here. If you go down this list, you will see that some of these things will affect speech patterns

Part of this is developing an ear for they variations in ways that people speak. A great learning tool is to go to a food court at a local mall and hang out for a couple of hours, paying very close attention to the conversations around you. Some speech patterns will be clear; the way a mother talks differently from her tween girl, the latter’s usually more peppered with slang (and lots of sighs and eye rolling.) The difference between a boy and girl will be marked too, the boy often using fewer words, if not downright monosyllabic, and the girl more chatty. A group of three girls however, might be very, very similar. My guess is if you knew them better, you would be able to pick them out from their speech patterns alone, but not with a casual listen. And this then is the answer, as an author get to know them well enough that you become aware of their speech patterns.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t think about most of this when I write. The speech patterns come from how the character speaks in my mind, and they all speak very differently. For me, writing is sometimes like being an actor, and I jump back and forth between inhabiting the bodies of my characters and speaking their lines.

However, it can still be broken down, dissected, and analyzed.

How much education do they have? Often that will be reflected in their speech patterns, but to different degree. For example, someone who is very conscious of being “college educated” and for whom it is a really big deal, might consciously choose to use complex words and sentence structure in an attempt to be sure everyone knew about his education.

Gender differences are also present. In her work, You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen talks about this very thing; women see language as a way to connect, whereas men are more about stating things baldly. Women will sometimes end their sentences with a question mark as a means of not wanting to appear too aggressive, whereas men rarely do.

Sometimes the difference in speech patterns are easy, Theodosia, a girl from the upper classes of Edwardian Britain speaks much differently than Will, the street urchin. The differences between Theo and Grandmother Throckmorton are more subtle, but still there. Grandmother is very stiff and proper, but also she is often saying critical things. And she sniffs a lot.

In Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist, there are some very clear differences between Phil Fludd, the world’s last remaining Beastologist, and young Nate. One’s in their late forties and knowledgeable, educated, world traveled, and trying to reassure and teach Nate. Whereas Nate is a bit timid and uncertain, so it comes through in how he speaks, tending to ask questions, lots of hesitation, and backing into things he isn’t sure about. Cornelius, on the other hand, is very full of himself and over impressed with the Fludd’s and his own status, so speaks in a very stuffy sort of tone.

When all other ways fail to create differences in the way your characters talk, consider assigning them all some speech tics and unique word choices. Some people’s speech is more filled with hyperbole, and others with more exclamations or expletives. Other’s speak an a very inclusive manner, wanting to cover all the options and be sure to leave no one out or offend anyone, while others just spit out whatever is on the tip of their tongue, (and often have to apologize for it.)

Develop tic words for them, what is their favorite slang? Swear word? The expression they use when angry, frustrated, sad?

Some use short, to the point sentences, others more flowing or complex sentences.
Simple words versus more evocative words.
Simple sentence structure versus more complex clauses and phrasing.

Some people use lots of adverbs and adjectives and others don’t. Some split their infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. Others don’t. And some people begin their sentences with conjunctions. Not to mention sentence fragments.

Some people are challenging when they speak: “Really? Is that what you think?” And others more placating, “I can certainly see why you might think that, but I’ve found…”

Sometimes characters might be cryptic, Awi Bubu, a character in the upcoming Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, is very cryptic, and a foreigner to boot, so his speech is a little formal, his syntax a little off, and full of riddles and half answers.

An engineer with a love of precision and clarity will speak differently than an English literature major.

The metaphors they use, the clich├ęs they favor, the analogies they make. All those will flavor their speech patterns.

If they are a pessimist, they will address everything with Eyeore-like glumness, if optimistic, with a more Pooh-like look on the bright side approach.

Also, don't forget if you want to be entered in this months contest for a copy of Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, today's the last day to leave a comment and be eligible!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Now Make It Worse

Let’s say you’ve spent some time and come up with this perfect conflict for your character. There is even something at stake if she fails. Go you!

Now think of a way to make it worse. Seriously.

My bff, Mary Hershey, and I had an opportunity to attend one of Donald Maass’s all day workshops, and he asked this question. Many times. So often, we got to giggling, however, it was highly effective in driving home his point. Push the limits. Dare to take your character to the wall, then blow the wall away and take him even farther than that.

So, have you found a way to make it worse? Good.

Now make it matter even more. No, I’m not kidding. And there is a subtle different between making something worse, and making it matter more. Making something worse is about upping the stakes, making it matter more is about upping the emotional intensity of those stakes.

For example, when I was writing Theo, my initial external conflict was that she was going to discover this cursed artifact and removing the curse was going to fall on her shoulders. To make it worse, I decided that curse had the power to bring feast, famine, drought, and destruction to the entire country. To make it matter even more, to twist the conflict so that it uniquely and intensely skewered Theo, I had it be her mother who had unknowingly unleashed this horror on the world. For a child who felt responsible for her parents and whose familial role was to take care of them, this really upped the intensity of the conflict. Not only was it the worst that could happen (death and destruction on a national scale) but it would be her family’s fault, which gave her an added impetus to stop it.

So now take a look at your conflict.

How can you make it worse?

How can you make it matter even more?

Can you make it even worse than that? Oh go on, try. I bet you can.

Some things to consider:
Make your characters suffer. Whoever your hero cannot live without, cannot possibly succeed without, remove them. (Maass suggests killing him, but I write for kids so I take a gentler approach.)
What is your character’s greatest asset? Take it away.
What is sacred to your hero? Undermine it.
How much time does he have? Shorten it.
What matters most to your character? Threaten it.

You get the idea.

The thing is, Maass said that of all the manuscripts that cross his agency’s desks, few fail because they go too far or push too hard. No, the majority of them fail because they don’t go far enough, they don’t take things to their extremes. Which relates to my post of a couple of weeks ago about failing gloriously. Don’t let your failure be a whimpering one. If you aim for the bleachers, you have a better chance of getting past first base.

(Or something like that. I’m not so good with sports metaphors.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Speaking of Conflict

Okay, back to plotting…

Conflict drives the story. It’s pretty much that simple. If you don’t have conflict on some level, you don’t have a story. The good news is, conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, flavors and colors. The bad news is, most people tend to avoid conflict, so it can be difficult to grab it with both hands and force your characters into the thick of it.

Besides, we writers usually like our characters. We don’t want to put them through the wringer. But alas, if we want to effect a transformation in their lives, we must. Remember, we are the meddling, interfering Olympian gods in our book’s universe. It is our JOB to mess up our characters’ lives and force them to change or teach them a life lesson.

One of the first things I do after I’ve managed to come up with an internal and external GMC for my characters is I step back and try to decide if the nature of the conflict is actually big enough to sustain a book. The truth is, all of the manuscripts that languish under my bed are there because the initial idea simply wasn’t big enough or didn’t contain enough conflict to sustain an entire book. It is also one of the most frequent mistakes I see when editing or critiquing beginners' work. Keep in mind that an average MG book is about 100-150 mss pages, and an adult book is around 300. There’s a fair amount of conflict needed to keep things clipping along toward the end. Without conflict, you have no dramatic push or narrative drive. Things just float along, attention wanders, and suddenly readers are putting your book down so they can go surf the net or watch a reality TV show.

So one of the first questions I ask myself is, If the protagonist doesn’t attain her goal, what is at stake? What does she stand to lose? And I usually need two answers to this, one that can be addressed by the physical actions of the story (if Theo doesn’t return the artifact to Egypt, her mother will have infected Britain with a curse so vile, it brings down the entire country) and a second one that addresses the emotional wounds or scars of my characters (If she saves the world, surely they’ll love her then. They'll have to.)

The second question is, Why this character and this problem? This is where irony comes in, or Fate, or Kismet. Why has the universe graced this particular character with this particular problem? Why her?? Why is this the worse thing that could happen to her?

In fact, if you have a character in mind for a story and you’re not being able to get any sort of conflict to gel, ask yourself, what is the worst possible thing that could happen to her? That is conflict.

The thing is, random crappy stuff happens to people in real life all the time. Life is hard and then you die, as the saying goes. But the one thing we can do to prove that saying wrong is to choose to embrace our circumstance and learn from it. As writers, we simply have to plan that out ahead of time. Fiction can't be random, it needs to mean something in order to resonate with readers.

Theo, a child who is emotionally abandoned and somewhat willfully ignored by her parents, gets by by being invisible and uber responsible. So if she suddenly starts blabbing about magic and curses, her parents are going to see her as being very fanciful, irresponsible, and constantly in the way and underfoot. They will stop taking her seriously, and she will lose what tenuous connection she has with them and will be completely dismissed by them. Considering the day and age she lived in, she might even be committed to a sanitorium. If her parents were more attuned to her, or more doting, she might have stood a chance in telling them the truth. But in light of their current dynamic, the truth didn't stand a chance.

On the external plot level, the Why her? question is embedded in Theo herself, a young girl with few resources except an ability to detect ancient magic and evil curses. If she didn’t have that ability, she’d never have gotten wrapped up in all this business to begin with. For all intents and purposes her parents museum would have suffered a normal burglary and that would be the end of it. But since she does have that ability, she gets drawn into far more than the average bear.

So take a look at your conflict. First of all, do you have any? And if so, is it big enough? Is something truly at stake for your character if they fail? Lastly, why this character and this problem?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Things Left Unspoken

First of all, my apologies. I did not mean to leave the blog untended for four days in a row. I meant to post something Friday afternoon, but my artist's date turned into an all day thing and I simply couldn't rouse myself to come up with a post. Then yesterday, I was totally sidetracked by real life. So here I am. Finally. And I will get back to plot stuff, I promise.

But one thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is something I heard a long time ago at a business seminar. The speaker said, It is the things left unspoken that define the relationship, and boy, did a flashing light and a gong go off in my head.

If you think about that for a moment, you will begin to see all the ways that it is true; it is the things we are too afraid or too angry to say that often define the shape and quality of our personal relationships. That betrayal you felt from your sister that you never dared to tell her about will shape all your future dealings with her. The fury you felt at your father, or the heartbreak your husband unknowingly dealt you; all of those emotions will bend and distort your interactions for years to come.

And it occurred to me what a powerful tool that would be to use in our writing, what an effective layer of subtext. So consider asking yourself, what is left unspoken between your characters? And how does it distort and drive their relationship to each other?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Plotting - Sources of Conflict

So Greek Girl had a great question in the comments yesterday. She asked how to work this plotting thing when the character's problem was poverty or racism, something societal or cultural.

Some writing theory says that the conflict should take the form of an antagonist, a real live breathing human being that acts in opposition to the hero. I am not quite that set in concrete. I think other elements can work as a source of conflict; self, acts of nature, Fate, etc.

I do think though, if you’re going to have the source of conflict be society, it makes it much easier to write if you can encapsulate societies views and mores in actual characters in a book rather than simply an abstract concept.

For example, if a person is struggling against racism, that absolutely manifests itself through relationships with people; coworkers, strangers on the street, teachers, familial ties, the banker you deal with, the person you buy your groceries from. Racism comes in all forms, too. Conscious, mean spirited, and clueless. How much more powerful will your novel be if you can show all those different ways discrimination raises its ugly head?

One route to conflict might be the hateful, bigoted racist, some specific person making your character’s life hell on earth intentionally.

But it is important to remember that all an antagonist has to do is obstruct the main character’s goals, and that can be done out of love or a sense of protection just as easily as it can out of a sense of hatred or anger. In fact, if you look to your own life, who has caused you the most pain, set the most obstacles in your path? Those who love you or those who hate you? So cast a wide, broad net as you look for the source of your conflict, but if it’s society, do consider encapsulating society’s views into an actual person.

The second societal conflict, poverty, is harder because it isn’t necessarily imposed on one person by another. It can be very impersonal. Again, if you can find secondary characters to help personify this, you may have an easier time of writing it. The social worker who can only do so much, the teacher who can offer only the smallest of aid, the friend who tries to make it better, but ends up making it worse. Those kinds of things.

But ultimately, I think the trick to making poverty an active force in the novel is to really delve deeply into the character and get those personal reactions to poverty onto the page; all those small deaths by a thousand cuts type of ways that poverty destroys ones spirit. If you live in a world ruled by poverty, you live in a world entirely different from the one many of us occupy. If you’re writing about that, make sure you get that different world view on the page so we readers can experience it viscerally.

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend John Scalzi’s post on poverty, intense, heartbreaking stuff. Just a few examples:

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

If you even pick a handful of the experiences on his list to incorporate into your character, it will be very powerful.

Please feel free to ask more questions in the comments. And don’t forget, everyone who comments will be entered in a drawing at the end of the month for a copy of Orson Scott Card's, Character and Viewpoint.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Plotting - Baby Steps

Okay, so let’s say you’ve figured out—kind of—what your characters motivations and desires. You even have a pretty good idea as to what is standing in their way—a bad guy, a raging storm, a stalking fae, a lovesick werewolf, whatever. Now how do you take what you know and shape it into a plot?

What I do at this point is I sit down and look at both the internal and external GMCs. Then I try to brainstorm four to six baby steps the character will need to take to achieve both the internal goal and the external goal. In real life, change may happen over night, but in fiction, we readers want to see the process of change, make that journey to a new, improved self along with the character, so it helps to be sure and break down the change into manageable bites.

Now is probably a good time for me to explain that I don’t do all of this at the very beginning. I usually spend some time writing what I do know, either snippets of scenes or dialogue, details about the world, setting, or characters. Sometimes, I’m pleasantly surprised by how very much I instinctively know about the story. Then I use these exercises to fill in the blanks.

Other times I’ll have a pretty clear idea of the external plot, but then need to be sure the action precipitates growth in the character. In that instance, I’ll look at the baby steps for my internal GMC, and make sure that the scenes I have for the external plot change the character’s internal landscape, using those baby steps as my guidelines.

Other times, I’ll have a solid idea of an internal journey, but no clue as to what has to happen physically in the story. In that case I’m pretty wide open for brainstorming the most effective (and dramatic) external events that will bring about those changes.

It’s also not a bad idea to write an entire discovery draft, learning about your characters and their internal landscape, friends and relationships, before applying any plotting or structure to the manuscript.

The point I’m trying to make here is that whatever you way you approach the story is the right way. It’s just a matter of finding a process that allows you to plug up the holes you don’t know yet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How To Grow Plot From Character

In order to understand what actions will effect a transformation in your character, there are a few things one needs to know. Debra Dixon addresses this brilliantly with her concept of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, and if you haven’t read the book, I highly, highly recommend it. She talks at length about needing to have both an external GMC (plot) and internal GMC (internal growth arc).

Goal – What your character wants.
Motivation – Why do they want it? Why are they pursuing this goal?
Conflict – What is standing in their way.

Ideally you should be able to answer those questions on an external and internal level for your character.

One of the things I constantly stumble over is giving my protagonists an actual, bona fide goal. It takes me a while to figure out what they want, and sometimes I realize they don’t actually want anything. Or at least anything that they could articulate to themselves or anyone else.

However, it finally occurred to me that sometimes simply allowing oneself to want something can be a dramatic act all its own. In fact, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I write kids books, because they are immersed in learning they have the right and the power and eventually the responsibility to act, not just observe or get carried along. Maybe that thematic issue kind of clusters around kids books. Or maybe that’s just one of my personal themes. Not quite sure about that…

Anywho, sometimes I have more luck by asking myself what my characters needs or longs for. Those words seem less self aware than goal, and especially with young protagonist, having an unarticulated need seems a more realistic way to drive their actions. At least initially.

Often I will start with just the germ of an idea; What if a girl could see curses and black magic on artifacts in a museum that no one else could see? Then I have to step back and decide what kind of girl would have this skill, and how it would affect her. Then I massage and poke and scratch my head until I have at least some semblance of GMC. For Theo, it was pretty easy.

Goal: To neutralize black magic and curses before it harmed anyone
Motivation: Because it was nasty, vile stuff that could cause great harm to those she loved; plus she was the only one who could see it, so the responsibility landed in her lap.
Conflict: She was only a child, with few resources; no one would believe her if she tried to explain; and certain bad guys wanted to let use that magic for their own gains.

Knowing that allowed me to begin to design the framework of the structure of the novel; what the inciting incident would be, what the turning points might look like, how the conflict and tension would rise.

But that was only the externals. To give the novel depth, I had to find a way to put what I knew about Theodosia emotionally onto the page. These physical events had to force her to some new understanding or awareness on her journey to becoming an adult.

I knew that one of the things that Theodosia hungered for was her parent’s attention as she was often overlooked. (Luckily, there was a fairly hands-off child rearing philosophy in 1907, so her parents didn’t appear to be horrid people.) She also wanted their professional respect, perhaps simply an extension of the above, since her parents were consumed by their professions, she felt that would be the best way to gain their attention, with her professional expertise.

For me to be able to develop the internal GMC, I often have to look to my character’s wounds or scars; what is lacking in their life, what hole are they trying to plug up, for those are often what drive our actions. So the internal GMC might look something like this (and notice how I word them differently so they make sense to me):

Goal (Emotional need/longing/desire): To be reassured that her parents really do care about her.
Motivation (Why she has that longing/Emotional Wound): Emotionally abandoned by her parents
Conflict (What prevents her forward growth): Parent's preoccupation with selves, child-centric perspective

Dixon has designed a nifty little GMC table that looks a lot like a tic-tac-toe square and goes something like this:

Can you fill in those blanks for your character?

A couple of additional things: Goals can be to NOT want something, to NOT move, or NOT go to a new school. They can also change over the course of a book as they character grows or acquires new knowledge.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Plots - Getting Started

If, as Julia Cameron says, transformation happens through action, then plot is simply the actions our characters go through in order to grow and change.

Of course, in real life, we all stumble upon events and revelations, epiphanies and sudden tragedies, all of which can move us to change. But fiction is different than real life. Fiction has to make sense. Therefore, it is up to the author to take their characters through a sequence of actions that force those characters to grow or transform.

Now some writers do this instinctively. Others have such beautiful prose or skillful characterization that we never even notice a lack of plot in their writing. But not all writers—or not me at least—possess that innate skill. I have to work at it.

The thing is, we have all been studying plot since our parents first began reading Good Night Moon or Harold and the Purple Crayon to us. Ever since our first cartoon, we became consumers of story, and most classic story comes with a plot.

In its most simple form, plot is merely a beginning, a middle, and an end. And really, as a reader that’s all we need to know. Well, that and whether or not the combination of beginning, middle, and end works for us.

But as writers, or more specifically, writers for whom this is not instinctive, we need to break it down a little more.

First Act - Beginning
Second Act - Middle
Third Act – End

And as long as one act pulls the reader along into the next act, you’re golden. But as writers, how do we make that happen. I think the first step is to understand the structure behind the structure.

First Act (Awareness of problem/situation)
Second Act (1st Attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)
Third Act (Second Attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)
Fourth Act (Third and successful attempt to solve or fix the problem/situation)

Wait a minute, you say! I thought we were talking about three acts! For me and my process, it is hugely helpful to break that middle act into two parts, thus Act Two becomes in my mind Act Two and Three. The reason for this is that I think the middle of the book is a very important moment, one that deserves to be included in the structuring of the novel.

So that gives us a vague idea as to what different acts should entail, but still maybe not enough to actually start writing the dang book.

But first, some definitions so you won’t all think I’m speaking Greek.

Story – a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Plot – the physical actions of your story that drive the narrative; the choice of events the author uses to propel their character’s growth.
Acts – the sections of a story; beginning, middle, and end. Usually mini stories within the bigger story framework that build toward the ending.
Arcs – the forward trajectory taken by the plot or character.
Turning Points – scenes that come at the end of an act and propel the reader into the next act, either by a dramatic revelation, ramping up the stakes, increasing the tension, or spinning the story off in a new direction.

Now let’s take a look at all the structural components of a plot, from a writer’s perspective.

First Act
Set up - Section of the story that gives a sense of who the character is, what is missing from their lives, and what they will need to change and grow.

Inciting Incident - what forces the character to engage in the elements of the plot, where the trouble starts, the day that is different

1st Turning Point (TP) - the scene that propels the reader into the next act

Second Act
Increasing Conflict/Dramatic Action – action that has some meaning or purpose within the greater context of the story as opposed to simple physical action.

Rising action – scenes increase in dramatic tension as the plot progresses. Also causality. This happens, because something else happened, which in turn forces even more conflict to happen.

2nd TP - MID POINT - this scene propels the story into the next act, but it also is the point of no return, the hero cannot go back to who they were, must go forward, which is why I think it needs to be marked on its own.

Third Act
Continued Rising Action (Protagonist and Antagonist engaged in escalating struggle)

Final TP - the moment when everything coalesces to propel the hero toward the final showdown

Fourth Act
Climax – the final confrontation (either internal or external but preferably both) that the story has been building to.

Resolution – how the newly changed character, using skills and knowledge acquired through the course of the story, fixes the problem or comes to terms with the situation.
~ ~ ~

So that are the basic components of a plot. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to go about creating them from your what you know about your characters or story idea. And please feel free to ask questions in the comments!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday Randomness

First of all, I just spotted this newest foreign cover for Theo from the Italian edition. Love it. One of my favorite things is seeing all these wildly different covers.

In other news, I finally finished a book. In the last two months, I've only finished five of the nineteen books I've tried to read. V. frustrating! The definite downside to being on a writing binge. The book I was finally able to finish was Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Wow, oh wow. I am so glad I didn't read this book a year ago and therefore had to wait an entire year for book two. Amazingly great on so many levels.

~ ~ ~ ~

So I think next week, I'll talk about some plotting tools. It's funny, because as I was pondering doing that, I found myself feeling slightly defensive, as if plotting were only for those writers who aren't good enough at characterization; a crutch, a formula, (and one of the huge drawbacks to allowing too many nay-sayers in your head!) But, in a completely unrelated tangent, I picked up Julia Cameron's book THE VEIN OF GOLD, which I haven't read yet.

And of course, there it was. The perfect explanation for why I think plot and character are not separate but completely intertwined:

"Transformation occurs through action."

Duh! Something so simple that I let myself lose sight of it. Being reminded of that was worth the price of the book right there.

Plots are merely the actions that propel our characters to transformation. And we'll talk about different methods of orchestrating that transformation next week!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Publisher Coolness!

How much do I love my publisher! Check out these aMaZinG bookmarks they've had made up for Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Flight of the Phoenix.

Just wow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writing Block--Or Not, Part 2

So if you’ve ruled out the need to fill the creative well and proved to yourself that you’ve learned to admirably apply your butt to the chair in a disciplined fashion, what is keeping you from putting words on the page?

Whenever that happens to me, it is usually one of two things: I don’t know enough about the story yet to go forward, OR, I am going in a wrong direction and my subconscious is doing everything it can think of to get me to Stop! Now!

And the only solution for either of those is to just poke around and immerse oneself in the story and see what breaks loose or coalesces or [insert your own metaphor here, after all, you’re creating your own process!]

There are a couple of things I do if it turns out I don’t understand enough about the story to know what happens next.


Perhaps the easiest of these is delving deeper into research, especially since I write with a historical bent. Often if I’m stuck, it’s because I can’t truly visualize the setting, or don’t understand the landscape, or am stumbling over what slinking around in a castle would actually entail. Interestingly enough, in addition to finding the answers I knew I was looking for, I often also find answers or plot points I hadn’t been looking for. True serendipity.

Look at Structure

The truth is that by looking at structure, I can often pinpoint what’s wrong with a story (as in what’s missing) or gives me a clue as to what has to happen next structurally (character must makes choices and decisions that make things worse). I know some people are allergic to plot—just saying the word gives them the heebie-jeebies. Maybe if you look at structure as a blank map that you can draw your own journey on, it might help it seem less intimidating or formulaic.

By analyzing the acts and the turning points and the risking action sequences, I can often see where the story is flabby or I have no arc or there is no cause and effect. If I recognize that, then it becomes clear that the events in my story are not working and I have to rethink those. The events in my story are the physical action my characters are engaged in. So that might mean that poor, timid little Nate might be spending too much time watching Aunt Phil doing all the interesting stuff and not getting a chance to do any himself. Or maybe he just needs to try and prove to himself he doesn’t have the skills yet. Or maybe the action can be much more subtle; he just needs to voice his concerns—for a kid who isn’t convinced they have a right to be heard, that can be a very dramatic action—simply stating his objections. But by looking at structure, I can see if my character is actually doing enough, taking enough action to make sure the story is moving forward.

Note: I always talk about plot but am unclear how fully everyone else grasps/understands plot structure. Would it be helpful at all if I posted some of my plotting tools?

Go Deeper into the Characters

But sometimes when I look at the story, I can see that the structure is there, but I still don’t know enough to keep going. In that case, it usually means my character’s motives and internal arc isn’t making it onto the page or into the writing. The emotions are the fuel for the engine of the story. If the emotions aren’t there, the actions will feel flat and lifeless.

This is also where I will usually identify if a story is going in a wrong direction. Usually because I don’t fully understand my protagonist, or because I have some preconceived plot point that seems like it should work, but isn’t ultimately what the character would truly do.

That’s when I pull out my character journals and characterization exercises. Particularly this one. This one also proved helpful on my latest wip.

So maybe I have some great action sequences and maybe my character is actually doing stuff, but is it stuff that changes him, that propels him along that growth continuum of my story arc? Is what he’s doing making things worse in some way? Not only physical peril, but emotional peril? Is he taking two steps toward his new improved self, then pulling back and retreating into his old behavior patterns? How is he really and truly feeling about these events and changes going on in his life? Is he truly feeling them and reacting to them? Or merely a tour guide on the journey, reporting it but not truly experiencing it?

Is he afraid, bored, detached, in denial?

Pick a string of scenes from your book, maybe a day’s worth of activities or the build up to some big incident in the book, then pretend you are your character filling in your diary about the day’s events. What frightened you, scared you, what did you look forward to. What are the characters private secret emotions that they would never articulate to someone else? Once you know those, once you really have an emotional grip on your character, it might be easier to understand what they’d do next, and you might find yourself unblocked.

Also, once you discover those, then find ways to slip those into the narrative, not in an “on the nose” sort of way, but subtlety. Or maybe in subtext.

The truth is, if I do all of these things listed above, I find I am never blocked. Hopefully these tools will work for you, as well!

Wow. And this has turned into yet another epistle. Sorry about that!

(And just in case my agent or editor reads this—I still got 1500 words done on my manuscript today, so I’m not writing here in stead of there!)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Writer's Block-Or Not

So, with the sound of screeching metal and the smell of burning brake pads, my muse has come to a sudden and complete stop on my Medieval France story. Just like that, she was done with it and try as I might, I could not eke out another single word.

Now, that might sound frustrating, but it actually worked out pretty well. I reached 100,000 words on the mss, with the last 2,000 words being a very rough outline of the last handful of chapters. So I know what happens, I’ve filled in the daunting middle, and now just need to let everything stew for a couple of weeks before writing any more on it.

Some people might consider this a writer’s block. I am not one of those people. For a number of reasons. One of the things I notice is that if I have a writing binge, I cannot sustain it indefinitely. I eventually catch up to my muse’s output then have to stop and wait while they generate more material. It’s not a writing block, more of an empty tank. Until the fuel levels rise, I ain’t goin’ anywhere.

I could choose to apply firm discipline and try to make myself keep going, but I’ve learned from bitter experience that that is almost always a major waste. This does, however, work for some people. My guess is that it depends on WHY you’ve stopped writing in the first place. If it’s fear or trepidation, sometimes working through it is exactly what you need. But if it’s an empty tank or well run dry, I’m not sure any amount of discipline will help. This is where spending some time to get to know yourself and your writing process can be of enormous value.

For myself, I know that I default to writing. It is one of my preferred activities in life. It is my job, my hobby, my escape, and my passion. Therefore, if I’m not doing it, it usually means there is a really good reason for me not to be doing it and I have learned to respect that.

For others, however, who have not yet awakened to the absolute necessity of having writing in their lives, perhaps discipline is called for in order to really ingrain the writing habit. In fact, a very wise writing teacher once told me that one of the best reasons for really devoting yourself to writing for a couple of years was that the habit became fully ingrained and then you would not have to fight that particular battle all the time. You will have convinced yourself of the “rightness” of having writing in your life, and would be free to pay closer attentions to other writing lesson and patterns.

So for me, the best approach is to turn to another project. Luckily, I have a contracted book that I really should get started on anyway, so this screeching halt coincides very nicely with my writing schedule. It is also one of the ways I’ve learned to make ADD work for me. It doesn’t always have to be a negative. If you structure your life in the right way, it can be a huge plus. So for me, between my fickle muse and my short attention span, having revolving projects like this works very well. Which is a really convoluted way of saying whatever works for you so that you end up with words on the page over time, with as little frustration as possible, is the right approach.

But let’s say you’re a one-project-writer kind of gal (or guy) or you really don’t think you need to recharge your creative batteries. In that case, I think another common cause of “writer’s block” is that we simply do not know enough about the story to keep going, OR, we are going in the wrong direction. But since this post is already the size of a small chapter book (Clearly I studiously ignore the cyber rule that blog entries should be short and punchy) I'll post more about that tomorrow.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Word Tics

Otherwise known as crutch words. All writers have them. With luck, they have eagle eyes and pluck them from their manuscripts before turning them in to their editors. If not, their editor gently points them out (Did you really mean to use the word splendid 117 times in this 50 page manuscript?) so you can remove them in the revision.

The thing is, I never really thought much about word tics, except as how they were slightly embarrassing, like burping in front of your editor. Until this manuscript. And then it hit me square in the forehead that my words tics were my voice touchstones, the equivalent of a verbal collage that I could use to help quickly re-anchor myself in the character’s voice when I felt I was veering too far off into my own voice. They weren’t just lazy verbal smears on the manuscript, but held a very specific, legitimate, purpose.

In Theo, some of the word tics are honestly, wretched, vile, beastly, and lovely. I’m trying to think what tic words showed up in Nathaniel Fludd. Probably the biggest one is then, mostly because I was trying to keep sentences short and simply structured.

But the thing is, Nathaniel Fludd is written in third person, and it turns out when I’m writing in 3rd, I don’t use tic words as much. (Yes, I went back and reviewed my older books just to see if the theory held true.) Turn is another tic word, but that’s mostly for blocking, to help anchor me in the physical movements of what the characters are doing. Not that the reader needs to know every time they turn or pivot, but apparently I do. ☺ Then I try to take them out afterward.

In this medieval French thing I’m working on, my tic words are in truth, naught, milord, and mayhap. For some reason those words feel archaic to me and so help gently bump the voice back into the correct character and time period.

What about you? Do any of you have tic words that you’ve found yourself using a lot? If so, I'd love to hear them!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Remembering Who We Serve

It’s probably no surprise that as a children’s writer, I get very excited about this picture. After all, it’s such a great reminder that children’s writers—and the president—serve the same constituency.

Regardless of politics or party affiliations, it’s such a visceral reality check; a reminder that ALL presidents should be accountable to the little guys, for that is who they ultimately serve. I’ve often thought that for all of America’s protestations that we have no use for royalty, we treat our presidents too much like royalty sometimes. This is such a great reminder that whatever else they are, they should be human, humble, and accessible.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Necessary Losses

One of the things that makes this particular project so difficult is that I’m weaving fantasy into a historical backdrop. Also, since it all occurred so long ago, and in non-British based country, much of the historical documentation is in a language I don’t speak fluently. A bit of a problem, that. (And a good reason to stay up with one’s high school French.)

But the thing I keep having to remind myself is that even when writing a book against a historical backdrop, it’s still about the characters. That means I need to sift through all the historical facts and actual events and pick and choose those that will best highlight and resonate with the story I’m trying to tell. The problem is, there are just so many fascinating bits of history that happened around this incident, it’s hard to narrow it down and choose only a few.

And it occurred to me yesterday, that for every thing a writer chooses to put into a story, by that very choice, we eliminate others. Until we make a decision about which path our character chooses or which historical event to set our story against, all things are possible. But once we make that choice, all those other possibilities die a small quiet little death and will never be born on the page. If I choose to have my character stand and fight, there will be no story about the character who had to deal with guilt and loathing because she ran away. But if I write about that character, then I will never get to explore what it felt like to stand and fight with all the attendant mix of guilt and honor that choice would bring. There’s no way around it, it’s a necessary part of any creative process, making choices and committing to a specific story or visual compilation.

But I also realized that was one of the things that was making this particular manuscript so difficult, dealing with all the rich possible story threads and directions, and having to pass many of them by.

So this morning I wanted to lift my coffee mug and toast all those stories of ours that didn’t make it to the page; that got left behind on the road to our true story. I seemed important to acknowledge their place in our creative stew, and thank them for their contributions; to recognize their passing and mourn them, just a little bit.

And now I have to get back to work on the story I did choose!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Connect The Dots

or The Beauty of Writing out of Order . . .

Oh, it’s messy, I’ll grant you that. And after about 75 pages, you begin to feel like you’re floundering. At that point, I usually give in and print out what I have so I can get my arms around it. (Is there anyone else who finds they cannot edit effectively on the computer screen?)

Then the the magic part happens. As I’m reading back over those out of order scenes that are now arranged in as close to chronological order as I can guess, suddenly connections become clear, transitions from one scene to the next, self explanatory. All of a sudden it is clear what the heroine’s thoughts need to be between point A and and point B. It's like all the spaces between the written scenes begin to fill up with just the right words.

It reminds me a lot of those dot to dot drawings we used to do when we were kids. But how can I know what direction to draw the line if I don’t know where the blinkin’ dot is! Well, these scenes I’ve written out of order are my dots, and now that I have them laid out, I can see what has to happen in between those dots and I know what to do with the line between them.

The thing is, if scenes are coming to you out of order, it’s usually because there is something compelling, vital, and dramatic about them. Something really important to the story will be revealed there. It's like having your story's fortune told. :-) Okay, maybe not. But try it some time, just for an exercise, if nothing else. I firmly believe our muses thrive on the new and unexpected.

Also, I wanted to let you all know we'll be having another drawing this month. I thought this time I'd give away a copy of Orson Scott Card's book, Characters and Viewpoint, since I've talked so much about it. (And if you already have that, I'll send you something else!) All you have to do to enter is leave a comment some time this month!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Monday Randomness

Well, I finally reached the end of the Double Version Two-Step, wherein I was weaving together two old versions with enough new stuff so that it all made sense. Yeay me. Now I’m down to only 30 pages of an old version, and then it’s all new ground from there. Thank gawd! Plus only a hundred pages to go and I should have a first draft. Phew.

Also, in case you all forgot, it’s time to announce the winner of this month’s comments contest, who will receive a copy of Donald Maass’s FIRE IN FICTION. My methodology, such as it is, was to number all the comments that came in throughout the month, so if you commented more than once, you were entered more than once, then asked my husband to pick a number between one and 61. And the winner is….number 43! Which worked out to be...

Becky Levine!

Congratulations, Becky! Drop me an email at rllafevers[at]cox.net with your address and I'll get that out to you!

And boy, have I had a dismal couple of reading months! Of the last 19 books I’ve started, I’ve only managed to finish five. Very sad. I know it’s because my brain is busy writing my own story, but it sure is tough when I’m ready for some down time.